This is a first draft. I’ve not supplied detailed references because I’m writing it off the top of my head just to get it out there. Please correct any errors. I’ll check it later and add references, etc. So apologies for any typos or whatever!
One of the most commonly asked questions on my Facebook group for Stoicism is why Marcus Aurelius, one of the good emperors, would have allowed Commodus, who turned out to be a terrible emperor, to succeed him. Sometimes people are just puzzled by this. Sometimes they criticize Marcus for failing in his duty either to bring up a better son or appoint a better heir. Sometimes they’ve seen the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which focuses on the character of Commodus as a bad emperor, and ask questions about its historical accuracy. It’s a question that interests me because I run a course about the relationship between Marcus Aurelius’ life and his Stoic philosophy called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, and I’ve just finished writing a book on the same subject.
Marcus and Commodus in Gladiator
Let me start by briefly recapping what happens in Gladiator because those images seem to influence a lot of these discussions… In the first act, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is depicted as Caesar, the heir to the Roman empire, with his father, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), on the northern frontier, during the Second Marcomannic War. A frail and elderly Marcus tells Commodus that he has changed his mind about appointing him emperor and that one of his generals, Maximus (Russell Crowe), will serve as an interim ruler managing Rome’s transition back to a republic.
MARCUS: Are you ready to do your duty for Rome?
COMMODUS [with a slight smile on his face]: Yes, father.
MARCUS: You will not be Emperor.
COMMODUS [the smile quickly vanishes leaving in its place painful bewilderment]: Which wiser, older man is to take my place?
MARCUS: My powers will pass to Maximus to hold in trust until the Senate is ready to rule once more. Rome is to be a Republic again.
Commodus then strangles his father, makes himself emperor anyway, and tries to have Maximus murdered, setting up the plot for the rest of the film.
There’s also a Netflix docuseries about Commodus called Roman Empire: Reign of Blood (2016), which approaches the subject from a slightly more historical perspective. Several academics appear as talking heads, discussing Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, and dramatized sections are interspersed depicting the events of his life. The experts are fairly reliable but the dramatized segments are a little hit and miss in their depiction, inevitably, as they have to make things exciting for the viewer and where there’s some uncertainty or conflict in the ancient sources they sometimes pick the most sensational story to tell.
Some Key Facts
This is a slightly complicated story. However, I find it helps to begin just by stating a few important historical facts, which I believe are partly obscured by the portrayal of events in Gladiator, although even people who have never seen that movie are often mistaken on these points.
- At the time Commodus was appointed heir, Marcus was still ruling alongside his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus, who was nine years younger, and much fitter than the notoriously frail and sickly Marcus, so presumably Lucius was expected to be Marcus’ immediate successor.
- Marcus and Lucius together appointed Commodus Caesar, official heir to the throne, along with his younger brother, Marcus Annius Verus, on 12th October 166, when Commodus was a child aged five years old. Presumably at this time the most likely scenario would have been that when Marcus died, Commodus would serve alongside Lucius Verus as his junior co-emperor.
- Commodus had already been ruling as Emperor for about three years before Marcus died. Marcus had his son acclaimed Imperator on 27th November 176 AD and later, in the summer of 177 AD, he was granted the title Augustus, making him co-emperor with Marcus.
So whereas Commodus is portrayed as Caesar in the movie Gladiator, waiting to succeed Marcus, who then refuses to let him take the throne, in reality Commodus had already been emperor for about three years before Marcus died. Incidentally, although there were rumours that Commodus had Marcus assassinated, which Cassius Dio repeats, he also says that when Marcus was dying he took the precaution of having his son taken under armed guard so that he couldn’t be accused of his murder.
[Marcus Aurelius] passed away on the seventeenth of March, not as a result of the disease from which he still suffered, but by the act of his physicians, as I have been plainly told, who wished to do Commodus a favour. When now he was at the point of death, he commended his son to the protection of the soldiers (for he did not wish his death to appear to be due to Commodus) […] (Cassius Dio)
Marcus was nearly sixty and apparently dying of the plague, so it hardly seems necessary for Commodus to have gone to the trouble of ordering his physicians to assassinate him, although it’s possible.
Hadrian’s Succession Plan
Now let’s get a little deeper into the complexities… Imperial succession arrangements were often complicated and mysterious. To understand Commodus we have to go right back to his great-grandfather, by adoption, the emperor Hadrian. Hadrian was childless. Toward the end of his life his behaviour was becoming erratic. He surprised everyone by choosing a man called Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor. Hadrian granted him the imperial title Caesar, starting a tradition that the heir to the throne would take that title in advance. However, the man died suddenly about a year later, forcing Hadrian to come up with another candidate.
He then adopted a man called Aurelius Antoninus and appointed him Caesar on condition that Antoninus would in turn adopt a young boy called Marcus Annius Verus and make him his own successor. The boy Marcus took Antoninus’ family name and became forever known as Marcus Aurelius. So there was a plan that stretched decades into the future. However, these arrangements could easily be overturned by events. The man Hadrian had originally appointed Caesar had a young son, also called Lucius. The Senate were terrified of the possibility of civil war caused by rival factions fighting over claims to the throne. When Hadrian died he was hated by the Senate for spying on and executing his enemies at Rome. He’d also left them with the problem of what to do about the boy Lucius.
Marcus and Lucius as Co-Emperors
When the Emperor Antoninus died, Marcus Aurelius was acclaimed emperor but he insisted that the Senate recognize Lucius as his co-emperor. Lucius then took Marcus’ family name and became the Emperor Lucius Verus. Lucius was also betrothed to Marcus’ young daughter, Lucilla, making him Marcus’ son-in-law as well as his adoptive brother. (I know, it’s confusing but bear with me…) This was the first time that Rome had been ruled by two emperors jointly. It was probably considered necessary to unite the empire and prevent instability caused by the mess Hadrian had left by creating two rival dynasties with a claim on the throne.
The histories make it clear that although on paper they were (virtually) equals, Marcus was effectively the senior party and Lucius obeyed him like a provincial governor or a lieutenant in the army. I won’t go too much into Lucius’ character except to say he was quite the opposite of Marcus and whereas Marcus was a workaholic who spent his youth tirelessly studying and gaining experience of Roman law and government, Lucius was very idle and clearly came nowhere near Marcus’ level of competence and experience as a ruler. The one thing Marcus lacked was any military experience. As far as we know Lucius didn’t have any either but he was young, handsome, obsessed with sports, and probably quite popular, so it seems to have been envisaged his role would be more involved with the military. When the two emperors were acclaimed, therefore, it was Lucius who was sent to deliver a speech to the soldiers, and not long after, when the Parthian War broke out, Marcus sent Lucius to Syria to oversee the campaign.
We’ve no direct confirmation of this but it stands to reason that at this point in time it would have been assumed that Lucius would outlive Marcus and effectively become his successor. Lucius was nine years younger than Marcus and much fitter and healthier than him. He was also married to Marcus’ daughter, and it was said Marcus treated him more like a son than a brother. He may also have been a bad emperor but it seems that Marcus felt it was necessary, for some reason, to appoint him. Presumably because it was feared that a rival dynasty would split the empire, which in turn would leave it vulnerable to invasion, as we’ll see.
Lucius didn’t really distinguish himself during the Parthian War. He reputedly spent his time partying far away from the action and let his generals do all the work for him. One in particular, Avidius Cassius, became a rising star, and we’ll be returning to his part in the story later. However, Lucius returned to Rome and celebrated his victory. Unfortunately, the Roman legions returning to their garrisons across Europe brought back a disease, probably a strain of smallpox, which became known as the Antonine Plague. This pestilence ravaged the empire throughout the rest of Marcus’ reign and well into the reign of Commodus. We’re told bodies were carried out of Rome by the cartload. It’s been estimated that five million people across the empire may have died as a result of this plague. The Antonine Plague is an important character in this story because the histories tell us that by taking the lives of so many people it disrupted society in many ways. Those to whom family fortunes were bequeathed died prematurely. Experienced senators, military officers, and government officials died prematurely and had to be replaced – there was a high turnover of staff in important positions. We can see this affected the imperial succession also.
The Marcomannic Wars
Shortly after Lucius returned, a huge coalition army of barbarian tribes from the north, led by King Ballomar of the Marcomanni, invaded the northern provinces, overrunning them. They crossed the Alps, Rome’s natural defensive barrier, and rampaged through Italy, finally besieging the Roman city of Aquileia. This time both Marcus and Lucius took command of the military response and left Rome together to drive the barbarian horde out of Italy and liberate the northern province of Pannonia. War in the north would occupy Marcus for most of the rest of his reign and it would also cost the lives of many Romans, including men in senior positions. The city of Rome itself was thrown into total panic by the news that a barbarian army had penetrated Italy, because they feared Rome would be sacked.
Ballomar had seized the opportunity when Rome was weak. Beleaguered troops were still on their way back to their garrisons in the north from the Parthian War far to the east. The legions had also been devastated by the plague, which thrived in the conditions found in army camps. It was at this time that Marcus and Lucius agreed to appoint Marcus’ two sons, Commodus and Marcus Annius Verus, as Caesar. This was undoubtedly done in response to the panic at Rome. Although his own succession had been planned by Hadrian far in advance, Marcus himself wasn’t appointed Caesar by Antoninus until he was eighteen. It was clearly assumed that both Marcus and Lucius might die suddenly and that it was better to have a successor in place than leave Rome in chaos. The death rate among children due to the plague would have been particularly high. That may be one reason who two boys were appointed Caesar but it’s also likely that Marcus planned for the brothers to rule jointly one day, as he and Lucius had done.
