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What comes into your mind when you think about a Roman emperor? Is it the lavish, drunken parties? Perhaps the grand gladiator fights? Is it the grand display of affluence — marble mansions, political power, familial affiliations?
The images that come into mind probably don’t veer too far away from the snapshots of our very own political and economic leaders today.
What if we told you that one of Rome’s greatest emperors, the last one to reign during the empire’s Pax Romana, was a Stoic who embodied Plato’s ideal of a philosopher king?
In this article, we will be exploring the life and words of Marcus Aurelius, the emperor who prioritized the pursuit of knowledge and wholehearted service to his people. At one point in history, Marcus Aurelius was the leader of the world’s biggest and most powerful empire. He did this while living a simple life devoid of material excess, but overflowing with the desire to learn and serve.
Humility, Simplicity, and Good Character
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was born in April 26, 121 AD, to a prominent family. His father, Marcus Annius Verus III was a politician and a nobleman. His mother, Domitia Lucilla was a noblewoman, heiress to one of the largest brickwork factory in Rome. Verus III died when Marcus was three years old, but Marcus often said that his father’s life and memory has inspired humility in him.
As was the custom, young Marcus did not spend a lot of time by his mother’s side. However, he observed her behavior closely. Domitia Lucilla was born wealthy, but she espoused virtues of simplicity and piety. These were values that guided Marcus for the entirety of his life.
Marcus, along with his fellow aristocratic friends, was trained and educated by scholars. He was raised by both of his grandfathers. From his maternal grandfather, he learned the value of temperance and good character.
The people that surrounded Marcus were by no means perfect. What made Marcus different was his ability to see the good in people, and to pick up the good values that he then proceeded to apply to his own life.
Chosen for a Noble Task
People knew that there was something special about Marcus. Then-emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus Augustus has declared Marcus’s future father-in-law, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his successor to subsequently get the then-too-young Marcus in line for emperor. During the accession, Commodus got too sick to take on the responsibility.
Hadrian then decided to declare Aurelius Antoninus as his successor. The prerequisite of the arrangement was for Antoninus to legally adopt Marcus and put him in line for the title. Antoninus accepted.
Hadrian then asked the senate to adjust the law with regards to quaestorship. The position was only open to individuals 24 years old and above, but the adjustment allowed Marcus to assume the position at 18.
He had a lot of free time on his hands, which he used to further his education. He loved his life as a scholar. He could have lived a life as a philosopher, scholar, and traveler, but his future has already been carved out for him.
Dignity in Duty
One of the first duties Marcus had to fulfill was the annulment of his betrothal to Commodus’s daughter. He was then betrothed, and subsequently married to Antoninus’s daughter, Faustina. He became a consul for Antoninus.
Marcus continued his education, honing his oratorical skills, rhetoric, and fine writing. He was not very interested in these subjects, but took them on as part of his responsibility. In 161 AD, Marcus officially assumed the title of emperor, co-ruling with his adopted brother, Lucius Verus. The brothers ruled with utmost dignity and simplicity, and treated their people with respect.
They celebrated free speech, and focused on taking care of the most disenfranchised members of the society. They also prioritized the appointment of the right people in government positions. He cut taxes, and improved educational facilities.
Marcus Aurelius lived as simply as a common man would. According to a biographer, “he still showed the same respect to his relations as he had when he was an ordinary citizen, as he was thrifty and careful of his possessions as he had been when he lived in a private household.”
Temperance and Simplicity—Marcus Aurelius’ Legacy
People often think that absolute power corrupts absolutely, but Marcus Aurelius lived a life of simple dignity. He was born in a life of nobility, but he did not buy into the pit and cycle of excess that was so common with people of his stature.
“Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life; life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace.” This is the kind of sentiment that should inspire leaders for centuries to come.
