Marcus Aurelius has a reputation as a great emperor, if not one of the best. He studied philosophy, ruled temperately and was fairly successful in his wars (mostly fought in self defence). He was the last of the “five good emperors”, with the Roman Empire at its greatest extent. However things were not that simple, and both Marcus and the Empire were not without flaws (some of them pretty major). This 2009 biography by Frank McLynn attempts to paint a more complete portrait of Marcus and his legacy.
This is a therefore a book with a lot of side tracks and dead ends. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, to really weigh up a man like Marcus Aurelius we need that background. He was a “good” emperor just as the Empire started to collapse; he was a philosopher whose meditations can read like an inconsistent self-help book; he was a wise leader or a terrible judge of character. The detail goes towards building a better picture of who Marcus Aurelius was (or at least who Frank McLynn thinks he was).
From an early age, Marcus Aurelius was marked out as a talent to watch. The emperor Hadrian noted him as a potential future ruler, but (as he was on the young side) set him as the adopted son of his direct successor Antoninus. Antoninus was meant to be a safe pair of hands – old, conservative and level headed. He would keep the throne warm for a couple of years as Marcus matured, but not so long that the young talent was held back. Or so the plan went. Antoninus would in fact rule for 23 years!
In this time Marcus was kept close, learning some of the business of ruling but restricted to the emperor’s court as he wandered gently around Italy. He did not have the chance to build a military career, a power base of his own or really enjoy his independence. When he eventually did take over, he took the step of honoring Hadrian‘s initial plan for a co-emperor. Despite little pressure he chose to rule alongside his adopted brother Lucius Verus, a hedonistic young man who was in almost every way the opposite of Marcus. These are some of the most striking places where Marcus’ character does seem extraordinary compared to other emperors – it’s difficult to think of many others who would have been as patient with Antoninus or as loyal to Lucius Verus, at some point a rebellion would have been raised or an assassin would have been sent.
There’s an element of the classic “reluctant emperor” to this – he would apparently rather have been locked up in a library with his philosophy, and sharing the burden may have been appealing. Reluctance is a trope that was used by prospective rulers for PR for centuries before, but Marcus’ stoic beliefs do lend this one an element of credibility. He had duties as a man, a husband, a Roman and an Emperor that required him to go against his own desires. And with his Meditations, we can read about these internal conflicts in his own words.
It wasn’t all rosy though. As Emperor, he was in some ways very unlucky. A resurgent Parthia invaded at the beginning of his reign, followed later by a large coalition of German tribes. Just as one problem seemed like it would be mopped up neatly, another arrived to divert attention. And through it all the devastating Antonine Plague was decimating the population of the Empire. In the end, even Marcus’ own death was badly timed in the regard – just as he finished off the Germans for a second time.
Some problems too were of his own making. His disastrous choice of successor has often been picked out. After a run of successful adopted emperors, he broke that trend with his son Commodus. Although he has often been blamed for this, it is easy to defend – the loyalty (and optimism) of a father to his son, the likelihood of future civil war if he disinherited his son, the fact that the previous adoptions were for childless rulers. In politics however, his inate conservatism led to further stifling of the economy and the failure to tackle problems that would grow and grow. The military would continue to grow, demand large donatives and take more and more of a controlling role in the state.
As a personality, he was honorable, intelligent and worthy but can come across as humourless and anti-social. His philosophy was of the Stoic variety – a form that was typically full of inconsistencies, and Marcus was no exception. The Stoic mix of pre-determinism and freedom of choice is a mess, and parts of the philosophy can come across as quite brutal. He was a pantheist and a believer in the classic gods of Rome, seemingly whenever either was relevant. He did pass laws to improve the living conditions of slaves, but he was also quite strict in preventing manumission. The fundamental qualities of his character are great, but the results are fairly mixed.
Frank McLynn (who has also written biographies of a diverse range of figures, including Napoleon, Carl Jung and Robert Louis Stevenson) tells this story with diversions on slave economies, stoic philosophy and the history of Germany. Some of these are useful (in particular the economic discussion of the Empire’s faults), some are a bit too much of a side track (a chapter on Commodus’ reign felt rushed alongside the depth afforded to Marcus) and some just feel like showboating (far too many references to Marx, and a section comparing the Emperor to former South African leader Jan Smuts). Frank McLynn concludes that Aurelius was a great man, but often seems so critical and superior that one wonders why?
On the whole, it’s a good biography of a fascinating character at crucial time in history. There may be a few too many self-satisfied diversions and at times the sources and reliability of sources could be discussed further (see the Mary Beard review below). We get a good picture of Marcus and no corner is left uninvestigated, but it is Frank McLynn’s picture of Marcus and I came out questioning some aspects.
One final thing – here is Mary Beard‘s review of the book from back in 2009. She’s a bit more qualified than me for classical history so it’s well worth reading, and she raises some good points about McLynn leading the reader. I’m not sure I’d agree with the fine details of arguments about Marcus and his tutor Fronto’s relationship (McLynn did back up his non-sexual take on it with some of Marcus’ writings on sex from elsewhere) or about other “philosopher-emperors” (Hadrian’s own pretensions in that are well covered in the book), but she does well to explain some of the issues with the biography.