Fannia was part of the “Stoic opposition” against Nero, led by her father, the Stoic political hero Thrasea, along with her celebrated husband Helvidius Priscus. She lived during the reign of Nero and died around 103 AD, under the reign of Trajan. In Fyodor Bronnikov’s painting Reading of Thrasea Paetus’ Death Sentence, she is presumably depicted as one of the women who comfort her father, Thrasea.
She was the granddaughter of a famous Roman woman called Arria Major, whom she related the following story about to Pliny the Younger. Arria’s husband, Caecina Paetus, was ordered to commit suicide for his part in a rebellion by the Emperor Claudius. He did not have the courage to take his own life so Arria grabbed the dagger from him, stabbed herself with it, and returned it to him saying “It doesn’t hurt, Paetus!”
Pliny the Younger described Fannia herself as a woman of fortitude and respectability but a political rebel. She followed her husband Helvidius Priscus into exile when he was banished by Nero for sympathizing with the Republican heroes Brutus and Cassius (which Nero prohibited). She then followed him into exile for a second time under Vespasian for opposing his reign. Priscus was later executed by Vespasian.
Fannia herself was exiled by Domitian in 93 AD for asking the Stoic Herennius Senecio to write a biography praising her late husband, and Herennius was executed. During his trial, Fannia was asked threateningly if she’d instructed Herennius to write the book and she boldly confirmed that she had given her husband’s diaries to him. Pliny writes that: “she did not utter a single word to reduce the danger to herself.” Her possessions were seized, but Fannia saved her husband’s diaries and the biography of him.
When she was sick and apparently dying, her friend Pliny wrote of her:
Only her spirit is vigorous, worthy of her husband Helvidius and father Thrasea. but everything else is going down, and I am not merely afraid but deeply saddened. It pains me that so great a woman will be snatched from the eyes of her people, and who knows when her like will be seen again. What chastity, what sanctity, what dignity, what constancy!
He goes on to say:
How pleasant she is, how kind, how respectable and amiable at once-two qualities rarely found in the same person. Indeed, she will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example, whom now while we can still see and hear her we admire as much as those women whom we read about. To me her very house seems to totter on the brink of collapse, shaken at its foundations, even though she leaves descendants. How great must be their virtues and their accomplishments for her not to die the last of her line. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.19.L)
Stoicon is an annual international conference on applying Stoic philosophy to modern life, organized by Modern Stoicism. It’s now in its fourth year. Stoicon 2017 is scheduled for Saturday 14th October, and will take place in Toronto, Canada. The annual Stoic Week online course will begin the following Monday, running from 16th – 22nd October. If you’re interested in Stoic philosophy, whatever your background or occupation, this conference is meant for you. Modern Stoicism’s aim is to make Stoic philosophy accessible to everyone by highlighting its practical relevance to the everyday challenges people face in different aspects of modern life.
It opens this year with a brief introduction to Stoic philosophy followed by a series of talks by leading authors in the field of modern Stoicism. In the afternoon, you will be able to choose between attending different parallel sessions, including an introductory workshop for newcomers to applied Stoicism. The day concludes with the keynote presentation on Stoicism and Emotion by one of the leading experts in this area, Margaret Graver, Professor of Classical Studies at Dartmouth College.
As a young man Marcus himself was fond of boxing and wrestling. He was fit enough to spear wild boars from horseback, and to practice fighting in armour. However, some said that as he became more committed to his studies of literature and philosophy, he neglected his body, and these sort of activities, and so gradually became less physically fit and strong, and less interested in watching the games and races. As a child, his first tutor taught him that it was wise not to take the side of the Green Jacket or the Blue in the races, or to back the light-shield champion or the heavy-shield in the lists, and so on (1.5). His brother Lucius was completely caught up in these tribal attitudes about the races and games but to Marcus it was an absurd distraction from his duties as emperor.
He came to loathe the amphitheatre and similar public spectacles but felt obliged to attend, at the insistence of his friends and advisors. Marcus was so averse to the thought of unnecessary bloodshed that when the audience insisted that a lion that had been trained to devour humans should be brought into the arena he refused to look at it. The people demanded that the lion-trainer should be made a citizen and frequently protested about this but Marcus, who was normally in favour of greater enfranchisement of slaves, refused and even had it publicly proclaimed that the man had done nothing to deserve his freedom. Indeed, it was said he restricted the gladiatorial games in many ways. He insisted that the gladiators before him would use blunted weapons, fighting like athletes, without any risk to their lives. He likewise introduced a law requiring that the young entertainers who danced on tightropes should be given safety nets, to prevent any of them being injured.
Later, during the first Marcomannic War, at the height of the plague, Marcus was forced to take emergency measures to replace lost troops and defend Rome against the barbarian incursions. He recruited gladiators, taking them away from the arena, arming them and calling them The Compliant. When he did this there was unrest among the people who complained that he was going to take away their entertainment and drive them all to the study of philosophy. He was careful not to openly criticise their crass tastes but nevertheless it was well-known that he looked down on such things, and some people resented him for doing so.
They openly ridiculed him as a snob and a bore because they could clearly see that though present at the circus he was ignoring the games to read documents and discuss them with his advisors. Marcus was told he had to show his face at these events, to keep the Roman people happy, but the entertainments bored him and he wanted to use the time instead to address the serious business of running the state. Though he would allow himself to be persuaded to go to the games, and theatre, and hunting, etc., his heart was no longer in these pursuits. Even his close friend, his rhetoric tutor, Fronto tells Marcus that he’d criticized him in this way:
On occasion, in your absence, I have criticized you in quite severe terms in front of a small circle of my most intimate friends. There was a time when I would do so, for instance, when you entered public gatherings with a more gloomy expression than was fitting, or pored over a book at the theatre or during a banquet (I am speaking of a time when I myself did not yet keep away from theatres and banquets). On such occasions, then, I would call you an insensitive man who failed to act as circumstances demanded, or sometimes even, in an impulse of anger, a disagreeable person.
When required to attend, Marcus tried to make best use of the situation by treating it as an opportunity to practice contemplative exercises, viewing the games he observed as spiritual metaphors, through the lens of Stoic philosophy. Although the crowds were addicted to them, the shows seemed very monotonous to him so he contemplated their tedious and repetitive nature as symbolising the whole of human life. There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything is familiar, from the Stoic perspective (6.46). Different fighters and animals enter the arena but fundamentally it’s the same thing over and over again. Every day our lives are superficially different but from a deeper perspective, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, we’re still facing the same fundamental challenges. Pain and suffering may take countless different forms but the wise man is still faced with the same basic challenge of enduring them. Marcus tells himself:
Remaining no better than you are and allowing yourself to be torn apart by such a life is worthy of a foolish and greedy man, and resembles the life of the wild-beast fighters who are half-devoured in the arena, who through a mass of wounds and gore, beg to be kept until the next day, only to be thrown again, though wounded, into the arena, to be rent by the same teeth and claws. (10.8)
Marcus himself had boxed and wrestled as a youth and was particularly interested how the violent sport known as pankration, which combined boxing, wrestling, kicking and choking, could serve as an allegory for life. As he watched the pankratiasts, for example, he told himself that life is more like wrestling than dancing because we have to be ready to stand unshaken against every assault, no matter how unforeseen (7.61).
Elsewhere, Marcus seems to draw on his personal experience of wrestling as an analogy for coping with challenging people in life generally, without taking offence at their behaviour.
In the gymnasium, someone may have scratched us with his nails or have collided with us and struck us a blow with his head, but, for all that, we do not mark him down as a bad character, or take offence, or view him with suspicion afterwards as one who wishes us ill. To be sure, we remain on our guard, but not in a hostile spirit or with undue suspicion; we simply try to avoid him in an amicable fashion. So let us behave in much the same way in other areas of life: let us make many allowances for those who are, so to speak, the companions of our exercises. For it is possible, as I have said, to avoid them, and yet to view them neither with suspicion nor hatred. (6.20)
We can also learn something about how to deal with overwhelming events from the training of these sportsmen:
Analyze a piece of music into its notes and ask yourself of each in isolation: “Does this overpower me?” The same is true in the pankration; if you analyze the fight into each individual move, it will seem less overwhelming. Do this with everything except with the good, with virtue. But dissect all external things objectively, into smaller parts, until they lose their power over your mind (11.2).
Indeed, Marcus tells himself that in his use of Stoic philosophical doctrines, he should imitate the pankratiasts, who box and wrestle, rather than the gladiators. The gladiator lays aside the sword he uses, and picks it up again. But the barehanded fighter is always armed and needs only to clench his fist. (12.9)
Marcus had trained in painting as a youth, indeed it was his painting teacher Diognetus who introduced him to philosophy. So with the eye of a painter he also considers how beauty can be found even in these tiresome spectacles, such as the wild beasts released against the animal-fighters.
The byproducts of natural processes have a particular type of charm when viewed in the right context, as part of something greater. The cracks that appear when bread is baked are like random flaws but stimulate our appetite. Even the furrowed brow of an angry lion in the arena, or the foam dripping from a wild-boar’s jaws during a hunt, are not things of beauty when viewed in isolation, but as part of a magnificent creature, they lend something to its overall appearance. The wise man sees beauty in all things, even if it is only as a byproduct of something else’s beauty. He will even look on the fearsome gaping jaws of real wild beasts with no less pleasure than the representations of them in works of art by painters and sculptors. There are many such things that the foolish cannot appreciate but in which the wise can learn to distinguish a different kind of aesthetic value (3.2.1-2). Indeed, all things come from the same source, from Nature, even the terrifying jaws of the lion and such things are but side-effects of the grand and beautiful. So do not be alienated even from these things but see them as part of the whole, and originating in the one source of all things (6.36.2).
