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3.6 out of 5 stars
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on 19 June 2011
This book has great strengths but one can't ignore its defects.

Still, let's begin with the strengths because the author deserves much credit. As well as giving a good, clear account of the life of Marcus Aurelius he goes out of his way to put that life in context by frequently stopping to explain various features of the economic, social, political and military world within which Marcus Aurelius operated. This is highly welcome. Those long, contextual sections, combined with the analytical chapter at the end, helped to give me a great deal more insight into the Roman Empire than I was expecting. McLynn also does a good job of keeping a complex cast of characters and story moving along without it getting too confusing. I got completely absorbed.

The most significant problem, to my mind, comes with the analysis of Stoicism. Within the body of the book, McLynn is forever tearing a strip off Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus for their inconsistencies and gaps. He knows very well that Aurelius was writing a private journal for his own edification, head-clearing and analysis and that Epictetus did not even 'write' his books since they are basically collections of lecture notes - and, in the case of the Enchiridion, merely extracts from them - made by one of his pupils. Now, if a student of mine wrote down my lecture notes and published them in a book without my having a chance to edit them I'm pretty sure there would be a lot of gaps and probably some inconsistencies. It's not that Epictetus can't be criticised; I can easily do so myself. It's just that on this basis McLynn's criticisms of the extant writings of both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus seem harsh to put it mildly. It was like reading something by Victor Meldrew when he's had too many cups of coffee.

The same goes for his criticisms of Stoicism in general, both in the main body of the text and in the first appendix. To be honest, I didn't even recognise it as a description of the Stoicism that I am familiar with. For example, McLynn refers to the "Stoic condemnation of pity". My reading of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius suggest not a condemnation of pity but an encouragement to keep it in proportion. All three of those authors, in different ways, encourage generosity, empathy and fellow-feeling. They do suggest that we should interrogate those feelings and be guided above all by our reason with respect to how we follow them up, but that is something quite different. Then there is the claim that Stoicism "subscribes to the dreadful doctrine that if someone suffers misfortune, he himself is responsible". That's just slipshod and misleading. Stoics would say that we are responsible for our REACTIONS to misfortune, which is something quite different. I could go on for several more paragraphs, but I would doubtless bore the reader and certainly bore myself. Suffice to say, if you went by McLynn's account you simply wouldn't have a clue as to why Stoicism has held such appeal to so many people over so many centuries. McLynn says that Stoicism "lacks all nuance" but it is, rather, his analysis that lacks nuance.

I'm also puzzled by McLynn's claim (p.208) that Epictetus died about AD 100. Every single one of my half-dozen sources (books and articles) on Epictetus, some very recent, suggest that he died in about AD 135. Either they are all wrong or McLynn is. If he has some radical new information which suggests that Epictetus died at about the age of 40, information which overturns our previous biographical knowledge, then he should at least have commented on this in the book.

I was also rather disappointed with the chapter looking at the subsequent influence of Marcus Aurelius. Much of it seemed to consist of looking to see if similar ideas are expressed by other thinkers, without necessarily knowing if they have actually read the Meditations. This seems a bizarre methodology. Anyone who has enjoyed grandstanding over a few pints in a pub knows that it is quite common to come up with philosophical ideas that remind your companions of other thinkers that you've never heard of. Also, I frequently engaged in pantheistic reveries as a teenager, before I was even aware of philosophy, let alone Marcus Aurelius. I won't share these thoughts with you here; again, I don't think our boredom thresholds could stand it.

Let's finish on a good note. Due to the depth of McLynn's work I came away enriched. I had a deeper much more sophisticted view of both Marcus Aurelius and the Roman Empire. Indeed, my thinking about both has changed significantly and is now much more mixed - dare I say 'nuanced' - than it was. I wasn't expecting quite that level of impact. So, for that reason alone, and notwithstanding the above points, I'd still recommend this book if you want to understand the man and his time.
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on 3 April 2011
Frank McLynn is an author that you either love or hate. He is very opinionated, self-satisfied, and confident in his opinions and he likes nothing better than to dismiss other author's works as being wrong. He also likes to use large words and complicated sentences. Normally that last wouldn't bother me, but I'm a fast reader and when you have to spend ages on every page since each sentence is so convoluted it becomes problematic. Not everyone will have problems with this. It encourages you to take your time so if you enjoy really savoring a book then you might prefer it this way. McLynn isn't an expert in this field. I think he likes it that way since he's written most of his books in fields he isn't an expert in. Personally, I think he feels he has something to prove but whatever it is he does research the periods he writes about well. Along the same line he also has a tendency to include comparisons to somewhat obscure historical figures that many of his readers will not recognize. It seems to fall under his desire to prove how smart he is. I'm sure that there could be another explanation for all of his writing quirks but that is the way that I interpret them.

