Water and river metaphors flow through Meditations with surprising consistency. It is not what one would come to expect from a person, an emperor no less, as he writes to himself. So it is interesting to consider historians’ theory that Marcus Aurelius may have written most of the book while at the front of the Marcomannic Wars. Because those frontier battles happened along one of the most important rivers in Marcus’s life; not the Tiber, but the Danube, in what is now modern day Austria and Hungary.
Thousands of miles and years of Marcus’s life were spent on the shores of that enormous, muddy river. Long considered the far eastern border of the Roman empire, invading troops and violent raids sent Marcus away from home and into the expansive cities and camps that dotted the river.
When Marcus quotes Heraclitus that no one steps in the same river twice, it’s very possible he wasn’t just speaking abstractly. He could have been sitting not far from that river in Carnatum or Aquincum, studying and restudying his philosophy books, and thinking about how much he had changed since he last read them. Talking about time passing like a river, he might have thought about how his adopted stepfather Hadrian had actually been the governor of these far flung provinces many years before. When he talked about how history is the same thing happening over and over again, maybe he was thinking of Alexander the Great’s battles against the tribes on the Danube and how similar his own fighting was and how it was likely to be continued on by his own son and generations hence. Or when he talked about how everything was in flux and in a constant state of change, he might have been reminding himself that no empire lasts forever, that the borders of a nation are subject to change and that he couldn’t cling too firmly to the status quo. And then he added to that thought, writing that only an idiot would be mad about things because, like a river, this too is moving past us—maybe he was trying to reassure himself that this hardship would eventually pass.
Life is change. Like a river, it is a twisting and turning, meandering, but also fast-moving and all-powerful thing. There are currents pulling us in many directions. There is beauty and also danger. It’s right there in front of us…and yet, even the cleanest rivers are relatively opaque.