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Tyrannical Hell or Harmonious Utopia?

by May 15, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Republic's Utopia


Imagine this… You are born into a political and social structure which has three classes. The class you are born into depends upon your lineage and will determine the career you have for your entire life. This structure is upheld by a noble lie which is embedded into each citizen of the city-state.
The lie claims that each citizen, being a creation god, has within him or her one of three metals. Those endowed with gold during creation are part of the ruling class. Those with silver are part of the warrior class. Those with bronze are part of the craftsmen and farming class.
Now, it is possible for someone of the gold demarcation to beget a child of silver or bronze status, and it is also possible, but rare, for someone of the lower classes to beget a child of higher status. It is also possible, but difficult, for someone to move up the classes during their lifetime.
Men and women receive the same education, and both are capable of ascending to the highest class, because in this society, the soul is more important than the structure of one’s body.
Soviet Education

Equal education for men and women during the USSR

A plan of eugenics is established, and a careful strategy which seeks to breed the best with the best is enforced. Children are raised collectively and according to political and social dictation.
The silver and gold classes are not allowed to marry or have a private family. They are also not allowed to obtain private property or wealth. They are sustained on what is necessary and nothing more.
The bronze class is allowed more in way of material goods. They receive the biggest portion of their work as farmers and craftsmen, but they have no say in how the city is run. Rules and law come from the top down.
Education is rigid and includes both academic studies and athletics. What one is allowed to read is dictated by the ruling class; mass censorship is put into practice. They will tell you which poetry you can read, and they will destroy the rest. They will rewrite the works of great poets, allowing only the poetry that encourages moral behavior. The so-called immoral and amoral works are destroyed.
Say goodbye to much of Homer…
Achilles with Hector's body

Achilles with Hector’s body – Not moral enough?

The city-state is closed off to immigration, and travel is discouraged. Everything must be closed off if this delicate and fragile political structure is to exist. Once so-called real knowledge is established, it must be permanent and unchanging. Once the myths are in place, they must be permanent and unquestionable. Questioning the structure of this society and attempting to enact change are both viewed with contempt.
Before we continue, let’s reflect on the city-state outlined above, and ask ourselves if this is a society that we would like to live in. Further, let us ask ourselves if this city-state sounds more like a harmonious utopia or a tyrannical hell…
Got your answers locked in?
As some of you might have already guessed, the city-state outlined above comes from the dialogue titled the Republic. This political and social structure is, for Plato, the ideal state.
Now, I can only speak for myself here – but I’m not much of a fan…
I value freedom and autonomy as a living-breathing individual, this city-state sounds extremely oppressive and tyrannical. I don’t think anyone should dictate what I read, and to establish a city-state on a foundation of self-recognized lies sounds altogether insane.
Although the gold-ruling class is to be comprised of philosopher-kings, I don’t think much philosophizing will be going on. If knowledge is set in stone, there is no room for creative or original thinking.
I think that the ruling-class would be more like computers. They are taught a very specific mode of thinking, and mathematics is of the utmost importance to their education. They would be programmed for certain thought patterns, and they would be instructed to perpetuate the noble lies.

Bust of Plato

Plato’s vision for a harmonious state – for a utopia – is just that, a vision. It is part of his theory of forms, which is to say, not a part of this world.
In the same dialogue, Plato wants to claim that if his theory of forms – his ideals – cannot be realized in this world, it is because something is wrong with the world that we find ourselves in.
Plato denigrates this world for the transcendent world of forms; he refuses to accept this life. He wants to exist free of the human condition; free of body, desire, and sensation. He wishes to exist as a disembodied soul.  
In trying to free himself and his peers from the illusions of this world, he unwittingly stumbles further into a fictional realm.
As much as he hated the thought, Plato was human, and even the most recognized and decorated philosophers are wrong about some things.

Anaxagoras and His Mind

by May 10, 2019

By Monica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
In ancient Greece, the idea of a flat earth was simply assumed to be true. There were a select few that doubted this notion, and with their doubt came an ideological and theoretical struggle to sustain various points of view on the matter. This created a rich environment of natural philosophy, wisdom, and debate. It was in this culture that Anaxagoras of Clazomenae flourished.
Anaxagoras was born in Clazomenae (modern day Turkey) around 510 BCE. He moved to Athens, and then to Lampsacus, where he lived out his remaining years. He died around 428 BCE and had an altar of Mind and Truth built in his honor.
Anaxagoras Fresco

Detail of the right-hand facade fresco, showing Anaxagoras. National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Anaxagoras’ Theory of Everything is in Everything

One of his biggest philosophical ideas states that everything is in everything. By this he meant that there are infinite initial elements and infinite fundamental components of matter. Every object in the world consists of small portions of everything and can’t be separated in smaller pieces.

