Biography of Marcus Aurelius


Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180)

Herbert W. Benario

Emory University

A bust of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c)2001 Justin Paola

Introduction and Sources

The Vita of the emperor in the collection known as the Historia Augusta identifies him in its heading as Marcus Antoninus Philosophus, "Marcus Antoninus the Philosopher." Toward the end of the work, the following is reported about him, sententia Platonis semper in ore illius fuit, florere civitates si aut philosophi imperarent aut imperantes philosopharentur (27.7), "Plato's judgment was always on his lips, that states flourished if philosophers ruled or rulers were philosophers." It is this quality of Marcus' character which has made him a unique figure in Roman history, since he was the first emperor whose life was molded by, and devoted to, philosophy (Julian was the second and last). His reign was long and troubled, and in some ways showed the weaknesses of empire which ultimately led to the "Decline and Fall," yet his personal reputation, indeed his sanctity, have never failed of admirers. Contributing to his fame and reputation is a slender volume of Stoic philosophy which served as a kind of diary while he was involved in military campaigns, the Meditations, a book which can be described as an aureus libellus, a little golden book.

The sources for understanding Marcus and his reign are varied but generally disappointing. There is no major historian. The chief literary sources are the biography in the Historia Augusta, as well as those of Hadrian, Antoninus, Verus, and Avidius Cassius. Debate about this collection of imperial biographies has been heated and contentious for more than a century. In all likelihood, it is the work of a single author writing in the last years of the fourth-century. The information offered ranges from the precisely accurate to the wildly imaginative.

Cassius Dio, who wrote in the decade of the 230s, produced a long history of the empire which has survived, for our period, only in an abbreviated version. Fourth century historians, such as Aurelius Victor and Eutropius, occasionally furnish bits of information. Marcus' teacher, Fronto, a distinguished orator and rhetorician, is extremely useful. Papyri, inscriptions, coins, legal writings, and some of the church writers, such as Tertullian, Eusebius, and Orosius, are very important. Archaeology and art history, with their interpretation of monuments, make the history of Marcus' principate literally visible and offer important clues for understanding the context of his actions..

Early Life

He was born M. Annius Verus on April 26, 121, the scion of a distinguished family of Spanish origin (PIR2 A697). His father was Annius Verus (PIR2 A696), his mother Domitia Lucilla (PIR2 D183). His grandfather held his second consulate in that year and went on to reach a third in 126, a rare distinction in the entire history of the principate, and also served Hadrian as city prefect.[[1]] The youth's education embraced both rhetoric and philosophy; his manner was serious, his intellectual pursuits deep and devoted, so that the emperor Hadrian took an interest in him and called him "Verissimus," "Most truthful," by punning on his name.[[2]] He received public honors from an early age and seems to have long been in Hadrian's mind as a potential successor. When Hadrian's first choice as successor, L. Ceionius Commodus, died before his adoptive father, the second choice proved more fruitful. The distinguished senator T. Aurelius Fulvus Boionius Arrius Antoninus, from Cisalpine Gaul, did succeed Hadrian, whose arrangements for the succession planned for the next generation as well. He required Antoninus to adopt the young Verus, now to be known as M. Aelius Aurelius Verus, as well as Commodus' son, henceforth known as L. Aelius Aurelius Commodus (PIR2 C606). The former was a bit more than seventeen years old, the latter was eight.

