Marcus Aurelius as Historian

Stoicism and History as a Meditation on Death

Donald J. Robertson
Dec 7, 2020 · 9 min read

In a letter, believed to have been written in 139 AD, when Marcus Aurelius was just eighteen, his rhetoric master, Marcus Cornelius Fronto says in passing “I gave you advice on what you should do to prepare yourself for writing a work of history, since that is what you wished.”

However, roughly three decades later, in The Meditations, looking back, Marcus thanks the gods that:

…when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any Sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories… — Meditations, 1.17

Fronto himself was a Sophist of sorts, incidentally, although he taught Latin rather than Greek, but Marcus doesn’t seem to have him in mind here. By this point, in any case, Marcus seems to have thoroughly given up on the dream of becoming a historian.

Wander aimlessly no longer. For neither will you read your own memoirs, nor the acts of the ancient Romans and Greeks, and the selections from books which you were reserving for your old age. — Meditations, 3.14

What this seems to confirm, unsurprisingly, is that Marcus was mainly interested in Greek and Roman history. However, it seems that his desire to read histories has cooled along with his desire to write them. Indeed, he now exclaims: “Throw away your books; no longer distract yourself: it is not allowed” (2.2) and “cast away your thirst for books, so that you may not die murmuring, but cheerfully, truly, and from your heart thankful to the gods.” (3.2).

In general, the Stoic attitude toward books and study appears to have been that it’s good in moderation, precisely insofar as it serves the fundamental goal of life, which is to achieve wisdom and virtue. Studying can be virtuous but it can also be a vice if divorced from the goal of self-improvement.

Photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

History as a Meditation on Death

Throughout The Meditations Marcus reflects on history from a philosophical perspective, almost always as a reminder of the transience of material things and the insubstantial nature of our reputation after death.

Everywhere up and down you will find the same things, with which the old histories are filled, those of the middle ages and those of our own day, with which cities and houses are filled now. There is nothing new: all things are both familiar and short-lived. — Meditations, 7.1

This perspective lends itself to contemplation on transience and mortality but perhaps not to writing a detailed history.

Constantly consider how all things such as they now are, in time past also were; and consider that they will be the same again. And place before your eyes entire dramas and stages of the same form, whatever you have learned from your experience or from older history. For example, the whole court of Hadrian, and the whole court of Antoninus, and the whole court of Philip [of Macedon], Alexander the Great, Croesus; for all those were such dramas as we see now, only with different actors. — Meditations, 10.27

Here we get a hint at the individuals that Marcus’ histories may have focused upon. The historical figures he mentions most often in The Meditations are:

  • Philip of Macedon
  • Alexander the Great
  • Pompey the Great
  • Julius Caesar
  • Augustus

Overall, this is not a particularly surprising list and the other names he mentions reflect the typical historical interest of educated Romans in the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Civil War of Julius Caesar, and the succession of emperors following Augustus. Indeed, the historical figure he mentions most often is Alexander the Great. However, when Marcus alludes to military and political leaders it’s often to criticize them, minimize their achievements, or to compare them negatively with philosophers.

Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, what are they in comparison with Diogenes [the Cynic] and Heraclitus and Socrates? For they were acquainted with things, and their causes, and their matter, and the ruling principles of these men were the same. But as to the others, how many things had they for which to care, and to how many things were they slaves! — Meditations, 8.3

Despite having long contemplated the idea of writing histories, Marcus says very bluntly that Alexander the Great and his mule-driver were both levelled, and brought to exactly the same state, by death (Meditations, 6.24).

However, elsewhere he reminds himself that the wise are also mortal:

Alexander the Great, Pompey, and Julius Caesar, after so often completely destroying whole cities, and in battle cutting to pieces many ten thousands of cavalry and infantry, themselves too at last departed from life. Heraclitus, after so many speculations on the conflagration of the universe, was filled with water internally and died smeared all over with mud. Lice destroyed Democritus, and other lice killed Socrates. — Meditations, 3.3

The two philosophers he mentions or cites most frequently are Epictetus and Heraclitus, although he also mentions Pythagoras, Democritus, Socrates, Diogenes, Chrysippus, Epicurus, among others.

These meditations on the lives of famous historical individuals are sometimes expanded to encompass the history of great cities and even whole civilizations.

Augustus’ court, wife, daughter, descendants, ancestors, sister, Agrippa, kinsmen, intimates, friends; Areius, Maecenas, physicians, and sacrificing priests — the whole court is dead. Then turn to the rest, not considering the death of a single man [but of a whole race], as of the Pompeii; and that which is inscribed on the tombs: “The last of his race.” Then consider what trouble those before them have had that they might leave a successor, and then that of necessity some one must be the last. Again, here consider the death of a whole race. — Meditations, 8.31

Elsewhere he urges himself to think of how many are dead despite dedicating their lives to preventing illness or predicting the future. Every general who has defeated great armies has, in the end, been defeated by death. Great cities, like Pompeii, destroyed completely.