People often comment online that the Roman emperors typically adopted their successors and Marcus should have done likewise. The precedent for this was set when Julius Caesar adopted Octavian who went on to become Augustus, the first Roman emperor. However, the Roman emperors who adopted heirs normally did so because they had no suitable natural heirs of their own. For example, Hadrian adopted Antoninus and Antoninus adopted Marcus because they had no sons available to succeed them. The Roman people actually believed very strongly in natural succession, just like most barbarian peoples did. An emperor who had a natural heir, like Marcus, and chose to bypass him to adopt an heir, would risk creating a rival dynasty and dividing the empire. As rivals to the throne were often murdered, adopting a successor would also mean placing his own son’s life in very serious jeopardy. (On the other hand, as we’ll see, Marcus possibly did consider adopting an interim successor, Pompeianus, who would perhaps have become emperor if Marcus died while Commodus was still a boy, subsequently appointing Commodus his co-emperor, to rule jointly, when he reached a suitable age.)
The fact that Marcus’ two sons were appointed Caesar did perhaps create a slight anomaly because the most likely scenario would be that Lucius would have outlived Marcus, as we’ve seen. There would be two Caesars but only one position open, in that case, for a co-emperor. So presumably it was envisaged that Commodus would serve as junior co-emperor to Lucius Verus and later, after the death of Lucius, Marcus Annius Verus would join his brother and rule alongside him. Also, Lucius was childless but if he’d had a son surely it would have created another conflict over succession. (Rome would have potentially been ruled by an emperor who had a natural heir but had already appointed two sons of his deceased brother as his heirs.) In any case, I would suggest that the Senate urged Marcus and Lucius to appoint these children Caesars before leaving for war because they felt it was necessary for the stability of the empire.
Death of Lucius and Marcus Annius Verus
Shortly after these wars began on the northern front, two deaths shook the empire and upset these plans. The young Caesar Marcus Annius Verus died during an operation on a tumour. Marcus lost about seven children altogether, including several sons. He was getting old now and Commodus, still a child, was his only surviving son. Shortly after this, the emperor Lucius Verus suddenly dropped dead, possibly another victim of the plague. There were, as always, rumours that Marcus had him assassinated but most scholars dismiss this as typical court gossip. Nevertheless, there was a faction on the Senate who opposed Marcus’ ongoing campaign in the north and they possibly propagated these and other rumours against him.
Around this time, Marcus also lost his main Stoic mentor, Junius Rusticus, who was back at Rome serving as urban prefect. So he must have felt increasingly isolated. I believe there are signs in The Meditations and in the histories that Marcus was greatly affected by the loss of his children and struggled to cope emotionally by leaning more heavily on his Stoic training. (Did he perhaps begin writing The Meditations partly as a way of coping with the loss of his tutors and family members?) I think the whole empire was worried that Commodus wouldn’t survive, during the plague when many children died. And I think we can see hints that Marcus was affected by this climate and also concerned about the possible loss of his only surviving son, especially now that Lucius was gone. All eyes were suddenly on Commodus, though still a child.
The children of Roman nobles were usually raised by nurses who were slaves and possibly their mothers took some part in their care but often they had little contact with their fathers until they became older. On the other hand, Marcus’ private letters to Fronto reveal him to be an incredibly affectionate man and a loving parent. He describes his children as his little chicks in a nest. (These displays of familial affection seem perhaps a little out of character for a Roman of this period.) Nevertheless, for most of Commodus’ youth Marcus was extremely busy. With no military experience whatsoever, after the death of Lucius Verus, Marcus was suddenly and unexpectedly left in command of the largest army ever massed on a northern frontier, numbering an estimated 140,000 men, including legions, auxiliary units, naval units on the Danube, etc. Marcus was mostly stationed at the front line, in Pannonia (modern Austria), several weeks’ travel away from Rome. It seems his family sometimes visited him but generally we have to assume he was just far to busy fighting a massive campaign and running the empire in a time of great turmoil, far away from Rome, to have had much time to participate in his son’s upbringing. Nevertheless, we’re told Marcus took great care to provide the best possible tutors for his son, presumably men of good character and wisdom.
Pertinax and Pompeianus
The plague and war took the lives of many men whose positions had to be filled, so it created the opportunity to promote new men. Marcus caused some controversy by promoting individuals of humble stock, based on merit. One of them, Pertinax, was the son of a freedman who rose to become one of Marcus’ two right-hand men during the Marcomannic Wars. Later, he would succeed Commodus and,this son of a former slave would, albeit briefly, become emperor. The other was Tiberius Claudius Pompeianus, a Syrian of humble origins who had distinguished himself during the Parthian War. He was close friends with Pertinax and rose to become Marcus’ most senior general on the northern frontier.
Marcus betrothed Pompeianus to his daughter, Lucilla, the widow of Lucius Verus. She was one of the most powerful women in Rome, being titled Augusta, empress, from her marriage to Lucius, and also a daughter of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. By marrying her, Pompeianus was brought into Marcus’ dynasty. It was rumoured that Marcus asked Pompeianus to become Caesar, presumably as an interim ruler while Commodus matured and gained experience. However, for some mysterious reason he refused. Indeed, it’s said Pompeianus was invited to become emperor three times altogether and refused each time. (Marcus invited him to become Caesar, Pertinax asked him to accede to the throne after Commodus was assassinated and Julianus who succeeded Pertinax asked him to become joint emperor with him.)
Pompeianus was probably almost as powerful as Avidius Cassius, another Syrian general. However, Cassius was of extremely noble birth and “born to rule” so I would suspect he possibly resented the fact that his rival was a countryman from the lower ranks of society. We can’t know for sure but I wonder whether Pompeianus refused the invitation to become Marcus’ successor because he was concerned it would incite Cassius to declare civil war. We’re told Pompeianus later lost his eyesight, which was a common consequence of the plague, due to the pustules spreading onto the eyes. It may be that in later life he felt he wasn’t physically up to the task of ruling and it’s a sign of the esteem in which he was held, perhaps, that he was twice invited to rule despite being almost blind. The Aurelian Column which depicts Marcus’ campaign on the northern frontier shows him with Pompeianus by his side. Incidentally, Russell Crowe’s character the general named Maximus in Gladiator appears to be loosely based on Pompeianus.
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius
Then something else happened that sheds considerable light on the status of Commodus. Marcus was notoriously sickly. During the winter of 174/175 AD he seems to have become extremely ill and rumours of his death spread across the empire like wildfire. This led to Avidius Cassius being acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion, far away in the east. Marcus survived, however, and this led to a civil war. Cassius was a notoriously strict and brutal military commander. He’d climbed rapidly to power following the Parthian War and after quelling a huge uprising in Egypt, he was now effectively governor-general over the whole of the eastern empire. It’s said that after the death of Lucius Verus, six years earlier, he began plotting against Marcus. By this point he was probably the second most powerful man in the empire next to Marcus himself. The prefect of Egypt gave him his support as did most of the eastern provinces, and a number of senators.
So we can probably assume that for many years, Marcus was aware that Cassius presented a potential threat and he was cautious about a situation like this arising. Although Commodus turned out to be a bad emperor, his character at this point was probably unknown to Marcus. However, Cassius was known to be a brutal man and Marcus and the Senate perhaps feared the possibility that he would claim the throne and become a tyrannical ruler. Although we often have ambiguous historical information about the motives of these individuals, we can once again see very clearly what actions Marcus took in response to this crisis.
He immediately had Commodus brought from Rome to the military camp in Pannonia. Commodus happened to be fifteen years old now so Marcus had him take the toga virilis, signifying that he had become an adult Roman citizen. It seems clear that Marcus wanted to protect Commodus from danger, to build support for him among the northern legions, and to put him in a position to assume power so that there was less uncertainty over the succession. From this point on, Commodus remained in his father’s company. So we could argue that Marcus now had time to mentor his son and study his character. However, it’s far too late now for Marcus to change course. He couldn’t strip Commodus of the title Caesar, granted to him ten years earlier. If he wanted to stop Commodus becoming his successor his only real option would be to have him assassinated, which would be against his Stoic Ethics. Even if he’d stripped Commodus of the title Caesar, he would have created a situation where he remained in the wings as a potential rival to any successor, around whom opposing factions could rally, splitting the empire in another civil war.
Marcus and Commodus as Co-Emperors
Marcus successfully put down the civil war and Cassius was beheaded by his own officers. As noted above, Commodus was then rapidly promoted to the rank of co-emperor. Some of the histories suggest that Marcus now began to realize that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor. However, we’re also told that he wasn’t so much a bad person as a weak or gullible one. He was easily swayed by hangers-on.
This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature. And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)
In particular, Marcus asked his son-in-law and most trusted general, Pompeianus, to take responsibility for Commodus after his death and keep him out of trouble. After Marcus died, with Commodus now as sole emperor, it’s said that he immediately sought to abandon the northern campaign by paying huge bribes to the barbarian kings, so that he could return to Rome. We’re told Pompeianus was the only one brave enough to confront the new emperor and challenge his behaviour, arguing that he must remain with the army and finish the campaign.
So there was allegedly a sort of tug-of-war between Pompeianus and Commodus’ friends. After a few weeks, his friends won and Commodus abandoned the legions to return to Rome. There wasn’t much that Pompeianus could do to stop him. In one fell swoop, he’d lost all credibility with the army. An emperor normally requires the support of the legions or the Senate or the people of Rome. I think Commodus was now forced to become a populist in order to secure his position. Without the support of the legions or the Senate he turned himself into a sort of celebrity, fighting in the arena, throwing extravagant spectacles for the people and building a mythology around himself. He even had statues erected portraying himself as the Greek hero (and deity) Hercules, bearing his distinctive club and lion-skin headdress.
Was Marcus to Blame?