In this regard, all things were together, as one. All the ingredients were combined in a mixture and nothing was discernible. A rotation was begun by Mind (referred to as Nous in the original text), and as the mixture revolved, ingredients began to separate off.

On his route to explain how outer space works, Anaxagoras also tried to explain the nature of the Milky Way. He claimed that it was composed of distant stars, which was quite a bit different from Aristotle’s belief that the Milky way was caused by “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together”.  

Milky Way

Where does the light in the Milky way come from?

Anaxagoras: A Great Mind

We have only fragments of his work titled Peri Physeos (About Nature). In this work, Anaxagoras claimed that the cosmos is directed by Nous and insisted that the moon is a stone and the sun a piece of red-hot burning iron. Later, these statements would cause him problems.

For Anaxagoras, Nous is the origin of the universe and the cause of existence. He described Nous as a very subtle fluid that filters into matter and animates it with its movement. This fluid penetrates some objects of matter, but not others. This would explain the existence of both animate and inanimate objects.

Depiction of a flat earth.

Anaxagoras’ Other Contributions

Like the great thinkers of his era, such as Democritus or Socrates, Anaxagoras also believed that the earth was flat. His evidence for this was the rising and setting sun or moon, which are cut off at the horizon by a straight line. Anaxagoras argued that the cutoff shape created by the horizon would be curved if the earth were spherical. For someone who lived in an era without satellite photos, this would seem to be a logical conclusion.

Another of his most significant contributions to the understanding of the cosmos was how he tried to explain and describe the nature of stars without mythology or deities. His contributions are not limited to space, but also to earthly life. Anaxagoras attempted to explain various weather phenomena, earthquakes, why the sea is salty and how fish breathe, the nature of plants, and problems in embryology. He is also credited as the first to identify and describe the cause of eclipses – writing that lunar eclipses take place when the Earth or celestial bodies below the Moon, block the light.

Funnily it did occur to him that the shape of the eclipse would be a good indication of a round, rather than flat, earth.

A crater of the moon, dedicated to and named after Anaxagoras.

Anaxagoras: Sunset of His Life

After 30 years of teaching, he had to go into exile because he pointed out that the sun was a mass of red hot iron and that the moon was a rock that reflected sunlight. This last statement has been questioned by some translators of his work.

In his teaching, he proposed the idea that the Sun is a rock greater in size than the Peloponnese. Due to controversial theories like these, he was forced to leave Athens and spent the rest of his life in Lampsacus.

In retrospect, this contribution was not in vain. A small crater on the north pole of the Moon was named after Anaxagoras – in honor of his lifelong attempt to understand the cosmos.

Epictetus, the Stoic-Slave

by May 3, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom

Epictetus was a Stoic philosopher that lived from 55-135 CE. He came before Marcus Aurelius and after Seneca. Epictetus was a slave for much of his youth and began studying philosophy under Musonius Rufus during his enslavement.

He gained his freedom sometime after the death of Emperor Nero and began to teach philosophy in Rome. He founded his own school of philosophy in Greece after Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome in 93 CE.
Though missing several parts, Discourses is Epictetus’ largest surviving text. It is said to have been originally comprised of eight parts, four of which we have today.

Keeping with Stoic tradition, Epictetus’ philosophy is practical and actionable, as opposed to mere theoretical inquiry. Eudaimonia (happiness or flourishing) is the primary goal of philosophical pursuits, according to Epictetus. Apatheia (freedom from passion) and ataraxia (imperturbability) are central to one’s journey toward eudaimonia.
Epictetus teaches that much of human unhappiness or discontentedness occurs through false beliefs about what is good or evil, and through hasty judgments of one’s circumstance. For Epictetus, the good is only what is virtuous, and evil is vice in action or thought.
For the Stoics, virtue is synonymous with arete or excellence. To cultivate excellence as a human being one must understand and live in accordance with one’s nature. It is also necessary, in the pursuit of eudaimonia, to properly condition and maintain one’s prohairesis (moral character).
In addition to the categories of good and evil, Epictetus discusses “indifferent things” as a third category. Those things which are indifferent are simply preferred or dispreferred, and neither good nor evil.


