The Story of Marcus Aurelius and the Antonine Plague
This is a dramatized account of the events surrounding the Antonine Plague, which spread across Europe in the late 2nd century AD. It inspired the discussion of these events in relation to Stoic philosophy found in my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
A horrific plague has been ravaging the Roman empire for nearly a decade, as the First Marcomannic War begins to draw to a close. Emperor Marcus Aurelius is putting the finishing touches to the journal we call The Meditations. The odor of death still lingers in every corner of the land, albeit less now than during the initial outbreaks, and the air in towns and cities was often thick with smoke and incense. Marcus regularly casts his mind back to the time when the pestilence first appeared… The co-emperor Lucius, his adoptive brother, had persuaded Marcus to accompany him as he rode through the streets of Rome in triumph after his victory in the Parthian War. Behind them followed a train of carts displaying all the treasures seized from conquered cities, including a beautiful statue of Apollo, stolen from a Parthian temple.
To help curb the victorious emperors’ pride two trusted gladiators stood behind them in the imperial chariot, holding laurel wreaths above their heads, whispering: “Remember thou must die.” That particular Roman tradition had become associated with Stoic philosophy. The Romans embraced Greek Stoicism because it seemed to echo the sober-minded values of the old Republic. From the time of Socrates onward, philosophers had meticulously contemplated their own death, as a way of purifying their character, and focusing their attention on the here and now. It was said that when Socrates’ student Xenophon was told that his son had been killed in battle he calmly replied: “I knew that he was mortal.” Five hundred years later, the most famous philosopher in Rome, Epictetus, advised his Stoic students to say to themselves: “I knew that I was mortal”. He taught them that death in itself is neither good nor bad; it’s merely something that happens to us, not something we do. The fear of death does more harm than death itself.
It is not things that disturb men but their judgements about them. For example, death is nothing catastrophic or else Socrates too would have thought so. Rather the judgement that death is catastrophic, this is the catastrophic thing. — Epictetus
The Stoics frequently argued for the indifference of death based on the notion that it is merely a form of non-existence. The man who wishes to live another thousand years is as foolish as one who wishes he was born a thousand years earlier because we are returning to the same state of non-existence we were in before we were born. Death is not a state of suffering because nobody remains to suffer. When death appeared to him to be an evil, Marcus had ready at hand the Stoic argument that only our actions can be good or evil. It is our duty to avoid evils, and yet death is unavoidable — therefore it cannot be an evil.
Epictetus’ Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus used to say: “It is not possible to live well today unless you treat it as your last.” Marcus repeatedly dwells on this theme, reminding himself to live in the present moment as if certain death were looming on the horizon. We will make progress toward virtue and perfect our character, he says in his notes, if we can only carry out every action in life with a sense of purpose while passing through each day as if it were our last, and we could depart at any moment. When a Stoic rises in the morning he tells himself “You may never sleep again” and when retiring to bed “You may not wake again”. He thereby trains himself to be grateful for each day ahead, and contented when it has run its course.
Memento mori… that’s what they said, “Remember thou must die”, but this time the words would come to seem ill-omened. Ironically, alongside all the gold and other spoils of war displayed at Marcus and Lucius’ triumph, the unwitting Roman legions had also brought back death from Parthia. They carried in their bodies an incurable and virulent disease. Like an invisible army, it marched through the empire, laying siege to one city after another, remorseless, merciless, and efficient. It was part of Marcus’ legacy, enveloping the whole empire, and would forever bear his family name: the Antonine Plague.
The Golden Casket
By the winter of 165 AD, the legions of Avidius Cassius had chased Rome’s enemy, King Vologases, deep into Parthia, down the River Tigris to the twin cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon. Ctesiphon was the capital of the Parthian Empire but the garrison left behind by the retreating king had no will to fight. After a brief siege, the city fell to the Romans and Vologases’ opulent winter palace was looted by them and razed to the ground. The nearby city of Seleucia was the former capital of the Seleucid Empire, founded by one of Alexander the Great’s successors. It was an ancient Hellenistic city that had been rebuilt in Parthian style after the emperor Trajan had sacked it and burned down many of the original buildings half a century before Cassius arrived. One of the largest cities in the Western world, with a population of roughly half a million of Greek, Jewish, and Syrian descent, its vast wealth was supported by trading goods, including silks from China.
