Written by Nicholaos Jones, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient Greek philosophy begins in Miletus, an illustrious Greek colony along the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea. Before the Milesian philosophers, however, there were the mythic poets. The history of ancient Greek philosophy is, in some sense, a history of breaking with the strategy these poets use to explain why things are they way they are.
Homer (c. 750 BCE) is the best known of the mythic poets. For purposes of comparison with the Milesians, however, Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) is more relevant. Hesiod’s Theogony offers an account for the origin of the gods—from the beginning of the world, through various battles among the gods, to the rise of Zeus and the birth of Zeus’ children. The explanatory strategy is genealogical.
First there is Chasm, a yawning gap or void space.
Chaos, by George Frederic Watts, around 1875
Earth appears as a flat disk within this gap, and the underworld appears beneath as an enclosed space to contain the roots of what might grow upon the surface. Love appears as well, a procreative force responsible for generating offspring from parents.
Bosch’s Creation of the World, by Wolfe von Lenkiewicz
Then Chasm and Earth undergo parthenogenesis, reproduction without fertilization. From Chasm come Gloom and Night. From Earth, at first, comes Sky; then, soon after, Hills and Sea. Love’s intervention prompts incestuous union between Chasm and Night, begetting Brightness and Day. Earth and Sky give birth to the encircling Ocean and the brute, uncontrollable titanic forces that shape the land contained therein.
Chaos, The Genesis, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1841
The titans, in time, beget the gods and goddesses. The divinities, in turn, intervene within the realm of mortals, enacting their whimsical and capricious wills.
Hesiod’s account is not scientific, in our sense of scientific. But it is systematic, because each begotten individual has its own powers and its own domain of rule. It is also explanatory; these powers account for phenomena such as earthquakes (Poseidon shaking the earth below the sea) and storms (Zeus hurling thunderbolts).
Mythical depiction, artist unknown
The history of ancient Greek philosophy is, in some sense, a history of breaking with Hesiod’s explanatory strategy. The first Greek philosopher whose writing we actually have is the Milesian Anaximander (610 BCE – 546 BCE).
Anaximander offers an account of the origins of the world that illustrates a new style of explanation—a philosophical, and perhaps even scientific, style. Unlike Hesiod, Anaximander does not invoke interactions among divine entities. Instead, he restricts himself to interactions among natural processes.
Wood-inlay image representing chaos magnum, the “great gulf” (Luke 16:26), in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, Italy. By Giovan Francesco Capoferri, based on a design by Lorenzo Lotto.
Anaximander calls the original state of the world apeiron. This he defines as a primordial stuff that secretes, or separates out, polarities such as hot and cold. These powers, unlike the primordial stuff, are definite and bounded. Because each one has a definite identity that excludes its contrary, these powers are thereby bounded (or limited) by its opposite. The apeiron, in contrast, excludes nothing and therefore has no definite identity or function.
After the apeiron secretes the contraries, it steers (kubernein) them into a structured order—akin to the way a pilot steers a ship in a specific direction, or a leader steers a group into a team. The result is a muddy nucleus surrounded by a layer of air and, further out, a shell of fire. When this structured mass bursts, the fire separates into a series of concentric rings of flame. The outermost ring is the sun; the middle, the moon; the inner rings, stars. Air surrounds the rings, making them mostly invisible. But the air contains holes. Fire from the outermost ring of the sun passes through the largest of these holes, separating the muddy nucleus into earth and sea. The holes also move, and their motion explains the regular appearance and disappearance of the celestial bodies.
Anaximander’s cosmogony retains significant parallels with Hesiod’s. According to Hesiod, creation proceeds from Chasm to Gaia, then onward to opposing powers which beget the separation of the celestial and terrestrial realms, and from there the structures of the earth. Although Anaximander abandons Hesiod’s mythological posits, he retains the general structure of Hesiod’s explanatory sequence, conceptualizing creation as proceeding from the apeiron to the separation of air from earth, onward to rings of fire and their separation into heavenly bodies, and finally to the separation of air from sea.
