in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 1, 2024

Podcast # 969: The Making of a Stoic Emperor

Perhaps you’ve read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a book many turn to to learn and internalize the teachings of Stoic philosophy. But what do you know of the man who penned that seminal text?

Here to help us get to know the philosopher and ruler is Donald Robertson, a cognitive-behavior psychotherapist and the author of Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor. Drawing on the Meditations, three ancient histories about Marcus’ life and character, and a cache of private letters between him and his rhetoric tutor, Donald unpacks how Marcus’ life shaped his approach to Stoicism, and how Stoicism shaped him. We discuss Marcus’ childhood and influences, his idea of manliness, the surprising significance of who he does and doesn’t mention in the Meditations, and how he used that journal as a kind of father figure. We also discuss how Marcus may have undergone training modeled on the Spartan agoge, how he came to attention as a successor to the emperorship, how he got turned on to Stoicism as medicine for the soul, and how he used the philosophy to deal with his tumultuous rule.

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Brett Mckay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Perhaps you’ve read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a book many turn to to learn and internalize the teachings of stoic philosophy. But what do you know of the man who penned that seminal text? Here to help us get to know the philosopher and ruler is Donald Robertson, a cognitive behavior psychotherapist and the author of, Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor. Drawing on the Meditations, three ancient histories about Marcus’s life and character and a cache of private letters between him and his rhetoric tutor, Donald impacts how Marcus’s life shaped his approach to stoicism and how stoicism shaped him.

We discuss Marcus’s childhood and influences, his idea of manliness, the surprising significance of who he does and doesn’t mention in the Meditations, and how he used that journal as a kind of father figure. We also discuss how Marcus may have undergone training modeled on the Spartan Agoge. How he came to attention as a successor to the emperorship. How he got turned on to stoicism as medicine for the soul. And how he used the philosophy to deal with his tumultuous rule. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

All right, Donald Robertson, welcome back to the show.

Donald Robertson: Hi, Brett. It’s a pleasure, looking forward to it. It’s good to be back.

Brett Mckay: So you are a cognitive behavior psychotherapist. You’re also a student and teacher and writer about the philosophy of stoicism. And you got a new book out called Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor, and it’s a biography of Marcus Aurelius. So people have seeing gladiator, they’ve seen Marcus Aurelius. And if they’ve read stoicism, they know about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. You start off the book with this line, which I thought was really compelling, you said, “Marcus Aurelius did not have a heart of stone”. Why did you start off the book with that line?

Donald Robertson: Well, actually for two reasons. One is that Yale University Press who commissioned me to write the book, wanted me to write a biography that was more in a narrative style, rather than one that was kinda more dry and academic. So it’s a little bit like writing a movie screen play, we wanted to make it engaging. So there’s little elements of historical fiction, in terms of the style. So it’s a historical biography, but one that reads a little bit more like a story. And that can be a challenge with Marcus’s life, so I wanted to get into his emotions right from the outset and frame the whole thing as being a lot bit more personal, a lot bit more to do with his psychology.

But there’s another reason why I did it, which is when I wrote this book, what frustrated… There are several biographies about Marcus, that are pretty good, but what always frustrated me about them, because people often ask me about, where can I get a good biography on Marcus Aurelius, was that the other ones don’t really talk about his philosophy as much as I would have liked, and right out of the gate, I wanted to address the most common misconception about stoic philosophy, which is undoubtedly the idea that stoics are completely unemotional. And in fact, the word stoic today is used to mean someone that has a stiff upper lip or they’re unemotional, and that’s kind of a corruption of the original meaning of the word.

So in order to distinguish them we usually write lower case stoicism to mean being unemotional. But when we’re talking and writing about the philosophy, we usually capitalize it in order to clarify that they are really two different things. And I’d say that the idea of the stoicism is about suppressing or concealing unpleasant or embarrassing emotions, the problem with it is that it’s based on an overly simplistic view, of what emotions are. Whereas the ancient stoics, one of the most interesting things about them, is that they had a much more sophisticated theory of emotion.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, and you described… You could call them outburst of emotion that Marcus displayed throughout his life. When his favorite tutor died, he cried and he started to beat his chest, and tore his clothes in grief, and that’s not something you’d expect from the way stoicism is portrayed today, particularly on social media, where it’s these statues and it’s all about grit and determination, Marcus, that’s not how he practiced stoicism.

Donald Robertson: Well, in the ancient world actually displays… One of the interesting things about human behavior and psychology is that expressions of emotions can vary quite a lot from one culture to another. And in Ancient Greece and in Rome to a slightly lesser extent, but still it’s the case, people would express emotions often in a more animated way than we do today. So it’s a quite common to hear, particularly in Greek literature, about people pulling their hair, beating their chest, beating their heads in grief, whereas we tend not to be it.

So partly, it’s a cultural difference, they are naturally more expressive in the ancient world. But I should… Let me dive right into what the differences here between how the stoics thought about emotion and how self-improvement authors sometimes think about it today. So our default view of emotion is what psychologist sometimes call the Lamp theory or the hydraulic theory of emotion, that emotion is just like a blob of the energy or something, and it builds up and you can suppress it or you can vent it. But the stoics think of emotion, in terms of it being composed of voluntary and involuntary aspects of cognitive and behavioral aspects. So they see it more like a clockwork mechanism and we can dissect it and understand the ingredients that go together to make an emotion. And the stoics believed that the involuntary aspects of emotion, which they saw as kind of reflex-like, that we should view with indifference and accept, but the real thing that they were concerned with was what happens next.

