Book Review of Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn

Marcus Aurelius: A Life by Frank McLynn, published by Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009, 684 pages


The scope of the biography Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn is breath-taking.  Chapter 1, for example, is as thorough a review of the context of his reign, which is the status of the Roman Empire in his reign, as one could possibly want. It covers estimates of population of the Empire and Rome itself; a review of the economy of the Empire; an analysis of trade, the rivers traded on; investments; a discussion of Roman trading ships with comparisons to European trading ships of the 1500’s;  to what extent there was industry, and what kinds of industry; estimates of GDP; an analysis of taxation (Rome was able to collect more than England and France combined in either the 16th or 17th centuries!); a discussion of Roman slaves, including classifications and those who were allowed female partners and those who were not, as well as the costs of a slave (and the greatest amount paid for a slave ever-700,000 sesterces!); life expectancies; the social hierarchy; a fascinating discussion of the wealth of various people (Pliny the Younger had 20,000,000 sesterces, that is 20 times the amount to be a senator, but considered himself as only moderately wealthy! and this in an era where 4 sesterces was a daily pay); the role of wet nurses in society; the divorce rate; the role of a bulla in  male child’s life; a full discussion of the Salii Colini-the priests of Quirinius; and finally a review of the history of the Annius Clan from its beginnings until the birth of Marcus Aurelius.

The story of Marcus Aurelius’ life is told in detail.  He lays before the reader a mosaic-built up one stone or chip at a time. For as McLynn introduces a person who may have had or did have an influence upon Marcus, he then in turns provides a full biography of that person.  So this biography had a biography of Hadrian, Antoninus, Fronto, Faustina the Younger, and so on.  These biographies are full of details, including not only descriptions of each person physically, but how each person fits into Roman society, how their clan fitted in, what they thought, their letters, and their intrigues.  It is a compellingly complete picture which McLynn assembles.

He devotes several chapters to as in-depth a review of the “Meditations” as one could ever possibly want. In the course of this, not only is Stoicism fully revealed as a philosophy, as Marcus Aurelius’ thoughts are compared to virtually every major Stoic philosopher, but also Stoicism is compared and contrasted with other philosophical schools, including Christianity.  McLynn quotes extensively from the “Meditations” as well as from other sources such that the reader may compare for himself the ideas being discussed in their original context.  In doing so, he reveals the psyche of not only Marcus Aurelius, but also of the Roman people.  You learn, for example, not only that Romans were afraid of cabals, but also why.

McLynn’s analysis is often startling but spot on.  In discussion of the Aurelian Column erected to celebrate Marcus’ success in the Germanic Wars, after painting a most visual picture of what the column looked like (“Among the horrors depicted on the columns are barbarians begging for their lives; Romans clearing villages and massacring all adult males; the gutting and torching of entire settlements; Germans praying to the gods for divine intervention and rescue; long lines of unarmed men being decapitated as they step up to the executioner’s sword; the mass murder of prisoners being thrown into open pits, which they are forced to dig themselves; head-hunting by Roman troops who display trophy heads to tan admiring emperor; the abuse and murder of prisoners; the death-marches, the rape of women; the seizure of cattle and the killing of infants.”), McLynn then writes: “The correct analogy is not something like Picasso’s Guernica, but matter-of-fact report of executions and mutilations of Gauls and Germans during Caesar’s Gallic Wars.”

The wealth of detail, the enormous breadth of this book, and the sheer insight that McLynn’s brings to his in-depth research make this book a must-read for anyone interested in the Roman Era.  Its footnotes alone are a treasure trove of information.  Having said that, one must brace oneself for McLynn’s writing which is dense.  His paragraphs seem to stretch on for pages, with multiple ideas covered in each paragraph.  McLynn has not made his masterwork accessible to the reader.  His vocabulary is extensive and forced this reader to have a good dictionary at hand.  Nonetheless, this is an important book and is all-in-all a rewarding book to read. I found his asides to be as interesting as any I have ever read.  I underlined passage after passage, which is one of the highest compliments I can pay an author.

Survey of Current Literature

As I have promised, from time to time, I review articles in various magazines which I think have great merit, or are newsworthy, or are particularly interesting. Although I have often cited magazines dealing with archaeology, I find articles of interest in magazines dealing with other disciplines.


For example, a most noteworthy article is in the March 2015 issue of Military History, entitled “The Myth of Masada”.  This article is written by Richard A. Gabriel.  Professor Gabriel teaches both at the Army War College and the Royal Military College of Canada.  He has written numerous books with several dealing with topics of antiquity, including, but not limited to, “Philip of Macedonia”, “Scipio Africanus: Rome’s Greatest General”, “The Great Armies of Antiquity”, and “The Great Battles of Antiquity: A Strategic and Tactical Guide to the Great Battles that Shaped the Development of War”.  Of most relevance are his two studies of ancient Israel, “Gods of Our Father: The Memory of Egypt in Judaism and Christianity”, and “The Military History of Ancient Israel”.  This clearly is a voice to be reckoned with.