Despite this general similarity, there are significant dissimilarities of detail. For example, according to Hesiod, Chasm is dark, surrounds its creation, and persists within the creation. By contrast, according to Anaximander, the apeiron is none of these. Hesiod also conceptualizes three basic forces—Chasm, Gaia, and Eros. By contrast, Anaximander replaces Chasm with boundless, yet orderly, erotic attraction (Eros).
Moreover, Hesiod presents his account as authoritative because it comes from the Muses. Anaximander’s account, by contrast, derives its authority from the capacity of others to follow his reasoning, to assent or demur from the intelligibility of his conclusions without regard for divine inspiration.
We are prone nowadays to treat scientific inquiry as radically different from mythology. Comparing Hesiod and Anaximander reveals intimations of these differences. Hesiod grounds his inquiries upon private inspiration, and his explanations appeal to divine action. Anaximander, by contrast, grounds his inquiries upon public reason, and his explanations appeal to impersonal forces. Yet comparing Hesiod and Anaximander also reveals that Anaximander’s scientific approach is continuous with Hesiod’s mythological approach. Anaximander’s explanatory concerns closely resemble Hesiod’s, and the structure of Anaximander’s explanations imitates the structure of Hesiod’s. This is, perhaps, some reason for treating scientific inquiry as mythology matured rather than mythology abandoned.
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Too often, students of philosophy are only aware of the great names in ancient Greek philosophy. There are many lesser-known philosophers who developed remarkable arguments that are still relevant today. One of these is the somewhat mysterious figure of Melissus of Samos. Not only was he a great thinker he was also a successful military man who even reportedly defeated the Athenians.
Life of Melissus of Samos
The Isle of Samos
There are few details about the life of Melissus of Samos, but he was believed born on the Aegean Island of Samos about 500 BC. At the time of his birth, Samos was an important naval and trading power. It appears that Melissus was a student of philosophy and was also probably a member of the Samian elite. Sources indicate that he studied under the great Parmenides of Elea, founder of the Eleatic school. Melissus likely traveled to Elea (located in modern-day southern Italy) to study under Parmenides.
At some point he returned to Samos, where he became a military commander and is thought to have become active in local politics. In 440 AD, Samos was an independent state within the Delian League dominated by Athens. The Athenians had effectively turned the Delian League into an extension of their empire. That same year, the Athenians attempted to fully conquer the island. It appears that Melissus, presumably a member of the oligarchic party, was given command of the Samian navy.
He is reported to have inflicted at least one if not two defeats on the Athenians under Pericles. However, Athens ultimately triumphed. Samos was absorbed into the empire and a democratic government imposed on the island. It is not known if Melissus played a part in the failed oligarchic counter-revolution that, with Persian support, tried to oust the Athenians and their democratic allies.
It appears that Melissus also taught philosophy and among his students was the future atomist Leucippus. The date of the Samian philosopher’s death is not known. It appears that he was well-known in his own lifetime.
Philosophy of Melissus of Samos
Melissus wrote a short treatise called On Nature of which extensive fragments have survived. His theories were also referenced in works by other philosophers.
Melissus was regarded as the third member of the Eleatic School, alongside Parmenides and Zeno (best known for his paradoxes). This was a school of Pre-Socratic thought that was established in Elea in the fifth century BC in what is now Veila in southern Italy. Their ontological theory was that everything was one, a theory known as monism. The Eleatics, however, proposed a radical monism in which everything is considered part of a whole, including material, living things. For them, the one is eternal and indivisible. In a significant departure from other pre-Socratic philosophers, the Eleatics valued reason over observation.
By and large, Melissus followed Parmenides and the second great Eleatic, Zeno. Melissus’ philosophy was distinctive in that he believed his predecessors did not fully address the issue of motion or the distinction between being and non-being. Unlike Parmenides, he did not believe that the one was an unchanging present. Melissus held that the one was eternal, that it had always existed and was indestructible. He also argued that it was unlimited, stretching out in all directions and that void, or nothingness, did not exist.
Melissus was a pioneer in applying the deductive method of reasoning.His arguments were very rigorous. At times he seems to suggest that the one is identical with the non-material, referring to it as incorporeal and disembodied.
