Marcus Aurelius: A Life
© 2009 Frank McLynn
Few figures in history can compare to Marcus Aurelius, and fewer still favorably. Adopted into the royal family, this last of the Five Good Emperors has sat in silent judgment of politicians for over fifteen hundred years, his life a standing reproach to their selfishness and indulgence. In the opinion of biographer Frank McLynn, he remains the greatest of Rome’s leaders despite the limitations of his reign. In Marcus Aurelius: A life, McLynn examines the life of this dour philosopher-king as it played out in the late second century — a time of great wars, famine, and pestilence that demanded a leader of a great character. Such was Aurelius.
This biography is outstanding for its thoroughness, examining the full context of Aurelius’ life. The story of the Roman emperor is the story of Rome, and this biography could serve just as well to educate someone on the late 2nd-century Empire as it would on the emperor himself. McLynn offers lengthy treatments of Rome’s economic status and deterioration, its history of relations with the German tribes and reviving Parthian empire, and of course an exploration of Stoicism, where McLynn compares Aurelius’ influences and contributions as a philosopher. After the death of the emperor, the focus shifts to his enduring legacy — to the black mark on his record left by allowing his wretched son Commodus to succeed to the throne, to the literary influences of the Meditations throughout the centuries.
McLynn is both sympathetic and critical of his subject. While not a fan of Stoicism — he criticizes its emphasis on detachment even from family members as inhuman — McLynn clearly admires the standards the emperor set for himself as a leader and a man. He has a somber respect for Aurelius, who seems like something of a tragic, but great figure: an Atlas who takes the burden of the world on his shoulders, even though he’d rather be reading, but never complains about it. Aurelius is the model of composure and self-discipline, always counseling himself to take the failures of others in stride, but pushing himself to grow beyond his own.
If you are interested in Aurelius, I heartily recommend this book — especially notable for its context — but a five-part lecture on him that is available on YouTube. I have them arranged in a playlist you should be able to access here. If not, the first video is here.