The following is an edited preview of Judith Stove’s forthcoming book, Marcus Aurelius and His Legacy: Seeking Rome’s Kingdom of Gold (2024, Pen & Sword)
A Brazen Horse
There is extant a small book, called Mirabilia Urbis Romae, ‘the wonders of the city of Rome,’ which was the standard guidebook to Rome for visitors from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries of the Christian era. For many travellers of both the active and the armchair kind, there is nothing more delightful than a guidebook. It offers information in digestible bites, and best of all, it invites you to imagine yourself travelling to the destination. Medieval readers throughout Europe – for of course, the little book was written in Latin – must have read, mused, gazed out their window, and planned their own pilgrimage to the Holy City.
At the time the Mirabilia was written, much of Roman history had been completely forgotten, and where faint recollections were preserved, they were often inaccurate where not entirely fanciful. This, it need hardly be said, only enhances the book’s charm. It is as much a tale as a guide, offering entertainment as much as instruction.
The author details Gates, Arches, Churches, Theatres and Bridges, as they were known and understood a thousand confused years after their heyday. Among these marvels one was allocated its own chapter: ‘Wherefore the Horse was Made, that is called Constantine’s.’ Our author begins:
There is at the Lateran a certain brazen horse, that is called Constantine’s Horse; but it is not so, for whosoever will know the truth thereof, let him read it here.
The Lateran complex, on the Caelian Hill, had become an important site of papal residence, but in earlier times it had been the site of family property of Marcus Aurelius’s family, and probably Marcus had been born there. Our author in fact fails to clarify why the horse was not Constantine’s, but rather goes on to relate a truly medieval legend:
In the time of the Consuls and Senators, a certain full mighty king from the parts of the East came to Italy, and besieged Rome on the side of the Lateran, and with much slaughter and war afflicted the Roman people. Then a certain squire of great beauty and virtue, bold and subtle, arose and said to the Consuls and Senators: If there were one that should deliver you from this tribulation, what would he deserve from the Senate?
The squire – riding a horse ‘without a saddle’ – sets a trap for the besieging king, taking him captive, while the city’s troops defeat the king’s men.
And the Romans had from that field an untold weight of gold and silver…and all that they had promised to the aforesaid esquire they paid and performed, to wit, thirty thousand sesterces, and an horse of gilded brass without a saddle for a memorial of him, with the man himself riding thereon, having his right hand stretched forth…
Here we see a confusion of actual traces of classical Rome – consuls, senators, sesterces – overlaid with a medieval apparatus of the individual questing squire and his reward.
A later writer offers additional detail. In the tradition of guidebooks, the Mirabilia became a key source for many later works. One of these was by an English writer, Ranulf Higden (1280-1364), whose historical compendium Polychronicon was widely read and influential for centuries. Higden describes the brazen horse, presenting competing theories about it:
Also there was another statue before the palace of the pope, a horse made of brass, and the sitter as speaking to the people with his right hand, and controlling the horse with the left…whom pilgrims call Theodoric, the common people Constantine, but court officials call Marcus or Quintus Curtius. This statue used to stand under four bronze pillars before the altar of Jupiter on the Capitol, but the Blessed Gregory [the Great, in the 6th century CE] removed the rider and horse, placing the columns in the Lateran church. The Romans later placed the rider and horse in front of the papal palace.
Higden thus neatly indicates the state of confusion about the statue’s identity. Theodoric I (c. 390-451 CE) and Constantine (c. 272-337 CE) were of course much later than Marcus Aurelius. Curtius was a figure from remote Republican Roman legend, a horseman who – at some distant time, estimated to be around the eighth century BCE – had thrown himself into a marshy pit or pool in the Forum, the so-called Curtius Lake (which had dried up by classical times), in order to save the city.
Higden explains that those who call the rider ‘Marcus’ gave the following account: Rome was being attacked by a dwarf magician called Nanus (the Latin word nanus simply means ‘dwarf,’ ‘miniature’).
This Nanus left his camp early before sunrise, to employ his dark arts. Having realized this, the Romans made a promise to Marcus, a strong and fit soldier (strenuo militi Marco), that he would have control of the city and a perpetual memorial, if he could liberate the city. Marcus tunnelled through the city wall at the point where Nanus had performed his magic…Marcus captured Nanus, whose powers were lost, and brought him by hand to the city, and so that Nanus would not use his spells, Marcus ground him beneath the horse’s feet, thus earning this monument.