How we would respond to the grief of losing someone that was really important to us, for example. And they’re very concerned, for instance, that we don’t indulge in excessive rumination about negative emotions. And that’s the same in modern psychotherapy. We make the same distinction. So there are automatic emotional responses, and then there are what we call strategic or voluntary ones. And most of psychotherapy revolves around getting people to maintain this distinction and to learn to accept unpleasant feelings, but to take more responsibility for the way that they process them or respond to them.

Brett Mckay: Okay. So this is a psychological biography of Marcus Aurelius. And what you do is you look at his entire life, to see how his upbringing, how his childhood, how his education, and then how his experience as an emperor in general shaped his psychology. And then how stoicism also shaped his character and shaped his psychology. And I think by digging into this, you can get some really good insights that are applicable to yourself. At least I got a lot of great insights. Let’s start with Marcus’s childhood and his parents. Who was his father? And then how did his father’s life and death shape Marcus’s character and view on life?

Donald Robertson: Well, first of all, we know very little about his father, so there’s some things we know a lot about. And then there’s other things we know little about. But I think if you’re a good biographer, you’re very careful. Sometimes you can make a little bit go a long way or at least make it go a bit further. So Marcus’s father died, we believe, when Marcus was about three or four years old. And he was a praetor, so he was a senior Roman magistrate. But that’s about all that we know about him, really. We don’t know why, how he died, but we know that Marcus’s grandfather was a thrice consul. So a really, really senior Roman statesman, probably like one of the most senior most powerful men in the Senate. So we can infer that Marcus’s father was probably on a career path to become a senior Roman statesman, but he had it cut short.

That’s the story of Marcus’s father, if you like. He’s a guy that was heading to the top, but for some reason he died prematurely where he was still at a relatively early stage in his career. And the other consequence of that is that Marcus would normally have been brought up by the men in his family, and he was for a while, but his mother took responsibility for raising him on his, she never remarried, so we’ll come back to her in a moment, I guess. But what Marcus says about his father is that from what he can remember, which can’t be much of what he’s said about this man, he was renowned for modesty. And funnily enough, manliness. So I guess, it’s very relevant to your podcast. But Marcus says later, in the Meditations that by manliness, he doesn’t mean anger or aggression, but he means something more like the strength of character that would be required to exhibit kindness to other people.

And the reason he’s saying that is that in Roman society, there were probably many people that thought of manliness in terms of kind of aggression and violence and stuff like that, more than Marcus did. So Marcus probably thought his father was a modest and kind man, and clearly someone that he admired on the basis of his reputation and wanted to emulate. But again, the real story here is that he lost his father. So he was left… He’s a young guy who’s got a lot of responsibility in his shoulders and has no father figure. And we can see that he spends the rest of his life looking for a replacement father figure. And he finds several, but we’ll come back to this later, but the book, the Meditations in a sense, I think becomes a substitute father figure for him in a way.

Brett Mckay: This idea of manliness, you talked about, he used a Greek word for it, “Aranikos”. How did its meaning differ from the Latin word for manliness. It’s vir, I mean, you can pronounce it “wir” too. What’s the difference?

Donald Robertson: Well, funnily enough, Marcus’s conception of manliness is probably more influenced by Greek culture and philosophy, I would say. I think that might be the kind of perception of it among his peers. It’s a more cerebral, more philosophical view of what constitutes manliness. Marcus is a guy who’s fixated on self-improvement and developing strength of character. But he views, funnily enough, well, having said that, he doesn’t think anger or aggression as manly. He’s a guy that admits that he had an anger management problem in his youth. So as a young guy, he had anger, but he saw his greatest achievement in a way, in terms of the fact that he was able to master his angry feelings and transcend them. And it was stoicism that helped him to do that.

Brett Mckay: Okay. So Marcus’s father died when he was three or four, but had a big impact on him. He was always searching for a father figure. He had, we’ll talk about some of these father figures that he had. Even say his Meditations, his journaling was a substitute father figure for himself. And then also this, I love this idea of this cerebral type of manliness, virtue of manliness that he got from his father. But you said his mother probably had a bigger impact on him. Who was his mother and how did she help shape what would become one of the great stoic philosophers?

Donald Robertson: Well, I’m gonna be honest about this, Brett. His mother really interests me. His mother’s a pretty cool lady, his mother is unusual in the sense that many women in Greek or Roman society had a very subordinate role where you don’t, we don’t really hear as much about them in history. Marcus’s mother was a powerhouse, she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful women in Rome. She came from an elite Roman family with a long history. She was a kind of Magni in the construction industry.

She owned brick and tile factories and clay fields. We have many bricks that archeologists have found today with her name stamped on them, if you can imagine that. Not how we often think of women in ancient society. But also, she was a high, without question, she was a highly, highly educated woman. Most elite Romans were bilingual in Latin and Greek. So Marcus wrote the Meditations in Greek, for example. But Marcus’s mother was not only fluent, but adept at the Greek language. So she must have been completely immersed in Greek literature. And she seems to have been the sort of woman who surrounded herself with an intellectual circle who had a kind of intellectual Salon, as it were. And so Marcus grew up in this household where it would’ve been common for some of the most famous intellectuals of his era to pop around to visit his mum, if you can imagine that.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, no, and something else that she did, she was very particular about Marcus’s education.