Once Ctesiphon had fallen, the citizens of neighbouring Seleucia immediately surrendered and threw their gates open to Cassius’ legions, agreeing a peace treaty with them, and welcoming the Romans as liberators. However, they were repaid with bloodshed. Cassius let his legionaries run amok in the city, which they sacked like neighbouring Ctesiphon, before burning it completely to the ground. Vologases had fled but it was clear the tide of the war had now turned and before long he would sue for peace.
One of Marcus’ most trusted slaves told him the popular rumour… As Seleucia burned around them, a band of Cassius’ soldiers broke into the Temple of Apollo, it was said. They recklessly tore a magnificent statue of the god from its base, to be carted back to Rome for everyone to see. However, while looting the rest of the building, they came across a mysterious crack in one of the walls, through which they glimpsed a dark chamber. Guessing that something valuable probably lay concealed within, they set about trying to break through the opening into the hidden shrine room beyond. Some say that inside one of their number uncovered a mysterious golden chest, within which were sealed not treasures but fetid vapours cursed with an unholy pestilence by Chaldean sorcerers. Like the mythic Pandora, opening this supernatural casket, the unwitting Roman soldier released a multitude of horrors. The contaminated air flew up into his face, filled his lungs, and billowed out into the room around him, infecting his companions who then helped spread it across the known world — Apollo’s vengeance upon the defilers of his sacred shrine.
When the stolen figure of Apollo arrived in Rome the priests gratefully set it up in the temple to him on the Palatine Hill. However, the superstitious were unnerved by this wanton act of desecration. Apollo, the physician of the gods, was also the bringer of plagues, spread afar by his deadly arrows. So the masses were bound to view an affront against him, preceding the outbreak of the great plague, as more than coincidence. Indeed, Homer’s Iliad opens with Apollo sending a plague to punish the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, head of the Greek armies, who threatened the god’s high priest and refused to return his kidnapped daughter. The old man sent prayers for vengeance to Apollo Smintheus the patron of mice, rats, and plague. Everyone knew the story:
Apollo heard his prayers and came down furious from the summit of mount Olympus, his bow and quiver on his shoulder, and the arrows rattling on his back as the rage shook him. He settled down far from the ships, his face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang out as he shot the arrows of death into their midst. First he shot down their mules and dogs, but soon he took aim at the Greeks themselves, until pyres burned all day long with the bodies of their dead.
For nine long days Apollo shot the deadly arrows of pestilence down upon the Greek army, who were encamped on the beaches of Troy. Achilles complained “we are being cut down by war and pestilence at once” — a plight Rome shared during the first few years of the Marcomannic War. According to Homer’s epic, it was only when the girl was set free and enough ritual sacrifices were offered to Apollo by the Greeks that the plague finally began to relent. Throughout the empire, people were impotent in the face of the current plague. Sacrificing to the gods was virtually all they could think to do. And whatever its origin, it was just like the wrath of a god in its power to overwhelm great nations.
Apollo’s Deadly Arrows
It was certainly true that the plague first infected the Roman army who looted Seleucia. Cassius turned back and marched for over thirty days to his base at Antioch, his troops laden with the spoils of their victory. However, he lost many hundreds of his men to plague and famine along the way. Once Vologases finally conceded defeat and the war ended, Lucius’ armies dispersed back to Rome, Italy, and their provincial bases throughout the empire. Along with Parthian gold they unknowingly brought home the plague. It was carried from Parthia back into the Roman provinces of Syria and Egypt, into Italy and Spain, along the Danube and the Rhine, into Gaul and even across the sea to the distant island of Britain.
The worst affected place was, of course, Rome itself, the destination for thousands of travellers from around the empire. With so many people, from so many parts of the world, living in such proximity, infectious diseases spread through the city like wildfire. As the epidemic peaked there, between 166 and 168 AD, the bodies of Rome’s citizens were being carted out by the wagonload, as many as two thousand per day. The weak fared worst, of course: infants, slaves, the sick and elderly. In Rome alone, perhaps about three quarters of the population contracted the plague, and about one quarter of those died as a result. For a time it was as though the city was turning into a vast necropolis. The infection rate was significantly lower outside the densely-populated major cities and army bases. The pandemic would last fifteen years altogether and at least five million people would die throughout the empire.
