Commemorating a Noble Death 

We should commemorate deaths of notable people rather than their births. The time, place, and manner of their death speaks more 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.

March 17th is the day Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE. He was 58 years old.

How did Marcus Aurelius die?

Marcus likely died in pain—potentially enduring a high fever, severe headaches, chills, muscle aches, abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, and skin lesions (pox). Many historians speculate that he contracted the eponymous ‘Antonine Plague’ –an aggressive type of smallpox or measles named after Marcus Aurelius’ dynastic name, “Antoninus.”

Marcus likely died alone—700 miles from Rome where his wife and children were. 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). Both locations are on the borders of the Roman empire where Marcus and his troops were trying to fight back aggressors and forge alliances with whomever they could. Though his son Commodus was in camp, Marcus ordered him to keep his distance. Some ancient historians said this was done so there would be no suspicion of murder, but this doesn’t make much sense; Commodus was already made co-emperor four years prior, so there was no need for conspiracy. It’s more likely that Marcus died away from his oldest son and heir because he didn’t want his contagious disease to spreas. He had already seen at least seven of his children die and it would be reasonable for him to take such precautions.

Yes, Marcus died painfully and alone. But this does not mean he was suffering and it does not 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 the pain and isolation. 

A glimpse at his Meditations show us that he was indeed intent to prepare himself for this inevitable event and to face it with courage. At least thirty entries discuss death explicitly and many more discuss the theme of ‘change’—its inevitability but also its importance (see passages below).

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 this point in book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (yes, he’s written more recent books, but this one is pertinent). The first chapter is a narration of Marcus Aurelius’ 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’ correspondence with his friend M. Cornelius Fronto, from ancient historical accounts, and from some educated guesswork. The last chapter (Ch. 8) returns to Marcus Aurelius’s death, but from the first-person perspective. And this is where the readers finds the answers: Marcus spends his last minutes recounting his Stoic teachings and welcoming his fate as a happy necessity–an event in accordance with nature. 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.

What did Marcus rehearse in his last moments?

If you don’t have Robertson’s book, here are some passages from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations that touch on the theme of death. Any time dedicated to reading and internalizing their insights is time well-spent:

How swiftly all things vanish away, both the bodies themselves in the universe, and the memories of them in time; and of what a nature are all those things that we perceive, especially the things that entice us with the promise of pleasure, or frighten us with the thought of pain, or are proclaimed with an empty mind. How cheap it all is, how despicable, sordid, corruptible, dead—this must be left to our faculty of reason (noerâs dúnamis) to determine; and consider too who these people are whose opinions and voices confer renown and ignominy, and what it means to die, and that if one considers death in isolation, stripping away by rational analysis (lit. by the breaking apart through reflection; tēs ennoías dialúsēi) all the false impressions that cluster around it, one will no longer consider it to be anything other than a process of nature, and if somebody is frightened of a process of nature, he is no more than a child; and death, indeed, is not only a process of nature but also beneficial to her. Consider too how a human being makes contact with God, and through what part of himself, and how that part of him must be disposed if he is to do so.


Even if you were to live for three thousand years or ten times as long, you should still remember this, that no one loses any life other than the one that he is living, nor does he live any life other than the one that he loses, so the shortest life and the longest amount to the same. For the present is equal for all, and what is passing must be equal also, so what can be lost is shown to be nothing more than a moment; and no one could lose either the past or the future, for how could he be deprived of what he does not possess? So always bear in mind these two points: firstly that all things are alike in nature from all eternity and recur in cycles, and it therefore makes no difference whether one sees the same spectacle for a hundred years or two hundred or for time everlasting; and secondly that the longest-lived and the earliest to die suffer an equal loss; for it is solely of the present moment that each will be deprived, if it is really the case that this is all he has and a person cannot lose what he does not have.


In human life, the time of our existence is a point, our substance a flux (flow, rheō), our senses dull, the fabric of our entire body subject to corruption, our soul ever restless, our destiny beyond divining, and our fame precarious. In a word, all that belongs to the body is a stream in flow, all that belongs to the soul, mere dream and delusion, and our life is a war, a brief stay in a foreign land, and our fame thereafter, oblivion. So what can serve as our escort and guide? One thing and one alone, philosophy; and that consists in keeping the guardian-spirit (daímōn) within us inviolate and free from harm, and ever superior to pleasure and pain, and ensuring that it does nothing at random and nothing with false intent or pretence, and that it is not dependent on another’s doing or not doing some particular thing, and furthermore that it welcomes whatever happens to it and is allotted to it, as issuing from the source from which it too took its origin, and above all, that it awaits death with a cheerful mind as being nothing other than the releasing of the elements from which every living creature is compounded. Now if for the elements themselves it is nothing terrible to be constantly changing from one to another, why should we fear the change and dissolution of them all? For this is in accordance with nature: and nothing can be bad that accords with nature.


