What my research told me about the Stoic Roman Emperor
have spent a lot of time researching Marcus Aurelius. I first read his notes about applying Stoic philosophy to daily life, the Meditations, one of the most cherished philosophical and self-help classics of all time, over 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve written six books on Stoicism — three in a row have been about the life of Marcus Aurelius! The first was a self-help book, based on vignettes from his life, called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, the most recent was a prose biography of him for Yale University Press, and between them came a graphic novel called Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, from which the illustrations in this article are borrowed. Here are some of the most interesting things I learned during my research…
1 Marcus led a dance troupe
As a young boy, Marcus was appointed to several important positions due to the influence of the Emperor Hadrian. One of them was the College of the Salii or leaping priests, a Roman religious order supposedly founded by the legendary King Numa, from whom Marcus’ family claimed descent. The Salii recited obscure chants and performed an athletic military dance, bearing archaic shields and spears, in honour of Mars, the god of war. These rituals were meant to train youths for the physical exertions of battle.
When Marcus refers to dancing in the Meditations, therefore, he’s drawing on a wealth of experience, which makes his comments much more personally meaningful. For example, being well-acquainted with both wrestling and dancing, he wrote:
The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets which are sudden and unexpected. — Meditations, 7.61
Marcus appears to have relished his training in dance, though, and eventually went on to become the leader of the Salii.