by Andrew Rattray
There’s something poignant about last words. A final flourish made all the more beautiful because we know there’s no more wisdom to come. A reminder that all things come to an end. Eugene Delacroix, the 19th century romantic artist, certainly thought so when he painted Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius’. The piece is exactly what you would expect when you picture the final utterances of someone so storied as Marcus Aurelius. Attendants and family clamouring around the deathbed with Commodus, Marcus’ son, prominently featured. 
Interestingly, Aurelius and Delacroix had more in common than perhaps either would have realised.  Aside from being a great admirer of the Stoics, Eugene Delacroix is also considered by some to be one of the last ‘old masters’ of European painting, while Marcus Aurelius is considered to be the last of the ‘good Emperors’ who oversaw the Pax Romana. This was a ‘Golden Age’ of Rome’s majesty, a time of unparalleled consolidation, development, peace and prosperity. These two men unwittingly oversaw the end of an era in their respective fields.
So, Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, and last in a line of greats. But what were his last words exactly, and why do they still resonate with us nearly 2,000 years after his death? Well, first, to better understand his words we must better understand the man.
Originally born Marcus Annius Verus, he received the name Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus when he was adopted by Antoninus Pius, the adopted son of the then emperor Hadrian (of Hadrian’s Wall fame). This was a very common practice amongst the upper and senatorial classes of ancient Rome, as Roman inheritance laws did not favour women, and so it was important to guarantee familial legacy and succession through adoption. Of course, these adoptions were not random. Marcus was born to a family of significant political renown, with his grandfather serving as Consul and even Prefect of Rome, and his aunt, Annia Galeria Faustina, was spouse of Antoninus Pius, Marcus’ eventual adoptive father. It is safe to say, Marcus was groomed to rule.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius
Statue of Marcus Aurelius
After Antoninus’ death, Marcus would be raised to the status of co-emperor with his adoptive brother Lucius Verus, where he would receive his imperial name; Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus. It’s important at this point to note that it was at Marcus’ insistence that Lucius was appointed co-emperor. Furthermore, Lucius does not appear to have had much of a political support base, and so he could have tried to have this potential rival removed and ruled alone. The fact that Marcus insisted upon this joint rule with his adoptive brother speaks volumes to the quality of his character. For eight years the pair served as co-emperors, until Lucius died of a stroke while returning with Marcus from campaigning in the Danube region.  
Despite a successful reign, Marcus Aurelius is best known today for his philosophical writings. Throughout his reign as emperor Marcus wrote what have come to be known as his Meditations, a series of personal journals detailing Marcus’ innermost thoughts and musings. An avid student of philosophy throughout his life and particularly of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, Marcus’ journals show him to have been an incredibly introspective man, grappling with the heavy weight of his office, whilst being acutely aware of the transient nature of life. From writings such as “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” it is clear that, like any of us, the circumstances of his life impacted Marcus as he tried to find his way through the challenges he faced. 
Though it is not clear that these journals were ever meant to be shared with anyone, the collection is now one of the most popular philosophical texts around, thanks to a relatively recent resurgence in popularity as so many of us seek the wisdom of the ancients to help us navigate an increasingly uncertain future. Marcus’ Meditations have proven to be full of wisdom that transcends race, class, and time. Like many of us, Marcus was grappling with his purpose in life, even as he held one of the most powerful positions in the world. In fact, I think because we know these are personal journals, notes to himself, they resonate with us all the more. Even one of the most powerful men alive, for all his wealth, status, and success, grappled with the same issues we do today.  
So, what of his last words? Well, to that I ask; which ones? Should we consider his last words to be the last thing he spoke aloud, or the last thing he put to paper? We have records of both. Usually, we would only consider the former in such a discussion, but given the lasting impact of Marcus’ writing, I think you will find his written words even more compelling. 
According to Cassius Dio, a Roman historian and senator, the last spoken words of Marcus Aurelius as he lay dying were “Go to the rising sun; I am already setting.”. To this day there is still some uncertainty around exactly what he meant. Was the rising sun Marcus’ own son and heir, Commodus? Given what we know of Commodus’ turbulent reign this may seem unlikely, but in truth Marcus did everything he could to groom his son to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, Cassius Dio even writes that Marcus put Commodus under armed guard just before his death to ensure none could accuse him of having a hand in it. It is only through hindsight that we know Commodus proved to be an unworthy successor. 
Donald Robertson, the American author and historian, has a different, and fascinating, take on Marcus’ last spoken words. He makes note of several references within Marcus’ Meditations of comparisons between wisdom and sunlight where he considers the mind as the sun, and wisdom and virtue as sunlight. Marcus felt that a wise mind casts out its virtues to illuminate the world just as the sun’s rays fall upon the Earth. His last words then, could be considered a call to put faith in wisdom and virtue, and find one who exudes these virtues to lead Rome.
Titlepage of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves
Titlepage of an 1811 edition of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves
Alternatively, it may have a more simple meaning. When the day is done, we look on to our plans for tomorrow; when Marcus was gone, he wished for his successors not to tarry but to move on to a new day, and new plans for the Empire. Ultimately, we may never know. 
So, those were Marcus’ spoken words, but what of his final writing? I find the final entry to his Meditations to be a much more impactful and fitting epilogue to Marcus’ life. His final entry reads:
“Mortal man, you have lived as a citizen in this great city. What matter if that life is five or fifty years? The laws of the city apply equally to all. So what is there to fear in your dismissal from the city? This is no tyrant or corrupt judge who dismisses you, but the very same nature that brought you in. It is like the officer who engaged a comic actor dismissing him from the stage. ‘But I have not played my five acts, only three.” ‘True, but in life three acts can be the whole play.’ Completion is determined by that being who caused first your composition and now your dissolution. You have no part in either causation. Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.” 
When talking about the ‘great city’ Marcus is referring to the world as a whole, and all the wonders within, before going on to muse about his looming exit. With his usual introspective reflection he considers the inefficacy of being upset by the natural process of dying. He underlines the importance of acceptance, and leaving with grace, rather than railing against the end. Ultimately, this is so much of what we expect from one of the most famous Stoic philosophers to have ever lived; an acceptance of one’s circumstances. 
All things come to an end eventually, whether they be as insignificant as an article we’ve enjoyed, or as significant as our time on Earth, but we can look to the wisdom of those past and take solace in their own courage in facing these ends when they arrive. There is no benefit in raging against the dying of the light, it will end all the same. Better, in fact, to take these things in our stride, and accept the facts of life as they are. Like Eugene Delacroix, I too am a great admirer of Marcus Aurelius, and the impact of his life, death, and final words are as keen now as they were in 1844, and in 180.