Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus)

Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) (A.D. 121-1 80) Roman emperor and philosopher

The salvation of Roman WISDOM LITERATURE, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus spoke on behalf of the era's “good emperors” the stoic philosophy of a prosperous, benevolent age. The grandson and heir of Rome's brick and tile manufacturer, he was born to consular status. His Iberian father, a judge who died in A.D. 124, claimed as relatives the emperors Hadrian, Trajan, and Antoninus Pius. At age 17, Marcus Aurelius received preferment for the throne and tutoring by scholars in drama, geometry, Greek and Latin grammar, literature, and oratory. During his three consulships, he prepared for rule, which he received in A.D. 161. In Apologeticus (ca. A.D. 198), the polemist TERTULLIAN praised Marcus Aurelius for protecting Christian soldiers who wrought a miracle—praying for rain to end a drought. After campaigns among the Germani and Sarmatii (Russians), he died in Vindobona (present-day Vienna, Austria) at age 59 from a plague that cost Rome millions of lives.

The emperor's Meditations (ca. A.D. 180), written in Greek and published posthumously, reveal a benefactor to the poor and sick and a contemplative parent bent on enlightening Commodus, his dissolute son and successor. The 12-book compilation opens on gratitude to a tutor, relatives, and icons who were models of exemplary character and who taught the philosopher the rudiments of composition. His ethereal visions of human goodness link humankind with god: “Observe how man touches the divine and with what part of his being this contact is made” (Marcus Aurelius, 2002, 30). While campaigning at Carnuntum (present-day Petronell, Austria) on the Roman front along the Rhine River from A.D. 172-175, the emperor pledged to purge his thoughts of aimlessness and gossip. He summarized the vices—greed, pandering, power mongering, licentiousness—that distract otherwise worthy people from reason and duty. As though addressing Commodus directly, Aurelius prioritizes human responses: “Body, soul, mind—the body for sensations, the soul for the impulse to act, the mind for guiding principles” (39).

Aurelius sought to teach his heir to honor public duty and to accept changes of fortune as one of life's givens. He urges Commodus to stand firm, like a rock against a pounding tide. For endurance, the father advises the repetition of a consoling mantra: “Bad luck borne nobly is good luck” (51). He forgives Commodus's minor failings and seeks to guide him to an inner peace with mortality and a harmony with nature, a common strand of the BHAGAVAD GITA and of Confucius's ANALECTS (ca. 210 B.C.).

After succeeding his father, however, Commodus regressed to the amorality of previous decadent emperors. Romans abhorred the son but kept statues of Marcus Aurelius on family altars and recited his aphorisms for their children’s edification. In the film The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Alec Guinness voiced the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius as directed to his daughter Lucilla and son Commodus, played respectively by Sophia Loren and Christopher Plummer. A subsequent movie, Gladiator (2000), with Richard Harris and Joaquin Phoenix, contrasted the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius and the savagery of his son.


Birley, Anthony Richard. Marcus Aurelius. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Marcus Aurelius. The Emperor’s Handbook. Translated by C. Scot Hicks and David V Hicks. New York: Scribner, 2002.