Marcus Aurelius

A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays


1. Ethics. 2. Stoics. 3. Life.

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 2002 by Gregory Hays

GREGORY HAYS is assistant professor of classics at the
University of Virginia. He has published articles and
reviews on various ancient writers and is currently
completing a translation and critical study of the
mythographer Fulgentius.


Marcus Aurelius Antoninus
States will never be happy until rulers become philosophers or philosophers become rulers.
—PLATO, The Republic

Marcus Aurelius is said to have been fond of quoting Plato’s
dictum, and those who have written about him have rarely
been able to resist applying it to Marcus himself. And
indeed, if we seek Plato’s philosopher-king in the flesh we
could hardly do better than Marcus, the ruler of the Roman
Empire for almost two decades and author of the immortal
Meditations. Yet the title is one that Marcus himself would
surely have rejected. He never thought of himself as a
philosopher. He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent
student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy
developed by others. As for the imperial throne, that came
almost by accident. When Marcus Annius Verus was born, in
A.D. 121, bystanders might have predicted a distinguished
career in the Senate or the imperial administration. They
could hardly have guessed that he was destined for the
imperial purple, or seen in their mind’s eye the lonely bronze
horseman whose upraised hand greets us from the Capitoline
hill in Rome across two thousand years.

Marcus sprang from a distinguished enough family. The
year of his birth coincided with his grandfather’s second
tenure of the consulship, in theory Rome’s highest office,
though now of largely ceremonial importance. And it was to
be his grandfather who brought him up, for his father died
when he was very young. Marcus makes reference in the
Meditations to his father’s character as he remembered it or
heard of it from others, but his knowledge must have been
more from stories than from actual memories. Of the
remainder of his childhood and his early adolescence we
know little more than can be gleaned from the Meditations.
The biography of him in the so-called Historia Augusta (a
curious and unreliable work of the late fourth century
probably based on a lost series of lives by the third-century
biographer Marius Maximus) tells us that he was a serious
child, but also that he loved boxing, wrestling, running and
falconry, that he was a good ballplayer and that he loved to
hunt. None of these are surprising occupations in an upperclass youth.

Book 1 of the Meditations offers glimpses of Marcus’s
schooling, and we can fill out the picture by what is known
of upper-class education generally at this period. His first
instructors, like the unnamed teacher mentioned in
Meditations 1.5, were probably slaves, from whom he
would have mastered the rudiments of reading and writing.
At a later stage he would have been handed over to private
tutors to be introduced to literature, especially, no doubt,
Vergil’s great epic, the Aeneid. But literature served only as
a preparation for the real goal. This was rhetoric, the key to
an active political career under the empire, as it had been
under the Republic. Under the supervision of a trained rhetor,
Marcus would have begun with short exercises before
progressing to full-scale practice declamations in which he
would have been asked to defend one side or another in
imaginary law cases, or to advise a prominent historical
figure at a turning point in his career. (Should Caesar cross
the Rubicon? Should Alexander turn back at the Indus? Why or why not?)

Such training was conducted in Greek as well as Latin.
Since at least the beginning of the first century B.C. the
Roman upper classes had been essentially bilingual, and
Marcus’s spoken and written Greek would have been as
fluent as the French of a nineteenth-century Russian aristocrat
or the Chinese of a Heian Japanese courtier. Marcus would
have read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and the tragedies of
Euripides side by side with the Aeneid, and studied the
speeches of the great Athenian orator Demosthenes as
intensively as those of the Roman statesman Cicero. It was
Greek writers and artists who constituted the intellectual
elite at the capital; when in later life the emperor conversed
with his court physician, Galen, he would have done so in the
latter’s native tongue. Above all, Greek remained
overwhelmingly the language of philosophy. In the late
Republic and early empire, writers like Lucretius, Cicero
and Seneca had worked to create a philosophical literature in
Latin, with notable success. But the great thinkers—Plato,
Aristotle, Theophrastus, Zeno, Chrysippus, Epicurus, etc.—
had all been Greeks. Serious philosophical investigation
required a familiarity with the language they wrote in and the
terminology they developed. That Marcus composed his own
Meditations in Greek is natural enough.