Many towns throughout Italy and the provinces were completely depopulated. The army was reduced by one tenth and for several years greatly diminished in its fitness for battle, which left the empire perilously vulnerable to fresh incursions by tribes on the northern frontier. As well as the impact on ordinary citizens, slaves, and soldiers, many Roman politicians and officials were lost to the plague, and Marcus often erected statues in honour of the distinguished men who died at this time. The deaths of so many senators left the Roman elite reeling and it meant that some official positions changed hands more frequently than before. The plague destroyed families, often leaving bereaved survivors lonely and depressed. Loved ones, especially children, often could not approach the dying victim’s deathbed because of the risk of contamination.
Sickness and loss of life on this scale, lasting many years, was also slowly wrecking the economy, by damaging transportation, hampering trade, and weakening the labour force throughout the empire. Many cattle and other domestic animals died, heaping famine on the miseries piling up from the pestilence. Marcus was forced to recruit thousands of gladiators and domestic slaves into the army to face down the Germanic tribes invading Italy across the empire’s northern borders. The emperor decreed that these men, called the Voluntarii or Volunteers, should be provided with weapons and armour at public expense like regular infantry. In reward for their service, they could often earn their freedom. At first these and some of Marcus’ other emergency measures caused unrest among the citizens of Rome. However, over the course of the war it became clear they were prudent.
Charlatans and Criminals
Whether or not they believed the story about the casket, the Romans were naturally convinced that the current plague, like the one with which Homer’s Iliad opened, was a punishment sent against them by Apollo. However, Marcus knew that could not be true. The plague had, inevitably, spread beyond the northern frontier and infected the barbarian tribes they were fighting. It was probably also spreading through Parthia. If the gods punishing Rome then why infect her enemies as well? No, these were merely superstitions; the evidence contradicted them. After Cassius had taken Seleucia, he then penetrated deep into Parthia, as far as Media. Marcus thereby managed, for the first time, to get emissaries all the way to the far east. There they met the mysterious Seres people, who sold their raw silk to the traders of the Silk Road. The oriental merchants made a positive impression on Marcus’ ambassadors but disappointingly they showed little interest in Roman wares. The Romans also learned, however, that even far beyond Parthia in the distant and exotic land of silk, there were reports of the same plague that blighted Rome.
Nevertheless, every day more charlatans and madmen appeared in Rome, preying on the gullible. One of the most notorious ones had been constantly preaching to the crowds from atop the wild fig-tree on the Campus Martius. He was on the verge of starting looting in the streets of Rome by prophesying that any day the gods were about to send down fire from the heavens to engulf the city and that the end of the world was nigh. He predicted that he would be transformed into a stork when the apocalypse was upon them and tried to dupe the crowds by falling from the tree and releasing a bird concealed beneath his cloak. They saw through this hopeless ruse, though, and he was brought before the emperor for judgement. Marcus quickly surmised that he was touched by madness, and pardoned him without a fuss. The last thing he wanted was to make martyrs out of these religious lunatics.
One of the most bizarre cults had become surprisingly influential. A handsome and charismatic conman called Alexander of Abonoteichus founded a shrine hosting a human-headed snake-god he’d invented called Glycon. Alexander received visitors in a dark room, where he sat with a large serpent, whose head he concealed, exposing only the body to view. He’d constructed a life-like human head for the snake, with long flowing locks, which delivered cryptic oracles. In reality, his assistants made “Glycon” appear to talk by speaking through hidden tubes attached to the glove puppet. Alexander became very wealthy and powerful as a result of receiving payment for his prophecies and magical charms. Coins were even cast in honour of the god “Glycon” and statuettes made of him. During the height of the plague, Alexander was claiming to heal the sick with incantations. A crude verse from his oracle was used on amulets and inscribed over the doors of houses as a protection against the plague: Phoebus, the god unshorn, keepeth off plague’s nebulous onset. He survived the plague but died of gangrene, an old man, around 170 AD. However, his ridiculous cult lived on for many years, exploiting the widespread belief that the sun-god Apollo, also known as Phoebus, was inflicting the plague on the empire.
Marcus had no interest in superstition but it was nevertheless his duty as emperor, and high priest, to enact the outward rituals of the state religion. When the barbarians invaded from the north, at the height of the plague, Rome was gripped with panic. Marcus delayed setting out for war while he summoned foreign priests from all over the empire to purify the city through all manner of religious ceremonies, as a concession to the masses. He was even persuaded to perform the ancient Roman ceremony of the feast of the gods, called the lectisternium. This elaborate ritual, lasting seven days, was first carried out by Romans over five hundred years earlier. It was introduced to alleviate another plague by appeasing the gods, although Marcus mainly hoped to appease the citizens.