Career under Antoninus Pius

The long tenure of Antoninus Pius proved one of the most peaceful and prosperous in Roman history. The emperor himself was disinclined to military undertakings and never left Italy during his reign. Disturbances to the pax Romana occurred on the fringes of empire. Responses were decisive and successful, with legates in charge in the provinces. As a consequence, neither Caesar gained military experience nor was shown to the armies, a failing which later could have proved decisive and disastrous. Marcus rose steadily through the cursus honorum, holding consulates in 140 and 145, combining magistracies with priesthoods. He received the tribunicia potestas in 147, and perhaps also imperium proconsulare. Yet he never neglected the artes liberales. His closest contacts were with Fronto (c.95-c.160), the distinguished rhetorician and orator.[[3]] His acquaintance included many other distinguished thinkers, such as Herodes Atticus (c.95-177), the Athenian millionaire and sophist,[[4]] and Aelius Aristides (117-c.181), two of whose great speeches have survived and which reveal much of the mood and beliefs of the age.[[5]] Yet it was Epictetus (c.50-c.120) who had the greatest philosophical impact [[6]] and made him a firm Stoic.[[7]] In the year 161 Marcus celebrated his fortieth birthday, a figure of noble appearance and unblemished character. He was leading a life which gave him as much honor and glory as he could have desired, probably much more than his private nature enjoyed, yet his life, and that of the empire, was soon to change. The emperor died on March 7, but not before clearly indicating to magistrates and senate alike his desire that Marcus succeed him by having the statue of Fortuna, which had been in his bedroom, transferred to Marcus.[[8]] There was no opposition, no contrary voice, to his succession. He immediately chose his brother as co-emperor, as Hadrian had planned. From the beginning of the year they were joint consuls and held office for the entire year. Their official titulature was now Imperator Caesar M. Aurelius Antoninus Augustus and Imperator Caesar L. Aurelius Verus Augustus. The military qualities adumbrated by the word Imperator were soon much in demand, for the empire was under pressure in the year 161 in Britain, in Raetia, and in the east, where Parthia once again posed a significant danger.[[9]]

The Parthian War (161-166)

The incursion in northern Britain and the difficulties along the Danube were soon satisfactorily managed by legates. The danger in the East was of a different magnitude. Tensions between Rome and Parthia had intensified in the last years of Antoninus' reign over control of Armenia, the vast buffer state which had often aroused enmity between the two powers, since each wished to be able to impose a king favorable to its interests. With Antoninus' death and the uncertainty attendant upon a new emperor (in this case two, a dyarchy, for the first time in Rome's history), the Parthian monarch, Vologaeses III, struck rapidly, placed his own candidate upon the Armenian throne, and inflicted severe setbacks upon the Roman forces sent to oppose him. Marcus decided to send his colleague Lucius Verus, whose imperial prestige would underscore the seriousness of the empire's response. Verus lacked military experience and was sorely lacking in the attributes of leadership and command; further, he was notorious for being chiefly interested in amusements and luxury. But Marcus surrounded him with several of the best generals at the empire's disposal, chief among them Avidius Cassius (c.130-175)(PIR2 A1402). From 162 on, Rome's successes and conquests were extensive and decisive. Most of Parthia's significant cities and strongholds, such as Seleucia and Ctesiphon, were stormed and destroyed, and the army's movements eastward recalled the movements of Alexander the Great some five centuries earlier. By 166, Parthia had capitulated and a Roman nominee sat on the Armenian throne. The victory appeared to be the most decisive since Trajan's conquest of Dacia, but, when Verus returned to Italy with his triumphant army, there came also a devastating plague, which had enormous effect on all provinces.

As is the case with all ancient diseases, it is almost impossible to identify this one. In all likelihood, however, it was smallpox; how severe the toll was is debated.[[10]] Clearly, it cast a pall over the triumph celebrated by the two emperors, who were honored with the titles Armeniacus and Parthicus. The last years of this decade were dominated by efforts to overcome the plague and provide succour to its victims. But already in 166, the German tribes smashed the Danubian limes, threatening the empire's stability and even existence,more than Parthia had ever done. From the north had come a far greater threat to the empire's stability, indeed existence, than that of Parthia had been. The first campaigns were punctuated by the death of Verus in 169, leaving Marcus as sole emperor. And so began the most difficult period of his life.

The German Wars

Early in 169, the Marcomanni and Quadi crossed the Danube, penetrated the intervening provinces, and entered Italy. The culmination of their onslaught was a siege of Aquileia. The effect upon the inhabitants of the peninsula was frightful. This was the first invasion of Italy since the late second century B.C., when the Cimbri and Teutones had been separately crushed by Marius. Perhaps more vivid in the collective imagination was the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 387, when the city was saved only by the payment of ransom.

The two emperors hastened north, after a rapid mobilization of forces, which included the drafting of slaves, since the manpower potential of the empire had been so impaired by the consequences of the plague and the losses and troop commitments in the East. Verus died while in the north;[[11]] Marcus returned to Rome with the body and gave his brother full honors. He then turned north again and began his counterattacks against the barbarians. He did not know it at the time, but he was destined to spend most of his remaining years on the northern frontier. The only interlude was caused by revolt in the east.

