The speeches of Marcus Aurelius

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on Capitoline Hill, Rome (photo by the author)

We are all familiar with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, one of the most famous books of practical philosophy of all ages. But did you know that we also have three speeches attributed to Marcus? They are collected in Delphi’s Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius, and it’s worth to take a look even though they only indirectly speak to Stoic philosophy.

There are three such speeches: one to the Roman Army at the news of the revolt of Cassius in 175 CE; a speech sent by Marcus to the Senate after that same revolt; and his last words before dying.

The Delphi translation is by C.R. Haines, and is accompanied by a useful short historical introduction. There is, of course, some doubt on the authenticity of the documents. The speech to the Army is reported by Dio Cassius, who was 20 years old when it was delivered and lived in Rome. He later achieved high office and had lots of sources at his disposal, so there is a good chance that the speech is, in fact, by Marcus, although Dio may have added some stylistic touches of his own, as well as cut the original a bit (it is considered too short for such an occasion).

The last remarks of Marcus are given by Herodian, who again was a contemporary authority. Here too, it is possible that Herodian added something of his own, although the speech is short — as would be expected given the occasion — and seems to be in character with what we know of Marcus.

The speech to the Senate is reported by Gallicanus, and is less likely to be authentic. Moreover, we know that the original source, Marius Maximus, is not trustworthy, so the whole thing needs to be taken with a large grain of salt.

Here are some extracts from the three speeches, to give you an idea of their style and content:

The speech to the Army

“It is shocking to be involved even in civil strife, and surely it is more than terrible and more than shocking that there is no faith to be found among men, and that I have been plotted against by one whom I held most dear and, although I had done no wrong and committed no transgression, have been forced into a conflict against my will. For what rectitude shall be held safe, what friendship be any longer deemed secure, seeing that this has befallen me?”

“Yet I had counted it a slight thing, had the danger been mine alone — for assuredly I — was not born immortal.”

“For it is only in the public interest that I continue to incur toil and danger, and have spent so much time here beyond the bounds of Italy, an old man as I now am and an ailing, unable to take food without pain, or sleep without care.”

“For an eagle at the head of daws makes no formidable foe, nor a lion at the head of fawns, and as for the Arabian war and the great Parthian war, it was you, not Cassius, who brought them to a successful end.”

“For great is the prize of war and of victory — a prize such as no one among men has ever won — of which I shall be deprived. And what is that? To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”

“For, I take it, all that is good has not vanished utterly from among men, but there still remains among us a vestige of pristine virtue.”

“For this would be the only gain I could get from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honourable conclusion, and show to all the world that even civil war can be dealt with on right principles.”

What strikes me about the above passages is Marcus’ attempt to maintain equanimity in the face of betrayal by one of his close associates. He plainly regrets having to take up arms against Cassius, and he would have preferred to be able to show mercy and forgiveness instead. He hopes that there is still a sense of virtue and honor left in the world, and that he can show how to deal virtuously even with a potential civil war. Cassius’ revolt, at any rate, failed to gain momentum, and it isn’t clear even whether there ever was an actual clash between the two armies.

The speech to the Senate

“Now with regard to the rebellion of Cassius, I beg and beseech you, Conscript Fathers, to lay aside all thoughts of severity and safeguard my or rather your humanity and clemency, and let no single person be put to death by the Senate. Let no Senator be punished, the blood of no man of noble birth be spilt; let the exiles return, the proscribed recover their goods.”

“So you must pardon the sons of Avidius Cassius, and his son-in-law, and his wife. But why do I say ‘pardon,’ since they have done no wrong? Let them live, then, in security, knowing that they live under Marcus.”

“What I ask of you is that you should shield all accomplices of Cassius among the Senators or Knights, from death, proscription, apprehension, degradation, hatred, and in fact from all injury, and grant this glory to my reign, that in a rebellion against the throne death should overtake only those who have fallen in the revolt.”

Again, it is not known whether these were in fact Marcus words, but we know that the substance of the speech is correct, as the emperor did ask the Senate to grant pardons and he himself did not pursue the typical course of revenge against the conspirator’s associates. This approach is, moreover, in character with what we know of Marcus’ approach to the principate, as well as, of course, his Stoic philosophy.

The last words

“That you should be grieved at seeing me in this state is not surprising, for it is natural to mankind to pity the misfortunes of their kinsfolk, and the calamities which fall under our own eyes call forth greater compassion.”

“You see here my son, whose bringing-up has been in your own hands, just embarking upon the age of manhood and, like a ship amid storm and breakers, in need of those who shall guide the helm, lest in his want of experience of the right course he should be dashed upon the rock of evil habits.”

“For neither can any wealth, however abundant, suffice for the incontinence of a tyranny, nor a bodyguard be strong enough to protect the ruler, unless he has first of all the good-will of the governed. For those rulers complete a long course of sovereignty without danger who instill into the hearts of their subjects not fear by their cruelty, but love by their goodness.”

“It is difficult to check and put a just limit to our desires when Power is their minister. By giving my son then such advice, and bringing to his memory what he now hears with his own ears, you will render him both for yourselves and all mankind the best of kings, and you will do my memory the greatest of services, and thus alone be enabled to make it immortal.”

It is hard not to read much of the above in light of Commodus’ (Marcus’ son) disastrous reign. Contrary to his father’s hopes, he did rule by instilling fear into his subjects and by engaging in cruel behavior. Commodus was only 19 when Marcus died, and he actually had been co-emperor already for three years, for the simple reason that he was the only one of Marcus’ sons to survive to adulthood, as well as the first individual to be “born in the purple” since the time of Titus a hundred years earlier.

Commodus’ reign ended the golden period of the so-called “five good emperors” (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius), arguably the apex of the Roman Empire. Moreover, his violent death in the 12th year of his principate, as a result of a plot organized by Pertinax, led to a period of chaos known as the year of the five emperors. The chaos ended with the rise to power of Septimius Severus, who was Princep from 193 to 211 CE.

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Categories: Marcus

2 replies

  1. Interesting.

    Did you know that there are also some court judgments of Marcus in existence? My authority for this comes from a conversation with Christopher Gill (Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought – Exeter University) at the 2015 London Stoicon. I was particularly interested because my profession is that of Barrister.
    He told me that as far as he knew, they existed only in Latin (mine is schoolboy only) or German (mine is non existent). Christopher also told me that although they do not obviously address Stoic issues there is nothing shocking about them and they are what one would expect from a man such as Marcus.

    So, I have not been able to read them. Is there any enterprising Classicist out there who is looking for a translation task to undertake? Do you know one, Massimo? I’m sure Christopher (always delightful) would be very helpful as to where to locate these texts.

    [PS Btw, I sometimes come up as “Donald” and sometimes “Roger” but I am the same chap.]

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  2. Donald/Roger,

    Interesting, though my Latin is also only passable and my German non-existent. I’ll talk to Chris about it. There are also several letters by Marcus to his former mentor, Fronto, they are mentioned in the otherwise awful biography by McLynn.

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