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Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius


Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius occupies a unique position in the world's history. Though a Stoic philosopher of the strictest views and practice, he was sovereign of the Roman Empire at the time of its widest extent. Though a Pagan, he has elicited the highest praise for moral character and teachings from the highest Christian authorities, yet he was unflinchingly hostile to Christianity, and his reign was marked by severe persecutions of the early Church. He has left a work which shares the popularity and fame of Thomas A Kempis' "Imitation of Christ" The difficulty of solving this historical enigma is enhanced by the entire transparency of his words and deeds.


Marcus Aurelius, the noblest of the Pagan Emperors, was born of a noble family at Rome, in April, 121 A.D. His father: Annius Verus, who held the office of Praetor, died, leaving him an infant to the care of his mother, Domitia Calvilla. His own original name was Marcus Annius Verus. He was liberally and carefully educated tinder direction of his grandfather, by a.ble teachers, among whom were Fronto, Rusticus and Herodes Atticus. In early youth he became a devoted lover of the Stoic philosophy, and his practice rendered him the most illustrious ornament of that sect. The natural goodness of his heart, and sweetness of his temper, preserved him from the pride and asperity which sometimes appeared in the Stoic character. In 138, A.D., his uncle Antoninus Pius, became Emperor, as the successor of Hadrian. The latter had adopted Antoninus Pius on condition that he should adopt young Verus, then full of promise. Had the law permitted, Hadrian would probably have adopted him directly as his successor. After Veru had been adopted by the new Emperor, he bore the name of Marcus Elius Aurelius Antoninus; but he is generally known as Marcus Aurelius.


He married Faustina, a daughter of Autoninus Pius, who, strange to say, though reared in a nursery of virtues, became, according to the gossiping historians of the time, notorious for her vices. But Aurelius, in his .. Meditations," declares the contrary, and testi6es to her goodness. After being chosen Consul, in 140, A. D., Aurelius was associated with his uncle in the administration of the Empire, and possessed all the honor and power which Antoninus could confer upon him. Complete concord existed between these imperial rulers till the death of Autoninus, in 161 A.D. A short time before his death, Antoninus recommended Marcus Aurelius as, his successor to the leading men of Rome, without mentioning his other adopted son, called Lucius Vents. Marcus could have become the sole Emperor but he showed his magnanimity by admitting Lucius Verus as a partner in the Empire, and giving him the title of Caesar and Augnstus. Verus, a weak and somewhat vicious person, showed respect for his colleague, and deferred habitually to his judgment and will, so that they reigned together without discord, until Verus died, I&J A.D., after which Aurelius remained sole master of the Empire.


The early years of this reign were disturbed by earth. quakes, inundatious, plagues of insects and other calamities. The Parthians defeated a Roman army and ravaged Syria. Another Roman army sent to Armenia gained a victory over the Parthians in 165 A. D., aud the Parthian war then terminated. Although M. Aurelius preferred peace, he was almost continually involved in war. His reign was disturbed by inroads of the German trie of Marcomanni and Quadi and other barbarians. In 174 A.D. he gained a decisive victory over the Quadi, which was generally regarded as a miracle by both Christians and Pagans. In this battle the thirsty Romans were refreshed by a shower of rain; while the hail and thunder, which accompanied the rain, confounded and demoralized their enemies. The heathen writers ascribed the victory to Jupiter; but the Christians affirmed that tbeir God granted this favor to the prayers of Christian soldiers who fanned a legion in the Roman army. This Miracle of the Thundering Legion" gave rise to a famous controversy among the early historians of Christianity.


M. Aurelius was prevented from following up the advantage he had gained by alarming reports of disturbances in the East According to Dion Cassius, the vicious Empress Faustina, anticipating the speedy death of the Emperor, opened a correspondence with Avidius Cassius, an able general, who had the chief command in the Eastern provinces. She offered him her hand and the throne. Cassius revolted and caused himself to be proclaimed Emperor, in 175, A.D., and made himself master of a large part of Asia j but he was assassinated by his own officers about three months after he assumed the purple. M. Aurelius acted with characteristic magnanimity on this occasion, treated with great lenity those who had taken part in the rebellion, and requested the Senate to par· don all the family of A. Cassius. While he was in Asia, ill 176 A.D., his wife, Faustina, died.


Soon after the death of Faustina, Aurelius visited Athens, and was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. Returning to Rome after a long absence, near the end of 176, he celebrated a triumph, in which his son commodus shared, for the victories in Germany Archdeacon Farrar in his "Seekers after God," describes the manner in which M. Aurelius per. fanned bis arduous duties in these terms: He regarded himself as being in fact the servant of all. It was his duty, like that of the bull in the herd, to confront every peril in his own person, to be foremost in all the hardships of war, and most deeply immersed in all the toils of peace, These and other duties so completely absorbed his attention, that ill spite of indifferent health, they often kept him at severe labor from early morning til long after midnight." It is said that he exposed his person to eight winter campaigns all the frozen banks of the Danube.


