Stoicism, Insults, and Political Correctness

A bit of a ramble about insults and political correctness, in relation to Stoicism.

Recently I’ve been thinking more about insults and what Stoicism might tell us about how to view them.  That’s been prompted by some articles by William Irvine and Eric O. Scott about insults, social justice, and political correctness, following Irvine’s recent publication of the book A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt and Why They Shouldn’t.  Their discussion does a good job of applying Stoic philosophy to a specific dilemma that’s very topical at the moment.  There’s been a lot of reference in the media recently to “microaggression”, “safe spaces”, and “trigger warnings”, particularly on US college campuses.

I’m not attempting in this post to provide a comprehensive overview of these issues.  So apologies if I’ve neglected an important topic.  I merely want to contribute a few meandering notes, including some observations on passages in the ancient Stoic literature that I feel may perhaps have been overlooked.

Let’s start with microaggressions.  I was a psychotherapist for many years, so this dilemma is pretty familiar to me because it frequently comes up in therapy sessions, particularly in the context of treating social anxiety and providing what therapists call social-skills training.  Psychological literature on dealing with insults, or put-downs, goes back, in particular, to the 1970s, the heyday of what used to be called “assertiveness training”.  So I feel that when considering some of these issues it’s helpful to bring in elements of that perspective, as well as some of the insights Stoic philosophy has to offer.  Psychotherapy, of course, speaks mainly to the psychological issues at stake in these debates, but it also has something to say about the ethical and political dimension because those are dilemmas that any therapist working in this area, over the last forty or fifty years, will have had to wrestle with in discussions with their clients, as well as in clinical supervision.

William Irvine’s article cites a recent article, which quotes, Sheree Marlowe, the chief diversity officer at Clark University, giving the following advice to incoming students in her presentation on microaggressions:

Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women, said Ms. Marlowe, who realized it was offensive only when someone confronted her for saying it during a presentation.

Irvine claims that much of this advice is further sensitizing students to insults, whereas the ancient Stoics would have recommended that they be desensitized to them, i.e., that they learn to “shrug off insults”.

The Stoics, after devoting considerable thought to how best to respond to insults, concluded that we would do well to become insult pacifists. When insulted, we should not insult back in return; we should instead carry on as if nothing had happened. It is, I have found, a very effective way to deal with many insults. On failing to provoke a rise in his target, an insulter is likely to feel foolish.

In relation to some of the most serious kinds of insults, “hate speech”, Irvine’s advice is as follows:

What about hate speech, though? Should we remain silent in the face of a racist insult? It depends on the situation. But the one thing we should not do is take the insult personally. We should instead dismiss hate speech, in much the same way as we should dismiss the barking of an angry dog. We should keep in mind that the dog, not being fully rational, cannot help itself. The Stoics would add that if we let ourselves get angered or upset by a barking dog, we have only ourselves to blame.

Eric O. Scott’s response to William Irvine’s book, and his presentation on this subject at Stoicon, raises the concern that Stoicism might be misinterpreted by some as advocating an overly-passive attitude toward social injustices, because of the the emphasis it places on acceptance.  He writes:

If people find modern Stoicism’s advice for victims of injustice off-putting, it may have more to do with the choices we make about how to go about presenting that advice than with what the ancients have said. Being resilient to insults and being an active agent for Justice are not inimical objectives, and while I accept Irvine’s call to the former, I would caution him that he has gone too far in his neglect of the latter.

Many people today appear to read the Stoics as advising that would should be in some sense indifferent to the suffering of others.  I think Scott does a good job of forcefully arguing against this, putting forward the case that Stoicism has always emphasised the virtue of justice, and an ethical concern for the common welfare of mankind.  Irvine then replied to this article, as follows:

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

As an aside, we do know that Marcus passed several laws that improved the situation for slaves under his rule.  I’ll discuss the notion that he and other Stoics are to blame for failing to openly oppose the institution of slavery in a separate section below.  In any case, Irvine agrees with Scott here that Stoics do have a social duty to help others, which must be reconciled with their emotional acceptance of external events.

I believe there’s a crucial, and actually fairly well-known passage, that may help clarify the psychological aspect of the Stoic position.  In the Encheiridion, Epictetus is quoted as teaching his students:

When you see a man shedding tears in sorrow for a child abroad or dead, or for loss of property, beware that you are not carried away by the impression that it is outward ills that make him miserable. Keep this thought by you: ‘What distresses him is not the event, for that does not distress another, but his judgement on the event.’ Therefore do not hesitate to sympathize with him so far as words go, and if it so chance, even to groan with him; but take heed that you do not also groan in your inner being. (Handbook, 17)

Does Epictetus advise his students to ignore the man in distress?  Does he suggest that they should simply challenge him for being overly-sensitive or tell him to “suck it up, buttercup”?  No.  Does he suggest delivering a lecture on Stoic Ethics to the person in distress?  No.  What Epictetus actually advised his students was that they should express outward sympathy, without hesitation.  And to groan along with him, in certain situations, showing commiseration.  His only caveat is that we should not ourselves become upset at the same external things: groan along outwardly, by all means, but not inwardly.

Why does Epictetus say this?  Well, first of all, it’s clearly an important passage.  Arrian selected it for the Handbook, which is a highly condensed summary of Epictetus’ Stoic teachings.  So it’s not a throwaway remark.  It’s presumably a central component of his teaching, and something it was considered important for all of his students to remember in daily life, hence its inclusion in the Encheiridion.  Epictetus must have encountered similar misinterpretations of Stoicism to the ones we hear today: that it encourages us to be callous toward the suffering of others.  That’s not consistent with Stoic Ethics, though.  We have a duty to care for other rational beings, and to wish them well, Fate permitting.  We should desire to alleviate the suffering of others, where possible, although doing so is outside of our direct control and must therefore be pursued “lightly” as Epictetus put it.  That doesn’t mean abandoning the goal of helping other people altogether, though.  It means balancing the desire to help others overcome their suffering with acceptance of the fact that they have minds of their own.  You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.  We can and should try to help others, nevertheless.

Sometimes people rightly detect that the Stoics think the best thing we can do for others is to educate them if we believe they’re mistaken, which would include with regard to the things that upset them.  Sure.  But what people sometimes miss is that the Stoics also recognise that when someone is in the grip of a passion they’re not thinking straight so it’s not the best time to reason with them.  Seneca says that if you tell someone who is in the grip of anger to calm down, it will just make them worse.  That tends to apply to anxiety and other emotions as well.  The Stoics knew that over 2,000 years ago.  Cognitive therapists arrived at the same conclusion, based on their experience.  People find it difficult to think objectively when they’re upset so there’s no point trying to lecture them.  We should treat them with kindness and empathy, wait for their passions to naturally abate, and then perhaps talk to them about things if the opportunity arises, but in a sensitive manner rather than in a hectoring or condescending way.

I think it’s extremely helpful to dwell on the passage above for a moment and consider how it would apply to some of the modern examples being discussed.  One of the typical examples of a microaggression given on university campuses is asking foreign students “Where are you from?”  It’s considered to be potentially offensive to pose this question.  I’m Scottish but I live in Nova Scotia, in Canada.  About once a month, I reckon, someone asks me what part of Ireland I’m from – it’s mainly taxi drivers.  (I’m totally serious.)  Is that a microaggression?  I don’t know.  It would probably offend some people.  It just makes me laugh.  I think my Canadian girlfriend gets more annoyed about it than I do.  Several British people in Canada have told me that they actually felt quite offended by similar remarks, though.

