A lot of people know Marcus Aurelius only as that “old guy in the movie Gladiator.” You know, the one that Joaquin Phoenix’s character kills at the beginning?
As rudimentary as this understand is, it’s not that far off. Though some basic research shows us that there are even more interesting factors at play. First off, Maximus (Russell Crowe’s character) was based on a real Roman story—the general Cincinnatus, who saved Rome but wanted simply to return to his farm. Second, Marcus’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) was real too—and probably even more horrible in real life. He was in fact, killed by a gladiator and he did enjoy torturing and hurting people. There’s also a new Netflix series called The Roman Empire which illustrates some of the same themes.
It makes you think: How could such a great man have had such an awful son? What does that say about his teachings? For nearly 100 years, the Roman Emperors had not had a male son—each Emperor had chosen their successor. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t emperor by stroke of hereditary fate, he had proven himself. So why did he break with tradition and allow his son to succeed him, given that he was clearly incapable of doing the job? Perhaps he felt he had no other option, perhaps he figured he would be dead and it wouldn’t matter.
In any case, it was inexcusable. Millions of people suffered as a result of this decision. Who knows how history might have turned out if Marcus had made a more courageous decision. But there is no use in bashing him for it. It’s better to use as a reminder: Even the wisest people make mistakes. We all make mistakes—especially at home. We all struggle to live up to this philosophy we have chosen.
Because it’s really really hard.