I’ll let others decide to what extent Marcus was to “blame” for Commodus. To me it seems that Marcus and the Senate were struggling to prevent civil war from dividing the empire because they knew that in its weakened state Rome would potentially be overrun by barbarian invaders if rival factions started fighting over the throne. I think they also planned for joint rule as a safety measure against a bad or tyrannical emperor taking control of Rome but the Marcomannic Wars and the Antonine Plague created turmoil that interfered with these plans. I also think Marcus tried to surround Commodus with advisors and to put him in the care of Pompeianus as a safety measure but that was negated when Commodus simply fled from the front leaving Pompeianus and others behind, and surrounding himself with individuals at Rome who further corrupted him. I think he found himself in a situation where he felt it was necessary to become a celebrity rather than a genuine ruler, something Marcus would have warned him against, and that inevitably led him further and further astray.
The Stoics would say that we can’t hold parents responsible for their children. Even Socrates had wayward sons and students. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. One of the very early philosophers admired by the Stoics was Stilpo, of the Megarian School, a teacher of Zeno of Citium. He had a notoriously dissolute daughter, apparently. People used to hold that against him but Stilpo replied, I think with some justification, “Her behaviour can no more brings dishonour upon me than mine can bring honour upon her.” I think it’s worth contemplating how that saying might relate to Marcus and Commodus.
The new revised version of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, my online course about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, will be starting on Sunday 18th February.
I’m very pleased to announce that after months in preparation my new Stoic Therapy Toolkit has been published. This is a five-page summary of core Stoic psychological practices. People have been asking me for something like this since I started writing about Stoicism and teaching workshops on it about twenty years ago.
If you’re completely new to Stoicism, it’s a good place to start. However, we can’t compress the whole philosophy into a few pages, it’s just a summary, so you will need to read the Stoics to gain a more complete understanding of their concepts and techniques.
Very useful summary, I will carry it in my work bag! – Camelia Vasilov
Excellent! Thank you for your tireless work in making this valuable philosophy so accessible in our busy world. – Deborah L Gariepy
This printable PDF document will give you a good overview of Stoicism, and a reminder of daily practices. Many people contributed to the wording and Rocio de Torres, our graphic designer, has given it a new look. So we’re confident you’ll appreciate the end result and find it valuable as a guide to living like a Stoic. I’d love to know what you think. People have already started leaving feedback online.
Thanks, looks beautiful. Can’t spare a tip but bought one of your books. 🙂 – Vince
Thank you! Clear, concise, practical and actionable. No matter how busy or preoccupied one is (or has to be) during the day, store this kit in your memory, incorporate these quick contemplations, and the tools will adapt to any occasion! – Gaelle1947
- The Goal of Virtue
- Daily Routine
- Four Stoic Meditations
- Therapy of the Passions
You can download your free copy today from my e-learning site by clicking the button below or following this link:
Why it’s important to distinguish clearly between stoicism (small s) and Stoicism (capital S).
In my experience as moderator of a large discussion forum on the topic of Stoic philosophy, some of the most common misconceptions are due simply to people conflating stoicism (lower case s) and Stoicism (upper case S). When I’ve posted the question “What’s the difference between stoicism and Stoicism?” the most common response is some variation of: One is capitalized and the other isn’t.
This isn’t a trivial distinction, though, because the two words have come to mean quite different things. As Socrates pointed out, we have to agree on the correct definition of key terms to have a rational conversation about most subjects. Likewise, when people conflate stoicism with Stoicism, from what I’ve seen over the years, they inevitably end confusing themselves and other people.
For example, like most dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary distinguishes between two separate definitions:
1 The endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint.
2 An ancient Greek school of philosophy founded at Athens by Zeno of Citium. The school taught that virtue, the highest good, is based on knowledge; the wise live in harmony with the divine Reason (also identified with Fate and Providence) that governs nature, and are indifferent to the vicissitudes of fortune and to pleasure and pain.
Definition 1 is lower-case stoicism. It’s the modern-day concept of personality trait, which people typically equate with having a “stiff upper lip” or the advice to “suck it up”, and so on.
Definition 2 is upper-case Stoicism, an entire school of Greek philosophy that subsequently flourished throughout the Roman empire, and lasted for about five centuries. It’s this form of Stoicism, Stoic philosophy, that we’re talking about when we talk about Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, and the use of Stoicism for modern-day personal development, etc.
NB: I’ve noticed several people remark that stoic is an adjective and Stoic a noun. That’s incorrect. According to the OED and most other English dictionaries both words can serve either as an adjective or noun.
Of course, the notion of a stoic personality trait is historically derived from the impression people have of ancient Stoic philosophy. However, it’s only very loosely related and in some important ways actually runs quite contrary to what Stoicism teaches, as we’ll see. They’re definitely not the same thing, nor is stoicism necessarily a part of Stoicism. Failing to distinguish between them has therefore caused a lot of confusion about Stoic philosophy to spread on the Internet.
This mix up between stoicism and Stoicism isn’t unusual. Many Greek philosophical terms have been caricatured over the centuries and so we normally distinguish between the modern term and original meaning by capitalizing the latter, because it’s a proper noun. For example,
- epicurean is not the same as Epicurean
The former usually implies a gourmand or someone who enjoys fine eating whereas the latter is a whole school of philosophy named after its founder Epicurus, who actually recommended fairly austere habits of eating and drinking
- a cynic is not the same as a Cynic
The former usually implies someone who is distrustful of others and assumes the worst of them whereas the latter is a school of Greek philosophy that teaches us, among other things, to be indifferent to the opinions and actions of other people
- a skeptic is not the same as a Skeptic
The former often denotes someone who doubts the truth of accepted opinions whereas the latter was an ancient philosophical movement that advised its followers to suspend judgement one way or the other
- an academic is not the same as an Academic
The former usually means someone who is engaged in scholarly pursuits whereas the latter denotes the school of philosophy founded at Athens by Plato
- A sophist is different from a Sophist
The former means someone who reasons fallaciously or manipulatively whereas the latter was a professional teacher of rhetoric and philosophy.
- And so on…
Some of these words have come to mean a vague trait that can at times be used in ways that relate accurately to at least some aspect the philosophy from which they’re derived. For instance, the ancient Academics were typically known for being quite academic, in the modern sense, or scholarly, but there’s much more to the philosophy than that. Likewise, often the Sophists were accused by philosophers of specious reasoning or what we now call sophistry but a few were held in high regard such as Prodicus, a good friend of Socrates. Some of these other terms, particularly epicurean are very misleading caricatures of what the philosophy actually taught, and often be used in ways that have the potential to become very misleading if we’re trying to talk about the philosophy. So it’s actually extremely important to capitalize and distinguish between the common noun, epicureanism, and the proper noun Epicureanism. But people also have to understand the distinction.
When it comes to mixing up the words Stoicism and stoicism, there are several problems. Firstly, people often just equate it with mental toughness and so it’s not unusual for them to argue that people they revere as tough or self-disciplined are Stoic role models. The UFC fighter Conor McGregor is a typical example people choose but there are many similar conversations on the Internet. Now, it’s fair to say he may be someone tough and self-disciplined but he’s obviously very far removed from figures like Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, who were held up as examples of Stoicism in the ancient world. He’s probably a better embodiment of stoicism than Stoicism. He arguably doesn’t embody the Stoic virtues of wisdom and justice, or natural affection toward others and ethical cosmopolitanism, in quite the way that Marcus Aurelius does. But there are nevertheless a surprising number of people on the Internet who confuse the two things in this way: tough guys as Stoics – something the ancient Stoics would have been completely puzzled by as they viewed competitive sports as vanity and a distraction from the lifelong pursuit of moral excellence and philosophical wisdom. (The Stoics believed in moderate exercise, engaged in for the health of the body and the development of character, but it shouldn’t normally be our main pursuit in life and the competitive aspect would appear petty and absurd to them.)
The word stoic also implies to many people some kind of suppression or concealment of unpleasant feelings: the stiff upper-lip notion. Boys don’t cry, etc. That’s particularly problematic, though, because it’s well-known from large volumes of modern research in the field of psychotherapy that the suppression of negative feelings can be quite harmful. I don’t have space here to elaborate in great detail on the reasons for that, unfortunately, but it’s taken for granted by most modern evidence-based psychotherapists that emotional suppression is typically unhealthy. To touch on just one small aspect: the more strongly people judge unpleasant thoughts and feelings to be bad, harmful, or undesirable the more attention they will automatically allocate to them.
In extreme cases, people can end up torturing themselves with doomed attempts to suppress distressing automatic thoughts, as in some forms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Likewise, people who suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder typically view symptoms of their nerves or anxiety as embarrassing and humiliating and strongly desire to conceal shaking hands or suppress their negative thoughts and anxious feelings while speaking to others. However, that usually backfires by increasing their self-consciousness, making their behaviour feel more stilted and awkward, and amplifying their anxious feelings. By contrast, as the Stoics knew, people who don’t care if they look or feel anxious, and accept their own nervous sensations with indifference, are likely to fare much better.
People often think that being stoic means trying to suppress natural feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety, and to hide the fact they’re feeling tearful or shaking, etc. That typically means they’re judging these things as “bad” or harmful in some sense – judging the feelings negatively. The ancient Stoics, by contrast, make a clear distinction between automatic feelings (proto-passions, propatheiai) and full-blown unhealthy passions, which are under voluntary control. The Stoics advise us to accept our initial automatic feelings with total indifference, as being natural and inevitable, and to be indifferent toward other people seeing evidence of them. The clearest illustration of this comes from a famous anecdote in Aulus Gellius where he describes a Stoic’s anxiety during a dangerous storm at sea. Stoics do cry, and shake, and grow pale. They don’t view this negatively or care much about it. What they do care about is what happens next: how they voluntarily respond to these feelings.
When people talk about being stoic they often mean trying to suppress automatic emotional reactions, therefore, which they view as negative. A Stoic philosopher would view the same feelings with detached indifference, though, as neither good nor bad – he would accept them as natural and inevitable, and beyond his direct control. The word stoic is often just used as a synonym for unemotional and that’s definitely not what Stoicism teaches –the ancient Stoics repeatedly emphasized that their ideal was not to be like statues or men with hearts of stone. Rather than trying to suppress feelings or sensations, which would entail judging an indifferent to be bad or harmful, the Stoics tried to modify the underlying value judgement. That approach happens to be more in accord with the way modern cognitive therapists approach emotional change and it’s very different from what people mean by “keeping a stiff upper lip”.