What advice should a Stoic give to people genuinely offended by these sort of comments?  Should we say: “It’s not events that upset us, but our judgement about events.”  Should I tell them to cultivate indifference toward external things?  No.  That would obviously be flippant and insensitive.  It wouldn’t normally be very helpful.  Why?  Precisely because their passions, being external to my volition, are not under my direct control.  In other words, merely telling them “what not to think” is unlikely to transform them into Stoic Sages.  That’s something that seems trivial when it’s said to me but at which other people do sometimes take offence.

Here’s a more sensitive example…  The bars in North America often sell a cocktail called an “Irish car bomb”.  The first time I noticed that my jaw hit the floor because it seemed to be making light of atrocities such as the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 civilians, including several young children and a pregnant woman.  It’s a pretty common drink, though.  Would a typical Canadian bar serve a cocktail called an “Iraqi car bomb” or one (hypothetically) called an “Ottawa shooter“?  Probably not.  So that’s technically a double-standard and morally hypocritical, right?  Although, notice that some of these are empirical questions…  For all I know there are bars in Ontario that do a roaring trade in Ottawa shooters.

What if someone’s maiden aunt lost a close friend in the Omagh bombing and then walked into a bar in Canada to be greeted by a massive blackboard on the wall saying “Irish car bombs half-price on St. Paddy’s Day”?  Is it offensive?  Yes.  Is it worth being upset about.  No.  Should we be surprised if some people are upset by it?  No.  Should we tell them to “get over themselves” and not take things so personally.  No.  What would Epictetus and the other Stoics actually advise us to do?  Well, as we’ve just seen, according to Arrian, they’d say that if someone is genuinely upset we should express outward sympathy, and act sensitively.  They’d say that we should be more concerned, though, about remaining inwardly detached ourselves and not joining in their distress – not allowing ourselves to be triggered.  We should also behave sympathetically, though.

You see, what Stoicism has to say about this is actually very insightful, complex, and interesting…  because it asks us to strike a careful balance.  Often people in these debates about political correctness, and so on, go to one extreme or the other.  They focus either on the notion that people are emotionally overreacting to things that others see as trivial (“liberal snowflakes”).  Or they focus on the fact that people are being insensitive to the inevitable distress caused by certain triggers (“right-wing bigots”).  I like to say that Stoicism is all about striking a delicate balance between “acceptance and action” or between emotional indifference and ethical concern.  That’s the whole point of the philosophy really.

We all know the Stoic Sage is unperturbed by Irish car bomb cocktails and “sticks and stones may break his bones but words will never hurt him.”  Sure but the Sage is a hypothetical ideal: the individual equivalent of a Utopian society.  Or at least, he’s as “rare as the Ethiopian phoenix” as the Stoics put it – and that was born every 500 years, according to legend.  Most of us – including Zeno, Chrysippus, and Epictetus – are classed as fools by the Stoics.  Everyone is flawed.  We’re all FINE – fucked up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.  It’s unrealistic, un-Stoic, and unphilosophical, to act surprised when other people are upset by external events.  It would also be morally vicious to completely disregard their distress.

What do therapists who work with clients on a daily basis, dealing with these issues, actually do?  Well, they have the whole “armamentarium” of psychological techniques at their disposal.  For example, clients may learn to employ cognitive distancing strategies to moderate the distress caused by certain insults.  Alternatively, they may employ “fogging“, from assertiveness training, the subtle art of agreeing with someone without really agreeing with them.  Or they might employ repeated imaginal exposure to the upsetting event until their anxiety has naturally abated.

But should the therapist be shocked if their client is initially offended by insults?  Or should they join with the client in their judgement that the events are “awful”, or offensive enough to be upsetting?  Well, modern cognitive therapists face this dilemma every day.  They all know that they have to walk a thin line between empathy and agreement.  It’s understandable that the client is upset by insults but it’s also true that they don’t really need to feel deeply hurt by words – they could learn to view them in a more detached way.

What about trigger warnings?  Massimo Pigliucci has written an excellent article on “trigger warnings” in academia.  These are warnings given to students in advance that a lecture may contain material that could be upsetting, especially to sufferers of PTSD. Now, the concern you’ll hear most therapists express about this issue is that the main treatment for anxiety, including PTSD, is repeated exposure to the feared event, and that avoidance is symptomatic and a maintaining factor in anxiety disorders.  So the very idea of giving trigger warnings seems to fly completely in the face of what psychological research tells us about best practice in the treatment of PTSD.

If I am “triggered” by conversations about sex then avoiding those conversations is probably not going to help me in the long-term, it will potentially backfire by maintaining or even increasing my sensitivity.  That said, exposure in therapy is usually following a graduated hierarchy, prolonged sufficiently for habituation to occur, and carried out in a safe environment under controlled conditions.  It may be unhelpful for people to be caught off guard by experiences that trigger their anxiety.  However, if we simply eliminated these exposure experiences, by never mentioning sex or whatever triggers are a concern, that would definitely reduce the chances of natural habituation taking place, and the anxiety or distress abating naturally – the vulnerable students would potentially get worse rather than better in the long-run.

For example, in an article entitled “HAZARDS AHEAD: The Problem with Trigger Warnings, According to the Research”, Richard J. McNally, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, writes:

Trigger warnings are designed to help survivors avoid reminders of their trauma, thereby preventing emotional discomfort. Yet avoidance reinforces PTSD. Conversely, systematic exposure to triggers and the memories they provoke is the most effective means of overcoming the disorder.

Also, warning a group of students about quite specific triggers carries the risk of unintentional disclosure by alerting some students to the fact that others have a specific form of anxiety.  The lecturer says, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to be talking about alien abductions today, in case anyone’s concerned by that…”  Student x gets up and leaves the room, looking flustered.  So everyone else in the class now basically knows that student x has anxiety that’s triggered by discussions of alien abductions.  The cat is out of the bag.  So that can now be spread around as gossip, etc.  (The lecturer could warn students beforehand by email, etc., but the mere absence of particular students would still potentially lead to unintentional disclosure in this way.)

So are philosophers clouding the issue by speaking outside their sphere of competence and trespassing on the professional domain of psychologists?  One of the things I notice about these debates is that they often turn on questions that are empirical rather than purely ethical.  For example, whether or not we warn students in advance about a possible trigger word is probably going to depend on our appraisal of the probability and severity of the distress caused.  That’s not really an ethical question, though.  If I was talking to vulnerable group of female refugees from a war-torn country where sexual abuse is common, I might think that it’s tactless to bring up the subject of rape without some kind of preliminary remark.  Most of us would probably agree on that, probably even Epictetus.  At the other end of the scale, some people have clown or belly-button phobias but they’re not so common that you’d expect to find one in every lecture room, and they’re not usually severe enough that they induce full-blown panic attacks at the mere mention of the word.  (Although there’s always the exception that proves the rule.)