This is how Marcus passes his time at these events. As a Stoic, his duty is to try to respond with wisdom and virtue in even the most banal environment, even when bored and confronted with something that seems the opposite of edifying to him. He does this by making meaning from the situation, like an artist, viewing the fighters and the animals as expressing something greater and more noble, providing him with a way to reconnect with his spiritual and philosophical values, and to transcend the mediocrity of his surroundings, and to rise above the clamour of the baying crowd that surround him. In later years, on campaign in the northern frontier, he would use some of the same mental strategies that he’d been rehearsing for years trapped in his seat at the circus, to retain his composure when faced with the real horrors of war.
When I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature. This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy. I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more. Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed. However, I was disappointed. I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques. One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them. If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective. Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition. They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement. Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.
Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new. One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes. The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC. We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature. We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties. (And he features in an ancient ghost story.) What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:
Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)
Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice. Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything. It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently. It started with a simple observation. Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet. Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three. Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc. So reciting those takes a bit more time and effort than just counting to ten. If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath. Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average. Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards. Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath. One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed something that should perhaps have been obvious: it requires a little bit ofpatience.
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The point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience. If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average. The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975). Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s. The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school. The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response. Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis. The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result. So that removed any mystical or philosophical ingredients from the technique, at least in terms of its ability to evoke a beneficial physiological effect.
So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes. That’s still not meditation. However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet. That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology. We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions. Indeed, what the Stoics did say about this is very remarkable:
Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body. Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong. However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)
What Marcus notes here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus. We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us. Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones. It’s a very simple distinction but one that, for some reason, people tend to continually blur.
What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance. Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”. It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality. Marcus says two crucial things here. First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow. Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural. Despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent. This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses. Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.” This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.
So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above? Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet. You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath. You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves. If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again. Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well. One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place. That’s helpful. Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number. It doesn’t matter. The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.
The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten. That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure. Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions. You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind. That’s completely natural. The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad. In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now. Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness. Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response. Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.
The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind. You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete). The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue. During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it. The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us. In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).
I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology. The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind. One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness. When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background. Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else. Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance. What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.
Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia). That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.” Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery. Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control. However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome. Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer. His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow. Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control. Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something. Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”. In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.
My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself. I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so. It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits. If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten. Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done. Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day. Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above. Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good. Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry? I don’t think we’ll ever know. But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.
Marcus Aurelius says to himself in The Meditations that he’s grateful he wasn’t distracted from the essence of Stoic philosophy, living as a Stoic, by reading too many books on Logic and Physics. He thanks the gods:
[…] that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of celestial phenomena; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune. (Meditations, 1.17)
This is followed by an interesting couple of passages near the start of Book 2, in which Marcus lists a series of Stoic doctrines about Physics, concerning human nature and the nature of the universe. He concludes by saying that these doctrines are enough for him. These are sandwiched between two reminders to set aside his textbooks.
Throw away your books! No longer distract yourself with them: it is not allowed. But as if you were already dying, look down upon the flesh. It is nothing but blood and bones and a network, a network of nerves, veins, and arteries. Consider the breath also, what kind of a thing it is, air, and not always the same, but every moment expelled and then drawn in again. The third part is the ruling faculty [hegemonikon]. Consider that you are an old man; no longer let yourself be a slave, no longer like a puppet whose strings are pulled by selfish impulses. No longer be dissatisfied either with your present lot, nor dread the future.
All that is from the gods is full of Providence. That which is from fortune is not separate from nature or from interweaving and interlacing with the things which ordered by Providence. From that all things flow, and there is also necessity, and that which is for the welfare of the whole universe, of which you are a part. But that which the nature of the whole brings about, and what serves to maintain this nature, is good for every part of nature. Now the universe is preserved, by the changes of the elements but also by the changes of things compounded of the elements.
Let these doctrines be enough for you, hold them always as fixed principles [dogmas]. But cast away your thirst after books, that you may not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from your heart thankful to the gods. (Meditations, 2.2-3)
Elsewhere he wrote:
Always bear this in mind; and another thing too, that very little indeed is necessary for living a happy life. And because thou hast despaired of becoming a dialectician and skilled in Physics, do not for this reason renounce the hope of being both free and modest and social and obedient to God. (Meditations, 67)
Today we learn Stoicism mainly from books but the ancient Stoics believed that books were of secondary importance, and that they needed to study the characters of exceptional people to really learn Stoic virtue.
In the first book of The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius goes into great detail about the examples of virtue he was lucky enough to obtain from the character and actions of his family and personal tutors, particularly the men who taught him philosophy – mostly other Stoics such as his main Stoic tutor, Junius Rusticus.
However, he actually has far more to say about the virtues of his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, than any of the other people he acknowledges. We have no reason to believe that Antoninus Pius was a Stoic but Marcus does make some interesting observations about him in relation to philosophy. For example, Marcus says Antoninus had a “high appreciation of all true philosophers without an upbraiding of the others, and at the same time without any undue subservience to them” and he goes on to say that most of all, he had a “readiness to acknowledge without jealousy the claims of those who were endowed with any special gift”, including knowledge of ethics, “and to give them active support that each might gain the honour to which his individual eminence entitled him”. It seems likely, therefore, that Antoninus approved of and supported Marcus’ most beloved Stoic tutors, such as Apollonius of Chalcedon, Junius Rusticus, and Claudius Maximus. We know Antoninus sent for Apollonius to be one of Marcus’ first tutors in philosophy.
He apparently “gave no thought to his food, or to the texture and colour of his clothes”, somewhat like Cynics and Stoics. Marcus says he was free from any superstition regarding the gods. Religious hokum and superstition is something the Cynics, and to some extent Stoics, were particularly known for attacking.
However, Marcus especially notes Antoninus’ “take it or leave it” attitude to external things.
The example that he gave of utilising without pride, and at the same time without any apology, all the lavish gifts of Fortune that contribute towards the comfort of life, so as to enjoy them when present as a matter of course, and, when absent, not to miss them.
This is so important that he seems to repeat it a few paragraphs later, comparing it to the legendary self-mastery of Socrates. He says that Antoninus considered everything calmly (with ataraxia) and methodically, and that:
One might apply to him what is told of Socrates, that he was able to abstain from or enjoy those things that many are not strong enough to refrain from and to o much inclined to enjoy. But to have the strength to persist in the one case and to be abstemious in the other is characteristic of a man who has a perfect and indomitable soul, as was seen in the case of Maximus.
Presumably, Marcus is here comparing Antoninus to one of his favourite Stoic tutors, Claudius Maximus, whom he praises for “self-mastery” and “cheerfulness in sickness as well as in all other circumstances”.
Marcus also thanked the gods:
That I was subordinated to a ruler and a father capable of ridding me of all conceit, and of bringing me to recognise that it is possible to live in a Court and yet do without bodyguards and gorgeous garments and linkmen and statues and the like pomp; and that it is in such a man’s power to reduce himself very nearly to the condition of a private individual and yet not on this account to be more paltry or more remiss in dealing with what the interests of the state require to be done in imperial fashion.
We know from the histories that on his deathbed, Antoninus gave the tribune of the night-watch the password of the day as aequanimitas (equanimity) before lapsing into sleep, and dying peacefully. As was often the case, this final phrase was taken as symbolic of his reign.
The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius, written at the start of the 3rd century AD, is one of our main sources for information about ancient Stoicism. Book VII, on the Stoic school, is particularly important. However, many people may be unaware that the surviving manuscripts are incomplete. They cut off during the life of Chrysippus for some reason. We know from a table of contents in one of the manuscripts, though, that it should continue with chapters on many subsequent Stoics.
Here is a full list of the “eminent” Stoic philosophers whose lives and opinions Diogenes considered important enough to include. Below the list is a Google Map showing the approximate location of each Stoic’s birthplace.
Cato the Younger is not listed here and neither is Seneca, though he was a contemporary of Cornutus. Seneca was executed in 65 AD, whereas it’s believed Cornutus was still alive and exiled in either 66 or 68 AD. Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and other Stoics who come later are also missing but that possibly has something to do with the fact that one of Diogenes’ main sources is Arius Didymus, who was a contemporary of the Emperor Augustus and therefore died before their time. (It’s therefore interesting that Cornutus is included.)
What did Marcus Aurelius learn from his Stoic teachers? We have many references to his philosophical teachers, especially Stoics, who provided him with living role-models of virtue. So what did he find most praiseworthy and admirable in these men? Marcus tells us, in particular, that they provided him with examples of integrity, patience, and self-mastery, but also cheerfulness, kindness, gentleness and forgiveness, all of which were also important Stoic traits.
The opening sentence of the Historia Augusta states that Marcus Aurelius “throughout his whole life, was a man devoted to philosophy and was a man who surpassed all emperors in the integrity of his life.” We’re told he was an earnest child who, as soon as he was old enough to be handed over from the care of his nurses to “notable instructors”, embarked on his study of philosophy.
