Marcus Aurelius would have been adept at making New Year resolutions. He tackled questions like how should we live our lives? What does justice mean? And how can we live with the knowledge that someday we will no longer exist? His reflections are still relevant, especially at this time of the year.
Born in Rome in 121 CE, Marcus Aurelius became joint Emperor in 161, together with Lucius Verus, and sole Emperor in 169. Much of his reign was spent on military campaigns, especially in central Europe. Marcus’s reputation as a philosopher rests on one work, the Meditations, which were probably written between 171 and 175 at a time when life and death, war and peace, were uppermost in his mind.
The Meditations (whose original title was simply “To Myself”) appear in a dialect of Greek that was originally spread by the armies of Alexander the Great. Set down for his own guidance and self-improvement, large parts of the work were probably written at Sirmium (today in northern Serbia), a Roman camp where Marcus spent considerable time planning and carrying out military expeditions.
How to judge one’s own actions and the actions of others and how to understand one’s place in the universe are recurring themes in the Meditations. A cosmologist, Marcus recognized that everything originates in nature and everything returns there in time. He also advocated collective responsibility.
Marcus Aurelius died in 180 CE in the city of Vindobona (modern Vienna). He was cremated and his ashes returned to Rome, where they rested in Hadrian’s mausoleum (today’s Castel Sant’Angelo) until the Visigoths sacked the city in 410. As the Meditations make clear, Marcus would not have cared less what became of his earthly remains.
The outstanding version in English, both for its elegant language and its idiomatic delivery, is Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: Living, Dying and the Good Life (2003) translated by Gregory Hays. Marcus’s journal entries were undated, so we do not know which, if any, were written on January 1, the first day of the year of the modern Gregorian calendar as well as the Julian calendar used in the Roman Empire since 45 BCE.
The Romans dedicated New Year’s Day to Janus, the god of beginnings and endings, of passages and transitions, doors and gates. Janus, after whom the month of January is named, is usually depicted with two faces: one looking back at the past and the other forward to the future. Meditation XXIV of Book V might well have been written on New Year’s Day:
Matter. How tiny your share of it.
Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it.
Fate. How small a role you play in it.”