How to Think Like a Roman Emperor covers the life of Marcus Aurelius in a unique and entertaining way of introducing and exploring a number of key Stoic principles in practice.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor overlays a compelling account of the life of Marcus Aurelius with Stoic philosophy in the context of the great challenges Marcus confronted as a child through to his death. Each chapter takes us through a period of the life of Marcus and ends with a short reflection/explanation of Stoic values in the context of the experiences of Marcus
- The Dead Emperor: The Story of Stoicism
- Rome’s Most Truthful Child: How to Speak Wisely
- Contemplating the Sage: How to Follow your Values
- The Choice of Hercules: How to Conquer Desire
- Grasping the Nettle: How to Tolerate Pain
- The War of Many Nations: How to Relinquish Fear
- Temporary Madness: How to Conquer Anger
- Death and the View from Above
The Dead Emperor: The Story of Stoicism
Beginning with the poignant scene of his death. Donald Robertson captures the essence of the death of Marcus remarkably well. To what degree Marcus approached his death in such a true Stoic manner and how much is romanticised is hard to tell. However, after reading Meditations it feels that Donald has written a particularly true account.
Rome’s Most Truthful Child: How to Speak Wisely
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is swiftly rewound to the earliest of days of Marcus and his birth on 121 A.D in modern-day Spain. Marcus moved to Rome at the age of 3 and lost his father at this young age.
Whilst raised by his grandparents Emperor Hadrian had much influence on Marcus. Hadrian had a great fondness for Marcus nicknaming him Verissimus (Truest or most truthful).
Even at this early age Marcus became known for his love of simplicity and had low opinion or patience for the pretence and corruption found in Roman politics and life amongst the wealthy and powerful of Rome.
Contemplating the Sage: How to Follow your Values
As a young man, Marcus often suffered from a short temper and as he grew to know, read and learn Stoicism he came to accept how lucky he was to have now done anything of irreparable consequence in his fits of anger. Stoics taught him the anger was a ‘temporary madness’ with often irreversible consequence.
During this part of his life, Marcus (in Meditations) refers to his three great Stoic mentors Rusticus, Apollonius and Sextus. Marcus was impacted greatly by the death of Rusticus. Rusticus had mentored Marcus in avoiding pretentiousness and encouraged a deep study of philosophy. Rusticus also emphasised living according to your philosophy not just preaching it.
The Choice of Hercules: How to Conquer Desire
Here Donald writes of the dual rulership of the roman empire by Marcus and his brother Lucius (Lucius was also the son-in-law of Marcus after marrying Marcus’ daughter). Lucius and Marcus both studied Stoicism, however, they had very vastly different lifestyles. Lucius pursued pleasures and entertainment.
The Choice of Hercules refers to the story of Zeno (after becoming shipwrecked) picking up and reading Memorabilia which tells of Socrates arguing that self-control makes a man noble and good, whilst pursuing a life of pleasure does not. Socrates uses Hercules’s encounter with two beautiful women, one offering an easy and pleasant life, whilst the other offered a life of hard work and challenges. Hercules chooses to follow the second woman named Arete which means virtue.
The story of Hercules resonates with Stoicism, reflecting that we must choose what we want to be in life and pursue it despite the distractions of easier options or rewards being presented to us. The inner satisfaction of moving towards what we value brings an inner comfort and purpose.
Grasping the Nettle: How to Tolerate Pain
Grasping the Nettle tells of Marcus at the front-line of battle, Marcus was around 50 years old at the time and the frailty and physical weakness he endured in his youth were now increasingly obvious. Yet Marcus was renowned for his attitude towards his frailty and suffering during the 10 years spent on the battlefield.
The battlefield in the North was particularly harsh and cold and in the close confines, illness and disease became prevalent through the army camps. There is little doubt Marcus suffered during this time and endured a psychological battle of his own to overcome his pain. One method was to focus directly on the pain and isolate it to its source, in the process recognised that it not the whole self that is in pain, rather ‘there is a pain in my knee’. An original form of what is now referred to as cognitive distancing.
The War of Many Nations: How to Relinquish Fear
Here Donald describes the struggle with the Sarmations who regularly raided settlements and were proving a difficult opponent to manage by the Roman Army. The Sarmations had developed techniques to overcome the traditional ‘hollow square’ formation used by the Romans on the ice frozen ground and water. Rather than panic or abandon formations Marcus contemplated and introduced a minor tweak to the formation using the inner soldiers shields to wedge the front soldiers footing in the ice.
This time the Romans held against the Sarmation cavalry charge and once in close proximity pulled the Sarmations from their horses to a bloody victory.
Donald uses this example as one of the Stoic approaches to overcome fear. Without each soldier holding firm in the face of great fear the entire strategy would have failed. Perhaps Marcus placing himself on the frontline, facing the fear of battle himself instilled a sign of courage in his army.
Temporary Madness: How to Conquer Anger
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor turns to the civil war instigated by Cassius in 175 A.D. Cassius had achieved the role of imperium (commander of the empire) in the East after successfully reclaiming Alexander from an Egyptian uprising and occupation. At its peak, Egypt was a great source of food and income for Rome and therefore controlling the East gave great power to affect Rome. Meanwhile, in Rome, Senators who disapproved of Marcus’s ongoing Marcomannic campaign took the opportunity to support Cassius.
In this time of great deception and crisis, Marcus reflects on the Stoic belief that no man willingly does wrong, however, he may do wrong through ignorance. To this end Marcus makes it known that he offers forgiveness to the soldiers who have wrongly supported Cassius and that they would not suffer punishment, however, he would march to meet them. This move ultimately leads to an assassination of Cassius and an end to the civil war.
This story is a great Stoic example of overcoming one’s anger by recognising our own and others weaknesses and flaws and applying wisdom and virtue to the situations presented to us.
Death and the View from Above
In his final chapter Donald again presents the final moments of Marcus and Stoic values and perspective on death.
Worth a read
Greatly enjoyed reading How to Think Like a Roman Emperor a number of times now, Donald has put together a unique approach to sharing Stoicism and the story of one of Stoicisms most famous characters. Well worth a read or a listen on Audiobook. This article is a full review following on from preview review which you can read along with a quick audiobook review.
Share your thoughts and recommendations for great Stoic reading below.