Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121 – March 17, 180) was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180. He ruled with Lucius Verus as co-emperor from 161 until Verus’ death in 169. He was the last of the Five Good Emperors, and is also considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.
During his reign, the Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East; Aurelius’ general Avidius Cassius sacked the capital Ctesiphon in 164. In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars.
Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic tome Meditations, written in Greek while on campaign between 170 and 180, is still revered as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty, describing how to find and preserve equanimity in the midst of conflict by following nature as a source of guidance and inspiration.
Marcus was taught at home, in line with contemporary aristocratic trends. Marcus thanked Catilius Severus for encouraging him to avoid public schools.
One of his teachers, Diognetus, a painting-master, proved particularly influential; he seems to have introduced Marcus to the philosophic way of life. In April 132, at the behest of Diognetus, Marcus took up the dress and habits of the philosopher: he studied while wearing a rough Greek cloak, and would sleep on the ground until his mother convinced him to sleep on a bed.
After the death of Antoninus Pius, Marcus was effectively sole ruler of the Empire. The formalities of the position would follow. The senate would soon grant him the name Augustus and the title imperator, and he would soon be formally elected as Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the official cults. Marcus made some show of resistance: the biographer writes that he was “compelled” to take imperial power. This may have been a genuine horror imperii, “fear of imperial power”. Marcus, with his preference for the philosophic life, found the imperial office unappealing. His training as a Stoic, however, had made the choice clear. It was his duty.
Marcus Aurelius acquired the reputation of a philosopher king within his lifetime, and the title would remain his after death. Christians – Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Melita – gave him the title, too. The last named went so far as to call Marcus “more philanthropic and philosophic” than Antoninus Pius and Hadrian, and set him against the persecuting emperors Domitian and Nero to make the contrast bolder.
“Alone of the emperors,” wrote the historian Herodian, “he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life.”
While on campaign between 170 and 180, Aurelius wrote his Meditations in Greek as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement. The title of this work was added posthumously—originally he titled his work simply: “To Myself”.
He had a logical mind and his notes were representative of Stoic philosophy and spirituality. Meditations is still revered as a literary monument to a government of service and duty. The book has been a favorite of Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill, Matthew Arnold, Goethe, Wen Jiabao, and Bill Clinton.
What Are You Doing To Change Your World? Marcus Aurelius apparently did not write Meditations for consumption by others. However, it was of such radiance that it caught the eye of others down through the centuries and influenced their lives. That’s “all” you need to do change your world – something that may influence even just one other in a positive fashion. Get to it.
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