So if the majority of us, even the Stoics, agree that sometimes it makes sense to warn people in advance then the disagreement seems mainly to over where to draw the line.  Again, that seems to be an empirical question for psychology, not a purely philosophical question.  We might want to consider what the actual prevalence of sexual trauma or other potential issues is among the population we’re addressing, for example.  We should also distinguish between different forms of anxiety.  Phobic anxiety can be severe but isn’t usually overwhelming or traumatising unless it’s accompanied by what psychologists technically refer to as “panic attacks”, a term that has a very specific meaning in psychopathology.  PTSD, by contrast, is often more severe and frequently accompanied by panic attacks, in which anxiety feels completely overwhelming.  That can lead to a phenomenon called re-traumatisation, in which anxiety being triggered can cause a relapse into PTSD symptoms, especially if experienced in a public setting, such as a lecture theatre.  Once again, though, these are empirical questions about psychopathology.

We all agree (or most of us do) that we shouldn’t knowingly harm other people, which is the ethical component.  The disagreements often turn on where the line should be drawn dividing acceptable from unacceptable levels of risk.  Perhaps that’s really a question for psychologists, though, which would help explain why philosophers have struggled to agree on an answer, especially if they’re just engaged in armchair speculation without reference to scientific data.  Perhaps they’re simply not the best people to answer the question.

Some Comments on Stoicism and Slavery

Perhaps this is a little bit of a digression but I think it may be of interest…  In his article, Scott writes:

Moreover, there are well-founded reasons for being concerned that the ancients themselves failed to emphasize Justice as much as they should have. “About the institution of slavery,” say the authors of the introduction to the Chicago University Press’s series of Seneca translations, “there is silence, and worse than silence: Seneca argues that true freedom is internal freedom, so the external sort does not really matter.”

I agree with the fundamental point he is making here.  However, I feel that the quote about Seneca is perhaps slightly misleading, if it implies that Stoicism in general didn’t question the institution of slavery.

For a while, I did assume that the Stoics said virtually nothing about the institution slavery.  In many ways, it would be unrealistic to have expected them to condemn it very forcefully or openly.  It may even be that they simply thought it would be unrealistic to try to oppose it.  Marcus Aurelius’ armies, for example, probably captured hundreds of thousands of barbarians during the major wars of his reign.  Should they have been executed?  Released to regroup and attack again?  In fact, Marcus tried to resettle many inside the empire, in Italy, although I think some then engaged in an uprising.  So apart from the fact that the Roman economy was entirely dependant on slavery, in the ancient world abolition perhaps posed other problems, such as what else could be done with hundreds of thousands of hostile foreign captives.  That’s not a “justification” of slavery, just an attempt to explain why the Stoics may not have been in a position to speak out effectively against the entire institution.

However, I feel it’s only fair to say that, contrary to the book cited above, Seneca did go a little further than mere silence on the matter.  In fact, he dedicated the whole of letter 47 to the topic of a master’s relationship with his slaves.  There he argues that a master has a duty to treat his slaves with respect and affection, as fellow human beings, and friends.  Although he certainly doesn’t question the institution of slavery as a whole, Seneca does forcefully argue that slaves should be treated with equal respect to free men: “Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies.”  He condemns those who abuse their slaves or see them as inferiors.  The kernel of his advice, as he puts it, is this: “Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.”

Nevertheless, Seneca does not go so far as to say that people should cease to own other people, as their slaves.  I used to think that’s as far as the Stoic critique of slavery went but then I noticed the following passage in Diogenes Laertius’ overview of early Stoic philosophy, part of his chapter on Zeno of Citium:

They [the Stoics] declare that he [the Sage] alone is free and bad men are slaves, freedom being power of independent action, whereas slavery is privation of the same; though indeed there is also a second form of slavery consisting in subordination, and a third which implies possession of the slave as well as his subordination; the correlative of such servitude being slave-ownership; and this too is evil.

According to Diogenes Laertius, therefore, it appears that the early Stoics did indeed condemn the institution of slavery as evil.  I suspect he is probably referring either to Zeno’s Republic or to one of the many writings of Chrysippus.  It’s not surprising that the Stoics may have said this, of course, because as many people today note their concept of brotherly-love for the rest of mankind on the basis of us all being citizens of the same cosmos, appears very much at odds with the notion of slave-ownership.  Moreover, Zeno’s Republic, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently portrayed a Utopian vision of the ideal Stoic society, in which all men and women were wise and equal.  It’s therefore difficult to imagine how the institution of slavery could possibly be part of the ideal Stoic society- a sage would have to own another sage but, in any case, we’re told all property is to be held in common.  So slavery must surely have also been abolished, along with law-courts, property, currency, etc., in Zeno’s Republic.

Themistius on Roman Stoics

Excerpt on Stoicism from the Orations of Themistius.

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

There’s a little-known passage about Stoics and other philosophers in Roman political history in the 34th Oration of Themistius, from the 4th century AD, entitled In Reply to Those who Found Fault with him for Accepting Public Office:

The emperor [Theodosius] has shown those who are now alive something they no longer expected to see: philosophy passing judgment in union with the highest power, philosophy broadcasting inspired and action-oriented precepts that up to now she has merely been proposing in her writings. Future generations will sing the praises of Theodosius for his summoning of philosophy to the public sphere, just as they will praise Hadrian, Marcus [Aurelius], and Antoninus [Pius], who are his ancestors, his fellow citizens, founders of his line. Theodosius was not content merely to inherit the purple from them; he also brought them back into the palace as exemplars after a long lapse of time and set philosophy by his side, just as they had done.

Neither the Persian Cyrus nor Alexander the Great could reach this level of distinction. Alexander deemed his guide Aristotle worthy of many great honors and peopled Stagira for him, but he did not give the philosopher a role in the exercise of that massive power of his. Neither did Augustus give Arius such a role, nor Scipio Panaetius, nor Tiberius Thrasyllus. In these individuals the three statesmen had only observers of their private struggles: even though they might have greatly desired to drag them into the stadium’s dust, they were unable to do so. But this was not the experience of our current emperor’s fathers and the founders of his line [Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius], whose names are great. They pulled Arrian and [Junius] Rusticus away from their books, refusing to let them be mere pen-and-ink philosophers. They did not let them write about courage and stay at home, or compose legal treatises while avoiding the public domain that is law’s concern, or decide what form of government is best while abstaining from any participation in government. The emperors to whom I am now alluding consequently escorted these men to the general’s tent as well as to the speaker’s platform. In their role as Roman generals, these men passed through the Caspian Gates, drove the Alani out of Armenia, and established boundaries for the Iberians and the Albani. For all these accomplishments, they reaped the fruits of the eponymous consulship, governed the great city [of Rome], and presided over the ancient senate. For the emperors [who thus employed them] knew that it is proper that public office, like the body, be cleansed, and that the greater and more noble the office is, the more cleansing it needs. These emperors understood that opinion was held by the ancient Romans, who saw the learned Cato hold the quaestorship, Brutus the praetorship, Favonius the plebeian tribunate, Varro the office with six axes and Rutilius the consulship. I pass over Priscus, Thrasea, and others of the same sort; writers will sate you with them if you should choose to consult their accounts. Nor was Marcus [Aurelius] himself anything but a philosopher in the purple. The same can be said for Hadrian, Antoninus [Pius], and, of course, for our current ruler Theodosius.