We must take account not only of the fact that our life is being consumed each day and an ever smaller part of it is left, but also of this, that if one should live longer, it is by no means clear that one’s mind will remain unchanged and still be adequate for the understanding of affairs and for the theoretical reflection that strives after a knowledge of things divine and human. For if a person’s mind begins to fail him, his respiration, digestion, power to deal with sense impressions, desire and appetite, and other functions of this kind will not give out; but his ability to make proper use of himself to determine the components of his duty with accuracy, to analyse what is presented to his senses, to reach a clear judgement on when it is the right moment for him to depart from life, and to attend to all such questions, in which well-exercised powers of reasoning are especially required-all of these are extinguished at an earlier stage. We must act with all urgency, then, not only because we are drawing closer to death at every moment, but also because our power to understand things and pay close attention to them gives out before the end.


… So what does it all amount to? You climbed aboard, you set sail, and now you have come to port. So step ashore! If to another life, there will be no want of gods even in that other world; but if to insensibility, you will no longer be exposed to pain and pleasure, or be the servant of an earthen vessel as inferior in value as that serving it is superior, the servant being mind (nóos) and guardian-spirit (daímōn) and the master mud and gore.


… In a word, never cease to observe how evanescent are all things human, and how worthless: today a drop of mucus, and tomorrow a mummy or a pile of ash. So make your way through this brief moment of time as one who is obedient to nature, and accept your end with a cheerful heart, just as an olive might ripen and fall, blessing the earth that bore it and grateful to the tree that gave it growth.


You can live here on earth as you intend to live once you have departed. If others do not allow that, however, then depart from life even now, but do so in the conviction that you are suffering no evil. Smoke fills the room, and I leave it: why think it any great matter? But as long as no such reason causes me to leave, I remain a free agent and none shall prevent me from doing what I will: and my will is to act according to the nature of a rational and sociable creature.


Think constantly of the people of all kinds, and of all manner of occupations and of every conceivable race, who have passed away and do so … Of all of these, just reflect that they were laid in the dust long ago. Why should that be terrible for them? Or for those whose very names have passed from our memory? In this world there is only one thing of real value, to pass our days in truth and justice, and yet be gracious to those who are false and unjust.


… Allow this thought to strike you: ‘Where are they now? Nowhere, or nowhere that we can say.’ For in this way you will constantly observe that all things human are mere smoke and nothingness; and all the more so, if you call to mind that what has once changed will never exist again throughout unending time. Why, then, are you troubled? Why are you not content to pass your brief existence in a decent manner? What material and what a field of action you are running away from! What is all this except a training ground for a reason which has examined with accuracy and scientific care all that life embraces? Wait, then, until you have assimilated these truths too, as a robust stomach assimilates every kind of food and a blazing fire turns whatever you cast into it into flame and light.


… And again, do not depart as if you were being dragged away, but rather, you should withdraw from them as one who is dying a happy death as his soul slips painlessly from his body. For it was nature who bound you to them and made you at one with them, but now she is severing the knot. I am severed, indeed, from those who are my family and friends, but without a struggle and without constraint. For this too is one of the things that nature ordains.


All those things which you hope to attain by a circuitous route, you can secure at this moment, if you do not deny them to yourself; I mean, if you leave all the past behind you and entrust the future to providence, and, concerning yourself with the present alone, guide that to holiness (hosiótēs) and justice (dikaiosúnē); to holiness, so that you may love what is allotted to you, for nature brought it to you, and you to it; and to justice, so that you may speak the truth freely and without equivocation, and conform in your actions to what is lawful and equitable. And do not allow yourself to be hindered by another’s evil or opinion or words, and still less, the sensations of the flesh that has congealed around you (for the part that suffers the ill must see to that). If then, when the time for your departure draws near, you have put all else behind you and you honour your ruling centre (hēgemonikón) alone and what is divine within you, and if what you hold in fear is not that some day you will cease to live, but rather that you may never begin to live according to nature (katà phúsin zēn), you will be a man who is worthy of the universe that brought you to birth, and you will no longer be a stranger in your native land, wondering at what happens day after day as if it were beyond foreseeing, and hanging on to one thing after another.


Below is the last entry in his Meditations, which I like to think Marcus 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)



—Justin K.