Marcus reflected that instead of viewing the pestilence as if it were a punishment from the gods, or as if the people of Rome had been abandoned, he should try to interpret it as a divine prescription. His mind kept returning to a line from Euripides’ Antiope: “If I and my sons are forgotten by the gods, then even this must have a reason.” At first, to be sure, it was difficult to see things this way. However, as the years had passed he’d slowly become more used to the lingering presence of the the pestilence all around him and the constant news of others’ deaths. In short, the plague had become a fact of life for Romans. With daily practice, the emperor had learned to respond as philosophically as could be expected under the circumstances. If this had any meaning it was not as some vengeful punishment but as a daily lesson, from which the gods were challenging him to learn something about the meaning of mortal life.
Every day, he tried, as a Stoic, to accept the hideous reality before him as if it were the prescription of a sage-like physician, necessary to develop his own health and that of the empire, not unlike some bitter medicine or painful surgical procedure. What lessons could he learn from it? That death lurks even in Arcadia, and that the bones of Alexander the Great and his mule-driver now mingle in the same dust. We must face reality, no matter how grim, and learn to expect that life will prescribe us all a mixture of both good and bad fortune.
Marcus only one mentioned the plague itself once in his philosophical notes. That was that however bad the physical disease surely was, one thing was even worse: the mental plague of corruption and vice. Indeed, the plague itself had brought moral decay, particularly at Rome. With so many people dying unexpectedly, society was thrown into turmoil. Inheritances changed hands rapidly, sometimes leaving vast fortunes in the hands of unintended recipients. At Rome, and even in other parts of the empire, criminals seized on the opportunity to carry out paid assassinations under cover of the plague. They smeared thin needles with infected fluids and tried to stab their victims unnoticed. When they contracted the disease, it was hoped nobody would suspect foul play. The plague literally allowed unscrupulous people to get away with murder. Nevertheless, many such men were reputedly exposed and prosecuted. Such people, surrounded by death and suffering, inevitably began to question the rule of law and the value of religion and morality. If you might die any day, then what reason do you have to care about right and wrong? At least that’s how certain individuals responded, showing their true character in the face of adversity. Marcus tried to see things in quite the opposite way. By reflecting on his own mortality, and the uncertainty of life, he tried to find motivation to live honourably in the present moment, at all costs.
Marcus and Galen had one thing in common. They both sought to understand the plague rationally and objectively, as a natural phenomenon. Galen as a physician, and Marcus as a philosopher. The plague was spread mainly by coughing and sneezing. The first symptoms were a raging internal fever and painful swelling in the back of the throat, probably also headaches and muscle pains similar to influenza. By around the ninth to twelfth day, according to Galen, the other symptoms would erupt, and the fever would presumably break. A few individuals died even during this initial stage. Galen described how some victims initially developed catarrh and a slight cough, which became severe as the infection progressed, until they began bringing up blood and tissue from the ulceration inside their windpipe. If the infection spread to their larynx, it could become difficult to speak. Around the same time, a horrific rash would begin spreading over the body, which usually erupted in clusters of raised pustules. The rash would often turn dark, as blood haemorrhaged into the blisters and congealed, sometimes covering the whole body with rough charcoal-coloured patches of scab. These would eventually peel off like coarse scales, exposing the flesh underneath, if the patient was healing.
All Galen’s victims suffered also from internal ulcers, severe stomach pains, and diarrhea. Vomiting and malodorous breath were also common symptoms so that sufferers would often begin actually to smell of the plague. Excrement first became yellowish-red from lesions bleeding into their intestines then, as the other symptoms erupted, it started to turn black and fetid. Galen used this to make a crude prognosis: each patient whose faeces was very black with congealed blood was soon found dead. However, once the more severe symptoms had manifested, the infection would typically only last another three days or so.
The disease tended to run its course within about two or three weeks, by which time roughly one quarter of victims would lie dead. So individual outbreaks would normally last no more than a year or two, although additional outbreaks would appear in different cities and towns, and recur again years down the line, affecting particularly the youngest generation. Those who survived would typically find themselves immune to further infection. Most remained visibly scarred with pockmarks. In many cases the blisters actually spread onto the surface of their eyes and victims were left blind, or partially sighted, as a result. In a few cases, the joints were left arthritic, which could lead to permanent limb deformities.