Another observation that seems to help is this… When people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they’re typically ignoring the entire social dimension of Stoic Ethics. When they say that someone is a stoic they don’t usually have in mind that they believe justice, fairness, and kindness are cardinal virtues in life, that we should cultivate the bond of natural affection that exists between us and other human beings, and treat them as equals, as part of a brotherhood of man, viewing all people as our fellow-citizens in a single cosmic city. (The word cosmopolitan is another whose meaning has been corrupted over the centuries – it means a citizen of the whole cosmos who treats others as her fellow-citizens.) I’ve found that framing the question like this often serves to highlight the difference: “What’s the difference between being stoic about the welfare of others and being Stoic about the welfare of others?”
There’s also the matter of healthy emotions in Stoicism. For many people stoicism seems to have some connotation of being unemotional or at least it sounds a little odd to their ears to say that stoics could be particularly cheerful and affectionate. However, the Stoic philosophers had a whole system of classification for healthy emotions: their goal was not simply to be emotionally empty but rather to experience healthy feelings of joy, cheerfulness, affection, and so on, which naturally supervene upon virtue. I notice that when people conflate stoicism and Stoicism they find this baffling and sometimes even joke about how Stoics having feelings is a sort of contradiction in terms, something inconceivable to them. However, healthy emotions play a central role in Stoicism and, for instance, Marcus Aurelius refers very frequently to feelings of joy or cheerfulness and affection toward others.
People sometimes continue to equate stoicism and Stoicism even after reading popular Stoic texts like The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. That’s actually quite puzzling and can only come from a very superficial reading. Marcus actually talks about the social virtues on virtually every page of The Meditations, it’s his main preoccupation, unsurprisingly, as emperor of Rome. Nevertheless, people sometimes still manage to come away with the total misconception that being a Stoic meant being tough-minded and totally uncaring about others. I find that when that’s pointed out and they go back and take a second look at the text, though, the depth of their misunderstanding usually becomes very apparent to them. It should be clear as crystal that Marcus believes that to be a Stoic we must aim to live in harmony with others. To turn our back on them or rage against them is viewed by him as a cancerous form of alienation, completely at odds with Stoic Ethics. The Stoic wise man is kind to others and wants to help them. We know Marcus wanted his reign to be remembered above all as exemplifying the virtue of Beneficence toward others. People seldom have that aspiration in mind when they talk about being Stoic, and confuse it with being stoic, though.
NB: This is a draft. I’ll tidy it up and make revisions over time, adding some additional content along the way.
When we’re talking about Marcus Aurelius in relation to Stoicism we inevitably focus on ways his life might illustrate Stoic concepts and practices. However, sometimes people object that might lead to idealizing him. Now, it has to be said that overall the surviving histories do paint a consistently very admiring picture of Marcus’ personal character, and we can find many pieces of circumstantial evidence to support the view of him as a good emperor and a good Stoic. However, there are many criticisms of Marcus to be found in the ancient sources. So for the sake of balance I wanted to present them here as a “negative” history of Marcus. I’ll keep my comments to a minimum and try to present the claims made, although most of them are questionable, and in some cases I’ll point out additional information that’s relevant.
The Historia Augusta (HA) is known by scholars to be an unreliable source, although the quality of individual chapters varies. Nevertheless, the chapters specifically on Marcus’ reign are believed to be among the best (most reliable) among them. There are also remarks about Marcus in the chapters on Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Avidius Cassius, Commodus, and Pertinax, though, and these are perhaps more doubtful. The chapters on Commodus in particular are known to be among the least reliable in the whole text.
The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio is our other major source and considered to be generally more reliable, although often reflecting Dio’s political bias as a senator, having served under Commodus. In addition, there are several other minor historical sources not covered here. Often, as in Herodian’s account, Marcus was presented as the perfect emperor, and little or no criticism was levelled at his reign.
The chapter on Marcus in the Historia Augusta summarizes criticisms of his character as follows:
Nothing did he fear and deprecate more than a reputation for covetousness, a charge of which he tried to clear himself in many letters. Some maintain — and held it a fault — that he was insincere and not as guileless as he seemed, indeed not as guileless as either Pius or Verus had been. Others accused him of encouraging the arrogance of the court by keeping his friends from general social intercourse and from banquets. (HA)
There’s not much indication of covetousness in any other surviving accounts of Marcus’ character, though. There’s surprisingly little reference to it in The Meditations, as though it wasn’t an issue on his mind. What we do find, though, in the histories are several references to unrest caused by austerity during his rule, due the the financial predicament of the empire. Marcus generally comes across as very sincere in other accounts. For instance, we know Hadrian gave him the nickname Verissimus as a child, meaning “most truthful” because of his upright and frank character. There are several criticisms, though, that relate to Marcus not appearing gregarious enough by joining in the celebrations at public games, etc.
There is another indication in the HA that Marcus was perceived in his youth as spoiled and insincere.
Towards [Antoninus] Pius, so far as it appears, [Lucius] Verus showed loyalty rather than affection. Pius, however, loved the frankness of his nature and his unspoiled way of living, and encouraged Marcus to imitate him in these. (HA, Lucius Verus)
Like the HA, Cassius Dio also praises Marcus’ overall character very highly: “So temperately and so firmly did he rule them, that, even when involved in so many and so great wars, he did naught that was unseemly either by way of flattery or as the result of fear.”
Dio does mention Marcus being criticized for financially stinginess, although he feels strongly that this was a completely unjust criticism.
Therefore I am surprised to hear people even to‑day censuring him on the ground that he was not an open-handed prince. For, although in general he was most economical in very truth, yet he never avoided a single necessary expenditure, even though, as I have stated, he burdened no one by levies of money and though he found himself forced to lay out very large sums beyond the ordinary requirements. (Cassius Dio)
It’s likely Marcus was reluctant to spend too much money on things like public entertainments, given the vast expenditure required by the Marcomannic Wars, and the considerable cost to the treasury of the plague and various natural disasters that occurred during his reign. He had no choice but to be thrifty, although that’s something certain groups were bound to resent.
Dio also has the following to say:
In addition to possessing all the other virtues, he ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance. Most of his life he devoted to beneficence […] He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily; but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention; for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretence but to real excellence is clear; for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus, and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence. (Cassius Dio)
Again, Dio is praising Marcus but in doing so perhaps implies that he often turned a blind eye to the flaws of others, especially those of his wife, Faustina.
Aloofness / Austerity
There are several references to the fact Marcus appeared aloof or overly-austere to some people at times.
It was customary with Marcus to read, listen to, and sign documents at the circus-games; because of this habit he was openly ridiculed, it is said, by the people. (HA)
There’s a remarkably frank letter from Marcus’ rhetoric tutor, Fronto, which confirms this notion.
On occasion, in your absence, I have criticized you in quite severe terms in front of a small circle of my most intimate friends. There was a time when I would do so, for instance, when you entered public gatherings with a more gloomy expression than was fitting, or pored over a book at the theatre or during a banquet (I am speaking of a time when I myself did not yet keep away from theatres and banquets). On such occasions, then, I would call you an insensitive man who failed to act as circumstances demanded, or sometimes even, in an impulse of anger, a disagreeable person. (Letter from Fronto to Marcus)
Notice, though, that Fronto partially retracts this appraisal and mentions that he’s now less inclined to keep away from theatres and banquets himself. It’s as though people were saying that Marcus could come across as aloof for not joining in with common pastimes but they sometimes also side with him, and realize that he may have had a point.
Marcus was also allegedly criticized for appearing harsh in his military discipline and life in general because of his adherence to Stoicism. This appears refer to his personal lifestyle rather than discipline with regard to his troops. Marcus was not perceived as a strict military commander, as the letter of Avidius Cassius above demonstrates. Why would he be so bitterly assailed for this, though? We’re told Marcus wrote speeches or pamphlets disputing what his critics had said rather than punishing them, as a more autocratic emperor may have done.
But because Marcus, as a result of his system of [Stoic] philosophy, seemed harsh in his military discipline and indeed in his life in general, he was bitterly assailed; to all who spoke ill of him, however, he made reply either in speeches or in pamphlets. And because in this German, or Marcomannic, war, or rather I should say in this “War of Many Nations,” many nobles perished, for all of whom he erected statues in the Forum of Trajan, his friends often urged him to abandon the war and return to Rome. He, however, disregarded this advice and stood his ground, nor did he withdraw before he had brought all the wars to a conclusion. (HA)
Undoubtedly many nobles died in the Marcomannic War. There’s a hint here of opposition to the war, albeit from Marcus’ own circle. The context perhaps implies that it was partly the loss of so many eminent Romans that they had in mind when pleading with him to conclude the northern campaign. Many historians believe Marcus was right to fight on, though, and in that case this anecdote can be viewed in a very different light as showing he possessed remarkable integrity and commitment to what he believed was right even when many voices were clamouring for him to abandon the campaign.
Marcus recruiting gladiators into the army seems like an eminently sensible emergency measure given the crisis caused by the sudden Marcomanni-led invasion and the depletion of numbers caused by the plague. However, it was among the aspects of the northern campaign that caused unrest among the population at Rome. It also seems linked to the perception that the emperor was overly-austere because of his Stoicism but he compensated by instructed wealthy Romans on their duty to contribute to other public entertainments.
