on 12 August 2001
In the wake of "Gladiator," it is perhaps a useful coincidence to have such a decent biography of the greatest of Roman emperors published. I should begin by pointing out that books of such scholarly value (I am reminded of "The Inner Citadel" by Pierre Hadot, a magnificent explanation of Aurelius' Meditations) are best reviewed by peers, and I cannot claim such qualifications. For what it's worth, I have long been fascinated by the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, and I found this biography to be immensely rewarding. Prospective buyers should be aware that this is a very deeply researched biography... It can be, at times, very heady reading.
The book is rich with anecdotes of Marcus' family life. How interesting it seems, after viewing "Gladiator" (much as I enjoyed it, it is a film as contemptuous of history as "U-571") to hear that Marcus' son, Commodus, at the age of eleven, ordered a bathkeeper to be thrown into a furnace for letting the bathwater go lukewarm. A sheepskin was burned instead, to mask the deception, and yet the contrast between impetuous Commodus and the stern, reflective Marcus at age eleven, shows how the apple does not always fall close to the tree. [Incidentally, Commodus was strangled in his bath on New Years Eve and did not meet his end in the arena at the hands of Maximus.]
Birley's work is at times awfully heavy reading for the layperson, but in the end proves a thoroughly enjoyable rendering. A triumph.