The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus/Commentary on Book 1

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The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus  (1944) 
by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by Arthur Spenser Loat Farquharson
Commentary on Book I

ENGLISH COMMENTARY

BOOK I

This Book is a personal acknowledgement of lessons learned and good gifts received from the men and women who seemed in retrospect to have had the most influence on his life, especially on his intellectual and moral training. This acknowledgement takes the happy form of brief character sketches, so that the manner of the Book is different from the remainder of the Meditations, with the exception of Book vi. 30. 2. Recently the view has been expressed that it was intended as an Epilogue, rather than an Introduction, and was the last to be written.

In substance a group of reminiscences, its arrangement is determined partly in reference to Marcus' life, partly by the old Greek view, discussed in Plato's Meno, that character rests upon inherited endowment, on training of habits, on explicit instruction, but depends in the last resort on Divine grace.

Thus Marcus begins with his paternal grandfather, Annius Verus, and his own father, passes to childhood's discipline, the Greek training adopted in Rome, introduces next his earlier and later tutors, thus leading up to his instruction by his adoptive father, the Emperor Titus Aurelius Antoninus Pius, for public life. Finally, he remembers his debt to the immortal gods for the many good persons, in his own family and kinsfolk, who had assisted him.

With this arrangement contrast the strictly chronological epitome of ix. 21: his life under his grandfather after his father's death; his early youth under Lucius Catilius Severus, his mother's grandfather, and in his mother's gardens on the Caelian Hill in Rome; his life as Caesar, or heir-apparent, in the Palatine or in the Emperor's country seats at Lorium and Lanuvium.

Ch. 1. M. Annius Verus was son of a Roman provincial of a family long settled in Spain. His father rose to be praetor in the capital of the Empire. He was himself three times consul and Prefect of the City, a.d. 121–37, when he was succeeded by Catilius Severus (i. 4). Vespasian and Titus had created him a patrician. He adopted his grandson, Marcus, on the death of his son (ch. ii), circa a.d. 130, and is said to have been in the Senate on the occasion of Hadrian's adoption of Antoninus Pius, 25 February a.d. 138. Galen, the physician of Marcus Aurelius, mentions that Verus was a votary of the small ball game, and we have a tribute to his skill at ball in the curious epitaph on a champion player named Ursus.[1]

The reference to government of temper refers to a common failing of noble Romans. Marcus confesses that he was himself liable to the failing (i. 17. 7) and appears from his Meditations to have been specially occupied with resistance to this passion and, another Roman weakness, ambition and love of glory.

Ch. 2. Marcus was about 10 years old when he lost his father, whose modesty and manly character he records. In Romans of the best type modesty was a virtue which included respect for others and reverence for self, a virtue well joined with manliness, which covers all that is the reverse of effeminacy, a common failing in Roman youth.

Ch. 3. Domitia Lucilla, his mother, was daughter of P. Calvisius Tullus and Domitia Lucilla. The latter inherited from her father Cn. Domitius Lucanus and her uncle Cn. Domitius Tullus the fortune of Cn. Domitius Afer, the famous orator and master of Quintilian. Marcus' mother succeeded to this estate, part of it invested in a factory of tiles, on which her name is stamped. Though he says that she died young (i. 17. 7), she must have been nearly 50 when she passed away between a.d. 155 and Marcus' accession in a.d. 161. The correspondence of Fronto has given us a picture of Marcus' home life with the future Empress, Faustina the younger, and Domitia Lucilla is often mentioned in the letters. Her house, near what is now the Church of St. John Lateran, was a centre of Hellenic culture, and the Athenian orator and benefactor of Hellas, Herodes Atticus, was her guest on one of his visits to Rome. Fronto writes letters to her in Greek and sends her a speech modelled on one of those in Plato's Phaedrus. Her wealth and social position lends point to the description of the simplicity of her appointments and table.

