Rome's philosopher-politician. Finding the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, in his time and in ours

The Augustan Aristocracy, by Ronald Syme. New York: Oxford University Press. 504 pp. $69. Marcus Aurelius, A Biography, by Anthony Birley. Revised edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. 320 pp. $25.

A hundred years ago, perhaps the ``Meditations'' of Marcus Aurelius not ``Resurrection,'' by Leo Tolstoy, would have appealed to a politician like Gary Hart in the last days of his public career. O tempora, o mores!

Once a household name, Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from AD 161 to 180. Today it's clearer than ever why he thought of himself as a failed philosopher. His ``Meditations,'' originally called ``To Himself,'' were not meant for publication. They are suffused with a deep sense of dignity in the face of personal failure.

As Anthony Birley shows, they are the reflections of a man who would have traded all his power for the life of a philosopher.

According to political historians, Marcus Aurelius was the last good emperor; historians of ideas place him in the shadow that fell between pagan and Christian Rome. Birley's recent, thorough revision of a work originally published in 1966, presents Marcus to a reading public a little sadder, a little wiser than the one Matthew Arnold addressed in the 1860s when he said that Marcus was ``perhaps the most beautiful figure in history....''

Birley began his studies of Marcus under Sir Ronald Syme. More than 50 years ago Sir Ronald himself published a work still useful, and still in print - ``The Roman Revolution'' - and since then has published many studies of the men and families that made Rome great. His new ``The Augustan Aristocracy'' gives the context for the Roman values Birley helps us see in Marcus Aurelius.

A student of tradition, rather than great men in a vacuum, Syme eschews the biographical approach for a set of 30 ``interlocking essays.'' His work, as he says, ``runs the risk of dispraisal from adepts of recent fashions and doctrines, being condemned for prejudice or a narrow outlook,'' and is uncompromising in its concreteness. That concreteness is reflected in a style that resembles ancient stonework, where every word, small and plain in itself, is so finished that no mortar is needed. Between the seemingly abrupt sentences runs a current of feeling generated by Syme's profound understanding of the ironies of political history.

The last essay of ``The Roman Aristocracy'' contains some of Syme's best writing. It's an extended definition of the Roman political way - ``the middle path'' of laws, not men, of compromise and collusion, rejecting both the tyrant and the visionary. It sets the scene for Marcus Aurelius, an almost tragic figure.

Syme asked Birley to study Marcus Aurelius in terms of what turned out to be his last campaign, his efforts to establish the northern frontier at the Danube. From that remote, northern vantage point Marcus looked back over his life. As the first book of ``Meditations'' shows, he remembered his own family, the grandfather who adopted him after the early death of his parents, the tutors who shaped him in the ways of words and thought; his uncle, recently named emperor, who adopted him as heir apparent. The system of men and families, so thoroughly studied by Syme and Birley, is gratefully acknowledged by the aging emperor.

Birley's account of Marcus' political actions reveals his deference to the wisdom of the Senate, his clemency toward slaves, his meticulous handling of suits brought to him for arbitration, his aversion to the sight of blood in an age when emperors were supposed to entertain the people by feeding slaves, prisoners, and Christians to lions. At home a dove, in the field he was a hawk: An early historian claimed that he would entertain genocidal thoughts in pursuing his aim of extending the boundaries of the empire. He was not always well, he was not always prepared; it's said that his wife conspired with the governor of Syria. She may have expected him to die and wished to prevent anyone else taking power before Commodus, their son, was ready. As it turned out, when he did become emperor, it was seen that Commodus would never be ready, that he was more like Nero than like his father.

In the twilight of an empire frayed at the edges and overrun in its weary center by otherworldly religions, the Christians flourished. By Roman standards outstandingly lenient, Marcus punished only those Christians who would not recant. Birley shows Marcus' commitment to the republic, while the ``Meditations'' show his commitment to philosophical thought (essentially Stoic), which reached religious heights and depths, and that Marcus had no sympathy for the lock-step march toward death of the martyrs.

To illustrate Marcus' ``detached attitude in the middle of the fighting, and his reliance on his Stoic creed,'' Birley cites the following, from Book 2 of the ``Meditations'':

Of human life, time is a point, existence is a moving stream, sensation is dim, the whole fabric of the body susceptible to decay, fame uncertain - briefly, all the things of the body are as a river, all the things of the spirit a dream and a tomb, life is like war and a sojourn in a foreign land. What then can escort man? One thing and one alone, philosophy.

The reporter who saw that Gary Hart was reading Tolstoy's ``Resurrection'' asked him how it ended. Hart replied that everything turned out great. Reading Marcus Aurelius would most likely have given him a different answer. By making Marcus Aurelius believable, Birley reminds us of the limits, and possibilities, of political man.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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