F ROM time to time in the history of the world men have stood out, one by one, head and shoulders above their fellows,—men whose names can never perish, men whose acts will never die.
Such an one was Marcus Aurelius, emperor of the Roman Empire, but known to history as a great high-minded thinker, a pagan philosopher, true and firm and good in every action and every thought.
His life was not very full of incident: other men have done more and lived through stormier times than did Marcus Aurelius.
As a little boy he came under the notice of the Emperor Hadrian, who made the little Marcus a knight at the age of six. The "most true," he used to call the child, who even at this time was serious and thoughtful and noted for his truthfulness. Though delicate in health, his mother could not induce him to sleep on a bed spread with sheepskin, so Spartan was he in his ideas and so anxious to avoid being luxurious and indulgent. He was a Stoic—that is to say, he followed the teaching of a philosopher who lived long ago in Athens. This philosopher used to teach in a painted porch in that city, and stoa being the Greek for porch, his followers got the name of Stoics.
At twelve years old he adopted the dress of plain woollen stuff worn by the Stoics. He loved history, he clung to old forms and customs. And so the boy grew up in the heart of Rome with his high standard of duty, his indifference to pleasure and pain, his love of virtue, his simple outlook on life.
Hadrian the emperor had adopted him as his successor.
Marcus Aurelius had already shown himself able and capable in affairs of state. He was made consul at the age of seventeen; he had prepared well for the day when the responsibilities of the great world-empire should be his.
"Modestly take, cheerfully resign." These words were among his sayings, given to the world fourteen hundred years after his death.
He accepted his great empire with modesty, insisting on sharing it with his adopted brother Verus. Insurrection breaking out in a distant part of the huge Roman possessions, Marcus Aurelius sent Verus to quell it. But the legions employed in this war brought back to Rome the germs of a terrible pestilence, which had followed them along their line of march. The plague that now broke out devastated vast districts of the mighty empire, and carried off thousands of victims in Rome itself. Following the plague came a fire, and following the fire came an earthquake. Then disturbances arose on the Danube, calling forth the strength of the empire to repress them. It required all the stoical patience that Marcus Aurelius could command to stand firmly at the helm and steer through these storms—storms which, though he knew it not, were the beginning of the decline and fall of his great empire.
But duty called him from Rome and from home to the long exile of the camp. He was no soldier, but the fate of Rome hung on his presence with the soldiers in the field, and his resolution was staunch. He hated war; but the empire must be defended, and he readily exposed himself to eight winter campaigns on the frozen banks of the Danube. Here, amid the harsh and uncongenial surroundings of war, the great philosopher-emperor wrote his wonderful Thoughts, or Meditations as they are called.
Very pathetic are these great thoughts, tinged with a sadness which came from the hopelessness of his pagan philosophy. Life's day had been toilsome, the evening-tide was very lonely. Wasted with disease from camp life, his spirit broken by the death of his wife and four sons, he waits for the retreat to sound—waits for that death which he knows to be "rest."
"Come quickly, death, for fear I too forget myself," he cries, as he grows weaker and more suffering.
"Live as on a mountain. Let men see, let them know a real man, who lives as he was meant to live."
He had indeed lived on a mountain, lived his simple good life with the eyes of the whole world looking on him, and he had shown how it was possible to lead a grand life in the midst of a corrupt age.
His end was as his life had been—deliberate, unflinching, resolute. The habit of duty struggled with his failing body. His friends gathered round him. "Why weep for me?" he says in a passionless farewell; "think of the army and its safety: I do but go on before. Farewell."
Away from home, at Vienna, on the 17th of March 180, Marcus Aurelius died. Rome forgot the emperor in the man.
"Marcus, my father! Marcus, my brother! Marcus, my son!" cried the bereaved citizens, while Romans whispered to one another, "He whom the gods lent us has rejoined the gods."
Stoically this man had lived, stoically he died. At a time when national virtue was dead he had stood firm and true; but it was impossible for one man to stem the tide of Roman decline. And the centuries still turn to him for wisdom, and the Thoughts will ever remain imperishable, "dignifying duty, shaming weakness, and rebuking discontent."
So he stands from out the ages of the past—"wise, just, self-governed, tender, thankful, blameless, yet with all this, agitated, stretching out his arms for Something beyond."