Book Review: Marcus Aurelius: A Life

Marcus Aurelius:  A Life, by Frank McLynn

This book is a lengthy biography of Marcus Aurelius and one that balances praise and criticism of the noted ancient philosopher-emperor of Rome.  At times it is unclear whether the author is wishing to criticize or praise the author more, and it is possible that some of what I interpreted as criticism of the book’s subject was in fact praise that I took as criticism because of my own particular religious and political perspective.  If that is the case, as I suspect, then this book has a rare achievement of being far more tolerable of a book than it would have been had the author’s own perspective been more heavy-handed.  At times all the necessary criticism of a given matter is to seek to describe it as accurately as possible and then let the reader come to one’s own value judgments about how to appropriately evaluate someone in light of the facts and evidence that has been presented.  If this is not the most common way that such matters are dealt with, it is at least a worthwhile way of dealing with such matters that others seldom appreciate to the greatest extent possible.  And this book provides as good example of what others could be doing in their biographical and historical writing.

This book, including its appendices, is almost 600 pages long and is divided into nineteen unnamed chapters that deal with various aspects of the life and times of Marcus Aurelius.  The author begins with a list of illustrations, a preface, and an introduction as well as a map of the Roman Empire during the subject’s reign.  There are also maps of Parthia and the Northern frontiers in Germany and Dacia that appear where the author discusses these areas and their importance to Aurelius’ reign.  Not only does the author provide a detailed discussion of Aurelius’ conduct as an emperor and skill as a general against the Germans, but also discusses the mortality of the plague that hit Rome during this time, the philosophical writings and letters of the man, his attitudes towards class and religion (especially his hostility to Christianity), the economic and political context of his times, his thoughts on his predecessors, the disastrous reign of his son, and his other family connections.  The book then ends with three appendices on stoicism, the reign of Antoninus Pius, and Marcus’ views on solitude, after which there is a bibliography, notes, and an index.

This book is probably more information about Marcus Aurelius and the Rome of the late second century than most people want to read, unless they are greatly fond of classical history.  At times I felt as if the author was aiming at Marxist perspective in criticizing Rome’s emperors for not having the same sort of obsession with class matters and economics that Marxist historians have, and this certainly did dim my enthusiasm for reading an immensely long and sometimes tiresome book.  Still, there is enough that is truly interesting about the life and times of Marcus Aurelius that even with my suspicion that the author was not nearly as wise as he could have been due to his own political perspective, the author did manage to focus enough on the life and times and not his own likely dodgy and illegitimate perspective that this book was still worth reading anyway, if only to highlight that I am far more ambivalent about Marcus Aurelius than the author himself appears to be, for reasons that he himself manages to detail about Marcus’ cruelty, his blind support of a meglomaniacal son, and his hostility to Christianity, all of which the author manages to point out in great detail.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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