Sunday, October 16, 2011


A review of Frank McLynn's Marcus Aurelius: A Life (2009)

(Rating 2 of 5)

Frank McLynn's account of the life and world of Emperor Marcus Aurelius does lack for detail. McLynn explains the life of a young Roman aristocrat who lives in a world of increasing inequality. To use a modern phrase, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. To put a more precise point on it, the Augustan Principate as a system government now seems to be suffering from the same fate as the Republican Senatorial establishment that it had replaced. Rome is facing great troubles and the government that is supposed to solve Rome's problems is either ignoring them at best or encouraging them at worst.* Gaining the notice of the Emperor Hadrian, young Marcus is adopted into the imperial family and is put on the direct path to the imperial throne. After an over two decade stint as the presumptive heir under Emperor Antonius Pious, he ascends to the imperial throne. As emperor he does many things but very little to solve Rome's larger problems.

Frank McLynn comes across in his writing as very knowledgeable about various topics, unfortunately it can somewhat drag his writing down. I understand why stoic philosophy is important to understanding Marcus Aurelius as a person. So McLynn, as the biographer, feels the need to explain stoic philosophy. However in contrast with author Anthony Everitt, who was able to explain stoicism in one page with a few examples**, McLynn not only dedicates a whole appendix to it, but he also drags on for entire chapters on the Emperor's view and writings on the topic. It is also one thing to sum up how his work is observed in later time periods when discussing his legacy and impact in the final chapter, however in the middle of the book I do not need to know how the Emperor's philosophy measures up Immanuel Kant. Often while reading this book I felt the need to yell “Get to the point, already!”

The structure of the book leaves a lot to be desired. For example I like to have my table of contents to tell me the pages of each of the individual chapters not just the introduction, preface, and appendixes. As a reader I find that a full table of contents helps me pace myself while reading. As a reviewer a full table of contents in a book it makes the book easier to go back over. He also has inconsistent capitalization of titles, McLynn will sometimes capitalize titles and other times he will not. For example, you will see King Louis IX of France and emperor Hadrian of Rome.

During the course of the book McLynn often refers to Marcus Aurelius as the 'greatest of the emperors of Rome' even occasionally adding the adverb 'unquestionably'. The funny thing is, the way Marcus Aurelius and his reign are described in the book gives the reader the impression he was a substandard emperor at best. This could highlight the author's low view of all of Rome's emperors—his views on Hadrian are very different from Anthony Everitt's. Nevertheless it comes off as an odd claim. I, myself, tend to judge leaders on three main criteria. The criteria I use are: how did the state*** look before leader X took over; how did leader X respond to the problems that he or she encountered; and what was the condition of the state when leader X left relative to when his or her time began. Clearly, the 'greatest emperor' was Augustus. He entered politics when Rome was being rocked by civil wars, he ended the civil wars and established a new form of government far more effective than the earlier one it replaced, and left Rome more powerful than ever in the stable hands of Emperor Tiberius.**** In contrast, Marcus Aurelius is handed Rome from Emperor Antonius Pious—who I always viewed as being a sort of Calvin Coolidge of Ancient Rome, an emperor who neatly managed the Empire, tended to trust his subordinates to do their jobs, with no major crisis hitting the Roman Empire during his watch as head of state—; his response to the problems that faced Rome were only effective in the short term (he defended the borders but had never quite solved the problems); and lastly he left the Roman Empire to his psychopathic son, Emperor Commodus.

In the end, I would recommend this book to someone with a strong handle on academic jargon and love of philosophy. If you just want to read about Rome stick with Adrian Goldsworthy.

*This is my personal observation not the author's.

**Everitt discussed Stoic philosophy in his book Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome when explaining the Stoic opposition to the Flavian emperors.

***You can substitute 'state' with kingdom, empire, or organization of any kind.

****Emperor Tiberius was not always great but at the start of his reign he was not that bad. In general, he was a capable ruler.

{Scene from the movie Gladiator, not a very historically accurate movie but Richard Harris plays a very good Emperor Marcus Aurelius}

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