Who was Marcus Aurelius? An introduction to the last great emperor, leader and stoic of Rome

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome during the 2nd century AD, the last in a line of five emperors known to have ruled Rome with authority, humanity, and competence. We know him today as one of the Stoics, and below I’ve put together resources pointing to his best wisdom.

“You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.”

Marcus Annius Aurelius was born into an established Roman family, but not the royal lineage. From these beginnings, it would seem a remote possibility that he would one day become emperor of the Roman Empire, let alone one of the most famous Roman emperors.

When the Roman emperor Hadrian was nearing his death, he was forced to pick a successor. Lacking children of his own, he picked Lucius Ceionius, who unexpectedly died before Hadrian. Hadrian’s second choice was a senator, Antoninus Pius. Pius was also childless and adopted both Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, whose name changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

When Hadrian died, Antoninus assumed command. The education of Marcus and Lucius took on a new urgency, as they were next in line. Marcus studied under renowned Athenian rhetorician Herodes Atticus as well as Marcus Fronto. When Antoninus died in 161, Marcus and Lucius assumed the roles of co-emperors. Lucius would die in 169, leaving Marcus the sole emperor from 169–180.

Marcus’s rule was not an easy period for the Roman Republic. The last years of Pius saw the empire attacked on all sides. The Parthian war lasted from 161–166. While the Romans won the war, they brought back a plague which would eventually kill 5 million people. The Gauls were attacking the northern Roman border, both in Gaul and across the Danube. If this wasn’t enough to deal with, Christianity was rising and assuming increasing political power.

The last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius is a reminder that despite the saying that “absolute power corrupts absolutely,” that is not always the case. At the time of his death, he was one of the most powerful people on earth. He could have had anything he wanted, and few, if any, would dare challenge him on anything. And yet he proved himself deserving of the power he held. Under Marcus Aurelius, the empire was guided by virtue and wisdom.

Today we are left with his journal, his Meditations. The work is a landmark of Stoic philosophy that has guided both powerful and common men and women for thousands of years. While Meditations was never intended for publication, it remains in print to this day and is perhaps as popular as ever. The journal shows that the most powerful man on the planet was going through the same problems that we deal with today — the same problems we will be grappling with tomorrow.

Through reading Meditations, we are left wanting to become a better person. The author’s humility, discipline, work ethic, kindness, rationality, and character shine through. He shows his vulnerability to us as he counsels himself through his darkness. Mostly, Marcus reminds himself over and over to detach his emotions from the difficulties of the world, to maintain his composure during tough times, and to treat all fates as equal — prosperity and poverty, success and failure, life and death.

We know this philosophy as Stoicism, practiced by not just by Marcus but also by Seneca, Epictetus, Diogenes, and so many others.

When Marcus Aurelius died and his successor took his place, the Roman world began a decline that it would never recover from. His extraordinary wisdom is among the most valuable we can study.

Marcus Aurelius Quotes

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

“Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.”

“Yes, you can, if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”

“Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains; and thou too art wont to desire such things very much. But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself.”

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life.”

“…progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it.”

“…when the longest- and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.”

Suggested Readings on Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius on How to Act and Four Habits of Thought to Eliminate — Marcus Aurelius, writing in Meditations, offers four habits of thought to eliminate.

Marcus Aurelius: Debts and Lessons — Marcus Aurelius, in book one of Debts and Lessons, explores the lessons he learned from those closest to him.

The Life Lessons of a Roman Emperor — Marcus teaches us some important life lessons surrounding the “three disciplines”: perception, action, and will. They are the heart of the Meditations and his philosophy.

The Obstacle Is the Way — The author Ryan Holiday wrote a book about the Three Perceptions, and this post captures some of those core ideas.

Marcus Aurelius: You Have One Life To Live — A powerful section by Marcus on making the most of the limited lifetime you have available to you, no matter how long it might be.

Who Is Seneca? Timeless Wisdom from the World’s Most Controversial Stoic — If you love Marcus Aurelius, you’re going to love studying Seneca the Younger.

Books

Meditations — When you’re reading classic works written in other languages, choosing a translation is very important. This is the most modern translation of Meditations, and best puts the words of Marcus Aurelius into modern language without losing the original feel.

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living — Stoic philosophy needs to be consumed piecemeal. Pardon the phrase: it needs to be meditation. This is a good book to get you going down that path.

Marcus Aurelius, A Biography — Tracking down the life of Marcus Aurelius is difficult. We don’t have great primary sources, and some of the later sources are highly biased and inaccurate. Nonetheless, this is probably the standard biography of Marcus.

The Inner Citadel — Eminent historian Pierre Hadot unearths new depths and meaning from the underlying philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Philosophy as a Way of Life — A more general book that demonstrates why philosophy has been and will continue to be a way of life.

Reading List

The Best Stoic Reading List: Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and More

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If you liked this, check out Who Is Seneca?