Saturday, 14 June 2014

Educating Marcus - The youth and young manhood of the philosopher-king

Young Marcus
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (121-180 CE) cites a number of influences in the opening forward to his collection of philosophical musings, which have picked up the conventional title of The Meditations among others. Among them are several Stoic philosophers to whom the Imperial author declares his indebtedness and allegiance. From what we know of his boyhood and early education such stoic thinking would to some extent been a part of his education. I thought it would be interesting to look at the early part of his life and schooling to see if we could identify themes and trends that re-appear or are echoed in the meditations themselves.

Marcus' father Verus died when he was three years old and in accordance with the custom for young aristocrats of the day he was brought up for his first few years in the company of nurses seeing very little of his mother Lucilla. He was adopted by his paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus with whom he seemed to get on well and spent his early youth in the family home on the Caelian Hill in Rome. He was tutored at home and it is here that we get the first glimpses of what kind of influences must have started to play a part in his philosophical education and perhaps his moral and intellectual development as well.

Education at that time was a tuition based system and influenced by Greek pedagogy with an emphasis at the higher levels on rhetoric and philosophy. Those headed for a public or senatorial career would have focussed more on a rhetoric and oratory training, trips to Greece in order to pursue philosophy pure were also available for the higher class youths but this was surely more a mark of culture than any solid career skill. Even the training in rhetoric was supplementary rather than essential to a public career (outside of the law courts) and we must remember that there were no degrees or qualifications in the way that we understand them today that were required for entry to the career ladder in Rome. Marcus would have been qualified for that already by birth and thus the education at home he received would have been more the result of a personally tailored choice of his guardians. At least at first; I would like to think that like teens of any era, Marcus would have gone through his rebellious phases or have fallen victim to the fads and fashions of aristocratic youth. Most tutors were either Greek slaves or Freedmen. The Greeks seemed to have been the go-to-guys for all things educational and during this era in Roman history Greek style education and letters were enjoying a renaissance in the form of the Second Sophistic. 

The Second Sophistic is a literary-historical term roughly covering the period from the reign of Nero (remember him from our Petronius discussions?) to about 230 CE and includes amongst others none other than the famed rhetor and philosopher Herodes Atticus (101-177 CE), whom Antoninus Pius brought over to Rome to act as personal tutor to his sons, Marcus and Lucius Verus (later to be co-emperor at Marcus request upon his accession).

Herodes Atticus
Herodes as was to be expected had a strong leaning towards Greek learning and Homeric culture, something which stood in contrast (and later opposition it appears) with the Roman Stoically leaning Fronto, another teacher and mentor of the young Marcus who had a more traditional Roman and Latin philological bias. Herodes was appointed as tutor in about 140 and already by the late 130s, Marcus seemed to have been quite taken by the image at least of the Greek philosopher, inspired by his painting master Diognetus who encouraged him to take up the rough woollen cloak, perhaps like the leather jacket of the day, possibly studded with the name of Socrates on the back! The boy even took this admiration to a practical level, sleeping on the floor wrapped in his simple homespun garb, until his mother convinced him that a bed was a more fitting place to rest his noble limbs! It has to be noted here that both tutors from either side of the Greece-Rome spectrum were at best highly suspicious of pure or hardcore actual philosophy, both being highly skilled orators and of a more practical approach to what one could do with Greek or Roman learning in the spheres of statecraft or diplomacy. Fronto warned Marcus against too much or even too little philosophy as dangerous and misleading, looking down on his later philosophical sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon; Herodes aggressively declaimed against the Stoics and similar philosophers as  foolish and doomed to living a ‘sluggish and enervated life’. In the end it seems that Marcus ignored both of them and continued to be fascinated by the maxims of the Stoics (such as Epictetus) and the philosophers, albeit on a sort of enthusiastic amateur level.

Another early teacher, Alexander of Cotiaeum, apparently one of the greatest Homeric scholars of the day, had a strong influence on his literary styling and could be the inspiration for several Homeric quotations that can be found in the Meditations. So even before Herodes appears on the scene, Marcus has already indicated his penchant for the Greeks in general and philosophy in particular. The illustrious Athenian rhetor can only have deepened this admiration in something of a lifelong love affair that at times clashed with the later demands of Imperial duty. We must also remember that the Meditations is written in koine Greek - possibly we have here the later emperor Marcus expressing his inner thoughts in a language he felt most fitted to the purpose of self-enquiry.

