It may seem surprising to include a long-dead Roman emperor in a history of democratic socialism but read on – all will become clear.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was born on April 17th 121 and died on March 17th 180 aged 59 (almost). He was known as ‘The philosopher king’ both during and after his lifetime. He also has the honour of being hailed as the last of Rome’s ‘good’ emperors. Ever the diplomat he co-ruled the empire with Lucius Verus until Lucius’ died in 169. Marcus didn’t appoint a successor to Lucius and ruled alone for the last decade or so of his life.
It was during these latter years that he wrote his famous ‘Meditations’ – a collection of stoic principles originally intended for his own use but published after his death, much to the delight of later Stoics such as myself. Marcus contribution to Stoicism cannot be over-estimated. He shows us a marked contrast between the very highest and lowest ranks of society and yet the same problems (and solutions) remain.
Even as a child Marcus was attracted to philosophy. His mother even had to persuade him to sleep in his bed. The young Marcus had taken to sleeping on the floor after the manner of the Athenian Cynics such as Diogenes. Marcus’ studies in Cynicism and Stoicism presumably helped him to cope with the grief he must have felt at the loss first of his father and then his mother early in his adolescence.
Marcus succeeded the emperor Antoninus Pius in 161 AD having been chosen by his adoptive father Hadrian (the previous emperor) in 138. The intervening years had been spent actively working in Roman politics and in studying Stoicism – an early fascination that he never tired of. It was presumably his Stoic devotion to duty and to the common good that led him to insist that he share the office of Emperor with Lucius, his adopted brother. That wasn’t the original plan and a lesser man may well have chosen to rule alone but Marcus was never one to let his ego get in the way of what he believed to be right. He considered Lucius essential to effective rule and stuck to his guns until the senate eventually agreed to his power-sharing plan.
Although significant in his day I don’t propose to say much about Marcus’ activities as emperor. That’s not what interests me here. Rather it’s his philosophy and writings that have earned him a place in this series. Written during the last few years of his life, whilst on military campaign in Germania, Marcus’ Meditations is one of the most accessible and useful introductions to Stoicism I’ve ever come across. It’s a book of its time, complete with all the references to Gods and the fates that we might expect from an ancient Pagan but that doesn’t detract from its simple brilliance.
It is Marcus’ insistence that all men are equal that earns him his place in this little history. He was quite simply the single most powerful man in his universe. He literally had the power of life and death in his hand, emperor of almost the entire known world with the opportunity to be a dictator and the disposition of an egalitarian. It may be only a short step too far to call him one of Europe’s earliest socialists, a man who thought little of rank and status when compared to the worth and dignity of all people, a ruler who despised injustice and who devoted his life as emperor to leaving the Empire a fairer and more just place than when he found it.
It is one of history’s greatest tragedies that Marcus’ successor, Commodus cared little for his predecessor’s high ideals and soon allowed most of Marcus’ achievements to crumble away. If only Commodus had continued in Marcus’ footsteps the world today might well have been a very different, fairer place.
If I remember rightly, Meditations was one of the first Stoic books I ever read – and I thank the long dead emperor for it from the bottom of my heart. Marcus Aurelius, the last ‘good emperor’ of Rome was instrumental in setting me on a path that has benefited me greatly in both emotional and intellectual terms. I cannot recommend his little book enough. You can download it for free here. Go on – it just might change your life!