Reflections: Stoicism and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
(This article is part of a series. The article reveals my musings with Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The series are a little looser than the norm. You can read the first part here and the second part here.)
Stoicism played a part, a key part, in my exit from the scammy corners of online marketing. I can’t quite recall when I stumbled across Stoicism. I’m guessing around 2016. Stoicism, at that time, was undergoing a revival. It was hip. It was popular. That period of my life, I had sunk to the depths of professional scamminess, and floated to heights of spiritual limbo.
Regardless of how I discovered Stoicism, it came at a distinct time. When I left the scam world, I dove into Stoicism. I inhaled the primary texts, the scholarly texts, and various modern popularized versions. I went to the University of Wyoming’s Stoic Camp three times. I went to Stoicon in London. I frequented a Stoic meetup group in Denver. Stoicism glared light on the poor ethics of my online marketing; it helped rejuvenate my love of reading; it helped me go through the death of my dad around ten years prior.1
Since 2020, I’ve sailed out of the spiritual harbors of Stoicism. I still revere and admire Stoicism. I still love its original texts. When something concerning occurs, I still use its powerful techniques. I probably use some Stoic methods subconsciously. But I sailed out of its harbors. Aristotle and Christianity root the core of my beliefs, aims, and standards. Why did I move off of a philosophy that had such an impact? I felt ran into Stoicism’s boundaries; the arguments of Aristotle influenced me more; an ineffable pulled me towards Christianity; I’ll be blunt, the modern versions and corners of Stoicism got trying. I’ll judge harshly. I find much of modern Stoicism eye-rolling, navel-gazing, and weak. Still, I love the original texts. I’ve read Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus multiple times. I will reread them multiple times in the future.
Mortimer Adler teaches that when you read the Great Books, you join an enduring conversation. When I first read that concept, I thought it applied only to the classics. That, perhaps, Adler meant. But I’m realizing when you read a lot, and toss in a few Great Books here or there, you join more than a conversation with just those books. Realizations occur. Light bulbs go off. I believe when you engage with the classics, it not only places you into an enduring conversation, it opens the doors to deeper conversations with modern books, thinkers, art, culture, purpose, and general life. I’m not saying reading the Great Books makes you smarter. In fact, it makes you keenly aware of how much you don’t know. But, engaging with them surfaces realizations.
It’s fitting that I’m reading Gibbon now. Gibbon’s work includes a lot of spiritual elements I’m engaging with: Aristotle, Constrained Worldview (a la Thomas Sowell), Christianity, and more. I’m seeing how these elements shaped and formed during the Roman Empire. Christianity took root during this time. Jesus was born during this time. It’s fun seeing Gibbon hash it all out. And I loved seeing Gibbon engage with Stoicism. I devoted time, energy, and money to studying Stoicism. Admittedly, I read some history of the time when Stoicism was founded and rose to its peak, but not much. Stoic popularizers offer tidbits, but they leave out much since they work to force Stoicism into their desired vision. And scholarly work focuses solely on the philosophy versus the history. Maybe it’s the nature of Gibbon’s prose, or maybe it’s what’s going on in my life, but Gibbon had me ruminating and reflecting.
We all hope to evolve as people. Ideas we held in our twenties may make us cringe in our forties. On the flip side, we may see we had an idea right, but thought it was wrong due to the fashions of the time, only to come back around and see it was right. This is natural. The same goes for reading. We evolve in various ways with our reading. With professional and self-development, early in that journey we find the $100 Million Dollar Offer type books as amazing. If you’re evolving, you come to grow tired of those books. You often find they all read the same. Other ways you evolve, you might shift or deepen your worldview. You may come to love an author more. Or you may put a better framework around certain ideas. When I came across Stoicism in Gibbon’s work, new insights arose. Much arose on modern Stoicism, and much arose on Marcus Aurelius. It was fun to reflect on Stoicism.
Here are those reflections.
