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on March 1, 2014
I have rarely felt so disgusted and offended by an author, especially one from modern times. This author has prejudices that I regret to see circulating in current bookstores. I picked up this book because most of my research centers around Stoic studies (so maybe I have my own biases in favor of the Stoics - unlike this author, I am willing to admit to my prejudices and leave the reader to evaluate my opinions rather than state them as fact) and I had read Marcus as a philosopher but had not yet fully understood him as an emperor and soldier. I thought this book could nicely supplement my awareness of the historical context that surrounded his philosophy. Instead, this "biographer" seems to be skilled at compiling random stories and statistics about an era, tossing them into a book, and adding his own obnoxiously unfounded opinions to create an "analysis." He seems to have no background in classics, and I don't think I would call him a scholar at all, because he clearly doesn't approach things with the maturity someone should have when commenting on a culture other than his or her own.

He clearly despises Stoicism and picks quotes to justify his vehemence - but the few quotes he includes from the Stoics themselves take the idea out of context and he assumes the worst about it. He says that "it is deeply sad that Marcus Aurelius should have subscribed to such a bleak and ultimately nihilistic view of the universe and mankind's place in it" but fails to comprehend that although Marcus does mention death and the vastness of the universe often, he does so to create a positive and philosophically sound outlook for his life. Also, Marcus's writings and his Stoic perspective have brought comfort to many through the centuries between his life and modern times. Of course the philosophy has its critics and some potentially negative components, but it has been highly influential, and it isn't fair to dismiss it and attack it the way this author does.

I can't imagine why he decided to write a biography of Marcus if he's going to callously belittle the emperor's cherished world views. He said that Stoic philosophy didn't help Marcus in his role as emperor at all. This seems to be a comment from a person who entirely lacks the ability to see how a philosophy that enables you to face the possible cruelty of Fortune by keeping your inner worth and morality in tact could appeal to someone burdened with great responsibilities in an era that could often be harsh.

The author had a style that I enjoyed when he wasn't imposing his myopic views on his reader, so I gave it a good try, but I think my time will be better spent reading anything else. I had been saddened to think that he may influence readers without as much background in classical studies to adopt his judgmental attitudes toward an ancient society that can't defend itself against his attacks, but I am happy to see that many other reviewers saw through his bigotry. If someone out there wants to learn about Marcus, let him talk to you himself through his Meditations, or read the other biographies available.
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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.
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on August 3, 2009
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. There is already an excellent biography on Marcus Aurelius by Anthony Birley which is about half the size of this one and is written by an expert in the field. Having read that I was rather curious what McLynn could say that would take up so much extra space. Would it be a more in-depth and detailed look at the era that he lived in? Would it include details about his life that Birley left out? Would it include a detailed analysis of his personality, a subject that McLynn is particularly strong at? I have to say that when it did either of those things it was a very enjoyable read, but most of the book seemed to focus on his philosophy. Now, I suppose that this is to be expected when the subject wrote his own philosophy on life down, but I'm really not interested in a discourse on philosophy and a comparison of how Aurelius matched up with later philosophers. I'm even less interested in hearing McLynn's views on philosophy as he states that several beliefs are wrong or show poor reasoning. Frankly, the reason that there are so many different philosophies out there is that every philosophy appeals to a different aspect of the human experience. There is no single philosophy that can make everybody happy. Stating that philosophical beliefs are wrong shows the most arrogant presumption I've seen in a long time. Just because you disagree with a philosophical concept doesn't make it incorrect. I certainly don't agree with all the philosophers he mentions but that doesn't mean that I'm going to call them mistaken. I know that the author is intelligent and that he presumably has a philosophy of beliefs, but he doesn't need to keep showing off the former and I couldn't care less about his opinions on the latter. As far as his analysis of Aurelius' philosophy goes this book is an utter failure. It is McLynn at his worst: uninteresting, arguing ideas of interest only to himself, and unspeakably arrogant. Quite frankly, a little of McLynn goes a long ways. When he keeps it short his works usually deliver.