And while absent from Rome he left forceful instructions that the amusements of the Roman people should be provided for by the richest givers of public spectacles, because, when he took the gladiators away to the war, there was talk among the people that he intended to deprive them of their amusements and thereby drive them to the study of philosophy. Indeed, he had ordered that the actors of pantomimes should begin their performances nine days later than usual in order that business might not be interfered with. There was talk, as we mentioned above, about his wife’s intrigues with pantomimists; however, he cleared her of all these charges in his letters. […] There was a report, furthermore, that certain men masquerading as philosophers had been making trouble both for the state and for private citizens; but this charge he refuted. (HA)
We’ll return to the seemingly very common allegation that his wife was guilty of adultery. Here it’s implied that accusation was made in public during his lifetime, which he actually sought to refute in letters – letters to whom? The last remark is cryptic. Philosophy became “trendy” because of Marcus and it was not unusual for men posing as Cynics in particular, or philosophers of other ilks, to be accused of being charlatans on the make. That would very likely be related to the suffering and desperation caused by the plague, which led the population to depend more than normal on dubious prophets and healers. It’s not clear what’s meant by Marcus refuting this charge, though. Could it perhaps be read as meaning that Marcus refuted the charge they were genuine philosophers, and exposed the fact they were merely charlatans masquerading as philosophers?
The chapter on Marcus in HA notes that he advanced several of his tutors to prestigious official positions. There may have been some additional resentment of those who were poor or foreign being advanced in this way. To be fair, Marcus’ tutors were some of the leading intellectuals in the empire and he naturally knew them well and trusted them as family friends. There was also a high turnover of staff in official posts during his reign because of the plague and the wars, so many people had to be advanced from obscurity to positions of rank.
Of his fellow-pupils he was particularly fond of Seius Fuscianus and Aufidius Victorinus, of the senatorial order, and Baebius Longus and Calenus, of the equestrian. He was very generous to these men, so generous, in fact, that on those whom he could not advance to public office on account of their station in life, he bestowed riches. (HA)
Marcus is presented as gracious and tolerant in the following anecdote from the HA, although the gossip that he had promoted to the office of praetor (magistrate) men who had duelled with fought with him in the arena may well contain a grain of truth. This may refer to duelling with blunted weapons or possibly wrestling or boxing, all pastimes Marcus enjoyed. It could be a reference to gladiators who trained him in swordplay but I think it’s perhaps more likely to refer to fellow-students of wrestling and boxing.
For example, when he advised a man of abominable reputation, who was running for office, a certain Vetrasinus, to stop the town-talk about himself, and Vetrasinus replied that many who had fought with him in the arena were now praetors, the Emperor took it with good grace. (HA)
Alleged Murder of Lucius Verus
Many stories are told of Lucius Verus’ debauchery and Marcus is arguably portrayed as turning a blind eye. This perhaps began earlier but appears to have become much worse during the war and after Lucius’ return to Rome. The HA chapter on Lucius Verus recounts tales of Lucius’ debauchery in detail and says of Marcus:
But Marcus, though he was not without knowledge of these happenings, with characteristic modesty pretended ignorance for fear of censuring his brother. One such banquet, indeed, became very notorious. […] The estimated cost of the whole banquet, it is reported, was six million sesterces. And when Marcus heard of this dinner, they say, he groaned and bewailed the fate of the empire. (HA, Lucius Verus)
It suggests Marcus sent Lucius to the east with the hope of changing his habits.
This diversity in their manner of life, as well as many other causes, bred dissensions between Marcus and Verus — or so it was bruited about by obscure rumours although never established on the basis of manifest truth. But, in particular, this incident was mentioned: Marcus sent a certain Libo, a cousin of his, as his legate to Syria, and there Libo acted more insolently than a respectful senator should, saying that he would write to his cousin if he happened to need any advice. But [Lucius] Verus, who was there in Syria, could not suffer this, and when, a little later, Libo died after a sudden illness accompanied by all the symptoms of poisoning, it seemed probable to some people, though not to Marcus, that Verus was responsible for his death; and this suspicion strengthened the rumours of dissensions between the Emperors. (HA)
However, rumours of poisoning were very much the norm in Rome when someone of note died unexpectedly. The HA chapter on Marcus also says:
And yet, for waging the Parthian war through his legates, he [Lucius Verus] was acclaimed Imperator, while meantime Marcus was at all hours keeping watch over the workings of the state, and, though reluctantly and sorely against his will, but nevertheless with patience, was enduring the debauchery of his brother. In a word, Marcus, though residing at Rome, planned and executed everything necessary to the prosecution of the war. (HA)
In addition to another mention of Marcus turning a blind eye to Lucius’ excesses, it’s insinuated that Lucius took a back seat. He reputedly let his generals, particularly Avidius Cassius, fight the war, although it’s also claimed that Marcus contributed to the military strategy from back at Rome. Yet Lucius later claimed the glory of celebrating a triumph at Rome.
It’s elsewhere implied that Marcus was suspected of wanting to claim the glory of Rome’s victory in the Parthian War by travelling east to join the troops late in the game.
Immediately thereafter he returned to Rome, recalled by the talk of those who said that he wished to appropriate to himself the glory of finishing the war and had therefore set out for Syria. (HA)
This is somewhat negated by the fact he turned back, and never visited the east during the war. However, there are several references to the notion that Marcus played an important role in the Parthian War behind the scenes and perhaps resented Lucius taking the glory, especially as he seems to have contributed little despite being stationed in Syria with the troops.
A more serious allegation arises, mentioned several times, that Lucius’ death was somehow caused by Marcus.
Such was Marcus’ sense of honour, moreover, that although [Lucius] Verus’ vices mightily offended him, he concealed and defended them; he also deified him after his death, aided and advanced his aunts and sisters by means of honours and pensions, honoured Verus himself with many sacrifices, consecrated a flamen for him and a college of Antonine priests, and gave him all honours that are appointed for the deified. There is no emperor who is not the victim of some evil tale, and Marcus is no exception. For it was bruited about, in truth, that he put Verus out of the way, either with poison — by cutting a sow’s womb with a knife smeared on one side with poison,a and then offering the poisoned portion to his brother to eat, while keeping the harmless portion for himself — or, at least, by employing the physician Posidippus, who bled Verus, it is said, unseasonably. After Verus’ death [Avidius] Cassius revolted from Marcus. (HA, Marcus Aurelius)
Note that even the author of the Historia Augusta appears to view these rumours as absurd. Again, when someone of note, especially an Emperor, died suddenly, Romans inevitably loved to gossip that they had been murdered.
The end of the above passage is peculiar. Avidius Cassius revolted six years after Lucius Verus’ death but the HA seems to imply some unspoken connection between these events. Indeed, if rumours existed that Marcus had murdered Lucius that would potentially have lent weight to Cassius’ rebellion. It could also be that the author of the HA seeks to imply that Cassius or his supporters spread this gossip.
The same rumour is repeated in the chapter on Lucius Verus but again the author of the Historia Augusta categorically dismisses it as ridiculous gossip. Using a knife smeared on one side with poison to cut meat was a notorious technique of assassination.
There is a well-known story, which Marcus’ manner of life will not warrant, that Marcus handed Verus part of a sow’s womb which he had poisoned by cutting it with a knife smeared on one side with poison. But it is wrong even to think of such a deed in connection with Marcus, although the plans and deeds of Verus may have well deserved it; nor shall we leave the matter undecided, but rather reject it discarded and disproved, since from the time of Marcus onward […] not even flattery, it seems, has been able to fashion such an emperor. (HA, Lucius Verus)
Could Marcus have murdered Lucius Verus? Possibly. In The Meditations and his private letters to Fronto, though, Marcus seems quite affectionate toward his brother. Also, it was at Marcus’ behest that Lucius was appointed co-emperor in the first place, and Marcus betrothed him to his own daughter. The death of Lucius came at a very inopportune time for Marcus, at the start of the Marcomannic War. Finally, Lucius’ reported symptoms (sudden loss of consciousness and trouble speaking) actually resemble those of the plague, which had broken out nearby, making it seem more plausible that the disease had claimed him.
The HA chapter on Lucius Verus elsewhere once again raises and disputes this rumour, throwing in the gossip that Lucius had slept with Marcus’ wife. So altogether three different people were rumoured to have been responsible for poisoning Lucius Verus: Marcus, his wife Faustina, and Lucius’ wife Lucilla. Clearly the gossip was running wild.
There was gossip to the effect that he had violated his mother-in‑law Faustina. And it is said that his mother-in‑law killed him treacherously by having poison sprinkled on his oysters, because he had betrayed to the daughter the amour he had had with the mother. However, there arose also that other story related in the Life of Marcus, one utterly inconsistent with the character of such a man. Many, again, fastened the crime of his death upon his wife, since Verus had been too complaisant to Fabia, and her power his wife Lucilla could not endure. Indeed, Lucius and his sister Fabia did become so intimate that gossip went so far as to claim that they had entered into a conspiracy to make away with Marcus, and that when this was betrayed to Marcus by the freedman Agaclytus, Faustina circumvented Lucius in fear that he might circumvent her. (HA, Lucius Verus)
This last rumour that Lucius plotted to overthrow Marcus but was assassinated himself before he could carry out the plan is also found in Cassius Dio.
Lucius gloried in these exploits [of the Parthian War] and took great pride in them, yet his extreme good fortune did him no good; for he is said to have engaged in a plot later against his father-in‑law Marcus and to have perished by poison before he could carry out any of his plans. (Cassius Dio)
As noted above, Marcus was believed to have been co-ordinating the Parthian War behind the scenes but also accused of trying to steal Lucius’ glory by considering travelling out to the east to join him. We’re also told that after laying Lucius Verus to rest, Marcus hinted to the senate that he should be credited himself with the victories of the Parthian War.