Reflection: Stoicism and the Roman-ness of the Roman Empire
Stoic Philosophy held weighty influence over the Roman Empire for a few hundred years. Stoicism spawned in Athens, yet most Stoic writings we have today came from citizens of the Roman Empire: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. And the latter, as most of you know, reigned as emperor. Marcus Aurelius learned, as scholars believe, from a student of Epictetus (some say as a boy it’s possible Marcus met Epictetus). And Seneca was one of Rome’s most powerful and notable figures. He was the wealthiest man in the world and was hired to mentor the young emperor Nero under the hopes of steering Nero right.
Stoic philosophy aside, the Stoic texts are packed with first-hand accounts of the Roman Empire. Seneca’s letters may gleam the best look; most scholars and popularizers overlook and separate the first-hand accounts from the philosophy. I can understand why the popularizers extract the Stoic tenets and methods and ignore some history. But the total separation is a mistake (and often manipulative). The popularizers most guilty of this separation: Donald Robertson, Massimo Pigliucci, and Ryan Holiday. And maybe they separate because they just wish to discuss the philosophy. But this outright decoupling from Roman mores shapes Stoicism into their vision. And it makes Stoicism more partisan, more Yogi Instagram influencer, and more LinkedIn blowhard.
First, let’s look at Stoicism before tackling its modern issues.
Stoicism offers a rigorous moral ethics system. Sadly, we only have around 3% of Stoic texts. During the height of the Roman Empire, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics held the most sway. It was not limited to those three, but they carried weight as far as individual standards and virtues. Stoicism goes to the rigid end of the spectrum of four key virtues:
Those four virtues root what’s called civic virtues. Plato and Aristotle put these virtues on the map in ancient Greece (the virtues predated them in a looser fashion, but Plato and Aristotle created the most noteworthy frameworks). Each virtue goes deep, and the combination of all four sets an ideal standard for good living. Arguably, the Stoics were the most rigid and demanding with these virtues.
I now see why they were so rigid.
Let’s consider temperance.
Temperance can read boring. So let’s make it a little juicy.
We often envision Roman Society as noble statesmen in togas, handsome Russell Crowe soldiers, hearty sons tilling the fields and training for glory, and graceful daughters learning the arts and showing streaks of independence learning some statesmanship. We also morph the Roman Empire into familiar — western and modern— cultural and political mores. Our visions have some smattering of truth, but that’s just it, smatterings. Scant smatterings. Exiguous smatterings.
The Roman Empire was an extreme militaristic state. A state unlike any other in human history. Its society was based on the military. And before you go envisioning glorious battles, a lot of the military worked like slave labor. And it worked a lot like a large, pyramid scheme mafia. Plunder others, enjoy the spoils, force who you plundered to make an alliance, take their men, promise new spoils, and go on. And the culture, on the whole, was depraved. Yes, noble people existed. Stoicism or Aristotle did not fail Roman Society, nor does depraved culture imply failure on their behalf. They were working against depraved times and were working to forge a better way of living.
Let’s zoom in.
Roman society was promiscuous.
I mean, unimaginable promiscuity.
Both men and women indulged in the pleasures of the flesh often. Both sexes owned the ability to indulge nature’s impulse almost whenever they wanted. And the higher one rose in society, sexual indulgence became easier. Women in high society would make their eunuchs go out and find them different male lovers for the day, and this coincided with keeping a harem of male lovers. The same for men. Even the lower caste of society, while they did not have eunuchs, still enjoyed and took advantage of easy access to casual sex. The easy sex seems inherent to the cultural mores. Public fornication was a thing and seemingly everywhere. This base licentiousness likely predated the Roman Empire. But even with this base behavior deluging the culture of the times, chastity was a virtue for females; and choosiness a virtue for men. Both were highly regarded and esteemed. Men and women worked to uphold this standard. I’m gathering, for both sexes, maintaining this virtue of sexual temperance proved tough, as sex was readily available.
Also, marriage worked differently than today. Death and war raised the chances of a man or woman remarrying and having children with various partners. Still, for both, the reputation of their temperance carried weight. It was an attractive and valuable trait. Divorce was also common, but it was loaded with issues. Men or women could divorce with relative ease (during certain periods). But over time, divorce became a guise to indulge in sex with new partners. A famous female poet was said to have married and divorced five different men each day for a few years.
