An emperor’s moral debt

I. Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus.

II. Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father.

III. My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness—not in actions only, but in thought as well—and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich.

IV. To my great-grandfather I owed the advice to dispense with the education of the schools and have good masters at home instead—and to realize that no expense should be grudged for this purpose.

V. It was my tutor who dissuaded me from patronizing Green or Blue [1] at the races, or Light or Heavy [2] in the ring; and encouraged me not to be afraid of work, to be sparing in my wants, attend to my own needs, mind my own business, and never listen to gossip.

VI. Thanks to Diognetus [3] I learnt not to be absorbed in trivial pursuits; to be sceptical of wizards and wonder-workers with their tales of spells, exorcisms, and the like; to eschew cockfighting and other such distractions; not to resent outspokenness; to familiarize myself with philosophy, beginning with Bacchius and going on to Tandasis and Marcian; to write compositions in my early years; and to be ardent for the plank-and-skin pallet and other rigours of the Greek discipline.

VII. From Rusticus [4] I derived the notion that my character needed training and care, and that I must not allow myself to be led astray into a sophist’s enthusiasm for concocting speculative treatises, edifying homilies, or imaginary sketches of The Ascetic or The Altruist. He also taught me to avoid rhetoric, poetry, and verbal conceits, affectations of dress at home, and other such lapses of taste, and to imitate the easy epistolary style of his own letter written at Sinuessa to my mother. If anyone, after falling out with me in a moment of temper, showed signs of wanting to make peace again, I was to be ready at once to meet them half-way. Also I was to be accurate in my reading, and not content with a mere general idea of the meaning; and not to let myself be too quickly convinced by a glib tongue. Through him, too, I came to know Epictetus’s Dissertations, of which he gave me a copy from his library.

VIII. Apollonius [5] impressed on me the need to make decisions for myself instead of depending on the hazards of chance, and never for a moment to leave reason out of sight. He also schooled me to meet spasms of acute pain, the loss of my son, and the tedium of a chronic ailment with the same unaltered composure. He himself was a living proof that the fieriest energy is not incompatible with the ability to relax. His expositions were always a model of clarity; yet he was evidently one who rated practical experience and an aptitude for teaching philosophy as the least of his accomplishments. It was he, moreover, who taught me how to accept the pretended favours of friends without either lowering my own self-respect or giving the impression of an unfeeling indifference.

IX. My debts to Sextus [6] include kindliness, how to rule a household with paternal authority, the real meaning of the Natural Life, an unselfconscious dignity, an intuitive concern for the interests of one’s friends, and a good-natured patience with amateurs and visionaries. The aptness of his courtesy to each individual lent a charm to his society more potent than any flattery, yet at the same time it exacted the complete respect of all present. His manner, too, of determining and systematizing the essential rules of life was as comprehensive as it was methodical. Never displaying a sign of anger nor any kind of emotion, he was at once entirely imperturbable and yet full of kindly affection. His approval was always quietly and undemonstratively expressed, and he never paraded his encyclopaedic learning.

X. It was the critic Alexander [7] who put me on my guard against unnecessary fault-finding. People should not be sharply corrected for bad grammar, provincialisms, or mispronunciation; it is better to suggest the proper expression by tactfully introducing it oneself in, say, one’s reply to a question or one’s acquiescence in their sentiments, or into a friendly discussion of the topic itself (not of the diction), or by some other suitable form of reminder.

XI.  To my mentor Fronto [8] I owe the realization that malice, craftiness, and duplicity are the concomitants of absolute power; and that our patrician families tend for the most part to be lacking in the feelings of ordinary humanity.

XII. Alexander the Platonist [9]  cautioned me against frequent use of the words ‘I am too busy’ in speech or correspondence, except in cases of real necessity; saying that no one ought to shirk the obligations due to society on the excuse of urgent affairs.

XIII. Catulus the Stoic [10]  counseled me never to make light of a friend’s rebuke, even when unreasonable, but to do my best to restore myself to his good graces; to speak up readily in commendation of my instructors, as we read in the memoirs of Domitius and Athenodotus; and to cultivate a genuine affection for my children.

XIV. From my brother Severus [11] I learnt to love my relations, to love the truth, and to love justice. Through him I came to know of Thrasea, Cato, Helvidius, Dion, and Brutus, and became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject. He showed me the need for a fair and dispassionate appreciation of philosophy, an addiction to good works, open-handedness, a sanguine temper, and confidence in the affection of my friends. I remember, too, his forthrightness with those who came under his censure, and his way of leaving his friends in no doubt of his likes and dislikes, but of telling them plainly.