He studied philosophy intensely, even when he was still a boy. When he was twelve years old he embraced the dress of a philosopher, and later, the endurance – studying in a Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground. However, (with some difficulty) his mother persuaded him to sleep on a couch spread with skins. He was also tutored by Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic philosopher […]
These were the typical attire and practices of philosophers in the ancient Socratic tradition, particularly the Cynics and Stoics. As we’ll see below, Marcus himself suggests the idea for sleeping on a camp-bed and adopting other aspects of the “Greek training” came from Diognetus, his painting tutor. Marcus was seventeen years old when Antoninus Pius adopted him into the imperial family, so it’s implied that at this age he was already studying Stoicism under Apollonius of Chalcedon. The history continues:
Furthermore, his zeal for philosophy was so great that, even after he joined the imperial family, he still used to go to Apollonius’ house for instruction. He also attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea (Plutarch’s nephew), Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus and Cinna Catulus – all Stoics. He went to lectures by Claudius Severus too, as he was attracted to the Peripatetic School. But it was chiefly Junius Rusticus, whom he admired and followed – a man acclaimed in both private and public life and extremely well practised in the Stoic discipline.
Marcus praises his Stoic teachers’ virtues in the first chapter of The Meditations but here we’re also told that he held them in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory. We know something about most of these men, with the exception of the Stoic Cinna Catulus.
At the end of Book 1, Marcus thanks the gods “That I got to know Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus”, all three of whom were Stoic teachers. It’s typically presumed by scholars that these were his three most significant teachers. Marcus also studied Platonism under Alexander of Seleucia, known as Peloplaton (“Clay Plato”), and Aristotelianism under Claudius Severus. There’s no mention of any specific Epicurean teacher, although Marcus was apparently familiar with Epicurean writings.
Marcus said, intriguingly, that his painting tutor, Diognetus, showed him:
[…] not to resent plain speaking [parrhêsia]; and to become familiar with philosophy and be a hearer first of Baccheius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to write dialogues as a boy; and to set my heart on a camp bed and a pelt and whatever else accords with the Greek training [agôgê].(Meditations, 1.6)
We don’t know who Tandasis or Marcianus were. Baccheius may be the Platonic philosopher Bacchius of Paphos, about whom little more is known. The allusion to philosophy here naturally suggests that parrhêsia may be used in the sense associated with the Cynic philosophers’ way of life, of which it was a central element. Although this is merely an impression the passage gives, it’s reinforced by the reference to sleeping on a military-style camp bed, under a crude pelt, which some scholars have taken to be a reference to the Spartan agôgê, elements of which were assimilated into the Cynic and Stoic lifestyle. Unfortunately, however, beyond this cryptic reference, we know nothing of Diognetus, or the three lecturers to whom he referred Marcus. It’s striking that this passage refers to philosophy, though, and is followed by passages in honour of Marcus’ main philosophy tutors.
From Rusticus, to become aware of the fact that I needed correction and training [therapeia] for my character; and not to be turned aside into an zealous sophistry; nor compose speculative treatises, or deliver little sermons, or try to show off being an ascetic or unselfish man; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and fine language; and not to go about the house in my robes, or commit any such breach of good taste and to write letters without affectation, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to shew oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial overview; nor to be too quick in agreeing with every chatterbox; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me with out of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)
The Stoic Junius Rusticus was Marcus’ most important teacher. The book of Epictetus that Marcus refers to here as as “memoir” or notes must surely be the Discourses we know today, which he quotes elsewhere. However, there were originally eight Discourses, of which only four survive today. So it’s possible that Marcus had also read the lost books of Epictetus. Marcus was aged around fourteen when Epictetus died, and it’s unlikely the two ever met. However, Junius Rusticus was aged around thirty-five and so it’s tempting to speculate that he’d met and studied with Epictetus and later communicated his philosophical teachings to Marcus, along with a copy of the Discourses from his personal library.
Marcus mentions that it was from Rusticus he learned that his own character needed correction. That’s important because one of the most psychologically significant roles of a philosophical mentor, especially in Stoicism, was to act as a sort of mirror to younger students and help them become aware of their own blind-spots. Galen, for example, wrote at length about the necessity of having a wise teacher to provide this kind of insight because we’re naturally oblivious to our own prejudices and character flaws.
He also learned from Rusticus to avoid becoming lost in sophistry or useless philosophical speculation, something Epictetus never tires of warning his students against. Again, Marcus admires Rusticus for avoiding too much rhetoric and for his plain speaking, like Diognetus.
Intriguingly, when Marcus writes that Rusticus provides a good example of how to be willingly reconciled to those who have lost their temper with you, he may well be referring to his own short-fuse. Marcus elsewhere thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17). Perhaps Rusticus was sometimes too blunt in his moral criticisms of the young Marcus and provoked him to anger, but was willing to compromise and be reconciled if Marcus was willing to reconsider his actions.
Apollonius of Chalcedon
The Historia Augusta suggests that Apollonius of Chalcedon was Marcus’ first philosophy teacher and that he saw him before being adopted into the imperial family of Antoninus Pius, aged seventeen, and continued to study with him thereafter.
From Apollonius I learned freedom and unwavering caution; and to focus on nothing else, even for a moment, except reason; and to be always the same, in acute pain, on losing a child, and in long illness; and to see vividly through a living role-model that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the least of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed. (Meditations, 1.8)
The start of this passage can be read as referring to Stoic mindfulness, or Apollonius showing continual attention to his own ruling-faculty and to reason. What does it mean to be simultaneously both resolute and yielding, or willing to let go? This could be read as a reference to the famous Stoic “reserve clause”: the Stoic is totally committed to doing what is up to him, or acting virtuously, but he seeks external things lightly, with the caveat that they may go otherwise.
Sextus of Chaeronea
Sextus of Chaeronea was the nephew of the famous Platonic philosopher Plutarch. According to Philostratus, Marcus was still attending lectures by Sextus late in life, perhaps around 177 AD, after the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, and before he returned to the northern frontier.
The Emperor Marcus was an eager disciple of Sextus the Boeotian philosopher, being often in his company and frequenting his house. Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, “it is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.” And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, “O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.”
Marcus writes of him in The Meditations:
From Sextus, kindness [eumenes], and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the concept of living in accord with nature; and a serious demeanour without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that conversations with him were more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly revered by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and organizing, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles [dogmas] necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion and yet full of natural affection; and he could express his approval without a noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without being pretentious. (Meditations, 1.9)
The references to Stoic terminology in this passage are striking. Sextus showed Marcus the virtuous Stoic feeling of kindness (eumenes) and what it really means to “live in accord with nature”, the Stoic goal of life. He also showed him what it means to reconcile Stoic indifference (apatheia) with natural affection (philostorgia).
Claudius Maximus is mentioned later than the other Stoic teachers, although it’s believed he died around 161 AD the same year Marcus became emperor. He was a Roman politician, who served as consul, governor of Pannonia Superior, and then proconsul of Africa. Marcus mentions the death of Maximus and his wife briefly in The Meditations (8.25).
From Maximus I learned self-mastery, and not to be turned aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a good-tempered character combining gentleness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I noticed that everybody felt he believed in what he said, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his frustration, neither, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do things for the benefit of others, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he gave the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been set right. I saw, too, that no man could ever either think that he was looked down upon by Maximus or think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way. (Meditations, 1.15)
Marcus begins by referring to Maximus’ as a model of Stoic self-mastery (enkrateia) and focus on the goal of living rationally. He was cheerful in all circumstances, not gloomy as some people imagine Stoics. He was sincere and authentic but gentle and honourable in his dealings with others, whom he always sought to help. He was never surprised or shocked by anything, things the Stoics took to be a sign of philosophical naivety. What he says about Maximus being someone whom one imagines could never be turned astray rather than having to be set on the right path, is recalled later in The Meditations (3.5), where he writes “You should stand upright, not be set upright.”
Note: This piece is intended as biographical fiction, although it is very closely based on the available information concerning Marcus Aurelius’ life. Nevertheless, in some cases, I’ve taken rumours literally or added minor details. The letters, speeches, and aphorisms (from The Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius are also close to the original sources but I’ve paraphrased them slightly for the sake of readability.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius sits alone in his quarters at the break of dawn, watching the sunrise outside. He closes his eyes in quiet contemplation and repeats the following Stoic maxims to himself in preparation for the day ahead:
Today you shall meet with meddling, ingratitude, insolence, treachery, slander, and selfishness – all due to their ignorance concerning the difference between what is good and bad. On the other hand, count yourself lucky enough to have long perceived the genuine nature of good as being honourable and beautiful and the nature of evil as shameful. You have also perceived the true nature of your enemy: that he is your brother, not in the physical sense but as a fellow citizen of the cosmos, sharing reason and the potential for wisdom and virtue. And because you perceive this, nothing can injure you, because nobody can drag you into their wrongdoing. Neither can you be angry with your brother or frustrated with him, because you were born to work together, like a pair of hands or feet, or the upper and lower rows of a man’s teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and frustration and dislike are forms of obstruction also, are they not?
Slowly and patiently, he pictures the day ahead in his mind’s eye. He thinks of the tasks he has to accomplish today. He imagines the faces of the people he will meet, roughly in the sequence he expects he will be meeting them. He anticipates setbacks, and the worst possible scenarios he may face with certain individuals. He thinks of those present, and the actions of others relayed to him by messengers. He keeps one simple question at the fore of his mind: “What would it mean to respond to this with wisdom and virtue?” What special virtues are called for by each situation: patience, self-discipline, tactfulness, perseverance?
