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Marcus Aurelius: A Life Hardcover – August 11, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Pat Buchanan once said that George W. Bush was no Marcus Aurelius, while Bill Clinton claimed that he read and reread Aurelius' Meditations as president. McLynn, author of biographies of figures from Napoleon to Jung, argues that the emperor and Stoic philosopher satisfies a thirst for guidance that modern philosophers have largely abandoned. But McLynn fails to make his case in a book that veers between biography and a defense of an emperor more famous for his words than for his actions. Drawing on Aurelius' Meditations, letters with his tutor and other ancient sources of disputed authenticity, McLynn ploddingly narrates Aurelius' rise to emperor in 161 C.E.—a role to which he was, McLynn acknowledges, temperamentally unsuited—and the challenges he faced, mostly unsuccessfully, during his 19-year reign. Attempting to protect the Roman Empire from the German barbarians, for example, he gave land to these foreign tribes. This strategy backfired, creating new economic and social divisions. Marcus Aurelius emerges from McLynn's biography as a disappointing political figure who could do nothing to unite the Roman Empire in its waning days and who remains most memorable for his aphorisms, such as By a tranquil mind I mean a well-ordered one. 8 pages of b&w photos. (Sept.)
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Publishers Weekly, 7/13/09
“[McLynn] argues that the emperor and Stoic philosopher satisfies a thirst for guidance that modern philosophers have largely abandoned.”

Booklist, 9/1/09
“[An] extensive examination…McLynn’s commitment to placing the reign in context…allows readers to learn why historians ancient and modern consider Marcus Aurelius’ reign (161–80) the apex of the Roman Empire.”

Tucson Citizen “Shelf Life” blog, 8/15/09
“McLynn sheds new light on a great man whose writings still resonate, even after more than 1,800 years.”, 9/8
“[McLynn] is a thoughtful and provocative writer. His work is marked by its deft use of language and a strong authorial voice that seeks to engage readers and dissuade passivity. His style is pointed [and] personal…McLynn uses Marcus’ life as a vehicle to illuminate the full breadth of Roman culture during this time…Marcus Aurelius: A Life provides readers a clear, immediate portal to the past, one that fully communicates the tone and tenor of the second century in a compelling, comprehensive narrative.”

Augusta Metro Spirit, 9/9
“A riveting exploration of an extraordinary life...[An] historical page-turner…Aurelius comes back to life in the pages of McLynn’s latest treasure…A wonderful journey into the historical record guided by a talented narrative voice.”, September issue
“[McLynn’s] skill is evident and the subject is worth visiting and knowing.”, 9/3
“Frank McLynn’s exhaustively researched biography of the emperor…places the emperor’s work firmly in the context of the wars and political events of his time—and makes that very remote era come alive…The philosophical underpinnings of Marcus’ thought are woven expertly by McLynn into the narrative of the Parthian and Germanic wars that dominated his reign…It is to McLynn’s considerable credit that he pulls so many strands of Marcus’ life and thinking so effectively together.”

January, online magazine, 9/16
“McLynn brings substantial credits and busloads of credibility with him to the writing desk…One gets the feeling that everything one reads in the book is correct…One never gets the feeling that Marcus Aurelius: A Life is not perfectly researched and accurately put down -- or, at least, as much as history will allow…If you want to discover all that is known about Marcus Aurelius and you only want to look in one place, this, then, is certainly it.”

“Talk of the Town” WTVF CBS, Nashville, 9/1
“The perfect biography for the lover of history and true greatness.”

Library Journal, 9/15
“[An] interesting account…Provide[s] a substantial introduction to a man who ‘still speaks to us today.’…Recommended for lovers of history, philosophy, and things Greco-Roman.”

Providence Journal, 10/4
“[A] huge, plum pudding of a book...This is not merely a biography of a ‘soldier, statesman and writer’ who fought great wars on two fronts, suppressed a perfidious rebellion and kept a brilliant, private log of his thoughts, the famous Meditations, which has deeply influenced Western thought for nearly two millennia. It is also a lengthy critique of Stoic philosophy; a disapproving socio-economic history of Second Century Rome; a highly judgmental review of what came before and after that period, plus takeouts on Roman health care, pandemics, religion, luxury, morals and literature.”

