In Pursuit of the Philosopher King

Marcus Aurelius – The Philosopher King

No one is perhaps more worthy to hold the title of Philosopher King than the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. In fact, he often goes by that appellation in the history books. Yet, the life of this Stoic sage also reveals two fatal flaws in Plato’s system. The tragic conclusion to his story anecdotally foreshadows the doom of Kollipolis, if it were ever to exist.

Education and Childhood

Marcus Aurelius’s real father died when he was only 3 years old leaving him to be raised by his grandfather in his youth. In his personal writings, now known as the Meditations, He credits his grandfather with spending lavishly on private tutors, many of whom Marcus then lists as being major influences on him. It was from these tutors that Marcus Aurelius first came to study philosophy, specifically the popular school of Stoicism.

The young Marcus must have made an impression on the aging Emperor Hadrian. Having no natural born sons, Hadrian adopted Antoninus Pius as his heir on the condition that Antoninus in turn had to adopt Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (The son of Hadrian’s first adopted heir, Lucius Aelius who had died).

Marcus Aurelius’s education mirrors closely that of Plato’s Republic. He studied philosophy from many different teachers but was careful not to be too bookish. He warns himself, “give up your thirst for books, so you do not die a grouch, but in true grace and heartfelt gratitude to the gods.” This can be seen as the same sort of warning Plato gives when discussing the need for both physical training and philosophy to perfect the balanced soul. Marcus Aurelius was an active youth despite suffering from health concerns in later life, it’s entirely probably Marcus and his tutors knew of Plato’s Republic and his education was modeled with the ideal of the Philosopher King in mind.

Imperial Rule

In the 19 years of Marcus’s rule the Roman Empire faced some of the greatest hardships it had ever enjured since it’s founding. A great number of barbarian tribes had been driven westward by the Huns and looked towards the empires territory with jealous eyes. Marcus spent 14 years of his rule fighting against these tribes along the borders of the empire. Despite his peace loving nature, he was no coward, and spent much of this time on the front lines with the legions.

Worse still, victorious legions returning from Parthia brought back with them more than gold and jewels. A deadly plague, known as the Antonine Plague ravaged their ranks. It soon spread to all corners of the empire claiming 7-8 million lives over the course of its terror. A number of Marcus’s own children fell victim to the plague, and it was potentially even responsible for his own death.


Marcus’s legacy was not secured by his reign as Emperor. Ask yourself how many of the 71 emperors you can name. Most of these men sought to see their names inscribed upon the heavens. Ironically It was the one who cared nothing for glory or fame that secured both, perhaps only second to Augustus himself.

Look, make yourself a gift of this present time. Those who are more inclined to pursue fame hereafter fail to reckon that the next generation will have people just like those they dislike now: and they too will die. What, anyway, is it to you if this is the echo in future voices and this the judgement they make of you?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book VIII : 44

The quote above comes from Marcus’s personal diary. Written while in his tent on campaign in Germania. This diary was meant as a personal reminder to himself. A way to reinforce the teachings of his tutors, many of whom at this point in his life were now dead. It is by pure luck that it survived his death, but from it, Marcus’s legacy was secured.

He never felt comfortable at war, nor running the empire. He did it as it was his duty but philosophy was always calling to him. I can think of no more perfect candidate for Plato’s Philosopher King than Marcus. But, alas, we must now turn to the second question: that of succession.

The Heir: Commodus

Marcus’s only surviving son, Commodus, was made co-emperor early on in his life. Marcus hoped that the responsibility would toughen up the young boy who longed for a soft city life. But as time passed it soon became clear he did not have his fathers temperament. Yet for whatever reason, Marcus never abandoned hope in his son. After his death, Commodus was made the sole emperor.

Bust of Commodus dressed as Hercules- Capitoline Museums, Rome

He quickly turned out to be everything his father was not. The Marcomannic War was abandoned and Commodus sued for peace. The responsibilities of government were given over to his friends who soon were corrupted with the influence of power. Gladiatorial games were renewed and reinvigorated under his reign with Commodus himself even appearing in the arena dressed as Hercules! His father by contrast had forced gladiators to fight with blunted blades and drastically reduced the number of games throughout his rule. Commodus’s depravity came to a zenith with the renaming of Rome, the months, legions, senate, and Roman people all after himself! Unsurprisingly, this led to his assassination.

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