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Meditations | Context


Greco-Roman Culture

Greco-Roman culture was a blend of Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic or "Greek-like" cultural elements that prevailed in Mediterranean regions from about the middle of the 1st century BCE to the early Roman Christian era, 4th century CE. Greco-Roman culture not only enclosed the Mediterranean Sea to include all of North Africa from present-day Morocco to Egypt, but it also extended well into present-day India to the east, creating the first truly international and multicultural trade society the world had known.

A brief summary of Greco-Roman culture supports an understanding of Aurelius's approach to life as expressed in Meditations. Skilled and unskilled labor was imported wholesale into Rome from Africa, while Far Eastern religious and philosophical influences came in via the trade routes between Rome, India, and China. Professional female poets, philosophers, and physicians were active in the intellectual life in the major cities of Alexandria in Egypt (home to the most comprehensive library in the Western world), Rome, and Carthage in present-day Tunisia. All these influences contributed to a centralized cosmopolitan urban life of the very rich and the very poor, including lavish architecture to glorify kings instead of deities.

Temples and their corresponding cults proliferated, supporting priests, elaborate secret ceremonies, and marvels of extraordinary engineering. Of these, the Eleusinian Mysteries, celebrating the cult of Demeter and Persephone and the cycles of the harvest, lasted 2,000 years and were open to anyone regardless of social status. Initiation to the cult is reputed to have included ingestion of a hallucinogenic drink. Several Roman non-Christian emperors became members of this cult—including Hadrian and Aurelius—but the only-speculative evidence of this in Meditations might be traced to an admittedly wavering belief in a possible afterlife for the soul (Book 12). The Cult of Mithras was also a favorite of Roman soldiers, as Mithras represented the ideal soldier of earlier times.

Greco-Roman Thought

Tutors from Greece who were experts in not only the sciences and mathematics but also in the philosophies of Plato (c. 429–347 BCE) and Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), were hired by the rich and powerful to teach their sons. These tutors brought with them the prevailing disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy. These included sophistry (what would be called "argumentation" today), Epicureanism (belief in a life of pleasure gained by living moderately) and Stoicism (rejection of social norms and emotions to live a life of virtue).

While Sophism was characterized by Aurelius in Book 1 of Meditations as something to avoid, it was taken up by Athenian youth in the time of Socrates as a quick means to wealth and power. This philosophical view granted its adherents the ability to argue their way out of just about anything to the point of nonsense in a court of law—the practice of which persisted into Roman times. But whether they taught in Athens or Rome, "masters" of sophistry made fortunes for themselves in lecture fees.

Although Socrates didn't write down any of his teachings, his admirers did, including Plato. In turn, Plato, who founded the Academy of Athens sometime around the 380s BCE, taught Aristotle (384–22 BCE), who added his own observations on the principles of art and society, among other issues. Aristotle was also the teacher of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king and conquerer whom Aurelius evidently admired. The emperor liberally acknowledges this philosophic lineage in his Meditations.

Other philosophies discussed in Meditations include Cynicism, or the perception of the corruption and illusions of society that defy nature, and Skepticism, by which all things come under reasoned scrutiny. In opposition to the Stoic worldview stands Epicureanism, or the discipline of becoming free from fear in an unordered and random universe. Aurelius often takes sides back and forth to test for himself the reasoning supporting these philosophies in practical applications.


Stoicism comes from the word porch, or stoa poikilĕ, after the area where Stoics gathered at the Agora in Athens. Founded by the philosopher Zeno (c. 333–262 BCE), it provides much of the background for Aurelius's thoughts, and he credits both Greek and Roman Stoics throughout his Meditations. Important features of Stoicism are the ideas that everything will recur and change is constant. Therefore, the stoic individual seeks to live according to the reasoned laws of nature with direct simplicity and attention. This discipline allows the philosopher to acknowledge the presence of—but not be controlled by—the passing forces of emotion. Virtue and dedication to the duty of one's allotted condition in life is sufficient for true happiness across periods of confusion, chaos, and adversity. Despite transient appearances, the order of the universe unfolds through time.