Later, while rendering thanks to the senate for his brother’s deification, he darkly hinted that all the strategic plans whereby the Parthians had been overcome were his own. He added, besides, certain statements in which he indicated that now at length he would make a fresh beginning in the management of the state, now that Verus, who had seemed somewhat negligent, was removed. And the senate took this precisely as it was said, so that Marcus seemed to be giving thanks that Verus had departed this life. (HA)
As we’ve seen the HA elsewhere claims that it was in fact true that Marcus was responsible for strategy in the Parthian War. This seems problematic because Marcus was at Rome, far removed from the armies in Syria, and the delay in communication caused by such a distance would have severely limited his ability to co-ordinate the military strategy. We also know that Marcus dropped use of the title Parthicus after Lucius death, which seems to confirm the conflicting story that he was reluctant to be credited with the victory himself. (On the other hand it could have been a deliberate effort to scotch the rumour that he’d murdered Lucius and sought to take credit for his achievements.)
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius
The HA reports an excerpt from a purported letter from Lucius Verus to Marcus Aurelius, which is generally considered to be a fake as it mistakenly calls Antoninus Pius Lucius’ grandfather and Marcus’ father, falsely implying that Marcus had adopted Lucius. (That said, it is contradicted a few lines later where Hadrian is called Lucius’ grandfather, so it may just be a scribal error.)
Everything we do displeases him [Cassius], he is amassing no inconsiderable wealth, and he laughs at our letters. He calls you a philosophical old woman, me a half-witted spendthrift. (HA, Avidius Cassius)
The civil war declared by rival “Emperor” Avidius Cassius in 175 AD against Marcus certainly proves that he faced serious opposition within the empire. Cassius had some powerful supporters for his rebellion, including a number of senators, the prefect of Alexandria, and presumably several other Roman generals. He was acclaimed by the Egyptian legion and had a strong base of support in his own province of Syria. After the civil war was quelled, Marcus had to deal with the simmering unrest in Syria, especially in its capital, the epicentre of the rebellion, Antioch. Until then, he’d never visited the east, and he cold also be criticized on the basis that his failure to tour the eastern provinces contributed to the simmering discontent there that culminated in Cassius’ rebellion in Syria.
[Marcus] pardoned the communities which had sided with Cassius, and even went so far as to pardon the citizens of Antioch, who had said many things in support of Cassius and in opposition to himself. But he did abolish their games and public meetings, including assemblies of every kind, and issued a very severe edict against the people themselves. And yet a speech which Marcus delivered to his friends, reported by [the lost biography of] Marius Maximus, brands them as rebels. And finally, he refused to visit Antioch when he journeyed to Syria, nor would he visit Cyrrhus, the home of Cassius. Later on, however, he did visit Antioch. Alexandria, when he stayed there, he treated with clemency.
Which citizens of Antioch and what exactly did they say? Serious measures were taken by Marcus after the war to prevent further uprising there suggesting that significant unrest continued. Lucius Verus had previously made his base at Antioch during the Parthian War but was reputedly ridiculed by the natives. Perhaps that left a lasting resentment and desire for an alternative ruler.
The citizens of Antioch also had sided with Avidius Cassius, but these, together with certain other states which had aided Cassius, he [Marcus] pardoned, though at first he was deeply angered at the citizens of Antioch and took away their games and many of the distinctions of the city, all of which he afterwards restored. (HA, Avidius Cassius)
The HA attributes the following letter to Avidius Cassius, where Marcus is accused, despite being the “best of men”, of being overly tolerant of those who sought to grow rich under his rule. Cassius came from a wealthy Syrian family of exceptionally noble descent so he may simply be snobbish about Marcus’ tendency to promote men of humble origins to high office in a meritocratic fashion, e.g., as in the case of his two most senior generals on the northern frontier: Claudius Pompeianus and Pertinax. Pompeianus was also a Syrian, like Avidius Cassius, but of very humble origins and yet they were probably the two most powerful generals in the empire and at a time contenders for the throne. It’s easy to imagine Cassius would have been critical of Pompeianus’ status given his low birth and he would perhaps have the notion of Pompeianus being elevated above him as emperor, intolerable.
Unhappy state, unhappy, which suffers under men who are eager for riches and men who have grown rich! Marcus is indeed the best of men, but one who wishes to be called merciful and hence suffers to live men whose manner of life he cannot sanction. Where is Lucius Cassius [apparently an error for C. Cassius Longinus], whose name we bear in vain? Where is that other Marcus, Cato the Censor [i.e., Cato the Elder]? Where is all the rigour of our fathers? Long since indeed has it perished, and now it is not even desired. Marcus [Aurelius] Antoninus philosophizes and meditates on first principles, and on souls and virtue and justice, and takes no thought for the state. There is need, rather, for many swords, as you see for yourself, and for much practical wisdom, in order that the state may return to its ancient ways. And truly in regard to those governors of provinces — can I deem proconsuls or governors those who believe that their provinces were given them by the senate and Antoninus only in order that they might revel and grow rich? You have heard that our philosopher’s prefect of the guard was a beggar and a pauper three days before his appointment, and then suddenly became rich. How, I ask you, save from the vitals of the state and the purses of the provincials? Well then, let them be rich, let them be wealthy. In time they will stuff the imperial treasury; only let the gods favour the better side, let the men of Cassius restore to the state a lawful government. (HA, Avidius Cassius)
The need for “many swords” is puzzling as Marcus had massed a huge army in the north but perhaps alludes to the emphasis his strategy placed upon the use of diplomatic negotiation rather than military force. It’s likely Avidius Cassius was a more hawkish military commander than Marcus.
Cassius Dio appears to say that a number of Roman senators as well as generals, heads of state, and kings, were implicated in Cassius’ rebellion, and also that when he pardoned a number of co-conspirators the senate were worried it would pave the way for similar uprisings to recur in the future.
A law was passed at this time that no one should serve as governor in the province from which he had originally come, inasmuch as the revolt of Cassius had occurred during his administration of Syria, which included his native district. (Cassius Dio)
On the one hand, this was prudent of Marcus. On the other hand, it arguably implies it was a serious mistake for him to have appointed Cassius governor in his home province of Syria in the first place, as this allowed him to gain so much power that he inevitably became a danger to the throne. The very fact of the civil war points to an obvious line of criticism against Marcus for allowing it to develop by granting too much power to Cassius and perhaps not doing enough to keep secure loyalty from the people and the legions of Syria, Egypt, and the other regions who went over to Cassius.
The Civil War of Avidius Cassius proves that Marcus had a rival for the throne and powerful internal enemies. However, there were also several lesser uprisings in the east and other parts of the empire. There was unrest far away in Britain where the legionaries early in Marcus’ rule had reputedly sought to acclaim their governor, Statius Priscus, as a rival emperor to Marcus.
The histories mention that there was a violent uprising of the Bucoli or Herdsmen in Egypt against Roman rule, which spread rapidly to become a general armed uprising, during which the Roman garrison in Egypt was defeated in battle and Alexandria was besieged and nearly lost.
The people called the Bucoli began a disturbance in Egypt and under the leadership of one Isidorus, a priest, caused the rest of the Egyptians to revolt. […] Next, having conquered the Romans in Egypt in a pitched battle, they came near capturing Alexandria, too, and would have succeeded, had not [Avidius] Cassius been sent against them from Syria. (Cassius Dio)
Why would the Herdsmen revolt? The most likely explanation is that they felt that they were suffering economically due to the expense of the Marcomannic War. Throughout the empire there was probably also unrest over the loss of soldier’s lives during the northern campaign.
Marcus recruited many captured barbarians into the army during the Marcomannic War. He also tried to resettle many on lands within the empire but this met with mixed success:
Some of them [captured enemy soldiers] were sent on campaigns elsewhere, as were also the [returned] captives and deserters who were fit for service; others received land [to settle] in Dacia, Pannonia, Moesia, the province of Germany, and in Italy itself. Some of them, now, who settled at Ravenna, made an uprising and even went so far as to seize possession of the city: and for this reason Marcus did not again bring any of the barbarians into Italy, but even banished those who had previously come there. (Cassius Dio)
These two measures may have been perceived by him as more just alternatives to enslavement of captured enemies. We’re told he expelled the resettled barbarians from Italy, but not from the provinces, so the general policy of resettlement presumably continued.
Alleged Infidelity of Empress Faustina
There were clearly many rumours in circulation accusing Marcus’ wife, the Empress Faustina the Younger, of adultery. As with allegations of poisoning, gossip about the infidelity of powerful Romans’ wives was fairly common in Rome. We’re told several times that Marcus was criticized for turning a blind eye to these rumours. Some of the time, accusing Faustina of adultery seems to have served the purpose of implying that Commodus was not Marcus’ legitimate son, although this doesn’t seem the only motive for the stories.
The HA is speculating in the following passage when it says it “seems plausible” that Commodus was not the son of Marcus but born to Faustina from an adulterous relationship. One piece of tangible evidence that we possess in abundance appears to count against this: statues of Commodus show that he bore a striking physical resemblance to Marcus, his father. The HA adds a salacious anecdote about Faustina and Marcus ritually bathing in the blood of Commodus’ supposed true father, a gladiator. This obviously seems very out of character for Marcus. It should be noted that even after admitting that he is speculating about what “seems plausible” the author of the HA further qualifies this graphic part of the story as an embellishment current among the people.
Some say, and it seems plausible, that Commodus Antoninus, his son and successor, was not begotten by him, but in adultery; they embroider this assertion, moreover, with a story current among the people. On a certain occasion, it was said, Faustina, the daughter of Pius and wife of Marcus, saw some gladiators pass by, and was inflamed for love of one of them; and afterwards, when suffering from a long illness, she confessed the passion to her husband. And when Marcus reported this to the Chaldeans, it was their advice that Faustina should bathe in his blood and thus couch with her husband. When this was done, the passion was indeed allayed, but their son Commodus was born a gladiator, not really a prince; for afterwards as emperor he fought almost a thousand gladiatorial bouts before the eyes of the people, as shall be related in his life. This story is considered plausible, as a matter of fact, for the reason that the son of so virtuous a prince had habits worse than any trainer of gladiators, any play-actor, any fighter in the arena, anything brought into existence from the offscourings of all dishonour and crime. (HA)
The HA continues this passage by claiming that the stories about Commodus being born in adultery was very widespread, although doubt has already been cast on their plausibility.