Marcus observed these symptoms carefully in others and discussed them with Galen and the rest of his court physicians. Everything that befalls a philosopher is potentially an opportunity to move one step closer toward wisdom, self-mastery and freedom. Marcus regularly contemplated his own death, every day, and whenever events seemed to prompt him to do so. The plague certainly made it easy to imagine death and suffering. His duty as a Stoic was to anticipate the worst that could happen to him, as if it were already happening, and his own death as if it were imminent. This ancient philosophical exercise might at first look the same as ordinary worrying but it was quite the opposite. The Stoic embraced misfortune with a philosophical attitude, something he practiced assiduously as part of his constant training regime. If Marcus saw something that horrified him, he made a point of imagining it was happening to him, until his fear naturally abated over time.
When fever comes upon us, said Epictetus, we should be ready with the mind-set and opinions required to endure the symptoms. No true philosopher should forget everything he’s learned about wisdom and strength of character just because of an illness. What use is philosophy if it does not prepare us for misfortune? A philosopher who loses his nerve in the face of the plague would be like a boxer who flees the ring as soon as he takes a punch. “I must die”, said Epictetus, “but must I die groaning?” He frequently told his students that bearing sickness well was part of life and something they should all be prepared for:
If you bear a fever well, you have all that belongs to a man in a fever. What is it to bear a fever well? To blame neither God nor man; to be unperturbed by whatever happens, to anticipate death nobly and well, to do whatever must be done. When the physician comes in, to be neither alarmed by what he says nor overjoyed if he says, “You are doing well”. — Epictetus
Marcus had often imagined the fever spreading through his own body, leaving him frail and bedridden. He closed his eyes and pictured it once again… The raw pain developing in his throat, as he struggled to breathe or to speak. The itchy rash creeping over his flesh, day by day, breaking out in clusters of hideous pustules as he watched helpless, slowly turning into patches of black crust all over his face and body. The nausea, pain, and discomfort. Not knowing if you’ll live through the night, as your body slowly bleeds into your bowels. This was how he had learned to contemplate his own death. Not as an abstract concept but as if he could almost reach out and touch it, as if he could even taste and smell it.
Marcus had seen many things in his life… Bodies torn apart by wild beasts in the Coliseum. Men being swiftly beheaded, slowly crucified, or burned alive at the stake. Bodies hacked to pieces on the battlefield. Men, women, and children, deformed by illness, and contorted with pain and suffering. Nothing really compared to the horrors of the plague, though. Not even the proverbial bull of the tyrant Phalaris, a bronze sculpture in which victims were locked so that a fire could be lit underneath it, slowly roasting them alive. Man had not spared his creativity when it came to torture. The only thing Marcus could think of worse than the suffering of the plague was Persian scaphism, or “the boats”. The victim was stripped naked and nailed inside two wooden boats, one on the top of the other, with their head and limbs protruding. Then they were set afloat in a marsh, under the blazing sun, and force-fed milk and honey each day, which was also smeared on their face and body to attract swarms of insects. The prospect of his own death, however, troubled Marcus less with year that passed.
In the Phaedo, as he awaited execution Socrates was asked by his friends to speak to them as though a little child remained within their minds, fearing death like it was a scary bogeyman. Reassure us there is nothing to fear, they asked. Socrates replied: “You should sing a charm over that child every day until you have charmed away his fears”. The Stoics liked this idea of death as a kind of bogeyman, the analogy with scary masks that frighten small children by their appearance. We should strip away the superstitions and false value-judgements that make death appear like a monster: “Turn it about and learn what it is; see, it does not bite”, as Epictetus put it. In Marcus’ time, death came to wear the grotesque mask of plague everywhere he went, from the palaces and mansions of Rome to the gritty army camps on the Danube.
Even when surrounded by death the majority of people live as if their own demise were somehow uncertain. By continual mental rehearsal Marcus sought to strip away that mask, as Epictetus had taught, and view his own life and death like a Stoic: nakedly, objectively, and philosophically.
