Books

Marcus Aurelius: A Life by Frank McLynn

Any proper biography of Aurelius must not only address his historical existence but also his philosophical beliefs, which have informed many of mankind's greatest thinkers.


Marcus Aurelius: A Life

Publisher: Da Capo
Length: 720 Pages
Author: Frank McLynn
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2009-07
Amazon

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Music

Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.

Music

Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."

Music

David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.

Music

On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.

Music

Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.

Music

Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.

Music

Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."

Books

How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Film

From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.