Don’t do as the Romans do!

This week we have a guest post from author Marian L. Thorpe, writing about Marcus Aurelius(26 April 121 – 17 March 180) during the Pax Romana.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius: Pain, Melancholy, Stoicism and – Drug Addiction?

“…to always be the same man, unchanged in sudden pain, in the loss of a child, in lingering sickness…” Meditations I:8

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD; the last emperor of the Pax Romana, that roughly 200-year period of relative prosperity and stability in the Empire. (At least, if you discount the on-going war with Parthia, conflict with Armenia, tensions and battle with the Germanic peoples, persecution of Christians and the Antonine Plague. I did say relative.) But Marcus Aurelius may be best remembered as a Stoic philosopher. Even in his own time he was referred to as ‘The Philosopher’, and if what a man writes down for his personal contemplation reflects at all what he speaks of with his friends, the sobriquet was earned.

Stoicism, briefly, is a school of philosophy originating in Greece with Zeno of Citium early in the 3rd century BCE. In simplistic terms, it argues that happiness is achieved through an acceptance of the moment and a removal of both desire and fear. The mind and reason are paramount. Things are only painful or unpleasant if you allow them to be. As an adherent, Marcus Aurelius concerned himself with Stoicism primarily as a template for his personal ethics: a code of behaviour for himself – and he wrote his thoughts down, in the collection of thoughts and quotes and reflections we know as the Meditations.

Marcus was the adopted heir of the Emperor Hadrian, and biographers believe he wasn’t too happy about this. Significantly, of all the people he thanks in the first Book of the Meditations, Hadrian is not among them. Even after his adoption, his feet set on the path to be Emperor, he cautioned himself about taking the title too seriously: “Take care not to be Caesarified, or dyed in purple; that can happen.” That he saw a conflict between his Imperial role and his philosophy is expressed, too: “Where life can be lived, so can a good life; but life can be lived in a palace; therefore a good life can be lived in a palace.”

Did Marcus Aurelius live a good life?  His biographer Cassius Dio wrote, “{Marcus} did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign.” The suggestion has been raised by more than one biographer that Marcus was a hypochondriac – or that some of his illnesses were psychosomatic, brought on by the stress of high office. Frank McLynn, in his 2009 biography, points out that Marcus participated in the usual athletic competitions of Roman youth: wrestling and running, ball games, hunting and riding. But by early middle age, Marcus was physically frail, complaining of the cold and constant pain in his stomach and chest. An ulcer? Perhaps; he was known to eat little.  A diagnosis of any kind is impossible. But certainly pain and illness are frequent topics in Marcus’s reflections on his own life.

The Roman historian Thomas Africa argues that Marcus Aurelius also experienced depression, citing many sections of the Meditations to support this position, among them this passage:

Just as all the business of the amphitheatre and such places offends you as always one and the same sight, and this monotony of the spectacle bores you, so is it too with your experience of life as a whole; everything, up or down, is the same, with the same causes. How much longer, then?

Perhaps for the physical pain and illness, perhaps for the melancholy, and perhaps because it was believed to protect against poison, Marcus took a daily dose of theriac, a mixture originating in Greece in the 1st C CE. (Theriac was adopted across the known world via trade routes, and in use until the 19th C.) While recipes varied, the writings of Marcus’s physician Galen confirm that opium was an ingredient.

Every day he took as much as an Egyptian kyamos (a bean, probably Vicia faba, so about the size of a thumbnail) with or without water or wine. When he found himself getting drowsy at his duties, he had the poppy-juice removed. But then, he was unable to sleep at night… So he was obliged to have recourse again to the compound which contained poppy-juice, as this was now habitual with him.

Based on a recipe for theriac recorded during the Severii dynasty, a kyamos of theriac would have contained about 0.033 g of opium, not enough for addiction. But it is not clear this was the recipe Galen always used for Marcus Aurelius, and the physician reports heavier doses being used by Marcus during a Danube campaign to combat the strain of war under winter conditions.

The contemporary satirist Lucian referred to ‘the Emperor’ being under the influence of mandragora, a narcotic: “and is the Emperor drugged with mandragora that he should hear of this.”, ‘the Emperor’ being accepted by historians as Marcus Aurelius, suggesting that Marcus’s use of theriac was well known.

The final argument for Marcus’s opium addiction concerns his dreams. Opium is well known to create vivid dreams (Coleridge’s Kubla Khan being a famous example) and Marcus does write of being ‘given help through dreams’ and that ‘all things of the mind are dreams and delusions’. But that is far from proof: dreams and the interpretation of dreams were of interest to Stoic philosophers and the subject of an entire treatise by Marcus’ contemporary Artemidorus of Greece. ‘Writers who have ventured into the disputed territory of Marcus’s dreams have usually regretted it.’ wrote McLynn, and he can have the final word on that.

Was Marcus Aurelius addicted to opium?  The argument for dependency at least during the winter of the Danube campaign is credible. Perhaps his mind and body, troubled by the affairs of state, his physical illness, his bouts of melancholy, and a position he may never have wanted, needed its calming influence as he worked towards Plato’s ideal: a kallipolis where philosophers were rulers, and rulers, philosophers.


Africa, Thomas W.  1961. The Opium Addiction of Marcus Aurelius Journal of the History of Ideas 22:1 pp. 97-102

Lucian. The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Translated by Fowler, H W and F G. Oxford: The Clarendon Press. 1905

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations. Martin Hammond, trans. Penguin Classics. 2006

McLynn, Frank. Marcus Aurelius: A Life. Random House. 2009

Plato. The Republic.

Witke, Edward C. 1965. Marcus Aurelius and Mandragora. Classical Philology 60: 1 pp. 23-24

Marian L Thorpe is the author of the Empire’s Legacy series, set in a world inspired by Europe after the decline of Rome. Marcus Aurelius and the Meditations are the basis for her background character Catilius and his book the Contemplations.

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