I have just reread the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius in the new Penguin translation by Martin Hammond. In the best sense, the book is “inspirational.” Marcus Aurelius did not believe in an afterlife. Death signifies only oblivion. Marcus was, however, dedicated to a life of service and duty, and served as emperor of Rome from A.D. 161 to 180. He was that rarest of men – a statesman and a philosopher. His death signaled the end of the Pax Romana. He was succeeded by his son, Marcus Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, whom he had named Caesar in 166 and made co-emperor in 177.
What a curse for so thoughtful a father: Commudus was an idiot of the most egocentric sort. He believed himself the reincarnation of Hercules and had statues of himself made in that role. He was a connoisseur of the gladiator arena, and even fought as a gladiator himself, sometimes against handicapped people, those with missing limbs who were literally “unarmed.” He gave them sponges to throw, in lieu of swords and clubs. In A.D. 192, Commodus was strangled in his bath by a wrestler named, deliciously, Narcissus.
I have three sons, all of whom seem bright and balanced, without a hint of the moronic self-centeredness that characterized Commodus (such an unfortunate name, with its hint, in English, of “commode”). I returned to Edward Gibbon to read again his account of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
“Nothing…was neglected by the anxious father, and by the men of learning and virtue he summoned to his assistance, to expand the narrow mind of young Commodus…but the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous. The influence of a polite age, and the labour of an attentive education, had never been able to infuse into his rude and brutish mind the least tincture of learning….Commodus, from his earlier infancy, discovered an aversion to whatever was rational or liberal. The masters of every branch of learning, whom Marcus provided for his son, were heard with inattention and disgust.”
One more thing to worry about.