Today is March 17th. Yes, it’s usually associated with St. Patrick’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Ireland. But it is also recognized as the day of Marcus Aurelius’s death in 180 AD, so forgive me St. Patrick and the Irish community—I’d rather talk about Stoicism.
I’m of the somewhat strong opinion that we should commemorate deaths of notable people rather than (or in addition to) their births. The time, place, and manner of their death actually speaks to the kind of life that they chose for themselves—the details of the event are more likely to remind us of why we admire the person.
So how did Marcus Aurelius die?
He died over 700 miles from Rome in the city of Sirmium, the capital of the Roman province known as “Lower Pannonia” and modern-day Sremska Mitrovica in northern Serbia. He died relatively alone—far from his wife and children. He likely died in pain—enduring a high fever, severe headache, muscle aches, abdominal pain, and skin lesions. Many historians speculate that he contracted his eponymous ‘Antonine Plague‘, which was likely smallpox or measles.
If you’re picturing Marcus Aurelius as depicted in the movie Gladiator—Richard Harris in a tent on the front lines, possibly being smothered by his son Commodus—think again. Sirmium was indeed where military campaigns were coordinated against the Germanic tribes, but it was a well-developed city by 180 AD and Marcus was likely in his comfortable imperial residence there. As for Commodus, he was initially summoned to be by his father’s side, but Marcus commanded that he turn around and go back to Rome (this is further evidence that Marcus caught a contagious disease). And there was certainly no need to smother his father to be emperor as was depicted in the movie; Commodus had been co-emperor for about four years now!
So Marcus likely quarantined himself and died painfully and alone—unfortunately, not unlike many people today. But it’s important to stress that pain and social isolation does not imply emotional suffering. If Marcus was able to internalize his Stoic training, then it is likely that he was able to preserve that part of himself that he valued most, that made him most human—his integrity, his character, his good will. If that’s the case, then Marcus was happy despite his circumstances. A glimpse at his Meditations, a private collection of reminders and reflections, show us that he was intent on preparing himself for this inevitably event and facing it with courage. At least thirty entries discuss death explicitly and many more discuss the theme of ‘change’—its necessity but also its importance.
Our death is very important. It can be the culmination of a life well-lived and a source of inspiration for others. I think Donald Robertson successfully illustrates how important death is in his book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The first chapter is a narration of Marcus Aurelius’s death—a description of it from a third-person perspective. His behavior and speech is indicative of a calm and tranquil mind, a mind which has come to terms with death and welcomes it as a friend. This prompts the reader to ask “why is Marcus so peaceful?”, “how did he become this way?”, and “how can I be like him?” The rest of the book follows the philosophical education of Marcus from childhood to adulthood, drawing from the Meditations, but also from Marcus’s correspondence with his friend Fronto, ancient historical accounts, and also some educated guesswork. The last chapter (Ch. 8) returns to Marcus Aurelius’s death, but from the first-person perspective. And this is where is all pays off: Marcus is now given a chance to recount his Stoic teachings and welcome his fate as a happy necessity. Of course, the reader is allowed to see how one could draw from everything from Ch. 2-7 and apply it successfully to the last rite of passage that we all must undertake. I really like this device that Robertson uses. Chapter 8 of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is especially poignant and powerful and I recommend reading it today if you have the book on hand.
If you don’t have Robertson’s book, here are some passages from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that touch on the theme of death (taken from the index of the Oxford World Classics edition). Spending time to read some of these today is time well-spent.
- On our impending death: Meditations 2.6, 4.17, 4.37, 5.33, 7.70, 10.15, 10.34, 12.1
- On the [in]significance of our death: Meditations 2.12, 2.14, 2.17, 3.1, 3.3, 4.32, 4.48, 5.29, 6.24, 6.47, 9.41, 10.31, 10.36, 12.34, 12.36
If you read nothing else, I’d like to leave you with a passage here. Below is the last entry in his Meditations, which I like to think he wrote right before his death—knowing that he would be ‘called off stage’ any moment. Note that when he uses the term “great city” (megalê polis) he is referring to the entire cosmos of which he is a citizen. Also remember that Marcus is speaking to himself…
My friend, you have been a citizen of this great city. What difference if you live in it for five years or a hundred? For what is laid down in its laws is equitable for all. Where is the hardship, then, if it is no tyrant or unjust judge who sends you out of the city, but nature who brought you into it? It is just as if the director of a show, after first engaging an actor, were dismissing him from the stage, ‘But I haven’t played all five acts, only three!’ Very well; when it is complete is he who once arranged for your composition and now arranges for your dissolution, while you for your part are responsible for neither. So make your departure with a good grace, as he who is releasing you shows a good grace.Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), Meditations 12.36 (trans. Robin Hard)
—Justin K. (L.A. Stoics Facilitator/Organizer)
P.S. Please go to lastoics.com/meetings to register for our upcoming meetings—all are invited.
EDIT: In my original post, I confused Richard Harris with Peter O’Toole! (maybe because O’Toole played King Priam in Troy)—both late great actors of Irish descent but certainly not the same person 🙂