Marcus Aurelius

Marc Aurelius

Ancient philosophy

Marcus Aurelius (121 - 180 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher. During the last twenty years of his life, he became emperor and wrote the Meditations during his military campaigns, against the Parthians or the Quads. Indeed, his reign was marked by incessant barbarian attacks on the Empire, which he had to defend. His work takes up the main elements of Stoic thought (the world understood as a harmonious cosmos, freedom, etc.).


The works of Marcus Aurelius summarised on this site

book cover

Meditations

This masterpiece of Stoic philosophy sets out the precepts to be followed to achieve the freedom of the wise man, and beyond that, happiness

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Further reading: analysis and commentary

To discover this author's thought in greater depth, these books will be useful:

Hadot, Pierre. The inner citadel: the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998
McLynn, Frank. Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor. London: Bodley Head, 2009
Adams, Geoff W. Marcus Aurelius in the Historia Augusta and Beyond. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013
Bowman, John L. A Reference Guide to Stoicism. Bloomington: Author House, 2014
Holiday, Ryan; Hanselman, Stephen (2020). Lives of the Stoics. New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Recommended videos

Conferences, symposia, radio broadcasts... here are 7 videos that will help you better understand Marcus Aurelius' thought.

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Biography: life of Marcus Aurelius

Childhood

Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome in 121 AD, into a noble family with Spanish origins. He was the nephew of the emperor Hadrian. After the death of Marcus Aurelius' father, Hadrian entrusted him to his successor Antoninus. Antoninus adopted him and brought him up, giving him an excellent education.

He was introduced to philosophy at an early age by his teacher Diognetus. Interested in Stoicism, he adopted its lifestyle for a time, sleeping on the floor and wearing a rough tunic, before being dissuaded by his mother. Another of his tutors, Junius Rusticus, introduced him to the thought of Epictetus, who had died only a few years earlier.

This education and his excellent moral qualities brought him to the attention of the emperor Hadrian. According to Hippolyte Taine, he was the noblest soul who ever lived.

The rise to power

At the emperor's death (138 AD), he was still unable to ascend the throne, however, due to his young age. Power fell to Antoninus.

Marcus Aurelius married Antonin's daughter, his first cousin, who bore him fourteen children, most of whom died in infancy. He then became the designated heir, and acceded to the throne in 161 A.D. He shared power with his adoptive brother: for the first time in history, the Empire was ruled by two Augustinians.

He then embarked on a series of wars to defend the Empire, threatened from all sides. In particular by the Parthians to the east and the Germanic peoples (the Quads) to the north. In the twenty-five years of his reign, he enjoyed only four years of peace.

On the domestic front, he faced an epidemic of plague, the flooding of the Tiber, the earthquake at Cyzicum, the rebellion of Avidius Cassius, governor of a large part of the East (Egypt, Syria)...

the statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Square, Rome
The statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, at the Capitoline

Philosophy and Christianity

He began writing his work Meditations in 170 AD. The work lasted ten years, until his death. Originally, it was simply a series of personal reflections, a kind of diary, destined to disappear on the death of its author.

Marcus Aurelius took advantage of a few minutes' leisure, at the end of a day, sometimes after a battle, to isolate himself, meditate, and jot down a thought that came to him. Together they would form the work.

He went to Athens in 175 AD and became a patron of philosophy. He provided financial support for philosophers and rhetors by granting them a fixed salary. Concerned with diversity, he supported both the Platonic Academy, Aristotle's Lyceum, Epicurus' Garden and the Stoic Portico.

On the other hand, under his reign, persecutions against Christians were numerous. He saw them as troublemakers, since they refused to recognise the Roman gods, and as fanatics.

Death and posterity

He fell ill in 180 AD, aged fifty-eight, during one of his campaigns against the Germanic peoples, on the Danube, at Vindobona.

Maybe he was struck down by the plague, or poisoned by his son Commodus, to whom power reverted. Commodus turned out to be one of the worst emperors who ever ruled, and was assassinated.

On his death, he was deified by the Roman Senate.