Book Review: Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed


by William O. Stephens

New York/London: Continuum, 2012. Pp. xiv, 192. Illus., map, stemma, append., notes, biblio., index. $24.95 paper. ISBN: 1441108106

An introduction to the life of one of the greatest Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (r. AD 161-180) who was also something of an enigma.

    Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic of introspective, philosophical bent, a man of no military experience who yet led one of Rome’s last great wars of conquest, only to die on the eve of victory, a tolerant and humane man who yet allowed the persecution of Christians, and, of course, father of Commodus, whom he knew to be unbalanced yet made co-emperor at an early age.  Biographies of notable Roman Emperors tend to be very thick.  But this is not a biography.  Rather, in Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexes, Prof. Stephens (Creighton) tries to give us an overview of this complex man.  He opens with an overview of the emperor’s origins and education, ascent to power, military campaigns, and rule.  Stephens then looks at the philosophical influences on Marcus’s thought, how these influenced his life and rule, and the man’s own philosophical musings, embodied in the work today titles Meditations.  He concludes with a discussion of how history has viewed Marcus Aurelius, both as emperor and philosopher.  Throughout, Stephens weaves the man’s though and actions together.  Thus, while he dwells a good deal on Stoicism and Marcus’ personal philosophy, Stephenson weaves into this the man’s administration of the empire, his campaigns, putting them within the framework of overall imperial defense, and the nature of the succession to the imperium.  And as a bonus, Stephens gives us an analysis of the film Gladiator, which vaguely deals with Marcus’s final days and the transition of power to Commodus, as it reflects both history and Stoicism. 

A very interesting and useful introduction to the life of Marcus Aurelius and to Stoic philosophy, which will prove rewarding reading for both the interested layman and the more serious student of Roman History.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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