In August, 177 A. D., Aurelius again led an army to the German frontier, and the Marcomanni, Quadi and Sarmatae were again defeated by his army, which he commanded in person. During a campaign against the Marcomanni, be died in March, 180 A. D., either at Vindobona Vienna or at Sirmium in Pannonia. He was succeeded by his son Commodus, who erected to the memory of his father the Antonine Column, which is now standing in the Piazza Colonna at Rome.


The death of Marcus Aurelius caused universal mourning throughout the empire. His thoughts and doctrines are preserved in his excellent ethical work, written in Creek and entitled " Meditations," which remains a memorable manual of Stoic moral discipline. Aurelius had founded at Athens a chair of philosophy for each of the four sects, Stoic, Platonic, Peripatetic and Epicurean. His life," says Gibbon, "was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind." The only stain on his memory and strange anomaly in his character is his persecution of the Christians. Among the Christians who suffered martyrdom in his reign were Justin Martyr and Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna. In his "Meditations" he makes a contemptuous reference to the Christians; but he appears to have been really ignorant of their doctrines and conduct He regarded them as foes of the social order which he considered it was his duty to maintain. "His writings," says John Stuart Mill, ., the highest ethical product of the ancient mind, differ scarcely perceptibly from the most characteristic teachings of Christ. This man, a better Christian in all but the dogmatic sense of the word, than almost any of the ostensibly Christian sovereigns who have since reigned, persecuted Christianity. To my mind this is one of the most tragical facts in all history.




The salutary principle of adoption had made of the imperial court, in the second century, a genuine nursery of virtue. 'rite liable and skillful Nerva, in establishing this principle, assured the happiness of the human race for nearly a hundred years, and gave to the world the most beautiful century of progress of which the memory has been preserved. Sovereignty, thus possessed in common by a group of superior men, who delegated it or divided it according to the needs of the moment, lost a part of the attraction which rendered it so dangerous. The chosen one arrived at the throne without having solicited it, and yet without owing it to his or to a sort of divine right; he arrived there disabused, wearied of men, prepared long in advance. The empire was a civil burden which each ruler accepted when his hour came, with· out ever dreaming of hastening that hour. Marcus Aurelius was designated so young that the idea of reigning scarcely had a commenccment with him, aud exercised no seduction over his mind for a moment. At eight years of age, when he was already prasul of the Sal ian priests, Adrian noticed this sad and gentle child, and loved him for his excellent disposition, his docility and his incapacity to lie. At eighteen years the empire was secured to him. lie waited patiently for twenty.two years. The evening when Antouinus felt that he was about to die, after having given as the countersign to the attendant tribune the word Equanimitas, he caused to be carried into the chamber of his adopted son the golden statue of Fortune, which was always found in the appartment of the Emperor. To Marcus Aurelius it brought neither surprise nor joy. For a long time he had been blase to all the pleasures without having lasted them. His profound philosophy had enabled him to see their absolute vanity.


The great inconvenience of practical life, which renders it insupportable to the superior man, is this: if one carries iuto it the principles of the ideal, good qualities become defects to such an extent that the accomplished man often succeeds less than he whose mainspring is egotism and vulgar routine. Two or three times the virtue of Marcus Aurelius came near ruining him. It made him commit a serious mistake in per· suading him to associate with himself in the imperial office Lucius Verus, toward whom he was under no obligation. Vents was a frivolous, worthless man. It required prodigies of goodness and delicacy to hinder him from committing dis· astrous follies. The wise Emperor, earnest and industriolls, carried with him in his litter the stupid colleague he had given himself. He treated him always in a serious mantler, and never once revolted against his wearisome companionship. Like all people who have been well educated, Marcus Aurelius constrained himself unceasingly. His manners came from a general predetermination in favor of firmness and dignity. Minds of this sort, whether from a desire to avoid giving pain, or from respect for human nature, do not resign themselves to
an avowal that they see evil in otbers. Their life is a perpetual dissimulation.


