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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by James Fraser Gluck (1852–1897)

By Marcus Aurelius (121–180)

MARCUS AURELIUS, one of the most illustrious emperors of Rome, and, according to Canon Farrar, “the noblest of pagan emperors,” was born at Rome April 20th, A.D. 121, and died at Vindobona—the modern Vienna—March 17th, A.D. 180, in the twentieth year of his reign and the fifty-ninth year of his age.

His right to an honored place in literature depends upon a small volume written in Greek, and usually called ‘The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.’ The work consists of mere memoranda, notes, disconnected reflections and confessions, and also of excerpts from the Emperor’s favorite authors. It was evidently a mere private diary or note-book written in great haste, which readily accounts for its repetitions, its occasional obscurity, and its frequently elliptical style of expression. In its pages the Emperor gives his aspirations, and his sorrow for his inability to realize them in his daily life; he expresses his tentative opinions concerning the problems of creation, life, and death; his reflections upon the deceitfulness of riches, pomp, and power, and his conviction of the vanity of all things except the performance of duty. The work contains what has been called by a distinguished scholar “the common creed of wise men, from which all other views may well seem mere deflections on the side of an unwarranted credulity or of an exaggerated despair.” From the pomp and circumstance of state surrounding him, from the manifold cares of his exalted rank, from the tumult of protracted wars, the Emperor retired into the pages of this book as into the sanctuary of his soul, and there found in sane and rational reflection the peace that the world could not give and could never take away. The tone and temper of the work is unique among books of its class. It is sweet yet dignified, courageous yet resigned, philosophical and speculative, yet above all, intensely practical.

Through all the ages from the time when the Emperor Diocletian prescribed a distinct ritual for Aurelius as one of the gods; from the time when the monks of the Middle Ages treasured the ‘Meditations’ as carefully as they kept their manuscripts of the Gospels, the work has been recognized as the precious life-blood of a master spirit. An adequate English translation would constitute to-day a most valuable vade mecum of devotional feeling and of religious inspiration. It would prove a strong moral tonic to hundreds of minds now sinking into agnosticism or materialism.

The distinguished French writer M. Martha observes that in the ‘Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’ “we find a pure serenity, sweetness, and docility to the commands of God, which before him were unknown, and which Christian grace has alone surpassed. One cannot read the book without thinking of the sadness of Pascal and the gentleness of Fénelon. We must pause before this soul, so lofty and so pure, to contemplate ancient virtue in its softest brilliancy, to see the moral delicacy to which profane doctrines have attained.”

Those in the past who have found solace in its pages have not been limited to any one country, creed, or condition in life. The distinguished Cardinal Francis Barberini the elder occupied his last years in translating the ‘Meditations’ into Italian; so that, as he said, “the thoughts of the pious pagan might quicken the faith of the faithful.” He dedicated the work to his own soul, so that it “might blush deeper than the scarlet of the cardinal robe as it looked upon the nobility of the pagan.” The venerable and learned English scholar Thomas Gataker, of the religious faith of Cromwell and Milton, spent the last years of his life in translating the work into Latin as the noblest preparation for death. The book was the constant companion of Captain John Smith, the discoverer of Virginia, who found in it “sweet refreshment in his seasons of despondency.” Jean Paul Richter speaks of it as a vital help in “the deepest floods of adversity.” The French translator Pierron says that it exalted his soul into a serene region, above all petty cares and rivalries. Montesquieu declares, in speaking of Marcus Aurelius, “He produces such an effect upon our minds that we think better of ourselves, because he inspires us with a better opinion of mankind.” The great German historian Niebuhr says of the Emperor, as revealed in this work, “I know of no other man who combined such unaffected kindness, mildness, and humility with such conscientiousness and severity toward himself.” Renan declares the book to be “a veritable gospel. It will never grow old, for it asserts no dogma. Though science were to destroy God and the soul, the ‘Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’ would remain forever young and immortally true.” The eminent English critic Matthew Arnold was found on the morning after the death of his eldest son engaged in the perusal of his favorite Marcus Aurelius, wherein alone he found comfort and consolation.

The ‘Meditations of Marcus Aurelius’ embrace not only moral reflections; they include, as before remarked, speculations upon the origin and evolution of the universe and of man. They rest upon a philosophy. This philosophy is that of the Stoic school as broadly distinguished from the Epicurean. Stoicism, at all times, inculcated the supreme virtues of moderation and resignation; the subjugation of corporeal desires; the faithful performance of duty; indifference to one’s own pain and suffering, and the disregard of material luxuries. With these principles there was, originally, in the Stoic philosophy conjoined a considerable body of logic, cosmogony, and paradox. But in Marcus Aurelius these doctrines no longer stain the pure current of eternal truth which ever flowed through the history of Stoicism. It still speculated about the immortality of the soul and the government of the universe by a supernatural Intelligence, but on these subjects proposed no dogma and offered no final authoritative solution. It did not forbid man to hope for a future life, but it emphasized the duties of the present life. On purely rational grounds it sought to show men that they should always live nobly and heroicly, and how best to do so. It recognized the significance of death, and attempted to teach how men could meet it under any and all circumstances with perfect equanimity.

