This is a short introduction to the life of Marcus Aurelius and will introduce you to:

  1. His early life and his rule as a Roman Emperor

  2. The wisdom of his practical Stoic philosophy

  3. The value found in his private journal, Meditations


Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, known today as the last of the Five Good Emperors, ruled Rome from 161 to 180 CE and was the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an time in Roman history marked by peace and stability. His rule is remembered not just for his political achievements but also for his profound impact on Stoic philosophy.

His reign was marked by immense challenges, including a devastating Antonine plague and the Marcomannic Wars. However, he focused on the well-being of his people, avoiding self-indulgent building projects, extravagant displays of wealth, and such abundance (something his son Comodus struggled with).

As the author of ‘Meditations’, one of the greatest surviving works of Stoic literature, Aurelius has become a figurehead of ancient philosophy, representing the Golden Age of the Roman Empire and a champion of the practical principles of Stoicism.

Born into wealth and political prominence in Rome on April 26, 121, Marcus Aurelius was predestined for a significant role in Roman history. His familial connections with the emperors Trajan and Hadrian (reigned 117–138) foreshadowed his eventual ascent to the throne

Despite losing his father at a young age, Aurelius’s upbringing was marked by a focus on education and philosophy, molding him into a leader with both intellectual and political acumen

Early Years and Education

Born in 121 AD in a Roman patrician family, Marcus Aurelius’ upbringing and education were heavily influenced by his adoptive father, Titus Aurelius Antoninus, and his mother, Domitia Lucilla.

His adopted father was wealthy enough to hire good private teachers, receiving training in Latin and Greek literature, philosophy, and rhetoric.

His upbringing was heavily influenced by the Stoic philosophy, which played a significant role in shaping his perspectives and decisions later in life. Aurelius was also adopted by Emperor Antoninus Pius in 138 AD, following the death of Pius’ own son.

This adoption positioned him as the successor to the throne, a significant turning point in his life that led to his eventual rise as Emperor of Rome. Aurelius’ early years were thus characterized by a mix of luxury, rigorous education, and a profound engagement with Stoic thought.

The Domitius and Athenodotus story illustrates the kind of stories that likely shaped his character during his formative years.

Domitius was a high-ranking Roman official known for his cruelty and corruption. Athenodotus, a philosopher and teacher, was known for his integrity and wisdom.

The story goes that Domitius, who had wrongfully imprisoned many innocent people, was brought to trial. Athenodotus, known for his moral character, was chosen to judge the case.

During the trial, Athenodotus, guided by his philosophical principles, found Domitius guilty of his crimes. Despite pressure from other influential figures in Rome to be lenient towards Domitius due to his high status, Athenodotus sentenced him to a fitting punishment.

This decision was particularly notable because it defied the norms of the time, where corruption and the influence of status often led to injustice.

Marcus Aurelius, who deeply valued justice and Stoic virtues, praised Athenodotus for his unwavering adherence to justice and moral principles. This incident not only highlights the corruption in Roman society but also Aurelius’ efforts to promote virtue and fairness, influenced by his Stoic beliefs.

Reign as Roman Emperor

For the first time in Roman history, Marcus Aurelius ruled jointly with Lucius Verus until Verus’ death in 169 AD.

This co-emperorship, initially seen as a political experiment, was largely successful, allowing Aurelius to learn from his co-ruler before fully adopting the reigns himself.

Aurelius is perhaps most renowned for his application of Stoic principles to governance. His reign was marked by a commitment to duty, rationality, and virtue. Unlike many of his predecessors, he showed a deep concern for the welfare of his subjects. His personal writings, most notably “Meditations,” provide insight into his philosophical beliefs and the ethical framework that guided his rule.

Aurelius worked towards improving the lives of the common people. He reduced taxes, provided support to orphans, and reformed laws to be more equitable. His concern for justice was evident in his efforts to make legal processes more fair and accessible.

A large part of Aurelius’ reign was consumed by military campaigns.

The most notable was the Marcomannic Wars, a series of battles against Germanic tribes and others along the Danube River.