Emperors and empresses set a cultural tone if they were chaste or not chaste. Commodus, who I’ll get to below, was the son of Marcus Aurelius. He spent most of the day killing gladiators for sport and having an all-day swinger party in the palace. His inability to refuse self-indulgence sowed cultural instability. Another crazy story, one empress (her name slips me right now, and I’m not about to go flipping through hundreds of years to find her) came from poor beginnings. She was an astonishingly attractive woman. Her rise from poverty started when she became a public performer. Her performance, stripping, masturbating, or public fornication with random men in the public square. Keep in mind, this was done during the day, in very public areas. It’d be akin to her setting up shop in Times Square in New York City and doing her thing. She began escorting, and the wealthiest men fought each other to spend “time” with her. One ribald legend Gibbon shares: while in the midst of nature’s act with a senator, a wealthier man walked in, ripped the senator off, and paid her more money than the senator had paid, and she kicked out the senator and resumed nature’s act with the wealthier man. Her behavior got so outlandish that she got somewhat exiled. But, during her banishment, she set up a home of sorts for prostitutes. Here they could get food, shelter, medical care, and, if they wanted, stop prostituting themselves and live at home for free. During this period, a devout Christian emperor who was blind met her. He fell in love. They married. While he was virtuous, she acted as his violent right hand.2
Let’s look at two crazier emperors. One emperor, Elagabulus, is regarded as the first trans emperor. I’m not sure if the trans movement is doing itself any favors claiming Elagabulus as their own. He forced the senate to watch him worship the sun, which involved him doing bizarre dances. He forced his slave, a chariot driver, to be his husband. He would also go to taverns and brothels and prostitute himself. He made his entire rule revolve around his sexual fetishes, which sowed decline in the empire.
And I’ll finish with a crazy story before I get to my point. I’ve mentioned a few times how various women in power harvested a carousel of lovers for each day. One empress maintained a large harem of male lovers. She would also approach random men during the day. If a man rejected her, she would have him, and, if he had one, his family killed. And often, it would be a slow, tortuous death. Oh, and that’s not all. If she wanted afternoon delight with someone, and if after the act, she found it more boring than delight, she would have that man killed immediately. Early in her life, this woman had a son with a fairly wealthy farmer. The father, upon hearing that his ex-wife was now an empress, sent the son to his mother. He was, from all accounts, an esteemed kid. He was educated, a good soldier, and was doing well for himself. She invited her son to her chambers and had him killed on the spot.
Here’s why I’m mentioning all of this depravity. The culture during the height of Stoicism was not wild, but depraved. I’ll hazard a theory. Stoicism arose as a partial reaction to the depravity. Stoicism was not reactionary per se, but how it evolved with its rigorous methods and tenets, I’m guessing that the period’s depravity influenced Stoicism’s rigidity. Elites liked it, because of its tenets of discipline, which would work well with a warmongering society. I’m sure parents liked it, because it prepared and schooled their children to navigate the realities of the time.
The Frigidness of Stoic Texts Under a Modern Light
When you read Stoic texts, they crowd out simple pleasures. The texts read almost clinical, not the prose, Seneca’s letters are beautiful, but the methods and tenets drain the color from the human condition. Stoicism closes doors on beauty.
Reading Gibbon, I see why Stoicism reads rigid and cold. Remember, if a man or woman back then went to grab some figs at the store, on the way, and on the way back, temptation deluged their journey. We still have temptations today, yet our walk to the local coffee shop is unlikely to feature public fornication (and I mean public fornication by normal citizens, in cities like San Francisco or Denver you’re apt to see it among vagrants).
