Meditations on Marcus

The philosopher-emperor who reigned during an age of pandemic and war

Replica of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Hill, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)
Replica of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Hill, Rome (Wikimedia Commons)

“Tell me again, Maximus. Why are we here?” Here is somewhere in the wintry Balkan plains—a long way from Rome—and the question is asked by the emperor Marcus Aurelius of his general Maximus. The answer, we learn, is, “For the glory of the Roman Empire, sire.”

This scene appears early in the 2000 movie Gladiator, and though the star of the film may be Russell Crowe as Maximus, it is Richard Harris as the elderly Marcus Aurelius who steals the scene. (This was more than 30 years after Harris vaulted to fame singing the Jimmy Webb song “MacArthur Park.”) When Maximus, battered but victorious over a Germanic army, is commanded to appear at the emperor’s tent, he enters to find its occupant bowed over a sheaf of parchment and intensely writing. Only after a long silence does a weary-faced and bleary-eyed Harris look up and, wiping his nose, pop his question. We might have thought that the emperor was dashing off official orders. That, after all, is what emperors do. But Marcus drops a hint about what he was writing in the ensuing conversation with Maximus. Asking how the world will speak his name in years to come, Marcus quickly gives Maximus a hint: “As a philosopher?”

The world has indeed remembered Marcus Aurelius as a philosopher. But a philosopher of a particular sort, a Stoic, one who would never wonder what future historians would say about him. Instead, one who wrote, “Soon you will have forgotten all things: soon all things will have forgotten you.”

This year marks, just maybe, the 1,850th anniversary of the birth of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. In 170 CE, Marcus retreated to writing as he advanced to his empire’s northern borders to join his army’s effort to repel the Germanic tribes. The ailing emperor—who had never before led a military campaign or, for that matter, left his native Italy—was struck by these strange lands inhabited by tribes like the Quadi and the Marcomanni, as well as by the rhythms of military camps like Carnuntum, which was established in present-day Austria.

Marcus, however, was not a typical travel writer. Not only does he rarely refer, except in the first section of the Meditations, to places or people, but he also refers to himself only as someone who remains to be made. His notes to himself are, in the phrase of the historian Pierre Hadot, “spiritual exercises”—the means not to inform himself about this thing or that, but instead to form himself according to the insights of Stoicism. Rather than “Here I am on the banks of the Danube,” these private memoranda—a better word than “meditations”—remind him: “Here is what I need to be, regardless of where I am.” The self is hammered into being the way a skilled sculptor chisels a statue. Or, indeed, the way an architect oversees the construction of a fortress like the one at Carnuntum: the goal is to build an “impregnable fortress of the mind,” Marcus Aurelius writes, where one has “no stronger place of retreat.”

Carnuntum has long laid in ruins. A yearly summer Roman festival is held there every year, though the dates have been postponed due to the pandemic. The Meditations, meanwhile, still stands, this summer’s sales cascading. According to Penguin Books, sales of its edition of the book have increased more than 350 percent thanks to the pandemic. The reason is that the world now speaks about Marcus Aurelius not for his effort to maintain Rome’s empire over the world—it fell as must all such empires—but instead for his effort to maintain his empire over himself.

The young Marcus learned from his Stoic teacher Apollonius, whom he praises at the start of the Meditations, as having “no other perspective, even for a moment, than that of reason alone.” Reason is another word for attention: the exercise of unceasing vigilance over one’s outer and inner worlds. This is not the sort of attention needed to take a selfie in front of Carnuntum, but instead the sort of attention needed to reflect on the lesson offered by Carnuntum. “Think how many cities have ‘died’—Helice, Pompeii, Herculaneum, innumerable others,” Marcus reminds himself. What conclusion should one draw? A simple yet supremely difficult one: “Never cease to observe how evanescent are all things human.”

Seneca, who like Marcus Aurelius was both a Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman, berated those who, professing to teach philosophy, were instead puzzling over word games and abstract ideas. Had they no idea how urgent matters become, given the brevity of their lives? Better that they should run around with their togas on fire. “There is no time for playing around,” he exclaims. “Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?”

Even better, though, is to stop running and start seeing. To discern what is within our control and what is not; to apply ourselves to the former and absent ourselves from the latter. In a word, to train ourselves to reason clearly and act reasonably. While camped in wintry Carnuntum, Marcus dashes off another memo: “Train yourself to think only those thoughts such that in answer to the sudden question ‘What is in your mind now?’ you could reply in all honesty that all within you is simple and benevolent and worthy of a social being.”

