Commemorating of a Graceful Death
Today is March 17th, the day Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE.
I’m of the somewhat strong opinion that we should commemorate deaths of notable people rather than 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?
Marcus likely died in pain—enduring a high fever, severe headache, muscle aches, abdominal pain, and skin lesions. Many historians speculate that he contracted the eponymous ‘Antonine Plague,’ which was likely smallpox or measles. He was 58 years old.
Marcus died 700 miles from home. He was either in the city of Vindobona, the capital of “Upper Pannonia” (modern-day Vienna, Austria) or in the city of Sirmium, the capital of “Lower Pannonia” (modern-day Sremska Mitrovica, Serbia). He was in his well-furnished military quarters on the borders of the Roman empire.
Marcus likely died alone—far from his wife and children. Though Commodus was in camp, Marcus ordered him to keep his distance. Ancient historians said this was done so there would be no suspicion of murder, but this doesn’t make much sense to me. I suspect that Marcus didn’t want his contagious disease to spread to his child and heir. He had already seen seven of his children die and it would be reasonable for him to take precautions. And, besides, Commodus was already made co-emperor four years prior— no need for conspiracy.
So Marcus died painfully and alone. But this doesn’t mean he was suffering and it doesn’t mean he was lonely. 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 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 inevitability but also its importance.
Our death is very important indeed. 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 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 CE), Meditations 12.36 (trans. Robin Hard)