If you should look at his belt and cloak, you will number him with the vast majority of emperors; but if you cast your eyes on his soul and his intellect, you will class him with that famous triad [of philosophical emperors]. For surely he should be placed among those who are similarly minded, not among those who are similarly garbed.

Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Mithraism

Some notes on Marcus Aurelius and Mithraism.

mithraeumThese are just some rough notes on Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism and Mithras.  My hypothesis is that Marcus Aurelius may have been initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism.

Marcus would certainly have been familiar with Mithraism.  It was extremely popular during his reign, particularly with the army and merchants.  His adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, constructed a Temple to Mithras at the port of Ostia, just outside Rome.  (Numerous mithrea have now been uncovered at Ostia.)  So arguably it seems likely Pius would have been made an initiate of Mithraism, although perhaps just as a political gesture.  We are also told in the Historia Augusta that Marcus’ son Commodus was initiated into Mithraism.

He [Commodus] desecrated the rites of Mithra with actual murder, although it was customary in them merely to say or pretend something that would produce an impression of terror.

So there’s evidence that his father and his son were both initiates of Mithraism.  What we don’t know for sure is whether Marcus was initiated into Mithraism himself, although arguably it seems very likely that he was.  Marcus was enrolled in all four of the traditional Roman priestly colleges as a young Caesar and he took his role as high priest very seriously.  Later in life, when he toured Athens, he made a point of being initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries.  He had far more opportunity and motivation, though, to be initiated into the mystery religion of Mithraism, as we’ll see.

At Carnuntum, the legionary fort where Marcus spent most of his time during the Marcomannic Wars, archaeologists have unearthed six Temples to Mithras.  The modern-day museum at Carnuntum contains an impressive reconstruction of a mithraeum. It’s believed Carnuntum was a location of special importance to the cult.  Indeed, Mithraism was particularly associated with the legions posted along the Danube, where Marcus stationed himself for most of his reign.  Porphyry says that Mithras was depicted armed with the “sword of Aries, which is a sign of Mars”, and therefore a military symbol.

Unsurprisingly for a cult so popular with the military, it’s believed that Mithraism strongly encouraged loyalty to the emperor, the supreme commander of the Roman legions, who was in fact appointed by the army to rule.  Several inscriptions describe Mithras as protector or patron of the empire.  It would therefore appear more important for Marcus to show his support for Mithraism by being initiated while at Carnuntum, than to be initiated into the Eleusianian Mysteries, which we know he did as soon as the first war was concluded and he was able to visit Greece.

Contemplation of the Stars

Unfortunately, because the cult was shrouded in secrecy virtually no written information survives about it today, despite all the archaeological evidence.  The image above shows a modern reconstruction of a mithraeum or temple of the god Mithras.  Numerous chambers such as this, referred to as caves, although often constructed as long narrow sunken halls, have been found throughout the Roman empire.  The Temples to Mithras were normally filled with astrological symbolism and its believed the ceilings were painted with stars, intended to look like the night sky.  If Marcus stepped into one of the many mithraea at Carnuntum, which seems very likely indeed given the amount of time he spent there, he would have found himself in a mystical atmosphere, surrounded by stars, an image that’s bound to remind us of this passage from The Meditations:

Contemplate the course of the stars, as if you were going alongside them.  And constantly consider the changes of the elements into one another.  Because such thoughts purge away the impurity of life on earth. (Meditations, 7.47)

Likewise, Marcus elsewhere says:

The Pythagoreans bid us in the morning look to the heavens that we may be reminded of those bodies which continually do the same things and in the same manner perform their work, and also be reminded of their purity and nudity. For there is no veil over a star. (Meditations, 11.27)

Although Marcus nowhere refers to Mithras, he must surely have seen the obvious relevance of these comments to the symbolism of the mithraea and the initiations that took place there.  The neoplatonist Porphyry wrote that “the cave bore the image of the cosmos, which Mithras had created, and the things contained in the cave, by their proportionate arrangement, provided symbols of the elements and climates of the cosmos” (On the Cave of the Nymphs).

Mithras and the Sun God

Mithras himself was either a sun god or associate of the sun god, sometimes equated with Sol Invictus who was also popular as a patron of the Roman army.  His two torch-bearing companions, Cautes and Cautopates, are believed to symbolise the stations of the rising and setting sun.  Cautes holds his torch raised up, and Cautopates holds his torch pointed downward.  According to Cassius Dio, on his deathbed, Marcus reputedly said “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”  To the many followers of Mithras among his legions on the Danube, that must surely have sounded like an allusion to the symbolism of their cult.  More generally the pair are taken to denote the cycles of nature, through which opposites such as day and night, life and death, succeed one another.  Many references to this theme of cyclical change can be found in The Meditations, although it is also common in philosophical literature generally.

The Bull-Slaying (Tauroctony)

Marcus Aurelius Bull SlayingThe central image of Mithraism is that of the god Mithras slaying a bull, which is the focal point of each mithraeum.  Scholars refer to this characteristic Mithraic image as the tauroctony.  We do know that the bull is sacrificial because some of the depictions show it dressed in a conventional Roman sacrificial blanket.  The relief shown here depicts Marcus Aurelius presiding at the ritual sacrifice of a bull, although it probably pertains to one of the conventional state cults of Rome.  There’s no evidence that real bull-sacrifice actually formed part of Mithraism.  As far as we know the bull-slaying in Mithraism was purely symbolic.

The image of the bull was also very important to Stoicism.  It can be found in the Stoic writings of Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, used as a metaphor for the good man.  The Republic of Zeno, perhaps the founding text of Stoicism, apparently described the ideal society as like a herd of cattle feeding in a common pasture and later Stoics frequently refer to the image of the Stoic hero as a mighty bull protecting the rest of his herd.  Marcus refers to himself as emperor, as a bull set over the herd.  The bull was also the sacred animal of the eastern city of Tarsus, which was the home of many famous Stoics and reputedly also the home of Mithraism.  Some scholars believe there are links between the Stoics of Tarsus and the cult of Mithras.

Aion: Eternity

leontocephalusIn addition to the images of Mithras, these temples often include depictions of a mysterious lion-headed figure, wrapped in a serpent, called leontocephalus by scholars.

It’s believed he represents universal time and corresponds with the Hellenistic deity called Aion, or Eternity.  We also know Antoninus Pius minted several coins carrying the name AION as a dedication, adding to his links with the cult.

Indeed, the base of the Column of Antoninus Pius, which was erected by Marcus Aurelius in his honour, is thought to depict the god Aion.  He is shown in the apotheosis scene, carrying Antoninus and his wife Faustina to heaven.

