One of the pleasures of re-reading a book, re-watching a film, re-visiting a place, is that you always discover something new. The Stoics were fond of the idea—which comes from Heraclitus—that we never step in the same river twice. I have found this to be true when it comes to Marcus Aurelius, a man I have written about and studied now for nearly a decade and a half. Each time I read his writing, each time I talk about him, each time I visit a museum or place he lived, I understand him a little differently. I think about him differently. He speaks to me a little differently.
He teaches me something new.
It is amazing Meditations, year after year and read after read, feels both incredibly timely and incredibly timeless (there’s a reason the book has endured now for almost twenty centuries). It’s amazing that a person so famous—known to millions in his own lifetime and subject to countless books and articles and movies—could still be giving off new secrets, but indeed that’s what he’s doing.
In today’s post, I thought I would share some of the ones I have discovered, things you probably don’t know about one of the greatest thinkers, philosophers, and leaders who ever lived.
-He lived through a pandemic. Not just through a pandemic, but they named it after him! The Antonine Plague of 165 CE, a global pandemic with a mortality rate of between 2-3%, began with flu-like symptoms until it escalated and became gruesome and painfully fatal. Millions were infected. Between 10 and 18 million people eventually died. The fact that Marcus Aurelius was writing during a plague, that he may well have died of a plague created a different way for me to see and understand what Marcus was writing about. When he says “you could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think”—he was talking about that in a time when you really could leave life right now. When he talks about how there’s two kinds of plagues: the plague that can take your life and the plague that can destroy your character—he was talking about the things that we’re seeing in the world, that we saw on a daily basis over the last two years. He was writing about a fracturing Rome, a contentious Rome when people were at each other’s throats, when things looked uncertain, when an empire looked like it was in decline.
-He was a crier. We know that Marcus Aurelius cried when he was told that his favorite tutor passed away. We know that he cried that day in court, when he was overseeing a case and the attorney mentioned the countless souls who perished in the plague. We can imagine Marcus cried many other times. Marcus didn’t weep because he was weak. He didn’t weep because he was un-Stoic. He cried because he was human. Because he lived through very painful experiences (as we will see below). Antoninus, Marcus’s stepfather, seemed to be a bit more in touch with his emotions than his young stepson. He seemed to understand how hard Marcus worked to master his temper and his ambitions and his temptations and that this occasionally made him feel bottled up. So when his stepson’s tutor died and he watched the boy sob uncontrollably, he wouldn’t allow anyone to try to calm him down or remind him of the need for a prince to maintain his composure. “Neither philosophy nor empire,” Antoninus said, “takes away natural feeling.”
-His nickname was “Verissimus.” The emperor Hadrian, who would have known young Marcus through his early academic accomplishments, sensed Marcus’ potential at a very early age. His nickname for Marcus, whom he liked to go hunting with, was “Verissimus”—the truest one. I love that. Even as a boy he was showing the earnestness and honesty which would define his time in power.
-He had insomnia. Which makes the fact that he woke up early all the more impressive. As the most powerful man in the world, he didn’t have to do anything. But he was strict on himself about sticking to a schedule. “At dawn,” he reminded himself, “when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself, ‘As a human being I have to go to work…I’m going to do what I was born to do.”
–He had a sense of humor. There is a letter from Marcus to his tutor Fronto about a prank he played on a shepherd. There are also a couple jokes in Meditations, including one about a guy who was “so rich that he had no place to shit.”
-His most trusted general attempted a coup. In 175 CE Marcus Aurelius was betrayed by his most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, in an attempted coup. Marcus could have been angry. He could have demanded all the sadistic revenge possible to a man of his unlimited power. Yet we know from the historians that he handled even this moment with grace and understanding. In fact, he wept when he was deprived of the chance to grant clemency to his former enemy. “The best revenge,” Marcus would write in Meditations, “is to not be like that.”
-He spent 12 years at war. “Life is warfare and a journey far from home,” Marcus writes in Meditations. It was literally true. Some twelve years of his life would be spent at the empire’s northern border along the Danube River, fighting long, brutal wars. Dio Cassius describes the scene of Marcus returning to Rome after one long absence. As he addressed the people, he made a reference to how long he’d been forced to be away. “Eight!” the people cried lovingly. “Eight!” as they held up four fingers on each hand. He had been gone for eight years. The weight of this hit in the moment, and so too must have the adoration of the crowd, even though Marcus often told himself how worthless this was. As a token of his gratitude and beneficence, he would distribute to them eight hundred sesterces apiece, the largest gift from the emperor to the people ever given.
-He had a co-emperor. The first thing the first Roman emperor Augustus did upon seizing power was eliminate Julius Caesar’s illegitimate son, Caesarion. Claudius eliminated senators who threatened his reign. Nero, even with the moderating influence of Seneca, violently dispatched his mother and stepbrother. That’s basically the entire history of emperors and kings—an endless parade of heirs getting rid of other potential heirs. Marcus too had a rival, at least on paper: his stepbrother, Lucius Verus. Yet what did Marcus do? What was the first thing he did with the absolute power that we all know corrupts absolutely? He named his brother co-emperor. He willingly ceded half his power and wealth to someone else. Imagine that.