Some examples of things that fall under the preferred-indifference category, according to Epictetus, would be money and health. I’m not sure about you, but I happen to believe that a modest amount of money and health is a truly good thing, and not a matter of indifference.
Dispreferred-indifferences would include sickness and poverty. Again, these things seem bad to me, rather than a matter of indifference. Perhaps I am not as Stoic as I might be…
For Epictetus, indifferences are not necessary in order to attain eudaimonia, rather the way in which one obtains or makes use of these indifferences is what is important.
For instance, if someone pursued wealth as a preferred-indifference, and in their pursuit they had to lie, they would be harming their moral character. In this situation, for Epictetus, it would be better if one were poor but honest, rather than wealthy and dishonest.
As I already mentioned above, philosophy is more than theoretical reflection for the Stoics. Epictetus gives us not only ideas and concepts as to how one might live the good life, but he also describes three categories of activity to help us put those concepts into action.
The three categories of activity include:
  1.      The Discipline of Desire
This activity consists of knowing what is truly good and virtuous, and desiring only those things. If we have desires beyond what is good or virtuous, we will be led into feelings of anxiety and experience misfortunes and sorrow as a result. It’s better to want LESS than have MORE.
  1.      The Discipline of Action
In cultivating this activity, we begin to see that the consequences of our actions are never entirely within our control, but our pursuit of certain values are within our control.
If we choose to act in accordance with a value system that is in harmony with our pursuit of eudaimonia and moral excellence, we are more likely to attain eudaimonia than if we simply chose a desired outcome and made attempts to manifest that outcome through any means necessary. Therefore, we must be less concerned with the outcome, and more concerned with quality of action. Ie, Exercise for the discipline and health rather than the beach bod.
  1.      The Discipline of Assent
This is an activity of proper judgment. To give assent to something is to approve of or agree with it. One mustn’t judge hastily, rather one should examine the situation, become aware of what is occurring, and judge only after some reflection.
An example straight from Epictetus says that just because someone is insulting you, doesn’t mean it is an outrage in itself, but the thought that it is an outrage makes it so. If one viewed an insult as unimportant, it wouldn’t make them angry. Herein lies our power to judge and experience a seemingly-negative situation in a positive or indifferent manner.
Basically, offense is in the ear of the hearer. It was a popular mantra for some in the schoolyard (for some of us at least!)… Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
If one is to flourish and live a happy life, one must know what is within their power and what is not. According to Epictetus, we cannot control external events, or the behavior of another person, and so we mustn’t worry about such things; doing so will only cause us anxiety, anger, and frustration. We are in control of our own thoughts, opinions, and actions, and so we must focus on these instead.

Focusing on his thoughts, instead of the external world.

One can see the influence that youth enslavement undoubtedly had on the philosophy of Epictetus. To simply accept external circumstances and turn our attention inward sounds like an effective way of life for someone stuck in a situation from which they cannot escape.
There are many things of which we have no control over and must accept, such as the life we were born into and our genetic predispositions… but this doesn’t mean we have to accept or become indifferent to the behavior of a person that is acting in a malicious way, and I think it is dangerous to believe that we have no control over external events.
After all, it is human beings that shape those external events. By turning inward and being dispassionate toward the rest of the world, we passively give assent to unprovoked behavior and harmful situations.
Anger, frustration, and other seemingly negative emotions play a vital role in our lives, and being inspired through these negative emotions is, in my opinion, an integral part of being human.
When framed in this light, the philosophy of Epictetus begins to seem like a mode of being that asks us to live against our nature, rather than living in accordance with it.
As with anything, though, we mustn’t view the philosophy of Epictetus as an all-or-none sort of situation. Perhaps we should take what is useful and integrate that with other ideas, concepts, and doctrines that we also find useful. In so doing we get to truly live in accordance with our nature.

Socrates: The Man Who Knew Too Much

by April 19, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Socrates loved the pursuit of wisdom more than any other. He valued truth, understanding, and examination of self and life above all else. He believed that the most valuable thing a person could do was question their thoughts, beliefs, and perceived truths. For Socrates, the examined life was the only life worth living.