Let’s look at an infamous Marcus Aurelius journal entry from book 6:13 of Meditations:
How useful it is, when you’re served roast meat and similar dishes, to think to yourself: this is the corpse of a fish, this is the corpse of a bird or a pig! Or again, to see a Falernian wine as mere grape juice, your purple-hemmed cloak as sheep’s wool dyed with shellfish blood, and sexual intercourse as just the rubbing of an organ and the spasm induced emission of a little slime. How good these thoughts are at reaching and getting to the heart of things! They enable you to see things for what they are. This should be a lifelong exercise: whenever things particularly seem to deserve your acceptance, strip them bare so that you can see how worthless they are and dispense with the descriptions that make them seem more significant than they are. Vanity is terrifyingly good at derailing rational thought, and it’s when you think you’re engaged on important matters that you’re most under its spell. At any rate, consider what Crates said about Xenocrates.
Marcus is deploying a Stoic method called “stripping.”
This cold, granular realism he deploys is a way to handle emotions, impulses, or biases. You dissect a situation or an action or an environment down to its most rudimentary parts. Some call it going granular. As cold as it is, it’s a superb psychological tool. But it’s a tool. It’s a tool to help deal with a situation. Modern Stoics navel gaze on this passage, as they do on all things, and attempt to make it into a commandment. As you can see, however, making this passage a moral commandment to live by would drain color from your world. A sushi date night with your significant other would turn quite drab if you adhered to this passage.
I understand the coldness now.
Marcus was the most powerful man on the planet. He saw powerful men overindulge in things like fine food. Part of the Roman culture was plunder and enjoy the spoils. Naturally, that reality can lead to entitled hedonism. Also, he may have been annoyed at obsequious cooks trying to impress him with laborious descriptions of the meal. He perhaps just wanted to enjoy a meal without the ass-kissing. Also, he likely had times when he thought he needed to indulge to show his place in society. This stripping exercise, as harsh as it is, likely helped to keep him sane.
About that crude, reductive sexual line. I hope by now it makes sense. Marcus Aurelius was, again, the most powerful and respected man on earth. He was also the most feared. Imagine that man living in one of the most promiscuous periods in human history. Without a doubt, women hurled themselves at him. And consider his circle. He likely saw powerful men and women indulge in easy sex. I’ll cover more below, but it’s quite possible this line was written out of his frustration with his wife or son or one of his daughters. His wife was a chronic nymphomaniac, his son a demented sociopath, and one of his daughters inherited the same behavior as the mother. He could have written it lamenting their life. That I find unlikely, as I’ll cover below. But I’ll toss it in.
In sum, Marcus is checking his impulses in this entry. He’s dealing with temptations, vanity, and so on. You can sense the work to disdain what surrounds him; he’s trying to work through something. We sense his inner angst. He’s working to uphold his temperance and his wisdom. He needs courage to do so in his era. This isn’t a commandment, it’s a Stoic exercise to help face tribulations.
The Stoics offered a way to navigate the Roman-ness of the Roman Empire. The methods still apply. It still is a wonderful philosophy. It’s the backbone of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Yet I’m not entirely sure it’s a life philosophy to follow to the letter. Stoic metaphysics is a Gordian knot of weirdness and so unmoored from reality, it’s hard to understand how the Stoics arrived at their metaphysical conclusions. If you follow it rigidly, it may push you into hyper-rationalism, and drain the essence and the ineffable of the human condition. Also, if you follow modern Stoics, you’ll think it’s a Progressive post-modernist philosophy. Stoicism has limitations. Still, it offers us a powerful toolset. I believe everyone would be well-served and better off reading original Stoic texts.
Reflection: Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius, like Stoicism, is abused for various visions. Stoic popularizers make Marcus Aurelius sound like a Yoga Guru hosting income masterminds on the Amalfi coast, while others make him into Pete Buttigieg. The manosphere/red pill calls him a “cuck” due to his wife’s behavior and that fact, to the manosphere/red pill, implies we should cast all Stoicism aside.
Here’s what I see.
Marcus Aurelius is complicated, like any human. And like any human, he had his flaws. He was a man of his period. He was a great Roman Emperor; a great emperor for the distinct Roman elements of the Roman Empire’s militaristic state and society. Arguably, he may have been the greatest emperor of the Roman Empire. Yet his final decision put the empire past saving (if it could even be saved at all). Granted, the empire, in hindsight, fell before it declined. Posterity could thank Marcus for his final decision. But he made his decision to keep the empire going, and it proved terrible.