He reminds himself that a true philosopher will not be angry with those who seek to oppose him. Why not? Because he knows that none of us are born wise, and so we inevitably encounter those who are far from wisdom, as surely as the changing seasons. No sane man is angry with nature. To the Stoic, nothing should come as a surprise, and nothing shocks him – everything is determined by the Nature of the universe. Even fools are not surprised when trees do not bear fruit in winter. There are good men and bad men in the world. A true philosopher knows that we must therefore expect to meet foolish or bad men, and for their actions to accord with their character. The wise man is not an enemy but an educator of the unwise. He goes forth each day thinking to himself: “I will meet many men today who are greedy, ungrateful, ambitious, etc.” And he will aspire to view would-be enemies as benevolently as a physician does his patients. The emperor repeats these or similar words to himself every morning. This daily premeditation of adversity forms part of what the Stoics call the Discipline of Fear and Desire, the Therapy of the Passions. This is how he prepares for life.
Cassius in Egypt
May, 175 AD. A very nervous courier hands over a letter to Gaius Avidius Cassius, commander of the Egyptian legion. It contains only one word: emanes, “You’re mad” – you’ve lost your mind. We don’t know how Cassius responded. He was renowned for his severity and temper. A mercurial character, he was sometimes stern sometimes merciful, although overall he developed a reputation for strictness and cruelty. Soldiers say that one of his favourite punishments was to chain men together in groups of ten and have them cast into the sea or into rivers to drown. He had crucified many criminals. Darker rumours circulated that he once had dozens of the enemy bound to a single 180-foot wooden pole, which was set on fire so that he could watch them burn alive. Even by the standards of the Roman army that was considered brutality. He was renowned among his own troops as a strict disciplinarian, sometimes to the point of savagery. He cut off the hands of deserters, or broke their legs and hips, leaving them crippled, because he believed that letting them live in misery was more effective as a warning to other men than killing them outright. He was also a hero to the people and, next to the emperor, the second most powerful man in the Roman Empire.
In his youth, Cassius was made a legatus or general in the legions along the Danube, watching over the empire’s Sarmatian foes. He earned his reputation for severity when the following incident happened among the troops under his command there. A small band of Roman auxiliaries led by some centurions stumbled across a group of three thousand Sarmatians, who had camped by the Danube, carelessly exposing their position. The centurions seized the opportunity, caught the enemy off guard, and massacred them. They returned to camp laden with the spoils of their fortuitous victory, expecting to be praised and perhaps even rewarded, but they were in for a shock. Cassius was furious because they acted without the knowledge or approval of their tribunes, the senior officers in a legion. “For all you knew, that could have been an ambush,” Cassius roared, “and if you fools had all been captured, the rest of these barbarians’ may have ceased to live in terror of us!” The Roman legions were outnumbered and depended on the psychological advantage that came from their intimidating reputation. So to make an example of these soldiers, he had them crucified as if they were common slaves, which must have horrified the rest of his camp.
Perhaps as a result of this incident, and despite his already fearsome reputation, Cassius’ men mutinied against him. His response was legendary. He stripped off his armour and, like some kind of madman, strode out of his tent dressed only in a wrestler’s loincloth challenging his men to attack and kill him if any of them were brave enough to add murder to the charge of insubordination. The soldiers who had been complaining were cowed into silence when they saw how fearless and intent their general had become. News of this incident greatly strengthened discipline among the Roman legions and struck fear into the hearts of the enemy, who sought a peace deal with the emperor not long afterwards.
The authority he commanded over his troops was second to none. It made him indispensable to Rome and influential with the emperor, who placed great trust in him. They had long been good friends, although some rumours say that behind his back, Cassius called Marcus a philosophical old-woman and resented aspects of his rule. However, Marcus was known for saying “It is impossible to make men exactly as one would wish them to be; we must use them such as they are.” His forgiving nature stood in stark contrast to Cassius’ severity. Nevertheless, he placed his trust in Cassius, as a great general, despite their opposing characters.
Cassius was put in command of the legions in the Roman province of Syria because it was feared they had become too soft, something symbolised by accusations they had started bathing in hot water like civilians. It was believed that Cassius would restore discipline, which he did, gaining prominence during the Parthian War between 161 and 166 AD, under the command of the then co-emperor, Lucius Verus, adoptive brother of Marcus Aurelius. While Lucius remained in camp safely co-ordinating supplies, Cassius, leading the troops in the field, rose to become his second in command. Toward the end of the wars, Cassius burned down and sacked the ancient city of Seleucia, but his soldiers then contracted the Antonine Plague, which some perhaps saw as a kind of divine punishment. However, on returning home, with the spoils of the campaign, he was rewarded by being elevated to the Senate. The legions also brought the plague – possibly smallpox – back home from Parthia. The empire never fully recovered; five million deaths were due to this hideous disease and for a time the army was significantly hampered by the epidemic. Cassius, however, was later made imperial legate, a governor appointed by the emperor himself rather than the Senate, with supreme command over the province of Syria. When, in 169 AD, Lucius Verus died from symptoms of food poisoning, or possibly the plague, the loss of one of the two co-emperors probably left something of a power vacuum, especially in the east.
In 172 AD, while Marcus, the lone surviving emperor, was occupied with the Marcomanni war on the northern frontier, a sudden crisis meant Cassius had to be granted imperium, the military authority of an emperor himself, throughout the whole of the eastern empire. A people called the Bucoli or “Herdsmen”, led by the priest Isidorus, triggered a general revolt against the Roman authorities, perhaps enraged by increases in Roman taxes required to fund Marcus’ war in the north. The story goes that a handful of these men disguised themselves in women’s clothing and approached a Roman centurion, pretending that they were going to give him gold as ransom for their husbands. They attacked the centurion, however, and captured and sacrificed another officer, swearing an oath over his entrails before ritually devouring them. The revolt spread across Egypt. These mysterious Egyptian tribesmen rapidly gained strength from a groundswell of popular support and even defeated the Romans in a pitched battle. They almost captured the Egyptian capital itself, Alexandria, but Cassius was sent with his troops from Syria to reinforce the Egyptian legion garrisoned there. The tribal warriors he faced were so numerous, nevertheless, that instead of attacking them he chose to bide his time, instigating quarrels among them until he was finally able to divide and conquer. His victory in Egypt made him a hero throughout the empire, especially in the eastern provinces and at Rome. He was also left with exceptional powers throughout the eastern empire.
These events led him to this point. Now Cassius is aged forty five. Although he is Syrian by birth he grew up in Alexandria, the capital of Roman Egypt, where his father, Gaius Avidius Heliodorus, a Roman politician, orator, and Epicurean philosopher, served as prefect. He taught his son that the goal of life is to attain a state of untroubled peace of mind and contentment. However, Cassius had come to think that peace of mind is all good and well, for philosophers, but without power your fortune ultimately depends on the whims of other men. Cassius is finally back home, in supreme military command not only of Alexandria, but the rest of the eastern provinces. His mother was a princess of Judea, descended on her mother’s side from Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, and on her father’s side from Herod the Great. She was also descended from a Roman client-king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Commagene, making Cassius a member of the Seleucid imperial dynasty. He was born to rule and extremely popular because of his royal descent, his victories in the Parthian Wars, and celebrated defeat of the Bucoli. Since the co-emperor Lucius Verus died Cassius has been steadily climbing the ladder. Now has the virtual authority of an emperor in the eastern empire – there’s nowhere left to climb.
The one-word missive he now holds in his hands came from one of Rome’s most distinguished men of letters, a scholar of Greek philosophy and literature called Herodes Atticus, a friend and childhood tutor of the sole surviving emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus happens to be all that now stands between Cassius and the imperial throne itself.
Marcus in Pannonia
At the other side of the Roman Empire, in his base camp, the Roman legionary fort of Carnuntum by the river Danube in the province of Pannonia, Marcus greets an army despatch rider. The messenger is exhausted, having journeyed through the night to the gates of the fortress, where he was met by the guards of the Legio XIV Gemina garrison. When the soldiers heard what he was carrying, they rushed him straight to the Emperor’s praetorium, his residence and office in the camp. It took nearly three weeks to get the news here, from the east of the Empire via Rome. Nevertheless, Marcus tells the messenger to take a moment, and get his breath back before speaking. Marcus’ generals and members of his personal entourage gather around him, restlessly waiting for the message. They don’t know the details yet but it’s obviously bad news from Rome. Eventually, he speaks. What he says is so remarkable that he seems scarcely to believe it himself: “My lord Caesar… Avidius Cassius has betrayed you… the Egyptian legion have acclaimed him Emperor!”
The courier has with him a letter from the Senate, confirming the news: On May 3rd 175 AD, Avidius Cassius was acclaimed Emperor of Rome by the Egyptian legion under his command in Alexandria, Legio II Traiana Fortis. “My lord, they’re telling everyone that you’re dead”, he explains. The news of Cassius’ sedition came from Publius Martius Verus, a distinguished Roman general who served as governor of the eastern province of Cappadocia. Support for the rebellion came from Cassius’ own legions in Syria and Egypt, and has started to spread throughout the Eastern Empire. The support of the current Prefect of Egypt, Calvisius Statianus, has given his claim an important seal of approval. The Roman province of Judea now acclaims him as emperor as well. Cassius is an accomplished military strategist with seven legions under his command. He also controls Egypt, the breadbasket of the empire – Rome depends on Egypt for its supply of grain. Crucially, however, Verus’ alarming news comes with the reassurance that he and his own three legions in Cappadocia have declared their loyalty in favour of Marcus. Nevertheless, the threat is extremely serious.