XV. Maximus [12] was my model for self-control, fixity of purpose, and cheerfulness under ill-health or other misfortunes. His character was an admirable combination of dignity and charm, and all the duties of his station were performed quietly and without fuss. He gave everyone the conviction that he spoke as he believed, and acted as he judged right. Bewilderment or timidity were unknown to him; he was never hasty, never dilatory; nothing found him at a loss. He indulged neither in despondency nor forced gaiety, nor had anger or jealousy any power over him. Kindliness, sympathy, and sincerity all contributed to give the impression of a rectitude that was innate rather than inculcated. Nobody was ever made by him to feel inferior, yet none could have presumed to challenge his preeminence. He was also the possessor of an agreeable sense of humour.

XVI. The qualities I admired in my father [13] were his lenience, his firm refusal to be diverted from any decision he had deliberately reached, his complete indifference to meretricious honours; his industry, perseverance, and willingness to listen to any project for the common good; the unvarying insistence that rewards must depend on merit; the expert’s sense of when to tighten the reins and when to relax them; and the efforts he made to suppress pederasty.

He was aware that social life must have its claims: his friends were under no obligation to join him at his table or attend his progresses, and when they were detained by other engagements it made no difference to him. Every question that came before him in council was painstakingly and patiently examined; he was never content to dismiss it on a cursory first impression. His friendships were enduring; they were not capricious, and they were not extravagant. He was always equal to an occasion; cheerful, yet long-sighted enough to have all his dispositions unobtrusively perfected down to the last detail. He had an ever-watchful eye to the needs of the Empire, prudently conserving its resources and putting up with the criticisms that resulted. Before his gods he was not superstitious; before his fellow-men he never stooped to bid for popularity or woo the masses, but pursued his own calm and steady way, disdaining anything that savoured of the flashy or new-fangled. He accepted without either complacency or compunction such material comforts as fortune had put at his disposal; when they were to hand he would avail himself of them frankly, but when they were not he had no regrets.

Not a vestige of the casuist’s quibbling, the lackey’s pertness, the pedant’s over-scrupulosity could be charged against him; all men recognized in him a mature and finished personality, that was impervious to flattery and entirely capable of ruling both himself and others. Moreover, he had a high respect for all genuine philosophers; and though refraining from criticism of the rest, he preferred to dispense with their guidance. In society he was affable and gracious without being fulsome. The care he took of his body was reasonable; there was no solicitous anxiety to prolong its existence, or to embellish its appearance, yet he was far from unmindful of it, and indeed looked after himself so successfully that he was seldom in need of medical attention or physic or liniments. No hint of jealousy showed in his prompt recognition of outstanding abilities, whether in public speaking, law, ethics, or any other department, and he took pains to give each man the chance of earning a reputation in his own field. Though all his actions were guided by a respect for constitutional precedent, he would never go out of his way to court public recognition of this. Again, he disliked restlessness and change, and had a rooted preference for the same places and the same pursuits. After one of his acute spasms of migraine he would lose no time in taking up his normal duties again, with new vigour and complete command of his powers. His secret and confidential files were not numerous, and the few infrequent items in them referred exclusively to matters of state. He showed good sense and restraint over the exhibition of spectacles, construction of public buildings, distribution of subsidies, and so forth, having always more in view the necessity for the measures themselves than the plaudits they evoked. His baths were not taken at inconvenient hours; he had no mania for building; he was quite uncritical of the food he ate, of the cut and colour of the garments he wore, or of the personableness of those around him. His clothes were sent up from his country seat at Lorium, and most of his things came from Lanuvium. His well-known treatment of the apologetic overseer at Tusculum was typical of his whole behaviour, for discourtesy was as foreign to his nature as harshness or bluster; he never grew heated, as the saying is, to sweating-point; it was his habit to analyse and weigh every incident, taking his time about it, calmly, methodically, decisively, and consistently. What is recorded of Socrates was no less applicable to him, that he had the ability to allow or deny himself indulgences which most people are as much incapacitated by their weakness from refusing as by their excesses from appreciating. To be thus strong enough to refrain or consent at will argues a consummate and indomitable soul as Maximus also demonstrated on his sick-bed.

