It must have been surreal to be Marcus Aurelius. You grow up as a pretty regular kid and then, one day, you’re emperor. Suddenly you have the power to “deify” your adopted stepfather—you can make this human being you knew and loved into a god. Does having the power to make someone a god, as Marcus also did for his wife, mean that you are a god? Certainly many Romans thought so.
It’s the kind of power that can go to your head. That’s what’s so remarkable about Marcus, though—he seems to have actively worked to make sure it didn’t. He talked about resisting the draw of “imperialization.” He practiced those “contemptuous expressions” that were designed to make the important trappings of power seem insignificant. This cloak, he said, is just a regular cloak dyed with shellfish blood (that’s how the Romans made the color purple). Look at how few people remember the names of previous emperors, he points out, think about how quickly you will be forgotten.
This was the right thing to do. Because yes, the emperors were famous. Yes, they held immense power and wealth. But were they really that special? At Aquincum, the Roman camp where Marcus Aurelius wrote large chunks of Meditations, archaeologists have uncovered a larger-than-life limestone statue of an emperor in a toga. At first glance it looks like the head has been broken off. But a closer inspection reveals that the head was designed to be replaceable. The statue was part of a shrine for the cult of the emperor… so they wanted to be able to swap the head out each time a new one took the throne. That would humble you a bit, wouldn’t it? Sure, you’re special now, but not forever. Not special enough to carve a permanent statue for, anyway. You’re replaceable, which means you are also forgettable.
We should realize that we are all just placeholders, like Marcus. Sure, we might have the fancy office now, but eventually someone else will occupy it. Eventually the business will close up shop too, and they will tear down the building and turn it into a parking lot. Sure, you’re the hot new artist or the trendiest influencer of the moment, but someone younger, someone hungrier is coming right behind you. Fortunes tend to last no more than a couple generations, so yeah, you’re rich now but in a couple years it will all be gone.
That’s just life. We are all ephemeral in the big picture. It’s not that knowing this makes everything worthless, it just means nothing is worth inflating your ego about at the expense of the things that truly matter. Nothing justifies thinking you are better or more important than other people.
We are all just passing through… but what we do, who we strive to be, can echo in eternity.
We’re excited to tell you about The Boy Who Would Be King by Ryan Holiday, an illustrated and timeless fable about the early journey of Marcus Aurelius. Imagine being selected to be emperor. Imagine the pressure. The stress. Yet Marcus proved himself worthy. How did he manage? Read The Boy Who Would Be King! We have copies for preorder here in the Daily Stoic store and signed copies too.