We can see that in the medieval imagination, a genuine trace – the name of the emperor – has been attached to a ‘strong soldier,’ as with the ‘squire’ of the Mirabilia. A hint, a suggestion, then, survived of the legendary virtue of the Stoic leader.
If only the statue had really commemorated something as quirky as the outwitting of a diminutive magician. (The detail of Nanus being trampled beneath the horse’s hoofs has been taken to indicate that at an early stage, a figure of a defeated foe may have formed part of the sculptural group.) In reality, the statue was probably set up around 176 CE, to announce Marcus’s hard-won victory after eight years of gruelling war over Germanic tribes, from northern Italy to the Danube, at the cost of thousands of lives and immense resources…
To be continued in Marcus Aurelius and His Legacy: Seeking Rome’s Kingdom of Gold
Why This Book?
Marcus Aurelius studies are positioned as Alexander the Great studies were a century ago: at an early stage of serious scholarly appreciation. At the same time, as with Alexander – and partly owing to the ongoing influence of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) – Marcus again exerts a compelling personal appeal for the general viewer and reader. This book will offer a ‘cultural history’ of Marcus’s legacies, which may surprise and should educate us. It will also be a ‘dipping’ compendium, for the increasing number of readers, many attracted to Stoicism as a way of life, who seek a regular Marcus ‘hit.’
Just as the exploits of Alexander the Great left an impact on culture across many locations, the legacies of Marcus continue to emerge. My book will collect and interpret, for the first time, a range of cultural receptions, enriching our understanding of this perennially compelling figure.
- A Brazen Horse: the story of the equestrian statue, and afterlives of both horse and rider, in history, legend, and art. Did Marcus contribute to the development of the Arthurian literary canon?
- A Golden Book: a generous patron of the arts, Marcus once gave an author a piece of gold for each line of his book. Who was the author, and why did he receive such a grand reward?
- Stoic Joy: what can we learn from the themes on Marcus’s coinage?
- Protector or Persecutor? Marcus’s relationship with the empire’s Christians. Did Marcus influence the development of ‘Christian apologetics’?
- Favourite of the Gods: One of Marcus’s admirers was the emperor Julian, called The Apostate (331-363 CE). Julian wrote of an imagined contest in which emperors such as Augustus, Vespasian, and Trajan compete to impress the old gods – with Marcus winning the prize. This tale would be deployed in the most unlikely of later contexts
- Lost Arches: the magnificent triumphal Arch of Marcus Aurelius survived in Rome through the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Early Modern period. Who eventually destroyed it, and why? Meanwhile, at Carnuntum in Austria, a ruined arch remains an evocative reminder of Rome’s Danube campaigns
- Marcus Incognito: the extraordinary story of how the father of the English novel, Daniel Defoe, in the same year as Robinson Crusoe appeared (1719), plagiarized extensively from Marcus’s Meditations – with the stunt revealed only in 2022, here in Stoicism Today
- Saint Antoninus: Calvinist Scotland in the early eighteenth century seems an unlikely setting for a cult of the Stoic Emperor, but university students were said to worship ‘Saint Antoninus.’ Is Stoicism a ‘Marcus personality cult’?
- Finding Fronto: how the chance discovery in 1815 of a cache of letters between Marcus and his tutor, Marcus Cornelius Fronto, reshaped perceptions of the emperor’s personality and relationships. Did his teachers, Fronto and Herodes Atticus, offer Marcus a how-not-to live?
- A Marcus for the Machine Age: in 1862, George Long’s translation of the Meditations had a profound impact, bringing Marcus to thousands of readers in the UK and America – at a time when the latest scientific theories were changing how people thought about humanity’s origins and purpose
The recent revival of interest in Stoicism has seen renewed focus on Marcus Aurelius. While new editions of his work Meditations, and fresh biographical treatments, have appeared, there remain lesser-known sources which shed light on how Marcus was remembered, from intriguing medieval legends right through to the ‘golden age’ of Victorian science. Each generation has reinterpreted Marcus Aurelius, his writings, his deeds, and his personality, as he remains a role-model and the closest actual instance, in Western history, to an ideal ruler.
Judith Stove is a Sydney writer, member of the organizing team for Stoicon-X Melbourne, and assistant editor of Stoicism Today. For information on her forthcoming book Marcus Aurelius and His Legacy: Seeking Rome’s Kingdom of Gold (2024), and references for this preview, please email her at Judith.email@example.com.