We have no record of Marcus' ultimate intentions in these campaigns, yet the various stages were clear. First and foremost, the enemy had to be driven out of Italy and then into their own territory beyond the Danube. He strove to isolate the tribes and then defeat them individually, so that the ultimate manpower superiority of the empire and its greater skill in warfare and logistics could more easily be brought to bear. It was a successful strategy, as one tribe after another suffered defeat and reestablished ties with Rome. But it was a time-consuming and expensive operation, requiring the recruitment of two new legions, II Italica and III Italica, the construction of many new camps, such as the legionary fortress at Regensburg, with success accruing year by year. He intended to create two new provinces, Marcomannia and Sarmatia, thereby eliminating the Hungarian Plain and the headwaters of the Elbe as staging areas for invasion.[[12]]

This steady, slow progress was interrupted in 175 by the action of the distinguished general Avidius Cassius, governor of Syria, who claimed the empire for himself.[[13]] Whether he responded to a rumor of Marcus' death or, as gossip had it, conspired with Marcus' wife, the emperor's response was quick and decisive. Leaving the northern wars, he traveled to the East, but Avidius was killed before Marcus arrived in the region. After spending time settling affairs and showing himself to some of the provinces, with particular attention shown to Athens, where he was initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries, as Hadrian and Verus had been. He returned to Italy and soon answered the call to duty once more on the northern frontier. He took with him as colleague his son Commodus, now merely sixteen years old but already long since marked out as his father's intended successor. The military campaigns proved successful, but in the spring of 180, when Marcus died, at least one more year of warfare was necessary for the attainment of the grand enterprise. Marcus recommended to Commodus continuation of the war, but the new emperor was eager to return to Rome and the ease and luxury of the imperial court and entered into a peace agreement. Never again was Rome to hold the upper hand in its dealings with the Germanic tribes beyond the now reestablished borders of the empire.

Administrative and Religious Policy

Marcus was a conscientious and careful administrator who devoted much attention to judicial matters.[[14]] His appointments to major administrative positions were for the most part admirable. Difficult tasks were put in the charge of the most capable men; he was not afraid of comparison with his subordinates. Social mobility continued as it had been under his predecessors, with men from the provinces advancing into the upper echelons of the Roman aristocracy. Those of humble birth could make a good career; such a one was Pertinax (126-193)[[15]], a gifted general, who in early 193 became emperor for a space of less than three months.

The judicial administration of Italy was put in the hands of iuridici, who represented the emperor and thus spoke with his authority. This was a practice which had been established by Hadrian but had been allowed to lapse by Antoninus. The centralization of government continued apace. The imperial finances were sorely stretched by the almost continuous wars. Trajan had brought great wealth, Decebalus' treasure, into the empire after his conquest of Dacia. No such profit awaited Marcus. When preparing for the northern wars, he auctioned off much of the imperial palace's valuables.[[16]] In spite of the enormous expenses of war, Commodus found ample funds upon his accession as sole emperor for his expenditures and amusements.

Although Marcus was a devoted thinker and philosopher, he was deeply religious, at least outwardly. The state cult received full honor, and he recognized the validity of other people's beliefs, so that the variety of religions in the vast extent of the empire caused no difficulties for inhabitants or government, with one significant exception. The Christians were not hampered by any official policy; indeed the impact of the church spread enormously in the second century. Yet their availability as scapegoats for local crises made them subject to abuse or worse. There was violence against them in 167, and perhaps the worst stain on Marcus' principate stemmed from the pogrom of Christians in Lugdunum in southern France in 177. He did not cause it, nor, on the other hand, did he or his officials move to stop it. Indeed, Tertullian called him a friend of Christianity. Yet the events were a precursor of what would come in the century and a quarter which followed.[[17]]

Building Programs and Monuments

Many of Marcus' predecessors transformed the face of the capital with their building programs, either by the vast range of their undertaking or by the extraordinary significance of individual monuments. Others did very little to leave a tangible mark. Marcus fell into the latter group. There is record of very few monuments for which he and his brother were responsible. Very early in their reign they honored the deceased Antoninus with a column in the Campus Martius, no longer in situ but largely surviving. The shaft, which seems not to have been sculpted, was used for the restoration of Augustus' obelisk, now in Piazza Montecitorio, in the eighteenth century. The base, which was sculpted on all four sides, is now on display in the Vatican Museum. The chief feature is the apotheosis of the emperor and his long deceased wife, the elder Faustina, as they are borne to heaven. Also presented on this relief are two eagles and personifications of the goddess Roma and of the Campus Martius, represented as a young male figure.