Much of Meditations displays the influence of two Stoics: Epictetus and Rusticus. Epictetus had been born an illiterate slave, but dictated his philosophy to one of his pupils, who wrote his master's Discourses. Epictetus was an unorthodox Stoic, who believed in greater individual freedom of will rather than the role of Fate. He had a strict moral underpinning to his informal, question-and-answer approach, supported by the idea that individuals are responsible for their own actions and the consequences resulting from them, not Fate. Aurelius's mentor, Rusticus, may have studied with Epictetus and passed on his perspectives to the future emperor.

Empire and Character

The Romans Aurelius presents in his Meditations (notably Book 1) as admirable people adhere to three important characteristics; pater familias, gravitas, and pietas.

The patrician, or aristocratic, Roman citizen established his standing through his ancestry. Thus, pater familias, or familial rule by the eldest living male, was an important Roman trait. Romans placed marble busts of their forefathers together in a household shrine to honor them. The fact that Aurelius even credits his mother in Book 1 is something of a departure from this tradition, for only male ancestors were revered—those whose inheritance of virtue and honor is received either by blood, adoption, or (as was the case of Aurelius's teacher Rusticus) mentorship.

It was not unusual for a powerful elder Roman to formally "adopt" a younger man (who may or may not be a blood relation) with great promise and potential as his "son." The route to becoming emperor of Rome for Aurelius demonstrates the importance of this practice of adoption. Emperor Hadrian first chose Lucius Ceionius Commodus as his successor by publicly declaring his adoption, but this failed when Commodus died in 138 CE. Hadrian then chose Aurelius's uncle, who consequently became Emperor Titus Antoninus Pius when Hadrian died. Titus then adopted his nephew Aurelius at age 17, along with the son of Commodus (following Hadrian's wish), which placed Aurelius in a position to succeed his uncle as the next emperor. In like manner, Aurelius paralleled the practice by pulling his adoptive brother in as co-emperor to honor Hadrian's wishes, even though his brother exhibited little political or military ability.

The virtue of gravitas represented a deep-rooted seriousness and adherence to self-discipline and duty. The downfall of Rome in the latter years of the empire was in part due to an abandonment of this strict sense of self-discipline, along with increased slave labor and a foreign army base. Aurelius hints at this himself throughout Meditations. By contrast, Romans attributed to any non-Roman (i.e., women, slaves, barbarians) the opposite attribute of furor (emotion, or strong, overruling passion).

The Roman trait of pietas represents respect for both forefathers and the Olympian gods. Respect for religion was more or less public. Many upper-class and well-educated Romans either didn't believe in the gods in private, or left the matter open to question, as Aurelius shows in Book 12 of Meditations. However, to cater to those who were religious, or who needed religion as a moral and ethical base, the ideal Roman citizen acknowledged the official Roman pantheon along with the gods of others.

A Unique Work of Literature

Aurelius never intended for Meditations to be made public. The 12 books that make up these personal, written notes are—to some extent—arbitrarily drawn from recurring thoughts, memories, allusions, and philosophical concepts. The author's goal was to juxtapose these meditations in various combinations by replicating philosophical discussions between two people. In these discussions, the implication is often that one speaker is the teacher and the other is the student. Aurelius was middle-aged when he wrote his Meditations and presented the student/teacher exchange as a dialogue in which he took both roles. As Gregory Hays, one translator of the text, puts it, "The first voice seems to represent Marcus's weaker, human side; the second is the voice of philosophy."

His responsibilities in directing the vast Roman empire gave Aurelius little time to continue the philosophical discussions he enjoyed. Meditations was the means by which Aurelius could continue the discussion within himself—a kind of chart along which he could examine his life and perceptions. Regardless of what adverse events he faced, he would be able to keep a balanced state of mind and make reasoned, sensible decisions. What this means is that the 12 books revolve around the same issues from different perspectives in a recurring fashion, with no clear organization by which one book can be distinguished from another. Even so, each book opens with a specific statement. Recurring reminders of the ubiquitous presence of death are found throughout Meditations. Ultimately, it is important to remember that Meditations was written for the personal and private use of the warrior/emperor and was not meant to be made public.

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