The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

The Emperor as Philosopher, Marcus Aurelius

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“The Emperor as Philosopher” bronze statue is probably of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He was Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 and was a practitioner of Stoicism. His writings, known as “Meditations”, are a significant source of our understanding of the ancient Stoic philosophy and is one of the greatest works of philosophy.

It is assumed that the majestic quality of execution and the monumental scale of this over-life-size sculpture implies that this is an imperial portrait of an Emperor. The pose of the figure is like several Greek depictions of Philosophers. Thus, this draped figure is assumed to be the Philosopher Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

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Aurelius’ Meditations, written in Greek while on military campaigns, is admired as a literary monument to a philosophy of service and duty. It focuses on finding and maintaining stability and composure during conflict by following nature as a source of inspiration.

Marcus Aurelius died in 180, was deified by the Roman state and his ashes entombed in Hadrian’s mausoleum, the modern-day Castel Sant’Angelo, until Rome was sack in 410 by Visigoths. The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy of his writings is in the Vatican library and dates to the 14th century.

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Aurelius’ Meditations was a favourite of Frederick the Great, John Stuart Mill and Goethe. Modern figures such as Wen Jiabao (6th Premier of the People’s Republic of China) and Bill Clinton (42nd President of the United States) are also admirers of the philosophical writings of this Emperor Philosopher.

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Essential Facts:

  • Title:                       The Emperor as Philosopher, probably Marcus Aurelius
  • Date:                       180-200
  • Medium:                 Bronze, hollow cast
  • Dimensions           h. 193 cm (75 15/16 in)
  • Museum:                 Cleveland Museum of Art

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“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”  Marcus Aurelius

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Photo Credit: 1) By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons