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Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

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Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who ruled the Roman Empire between AD 161 and 180, is one of the best recorded individuals from antiquity. Even his face became more than usually familiar: the imperial coinage displayed his portrait for over 40 years, from the clean-shaven young heir of Antonius to the war-weary, heavily bearded ruler who died at his post in his la Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who ruled the Roman Empire between AD 161 and 180, is one of the best recorded individuals from antiquity. Even his face became more than usually familiar: the imperial coinage displayed his portrait for over 40 years, from the clean-shaven young heir of Antonius to the war-weary, heavily bearded ruler who died at his post in his late fifties. His correspondence with his tutor Fronto, and even more the private notebook he kept for his last ten years, the Meditations, provides a unique series of vivid and revealing glimpses into the character and peoccupations of this emporer who spent many years in terrible wars against northern tribes. In this accessible and scholarly study, Professor Birley paints a portrait of an emporer who was human and just - an embodiment of the pagan virtues of Rome.


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Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who ruled the Roman Empire between AD 161 and 180, is one of the best recorded individuals from antiquity. Even his face became more than usually familiar: the imperial coinage displayed his portrait for over 40 years, from the clean-shaven young heir of Antonius to the war-weary, heavily bearded ruler who died at his post in his la Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor who ruled the Roman Empire between AD 161 and 180, is one of the best recorded individuals from antiquity. Even his face became more than usually familiar: the imperial coinage displayed his portrait for over 40 years, from the clean-shaven young heir of Antonius to the war-weary, heavily bearded ruler who died at his post in his late fifties. His correspondence with his tutor Fronto, and even more the private notebook he kept for his last ten years, the Meditations, provides a unique series of vivid and revealing glimpses into the character and peoccupations of this emporer who spent many years in terrible wars against northern tribes. In this accessible and scholarly study, Professor Birley paints a portrait of an emporer who was human and just - an embodiment of the pagan virtues of Rome.

30 review for Marcus Aurelius: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Windsor

    A decent history of a very good emperor. Author tends to bog reader down with too many citations from only a few sources. Tend to find Meditations more of a read for me. This book, however, is an excellent look into family politics with Commodus, as well as Aurelius' wars with Germany and Parthia. A decent history of a very good emperor. Author tends to bog reader down with too many citations from only a few sources. Tend to find Meditations more of a read for me. This book, however, is an excellent look into family politics with Commodus, as well as Aurelius' wars with Germany and Parthia.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Brock Tarlton

    Dope

  3. 4 out of 5

    Michael Baranowski

    Marcus Aurelius is one of my heroes, and back in 2010 when Frank McLynn came out with his biography of the emperor / Stoic, I was eager to read it. But once I saw the reviews and picked up a copy to page through myself, I realized that I wasn't interested in reading a ridiculous hit-job on Marcus Aurelius written by a man who colossally misunderstood Stoicism. That left me with Birley's biography, which I only recently found a decent used copy of. And while Birley has a far better understanding Marcus Aurelius is one of my heroes, and back in 2010 when Frank McLynn came out with his biography of the emperor / Stoic, I was eager to read it. But once I saw the reviews and picked up a copy to page through myself, I realized that I wasn't interested in reading a ridiculous hit-job on Marcus Aurelius written by a man who colossally misunderstood Stoicism. That left me with Birley's biography, which I only recently found a decent used copy of. And while Birley has a far better understanding of Stoicism than McLynn did, his writing is dry as dust. I trudged through about half of the book before realizing that even as much as I admire Marcus Aurelius, life is far too short to spend it on such a dull book.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Update of Birley's original 1960s biography, fascinating for how it was updated to be more thoughtful about the gossip about Faustina, the larger context of the empire's long crisis, the importance and education of Marcus Aurelius' mother, wife and daughters, the extended family network of connections, and significantly more mature examination of the relationships of emperors like Hadrian. Update of Birley's original 1960s biography, fascinating for how it was updated to be more thoughtful about the gossip about Faustina, the larger context of the empire's long crisis, the importance and education of Marcus Aurelius' mother, wife and daughters, the extended family network of connections, and significantly more mature examination of the relationships of emperors like Hadrian.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Gavin O'Brien