“But now it is time to die.” Why say “die”? Don’t make the matter into some sort of tragic show but rather speak of it as it is: “It is now time for the material of which you are composed to be returned to the elements from whence which it came.” And what is so catastrophic about that? — Epictetus
In any case, the plague was far from the only cause of death, and along the northern frontier, men were hacked down often enough in battle. Death can come from any quarter, so if we’re to fear it we should be on our guard at every moment, which is absurd. They say the Greek playwright Aeschylus was killed by a tortoise that was dropped onto his head from the claws of an eagle flying overhead. You can be killed by anything. To be everywhere is to be nowhere, though, and to fear everything is to fear nothing.
Marcus made a point of noting down to himself that in addition to the genuine Stoic arguments concerning the “indifference” of death there was a powerful but “unphilosophical” form of persuasion he liked to use on himself. That’s simply to ask: “Do I really want to emulate the sort of people who most fear their own death?” Go ahead and list the names of people who have tenaciously clung onto life and ask yourself whether they came any closer to genuine fulfilment as a result? No man can have a life worth living as long as he is afraid of dying. And to learn how to face death is to unlearn how to be a slave.
Galen and the Physicians
Galen, the most exceptional physician of the period, was in Rome from the first outbreak of the plague there in 166 AD and he studied it at its peak during the following two years. He was one of the few brave souls who observed the dying closely and tried to understand the disease rationally. At the very time when they were most needed, many good physicians were among the first to be lost, as they naively exposed themselves to those contaminated. However, Galen, who believed himself chosen by the gods, was among those who proved immune and as a result he rose to prominence as one of the leading authorities on the nature of the disease.
During the winter of 168 AD, as the initial outbreak at Rome began to abate, Marcus and Lucius summoned Galen to their winter base in the Italian city of Aquileia, to serve as their court physician. However, the following year he was sent back to Rome again to attend to Marcus’ only surviving natural heir, the young Caesar Commodus, merely a boy of seven at this time. Marcus wrote in his notes to himself that while some men pray “How may I save my little boy?” the Stoic should learn instead to pray “How may I be free from worry about losing him?” He also noted to himself that for the heart to say “Oh let my children be safe!” is like the eye wanting only to see pleasant sights — a kind of denial, which goes against our rational nature.
The better physicians, employing reason and careful observation of the disease, advised Marcus to stay far away from Rome, at least until the initial outbreak had subsided. They recommended the fresh air of his beautiful coastal retreat at Laurentum but Marcus was committed to accompanying the army on the northern frontier, where the legionary forts were also experiencing outbreaks of the plague. Physicians recommended keeping to the shade in summer and also noted that the plague tended to take more lives in the winter months.
Galen prescribed the compound known as theriac as a general tonic and preventative medicine to Marcus and others who could afford it. Galen had written at length about this complex, ancient panacea. It contained dozens of supposedly medicinal ingredients, from myrrh to viper flesh. However, it was not entirely a placebo as it also included varying amounts of opium poppy juice, which would at least have alleviated the symptoms of pain, coughing and diarrhea from plague sufferers, and they may also have obtained relief from other ingredients. However, it was too expensive for most ordinary Romans because it contained so many obscure ingredients, and was fermented for up to twelve years before being eaten in chunks or sometimes applied as a salve to the body.
Many doctors advised those remaining in Rome and other infected areas to smear their nostrils and ears with scented oils. Incenses like myrrh hung in the air and bonfires were frequently lit in the towns and cities because it was widely believed that the smoke could purified the atmosphere of pestilent vapours. Of course, this did nothing. Some degree of discomfort was alleviated by applying herbal remedies externally to the pustular rashes of victims. However, ensuring proper burial of the dead was one basic measure the state could take to try to limit the spread of disease. Marcus insisted that funeral ceremonies should be performed for the poor, at the public expense if necessary. The emperors also jointly ratified stringent new laws regulating burial, which prohibited building tombs above ground on country estates. Those who survived, and acquired immunity, were encouraged to tend other sufferers and assist with funerary rites.
Some people believed that certain philosophers were resistant to disease because of their moderate habits and healthy lifestyle. Socrates was said to have been so disciplined in his way of life that when plague broke out among the Athenians, on several occasions, he was the only man who escaped infection, including during his military service in the siege of Potidaea. Since he was a young boy, Marcus had embraced the philosophical way of life, eating and drinking plain food in moderation, taking appropriate daily exercise, sleeping in moderation on a crude military camp bed, and so on. Certain aspects of his Stoic lifestyle, combined with the privileges of his status, probably helped him to survive to the age of nearly sixty, at a time when the average life expectancy at Rome was more like thirty-five, at best. However, others were not so fortunate.
