Meditations | Study Guide

Marcus Aurelius

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Meditations | Book 1 | Summary

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Summary

The opening section of Meditations serves as both an introduction to the philosophical and ethical orientations of the author and a dedication/acknowledgments passage. The first sentence reads, "From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper." Subsequent paragraphs continue in kind, naming his influences and then stating what he learned from each one. This book provides a kind of symbolic "shrine" through which Aurelius pays homage to his forefathers and mother, peers, mentors, teachers, and those philosophers who contributed to the foundation of his personal sense of moral, ethical, and reverential honor.

The last paragraph thanks the gods, the givers of all these good people in his life. By mentioning his sources of inspiration, Aurelius reminds himself of his intent to maintain a simple, humble, and respectful attitude over the course of his life.

Analysis

It is remarkable that, unlike the usual acknowledgements of Roman pater familias, Aurelius here also credits his mother, as well as his paternal forefathers, and mentions his relationship with household servants and slaves. Greeks as well as Romans are included, regardless of social status in a manner appropriate to Aurelius's philosophical orientations. Following are some of the names he invokes as having influenced his life and beliefs.

Epictetus had a strict moral underpinning to his informal, question-and-answer approach (not unlike that of Socrates, who was also illiterate). His attitude toward life is supported by the idea that individuals, rather than Fate, are responsible for their own actions and the consequences resulting from them.

Diognetus was possibly Greek and one of the tutors Aurelius praised for having provided him with a good sense of skepticism regarding superstitions and miracle workers. Diognetus also instilled in his student a high regard for a sensible foundation in education.

Bacchius of Paphos is listed as a Platonist whose lectures Aurelius attended when a young man.

Benedicta, Theodotus, and Rusticus are presumed to have been household servants during the time Aurelius was growing up. The mention of Benedicta and Theodotus in the same phrase discussing "amatory passions" (lust) suggests that these people had been physically attractive and vulnerable to the sexual indulgences of their masters. As for Rusticus, it seems likely that since this person is mentioned in the same phrase as the other two, he is not Rusticus the Stoic.

The name Cato here most certainly refers to Cato the Younger, a Stoic and Roman senator of the Republic who opposed Julius Caesar in 49 BCE. Cato took his own life rather than submit to the tyranny of a dictator.

Marcianus was probably Lucius Volusius Maecianus, a jurist who also tutored Aurelius in law.

Aurelius could not have known his father, Marcus Annius Verus, because he died when Aurelius was about three years old. He likely heard many stories about him, which he presents in this first book. His grandfather Verus, who first adopted Aurelius at a young age, is presumed to have been the Roman consul, Marcus Annius Verus, while his great-grandfather, senator and praetor Annius Verus, amassed a fortune from the production of olive oil. The fourth "Verus" is also named Lucius Ceionius Commodus, and is Aurelius's adoptive brother and co-emperor. In naming him here, Aurelius is being gracious, for other accounts of Commodus did not hold him in particularly high regard. Given Aurelius's approach to people, it is likely that the lessons gained from Commodus could have been more cautionary than exemplary.

Aurelius states his thanks that he does not follow either "the Parmularius or the Scutarius" at the gladiators' fights. These are classes or types of gladiators often pitted against each other in the arena games. Parmularius refers to any gladiator who carried a parma, or small, round, iron-framed shield (the edge of which could be used to strike a blow) that protected the torso. A scutarius gladiator carried a much larger and heavier rectangular shield that protected the upper body as well. Combats between these two classes of gladiators emphasized speed and agility to oppose the blocking of gladius (small sword). Many more gladiators preferred the scutarius to the parma, reflecting changes in military equipment. Early Roman foot soldiers used the parma, but later switched to the larger rectangular shield that could be used in closed-ranks to withstand volleys of arrows. Equestrian warriors ("knights") mounted on horseback continued to use the less-cumbersome parma.

Aurelius closes this book with the sentence "Among the Quadi at the Granua," which suggests a date for the recording of this book. The Quadi were a small, fiercely combative Germanic tribe encountered by the Romans in the early centuries CE. Their defeat is represented on the commemorative column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, which—according to legend—occurred when the Roman legions were much refreshed by rainwater, while the Quadi forces against them were struck by lightning. The event is recorded as having taken place on June 11, 172 CE, in modern-day Slovakia, as the river Granula refers to a tributary of the Danube in that area.

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