Marcus has been very sick, close to death indeed. Aged 54, perceived as frail and in poor health, his condition has long been the subject of gossip back in Rome. He has severe pains in his stomach and chest. It is said he can only eat during the daytime with the aid of theriac, the traditional cure-all favoured by emperors, prescribed to Marcus by his personal physician Galen. Faustina, his wife and the daughter of his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius, had travelled south, back to Rome, several months earlier. Rumours say that frightened by the possibility of his imminent demise, she urged Cassius to stake his claim to the throne. The emperor’s son, Commodus, is only thirteen years old. He is doubtless aware that if his father dies or the throne is usurped while he is still too young to succeed him, his life will be placed in grave peril. Faustina’s plan was said to be that by pre-empting Marcus’ death, Cassius may outmanoeuvre other pretenders to the throne, such as Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, and perhaps even safeguard the succession of her son by marrying her. Others said that Cassius acted on his own initiative, deliberately circulating bogus rumours of Marcus’ death to seize power and declaring Marcus deified to quell accusations of opportunism. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that he’d simply acted in error, not treasonously but genuinely deceived by false intelligence that declared the emperor dead or nearly so. That seems to be what Marcus assumes has happened. Once the Senate declared him hostis publicus, a public enemy, and seized his assets, however, he apparently felt the situation had spiralled out of control. Cassius couldn’t back down, and found himself on the brink of fighting a civil war.
Whatever Cassius’ motives were, this has to be treated as an emergency. Marcus’ illness has remitted, at least for now, and he wastes no time in responding to the sedition. He looks over the faces of his generals. They already know that he must prepare to abandon the northern frontier and lead an army south with great haste. Cassius’ legions will soon march against the capital of the empire, if he wishes to secure his claim to the imperial throne. This realisation has thrown the city of Rome into a state of total panic. To make matters worse, it has given Marcus’ opponents on the Senate an opportunity to sabotage his costly Marcomanni campaign. The emperor faced civil unrest when he announced that to push back the barbarian hordes he would have to take emergency measures, conscripting slaves and gladiators into the army and raising taxes throughout the provinces. That made him temporarily unpopular in the east, where the public resent funding a war on the other side of the empire – in Egypt and Syria the Marcomanni and their allies seem like someone else’s problem. The family of his deceased co-emperor, Lucius Verus, and their allies, have formed a kind of anti-war faction, stoking the fires of discontent over his lengthy absence in the north.
Not long after the Parthian wars of Lucius Verus had ended in the east, the Marcomannic wars began in the north. From 168 AD onward, Marcus became personally involved in the northern campaign. He commands twelve legions, about 100,000 men in total, the largest army ever massed on the frontier of the Roman empire. Despite his complete lack of any military training or experience, the men under Marcus’ command have come to love and admire him. Soldiers tell stories about him: how in June of 174 AD his prayers once sent a mighty thunderbolt from the heavens to destroy a siege engine being used by the Sarmatians, as if he’d summoned the fury of Jupiter himself. A month later he drew down a sudden torrential rain to quench the thirst of his soldiers, a detachment of the Thundering Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) led by his general Publius Helvius Pertinax. Their drinking water was gone and they were hemmed in and outnumbered by the Quadi. The story goes that his men were so thirsty that as they fought off the barbarians they gulped down rainwater mixed with the blood streaming from their own wounds. The Quadi charge was allegedly broken by hailstorms and lightning strikes, throwing them into disarray. In honour of these and other victories, the army acclaimed Marcus imperator for the seventh time. The troops also love and admire his wife, Faustina. During the Quadi campaign, the men nicknamed her Matrem Castrorum, “Mother of the Camp”. She came to war with them, accompanying Marcus, travelling with them and raising their morale. Conditions on the northern frontier could be harsh, though. The winters in Carnuntum were particularly brutal. One day the centurions were interrogating a barbarian youth they’d captured. They couldn’t break him with threats. Marcus noticed how badly the boy was shivering as they stood outside in the snow together. He said, “Lord, if you will only give me a coat, I’ll answer you.” The centurions laughed out loud but Marcus knew that if the tribes wanted to migrate south into Roman provinces badly enough he could bargain with the offer of resettling them in more hospitable regions.
After hours of heated discussion, the emperor finally retires to his private quarters. His generals want to keep discussing what action to take, through the night. However, that can wait. They will have weeks to talk. He gives orders that he is to be left alone with his meditations for the rest of the evening. Sitting in silence, he gradually withdraws into his own mind, focusing on the incipient disturbance he feels: anger, frustration. These are emotional reflex-reactions, the Stoics call propatheiai, or proto-passions. Thoughts rush into his mind unbidden: memories of conversations, unanswered questions, fear, worry… Some say he had long dreamt of founding the Roman provinces of Marcomanni and Sarmatia, and was close to doing so until Cassius’ revolt. In any case, that will now have to be put on hold until order has been restored. He imagines his enemies in Rome, who oppose the northern campaign, rubbing their hands with glee at this predicament, and hastening their plots against him. Another anxious thought suddenly occurs: Commodus will have to be summoned from Rome, for his own protection – it’s not safe for him there now. Faustina has only recently returned to Rome – but she would never betray him like this. So many thoughts, so many questions…
For a while, Marcus merely observes his harried mind from a distance, trying to refrain from being swept along by the impressions passing though his awareness… trying not to agree with them, or perpetuate them any further… He observes the subtle changes in his own body with the detachment of a natural philosopher: his hands want to clench, his shoulders tense, his brow furrowed, he notices his heart beating faster than normal, as his temperature literally rises. It feels like half the empire want him dead. Maybe his death is drawing closer, his body is failing him. Finally, he arrives at a conclusion about what to do with his feelings. The Stoic teacher Epictetus said everything has two handles. For now, this is the handle he will have to use to pick up the crisis, in order to regain his composure. He quickly writes down a summary of his guidance to himself:
If you require a crude kind of comfort to reach your heart, perhaps you can best be reconciled to death by remembering from what you are going to be removed, and the morals of those with whom your soul will no longer be associated. For it is never right to feel offended by people but it is your duty to care for them and to bear with them gently. And yet remember that your departure will be from people who do not have the same moral principles as you do. For this, if anything, is the one and only thing that could draw us back and attach us to life: to be permitted to live with friends who share our values. But now that you see how much trouble arises from conflict between those who live in this world, you can say: “Come quick, O death, lest perchance I, too, should forget myself.” [Meditations, 9.3]
This is indeed crude medicine. When feelings are overwhelming, Stoics bide their time, waiting for them to abate naturally before trying to reason with themselves. The Stoic Athenodorus, advisor to the first emperor, Augustus, once taught him to respond to rising feelings of anger by slowly reciting the Greek alphabet, to gain time for his feelings to abate before doing anything else. Marcus is buying himself time to deal with the underlying cause of his anger. He sets the worry aside in this way, and tries to sleep, although the pain in his stomach, as always, is threatening to keep him awake.
At daybreak, Marcus immediately sends the despatch rider on his way with letters for the Senate, his ally Verus in Cappadocia, and most importantly for Cassius in Egypt. His message is clear: the emperor confirms that he is alive, in good health, and is returning to Rome. Now he must make rapid arrangements for peace in the north so that he will be free to march south, restore order, and quell rumours with his presence. However, it would be premature to address his troops about the incident until he knows for certain that civil war is unavoidable. He also doesn’t want the barbarians getting wind of the crisis back home.
In private, he continues to meditate on his reaction to the news. The hardest thing to deal with is the uncertainty of the situation. If only he knew more about what was happening. It’s hard not to worry and think the worst when there are so many unanswered questions. However, he needs to regain his focus because much work will have to be done here before he is free to abandon the northern frontier. So narrowing his attention, he focuses upon the very core of his being: the seat of reason, his ruling faculty. He seeks to identify the value judgements responsible for the feelings of anger and frustration persisting within him. Sometimes he catches himself dwelling on the impression that he has been harmed by the rebellion, and he wants to harm Cassius and the other conspirators. He pauses for a moment then writes the following reminder to himself:
If they did the wrong thing then that’s bad for them. But for all you know they did nothing wrong. (Meditations, 9.38)
Nothing can truly harm me, by damaging my character, except my own value judgements. Cassius has harmed himself, not me. Marcus repeats the phrase Epictetus taught his students to use in situations like this: “It seemed right to him.” He has to assume at some level that Cassius believed he was doing the right thing. He acts out of ignorance of what is genuinely right and wrong for no man does wrong knowingly. Of course, it’s precisely this philosophical attitude that Cassius resents in Marcus because to him forgiveness is merely a sign of weakness.
Marcus Announces the Civil War
Several weeks pass. By now, news must have reached Cassius that Marcus is still alive but there has been no word of him standing down. Rumour and unrest are starting to spread around the camp. The time has come for the emperor to address his men, and announce that they will be marching south to defend Rome and engage Cassius’ legions. At least he can assure them, based on the letter he received, that Martius Verus, the highly-regarded commander of the legions in Cappadocia, is on their side. Cassius’ rebellion clearly lacks unanimous support among the eastern provinces.