Donald Robertson: Yeah, I would say it… My estimate is that she probably played a role in his education. Round about the time he began his secondary level of education she brought him back from his paternal grandfather’s house into her house. So that suggest to me it’s probably because she wants to hire the private tutors. And that wouldn’t be unusual, for example, we know that Emperor Nero’s mother, Agrippina chose Seneca, the stoic philosopher to be Nero’s tutor. So, I think it’s likely, although we can’t be certain that Marcus’s mother chose his tutors. Now, then arguably we can look at who were his tutors? What does that tell us then about what his parents, or in this case just his mother had decided.

There are a lot of Greek rhetoric tutors, but also a lot of stoic philosophers teaching him. So if that’s true, his mother was maybe someone who was already interested in stoicism. And there’s a tiny hint in the Meditations. Marcus mentions in passing a guy called Demetrius, who is a devoted student of stoicism. That’s all he tells us about this guy. But he happens to have the same name as Marcus’s mother’s extended family. So that guy might have been an uncle or something. So in maybe in his mother’s family there already were people who were devoted to stoicism.

Brett Mckay: So you mentioned that he had a several tutors in his childhood, in his young teenage years.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: There’s one Marcus talks about in his Meditations, but it’s an unnamed tutor.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: But Marcus speaks really fondly of him.

Donald Robertson: That’s quite cryptic. And I mean, again, if you do, if you’re really a kind of careful, thorough biographer, you know, often it’s what people don’t say that can be most revealing, especially with Romans. What Romans didn’t say, that’s something they’re far more sensitive to than we are today. So in the Meditations, he’s naming all these family members and tutors that really influenced him. And it’s interesting who he doesn’t mention. So he doesn’t mention Herodes Atticus anywhere. Herodes Atticus was the most famous intellectual of the era. He was a family friend of Marcus’s mother. He was brought up for a time in her household, her grandfather’s household. And he was a great sophist and famous writer. He was like a billionaire philanthropist. And he was Marcus’s Greek rhetoric tutor. And he doesn’t mention this guy, which is incredibly insulting in the eyes of ancient Romans. It’s almost like what they call damnatio memoriae.

So damning somebody by erasing them from history. Or a little bit like, you know when we talk about cancel culture and stuff today. Marcus in a sense kind of canceled Herodes by not mentioning him or acknowledging him at this point. And yet he mentions, to make it worse, to rub salt in the wound. He mentions this guy whose name he can’t even remember. So our best guess is this is a slave or a freed man, a former slave in his grandfather’s household, probably when Marcus was under the age of about 10 or 12 and around about the age of his kind of elementary school education.

And yet this guy isn’t a philosopher, but Marcus says he learned more from him in terms of life lessons than he did from the greatest intellectual of his era. That would’ve been incredibly insulting to Herodes Atticus. And Marcus, we have to remember, is sitting on the backs of the Danube and his praetorian and his HQ and command of the legions, writing. I remember when I was a little kid, this guy taught me not to support the green or the blue teams in the horse racing, or one side or the other in the gladiatorial contests. And that’s clearly a metaphor, Brett, because he’s not at the gladiatorial games or at the circus Maximus when he is writing it. He’s negotiating with Germanic tribes. And so he’s clearly saying, don’t take sides in political arguments. Try and be bipartisan, try and view things independently in a detached way and kind of avoid getting sucked into partisan bickering.

Brett Mckay: Why did Marcus snub that tutor Herodes?

Donald Robertson: Why?

Brett Mckay: Yeah. Do you know?

Donald Robertson: He was a horrible man. If you want the long and short of it, he went on trial for kicking his pregnant wife to death, for example.

Brett Mckay: Oh, wow. Geez.

Donald Robertson: Yeah, pretty bad, right? He was a horrible, controversial figure. He lunged at Marcus at one point during a trial later in life, and the praetorian prefect drew his sword. Like he came close, he came within a heel’s breath for getting run through, for like lunging forward to as if he was gonna throttle the emperor. And again, it’s an interesting anecdote ’cause we’re told Marcus kind of just stood up very calmly and brushed it off. So the stories were told about Marcus reflect this idea that he was perceived as somebody who was really unfazed, even by somebody unexpectedly lunging at him in court as if they were gonna throttle him.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that the ancients, you see this across cultures, the Greeks, Romans, and other ancient cultures, they really understood the power of ignoring someone. ‘Cause when you ignore someone you destroy them. Like you basically, annihilate them, their sense of self. Yeah. It’s kind of savage of Marcus. It’s very subtly savage. He also had a painting instructor that seemed to teach more philosophy than painting. Tell us about this guy and what did he teach Marcus about voluntary hardship?

Donald Robertson: So this is probably his next main tutor, probably around about the age of 12. And we know this guy’s name. He’s called Diognetus. So that gives us a little fragment of evidence, ’cause that’s a Greek name, not a Roman name. So that wouldn’t be unusual. This guy probably traveled from a Greek speaking country, probably Greece, it might have been in Egypt or Asia, an Asia minor or something. And he’s a painting master. Marcus makes absolutely no mention of this guy teaching him anything about painting, interestingly. That already makes him a cool guy, like an interesting guy. So what Marcus says is this guy introduced me to philosophy. So it sounds like his early tutor kinda gave him some of the life lessons and character traits that prepared him to be a philosopher. And then this guy at 12, which is in Roman culture, would be unusually young.