Marcus refers very frequently to the vastness of time, in some of the most obviously mystical passages of The Meditations.  He uses the Greek word AION twenty times altogether.  Sometimes he even appears to personify the concept, such as in the following striking passage:

How many a Chrysippus, how many a Socrates, how many an Epictetus, has Aion already swallowed up! (7.19)

Addendum

I initially left this passage out of the article because as far as I can see Vermaseren is the only author to make this claim:

There are some well-known monuments associated with Mithras in the pirates’ homeland in the mountainous religions of Cilicia, and recently an altar was discovered in Anazarbos which had been consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as ‘Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras’. (Mithras, the Secret God, M.J. Vermaseren, London, 1963)

As I understand it, the inscription on this altar is damaged and has been read by other experts in a completely different way, not as a reference to Marcus Aurelius.  However, if Vermaseren were correct about the inscription on this altar being consecrated by Marcus Aurelius as “Priest and Father of Zeus-Helios-Mithras”, that would directly support my hypothesis that Marcus was an initiate of Mithraism.  Indeed, it would go even further and provide evidence that he was actually a consecrated priest of the cult.  The equation of Mithras and Helios is typical but making him synonymous with Zeus would be particularly interesting in relation to Marcus’ Stoicism.

Marcus Aurelius and the Civil War in the East

Biographical fiction recounting the rebellion of Avidius Cassius in the Eastern Provinces, against the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the way Marcus may have responded by using Stoic psychological exercises, philosophical doctrines, and the therapy of the passions.

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.

Prologue

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?

Marcus AureliusSlowly 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’ Meditations

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.

Epilogue

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.”

How “eclectic” were the Stoics?

Brief outline of the influence of other philosophical schools on the Stoic tradition.

Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.
Zeno of Citium, copyright the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced with permission.

In ancient philosophy the term “eclecticism” normally refers to philosophers who don’t adhere to a particular school of thought but borrow concepts and theories from multiple sources.  In particular, the philosopher Antiochus of Ascalon, the teacher of Cicero, introduced an eclectic approach to the Platonic Academy, which attempted to assimilate elements of Stoic and Aristotelian thought into Platonism.

However, when people today talk about eclecticism they often just mean a more general notion of combining different philosophical elements.  The Stoic school itself was originally “eclectic” in this sense.  When Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, arrived in Athens, he found himself at a bookseller’s stall and allegedly read Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates.  (Possibly the section in which Socrates’ relates the parable called The Choice of Hercules, developed by his friend, the Sophist Prodicus.)  According to other accounts, though, Zeno had already read the Dialogues of Plato in his youth.

Zeno was originally a wealthy Phoenician dye merchant who reputedly lost his fortune at sea, and was shipwrecked near Athens.  The story goes that Zeno consulted the Oracle at Delphi and was told to “take on the colour of dead men”, which he interpreted as meaning he should study the philosophers of previous generations.

After reading about Socrates, Zeno turned to the bookseller and asked where he could meet such a man.  The Cynic Crates of Thebes was walking past at that moment, and the bookseller pointed him out to Zeno, who became his follower for many years as a result.  Crates had been the student of Diogenes of Sinope, the founder of Cynicism.  Diogenes in turn was allegedly inspired by one of Socrates’ closest and most highly-regarded followers, Antisthenes.  (Although modern scholars doubt Diogenes could have actually met Antisthenes, it’s quite possible he encountered his writings and perhaps even some of his followers.)

Hence, in the ancient world, authors such as Diogenes Laertius, claimed that the Stoic school founded by Zeno descended directly from Socrates via Antisthenes, and the Cynics Diogenes and Crates.  This is sometimes called the “Cynic-Stoic succession” theory.  Antisthenes was sometimes even referred to as the founder of Cynicism in the ancient world – he was reputedly nicknamed Haplokuon (“Absolute Dog”) and taught at the Cynosarges (“White Dog”) gymnasium.

We’re also told that Zeno studied in the Platonic Academy, under the famous scholarchs Xenocrates and Polemo.  The Cynics did not teach Physics or Logic and it seems that Zeno felt this was a serious omission, which he could rectify by attending other more “academic” philosophical lectures.  Nevertheless, we also know that Zeno attacked Plato’s philosophy, particularly in his Republic, a critique of Plato’s book of the same name.

We also know, however, that Zeno studied under philosophers of another Socratic sect: the Megarians and the associated Dialecticians.  The Megarian school specialised in logic and was founded by Euclid of Megara, another one of Socrates’ circle.  The head of the Megarian school in Zeno’s day, Stilpo, was considered one of the greatest intellectuals of his time.  We find references to him and to Megarian Logic scattered throughout the surviving Stoic literature.  Zeno also appears to have studied with another famous Megarian called Diodorus Cronus.  Although the Megarians were particularly renowned for their Logic, they also had influential ethical teachings, which may have resembled those of the Cynics and other Socratic sects in holding that virtue is the only true good.

Zeno therefore studied under the main figures of all three major surviving Socratic sects of his day.  Xenophon, whose Memorabilia Zeno had read, greatly admired Antisthenes.  Like the Stoics, the Cynics believed that virtue was the only true good.  Antisthenes also appears to have believed this, and perhaps to have attributed it to Socrates.  Likewise, Xenophon appears to suggest this was Socrates’ ethical philosophy.  There are some indications that this was also the position of the Megarian school, and possibly they too derived it from Socrates.  The Stoics therefore possibly believed that the doctrine that became associated with them, that virtue is the only true good, was derived ultimately from Socrates himself, via most of his followers, with the notable exception of Plato, who portrays Socrates saying this in some of his earlier Dialogues, but equivocates elsewhere.  The Platonic Academy later became associated with the doctrine that virtue is the highest but not the only good, and that the good life is composed of virtue in combination with bodily and external goods, which was also the position of the Aristotelian school.

On some accounts, Zeno is surprisingly silent about Aristotle.  However, Plutarch claims that Zeno was heavily critical of the Peripatetic school.  Aristotle stood somewhat outside of the Socratic tradition, and Zeno apparently did not choose to study in the Lyceum.   The early Stoics generally appear relatively uninterested in Aristotle’s philosophy.

Those were the major Hellenistic influences on Stoicism.  However, there are also many references to the pre-Socratic philosophy of Pythagoreanism in the surviving Stoic literature, particularly to the Golden Verses of Pythagoras.  We know that Zeno wrote a book on Pythagoreanism.  So he may have studied Pythagorean writings when developing his conception of the Stoic philosophy.

It’s also generally believed that the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus was important to Stoicism.  There’s no evidence Zeno studied Heraclitus.  However, Cleanthes, Zeno’s successor, the second head of the Stoa, wrote a book on Heraclitus.  For all we know, though, Zeno may have also referred to Heraclitus in his own writings on Physics and that may be why Cleanthes chose to write about him.

These philosophies all influenced the development of Zeno’s original Stoic school, and they continue to be influential among Stoics right down to the Roman Imperial age.  That’s probably because references to these different schools of philosophy were interspersed in the canonical Stoic writings, which subsequent generations of Stoics continued to read.  As far as we’re aware, among other topics, Zeno wrote books on Plato (The Republic), Pythagoras (Pythagorean Questions), and Memorabilia of Crates the Cynic.  He also wrote books on Homer and other poets.

These different philosophical and literary traditions influenced Stoicism in many ways.  However, the Stoic curriculum combined the scholarly study of Physics, Ethics and Logic, probably influenced by the scope of the Platonic Academy.  It’s sometimes said, crudely, that the Stoics derived their Ethics from the Cynics, their Logic from the Megarians, and their Physics from Heraclitus.  They also appear to have been particularly known for taking the Cynic ethical doctrine that virtue is the only true good (perhaps shared with Antisthenes, Xenophon, and the Megarians) and reconciling it with the Platonic (and Aristotelian) doctrine that the good life consists in a combination of virtue, bodily, and external goods.  They did this by introducing the novel concept that virtue consists in making proper selections between things of secondary value (axia), known as “preferred indifferents”.