Let’s look at the popularizer sentiments first. And we’ll look at the crude manosphere accusation.
“What would Marcus Aurelius do?”
A question often bandied about. And almost always, it entails a follow-up note of an expressed desire to have perfect virtue during crisis X, and want to do so like Marcus Aurelius. I see it most asked on topics like Ukraine or the BLM Riots of 2020. The fabric of the question betrays a scant knowledge of the Roman Empire and how far Stoic popularizers misconstrue Marcus Aurelius.
What would Marcus do?
Marcus Aurelius ran the world’s most powerful and most oppressive military regime in human history. The Roman government system is nothing like our modern notion of a democratic system. It was an extreme militaristic society. Marcus vanquished cities, vanquished bloodlines, vanquished men, women, and children from the earth. People asking what would Marcus do regarding the riots of 2020 miss that Marcus would send a Roman legion to exterminate who he viewed as dissenters. He wouldn’t say “It’s indifferent to me” nor would he do what popularizer Massimo Pigliucci fantasizes — blame Donald Trump or Clarence Thomas.
Marcus would deal with the actions in a way required during his time. He was revered and respected. Which, in that era, means he was also feared. During that time, respect depended upon military glory. Leaders, by the nature of the system, were brutal. If Marcus were alive today, and his Roman Empire still around, Western democracies across the world would decry his abuses. Consider this, many people like to fantasize on the belief that America was the largest slave-owning country in the world (and many like to fantasize that we were the only slaveholding country in existence). No country in human history had more people choked by chains of chattel slavery than the Roman Empire. Under the thumb of Marcus Aurelius, he ran the largest slave society in human history. Marcus enslaved who he conquered. The Roman economic system was a mass-scale plundering system, or, in other terms, a predatory rent-seeking economy.
Marcus, however, was not an evil ruler. He was a great ruler. But again, he was a ruler of his time. He was a ruler of an empire radically different than current democracies, and even other empires post the Roman Empire. We need to understand his era and his distinct empire. Asking what he would do needs context. The best answer, Marcus would deal with the action, and then reflect on his actions with some Stoic exercises. That’s a good thing. But remember, before Marcus persecuted Christians or wiped bloodlines from the earth, or enslaved hundreds of thousands of men and women, he didn’t first ponder his virtue in his diary.
Marcus is a man worth studying; Marcus is not a 2023 Progressive Democrat teaching pacifism through cold showers while helping Ryan Holiday write letters to castigate his father for being a Republican and for having voted for Donald Trump. (Nor was he sleeping on the floor.) Marcus bestowed powerful Stoic methods to posterity. He ruled during a brutal, depraved, ignorant time. But his writings influenced the better society we enjoy today, and influenced powerful tools to handle life. Trying to make him into Pete Buttigieg and a shining example of atheistic pacifism is an exercise in mental masturbation.
Let’s look at the manosphere accusation.
The accusation the manosphere marshals against Marcus Aurelius is crude: that he’s a cuck. And some leap from that accusation to correlate Stoicism is for “cucks.”3 A “cuck” in the manosphere is a cuckold with a few additional meanings. Those additional meanings imply wimp or beta behavior.
Yes, Marcus Aurelius was a cuckold.
Here’s context for principled thinkers.
Marcus’s wife, Faustina, found chastity and prudence distasteful. She cultivated, maintained, and refreshed a large harem of lovers (a harem of male lovers would be akin to sex slaves, often it was men or women of lower rank that a person in power found desirable, and were offered a life at the palace; it’s likely this was not forced, the times were promiscuous and certain men or women “worked” their way into harems, as they were treated well and even afforded power and money; adultery would be sleeping with another man or woman of high station). Along with her harem, she slept with men of rank, sailors, gladiators, and, well, any man who sparked her interest. And she easily sparked. She often took on multiple male partners each day, some from her harem, some from her extramarital affairs, and some from random meetings. Further sullying Marcus’s posterity, Faustina persuaded her husband to promote to positions of power her favorite lovers.
