The Long View: Marcus Aurelius: A Life

Bust of Marcus Aurelius By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Bust of Marcus Aurelius

By Pierre-Selim - Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18101954

Another Roman history lesson, courtesy of Frank McLynn's biography of Marcus Aurelius. 

I have been slowly re-reading [for probably the twentieth time] G. K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, and I also find Chesterton's description of Classical Rome strikingly allusive. For Eastern Christians, the Roman Empire was a living presence until 1453, but for Western Christians, with the outsize influence of St. Augustine, the Fall of Rome is far more distant. 

For Catholics especially, Rome is both the model of all future states, and the tyranny that executed Christ and a memorably large number of his followers. No one has ever captured that tension as well as Chesterton.

Another thing that strikes me about The Everlasting Man is how well Chesterton's anthropology and archaeology aged. The sections at the beginning about the Lascaux cave paintings sound like the comment section of Greg Cochran's West Hunter. For a guy whose education was in art and literature, his views on science were very robust.


Marcus Aurelius
A Life

By Frank McLynn
Da Capo Press, 2009
684 Pages, US$30.00
ISBN: 978-0-306-81830-1

 

No less an eminence than Edward Gibbon laid it down that the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius from A.D. 161 to 180 (Marcus was born in 121) was the happiest era in the history of mankind. The author of this long, rambling, thoroughly entertaining biography, Frank McLynn (a noted historical biographer and sometime visiting lecturer at Strathclyde University), will have none of it. Though he plainly admires his subject, calling him conscientious, careworn, and courageous, he judges that the reign of Marcus was the ragged end of a long period of ideological fossilization in a society being gradually undermined by demographic decay and a deteriorating strategic situation. Marcus continued the run of competent good government that the empire had enjoyed since the accession of Nerva, the first of the Five Good Emperors, in A.D. 96. However, in Marcus's time the structural unsustainability of the empire began to become manifest. When Marcus died in 180, the empire under his son and successor, the variously degenerate Commodus, broke out in a toga-party from which it never really recovered. Rather than being the happiest time in human history, the reign of Marcus was simply the last period in Roman history when the greedy and complacent upper class, stultified by their educations, and the degraded and brutal urban proletariat, mollified by deliberately erratic imperial subsidies and blood-drenched public spectacles, could pretend that their world was working normally and would continue to do so forever.

The notion that Marcus Aurelius marks the halftime of the Roman Empire is not a new idea. The author is well aware of the revisionist wars that have riven the study of Roman history since the 1970s. He addresses many of the issues that have become controversial, but he does not try his readers' patience by fighting with his sources or by trying to argue away the glaringly obvious. On demographic issues, he sides with “the upper range of the minimizers,” so that the population of the empire during the Antonine Dynasty (the time of Marcus and his predecessor, Antoninus Pius, who reigned from A.D. 138 to 161) was probably around 70 million and not the fantastically larger figures suggested by some of the revisionists. About depopulation, he holds that it was certainly happening in Italy and that the process had important consequences.

He also lays great stress on the Antonine Plague that afflicted Marcus's later years and which he says may have killed at least 10% of the imperial population. It certainly exacerbated the manpower shortages of those years, as well as probably killing Marcus himself while on campaign in the Danube region. Galen himself was Marcus's physician (though he prudently avoided going on campaign with the emperor), and from Galen's studies of the disease the author surmises that the plague was a form of small pox. Except maybe it was small pox plus something else. Or maybe it was something else entirely. Revisionism occurs in part because we have just enough information to raise a question but not enough to answer it.

The author brings some interests to this study that are peculiarly relevant to the period, but that some early 21st-century readers may find as exotic as the gladiatorial games that Marcus found so tedious. The author is keenly interested in depth psychology, particularly of the Jungian variety, which really was prefigured in the medicine of the second century. The famous second-century oneirologist Artemidorus gets several mentions (he is not very obscure, since he influenced both Jung and Freud). For that matter, so does the deified Asclepius, who offered advice in dreams to both physicians and patients; this was a culture in which valetudinarianism seems almost to have been a spiritual discipline.

