👑Stoicism Changed My Life: Book Summary of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

👑Stoicism Changed My Life: Book Summary of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Of all the Stoic leaders, Marcus Aurelius was, in my opinion, one of the greatest. On the outside, many would assume that as the Roman Emperor, he had it all: power, wealth, women, and other luxuries.

But Marcus's life was anything but easy. After reading How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald Robertson, I realized how riddled with strife, misfortune, and adventures it was. In his book Robertson gives a biography of Marcus's life and explains how it exemplifies the core tenets of Stoicism.

In this article, I will summarize the book's key points under sections reflecting the main areas Stoicism's tenets give guidance. I will also explain how I have integrated each tenet as an 18-year-old content creator living in the year 2022.

It's incredible to me how Stoicism, a philosophy first created during the time of the Ancient Greeks, can still be used today. In the internet age and at the back end of the pandemic, it's one of the best philosophies to guide people through the period. Stoicism is timeless.

💖Love and Relationships

Marcus was born in 121 AD in Rome, Italy. Growing up, Marcus had a fantastic education. His early tutors were experts on Platonism and Aristotelianism, but his main philosophical education was in Stoicism.

These tutors became like family to him. When one died, it's said Marcus wept so violently the palace servants had to restrain him. Even in later years, Marcus was moved to tears in a public hearing when he heard an advocate say in the course of his argument: "Blessed are those who died in the plague."

These events go against a popular misconception of the Stoics; they were not emotionless husks. They didn't believe unhealthy emotions should be repressed; that's denial. Rather, they believed these unhealthy emotions should be supported by healthy ones.

It's okay to put some of your emotional well-being in the hands of another human like Marcus did with his tutors; that's what makes relationships meaningful. Seneca once said, "once you have committed someone to your friendship, welcome their soul and speak as unreservedly with them as you would yourself."

To the Stoics, relationships were one of the many things that made life worth living. This is because living with virtue—the habit of good action in particular circumstances—is one of the main tenets of Stoicism. And to show virtue, you must have relationships to express it toward.

A couple of years ago, I lost my Opa (The Dutch word for grandfather) to bladder cancer. It was difficult. I had never lost a family member before. I have fond memories of playing cards and eating yogurt and blueberry oatmeal while enjoying the sunrise with him.

One of the things which helped me most during this dark period was a Stoic concept mentioned in the book Happy by Deren Brown called Rippling. Rippling works off the idea that in every social interaction, you will leave certain emotions or ripples in the people you interact with.

If these emotions are positive, those people will likely act more positively towards others throughout their day, leading to more positive rippling. The concept of rippling made me realize even though my Opa was dead, a piece of him lived on through his ripples.

I saw his ripples in my love for teaching others through YouTube, blogging, and podcasting. I saw his ripples in my mom and dad's love for teaching students in the STEM and humanities fields. Finally, I saw them in the entirety of my Dutch side of the family in their dedication to staying in touch with each other.

🥠Dealing with Fortune

For most of his childhood, Marcus lived a normal life--at least for a future emperor--getting educated on philosophy, and politics, and undergoing a regular exercise regime. Then Emperor Hadrian died in 138 AD. This suddenly brought Marcus one step closer to rulership. Before him in line was his Uncle and adopted father, Antonius.

Marcus didn't want to rule. He enjoyed the freedom his life of learning and exercise was giving him. He knew how power could corrupt and turn evil even the best men.

But Marcus had to learn to deal with his fortune. His Stoic teachings helped him immensely with this. Arguably the central tenet of Stoicism is to live in accordance with nature, to accept fortune, and concern yourself only with what you can and can't control.

This is known as the Stoic Dichotomy of Control. The dichotomy of control defines two things as completely in our control:

  • Our reactions to our thoughts.
  • Our own actions.

Everything else is in the realm of fortune. Stoics build on this further by defining a Stoic Fork, a separation between what is in our control and what isn't. With every event, Stoics discern whether it lies on the left side of the fork--things not in their control--or the right--things in their control.

