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.


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