Ch. 4. Domitia Lucilla's paternal grandfather, L. Catilius Severus, after being governor of Syria and proconsul of Asia, succeeded M. Annius Verus in the City Prefecture and was consul a second time. Hadrian removed him from office in a.d. 138, as a rival of Antoninus whom he had decided to adopt as his successor. Severus belonged to the younger Pliny's cultured circle, and what Marcus says of his care for his own education confirms the impression of him we get from Pliny's letters as a cultured lover of learning. There is a tradition that before his adoption by his grandfather Marcus bore the names Catilius Severus.

Ch. 5. The name of this good man, who was probably a slave, is not known. We learn from the biographer[2] that Marcus was moved to tears at his death, and was rebuked by the court attendants for his display of feeling, but that Antoninus said: 'Allow him to be human: for neither philosophy nor a throne are bars to affection.'

Ch. 6. Diognetus was his painting master. In view of the remarks about exorcism of evil spirits, the question whether this Diognetus is the man to whom the celebrated Letter to Diognetus, with its defence of the Christians, was addressed is interesting. Westcott thought the identification chronologically possible, dating the letter about a.d. 117. Recent writers follow Harnack, who puts the letter as late as the third century.

Cock-fighting, especially with quails, was a favourite pastime of the upper-class youth at Athens, as at Rome. Plato's brother Glauco was a fancier, and the quail has an amusing role in one of Babrius' Fables. The objection to the sport was not so much its cruelty as the low company into which it led young gentlemen:

Thus we poor Cocks exert our skill and bravery
For idle Gulls and Kites, that trade in knavery.

What Marcus says of Greek training is illustrated in a passage by the biographer: 'on entering his twelfth year he adopted the dress of a philosopher and the consequent ascetic habit of living, he studied in the Greek gown and slept on the bare ground. Only at his mother's request he took to a pallet covered with skins.' Of the three lecturers, presumably in philosophy, nothing is recorded. Some editors substitute Maecianus for Marcianus, thinking that the jurist L. Volusius Maecianus, his law tutor, is meant. Such a reference would be inappropriate here; it was not until Marcus was Caesar that he studied under Maecianus. At that date he says to Fronto: 'I write this hurriedly because Maecianus is pressing. . . . I must remember that I ought to show as much reverence to my tutor as I bestow love on you, who are my friend.'[3]

Ch. 7. To carry on the subject of his philosophic education, Marcus introduces Q. Junius Rusticus out of chronological order. Rusticus was not a professional philosopher and has left no writings; he belongs to the tradition of Cato, Brutus, and Thrasea Paetus, Roman statesmen who modelled their lives on Stoic principles. Marcus made him consul a second time in a.d. 162 and Prefect of the City in a.d. 163, and it was as prefect that he condemned Justin Martyr to death, circa a.d. 165. He died perhaps in a.d. 168, the year in which he ceased to be Prefect. Dio Cassius says that he practised Zeno's precepts, and the biographer Capitolinus describes him as the intimate friend of Marcus. We can see from the correspondence with Fronto that his influence began when the young Caesar was about 25 years of age. Fronto struggled hard to resist his pupil's tendency to abandon Latin eloquence for the Stoic creed, warning Marcus of the danger a prince ran in deserting the study of language for the arid and formless disputes of philosophy. What Marcus says here about preciosity of speech refers to the elocutio novella, the elaborated diction, which Fronto laboured to inculcate. Notice the likeness of structure in this chapter and the preceding, with the enumeration side by side of grave and relatively trivial lessons. The object of the Stoic profession was to cover all sides of a man's life by its principles.

Ch. 8. Apollonius of Chalcedon, a Stoic philosopher, was summoned to Rome by Antoninus to instruct Marcus. The enthusiasm of the pupil is in curious contrast with the unfavourable impression of Apollonius which we get from Lucian and from the biographer. Lucian says that he saw him on his way to Rome, like a new Jason, sailing in quest of the Golden Fleece. The jest refers to the Argonautica of his namesake Apollonius of Rhodes. Arrived in Rome, he insisted that Marcus should wait upon him, whereupon Antoninus Pius remarked: 'No doubt he found it less trouble to come from Colchis to Rome than he finds it now to go from his lodging in Rome to the Palatine.' He is selected for special mention with Rusticus and Maximus (i. 17. 4).