Influence of Melissus
Ancient ruins of Elea, Italy.
Melissus’ work greatly contributed to the Eleatic School. However, some thinkers, such as Aristotle, ridiculed his claims. If it is true that Melissus taught Leucippus, this suggests he was influential in his own time, especially with the Atomists. The Atomists believed that the world was composed of tiny indivisible atoms and their arguments were clearly influenced by radical monism.
The Sophists were also inspired by Melisuss’ use of deductive reasoning; they used it to prove that nothing existed, as was typical of their nihilism. The Sceptics too were influenced by the deductions of the Samian and his distrust of empirical investigations. They used one of Melissus’ arguments to show that knowledge of the external world was unreliable.
Melisuss of Samos may not be a household name in Greek philosophy, but his contributions were real and substantial. He arguably presented the most logically rigorous version of radical monism. His method of reasoning was also important, influencing the theories of the Atomists, Sophists and Sceptics.
Barnes, Jonathan (1983) The Presocratic Philosophers. New York: Routledge.
Russell, Bertrand (1990) The History of Western Philosophy. London and New York: Routledge
Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Many ancient societies were deeply influenced by Graeco-Roman Civilization, including early Judaic culture. The exchange between them produced important thinkers in Judaism, among them the philosopher Philo. He is perhaps the most important representative of Hellenistic Judaism whose works had a decisive influence on later Christian thinkers.
The Life of Philo
A print of Philo of Alexandria from a 16th century French text
The exact date of Philo’s birth is not known, but it may have been about 20 BC. He was born into an influential family in Alexandria, Egypt, home at that time to one of the largest Jewish communities in the diaspora. His brother went on to become one of the wealthiest men in the city and even had connections with the imperial family during the reigns of Nero and Claudius.
Philo was brought up in a pious Jewish household and would have studied the Bible and Jewish scholarly works. Alexandria was, at the time, a cultural melting pot of Greeks, Jews and Egyptians. Thus, Philo was deeply influenced by Greek culture and was a student of Hellenic philosophy. He was also a Roman citizen and could speak and read Greek, as was the case with St. Paul, with whom he has some affinities.
Philo was a devoted Jew and visited the Second Temple in Jerusalem at least once in his life. The only event that we know of in any detail is his role in an embassy to the infamous emperor Caligula. Rome’s Prefect in Egypt had ordered the Jews to worship Caligula as god, part of an empire-wide imperial cult. This, of course, was contrary to the strict monotheism of the Jews. The order also came at a time of conflict between the Greeks and the Jews in the city of Alexandria.In 38 AD, many Jews were killed in the city in what was possibly the first-known pogrom.
The Alexandrine Jewish community elected Philo, who was very well-respected, to lead a delegation to Rome and to plead with the Emperor to rescind the Prefect’s orders. Miraculously, Philo was able to persuade Caligula not to force the Jews to worship him or to set up his image in their temples. It is believed that Philo died about 50 AD.
The Theology of Philo
Philo was deeply influenced by Plato and like Plato, he believed that a life of contemplation was superior. The Alexandrine thinker was also influenced by the Stoics, Aristotle and the Cynics. Philo was something of a mystic, believing that a transcendent god could be known by intuition.He also believed that certain numbers, such as seven, had particular religious significance.
Philo believed the purpose of existence was to strive to know god. He held that a supreme being had implanted in humans an innate love of him, allowing humans to achieve a personal union with the divine.
Philo also believed that reason and religion were not incompatible. He used the concept of Logos, or reason, in a new way. It had long been argued that the Logos referred to the rational ordering of the universe. However, Philo argued that Logos, or reason, was begotten of god and was associated with him. In some of Philo’s works Logos is the mediator between the human mind and the divine. He believed that using reason to understand the world also allowed humans to comprehend the transcendent. The Alexandrine thinker also believed that fate could be suspended, allowing miracles to occur. Unfortunately, the philosopher was a poor writer, and his thoughts are often obscure.