For Marcus, this concept was incredibly useful for dealing with his fortune. He realized becoming Emperor after Antonius wasn't in his control. What he did control was how he prepared physically and psychologically for when he did.

With this realization, Marcus began studying Stoic thought even harder and analyzing Antonius's rule.

These two concepts have been invaluable during certain events in my life, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others, I was trapped inside of my house, having to work out from home, log in virtually to lectures, and saw my friends less often.

But ultimately, there was nothing I could do to change the situation. The pandemic was on the left side of the Stoic fork. But the responses I took were on the right. I began delving back into my reading habit, creating YouTube videos and blog posts, and hanging out with my family more.

Of course, I experienced many lows, particularly with my eating habits, but I turned the pandemic into a time of growth instead of one of negativity and regression.

🧑‍🏫Stoic Mentors

The Stoics knew how easy it was to get caught up in our own egos and mind. Because of this, many had a Stoic mentor, someone either dead or alive who they used to weigh their every action and thought against.

Marcus had many mentors, all of whom he frequently mentions throughout The Meditations. But one of his greatest mentors was his Uncle Antonius, who ruled after Hadrian. In many ways, Marcus saw Antonius as the perfect ruler.

He was kind, patient, intelligent, wise, just, and courageous. While Antonius ruled, Marcus used him as a role model for what kind of an emperor he would like to be.

Sometimes the best mentors are the ones only a step or two ahead of where we are in some goal. Other times the best mentors are those farther along.

And the best part is they can be dead or alive. Unsurprisingly, my mentor is Marcus Aurelius. During my morning meditation, I often ask myself what Marcus would do during the biggest challenges of my day. Likewise, during my nighttime shut down, I ask myself what Marcus would have done differently during the day.

😊Fostering Happiness

Unfortunately, In 161 AD, Antonius died after allegedly eating some bad Alpine Cheese. It's always the cheese. Marcus was made Emperor of Rome.

His first act was to have Lucius--his half-brother--appointed co-emperor to rule jointly with him, the first arrangement of its kind in Roman history. Marcus simply couldn’t bear taking the emperor position alone when Lucius had just as much of a right. In many ways, Marcus and Lucius were polar opposites in how their newfound powers affected them.

Where Marcus was caring, philosophical, and disciplined, Lucius was a hedonist who spent his days and nights throwing wild drinking parties. While we can't say for sure, Marcus was probably happier than Lucius. True, he didn't experience the profound highs of the wild parties Lucius threw, but neither did he suffer the lows and painful consequences of overindulgence.

Marcus's Stoic teachings had taught him the nature of happiness. He realized there was a difference between the sort of pleasure (hedone) we get from external things like sex, food, flattery, or worldly possessions and the deeper sense of inner joy (chara) that comes with living a life in accordance with wisdom and virtue.

Stoic joy is profound. It's timeless.

Lucius had no reason to live other than to experience brief moments of pleasure. Marcus, however, lived to create an empire that gave more people the chance to express virtue and live in accordance with nature. When we have a reason to endure something, almost anything is possible. As Nietzsche said, "He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how."

While Stoics realized hedonic pleasures don't lead to everlasting happiness, they understood some degree of pleasure was normal and, in fact, healthy. Marcus fostered this through a Stoic tenet known as Preferred Indifference. Preferred Indifference works off the idea that we can prefer some circumstances over others without deriving our emotional well-being primarily from our current position.

Marcus preferred to have wealth, quality food, power, friendships, and other luxuries. But he never shut out the possibility of fortune taking these things away.

I have integrated these two Stoic tenets into my life by implementing a life philosophy called Addition Through Subtraction (ATS). ATS is the art of making your life better by subtracting the number of things in it rather than adding more.

I understand adding things to my life is unlikely to make me happier. This has been proven more recently with a psychological effect known as the Hedonic Treadmill, which is humans' tendency to become used to positive or negative changes in their lives and revert to baseline levels of happiness.

Lucius added things constantly to his life by buying more, having sex more, and partying more. But like Marcus, I realize everlasting happiness comes through living life in accordance with wisdom and virtue. This is made easier through subtraction.