Bust of Socrates

Even if you know little-to-nothing about Socrates, you have probably heard the famous dictum which states that “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates apparently made this pronouncement at his trial, essentially choosing death over exile.
He thought that living a life in exile would prevent him from taking part in the great philosophical quest for truth.
For Socrates, death wasn’t the end because he believed his soul would continue an existence apart from his body. Socrates believed that the incorporeal-soul was better inclined toward philosophical wisdom, truth, and understanding when it wasn’t weighed down by earthly and bodily desires.
So he chose death over exile.

Socrates on his deathbed.

I can kind of see where he is coming from. After all, my earthly body has already interrupted my writing-flow a few times in the past two hours – bathroom break, drink of water, food… It isn’t easy being a living-breathing organism.
But I would still happily accept exile and be on my merry-way…
Perhaps I am lacking in nobility?
Jump to the 20th century, and we hear a similar pronouncement from the Nobel-prize winning ExistentialistAlbert Camus: “Everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.”
Camus then goes on to describe consciousness as awareness and makes the claim that along with consciousness comes an inherent desire for truth and meaning. Consciousness allows us to illuminate and examine ourselves, the world, and our place within the world…
…And when we tire of all this self-examination, we can simply point our consciousness in another direction, promptly forgetting about all of our shortcomings.
Or maybe that’s just me.

Albert Camus

Socrates’ examined life is one of conscious awareness. Socrates is conscious of our fallibility when it comes to knowledge and wisdom, and he wishes to illuminate such problems through philosophical discussion with the hopes of finding truth. His examined life is possible only through his conscious awareness.
Socrates and Camus share a system of values. They both believe that the search for truth, meaning, and value is an essential activity of life.
They part ways, however, when it comes to choosing death over an unexamined life…
For Camus, the truth is not worth more than life itself. Life is what allows us the opportunity to question and seek philosophical wisdom. Camus, being an atheist, would refuse the notion of an incorporeal-soul. This life is all that we are given – and this world is all that we can know.
Camus cherished life over truth with such passion that he commended Galileo for abandoning his scientific theory of heliocentrism when the church threatened his life for holding such a controversial position.
While there aren’t usually contests about such things, I would claim that Camus knew less than Socrates. By this I am referring to that other famous dictum uttered by Socrates that states “I know that I know nothing.”
The accuracy of this pronouncement is questioned by scholars who know more of the matter than I do. These scholars argue that Socrates doesn’t claim to know nothing, but that he is simply aware of his ignorance on certain matters.
The paradoxical “I know that I know nothing” is actually better translated as “What I do not know I do not think I know either.”
In the Apology Socrates is portrayed by Plato as confident in his knowledge to the point of death. One must ponder the notion that if Socrates was actually the person he is often portrayed as being – the wise sage that claims to not know – his fate might have been different.
His confidence is what sealed his fate. His claim to divine inspiration which consequently led him to interrogation-like discourse with his fellow citizens is far and above an earthly-grounded confidence in one’s knowledge.
Socrates believed that he knew quite a lot. He was so firm in his beliefs that he chose death over exile. For Camus, the truth isn’t so firm, and so dying for something which might not actually be true was fundamentally ridiculous.

Socrates the gadfly.

Keeping all of this in mind, one is tempted to ask – was the death of Socrates really as noble as it is often portrayed? Or does it reveal to us a disharmony and potential ingenuine nature of Socrates and his intellectual stubbornness?
His constant pestering as the gadfly of Athens coupled with his claim of divine inspiration makes him seem less of a noble seeker of wisdom and more like a charlatan.
But who am I to make such accusations?
I leave you here, to question and reflect on this recognizably unpopular position of Socrates and his death… and I thank Zeus that my impious corruption of you, the reader, is unlikely to end in execution by hemlock.

Old Ideas Renewed: Science, Philosophy, and Perception as Illusion

by April 12, 2019

By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
Plato, along with his instructor Socrates, are often recognized as the minds which began the western philosophical tradition as we know it today.
Plato’s theory of forms and the Allegory of the Cave are not only interesting within the history of philosophy, but hold relevance in regards to both contemporary philosophy and science. So relevant, in fact, that a new theory in physics postulates a concept quite similar to Plato’s.
But before we get to that, let’s take a quick moment to revisit Plato’s theory of forms

Depiction of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

For Plato, the world as perceived isn’t the ultimate reality. The objects of everyday life are but shadows of the forms. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato relates our false perception of the world of experience to the idea of shadows on a wall.
Imagine that you were chained up in a cave in such a way that you could only look at the wall in front of you. You couldn’t look behind you or turn your head in any direction. Behind you, in the distance, is a roaring fire. In front of the fire are a variety of objects. The shadows of those objects are displayed on the wall in front of you.
Not only would you be bored out of your mind, you would also be living in illusion…
If you knew no other life than that of the cave, the shadows would seem to constitute real objects of reality for you. They wouldn’t be simple phantoms or shadows of something which is more real, they would seem to be the most real, and they would make up your reality. For Plato, this is similar to our everyday experience.

