From Vol. 3, Issue 4, April 2021
The Story of Marcus Aurelius
[The Story of Marcus Aurelius is from Elbert Hubbard’s Little Journeys to The Homes of The Great, Vol. 8. To make it easier to read we have broken down long paragrphs into short ones and added subtitles. The text is unaltered.]
We are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to Nature, and it is acting against one another to be vexed and turn away. - The Meditations
Annius Verus was one of the great men of Rome. He had been a soldier, governor of provinces, judge, senator and consul. Sixty years had passed over his head and whitened his hair, but the lines of care that were on his fine face ten years before had now given way to a cherubic double chin, and his complexion was ruddy as a baby's.
The entire atmosphere of the man was one of gentleness, repose, and kindly good-will. Annius Verus was grateful to the gods, for the years had brought him much good fortune, and better still, knowledge. "Being old I shall know ... the last of life for which the first was made!" Religion isn't a thing outside of a man, taught by priests out of a book. Religion is in the heart of man, and its chief quality is resignation and a grateful spirit. Annius Verus was religious in the best sense, and his life was peaceful and happy.
And surely Annius Verus should have been content - he was a Roman Consul, rich, powerful, honoured by the wisest and best men in Rome, who considered it a privilege to come and dine at his table. His villa was on Mount Coelius, a suburb of Rome. The house was surrounded by a big stone wall enclosing a tract of about ten acres, where grew citron, orange, and fig trees, and giant cedars of Lebanon lifted their branches to the clouds.
Marcus, the grandson
At least it seemed to little Marcus, grandson of the Consul, as if they reached the clouds. There was a long ladder running up one of these big cedar trees to a platform or "crow'snest" nearly a hundred feet from the ground. No boy was allowed to climb up there until he was twelve years old, and when Marcus was ten, time got stuck, he thought, and refused to budge. But this was only little Marcus' idea, for he finally got to be twelve years old, and then he climbed the long ladder to the lookout in the tree and looked down on the Eternal City that lay below in the valley and stretched away over the seven hills.
Often the boy would take a book and climb up there to read; and when the good grandfather missed him, he knew where to look, and standing under the tree the old man would call: "Come down, Marcus, come down and kiss your old grandfather - it is lonesome down here! Come down and read to your grandfather who loves his little Marcus!" Such an appeal as this was irresistible, and the boy, slight, slim, and agile, would clamber over the side of the crow'snest and down the ladder to the outstretched arms.
Lucilla and Faustina
The boy's father had died when he was only three months old, and the grandfather had adopted the child as his heir, and brought Lucilla, the widowed mother, and her baby to live in his house. Years before, the Consul's wife had passed away, and Faustina, his daughter, became the lady of the house.
Lucilla and Faustina didn't get along very well together - no house is big enough for two families, some man has said. Lucilla was gentle, gracious, spiritual, modest, and refined; Faustina was beautiful and not without intellect, but she was proud, domineering, and fond of admiration.
But be it said to the credit of the good old Consul, he was able to suffuse the whole place with love, and even if Faustina had a tantrum now and then, it did not last long. There were always visitors in the household - soldiers home on furloughs, governors on vacations, lawyers who came to consult the wise and judicial Verus.
One visitor of note was a man by the name of Aurelius Antoninus. He was about forty years old as Marcus first remembered him - tall and straight, with a full, dark beard, and short, curly hair touched with gray. He was a quiet, self-contained man, and at first little Marcus was a bit afraid of him. Aurelius Antoninus had been a soldier, but he showed such a studious mind, and was so intent on doing the right thing that he was made an under-secretary, then private secretary to the Emperor, and finally he had been sent away to govern a rebellious province, and put down mutiny by wise diplomacy instead of by force of arms.
Aurelius Antoninus was inclined towards the Stoics, although he didn't talk much about it. He usually ate but two meals a day, worked with the servants, and wrote this in his diary, "Men are made for each other: even the inferior for the superior, and these for the sake of one another".
This philosophy of the Stoics rather appealed to the widow Lucilla, also, and she read Zeno with Aurelius Antoninus. Verus did not object to it - he had been a soldier and knew the advantages of doing without things and of being able to make the things you needed, and of living simply and being plain and direct in all your acts and speech.
But Faustina laughed at it all - to her it was preposterous that one should wear plain clothing and no jewelry when he could buy the costliest and best; and why one should eschew wine and meat and live on brown bread and fruit and cold water, when he could just as well have spiced and costly dishes - all this was clear beyond her.
Various fetes and banquets were given by Faustina, to which the young nobles were invited. She was a beautiful woman and never for a moment forgot it, and by some mistake or accident she got herself betrothed to three men at the same time. Two of these fought a duel and one was killed. The third man looked on and hoped both would be killed, for then he could have the woman. Faustina got this third man to challenge the survivor, and then by one of those strange somersaults of fate the unexpected occurred.
A mismatched marriage
Faustina and Aurelius Antoninus were married. It was a most queer mismating, for the man was plain, sincere and honourable, and she was almost everything else. Yet she had wit and she had beauty, and Aurelius had been living in the desert so long he imagined that all women were gentle and good.
The Consul was very glad to unite his house with so fine and excellent a man as Aurelius; Lucilla cried for two days and more and little Marcus cried because his mother did, and neither cried because Faustina had gone away.
Faustina the second
But grief is transient. In a little over a year Antoninus and Faustina came back to Rome, and brought with them a little girl baby, Faustina Second. Marcus was very much interested in this baby, and made great plans about how they would play together when she got older.
Among other visitors at the house of the old Consul often came the Emperor himself. Hadrian and Verus were Spaniards and had been soldiers together, and now Hadrian often liked to get away from the cares of State, and in the evening hide himself from the office-seekers and flattering parasites, in the quiet villa on Mount Coelius - he liked it here even better than at his own wonderful gardens at Tivoli.
And little Marcus wasn't afraid of him, either. Marcus would sit on the Emperor's knee and listen to tales about hunting wild boars and bears, or men as wild. Then they would play tag or I-spy among the bushes and trees; and once Marcus dared the Emperor to climb the long ladder to the lookout in the big cedar. Hadrian accepted the challenge and climbed to the crow's-nest and cut his initials in the trunk of the tree.
The “open-eyed truthful one”
Instead of calling the boy Marcus Verus, the Emperor gave him the name "Verissimus," which means "the open-eyed truthful one," and this name stuck to Marcus for life.
Elbert Hubbard. Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great Philosophers, Volume 8.