Now onto the book. First off this is a really big book. I know that you can see that by just looking at the page numbers on this site but you don't always appreciate that till you see it. I think that each one of his books gets bigger and bigger, which is a shame since I prefer some of his shorter writings like 1066: The Year of the Three Battles. Now I'm not intimidated by a book's size but this one can be a chore. There is already an excellent biography on Marcus Aurelius by Anthony Birley which is about half the size of this one and is written by an expert in the field. Having read that I was rather curious what McLynn could say that would take up so much extra space. Would it be a more in-depth and detailed look at the era that he lived in? Would it include details about his life that Birley left out? Would it include a detailed analysis of his personality, a subject that McLynn is particularly strong at? I have to say that when it did either of those things it was a very enjoyable read, but most of the book seemed to focus on his philosophy. Now, I suppose that this is to be expected when the subject wrote his own philosophy on life down, but I'm really not interested in a discourse on philosophy and a comparison of how Aurelius matched up with later philosophers. I'm even less interested in hearing McLynn's views on philosophy as he states that several beliefs are wrong or show poor reasoning. Frankly, the reason that there are so many different philosophies out there is that every philosophy appeals to a different aspect of the human experience. There is no single philosophy that can make everybody happy. Stating that philosophical beliefs are wrong shows the most arrogant presumption I've seen in a long time. Just because you disagree with a philosophical concept doesn't make it incorrect. I certainly don't agree with all the philosophers he mentions but that doesn't mean that I'm going to call them mistaken. I know that the author is intelligent and that he presumably has a philosophy of beliefs, but he doesn't need to keep showing off the former and I couldn't care less about his opinions on the latter. As far as his analysis of Aurelius' philosophy goes this book is an utter failure. It is McLynn at his worst: uninteresting, arguing ideas of interest only to himself, and unspeakably arrogant. Quite frankly, a little of McLynn goes a long ways. When he keeps it short his works usually deliver.

So, the good news: The rest of the book is pretty good. It suffers from all of the faults I mentioned when discussing his writing style earlier, but it is also well researched and interesting. First off, his interpretation of Aurelius' personality seems pretty much spot on. His insight that a certain humorlessness can lead to difficulty handling depression seems to fit Marcus quite well. He doesn't go into quite as much annoying psychoanalysis as he did in his book on Napoleon, and the absence of such extremely questionable neuroses is very welcome. Actually, since he has the discourse on philosophy early on it leaves the rest of the book reasonably free of such annoyances. Characterizations have always been McLynn's strong point and his vivid characterizations in this book are interesting, and he expresses them quite clearly even if he is extremely blunt in his personal judgments. Some of the characterizations are odd though, such as when he refers to Hadrian as a psychopath. I don't know what information he's looking at but there is nowhere's near enough data to make that sort of a statement. In "Napoleon" he stated that nearly every leader in history could be considered a psychopath which has always kind of rankled me. Even assuming a generous definition of psychopath, I wouldn't call any harsh action that they take psychotic. Leaders have to make hard decisions, but that isn't the same thing as saying that they get some sort of sick thrill out of it. The section on Marcus' life is certainly worth reading and I only wish that it wasn't preceded by such a pretentious distraction. I honestly think that the rest of this book is worth the purchase price. Still, the book can't just be divided into good and bad sections and reviewed separately, so I'm giving this book three stars as an average between them. That's probably being overly generous since the good section doesn't deserve a full five stars but the book deserves better than a two. I have a feeling that future reviewers will not be so kind, but I definitely recommend reading this if you're at all interested in the subject matter and don't mind a long slog.
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on 14 August 2009
Frank McLynn is an author that you either love or hate. He is very opinionated, self-satisfied, and confident in his opinions and he likes nothing better than to dismiss other author's works as being wrong. He also likes to use large words and complicated sentences. Normally that last wouldn't bother me, but I'm a fast reader and when you have to spend ages on every page since each sentence is so convoluted it becomes problematic. Not everyone will have problems with this. It encourages you to take your time so if you enjoy really savoring a book then you might prefer it this way. McLynn isn't an expert in this field. I think he likes it that way since he's written most of his books in fields he isn't an expert in. Personally, I think he feels he has something to prove but whatever it is he does research the periods he writes about well. Along the same line he also has a tendency to include comparisons to somewhat obscure historical figures that many of his readers will not recognize. It seems to fall under his desire to prove how smart he is. I'm sure that there could be another explanation for all of his writing quirks but that is the way that I interpret them.