Ch. 9. Sextus of Chaeronea in Boeotia, nephew of the famous biographer and moralist Plutarch, taught Marcus after he became Emperor in a.d. 161. He is called a Stoic by Marcus' biographer, and what is said of him here agrees with this. There is some evidence that he was connected by marriage with the family of Musonius, the Stoic teacher of Epictetus. It is interesting that whereas Plutarch was a Platonist and wrote a vigorous attack on Stoical doctrines, his nephew should have belonged to the school of Zeno. The mention of Sextus' natural affection and family life and of his wide learning reminds us of two striking traits of Plutarch himself. It is said that the Emperor used to visit him for instruction and to consult him even upon legal questions.

Ch. 10. Alexander Cotiaensis was one of the most celebrated Greek grammarians of the day, being best known for his Homeric scholarship. The simple sketch of Marcus is in curious contrast to the charming but over-elaborate eulogy of him by Aelius Aristides. The latter says that he lived in the Palace, using his intimacy with Marcus and his colleague Lucius to serve the interests of the Greek world, and he depicts the aged scholar spending the last night of his life at work on his beloved books. His urbane method of teaching, his stress upon matter rather than manner, as Marcus represents him, are in remarkable contrast to the writings of his great contemporary, the grammarian Apollonius Dyscolus, who lived in learned poverty and neglect in Alexandria and Rome; Apollonius is too fond of such phrases as: 'it would appear to be superfluous to contradict such silly ideas', 'this too is sheer folly'.

Though Marcus had spoken Greek from childhood, to compose is a different matter, and some of his own care in expression and choiceness of phrase, as well as his tendency to use poetical and even Homeric words, may be derived from his lessons with Alexander.

Ch. 11. From his Greek master Marcus passes to his close friend, M. Cornelius Fronto, an orator from Cirta in Africa, the leader of the Roman bar in Hadrian's closing years. Fronto's correspondence throws a remarkable light upon his relations with Marcus and his colleague Lucius Verus, but its recovery destroyed his own reputation as a second Cicero. He was the leader of an antiquarian revival, encouraged by Hadrian, back to the Latin writers of the pre-Augustan period, and to the speech of the people. He laboured with all his might to teach Marcus one of the essentials of style, the exact choice of word and phrase. We can trace his influence in the language of the Meditations. His pupil, however, is here concerned with moral lessons; he dwells in retrospect upon his tutor's affectionate nature, and especially upon the natural, impulsive humanity which clearly underlies the exaggerated warmth of expression of the letters. Fronto's influence may well have softened the austerity of the Stoic creed, and helped to give the Meditations their notable accent of human kindness. What Marcus here says about the Roman aristocrats' lack of true human affection, as it appeared to his tutor, is exactly illustrated by a letter of Fronto, in which he uses the same Greek word: 'Affection is not, I think, a Roman quality: in my whole life in Rome I have found anything rather than a sincerely affectionate man, so that I believe that it is because no one in Rome is in fact affectionate that there is no Roman name for this human excellence.'

Ch. 12. This Alexander is probably a rhetorician from Seleucia, whom Marcus appointed to be his Greek secretary, when his head-quarters were in Pannonia. The epithet 'Platonist' is perhaps chosen because Alexander's nickname among his contemporaries was 'the Plato of clay'. The mention of letter-writing may also help to confirm the identification.

Ch. 13. Cinna Catulus, a Stoic philosopher, of whom nothing more is known. His emphasis upon the duty of commending one's teachers leads Marcus to refer to Athenodotus, Fronto's master, and so to Domitius Afer, the orator (mentioned in Ch. 3 introduction), who may well have taught Athenodotus. Fronto himself refers to the latter as 'my master and my parent'.