Sacremento Book Review, October issue
“A well-researched work duly apprised of the cultural, economic, and social tiers in play during the birth and youth of the future emperor, allowing a complete picture of the workings of Roman hierarchy…[McLynn] manages to bare the life of Marcus Aurelius in dedicated fashion, exposing some of the nagging discrepancies between the real man and the one often portrayed.” 

Curled Up With a Good Book
“Extremely detailed and well-researched…The information it delivers is extremely interesting…Fascinating stuff…Definitely worth the trip.”

Reference and Research Book News, November 2009
“The volume combines intellectual and political biography and draws a portrait of a man of consummate military, political, and intellectual talent whose relevance remains as vital as ever.”

Library Journal’s e-newsletter BookSmack!, 12/3/09
“As massive a doorstop as Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, this is as readable and thorough an examination of the life, reign, and times of Marcus Aurelius as an interested nonacademic is likely to find.”

Northeast Mississippi Sunday Journal, 1/3/2010
“Exhaustively researched…McLynn introduces many of the era’s most interesting personas…Surely the best book on Ancient Rome and her ‘noblest’ emperor since Suetonius and Plutarch wrote their lives of earlier emperors…An eloquent, indispensable study.”

The New Republic, 4/8/10
“A sprawling new biography…McLynn rightly emphasizes that we should be wary of seeing Marcus Aurelius as a modern humanitarian.”

The New Criterion, April 2010
“McLynn’s biography of Marcus Aurelius matters…It is valuable as a striking instance of the persistence of Aurelian panegyric…The book’s most attractive quality [is] an intellectual ranginess that drives him to connect his subject with anything and everything, from any period of time and any culture…It’s fun to be in the hands of an author with a well-stocked mind and a generous, teacherly impulse to connect apparently disparate events and people. Marcus Aurelius offers that civilized pleasure.”

Magill Book Reviews
“[This] engrossing biography of Marcus Aurelius is intimidating in its learning, encompassing not only the Emperor’s life but also the history and culture of the empire in the second and third centuries…McLynn is no admirer of Marcus’s stoic philosophy but he explains its tenets well in a lengthy appendix and analyzes its role in Marcus’s actions.”

Choice, August 2010
“An enjoyable and informative book…Recommended.”
History, Oct/Nov 2010
“McLynn, using all available original sources as well as secondary scholarship, reveals a man who was a military and political mastermind as well as a philosopher.”, February 2011
“[McLynn has] an assertive and engaging style with a polymath’s facility at drawing historical parallels from the ancient to the modern.”


Metapsychology Online Reviews, 9/18/11
“McLynn tells this beautiful story in such a way that recreational historians can fully appreciate the meaning of this philosopher-king's life and thought…McLynn masterfully weaves together the core issues of Marcus's world—war, politics, love and relationships, religion and philosophy—and plays out the dramas (and melodramas) on the high stage of the ancient Roman world…This book demonstrates that it is indeed possible for a history book to draw characters more vividly, flesh out a story line with more color, explain interpersonal and situational dynamics more coherently, and weave a tale together more thoroughly than could possibly be done even in a blockbuster movie. In short, this book is an investment well worth the reader's time and effort.”



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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 720 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition edition (August 11, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306818302
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306818301
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.4 x 2.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,004,395 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Mark Mellon on September 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Marcus Aurelius is probably one of the better known figures from antiquity, although he does not nearly have the notoriety or fame of more vivid, melodramatic figures such as Julius Caesar or Mark Antony. To most familiar with the 2nd-Century emperor, he is the embodiment of Plato's "philosopher king," an intellectual whose real passion was for the life of the mind who nonetheless devoted himself to the thankless task of ruling simply from a sense of duty.