Although Zeno was the founder of Stoicism, it’s sometimes held that the third head of the Stoa, Chrysippus, was in fact the most influential Stoic scholarch.  He was by far the most prolific of the school’s founders, writing over 700 texts.  Chrysippus modified the earlier doctrines of Zeno and Cleanthes significantly.  It was traditionally claimed that he did so in order to defend them against an onslaught of criticism from the rival Epicurean and Academic schools, particularly from the Academic Skepticism of Arcesilaus, which was just being developed, prior to Arcesilaus being appointed head of the Academy.

Did Marcus Aurelius Persecute the Christians?

Article surveying some of the evidence for and against the claim that Marcus Aurelius persecuted Christians.

It’s often said on the Internet, and occasionally in books, that Marcus Aurelius somehow or other persecuted Christians.  I find that specific details are often lacking, though.  In fact, there are two questions worth considering here:

  1. Did the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius actively persecute Christians himself?
    Most modern scholars think that he almost certainly did not.
  2. Did Marcus allow others to persecute Christians?
    This is harder to answer, although the weight of evidence suggests Marcus actually tried to prevent others from persecuting Christians.  Some persecution of Christians undoubtedly took place during his reign, but it’s unclear how much, to what extent he was aware of it, and what opportunity he would have had to stop it.

After reviewing the accounts of Christian persecution during the reign of Marcus, H.D. Sedgewick observed:

The only evidence there is that Marcus Aurelius had any direct relation with any of these cases is this statement in Eusebius that during the trial at Lyons the governor wrote to ask him for instructions.

So let’s look at the main pieces of evidence, starting with this statement from Eusebius about the alleged events at Lyon…

Eusebius

The most famous alleged persecution of Christians during the reign of Marcus Aurelius was at Lyon in Gaul in 177 AD.  The one and only piece of evidence for this incident comes from the Christian historian Eusebius, who quotes a rather odd letter in his Ecclesiastical History, describing the events as follows:

The greatness of the tribulation in this region, and the fury of the heathen against the saints, and the sufferings of the blessed witnesses, we cannot recount accurately, nor indeed could they possibly be recorded.  For with all his might the adversary [Satan] fell upon us, giving us a foretaste of his unbridled activity at his future coming. He endeavored in every manner to practice and exercise his servants against the servants of God, not only shutting us out from houses and baths and markets, but forbidding any of us to be seen in any place whatever.  But the grace of God led the conflict against him, and delivered the weak, and set them as firm pillars, able through patience to endure all the wrath of the Evil One.

And they joined battle with him, undergoing all kinds of shame and injury; and regarding their great sufferings as little, they hastened to Christ, manifesting truly that ‘the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us afterward.’ Romans 8:18 7. First of all, they endured nobly the injuries heaped upon them by the populace; clamors and blows and draggings and robberies and stonings and imprisonments, and all things which an infuriated mob delight in inflicting on enemies and adversaries. Then, being taken to the forum by the chiliarch [garrison commander?] and the authorities of the city, they were examined in the presence of the whole multitude, and having confessed, they were imprisoned until the arrival of the governor.

The letter continues to describe numerous gory tortures with a level of detail that can appear somewhat excessive and colourful.  Many modern readers consequently find the style suggestive of fiction, or at least embellishment.

Moreover, there are several very striking problems faced by those who want to try to use this letter as evidence for the claim that Marcus persecuted Christians:

  1. Eusebius finished writing the Ecclesiastical History in roughly 300 AD, over a hundred and twenty years after the alleged incident took place.  There’s no indication when the letter he’s quoting was actually written.  However, he is claiming that the events described in it happened long before he was even born.  He therefore had no first-hand knowledge of them but depended entirely on the account given in the dubious letter cited.
  2. Historians have to take into account the “argument from silence”: no other pagan or Christian author of the period makes any mention whatsoever of these events having happened, despite their striking and dramatic nature.  It’s highly remarkable that no other Christian author of the period actually refers to this incident.  Indeed, the first author in Gaul to mention this event was Sulpicius Severus, writing 400 years later, and his only source appears to be Eusebius.
  3. The church father Irenaeus, the Christian Bishop of Lyon, where the incident allegedly took place, wrote his mammoth five volume Adversus Haereses in 180 AD, three years after the alleged persecution.  And yet, he makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of this incredible event having happened in his city.  In fact, on the contrary, he actually says “The Romans have given the world peace, and we [Christians] travel without fear along the roads and across the sea wherever we will.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter 30, Sentence 3).
  4. The church father Tertullian, was aged around twenty at the time the incident at Lyon supposedly happened.  As we’ll see, although he was actually alive at the time, he also makes no mention of the persecution at Lyon, and actually says quite emphatically that Marcus Aurelius was a “protector” of Christians.
  5. The letter quoted by Eusebius begins by blaming the actions of the mob on “the adversary” or “Evil One”, by which the authors clearly meant Satan. It goes on to describe how Christian martyrs survived inconceivable torture and extensive wounds, were miraculously healed and restored to health when stretched on the rack, and even raised from the dead.  This adds a supernatural or implausible element to the account, which many modern readers may find indicative of fabrication or embellishment.
  6. The letter actually concludes by blaming the mob and city of Lyon authorities – it does not attribute responsibility to Marcus Aurelius or to Rome.  When this event allegedly happened, incidentally, Marcus was busy on campaign in the northern frontier, roughly three weeks’ march away from Lyon.
  7. We have the surviving text of an Imperial edict from Marcus that provides evidence he actually tried to prevent the persecution of Christians by provincial authorities (see below).
  8. Finally, and bizarrely, Eusebius himself several times admitted that his church history contained deliberate “falsehoods” or pious fraud.  He’s often therefore seen as a very unreliable source for this kind of information.

Edward Gibbon, for instance, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, liked to point out that Eusebius admitted employing deliberate misinformation to promote the Christian message.  One of Eusebius’ chapter headings was: “That it will be necessary sometimes to use falsehood as a remedy for the benefit of those who require such a mode of treatment.”  The historian Jacob Burckhardt therefore described Eusebius as “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”.  It would, in fact, be more appropriate to refer to Eusebius as a Christian propagandist rather than historian.

In summary, for these and other reasons, Eusebius is considered an extremely unreliable source by many modern scholars.  His accounts of Christian martyrdom refer to events several generations before he was even born, as we’ve seen, and are embellished with extravagant details that have the air of fiction about them.  For example, persecution is not portrayed as sporadic but inflicted by Satan on myriads of Christians throughout the empire.  The scale and severity of this persecution is totally out of keeping with the testimony of other Christians alive at the time and difficult to reconcile with the paucity of evidence from other authors.  Moreover, he includes many supernatural claims that undermine the credibility of his accounts in the eyes of modern readers.  For example, he elsewhere states as fact miracles such as that Christian martyrs survived inside the stomachs of lions after being eaten or levitated hundreds of feet into the sky, by the grace of God.  As noted above, the letter itself also describes the miraculous healing of grievously wounded martyrs at Lyon, and even their resurrection from death.  If we question these supernatural claims, it’s difficult to know what other aspects of the letter to take seriously.