There were three arches which commemorated the military achievements of the two emperors. No trace has been found of an early monument to Verus. Two arches later honored Marcus, both of which have disappeared but have left significant sculptural remains. The eight rectangular reliefs preserved on the Arch of Constantine came from one arch. Similarly, the three reliefs displayed in the stairwell of the Conservatori Museum on the Capitoline Hill came from another. One relief has disappeared from the latter monument.

Certainly the best known monument of Marcus' principate is the column, which rises from Piazza Colonna. It is twin to Trajan's column in height and design, although the artistic craftsmanship of the reliefs which envelop the shaft is much inferior. The subject is Marcus' campaigns against the Marcomanni and Sarmati in the years 172-75. The most interesting panel represents the famous rainstorm, when the army, overwhelmed by drought, was suddenly saved by the divine intervention of rain.[[18]] Although begun in the latter part of the decade, the column was not completed until 193, when Septimius Severus had become emperor.

The famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which survived the centuries near San Giovanni in Laterano because the rider was identified as Constantine, no longer greets the visitor to the Capitoline, where Michelangelo had placed it in the sixteenth century. It was removed in the 1980s because pollution was destroying it. After careful treatment and restoration, it is now displayed within the museum, with a replica placed in the center of the piazza.

Although outside Rome, mention should be made of the monumental frieze commemorating Lucius Verus' victory over the Parthians in 165. It was an ornament of the city of Ephesus; the extensive sculptural remains are now in the Ephesus Museum in Vienna.


As part of Hadrian's plans for his succession, when Ceionius Commodus was his choice, Marcus was betrothed to the latter's daughter. But when Ceionius died and Antoninus became Hadrian's successor, that arrangement was nullified and Marcus was chosen for the Emperor's daughter, the younger Faustina (PIR2 A716). She had been born in 129, was hence eight years younger than he. They were married in 145; the marriage endured for thirty years. She bore him thirteen children, of whom several died young; the most important were a daughter, Lucilla, and a son Commodus. Lucilla was deployed for political purposes, married first to Lucius Verus in 164, when she was seventeen, and then, after his death, to Claudius Pompeianus Quintianus of Antioch, a much older man who was an important associate of her father (PIR2 C973).[[19]]Commodus became joint-emperor with his father in 177 and three years later ruled alone.

Faustina's reputation suffered much abuse. She was accused of employing poison and of murdering people, as well as being free with her favors with gladiators, sailors, and also men of rank, particularly Avidius Cassius. Yet Marcus trusted her implicitly and defended her vigorously. She accompanied him on several campaigns and was honored with the title mater castrorum. She was with him in camp at Halala in southern Cappadocia in the winter of 175 when she died in an accident. Marcus dedicated a temple to her honor and had the name of the city changed to Faustinopolis. [[20]]

Death and Succession

In early 180, while Marcus and Commodus were fighting in the north, Marcus became ill. Which disease carried him off we do not know, but for some days Marcus took no food or drink, being now eager to die.[[21]] He died on March 17, in the city of Vindobona, although one source reports that it was in Sirmium. His ashes were brought to Rome and placed in Hadrian's mausoleum. Commodus succeeded to all power without opposition, and soon withdrew from the war, thereby stymieing his father's designs and ambitions. It was a change of rulers that proved disastrous for people and empire. Dio called the succession a change from a golden kingdom to one of iron and rust.[[22]]


Gibbon called Marcus "that philosophic monarch,"[[23]] a combination of adjective and noun which sets Marcus apart from all other Roman emperors. His renown has, in subsequent centuries, suffered little, although he was by no means a "perfect" person. He was perhaps too tolerant of other people's failings,[[24]] he himself used opium.[[25]] The abundance of children whom his wife bore him included, alas, a male who was to prove one of Rome's worst rulers. How much better it would have been if Marcus had had no son and had chosen a successor by adoption, so that the line of the five good emperors, Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus, Marcus, could have been extended. It was not to be, and for that Marcus must accept some responsibility.