Fellow soldiers, it is not to give way to bitter resentment or to complain that I have now come before you. What would be the point of being angry with God, to whom all things are possible. Still, perhaps it is necessary for those who unjustly experience misfortune to lament over the actions of others, and that is now my case. For it is surely a dreadful thing for us to be engaged in war after war. Surely it is remarkable that we are now involved in a civil war. And surely it seems beyond terrible and beyond remarkable that there is no loyalty to be found among these men, and that I have been conspired against by one whom I held most dear. Although I had done no wrong and nothing amiss, I have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what virtue can be considered safe, what friendship can any longer be deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me? Has not trust utterly perished, and optimism perished with it? Indeed, I would have considered it a small thing had the danger been to me alone — for assuredly I was not born to be immortal. However, now there has been a secession, or rather a rebellion, in the state and civil war touches us all alike. And had it been possible I would gladly have invited Cassius here to argue the matter at issue out before you or before the Senate. I would willingly have yielded the supreme power to him without a struggle if that seemed expedient for the common good. For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, old man as I now am and ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.
However, since Cassius would never agree to meet me for this purpose — for how could he trust me after having shown himself so untrustworthy toward me? — you, my fellow soldiers, ought to be of good cheer. For Cilicians and Syrians and Jews and Egyptians have never been a match for you, and never will, no, not though they numbered many thousands more than you whereas now it is many thousands less. Nor need even Cassius himself be held of any great account regarding the present crisis, however much he may seem to be a great commander and credited with many successful campaigns. For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you not Cassius who brought them to a successful conclusion. Moreover, even if he has won distinction by his Parthian campaigns, you have Martius Verus on your side, who has won no fewer but far more victories, and acquired greater territory than he. However, perhaps even now, learning that I am alive, Cassius has repented of his actions. For surely it was only because he believed me dead that he acted thus. Nevertheless, if he still persists in this course, even when he learns that we are indeed marching against him, he will doubtless think better of it both from dread of you and out of respect for me.
Let me tell you the whole truth. There is only one thing I fear, fellow-soldiers: that either he should take his own life, being too ashamed to come into our presence, or that another should slay him on learning that I coming and have already set out against him. For then I should be deprived of a great prize both of war and of victory, a prize such as no human being has ever yet obtained. And what is this prize? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue being faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.
After reciting these words to the soldiers, he sends a written copy of the speech to the Senate. He tries to avoid criticising Cassius too much. Although they are now at war, and despite rumours that he criticised him behind his back, Cassius has never in the past said or written anything in open criticism of Marcus.
Marcus and his legions must march for almost a month to reach Rome. En route he has plenty of opportunity to contemplate what is happening. Now that his initial feelings of anger and frustration have finally abated he rehearses his Stoic doctrines more carefully and systematically. He still faces uncertainty over Cassius’ motives, so he anticipates every possibility he can imagine.
When you’re offended with someone’s immoral behaviour, ask yourself immediately whether it’s possible that no immoral men exist in the world? No, it’s not possible. So don’t demand what’s impossible. The man who troubles you is another one of those shameless people who necessarily exist in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of crooked and untrustworthy men, and of everyone who does wrong in any way. As soon as you remind yourself that it’s impossible in general these sort of men should not exist, you will grow disposed to be more kindly toward every one of them as an individual. [Meditations, 9.42]
Marcus pauses and contemplates the cold logic of his reasoning. There are both good and bad people in the world, it would be naive to say otherwise. So isn’t it dishonest, in a sense, to act surprised when you happen to run across a bad man, who does bad things? Shouldn’t you expect that to happen frequently in life? The wise man anticipates all things, at least in broad strokes. He might not know who or when, but he knows as surely as he knows winter is coming, that sooner or later someone will probably betray him.
It’s also useful, when the occasion arises, to recall immediately the virtues nature has given men to counteract to every wrongful act. She has given us mildness as an antidote against the stupid man, and other powers against other kinds of men. And in all cases it is possible for you to set the man who is gone astray right by teaching him because every man who errs misses his object and has gone astray. [Meditations, 9.42]
As a student of Stoicism, Marcus was taught to confront himself with this question: What virtue, what possible quality or ability, has nature given you that’s best designed to deal with this problem? That’s why it was useful to learn by heart the many names of virtues. To go through that mental list and consider how a prudent man would respond, or how justice would have us respond. The cardinal virtue of Stoicism in relation to the social sphere is called dikaiosune. “Justice” makes it sound formal, “righteousness” maybe too pompous, “morality” perhaps a bit too vague – but it’s something between those ideas. The Stoics divided “justice” into two main subordinate virtues: benevolence and fairness. The virtue Marcus settled on as most relevant here was benevolence, kindness, which in the hands of an emperor we call clemency. Now he’s given a name to the virtue the situation demands, it seems a little easier to imagine something other than anger and vengeance, to picture another way of responding, a more rational way forward. We help others most by educating them, according to Socrates. Wisdom is the greatest good, therefore we should help others to move closer toward wisdom. Marcus believes his duty is to set Cassius and the others back on the right path, if possible, and to set an example of virtue through his own clemency toward them.
Anyway, how have you been injured? You’ll find that none of the people with whom you’re irritated have done anything by which your character could be made worse. That which is bad for you and harmful has its foundation within you only. And what harm is done or what is there to be surprised at if a man who has not been instructed acts like an uninstructed man? Consider whether you shouldn’t rather blame yourself, because you didn’t expect a man like this to err in this way. For you had the means, through reason, to suppose that he would likely commit this error, and yet you have somehow forgotten this and are amazed that he has. [Meditations, 9.42]
He recalls the closing words of Epictetus’ Handbook: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me, but they cannot harm me.” Did Socrates really say that? Those were two of the men who brought him to trial. What he meant was that even though they have him cast in prison, and executed, nobody can harm his character, and that’s all that matters, ultimately. If anything, Marcus reasons, he should blame himself for not having seen this coming. Cassius and the others should be educated, somehow, if possible that would be a more philosophical solution than having them exiled or executed.
All of these doctrines were of some benefit. However, the one he finally settles upon as most in keeping with the situation is this: nobody can frustrate us unless we allow them to. If we naively assume that they are going to keep treating us with gratitude, and foolishly place great importance on them doing so, although it is beyond our direct control, we’re obviously making ourselves vulnerable to emotional distress, such as anger.
But most of all when you blame someone for being faithless or ungrateful, take a look at yourself. For the fault is obviously your own, whether you trusted someone of that character would keep his promise or whether you neither conferred your kindness unconditionally nor so as to have received all reward from the very act itself. For what more do you want when you have done a man a service? Are you not content that you’ve done something true to your nature; do you seek to be paid back for it as well? That would be just like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. For these limbs and organs are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their nature obtain what is their own reward. Likewise, man is formed by nature for acts of kindness and so when he has done anything benevolent or in any other way beneficial to the common interest of mankind he has acted in accord with his nature and he thereby gets what’s his own reward. [Meditations, 9.42]
Marcus talks himself through this. When you handed such power to Cassius, making him virtually a dictator over the eastern empire, did you expect his gratitude? You should have known better. You set yourself up by assuming that he would be so grateful he would never do anything to displease you. It’s your duty according to Stoicism to act virtuously without expecting anything in return.
The March South & Cassius’ Death
Over time, with daily meditations of this kind, Marcus has regained his famous composure. And his perspective has shifted, his habitual thoughts returning back to the wisdom he rehearses each morning. Reason tells him that setbacks like this are to be expected – it would be foolish and naive for a sovereign to act surprised at the appearance of a would-be usurper. Now he has to reconcile acceptance with action.
However, the Senate’s message made it clear that Rome has been thrown into complete panic by the news of Cassius’ sedition and the threat of civil war is real. The people were now terrified that Cassius would invade Rome in Marcus’ absence and sack the whole city in revenge. The Quadi had sued for peace and Marcus was left pursuing the Iazynges when Cassius rebelled. To leave the north, he has been forced to agree a hurried truce with the Iazyges, on terms that he is reluctant to accept. The barbarian leaders rushed to offer their services in putting down Cassius’ rebellion but Marcus refused their help because he felt enemy nations should not be allowed to know about the troubles arising between Romans. To do so would risk undermining their fear and respect for the Roman army, which he knew was crucial in maintaining order.
One of Marcus’ finest generals on the northern frontier, Marcus Valerius Maximianus, has already been sent ahead with twenty-thousand men, to engage with Cassius’ legions in Syria preemptively and stall any movement toward Rome. Marcus has also sent the distinguished military commander Vettius Sabinianus with a detachment from Pannonia to secure the city of Rome against any possible advance by Cassius and also to quell unrest caused by Marcus’ political enemies. The news was that Cassius was preparing to instigate a civil war, now that he realised the Senate would not recognise his acclamation as Emperor.
Cassius was in a strong position at the beginning. However, support for his rebellion has failed to spread. With the exception of a few dissenters, Marcus has the support of the Roman Senate. In the east, the provinces of Cappadocia and Bithynia both remain loyal to Marcus. The Egyptian Prefect, Calvisius Statianus joined the revolt and Cassius retains command over seven legions: three in Syria, two in Roman Judaea, one in Arabia and one in Egypt. However, this is a fraction, maybe less than a third, of the legions who remain under Marcus’ supreme command, throughout the rest of the empire. Moreover, Marcus’ own northern legions are battle-hardened and highly-disciplined veterans, whereas the legions of the east are perceived as relatively soft.
Now, precisely three months and six days, after Cassius was acclaimed emperor, another despatch rider arrives at Marcus’ camp, while his army is on the move southward. “My lord Caesar,” the messenger announces, “general Cassius lies dead, slain by his own legion.” While he was walking, Cassius encountered a centurion called Antonius who charged toward him on horseback and stabbed him in the neck. Cassius was badly wounded but still alive, and nearly escaped with his life, but a cavalry officer (decurion) finished him off. Together the men cut off Cassius’ head and have set off with it to meet with Marcus.