Did Marcus know?
But I’ll hazard a likelihood.
The Roman Empire’s marriage custom worked differently than modern Western marriage customs. Marcus didn’t get on Tinder, meet Faustina, and believed he could “fix her.” Nor was he doing some bizarre sexual kink lifestyle you see hailed over at MSNBC or the Department of Education. Faustina was born in 130 AD. Marcus was born in 121 AD. The marriage was arranged in 138 AD for political reasons. This was common practice.
I’m not a marriage anthropologist. But I bet an arranged marriage between an emperor and empress during the Roman Empire betrayed vast differences to the norms we’re familiar with today. Divorce and marriage dissolution pervaded the Roman Empire. Death existed in daily life. Political leanings changed, so a father might re-marry his daughter, or the daughter herself might do so if her husband was placed at a distant spot in the empire. Even a man on his deathbed would betroth his wife to another man. Chastity was revered, adultery was frowned upon. But the marriage custom behaved far differently than today. It’s hard to tell how their marriage and their day-to-day relationship played out. But it didn’t resemble anything we know today.
Documented accounts reveal Marcus doting on his wife. Also, the scant fragments from Faustina reveal her doting on Marcus. A popular verdict among scholars, Marcus didn’t know Faustina cultivated and refreshed a large harem while also indulging with whoever caught her fancy in a moment. Marcus would have been supremely keen on the fact that a cheating wife would speak poorly on him from a political standpoint. Given his reverence for Stoicism and civic duty, accepting a cheating wife would have been political suicide for him. I imagine, had he known, he would have divorced Faustina, moved her elsewhere in the empire, and would have taken another wife. It’s impossible to say that with any certainty. But Marcus worked to uphold the highest mores and standards of his time. He was aware of his image and the message his image sent. Hence why I’m guessing he would divorce and remove her to a safe spot in the empire.
But, wouldn’t he have known since others knew and what we know from posterity?
Consider the era.
Then consider being the messenger of this salacious news.
And consider who you’re telling.
You’re going to tell a man, the most powerful, respected, and feared man on earth, a man who has wiped bloodlines and civilizations from the earth, that his wife is sleeping with multiple men each day, and with multiple randos each day, and sleeping with the men in her harem. That you tell to a man who can cut off your head and exterminate your bloodline without question or due process. And tell him in an age where people have said these words to other emperors to sow discord for personal gain, a fact he’s well aware of. Also, tell this to a man who dotes on his wife. And, you know, once you tell him the news, he will ask his wife. If she denies it, a woman he trusts, argue all you want, but your argument ends when the sword removes your head (or you get roasted over a fire pit for a few days until you die). Also consider Faustina. She had a reputation for poisoning people to death (some believe to hush up her affairs) and ordering people killed.
Would you like to take that chance?
You may, but if the empress wants to keep her station, well, you and your family, everyone in it, along with your friends and their families, will face your same fate… without trial or question.
If you want to tell Marcus the bad news, good luck.
I’m sure the rumors of Faustina’s easy virtues existed. Given what Marcus would do to bad news (he wouldn’t get on a Reddit forum), his inner circle likely downplayed the rumors. Maybe he cast the rumors aside as political play, despite the overwhelming evidence. Again, rumors like this were used as a strategy to sow discord.
It is quite possible Marcus knew. Perhaps, given his day to day, he had little time to deal with egregious adultery. Perhaps her behavior perplexed him. Maybe he kept a small harem, given the norms of the day, but he was dismayed at the size of hers. His famous journal entries regarding pleasures of the flesh may reveal a personal venting. Perhaps he implored Faustina to stop going to the docks to tryst with random sailors. Most scholars believe Faustina hid it from him. Marcus also revered her opinion, for better or worse, and they believe that’s why he promoted the men she raved about. Marcus would have known promoting his wife lovers would tarnish his character, undermine political stability, and make him a prime assassination target. It’s quite feasible Marcus knew, and his journal entries disdaining sex reveal a man defeated at his wife’s otherworldly infidelity. We’ll never know and can only hazard guesses.