In this biography, Frank McLynn, while plainly an admirer of his subject, nonetheless seeks to disabuse modern readers of romantic preconceptions about the last of the truly "good" emperors. He points out that, like any other human being, Aurelius was a product of his time and place and thus subject to the mores and viewpoint of that era. Despite the apparently modern, almost Zen-like views which Aurelius frequently expresses in his Meditations, his personal compilation of Stoic aphorisms, McLynn ably demonstrates how he was nonetheless a typical aristocratic Roman with rigid, hierarchical views and an unshakable faith in the rightness of Roman ways. One good example of this is the emperor's readiness to persecute anyone opposed to Roman order, specifically Christians, a fact which many modern admirers would prefer to ignore. McLynn also notes that, like all other Roman emperors, Aurelius had to be ruthless, to the point of exterminating blood kin or any other potential rival for the purple.

Even while noting these flaws, however, McLynn devotes the bulk of his biography to Aurelius's good points: his devotion to duty, his steadfast courage, so strong that he didn't lose his philosophical detachment even in the face of death.
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47 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Arch Stanton on August 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Frank McLynn is an author that you either love or hate. He is very opinionated, self-satisfied, and confident in his opinions and he likes nothing better than to dismiss other author's works as being wrong. He also likes to use large words and complicated sentences. Normally that last wouldn't bother me, but I'm a fast reader and when you have to spend ages on every page since each sentence is so convoluted it becomes problematic. Not everyone will have problems with this. It encourages you to take your time so if you enjoy really savoring a book then you might prefer it this way. McLynn isn't an expert in this field. I think he likes it that way since he's written most of his books in fields he isn't an expert in. Personally, I think he feels he has something to prove but whatever it is he does research the periods he writes about well. Along the same line he also has a tendency to include comparisons to somewhat obscure historical figures that many of his readers will not recognize. It seems to fall under his desire to prove how smart he is. I'm sure that there could be another explanation for all of his writing quirks but that is the way that I interpret them.

Now onto the book. First off this is a really big book. I know that you can see that by just looking at the page numbers on this site but you don't always appreciate that till you see it. I think that each one of his books gets bigger and bigger, which is a shame since I prefer some of his shorter writings like 1066: The Year of the Three Battles. Now I'm not intimidated by a book's size but this one can be a chore.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Patrick Sullivan on February 8, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book has so much background information, you sometimes forget you are reading about Marcus Aurelius.You will read about Julius Caesar`s war plans for the Parthian Empire. How Mark Anthony`s battle with the Parthian Empire, enabled Augustus to become the Emperor of Rome. Yes it was all very interesting, but just a little off track. The book ends up being much longer then necessary. The book does not have a table of contents, and the title of each chapter is blank.
The reader will end up getting all the details of Aurelius`s life. It is just going to take a while. The chapter on Emperor Commodus, was quite gripping. Commodus combines Stalin like purges of the government, with the sadistic living of a serial killer.
In the very last chapter there was a reference to Ulysses S. Grant`s Personal Memoirs, and Aurelius`s Meditations. This gives you an idea, just how far off track McLynn manages to get.
If this book was re-titled and indicated some sort of general Roman history, I would perhaps recommend it. I would recommend the reader to look elsewhere, in regards to a Marcus Aurelius biography.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful By C. Abdella on October 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
McLynn always goes to great lengths to inform himself and he has read a wide variety of source material on Aurelius. The problem is that simply researching does not make for a good history book. McLynn frquently fails to analyze the information he has discovered. Too often, he'll pluck a quote from Meditations to buttress a poorly analyzed point and move on, certain he has convinced the reader because he has a quote to back it up (even if he misses the context of that quote). He quite clearly despises Stoic philosophy and this blinds him in his argumentation and leads to simplistic analysis. McLynn was just as biased in Richard and John, where he was smitten with King Richard and this blinded him to the faults historians generally agree that Richard exhibited. In this book on Aurelius, McLynn can't get over his hatred of Marcus' philosophy and this often makes the book infuriating for an ancient historian. This is not a terrible book but I would not recommend it. The problem I see is that historians aren't going to like his analytical deficiencies and obvious bias while regular readers won't slog through 700+ pages (with long winding detours to provide background) to inform themselves. Regardless, Aurelius deserves better than this.
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