Despite being a man of peace and philosophy, Aurelius proved to be a capable military leader. His campaigns, although grueling, were largely successful in defending the empire’s borders, helping to keep his people safe.

Aurelius was a man who looked to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do, not to accept the praise and not the credit. This is seen in almost all areas of his reign.

How Did Marcus Aurelius Die?

Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, died on March 17, 180 AD. He passed away in the city of Vindobona (which is now Vienna, Austria). The exact cause of his death remains a subject of historical debate, but it is commonly believed that he died of natural causes, possibly due to the Antonine Plague, which had afflicted the Roman Empire during his reign. This plague was a devastating pandemic that caused widespread mortality, and it is thought to have been either smallpox or measles.

At the time of his death, Marcus Aurelius was on a military campaign at the northern border of the Roman Empire, fighting against Germanic tribes. His death marked the end of the Pax Romana, a long period of relative peace and stability throughout the empire, and his son Commodus succeeded him. Commodus’ reign, which deviated significantly from his father’s stoic and duty-driven leadership, led to a period of instability and is often considered the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire.

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The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

The Practice of Stoic Philosophy

The practice of Stoicism focuses on the importance of virtue in leading a fulfilling life and encourages acceptance of the world around us, of what nature demands, of the universe, and of the inevitability of change.

Marcus Aurelius explains this kind of acceptance in the following quote:

“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed?” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.18

Aurelius believed that there were so few secrets worth keeping, and the only ones that mattered were secrets-only state secrets, while personal growth and wisdom should be shared and discussed openly.

Meditations (now found in almost every modern library), while a private journal, show us Marcus Aurelius’ personal connection to Stoic philosophy.

In these pages, in which he thankfully seemed to write straightforward letters, he emphasizes:

  • Acceptance of Fate: Highlighting the importance of accepting fate and the natural order of the universe. He believed in embracing whatever life presented, seeing it as part of a greater plan beyond individual control.

  • Focus on What Can Be Controlled: He writes about the distinction between things within our control (our thoughts, actions, and reactions) and those beyond it (external events, the actions of others). He advocated focusing energy only on the former, generating an internal locus of control.

  • Universal Reason and Brotherhood: Aurelius viewed humanity as unified in reason and spirit. He emphasized compassion and understanding for others, promoting a sense of brotherhood among all people.

Reflections on Virtue and Character

Like other Stoics such as Seneca and Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius’ places a great deal of value on nurturing virtues like courage, temperance, and wisdom, with justice as the cornerstone of all virtues.

He believed that one’s character could be demonstrated through self-discipline, humility, treating others equitably, being honest with ourselves about how we behave, and taking responsibility to change where needed.

“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”

These notions of virtue and character are closely aligned with Stoic philosophy, which regards virtue as the highest good and essential for achieving inner peace and living in accordance with nature.

Contemplations on Nature and the Universe

Meditations also contains various references to nature and the universe, discussing the necessity of submitting to Providence and acting in accordance with the nature of the universe in a calm and orderly fashion, with logic and reason.

He believed that everything in the universe is interconnected, and humans are part of a larger natural order, including all the rest and the one.

Aurelius’s thoughts on fate and the acceptance of life’s unfolding events are another cornerstone of his philosophical legacy. His meditations encourage an embrace of life’s inevitable elements, fostering a sense of peace and purpose. This Stoic approach to fate is further explored in resources like “Fate and Meaning in Stoicism”, which delve into how to harmonize personal agency with the acceptance of external factors.

Practical Guidance for Daily Living

Meditations provides practical advice for leading a virtuous and rewarding life, covering aspects like honing one’s perceptions, zeroing in on what truly matters, pursuing practical wisdom, and employing Stoic principles. To apply Marcus Aurelius’s concepts of virtue and character in daily life, one can practice the virtues of Stoicism, regard daily situations as opportunities to practice virtue, prioritize justice as the paramount virtue, and concentrate on living a virtuous life rather than being preoccupied with trivial matters.

His teachings provide valuable tools for managing stress, chronic pain, and illness, as well as fostering mindfulness and acceptance in everyday life.