Philo and the Bible
Philo was famous for his exegesis, or interpretation, of the Bible. He was very influenced by Greek philosophy—unlike many of his contemporary Jews, Philo did not reject it. He believed that the truths of Plato and the other philosophers were not incompatible with those of the Bible. He found an ingenious way to synthesize Greek thought with the Hebrew Bible, or Torah: allegory. Philo believed that interpreting the Torah and the Bible in an allegorical way allowed the deeper meaning of the texts to be discovered. His commentaries on the Jewish Patriarchs, such as Moses, were also widely read.
A German woodcut showing Philo of Alexandria
Philo was highly respected by the early Christians. His ideas on Logos were especially influential in Christianity; many consider Philo’s works instrumental to the development of the doctrine of the holy spirit, who along with the god the father and son form the trinity in Christian belief. His views on miracles were also influential among Christians.
Philo also wrote an account called De Vita Contemplativa about groups of Egyptian ascetics known as the Therapeutae, whom some believe were Buddhists monks. This work is believed to have greatly influenced the subsequent development of Christian monasticism.Philo’s belief that reason and faith were not incompatible had a profound impact on the development of Christian theology.
While many Jews reject Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the sacred texts, he did influence the Midrash school of Jewish exegesis, which led to the development of a large body of Rabbinic commentaries.
Philo of Alexandria was a man of two worlds who sought to harmonize Judaism and Greek philosophy. This proved very important, even radical. His concepts and ideas greatly influenced early Christianity. Finally, Philo’s ideas on interpretation also had an impact on both Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Bible.
Seland, T. (Ed.). (2014). Reading Philo: A Handbook to Philo of Alexandria. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Written by Mariami Shanshashvili, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Plato’s Euthyphro is centered around Socrates’ attempts to examine and define the concept of piety. In the course of conversation, he develops a central and somewhat scandalous argument: what is holy is not the same as what the gods do or approve. In fact, the gods ‘sin’ and engage in immoral behavior a lot – they murder, steal, cheat, wage wars, and act out of spite.
Although appearance of the first philosophers in ancient Greece was all about the emergence of unconventional and nontraditional ways of thinking, Xenophanes could still be justifiably viewed as one of the most – if not the most – unorthodox and even scandalous figure of his era.
There were two things an ancient Greek would never doubt: first, that the gods are in charge of everything and everyone, and second, that we know this because they themselves disclosed it to us. The sun, rainbows, and the very earth we are walking on were believed to be gods and goddesses. Every natural phenomenon was ascribed to some property of a deity; every historical event and fate of an individual race or man was explained as the result of the will of the Olympians.
Assembly of 20 gods in Olympus, a painting by Raphael
And how did they know? Muses told them so. Invocation of the Muses served as a traditional and commonplace poetic tool: when a poet wanted to authenticate the truth of his claims, he called on Muses so they would act as witnesses and provide assertion.
This is how Homer opens both of his epic poems: he addresses divine agency. It should not be hard to guess that the ancient Greeks were not very fond of people who dared to doubt their undoubtable beliefs – think of the trials of Socrates or Anaxagoras – and unfortunately, this is exactly what philosophers tend to do.
The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Anaximenes, for example, allegedly said that there are gods, exactly as Greek religion acknowledged, but that they come from air (his Cosmic principle) as well as the rest of the universe. And Parmenides, one of the most ahead-of-his-time thinkers, begins his poem by depicting a divine revelation.
So most of early philosophers did not entirely give up on the traditional gods and divination, but threw down a challenge to the conventional notion of the divine. As Cicero states, Xenophanes was the only one among the most ancient philosophers who, while basing his whole philosophy on the existence of the divine entity, launched a direct attack on the popular religion and “did away with divination from its very foundation.”
Xenophanes was an itinerant poet and philosopher from a small Ionian town of Colophon. He is reported to have had quite a storm-tossed life as he was banished from his homeland, was sold into slavery, and buried his sons with his own hands.
Fictionalized portrait of Xenophanes from a 17th-century engraving
Despite his manifold interests, he is primarily remembered for his critique of traditional religious concepts, and as professor Peter Adamson aptly words it, “in doing so, he inaugurated a not-always-friendly rivalry between Greek religion and Greek philosophy that will persist right through Plato and Aristotle”.