Eusebius is also proven to be particularly unreliable with regard to this era of Roman history because, remarkably, at various points he actually confuses Marcus Aurelius both with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, and with his adoptive father Antoninus Pius.  Moreover, it is often the case that the documents (letters, etc.) quoted in ancient sources are found unreliable by scholarship because many forgeries circulated then and ancient authors often lacked the resources to authenticate them.  Scholars have, in fact, already identified numerous documents quoted in the writings of Eusebius as definite forgeries.  In this particular letter, unusually, no date is given in the rubric cited, so it’s not clear on what basis Eusebius could have arrived at the conclusion that it was intended to refer to events during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.  The letter itself only employs the generic title Caesar, for the Emperor.  Eusebius may just be guessing the date, and that the Caesar in question is Marcus Aurelius, although frankly it seems likely that the whole letter is a forgery.  As noted above, however, this document is the one and only piece of alleged evidence for the persecution at Lyon.

Tertullian

Indeed, the only sources which describe persecution during the reign of Marcus Aurelius come from later generations of Christian authors, who were not witness to the events they describe.  None of them actually attribute responsibility to Marcus.  The most famous account is the persecution of Lyon, which, as we have seen, is of highly questionable authenticity.

By contrast, the church father Tertullian was actually a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius and his testimony is that Marcus was emphatically a “protector” of Christians.

But out of so many princes from that time down to the present, men versed in every system of knowledge, produce if you can one persecutor of the Christians. We, however, can on the other side produce a protector, if the letters of the most grave Emperor Marcus Aurelius be searched, in which he testifies that the well-known Germanic drought was dispelled by the shower obtained through the prayers of Christians who happened to be in the army. (Apology, 5)

This appears to create an internal contradiction in the Christian literature, at least for those who (dubiously) wish to read other Christian accounts as somehow blaming Marcus for the persecution of Christians.  (As we’ve seen, the letter quoted by Eusebius doesn’t actually appear to blame Marcus himself.)  Indeed, not a single author, Christian or pagan, appears to quote any edict by Marcus condemning Christians.  This is noteworthy because if he had actually issued one, they would certainly have mentioned it.

Marcus’ Letter to the Asian Provinces

We do, however, have a surviving edict attributed to Marcus and entitled Letter of Antoninus to the Common Assembly of Asia, which appears to provide evidence that he actively intervened to prevent the persecution of Christians.  It is dated 161 AD, and issued from Marcus as Emperor, which suggests it was one of his first actions shortly after being acclaimed to the throne.

He explicitly refers to the problem of Christians who are regarded by Romans as atheists because they do not worship the conventional pagan gods.  Marcus warns the provincial authorities: “you harass these men, and harden them in their convictions, to which they hold fast, by accusing them of being atheists”.  He states that provincial governors had many times written to his adoptive father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, whose response was always “not to molest such persons“, unless they were actually making attempts to undermine the Roman government.  Marcus says he has also frequently repeated this non-harassment policy to them himself, as Emperor.  He actually goes so far as to say: “And if any one persist in bringing any such [Christian] person into trouble for being what he is, let him, against whom the charge is brought, be acquitted even if the charge be made out, but let him who brings the charge be called to account.”  In other words, he suggests that provincial authorities may be punished by Rome for persecuting Christians solely on the basis of their religion.

C.R. Haines, who published this edict as an appendix to his Loeb translation of The Meditations, included an essay entitled “Note on the Attitude of Marcus Toward the Christians.”  He begins “Nothing has done the good name of Marcus so much harm as his supposed uncompromising attitude toward Christians” and concludes:

As a matter of fact, Marcus has been condemned as a persecutor of the Christians on purely circumstantial and quite insufficient grounds.  The general testimony of contemporary Christian writers is against the supposition.  So is the known character of Marcus.

He goes on to argue that the retrospective claim of Eusebius about myriads of Christians being persecuted and horribly tortured to death throughout the Roman Empire two centuries earlier is also inconsistent with numerous historical facts – often cited by Eusebius himself and other Christian authors.  For example, the presence of a bishop at the head of a community of Christians was tolerated in Rome itself, there were multiple Christians serving in Marcus’ own household, and probably even Christians in the Roman Senate.  According to Eusebius and three other Christian sources, for instance, the Senator Apollonius of Rome was condemned to death, under Commodus.  However, that implies that during Marcus‘ reign Apollonius was permitted to serve on the Senate, despite being a Christian.  Several sources, including Tertullian, attest that the Thunderbolt Legion (Legio XII Fulminata) commanded by Marcus on the northern frontier was composed largely of Christian soldiers.

Marcus’ obsession with kindness, justice and clemency, is clearly demonstrated throughout The Meditations.  However, this is reinforced by numerous references to his character in the writings of other Roman authors.  Marcus is portrayed with remarkable consistency as being a man of exceptional clemency and humanity – that was his universal reputation.  Latin authors typically used the word humanitas (kindness) to describe his character; in Greek the word philanthropia (love of mankind) was favoured.

Haines therefore also finds it implausible that someone so universally regarded as a man of exceptional kindness and clemency would have “encouraged mob-violence against unoffending persons, ordered the torture of innocent women and boys, and violated the rights of citizenship”.  Indeed, as we’ve seen, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that Marcus was actually responsible for the persecution of Christians.  The weight of evidence, rather, suggests that he was, as Tertullian claims, a “protector” of Christians, and tried to prevent provincial authorities from persecuting them.

Indeed, we can also look to the reign of Antoninus Pius, Marcus’ adoptive father and predecessor as emperor for evidence.  From the time Marcus was appointed Caesar in 140 AD until Antoninus Pius’ death in 161 AD, for over twenty years, Marcus was his right-hand man and virtually co-ruler alongside him.  Indeed, Marcus helped Antoninus Pius rule for longer than he reigned himself, as he died in 180 AD, after only nineteen years on the throne.  They were in agreement on all matters, as far as we know, and about a decade after his death, in The Meditations, Marcus still reminds himself to live like a “disciple of Antoninus”.

According to the epitome of Cassius Dio’s Roman History made by Xiphilinus:

Antoninus is admitted by all to have been noble and good, neither oppressive to the Christians nor severe to any of his other subjects; instead, he showed the Christians great respect and added to the honour in which Hadrian had been wont to hold them. (Historia Romana)

It would seem remarkable, therefore, if Marcus, who had been the right-hand man in this administration of Antoninus, had suddenly performed a policy u-turn and decided to persecute the Christians instead.

Beginners Guide to Stoicism

“Where do I begin if I want to learn more about Stoicism?” Read this blog post and find out the answer…

One of the most frequently asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism, and elsewhere, is “Where is the best place to begin if I want to learn about Stoicism?”  People often want recommendations for reading, in particular.  So I’ve written this post to summarize the advice I normally give.  The answer is actually quite simple.