Ch. 14. Severus is generally understood to be Claudius Severus, whose son Cn. Claudius Severus married a daughter of the Emperor. If the identification is correct, it is remarkable that a statesman, whom Galen describes as an Aristotelian, should have acquainted Marcus with the political and rather doctrinaire theories of the Stoical opposition of the early Empire. Tacitus says that part of the political programme of Nerva and Trajan was 'to unite the position of supreme magistrate with liberty, objects incompatible under the first Caesars'. This ideal was taken up by the Antonines, and what Marcus states here to be the teaching of Severus is echoed in the language both of Aelius Aristides, the pagan orator, and of Athenagoras, the Christian apologist. The former speaks of the endeavour of Marcus and his colleague 'to exercise guidance and providence for their subjects, and not to be despotic rulers', and Athenagoras, presenting an address on behalf of the Christians to Marcus and his son, probably on the occasion of their visit to Athens in a.d. 176, says: 'by the wisdom of yourself and your son Commodus, individuals enjoy equality of law, cities partake in equal honour, the whole world enjoys profound peace.'

Ch. 15. Claudius Maximus, a Stoic, is mentioned again with Rusticus and Apollonius (i. 17. 5). Marcus represents him as the idealized sage, with the Stoic qualities softened by pardon and pity.

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, 'This was a man.'

(Shak., Jul. Caes. v. 5.)

He may be the proconsul of Africa before whom the Latin writer Apuleius delivered the apology for his own life in which he calls him a most religious man. He and his wife Secunda are mentioned in viii. 25, after his death.

Ch. 16. This remarkable portrait of Antoninus Pius is to be compared with the shorter sketch in vi. 30. 2. Together they make one of the noblest tributes that a great man has paid to another. Without them and the familiar letters of Fronto we would know almost nothing of Antoninus, since this part of the history of Dio Cassius is absent even from the epitome of his work, and the biography is a slight thing. The method which Marcus follows is to enumerate particular traits, beginning with his public and ending with his private life. At some places he appears to be, perhaps unconsciously, contrasting Antoninus with his predecessor Hadrian. His love of old ways, his religious conservatism is opposed to Hadrian's variety and caprice, his public economy and private thrift to Hadrian's extravagance, his simplicity to Hadrian's passion for building, for luxurious dinners and boy favourites. Hadrian too was envious and intolerant of rivals, even of men of genius like the architect Apollodorus, and the fantastic extravagance of his famous villa at Tivoli may have seemed to Marcus in strange contrast to the old-fashioned country residences of Pius. As we read of this simple, practical country gentleman we are reminded of the restless, irritable, often (especially at the close of his life) unhappy and unhealthy man of genius, Hadrian.

Ch. 17. This closing chapter reads like a prayer of thanksgiving. The expression of happiness is in marked contrast to the sad, almost sombre, tone of so much of the later Books. There is also an undoubted tendency to retrospective idealization of persons, notably in the few words about his colleague, Lucius Aurelius Verus. Writers too on this period have usually preferred to accept the scandals contained in the biographers about Faustina's character to Marcus' own simple and convincing statement. The evidence that Marcus shared the belief of most of his contemporaries in the occasional revelation of God to man by dreams and oracles is noteworthy. There is very little trace of this in the Meditations as a whole.

§ 1. The good sister is Annia Cornificia Faustina the elder, the only other child of Marcus' parents. She married M. Ummidius Quadratus, and Marcus handed over to her the whole of his paternal inheritance. To her son he gave a portion of the fortune he inherited from his mother, Domitia Lucilla.

§ 2. What he says of his youthful innocence will remind the reader of Milton's

En etiam tibi virginei servantur honores,

and of Hawthorne's beautiful words: 'Living in solitude till the fulness of time was come, I still kept the dew of my youth . . . and the freshness of my heart.' Mark Pattison has referred to this passage: 'I experienced what Marcus Aurelius reckoned among the favours of the gods, and the growth of anything that could be called mind in me was equally backward.' Probably Pattison thought of the letters to Fronto, which give the impression of intellectual and moral simplicity, even immaturity, in the young Caesar.

§ 3. This is a reminiscence of the twenty-three years lived in subordination to and close collaboration with his adoptive father. The happy phrase about his preservation of dignity with all his simplicity reminds one of Bossuet's: 'cet art obligeant qui fait qu'on se rabaisse sans se dégrader.'

