The last of the five “good” emperors (A.D. 161-180), Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (born Marcus Annius Verus) followed Antoninus Pius and was followed by his own son Commodus. Known for the Stoic philosophy, Marcus Aurelius not only wrote his Meditations, but also waged wars. Stoicism was a philosophy named after the Stoa Poikile, a hall in Athens where it was first formulated around 300 BC by Zeno of Citium. The Stoics were the first thoroughgoing pantheists: God is the universe, the universe is God. The wise and virtuous learns one’s place in the scheme. According to Stoic Ethics, the goal of human existence is to live consistently with Nature, which means “consistently with Reason”.
Marcus Aurelius was born in Rome. He was appointed by the Emperor to a priesthood in 129, and his education was supervised by Hadrian who entrusted him to the best professors of literature, rhetoric and philosophy of the time. From his early twenties he deserted his other studies for philosophy. The Emperor Antoninus, who succeeded Hadrian, adopted Marcus Aurelius as his son in 138. He treated Aurelius as a confidant and helper throughout his reign. Aurelius was admitted to the Senate, and then twice the consulship. In 147 he shared tribunician power with Antoninus. During this time he began composition of his Meditations. In 161 Marcus Aurelius ascended the throne and shared his imperial power with his adopted brother Lucius Aurelius Verus. Useless and lazy, Verus was regarded as a kind of junior emperor, but he died in 169. After Verus’s death he ruled alone, until he admitted his own son, Commodus, to full participation in the government in 177.
As an emperor Marcus Aurelius was conservative and just by Roman standards. Toward the end of his reign, in 175, he was faced with a revolt by Avidius Cassius, whom he praised and attempted to accommodate. Year after year Aurelius tried to push barbarians back but witnessed the gradual crumbling of the Roman frontiers. In these times of disasters, he turned more and more to study of Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius’s melancholic writings reveal that the public duties depressed him and he wanted to retire to live a simple country life. After his death in Vindobona (now Vienna, Austria) on March 17, 180 the emperor’s only son Commodus became Emperor and turned out to be the worst of bad rulers.
Marcus Aurelius’s reputation is shadowed by his persecution of Christians, whom he considered superstitious and immoral. The fierce cruelty, with which the persecution was carried out in Gaul, was not consistent with his writings. However, Stoics had a profound influence upon both Neoplatonism and Christianity.
“You will find rest from vain fancies if you perform every act in life as though it were your last.”
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there.”
“By a tranquil mind I mean nothing else than a mind well ordered.”
“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
“Never esteem anything as of advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect.”
“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”
“One universe made up all that is; and one God in it all, and one principle of being, and one law, the reason shared by all thinking creatures, and one truth.”