Bust of Plato

In the same way that the shadows on the wall don’t constitute the ultimate reality of the objects from which those shadows are derived, the objects of everyday experience aren’t a true or perfect reflection of ultimate reality either.
The forms, being the ultimate reality, are universal, timeless, and perfect. The objects of experience are imperfect imitations of the forms. For example, a mathematical triangle is perfect in abstraction, but no perfect triangles can be found in nature. The triangles of our experienced world are but imperfect reflections of the ideal form of a triangle.
Just as the triangles of experience are but imperfect reflections of the true form of a triangle, it is the same with every object of perception, including things like beauty. Beauty has an ideal form of which the beautiful things that we perceive are but imperfect reflections. Therefore, the world as we perceive and experience it to be, is but an imperfect reflection of the ultimate reality of forms.
Although this is an ancient theory, contemporary physics has renewed the idea in a radical way. The idea is called information realism and was recently covered in an article by Scientific American.

Is the fundamental-underlying reality information?

Information realism claims that the objects of everyday experience are not a part of ultimate reality, but that they are perceptual illusions… Instead, what is considered to be the true or ultimate reality is the underlying mathematics or information itself.
The matter which allows us to perceive objects in everyday experience is merely derived from the underlying information. The information which underlies the objects of experience is the ultimate reality. Everything else is but a perceptual illusion.
Information Realism, just like Plato’s theory of forms, uses the epistemological method of rationalism, as opposed to empiricism, to come to such conclusions. Rationalists claims that true knowledge of the world is derived through the use of reason – independent of experience. Empiricists claim that true knowledge of the world is gained through experience and the use of our senses.
Taking all of this into consideration, is the theory of information realism a scientific one, or a philosophical one? I would argue that it is philosophical in nature. In fact, many theories in contemporary physics seem to be more philosophical than scientific. Then again, philosophy and science were at one time a joint discipline – and even the great Isaac Newton was considered to be natural philosopher.
Some of the challenges that have been raised against the theory of forms, could also be raised against information realism. One such challenge regards the idea of an ultimate reality that is beyond any possible experience as unknowable in itself.

Is the world as experienced an illusion?

In other words, if ultimate reality exists in a world beyond ours, or if true reality is somehow beyond our scope of experience, how can we say anything meaningful about it?
How do we know what this ultimate reality is if we cannot study it in experience? How do we even know that there is an ideal world or ultimate reality which exists beyond ours? How do we know that such a reality is more than an abstract or mathematical artifact? How can we test these theories if the world posited by them is seemingly inaccessible?
It is difficult to make sense out of such theories, which posit a reality beyond our experience. It is difficult to say anything meaningful about an ultimate reality which is supposedly more real than our world. But it is ideas like these that inspire movies such as The Matrix, give philosophers more to think about, and may eventually reunite science and philosophy.

Carnuntum: Where Marcus Aurelius Wrote The Meditations

by April 5, 2019

(Thanks to Landessammlungen Niederösterreich, Archäologischer Park Carnuntum for permission to use photographs of their exhibits.)

If thou would’st master care and pain,
Unfold this book and read and read again
Its blessed leaves, whereby thou soon shalt see
The past, the present, and the days to be
With opened eyes; and all delight, all grief,
Shall be like smoke, as empty and as brief.

– Epigram found at the end of a Vatican manuscript of The Meditations and in the Anthologia Palatina.

