Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor

This is part of our 3-part short series on the three most important Stoic philosophers: Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. Here you will find a short introduction to Marcus, suggested readings, three exercises/lessons from him as well as a selection of quotes.  


Agasicles, king of the Spartans, once quipped that he wanted to be ‘the student of men whose son I should like to be as well.’ It is a critical consideration we need to make in our search for role models. Stoicism is no exception. Before we begin our studies we need to ask ourselves: Who are the people that followed these precepts? Who can I point out as an example? Am I proud to look up to this person? Do I want to be more like them?

And Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, born nearly two millennia ago (121 – 180), is a leader and example who provides a resounding yes.

Marcus Annius Verus was born in a prominent and established family but nobody at the time would have predicted that he would one day be Emperor of the Empire. There is little that is known of his childhood but he was a serious young man who also enjoyed wrestling, boxing and hunting. Around his teenage years, the reigning emperor at the time, Hadrian was nearing death and was childless. He had to pick a successor and after his first choice, Lucius Ceionius, died unexpectedly, he chose Antoninus. He was a senator who was also childless and he would have to adopt Marcus, as per Hadrian’s condition, as well as Ceionius’s son, Lucius Verus. This is how Marcus’s name changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

Once Hadrian died, it was clear that Marcus was next in line for the most important position in the empire. His education would become of serious concern and he would have the privilege of studying under Herodes Atticus, a rhetorician from Athens (Marcus would later write his Meditations in Greek) as well as Marcus Cornelius Fronto, his instructor in Latin whose letters of correspondence with Marcus survive to this day. Marcus would also serve as a consul twice thus receiving valuable and practical education.

In 161, as Antoninus died and ended one of the longest reigns, Marcus became the Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180. He also co-ruled in the beginning with Lucius Verus, his adopted brother until Lucius’ death eight years later. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the Empire on the northern border, the rise of Christianity as well as the plague that left numerous dead.

Marcus’s death came in 180 in his military headquarters in modern day Vienna. The historian Cassius Dio describes Marcus’s attitude towards his son, Commodus who he made co-emperor few years earlier and was now to succeed him: “[Marcus] was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him.”

It is important to realize the gravity of that position and the magnitude of power that Marcus possessed. He held one of—if not the most—powerful positions in the world at the time. If he chose to, nothing would be off limits. He could indulge and succumb to temptations, there was nobody that could restrain him from any of his wishes. There is a reason the adage that power in absolute absolutely corrupts has been repeated throughout history—it unfortunately tends to be true. And yet, as the essayist Matthew Arnold remarked, Marcus proved himself worthy of the position he was in.

And it was not only him who offered that verdict. The famous historian Edward Gibbon wrote that under Marcus, the last of the ‘Five Good Emperors,’ “the Roman Empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of wisdom and virtue”. The guidance of wisdom and virtue. That’s what separates Marcus from the majority of past and present world leaders. Just think of the diary that he left behind, which is now known as his Meditations which we discuss below: the private thoughts of the most powerful man in the world, admonishing himself on how to be more virtuous, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser.

And for Marcus, Stoicism provided a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. It is not surprising that he wrote his Meditations in the last decade of his life, while on campaigning against foreign invaders. Passed down from his mentors and teachers, Marcus embraced the studies of Stoicism which we see in him thanking his teacher Rusticus for introducing him to Stoicism and Epictetus inside Meditations. Another influence on Marcus came from Heraclitus, whose concepts we can see throughout Meditations and who had a strong influence on Stoic thought. Given the literary world at the time, Marcus was mostly likely not exposed to Seneca, another one of the three most prominent Stoics.

What is tragic about Marcus, as one scholar wrote, is how his “philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.”

Now it is on us to pick it back up.

Notable Works & Suggested Readings

Marcus has only one core work, which was actually never intended for publication: his Meditations (originally titled “To Himself”). This is not only one of greatest books ever written but perhaps the only book of its kind. It is the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization and strength. It proved to be equally inspirational to writers like Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson as he has been for statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt, Wen Jiabao and Bill Clinton. If you read it and aren’t profoundly changed by it, it’s probably because as Aurelius says “what doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness.” As John Stuart Mill put it in his On Liberty, Meditations are “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind”.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are lucky to have access these. As Gregory Hays explains, for centuries traces of it was lost until the beginning of the 10th century, “it reappears in a letter from the scholar and churchman Arethas.”

You HAVE to read the Hays’s translation. If you end up loving Marcus, go get The Inner Citadel and Philosophy as a Way of Life by Pierre Hadot that studies the man (and men) behind the work. And if you want more on the topic, Marcus inspired The Obstacle is the Way, which you can get a free chapter of if you sign up for the Daily Stoic newsletter.

3 Stoic Exercises From Marcus Aurelius

1.Practice The Virtues You Can Show

It’s easy to succumb to self-pity when we start telling ourselves that we lack certain talents, that we miss stuff that seems to come so easily to other people. We need to catch ourselves when we do so. We need instead to focus on the things that are always within us: our capacity and potential for virtuous action.  As Marcus wrote to himself,

“No one could ever accuse you of being quick-witted.

All right, but there are plenty of other things you can’t claim you “haven’t got in you.” Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer—beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for less.”

2. Draw Strength from Others

As discussed earlier, Marcus most likely wrote the notes to himself which are now Meditations on the battlefield, during the last decade of his life. In those times of difficulty and adversity he’d write to himself notes of encouragement, to pick himself back again, to do his duty. One exercise that we can borrow from him is to draw strength from people in our lives or simply role models that inspire us. As he wrote,

“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re praactically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind.”

3.Focus on The Present

Marcus knew the temptations that exist for all of us to let our imagination run wild envisioning all the ways things can go wrong. Of course, such an exercise can be useful in preparing us for the future and making us ready for adversity, but Marcus well understood that it can become crippling fear that will paralyze us from any useful action. As he put it,

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.”

Marcus Aurelius Quotes

“Yes, you can–if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable.”

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’”

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”

“Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human–however imperfectly–and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

“No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts.”