Now onto the book. First off this is a really big book. I know that you can see that by just looking at the page numbers on this site but you don't always appreciate that till you see it. I think that each one of his books gets bigger and bigger, which is a shame since I prefer some of his shorter writings like 1066: The Year of The Three Battles. Now I'm not intimidated by a book's size but this one can be a chore. There is already an excellent biography on Marcus Aurelius by Anthony Birley which is about half the size of this one and is written by an expert in the field. Having read that I was rather curious what McLynn could say that would take up so much extra space. Would it be a more in-depth and detailed look at the era that he lived in? Would it include details about his life that Birley left out? Would it include a detailed analysis of his personality, a subject that McLynn is particularly strong at? I have to say that when it did either of those things it was a very enjoyable read, but most of the book seemed to focus on his philosophy. Now, I suppose that this is to be expected when the subject wrote his own philosophy on life down, but I'm really not interested in a discourse on philosophy and a comparison of how Aurelius matched up with later philosophers. I'm even less interested in hearing McLynn's views on philosophy as he states that several beliefs are wrong or show poor reasoning. Frankly, the reason that there are so many different philosophies out there is that every philosophy appeals to a different aspect of the human experience. There is no single philosophy that can make everybody happy. Stating that philosophical beliefs are wrong shows the most arrogant presumption I've seen in a long time. Just because you disagree with a philosophical concept doesn't make it incorrect. I certainly don't agree with all the philosophers he mentions but that doesn't mean that I'm going to call them mistaken. I know that the author is intelligent and that he presumably has a philosophy of beliefs, but he doesn't need to keep showing off the former and I couldn't care less about his opinions on the latter. As far as his analysis of Aurelius' philosophy goes this book is an utter failure. It is McLynn at his worst: uninteresting, arguing ideas of interest only to himself, and unspeakably arrogant. Quite frankly, a little of McLynn goes a long ways. When he keeps it short his works usually deliver.

So, the good news: The rest of the book is pretty good. It suffers from all of the faults I mentioned when discussing his writing style earlier, but it is also well researched and interesting. First off, his interpretation of Aurelius' personality seems pretty much spot on. His insight that a certain humorlessness can lead to difficulty handling depression seems to fit Marcus quite well. He doesn't go into quite as much annoying psychoanalysis as he did in his book on Napoleon, and the absence of such extremely questionable neuroses is very welcome. Actually, since he has the discourse on philosophy early on it leaves the rest of the book reasonably free of such annoyances. Characterizations have always been McLynn's strong point and his vivid characterizations in this book are interesting, and he expresses them quite clearly even if he is extremely blunt in his personal judgments. Some of the characterizations are odd though, such as when he refers to Hadrian as a psychopath. I don't know what information he's looking at but there is nowhere's near enough data to make that sort of a statement. In "Napoleon" he stated that nearly every leader in history could be considered a psychopath which has always kind of rankled me. Even assuming a generous definition of psychopath I wouldn't call Winston Churchill, for example, a psychopath even though he let the Germans bomb Coventry rather than reveal that they had cracked the Enigma code. The sort of actions that McLynn refers too seem the same sort of thing as that. Leaders have to make hard decisions, but that isn't the same thing as saying that they get some sort of sick thrill out of it. The section on Marcus' life is certainly worth reading and I only wish that it wasn't preceded by such a pretentious distraction. I honestly think that the rest of this book is worth the purchase price. Still, the book can't just be divided into good and bad sections and reviewed separately, so I'm giving this book three stars as an average between them. That's probably being overly generous since the good section doesn't deserve a full five stars but the book deserves better than a two.
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on 14 July 2014
I found this book to be a bit like marmite - some bits were fantastic, some bits terrible. This is the first book I have read from Frank McLynn so I wasn't sure what to expect. It is a big book, not just in terms of the text, which is in a small font with long paragraphs, extensive and exhausting footnotes, but also in terms of the language. Other reviewers have commented on McLynn's use of language which most probably wouldn't understand or use. A dictionary is a must. The book is also exhausting mentally, it makes you think and you definitely have to concentrate, not just because of the language, but also due to McLynn's tendency to go off on tangents and digress, or repeat the same point more than once. The subject matter is also hard-work: philosophy, religion, biography, history, stoicism. Great, but challenging, stuff. it took me a while to read as I had to summon the will to read it when it got boring, or re-read some passages to understand the text.

