The Stoic Emperor

Watch the stars in their courses as if you were running about with them and think constantly of the changes of the elements into one another. Mental images of these things wash away the filth of life on the ground.—Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

This comment by the famous “Stoic Emperor” written over 1,800 years ago speaks directly to many of my own meditations. The fact is that Marcus Aurelius (see earlier post) has always been a curious figure, given that he was a reputedly virtuous ruler whose reign saw the outbreak of widespread anti-Christian persecution.

Marcus’ career was highly regarded by contemporaries as well as later chroniclers. One ancient Roman writer says of his reign that he “made the senate the judge in many judicial enquiries, even in those which belonged to his own jurisdiction. None of the emperors showed such respect to the senate as he did.” Marcus was unlike many previous rulers in respecting the authority of others. He was scrupulous in seeking out advice and appointing men of good character. Among other humane qualities, historian Anthony Birley says that Marcus gave “any slave the maximum possible chance of attaining his freedom” especially in cases when masters died and there was some legal question about manumission.

The philosopher emperor faced one of the greatest invasions by barbarians in centuries, as the Marcomanni and other Germanic tribes poured across Rome’s northern frontier. The fact that his predecessor’s reign had been so peaceful, and that Marcus performed no military service, meant that he was unprepared for such challenges. Yet he rose to the occasion and managed to halt the barbarian offensive. It is also typical of Marcus that when faced by a revolt by Avidius Cassius in the eastern provinces, he was not vindictive in either his language or his actions. The rebellion was quelled with a minimum of bloodshed, and when Cassius was assassinated by one of his officers, his head was sent to the emperor, who refused to see it, and ordered it buried.

As for the empire’s treatment of Christians, Birley says: “There is no need to suppose that Marcus actively approved of persecution any more than had Trajan, for example. But the precedent had already been established, that to be a Christian was in itself a capital crime.” This was strangely inconsistent with Rome’s general tolerance toward other creeds. Unlike these religions, however, Christianity never bowed to the absolute claims of the Roman state, making it apparently “subversive” even when no actual misdeeds were committed. Birley says that intense persecution was due to periodic outbreaks of hysteria and the need for scapegoats in times of stress and disaster. Yet more than that, I think it demonstrates just how important beliefs can be—whether Marcus’ own meditations or the claims of Christianity—to politics and society. They are never a purely private affair.

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