The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled over the classical world’s most powerful empire. In addition to his achievements as a ruler, military strategist, and administrator, Marcus Aurelius is admired to this day for his grasp of Greek philosophy, particularly the school of Stoicism.
Marcus recorded his innermost thoughts and philosophical musings in his personal journal, Meditations. Thanks to the survival of this private journal, an intimate record of the Roman emperor’s philosophy can still be read by a modern audience.
During his early years and throughout his reign as emperor, Marcus maintained a close connection with the prominent Greek philosophers, rhetoricians, and thinkers of the day. As emperor, he faced turbulent times that forced him to put his Stoic philosophy into practice.
Marcus Aurelius’ early life
Marcus Aurelius was born on April 26, 121 AD in Rome into a wealthy senatorial family. He was probably introduced to philosophy by Diognetus, a Greek painter and philosopher. In Meditations, Marcus thanked Diognetus for teaching him “to have an affinity for philosophy.”
The young Roman was also apparently inspired by Diognetus to “love the camp-bed, the hide blanket, and all else involved in the Greek training.” This kind of minimalist living was espoused as a virtue in many Greek philosophical traditions. For instance, Cynic philosopher Diogenes famously chose to live homelessly in a large ceramic jar.
When he was about eleven or twelve in 132 or 133 AD, a new set of tutors took over Marcus’ education. Among them was the Greek grammarian (γραμματικός/grammatikos), Alexander of Cotiaeum. Alexander hailed from a Greco-Roman city in Asia Minor.
In ancient Greece and Rome, grammarians were responsible for the second stage of a boy’s education. Accordingly, Alexander taught Marcus Greek literature and poetry from the classics by Homer, Archilochus, Hesiod, Simonides, and Stesichorus among others.
Alexander and the Greek literary tradition he introduced Marcus to must have resonated with the boy. Despite being brought up in Rome, Marcus wrote the vast majority of his innermost thoughts which appear in Meditations in Greek rather than Latin.
In Meditations, Marcus recalled Alexander’s lessons in politeness and “not to leap on mistakes, or cautiously interrupt when anyone makes an error of vocabulary.”
As Fausto Montana, a professor of ancient Greek language and literature explained in an academic paper, Alexander was “remembered by Marcus Aurelius for the polite sense of tolerance he showed towards those who, in his presence, used barbarisms and solecisms.”
Another of Alexander’s students, a Greek from Mysia called Aelius Aristides, would go on to become a renowned orator and author himself. Marcus visited Aristides in Smyrna during the latter years of his reign in AD 176.
The aging emperor was greatly impressed by an oration delivered by this fellow pupil of Alexander. When Smyrna was destroyed by an earthquake, Aristides wrote to Marcus personally, and the emperor provided funds to rebuild the city.
Adoption by Antoninus Pius, a fellow Philhellene?
In 138 AD, Antoninus Pius adopted Marcus and Lucius Verus. The emperor of the time, Hadrian, named Antoninus as his heir on the condition that the latter adopt the two boys and in turn name them his heirs. Antoninus was also married to Marcus’ aunt, Faustina the Elder.
Both Hadrian and Antoninus were keen proponents of Hellenism and patronized the city-states of the ancient Greek world. Both emperors were well acquainted with Greek philosophers, teachers of literature, rhetoricians, and physicians.
For Marcus and his future co-emperor, Lucius, this meant increased exposure to Greek philosophy, literature, and rhetoric during their studies as young men.
Rhetoric and oratory
In ancient Rome, the rhetor was the final stage of study for boys. This was a privileged level of education that relatively few Roman boys would undertake. Those that did study rhetoric typically went into politics and/or law.
Rhetoric and oratory skills were highly prized by the Romans. According to a paper in The Classical Journal by Nanette R. Pascal, “For the Greco-Roman age, the most important curriculum objective was effective public speaking.”
Marcus and Lucius had three Greek tutors and one Latin tutor in rhetoric. The Greek tutors were Herodes Atticus, Aninus Macer, and Caninius Celer. The Latin tutor was Marcus Cornelius Fronto.
Herodes Atticus and Fronto were the most influential of the five rhetors. Marcus was fond of his teachers, but Atticus and Fronto seem to have hated each other.
Atticus and Fronto
Atticus was invited by Antoninus Pius to Rome to educate his adopted sons around the year 140 AD. The Greek rhetorician, who was born in Marathon, had already enjoyed a colorful career before coming to Rome.
Atticus was an extremely wealthy Athenian citizen. He was appointed prefect for all the free cities in Asia Minor in 125 AD and elected archon of Athens in 140. According to historian A. J. Papalas, he was “one of the best-known figures of the Antonine period.”
Atticus, together with Fronto and the other rhetors, was responsible for teaching rhetoric and public speaking. Neither of the men was keen on the Stoic philosophy, which would later form the guiding principles of Marcus’ life.
Atticus was a staunch opponent of Stoicism specifically, whereas Fronto advised Marcus to stay away from philosophy in general.
