Relief remained to the end a favorite Roman art. The Etruscan and Hellenistic custom of carving mythological or historical scenes upon sarcophagi returned in Hadrian’s time as the hope of immortality took more personal and even physical form, and burial replaced cremation. Eleven panels surviving from triumphal arches erected to commemorate the campaigns of Aurelius show the naturalistic style in perfection: no one is idealized, every participant is individualized; Marcus, receiving without pride the submission of a fallen enemy, is an appealingly human figure; and the defeated are shown not as barbarians but as men worthy of their long struggle for freedom. In 174 the Senate and people of Rome raised that Column of Aurelius which still adorns the Piazza Colonna; inspired by Trajan’s Column, it pictured the Marcomannic Wars with a sympathetic art that honored conquerors and conquered alike. The spirit of the Emperor had helped to form the art and morals of his time. The games were less cruel, the laws more considerate of the weak; marriage was apparently more lasting and content. Immorality continued, openly in a minority, clandestinely in the majority, as at all times; but it had passed its peak with Nero and had ceased to be fashionable. Men as well as women were returning to the old religion or devoting themselves to new ones; and the philosophers approved. Rome was now teeming with them, invited, welcomed, or tolerated by Aurelius; they took full advantage of his generosity and his power, crowded his court, received appointments and emoluments, delivered countless lectures, and opened many schools. In their imperial pupil they gave the world the culmination and disintegration of ancient philosophy.
V. THE EMPEROR AS PHILOSOPHER
Six years before his death Marcus Aurelius sat down in his tent to formulate his thoughts on human life and destiny. We cannot be sure that the Ta eis heauton – “to himself”- was intended for the public eye; probably so, for even saints are vain, and the greatest man of action has moments of weakness in which he aspires to write a book. Marcus was not an expert author; most of the training that Fronto had given him in Latin was wasted now, since he wrote in Greek; besides, these “Golden Thoughts” were penned in the intervals of travel, battles, revolts, and many tribulations; we must forgive them for being disconnected and formless, often repetitious, sometimes dull. The book is precious only for its contents- its tenderness and candor, its half-conscious revelations of a pagan-Christian, ancient-medieval soul.
Like most thinkers of his time, Aurelius conceived philosophy not as a speculative description of infinity, but as a school of virtue and a way of life. He hardly bothers to make up his mind about God; sometimes he talks like an agnostic, acknowledging that he does not know; but having made that admission, he accepts the traditional faith with a simple piety. “Of what worth is it to me,” he asks, “to live in a universe without gods or Providence?” He speaks of deity now in the singular, now in the plural, with all the indifference of Genesis. He offers public prayer and sacrifice to the old divinities, but in his private thought he is a pantheist, deeply impressed with the order of the cosmos and the wisdom of God. He has a Hindu’s sense of the interdependence of the world and man. He marvels at the growth of the child out of a little seed, the miraculous formation of organs, strength, mind, and aspiration out of a little food. He believes that if we could understand we should find in the universe the same order and creative power as in man. “All things are implicated with one another, and the bond is holy…. There is a common reason in all intelligent beings; one god pervades all things, one substance, one law, one truth…. Can a clear order subsist in thee, and disorder in the All?” He admits the difficulty of reconciling evil, suffering, apparently unmerited misfortune, with a good Providence; but we cannot judge the place of any element or event in the scheme of things unless we see the whole; and who shall pretend to such total perspective? It is therefore insolent and ridiculous for us to judge the world; wisdom lies in recognizing our limitations, in seeking to be harmonious parts of the universal order, in trying to sense the Mind behind the body of the world, and co-operating with it willingly. To one who has reached this view “everything that happens happens justly”- i.e., as in the course of nature; nothing that is according to nature can be evil; everything natural is beautiful to him who understands. All things are determined by the universal reason, the inherent logic of the whole; and every part must welcome cheerfully its modest role and fate. “Equanimity” (the watchword of the dying Antoninus) “is the voluntary acceptance of the things that are assigned to thee by the nature of the whole.”
Everything harmonizes with me that harmonizes with thee, O universe. Nothing for me is too early or too late which is in due time for thee. Everything is fruit to me that thy seasons bring, O Nature. From thee are all things, in thee are all things, to thee all things return.