I run my life through three core values:

  1. Health
  2. Relationships
  3. Teaching

For every action I do, I ask myself if it resonates with one of my three core values. If it does, I do it. If it doesn't, I seriously consider whether it's still worth doing.


During his reign, Marcus had to lead Rome during the Marcomannic Wars from 166 to 180 AD. Despite his early education, Marcus was not raised a war general. He had little knowledge or experience in the art of war.

Just as when he was appointed Emperor, however, Marcus accepted his fate and did what he could to prepare psychologically. One of the practices which helped him most was journaling. Even in the forefront of battle, Marcus never missed a day.

Journaling to him and many Stoics, was like breathing, fundamental to their timeless goal of living life in accordance with wisdom and virtue. Marcus understood that when we write down our thoughts, we can see them for what they truly are. He knew we don't learn from experience but rather from reflecting on experience.

In fact, Marcus's journal entries were so insightful they were assembled into one of the most significant Stoic texts still available today, The Meditations. It's another fantastic Stoic text I highly recommend anyone interested in Stoicism reads.

Journaling has been profoundly helpful for me as well. I started journaling a little more than a year ago. I write down the main things that happened during my day, reflect on what I'm most grateful for, and write down any anxieties or thoughts.

Every week I also go through a weekly review where I reflect on the last week, hoping to make the next week even better. As of writing, I have done 54 weekly reviews. You can check out the five lessons I have learned from doing this in my blog post:

I Did 54 Weekly Reviews: Here's What I Learned.

🤔Preparing for Hardship

The Stoics believed it was essential to remain calm and composed even in the face of strife. To prepare themselves psychologically and physically for these occurrences, they didn't run away from hardship but rather towards it.

They understood that battling hardship whether through a difficult relationship, a hard writing project, or physical pain was what leads to everlasting happiness. One of my favorite quotes which exemplifies this concept comes from Ryan Holiday's book The Obstacle is the Way. In it, he states, "The obstacle standing in the way becomes the way. The Object in the path becomes the path."

In other words, making it through hardship to come out better on the other side is the journey of life itself, not roadblocks to be avoided along the way.

One of the Stoic practices which helped Marcus prepare for hardship was the premeditation of adversity. Premediating adversity involves imagining misfortune before it happens. For example, imagine what would happen if your greatest lover got diagnosed with stage four cancer. Or what you would do if your bank account was robbed. This practice helps prepare you psychologically for if it does happen.

Marcus combined premeditating adversity with voluntary discomfort. Voluntary discomfort is the act of purposefully putting oneself through mental and physical discomfort to prepare for hard things.

Some common voluntary discomforts are camping, video game fasting, dessert fasting, or taking a break from peanut butter. The last one is probably more of a me problem.

Despite being the Emperor of Rome, Marcus was famous for voluntarily depriving himself of many of the position's luxuries. He practiced regularly fasted and restrained the amount he engaged in typical pleasures like partying, love-making, arena watching, and alcohol.

It's essential to distinguish voluntary discomfort from Masochism. Voluntary discomfort is a more tame and practical form of Masochism. Stoics rarely put themselves into terrible hardship unless they had to. They usually deprived themselves of things they knew they would be happier without.

I use both of these techniques in my own life to prepare for hardship. I regularly premeditate on adversity through meditation and journaling, and I practice voluntary discomfort through camping, nightly cold showers, and intermittent fasting.

These practices make me more grateful when I indulge in some way. Watching an episode of anime is way more satisfying when you only allow yourself to after a hard work session.

🔨Dealing with Criticism

Despite Marcus's fantastic ruling, he had many who criticized him. Many began to call him a weak philosopher ruler who spent too much time writing and contemplating.

Marcus could have had all of these people executed. Previous emperors had done so. Instead, he tried to change their mind through reason or practiced patience by ignoring their criticisms.

He didn't take this criticism personally. He would simply and sincerely ask himself if it was true or not. If true, he would think about how to change his behavior based on the comment. If false, why should he become angry? In Marcus's words, "If it doesn't harm your character, how can it harm you?"