Marcus was surrounded by death and disease, on an almost unprecedented scale. He wished that he could have done more as emperor to alleviate the suffering of the Roman people. He lost many loved ones himself in a short space of time, during the initial spread of the plague. In the winter of 166–167 AD, when the first outbreak at Rome was reaching its peak, his close friend and former Latin rhetoric tutor died, Marcus Cornelius Fronto. Marcus may not have sought to emulate Fronto’s character, the way he did those of his philosophical tutors, but he trusted him, and loved him very dearly. He was old and sickly, so Marcus was prepared for his death, but with the most affectionate of his childhood mentors now gone the emperor was left feeling more alone than ever before.
However, the most publicly conspicuous of all the deaths from plague was that of his adoptive brother and junior co-emperor, Lucius Verus. Marcus and Lucius were returning to their winter base at Aquileia from the initial expedition of the Marcomannic War when news reached them that plague had now also broken out there. They changed course to nearby Altinum, where Lucius soon died of the fever. Lucius had been expected to outlive Marcus, who was prone to chronic health problems and nine years his senior. However, when the plague took Lucius unexpectedly, aged thirty-nine, Marcus was suddenly left sole emperor, and another important piece of his family, another link with his childhood, and his own sense of identity, had been torn away.
Shortly after Lucius, Marcus’ youngest son, Marcus Annius Verus, also died. Aged seven, he had been appointed Caesar three years earlier along with his brother Commodus, his elder by one year. Young Marcus Annius was the sixth of Marcus’ sons to die. Marcus certainly did not have a heart made of stone or iron and Stoics were not taught to suppress natural emotions. He could be moved to tears by bereavement. On one occasion, reminded of his own loss, he was overcome with grief and wept in public when he heard an advocate say in the course of an argument “Blessed are they who died in the plague.”
In his notes to himself, Marcus referred several times to ways of coping with the feared or actual loss of one of his children, clearly a preoccupation with him. Marcus and Faustina had already lost six of their thirteen children before the plague even appeared. He quotes a line from Homer’s Iliad: “Such are the races of men as the leaves that the wind scatters earthward.” Marcus reminded himself to think always of his children in the same brutally honest way, as leaves in the wind, accepting the fact that they are mortal, their lives are transitory and beyond his ability to control. Not to take their lives for granted but to face the stark reality of their vulnerability, and the possibility of losing them, especially during the plague.
Many grains of frankincense on the same altar: one falls before, another falls after; but it makes no difference.
Under the shadow of the plague, the air in Roman towns and cities remained heavy with the smell of medicinal incense, particularly frankincense and myrrh.
The only male child Marcus now had left as heir was Commodus. He was bound to worry that Commodus’ life could be snatched away from him at any moment. He wrote in his notes, “Stick with first impressions. I see that my little boy is sick. That his life is in danger? That I do not see.” His ongoing battle with worries over Commodus’ safety were carefully worked through in writing, in his philosophical journal, and in his daily Stoic meditations.
At that time, with Lucius suddenly gone, Commodus was aged eight and too young to safely take the throne if anything happened to Marcus. There had to be an adult heir in place. So Marcus urgently sought a man he could trust as a potential interim successor. He chose his most faithful general, Claudius Pompeianus, whom he immediately betrothed to Lucius’ widow, Lucilla. Pompeianus now became the most obvious candidate to be acclaimed emperor by the legions should Marcus die of plague or in the wars before Commodus reached manhood. However, his new son-in-law declined Marcus’ offer to make it official by designating him Caesar. Instead Pompeianus would live to see Commodus come of age and be appointed Marcus’ co-emperor.
Marcus had, in fact, learned much about parental love from Stoicism. For the Stoics, Zeus was pre-eminently the father of mankind, who cared for all of his children both individually and collectively. One must learn to emulate Zeus by being wise and dispassionate yet full of natural affection toward others, especially one’s family and children. He thought of his Stoic teacher Apollonius of Chalcedon as someone from whom he could learn steadiness of purpose, constant rationality, and how to cope with pain, illness, or the loss of a child. From another tutor Cinna Catulus he had also learned to love his children in accord with Stoic wisdom. Stoics are taught that such parental love has a special place, as the foundation of ethics. They are to love their children while accepting their mortality, and the fact the lives of others are ultimately beyond our control.