Yet he was a man of ability and a sense of duty who sacrificed his own delights and interests to the well-being of the state. He was capax imperii, he did his best, and history has been kind to him. As Hamlet said to Horatio, when awaiting the appearance of the ghost of his father,

"He was a man! Take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again." (I 2, 187-88)

His memory remains vivid and tactile because of the famous column, the equestrian statue, and his slender volume of thoughts, written in Greek, the Meditations,[[26]] from which I choose two quotations with which to conclude:

"If mind is common to us, then also the reason, whereby we are reasoning beings, is common. If this be so, then also the reason which enjoins what is to be done or left undone is common. If this be so, law also is common; if this be so, we are citizens; if this be so, we are partakers in one constitution; if this be so, the Universe is a kind of Commonwealth." (4.4)

"At dawn of day, when you dislike being called, have this thought ready: 'I am called to man's labour; why then do I make a difficulty if I am going out to do what I was born to do and what I was brought into the world for?'" (5.1; both in Farquharson's translation)


Africa, T.W., "The Opium Addiction of Marcus Aurelius," JHI 22 (1961) 97-102.

____________, "The Philosopher - Marcus Aurelius," in his Rome of the Caesars (New York, 1965) 190-206.

Asmis, E., "The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius," in ANRW II 36.3 (Berlin/New York, 1989) 2228-52.

Becatti, G., La Colonna di Marco Aurelio (Milan, 1957).

Birley, A., Lives of the Later Caesars: The First Part of the Augustan History with Newly Compiled Lives of Nerva and Trajan (London, 1976).

__________, Marcus Aurelius (London, 19872).

Bowersock, G.W., Greek Sophists in the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1969)

Brunt, P.A., "M. Aurelius and His Meditations," JRS 64 (1974) 1-20.

___________, "Stoicism and the Principate," PBSR 43 (1975) 7-35.

___________, "Marcus Aurelius and the Christians," in C. Deroux, ed., Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History (Collection Latomus 64; Brussels 1979) 483-520.

Champlin, E., Fronto and Antonine Rome (Cambridge, MA, 1980).

Eck, W., "Marcus Aurelius," in Der Neue Pauly, 7 (1999) cols. 870-75.

________. "Avidius Cassius," in Der Neue Pauly 2 (1997) 370.

Farquharson, A.S.L., trans., The Meditations of Marcus

Aurelius Antoninus, and a Selection from the Letters of Marcus and Fronto, trans. R.B. Rutherford (Oxford, 1989).

Garzetti, A., From Tiberius to the Antonines (translated by J.R Foster, London, 1974).

Gibbon, E., The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1 (London, 1776).

Gilliam, J.F., "The Plague under Marcus Aurelius," AJP 82 (1961) 225-51.

Grant., M., The Antonines: The Roman Empire in Transition (London and New York, 1994).

Grimal, P., Marc Aurèle (Paris, 1991).

Halfmann, H., Itinera principum (Stuttgart, 1986).

Hammond, M. The Antonine Monarchy (Rome, 1959).

Hendrickx, B., "Once again: Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Philosopher," Historia 23 (1974) 254-56

Keresztes, P., "The Massacre at Lugdunum in 177 A.D.," Historia 16 (1967) 75-86.

_____________, "Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?," HTR 61 (1968) 321-41.

Klein, R., ed., Marc Aurel (Darmstadt, 1979).

Knauer, E.R., Das Reiterstandbild des Kaisers Marc Aurel (Stuttgart, 1968).

Littman, R.J. and M.L., "Galen and the Antonine Plague," AJP 94 (1973) 243-55

Long, A.A., "Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius," in T.J. Luce, ed., Ancient Writers II (New York, 1982) 985-1002.

Marco Aurelio - Mostra di Cantiere (Rome 1984).

Millar, F., A Study of Cassius Dio (Oxford, 1964).

__________, The Emperor in the Roman World (Ithaca, NY, 1977).

Nash, E., Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome, two volumes, (London, 1961-62).

Oliver, J.H. and R.E.A. Palmer, "Minutes of an Act of the Roman Senate," Hesperia 24 (1955) 320-49.

Oliver, J.H., Marcus Aurelius. Aspects of Civic and Cultural Policy in the East (American School of Classical Studies, Princeton: Hesperia Supplement XIII, 1970).

Perowne, S., Caesars and Saints (London 1962.)

___________, The Caesars' Wives - above suspicion? (London, 1974).

Raepsaet-Charlier, M.-T., Prosopographie des Femmes de l'Ordre Sénatorial (Ier-IIe siècles) (Louvain, 1987).

Rosen, K., "Sanctus Marcus Aurelius," in Historiae Augustae Colloquium Argentoratense (Bari, 1998) 285-96.