“Both Homer and Hesiod have ascribed to the gods all deeds which among men are matters of reproach and blame: thieving, adultery, and deceiving one another” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.193)
Homer Singing for the People
And indeed, it seems like the Greeks imagined their gods in their own image: the gods were born, wore clothes, ate, indulged themselves with sexual adventures, and looked like men, just much more beautiful and perfect. Realizing this, Xenophanes observes:
“If horses had hands, or oxen or lions, or if they could draw with their hands and produce works as men do, then horses would draw figures of gods like horses, and oxen like oxen, and each would render the bodies to be of the same frame that each of them have.” (Clement, Miscellanies 5.110;).
The point is that humans have a tendency to attribute their own characteristics to the divine entities; in other words, humans think of their gods as all too human. Xenophanes believed it was disrespectful to the gods to conceptualize them as being subject to human weaknesses and illicit acts. It is the same as ascribing imperfections to the perfect being – which, without doubt, does not make any sense.
Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon from Artemision, Euboea. ca. 460 BC.
“greatest among gods and men, not at all like mortals in body or in thought.” (Clement, Miscellanies, 5.109;).
Even though the reference to the “gods” in plural raises a question about whether Xenophanes was a monotheist or polytheist (some scholars even designate him as a pantheist), it is certain that Xenophanean image of the god is set apart from traditional polytheistic convictions and falls on the spectrum of the monotheistic paradigm.
God as architect of the world, folio 1 verso of a moralized Bible, from Paris, France, ca 1220-1230, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is more likely that he means lesser deities in the plural form of “gods”. Throughout the records of Xenophanes, only one god, a single divine entity, is presented as the perfect, almighty being who holds sway over the whole universe.
“. . whole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears. . . (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 9.144;).
“Always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all, nor is it fitting that [he] come and go to different places at different times. . . but completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.” (Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics 23.10; 23.19;).
All of the characteristics Xenophanes ascribes to the god – omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, immobility, incorporeality (spirituality) – are the typical attributes of a monotheistic deity. He prefigured the ideas which still lay centuries ahead.
A late 16th-century engraving of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury. In his Proslogion (1078 AD), St. Anselm proposed the first ontological argument for the existence of God in the Western tradition.
Another key aspect of Xenophanes’ philosophy is his remarkable contribution to epistemology (the theory of knowledge). He opposes the traditional understanding of divination by claiming that,
“by no means did the gods intimate all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, inquiring, they discover better.” (Stobaeus, Selections 1.8.2;).
Xenophanes suggests that it is unreasonable of men to expect divine disclosure about the things they seek to know. Moreover, he raises questions about the nature and possibility of sure and certain knowledge. There he makes a fundamental distinction between knowledge and belief/opinion, a theme which will be later taken up, for instance, by Heraclitus, Plato, and Aristotle, and is one of the most important problems in philosophy as a whole.
“…and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen. Nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things. For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass, still he himself would not know. But opinion is allotted to all.” (Sextus Empiricus, Against the Mathematicians 7.49.110;).
Plato’s Allegory of the Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Plato’s allegory of the cave, told to us in the Republic, is a thought experiment that is used to this day to illustrate the limits of our knowledge about the world as it is in itself.
It is important to note that by this, Xenophanes does not necessarily reject the possibility of any kind of knowledge, but rather reproves dogmatism and acknowledges boundaries of the dimension of human knowledge. Even though our epistemic status is limited, we can still form opinions and inquire about things. As F.R. Pickering notes,
“Xenophanes is a natural epistemologist, who claims that statements concerning the non-evident realm of the divine as well as the far-reaching generalizations of natural sciences cannot be known with certainty but must remain the objects of opinion.”
Ancient Greeks, on the one hand, had poets who provided answers for all of their questions and, on the other hand, had a poet philosopher who tried to awaken them from their ´dogmatic slumber´ by casting doubts on their answers and asking questions, the relevance of which would persist for centuries to come.
Adamson, Peter. A History of Philosophy Without any Gaps: Classical Philosophy.