According to some, be must have dissimulated toward himself, because, in his intimate conversation with the gods an the bunks of the Gran, speaking of a spouse who was unworthy of him, he thanked them for having given him "a wife so agreeable, so affectionate, so simple." I have shown elsewhere that the patience, or say, if you will, the weakness of Marcus Aurelius on this point has been somewhat exaggerated. Faustina had faults, the greatest of which was to show an aversion toward the friends of her husband. As it was these friends who wrote history, she has suffered before posterity. An attentive criticism has no trouble, however, in showing the exaggerations of the legend. Everything leads us to believe that at first Faustina found happiness and love in that villa of Lorium, or in that beautiful retreat of Lanuvium, all the slopes of Mount Albano, which :Marcus Aurelius described to Fronto as a dwelling full of the purest joys. Afterward she grew tired of so much wisdom. Let us tell all the fine sentences of Marcus Aurelius, his austere virtue, his perpetual melancholy, must have wearied a young, capricious woman endowed with an ardent temperament and with marvelous beauty. He understood this, suffered from it and was silent. Faustina remained always for him his "very good and very faithful wife." Never did anyone succeed, even after her death, in making him abandon this pions falsehood. Iu a bas·relief which may be seen to-day in the Capitoline Museum at Rome, Faustina is represented being carried by Fume to the sky, while the excellent Emperor, standing 011 the earth, follows her with a look full of love. It seems that ill those latter days he was able to delude himself and forget everything but what a struggle he must have passed through to collie to such a point! During long years a sickness of the heart slowly consumed him. The desperate effort which was the essence If his philosophy-that frenzy of rennuciation, pushed often to sophism-concealed below it an immense wound. How he must have bidden farewell to happiness to arrive at such an excess. We can never know what that poor bruised heart suffered, or how much of bitteruess was coucealed by that pale forehead, always calm and almost always smiling. It is true, however, that the farewell to happiness is the beginning of wisdom and the surest means of finding happiness. There is nothing sweeter than the retunt of joy which follows the renunciation of joy-nothing more vivid, more profound, more charming than the enchantment of the disenchanted.


Some historians, more or less imbued with that policy which thinks itself superior because it cannot be suspected of any trace of philosophy, have naturally sought to prove that so accomplished a man was a bad administrator and a mediocre sovereign. In fact, it appears that Marcus Aurelius erred more than once through too much indulgence. But there was never a reign more fruitful in reforms alld in progress. The system of public aid, founded by Nerva and Trajan, received from him admirable development. New colleges for gratuitous education were established; the procurators of subsistence became functionaries of the first class, and were chosen with extreme care  the education of poor women was provided for by the institutions of the " Young Faustinians." The principle that the State has duties in some sort paternal towards its members a principle which we must remember with gmtitude even when we have out-grown it), this principle, I say, was proclaimed to the world for the first time by the Antonines. Neither the puerile luxury of Oriental mOllarchies, fOllnded all the baseness and stupidity of mankind, nor the pedantic pride of the monarchies of the middle ages, founded on an exaggerated sentiment of hereditament, and on a naive faith in the rights of blood, cun give us an idea of the thoroughly republican sovereignty of Nerva, of Trajan, of Adrian, of Antoninus, of Marcus Aurelius. There was nothjug about it of the hereditary or right-divine prince, nothing of the military chieftain; it was a sort of grand civil magistrucy witbout anything that resembled a court, or took from the emperor his essentially private character. Marcus Aurelius,n particular, was neither little nor much a king in the proper sense of the word. His fortune was industrial, consisting for the most part in brick-yards; his aversion for the Caesars," whom he regarded as a species of Sardanapalus, magnificent, debauched and cruel, constantly displayed itself. The civilian character of his manners was extreme. He restored to the Senate its ancient importance. When he was at Rome he never missed a sitting, and never quitted bis seat till the consul had pronounced the formula, Nihil vos moramur, patres conscripti. He prosecuted war almost every year of his reign, and prosecuted it well, although he found in it only ennui. His insipid campaigns against the Quades and the Marcomans were well conducted; the disgust which he experienced from them did not hinder him from devoting to them the most conscientious application.


It was in the course of one of these expeditions, when, encamped upon the banks of the Gran, in the midst of the monotonous plains of Hungary, that he wrote the most beautiful pages of the exquisite work which reveals to us his whole soul. It is probable that from an early age he kept a private journal of his thoughts. Therein he wrote the maxims to which he had recourse to fortify himself, reminiscences of his favorite authors, passages front the moralists who spoke most to him, principles which had sustained him during the day, occasionally, too, the reproaches which his scrupulous conscience had addressed to him. "There are those who seek out solitary retreats, rustic cottages, the shores of the sea, mountains; like the others, thou too lovest to dream of these places.Wherefore, since it is permitted thee every hour to retire into thy soul? Nowhere has man a more tranquil retreat, especially if he has in himself those things the contemplation of which is sufficient to render him calm. Know, then, how to enjoy this retreat and renew there thy strength. Know that there thou caust find those short fundamental maxims which will at once give serenity to thy soul, and place thee in a condition to support with resignation the world to which thou must return." During the sad winters of the north this consolation became more necessary to him than usual. He was almost sixty years old; age came to him prematurely. One evening all the images of his pious youth revived in his memory, and be passed delicious hours in calculating what he owed to each of the good beings that bad surrounded him.