    This book was sitting on my to do shelf for far too long indeed. Delighted to have read it and have had the opportunity both to read it and add it to my 'classical' library. It is not hard to see why Birley's work remains the definitive read for anyone looking to be introduced to the life of Marcus Aurelius. Though more popular works have appeared in recent years, this book clearly sets the tone and pacing, and its influence can be felt in those later releases. From his earliest to his final day This book was sitting on my to do shelf for far too long indeed. Delighted to have read it and have had the opportunity both to read it and add it to my 'classical' library. It is not hard to see why Birley's work remains the definitive read for anyone looking to be introduced to the life of Marcus Aurelius. Though more popular works have appeared in recent years, this book clearly sets the tone and pacing, and its influence can be felt in those later releases. From his earliest to his final days, from his public work in the courts of Rome to his private musings at the frontier, Birely covers all aspects of Marcus Aurelius' in his search of the man himself. His treatment of him is surrounded by a discussion of the influences on his growth, development and education, bringing with it a wider examination of the life and aspirations of upper class Antonine Rome. We see the young book worm who's heroes were not warriors of myth and legend, but Philosophers. We see the cheeky teenager that enjoyed tormenting shepherds by scattering their flocks on the roads with friends, that danced through the streets of Rome during the Lupercalia and who took pleasure in the hunt and the company of his family and friends. We see a man that held a life long distain for gladiator spectacles, who valued human life and freedom from slavery, who promoted men based on merit, not rank, and who strove to show clemency before punishment. While good qualities abound, Marcus was not lacking in faults. He was grave and serious, some might call him dull, and he was well aware of this and what others thought of him, yet he stayed his hand. Christians were persecuted in his reign, the preferential treatment of the rich in law judgements was codified and thousands died in his Northern Wars as many more would from his appointment of Commodus as his successor. Yet some of these factors were well outside the bounds of his control or can only be attributed to him on a localized basis. Even with his shining reputation in the sources and the bias which that carries there can be no doubt that Marcus did attempt to be an honest, clement and benevolent ruler who detested the idea of war yet carried out what he felt was his duty to the Roman State and people, selfless characteristics rarely found in an ancient ruler. Some might find Birely's work, though short at only 223 pages (not including the very useful appendices), dry in places, maybe even a slog at times, but for those who push through to the end they will learn about a character who's name still echoes today as an example of the ideal statesman and perhaps within this find a hero they too can admire.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Dockrill

    Marcus Aurelius, arguably one of the most world renowned names in classic history for his philosophical works i.e meditations, and for being considered "one of the last great emperors". I personally don't think that claim is true, as many emperors who came after him I think were very decent men who played the part well but were not loved by the senate - who quite often wrote about the emperors rather unfairly. Also given the situation he was placed in, having never campaigned to any real notable Marcus Aurelius, arguably one of the most world renowned names in classic history for his philosophical works i.e meditations, and for being considered "one of the last great emperors". I personally don't think that claim is true, as many emperors who came after him I think were very decent men who played the part well but were not loved by the senate - who quite often wrote about the emperors rather unfairly. Also given the situation he was placed in, having never campaigned to any real notable extent prior to the Marcomanni Wars, and responding the way that he did, was nothing short of remarkable. He was also notable for being among some of the few emperors who did not in fact want the throne, others such as Tiberius had a similar disposition. Therefore he tried to co-rule with Lucius Verus, which worked out relatively well, even though the men were so very different. It would work out relatively for all concerned until Verus would die. Then of course, we cannot forget Marcus's famously notorious son Commodus, who Cassius Dio certainly did not like and who is said to have ruined the empire - which I think goes too far in claiming that. Commodus had to contend with plague and intrigue and mountainous debt left over from Marcus's reign. While Commodus did himself no favors, he wasn't completely as villainous as he is made out to be in my opinion - although dulling the gladiatorial blades so he could win, didn't do him any favors. Of all of the authors of the Roman emperor series I must say that Anthony Birley comes out amongst the better of the lot. He can be a little dry but he tends to keep things moving at a fairly crisp pace and stays on course rather then getting lost on tangents. He is a far improvement over Frank Mclynn whose biography of Marcus Aurelius I had read prior to this (barely). I will say thank you to Anthony for making this experience a much more pleasurable one than that one had been.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Vladimiro