XVII. To the gods I owe good grandparents, good parents, a good sister, and teachers, comrades, kinsmen, and friends good almost without exception; and that I never fell out with any of them, in spite of a temperament that could very well have precipitated something of the sort, had not circumstances providentially never combined to put me to the proof. To them, too, I owe it that the responsibility of my grandfather’s mistress for my upbringing was brought to an early end, and my innocence preserved; and that I was not impatient to reach manhood, but contented myself with an unhurried development. I thank heaven also that under my father the Emperor I was cured of all pomposity, and made to realize that life at court can be lived without royal escorts, robes of state, illuminations, statues, and outward splendour of that kind, but that one’s manner of life can be reduced almost to the level of a private gentleman’s without losing the prestige and authority needful when affairs of state require leadership. The gods, too, gave me a brother [14] whose natural qualities were a standing challenge to my own self-discipline at the same time as his deferential affection warmed my heart; and children who were neither intellectually stunted nor physically misshapen. It was the gods who set a limit to my proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and other studies that might well have absorbed my time, had I found it less difficult to make progress. They saw to it that at the first opportunity I raised my tutors to such rank and station as I thought they had at heart, instead of putting them off with prospects of later advancement on the plea of their youth. To the gods I owe my acquaintance with Apollonius, Rusticus, and Maximus. To them, too, my vivid and recurrent visions of the true inwardness of the Natural Life; indeed, for their part, the favours, helps, and inspirations I have received leave my failure to attain this Natural Life  without excuse; and if I am still far from the goal, the fault is my own for not paying heed to the reminders—nay, the virtual directions—which I have had from above.

To the gods it must be ascribed that my constitution has survived this manner of life so long; that I never got entangled with a Benedicta nor a Theodotus, and also emerged from other subsequent affairs unscathed; that although Rusticus and I frequently had our differences, I never pushed things to a point I might have regretted; and that the last years of my mother’s life, before her early death, were spent with me. Furthermore, that on occasions when I thought of relieving somebody in poverty or distress, I was never told that I had not the necessary means; as also that I myself never had occasion to require similar help from another. And I must thank heaven for such a wife as mine, so submissive, so loving, and so artless; for an unfailing supply of competent tutors for my children; and for remedies prescribed for me in dreams—especially in cases of blood-spitting and vertigo, as happened at Caieta and Chrysa. Finally, that with all my addiction to philosophy I was yet preserved from either falling a prey to some sophist or spending all my time at a desk poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science.

For all these good things ‘man needs the help of Heaven and Destiny’. [15]

Adriaen van Utrecht, "Vanitas" (1642)



[1] The colours of the rival charioteers in the Circus. Roman enthusiasm for these races was unbounded; successful drivers earned large fortunes and became popular idols.

[2] In one form of gladiatorial combat (the ‘Thracian’) the opponents were armed with light round bucklers; in another (the ‘Samnite’) they carried heavy oblong shields.

[3] The painter and philosopher to whom Marcus, as a boy of eleven, owed his first acquaintance with Stoicism. Nothing is known of Bacchius, Tandasis, or Marcian.

[4] Q. Junius Rusticus, a Stoic professor who was the law-tutor and friend of Marcus.

[5] A teacher of philosophy who came to Rome from Chalcedon. When first summoned by Marcus to the palace, he is said to have replied, ‘The master ought not to come to the pupil, but the pupil to the master.’

[6] A native of Chaeronea in Boeotia and the grandson of Plutarch. One of Marcus’s earliest instructors in philosophy.

[7] A Greek and a scholar of repute, known as ‘the Grammarian’.

[8] M. Cornelius Fronto, a celebrated pleader and teacher of rhetoric and reckoned inferior only to Cicero as an orator. He was entrusted with the education of the future co-Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.

[9] The emperor’s secretary.

[10] Cinna Catulus was another of the professors who gave lectures in philosophy.

[11] Marcus had no brother. The word may be a playful allusion to Claudius Severus (whose son married one of Marcus’s daughters), since Marcus also had originally been called Severus, though he later discarded the name.  More probably the text is corrupt. Many editors prefer to read Verus, tlhat is the Lucius Verus who, like Marcus himself, had been adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius as his son; but the flattering picture drawn here by no means corresponds with what is known of the character of Verus.

[12] Claudius Maximus, A Stoic philosopher especially admired by Marcus.  His courage in sickness is appreciatively recalled (I,16) and his death and that of his wife Secunda remembered wtih regret (VIII, 25).

[13] Not his natural father Annius Verus, but the emperor Antoninus Pius, his adoptive father.

[14] This was Lucius Ceionius Commodus, afterwards known as Lucius Verus.  He was adopted by Antoninus Pius along with Marcus, with whom he was associated as co-emperor and whose daughter Lucilla he married.  Originally a man of courage and ability, Verus degenerated into weakness and self-indulgence.  As commander of the Roman armies in the Parthian war he proved indolent and incapable, and was only saved from disgrace by the skill of his generals.  When he returned with his legions from the East, they carried back the seeds of a pestilence which spread with terrible effect throughout the Empire.  Verus died in 169—as some said, by the hand of a poisoner.

[15] Apparently a quotation, the source of which has not been traced.


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