Here are the best Marcus Aurelius quotes on the joys of living a simple life:
Marcus Aurelius Quotes
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius
“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love …” – Marcus Aurelius
“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” – Marcus Aurelius
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” – Marcus Aurelius
“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” – Marcus Aurelius
“When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.” – Marcus Aurelius
“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good fortune.” – Marcus Aurelius
“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Be your own master, and look at things as a man, as a human being, as a citizen, as a mortal creature.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Whatever is in any way beautiful hath its source of beauty in itself, and is complete in itself; praise forms no part of it. So it is none the worse nor the better for being praised.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Anything in any way beautiful derives its beauty from itself and asks nothing beyond itself. Praise is no part of it, for nothing is made worse or better by praise.” – Marcus Aurelius
“All of us are creatures of a day; the remembered and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral—both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.” – Marcus Aurelius
“That which has died falls not out of the universe. If it stays here, it also changes here, and is dissolved into its proper parts, which are elements of the universe and of thyself. And these too change, and they murmur not.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Kindness is invincible.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, and unsocial.” – Marcus Aurelius
“In everything that you do, pause and ask yourself if death is a dreadful thing because it deprives you of this.” – Marcus Aurelius
“When men are inhuman, take care not to feel towards them as they do towards other humans.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Accustom yourself not to be disregarding of what someone else has to say: as far as possible enter into the mind of the speaker.” – Marcus Aurelius
“A man’s life is dyed the color of his imagination.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Live every day as if they last.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Do the things external which fall upon thee distract thee? Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If any man is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured. But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Give up your thirst for books, so that you do not die a grouch.” – Marcus Aurelius
“From my great-grandfather: not to have attended schools for the public; to have had good teachers at home, and to realize that this is the sort of thing on which one should spend lavishly.” – Marcus Aurelius
“I can control my thoughts as necessary; then how can I be troubled? What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Art thou angry with him whose armpits stink? Art thou angry with him whose mouth smells foul?” – Marcus Aurelius
“The honest and good man ought to be exactly like a man who smells strong, so that the bystander as soon as he comes near him must smell whether he choose or not.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Look to nothing, not even for a moment except to reason.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Think of the universal substance, of which thou has a very small portion; and of universal time, of which a short and indivisible interval has been assigned to thee; and of that which is fixed by destiny, and how small a part of it thou art.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The world is mere change, and this life, opinion.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Everything that exists is in a manner the seed of that which will be.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Not to waste time on nonsense. Not to be taken in by conjurors and hoodoo artists with their talk about incantations and exorcism and all the rest of it. Not to be obsessed with quail-fighting or other crazes like that.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Stop wandering about! You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue-if you care for yourself at all-and do it while you can.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Failure to read what is happening in another’s soul is not easily seen as a cause of unhappiness: but those who fail to attend the motions of their own soul are necessarily unhappy.” – Marcus Aurelius
“We must make haste then, not only because we are daily nearer to death, but also because the conception of things and the understanding of them cease first.” – Marcus Aurelius
“In an expression of true gratitude, sadness is conspicuous only by its absence.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Look within. Within is the fountain of good, and it will ever bubble up, if thou wilt ever dig.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Today I escaped all circumstance, or rather I cast out all circumstance, for it was not outside me, but within my judgments.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The sexual embrace can only be compared with music and with prayer.” – Marcus Aurelius
“How soon will time cover all things.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Observe the movements of the stars as if you were running their courses with them, and let your mind constantly dwell on the changes of the elements into each other. Such imaginings wash away the filth of life on the ground.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.” – Marcus Aurelius
“That which is not good for the swarm, neither is it good for the bee.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Everything that happens, happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so.” – Marcus Aurelius
“The happiness and unhappiness of the rational, social animal depends not on what he feels but on what he does; just as his virtue and vice consist not in feeling but in doing.” – Marcus Aurelius
“As far as you can, get into the habit of asking yourself in relation to any action taken by another: “What is his point of reference here?” But begin with yourself: examine yourself first.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Men exist for the sake of one another.” – Marcus Aurelius
“No one loses any other life than the one he now lives, nor does one live any other life than that which he will lose.” – Marcus Aurelius