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[Marcus Aurelius] was concerned with all aspects of excellence, and in his love of ancient literature he was second to no man, Roman or Greek; this is evident from all his sayings and writings which have come down to us. To his subjects he revealed himself as a mild and moderate emperor; he gave audience to those who asked for it and forbade his bodyguard to drive off those who happened to meet him. Alone of the emperors, he gave proof of his learning not by mere words or knowledge of philosophical doctrines but by his blameless character and temperate way of life. His reign thus produced a very large number of intelligent men, for subjects like to imitate the example set by their ruler.

Many capable men have already recorded the courageous and moderate enterprises, marked by both political and military excellence, which he undertook against the barbarian nations to the North and in the East; but the events which, after the death of Marcus, I saw and heard in my lifetime – things of which I had personal experience in my imperial or civil service – these I have recorded.

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Historia Augusta

Marcus [Aurelius] Antoninus, devoted to philosophy as long as he lived and pre-eminent among emperors in purity of life, was the son of Annius Verus, who died while praetor. [...] He studied philosophy with ardour, even as a youth. For when he was twelve years old he adopted the dress and, a little later, the hardiness of a philosopher, pursuing his studies clad in a rough Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground; at his mother's solicitation, however, he reluctantly consented to sleep on a couch strewn with skins. He received instruction, furthermore, from the teacher of that Commodus who was destined later to be a kinsman of his, namely Apollonius of Chalcedon, the Stoic; and such was his ardour for this school of philosophy, that even after he became a member of the imperial family, he still went to Apollonius' residence for instruction. In addition, he attended the lectures of Sextus of Chaeronea, the nephew of Plutarch, and of Junius Rusticus, Claudius Maximus, and Cinna Catulus, all Stoics. He also attended the lectures of Claudius Severus, an adherent of the Peripatetic school, but 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.

Cassius Dio

In addition to possessing all the other virtues, [Marcus Aurelius] ruled better than any others who had ever been in any position of power. To be sure, he could not display many feats of physical prowess; yet he had developed his body from a very weak one to one capable of the greatest endurance. Most of his life he devoted to beneficence, and that was the reason, perhaps, for his erecting a temple to Beneficence on the Capitol, though he called her by a most peculiar name, that had never been heard before. He himself, then, refrained from all offences and did nothing amiss whether voluntarily or involuntarily; but the offences of the others, particularly those of his wife, he tolerated, and neither inquired into them nor punished them. So long as a person did anything good, he would praise him and use him for the service in which he excelled, but to his other conduct he paid no attention; for he declared that it is impossible for one to create such men as one desires to have, and so it is fitting to employ those who are already in existence for whatever service each of them may be able to render to the State. And that his whole conduct was due to no pretence but to real excellence is clear; for although he lived fifty-eight years, ten months, and twenty-two days, of which time he had spent a considerable part as assistant to the first Antoninus, and had been emperor himself nineteen years and eleven days, yet from first to last he remained the same and did not change in the least. So truly was he a good man and devoid of all pretence. [...]

As a result of his close application and study he was extremely frail in body, though in the beginning he had been so vigorous that he used to fight in armour, and on the chase would strike down wild boars while on horseback; and not only in his early youth but even later he wrote most of his letters to his intimate friends with his own hand. However, he 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. But for my part, I admire him all the more for this very reason, that amid unusual and extraordinary difficulties he both survived himself and preserved the empire. Just one thing prevented him from being completely happy, namely, that after rearing and educating his son in the best possible way he was vastly disappointed in him. This matter must be our next topic; for our history now descends from a kingdom of gold to one of iron and rust, as affairs did for the Romans of that day.