Stoics were known to seek out criticism purposefully. They surrounded themselves with a challenge group, a set of people they knew would call them out on their faults.

Opening myself more up to criticism has been one of the most positive habit changes in my life. In high school, I built an Ego on getting good grades. I bragged about it to my friends and my twin brother. If someone voiced me on these faults, I often lashed out by telling them about their issues.

Now, I see criticism as the facilitator of character change it can be. I have surrounded myself with friends and family who call me out on my bullcrap. Like Marcus, with every criticism, I try and honestly ask if it's true or not. While I'm by no means perfect, I have become a better person over the years from this practice.

😡Dealing with Anger

The Stoics believed anger was one of the worst emotions because it takes away what separates us from animals: reason. When people are angry, they often act entirely on impulse.

Marcus had many Stoic strategies he used to remain calm and collected during his rule. Firstly, he practiced showing kindness during all circumstances.

One example when this was particularly useful was when Marcus's greatest general, Cassius, betrayed him at the end of The Marcomannic Wars by starting a rebellion. Marcus quickly rallied his troops and stopped the revolt.

Most emperors would have had Cassius, his family, and many of his supporters brutally executed. Instead, Marcus only had the men who committed additional crimes killed. He allowed all the other legionaries who fought under Cassius back into his army and pardoned the cities that sided with Cassius.

Showing kindness in this extreme circumstance gave Marcus a deal of respect among the people of Rome. It also reflected the type of Emperor he wanted to be; an emperor loved by the people rather than one who instilled terror in his subjects.

Another Stoic practice Marcus used to temper anger was delay. Time is the greatest antidote to anger. When unexpected events happen, most people feel brief and unavoidable spurts of emotions called protopassions.

Think how you would feel if someone bumped you hard from behind at the grocery store. Your instinct would probably be to turn around and throttle them. That probably wouldn't go over too well, especially if an old granny bumped you.

In circumstances like these, the Stoics preached purposefully delaying your action so you can make a rational and intelligent decision. Often a few moments after our protopassions, we can reflect more on how our reaction will affect our future selves.

🤕Dealing with Pain

As mentioned earlier, Marcus suffered from many physical ailments and sicknesses during the latter half of his rule. He had regular stomach ulcers, joint problems, and migraines. He was in constant pain.

One particularly useful teaching for dealing with these hardships came from Epicurus who said, "pain is always bearable because it is either acute or chronic but never both."

Terrible pain is always acute, meaning it won't last forever. Therefore, we can deal with it by looking forward to the future. Chronic pain, however, can never be unbearable as otherwise, we would die.

For Marcus, most of his pains were chronic, meaning they weren't painful enough to be unbearable. So while he would rather not have to deal with them, there was no point in allowing them to inhibit him from showing virtue.

Another Stoic tenet that helped him deal with his pains was cognitive distancing. Cognitive distancing involves separating your mind from your body.

He understood there was nothing these physical pains could do to harm his character. In fact, they could bolster it by preparing him for possible worse hardship.

But if he complained about his pain, he would still be in pain and harm his character. Marcus understood that complaining is almost always useless. It doesn't change anything. Instead, it makes things worse by fostering more complaining and negativity.

My brother and I have integrated this philosophy by undertaking a 21-day no complaining challenge. We have defined complaining as describing an event or person negatively without giving the next steps to fix the problem.

As of writing, the longest I have been able to make it without complaining is eight days. It's incredible how easy it is to complain unconsciously. Every time I have failed, I have done so without realizing it.

😔On Loneliness

One would think that as the Roman Emperor, Marcus would have no trouble with loneliness. But as the saying goes, "it's lonely at the top."

It's part of our nature to want to form [[Relationships and Attraction|relationships]] with other people. And humans have an innate craving to be understood by another human being. As a Roman Emperor, there were very few people who could understand what Marcus was going through.

How did he deal with the isolation?