The revolt ended suddenly when the Egyptian and Syrian legions under Cassius’ command learned that Marcus himself was leading the legions of the Danube against them to suppress the revolt. Realising that they were hopelessly outnumbered and lacking the will to fight, the Egyptian legion convinced one of their centurions to assassinate Cassius. Now, several days have passed, and Antonius and his companion have arrived with grisly evidence of the usurper’s demise. Marcus orders them turned away, refusing to look at the severed head of his former friend. His instructions are that it should be buried instead. Although his troops are euphoric, Marcus does not celebrate. Maccianus, an ally of Cassius, who was placed in charge of Alexandria, was also killed by the army, as was his prefect of the guard. By forgiving the legion, Marcus had inadvertently signed Cassius’ death warrant. The Egyptian and Syrian legions had no more reason to fight the larger and far superior army approaching them from the north. The only thing between them and their pardon was Cassius, who refused to stand down. So his officers said, “If you’re so eager to die here, be our guest”, and removed his head from his body at the first opportunity.
Marcus was recognised as sole emperor again, throughout the Empire, by July 175 AD. He did not take severe measures against Cassius’ loved ones, who survived him. He only executed a few of those involved in the plot, men who had committed other crimes. As agreed, he did not punish the legionaries under Cassius’ command either but sent them back to their usual role, keeping watch over the Parthian Empire. He prohibited the Senate from severely punishing those involved in plotting the rebellion. He asked that no Senators be executed during his reign, that those Senators who had been exiled should return. He pardoned the cities who had sided with Cassius, even Antioch which had been one of Cassius’ greatest supporters and critical of Marcus’ rule. However, he did end their games, public meetings and assemblies, and released a stern proclamation against them. At first, Marcus refused to visit Antioch or Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius, when he visited Syria, although later he did agree to visit the former city. However, he treated Alexandria with greater clemency, perhaps because the garrison there were the ones who actually brought an end to the rebellion.
We’re told Marcus wrote a letter to the “Conscript Fathers” of the Senate, pleading with them to act with clemency toward those involved in Cassius’ rebellion. He asks that no Senator be punished, no man of noble birth executed, that the exiled should return, and goods returned to those from whom they had been seized. Accomplices of Cassius among the senatorial and equestrian orders were to be protected from any type of punishment or harm. “Would that I could recall the condemned also from the Shades”, he says. The children of Cassius were to be pardoned, along with his son-in-law and wife, because they had done no wrong. Marcus ordered that they were to live on under his protection, free to travel as they please, and Cassius’ wealth divided fairly between them. He wanted to be able to say that only those slain during the rebellion had died as a result. There were to be no witch-hunts or acts of revenge afterwards.
Mercy toward those Senators who had supported Cassius was probably wise in any case, as Marcus doubtless wanted to restore peace quickly in Rome, so that he could return to the northern frontier. First, though, he found it necessary to tour the eastern provinces to help restore order there, in the wake of the crisis. Indeed, his popularity in the eastern empire grew as a result. Marcus also passed a law that no senator could become governor in the province where he had been born, to try to prevent provincial rulers becoming overly-powerful. He reputedly ordered all of Cassius’ correspondence to be burned, however, which gave rise to rumours that there was something to hide, such as a plot between Cassius and Faustina.
Indeed, Faustina died in winter 175 AD or spring 176 AD, within half a year of the revolt being suppressed. There were rumours she committed suicide because of her association with Avidius Cassius. She was held in high regard by Marcus, however, and deified after her death. She remained an immensely popular figure after her death, despite the rumours surrounding her life. Shortly after Faustina’s death, in January 177 AD, Commodus was appointed a consul and co-emperor with Marcus, aged fifteen. By law, consuls normally needed to be 33 years old. Perhaps Marcus rushed things to try to secure Commodus’ position as his heir. However, after Marcus’ death in 180 AD, and against his orders for clemency, Commodus had the descendants of Cassius sought out and burned alive as traitors.
We can assume that even after the death of Cassius, each morning, Marcus continued his daily Stoic practice. Mentally-rehearsing hypothetical encounters with meddling, ungrateful, insolent, treacherous, slandering, and selfish people, just as he had done for many years before Cassius’ betrayed him. Perhaps, looking back on events, he also repeated to himself the Stoic maxim: “It seemed right to him.”
NB: This is a children’s story, or rather biographical fiction based on the ancient accounts of Marcus’ reign and other evidence, including The Meditations. I wrote it for my five-year old daughter, Poppy. It’s a simplification of a much more detailed account I’d written for adults.
The Philosopher King
Long, long ago – over two thousand years ago – there was a famous philosopher named Socrates. Socrates was extremely wise, perhaps the wisest man who ever lived. He used to talk a lot to people about the difference between a good person and a bad person. Once he said that kings are powerful and philosophers are wise, so the world would be better if all kings became philosophers, because then they would be both powerful and wise. Most kings are not philosophers, though. In fact, there had never really been a king who was a philosopher. After Socrates died, over five hundred years passed before a philosopher finally became a king. His name was Marcus Aurelius and he was the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man in the world. An emperor is like a king but even more important. He rules over not one but many different countries. Marcus Aurelius ruled over a vast empire that stretched from England through Europe into the north of Africa and the Middle East. (Not Scotland, though!)
When Marcus was just a young boy, the emperor Hadrian asked his successor, Antoninus Pius, to adopt him, so that he could be next in line to the throne. On the day he was adopted, young Marcus had a strange dream in which his shoulders and arms were made of ivory. When someone asked him if they could lift a heavy weight he discovered they were much stronger than before. A wise man told him the dream meant he was destined to be a great leader and to say beautiful things. Antoninus gathered together the best teachers for Marcus from around the world. He learned lots of different things but the subject he loved most was philosophy, or how to become wise. When he was twelve years old he started to wear the traditional grey cloak of a philosopher and trained himself in toughness by doing things like sleeping on a mat on the ground instead of in a normal bed. He carried on studying for the rest of his life. In fact, he was still going to philosophy lessons when he was an old man. When people asked him why he spent so much time studying philosophy, Marcus used to quote Socrates’ saying: The people will only be happy when philosophers become kings or kings become philosophers.
When Antoninus died, Marcus became the new emperor of Rome but he wanted to share the job with his adoptive brother, Lucius Verus. (We say “adoptive” because neither of the boys were born the sons of the emperor Antoninus Pius but he chose them both to become his sons, and took them into his family.) Marcus said he didn’t want to become emperor unless his little brother, Lucius, was emperor too. So for the first time ever Rome had two co-emperors. Marcus was older, though, and had more experience in government, so he was really the one in charge. Marcus was very serious and worked hard. Lucius was almost the opposite of his brother. He was very lazy and he liked to play games and throw fancy parties instead of working, but Marcus loved him anyway because he was his little brother and he treated him in some ways like a son.
The Parthian Wars & the Plague
To keep him busy and out of trouble, Marcus sent Lucius to lead a war that had started far to the east in a land called Parthia. Lucius couldn’t be bothered fighting, though, so he just based himself in the city of Antioch, where he played dice all night long, watched gladiatorial fights and chariot races, and held notorious banquets where he drank and feasted until he passed out at the table. They say while his generals and their legions were risking their lives on the battlefield of Parthia, Lucius was out hunting in the countryside or touring the seaside towns with groups of musicians and his good-for-nothing friends. Some say Marcus was actually the one planning how to fight the war, from back in Rome, even though Lucius was based in a city closer to the fighting. Lucius took charge of organizing all the food and supplies and avoided doing anything dangerous because he wasn’t very brave. He let his generals do all the fighting for him while he took the glory. The war raged on for five years and one of Lucius’ generals in particular, named Avidius Cassius, fought and won many battles with his legions. As he defeated more enemies he was given powers, until he was nearly as powerful as Lucius, who remained safely back in the city, far from all the action. One day, Cassius sacked an ancient town named Seleucia, with whom the Romans had agreed peace. Despite the fact that Seleucia had welcomed the Roman soldiers as friends, Cassius ordered them to steal everything they could and destroy everything else that was left behind. People said the gods were angry with Cassius and gave his soldiers a terrible disease, called the plague. When Lucius and Cassius came back home from Parthia to Rome they were both treated as war heroes, even though Cassius had done all the fighting. The Roman people were overjoyed. But without realising it, the soldiers had also brought back something very bad indeed from Parthia. They brought back the disease called the Antonine Plague, or smallpox.
The plague spread through the whole Roman empire, for fifteen long years. The Roman people were very sad and very worried. They say maybe a third of the population died. People with the disease would become very sick, they’d get a fever, their throat would hurt, their stomach would hurt, and their skin would become very sore and lumpy. It was horrible to see. Everyone prayed to the gods to save them and doctors tried everything they could think of to help. But back then they didn’t really understand what was going on, or how the plague worked, so even the best doctors in the empire couldn’t help much. Maybe five million people died as a result. Marcus Aurelius was friends with a very famous doctor named Galen who studied the plague and tried to find a cure to protect the emperors.
