Old World Hero Stories - E. M. Tappan

Marcus Aurelius, The Philosopher Emperor

A roman emperor was one day thinking over his childhood, and he concluded that he had been an exceedingly fortunate boy. His father died when he was a baby, it was true, but he wrote in his notebook that he had "good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends." About his teachers he wrote a great deal more. He did not say that one taught him arithmetic, one poetry, and so on; but he said that from one he had learned not to meddle with other people's affairs, from another not to spend his time on trifles, from another to be willing to forgive; and from the others to keep himself from fault-finding, to be cheerful, to love truth and justice, not to declare often that he had no leisure, and not to excuse neglect of his duties to others by saying that he was busy.

This emperor's name as a boy was Mar'cus An'ni-us Ve'rus. He belonged to a noble family, and was called to the attention of the emperor Ha'dri-an when he was a little fellow. The child was so noble and upright that Hadrian said his name ought not to be Verus (true), but Ve-ris'si-mus (truest).

When this young Marcus was about twelve, he became interested in a kind of philosophy known as stoicism. He made up his mind that its teachings were good and that he would follow them as long as he lived; and, what is more, he did not change his belief. Some of the precepts of stoicism are as follows: One ought never to complain, but to yield to necessity calmly and serenely; one ought not to allow himself to be overwhelmed with grief or enraptured with joy; one should never make pleasure his aim. The stoics dressed simply and lived plainly. They were taught to treat all men alike, whether great or small. They were to work hard, to practice self-denial, and never to listen to slander.

All this time the emperor Hadrian was watching the young stoic. He had no son, and he was trying to decide who should follow him as emperor. Marcus was only seventeen, or probably Hadrian would have chosen him. He did choose An-to-ni'nus, an uncle of the boy, a man of about fifty years. He was upright and just and with gentle, kindly manners. He was not eager to undertake so great a labor as the care of a mighty empire, but finally he yielded. Hadrian made one condition to Antoninus's becoming his heir, and this was that he should adopt as his successors the young Marcus and also one Lucius Verus, whose father had been a friend of Hadrian. Soon after the agreement was made, Hadrian died, and Antoninus took his place.

For more than twenty years, Marcus Au-re'li-us Antoninus, as he was now called, lived with his uncle. Antoninus loved him like a father and gave him a large part in the government, and honored him in every way in his power. Antoninus was a good man. He always tried to be at peace with every one and to treat every one justly. He kept the empire in order and kept himself cheerful and serene, and he was greatly loved by his nephew.

Hadrian's tomb


When the time came that Antoninus knew he must die, he called together the chief men of Rome to talk about who should be his successor. He had two sons of his own, but he did not try to win the empire for them. He recommended that the senate should choose Marcus. Evidently he could not make up his mind to recommend Lucius Verus also. The senate agreed with him and asked Marcus Aurelius to become sole emperor. He knew that it was Hadrian's wish that Verus should reign together with him, and he insisted that this should be done. Verus was somewhat weak in character and had little idea of self-control; but he did have a great respect for Marcus Aurelius and was always ready to follow his advice. They ruled together in perfect harmony until the death of Verus. All sorts of troubles afflicted the empire. First of all, there was a terrible flood. Much of Rome was swept away, field and crops were destroyed, and cattle were drowned. There were fires, and there were earthquakes. Worst of all, there was war; and Marcus Aurelius had a horror of war. He thought that it was a shame and disgrace. Nevertheless, he was emperor, and he had to protect his empire. The Par'thi-ans in the east revolted. They were overcome in battle, but when the army returned, a dreadful pestilence came with them. It spread from region to region. "It is the end of the empire," people whispered fearfully; but at length the plague disappeared. Then there was danger from the Germans, and Marcus Aurelius remained in camp and on the battlefield for three years before they were subdued.

Marcus Aurelius


This emperor fought because it was necessary, but he loved quiet thought, and wherever he was, he carried with him a little notebook, and in it he wrote any thoughts that came to him about the noblest way to live. It was at this time that he jotted down between battles his memories of his childhood and of the goodness of his friends and teachers. He wrote that of course he must expect to meet ungrateful, envious, deceitful people; but that they could not really do him any harm, and that the only reason why they were of such character was because they did not fully understand what was good and what was bad. This little notebook of the busy emperor is very interesting. He tells people that they ought not to waste their lives in wondering what others are saying and thinking, and that their own thoughts ought always to be so kindly that if any one asked, "What are you thinking about?" they would not be at all afraid to answer honestly. He says that when any one wants to feel happy, it is an excellent plan to think of his friends and call to mind their good qualities. Think more of the good things you have than of those you have not, he advises. Another thought is that the best way to avenge one's self is to be careful not to become like the wrong-doer. He makes it seem not only wrong, but exceedingly silly to continue in ill-doing, for he says, "It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men's badness, which is impossible."

Marcus Aurelius would have liked to spend his time thinking about life and setting down his thoughts in this way and in being with his family and his friends; but he could spare only stray moments for such pleasures. He had to give his days either to war or to thinking how to take care of the roads, how to manage the city at less expense, how to get enough soldiers and how to pay those that he already had, and how to answer the hundred and one questions that came up every day for his decision. It is no wonder that he had to rise early in the morning and work till after midnight. He was obliged to show himself at the games and the fights of the gladiators; but while he was there, he usually read or had some one read to him.

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius the Christians were terribly persecuted. It often happened that the most bitter persecutions took place during the reigns of the best emperors; and so it was with Marcus Aurelius. Although his ideas were much like those of Christianity, he probably knew nothing of the Christian belief and was a sincere worshiper of the gods. When any trouble came upon the state, the first thought of both him and his people was that the state worship had not been carried on properly, and so the gods were angry. The Christians would not even burn a few grains of incense on the heathen altars; and therefore when flood or sickness afflicted the city, the Romans believed that they were to blame and ought to be persecuted.

Christian and Lions


When Marcus Aurelius was nearly sixty years old, a pestilence made its appearance in the army; and soon the Romans were grieving over the loss of their ruler. It had become the custom for the senate to pass a decree at the death of an emperor, declaring that he was now one of the gods; but in this case the people did not wait for any decree of the senate, they made a god of him at once; and for many years incense was burned before his statue and prayers were offered up to the emperor whom they loved so sincerely.


A fortunate boy. — "Not Verus, but Verissimus." — A young stoic. — Antoninus succeeds Hadrian. — Marcus Aurelius and Verus become emperors. — The troubles of Rome. — The notebook of the emperor. — His busy life. — The persecutions of the Christians. — Marcus Aurelius is worshiped as a god.