So, the good news: The rest of the book is pretty good. It suffers from all of the faults I mentioned when discussing his writing style earlier, but it is also well researched and interesting. First off, his interpretation of Aurelius' personality seems pretty much spot on. His insight that a certain humorlessness can lead to difficulty handling depression seems to fit Marcus quite well. He doesn't go into quite as much annoying psychoanalysis as he did in his book on Napoleon, and the absence of such extremely questionable neuroses is very welcome. Actually, since he has the discourse on philosophy early on it leaves the rest of the book reasonably free of such annoyances. Characterizations have always been McLynn's strong point and his vivid characterizations in this book are interesting, and he expresses them quite clearly even if he is extremely blunt in his personal judgments. Some of the characterizations are odd though, such as when he refers to Hadrian as a psychopath. I don't know what information he's looking at but there is nowhere near enough data to make that sort of a statement. In "Napoleon" he stated that nearly every leader in history could be considered a psychopath which has always kind of rankled me. Even assuming a generous definition of psychopath, I wouldn't call any harsh action that they take psychotic. Leaders have to make hard decisions, but that isn't the same thing as saying that they get some sort of sick thrill out of it. The section on Marcus' life is certainly worth reading and I only wish that it wasn't preceded by such a pretentious distraction. I honestly think that the rest of this book is worth the purchase price. Still, the book can't just be divided into good and bad sections and reviewed separately, so I'm giving this book three stars as an average between them. That's probably being overly generous since the good section doesn't deserve a full five stars but the book deserves better than a two. I have a feeling that future reviewers will not be so kind, but I definitely recommend reading this if you're at all interested in the subject matter and don't mind a long slog.
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on October 12, 2009
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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on February 8, 2010
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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on September 26, 2011
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. There is already an excellent biography on Marcus Aurelius by Anthony Birley which is about half the size of this one and is written by an expert in the field. Having read that I was rather curious what McLynn could say that would take up so much extra space. Would it be a more in-depth and detailed look at the era that he lived in? Would it include details about his life that Birley left out? Would it include a detailed analysis of his personality, a subject that McLynn is particularly strong at? I have to say that when it did either of those things it was a very enjoyable read, but most of the book seemed to focus on his philosophy. Now, I suppose that this is to be expected when the subject wrote his own philosophy on life down, but I'm really not interested in a discourse on philosophy and a comparison of how Aurelius matched up with later philosophers. I'm even less interested in hearing McLynn's views on philosophy as he states that several beliefs are wrong or show poor reasoning. Frankly, the reason that there are so many different philosophies out there is that every philosophy appeals to a different aspect of the human experience. There is no single philosophy that can make everybody happy. Stating that philosophical beliefs are wrong shows the most arrogant presumption I've seen in a long time. Just because you disagree with a philosophical concept doesn't make it incorrect. I certainly don't agree with all the philosophers he mentions but that doesn't mean that I'm going to call them mistaken. I know that the author is intelligent and that he presumably has a philosophy of beliefs, but he doesn't need to keep showing off the former and I couldn't care less about his opinions on the latter. As far as his analysis of Aurelius' philosophy goes this book is an utter failure. It is McLynn at his worst: uninteresting, arguing ideas of interest only to himself, and unspeakably arrogant. Quite frankly, a little of McLynn goes a long ways. When he keeps it short his works usually deliver.

So, the good news: The rest of the book is pretty good. It suffers from all of the faults I mentioned when discussing his writing style earlier, but it is also well researched and interesting. First off, his interpretation of Aurelius' personality seems pretty much spot on. His insight that a certain humorlessness can lead to difficulty handling depression seems to fit Marcus quite well. He doesn't go into quite as much annoying psychoanalysis as he did in his book on Napoleon, and the absence of such extremely questionable neuroses is very welcome. Actually, since he has the discourse on philosophy early on it leaves the rest of the book reasonably free of such annoyances. Characterizations have always been McLynn's strong point and his vivid characterizations in this book are interesting, and he expresses them quite clearly even if he is extremely blunt in his personal judgments. Some of the characterizations are odd though, such as when he refers to Hadrian as a psychopath. I don't know what information he's looking at but there is nowhere near enough data to make that sort of a statement. In "Napoleon" he stated that nearly every leader in history could be considered a psychopath which has always kind of rankled me. Even assuming a generous definition of psychopath, I wouldn't call any harsh action that they take psychotic. Leaders have to make hard decisions, but that isn't the same thing as saying that they get some sort of sick thrill out of it. The section on Marcus' life is certainly worth reading and I only wish that it wasn't preceded by such a pretentious distraction. I honestly think that the rest of this book is worth the purchase price. Still, the book can't just be divided into good and bad sections and reviewed separately, so I'm giving this book three stars as an average between them. That's probably being overly generous since the good section doesn't deserve a full five stars but the book deserves better than a two. I have a feeling that future reviewers will not be so kind, but I definitely recommend reading this if you're at all interested in the subject matter and don't mind a long slog.
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on December 29, 2009
I picked up this book to learn about Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy. Sadly the author spent 700 pages telling an interesting story that could have been done in 200. He also does not provide maps, kinship charts, historical timelines or most importantly a graphic of Roman classes that would have been invaluable in trying to follow his run-on sentences describing kinships and casts that could have been done in one graphic that the reader could refer to.

The sad thing is there is a good story and interesting things buried in all this. You keep reading for one or two interesting bits per 5 pages of words. Who edited this mess -- or should I say DID NOT edit it? Stephen King???

I also do not think that the author liked Marcus or stoic philosophy all that much. I can see why - he made it too boring and hard to understand.

After about 150 pages I started skimming for the good bits and finished it.

Too bad it could have been a fascinating and informative book.
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on April 12, 2011
The first review offered on this Kindle version was highly unlaudatory. Please permit me to transfer over a review from the hardcover version Marcus Aurelius: A Life that I wrote before. You cannot find it in my list of reviews because my Amazon login was perverted by my probable ignorance and I had to start from scratch.