Just as important as psychology, the author is also keenly interested in the traditional questions of philosophy. In modern times, Marcus Aurelius became the most widely read Stoic philosopher of the ancient world, this because of the compilation of his reflections (probably written on that last campaign in the Balkans) called the Meditations. The perennial popularity of the Meditations stems in part from their quotably aphoristic style, in part (at least during eras when such things are popular) from their pantheistic element, and in part from their appeal to the agnostically inclined as a source of ethical principles without an overtly religious basis. This biography makes clear how profound a mistake it is to view the emperor as a polite deist; he shared in no small degree the growing embrace of the numinous that characterized his century. It also makes clear the extent to which Marcus shared his time's philosophical eclecticism. Of the Four Schools that received public support, Epicureanism and Stoicism were losing their popular audience for being too theoretical and remote from real life; Platonism and, to some extent Aristotelianism were gaining support in no small part because they were friendlier to religious experience. Marcus's Stoicism incorporated quite a lot of Platonism, but not in a way to fill the inherent gaps or resolve the original tension in Stoicism; the author explains these points in remarkable detail. He also explains how Stoicism formed the emperor's attitude toward government.

Marcus got to be emperor because he was chosen when a small child by his distant relative, the emperor Hadrian. The book recites the dense web of family relationships that characterizes all genuine Roman history. The web grows even denser, perhaps, in the second century, since the senatorial class did not reproduce itself and made up the lack of living heirs through adoption; the practice of frequent divorce and remarriage exacerbated the complexity. Readers of this book will soon appreciate that the institution of “co-emperors” was not an innovation of Diocletian. Hadrian had two, one of whom did not live long, the other being the future emperor Antoninus Pius (all these people underwent complicated name changes when the emperor adopted them and again when they assumed the throne, and then sometimes again when they died; we may dispense with these matters here).

“Vespine” is one of the kinder adjectives that the author applies to Hadrian, who reigned from A. D. 117 to 138. That emperor is known in every high-school history text as the one who withdrew from those “empire at its greatest extent” borders created by his predecessor Trajan to more defensible lines. In graduate school, he is known as the emperor who was so upset that his catamite drowned himself in the Nile that he had the fellow deified. The author takes every opportunity to remind us that, although there was quite a lot of same-sex activity during this period of the empire, nonetheless early 21st-century ideas about homosexuality, much less “gayness,” simply cannot be mapped onto that era, and the emperor's behavior was considered scandalous. The emperor was vindictive and bore grudges, though he maintained a carapace of amiability until his personality decayed in his last two years. He humiliated the Senate in various ways, including the execution of its more unsatisfactory members. He humiliated Rome by spending as much time as possible traveling about the empire. Worst of all, he was a know-it-all polymath who was often wrong but whom it was not at all safe to correct. On the upside, though, a sympathetic historian might say that he was one of those unhappy people who are better than their nature. He at least took his role seriously, and he is not counted among the “Good Emperors” for no reason. He was a good judge of character, if we may judge by his selection of Antoninus and Marcus to succeed him.

Antoninus Pius was a dutiful senator who, by middle age, had never done anything very interesting and who ascended to the imperial throne apparently determined to maintain that record. Like his predecessor and his successor, he was a “Spanish” emperor, a man descended from Roman colonists in Iberia. As the author points out, he seems to have been the only Roman emperor who never waged a war. He was also the last emperor who was able to spend practically his whole reign in the neighborhood of Rome. He swore never to execute a senator; his greatest conflict with the Senate arose in connection with the deification of Hadrian. Antoninus did not like him either, but he felt the honor had to be bestowed for the sake of the imperial office. Beyond that, he rationalized the legal system at the margins and provided sound fiscal management, though the author claims that disaster relief and army bonuses left the treasury largely empty by the time Marcus succeeded him.

Marcus's biological father died when Marcus was young. “Verus” was the family name. Hadrian called the boy “Verissimus,” a play on his name that meant “most true” or “most trustworthy”; or perhaps in this case, as the author seems to suggest, it meant “For God's sake, Marcus, do you have to be right about everything all day long?” We know quite a lot about Marcus-the-student because his correspondence with his tutor Fronto has survived. Marcus never had much of a sense of humor, but the author suggests the letters show that he was by far the more intelligent of the correspondents, and sometimes he makes a witticism that goes over the old man's head. Fronto's notion of style seems to have gone against every precept of good usage that teachers of English composition have been trying to drill into their slacking students for sixty years. He encouraged euphuism, verbosity, archaism, and an arch use of literary references. He also, by the way, encouraged the use of Latin.