The bits I enjoyed: i) The sections dealing with the growth of Christianity and Marcus Aurelius' response to it. His role in the persecution of Christians is shown, and his reasons for doing so.

ii) The wars with the Quadi, Marcomanni etc are also well-written and extremely detailed.

I didn't enjoy: i) The overly-long, repetitive examination into the Emperor's philosophy and stoicism. One chapter would have sufficed, as it was important to Marcus, but I felt McLynn got bogged down with the topic and was more keen to show me what he (McLynn) believes rather than what Marcus Aurelius himself believed. This part of the book was a meandering mess. As others have said, there is overt criticism of stoicism and Marcus Aurelius. Not content with taking up a big chunk of the book on stoicism and philosophy, an appendix is added in which McLynn further lays into Marcus for his and stoicism's mistakes and logical fallacies

ii) The continuous referencing to other historical characters, philosophers, politicians or other personalities who have no relevance to Marcus

iii) Psychoanalysis of nearly everybody who is mentioned in the book - in a book on a Roman emperor, why should I need to know about Rousseau or JS Mill?

iv) Nearly everybody is criticised - Fronto, Hadrian (especially), Commodus etc come in for some stick.

v) His assertion that Marcus' victories in the Marcommanic Wars and military achievements were more 'durable' than Caesar's. Caesar's conquest of Gaul led to it being under Roman rule for around 500 years, and his victory over Pompey led, indirectly, to establishing the principate.

In short, I would cautiously recommend this but be prepared for long, taxing, read.
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on 28 November 2010
Unlike some of my fellow reviewers I won't try to establish that I'm as smart as the author, or indeed to put forward my own historical judgements - after all, if I were that good I'd write a book myself.

What I'd prefer to do is to try to convey what it's like reading this book and why it is or is not worth your money.

The punch-line: it's excellent on just about every front.

I like Roman history, and (I guess like many people) I'd worked my way through the earlier centuries starting with the collapse of the Republic and on into the age of Emperors. Of course this climactic time was dominated by the 'big hitters': Julies Caesar, Octavian (Augustus), followed by a string of fairly well-known names: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. But the post-Nero era was a little less 'accessible', and then I came upon Vespasian, (Simon Scarrow's novels set around this time), Trajan, Hadrian and others. It is amazing to think that after AD Zero there is still over 400 years of Roman Empire to read up on, including the time when many say the empire was at its zenith. So. what was going on at that time? What was it like?

This book on Marcus Aurelius is set in the ~ AD 150s -plus. The empire was perhaps at its peak and yet there were as always troubling problems - especially around the borders. The bigger the empire the more problems they had!

The author tells a good and interesting story around Marcus Aurelius' early life, with his favour from his patron Hadrian and his subsequent 'apprenticeship' whilst he was waiting for the 'stand-in' Emperor (Antonious Pious) to pop his clogs. This took a lot longer than expected (23 years) and by the time Marcus ascended to absolute power he was 40 years old - interesting in comparison to the average adult life expectancy of 30 (one of the many, many interesting facts in the book).

This takes up most of the first hundred pages, but was not the slightest bit of a chore to read, as Mr McLynn makes his narrative very interesting indeed. He does tend to use somewhat 'erudite' language at times, but this gives you a good chance to look up some words you've heard before but never quite understood (unless you're far better educated than I, of course!).

The rest of the book follows in the same vein. Marcus Aurelius was a remarkable man and the sub-title says it nicely: Warrior, Philosopher, Emperor. It's fascinating to realise that all those years ago someone like him was putting serious effort into how to be a good person, careful of not boasting and posturing and as an Emperor of avoiding being the fearful monster that some of his predecessors were. Granted, he bequeathed the Romans the terrible gift of Commodus, but like any parent he probably thought he'd get past his early excesses and 'straighten out'.

The time when I was reading this book flew past, and that's most certainly not always the case with history books. Marcus Aurelius was an interesting character, and I absolutely felt 'connected' to not only him but also his times. This is the big test for me, because I am always thinking of what it was really like during those times, how things looked and felt, and what happened to such an amazingly advanced society that culminated in the 'dark ages'. This book gives more sense and meaning of what went before and what was to come than many I have read.

My only 'gripes' are that (and I hate repeating this in my various reviews) the maps don't always match the important parts of text. For example there is a map of the far eastern part of the empire inserted round about page 150 - nicely placed, I thought, as the subsequent chapters were regarding the Parthian campaign. But many times the author would say something along the lines of 'They invaded X, march to Y, and wintered at Z', and you're struggling to find these on the map(s).