Brett Mckay: If you’re gonna study philosophy you’d be at least 15 or more normally, so 12 is very unusually young. Marcus is taken to philosophy lectures by this guy. Now that’s weird. Because Marcus at this age would be dressed recognizably, dressed like a child in Roman culture. He’d have the bulla of the child’s amulet hanging around his neck. He’s probably the only kid, little kid, in those lectures, if you can visualize that. That’s Marcus in a nutshell, basically. He’s kind of precocious little philosophy student. But this guy, Diognetus, taught him not to listen to charlatans, sorcerers and so on. So he told him, look, don’t fall for superstitious mumbo-jumbo. He told him not to breed quails for fighting, which is an interesting comment.

Donald Robertson: Now, that was like a popular kind of game or a way of gambling in Rome. So I think the subtext there as is he’s saying, this guy taught me not to get distracted. The modern equivalent, Brett, would be setting in your mom’s basement, smoking weed and playing computer games all day, I guess. But this guy is saying to Marcus, don’t get sidetracked into playing these silly games and stuff like that. Keep your focus on self-improvement and becoming the sort of person that you want to be in life. And that’s given extra resonance ’cause as we’ll see later, there were other people around Marcus who did get completely distracted by entertainment, basically, and gambling and things like that, and neglected their duties as a result. So he also told him, Marcus says, the other thing I learned from this guy was not to speak freely or complain about freedom of speech, but to tolerate other people’s freedom of speech.

Which is obviously in a way an unusual trait for a Roman Emperor, because if you think of guys like Nero and Caligula, some Roman Emperors are notoriously intolerant of other people’s freedom of speech. So Marcus said, earlier on, this guy taught me to put up with other people disagreeing with me, for example. And we might guess, we can read into this and say probably ’cause this guy, Diognetus, said things that Marcus didn’t like at times. Maybe he challenged him and Marcus had to learn to suck it up and put up with this guy maybe kind of criticizing him, trying to be quite a challenging teacher. But I think maybe what you’re getting at in terms of like the art of manliness and so on, there’s something else at the end of that section that he says is notoriously cryptic, and I’m sure you spotted it.

Where he says, the other thing this guy taught me is to sleep on a plank bed with an animal skin and everything else, he says, that belongs to, and in the translation it will say the Grecian discipline, but in Greek there’s a very interesting phrase. He says the Elliniki Agogi, which translators and commentators latch onto ’cause it’s an odd phrase and it connotes the first thing that you would think of when you read that is the Spartan Agoge. So we don’t know for sure what Marcus is talking about there, whether he actually means this guy, perhaps a Greek tutor, taught him to emulate the military cadet training of Spartan youths, or he might mean maybe a version of this that you find in other Greek cities. But we know quite a lot about this training.

There’s a kind of lifestyle of self-improvement training that many ancient philosophers modelled on military cadet training or on Spartan education. And there’s a kind of cluster of things that they refer to. Like, we don’t know that much about it, but they talk about, for example, fasting, drinking water instead of wine, eating coarse bread, maybe rye bread or barley bread they mean, wearing the tribon, this very plain, very simple garment that philosophers traditionally wore. Sometimes they talk about carrying a cane or staff like the Spartans traditionally did, going barefoot and sleeping on a military camp bed, a straw mat on the floor, are things that are all typically associated with this Elliniki Agogi.

Brett Mckay: So as a 12-year-old boy, Marcus was like, yeah, I’m gonna do that, sign me up, this sounds great. So he had an interest in self-improvement even at a young age.

Donald Robertson: And it was very much to do with self-mastery. And quite physical, but some of these physical trainings, trainings in voluntary hardship and so on, to toughen you up, I guess, basically we would say today, were traditionally associated with stoic philosophy and also the cynic philosophy that kind of preceded stoicism.

Brett Mckay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So as a boy, at some point in his childhood, Marcus caught the attention of the Emperor Hadrian.

Donald Robertson: Yeah, that guy.

Brett Mckay: Yeah, that guy. Tell us about Hadrian’s relationship with Marcus Aurelius.

Donald Robertson: Well, it wasn’t a good relationship, really. It’s an odd relationship. So just to kind of throw back to something we mentioned earlier, Hadrian is notable by his absence from Book One of Meditations. So Marcus draws up a list of people he admires. Again, in Roman culture, that’s a risky thing to do. You’re literally saying, here’s all the people that I admire most and learn most from. Hadrian doesn’t feature on anywhere. So that is like a damnatio memoriae. Like he’s saying, I have nothing positive to say about Hadrian. And many people remember Hadrian as one of the good emperors and there’s some truth in that. But at the beginning of his rule, Hadrian started off with a political purge and the Senate always held that against him. And towards the end of his life, in the last few years of his life, Hadrian kind of went crazy and really turned into a despot and had a series of political purges, including against several members of Marcus’s family. And so I think Marcus was probably terrified of Hadrian, to be honest.