Latin was Marcus's working language all his life, but it was not the language he favored for philosophical discourse. The Meditations are written in Greek, a language in which the emperor was proficient but not, the author tells us, a master of style. This had some implications for his philosophical development. Seneca, who had lived about a century earlier, is generally thought of as the other important early imperial Stoic, but he wrote in Latin and seems to have made little impression on Marcus. For Marcus, the great exponent of Stoicism was Epictetus (A.D. 55 to 135), a former slave to one of Nero's freedman. He wrote no books, but he taught in Greek, and his lectures are preserved in that language.

Epictetus had suffered in the persecution of philosophers by the emperor Domitian, who reigned from A.D. 81 to 96, and who sometimes is regarded as a type of Antichrist. The philosopher was keener on duty than on the cosmological points that often engaged the Stoics, and one of the duties he discerned was a special one for emperors not to be tyrants. He also assigned the Roman Empire a higher ontological status than it had ever had before. The empire for Epictetus was cosmopolis, a universal polity that was part of the natural order of things, like the existence of the human race itself. Being part of the universal order had political implications, which Marcus was not slow to draw. The whole universe was a single unit in which each part affected every other. (The author makes much of the relationship between the Stoic version of holism and Whitehead's notion of prehensions; some readers may be reminded of quantum entanglement.) It was eternal but limited in time, since it moved in a great cycle that repeats itself absolutely. Nothing, then, could ever really change. The social order of the empire was natural and irreformable.

The part of the wise man in an essentially pre-determined and unalterable world, therefore, was to attend to the one thing in the universe that he could alter, which was his own internal states of mind. He must do his duty, but suffer neither joy nor despair at the outcome. This variety of fatalism conduced to an even temper and a certain measured asceticism in one's personal life. It also made thoroughgoing reform literally unimaginable. It made progress unimaginable. The author almost frantically draws our attention to the fact that Marcus's Stoicism, most of it derived from earlier thinkers but some original with him, eclipsed hope and deadened curiosity. And Marcus was the best the empire had to offer.

Marcus stayed with the Emperor Antoninus in central Italy as his deputy and aide for more than two decades before becoming emperor himself. He was given responsible work to do. Early on, he displayed a predilection for turning appointments that another man might have treated as an empty honor or a sinecure into real jobs. This part of his career made him thoroughly familiar with the technical aspects of administration, as well as with a big-picture view of the empire. It had the drawback of ensuring that Marcus would know the empire only from his paperwork. He had never been abroad, in the sense of outside Italy, and he had no military experience at any level. Nonetheless, when repeated crises afflicted the empire during his reign, he would perform better than any other imperial hot-house flower in world history.

The Emperor Marcus did have a private life. Unfortunately for historians, it was one of those private lives to which the term “exemplary” might apply and not leave much more to be said. He had 15 children by his only wife, Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus. That number was as extraordinary then as now; a typical Roman matron might have three. The survival rate of the imperial children was not unusual, unfortunately: of those 15, only six lived to adulthood. The author detects a genuine nihilism in the Roman upper class brought on in part by numbers like these. The upper class really did not care much about the future because they could not reasonably expect their direct descendants to be living in it. This assessment by the author is a little counterintuitive. Why should the Romans have been peculiarly depressed by what until the 19th century been the human condition? Still, when we judge Marcus's embrace of the Buddhist view that “he who has no love has no woe,” we should remember how many children he buried.

Marcus in office continued Antoninus's policy of constitutional punctilio, particularly toward the Senate. The author observes that Marcus's treatment of that body had less in common with how an American president might treat Congress than like how a scrupulous British prime minister might treat the monarch: the queen is kept carefully informed on every issue and deferentially asked for permission she has no power to refuse. Nonetheless, the author also notes that the trend toward absolute monarchy that had been apparent even under the Good Emperors continued in Marcus's time. Though it had been a long time since the emperor could not have his own way and his own way of having it, still the more tactful emperors had been in the habit of seeking a “senatus consultum” from the Senate regarding any important initiative. Essentially, that was a resolution from the Senate advising the emperor to do what he intended to do anyway. The senatus consultum would be the citable law. Under Marcus, however, his “oratio” to the Senate, an address in which he explained his acts and intentions, increasingly was treated as law. Under another emperor the expansion of this practice might have caused some unease, even in the second century. However, this was Marcus Aurelius, Mr. Constitution himself, so there was no reason to complain.