However, it must be reconciled with reason, and our loved ones must be viewed through the lens of their mortality. He learned from Epictetus’ Discourses:
If you kiss your own child, a brother, or friend, never give free reign to the experience, and do not allow your pleasure to run amok. Keep it in check, and restrain it as the slaves do who stand behind generals riding in triumph and remind them that they are mortal. Remind yourself in the same manner that the one you love is mortal, and that what you love is not really your own. It has merely been loaned to you for now, not so that it should never be taken back from you. Neither has it been given to you for all time, but in the same way a fig is given to you or a bunch of grapes during a particular season of the year. However, if you wish for these things in winter, you are a fool. So if you wish for your son or friend when it is not allowed to you, you must know that you are wishing for a fig in winter.
Epictetus asked his students: What harm it can do to mouth the words “Tomorrow you will die” when kissing your child? Yet some superstitious people are afraid that these are words of bad omen, that it’s dangerous to say or even think anything negative. What matters is that facing unpleasant thoughts can be healthy for us. You might as well say that it’s evil for the ears of corn to be reaped but it’s merely a natural process of change. You might as well say that the falling leaves are something negative, or a bad omen, or for a fig that was ripe to become dried up, or grapes to turn to raisins. All these things are merely substances changing from one state into another, nothing is really destroyed. Life is change. For man, travelling away from his home is a small change of state, and death is merely a bigger change. Shall we no longer exist? We will not exist as you are now but as something else, which has its place in the world. And we also first came into existence not when we chose to be born but when the world chose to create us. That was the Stoic teaching Marcus had received from Epictetus via Junius Rusticus.
“Remember thou must die”, the slave had whispered to Marcus as the crowds cheered. The statue of Apollo, seized from Parthia, followed behind them, draped in other looted treasures. Marcus had been persuaded by Lucius to follow him in taking the title Parthicus, conqueror of Parthia. As the plague crippled Rome’s legions, though, King Vologases soon took back most of the Parthian territory he’d lost to Avidius Cassius. Not long after the plague took Lucius, as the Roman hold on Parthia slipped, Marcus chose to drop the title Parthicus from his own name. It seemed dishonest. The legacy of Lucius’ war was death.
The year after he lost his co-emperor Lucius and his son, the young caesar Marcus Annius, Marcus most cherished philosophy tutor, the Stoic Junius Rusticus, also died at Rome. Rusticus was also Marcus’ right-hand man in Rome, where he had served as the urban prefect during the first few years when the plague was at its height. Rusticus was an older man, around Fronto’s age, but his loss still came as a heavy blow, and signalled a kind of death within Marcus himself. Fronto and Rusticus had been rivals, vying to win the young Marcus over to rhetoric and philosophy respectively. Rusticus finally succeeded in converting Marcus to Stoicism in his twenties, and set the pattern for the rest of his life. Having lost his two most beloved tutors in close succession, both close friends and advisors since his childhood, Marcus was now cut adrift, and found himself facing a major change. A new phase of his life would have to begin in which he was more independent, both emotionally and intellectually. He would need to find the inner strength to continue on the same course, without his mentors and allies. Increasingly, he turned to his new friends in the military, and the legionary bases became his home instead of Rome.
Marcus wrote in his notes that he should contemplate his life in terms of distinct stages, and the transition from each to the next, each step in the ladder of change, as a kind of death. As we grow from infants, into children, adolescents, and go through various stages of adult life, many things cease or change for us. The child dies when the man is born. We should repeatedly ask ourselves: “Is there anything catastrophic here?” Marcus the student of philosophy and rhetoric had died, to some extent, along with his childhood tutors. Marcus as sole emperor had been forced to become increasingly self-reliant as he matured into the role of philosopher-king and supreme military commander. The great crisis of Marcus’ reign, the Marcomannic invasion, followed close on the heels of the plague’s initial outbreak, and tested Marcus’ Stoicism even more profoundly.
Stoicism and Resilience in the Time of Pandemic
Author: Donald J. Robertson
Donald J. Robertson is a writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Donald Robertson is the author of six books including How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
He is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, writer, and trainer, specializing in the relationship between philosophy, psychology, and self-improvement. He’s particularly known for his work on Stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioural therapy. Donald was born in Ayr, Scotland, but now lives in Canada. Connect with Donald via Twitter: @DonJRobertson.