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Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Marcus Aurelius: A Biography
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on July 9, 2014
In spite of its many flaws (pointed out by other reviewers), to me this is a riveting account of the life of Marcus Aurelius, both as human being and as emperor. Along the way it provides enough information for the non-expert to understand the historical and social contexts. The main body of the text occupies a little over two hundred pages of fine but easily read print. Seventy additional pages offer well-indexed additional information, as well as references to other sources. I went through it during a week's vacation that had plenty of distractions.
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on December 17, 2017
The book is good. Writer is verbose on minutia. It does give an incite to the life around Marcus as well as the man.Writer makes frequent mention of
"the biographer". Funny I thought that was what he was.???
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on January 10, 2013
A great, thorough and very well documented biography (re-constructed biography we should say) of this philosopher Emperor.

While very thorough and "academic", it reads very well. -- In regard to the reviewer that complained of the extensive quotation of ancient authors ... that is exactly what bring us closer to those times. -- And, in regard to the extensive quotation of his OWN letters (correspondence), that is precisely puts us next to him, listening at his very own words !! -- We can not complain of that; we can only thank the gods that such extensive correspondence was ever preserved !!

What a golden age, what a love of culture !! -- Oh tempore !! Oh mores !! -- Thank you for bringing us a glimpse of that era, Mr. Birley !!
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on April 2, 2011
Short review: Birley gives an unexceptional overview of Marcus' life but is himself a poor author. I recommend reading a biography on Marcus, especially if you like learning about philosophy at the same time, but not this one.

Long review: I am an amateur Roman history buff. Having read many biographies on Rome's leading characters throughout time, I've come across both good and bad books. I think that Birley's book is the worst-written biography (whether about Rome or anything else) that I have ever read. This is the only biography that I've ever read where it was a chore to finish it- I had to force myself to do it mostly so that I can know I completed the book and will never have to read it again.

Birley needed a strong editor and he obviously did not have it. He commonly moves from one thought to another at the switch of a paragraph with no transition or tie between the ideas at all. It makes the narrative hard to follow. Although this can be fine when teaching a class and using Powerpoint, it does not work when there is no obvious "slide change" as there can be in a lecture hall.

But far worse is that Birley tends to have extensive sections that is simply him quoting ancient sources. He seemed to especially love quoting Fronto (a teacher of Marcus). Whereas good author would give a summary of the quote and possibly provide the key part of the quote (to both show that they aren't inventing something out of nothing and because of excellent phrasing), Birley will just quote entire paragraphs or letters. I'd estimate that at least 1/3 (and quite possibly more) of the book is simply Birley quoting other [ancient] authors. Perhaps Birley wanted the reader to draw their own conclusions based on the sources, but that still doesn't justify including whole sections of letters that are Fronto, Marcus, or someone else just greeting the other party.

I felt that Birley also did a poor job of explaining battles. There were precious few maps in the book and most of them were very high level maps of the entire empire. Birley went into some details regarding the battles but not enough to really understand what was happening. Yet, it was enough so that it couldn't be entirely glossed over and skipped by the reader. Thus, maps of where the battles were, the routes of the legions, etc. would have been very helpful in understanding everything.

It is true though that Marcus was not an exceptional commander- as Birley points out Marcus had no military experience during any of his extensive training. Although this helped to ensure that Marcus was the "philosopher emperor" it wasn't very helpful when Marcus had to overcome Gauls attacking Rome and rebellions. For this reason, it is possible that Birley didn't go into detail in order to focus on Marcus- since Marcus wasn't actually leading from the front as Caesar did, the battles were not discussed as much. But if that was the reasoning, it was not clearly explained.

Birley also had a tendency to mention that certain sources should be completely discounted. While partially ignoring some sources is a good idea - if the author had a personal grudge or no way in which to have valid knowledge of what he/she was writing about then anything written is certainly suspect - I don't think that it's ever a good idea to complete throw out any sources. In such cases I think that the sources should be taken into account but tempered with sources that have the opposite point-of-view. Simply because an author is biased doesn't necessarily mean that what they right is useless. I am not a historian, but I doubt that such a policy is what should be done. If for no other reason, biased sources cannot be thrown out simply because there is a limited number of ancient sources and if only "unbiased" ones are used then we would have few to no sources for any given event.

Overall, I do not recommend this book to anyone. There are better biographies on Marcus out there, you don't need to try to slog through this mess. Perhaps Birley is an excellent teacher or lecturer, but he is not an author. And for that reason, this book is quite poor.
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on October 13, 2009
... unless you have a particular interest in the history of the Roman Empire and/or the life of Marcus Aurelius. It does not read like a novel, as one previous reviewer claimed. It's quite long and detailed, and utterly devoid of salacious gossip. It does not advance any paradigmatic explanation for the 'decline and fall' of Rome, In fact, it scrupulously avoids all "post-modernist" leaps of speculation; author Anthony Birley examines his sources and presents ample documentation of his narrative, much of it from surviving correspondences of the principals, without over-drawing conclusions. This is a modestly stated, drily documented, dispassionate biography, without any hoopla or frills. And, as the song says, " that's the way I like It! Uh uh huh!"

I do have a particular interest in Roman history. I studied Latin and I can still read it. Then I have lived in Rome, in a building constructed on the ruins of the Teatro Marcello, where Julius Caesar was assassinated. Every day I used to walk through the ruins around the Capitoline, past the Forum, often through the Arch of Titus and past the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. It gets under your skin, Rome does. It's like penetrating the Mind of Time and fingering Memory itself. Memory is what explains things in flux - history, biological evolution, geology, and astrophysics. I also have a persistent interest in Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor. So for me, this dry text was like rain on a parched cornfield or gelato to a footsore tourist.
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on December 19, 2014
After reading the first chapter of this book I was prepared for another deadly boring biography like Birley's book on Hadrian. Fortunately, he backed off the 'belongs in the appendix' level of detail. Birley shows us the key figures that helped shape Marcus character and governing style; foremost of which were Antoninus Pius, Fronto, and Appolonius. The influence of Fronto may be overestimated just because correspondence between Marcus and him has been preserved in some quantity. It's too bad that kind of record isn't available for the communication between Marcus and Antoninus. Marcus and Antoninus are portrayed as men that clearly see their position as one of duty and responsibility to the Empire and its people. It would have been nice if the author weighed in on whether he thought Pius was just lucky in reference to the relative lack of military action during his reign or if Pius was able to intimidate/had respect of... the barbarians and Persians so they wouldn't attack while he was in power.

Clearly Marcus is tested from the moment his reign begins with Verus. Did the Parthians see him as weaker than Pius, or was the aggression going ahead no matter who was in power? Perhaps the ideal Roman ruler would be one with Marcus Aurelius sense of duty, but Julius Caesar's passion and drive. The wars with the Marcomanni and the Quadi are written in a way that makes it both interesting and scholarly. Still some speculation about why they were not able to consolidate their victories and create the province would have been helpful.

I was surprised to discover that Marcus did spend alot of time with Commodus and made every effort to acclimate him to imperial responsibility. I had suspected he merely stayed in Rome while his father was away. In the end it seems that Birley was just as mystified as I am about why Commodus turned out to be such a crappy emperor.

Overall, a recommended read on one of the most important leaders in Roman history.
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