Rutherford, R.B., The Meditations of M. Aurelius: A Study (Oxford, 1989).

Ryberg, I.S., Panel Reliefs of Marcus Aurelius (New York, 1967).

de Serviez, J.R., tr. B. Molesworth, The Roman Empresses (London, 1752; New York 1913) II 47-91.

Stanton, G.R., "Marcus Aurelius, Emperor and Philosopher," Historia 18 (1969) 570-87.

_____________, "Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, and Commodus: 1962-1972," in ANRW II 2 (Berlin/New York, 1975) 478-549.

Steinby, E.M., Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae, six vols., (Rome, 1993-2000).

Syme, R. "Avidius Cassius: His Rank, Age, and Quality," in Roman Papers V (Oxford, 1988) 689-701

Talbert, R.J.A., The Senate of Imperial Rome (Princeton, 1984).

Vogel, L., The Column of Antoninus Pius (Cambridge, MA, 1973).

Weber, W., "The Antonines," in CAH XI (Cambridge, 1936) 325-92 (a new edition of this volume is expected shortly).


[[1]] HA Marcus 1.

[[2]] HA Marcus 1.10; Dio 69.21.2.

[[3]] See Champlin.

[[4]] See H.C. Rutledge, "Herodes the Great: Citizen of the World," CJ 56 (1960-61) 97-109; W. Ameling, Herodes Atticus (Hildesheim, 1983).

[[5]] See J.H. Oliver, The Ruling Power (Philadelphia, 1953), and The Civilizing Power (Philadelphia, 1968).

[[6]] Epictetus, a former slave, died before Marcus was born. Marcus borrowed a copy of Epictetus' works, as they had been recorded by Arrian, from his teacher Rusticus (Meditations 1.7).

[[7]] See Long, 987: "the Stoics taught that nothing is of ultimate value to a man except his moral integrity."

[[8]] HA Marcus 7.3.

[[9]] HA Marcus 8.6-7.

[[10]] See Littman and Littman for smallpox. Mortality estimates vary widely; Gilliam claims 1-2%, the Littmans 7-10%. The latter state that the plague was not a decisive event in Roman history (255).

[[11]] Dio 71.3.1 reports that he was poisoned after having been discovered to have plotted against Marcus; HA Marcus 15.5-6.
[[12]] HA Marcus 24.5, 27.10.

[[13]] Dio 71.22.2ff; Avidius Cassius was suffect consul about 166 and became governor of Syria in the same year. In 172 he was given an imperium over all the eastern provinces. See R. Syme, "Avidius Cassius: His Rank, Age, and Quality," in Roman Papers V (Oxford, 1988) 689-701 and W. Eck, "Avidius Cassius," in Der Neue Pauly 2 (1997) 370.

[[14]] Dio 71.6.1.

[[15]] Dio 71.22.1.

[[16]] HA Marcus 17.4-5.

[[17]] See Oliver and Palmer, Keresztes, Hendrickx.

[[18]] Dio 71.8-10; HA Marcus 24.4; Aurelius Victor 16; Orosius, Adversus Paganos 7.15.8-9, among many.

[[19]] He is called grandaevus (HA Marcus 20.6).

[[20]] Dio 71.10.5; HA Marcus 26.8-9.

[[21]] Dio 71.21.1 reports that Commodus had physicians end his father's life.

[[22]] Dio 71.36.4. The comment of the author of the HA is intriguing (Marcus 18.4), qui (Marcus), si felix fuisset, filium non reliquisset.

[[23]] Page 8 in the Modern Library edition (n.d.).

[[24]] Dio 71.26.2-4, 30.3-4.

[[25]] See Africa, "Opium."

[[26]] See Long, 996: "In origin the Meditations appear to be thoughts and memoranda that the emperor wrote in his own hand for his self-improvement and guidance."

Copyright (C) 2001, Herbert W. Benario. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.
De Imperatoribus Romanis

Book One


From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.

From the reputation and remembrance of my father, modesty and a manly character.

From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further, simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.

From my great-grandfather, not to have frequented public schools, and to have had good teachers at home, and to know that on such things a man should spend liberally.

From my governor, to be neither of the green nor of the blue party at the games in the Circus, nor a partizan either of the Parmularius or the Scutarius at the gladiators' fights; from him too I learned endurance of labour, and to want little, and to work with my own hands, and not to meddle with other people's affairs, and not to be ready to listen to slander.

