The sayings of Marcus Aurelius

Young Marcus, Naples Archeological Museum, photo by the author

I have recently examined three surviving speeches by Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor. Here I will take a look at a number of scattered sayings — i.e., bits that do not appear either in the speeches or in the Meditations — collected as part of the excellent Delphi’s Complete Works of Marcus Aurelius and translated by C.R. Haines. As Haines’ introduction states, the picture of Marcus that emerges from these sayings is “a striking combination of ‘sweetness and gravity,’ of mildness and tenacity, of justice and mercy. We see a truly religious man who lived up to his creed, a tempered Stoicism.”

Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

(1) When Marcus gave to his sister the entire inheritance he got from his father, he did it so “that his sister might be on an equality with her husband.”

(2) When he learned that he had been adopted by Hadrian, which means he would eventually become emperor, his thoughts went to “the evils inseparable from sovran power.”

(3) “Well was it for states, if either philosophers were rulers or rulers philosophers.” (From Plato.)

(4) “It is impossible to make men exactly as one wishes them to be, but it is our duty to utilize them, such as they are, for any service in which they can be useful to the common weal.”

(5) He had a habit of consulting his friends and close collaborators about important state matters, saying that “It is fairer that I should follow the advice of Friends so many and so wise, than that Friends so wise and so many should follow my single will.”

(7) At some point he was advised to divorce his wife, if not actually slay her. His response was: “If we dismiss the wife, let us also surrender the dowry.” That dowry, of course, was the Empire itself, which he had received when adopted by Hadrian.

(15) After the unsuccessful rebellion by Cassius, Marcus “enumerating all the Emperors who had been killed, pointed out that they had deserved their fate, and that no good Emperor had easily been overcome by a usurper or slain, adding that Nero had deserved, Caligula had earned his death, Otho and Vitellius ought never to have reigned. … Rebels had never been able to overcome either Augustus or Trajan or Hadrian or his own father, for many as they were, they had been crushed against the wish or without the knowledge of the reigning Emperor. [He] himself, however, besought the Senate not to proceed with severity against accomplices in the rebellion, asking at the same time that no Senator should in his reign be punished with death; and this won for him the love of all.”

(16) “It is no flatterer’s praise but the truest and most just to call Aristides the founder of Smyrna. For he made so moving a lament to Marcus over the utter destruction of this city by earthquakes and openings in the ground, that over the rest of the mournful tale the Emperor sighed repeatedly, but at the ‘breezes blowing over a city of desolation’ he even let tears fall upon the writing, and granted the restoration of the city in accordance with the suggestions of Aristides.”

(18) “Marcus said that everything, both money and all else, belonged to the Senate and the people; for We, he said, speaking to the Senate so far from having anything of our own, even live in a house that is yours.”

(19) “Lucius, who had just come to Rome, asked the Emperor, whom he met on his way, where he was going to and on what errand, and Marcus answered, ‘It is good even for an old man to learn; I am now on my way to Sextus the philosopher to learn what I do not yet know.’ And Lucius, raising his hand to heaven, said, ‘O Zeus, the king of the Romans in his old age takes up his tablets and goes to school.'”

(20) “When he began to sicken … he abstained from food and drink, wishing to die, and aggravated the disease. … On the seventh day he grew worse, and allowed only his son to be admitted, but dismissed him at once that he might not take the infection. After parting from his son he veiled his head as if he would sleep, but in the night he breathed his last.” (This, incidentally, is yet another example of a Stoic committing suicide when he sees that he can no longer exercise virtue, metaphorically walking through what Epictetus referred to as “the open door.”)

(21b) “When near his death, being asked by the tribune for the watchword, he said, ‘Go to the rising sun, for I am setting.'”

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Categories: Marcus

1 reply

  1. “It is impossible to make men exactly as one wishes them to be, but it is our duty to utilize them, such as they are, for any service in which they can be useful to the common weal.”

    A useful saying for those who would blame electoral defeat on the moral shortcomings of those they failed to convince

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