Like Atticus, Fronto was a wealthy man and briefly served as a consul for two months. The two teachers appear to have clashed over a legal matter, although the details are vague. Fronto was an advocate and was deeply involved in the Roman legal system.
The young Marcus wrote to the two orators and implored them to settle the matter amicably. This appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Fronto wrote a letter back saying, “If I happen to call him an uneducated little Greek it will not mean war to the death.” The resolution of the legal matter is lost to history.
Marcus Aurelius’ introduction to Stoicism
It is believed that Marcus was introduced to Stoicism by the Greek philosopher Apollonius. As with the rhetors, Antoninus invited philosophers to teach the future emperors in Rome.
There is some confusion as to which polis (ancient Greek city-state) Apollonius hailed from. Chalcedon in Asia Minor is the most common assumption, but he may have been born in Chalcis (Evia) or Nicomedia (Asia Minor).
The teachings of Apollonius seem to have had a profound effect on Marcus. In particular, his lessons may have later helped Marcus during difficult times—of which there was ample supply during his reign as emperor.
In Meditations, Marcus wrote, “From Apollonius: moral freedom, the certainty to ignore the dice of fortune, and have no other perspective, even for a moment, than that of reason alone; to be always the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness.”
Quintus Junius Rusticus
Antoninus also had Quintus Junius Rusticus instruct Marcus and Lucius in philosophy. Rusticus was a Roman politician and teacher. Like Apollonius, he was a Stoic.
According to the Historia Augusta, Marcus “received most instruction from Junius Rusticus, whom he ever revered and whose disciple he became, a man esteemed in both private and public life, and exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system.”
Marcus credits Rusticus for introducing him to the works of Epictetus. Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher, born in Hierapolis, a major Greco-Roman city in what is today southwestern Turkey. Marcus would have been about fourteen years old when Epictetus died.
The influence of Epictetus
Rusticus gave Marcus his copy of Discourses by Epictetus. The book is still available in print to this day. It was transcribed by Arrian, a prominent Greek from Nicomedia. Arrian served under the Emperor Hadrian as a military commander and consul. He attended lectures by Epictetus in Nicopolis in Epirus.
Epictetus was one of the foremost influences on Marcus’ philosophical outlook. “It is fair to say that the essential substance of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations comes from Epictetus,” wrote the French philosopher Pierre Hadot in Philosophy as a Way of Life.
Hadot postulated that the Roman emperor’s introspective journaling was down to the influence of the Greek philosopher. “It is probably from Epictetus that Marcus got the very idea of the literary genre of meditation by means of writing,” commented Hadot.
The influence of Epictetus was fundamental to Marcus’ daily practices as a Stoic. For the Greeks, philosophy was a way of life. An abstract philosophy with no practical value was worthless; a true philosopher was expected to behave according to the virtues to which he committed himself.
As Hadot put it, “The object of Marcus’ meditations and exercises was none other than Epictetus’ three fundamental themes: the discipline of desire, the discipline of inclinations, and the discipline of judgment.”
Marcus Aurelius: the Stoic practitioner
The reign of Marcus Aurelius was eventful. He had to contend with wars, the administration of a vast empire, and a plague that wiped out between a quarter and a third of the empire’s entire population.
Marcus’ co-emperor, Lucius Verus, died in 169 AD, quite possibly of the plague that was ravaging the empire. This left Marcus to rule alone. That he is remembered as one of the Five Good Emperors is a testament to his philosophical practice.
The Codex Justinianeus, commissioned in the 6th century AD by the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, recalls how Marcus’ contemporaries admired him as “an emperor most skilled in the law.”
Marcus inherited a precarious position on Rome’s borders. First, the empire was threatened by the Parthians and then by the Germanic tribes. Ultimately, Rome prevailed in repelling both threats but not without significant losses first.
Marcus personally oversaw the grueling campaigns against the Germanic tribes. The Marcomannic Wars, as they became known, lasted for fourteen years, and it was during these tough times that the emperor wrote most of his Meditations.
Marcus’ words in Meditations paint a compelling picture of a man who was able to bear the immense burdens of his duty to Rome.
In one passage he wrote, “Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
On suffering and misfortune, the emperor reflected, “such a thing could have happened to any man, but not every man could have borne it without pain. So why see more misfortune in the event than good fortune in your ability to bear it.”
In recent times, Stoicism has experienced a renaissance in popularity. For example, The Instagram account, Daily Stoic, has over 1.8 million followers. A Stoic conference is now held annually, and the philosophical practice is even used to treat veterans with PTSD.
Among the Stoic philosophers still read today, Marcus Aurelius, together with Epictetus and Seneca, is the most popular and widely read. During the COVID-19 pandemic especially, publisher Penguin Random House noticed a significant upsurge in the sale of Stoic works such as Meditations.
That a philosophy, with its origin in the Hellenic world thousands of years ago, endures to this day, is a testament to the ancient Greek search for wisdom, virtue, and a life well-lived. For many modern readers, Marcus Aurelius is the embodiment of this philosophy in practice.