From Diognetus, not to busy myself about trifling things, and not to give credit to what was said by miracle-workers and jugglers about incantations and the driving away of daemons and such things; and not to breed quails for fighting, nor to give myself up passionately to such things; and to endure freedom of speech; and to have become intimate with philosophy; and to have been a hearer, first of Bacchius, then of Tandasis and Marcianus; and to have written dialogues in my youth; and to have desired a plank bed and skin, and whatever else of the kind belongs to the Grecian discipline.

From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic emulation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little hortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practises much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display; and to abstain from rhetoric, and poetry, and fine writing; and not to walk about in the house in my outdoor dress, nor to do other things of the kind; and to write my letters with simplicity, like the letter which Rusticus wrote from Sinuessa to my mother; and with respect to those who have offended me by words, or done me wrong, to be easily disposed to be pacified and reconciled, as soon as they have shown a readiness to be reconciled; and to read carefully, and not to be satisfied with a superficial understanding of a book; nor hastily to give my assent to those who talk overmuch; and I am indebted to him for being acquainted with the discourses of Epictetus, which he communicated to me out of his own collection.

From Apollonius I learned freedom of will and undeviating steadiness of purpose; and to look to nothing else, not even for a moment, except to reason; and to be always the same, in sharp pains, on the occasion of the loss of a child, and in long illness; and to see clearly in a living example that the same man can be both most resolute and yielding, and not peevish in giving his instruction; and to have had before my eyes a man who clearly considered his experience and his skill in expounding philosophical principles as the smallest of his merits; and from him I learned how to receive from friends what are esteemed favours, without being either humbled by them or letting them pass unnoticed.

From Sextus, a benevolent disposition, and the example of a family governed in a fatherly manner, and the idea of living conformably to nature; and gravity without affectation, and to look carefully after the interests of friends, and to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration: he had the power of readily accommodating himself to all, so that intercourse with him was more agreeable than any flattery; and at the same time he was most highly venerated by those who associated with him: and he had the faculty both of discovering and ordering, in an intelligent and methodical way, the principles necessary for life; and he never showed anger or any other passion, but was entirely free from passion, and also most affectionate; and he could express approbation without noisy display, and he possessed much knowledge without ostentation.

From Alexander the grammarian, to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion.

From Fronto I learned to observe what envy, and duplicity, and hypocrisy are in a tyrant, and that generally those among us who are called Patricians are rather deficient in paternal affection.

From Alexander the Platonic, not frequently nor without necessity to say to any one, or to write in a letter, that I have no leisure; nor continually to excuse the neglect of duties required by our relation to those with whom we live, by alleging urgent occupations.

From Catulus, not to be indifferent when a friend finds fault, even if he should find fault without reason, but to try to restore him to his usual disposition; and to be ready to speak well of teachers, as it is reported of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to love my children truly.

From my brother Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain.

From Maximus I learned self-government, and not to be led aside by anything; and cheerfulness in all circumstances, as well as in illness; and a just admixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity, and to do what was set before me without complaining. I observed that everybody believed that he thought as he spoke, and that in all that he did he never had any bad intention; and he never showed amazement and surprise, and was never in a hurry, and never put off doing a thing, nor was perplexed nor dejected, nor did he ever laugh to disguise his vexation, nor, on the other hand, was he ever passionate or suspicious. He was accustomed to do acts of beneficence, and was ready to forgive, and was free from all falsehood; and he presented the appearance of a man who could not be diverted from right rather than of a man who had been improved. I observed, too, that no man could ever think that he was despised by Maximus, or ever venture to think himself a better man. He had also the art of being humorous in an agreeable way.

