Pandemics and Self-Reflection - Emperor Marcus Aurel

Pandemics and Self-Reflection - Emperor Marcus Aurel

Pandemics have often shaken our world, whether, as in the Middle Ages, through dirt and poor hygiene or, as in modern times, through uncontrollable laboratory experiments with the Corona outbreak.

Also in the 2nd century AD, a pandemic depopulated entire areas of the country. Read how a Roman emperor resisted in the article by Renata Egli-Gerber.

Excavations in Avenches in Switzerland

marcus aurel 01During excavations in Avenches, Vaud, in 1939, a wonderful gold bust was found: a portrait of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. During his reign in the 2nd century AD, Avenches, then Aventicum, was the capital of the Helvetii, a colony under Roman law and a garrison town. The sensational discovery was made in an ancient sewer system. How did the bust get there? Who did it belong to? Had they been hastily hidden during Alemanni raids in the third century?
Questions that can never be conclusively answered. The precious gold bust can now be seen in the Musée Romain in Avenches. At least as valuable for posterity is the work “Self-Reflections”, whose author is undoubtedly Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He wrote them far from Rome on the Danube front, partly in Carnuntum, today's Petronell in Lower Austria.
marcus aurel aussenpolitikIn the years 172 to 180, Rome was at war against various Germanic tribes. And from 169 to 190, a plague raged in several waves throughout the then known world: it was later called the “Antonine Plague,” after the gentile name of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. Based on a detailed description of the symptoms and the course of the disease by the famous imperial family doctor Galen, we know that it must have been a smallpox pandemic.
At that time, most of those affected by it died. Entire areas of the country were depopulated. There were difficulties in recruiting soldiers. In order to cover military expenses, Marcus Aurelius had to sell treasures from his palace. Today, smallpox has disappeared thanks to comprehensive and consistent vaccinations. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared the world free of the disease.

People should think

From the “Self-Reflections” it emerges that Marcus Aurelius was a follower of Stoic philosophy, a school of thought that emerged in Athens in the middle of the third century BC. As a Stoic, he was convinced that plants and animals also have souls. But only humans are given a “thinking soul”. This enables them to establish a state. The “guiding organ” that the Stoics assumed was in the brain was also unique to humans.
Marcus Aurelius tirelessly calls on himself to make use of this organ and to use the “thinking soul”. Only then would people not allow themselves to be carried away and ultimately destroyed by anger, desire, fear and pain. He repeatedly refers to the finite nature of life and the inextricably linked death.
He mentions the plague that is currently raging only once: "The corruption of reason is a plague to a much greater extent than any such bad mixture and change in the air that surrounds us." In doing so, he follows the doctrine at the time that smallpox was transmitted through contaminated air.

A kind of self-therapy

marcus aurel 02Marcus Aurelius, the slight emperor, had no military experience. He was not a “soldier emperor”. Coming from a noble family and adopted early by Emperor Antoninus Pius, he enjoyed a comprehensive education from childhood with a focus on rhetoric and philosophy. Later, on the front lines of a cruel war, he wrote his “Self-Contemplations” in Greek, which was the world language at the time.
He did not address his book to his Roman contemporaries or to any other readership: he only wrote to himself, as a kind of intellectual exercise and self-therapy. This makes the writing a unique document that has lost none of its relevance to this day. The text is often keyword-like, seems erratic and hastily thrown down. Short aphorisms are followed by longer passages. And the unshakable belief always remains that, despite all the horrors, the world as a whole is a perfectly ordered cosmos.

Constant growth and decay, life and death are contained in it. That's why people shouldn't be afraid of the end of life. He admonishes himself: “Dig within yourself. The source of goodness is within you and it can always bubble up if you dig.” On the other hand, anyone who “does not carefully follow the movements of their own soul” will inevitably become unhappy. When Marcus Aurelius wrote this, the emperor, born in 121 AD, was in his early fifties. A considerable age for a Roman of that time.

Lots of slimy guys

marcus aurel kaiserbrueckelThe writing has the effect of taking stock, like a review of life. It begins with a list of thanks to all the people from whom the author has experienced good things: “I thank the gods that I have good grandparents, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good relatives, relatives and friends, almost exclusively had good people around me." He is even grateful for “that I retained my youthful innocence and did not become a man prematurely, but rather gave myself some time to do so.”
He thanks his wife Faustina for being “so devoted, so tender, and so uncomplicated.” With her he had thirteen children, of which only a son and a daughter survived their parents. Faustina also accompanied her husband on one of the military campaigns. When she died on the return journey via Asia Minor, the widower brought the urn with her ashes to Rome. There he had the empress elevated to the rank of goddess.
However, Marcus Aurelius is critical of the political establishment. He learned from an early age that “the nobles, who we call patricians, are usually pretty unloving and cruel.” And: “The cause of the whole world is a raging river. How insignificant these political and, as they believe, philosophically acting human beings are, all slimy guys. Man, what now?"

People love who they are

marcus aurel stoikerAccumulating wealth and possessions of all kinds also seems suspicious to him. In the words of a comedian, he mocks people who cannot acquire enough possessions and, because of their abundance, do not know “where to shit.” The fact that Marcus Aurelius did not shy away from drastic language also shows him to be a follower of the Cynic school of philosophy, who did not mince words. You could call them the left wing of the Stoics.
But like a common thread running through the whole scripture is the call to yourself and others to love people as they are and to show solidarity with them. Yes, even “the simpletons who express their opinions before they think” should be included in this love. In 180, the emperor died on a campaign in Vindobona, today's Vienna, presumably of the disease named after him. His son Commodus was only granted a short time on his deathbed. People feared infection.
Emperor Marcus Aurelius fought against the Germanic tribes and against smallpox that was ravaging the Roman Empire. And wrote a book that still reads today as if it were written yesterday.

Renata Egli-Gerber

Renata Egli-Gerber is a classical philologist and lives in Kreuzlingen. Together with her husband Urs Egli she worked at the publishing house Dr. Kovac 2018 «Back to the logos. The Logos as a fundamental principle from ancient philosophy to today's discussion of reason. A modern window has to do a lot. It is intended to capture the light of the seasons, but to put a stop to their whims – storms, rain, cold. It should be an opening to the world, but put a stop to its noise. It should attract attention, but make thieves despair.

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