My guess: I believe he didn’t know. I’m not 100% sold on him not knowing, but I’m at around 80%. How revered he is throughout history, and how revered he was at his time, his knowledge of her adultery, given the cultural mores, would have tarnished his reputation in posterity. Maybe the citizens or his soldiers — she traveled with him on the front lines, and from all accounts, the soldiers loved her… I bet they did… — decided to keep it from him. During that time, assassination rumors were everywhere, what he gave credence to and what he didn’t, who knows. That’s my guess, and I’m 80% sticking to it.
The other accusation from the manosphere involves two of Marcus’s children. And how those two children going wrong reveals a terrible father and a weak man.
One of his daughters inherited the same insatiable sexual appetite of her mother. She indulged her appetite with far more aggression, apparently (which is almost unimaginable, but from what Gibbon and other sources reveal, this is the case). It’s unclear if Marcus knew this. Was this due to Marcus? It’s impossible to say with any confidence. Maybe. Maybe she had daddy issues. Maybe she had mommy issues (though it’s said they got along well). Both Marcus and Faustina worked to get the best tutors for their children. How much Marcus is to blame, it’s tough to know. Parenting worked wholly different then, especially if you were a man or woman of station or power.
But that’s not the worst sullying.
The worst, Marcus’s son, Commodus.
Marcus anointed his son with the purple, aka, he made his son emperor. They ruled jointly until Marcus died.
Commodus, from an early age, displayed evil tendencies and actions. Marcus seemed well aware of his son’s tendencies. Marcus, and even Faustina, tried to hire the best mentors and teachers for Commodus. When Commodus became of age, other men in the senate and in the military had shown themselves as far more capable of ruling. This Marcus knew. Yet Marcus chose his son. Some scholars claim that Marcus believed he could show his son a better way. Many Stoic popularizers like this claim. But I’m favorable to Gibbon’s: out of blind, fatherly love, Marcus chose his son.
That choice proved ruinous for the Roman Empire. That choice played a key solvent in the decline of the Roman Empire.
Commodus is the definition of an evil emperor. He once stepped into his bath, deemed the water lukewarm, and ordered the servant who filled the bath thrown into an oven. He watched the servant burn to death. Commodus’s reign served his sociopathic and malicious vanity. He believed military deterrence at the empire’s border stole the attention he deserved. He held numerous games, and the citizens loved that. He starred in the games; he abused and hunted animals; he abused and hunted gladiators; he made servants and the crowds call him Hercules. The other half of his day resembled an all day orgy or swinger party. While he focused his efforts on depraved celebrity, internal discord ignited. Commodus deployed atrocious economic policies, further undermining Roman stability. And his disdain for war made for a peaceful time, yet he removed the power of deterrence, betraying Rome’s weakness to foreign countries and enemies, and the Roman Empire never recovered.
The Manosphere blames Commodus’s behavior on Marcus. That theory contains possible truth. But fathering worked differently then, it lacked the Western masculinity ideals shaping a model fatherhood. Marcus lived on the front lines, not at a nuclear home. Commodus was raised by tutors, slaves, and eunuchs; not by Marcus and Faustina adhering to the esteemed Love and Logic parenting philosophy. Granted, Commodus had a mother who couldn’t refuse a sailor, a servant, or anyone else, for that matter. Marcus lived on the front lines and ran a militaristic state. So it is possible bad upbringing fostered Commodus’s worst tendencies. It’s also unclear if Marcus was the biological father. Reasonable evidence exists claiming Commodus’s father was a random gladiator.4
Commodus was a narcissist, sociopath, and psychopath. Yet, knowing what we know now with inherited personality traits, it’s quite feasible Marcus would have had held little sway over Commodus.