In 137, when Marcus was sixteen, a crucial event took
place. The reigning emperor, Hadrian, was childless. An
illness had brought him near to death a year previously, and
it was clear that he would not live forever. Hadrian owed his
throne to his adoption by his predecessor and distant
relative, Trajan. Following Trajan’s example, Hadrian had
designated the distinguished aristocrat Lucius Ceionius
Commodus to succeed him. In 137, however, Ceionius died
unexpectedly, and Hadrian was forced to cast about for a
new successor. His choice fell on the childless senator
Antoninus, whom he selected with the proviso that Antoninus
should in turn adopt Marcus (his nephew by marriage) along
with Ceionius’s son Lucius Verus, then aged seven. Marcus
took on the family name of his adopted father, becoming
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Hadrian’s death the following year left Marcus first in line
for the throne. His education and that of the younger Verus
were now matters of still greater concern, and it is clear that
no expense was spared. For training in Greek rhetoric, he
was entrusted to Herodes Atticus, a fabulously wealthy
Athenian rhetorician whose tempestuous relations with his
family, fellow citizens and the imperial court itself would
have furnished ample material for a soap opera. His
instructor in Latin oratory was Marcus Cornelius Fronto, a
prominent rhetorician from Cirta in North Africa. By an
accident of fate, many of Fronto’s letters to Marcus have
survived, and they illustrate the close relationship between
student and teacher. They also suggest Fronto’s regret at
seeing Marcus move away from rhetoric to delve ever more
deeply into philosophy. The first book of the Meditations
pays tribute to a number of philosophers from whom Marcus
learned, both formally and informally, and he is likely to
have studied with or listened to many others.

Marcus would have learned much outside the classroom as
well. For training in legal and political matters, an informal
apprenticeship bound aristocratic youths to older public
figures—men like Junius Rusticus, whose influence Marcus
chronicles in 1.7. But the single greatest influence was surely
Marcus’s adopted father, Antoninus Pius. Marcus would
have watched as Antoninus received embassies, tried legal
cases and dictated letters to his deputies. Meanwhile
Marcus’s own position as heir apparent was signaled in
various ways. In 140 he served as consul (at the age of
nineteen), and would serve again in 145. In the same year he
married Antoninus’s daughter Faustina, to whom he pays
tribute in Meditations 1.17.

Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire describes the reign of Antoninus as
“furnishing very few materials for history, which is indeed
little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and
misfortunes of mankind.” It furnishes equally little material
for Marcus’s biography. In the decade and a half between
145 and 161 we learn little of Marcus’s occupations, and our
only glimpses of his inner development come from his
correspondence with Fronto. But the two poles that would
govern the remainder of his life—the court and philosophy—
seem by this point to be fully established. There is no
evidence that Marcus experienced anything like the
“conversion” to philosophy that some ancient figures
experienced (or affected), but it is clear that by the middle to
late 140s philosophy was becoming increasingly central to his life.

On August 31, 161, Antoninus died, leaving Marcus as his
sole successor. Marcus immediately acted to carry out what
appears to have been Hadrian’s original intention (perhaps
ignored by Antoninus) by pushing through the appointment of
his adopted brother, Lucius Verus, as co-regent. Verus’s
character has suffered by comparison with Marcus’s. Ancient
sources, in particular the gossipy Historia Augusta, tend to
paint him as a self-indulgent degenerate—almost another
Nero. This may be unfair; it is certainly not the picture of him
we get from Marcus’s own reminiscences in the
Meditations. It does seem clear, however, that Marcus
functioned as the senior emperor in fact if not name. It would
be surprising if he had not. He was almost a decade older,
and had been trained for the position by Antoninus himself.
What kind of ruler did this philosopher-king prove to be?
Not, perhaps, as different from his predecessors as one might
have expected. Though an emperor was all-powerful in
theory, his ability to control policy was in reality much more
limited. Much of his time was spent fielding problems that
had moved up the administrative ladder: receiving embassies
from the large cities of the empire, trying appeals of criminal
cases, answering queries from provincial governors and
dealing with petitions from individuals. Even with a
functional system of imperial couriers, news could take
weeks to travel from the periphery of the empire to the
center; imperial edicts took time to move down the chain of
command. While the emperor’s decision had the force of
law, enforcement was almost entirely in the hands of
provincial governors, whose diligence might be affected by
incompetence, corruption, or an understandable desire not to
antagonize local elites.

We get occasional glimpses of Marcus’s day-to-day duties
from the evidence of imperial decisions preserved in letters,
inscriptions and the legal codes. Surviving legislation shows
a certain interest in the freeing of slaves and in regulations
relating to the guardianship of orphans. Attempts have been
made to tie the first to Marcus’s philosophical convictions
and the second to his own memories of life without a father.
But it remains unclear how much of the policy is due to
Marcus himself, and how far it differs from that of Marcus’s
predecessor, Antoninus. Perhaps more interesting are the
traces of Marcus’s personality to be discerned in the
phrasing of imperial documents, where we find a scrupulous
attention to detail and a self-consciousness about linguistic
usage that seems to differentiate Marcus from his
predecessors. Neither trait surprises in the author of the
Meditations or a student of Fronto, whose extant letters
place great stress on the quest for the mot juste.

