Was Marcus Aurelius really the enlightened ruler that history books and modern movies portray him as? And is his brand of Stoic philosophy applicable to the modern world?
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Transcript of the Episode's Prologue
Marcus Aurelius is one of the romanticized leaders in all of history. Some have seen him as the embodiment of the philosopher king. That’s certainly how he was portrayed in the film Gladiator. Marcus ruled the Roman Empire from 161-180 AD, during which time he fought and won several brutal wars against invading Germanic tribes in the north. But military prowess is not his main claim to faim. More so than previous emperors, Marcus was thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy. He has the unusual distinction among Roman Emperors in that he became a best-selling author. And not during his life-time, not shortly after his death, but almost 2000 years later. In recent decades, the philosophy of Stoicism, of which Marcus was a proponent, has unexpectedly exploded in popularity. There are probably more practicing Stoics in the world now than there have been in the last 1500 years combined. Marcus Aurelius’ diary of philosophical reflections, written in Greek and known to us as the Meditations, is one of our most important surviving sources on Stoic philosophy. It’s also perhaps the most accessible ancient work on Stoicism for modern audiences. As a result, it is now selling by the boatload. Penguin sold 100,000 in 2019. And that’s just one year by one publisher.
The Meditations reinforces the image of Marcus as a selfless, dutiful, enlightened ruler. But how much of that image reflects who he really was? And can the philosophy of Stoicism live up to the needs of the modern world? That’s what we’re going to find out today.