Think continually how many physicians are dead after often contracting their eyebrows over the sick, and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others, and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality, how many heroes after killing thousands, and how many tyrants who have used their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence, as if they were immortal. And how many cities are entirely dead, so to speak, Helice and Pompeii and Herculaneum, and others innumerable. Add to the reckoning all whom you have known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him, and all this in a short time. — Meditations, 4.48

Dead Emperors

Marcus asks himself to reflect, in particular, on the lives of earl emperors, particularly the first Augustus, but also Vespasian and Trajan:

Consider, for example, the times of Vespasian. you will see all these things, people marrying, bringing up children, sick, dying, warring, feasting, trafficking, cultivating the ground, flattering, obstinately arrogant, suspecting, plotting, wishing for some to die, grumbling about the present, loving, heaping up treasure, desiring consulship, kingly power. Well, then, that life of these people no longer exists at all. Again, remove to the times of Trajan. Again, all is the same. Their life too is gone. In like manner view also the other epochs of time and of whole nations, and see how many after great efforts soon fell and were resolved into the elements. — Meditations, 4.32

There’s nothing good or bad to say about them. Nero, however, mentioned in passing as a tyrant and moral degenerate comparable to the cruel Sicilian despot Phalaris (Meditations, 3.16).

Moreover, the names of famous Romans of the Republic, Augustus, the founder of the empire, and even recent emperors like Hadrian and Antoninus, all come to sound like historical references.

The words which were formerly familiar are now antiquated: so also the names of those who were famed of old, are now in a manner antiquated, Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Leonnatus, and a little after also Scipio and Cato, then Augustus, then also Hadrian and Antoninus. For all things soon pass away and become a mere tale, and complete oblivion soon buries them. And I say this of those who have shone in a wondrous way. For the rest, as soon as they have breathed out their breath they are gone, and no man speaks of them. — Meditations, 4.33

They’re just names in history books or statues rather than references to flesh-and-blood individuals.

Photo by Leonardo Yip on Unsplash

Autobiography as a Meditation on Death

Of course, Marcus also mentions not reading his own memoirs. We might have expected such a literate emperor to leave behind an autobiographical account of his own life for posterity. Once again, though, reflection on his life takes the form of a meditation on transience and mortality. Like Augustus and Hadrian, he will soon be nothing but another name in the history books.

This is the chief thing: Do not be perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the universal, and in a little time you will be nobody and nowhere, like Hadrian and Augustus. — Meditations, 8.5

And again,

And call to recollection both how many things you have passed through, and how many things you have been able to endure, and that the history of your life is now complete and your service is ended. And how many beautiful things you have seen, and how many pleasures and pains you have despised, and how many things called honorable you have spurned, and to how many ill-minded folks you have shown a kind disposition. — Meditations, 5.31

Marcus even tells himself that when he sees living individuals he should call to mind historical figures of whom he’s reminded by them. Moreover, when he sees his own image he must “think of any other Caesar”, i.e., any preceding emperor.

Then let this thought be in your mind, “Where then are those men now?” Nowhere, or nobody knows where. For thereby you will continuously look at human things as smoke and nothing at all, especially if you reflect at the same time that what has once changed will never exist again in the infinite duration of time. — Meditations, 10.31

“Where are they now?” or ubi sunt, as it was known in Latin, became a well-known trope in poetry.

Conclusion

The theme of Marcus’ reflections on history, and his own autobiography, in The Meditations is very clear:

Consider the past — such great changes of political supremacies. You may foresee also the things which will be. For they will certainly be of like form, and it is not possible that they should deviate from the order of the things which take place now. Accordingly to have contemplated human life for forty years is the same as to have contemplated it for ten thousand years. For what more will you see? — Meditations, 7.49

This doesn’t lead Marcus to an attitude of hopelessness, though, but rather to one of non-attachment and perseverance. Those who engage in public life and merely imagine they are acting wisely like philosophers are absurd, he says, maybe because they pay too much heed to other people’s perceptions. Marcus tells himself, by contrast, to do right away what nature and reason require rather than looking around to see if anyone will observe it. However, Rome was not built in a day…

Nor yet expect Plato’s Republic: but be content if the smallest thing goes on well, and consider such an event to be no small matter. For who can change men’s opinions? And without a change of opinions what else is there than the slavery of men who groan while they pretend to obey? Come now and tell me of Alexander the Great and Philippus and Demetrius of Phalerum. They themselves shall judge whether they discovered what the common nature required, and trained themselves accordingly. But if they acted like tragic heroes, no one has condemned me to imitate them. Simple and modest is the work of philosophy. Do not draw me aside to insolence and pride. — Meditations, 9.29

What matters is doing what’s right whether or not you win acclaim for doing so. We should judge our own lives rather than being overly-concerned how history judges us.

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