Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The noblest Roman of them all


Exactly one thousand eight hundred and fifty years ago this month Marcus Aurelius became Emperor of Rome. He ranks as one of my favourite figures in all of history, not just a ruler but a thinker. His Meditations, never intended for publication, are a brilliant series of stoic reflections addressed to himself, musings on all aspects of existence.

Now I have the well-thumbed Penguin edition as a companion, but I first came across the book years ago in and much older edition, published under the title To Himself, which father has in his library. To begin with (I was in my mid-teens) I did not fully understand the depth and subtlety of Marcus’ thinking, but it grew on me steadily. I would not dare to underline passages, or add marginalia, to father’s antique edition but you should see my own!

I find it so impressive that he found the time for such deep reflection, flights of thought which mark him out as one of the great stoic philosophers, because his reign was beset with all sorts of troubles, the early signs of the profound crisis that was to overtake the Roman world in the following century.

He was to spend so much time in camps, defending frontiers from the onset of hostile enemies. I would guess that the life he was obliged to lead would fill most normal individuals with a sense of weariness, cynicism, frustration and anger, or the kind of all too worldly calculations that one finds in the writings of Julius Caesar, but not him. He is perhaps the best examples ever of his own maxim that nothing happens to a man that he is not formed by nature to bear. “Do every act of your life as if it were your last”, he also said to himself, another maxim to which he remained true.

Future generations of Romans would have just cause to look back on the reign of Marcus as the last golden age. One of the greatest, most benign emperors was to be succeeded by one of the least and most malign. In place of the worthy father came Commodus, the worthless son. It showed the canker that lay at the heart of the whole system of governance established by Augustus, which time after time allowed self-indulgence to triumph over self-discipline.

Marcus Aurelius was the exception, not the rule. There was something almost superhuman about him, something of the apprehension of a god. He was the noblest and greatest Roman of them all. Ave Imperator!

Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too.

21 comments:

  1. What goes up must come down.. or so they say.

    "Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too."

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  2. The fellow came out in "Gladiator" with Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix.

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  3. Yes, they both did, Anthony, the father and the son.

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  4. Marcus Aurelius on human nature, "speak so that I may know thee", in this format it is 'typewrite'.

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  5. All that was lacking was the "Holy Ghost".

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  6. It's the problem with all governments, Ana--quality control.

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  7. Anthony, his concep of the divine was not nearly quite so Christian.

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  8. I went looking for some information about Thomas Jefferson's views of Marcus Aurelius, and came upon this interesting site:

    http://www.celebritytypes.com/philosophers/infj.htm

    I have mixed feelings about MA. There's little doubt that he was a 'virtuous' individual by our standards, but he failed to take the actions necessary to secure the future of Rome and the Empire. The result? Disaster for the people who were his charge and responsibility following his death.

    The fate of Rome calls into question what characteristics a great leader should have. Perhaps personal integrity is less important than a cynic's eye and a proficiency in political blackmail . . . I confess my favourite Romans were Republicans.

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  9. Ana, thanks for sharing this wonderful thoughts over this wonderful historical figure. I have ordered the version of penguin classic (also ambitiously ordered bunches of others:-). Hope I will get them soon.

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  10. Calvin, oh I will be very interested to look at that. As I say, there were limits to the Augustan system of governance, the Principate, the pretend republic, that even a figure as great as Marcus could not address. The solution was found by Diocletian, my second favourite emperor. I admire the early republic but the later republic was a bloodthirsty mess.

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  11. Yun Yi, I hope you find as much inspiration as I have.

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  12. " . . . the later republic was a bloodthirsty mess." Blame climate change and grapes. As soon as the weather warms up those latin types get all hot under the toga and start swilling wine to cool off. Before you know it, there's trouble in Tiber City . . .

    Have you seen the latest Spartacus series? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spartacus:_Gods_of_the_Arena

    I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it yet.

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  13. Is Berlusconi a Roman, a romantic, or just a guy with a roaming eye? Whatever, a true descendent of times long past...
    :-)

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  14. My well thumbed version of MA's Meditations led to the journey of early Christianity and its relation to first century Rome a la Cult of Mithras/St.Peters (archeologically and practionally). Of interest also was Edwards, Death in Ancient Rome. It also formed a simulacrum for "The Gospel According to Zen."

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