One of Marcus’s priorities was to preserve good relations
with the Senate. The goal was to disguise the absoluteness
with which the emperor ruled: to preserve a facade—and
sometimes, no doubt, even to achieve the reality—of
consensus and cooperation. A hundred years before,
aristocrats might have dreamed of a restored Republic (as
some certainly did). But by the second century it was clear
that there was no alternative to the principate. The Senate
expected deference in public and hoped for influence behind
the scenes; “good” emperors were willing to play along. In
cultivating the upper classes Marcus was following in the
footsteps of Antoninus and Trajan, rather than of Hadrian,
whose relations with the Senate had been prickly. And it is
this, as much as anything else, that is responsible for his
reputation as a benevolent statesman. An emperor might do
as he liked while he lived, but it was the senatorial historians
—men like Cornelius Tacitus in the 120s or Cassius Dio in
the generation after Marcus’s death—who had the last word.
Another area where Marcus’s policy continued that of his
predecessors related to a small and eccentric sect known as
the Christians. In the course of the next century they would
become an increasing problem for the imperial
administration, and they were prominent enough in Marcus’s
day to attract an extended denunciation from a certain Celsus,
part of whose work “Against the Christians” still survives.
The sect met with contempt from those intellectuals who
deigned to take notice of it (Marcus’s tutor Fronto was
evidently one), and with suspicion and hostility from
ordinary citizens and administrators. The Christians’
disfavor stemmed from their failure to acknowledge the gods
worshipped by the community around them. Their
“atheism”—their refusal to accept any god but their own—
endangered their neighbors as well as themselves, and their
reluctance to acknowledge the divine status of the emperor
threatened the social order and the well-being of the state.

Christianity had been illegal since the early second century
when a query from Pliny the Younger (then governor of
Bithynia in Asia Minor) prompted the emperor Trajan to
establish a formal policy: While Christians were not to be
sought out, those who confessed to the faith were to be
executed. But empire-wide persecution did not become a
reality until a much later date. The main threat to Christians
in the second century came from individual provincial
governors, acting either on their own initiative or under
pressure from local communities. In the late 170s, for
example, civic unrest at Lyons resulted in a virtual pogrom of
Greek-speaking Christians resident there. Marcus’s mentor
Junius Rusticus had tried and executed Christians (the
apologist Justin Martyr among them) in his capacity as city
prefect. Marcus himself was no doubt aware of Christianity,
but there is no reason to think that it bulked large in his mind.
The one direct reference to it in the Meditations (11.3) is
almost certainly a later interpolation, and the implicit
references some scholars have discerned are surely illusory.
Marcus, in any case, had more serious concerns than this
troublesome cult. Soon after his accession, relations between
Rome and its only rival, the Parthian empire in the East, took
a dramatic turn for the worse. Since at least the time of
Trajan the two states had been locked in a cold war that
would continue for the next two centuries, and that once a
generation or so flared up into a military conflict. The death
of Antoninus and the accession of two new and untried rulers
may have tempted the Parthian ruler Vologaeses III to test the
waters. In 162 his forces occupied Armenia and wiped out a
Roman garrison that had gone to the rescue. Syria itself was
threatened. Rome had no choice but to respond.

It was Verus, the younger emperor, who was sent east,
where he remained for the next four years. Neither he nor
Marcus had any military experience to speak of (Antoninus’s
peaceful reign had given little scope for it), and the day-today
conduct of the war was no doubt left to the professionals.
After initial setbacks the Romans rallied and, under such
commanders as the dynamic young Avidius Cassius, forced
the Parthians to sue for peace. Parthia would remain a threat,
but one that could be dealt with by diplomatic means for the
immediate future.
Verus and his senior colleague had no time to bask in their
triumph, however. Within a year the empire was in the grip
of a devastating plague, apparently brought back from the
East by Lucius’s troops. Its effects may not have been quite
as apocalyptic as later writers suggest, but the death toll was
certainly high, and it also delayed the emperors’ response to
a second threat. This was the increasing instability on the
empire’s other border, the northern frontier that separated
Rome from the barbarian peoples of Germany, eastern
Europe and Scandinavia. During this period a number of
these tribes were under pressure from peoples farther north
and reacted by moving across the empire’s borders—not for
conquest, but in search of land to settle. Rome’s reaction
alternated between aggressive resistance and attempts at
accommodation; its failure to develop a workable policy
would eventually result in the collapse of the Western empire
some three centuries later.