    Biografia solidissima di uno dei meglio documentati imperatori della storia romana; sicuramente piena di fatti, ipotesi, citazioni, studi ecc. ecc. però rimane il difetto riscontrato nell'altra biografia imperiale scritta dallo stesso autore (su Settimio Severo): una "aridità" che toglie alla narrazione quel pathos che la vicenda meriterebbe. Il che probabilmente era nelle intenzioni dell'autore, forse sono io a lamentarmi per ciò che neanche ci dovrebbe essere. Insuperabile invece sul piano pret Biografia solidissima di uno dei meglio documentati imperatori della storia romana; sicuramente piena di fatti, ipotesi, citazioni, studi ecc. ecc. però rimane il difetto riscontrato nell'altra biografia imperiale scritta dallo stesso autore (su Settimio Severo): una "aridità" che toglie alla narrazione quel pathos che la vicenda meriterebbe. Il che probabilmente era nelle intenzioni dell'autore, forse sono io a lamentarmi per ciò che neanche ci dovrebbe essere. Insuperabile invece sul piano prettamente storico, visto che non si limita ai meri dati biografici su Marco Aurelio ma racconto molto bene anche le fasi più oscure (oscure dal punto di vista della documentazione, tipo le guerre marcomanniche). Su un punto sono molto d'accordo con l'autore (è lo spunto migliore del libro): nei ventitré anni del regno di Antonino Pio, Marco, già designato erede al trono, non lasciò mai l'Italia né ricevette mai un'educazione militare. Tale lassismo porterà poi i Parti ad attaccare e... via dicendo tutti gli squilibri (voluto o non voluti) del regno di Marco Aurelio. Biografia consigliatissima sul piano storico, insomma.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Henrik Schilder

    Knowing Marcus better It is nice to lear and to better know Marcus Aurelius from other sources than “Meditations”. I like the approach used for notes and references.

  9. 4 out of 5

    So Hakim

    As the title says, biography of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Chock-full of direct quotes including personal letters. There is also insight about Roman historiography, namely, which sources are considered good/bad; what evidences thus far, etc. Unfortunately the text is a bit dry. Only read this if you want to know Marcus Aurelius in scholarly fashion.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Vicki Cline

    I'm afraid this book was too scholarly to be truly enjoyable for me, but it was worthwile reading. I did like the last chapter about the Meditations. I'm afraid this book was too scholarly to be truly enjoyable for me, but it was worthwile reading. I did like the last chapter about the Meditations.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Wayne T

  12. 5 out of 5

    Timbo

  13. 4 out of 5

    Hashem Tarabishi

  14. 5 out of 5

    Martin Sjöborg

  15. 4 out of 5

    Abigail Lennah

  16. 5 out of 5

    Chris Bradley

  17. 4 out of 5

    Karl

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gastón Ledesma

  19. 5 out of 5

    Joe Rigodanzo

  20. 5 out of 5

    Laz

  21. 5 out of 5

    Francesco18

  22. 5 out of 5

    Hylke

  23. 4 out of 5

    Facundo

  24. 4 out of 5

    Marian Stanley

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kabir Archuletta

  26. 5 out of 5

    Tr

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jeanie

  28. 4 out of 5

    Marcus

  29. 5 out of 5

    Oliver

  30. 5 out of 5

    Zeyad El

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