Roman emperors were a font of advisory legal opinions to pretty much anyone who cared to ask for one. They also conducted trials themselves. If they were as hardworking as Marcus, they would hold long proceedings and not just summary hearings. Marcus favored widows and orphans, in that he took care to amend the law to ensure that the beneficiaries of wills were not defrauded by their administrators or disinherited by technical error. Unlike his master Epictetus, he had no philosophical objection to slavery, but he did strengthen the presumption in the law (to use a later Common Law term) in favor of manumission. He also lent his own money to encourage landholding in Italy, quite likely in order to try to break the trend toward huge slave-worked latifundia that disturbed even the Roman sensibility.

Marcus suffered fools gladly, a duty enjoined on him by his Stoic convictions. This applied both to his work as a magistrate and as a scholar. Yes, it was safe to tell this emperor to his face that he was in error about something, or that he had done wrong. The satirist Lucian flourished during his reign because Marcus refused to take offense, even if he generally could not take a joke. A duty even grimmer than enduring stand-up comedy was the funding of and attendance at the spectacles that the people demanded; to refuse either was to risk insurrection. Marcus was not a sentimental fellow, but he had no interest in seeing animals slaughtered or criminals executed, and he seemed to think that if you've seen one chariot race you've seen them all. He learned, as Caesar had before him, that to do paperwork at the circus was to enrage the crowd. He hit on the trick of holding cabinet meetings in the imperial box during games. The people thought he was being one of the guys, and he managed to get some work done.

However, the author repeatedly reminds us that Marcus was on the side of the “big battalions,” of the class of large landholders for whose benefit the empire more or less openly operated. Even the kind of land reform that had occurred at earlier stages of the empire seemed beyond the range of possibility, or maybe beyond the range of imagination. Citizenship became increasingly devalued as the empire aged. In the first half of the first century, the author reminds us, the Roman citizenship even of the provincial tent-maker St. Paul was enough to activate an elaborate system of due process that kept him alive for many months until he could be tried at Rome. In Marcus's day, such a man would have been given a short hearing locally and probably executed on the spot. A few decades after Marcus, and citizenship would be bestowed on all freemen in the empire alike, not as a matter of civil equality but to spread the liability for direct imperial taxes. Under Marcus, the law increasingly recognized wealth and birth as dispositive of the rights individuals enjoyed and the duties to which they were obligated. A process of 500 years of legal evolution toward universal citizenship reached its logical limit at about the time it became irrelevant. This was just the kind of phenomenon that Marcus's anti-historicist education disabled him from seeing.

Keeping as always his attention on the things he could actually control, Marcus adopted one Lucius Verus as his junior colleague. He thereby honored Antoninus's wish to honor the plan of Hadrian to include Lucius in the succession plan, though Hadrian seems to have been the only person in antiquity who saw much merit in Lucius. Lucius was not a vicious man, but he was a party animal (“pansexual debauchee” in the author's delicate phrase). The emperors maintained separate courts at Rome, which from their descriptions must have been a bit like meetings of the Sensible Party and the Silly Party respectively. At Marcus's court philosophers of various sorts, usually as bearded as Marcus himself, could be found holding seminars on the perennial questions. Some shaved their heads as an added sign of seriousness. Lucius's court, in contrast, was Animal House with real togas. Nonetheless, when the test came, Lucius did not do too badly.

Marcus had barely settled into office when the first foreign shock struck the empire: the Parthians had invaded the eastern provinces. Rome had been at war with Parthia on and off since the late Republic, but this was the first war the Parthians had started. Hadrian's withdrawal from Mesopotamia had perhaps created an illusion of weakness, while the responsible Romans in the east had made a hash of the control of the succession in the client kingdom of Armenia. In any case, something had to be done fast, and Marcus made the surprising decision to send Lucius to do it.

