Marcus Aurelius and Junius Rusticus

Junius Rusticus
Junius Rusticus

The Roman statesman Quintus Junius Rusticus (100 – c. 170 AD) was one of the pre-eminent Stoic philosophers of his day, and the main philosophical teacher of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD).  He was a powerful member of the Roman political elite, and served twice as consul, the highest elected position in the Empire.  In fact Rusticus was first appointed consul in 162 AD, the year after his student Marcus Aurelius became Emperor.

The Historia Romana of Cassius Dio says of Marcus:

His education was of great assistance to him, for he had been trained both in rhetoric and in philosophical disputation. In the former he had Cornelius Fronto and Claudius Herodes for teachers, and, in the latter, Junius Rusticus and Apollonius of Nicomedeia, both of whom professed [the founder of Stoicism] Zeno’s doctrines.  As a result, great numbers pretended to pursue philosophy, hoping that they might be enriched by the emperor.  Most of all, however, he owed his advancement to his own natural gifts; for even before he associated with those teachers he had a strong impulse towards virtue.(Epitome of Book LXXII)

The biography of Marcus in the Historia Augusta says that as a youth his enthusiasm for philosophy was so great that he insisted on attending the lectures of several Stoic philosophers after being adopted by the emperor Antoninus Pius.

He received most instruction from Junius Rusticus, whom he ever revered and whose disciple he became, a man esteemed in both private and public life, and exceedingly well acquainted with the Stoic system, with whom Marcus shared all his counsels both public and private, whom he greeted with a kiss prior to the prefects of the guard, whom he even appointed consul for a second term, and whom after his death he asked the senate to honour with statues. (Historia Augusta)

It was customary for the Emperor to bestow a ceremonial kiss upon the highest-ranking members of the senate.  The author goes on to say that Marcus held his teachers in such high esteem that he kept gold portraits of them in his private shrine and honoured their tombs with personal visits, offering flowers and sacrifices to their memory.

This reverential attitude is likewise reflected in Marcus’ Meditations, where it’s implied that Rusticus was honoured in his household shrine, along with members of his own family.  In the opening chapter of the Meditations, Marcus recalls, in a contemplative manner, the virtues of his family, teachers, etc., and what he’s learned from their example.  The seventh passage summarizes the main virtues he observed in his main Stoic teacher:

From Rusticus [I learned] to become aware of the fact that my character needed improvement and training; and not to be led aside into an argumentative sophistry; nor compose treatises on speculative subjects, or deliver pretentious sermons, or show-off with ostentatious displays of self-discipline or generosity; and to eschew rhetoric, poetry, and refined language; and not to lounge about the house in my toga, or to let myself go in this sort of way; and to write letters simply, like his own letter written to my mother from Sinuessa; to show oneself ready to be reconciled to those who have lost their temper and trespassed against one, and ready to meet them halfway as soon as ever they seem to be willing to retrace their steps; to read with minute care and not to be content with a superficial bird’s-eye view; nor to be too quick to go along with smooth-talkers; and to make the acquaintance of the Memoirs of Epictetus, which he supplied me without of his own library. (Meditations, 1.7)

The advice to refrain from over-indulgence in abstract philosophical debate, or sophistry, and to keep the focus on the practical application of philosophical principles, was characteristic of Stoicism.  So also the notion that a wise mentor can help us first of all by raising our awareness of our own flaws or, as we’d say today, our “blind-spots.”  Overall, Rusticus seems to have urged Marcus to adopt simplicity in his lifestyle and speech, something which, as Hadot notes, seems to have clashed with his training with the rhetorician Fronto.  The first chapter of the Meditations concludes with a long passage in which Marcus thanks the gods for having such good teachers and for the opportunity to know Rusticus and the others.  Marcus also thanks the gods “that, though often offended with Rusticus, I never went so far as to do anything for which I should have been sorry” (Meditations, 1.17).  These and other comments throughout the Meditations suggest that Marcus struggled with occasional feelings of anger and frustration, perhaps in response to the plain-spoken criticisms of his Stoic tutor.

It’s not certain but seems very likely that in the passage above Marcus is referring to the Discourses of Epictetus (55 -135 AD), as we know them today.  Throughout the Meditations, he appears very acquainted with that text and arguably bases his own philosophical position mainly on his reading of it.  Marcus was about thirteen years old when Epictetus died, so it’s perhaps unlikely that they met in person.  However, Rusticus may well have studied under Epictetus, so it’s also possible that in the passage above Marcus is referring to personal notes made by Rusticus at these lectures.

Marcus was certainly greatly influenced by the teachings of Epictetus and the influence of Rusticus may help to explain the link between the two men.

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