Influence on Statesmen and Philosophers

Meditations has profoundly affected the lives of historical figures, philosophers, and statesmen like Seneca, Epictetus, and Zeno of Citium. The writings of Marcus Aurelius have been considered essential reading for statesmen and philosophers, offering timeless wisdom and practical guidance.

The book delves into themes such as the value of rationality and will, tolerating others’ inadequacies and not their phrasing, responsibility and blame for the brevity of life, and sculpture the whole charade, motivating and impacting philosophers and individuals seeking direction in their personal and professional lives.

Modern Interpretations and Translations

Various translations and interpretations of Meditations have been made over the years, including those by Gregory Hays, Maxwell Staniforth, and A.S.L. Farquharson. These translations and interpretations provide unique perspectives and nuances that can enhance our understanding of Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy.

Applications in Everyday Life

The wisdom gleaned from Meditations can be incorporated into daily life, providing timeless insights and guidance for leading a virtuous and fulfilling existence. By recognizing difficulties and engaging with them rather than opposing them, individuals can cultivate the practice of taking on the unknown, gaining assurance in their abilities and the simple way of dealing with challenges. In this process, they can have a discussion and casually insert these principles into their daily actions.

Furthermore, his teachings on mindfulness and the acceptance of the natural world have contributed to the development of eco-spirituality and the recognition of the intrinsic value of nature, and his attitude towards environmental preservation has been influential.


To end, Meditations offers us a rare insight into the mind of one of history’s most well-respected leaders.

It contains a wealth of timeless wisdom and practical guidance that continues to resonate with readers today.

Through his writings, we can see how he viewed philosophy, explored the importance of virtue and character, and contemplated the nature of the universe.

We can use these teachings in our own lives, learning better ways to live, more compassionate ways to treat others, methods of self-reflection, acceptance of fate and nature, and many more.

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3 Stoic Exercises Inspired by Marcus Aurelius:

Journaling for Self-Reflection

It’s clear that Aurelius found some value in keeping a private journal. We can learn by example and start or end the day by writing in our own journal.

We can reflect on our actions, thoughts, and feelings. This practice helps in gaining self-awareness and aligning actions with your values. It also helps us reflect on how we respond to the world around us.

“Be content to seem what you really are.”

Contemplating Impermanence (Memento Mori)

Regularly contemplate the impermanence of life. When we remind ourselves that the world is constantly changing and that this includes the end of the things we love and care for, we can create a feeling of gratitude and appreciation that we might otherwise miss.

This practice can be done through meditation or reflection, and simply acknowledging that life is transient and should be lived fully and virtuously.

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

Practicing Mindful Indifference

Identify things outside of your control and practice responding to them with indifference. Focus your energy on your response and actions, which are within your control.

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

View from Above

Visualize your life and its problems from a broader perspective, as if viewing them from high above. This exercise helps in realizing the insignificance of many worries and stresses.

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too.”

Marcus Aurelius quotes:

  1. “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injustice.”

  2. “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

  3. “He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.”

  4. “The soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.”

  5. “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

  6. “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

  7. “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

  8. “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

  9. “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

  10. “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Marcus Aurelius most famous for?

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, known today as the last of the Five Good Emperors, ruled Rome from 161 to 180 CE and was the last emperor of the Pax Romana, an time in Roman history marked by peace and stability. His rule is remembered not just for his political achievements but also for his profound impact on Stoic philosophy.

What race was Marcus Aurelius?

Marcus Aurelius was born with a Roman italo-hispanic background to an aristocratic family of Spanish descent. His father was Marcus Annius Verus (III) and his grandfather was elected consul three times.

Is Marcus Aurelius older than Jesus?

Marcus Aurelius lived over a century after Jesus, who lived from 4 BCE to 30/33 CE.

Is Meditations worth reading?

Meditations by Aurelius is worth reading and offers valuable wisdom about approaching life, even if one is not a Stoic. Its timeless insights are still relevant today and can help build strength in the face of hardship.

What is the main theme of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations?

The main theme of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is the power of virtue, reason and self-discipline in achieving a fulfilling life, guided by Stoic principles.

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