Most people today try to place past figures into today’s fashionable morals, standards, and visions. And if that person goes through that vision grinder, and doesn’t come out perfect, then those people decry that person. The red pill marshals the immature view that if you read Marcus or Stoicism, you will end up with a wife who will take on multiple lovers each day behind your back. Or that if you go to raise your son with some Stoic tenets, you’ll raise a malicious sociopath. I can understand some of the concerns with Marcus. Here he is, a Stoic student, yet his house is in complete disarray. I’m not apologizing for him. I can’t pretend to. I can’t defend him either. As a leader of his time, he is one of the greats. His journal entries gifted posterity with powerful Stoic lessons. What I can say is, when you look at the history of the times and the history of a figure, you will come to see the flaws of the time or that person. And some of those flaws will be unsettling. Some of those flaws can and should be held against the figure or the times. But within those flaws, we can find just as much, if not more, personal insight. Maybe we can see we’re working too hard like Marcus and ignoring our home life. Whatever the reason. We can be thankful that the ideas Marcus wrote, when rediscovered after the dark ages, helped influence Western ethics to create a better world. I’ll part, everyone would do well to read Meditations.
When the idea for this entire series began, I thought it would be too much of an experiment. I thought it best to stick to a standard breakdown: limn the historical lessons, insights, and arguments Gibbon details, and then answer with my arguments or agreements. And then, possibly, conceptualize Gibbon’s work to modern going ons. I love articles like that. I hope to write articles like that. But when we step into a conversation with a book, your personality will come out. And I like to ruminate, I like to reflect, and I like to inject that into the conversation. I’m sure when you read, you have your musings, reflections, and ruminations. You make connections, connections personal to you. You make correlations, correlations personal to you. And a whole lot more. In other words, it’s personal. It’s your insight. It’s the lessons you learn. It’s the rumination you explore. This is where the color and enjoyment of reading comes out. This is where you find more depth versus the “read it and find the three key income secrets.” As I’ve said elsewhere in this series, I’m working to share my musings with Gibbon. Stoicism led to many changes in my life. Seeing it played out during the Roman Empire, I found fascinating and fun. To me, it gave more potency to the ethical and moral frameworks Stoicism teaches. It gave the most potency to the methods the Stoics taught. But seeing Stoicism’s flaws, or rather its limits, made me appreciate Stoicism more.
- When my dad passed in 2008, I was in an awful relationship, my then girlfriend was a raging cocaine addict and severe alcoholic. In a way, the drama of that hijacked the mourning of my dad’s passing. Soon after I ended things with her, a massive lawsuit started after my dad’s death with my family. It went on for years, cost millions upon millions of dollars, and didn’t settle until late 2015. A few months after my dad’s death, I met a girl, got engaged, everything seems hunky dory, yet it turned out she was a confidence artist. My life turned upside down again. And add in before this, my whole life I thought I was going to take over Clair Motors. I strongly identified with this. 22 dealerships, 17 car brands, and 5 body shops, it was a behemoth, and I believed it my destiny. And then my dad and his brothers sold it. My dad died a few months later. But to me, losing this, felt like losing a loved one in a way. It was like losing an identity in an existential way. Needless to say, the pace of when everything happened, I never really faced it. Stoicism helped put it into perspective. ↩
- I’m going a bit off of memory here, I think I have the gist of it right. She may have set up the “monastery” while she was empress. ↩
- With some of the writings dealing with a spouse or partner cheating, I can find merit in this accusation. Massimo Pigliucci’s Stoicism blog offers “how to be a doormat while your wife sleeps with the Denver Nuggets” advice. Reddit forums, you half wonder if the posters are getting cheated on because they’re posting such navel gazing dross on a reddit forum. ↩
- Gladiators were considered vile entertainers. They were not great warriors, they were random men picked to get slaughtered or abused in front of crowds. The movie Gladiator is historically accurate from the perspective that Russel Crowe’s character would likely destroy random gladiators. Roman soldiers, at the time of Marcus Aurelius, were trained killers, and were quite effective. Faustina sleeping with gladiators would be akin today to a President’s wife sleeping with men who start fights at The Waffle House, not UFC Champions. ↩