Published in


How to Make Grand Gestures Like Marcus Aurelius

The Philosopher King is crowned emperor of the Roman Empire during a turbulent time.

Near the start of his reign he is faced with a major dilemma: the royal treasury is empty!

Too many wars.

Too many parties.

Too many sick.

Unable to pay his troops, Marcus Aurelius results to extreme measures.

He holds a public sale of his own imperial furnishings, which included his wife’s silk robes (I’m sure he got an earful that night) so he could fund a new expedition against the germanic tribes who were raping and pillaging the northern border.

In modern times, it would be as if Donald Trump decided to put all the White House furniture on eBay to pay for a new war in the Middle East.

Clearly, Marcus Aurelius (or Donald Trump) wouldn’t be able to pay for a new war with just the goods from his house, no matter how lavish it maybe. It was a public relations scheme.

It amounted to an attempt to show that even the emperor was willing to make a sacrifice for the public good.

Marcus Aurelius then went into the streets and started sacrificing goats, pigs, and cows on behalf of the gods as a gesture to his subjects that he was eliciting all the help he could get to fill the empty coffers and stop the spreading disease.

According to some estimates, smallpox was killing 2,000 people a day in Rome where eventually the disease would wipe out 10% — 25% of the Roman population.

Due to a smaller pool of funds and able-bodied men, the emperor also found it difficult to recruit new troops for the expedition against the Germanic tribes.

As a grand gesture, Marcus Aurelius personally led the expedition for most of his remaining life.

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. — Marcus Aurelius

It’s all the more amazing that he chose to spend so many years on the battlefront when one considers the life he could have lived in Rome (orgies, food, and more orgies!).

By the end of his reign, the treasury was replenished, germanic tribes squashed, and the people’s health restored, which is why historians consider him one of the greatest emperors in Roman history.

How was Marcus Aurelius capable of such grand gestures?

Grand gestures require great sacrifice in either time, money, or energy.

The emperor was able to make such great sacrifices because he saw happiness a choice and giving a virtue.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts. — Marcus Aurelius

He could choose to be happy regardless of what he sacrificed because he felt that as long as there was a breath in his body there was something to be grateful for.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love. — Marcus Aurelius

His moral code was simple: be a good man.

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. — Marcus Aurelius

And love thy neighbor.

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart. — Marcus Aurelius

Ultimately he derived his happiness from being virtuous rather than being pleasured, which empowered him to give more and more.

The only wealth which you will keep forever is the wealth you have given away. — Marcus Aurelius

How can we make grand gestures in our modern life?

Whether you wish to be happy, virtuous, or a successful emperor of your home or business, stop talking and let your actions speak for itself.

  • You say you care about school? Get a big bond fire going and throw in all your video games and Playstation!
  • You say you love your girlfriend? Sprinkle rose pedals leading up from the driveway to the bedroom where she’ll find you laying there in a roman toga with a bottle of wine.
  • You say you want to lose weight? Buy a nonrefundable plane ticket to a city for the purpose of running in their annual half marathon.
  • You say you want to win her back? Break out the boombox.
  • You say you love this article? 👏 it.

But too many people, just like in Roman times, aren’t willing to sacrifice pleasure for virtue.

Too many people’s actions say I don’t care about doing well in school, getting a good job, being in a loving relationship, helping the needy, or worst of all… {holds breath} reading this article.

But let that not be us!

The lack of grand gestures is a gesture in of itself and so this helps to explain why Marcus Aurelius was so full of them.

The wrongdoer is often the person who left something undone, rather than the person who has done something. — Marcus Aurelius

You may have heard of Marcus Aurelius before — most likely from the movie Gladiator starring Russel Crowe — but hopefully you’ve also heard of him from his infamous work, Meditations, where he writes about his stoic philosophy.

In Meditations, it’s clear that as much as the Philosopher King, as he was called in his time, believed in the power of gesture, he also believed in the power of thought…

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. — Marcus Aurelius

By recording his thoughts, they’re still influencing the world today, which maybe represents his greatest gesture of them all.

What we do now echoes into eternity. — Marcus Aurelius

Thanks for reading! Anthony Galli writes about the great men and women who made history so that we may make history in our own time. Watch his series @ The Great Life.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store