Many writers, however, state that Commodus was really begotten in adultery, since it is generally known that Faustina, while at Caieta, used to choose out lovers from among the sailors and gladiators. When Marcus Antoninus was told about this, that he might divorce, if not kill her, he is reported to have said “If we send our wife away, we must also return her dowry”. And what was her dowry? the Empire, which, after he had been adopted at the wish of Hadrian, he had inherited from his father-in‑law [Antoninus] Pius. (HA)
This isn’t impossible but there’s no known basis for assuming that Marcus’ claim to the throne actually depended in any real way on his being married to Faustina. Marcus’ claim to the throne came from his adoption by Antoninus Pius and his “grandfather” the Emperor Hadrian, not because of his later marriage to Faustina.
But truly such is the power of the life, the holiness, the serenity, and the righteousness of a good emperor that not even the scorn felt for his kin can sully his own good name. For since [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus held ever to his moral code and was moved by no man’s whispered machinations, men thought no less of him because his son was a gladiator, his wife infamous. (HA)
Elsewhere the HA adds an anecdote about Marcus being ridiculed in public over his wife’s alleged infidelities. He was reputedly criticized by the people of Rome for doing nothing in response.
It is held to Marcus’ discredit that he advanced his wife’s lovers, Tertullus and Tutilius and Orfitus and Moderatus, to various offices of honour, although he had caught Tertullus in the very act of breakfasting with his wife. In regard to this man the following dialogue was spoken on the stage in the presence of [Marcus Aurelius] Antoninus himself. The Fool asked the Slave the name of his wife’s lover and the Slave answered “Tullus” three times; and when the Fool kept on asking, the Slave replied, “I have already told you thrice Tullus is his name”. But the city-populace and others besides talked a great deal about this incident and found fault with Antoninus for his forbearance. (HA)
Regarding Faustina, every indication is that Marcus held her in very high regard. In The Meditations he thanks the gods that “my wife is such as she is, so obedient, so affectionate, so straightforward” (1.17). This obviously contradicts the image of an unfaithful, scheming and deceitful woman emerging from the rumours. Indeed, after her death, Marcus honoured her very highly despite the allegations apparently made against her.
He asked the senate to decree her divine honours and a temple, and likewise delivered a eulogy of her, although she had suffered grievously from the reputation of lewdness. Of this, however, Antoninus was either ignorant or affected ignorance. He established a new order of Faustinian girls in honour of his dead wife, expressed his pleasure at her deification by the senate, and because she had accompanied him on his summer campaign, called her “Mother of the Camp”. And besides this, he made the village where Faustina died a colony, and there built a temple in her honour.
Today, Marcus is often blamed for appointing his son Commodus as his heir as he turned out to be a bad emperor, according to sources such as Cassius Dio and the Historia Augusta. Some points about this should be clarified firs, though. We can presume that it was initially expected that his younger co-emperor and adoptive brother, the Emperor Lucius Verus, would outlive Marcus. Lucius would therefore have initially been Marcus’ supposed successor. While Lucius was still alive, though, immediately after the Parthian War and outbreak of the Antonine Plague, Marcus appointed two of his sons, Commodus and his younger brother Marcus Annius Verus, as Caesar, his official heirs. This was probably at the behest of the senate who were concerned about stability because of the possibility the two emperors might die suddenly from plague or in the impending war on the northern frontier.
At this point, presumably the expectation was if Marcus died Lucius would continue to rule with Commodus becoming his co-emperor when old enough, and that later Commodus would rule jointly with his brother Marcus Annius Verus, much as the “brothers” Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus had done. Marcus clearly favoured joint rule, having two co-emperors sharing power, as a means of securing stability. This approach may also have been favoured by the senate. It provided another check against the risk of a sole emperor becoming too much of an autocrat or tyrant. However, Commodus was only about five years old when he was made Caesar, official heir to the throne. Marcus probably barely knew him and certainly had no idea what his character would turn out like. Moreover, for eight years, they would mostly be apart, with Commodus at Rome and Marcus busy on the northern frontier with the army. As we’ve seen, Lucius died suddenly in 169 AD leaving Marcus as sole emperor, with his sons mere children, too young to be acclaimed emperor. Moreover, Marcus Annius Verus would die around the same time, leaving Commodus as Marcus’ only surviving son and the natural heir to the empire. Lucius had no children.
Although most previous emperors had adopted their heirs that was because they lacked adult sons who could assume power. The Roman people nevertheless instinctively believed in the natural succession of rule, from father to son. The senate worried that any situation where an individual who has a claim to the throne was left in the wings inevitably led to instability and the threat of civil war. So Marcus could not easily have replaced Commodus with an adopted heir. Moreover, once Commodus had been appointed Caesar, as a small child, Marcus could not easily have reversed that decision. Of course, one option would have been to have had Commodus assassinated but despite allegations of poisoning, etc., we can assume that was not something Marcus would have considered ethical. (We might ask why Marcus chose to have children in the first place if it meant that he would be put in this awkward situation, having a hereditary heir forced on him whose character could not be known in advance to be suitable.)
We can see that Commodus’ rise was rapidly accelerated in response to the civil war of Avidius Cassius. Marcus immediately called him, now aged fifteen, from Rome to the northern frontier, to assume the toga virilis, and officially become an adult citizen. In 177 AD, Marcus appointed Commodus his co-emperor. So strictly speaking, Commodus didn’t just succeed Marcus, but rather their reigns overlapped by three years. It’s not clear to what extent Marcus realized that Commodus was going to be a bad emperor. However, some accounts suggest that it was in this final years that his true character became apparent, although by then he was already acclaimed emperor.
According to Cassius Dio, Commodus wasn’t so much wicked as easily led and became progressively corrupted by a crowd of hangers-on.
This man [Commodus] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature. And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected, and after making a truce with the barbarians he rushed to Rome; for he hated all exertion and craved the comfortable life of the city. (Cassius Dio)
Herodian also portrays Commodus as not initially wicked but rather naive and easily swayed. In particular he claimed that Marcus intended Commodus to stay under the watchful eye of his brother-in-law the general Pompeianus on the northern frontier but Commodus found excuses to leave for Rome, and away from Pompeianus and the military he rapidly fell under the sway of corrupt advisors.
However, the HA says that earlier in Commodus’ life, Marcus had sometimes vacillated, dismissing and then re-appointing corrupt advisors, whose company his son craved.
The more honourable of those appointed to supervise his life he could not endure, but the most evil he retained, and, if any were dismissed, he yearned for them even to the point of falling sick. When they were reinstated through his father’s indulgence, he always maintained eating-houses and low resorts for them in the imperial palace. (HA, Commodus)
Commodus apparently spent most of his time travelling with Marcus or stationed on the northern frontier after the outbreak civil war, when he was aged about fifteen. So this remark is puzzling because it doesn’t seem intended to refer to his earlier life as a child growing up in Rome but as an adult, during Marcus’ reign, yet throughout this time Commodus was probably seldom at the imperial palace in Rome.
The HA claims that on his deathbed Marcus finally realized that Commodus was going to be a terrible emperor.
Two days before his death, it is said, [Marcus] summoned his friends and expressed the same opinion about his son that Philip expressed about Alexander when he too thought poorly of his son, and added that it grieved him exceedingly to leave a son behind him. For already Commodus had made it clear that he was base and cruel. (HA)
It is said that he foresaw that after his death Commodus would turn out as he actually did, and expressed the wish that his son might die, lest, as he himself said, he should become another Nero, Caligula, or Domitian. (HA)
As we’ve seen, though, by this point there was very little Marcus could do about it except plead with Commodus to remain under the supervision of his son-in-law Claudius Pompeianus and other trusted advisors.
There’s a story about Marcus’ mother wishing Antoninus dead, so her son would succeed him as emperor more quickly, but it’s largely rendered trivial by the surrounding remarks.
Moreover, he showed great deference to his father, though there were not lacking those who whispered things against him, especially Valerius Homullus, who, when he saw Marcus’ mother Lucilla worshipping in her garden before a shrine of Apollo, whispered, “Yonder woman is now praying that you may come to your end, and her son rule.” All of which influenced Pius not in the least, such was Marcus’ sense of honour and such his modesty while heir to the throne. (HA)
Marcus waited 23 years to succeed Antoninus, far longer than anyone probably expected, so it’s unsurprising people might joke that he (or his family) were feeling impatient.
This is not presented by the HA as a criticism of Marcus but modern historians believe that on being acclaimed Marcus and Lucius provided an exceptionally large donative to the praetorian guard. They promised the common soldiers twenty-thousand sesterces apiece, and even more to officers. It’s not clear why they would do this as Rome faced no immediate threat at this time and there’s no indication the praetorians were restless.
Around 176 AD, Marcus visited Athens for the first time and was initiated into the Eleusianina mysteries.
After he had settled affairs in the East he came to Athens, and had himself initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries in order to prove that he was innocent of any wrong-doing, and he entered the sanctuary unattended. (HA)
This suggests that he felt it necessary to make a public demonstration of his innocence, perhaps because of rumours circulating such as those accusing him of assassinating Lucius Verus.
This final passage is barely a criticism either but it does show Marcus backtracking on a decision he apparently made in anger or frustration following a political betrayal at the height of the First Marcomannic War.