§ 4. Marcus made L. Ceionius Commodus, the son of L. Aelius Caesar whom Hadrian had originally intended to succeed him, joint Emperor in a.d. 161. He gave him the title Lucius Aurelius Verus. Lucius was married to Lucilla, Marcus' eldest daughter. Tradition describes him as a libertine, with no sense of his public responsibility. Probably this is a worse character than he deserved, employed as a foil by later writers to Marcus, as the perfected wise man. The few letters exchanged between him and Fronto suggest an amiable and somewhat vain character, and some traces of good remain even in his biography: 'Antoninus Pius loved the simplicity of Lucius' character and the purity of his life, even urging Marcus to model himself on his brother', and again 'he was of simple behaviour and could not conceal anything'. In later years he was unfavourably affected by his visit to Antioch, and Galen mentions the luxury and affectation of his favourite servants, contrasting them with the puritan simplicity of Marcus' household. Marcus mentions Lucius' beautiful mistress, Panthea, without censure and with some feeling (viii. 37). He died very suddenly in a.d. 169.

The remark here about 'stimulating me to take care of myself' probably refers to Marcus' delicate health. Lucius at least showed respect and natural affection by abstaining from any attempt to overthrow Marcus in order to secure the throne for himself.

'My children.' Faustina was the mother of thirteen children, between her marriage in a.d. 145 and the birth of a daughter in a.d. 168, of whom six died in infancy. The unfortunate Commodus was one of twin sons born 31 August a.d. 161, and, when he succeeded Marcus, was the only surviving son.

§ 7. The tradition about the health of Marcus is various; some writers represent him as vigorous in youth but worn out in later years, some say that by care and abstinence he preserved a naturally delicate constitution. Benedicta and Theodotus were no doubt slaves. The names, at first sight, suggest that they were Christians, but it seems certain that, at this date, such names were not common among Christians, whereas these and similar names were often borne by pagan servants.

§ 8. Annia Galeria Faustina the younger, or Faustina Augusta as she became in a.d. 146, was first cousin to Marcus, being the daughter of Faustina the elder, Marcus' paternal aunt, the wife of Antoninus Pius. She accompanied Marcus to the Danube front and was with him when, after the insurrection of Avidius Cassius, governor of Syria, in a.d. 175, he went to the eastern part of the Empire to restore the situation. In a.d. 176 she died suddenly of gout at Halala in the Taurus. Marcus made Halala into a colony called Faustinopolis, caused her to be consecrated as Diva Faustina Pia and instituted in her memory a guild of Puellae Faustinianae. Her memory, as is notorious, has been blackened, as her mother's also was, by Dio Cassius and the biographers. The problem is whether we are to believe a tissue of lewd and malignant legends, some of which are obvious fictions (like the story that Commodus, the imperial gladiator, was himself the son of a gladiator), rather than the carefully chosen words of her husband, the evidence of Fronto's correspondence, and the testimony of Antoninus, who in a letter to Fronto of a.d. 143 wrote: 'I would sooner live with Faustina in Gyara [an island to which offenders were banished] than without her in the palace.'

It is perhaps worth observing that Guevara's once famous romance, The Dial of Princes, an extraordinary medley of matter in which I cannot find a grain of historical truth, contributed largely to the traditional view, which makes her name a byeword for infidelity. Since Merivale wrote on the subject most historians have agreed to acquit her or at least to return a verdict of not-proven.

The way in which Marcus speaks of her here suggests that she was still living, so that the passage (and presumably the Book) would be dated before a.d. 176.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Printed as No. 290 in the Oxford Book of Latin Verse:
    sum victus ipse, fateor, a ter consule
    Vero patrono, nec semel sed saepius.
  2. I refer throughout these introductions to the writers of the various biographies in the Historia Augusta as 'the biographer', since they are composite writings, of uncertain origin and date.
  3. The Letters of M. Cornelius Fronto (translated by Haines in the Loeb classics), p. 61, Naber.