(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.
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.