Marcus Aurelius – Movies and the Reality (or ‘It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live’)

When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…Marcus Aurelius

Many of us – myself included – were fully introduced to Russell Crowe when he appeared in the movie which not only won best picture, but gave him his one and only Oscar for best actor (to date): Gladiator. In this version of the latter years of the Roman Empire, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died on this date more than 1800 years ago, that Caesar was played by Richard Harris, who went on to become one of Crowe’s personal friends. 

But a portion of the Marcus Aurelius story was told back in the 1960’s by director Anthony Mann in another of his epic historical movies: The Fall of the Roman Empire, a film which bears a lot in common with GladiatorWe have a Marcus Aurelius; we have a Lucilla; we have a Commodus. Hey, we even have a guy sort of like Maximus but his name is Livius and he never becomes a gladiator. I discussed this movie a couple of months ago when we covered the assassination of Commodus, so I won’t repeat all of it here for the time being.

This post is about Marcus Aurelius and the man who played him in this version: Sir Alec Guinness, a Shakespearean actor who made appearances in a great many British productions – some of which are classics, but is now better known as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movies (a role and a series of movies he ‘sort of/kind of’ hated, but that’s another story for another…fandom. :-D). 

My previous post contained the father-son/hugging-daddy-to-death scene from Gladiator. But so you can make a comparison of two great actors, here are excerpts from The Fall of the Roman Empire. Guinness’ look is also very much like the busts and sculptures we’ve seen of the Emperor (a few of which are included below).

Clip 1: Alec Guinness’ Marcus has a philosophical talk with James Mason as they live to see another day. Later, in the same scene, he meets with Stephen Boyd’s Livius. Note that this takes place in 180 AD, the year of the Emperor’s death – and they are fighting in Germania.

In the second clip, Commodus’ supporters plot the Emperor’s assassination. Alec Guinness performs a soliloquy as he asks death for more time to set his affairs in order.

The Meditations and Reflections of Marcus Aurelius contain some of the best known works of Western literature. ‘Marcus’ writings were exercises for his own improvement rather than philosophical treatises. He was deeply influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and his Reflections and Meditations stress moral improvement, ethical citizenship, philosophical detachment, and more generally the place of man in the cosmic order. These works are valued as a literary expressions of virtuous public life and civic duty.
You can find many sources online which quote from his works, but these are a few of my particular favorites – and the one I used in the subject line should really make one think.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

‘If You Work At That Which Is Before You…’ Marcus Aurelius

How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.
He who lives in harmony with himself lives in harmony with the universe.

Marcus Aurelius receiving the submission of the vanquished, with raised vexillum standards

Marcus Aurelius receiving the submission of the vanquished, with raised vexillum standards

Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, Rome

Bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius, piazza del Campidoglio in Rome.


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