In my father I observed mildness of temper, and unchangeable resolution in the things which he had determined after due deliberation; and no vainglory in those things which men call honours; and a love of labour and perseverance; and a readiness to listen to those who had anything to propose for the common weal; and undeviating firmness in giving to every man according to his deserts; and a knowledge derived from experience of the occasions for vigorous action and for remission. And I observed that he had overcome all passion for boys; and he considered himself no more than any other citizen; and he released his friends from all obligation to sup with him or to attend him of necessity when he went abroad, and those who had failed to accompany him, by reason of any urgent circumstances, always found him the same. I observed too his habit of careful inquiry in all matters of deliberation, and his persistency, and that he never stopped his investigation through being satisfied with appearances which first present themselves; and that his disposition was to keep his friends, and not to be soon tired of them, nor yet to be extravagant in his affection; and to be satisfied on all occasions, and cheerful; and to foresee things a long way off, and to provide for the smallest without display; and to check immediately popular applause and all flattery; and to be ever watchful over the things which were necessary for the administration of the empire, and to be a good manager of the expenditure, and patiently to endure the blame which he got for such conduct; and he was neither superstitious with respect to the gods, nor did he court men by gifts or by trying to please them, or by flattering the populace; but he showed sobriety in all things and firmness, and never any mean thoughts or action, nor love of novelty. And the things which conduce in any way to the commodity of life, and of which fortune gives an abundant supply, he used without arrogance and without excusing himself; so that when he had them, he enjoyed them without affectation, and when he had them not, he did not want them. No one could ever say of him that he was either a sophist or a home-bred flippant slave or a pedant; but every one acknowledged him to be a man ripe, perfect, above flattery, able to manage his own and other men's affairs. Besides this, he honoured those who were true philosophers, and he did not reproach those who pretended to be philosophers, nor yet was he easily led by them. He was also easy in conversation, and he made himself agreeable without any offensive affectation. He took a reasonable care of his body's health, not as one who was greatly attached to life, nor out of regard to personal appearance, nor yet in a careless way, but so that, through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician's art or of medicine or external applications. He was most ready to give way without envy to those who possessed any particular faculty, such as that of eloquence or knowledge of the law or of morals, or of anything else; and he gave them his help, that each might enjoy reputation according to his deserts; and he always acted conformably to the institutions of his country, without showing any affectation of doing so. Further, he was not fond of change nor unsteady, but he loved to stay in the same places, and to employ himself about the same things; and after his paroxysms of headache he came immediately fresh and vigorous to his usual occupations. His secrets were not but very few and very rare, and these only about public matters; and he showed prudence and economy in the exhibition of the public spectacles and the construction of public buildings, his donations to the people, and in such things, for he was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man's acts. He did not take the bath at unseasonable hours; he was not fond of building houses, nor curious about what he ate, nor about the texture and colour of his clothes, nor about the beauty of his slaves. His dress came from Lorium, his villa on the coast, and from Lanuvium generally. We know how he behaved to the toll-collector at Tusculum who asked his pardon; and such was all his behaviour. There was in him nothing harsh, nor implacable, nor violent, nor, as one may say, anything carried to the sweating point; but he examined all things severally, as if he had abundance of time, and without confusion, in an orderly way, vigorously and consistently. And that might be applied to him which is recorded of Socrates, that he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul, such as he showed in the illness of Maximus.

To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offence against any of them, though I had a disposition which, if opportunity had offered, might have led me to do something of this kind; but, through their favour, there never was such a concurrence of circumstances as put me to the trial. Further, I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather's concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season, but even deferred the time; that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show; but that it is in such a man's power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought, or more remiss in action, with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler. I thank the gods for giving me such a brother, who was able by his moral character to rouse me to vigilance over myself, and who, at the same time, pleased me by his respect and affection; that my children have not been stupid nor deformed in body; that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if I had seen that I was making progress in them; that I made haste to place those who brought me up in the station of honour, which they seemed to desire, without putting them off with hope of my doing it some time after, because they were then still young; that I knew Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; that I received clear and frequent impressions about living according to nature, and what kind of a life that is, so that, so far as depended on the gods, and their gifts, and help, and inspirations, nothing hindered me from forthwith living according to nature, though I still fall short of it through my own fault, and through not observing the admonitions of the gods, and, I may almost say, their direct instructions; that my body has held out so long in such a kind of life; that I never touched either Benedicta or Theodotus, and that, after having fallen into amatory passions, I was cured; and, though I was often out of humour with Rusticus, I never did anything of which I had occasion to repent; that, though it was my mother's fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that, whenever I wished to help any man in his need, or on any other occasion, I was never told that I had not the means of doing it; and that to myself the same necessity never happened, to receive anything from another; that I have such a wife, so obedient, and so affectionate, and so simple; that I had abundance of good masters for my children; and that remedies have been shown to me by dreams, both others, and against bloodspitting and giddiness...; and that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of appearances in the heavens; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune.

Among the Quadi at the Granua.