Examples of my grandfather, Verus gentleness of manner, unalterable patience . .. Qualities taken from my father and souvenirs which he has left me: modesty, manly character. "To imitate my mother's piety and benevolence j to abstain, as she did, not only from doing wrong, but from conceiving the thought of wrong j to lead her frugal life, which resembled so little the habitual luxury of the rich."


Then there appeared to him in succession, Diognetus, who inspired him with a taste for philosophy and rendered agreeable to his eyes the pallet, the covering composed of a simple skill, and all the Hellenic apparel and discipline Junius Rusticus, who taught him to avoid all affectation of elegance in style and who loaned him the work of Epictetus Apollonius of Chalcis, who realized the stoic's ideal of extreme firmness and perfect gentleness Sextus of Chreronea, so grave and so good j Alexander the gmmmarian, who censmed with such refined politeness j Fronto, "who taught him how mnch envy, duplicity and hypocrisy there was in a tyrant, and how much hardness there could be in the heart of a patrician i " his brother, Severns, "who made him acquainted with Thraseas, Helvidius, eato and Brutus, and who gave him the idea of a free State where the natural equality of the citizens and the equality of their rights is the rule-of a royalty which places respect for the liberty of its citizens above everything j" and towering above all the others in his immaculate grandeur, Antoninus, his adopted father, whose image he traces for us with a redoubling of gratitude and love. I thank the gods," says he, in closing, "for having given me good grand-parents, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, and people for my associates and friends who were nearly all filled with goodness. Never have I allowed myself to fail in regard for them i my natural disposition might have led me on some occasions to commit irreverent acts but the kindness of the gods did not permit such occa-sion to arise. I am also indebted to the gods for preserving pure the flower of my youth; for not having made me a man before the age of manhood; for having rather postponed it beyond that time for having brought me lip under the law of a prince and a father who disengaged my mind from all the fumes of pride, and made me comprehend that it is possible, while living in a palace, to dispense with guards, splendid apparell, torches and statues; who taught me, finally, that a prince can compress his life almost within the limits of that of a simple citizen, without displaying on that account any the less of nobleness or vigor when called upon to act as Emperor and deal with affairs of state. They gave me a brother whose manners were a continual exhortation to watch over myself, and whose deference and attachment made at the same time the joy of my heart. Thanks also to the gods, I made haste to elevate those who had cared for my education to the honors which they appeared to desire. It was the gods who made me acquainted with Apollonius, Rusticus and Maximus, and who presented me, surrounded with so much light, the picture of a life conformed to nature. I have halted on this side of the goal, it is truej but mine is the fault. If my body has withstood so long the rude life that I lead; if, in spite of my frequent vexations with Rusticus, I have never passed the limits he prescribed, or done aught which I have now to repent; if my mother, who died young, was able nevertheless to pass her last years near me; if, when I have wished to aid some poor or afflicted person, I have never heard it said that money was lacking if I have never had need to receive anything of anybody; if I have a wife of a character so agreeable, so affectionate, so simple j if I have found so many persons competent to educate my children; if at the beginning of my passion for philosophy I did not become the prey of some sophist, it is to the gods that I am indebted. Yes, so many benefits could only be the effect of the assistance of the gods and of a happy fortune.


This divine candor breathes in every page. Never did a man write more simply for himself, for the sole purpose of unburdening his heart without other witness than God. Here is not a shadow of a system. Marcus Aurelius, to speak correctly, has no philosophy i although he owes almost everything to Stoicism transformed by the Roman spirit, be is or no school. According to our taste he has too little curiosity, for he did not know all that a contemporary ought to have known of Ptolemy and Galen he had some opinions about the system of the world which were not up to the level of the best science of his time. But his moral thought, detached as it was from any tie with a system, gained thereby a singular elevation. The author of the book of the" Imitation" himself, although wholly disengaged from the quarrels of the schools, did not attain that elevation; for his manner of feeling is essentially Christian. Take away the Christian dogmas and his book will retain but a portion of its charm. The book of Marcus Aurelius, having no dogmatic basis, preserves its freshness eternally. Everybody, from the atheist, or him who believes himself one, to the men who is most absorbed in the peculiar beliefs of a particular religion, can fiud edifying fruits there. It is the most purely human book that exists.-ERNEST RENAN.


Marcus Aurelius

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