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From Vol. 3, Issue 6, June 2021

The story of Marcus Aurelius - 3


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In this extract, Elbert Hubbard portrays the young Marcus, still in his teens, as a serious young man. He was influenced by his teachers Rusticus and Fronto. Yet neither Marcus’s father nor Fronto were very successful in persuding Marcus to read less and have more fun.

“They knew that folly sprouts from a disordered brain, and so they did not treat a symptom: the disease was ignorance, the symptom, superstition.”

A troubled beginning

The new reign did not begin under very favourable auspices. There was a prejudice against the Spanish blood, and Hadrian had alienated some of the aristocrats by measures they considered too democratic.

Aurelius Antoninus knew of these prejudices toward his predecessor and he boldly met them by carrying the ashes of Hadrian to the Senate, demanding that the dead Emperor should be enrolled among the gods. So earnest and convincing was his eulogy of the great man gone, that a vote was taken and the resolution passed without a dissenting voice.

Marcus becomes “Pius”

This gives us a slight clue to the genesis of the gods, and also reveals to us the character of Antoninus. He so impressed the Senate that this honourable body thought best to waive all matters of difference, and in pretty compliment they voted to bestow on the new Emperor the degree of "Pius". Antoninus Pius was a man born to rule – in little things, lenient, but firm at the right time.

Faustina still had her little social dissipations, but as she was not allowed to mix in affairs of State, her pink person was not a political factor. Marcus Aurelius was only seventeen years old: his close studies had robbed him of a bit of the robust health a youth should have. But horseback-riding and daily outdoor games finally got him back into good condition.

He was the secretary and companion of the Emperor wherever he went. Great responsibilities confronted these two strong men. In point of intellect and aspiration they were far beyond the people they governed – so far, indeed, that they were almost isolated.

Slaves and slave owners

There was a multitude of slaves and consequently there was a feeling everywhere that useful work was degrading. The tendency of the slave-owner is always toward profligacy and conspicuous waste. To do away with slavery was out of the question – that was a matter of time and education – the ruler can never afford to get much in advance of his people.

Intrigues, superstitions, parasites

The court was infected with parasites in the way of informers and busybodies who knew no way to thrive except through intrigue.

Superstitions were taught by hypocritical priests in order to make the people pay tithes; and attached to the state religion were soothsayers, fortune-tellers, astrologers, gamblers and many pretenders who waxed fat by ministering to ignorance and depravity.

These were the cheerful parasites mentioned as "money-changers" a hundred years before, that infested the entrance to every temple.

Treating the disease of ignorance

Many long consultations did the Emperor and his adopted son have concerning the best policy to pursue. They could have issued an edict and swept the wrongs out of existence, but they knew that folly sprouts from a disordered brain, and so they did not treat a symptom: the disease was ignorance, the symptom, superstition. For themselves they kept an esoteric doctrine, and for the many they did what they could.

Twenty-three years of probation lay before Marcus Aurelius – years of study, work, and patient endeavour. He shared in all the honours of the Emperor nd bore his part of the burden as well. Never did he thirst for more power– the responsibilities of the situation saddened him – there was so much to be done and he could do so little.

A seeker after God

Well does Dean Farrar call him "a seeker after God”. The office of young Marcus Aurelius at first was that of Questor, which literally means a messenger, but the word with the Romans meant more – an emissary or an ambassador. When Marcus was eighteen he read to the Senate all speeches and messages from the Emperor; and in a few years more he wrote the messages as well as delivered them. And all the time his education was being carried along by competent instructors.

Fronto, teacher and friend

One of these teachers, Fronto, has come down to us, his portrait well etched on history's tablets, because he saved all the letters written him by Marcus Aurelius; and his grandchildren published them in order to show the excellence of true scientific teaching. That old Fronto was a dear old dear, these letters do fully attest.

When Marcus went away on a little journey, even to Lorium, he wrote a letter to Fronto telling about the trip – the sheep by the wayside, the dogs that herded them, the shower they saw coming across the Campagna, and incidentally a little freshman philosophy mixed in, for Fronto had cautioned his pupil always to write out a great thought when it came, for fear he would never have another.

Letters between Marcus and Fronto

Marcus was a sprightly letter-writer, and must have been a quick observer, and Fronto's gentle claims that he made the man are worthy of consideration. As a literary exercise the daily theme, prompted by love, can never be improved upon. The way to learn to write is to write.

And Fronto, who resorted to many little tricks in order to get his pupil to express himself, was a teacher whose name should be written high. The correspondenceschool has many advantages – Fronto purposely sent his pupil away or absented himself, that the carefully formulated or written thought might take the place of the free and easy conversation.

In one letter Marcus ends:

The day was perfect but for one thing – you were not here. But then if you were here, I would not now have the pleasure of writing to you, so thus is your philosophy proved: that all good is equalized, and love grows through separation!

This sounds a bit preachy, but is valuable, as it reveals the man to whom it is written: the person to whom we write dictates the message.

Problem solving as a teaching aid

Fronto's habit of giving a problem to work out was quite as good a teaching plan as anything we have to offer now. Thus: "An ambassador of Rome visiting an outlying province attended a gladiatorial contest. And one of the fighters being indisposed, the ambassador replied to a taunt by putting on a coat of mail and going into the ring to kill the lion. Question, was this action commendable? If so, why, and if not, why not?" The proposition was one that would appeal at once to a young man, and thus did Fronto lead his pupils to think and express.

The influence of Rusticus on Marcus

Another teacher that Marcus had was Rusticus, a blunt old farmer turned pedagog, who has added a word to our language. His pupils were called Rusticana, and later plain rustics. That Rusticus developed in Marcus a deal of plain, sturdy commonsense there is no doubt.

Rusticus had a way of stripping a subject of its gloss and verbiage – going straight to the vital point of every issue. For the wisdom of Marcus' legal opinions Rusticus deserves more than passing credit. For the youth who was destined to be the next Emperor of Rome, there was no dearth of society if he chose to accept it.

The young Marcus has no use for fun

Managing mammas were on every corner, and kind kinsmen consented to arrange matters with this heiress or that. For the frivolities of society Marcus had no use – his hours were filled with useful work or application to his books.

His father and Fronto we find were both constantly urging him to get out more in the sunshine and meet more people, and not bother too much about the books. How best to curtail over-application, I am told, is a problem that seldom faces a teacher.

Elbert Hubbard was renaissance man who was prominent around the early 20th Centur y. The Story of Marcus Aurelius is from his Little Journeys to The Homes of The Great, Vol. 8. To make it easier to read we have broken down long paragraphs into short ones and added subtitles. The text is unaltered.