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.