The Marcomanni Wars
While the disease was spreading, more and more soldiers were dying, and so the army became much weaker. Then, at the worst possible time, another disaster happened. Not long after the wars to the east, in Parthia, had ended, millions of barbarian tribesman called the Quadi and Marcomanni started to invade Rome from the other side of the empire, far to the north. They broke through into Roman towns and stole everything. People were very afraid of going to war in the north because the barbarians were so many, and the Roman armies were suffering from the plague. Lucius wanted to stay home and rest but Marcus said it was an emergency and they both needed to lead the Roman army north to drive back the invaders. Because the army was so weak, Marcus did something that shocked the people. He took slaves and gladiators into the army to help replace the soldiers who’d died from plague. And he sold many treasures from his imperial palace to raise money that was used to help pay the soldiers wages.
Marcus and Lucius put on their army cloaks and rode north to war. At first, they struggled to defeat the barbarians who numbered many more than the Romans. But gradually, as they learned more about their enemies and about the country they were in, the Romans started to win more battles. However, yet another disaster struck. Marcus wanted Lucius to stay in the north but finally gave in to his demands and allowed him to go back home. While travelling back to Rome, though, Lucius fell sick with the plague. The best doctors in the empire tried but they couldn’t save him and he died. Lucius’ family were angry and said he should never have left Rome but it was too late. Many other noblemen died in battle on the northern frontier, and Marcus built statues to them. Some Romans started to feel that between the plague and the wars, too many people had died.
Marcus was very sad about the loss of his brother but he continued the war in the north. Even though he’d never led an army before, and never trained as a soldier, Marcus was very wise and became a great general. The army loved and admired him. His soldiers all thought the gods were helping Marcus because of a miracle some of them claimed they’d seen. One day, one of Marcus’ best generals and his soldiers were surrounded and outnumbered by warriors of the Quadi barbarian tribe. It was the middle of summer and the Roman soldiers had no water, they were feeling very weak and thirsty because of the heat. They say Marcus prayed for them and something incredible happened. Suddenly storm clouds appeared in the sky overhead and it started raining very heavily. The soldiers caught the rain in their helmets and drank as they carried on fighting. They all cheered because of the miracle and started to fight back more bravely. As the barbarians charged at them on horseback, thunder sounded and lightning struck them. Fire and water came down from the skies and helped the Romans defeat their enemy. After this famous victory, the soldiers all celebrated Marcus as their supreme commander and told stories about how he brought them good luck.
During one of their most famous battles, the Romans chased the Sarmatians across the frozen river Danube. The barbarians assumed they would have a great advantage against the Romans on the ice because they were used to it, so they turned to fight, but they were in for a shock. The Romans had been training hard through the winter. When the Sarmatians surrounded them on the icy surface, the Romans packed themselves in a tight formation, placed their shields on the ice, and put one foot on top so that they could stand more firmly. Then as the barbarians charged, they grabbed the reins of their horses and pulled them to the ground, so they slipped on the ice and fell. The Romans were victorious because they’d carefully studied how to fight in these surroundings and practised tricks that would help their soldiers defeat the local tribes.
The Rebellion of Avidius Cassius
However, while Marcus was far away, busy fighting in the north, the people in the eastern empire felt neglected and were growing restless. They hadn’t seen Marcus for a long time, and Lucius was dead now. Millions of people had died of the plague and many more of their men were sent to fight with Marcus in the distant north and most of them were slain in battle and never returned home. Things were becoming expensive because taxes had increased to pay for Marcus’ war against the Marcomanni, people had to give more money to the emperor and they didn’t like that. One day, a mysterious Egyptian tribe called the Herdsmen said “We’ve had enough.” They tricked and killed two Roman officers and declared war on the Romans in Egypt. More and more people joined their revolution until the Roman Prefect or ruler of Egypt became worried. This was a big problem because most of the grain used to make bread came from Egypt, so the Romans called it the breadbasket of their empire. Marcus decided it was an emergency and told Cassius to march his legions to Egypt and stop the Herdsmen. However, to do that he had to make Cassius even more powerful, so he granted him imperium throughout the east, which meant people had to obey him as if he were the emperor. Cassius led the Roman armies into Egypt but there were so many of the Herdsmen he didn’t fight them in a pitched battle. Instead, he slowly tricked them into arguing with each other, until they fell out, and then he beat them, something we call a “divide and conquer” strategy. People said Cassius had saved Rome and they thought he was very clever. So he became an even bigger hero, and was left with supreme command throughout the eastern part of the empire.
Now since the co-emperor Lucius had died, Cassius had gradually become so powerful, that he started to feel like he should be an emperor himself. Indeed, some people even say that when Lucius was alive he tried to warn Marcus that he’d heard Cassius wanted to overthrow him. Marcus said that he shouldn’t worry because whatever will be will be, and that they couldn’t judge Cassius based on rumours anyway. He told Lucius to remember their adoptive father the emperor Antoninus, who used to say “No one ever kills his successor”. However, Marcus had been very sick for many years, with pains in his chest and stomach. He found it hard to eat and at night he struggled to sleep because he was so ill. Some people say that because of his illness, Marcus’ wife, Faustina, worried that he was about to die. They say she told their friend Cassius that if Marcus was dying he was to get the army to acclaim him emperor instead, as quickly as possible, before any of their enemies could seize the role. Perhaps Faustina even planned to marry Cassius if Marcus died, to protect their son Commodus, and make sure he could become emperor one day. Nobody knows for sure, but some people say that was Faustina and Cassius’ plan. Somehow, one day, Cassius heard news that Marcus was really sick and was probably dying so the Egyptian army quickly acclaimed Cassius the new emperor. But he’d made a terrible mistake. Marcus had indeed been very ill, weeks ago, but he’d recovered and now he was better.
When the Senate, the government in Rome, found out, they were angry. This was a huge rebellion. They immediately declared Cassius a public enemy and took away all the money and land that belonged to him and his family. The people in Rome panicked because they thought Cassius would be so angry that now he’d march the Egyptian army into their city and destroy everything. When the people within a country fight one another, that’s called a civil war. Everyone was worried that now there were two emperors, they would have to fight over control of Rome, and there would be a huge civil war. Marcus was so far away it would have taken several weeks for the news to reach him. When he found out he thought his friend Cassius must have made a terrible mistake and would change his mind and give up, so he waited for news, but Cassius didn’t back down or surrender, instead he gathered his armies and prepared for war. Some of Lucius’ family and other politicians in Rome also opposed Marcus’ war in the north because it was so expensive and the lives of so many Roman soldiers had been lost. So some politicians in Rome did take sides with Cassius but there weren’t very many of them. Most Romans remained loyal to Marcus, as their true emperor.
Everyone was shocked at what Cassius had done. They thought Marcus would be shocked too and really angry. But for his whole life Marcus had been preparing to respond philosophically to things like this. Every morning he would meditate and patiently tell himself “Today you will meet ingratitude, treachery, lies, and selfish people…” He planned how to deal calmly with even the most difficult situation, and never to be surprised by anything. He’d learned that from the ancient philosophers he studied as a young man. Finally, he was just about to win his wars in the north, after years and years of fighting. However, instead, he would have to quickly pack up and march his armies all the way across the empire to fight a new war against his own friend. Fortunately, Marcus was very organised and hard working. He sent one of his generals ahead with a small army to reach Cassius first and block his path to Rome. He sent another general to Rome where he was to calm everyone down and stop the panic. Marcus himself took time to agree peace with the local tribes and prepare a much larger army, containing some of the toughest and most experienced soldiers. When they were ready he started the long march southeast to defeat Cassius.
Marcus Prepares for Civil War
Before they left, as soon as he realised Cassius wasn’t going to back down, Marcus gave a speech to his soldiers. He told them that he wasn’t angry or upset. Everyone was amazed how calm he was. He always tried to see things from both sides. He wanted to understand other people’s motives, what was important to them, and what they were thinking. When someone did something that seemed bad, he’d learned from the philosophers to pause and say to himself: “It must have seemed right to him.” So he said he wanted everyone to forgive Cassius and his friends, and let them live in peace if they would surrender. Marcus said nobody in Rome was to hurt any of Cassius’ supporters and that ones that had been exiled, or sent away, were to be invited to come back home. The soldiers were surprised he was being so gentle but that was what he’d learned from philosophy. Marcus’ response was very different from the politicians’ in Rome; whereas he remained calm and offered to pardon Cassius, the Senate were angry, panicked, and wanted to punish everyone involved in the rebellion.
The army led by Marcus began marching toward Cassius’ stronghold in Syria to fight the main battle of the civil war. Something surprising happened, though, before they could reach the enemy. Cassius’ legions heard that Marcus wanted to forgive them all but their commander, Cassius, still refused to give up. The soldiers knew that Marcus had a much bigger and much stronger army, and they were afraid they were going to lose. So they decided to get rid of Cassius themselves. Two of their officers charged at him on their horses when he wasn’t expecting it, caught him by surprise, and chopped his head off. They took Cassius’ head to Marcus but he said he didn’t want to look at it and told them to bury it instead. He was sad that his friend had been killed because he said it was all a big mistake and he wanted to pardon him. Marcus had won the war, but he refused to celebrate. He said he wanted to make sure that nobody else was killed, and he asked the Senate to give back all of Cassius’ money to his children, to let them go wherever they want to go, and to protect them from harm.
Marcus travelled around all the different countries in the east of the empire and helped to calm them down and restore peace. The people said he was a hero because they were terrified that there was going to be a civil war but he’d managed to stop it without any fighting by saying that he was going to forgive everyone involved. He was loved by all the eastern provinces and they say that many of the people there started to study philosophy because of their admiration for Marcus.