Also, Mr McLynn does drop a lot of names - it's a bit like Tolkein with 'Aragorn son of Arathorn, brother of what-his-name and uncle to you-know-who (who was also the second cousin of his father's third wife's mistress)'. I'm exaggerating a bit there and of course the author is writing a fairly serious work and must put these facts in. But you get my drift, I hope!

I did say 'minor gripes'! This book is a victory for telling serious history in an authentic yet entertaining style. Top marks to Mr McLynn in my eyes, and I'm now going to check out some of his other stuff!
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on 23 June 2014
This book is painstakingly researched and throws up an amazing volume of background facts so as book about life in Rome of the period it is very interesting. As a book on Marcus Aurelius the 'person', it is a rather remote read that doesn't deliver a rounded portrait, as a narrative never quite seems to "get started" and can be a bit turgid at times.

The word "scholarly" comes to mind rather than "a good read".
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on 13 May 2014
Most philosophers have tried to influence the world through their writing, speaking to us from an ivory tower. When they do put their philosophy into practice this is usually at a very personal level; leading by example. Most leaders have too little time or too little intellect for the academic study of knowledge, reality and existence; they often adopt other people's philosophical positions and enforce their adopted ethics on their followers. Marcus Aurelius was different, he was a genuine leader and a genuine philosopher. He probably was not the greatest of the world's philosophers and probably not the greatest leader the world has ever seen, but in this respect at least he may deserve the title of the greatest all rounder.

Frank McLynn's book examines the battles and campaigns of Marcus Aurelius. This was certainly not in the same depth as you would expect from the Pen and Sword series of books (for example). I do not feel I would know how to win a strategy game based on this book - but that was not the reason I bought it,

Frank McLynn's book examines stoicism in great depth. The book does not reach the depths plumbed by other books on philosophy, but I learnt a lot and enjoyed the experience of reading about Epictetus, Diogenes and Zeno. I would probably not have read about any of these individuals if I had not been interested in the history of Marcus Aurelius as an Emperor.

Frank McLynn's book examines the history of the decline of the Western Roman empire, presenting Marcus Aurelius as the last of the truly great Western Emperors. This story has been covered elsewhere by many great writers, but the approach of examining the Emperors thoughts as well as actions was very satisfying and again I learnt a lot.

In short: not the greatest book about a Warrior or the greatest book about a Philospher or even the greatest book about an Emperor. Probably the greatest book about Marcus Aurelius: Warrior, Philosopher and Emperor.
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on 18 November 2009
I was looking forward to this book having enjoyed Frank McLynn's previous joint biography of Villa and Zapata. However while the focus of the Villa and Zapata study was on explaining the significance of the two men in the context of their times and places, in this instance Frank McLynn attempts to argue for the significance of Marcus to all ages.

This leads to two problems with the book. On one hand a tendency to compare Marcus with later leaders which seems a bit anachronistic. Second, despite estabilishing Marcus' responsibility for a ferocious persecution of Christians during his reign, which included many deliberately sadistic executions in contravention of Roman law, and despite Marcus' genocidal tendencies in his wars against the German tribes, the author is determined to convince the reader of Marcus's inate humaneness and philosophical significance.

Thought is important as the origin of action. But no matter how novel or insightful Marcus's philosophy may be, something that is a central concern of this book, it does not absolve transgressions. And judged by his actions Marcus was a ruthless and bloody man who, in addition to his personal crimes, bequeathed the Roman empire its worst emperor, his son Commodus. Consequently McLynn's argument of the importance of Marcus as one of the great people of all time seems overstretched and internally contradictory. As I read the book the figure I was most reminded of was not Churchill, Grant or Smuts, who McLynn discusses, but rather Karadzic - a learned but pretentious man who showed his true face as a bloody warlord and debased his learning in war crimes and the persecution of minorities.

Overall the book feels like it could have done with a more robust editing, both to challenge the sort of fundamental problems suggested above, but also to discipline McLynn's language and tendencies to show off his own erudition: for his next book Frank McLynn should be reminded that less is more.
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on 15 October 2010
McLynn is quite close to Fronto, one of Aurelius' teachers and figuring quite large in this biography: somewhat pretentious, opinionated, no philosophical understanding, and a kind of shallow and slightly cynical eclecticism. Otherwise, nice book.
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on 12 May 2009
This is an awful book. Far too long and far more concerned to display the author's learning than to inform the general reader. In parts it reads like a regurgitation of McLynn's essays for his Oxford classics degree. I wish I hadn't bought it.
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