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Portrait Of An Emperor, Warts And All
on September 22, 2009
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. Beset with crises such as plague and barbarian incursions throughout the length of his reign, Aurelius never despaired, never gave way to weakness, stuck to his guns to the bitter end. The author concludes that, if anyone ever deserved the title of philosopher king, it was Aurelius.
For a layman with little knowledge of antiquity, this book will probably be a pretty hard slog. McLynn devotes a great deal of the biography to discussion of philosophy in the ancient world, with a particular focus on Stoicism, Aurelius's preferred doctrine (there is even a fairly lengthy appendix at the end of the book on Stoicism). When the fairly complicated politics of the early Empire is also factored in (most of which depended on complex, extensive personal relationships), this adds up to a fairly daunting prospect. Nonetheless, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about 2nd-Century Roman history and to fans of biography in general.