The French philosopher Simone Weil, who was deeply influenced by the Stoics, was fond of asking others, “How much time each day do you spend thinking?” Among those she asked were the nurses tending to her on her deathbed. For a Stoic, this is a redundancy: all beds are deathbeds.

War is what demographers and epidemiologists call a mass mortality event. Tallying the number of Roman legionnaires killed during the five-century span from Carthage to Germania, the classicist Victor Davis Hanson arrives at the dizzying number of 500,000. As for the body counts of noncombatants and enemy combatants, Hanson does not say. But a glance at the victory column erected in Rome to celebrate the emperor’s eventual victory, its panels depicting the slaying of prisoners of war, savaging of villages, and slaughter of civilians by Roman legionnaires, suggests that the global death toll was much higher.

Nevertheless, the mother of mass mortality events was not war, but plague. For centuries, Rome had cultivated, like a vast petri dish, a variety of endemic diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. By the second century, its sweeping mercantile routes and military reach, combined with a suffocating population density and inadequate infrastructure, turned Rome into what the historian Kyle Harper has called a “pathogen bomb.”

Its fuse was lit in the late 160s. Shortly before Marcus Aurelius left for the empire’s northern frontier, a more formidable enemy slipped across the empire’s eastern frontier: smallpox. By 170 CE, the disease burst into a pandemic, likened by one medical text to a “beast” that “foully destroyed not a few people, but even rampaged over whole cities and destroyed them.” Just how many people and cities is uncertain, and historians offer a wild range of mortality figures, swinging from 1.5 million to 25 million deaths. But one thing is certain: microbes were deadlier than the Marcomanni.

At least one other thing is also certain: Marcus makes just a single direct reference to what we now call the Antonine Plague. In Book Nine of the Meditations, he compares falsehoods to plague: both are toxic, both to be avoided. But, remarkably, the former is more poisonous. “For corruption of the mind,” he writes, “is a far graver pestilence than any comparable disturbance and alteration in the air that surrounds us; for the one is a plague to living creatures as mere animals, and the other to human beings in their nature as human beings.”

Surely, this must be hyperbole. For the last 10 years of his reign, Marcus struggled with the unprecedented economic and demographic consequences of the plague. He must have seen, like his personal doctor, Galen, the horrifying impact of the disease on the body; he must have been rocked to his very foundation, despite the inner citadel he had built, by this pestilence. How, then, could he possibly have believed that lies are worse than loimoi, or plagues?

Well, yes, he could have sincerely—and consistently—believed that. For a Stoic, lying about what we see with our eyes prevents our acting in accord with reality. It blinds us not only to what needs to be done, but also to what attaches us to others: a shared humanity based on the faculty of reason. Those who fail to see and speak clearly about the nature of things, Marcus reminds himself, are lost souls. What should we think, he concludes, “about the man who fears or courts the applause of an audience who have no idea where they are or who they are?”

Such a man was Commudus, Marcus’s one surviving son. In Edward Gibbon’s majestic account of ancient Rome, the rise of Commodus marked the end of the reign of good emperors. From his earliest infancy, Gibbon declares, Commodus “discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal.” He was a weak boy for whom cruelty “degenerated into habit and at length became the ruling passion of his soul.” Insisting he was a god because he was insecure about being a man, Commodus was devoured by “the envy of every kind of merit.” Moreover, encouraged by the “abject servility” of his court, Commodus cultivated the base passions of the crowd through the proliferation of brutal circuses and blood sports.

According to an ancient source, the dying Marcus said about Commodus what the dying Philip said about Alexander: he regretted that he was leaving behind him such a son. While this source’s reliability is suspect, its sentiment rings true.

Though Marcus names the plague just once, it haunts almost every page of his collection of spiritual exercises. Perhaps hovers is a better word than haunts. Though the plague is unprecedented, what usually follows in its path—death—is more common than the cold. For the Stoic, that is how it should be because that it is how it is. Death is not something to turn away from, but instead to turn toward; a fact to be recalled, not regretted; a truth to be accepted, not denied.

But this attitude has nothing in common with resignation or fatalism. Life is evanescent, but it is not empty. Recalling the brevity of life pushes Marcus to return to the purpose of life. “In this world,” he concludes, “there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true nor just.” As the man who was played by the old Richard Harris would have reminded the young Richard Harris of “MacArthur Park” fame, cakes will always be left out in the rain, but if we pay attention, we will always have the recipe again.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Robert Zaretsky teaches in the Honors College at the University of Houston. He is the author most recently of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up