Marcus Aurelius was descended from an illustrious line which tradition declared extended to the good Numa, the second King of Rome. In the descendant Marcus were certainly to be found, with a great increment of many centuries of noble life, all the virtues of his illustrious ancestor. Doubtless the cruel persecutions of the infamous Emperors who preceded Hadrian account for the fact that the ancestors of Aurelius left the imperial city and found safety in Hispania Bætica, where in a town called Succubo—not far from the present city of Cordova—the Emperor’s great-grandfather, Annius Verus, was born. From Spain also came the family of the Emperor Hadrian, who was an intimate friend of Annius Verus. The death of the father of Marcus Aurelius when the lad was of tender years led to his adoption by his grandfather and subsequently by Antoninus Pius. By Antoninus he was subsequently named as joint heir to the Imperial dignity with Commodus, the son of Ælius Cæsar, who had previously been adopted by Hadrian.

From his earliest youth Marcus was distinguished for his sincerity and truthfulness. His was a docile and a serious nature. “Hadrian’s bad and sinful habits left him,” says Niebuhr, “when he gazed on the sweetness of that innocent child. Punning on the boy’s paternal name of Verus, he called him Verissimus, ‘the most true.’” Among the many statues of Marcus extant is one representing him at the tender age of eight years offering sacrifice. He was even then a priest of Mars. It was the hand of Marcus alone that threw the crown so carefully and skillfully that it invariably alighted upon the head of the statue of the god. The entire ritual he knew by heart. The great Emperor Antoninus Pius lived in the most simple and unostentatious manner; yet even this did not satisfy the exacting, lofty spirit of Marcus. At twelve years of age he began to practice all the austerities of Stoicism. He became a veritable ascetic. He ate most sparingly; slept little, and when he did so it was upon a bed of boards. Only the repeated entreaties of his mother induced him to spread a few skins upon his couch. His health was seriously affected for a time; and it was, perhaps, to this extreme privation that his subsequent feebleness was largely due. His education was of the highest order of excellence. His tutors, like Nero’s, were the most distinguished teachers of the age; but unlike Nero, the lad was in every way worthy of his instructors. His letters to his dearly beloved teacher Fronto are still extant, and in a very striking and charming way they illustrate the extreme simplicity of life in the imperial household in the villa of Antoninus Pius at Lorium by the sea. They also indicate the lad’s deep devotion to his studies and the sincerity of his love for his relatives and friends.

When his predecessor and adoptive father Antoninus felt the approach of death, he gave to the tribune who asked him for the watchword for the night the reply “Equanimity,” directed that the golden statue of Fortune that always stood in the Emperor’s chamber be transferred to that of Marcus Aurelius, and then turned his face and passed away as peacefully as if he had fallen asleep. The watchword of the father became the life-word of the son, who pronounced upon that father in the ‘Meditations’ one of the noblest eulogies ever written. “We should,” says Renan, “have known nothing of Antoninus if Marcus Aurelius had not handed down to us that exquisite portrait of his adopted father, in which he seems, by reason of humility, to have applied himself to paint an image superior to what he himself was. Antoninus resembled a Christ who would not have had an evangel; Marcus Aurelius a Christ who would have written his own.”

It would be impossible here to detail even briefly all the manifold public services rendered by Marcus Aurelius to the Empire during his reign of twenty years. Among his good works were these: the establishment, upon eternal foundation, of the noble fabric of the Civil Law—the prototype and basis of Justinian’s task; the founding of schools for the education of poor children; the endowment of hospitals and homes for orphans of both sexes; the creation of trust companies to receive and distribute legacies and endowments; the just government of the provinces; the complete reform of the system of collecting taxes; the abolition of the cruelty of the criminal laws and the mitigation of sentences unnecessarily severe; the regulation of gladiatorial exhibitions; the diminution of the absolute power possessed by fathers over their children and of masters over their slaves; the admission of women to equal rights to succession to property from their children; the rigid suppression of spies and informers; and the adoption of the principle that merit, as distinguished from rank or political friendship, alone justified promotion in the public service.

But the greatest reform was the reform in the Imperial Dignity itself, as exemplified in the life and character of the Emperor. It is this fact which gives to the ‘Meditations’ their distinctive value. The infinite charm, the tenderness and sweetness of their moral teachings, and their broad humanity, are chiefly noteworthy because the Emperor himself practiced in his daily life the principles of which he speaks, and because tenderness and sweetness, patience and pity, suffused his daily conduct and permeated his actions. The horrible cruelties of the reigns of Nero and Domitian seemed only awful dreams under the benignant rule of Marcus Aurelius.

It is not surprising that the deification of a deceased emperor, usually regarded by Senate and people as a hollow mockery, became a veritable fact upon the death of Marcus Aurelius. He was not regarded in any sense as mortal. All men said he had but returned to his heavenly place among the immortal gods. As his body passed, in the pomp of an imperial funeral, to its last resting-place, the tomb of Hadrian,—the modern Castle of St. Angelo at Rome,—thousands invoked the divine blessing of Antoninus. His memory was sacredly cherished. His portrait was preserved as an inspiration in innumerable homes. His statue was almost universally given an honored place among the household gods. And all this continued during successive generations of men.