Cohen, Mark, Patricia Curd and C.D.C Reeve. Reading in Ancient Greek Philosophy: From Thales to Aristotle. NOTE: all the passages of Xenophanes are cited from this book.
Tor, Shaul. Mortal and Divine in Early Greek Epistemology.
Lesher, James, “Xenophanes”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/xenophanes/>
A great thinker, innovator, teacher, researcher, chronicler and international icon Aristotle may well have been, but there were very few who considered him to be a great writer.
The influential 5th century AD philosopher and critic Ammonius Hermiae did his best not only to excuse this shortcoming, but to turn it into a positive. He claimed that Aristotle deliberately withheld information in order to make it difficult to pierce through his prose so that “good people may for that reason stretch their mind even more, whereas empty minds that are lost through carelessness will be put to flight by the obscurity”.
So, he’s not a bad writer – he’s just too good for the likes of us to understand!
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. Oil on canvas, 1653
However, another ancient critic surmised the more commonly held view when he said that Aristotle “surrounds the difficulty of his subject with the obscurity of his language, and thus avoids refutation – producing darkness, like a squid, in order to make himself hard to capture”.
In Aristotle’s defense, he was following the hardest of hard acts by taking up the gauntlet thrown down by Plato; the rarely-disputed master of elegantly-written philosophy. It has been said that “Plato’s dialogues are polished literary works, the brilliance of their thought matched by the elegance of their language. Aristotle’s surviving writings for the most part are terse. His arguments are concise. There are abrupt transitions, inelegant repetitions, careless allusions. Paragraphs of continuous exposition are set among staccato jottings. The language is spare and sinewy”.
So perhaps Aristotle is immediately off-putting and then suddenly, brutally irresistible? He is to philosophy what smoking is to recreation, though infinitely better for your health.
Bronze statue, University of Freiburg, Germany, 1915
It should also be noted that the Aristotle read in antiquity was not the same man we read today. His early work, that which made him famous, is now lost to us, presumably for evermore. What survives is what he wrote during his second spell in Athens from 335 to 322 BC.
And these works were intended merely as lecture notes, as a teachers’ book; designed to be read, reread, annotated, experimented with, and improved upon by Aristotle and his colleagues. Little wonder then that Aristotle’s work can at times come across as disjointed and self-contradictory.
Regardless, he had a profound influence on the European mind, and by extension the minds of the Americas and Antipodes. He was also respected by Jewish scholars of the middle ages and their Islamic counterparts referred to him as ‘the first teacher’. Dante dubbed him ‘the master of those that know’, whilst Thomas Aquinas simply called him ‘the philosopher’.
Aristotle tutoring Alexander, illustration by Charles Laplante, 1866.
He is said to have had a mind which was ‘ordered, balanced and stunningly capacious’. Indeed, some suspect that he may have been the last man in existence who knew all that it was possible to learn.
Aristotle was a lecturer far more than he was a writer, and as such his words should ideally be heard and not read. Thus, we shall finish with some inspirational thoughts of a man who was limitless in his own ability to think:
“We must not listen to those who urge us to think human thoughts since we are human, and mortal thoughts since we are mortal; rather, we should as far as possible immortalize ourselves and do all we can to live by the finest element in us – for if it is small in bulk, it is far greater than anything else in power and worth.”
Written by Katherine Kennedy, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
A Man of Many Names
Marcus was born on the 26th of April, in Rome, in the year 121 A.D.. He bore many different versions of his name whilst growing up; these changed as his familial status was altered first by the death of his father, then his unofficial adoption by his grandfather, and finally his legal coming of age. Some of the names he was known by include Marcus Annis Verus, Marcus Annis Catilius Severus, or Marcus Catilius Severus Annius Verus.
But, when Antoninus Pius formally adopted him, as Hadrian’s successor, Marcus became heir to the empire, and his name was changed to Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar. This name would only change once more; when he became emperor. His final, and full name—Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus—would last until his death.
