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On the 17th of March, 180 A.D., in Vindobona (now called Vienna), the 58-year-old Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus is close to death. Despite the usual suspicions of foul play by poisoning that would arise afterward, his death will almost certainly be from natural causes, likely smallpox that he's contracted while on campaign (although some historians say it was the plague). He has very often been out of the City during the past 19 years, as he is now, leading another expedition that he himself has organized as yet another attempt to deal with those difficult and troublesome German tribes. For the security of the Empire really is in Marcus's hands alone, even though for the past three years he has shared the title of Emperor with his biological son, Commodius.
This is the second time Marcus has shared his power in name at least, for throughout the first eight years of his reign he also voluntarily bore the title of co-emperor, having maneuvered the political power structure to accept that arrangement with Marcus's brother-in-law, Lucius Verus. But despite these ersatz power-sharing arrangements, Marcus has in fact been the sole power at the helm of Rome's power since the death of his predecessor, Antoninus Pius. Now, from the late-winter chaos of the battlefield, the ruler of the western world anxiously leaves the fate of the empire at last in the hands of his emotionally troubled son, Commodius. But that's another story.
In reviewing the life course of Marcus Aurelius, the reader is struck by the wholeness of it. Many of the emperors before him, and most of those yet to come, come across as fragmented, broken or distorted, but not so Marcus. An ardent and modest student from the earliest ages, and later a skilled practitioner of Greek stoic philosophy, this thoughtful correspondent deeply cared for his friends, his children, and in a very modern way, he also cared for the welfare of humanity.
The fullness of his life and thought, revealed in his own writings and in the reports of his contemporaries, has left us a great deal of information about Marcus Aurelius. And, although having died almost two thousand years ago, Marcus Aurelius continues to be of compelling interest for us in the Western world. A book search on his name brings back a list of 1,496 books or book editions authored by or related to the emperor, in a wide variety of languages and formats, some currently out of print but almost all available.
With so much already written about him and his life, the first question a potential reader will have is, Why another? And why such a hefty work? Not counting the appendices, the main body of 19 chapters runs to over 500 pages. The answer to the question of why is that McLynn tells this beautiful story in such a way that recreational historians can fully appreciate the meaning of this philosopher-king's life and thought.
For readers whose knowledge of Marcus Aurelius has come largely from his own Meditations, or via the works of Gibbons or the Durants, or perhaps from the movie Gladiator, the depth and intricacy of McLynn's work will seem startling. In order to put the emperor's life into its proper context, McLynn illustrates and explicates the events and politics of the times, providing illuminating details of the personalities, dynamics, motives, strengths and weaknesses of both major and peripheral figures before, during and after Aurelius's reign. Many players, such as Hadrian, will be well known, but other curious and important figures, such as Fronto, will likely not be familiar at all to the lay reader; McLynn brings all of these to life in intricate and captivating detail.
Of special interest, of course, is Marcus Aurelius's own unique understanding and extension of the one philosophic school, as well as his seeming ambivalence toward the fledgling religion of Christianity. At the time of Marcus Aurelius, Rome was busily absorbing Greek philosophy, thought and world views. Marcus's Meditations, most of it probably written on campaigns, is a soliloquy on what many see as the essence of Greek religious thought -- Stoicism -- with its assertion that God is fundamentally one whole, omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent, and just entity or presence. The aim of human life -- virtuous happiness -- is to be cultivated by our continuing recognition that all things happen in accordance with God's will. Therefore we must accept our position and our tasks in life, and the situations and events we are given. The prudent person is in this way nearly self-sufficient. Our wisdom is in recognizing that we are in control only of our own minds, and the actions we choose are based on attentive contemplation.
The last three chapters of this book, along with the appendices, provide in-depth coverage of the period immediately following Aurelius's death and the ascendency of his son, Commodius (Chapter 17), Marcus's historical legacy as it was understood by earlier thinkers and writers (Chapter 18, where Gibbons comes in for special attention), and a thorough contemporary assessment of the emperor's life and thought (Chapter 19). The appendices are relatively brief but also of special interest, containing useful information on stoicism, the importance of solitude in Marcus's philosophy (a theme which connected him, interestingly, to both Thoreau and Admiral Byrd), and a few pages on the reign of Aurelius' predecessor, Antoninus Pius.
McLynn masterfully weaves together the core issues of Marcus's world --war, politics, love and relationships, religion and philosophy -- and plays out the dramas (and melodramas) on the high stage of the ancient Roman world. Real history, written bare, is often dreary when compared to the fictionalized accounts of it, but this book demonstrates that it is indeed possible for a history book to draw characters more vividly, flesh out a story line with more color, explain interpersonal and situational dynamics more coherently, and weave a tale together more thoroughly than could possibly be done even in a blockbuster movie.
In short, this book is an investment well worth the reader's time and effort.
© 2011 Keith Harris
Keith Harris, Ph.D., is Chief of Research for the Department of Behavioral Health in San Bernardino County, California. His current interests include the empirical basis for mental health research, behavioral genetics, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.