In some places a line could be drawn. Hadrian’s great
wall, stretching across Britain, was intended to secure the
empire’s most distant frontier; under Antoninus it had been
briefly superseded by a second line farther to the north. But
such fortifications were impracticable on the continent, and it
was there that the threat was concentrated. Rome still
remembered the catastrophe of A.D. 9, when the Roman
general Varus and three legions had marched into the forests
of Germany, never to return. In the second century, the
greatest source of anxiety was the area farther south, roughly
corresponding to modern-day Romania and Hungary.
Trajan’s conquest of Dacia two generations before had
cleared out a possible source of trouble, but the potential for
friction remained. In Marcus’s day three peoples presented a
special problem: the Quadi, the Marcomanni, and the
Jazyges, also called Sarmatians. The removal of three
legions to Parthia had seriously weakened the Roman
position on the northern frontier, and barbarians took
advantage of the situation. In 168, Marcus and Verus
marched north to deal with them.

Much of the remainder of the reign would be spent on
intermittent warfare, first in the so-called Marcomannic
Wars of the early 170s and then in a second campaign later in
that decade. And most of the burden was to be borne by
Marcus alone, for Verus died suddenly (apparently of a
stroke) in early 169. It was a very different kind of war than
the traditional campaign Verus’s armies had waged. The
conventional military and diplomatic tactics that worked
against the Parthians were of limited use here. Instead, the
Romans had to negotiate with individual chieftains whose
authority was limited and whose reliability was always in
doubt. When negotiation failed, the only alternative was a
slow and bloody succession of small-scale engagements
rather than pitched battles. The progress of the campaign is
recorded on the column erected in Rome to commemorate the
close of the Marcomannic Wars. In spite of its triumphal
purpose, the engraved scenes that spiral around the
monument paint a grim picture of brutal fighting, devastation
and execution. “Spiders are proud of catching flies,” Marcus
notes mordantly, “men of catching hares, fish in a net, boars,
bears, Sarmatians” (10.10). The gruesome vignette that opens
Meditations 8.34 (“a severed hand or foot, or a decapitated
head”) may well reflect Marcus’s own experience.

By 175 the Romans seemed to have gained the upper hand.
But at this point disturbing news arrived. Avidius Cassius,
who had distinguished himself as a general during the
Parthian War and who as governor of Syria now served as
virtual regent of the Eastern empire, had revolted and
declared himself emperor. Some of the Eastern provinces
(notably Cappadocia) remained loyal to Marcus, but Cassius
was recognized as emperor throughout much of the East, and
in particular in Egypt, whose grain supply was crucial to the
capital. Civil war seemed inevitable, and was prevented
only by Cassius’s assassination at the hands of a subordinate.
Marcus was nevertheless obliged to travel east to reassert
his authority, taking with him Faustina (who died in the
course of the journey). He visited the major cities of the East,
Antioch and Alexandria, arriving finally at Athens, where he
was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, a set of mystic
rites connected with the worship of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture.

Now in his fifties, Marcus was in declining health, and the
revolt of Cassius had only underlined the need to make
arrangements for the succession. Faustina had borne at least
thirteen children, many of whom had died young. By the mid-
170s, Marcus had only one surviving son, Commodus, just
entering his teens. There was no reason for Marcus to
continue the policy of adoption followed by his
predecessors, and there is no reason to think he even
considered it. The years that follow see Commodus’s rapid
promotion to a position not far short of co-emperor. He was
consul in 177 at the age of fifteen. In the same year he was
accorded all the major imperial privileges, except for the
post of Pontifex Maximus, the head of the Roman state
religion, held by the reigning emperor alone, and for life.
The gains of the Marcomannic Wars had not proved
permanent, and in 178, Marcus and Commodus marched
north again. Two years later Marcus died at age fifty-eight,
the first emperor to pass on the throne to his son since
Vespasian a century before. Sadly, Commodus’s
performance did not bear out whatever promise Marcus had
discerned in him. He was to be remembered as a dissolute
tyrant, a second Caligula or Nero whose many defects were
only emphasized by the contrast with his father. His
assassination after a twelve-year reign would usher in the
first in a series of power struggles that would burden the
empire for the next century.

Table of Contents
Title Page
Half Title Page
Introduction by Gregory Hays
Book 1: Debts and Lessons
Book 2: On the River Gran, Among the Quadi
Book 3: In Carnuntum
Book 4
Book 5
Book 6
Book 7
Book 8
Book 9
Book 10
Book 11
Book 12
Index of Persons
About the Translator
The Modern Library Editorial Board

MODERN LIBRARY and the TORCHBEARER Design are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, 121–180.
[Meditations. English]

B580.H3 M3713 2002
188—dc21 2001057947
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