General Information

At the risk of stating the obvious, you can do a lot worse than start by looking at the excellent Wikipedia article on Stoicism.  The Stoicism Subreddit (see below) also has a superb FAQ page on Stoicism.  Read my blog article A Simpified Modern Approach to Stoicism, if you want an outline of a simple daily practice.

I’ve also created a free online course called Crash Course in Stoicism, which takes less than ten minutes to complete and provides a lightning guide to Stoicism.

Reading

At a rough estimate, less than 1% of the many ancient writings on Stoicism actually survive today.  We have no complete texts by the Greek founders of Stoicism, only fragments.  Most of our knowledge of it comes from three Roman Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  They lived in the first and second centuries AD, three hundreds years after Zeno of Citium had founded the Stoic school.  By their time, the Athenian school of Stoicism no longer existed, and the Stoic school had no formal head (“scholarch”) to guide it.  Nevertheless, we learn a great deal about Stoicism from their writings.  We also learn a great deal about Stoicism from many comments made by non-Stoics, most notably the Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero, who was a Platonist himself but nevertheless very sympathetic toward Stoic ideas.  We do also have about a book’s worth of fragmentary sayings and passages attributed to the early Greek Stoics, although these tend to be of slightly more interest to academics than to newcomers.

You may also want to join my newsletter for updates and information about Stoicism articles, events, and courses, etc.

Gregory Hayes, The MeditationsThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The first text on Stoicism that most people read is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  It’s very small book, written in a beautiful aphoristic style.  There are many translations available, and it’s easy to obtain older (out of copyright) editions free online.  The only real limitation of this book is that it’s not a systematic account of Stoic philosophy.  Having read it, people often still lack a basic understanding of the basic doctrines of Stoicism, at least in an explicit form.  Nevertheless, it’s where I recommend beginning.  The translation I recommend for modern readers is by Gregory Hayes.

The Handbook of Epictetus

The second book that I would recommend reading is the famous Handbook or Encheiridion of Stoic Philosophy, written by Arrian, a student of Epictetus, based on his teacher’s lectures.  Marcus was greatly influenced by Epictetus, and probably thought of himself as a follower of this particular sect of Stoicism.  The Handbook is very short and also written aphoristically, although in more confrontational style than The Meditations.

The Discourses of Epictetus

If you like Epictetus then it would be natural to follow reading his Handbook by reading the Discourses on which they’re based, also noted down by his student Arrian.    (There are also a few fragmentary sayings of Epictetus worth reading.)  If not, skip to the writings of Seneca below.

There were originally eight volumes of the Discourses but only four have survived to the present day.  Marcus Aurelius appears to say that he was given a copy by his Stoic friend and mentor Junius Rusticus so it’s possible he had read all eight volumes.  (It may even be that some passages from The Meditations are actually quotes or paraphrases from the lost Discourses of Epictetus as Marcus cites the known volumes several times.)

The Lectures and Sayings of Musonius Rufus

If you enjoyed the Handbook and Discourses then you should read the less well-known Lectures and Sayings of Epictetus’ own teacher, Gaius Musonius Rufus.  Musonius’ surviving writings are relatively few and short.  They’re written in a strikingly similar style to Epictetus’ Discourses.

The Letters of Seneca to Lucilius

This is where many people begin, so if you’re not drawn to Marcus or Epictetus, you might choose to start with Seneca.  Seneca wrote in Latin whereas Marcus and Epictetus, though Roman, wrote in Greek.  Marcus and Epictetus never mention Seneca, although he lived before them.  His style of Stoicism is slightly different, and perhaps owes more to the “Middle Stoa” of Posidonius.  His Letters to Lucilius go by different names but you’ll usually find them referred to as the main collection of moral letters (or epistles) by Seneca.  These constitute a series of very well-written letters or essays addressed to a novice Stoic and they’re often read from start to finish, although they cover different themes.

The Essays and Dialogues of Seneca

If you liked Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius then we have many more surviving writings by him concerning Stoicism, which you should read.  Either get a copy of his complete writings or look for abridged collections of his various essays (often other, longer letters) and dialogues.

The Writings of Cicero

Cicero was a Platonist, not a Stoic.  However, his writings provide one of our major surviving sources for information on Stoicism.  He also wrote in Latin.  He lived before the Stoics mentioned above and was very well-read in Stoic philosophy, which he travelled to  Athens to study.  Cicero’s form of Platonism was quite eclectic and he was happy to engage with Stoic ideas and integrate them.  He has many writings which provide important accounts of Stoicism.  Most notably, though, his De Finibus (“On Moral Ends”) consists of a series of dialogues in which philosophers representing Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Platonism take turns criticising each other’s philosophy and describing their own.  The account of Stoicism in this book was put into the mouth of Seneca’s friend and rival the great Roman Stoic hero Cato of Utica, who had recently died opposing Julius Caesar.  It draws upon early Greek Stoic thought and provides an much more systematic account of Stoic Ethics than you find in Marcus Aurelius or Seneca.

Other Stoic Writings

There are many other lesser known Stoic writings and other non-Stoic ancient sources that are of importance to the study of Stoicism.  I can’t provide a full list here but I would particularly recommend the Philosophical Regimen of the Earl of Shaftesbury, if you liked Marcus Aurelius.  Shaftesbury was an English philosopher and scholar of ancient Greek and wrote his own Stoic journal in the style of The Meditations.  It can also be read as an insightful commentary on Marcus and Epictetus by a man who was trying to adopt a similar Stoic way of life, albeit in the early modern era.  Likewise, special mention should go to US Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale’s Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot.  Stockdale was taken prisoner in the Vietnam War and used his knowledge of Epictetus’ Stoicism to cope with the ordeal.

Modern Commentaries

There are many superb modern books on Stoicism.  I can’t cite them all here, but I’ll mention in particular William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, which is perhaps the bestselling popular book on Stoicism.  Irvine’s book is seen by some readers (myself included) as occasionally portraying Stoicism in a way that more resembles its rival school, Epicureanism.  Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly one of the best introductions to the subject.

I should mention my own book Teach Yourself Stoicism, which was written as a self-help guide based on Stoicism.  I’m also the author of The Philosophy of CBT, a book about the history of science and philosophy that tries to provide a detailed analysis of the relationship between Stoic psychological practices and modern cognitive therapy.  (My book, Build your Resilience, is also a self-help text, which combines elements of Stoicism with third-wave cognitive-behavioural therapy.)

Goodreads List

If you want even more, take a look at this list of suggestions maintained by different members of Goodreads: Popular Books on Stoicism.

Discussion

There are many excellent online discussion forums for Stoicism.  Here are just a few suggestions:

Stoic Week

Every Autumn since 2012, the Stoicism Today team has organised a free, international, online event called Stoic Week.  Stoicism Today is a multi-disciplinary (non-profit) team of classicists, philosophers, psychologists, and therapists, with a special interest in Stoicism.  Several of the team are authors of books on Stoicism and related subjects.

You can find more out about Stoicism Today on our blog, currently hosted by Exeter University.  You can find out more about Stoic Week on the official website.  Stoic Week challenges you to “live like a Stoic” for seven days, by following a structured daily routine consisting of readings, recordings, and psychological exercises.  In 2015, we had over 3,000 participants from all over the world.  It’s a great way to begin learning about applying Stoicism to modern living.