The fate of a text

In our time, now that the printing and distribution of books are banal, everyday operations, we no longer realize to what extent the survival of any work of antiquity represented  an almost miraculous adventure.  If after having been dictated or written onto relatively fragile materials, and then having been more or less disfigured by copyists’ mistakes, a text managed to survive until the birth of printing, it was only because it had the good fortune not to be burned in one of the numerous library fires of antiquity, or else simply did not fall into useless pieces.  The odyssey of Marcus Aurelius’ Mediations seems to have been particularly risky.

In all probability, the emperor wrote for himself and his own private use, rather than by dictation. At his death, the notes Marcus wrote in this way were saved and conserved by a family member, a friend, or an admirer.  Was it ever published, that is to say, copied down and distributed to bookstores?  It is difficult to say.  Some scholars have thought that they recognize analogies between the Meditations and the speech which according to the historian Cassius Dio, writing a few years after the Emperor’s death, Marcus delivered before his soldiers on the occasion of the rebellion of Avidius Cassius.  In fact, however, the analogies in expression are not very specific; these were formulas which were fairly widespread in the philosophical and literary tradition.

It does seem that, two centuries after Marcus, the philosopher Themistius knew of the existence of the work: He speaks of paraggelmata or “exhortations” written by Marcus.  The historian Aurelius Victor and the Historia Augusta claim that Marcus, before leaving on his expedition to the Danubian front, had publicly set forth the precepts of his philosophy in the form of a series of exhortations.  This is an interesting detail, for it reveals that the writing of the Meditations was linked in a confused way with the ward against the Germans, which is not completely false.  Much later, in the fourteenth century, it would be imagined that the work was a book composed with a view to the education of Marcus’ son Commodus.  In any case, it seems that none of these authors had direct access to the book of which they were speaking.

We can only surmise that it is only a matter of luck that we happen to know the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  We must admit, however, that in the case of a number of passages–fortunately not very numerous–the state of the text as now we possess it is less than satisfactory; and given the small number of manuscripts, it is difficult to improve upon the text.  In order to re-establish the text with the highest degree of probability, therefore, we are sometimes reduced to making conjectures.

Translated by: Michael Chase


Author: mmartel

"If he's honest, he'll steal; if he's human, he'll murder; if he's faithful, he'll deceive. Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution." I have so much to say to you that I am afraid I shall tell you nothing."

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