Marcus Aurelius has been censured for two acts: the first, the massacre of the Christians which took place during his reign; the second, the selection of his son Commodus as his successor. Of the massacre of the Christians it may be said, that when the conditions surrounding the Emperor are once properly understood, no just cause for condemnation of his course remains. A prejudice against the sect was doubtless acquired by him through the teachings of his dearly beloved instructor and friend Fronto. In the writings of the revered Epictetus he found severe condemnation of the Christians as fanatics. Stoicism enjoined upon men obedience to the law, endurance of evil conditions, and patience under misfortunes. The Christians openly defied the laws; they struck the images of the gods, they scoffed at the established religion and its ministers. They welcomed death; they invited it. To Marcus Aurelius, as he says in his ‘Meditations,’ death had no terrors. The wise man stood, like the trained soldier, ready to be called into action, ready to depart from life when the Supreme Ruler called him; but it was also, according to the Stoic, no less the duty of a man to remain until he was called, and it certainly was not his duty to invite destruction by abuse of all other religions and by contempt for the distinctive deities of the Roman faith. The Roman State was tolerant of all religions so long as they were tolerant of others. Christianity was intolerant of all other religions; it condemned them all. In persecuting what he regarded as a “pernicious sect” the Emperor regarded himself only as the conservator of the peace and the welfare of the realm. The truth is, that Marcus Aurelius enacted no new laws on the subject of the Christians. He even lessened the dangers to which they were exposed. On this subject one of the Fathers of the Church, Tertullian, bears witness. He says in his address to the Roman officials:—“Consult your annals, and you will find that the princes who have been cruel to us are those whom it was held an honor to have as persecutors. On the contrary, of all princes who have known human and Divine law, name one of them who has persecuted the Christians. We might even cite one of them who declared himself their protector,—the wise Marcus Aurelius. If he did not openly revoke the edicts against our brethren, he destroyed the effect of them by the severe penalties he instituted against their accusers.” This statement would seem to dispose effectually of the charge of cruel persecution brought so often against the kindly and tender-hearted Emperor.

Of the appointment of Commodus as his successor, it may be said that the paternal heart hoped against hope for filial excellence. Marcus Aurelius believed, as clearly appears from many passages in the ‘Meditations,’ that men did not do evil willingly but through ignorance; and that when the exceeding beauty of goodness had been fully disclosed to them, the depravity of evil conduct would appear no less clearly. The Emperor who, when the head of his rebellious general was brought to him, grieved because that general had not lived to be forgiven; the ruler who burned unread all treasonable correspondence, would not, nay, could not believe in the existence of such an inhuman monster as Commodus proved himself to be. The appointment of Commodus was a calamity of the most terrific character; but it testifies in trumpet tones to the nobility of the Emperor’s heart, the sincerity of his own belief in the triumph of right and justice.

The volume of the ‘Meditations’ is the best mirror of the Emperor’s soul. Therein will be found expressed delicately but unmistakably much of the sorrow that darkened his life. As the book proceeds the shadows deepen, and in the latter portion his loneliness is painfully apparent. Yet he never lost hope or faith, or failed for one moment in his duty as a man, a philosopher, and an Emperor. In the deadly marshes and in the great forests which stretched beside the Danube, in his mortal sickness, in the long nights when weakness and pain rendered sleep impossible, it is not difficult to imagine him in his tent, writing, by the light of his solitary lamp, the immortal thoughts which alone soothed his soul; thoughts which have out-lived the centuries—not perhaps wholly by chance—to reveal to men in nations then unborn, on continents whose very existence was then unknown, the Godlike qualities of one of the noblest of the sons of men.

The best translations of the work into English are those of George Long (Little, Brown & Co., Boston), of G. H. Rendall (London, 1897), and of C. R. Haines (Loeb Classical Library). ‘The Life of Marcus Aurelius,’ by Paul Barron Watson (Harper & Brothers, New York) will repay careful reading. Other general works to be consulted are as follows:—‘Seekers After God,’ by Rev. F. W. Farrar, Macmillan & Co. (1890); and ‘Classical Essays,’ by F. W. H. Myers, Macmillan & Co. (1888). Both of these contain excellent articles upon the Emperor. Consult also Renan’s ‘History of the Origins of Christianity,’ Book vii., Marcus Aurelius, translation published by Mathieson & Co. (London, 1896); ‘Essay on Marcus Aurelius’ by Matthew Arnold, in his ‘Essays in Criticism,’ Macmillan & Co. Further information may also be had in Montesquieu’s ‘Decadence of the Romans,’ Sismondi’s ‘Fall of the Roman Empire,’ Gibbon’s ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,’ Dill’s ‘Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius’ (1904), and E. Vernon Arnold’s ‘Roman Stoicism.’