Wandering Carnuntum – possibly passing over an area where Marcus Aurelius once stood

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius kept private notes of his philosophical reflections, which survive today.  We know them as The Meditations, although the earliest Greek manuscript bears the title Ta eis heauton or “To Himself”.  The Meditations has become one of the most widely-read spiritual self-help classics of all time.  The Prussian king Frederick the Great was a big fan, referring to Marcus Aurelius as his “exemplar” and his “hero”.  The English philosopher and nobleman Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, actually wrote his own version of The Meditations called The Philosophical Regimen.  The author John Steinbeck was a fan and mentions The Meditations in his novel East of Eden (1952).  More recently, former US President Bill Clinton named it as his favourite book and former US defense secretary General Mattis said it was the one book he’d advise every American to read.  Sir Alec Guinness depicted Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  Richard Harris later played him in the Hollywood movie Gladiator (2000), which inspired a new generation of readers to pick up The Meditations.  A script is currently in development for a sequel concerning the story of Marcus’ descendants, which may perhaps cause another wave of interest in Marcus Aurelius, his life, and his philosophical writings. 
However, we know frustratingly little about the origin of The Meditations.  There are a couple of intriguing notes, or headings, in the text which helpfully tell us where Marcus was writing.  Between books one and two are the words “Among the Quadi, at the Gran”, a tributary of the River Danube located on the enemy side of the frontier, almost a hundred miles east of Carnuntum.  Between books two and three it simply says “At Carnuntum”. Because of the odd position of these words in the manuscript, it’s not entirely clear to which books he’s referring. My belief is that the first location mentioned is where book one of The Meditations was written.  I suspect this was toward the end of the First Marcomannic War when he had crossed the Danube into the lands of the hostile Quadi and was negotiating peace with them.  This part of the book is sometimes believed to have been written last and added as a sort of preface. I think it’s likely the rest of The Meditations, book two onward, was written at Carnuntum by the banks of the Danube, the capital of the Roman province of Upper Pannonia.  
The Roman historian Cassius Dio confirms that Marcus “fought for a long time, almost his entire life, one might say,” with the tribes in the region of the Danube, both Marcomanni and Sarmatians, one after the other, “using Pannonia as his base”.  For much of the Marcomannic wars Marcus presumably stationed himself in upper and lower Pannonia, at the major Roman military camps in Carnuntum, Aquincum, and Sirmium. (Located on modern-day Austria, Hungary, and Serbia respectively.) The modern town of Petronell-Carnuntum in Austria is the location of the Carnuntum Archeological Park, consisting of three museums, several archeological sites, and detailed reconstructions of Roman buildings, including a functioning Roman bathhouse.  It extends over an area of 10 km². I visited the area recently to find out more about the setting in which The Meditations was written, in the lead up to the publication of my own book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

The Legionary Camp and Roman City of Carnuntum

The story of Carnuntum really begins with the fifteenth legion (Legio XV Appollinaris) founding a legionary fortress there in 40 AD.  Shortly after this it became the headquarters of the Pannonian fleet, which patrolled the Danube. The fourteenth legion (Legio XIV Gemina) were subsequently garrisoned there, adopting it as their permanent base.  Over the years a civilian settlement grew up beside the military camp, which had evolved into a major city, and become the capital of the province by the time of Marcus Aurelius.

Study and contemplation in an ancient place

The Roman city of Carnuntum had an estimated population of 50,000.  It thrived because it sat at the intersection of trade routes on the Roman frontier, by the banks of the Danube where the Amber Road crossed the river.  The huge army camp which sprawled beside the city had a legionary fortress at the centre where the provincial governor and presumably also the emperor resided.  It was of enormous strategic importance to the Roman military.
At the start of the First Marcomannic War, in the Spring of 170 AD, the Romans suffered a major defeat.  An invading army led by the Marcomanni, accompanied by allied tribes, reputedly slaughtered 20,000 Roman soldiers in what became known as The Battle of Carnuntum.  King Ballomar of the Marcomanni then led his army down the Amber Road, across the Alps, and through Italy until they reached the Roman city of Aquileia, which they besieged.  Eventually they were driven back by Marcus and his generals Pompeianus and Pertinax, who gradually succeeded in liberating Pannonia and the other provinces from the invading tribes.  It’s believed Marcus stationed himself at Carnuntum from around 171 to 173 AD. A funerary stele commemorating a member of the emperor’s praetorian guard has been unearthed there inscribed with the date 171 AD, proving that Marcus must have been in Carnuntum around that time.  Recent archeological evidence therefore lends support to the note in The Meditations where Marcus suggests that he wrote part of the text there.  

