Who was Marcus Aurelius? (121-180),
The last ten years of Marcus Aurelius’ life were spent almost continually with his armies driving back the barbarians on the Danube frontier. This was an emperor who genuinely disliked warfare and the sight of blood, who even decreed that the gladiators back in Rome should fight only with blunt swords, but who also lived and died by his duty, mortally spent in combat. This was a great Stoic, humane and noble, meticulously just, the first ruler to wear the philosopher’s beard.
It is truly an honor to know the intimate thoughts of such a man. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, written alone in these last ten years of his life, are clearly the notes of a man writing thoughts that fortified him through each day. No one knows how they were preserved. The first the world heard of them was from an obscure Medieval scholar who mentions them more than 700 years after the emperor’s death. The basic themes of these meditations, repeated many times and many ways, are that we should not be deceived by the things others value, that we should cooperate with the divine flow of destiny, and we should always perform our duty to family, friends, and country with honor and charity for all.
They were the words of one of the last and greatest of the Roman Stoics. After his death, the empire was battered by a hundred years of plague, civil wars, and barbarian conquest. It was a time when people needed and wanted a savior to rescue them from almost constant grief and fear. Christianity offered that promise, a savior who they claimed was God, one who promised he would return soon to rescue his chosen people, and one who would destroy the wicked and create a safe haven, a heaven in which his followers would dwell forever.
All they needed to do was believe, and all these things would come to pass, even in their lifetime. It was a powerful message, and the people yearned for it to be true.