His thesis is that the story of the mass murder and suicide at Masada is not only suspicious, but also has no archaeological support for it.  This alone would have made the article must-reading.  However, the article also brilliantly surveys the entire first century ad in Israel and provides a complete context of the Jewish uprisings.  He provides a pocket history of the Sicarii.  This is a thoughtful and provocative article, which is extremely well-written.  I recommend it highly.


In the July/August issue of Archaeology, there is a short article entitled: “A Spin through Augustan Rome”.  Professor Diane Favro of the Department of Architecture and Urban Design, and her team at UCLA have built a 3-D computer model of Rome during the reign of Augustus.  The model has a tremendous amount of information about the 400 known Augustan building, as well hypothetical designs and distributions of 9,000 additional buildings.  The model demonstrates how Rome changed over time.  The question Professor Favro posed in constructing this model was ‘whether Augustus really   found Rome a city of mudbrick and left it a city of marble?’  Her team’s conclusion: “The results are surprising-Rome may not have been as visibly clad in marble as Augustus claimed.”


In addition to the article, there are several web articles concerning the model, one of which can be found at:


In the same issue of Archaeology is a small article detailing the Roman city of Carnuntum, which is about 25 miles east of Vienna, Austria.  Carnuntum was established in 40 Ad.   It was a fortress on the Danube guarding both the Amber Road and the Danube, and thus the eastern border of the Empire.  Later, Carnuntum became the capital of the province of Upper Pannonia.  The importance of the site and the surrounding areas is that there are ruins of a gladiator school, one of three found to date (the others being in Rome and Pompeii) and a temple relief of the god Mithras slaying a bull.  The gladiator school comes complete with advertisements announcing the next gladiator contests, training areas, and gladiator paraphernalia.

Keep reading!  And if you find a significant article, please bring it to my attention.

Exodus: Final Thoughts

We started this discussion by describing he battle of Kadesh and then by looking at the inscriptions called the Kadesh Poem.  I would like to return to the Poem in this final article.

Hendel claimed that most of the motifs cited in Berman’s essay, far from being distinctive to these two sources,  were instead “formulaic and widely distributed” in ancient Egyptian literature.

Berman says in response: “This is a strong claim, so let’s set the record straight. No Egyptian composition other than the Kadesh Poem speaks of how the pharaoh’s troops fell into disarray when surprised by an enemy chariot force. No other Egyptian composition speaks of the pharaoh pleading to his god and being told to proceed forward in battle against all odds. No other Egyptian composition has defeated enemy troops vocally acknowledging the superiority of the Egyptian divinity who has been working against them. No other Egyptian composition describes (let alone visually portraying in a bas relief, as in the case of the Ramesses monuments) the drowning of the enemy force in a body of water. No other Egyptian composition describes how the pharaoh’s own formerly dispirited troops return to the battlefield, survey the enemy corpses, and erupt in a spontaneous, extended hymn.”

If we accept Berman’s statements, then the Kadesh Poem is a singularly unique poem without precedent or equal in Egyptian literature.

Berman does allow that there are some elements of the poem that are not unique.  For example, the poem refers to the Hittites being consumed “like chaff” by the fire of the Pharaoh.  This reference appears in at least one additional source.  Berman, for one, argues that this expressions which appears in this additional source was copied from the Kadesh poem in that additional source, but cites no evidence for this position.  In further rebuttal Berman argues, that ” not a single one of the motifs listed above appears anywhere else in Egyptian literature. But all of them do appear in this one case, and all of them match the account in Exodus. Moreover, they appear in these two sources in essentially the same sequence…”  This might be construed, as Sommer argued,  as being ” persuasive force of the parallels” Berman has identified. I identify.

Still, if you add these distinctive motifs to the Poem’s more widely attested motifs that  Berman cited—like the return of the victorious forces to the palace and the grant of eternal rule—the Kadesh Poem and the Exodus account can be seen to exhibit almost exactly the same order.

Again, all of this does not prove the Exodus story, but it sheds some light.

I accept Berman’s conclusions.  I see in his work the following:

1. The Author of the 14th and 15th Chapters of Exodus knew of the Kadesh Poem and mimicked it in his own work;

2. The Author felt he was relating something so powerful that the only parallel he could use to describe the event was to relate it in terms of the most important event that had occurred in his memory or the memory of the world at that time: the battle between two super powers, involving thousands of men and chariots;

3. In the something that the Author was relating was a true event in the history of his people; and

4. In that event which the Author was relating, the Author saw the hand of God at work and that the hand of God was working for his people in history and in time.