It was interesting to see that one reviewer went looking for a copy of the Modern Library edition of "Meditations" as a gift, and had to settle for a different translation.
There was a time when many publishers had in print their own editions -- usually "gift editions," in a range of prices -- of the little book, "To Himself," by the second-century Roman patrician Marcus Annius Catilius Severus (121-180 C.E.), known after his marriage as Marcus Annius Verus -- almost always titled something like "The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius," and most commonly some version (little choice disguised as many choices) of George Long's 1862 translation of the Greek original, originally published as "The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus."
For Marcus, besides receiving an excellent education in Greek, which he seems to have used as naturally as Latin, went on, through a process of adoption and co-optation, to rule the Roman Empire, beginning in 161 with the death of Antoninus Pius, his uncle, who had adopted him as heir, using a third version of his name. For moderns, he is usually just Marcus Aurelius; I found it a bit of shock to see him as just another "Antoninus" in ancient texts.
Under any name, he has been popular, at least with publishers; even now, there seem to be something like sixty versions in English of this book available on Amazon, even though many *are* out of print (and most seem to be of the same few older translations). As usual, a number of these editions and translations are grouped by Amazon for review purposes, and I will mention some. If you find this, or someone else's, review of one translation under a different heading, PLEASE remember that, as Marcus Aurelius saw, some things really are beyond our control.
It should require more thought to understand Marcus than it does to follow the English version. The Modern Library's current offering, a new translation by George Hays, is based on modern text editions, and seems to be both an excellent first introduction to the book, and graceful reading for those with no interest in looking further. It has brief but helpful notes, and a glossary of names, which helps keep the notes short and to the point. Some will follow his references to more advanced treatments, including textual as well as philosophical problems.
As for Marcus Aurelius, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest, and certainly the most morally and intellectually impressive, of all Roman Emperors. Gibbon tended to see the Empire's real decline as subsequent to his death, a view not without its reflection in the recent motion picture "Gladiator." The transitions by appointment from Trajan to Hadrian to Antoninus Pius to Marcus produced one of the most successful set of reigns in history (if mainly from a strictly Roman and Imperial point of view). It is perhaps the best historically-documented counterpart of the Chinese tradition of the Sage Emperors who chose as heirs the Most Virtuous (or Most Effective) subjects, instead of favored sons.
The policy had precedents in Roman history, although none so successful for so long. Family loyalty was admired, and inheritance gave access to key property, including the slaves in the bureaucracy, and the loyalty of followers (veteran soldiers, freedmen and other clients); yet the whole dynastic principle was suspect as un-Roman. It was in part accidental, Antoninus, for example, himself almost a last-minute substitute, having no son to be his heir. Marcus Aurelius designated his son Commodus as successor, with less fortunate consequences, after the death of his first choice; although Commodus' evil reputation may reflect his political and military failures, and the interests of his successors, as much as his personality.
So one might expect from the great Emperor Marcus Aurelius some manifesto on statesmanship, or imperial strategy, or at least good government. In fact, his twelve books (booklets, really) of little notes "to himself" contain reflections on fate, on moral lessons from classical literature, on religion, on human nature. They are probably the last thing one would expect of a Supreme Autocrat and Generalissimo.
Nor are they an exposition of a philosophic system; no surprise that some reviewers, apparently expecting one, have found them unsatisfying.
The first three books have titles (some are subscripts in the manuscript tradition, but, like Hays, I think they are misplaced). "On the River Gran, Among the Quadi," refers to a campaign on the borders of the empire. If it is the heading of Book Two, the lack of any explicit reference therein to the hard-fought German campaign is worth pondering. Was this what the Emperor considered truly important? What he wanted us to think he thought was important? (But there is internal evidence that he had no intention of making any of it public.) What he preferred to think about when he could get away from the war for a few moments? It should be remembered that he was a successful campaigner.
Hays' clear translation into modern English joins a number of post-Long translations. Older versions include the important version with commentary of A.S.L. Farquharson (Oxford, 1944, out of print; his translation with new introduction, etc., World's Classics, 1990, and Oxford World's Classics, 1998), and two competitors for the student and general reader markets, respectively, by G.M.A. Grube (originally Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill, 1963) and Maxwell Staniforth (Penguin Classics, 1964), which have been in and out of print (but mostly in) for four decades. Of these, I much prefer Hays -- although the additional material in the World's Classics edition(s) is worth a look. (Staniforth, by the way, says that "a couple of generations ago" major publishers had "elegant miniature" editions of classics, usually including the "Meditations" -- those I remember from the 1960s themselves were full-sized, and distinguished only by gilt edges and/or slipcovers and/or presentation pages.)
It also joins the highly-praised contemporary version, "The Emperor's Handbook: A New Translation of The Meditations," translated by David Hicks and C. Scott Hicks (2002; not seen).
It competes as well with a fairly recent (1993) Dover Thrift Edition of the George Long translation, revised (and not for the first time) to modernize his mid-Victorian English and untangle his somewhat convoluted fidelity to (a long-obsolete edition of) the Greek. That Long was not very readable was probably not of much concern to those who used to buy and give (and possibly receive) editions designed to suggest educated tastes; certainly not to the sellers. Long's concern for accuracy should be emulated, but turning relatively clear Greek into opaque English doesn't seem the best way to achieve the goal. (In all fairness, what was plain enough language in mid-Victorian England / Civil War America may now seem obscure for other reasons.)
The novelist Mary Renault thought that Marcus' example refuted Lord Acton's view that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," but the most remarkable lesson of the "Meditations" is that Marcus Aurelius did not believe that he HAD absolute power. He had been chosen and groomed for a role he had been taught to accept as a duty, and regarded it as both an obligation and an imposition. For Marcus was a Stoic -- not in the commonplace sense of someone who repressed his feelings or endured pain without expression, but in the original sense of a follower of philosophy that offered a quasi-religious approach to life. Hays usefully points out (with helpful bibliography) that Marcus was, in the manner of his time, eclectic, but grants that, if asked, he would have identified himself with Stocism.
The movement was founded by Zeno of Citium (or Kition), born on Cyprus (about 336 B.C.E.) in a family said to be part Phoenician, who taught in the Stoa Poikile, or "Painted Walkway," in Athens, from some point after 313 to his death about 261 B.C.E. It was one of the key movements of Hellenistic times, and found a ready reception among upper class Romans as well. Teaching calm in the face of stress, and endorsing acceptance of public obligations, including religion, it is traditionally paired with, and contrasted to, Epicureanism, which taught avoidance of excessive pain and pleasure, withdrawal into private life, and the pointlessness of traditional religion. (Not hedonism, as popularly imagined; nor did it deny the existence of gods, only that they had any interest in anything so trivial and base as human concerns.)
For those who find the "Meditations" intriguing but unsatisfying, works by other Stoics may be more fulfilling; there are some excellent recent volumes translating and interpreting Marcus' older contemporary, Epictetus, a slave who set an example to the rulers of the western world -- but that would be another review.