Lucius took his time getting to the east, stopping at every city where a good time was to be had, especially if it involved the theater; he was a patron of thespians, to put it politely. Eventually, he made his base at Antioch. He had brought as good a staff as the empire had ever produced, however. He had the wit to endorse sound strategy when he saw it, and he made sure the Roman drive to the east had adequate logistics. The Parthians were creamed. As the author points out, Trajan and Hadrian had had comparable success; the empire had worked out the tactics to defeat Parthia long ago. Parthia remained an irritant because its feudal society was not of a kind that the empire could assimilate. The real problem would come in the next century, when Parthia collapsed and was replaced by the lethal menace of Persia. Meanwhile, though, Lucius was able to collect the credit for the successful campaign and return to Rome. Marcus indulged his request for Senatorial thanks for conquering territories he had not actually much bothered. Lucius's flacking was done by old Fronto as the campaign's historian, so perhaps Marcus felt the need to be even more than usually patient.

So far, so good, but the peace of the empire by that point was being hollowed out in certain areas. Several regions, particularly in the Balkans, southwest Anatolia, and part of western Africa were chronically infested by bandits by the late second century. As for Italy, the author characterizes the situation there as a great deal like that in 18th-century England: an exquisite aristocracy living in a landscape in which they did not dare to travel the roads, even during the day, without a formidable armed escort. That state of things, too, was probably a declension from the days of St. Paul, but the change did not constitute an urgent emergency. That was provided by the first of the German invasions.

The author provides us with a brief history of Roman relations with Germania, the loosely defined region north and east of the empire where the leading elements in the various tribes and kingdoms spoke a Germanic language. The empire had abandoned the attempt to expand east across the Rhine for much the same reason that Hadrian had abandoned Trajan's project of directly annexing Mesopotamia: the economy was too poor and the population too sparse to pay for the region's occupation or civil government. By Marcus's time the Rhine had long been a quiet frontier, however, and most of the empire's frontier troops were stationed on or near the Danube. The polities to the north of that line were not so primitive as they had been or so disorganized. They wanted the benefit of economic contact with the empire without political control. Since negotiation had not served particularly well with Antoninus's rather isolationist government, they decided to try organized plunder under the new emperor.

The extent of the coordinated raids from what is now southern Germany was serious enough: the invaders reached the neighborhood of Aquileia, from which they could have threatened the major cities of northern Italy if they had had a strategic plan. More alarming still, however, was the fact that the empire once again had a major war on its borders that it did not start. This time, the emperor went to organize the defense himself, bringing Lucius in tow to keep him out of trouble. (When Lucius died a few years later, Marcus chose not to complicate his succession plans for his own son Commodus by picking another adult colleague.) It was a difficult campaign, made more so by the fact there were no objectives whose capture might defray the cost of the war, or for that matter whose capture might decide the issue politically. In such a case there is no workable objective but extermination, or at least reaching a degree of superiority where extermination can be plausibly threatened. Marcus eventually was on the verge of complete victory along these lines, but then had to reach a compromise peace.

In another portent of things to come, the governor of Syria, Avidius Cassius, had declared himself emperor. He was under the impression that Marcus had died, an impression that may have resulted from a miscommunication from Marcus's wife Faustina, who seems in any case to have been provisionally ready to marry him. Trying to look as unruffled as possible, Marcus sauntered from the Danube to Rome and then to the east, with the avowed intention of clearing up the misunderstanding. In the event, Governor Cassius was killed by one of his own men, and Faustina died on route with her husband to the Levant, not altogether impossibly of natural causes. Marcus exacted no terrible revenge on Avidius's family or his few supporters, though a few executions were inevitable.

There were a few years of peace, and then the settlement that Marcus had created on the Danube began to fall apart. He initiated another campaign, this time a bit further east in Dacia. This went more smoothly than the first war, but was hampered by the outbreak of the plague. To that disease Marcus himself succumbed. He went through with the project of having his son Commodus succeed him, despite the fact it was apparent to everyone that the young man had not turned out well. Perhaps the emperor's Stoic fatalism at last persuaded him that the fate of cosmopolis was among the things he could not control, no matter what he did.