One of the Stoic teachings which likely helped Marcus greatly was the ability to find virtue in isolation. Isolation should be seen as a time to exercise a different type of virtue. There are aspects to the virtues of patience, temperance, courage, pride, and curiosity that only expressed during periods of isolation or aloneness.

During accepted the days where he couldn't see friends or family and used them to practice these sides of virtue that don't always get expressed.

The key to solving social isolation is to be comfortable in ones own thoughts. If you can't bear the thought of being alone with yourself for even ten minutes, something is wrong.

These teachings have been particularly helpful for me during periods of social exile. I have noticed that just like any addictive behavior, I become dependent on social interaction at certain times of the day if I become habituated to them.

This was particularly evident during the summer when I had lunch and dinner with my parents or a friend every single day. When I came to Cornell and scheduling, homework, and other commitments all made it higher to consistently have these things, I noticed I got much lonelier as a result.

Using the teachings mentioned before, I realized this social isolation was a good time to practice other types of virtues I didn't get to express while with people. It allows me to get more comfortable with myself.

🧘Meditating like a Stoic

Simply knowing the Stoic virtues doesn't guarantee you will use them in your life. You must ingrain them not only through action but also in the way you think.

One of the main ways the Stoics did this was through meditation. They had hundreds of different meditation practices depending on what they were trying to prepare for.

In The Meditations, Marcus gives one of his favorite meditation practices. He explains you should "Begin the morning by saying to yourself, today I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial." Then you meditate on how you will act with virtue in these circumstances.

Another meditation Marcus practiced often was death meditation. During this meditation, he would look at past and future events through the lens of death. Death takes away the power of trivialities. When we remind ourselves of our limited time on Earth, we stop caring about stupid things like if pineapple should be allowed on pizza or if tomatoes are a fruit or vegetable.

For the last year and a half, I have practiced regular meditation, and I can say it is one of the most life-changing habits I have ingrained. The biggest thing I have noticed is I'm simply more aware of everything.

I'm aware of my emotions, when I overeat peanut butter (I have an obsession lol), and of my energy and happiness levels throughout the day. So even if I act discordant of my values and the virtues I would like to hold, I'm aware of them. This means I can take steps to act better next time.

☠️Contemplating Death

For many, death is a scary and taboo topic. But for the Stoics, death was the facilitator of all of their actions. Death is what gives life meaning, as without it, consequences, events, and failures would mean nothing. Death reminds us of the impermanent nature of time and drives us to do what matters to us most.

Besides regular meditation, Marcus frequently reminded himself of death by imagining an older version of himself in the mirror every time he walked by. He found this practice invaluable in keeping the role as Emperor from getting to his head.

In The Meditations, he explains that "people who are excited by fame forget that those who remember them will soon die too."

In daily court life, reminding himself of death stopped his emotions from getting the better of him. As Emperor, Marcus had to deal with many incompetent, selfish, ignorant, and hedonistic people. The daily court struggles always seemed frivolous in the face of death.

I also use death to drive myself to action and virtue. I understand I have a limited time on this planet to change things.

I want to influence as many people positively as I can through teaching. Right now, I'm doing this through content creation, blogging, podcasting, sending newsletters, and daily interaction, but this could change in the future.

I love teaching because it makes my ideas timeless. If I can ingrain an idea into the minds of those I teach that they spread to others, I make myself timeless. Even though I will one day be dead my ideas will continue to spread.

Final Thoughts

Donald Robertson's How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is one of the most influential books I have read. A few years ago, I didn't have any life philosophy. I essentially let my Ego run my day.

Now my philosophy is made up of a mixture of Buddhism and Stoicism, exemplified in Addition Through Subtraction.

I'm still baffled a philosophy used by a Roman Emperor thousands of years ago is still applicable today. Stoic philosophy is timeless.

While Marcus isn't alive today, if he was, he would have one thing he wanted you to do. He would encourage you to read the full book. It goes more in-depth into Marcus's life and gives more Stoic practices to help with each of the things I have mentioned.

Thanks to Ian and Astrid Helfant for the conversations which helped form this blog post.