Hadrian made Marcus come and live in his villa, which was kind of like the sort of ridiculously vast opulent complex that a kind of megalomaniac would build and Hadrian had parties and probably orgies and stuff there. Marcus was about 16 at the time and I think he was really freaked out and intimidated by the fact that Hadrian commanded him to come and live in this villa where all this kind of craziness was going on. Hadrian was a physical and psychological mess. A train wreck towards the end of his life. He was riddled with disease. The skin disease, his limbs were inflamed and swollen, and he was suicidal and lashing out obsessed with revenge against his political rivals.

Brett Mckay: Did Marcus take any leadership lessons, maybe on how not to be a leader from Hadrian?

Donald Robertson: Yeah. Well, not to be a leader, basically. So I should say Hadrian selected Marcus early on to be his successor. So Hadrian was also a control freak. And he not only appointed his immediate successor, but also the next in line to the throne. So Antoninus Pius succeeded Hadrian, but Hadrian said, after you, you’re gonna appoint Marcus, ’cause he’s too young at the moment to be emperor. So he had a long term succession plan.

Brett Mckay: But why did Hadrian choose Marcus? I mean, it is kind of weird. It’s, I often get confused about how succession worked in the Roman Empire, ’cause you think, well, you should go from father to son, but sometimes people just pick random people here. Why’d you pick this guy? So what was going on there?

Donald Robertson: Well, Hadrian didn’t have any kids, and one possible reason for that, Hadrian was married, but his wife hated him and refused to have any kids by him. And Hadrian was like probably more interested in same-sex relationships, to put it tactfully. One argument is he probably wasn’t that interested in his wife. So Hadrian didn’t have children. And so he had to adopt, and he made a real mess of it. Like he chose another guy initially who died prematurely. And so his succession plan was kinda chaotic, but then in the end, he put forward quite a… And my suspicion is the Senate influenced his succession plan in the end. It kind of comes across that way to me. But how did Marcus first catch Hadrian’s eye? Now there’s this weird, again, really cryptic story in the Roman histories that we’re told.

Hadrian looked at Marcus and said, I’m gonna call this kid Verissimus, which is a play on words. Hadrian loved jokes and puns. Marcus’s family name is Marcus Anis Veris. And Veris means true or loyal or truthful, and Verissimus means the most true. And so, it’s a weird play in words. We don’t know annoyingly, we don’t know why Hadrian said that, but Marcus would’ve been roughly seven years old at the time, a little kid at Hadrian’s co-opt. Hadrian was already preparing him to enter elite society. And Marcus’s grandfather would’ve known Hadrian very well. He would’ve been one of Hadrian’s friends or rivals, and his name was Veris.

So again, if we do a deep dive into this as kinda like digging like a biographer, we might say, Hadrian seems to be suggesting that this little boy was more truthful than his grandfather. So maybe, this grandfather was trying to be tactful or diplomatic, and then this little kid just blurted something out that the grandfather was too embarrassed to say in front of the emperor. Now, obviously this story reminds us of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, the Emperor’s New Clothes. Everyone around Hadrian was too scared to tell him the truth, but for some reason, Marcus Aurelius said something or did something that made Hadrian think this little kid is the most truthful person in Rome.

Brett Mckay: Okay. So he picked him as his successor, but between that time, he had another guy Antoninus. When Antoninus became Marcus’s adoptive father.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: And then he ruled while Marcus is getting ready for his succession. And Marcus talks about how he learned a lot from Antoninus, from his example on how he led. He basically, Antoninus did the exact opposite of Hadrian.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: And he was very plain, like he dressed plainly, spoke plainly, and was philosophical.

Donald Robertson: I mean, again, if we read this like Roman rhetoric, like Latin rhetoric, Marcus, first of all, Marcus is like an expert on his adoptive father’s character, if you can imagine that. And he’s clearly spent a lot of time analyzing and modeling Antoninus without question, he can sit down. He does it more than once in the Meditations. He sits down and rattles off a huge list of things that he admires about this guy. Think about that for a minute. It’s one thing to say that you admire someone, but imagine being able to go through a list of about 15 qualities of like, that you can identify, that you think are worth modeling about this person. He’s put thought and effort into this, and he’s writing this maybe a decade after Antoninus has died, like he’s still kind of modeling this guy.

He thinks he’s the perfect emperor, basically, and he wants to be like him. But also in terms of Roman rhetoric, in all honesty, everything that he says about Antoninus sounds glaringly like in brackets after it, he’s writing unlike Hadrian. Like, he chooses things to say that all clearly sound like digs at Hadrian to me. And he sees this guy as the complete opposite of what Hadrian was. And it looks like that passage is engineered in that way, to be honest. So absolutely, he thinks I’ve got this template for how to be a good emperor. So the interesting question is, why doesn’t Marcus think, we’ll just go out and copy what he did then. What’s the problem? Well, I think the clue is that Marcus says that he has problems with his temper. And in the Meditations it’s hard to pick out themes because there are themes in it, but most of the themes just come from stoic philosophy.