Roman: Flesh and Blood
Marcus’ family background was as noble as they came. He was of Italo-Hispanic descent on his father’s side and, as such, was a member of the Aurelii, who were based in Roman Spain. The Annia gens is also of Italian descent, with the Annii Veri having risen through the Roman ranks from the 1st century AD. Marcus was related directly to Marcus Annius Verus (I), his great-grandfather, an ex-praetor, and Marcus Annius Verus (II), his grandfather and unofficial adoptive father, who was a patrician.
However, Marcus was also a member of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty courtesy of his grandmother, Rupilia. As such, Marcus was also connected directly to Emperors Trajan and Hadrian through Hadrian’s wife Sabina. She was his grandmother’s half sister, with Sabina and Rupilia being daughters of Trajan’s sororal niece, Salonia Matidia.
Domitia Lucilla from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”
Marcus’ mother, Domitia Lucilla, was notable historically, as she was immensely wealthy due to her inherited fortune. As the daughter of a Roman patrician, P. Calvisius Tullus, her wealth was so great that it included brickworks on the outskirts of Rome – which was a boon in an age of rapid expansion – and Horti Domitia Calvillae/Lucillae, the villa on the Caelian hill of Rome, one of the famous Seven Hills of Rome. Marcus would later refer to this villa as ‘My Caelian’, as he was born and raised there, and always remembered it fondly.
Finally, Marcus adopted the gen. name Aurelia when he was chosen as an heir to Antoninus Pius; not just the Emperor, but his adoptive father, and part of the Aurelii Fulvi, who stemmed from the Sabine and were of Italo-Gallic origin. But genes and family names do not an Emperor make. Though Marcus Aurelius was born into noble families, it was his education that would shape the born-leader’s mind and harness his abilities.
Educating an Emperor
Marcus’ formal education was instilled through several private tutors as befits his aristocratic standing; his adoptive father, Marcus Annius Verus (II), through patria potestas authority when Marcus Annius Verus (III) died around 124, oversaw his grandson’s upbringing. Marcus’ education taught him to be of good character and to avoid bad temper, something he recognized as being of great value, and he thanked his grandfather for his wisdom.
“From my grandfather Verus I learned to relish the beauty of manners, and to restrain all anger.” Meditations, I.1
Diogenetus, a painting master, also had great impact on Marcus; as it appears it is he who introduced the young man to philosophy and a philosophic way of life. This extended to Marcus taking up the robes and habits of a philosopher in the year 132. This involved wearing a rough Greek cloak whilst studying, and he would sleep on the ground for a period, although the latter part he would give away after a time, due to the many frequent and vocal concerns of his mother.
Marcus Annius Verus from “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”
Amongst his other tutors were the Homeric teachers Alexander of Cotiaeum, Trosius Aper, and Tuticius Proculus, all who taught him Latin, with Marcus thanking Alexander for teaching him literary styling, which can be seen in Marcus’ Meditations. From AD 136, Marcus had three Greek tutors, Aninus Macer, Caninius Celer, and Herodes Atticus, along with Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin.
Late in 136 Marcus’ life changed dramatically; he took the toga virilis and began his training in oratory. After nearly dying, Emperor Hadrian, whilst convalescent in Tivoli, chose Marcus’ intended father-in-law, Lucius Ceionius Commodus, as his successor. Lucius took the name Lucius Aelius Caesar, making Marcus as Lucius’ adoptive son, a direct successor to the throne.
However, Lucius did not live long enough for this to happen; Instead, Lucius died the night before delivering his speech to the senate, in 138. Hadrian then selected a new heir; Aurelius Antoninus, the husband of Marcus’ aunt, Faustina the Elder. In a bold move, and as part of the terms of this agreement between Hadrian and Antoninus, Antoninus was to adopt Marcus and Lucius’ son Lucius Verus. This once again implied that Emperor Hadrian had always kept Marcus in mind for the role of Emperor, eventually.
