Why Rome’s Best Emperor Shunned Government Schools

Marcus Aurelius is widely regarded as Rome’s finest emperor. It’s a good bet that were he with us today, he would be an advocate for school choice.

The great classical scholar Edith Hamilton noted that the ancient Greeks frowned upon their Roman counterparts in regards to education. The former adopted public (government) schooling while the Romans left education to the family in the home. The snooty Greeks thought Romans were backward and unsophisticated. The Romans, of course, conquered the Greeks.

For most of the five centuries of the Republic, Romans were schooled at home where virtues of honor, character, and citizenship were emphasized. Not until the Republic’s last century or so did anything resembling government schooling emerge. Moreover, it was never so centralized, universal, and mandatory as it is in our society today. The English academic and cleric Teresa Morgan, in a 2020 paper titled “Assessment in Roman Education,” writes, “In no stage of its history did Rome ever legally require its people to be educated on any level.”

By the 2nd Century A.D., during the dictatorship of the Empire, at least one wise leader had already recognized flaws in government education.

No less a figure than Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) noted in his Meditations that he learned from his great-grandfather “to avoid the public schools, to hire good private teachers, and to accept the resulting costs as money well-spent.”

It’s a good bet that were Aurelius with us today, he’d be an advocate for school choice. He was a smart man who believed, though he was a ruler, that he wasn’t smarter than parents who wanted the best for their children. Imagine that! On the important issue of education, a Roman emperor almost 2,000 years ago was smarter than Joe Biden or Gavin Newsom or Randy Weingarten.

Aurelius was not only smart, but he was also perhaps as good as one could expect of an emperor. Historians regard him as the fifth of the Five Good Emperors who reigned consecutively from 96 to 180 A.D. Especially when compared to most other rulers—who were typically cruel lunatics, ruthless warmongers or incompetent clowns—those five in a row tended to be fair and effective. No man is fit to rule others with the sort of arbitrary power Roman emperors could exercise, but at least “the five” did so with a light touch most of the time.

This should not be a surprise in the case of Aurelius, who assumed the throne reluctantly. He would have preferred the life of a Stoic philosopher. Those of that school of thought embrace courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom as the core elements of their creed. (For more on Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism, see the suggested readings at the bottom of this article, especially articles by Barry Brownstein and books by Ryan Holiday.)

Introspection, humility, and gratitude are not commonly present in people whose lives are consumed by a lust for power, but they are traits that Aurelius possessed in abundance. He kept private notes full of reflections on Stoic philosophy and self-improvement.

“He did not expect that anyone but himself would ever read his aphorisms,” writes Barry Brownstein. “He wrote for himself a guide to living a life consistent with his highest values.” The collection of those private notes are known as Meditations, and scholars like Brownstein and Ryan Holiday regard its Gregory Hays translation to be the best.

In Book One of Meditations, subtitled “Debts and Lessons,” Aurelius identifies the positive qualities of friends and relatives who greatly influenced him. This is a testament to an important character trait, namely, gratitude. This is a leader who never allowed his exalted position go to his head; he acknowledged the fact that many good things came his way in life that were not of his own doing. He was simultaneously both grateful and humble.

Aurelius devotes more space to what he learned from and admired about his adopted father (Emperor Antoninus Pius) than anyone else. It’s a remarkable list. When I first read it, I thought to myself, “Even if Aurelius exaggerated here and there, Antoninus Pius must have been a truly remarkable individual.” With that in mind, here is a sample of what Aurelius, in his own words, believed to be his father’s exemplary traits. What a person values in others says a lot about himself.

Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence.

His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved.

Not expecting his friends to keep him entertained at dinner or to travel with him (unless they wanted to). And anyone who had to stay behind to take care of something always found him the same when he returned.

His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely.

His constancy to friends—never getting fed up with them or playing favorites.

Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness.

His restrictions on acclamations—and all attempts to flatter him.

His constant devotion to the empire’s needs. His stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take responsibility—and blame—for both.

His attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.

His ability to feel at ease with people—and put them at their ease, without being pushy.

His willingness to yield the floor to experts—in oratory, law, psychology, whatever—and to support them energetically, so that each of them could fulfill his potential.

The way he could have one of his migraines and then go right back to what he was doing—fresh and at the top of his game.

The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds—games, building projects, distributions of money and so on—because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.

He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion but decisively, and with no loose ends.

Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness—indomitable.

The first four of the Five Good Emperors all chose an adopted heir to succeed them, as opposed to passing the throne on to a son. Aurelius broke with that tradition and named his son Commodus to succeed him. It was one of Aurelius’s biggest mistakes. Commodus proved to be far more like Rome’s worst (Nero, Caligula and Elagabalus) than Rome’s best.

I have no desire to be a subject of any potentate but if I had to live under just one of the nearly 100 emperors of ancient Rome, I believe I would choose Marcus Aurelius.

If the subjects of Marcus Aurelius or Stoicism interest you, please see the compilation of suggested readings below.

For Additional Information, See:

Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Marcus Aurelius: A Life by Frank McLynn

Marcus Aurelius’s Guide to Inner Freedom by Barry Brownstein

Marcus Aurelius on How to Turn Around a Rotten Day by Barry Brownstein

How Marcus Aurelius Influenced Adam Smith (No, Really!) by Paul Meany

7 Stoic Lessons That Can Help Heal Our Septic Political Discourse by Brenden Weber

Responsibility is the Antidote to Mental Enslavement by Barry Brownstein

Anger is Rising in America. The Stoics Taught How to Keep Your Cool by Barry Brownstein

3 Stoic Lessons That Can Help Heal Our Toxic Political Culture by Richard Mason

Stoicism Saved Me by Roger Johnston

Stoicism: How to Use Stoic Philosophy to Find Inner Peace and Happiness by Jason Hemlock

Stoicism in Early Christianity by Tuomas Rasimus, et al

The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living by Kevin Vost

More by Lawrence W. Reed