In some ways, the most interesting evidence of the great change that occurred to the empire in the second century is the mutation in imperial iconography. The earlier Good Emperors had favored the use of the heroes of Roman history on their coinage. Under Marcus, the figures tended to be religious or mythological. And then there is the Tale of the Two Columns. Trajan's Column (which this book does not discuss in detail) is an essentially political document extolling the emperor's numerous if ephemeral conquests. Marcus Aurelius's Column (which the author does discuss) also deals in large part with military matters, but depicts these events with significant supernatural intervention. The depiction of the first German war recounts the Lightening Miracle, in which Marcus is reported to have called down a thunderbolt on an enemy siege machine, and the Rain Miracle, in which a Roman contingent is depicted as being saved by a providential deluge. The water god shown creating the deluge does not look like any iconography before or since, or perhaps not until the 20th-century comic book.

The second century was a time of the stirring of the spirit. The author reminds us on several occasions that there was a general drift throughout the period toward monotheism among the educated, so that men like Epictetus often spoke of God in the singular. (Marcus rarely did, though. When he alluded to a Supreme Being, he normally used some pantheistic locution.) On a popular level, the era was full of wonder workers, preachers, and prophets of all sorts. Some of these last bore apocalyptic messages that another emperor might have taken in bad part: to predict the end of the world could reasonably imply a threat to the world's ruler. When such people were brought to Marcus's attention, however, he dealt with them indulgently. The exception to his attitude of toleration involved Christianity, of which Marcus is remembered as one of the most vicious persecutors.

This is more than a little odd. The author recites for us the history of the Roman attitude toward Christianity, of which the most striking feature is the general trend toward toleration under the Good Emperors. Trajan endorsed the policy of one of his governors of requiring reputed Christians to sacrifice to the Olympians to prove their loyalty, but forbade that the governor (Pliny the Younger, to be precise) to hunt down Christians to question. Hadrian and Antoninus had required strict standards of proof for the fantastic crimes of which Christians were routinely accused; local persecution of the sect was clearly disfavored by the imperial government, even if not quite forbidden. Then Marcus the humane philosopher came to power, a man who believed that logos governed the world, and persecution broke out everywhere. In some places, notably Lyon in Gaul, there were horror-shows in which hundreds of people were sent to the arena without a shred of due process. In other places, little Pilates tried to weasel their way around the law by offering the accused technicalities to snatch at, which even more disconcertingly the accused often refused to do.

No decree or rescript from Marcus survives ordering a general persecution of Christians, but it is certain that he knew what was happening. Some of the victims were locally prominent Roman citizens, and in any case, Marcus would have received many queries about these proceedings as an ordinary part of his legal work. Furthermore, there was a flurry of sophisticated “apologies” for Christianity, some of them addressed to the emperor himself. Even some of the Christians seemed to believe that the emperor would relent if only someone told him the tenets of their religion and that they prayed for him daily. We know for a fact that at least one person did tell him: Athenogoras delivered his apology to Marcus in person at Athens in A.D. 176. It did no good. The persecution eased under Commodus partly because he had a Christian mistress and partly as an aspect of the general paralysis of government during those years.

The author argues, persuasively, that the persecution of Christianity was the correct thing to do in the context of Marcus's world view. There were second-century Romans who opposed metaphysical monotheism; Tacitus comes to mind. However, the empire was willing to tolerate the monotheism of the Jews, even though the Jews had launched two catastrophic revolts against the empire, since it was the monotheism of a self-limiting sect. The Church, in contrast, claimed to be a cosmopolis in just the way that Epictetus's empire was cosmopolis: an eternal community that rightfully laid claim to the final loyalty of all mankind. In the light of such claims, it was irrelevant that Christians prayed for the emperor. To promise to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's is to imply that there are things that are not Caesar's. That is the sort of claim against the state that the Classical world, from first to last, was never able to accommodate.

Something more was at work in the second century than can be explained by political theory, however. Something new was trying to enter the world, and conscientious, careworn, and courageous Marcus Aurelius was moved to stop it. I recommend this book to all students of the period, but one of its effects has been to increase my appreciation for the treatment of its period in G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man.

Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly

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Marcus Aurelius: A Life
By Frank McLynn