It’s hard to say that they tell as much about Marcus’s character, but one of the things he does focus on is his frustration with other people around him. And so I think Marcus hated the courtiers and senators. He thought they were a bunch of hypocrites, they were disloyal, they were conniving, kind of like we’re used to seeing in dramas, historical dramas and stuff like that. A bunch of back stabbers and stuff is kinda how it comes across. And so Marcus thinks, I wish I was more like Antoninus but I keep getting annoyed with these guys and disillusioned with them. So I need to kinda manage that somehow. And so he turns to Stoicism as a methodology for helping him to become more like his adoptive father who he views as the sort of perfect emperor.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. When you read the Meditations, you can see what Marcus’s problems are because they keep coming. It’s like any journal. Like I look at my journals and I can see, well, it’s like the same issue over and over again. And you see with Marcus, it’s basically like, ah, I’ve just, people are really annoying. You have to accept that people are annoying, get used to it and move on with your life.

Donald Robertson: So what doesn’t he say, like Seneca for example, talks about greed. You’re right. So Seneca’s more of a social climber. Marcus says very little about greed in the Meditations. Like it doesn’t really figure is a problem for him. Like many aristocrats, he was born into wealth. He didn’t have to grasp after it as it were. So he doesn’t think about money that much. He’s much more concerned about reputation and about getting irritated. Anger is his big problem.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. You talk about this dream that Marcus had when he learned that he had been adopted by Antoninus and basically, he knew like, I’m gonna be the next emperor. I thought this dream was really interesting, particularly in relation to this idea of shoulders and manliness in Roman culture. Can you talk about that dream?

Donald Robertson: He has this dream that he has shoulders of ivory on the day that he’s told that he’s being adopted into the imperial family. So he is adopted by Antoninus, but Hadrian legally adopted him, by the way, as his grandson as well. So he’s completely adopted into the imperial family. And he doesn’t want to be emperor. He’s reluctant to become emperor, we’re told. And he has this dream that his arms have turned to ivory and his shoulders have tongue to ivory. And he’s freaked out in the dream and he behaves as if he thinks, well, they’re like doll’s arms or something, they’re not gonna work. So he sees a heavy object in the dream and picks it up. We’re not told what the object is, and he finds that he can lift it easily. Like he’s got superpowers. He’s much stronger. And that’s reported by several ancient texts.

But funnily enough, they don’t offer any interpretation of it. So my interpretation is that in the dream, what we can safely say is that something that seems like a weakness to him turns out to his surprise to be a strength. And I think it’s his love of philosophy, funnily enough, that was initially perceived by other Romans as making him unsuitable to be an emperor. He’s a dork, he’s a nerd, he’s kind of bookish. And in this dream, he thinks maybe the thing that other people see as a weakness. And maybe I had assumed was a weakness. Maybe I wanted to be more like an academic than a ruler or an emperor. Maybe it actually allows me to become a good emperor because it gives me a bunch of tools for self-improvement that would allow me to become more like Antoninus. Maybe I could be the philosopher-king that Plato writes about. An epic tutor who Marcus idolized mentions many times this metaphor of an athlete’s shoulders.

So he says, philosophy shouldn’t be a bookish academic subject. He said, don’t tell me how many books you’ve read. Show me evidence that your character has improved from your daily life. He says, that would be like someone taking you and showing you the weights and equipment that’s in their gym. He said, no, show me that you’ve developed your shoulders, you’ve been using the equipment and you’ve transformed your body. So this metaphor of having strong athletic shoulders from wrestling and stuff in Greek and Roman society was meant to be a metaphor for evidence that you’ve actually done the training. So having shoulders of ivory in the dream, I think, symbolizes Marcus saying he’s actually internalized his philosophy and transformed his character on the basis of it. Explicitly to say, show me your shoulders. Show me the evidence that you’ve become a real stoic.

Brett Mckay: I love that. So up until this point in Marcus’s young life, he had some stoic training, formal stoic training, but not much. It was mainly he’s learning by example. But that changed when he became the student of a guy named Rusticus.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: Why was Rusticus Marcus’s most important tutor for stoicism?

Donald Robertson: It’s a really good question. ‘Cause he had stoic tutors before that. He had a famous stoic tutor called Apollonius of Chalcedon, who came from Athens to teach him. And he was a guy that Marcus admired. But I mean, now we’re really scraping together fragments of biographical evidence. Fronto, Marcus’s rhetoric tutor, in a letter to him, makes fun of the stoic philosophy classes he was attending. And he says like, they’re really dry and academic. You just sit there staring at the window, yawning, studying boring logic and stuff like that. They’re completely theoretical. There’s no homework at all. And we might think that’s the opposite of what stoicism is normally like, but it may be that Marcus’s early stoic tutors were more into theory and this guy Rusticus comes along. Now he’s not Greek, he’s Roman. Not only that, he’s an elite Roman. He is a very important statesman.

He’s a Roman general. He probably had just come back around the time he became Marcus’s tutor. The date the chronology suggests he must have just come back from fighting in a war in Armenia where he would’ve been a general under the command of the Proconsul, the senior general, a guy called Arrian, who was the student of Epictetus, who wrote the Discourses and Handbook of Epictetus. He transcribed them.

So he was serving under a famous stoic and military commander, and he comes back and gives Marcus a copy of Epictetus’s discourses. And Marcus clearly thinks this is one of the most important moments in his life. Now, one reason that might be, we think, oh, that’s really cool. This guy gave him a copy of the Discourses maybe this guy had even met Epictetus. Maybe this guy Rusticus, like probably knew Epictetus’s student really well and probably got the Discourses straight from the horse’s mouth, straight from the guy that transcribed them.

