Donoghue reviews a new major (in scholarship and length) biography of the Roman Emperor. Aurelius is famous for his philosophical-autobiographical work, the Neo-Stoic Meditations, as Donaghue mentions. Aurelius was associated with the greatest antique writer on medicine, as Galen was his doctor, as McLynn points out, but he mostly concentrates on Aurelius‘s qualities as Emperor. . Donaghue draws attention to the scholarly details of McLynn’s biography, including many entertaining footnotes on cultural details of the time. The review resists the once prevalent impression of the Empire as in decline from an early stage. It would not have seemed that the Empire was in decline to Aurelius, his predecessors or a long line of successors. Aurelius died in the late 2nd century, and the political structure of the Empire did not undergo major change until the time of Diocletian about a century later; and it did not suffer permanent violations of its sovereignty in significant areas of the Empire until the late 4th Century. There were economic problems, invasions and conflicts between candidates for the leading position in the state, but that that was true of various stages of Roman history.
The idea of inexorable decline from the death of Aurelius, and even in his own lifetime has a melancholic fascination, inspiring amongst other things Anthony Mann’s great film The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). The historical reality is that Aurelius did a good job of stabilising the frontier, despite incursions over a very large part of it. Aurelius’ life was demanding, spending most his time as Emperor at the frontline, but the Roman world and its everyday life continued. He was a particularly efficient administrator and talented writer. It’s not surprising that no later Emperor could replicate all these achievements, but there was still an effective Empire, allowing trade and communication across a huge area which produced memorable Emperors like Diocletian and Constantine I. As McLynn points out, the greatest disaster of Aurelius’ reign did not come from endogenous decline, but from the temporary, if horrible, disaster of small pox spread by soldiers returning from war with the Parthians in what is now Iran. Aurelius’ connections with the intellectual life of the time returns here, since it is Galen’s descriptions which enable us to understand that the plague afflicting the Romans was small pox.