I have to admit to feeling a bit intimidated by Frank McLynn's Marcus Aurelius: A Life. At 550+ pages, plus more than 100 additional pages of notes, it is a hefty tome. Also, McLynn's previous book, Richard and John, was extremely interesting but also dry and hard to get through - and it was shorter. Still, my continuing interest in many things Roman won out. Much as with the previous book, McLynn made me both happy and sad that I had made that choice.
Marcus Aurelius: A Life is extremely detailed and well-researched; 120 to 200 notes in every chapter give the source for various passages in the book. Many are from Aurelius' own writings, the Meditations; still others are from the Historia Augusta, relatively contemporary with (within a couple hundred years of) Marcusís life, or from various other histories written at the time. McLynn employs letters written by Marcus to his mentor, Cornelius Fronto, and correspondence between Marcus and other philosophers or tutors. There is a lot of original sourcing in the book. I canít speak to the strengths of these sources, not having personally studied them in any great depth. The copious notes do add some authority to McLynn's writing, however.
Unlike some other history books, where notes are only important to give you the author's source, McLynn uses some of the notes to expand on the point raised in the main narrative, making it important to at least periodically glance at the notes - all of which are at the back of the book. Thankfully, they're numbered, or I wouldn't have bothered. I read with one bookmark in the notes section and one denoting my place in the main body of the book.
Marcus Aurelius: A Life seems bloated for what is supposed to be a biography (given the subtitle "A Life"). McLynn spends a great deal of time at the beginning of the book giving the reader a primer on Stoicism (the main philosophy that Marcus espoused), going on for what seems like a hundred pages about it. He does use examples of Marcus's writings as well as his debates or disagreements with other philosophers to illustrate his points, but I don't believe we need such an in-depth study of the philosophy in order to understand how Marcus thought. What's even worse is that the first appendix contains even more about it.
With instances like Marcus's wars against the German tribes, McLynn doesnít settle for a brief overview of the history of Roman wars with these Germans to set up Marcus's actions. Instead, he gives an extremely detailed account of these wars dating back to Julius Caesar, over the course of about 300 years. McLynn affords the same treatment to Roman life while Marcus was growing up, detailing the history of Rome under Antoninus Pius (Marcus' adopted father) and how the Roman society and economy worked, and offering a (thankfully) briefer history of Roman interaction with (and occasional persecution of) Christianity. The book often seems like a history of Rome rather than a biography of Marcus. It doesn't help that the second appendix is an even more detailed history of Rome under Pius.
Much as in Richard and John, McLynn's prose style can be hard to get through sometimes, although the information it delivers is extremely interesting. Paragraphs are sometimes a page long or more, the informational meat contained within quite valuable but the prose working against readers as they try to actually get through it. My pace through the book plodded along, like sowing a field of grain by hand: you know the results are going to be worth it, but what a chore to actually do it.
That's ultimately why I give Marcus Aurelius: A Life a middle-of-the-road grade. The information within is fascinating stuff. I was startled when Marcus died with 100 pages still left in the main narrative, but McLynn also addresses how Marcus has affected human thought throughout the ages, even up to the modern day - the impact Marcus made, not just at the time he lived, but also in future generations when his writings were rediscovered. Once I was finished with the book, I was glad that I had made my way through it.
That it has to be such a struggle to get through is unfortunate, because it's definitely worth the trip. Marcus was an intriguing man whose writings sometimes contradicted the policies he put in place as emperor when the realities of Roman existence conflicted with the philosophy he tried to follow. Many loved him. Many others hated him. Sadly for the Empire, he left it in the care of his psychotic and paranoid son, and the Empire's downfall began.
McLynn tells you all about that, too.