who was marcus aurelius? learning more about the roman emperor
“If we seek Plato’s philosopher-king in the flesh we could hardly do better than Marcus.”― Gregory Hays
Born in 121 AD and educated extensively in rhetoric and philosophy by his teachers, Marcus Aurelius succeeded his adoptive father Antoninus Pius as Emperor of Rome in 161 AD and reigned for nearly two decades until his death in 180. Along with being the most famous proponent of Stoicism, Marcus was also one of the most remarkable leaders throughout history, someone we can all draw inspiration from.
Machiavelli considered the time of rule under Marcus Aurelius “golden time” and him the last of the “Five Good Emperors.” Machiavelli also identified Marcus as “unassuming, a lover of justice, hater of cruelty, sympathetic and kind.” Essayist Matthew Arnold recognized Marcus as “a man who held the highest and most powerful station in the world—and the universal verdict of the people around him was that he proved himself worthy of it.”
Despite his privileges as an Emperor, Marcus Aurelius’ reign was difficult, to say the least, as he encountered one tragedy after another: wars with the Parthian Empire, attacks by the barbarian tribes on the northern border, the rise of Christianity as well as the infamous plague that left numerous people dead.
Marcus nonetheless faced these unprecedented challenges head-on, with total Stoic equanimity and endurance. The Roman historian Cassius Dio therefore concluded:
“[Marcus Aurelius] did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire.”
This is why Marcus is such an exemplary figure and someone we can look up to whenever we find ourselves dealing with a crisis or catastrophe.
Marcus was not only an emperor, but also a philosopher who based his ideas on the traditions of Stoicism, an ancient school of thought that honored the three disciplines — perception, action, and will — to live a joyful and meaningful life. As he faced innumerable challenges during his rule, particularly while he directed military campaigns, Marcus wrote down his personal reflections on Stoicism in twelve books of his private journals (this is estimated to have occurred between 170 and 180 AD). These writings later became known as Meditations, one of the most influential self-help books of all time and a cornerstone classic of Stoic philosophy.