Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from the years 161 to 180, and considered as well one of the most significant philosophers of stoicism, a Hellenistic philosophy concerned with the relationship between determinism and free will, and which emphasized the features of a virtuous life in accord with nature. His Meditations is one of the greats of classical thought, distinguished from other such texts for its personal nature. While so much of classical thought is contained in philosophical tracts, plays and epic poetry, Marcus Aurelius produced the Meditations as an exercise in self-reflection, to provide for himself a guidebook to his thought and his rule.
Comprising 12 books, the Meditations have been described as “plain”, “uninspiring” and “contradictory” even while recognized as hugely important historically and philosophically. But given that these are writings intended only for himself, personal reflections as much philosophy, that is perhaps not surprising. The books span a wide range of topics, from the nature of human existence to tips for daily living, but do not constitute a coherent or even especially original philosophy as such. They do provide, however, a profound insight into classical Roman thought, and that time’s ideal of the philosopher-king.