An even younger Marcus
Marcus takes up the toga virilis in 136 and embarks on his further education in oratory and rhetoric but even here, the tutors seem to be weighted heavily on the Greek side; he was taught by Aninus Macer, Caninius Celer and Herodes Atticus, all Greeks. On the Roman side he was taught Latin by Fronto. Perhaps we should not read too much into this since as I have observed earlier, tutors were predominantly Greek slaves or freedmen and it would logically follow in many if not all aristocratic Roman parent’s minds that the much admired Greek culture and letters would naturally be best taught by Greeks themselves.

Fronto and Marcus seemed to have been particularly close, even Greek style lovers as some scholars have suggested. It’s difficult to judge since a lot of the effusive and at times florid language in the correspondence is common to a lot of letters in antiquity and may be just that, the convention of florid declaration of great admiration for an illustrious pupil or master - however the jury is always out and the converse could be quite possible. The discovery of the correspondence itself is in itself a miraculous case of serendipity and another reason to disapprove intensely of the wilful philistinism of the early church elders! It was discovered by chance as a palimpsest on a holding in the Ambrosian Library in Milan in 1815 by Cardinal Angelo Mai. He noticed that a book containing notes of the first Church Council Meeting of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 had been written on recycled parchment - faintly discernible beneath the early Christian doctrinal musings was the entire correspondence between Fronto and Marcus Aurelius; together with his later discovery of another volume of notes which had used the rest of the original parchment ; a find of over 200 letters...80 written by Marcus himself!

Finally, the deepest influence on the young man may well have been Quintus Junius Rusticus (100-170), philosophical lineage descendant of Seneca and a truer torch bearer of Stoicism than Fronto. Marcus has this to say of him in his Meditations (i.15):

‘From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline; and from him I learned not to be led astray to sophistic imitation, nor to writing on speculative matters, nor to delivering little exhortatory orations, nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or engages in benevolent acts from a desire for ostentation’’

Quintus Junius Rusticus
The senior to both Marcus and Fronto and famed Stoic philosopher also introduced Marcus to the works of Epictetus, which for a budding philosopher can be no bad thing. Quintus Junius Rusticus has another claim to fame as the presiding urban prefect (post held between 162-8) in the trial of Justin Martyr who was executed for the capital crime of refusing to sacrifice to the Gods in submission to the Imperial decrees.

So from an early age Marcus steeped himself in Greek philosophy and despite the warnings of his tutors, two of the most famous orators of the day, he continued to display a life-long admiration of his woollen cloaked heroes, using the literary skills of those self-same tutors to eloquently muse on such teachings in the body of his communings with himself - his meditations.

Euge and Vale!


  1. Thanks, thanks that's an interesting introduction to Marcus' educational background. Regarding the relationship between Fronto and Marcus, Christopher Gill, in his comments on a selection of their correspondence included in the OUP World's Classics edition of the Meditations, casts doubt on the idea that they, Fronto and Marcus, were involved in an erotic way. He writes: '... a relationship of that kind [an erotic one] between a distinguished Roman orator and public figure and a future emperor would have highly problematic; and the Meditations indicate a strongly negative attitude towards pedearsty'. He agrees that some of the letters are written in a 'fulsome or emotionally extravagant style' but that this may reflect 'the delicacy - or fragility - of relationships between leading members of the Roman elite (which Fronto had joined) and the imperial family, whose power was immense...' 'a rather lavish emotional tone seems to have been one of the means by which such potentially fraught relationships were negotiated'. On the other hand, of course, who knows. In the letters I've read, Marcus, even as emperor, displays a warm concern about Fronto, his health and his family which give a fascinating sidelight on how the man of the private self-inquires (I'm not sure 'meditations' is a very happy choice to describe them) operates in relation to others.

    Talking of Christopher Gill there is an interesting talk on Youtube by him about the Meditations. The visuals are pretty uninspiring but what he says is interesting.

    Cheers. D

  2. I would agree that meditations is not a suitable title, but since the texts as discovered don't seem to have had a title and may not have even been intended for publication, the space where a title could be inserted has been open to abuse through the ages. Its also known as 'The communings with himself' (from the latin opening ad se ipsum) but even that as a convention, close as it is, stands as a convention. Human nature abhors a vacuum perhaps?! On a slightly unrelated note I have been reading an artcle on Marcus and the Victorians and was struck by the attitude of the day to the writings and their author, 'confused, depressed and in search of the higher truth of our Lord Christ'....surely its time for a post-Christian reappraissal and new translation of the text. Something that would make even Mary Beard revise some of her misgivings.