"Too lengthy? Not for this reader. I read Gibbon nearly a half century ago and enjoyed the tale. Later, I reread sections and loved the style.

Now, when I read McLynn I can enjoy the tale and his English at the same time. I marvel at McLynn's felicitous prose and his depth of knowledge. No, McLynn is not showing off, being blessed with an eidetic memory and iron pants while he amassed his knowledge, he is kind enough to share his talents with us. Thank God there are people who can synthesize their thoughts as well as he does.

Gibbon, of course, was opinionated. McLynn is far easier on the early Christians than he although he scorns stoics.

McLynn breaks from the normal historians in a telling way. Usually, when a new character enters, a brief intro is offered. Frank, instead, may wait for a chapter or two before presenting him at length. My curiosity was whetted; who was Herodes Atticus? Then McLynn develops him in the round. HA was the second century's equivalent of a Bernie Madoff and Glen Beck. What fun!

More than a biography of Marcus Aurelius, it is an exposition that Rome did not become rotten back when J. Caesar died but later, after the reign of the Antonines, the five good emperors. They weren't that good, read the dirt. Better than a gossip column. Don't ignore the footnotes that have gems interspersed throughout and the pages, too few in my opinion, will race by.

Frank McLynn is not only a historian but a raconteur."
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on December 20, 2015
Just imagine you are at a family dinner and your brilliant but very opinionated Uncle Frank McLynn had a few glasses of wine and decided to tell you all about Marcus Aurelius. He starts out telling you how much he thinks Stoic philosophy is self absorption and denial of emotions and how he can't stand stoicism. Well, you know how it is when uncle Frank gets going and how you feel like disagreeing with him, but he talks too loud and he is very interesting, so you just sit and listen. Before you know it, he is describing the very interesting early life of Marcus and how he was educated by Greek philosophers and was being groomed to someday be the emperor of Rome. On and on Uncle Frank goes narrating the life of Marcus and various other main characters of the time, but then after a sip of wine, Uncle Frank curses that darn stoicism that Marcus has taken to be his core way of viewing the world. Why that fool Marcus uses his stoic philosophy to rationalize away the possible death of his child rather then emote like normal people do. Uncle Frank gets into almost raging on that one.
Well, Uncle Frank calms down a bit and takes us through Marcus's military campaigns against those German barbarians where stoic philosophy doesn't stop Marcus from chasing down and beheading thousands of the Teutons. Uncle Frank likes this part of Marcus's story until he admits that this was the time Marcus wrote his "Meditations" which was a summation of that darn stoic thinking which Uncle Frank finds so terrible. Well, Marcus, the stoic, had been writing about accepting death and he finally accepts it for himself but Uncle Frank won't let him go as he complains about how many modern writers and thinkers have been adversely affected by that darn stoicism promoted by Marcus.
By this time, you are ready to go home as you have had your fill of Uncle Frank's intense opinions but you have to admit he really knows his history and tells a compelling story. Time to go home and nurse your hangover, in a stoic manner of course.
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on November 29, 2013
This is about the fourth bio of Marcus Aurelius I have read, but it is the best and most comprehensive. McLynn starts off by asking why Marcus remains such a fascinating Roman emperor, he answers by saying he is the only emperor who can be taken seriously and not lampooned as a power mad tyrant or debauched pervert. Unlike the biographies penned by Michael Grant or Anthony Birley (both great writers on the Roman Empire) McLynn gives us deep background into the times and thought processes of the world of the Roman Empire at the middle of the 2nd Century, I assume that those other two authors presume the reader has read all their other work on that topic.
Marcus Aurelius is the bridge between the Roman Empire's Golden Age of Antonines and the centuries of chaos, collapse and decline that came after. McLynn devotes much time to setting, including rundowns of the reigns of the two previous emperors, the nature of philosophical thought and Stoicism in the time of Aurelius as well as sketches of Parthian and German societies that Rome fought during this period. This book necessarily covers the biographies of Marcus's colleagues in the purple, Lucius Verus and Commodus as well as a history of the unfortunate reign of Commodus. As has been mentioned in previous reviews, McLynn does indeed hold a high opinion of himself and his views, but if you can get beyond that, this book is rich and will give the reader as full a view of the Age of the Antonines as any modern writer can. If you have been looking into a riveting account of Marcus's Marcomannic Wars, this book should be a resource for you! Unlike, say, the Historia Augusta (published in America by Penguin as Lives of the Later Caesars) this book gives the reader a full account of the various phases of these wars, the tribes involved and even the names of their chiefs where they are known.
Although McLynn does much to deflate the image of Marcus Aurelius as some kind of prescient humanist or Christ-like key to understanding human nature, you will nevertheless be impressed by the sickly philosopher who led Rome through two great wars and a hideous plague, any one of these disasters could have undone a lesser emperor, but Marcus prevailed.
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