Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor

Peter Jones looks at a stimulating biography of the influential Roman emperor and philosopher

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Reviewed by: Peter Jones
Author: Frank McLynn
Publisher: Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £20

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If you like your history feisty, opinionated and judgemental, McLynn is the man for you. He sees little good in the Roman empire and thinks (wrongly, in my view) it was already going downhill in Marcus’s time, lays into Hadrian (“psychopathic tendencies”), strongly disapproves of Stoicism, the philosophy at the heart of Marcus’s famous Meditations, and is not at all sure about Marcus himself either, “a failure in government and politics”. Yet he does agree he is to be admired for his integrity and sense of responsibility.

Some of his judgements strike me as off-key because they seem to assume that Romans should have been liberals committed to a welfare state (I was expecting him to rebuke the doctor Galen for failing to cure smallpox). Likewise, when one point of history is to try to understand why people believed in systems that now seem utterly barking, merely laying into Stoicism is not enough.

Yet even if at times McLynn is not sympathetically engaged, it certainly makes for a terrific read.

He pinpoints accurately the inherent paradoxes of Marcus’s life and career: a man whose youth was (on his predecessor Antoninus Pius’s orders) passed without any experience of battle whatsoever, spending much of his imperial tenure (AD 161–180) successfully engaged in protecting Rome’s frontiers against invaders; an emperor whose strongly-held Stoic views were almost entirely antipathetic to the people he was ruling; and a thinker whose Meditations, however random and ad hoc a series of responses to whatever he was reflecting on at the time, have given comfort and strength
to millions.

McLynn has done his work too, being up with all the modern controversies and at his best when arguing the toss about them. For example, Marcus’s reign was (in)famous for its persecution of Christians (because, I suspect, he took his own religious beliefs so seriously). But was he responsible? Frank McLynn, rightly, concludes that he was. It was too much of a coincidence that persecutions should break out all over the empire at the same time – a unique occurrence – if there had not been some central direction.

The side-product of this enormous labour is a slight clang of the filing cabinet. McLynn is determined to make us aware how much work he has done. There are excessive digressions on, for example, Parthia, where Marcus in fact sent his co-emperor to fight and never saw combat, an unnecessary chapter on Marcus’s disastrous successor (and son) Commodus, and an appendix on Stoicism, which McLynn had already thoroughly roasted in his discussion of Meditations, to name but three.

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But bland this biography is not. It makes you want to argue with him because he is worth arguing with. That is a mark of good history.