The Philosopher Emperor

By: Eric Di Gravio

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rome

Part 1

I have always considered myself a history buff. I will admit, I still pride myself on my collection of books accumulated from childhood that fill my room. While history has always been a hobby of mine, as I got older, I found myself finding inspiration in the lives and exploits of men and women throughout history; from ancient Mesopotamia to the global conflicts that shook our world in the 20th century. Since starting medical school, I now find myself reflecting on what it means to be a ‘good doctor’ and have begun to see the stories of these same men and women in that new light. Recently, I have been on a bit of an ancient Rome/Greece binge and in doing so have come across (again) the writings of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (yes, the old emperor in Gladiator). For reasons I will endeavour to share with you, I think that we have much to learn from this once beloved emperor about how to be a good person and by extension, good doctors. But first, let us start with some background.

Importance of the Roman Empire

Ask someone to blurt out the first thing that they think of when you say “Roman Empire” and chances are it will be the Coliseum, gladiators, togas or Julius Caesar. But the Roman Empire has given us so much more than a trendy tourist hotspot, movies with Russel Crowe fighting sadistic emperors, toga parties or Caesar salad (spoiler alert, Caesar salad has nothing to do with Julius Caesar). Rome is everywhere, from the ruins left behind to the borders of our modern-day countries, even to the organization of our governments. But what can we learn from the people, places and history of 2000 years ago? While that is a question that countless classical historians have spent their lives trying to answer, what I add is this: the world of the ancient Romans that Marcus Aurelius knew was not so different from ours. Just like us today, the ancients worried about the economy, national security, religion, politics, healthcare and countless other existential crises.

Who was Marcus Aurelius?

Born in 121 AD in Spain, Marcus Aurelius was adopted by his uncle and future Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius as his son and heir to the throne. Upon becoming emperor after the death of Antoninus, Marcus devoted much time to reforming the law to be fairer for the poor and powerless, promoting free speech, stabilizing the armies and boosting the economy. For this and for his famously humble and simple personal life, Marcus is known as the last of the five “Good Emperors” and the last emperor of the “Pax Romana (Roman Peace),” stretching from the first emperor Augustus all the way to Marcus, a period of about 207 years. While there has certainly been some romanticising of this era in Roman history, there is no doubt that these years saw Rome at the height of its power in terms of economic wealth, territorial extent, military success and relative peace within its borders. After the death of Marcus, the Roman empire fell under increasingly more despotic emperors, witnessed decades of civil war and economic recession, and never truly regained the same power, influence and wealth that it had enjoyed previously. 

Marcus’ biggest claim to fame however remains his Meditations. While by day Marcus was fending off the invasion of the Germanic “barbarians” into the Roman empire, by night he was writing in a personal diary his daily thoughts and feelings. Never intended for the public eye, Meditations reflect the inner thoughts of Marcus at his most vulnerable and dark times while he reflects back on the teachings of the Stoic school of philosophy that he had learned as a young man. Preserved after the death of Marcus, this diary allows us a glimpse into the thoughts of one of the most humble and down-to-earth people to ever live, let alone be an emperor. Reading his work, you get no hint that this was written by one of the most powerful men, in one of the most powerful empires ever to set foot on the world (considering that Roman emperors were basically treated as gods on Earth). Just like many people before me, I too have found inspiration in the words of Marcus and think that there is something in them that can give us some insight into how to be good people, and by extension, good doctors.

Following then, is a collection of some of the lessons I believe we all can learn from Marcus.

On Handling the Tough Times

Even though he was an emperor, Marcus was no stranger to struggle. Death loomed heavy over his head as he witnessed both the death of many of his children, and also the eventual death of his wife. Even Marcus himself was a sickly man, (although we don’t know his exact ailment today) his seemingly impending death seemed often to be on his mind throughout Meditations. Apart from personal struggles, Marcus also had an entire empire to worry about. Early in his reign, he was fending off invasions from the Parthian Empire in his Eastern provinces. Even after a Roman victory, there was no time for rest, as very soon after there was a plague (likely smallpox) that ravaged the empire, closely followed by an invasion of Germanic “barbarians” along the northern border… and it keeps going. 

The biggest lesson I think we can learn from Marcus in this regard is best summarized by this passage in Meditations:

‘A cucumber is bitter.’ Throw it away. ‘There are briars in the road.’ Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, ‘And why were such things made in the world?’

            The lesson that Marcus has captured in this passage is the fact that hardships will happen to everyone and there is no use thinking “why me?”. Marcus would say that instead of becoming upset that such things have happened, we should focus our energies on solving them and moving forward. Thoughts of “why me” or “this is such a waste of time, why do I have to do this” are in themselves “wastes of time” and don’t help solve the problem or complete the task at hand. 

But where does the strength to do this come from? Check out my next blog post to learn where Marcus thought the answer to this question laid. 

Author: Eric Di Gravio

Eric is a second year medical student at Western University. He also completed his BMSc in Biochemistry of Infection and Immunity here at Western. Eric is a self-proclaimed history buff but also enjoys basketball and attempting (and failing) to match his grandmother’s cooking skills.