The Philosopher Kings of Rome – part 2

From Will Durant’s Heroes of History, abbreviated from his Story of Civilization volume 3, Caesar and Christ. Read more

The Philosopher Kings of Rome pt. 2: Antoninus Pius to Marcus Aurelius

Titus Aurelius Antoninus was named Pius by the Senate because he excelled in the virtues honored by the old Roman Republic: filial devotion, patriotism, loyalty to friends, generosity with time and purse.

He began his reign by pouring his substantial personal fortune into the Imperial Treasury. He canceled arrears of taxes, paid for festival games, and relieved scarcities of oil, wheat and wine by buying these and distributing them without charge.

He gave a public accounting of all his receipts and expenditures. He equalized the penalties for adultery for men and women, and deprived ruthless masters of their slaves.

He provided state funds for the extension of education, especially to the poor, and extended to recognized teachers and philosophers many privileges of the senatorial class.

All provinces but Egypt and Dacia flourished during his reign and were happy to be parts of an empire that gave them social order and internal peace. Provincial authors – Strabo, Philo, Plutarch, Appian, Epictetus – praised the Pax Romana, and Appian assures us that he had seen at Rome the envoys of foreign states vainly seeking admission for their countries to the Roman yoke.

Never had monarchy left men so free, or had so respected the rights of its subjects.

“The world’s ideal,” wrote Renan, “seemed to have been attained. Wisdom reigned, and for twenty-three years the [Roman] world was governed by a father.”

In the seventy-fourth year of his life Antoninus fell seriously ill. He called his adopted son Marcus to his bedside and transmitted to him the care of the Empire. To the officer of the day he gave the watch-word – aeguanimitas [equanimity]. Then he turned as if to sleep, and died (161 A.D.). All classes and cities vied in honoring his memory.

Antoninus, said Renan, “would have been without competition for the reputation of being the best of sovereigns had he not designated Marcus Aurelius as his successor.” Marcus seemed to inherit all of the virtues of his predecessor, plus others for which he credited his “good grandparents, good parents, good sisters, good kinsmen.”

Time struck a balance by giving him a wife of questionable fidelity and morals, whom he never failed to honor, and a fatally unworthy son, whom he never ceased to love.

He thanks his books for sparing him logic and astrology, for freeing him from superstition, and for teaching him to live simply and in conformity with nature.

At the age of twelve he adopted the rude cloak of a philosopher, slept on a little straw strewn upon the floor, and long resisted the entreaties of his mother to use a couch. He was a Stoic long before he was a man. He offers thanks “that I preserved the flower of my youth; that I took not upon me to be a man before my time, but rather put it off longer than I needed, . that I never had to be with Benedicta [prostitutes].”

He thanked his brother Severus for teaching him “the idea of a state in which there is the same law for all,. equal rights, and freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government that most of all respects the freedom of the governed” ; for two reigns the Stoic idea of monarch held the throne.

He decided to rule by example rather than by law. He allowed himself no luxury, took on all the tasks of administration, and wore himself out by being easy of access. Soon the whole Empire welcomed him as Plato’s dream come true: a philosopher was king.

His reputation as a philosopher encouraged the barbarians to try another sortie against the Roman line. In 167 the tribes north of the Danube crossed the river in a surprise attack upon legions depleted by war and pestilence. Marcus put aside his books, organized a new army by enrolling policemen, gladiators, brigands and slaves, trained it to discipline and strength, led it with strategy and skill through a hard campaign to victory, and returned to Rome to face the problems of successions.

He had hoped to train his son Commodus in philosophy and government, but the youth fled from studies to gladiators and soon surpassed his reckless associates in violent actions and course speech.

Meanwhile indigenous Romans were losing number and vigor through sterility and ease, while the barbarians multiplied through fertility and an arduous life. In the seven years between 168 and 176 the Empire was attacked at one point after another by the Chatti, the Marcomannni, the Mauri (Moors), the Sarmatians, the Quadi, the Iazygenes; some invaded Greece to within fourteen miles of Athens; others invaded roman Spain; some crossed the Alps, threatened Venice and Verona, and laid waste the rich fields of northern Italy.

On and off, in those years, Marcus was attacked by a painful stomach ailment that resisted every diagnosis, and even Galen’s remedies. Emaciated, his beard untended, his eyes weary with anxiety and sleeplessness, the lonely emperor turned again from domestic cares to the uncongenial tasks of war.

It was in that campaign along the Danube that Marcus, in the intervals of action, composed, in Greek, the little book known as Meditations or Thoughts, but which he entitled Ta eis heuton (To Himself). He proposed to summarize the conclusions he had reached about the first and last things in life. He had lost the official Roman religious faith and had not adopted any of the new creeds that had come from the east; but he found to many signs and forms of order in nature to doubt that some mysterious intelligence infused the universe.

All things are determined, he felt, by the universal reasons – the inherent logic of the whole; and every part must cheerfully accept its modest fate. “Equanimity” (Antoninus’ watchword) “is the voluntary acceptance of what is assigned to thee by the nature of the whole.”

Everything “harmonizes with me that harmonizes with thee; O universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late which is in due time for thee.”

He reluctantly concedes that there are bad men in the world. The way to deal with them is to remember that they, too, are men, the helpless victims of their own faults by the determinism of circumstance.

“If any man has done thee wrong, the harm is his own;. forgive him.”

[. ]

As for death, accept this, too, as a natural and necessary thing:

  • “For as the mutation and dissolution of bodies makes room for other bodies doomed to die, so the souls that are removed into the air after life’s existence are transmuted and diffused. into the seminal intelligence of the universe, and make room for new souls. .Though hast existed as a part, though shalt disappear in that which produced thee. This, too, nature wills. Pass, then, through this little space of time comfortably to nature, and end they journey in content, just as an olive falls when it is ripe, blessing the nature that produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.”

He faced death with no hope of happiness beyond the grave and no confidence in the son who expected to succeed him. He continued, through six year, his campaigns in the north, and with such success that when he returned to Rome in 176 he was accorded a triumph as the savior of the Empire.

He knew that his victory was only temporary, and two years later he set out again to check the German flood. Amid that campaign he died (A.D. 180), having forfeited the principle of adoption to love for his son.

Commodus proceeded to inaugurate the long fall of the Roman Empire, while fearful Christians, hidden in the mass, waited patiently for the triumph of Christ.


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