© 2009 Frank McLynn
This biography is outstanding for its thoroughness, examining the full context of Aurelius' life. The story of the Roman emperor is the story of Rome, and this biography could serve just as well to educate someone on the late 2nd-century Empire as it would on the emperor himself. McLynn offers lengthy treatments of Rome's economic status and deterioration, its history of relations with the German tribes and reviving Parthian empire, and of course an exploration of Stoicism, where McLynn compares Aurelius' influences and contributions as a philosopher. After the death of the emperor, the focus shifts to his enduring legacy -- to the black mark on his record left by allowing his wretched son Commodus to succeed to the throne, to the literary influences of the Meditations throughout the centuries.
McLynn is both sympathetic and critical of his subject. While not a fan of Stoicism -- he criticizes its emphasis on detachment even from family members as inhuman -- McLynn clearly admires the standards the emperor set for himself as a leader and a man. He has a somber respect for Aurelius, who seems like something of a tragic, but great figure: an Atlas who takes the burden of the world on his shoulders, even though he'd rather be reading, but never complains about it. Aurelius is the model of composure and self-discipline, always counseling himself to take the failures of others in stride, but pushing himself to grow beyond his own.
If you are interested in Aurelius, I heartily recommend this book -- especially notable for its context -- but a five-part lecture on him that is available on YouTube. I have them arranged in a playlist you should be able to access here. If not, the first video is here.