But why else would that be so important? Now there’s a clue. Arrian in the preface to the Discourses, said that they were meant to be circulated in private and they were leaked. He didn’t intend them ever to be published. He says they were only intended for a close circle of friends. So Marcus had never met Epictetus. Epictetus was living in Greece and he probably yearned to meet him. He probably felt he’d missed out on this kind of rockstar of philosophy.

The guy’s died, I’m never gonna see him now. And he never wrote anything. And then this general turns up, he’d been fighting in the East and says imagine there’s a band that you really want to see, but you’ve never seen them live. And then someone turns up with a load of bootleg recordings of them and just hands them to you when you’re a teenage boy. How amazing that would be, right? Maybe Marcus thought there were no books from Epictetus. Rusticus says here’s eight volumes transcribed from his lessons. So there’s no wonder that Marcus became obsessed with Epictetus’s teachings.

Brett Mckay: And then also what Rusticus did, as you said, Marcus’s earlier, stoic tutors probably into stoic metaphysics and things like that. But Rusticus is really hit home. This idea that stoicism is actually medicine for the soul. It’s a type of therapy. Tell us about that idea.

Donald Robertson: Yeah, he says so clear as crystal in the Meditations. Marcus says, what I got from Rusticus was the idea that stoicism is about correcting your character. And also he says therapeia in Greek, right there in black and white. The Greek word for therapy, like couldn’t be clearer. And we know that the stoics wrote books on psychotherapy. They had a famous book called On Therapeutics, written by Chrysippus, the Greek scholar of the early stoa. And we have Seneca’s On Anger today.

It’s a bit on stoic psychotherapy. The stoics were doing psychotherapy, like clearly a form of cognitive therapy. And he, Marcus says, that’s what I got from Rusticus. Now again, the implication is he didn’t get that from his earlier stoic tutors. What’s the point in saying he got it from Rusticus? Unless he hadn’t got it prior to that. So Rusticus come along and said, stoicism isn’t a theory, it’s a practice.

It’s a way of life. And that’s what Epictetus taught, read Epictetus. And we have to assume if Rusticus is giving him Epictetus’s writings, Rusticus is probably also teaching him the same stuff. They probably discussed the Discourses together. Here’s a bit of trivia, by the way. We have four volumes of transcripts from Epictetus’s lecture. It’s called Discourses. But the ancient sources tell us there were originally eight volumes, so half of them are missing. But Marcus quotes from the Discourses we have and also quotes things that Epictetus said that we don’t have. So it’s quite likely that Marcus had read the missing four volumes of Epictetus’s discourses. He probably knows a lot more about Epictetus than we do.

Brett Mckay: And you mentioned some of the fragments we have from Marcus’s writings is that Marcus would sometimes… He talked about getting frustrated with Rusticus. And I think it’s ’cause Rusticus challenged Marcus on the problems that Marcus had. And you mentioned them earlier, one was anger but another one was vanity. And I imagine they had these sessions where he used stoic plain speaking and said, Marcus, I was watching you in the Senate the other day and I saw you do this. What’s going on there?

Donald Robertson: He called him out on his character flaws as a teenager. Can you imagine? And it, so Marcus said that the person that he got most angry with is his best friend and his mentor. I mean, that’s really cool. Like, who’s the person that upsets you the most in life that kinda irritates you the most? My mentor. Why? Because he’s always challenging me. He’s always pushing me. Marcus loved this guy. Marcus had a statuette of Rusticus in his personal shrine. He would sit and pray and pour libations and meditate in front of a statue of Rusticus. He loved this guy, but he also got really angry. So you could say he had a kinda love-hate relationship with him because this guy pushed him and challenged him. And that’s exactly what Epictetus says philosophy is supposed to be like.

Epictetus says, you go to a sophist like Fronto. If you want to get flattered, if you want your ego massaged, go and see Herodes Atticus. But if you go and see a philosopher, they’re gonna challenge you. They’re gonna criticize you and question you because it’s like going to see the dentist or the doctor. Therapy is sometimes painful. It’s challenging. You’re gonna be confronted with your weaknesses. But if you’ve got the balls, you’ve got the tolerance, the integrity to put yourself through that, you’re gonna come out the other side of it much stronger.

Brett Mckay: Okay. So Marcus becomes the emperor. He becomes a co-emperor with his adoptive brother. And he had some issues with him. But let’s talk about his reign as emperor, because as soon as he becomes emperor, he faces a bunch of challenges where his stoicism is put to the test. The Tiber river flooded, it created a natural disaster in Rome, disease, destroyed buildings. Shortly after that, a military invasion began with the Parthians, and then there was a plague that hit Rome. How did Marcus’s stoicism help him navigate these problems?

Donald Robertson: Yeah, you missed out the famine and the earthquakes [0:43:23.8] ____.

Brett Mckay: Yeah. Famine, earthquakes, everything.

Donald Robertson: Yeah. Got all thrown. Even the Roman historians say it seems like the gods waited for the stoic to take the throne. And then they tested him by throwing everything they could at him. And how did his stoicism help him? Well, you could say the Meditations tells us exactly how his stoicism helped him. It’s like a record of what he was doing in order to cope with the pandemic that he faced, which was horrific. And, far worse than the one that we’ve been through. And, with the political intrigue and with the wars that he’s facing, the Meditations, there’s a document of that.