Upon the death of Hadrian, Antoninus was made Emperor, and Marcus’ previous betrothal was annulled; Marcus would instead marry Antoninus’ daughter, Faustina the Younger. In 140 Marcus was made consul, he was then appointed as a seviri and became the head of the equestrian order with the title princeps iuventutis. As the heir apparent to the Empire, he also took the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus Caesar; a title he would remind himself not to take too seriously with the following admonition:
“Take care that thou art not made into a Caesar, that thou art not dyed with this dye; for such things happen. Keep thyself then simple, good, pure, serious, free from affectation, a friend of justice, a worshipper of the gods, kind, affectionate, strenuous in all proper acts. Strive to continue to be such as philosophy wished to make thee. Reverence the gods, and help men. Short is life. There is only one fruit of this earthly life, a pious disposition and social acts. Do everything as a disciple of Antoninus.” Meditations, VI.30
Faustina the Younger (130–175 AD). Marble, ca. 161 AD. From the area of Tivoli.
Life and service under Antoninus saw Marcus rise through the ranks, and at the senate’s request he joined all the priestly colleges, although there is only direct evidence of him joining the Arval Brethren. Despite Marcus’s objections, he was also required to adopt the habits of his position, the aulicum fastigium or ‘pomp of the court’. As such, he was also made to relocate his home to the House of Tiberius, the imperial palace on the Palatine, something he was loathed to do and which caused him some sadness.
The trappings of his position did not sit well with his philosopher’s mind, and he would struggle to reconcile the two for the remainder or his life. However, through the words ‘Where life is possible, then it is possible to live the right life; life is possible in a palace, so it is possible to live the right life in a palace’, he was convinced the two could work together.
As quaestor, and under the tutelage of Fronto, Marcus received training for ruling the state. He gained practice by dictating dozens of letters, receiving oratory training giving speeches to the senators, and being educated in matters of State. In 145 he was made consul for the second time, with Fronto urging him to rest well before his appointment as Marcus had complained of an illness previously. This ongoing illness would haunt him for many years, especially as he had never been particularly healthy or strong.
Around 146-147, Marcus’s health took a downward turn, historically it is unclear if this was physical, mental, or a combination of both, as he drifted away from his studies in jurisprudence, and he tired from his exercises in imaginary debates. At this point, Marcus’ formal education was ended, and his philosophic tendencies began to return to the fore.
Titlepage of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves.
Fronto had warned Marcus against philosophical studies, as he disdained both philosophy and philosophers. He had contempt for Marcus’ sessions with Apollonius of Chalcedon, as it is probably he who introduced Marcus to Stoicism. Fronto’s attitude would lead to a distance growing between master and student that would never be bridged. Marcus would keep in touch with Fronto, but from here on he chose to ignore Fronto’s opinions.
Domestic Joys and Heartbreak
In April of 145, Marcus and Faustina finally married, having been betrothed since 138. During their marriage they would have at least 14 children over a 23-year period; including two sets of twins, and only one son and four daughters outliving their parents. The first child, Domitia Faustina, was born in 147, and the next day Marcus received tribunician power and the imperium from Emperor Antoninus.
Although many of his children would not live past early childhood, Marcus’ joy at each birth was celebrated with the minting of Imperial coins, many of which can be seen in museums today. Sadly, this period also marked the deaths of his beloved mother, Domitia Lucilla, and Cornificia, his sister. This period of emotional upheaval may have contributed to Marcus’ downward spiralling health, and cemented his Stoic beliefs: that Nature will always rule men.
Rise to Power
At this time, Lucius Verus began his political career, first as consul in 154, and again in 161, this time with Marcus. Antoninus turned 70 in AD 156, and had grown physically weak; needing stays to keep him upright and nibbling dried bread to stay awake through morning receptions. During this time, Marcus took on more and more administrative duties, including those of praetorian prefect when Gavius Maximus died in 156 or 157. Marcus and Lucius were both designated as joint consuls for the coming year in 160, as Antoninus was quite ill by this time.
Statue of Antoninus Pius, Palazzo Altemps, Rome
On 7th March, 161, Emperor Antoninus Pius died at his ancestral estate of Lorium, in Eturia. Having summoned the imperial council, and having handed over the state and his daughter to Marcus, as evening fell and the night-watch came to ask the password, he uttered it before turning over as if to sleep – aequanimitas (equanimity). So ended the rule of Anotnius Pius and began that of Marcus Aurelius.