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Meditations | Study Guide

Marcus Aurelius

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Marcus Aurelius | Biography


Early Life and Education

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was born in 121 CE as Marcus Annius Verus into a prominent Roman patrician, or aristocratic, family. His father, Marcus Annius Verus, and his mother, Lucilla, died sometime around 130 or 135 CE. Although orphaned at a young age, Aurelius was surrounded by wealth built upon the family's olive oil and tile factory businesses, which he inherited. Aurelius was adopted by his grandfather, Verus, and given a careful private education at home by tutors. It was considered preferable in patrician Roman families to hire or retain skilled slaves (some of whom were Greek) as reliable tutors for their sons, instead of sending them to public school, where teachers would take on any student who could afford the fees. One such tutor, mentioned in Book 1 of Meditations as Diognetus, is praised for instructing him in drawing and providing him with a good sense of skepticism regarding superstitions and miracle workers, along with a high regard for a sensible foundation in education. This education likely included other skills and activities engaged in by Roman upper-class youth, such as boxing, wrestling, hunting and falconry, running, and ball playing.

Patrician parents also made sure their male children received a firm grounding in reading and writing in both Greek and Latin. It is likely that Aurelius read not only the epic poems of Greek poet Homer, but also the tragedies of Greek playwright Euripides and the work of Greek orator Demosthenes. Additionally he would have read the Stoic deliberations in Latin of both Roman philosophers Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE–CE 65) and the administrator Gaius Musonius Rufus (c. 30–100 CE), who taught the former slave turned philosopher, Epictetus (c. 55–135 CE), who is cited in Meditations.

The philosophical deliberations, terminology, and discussions of Greek philosophers required fluency in Greek, so it is not surprising that, in his relentless pursuit of this discipline, Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek. Another prominent feature of his education was a thorough grounding in rhetoric, as would be consistent with a career in public service for a young man of his social/political standing. To this end, Aurelius studied rhetoric with Roman orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 95–166 CE) and maintained an enduring correspondence with his mentor. The meticulous attention to detail and precision of written language that distinguished Aurelius from previous emperors is likely due to Fronto's influence.

Aurelius's education was also supervised by Emperor Hadrian (76–136 CE). When Hadrian was succeeded by Aurelius's uncle, Antoninus Pius (86–161 CE), Pius adopted the 17-year-old Aurelius as his heir in 138 CE. From then on the young man's education plunged him into lengthy studies designed to shape him into the next Roman emperor.

Education in Philosophy

At age 25 Aurelius concentrated his philosophical studies with Roman philosopher Junius Rusticus the Stoic (c. 100–70 CE), a prominent Roman statesman, who impressed Aurelius with a simplicity and directness of speech rarely supported by the rhetoricians of the day. The reverence in which Aurelius held Rusticus is evident in his description of his mentor in Book 1 of Meditations, which includes mention of his mentor's simplicity, lack of pretensions, and consistent virtue in dealing with every kind of person. He placed a bust of Rusticus with those of his forefathers in an expression of Roman pater familias, or respect for the authority of the father. It is also through the generosity of Rusticus that Aurelius had access to his mentor's library, from which he was able to study the Discourses of Epictetus. These writings had a profound impact on Aurelius's life and his meditations on life. Epictetus's form of Stoicism held that since humans can control only their own actions, the key to a successful life combines self-discipline with calm acceptance.

In Book 1 of Meditations, Aurelius credits other contemporary philosophers with whom he probably studied. Even after becoming co-emperor at age 40, Aurelius continued to attend lectures by prominent Stoic philosophers, and many at court who wished to curry favor with him professed superficial attachment to this philosophic lifestyle.

Personal Life

Marcus married his cousin, Annia Galeria Faustina, in 145 CE and had 14 children with her; of these, only four daughters and a son survived. His adoptive brother, Lucius Verus (130–169 CE), would rule with him as co-emperor. Although the people and patricians of Rome had little regard for Verus, Aurelius himself insisted Verus be given equal respect even though Aurelius would shoulder most of the burden of managing the far-reaching Roman Empire.

Political Career

Aurelius was the 16th emperor of the Roman Empire. He was considered the last of the "five good emperors" at the end of the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. During this era the empire expanded in territory and population with relatively little warfare—at least, within its borders. Since the first emperor Augustus (27 BCE–14 CE), subsequent emperors such as his adoptive son, Tiberius (42 BCE–37 CE), Nero (37–68 CE), and Caligula (12–41 CE) set the standard for megalomaniacal tyranny, murder, and cruelty. Although Aurelius ruled during a period in which the early Christians were persecuted, there is no evidence he had any direct antipathy toward them. He mentions them only once in Book 11 of his Meditations as being "obstinate" in their readiness to face death.

Aurelius ruled Rome from 161 to 180 CE and was the first of the emperors to co-rule. Verus had little political or military skill, so the bulk of the burden of rule and conquest rested upon Aurelius. He was noted for his generosity and simplicity of lifestyle, despite being ruler of the Roman Empire. The Greek physician Galen (129–216 CE)—whose practical approach to medicine dictated the discipline well into the Renaissance—was an esteemed member of Aurelius's court.

Conflicts at Home and Abroad

The period of comparative calm that characterized his uncle and predecessor's rule did not last into the reign of Emperor Aurelius. Almost immediately, the Roman army was sent to the battle of the Parthians for control over land that is now part of Syria. To this end, co-Emperor Verus was sent at the head of the Roman legions, but he evidently spent most of his time enjoying himself in Antioch. This meant that the campaign had to be managed by his generals and supervised at a distance by Aurelius—no easy task when it could take months for information or orders to pass back and forth between Rome and the front.

Worse still was that on their return in 166 CE, the troops brought back the plague. The disease not only rapidly spread throughout the empire, but also through the ranks of the military, to the extent that a campaign to the north in 167 CE headed by both Verus and Aurelius had to be called off. On the return to Rome, Verus died, possibly of the plague. Now the 40-year-old Aurelius was put to the test. Both as a ruler at home and as a campaign leader into the Danube with a plague-weakened army, his personal resources, dedication, discipline, and skill were challenged.

However, dealing with incursions that threatened the borders of the Roman Empire was only one of the troubles besetting Aurelius's rule. When he fell ill fighting on the Danube in 175 CE, a false rumor that he had died quickly spread, and the Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Cassius, was hailed Emperor of Rome by his troops. The move might have been motivated by fears that Aurelius's most unpopular son, Commodus, would become emperor, even though Cassius was probably loyal to Aurelius.

Death and Legacy

A showdown between Cassius and Aurelius seemed inevitable until Cassius's troops took matters into their own hands and murdered him. In an effort to make the stability of succession firm, Aurelius made his son his co-emperor. Together they continued battling the Quadi until the barbarian tribes had been driven past the Danube in 180 CE. But by then it was clear that the battle Aurelius had been waging privately against a long-term illness could not be won. He died near Sirmium on the 17th of March the same year and was entombed in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. Two monuments in Rome memorialize the great emperor: a column commemorating one of his battle victories and a statue of Aurelius mounted on horseback that can be seen in the Capitoline Museums in Rome.

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