And what he does, I’ll sum it up for you ’cause I wanna give your listeners a few takeaways. He would distinguish between what’s under his control and what isn’t, very carefully. He would take more responsibility for his own emotions, and he would train himself to contemplate things within their wider context. And he tried to live consistently in accord with reason in terms of the way that he handled the challenges that he faced. So that’s a kind of very quick summary of some of the stoic strategies that we see him using over and over again in order to deal with these incredible challenges that he’s facing.

Brett Mckay: And during these challenges, as emperor, this is when he started actually writing the Meditations. Correct?

Donald Robertson: Long story short, there’s a bunch of circumstantial evidence that suggests that he wrote it between roundabout 170 and 175 AD. So during the plague, basically, and particularly though during the Germanic war, the Marcommannic war.

Brett Mckay: And this was the journal, again, Meditations, it’s a book that we all read, but it was originally a private journal.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: And Marcus, basically, used it as you said, maybe a substitute father figure or maybe a substitute Rusticus.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: To challenge himself. There’s this idea in stoic philosophy. You present the problem and then you dialogue over it.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: And that’s what he does in his Meditations. Here’s this problem. People are annoying. How am I gonna overcome this?

Donald Robertson: Yeah. It’s a self-improvement work book if you like. It clearly is. He literally says over and over again, everyday contemplate this. He’s talking about, regular contemplative practices that he’s using and he’s mentoring himself. Because the other thing that had probably just happened, if we look at the chronology, Rusticus had just died possibly of the plague. Certainly, Rusticus has died round about the time that Marcus started writing the Meditations.

So, it looks like he now is thinking, I don’t have a mentor anymore, so I’m gonna have to start becoming my own therapist, becoming my own mentor by writing this book. That can kind of serve as a reminder for me. And it’s also where is all the content coming from? Some of it is paraphrased or quoted from books that he’s reading. Some of it might be, this is total speculation, but some of it might be him remembering conversations that he’s had with Rusticus and other stoic mentors that he had.

Brett Mckay: Are there any takeaways we can take from Marcus’s journaling? Because I’ve journaled before and one thing I noticed the way I journaled it wasn’t very effective because what I would do, I just ended up ruminating. If you read my journals, I just talk about the same problems over and over again.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: Blah, blah, blah. And that’s why I stopped doing it, ’cause this isn’t doing anything for me.

Donald Robertson: Yeah.

Brett Mckay: Is there anything we can learn from Marcus and maybe from your own practice as a cognitive behavior, psychotherapist on how to journal so it’s more effective and we don’t just carve about our problems all the time?

Donald Robertson: I think it’s a really good observation. Journaling is hit and miss. We now know, particularly in modern therapy, that kinda writing exercises don’t work that well for certain personality types. There are many clients that are over thinkers, if you like, prone to what we call rumination in therapy. And there’s particular mental health problems that are associated with that, generalized anxiety disorder, to some extent, depression.

Some of those clients, if you give them forms to fill out in CBT, they’ll come back the next week with a huge pile of papers that they’ve been scribbling notes on, that’s what it looks like in practice. You go, okay, writing stuff down has become a symptom rather than a solution in this case. What Marcus does is he tries to be concise. He’s always… He actually says this, like he’s trying to abbreviate, he’s trying to get to the essence of things. Fronto in his letters tells Marcus to do this.

He says, you need to take the insights from philosophy and practice rephrasing them in ways that are more powerful to try and get exactly the right word to capture the essence of the idea. So Marcus is quite focused really in the Meditations on a handful, half a dozen key ideas. You could say it’s repetitive, but he’s digging deeper each time. He’s trying to really capture the essence of these ideas in language that just hits the nail on the head for him.

And part of what’s going on there is he wants those ideas to really penetrate his soul. So, he says, your soul needs to become dyed with these ideas. He’s got the idea. It’s not just about kind of having a conversation and then forgetting about it. You’ve got to get to the core of the powerful idea and find a way to make it really penetrate into your character, so you permanently remember it. And he thinks the key is to keep coming back and digging deeper each time and finding ways to phrase it more effectively, more accurately.

Brett Mckay: I love that. Well, Donald, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Donald Robertson: Well, the book they can find from all good booksellers if they want to find… Best place to find me these days is on Substack. I love me some Substack. If they want to look me up there, they’ll find all my videos and podcasts and things that I do there. And also, I’m a founding member of an organization called Modern Stoicism. They might want to check out if they’re interested in stoicism, the website’s, just And also the founder and president of a nonprofit based in Greece called the Plato’s Academy Center, which is Plato’s Academy Center at if people want to, look that up and find out about the work that we’re doing in Greece.

Brett Mckay: Fantastic. Well, Donald Robertson, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Donald Robertson: Thanks absolutely. Likewise. It’s been a pleasure.

Brett Mckay: My guest today was Donald Robertson. He’s the author of the book, Marcus Aurelius: The Stoic Emperor. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Make sure to check out Donald’s substack at Also, check out our show notes at, where you find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at, where you can find our podcast archives, and while you’re there make sure to sign up for our newsletter. We have a weekly option and a daily option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to stay on top of what’s going on at AOM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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