Carnuntum and the Symbolism of The Meditations

That heading is the only explicit references to Carnuntum in The Meditations.  Nevertheless, it’s tempting to relate some of Marcus’ remarks to the setting in which he appears to have been writing.  I wouldn’t be the first to observe that Marcus could easily have been describing his situation, stationed far from home on the front-line of the Marcomannic War in Pannonia, when he wrote to himself that “life is warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land” (2.17).  However, here and throughout the rest of The Meditations the things he sees and hears around him every day are elevated into philosophical metaphors about the meaning of life in general.

Statue of the Danube River God

For example, Marcus refers several times to the image of time as a river.  Like other Stoics, he was influenced by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who famously said “Everything changes and nothing remains still” and “You cannot step into the same river twice”.  Although the Heraclitean metaphor of time as a river flowing past was almost a cliche, it does acquire more resonance if we think of Marcus writing these words beside the Danube. The Romans personified the Danube in the form of a river god, a bearded middle-aged man, whose image appears on the Aurelian column at Rome and also in an exhibit at the Museum Carnuntinum.  The River Danube was of immense importance to the Romans and must have featured very prominently in Marcus’ life, commanding the troops along its banks.
It’s easy to imagine that he had the Danube in mind, therefore, when he describes Nature as “a rushing torrent”, which “carries all things in its stream” (9.29).  All bodies, he says, are swept through the substance of the whole “as through a winter torrent” (7.19).
Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too. (4.43)
At one point, speaking of the river as a metaphor for change, Marcus also brings to mind the little birds who can be heard in the trees and bushes along the banks of the Danube.
At all times some things are hastening to come into being, and others to be no more; and of that which is coming to be, some part is already extinct. Flux and transformation are forever renewing the world, as the ever-flowing stream of time makes boundless eternity forever young. So in this torrent, in which one can find no place to stand, which of the things that go rushing past should one value at any great price? It is as though one began to lose one’s heart to a little sparrow flitting by, and no sooner has one done so than it has vanished from sight. (6.15)
There are other references to animals that seem to evoke his surroundings at Carnuntum.  For instance, he says that someone who wishes for wicked people to do no wrong is asking the impossible, like wanting horses not to neigh, “or anything else that cannot be otherwise than it is” (12.16).  The sound of distant neighing would often have intruded on his meditations while stationed in the military camp at Carnuntum, I think, where thousands of horses were stabled nearby for the use of cavalry units, etc.

Architecture in Carnuntum

There’s surprisingly little reference to warfare in The Meditations, given that at least some of it appears to have been written at a major military camp during a prolonged war.  However, Marcus appears to mention having witnessed the gruesome sight of severed hands, feet, and heads lying at a distance from their bodies (8.34).  Perhaps he was describing the remains on a battlefield in the aftermath of combat. However, he uses it to illustrate the unnatural way in which someone alienates himself from the universe when he refuses to accept his fate, or from the rest of humankind when he acts in ways that are at odds with the common interest.  
There are two amphitheatres at Carnuntum, a military one at the legionary camp and a civilian one near the city, each with a gladiatorial school beside it.  We know Marcus wasn’t remotely interested in the gladiatorial games. Perhaps because of his Stoic philosophical values, he appears to have found the displays of violence both distasteful and monotonous.
Just as you are sickened by the displays in the amphitheatre and such places, because the same scenes are forever repeated and the monotony makes the spectacle irksome, so you should also feel about life as a whole; for all things, high and low, are ever the same and arise from the same. For how long, then? (6.46)
Indeed, Cassius Dio confirms that Marcus insisted that gladiators, at least at Rome, should fight with blunted weapons.

Carnuntum Museum

Marcus, indeed, was so averse to bloodshed that he even used to watch the gladiators in Rome contend, like athletes, without risking their lives; for he never gave any of them a sharp weapon, but they all fought with blunted weapons like foils furnished with buttons.
Nevertheless, Marcus felt obliged to attend the gladiatorial bouts at the amphitheatre because the public expected it of him.  He almost certainly, therefore, would have attended games at the amphitheatres in Carnuntum, albeit begrudgingly. Nevertheless, we can stroll among the ruins of those two amphitheatres today, contemplating the notion that we may be where Marcus Aurelius once sat reflecting on the principles of Stoic philosophy and trying to apply them to the everyday sights and sounds around him.
Donald Robertson is a cognitive psychotherapist and writer, living in Canada.  His new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius explores the ways in which events in Marcus’ life can be related to his philosophy.