Against Ariogaesus [the king of the Quadi] Marcus was so bitter that he issued a proclamation to the effect that anyone who brought him in alive should receive a thousand gold pieces, and anyone who slew him and exhibited his head, five hundred. Yet in general the emperor was always accustomed to treat even his most stubborn foes humanely […] It can be seen from this, then, how exasperated he was against Ariogaesus at this time; nevertheless, when the man was later captured, he did him no harm, but merely sent him off [in exile] to Alexandria. (Cassius Dio)
The following passage from Aulus Gellius‘ The Attic Nights describes the Stoic doctrine concerning involuntary emotional reactions or “proto-passions” (propatheiai). See also Seneca’s On Anger, for a detailed discussion with some different examples, relating to anger rather than fear. The concept is also mentioned in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations – all three of our main surviving sources for Stoicism. Grasping the role of “proto-passions”, which are accepted by Stoics as natural and indifferent, is absolutely essential to an accurate understanding of Stoicism particularly in terms of the distinction between Stoicism (capital S), the Greek philosophy, and stoicism (small s), the “stiff upper lip” personality trait.
Regarding the anecdote below… It concerns a Stoic teacher who was caught at sea in a very severe storm, where the boat was clearly in danger of sinking and the crew of drowning. He turned pale and was frozen with fear, just like everyone else, but unlike the rest he wasn’t crying aloud and lamenting their situation. Unfortunately, we don’t have any indication who the famous Stoic that Aulus Gellius encountered on his sea journey may have been. He says the Stoic possessed a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses and was an important and well-respected teacher in Athens. They were apparently both sailing from Cassiopa, a town in the region of Korkyra, on Corfu, to Brundisium, in southern Italy, possibly en route to Rome. The only famous Stoic we hear much about who was teaching in Athens around the middle of the 2nd century AD is Apollonius of Chalcedon, a tutor of Marcus Aurelius – but there’s no reason to assume he’s actually the man in question. Although, from what we know about Apollonius, he was perhaps slightly haughty like the character being described in this vignette. (We can rule out Arrian, incidentally, as he’s mentioned here in passing, and doesn’t seem to have taught Stoicism anyway.)
It’s believed the Discourses of Epictetus originally spanned eight volumes, only four of which survive today. The Stoic teacher mentioned here appears to have shown Aulus Gellius a passage from one of the volumes now lost to us, the fifth book of the Discourses. However, Aulus Gellius also remarks that the doctrine of proto-passions described by Epictetus “undoubtedly” agrees with the original Stoic teachings of Zeno and Chrysippus. (Incidentally, this could be read as implying that Epictetus was typically known for following early Greek Stoic teachings very closely.) The Attic Nights were written in Latin, so Aulus Gellius sometimes comments on the fact he is quoting from the Greek language.
The proto-passions are here described as “brief but inevitable and natural”, precursors of full-blown emotions and desires. They are classed as morally indifferent by Stoics. I would add that the Stoics perhaps viewed them as comparable to the primitive feelings experienced by other animals, as a sort of reflex-like antecedent of full-blown human emotion. Aulus Gellius concludes it would be a mistake to interpret the Stoics as teaching that feeling fear for a brief time, and turning pale, is the sign of a foolish and weak person. Rather even Stoics yield to natural human (physiological) weakness in this regard but they do not continue to go along with their initial feelings by giving conscious assent to the impression and believing that events are as terrible as they seem.
For instance, a Stoic who unexpectedly glimpses someone wearing a frightening mask out of the corner of his eye might be startled and automatically become tense and pale, his heart beating suddenly faster. However, if we suppose it’s just a costume, when he realizes this he will no longer go along with the initial impression that something bad is going to happen. He will no longer give assent to the idea that he’s in danger, and his feelings will naturally abate, although he may take a few minutes to regain his composure. The Stoic Sage views all external events as indifferent but he probably has to remind himself of this as his body will automatically create troubling impressions in response to certain typical threats. Rather than trying to suppress these feelings, or feeling ashamed about them, Stoics merely accept them with indifference, and shrug them off, which is a very different response to what people often mean by “stoicism” or having a stiff upper lip.
The reply of a certain philosopher, when he was asked why he turned pale in a storm at sea.
We were sailing from Cassiopa to Brundisium over the Ionian sea, violent, vast and storm-tossed. During almost the whole of the night which followed our first day a fierce side-wind blew, which had filled our ship with water. Then afterwards, while we were all still lamenting, and working hard at the pumps, day at last dawned. But there was no less danger and no slackening of the violence of the wind; on the contrary, more frequent whirlwinds, a black sky, masses of fog, and a kind of fearful cloud-forms, which they called typhones, or “typhoons,” seemed to hang over and threaten us, ready to overwhelm the ship.
In our company was an eminent philosopher of the Stoic sect, whom I had known at Athens as a man of no slight importance, holding the young men who were his pupils under very good control. In the midst of the great dangers of that time and that tumult of sea and sky I looked for him, desiring to know in what state of mind he was and whether he was unterrified and courageous. And then I beheld the man frightened and ghastly pale, not indeed uttering any lamentations, as all the rest were doing, nor any outcries of that kind, but in his loss of colour and distracted expression not differing much from the others. But when the sky cleared, the sea grew calm, and the heat of danger cooled, then the Stoic was approached by a rich Greek from Asia, a man of elegant apparel, as we saw, and with an abundance of baggage and many attendants, while he himself showed signs of a luxurious person and disposition. This man, in a bantering tone, said: “What does this mean, Sir philosopher, that when we were in danger you were afraid and turned pale, while I neither feared nor changed colour?” And the philosopher, after hesitating for a moment about the propriety of answering him, said: “If in such a terrible storm I did show a little fear, you are not worthy to be told the reason for it. But, if you please, the famous Aristippus [the Cyrenaic], the pupil of Socrates, shall answer for me, who on being asked on a similar occasion by a man much like you why he feared, though a philosopher, while his questioner on the contrary had no fear, replied that they had not the same motives, for his questioner need not be very anxious about the life of a worthless coxcomb, but he himself feared for the life of an Aristippus.”
With these words then the Stoic rid himself of the rich Asiatic. But later, when we were approaching Brundisium and sea and sky were calm, I asked him what the reason for his fear was, which he had refused to reveal to the man who had improperly addressed him. And he quietly and courteously replied: “Since you are desirous of knowing, hear what our forefathers, the founders of the Stoic sect, thought about that brief but inevitable and natural fear, or rather,” said he, “read it, for if you read it, you will be the more ready to believe it and you will remember it better.” Thereupon before my eyes he drew from his little bag the fifth book of the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus, which, as arranged by Arrian, undoubtedly agree with the writings of Zeno and Chrysippus.
In that book I read this statement, which of course was written in Greek:
“The mental visions, which the philosophers call φαντασίαι [impressions] or ‘phantasies,’ by which the mind of man on the very first appearance of an object is impelled to the perception of the object, are neither voluntary nor controlled by the will, but through a certain power of their own they force their recognition upon men; but the expressions of assent, which they call συγκαταθέσεις, by which these visions are recognized, are voluntary and subject to man’s will. Therefore when some terrifying sound, either from heaven or from a falling building or as a sudden announcement of some danger, or anything else of that kind occurs, even the mind of a wise man must necessarily be disturbed, must shrink and feel alarm, not from a preconceived idea of any danger, but from certain swift and unexpected attacks which forestall the power of the mind and of reason. Presently, however, the wise man does not approve ‘such phantasies’, that is to say, such terrifying mental visions (to quote the Greek, ‘he does not consent to them nor confirm them’), but he rejects and scorns them, nor does he see in them anything that ought to excite fear. And they say that there is this difference between the mind of a foolish man and that of a wise man, that the foolish man thinks that such ‘visions’ are in fact as dreadful and terrifying as they appear at the original impact of them on his mind, and by his assent he approves of such ideas as if they were rightly to be feared, and ‘confirms’ them; for προσεπιδοξάζει is the word which the Stoics use in their discourses on the subject. But the wise man, after being affected for a short time and slightly in his colour and expression, ‘does not assent,’ but retains the steadfastness and strength of the opinion which he has always had about visions of this kind, namely that they are in no wise to be feared but excite terror by a false appearance and vain alarms.”
That these were the opinions and utterances of Epictetus the philosopher in accordance with the beliefs of the Stoics I read in that book which I have mentioned, and I thought that they ought to be recorded for this reason, that when things of the kind which I have named chance to occur, we may not think that to fear for a time and, as it were, turn white is the mark of a foolish and weak man, but in that brief but natural impulse we yield rather to human weakness than because we believe that those things are what they seem.
In addition to his comments about proto-passions in On Anger, Seneca also wrote:
There are misfortunes which strike the sage – without incapacitating him, of course – such as physical pain, infirmity, the loss of friends or children, or the catastrophes of his country when it is devastated by war. I grant that he is sensitive to these things, for we do not impute to him the hardness of a rock or of iron. There is no virtue in putting up with that which one does not feel. (On the Constancy of the Sage, 10.4)
In The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius appears to be referring to the proto-passions when he writes that although he tells troubling impressions “Go away”, because they have come according to their “ancient manner”, i.e., in the way basic feelings also arise in animals, he is not angry with the feeling, presumably meaning that he does not judge it to be an evil (7.17).
In the following passage, Marcus tells himself to view rough or smooth sensations that impose themselves on his mind with detachment. He notes that unpleasant sensations are bound to impinge upon our awareness because of the natural sympathy between body and mind but we should not try to resist these natural feelings and we should refrain from calling them either good or bad. Rather we should accept the presence even of these “rough” sensations with total indifference.
Make sure that the ruling and sovereign part of your soul remains unaffected by every movement, smooth or violent, in your flesh, and that it does not combine with them, but circumscribes itself, and restricts these experiences to the bodily parts. Whenever they communicate themselves to the mind by virtue of that other sympathy, as is bound to occur in a unified organism, you should not attempt to resist the sensation, which is a natural one, but you must not allow the ruling centre to add its own further judgement that the experience is good or bad. (Meditations, 5.26)
In passages like these Marcus appears to be referring to bodily sensations of pleasure and pain. However, he also seems to recognize that sometimes these sensations will naturally communicate themselves from the body deeper into the mind, and this too is natural and indifferent. He may be referring here to the anxious reactions we naturally have to pain and discomfort, etc., as in the anecdote from Aulus Gellius above.