-He lost EIGHT children. Of Marcus’s children, five sons and three daughters died before he did. No parent should outlive their children. To lose eight of them? So young? It staggers the mind. “Unfair” does not even come close. It’s grotesque. What helped Marcus deal with loss after loss, Brand Blanshard points out, was that he held firmly that the universe was not only logical but good, so he saw it as his duty to not fight against the swings of Fortune. Yet it did stagger him, and multiple times he writes in Meditations about this loss, as it was unquestionably the hardest thing he ever went through.
-He liked the simple life. From the late Roman collection biographies known as the Historia Augusta, we learn that as a boy, Marcus slept on the floor then “at his mother’s solicitation, however, he reluctantly consented to sleep on a couch strewn with skins.” Brand Blanshard adds that he never developed much of an interest in money or the luxuries money could have afforded him. Instead, he likes to spend time on his farm, in a simple woolen tunic. When he visited the philosophers in Alexandria, he dressed like an ordinary citizen. When money was given to him, he signed it away to those who needed it.
-He never claimed to be a Stoic. Gregory Hays, one of Marcus Aurelius’s best translators, writes, “If he had to be identified with a particular school, [Stoicism] is surely the one he would have chosen. Yet I suspect that if asked what it was that he studied, his answer would not have been ‘Stoicism’ but simply ‘philosophy.’” He then notes that in the ancient world, “philosophy” was not perceived the way it is today. It played a much different role. “It was not merely a subject to write or argue about,” Hays writes, “but one that was expected to provide a ‘design for living’—a set of rules to live one’s life by.”
-He actually loved his wife. Despite (unproven) rumors of his wife Faustina’s adultery, Marcus loved her deeply for all their 35 years of marriage. He once wrote to his tutor Fronto, “I would rather live on Gyara [a desert island for criminals] with her than in this palace without her.’”
-He had his life changed by a book. There was a man who changed Marcus’ life. His name was Quintus Junius Rusticus, a teacher who Marcus thanks in book 1 of Meditations “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures—and loaning me his own copy.”
-He had Imposter Syndrome. When Marcus received the news of Hadrian’s plans to have Antoninus Pius adopt him and place him next in line for the throne, he broke down in tears. There was no one he revered more than Antoninus. How could he possibly live up to the task of following in his footsteps? Today, you would say that Marcus was struggling with what we call “imposter syndrome.” As the story goes (which I tell in The Boy Who Would Be King), the night before he was to become emperor, Marcus Aurelius had a dream. In the dream, he found that his shoulders were made of ivory. It was a sign: He was not an imposter. He was not weak. He could do it. And then guess what? He did do it. He—like all of us—had stronger shoulders than he thought.
-He ran for office. Continuing a tradition set by Antoninus, when Marcus Aurelius was a candidate for any office (even the emperor was expected to serve a term as Consul), he approached it as a private citizen, deferring to the Senate and campaigning, in a sign of respect for free elections free elections. Even when his soldiers would proclaim him imperator—an honorific title to salute battlefield performance—Marcus “was not wont to accept any such honor before the senate voted it,” Dio Cassius writes. Even though he was entitled to whatever he wanted, he respected norms and humbled himself.
-He once held a garage sale. The Antonine plague wiped out much of the Roman army. The people couldn’t afford to pay taxes for new troops. “So Marcus held a vast auction of contents of the imperial palace, Brand Blanshard writes in Four Reasonable Men, “and sold gold, crystal and myrrhine drinking vessels, even royal vases, his wife’s silk and gold-embroidered clothing, even certain jewels in fact, which he had discovered in some quantity in an inner sanctum of Hadrian’s.”
-He wrote in Greek. Latin was Marcus’ native tongue, but Greek was “the language of philosophy,” Gregory Hays tells us in the introduction of his translation of Meditations. There he is, in his private journal, challenging himself to write in a more difficult language and doing so so beautifully that he endures all these centuries later. It’s like Steve Jobs learning from his father…
-He was a nerd and a jock. “With his love of learning and his distinguished panel of flattering teachers,” Brand Blanshard writes, “Marcus was probably something of a prig, but he had a lean athletic body, liked to box, swim, fish, and hunt, and as he grew became a handsome man of gracious speech and manners.”
-He spent his last moments consoling others. We’re told that Marcus was quite sick toward the end, far away from home on the Germanic battlefields, near modern-day Vienna. Worried about spreading whatever he had to his son, and also to avoid any complications about succession, Marcus bade him a tearful goodbye and sent him away to prepare to rule. Then with his own end moments away, he was still teaching, still trying to be a philosopher, particularly to his friends, who were bereft with grief. “Why do you weep for me,” Marcus asked them, “instead of thinking about the pestilence and about death which is the common lot of us all?”
-He never stopped learning. Late in his reign, a friend stopped Marcus as he was leaving his home one morning. Where are you going? To handle business? No, Marcus was on his way to attend a philosophy lecture. “Learning is a good thing, even for one who is growing old,” Marcus told the stunned man. “From Sextus the philosopher I shall learn what I do not yet know.”
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