Marcus Aurelius is often hailed as the greatest Roman emperor. Truth be told, however, it wasn’t difficult to distinguish oneself among such decidedly disreputable company. The competition either faded into obscurity due to ineptitude or were doomed to infamy by their maniacal cruelty. Compared to the psychopathic reigns of Caligula, Nero, and even his own son, Commodus, Marcus Aurelius was a portrait of self-discipline and rational behavior, resisting the ever-present urge to abuse the God-like powers of his position.
It’s not his sterling reputation as a statesman, administrator, or military leader that has sustained his legacy over the millennia, however. It’s his private hobby as a philosopher and the thoughtful maxims collected in his Meditations that have ensured his place in our common memory. His inner musings on life and duty strike a chord in readers even today; just six years ago, a new translation of Meditations cracked the bestseller lists, 1,800 years after Marcus’ death.
As such, any proper biography of Marcus must not only address his temporal, historical existence but also those philosophical aspects of his personality which endure and have informed many of mankind’s greatest thinkers. It’s no easy task. The biographer must be both competent in establishing the social, political milieu in which Marcus lived and capable of tackling the heady, abstract intellectual portions of his work, well versed not only in the Stoic philosophy that Marcus favored, but also the competing perspectives and those that developed out of them. Author Frank McLynn is confident enough to try, and largely succeeds in Marcus Aurelius: A Life, though not without a struggle.
McLynn, author of last year’s exquisite Richard & John: Kings at War, is a thoughtful and provocative writer. His work is marked by its deft use of language and a strong authorial voice that seeks to engage readers and dissuade passivity. His style is pointed, personal, and demands a level of attention and involvement that some readers may find too forward at first. In Marcus Aurelius, McLynn lets his opinions and feelings be known, particularly when discussing Marcus’ Stoicism, which creates a fair amount of turbulence in the middle of this otherwise compelling work. Nevertheless, those who approach his work with an open mind and an eagerness to learn will ultimately feel rewarded.
Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote that the era Marcus Aurelius reigned in was the period of history “during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous”. McLynn takes particular umbrage with this overly generous assertion. In truth, Marcus’ Roman Empire was a Hobbesean trial where the consumptive whims of the ruling elite were fueled by the labor and exploitation of a vast, oppressed underclass.
Standards of living were low and death was ever present in a multitude of forms, including plague, famine, war, and high rates of infant mortality. The empire was strained economically, requiring near constant warfare and annexations to keep things afloat, a situation that empowered the military and imperiled the stability of the government. This was the world Marcus inherited when he ascended to the purple, and he was lucky that the last several emperors who preceded him were competent and conservative.
McLynn uses Marcus’ life as a vehicle to illuminate the full breadth of Roman culture during this time. Indeed, a significant portion of the book is a crash course in the ancillary topics that are required knowledge for those who wish to fully understand the workings of the Empire and its denizens. This includes the detached parenting style of Roman parents, who entrust their infants to wet nurses and nannies to insulate themselves from the all-too-common grief of losing a child; the petty rivalries between scholars such as Marcus’ obsequious tutors Fronto and Herodes Atticus; and exhaustive accounts of the military campaigns in Germany and Parthia that set the stage for Marcus’ own martial triumphs.
The growing cult of Christianity begins to make itself known in Marcus’ time, and McLynn shows how the controversy evolves from theological disputes and invective into full-blown persecution. Marcus Aurelius: A Life provides readers a clear, immediate portal to the past, one that fully communicates the tone and tenor of the second century CE in a compelling, comprehensive narrative.
It’s not until McLynn delves into Meditations and their philosophical groundings that Marcus the individual begins to truly take shape, and the author staggers. Though his respect for Marcus is clear, it’s also obvious that McLynn doesn’t revere the emperor the way he did Richard the Lionheart in Richard & John.
In a mid-book chapter detailing the fundamentals of Marcus’ Stoic philosophy, McLynn makes no bones about his distaste for many of the school’s tenets and observances. His personality breaks through too often and too powerfully, his opinionated dismissals occasionally coloring what should have been a crisper enumeration of Marcus’ beliefs and their origins. It’s an unfortunate digression, but thankfully brief. When McLynn revisits the philosophical question later in the book, particularly in the final chapter, which traces the progression of Marcus’ thoughts from Meditations as digested by philosophy’s greatest minds, it’s a well plotted, brisk summation of the book’s potency and allure.
Marcus Aurelius lived in interesting times, and his Meditations is a look into the mind of a man torn between duty and belief, dealing with the harsh realities of a difficult existence, and trying to come to terms with his own limitations. Even the great men of history are men, and McLynn’s portrait of Marcus helps us better understand that fact.