Book Review: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

Overall, very much enjoyed this book. Loved the imagery that enables visualization of Marcus and the narrative that buttresses the cognitive behavioral techniques found within Stoic literature.

If you have read Meditations, then the quotes Marcus wrote down may seem out of context from his life or the things going on in it at the time. Unlike a teenage girl’s diary, his journal doesn’t contain details of each day. Rather it encapsulates a litany of pithy statements that serve as context-free reminders of how to behave, how to strive for virtue. We can apply these in our daily life, when the context arises for us, but they shed little light on why he wrote them down, when he would have turned to each, or what in his life at the time motivated him to make the recording.

Robertson, helpfully provides that context. He embellishes details, long lost to history, that paint a realistic and believable description of the emperor as an ordinary person. Through the narrative, we can vividly imagine Marcus as he grows up, his grooming for the position of emperor, the hardships he faced, the wars he fought. We see how his stoicism leads to generosity, such as proactive forgiveness of a usurper that prevents a civil war. Each chapter opens with vivid detail that lets us visualize the emperor as someone dealing with strife and difficulty. Then each proceeds to show us what parts of stoicism Marcus turned to for support, which turns into a meaty catalog of techniques that we can use in our own lives.

Choice Quotes


Nevertheless, once I started working as a psychotherapist, it became evident to me that most of my clients who suffered from anxiety or depression benefited from the realization that their distress was due to their underlying values. Everyone knows that when we believe very strongly that something very bad has happened, we typically become upset as a result. Likewise, if we believe that something is very good and desirable, we become anxious when it’s threatened or sad if it has already been lost. For example, in order to feel social anxiety, you have to believe that other people’s negative opinions of you are worth getting upset about, that it’s really bad if they dislike you and really important to win their approval. Even people who suffer from severe social anxiety disorder (social phobia) tend to feel “normal” when speaking to children or to their close friends about trivial matters, with a few exceptions. Nevertheless, they feelhighly anxious when talking to people they think are very important about subjects they think are very important. If your fundamental worldview, by contrast, assumes that your status in the eyes of others is of negligible importance, then it follows that you should be beyond the reach of social anxiety.

A voice inquired from the darkness, “Do you know where someone should go if he wants to buy goods?” Xenophon replied that they were right beside the agora, the finest marketplace in the world. There you could buy any goods your heart desired: jewelry, food, clothing, and so on. The stranger paused for a moment before asking another question: “Where, then, should one go in order to learn how to become a good person?”

2. The Most Truthful Child in Rome

Indeed, Seneca also points out that there is no virtue in enduring things we do not feel. This is important to note: for a Stoic to exhibit the virtue of temperance, he must have at least some trace of desire to renounce

What matters, in other words, isn’t what we feel but how we respond to those feelings.

the “transactional” model of stress, developed by Richard Lazarus.32 Imagine a seesaw, with your appraisal of the severity of a situation—how threatening or dangerous it is—on one side. On the other side is your appraisal of your own ability to cope, your self-confidence if you like. If you believe that the threat outweighs your ability to cope and the seesaw tips toward danger, then you’ll probably feel extremely stressed or anxious. On the other hand, if you reckon that the severity of the threat is low and your ability to cope is high, then the seesaw will tip toward you, and you should feel calm and self-confident. The Stoics, like modern therapists, tried to modify both sides of this equation

When faced with fever, slander, or exile, he would compose Stoic “eulogies” praising these events as occasions to exercise strength of character. Agrippinus was truly a master decatastrophizer. He would reframe every hardship as an opportunity to cope by exercising wisdom and strength of character.

3. Contemplating the Sage

That’s a rather clever mind trick that turns Stoic mentoring into a kind of mindfulness practice. Imagining that we’re being observed helps us to pay more attention to our own character and behavior

For example, they might be worrying about something and suddenly imagine the voice of their therapist challenging them with questions like “Where’s the evidence for those fears being true?” or “How’s worrying like this actually working out for you?”

He suggests that we call to mind each day the areas for improvement that our mentor has helped us identify. We should do this as frequently as possible but at the very least, he says, “at dawn, before we begin our daily tasks, and toward evening, before we are about to rest.”

The luxury of the landed gentry: they have time and intelligence for reflection and self-actualization.

We ought not to act and speak as if we were asleep.”

4. The Choice of Hercules

People still confuse pleasure with happiness

Hunger is the best relish, he said, whereas if we overeat we spoil our appetites

Nobody has ever had the words “I wish I’d watched more television” or “I wish I’d spent more time on Facebook”

me: But they might say that about books!

The same principle, that self-awareness disrupts the automatic quality of the behavior, can be very helpful when you actually want to break a bad habit.

Many types of urges only last a minute or so at a time, although they may recur throughout the day. You only have to deal with the present moment, though, one instance of an urge or craving at a time.

consider the double standard between the things you desire for yourself and the things you find admirable in others

5. Grasping the Nettle

Struggling to suppress, control, or eliminate unpleasant feelings adds another layer to our misery and frequently backfires by making the original problem worse.

People who strongly believe that unpleasant feelings are bad and try to suppress them from their minds often become more tense and preoccupied with the very feelings they’re trying to avoid, trapping themselves in a vicious cycle

6. The Inner Citadel and War of Many Nations

By contrast, if you accept that the outcome couldn’t have been other than it was and wasn’t under your direct control, then you should suffer no harm or frustration. In this way, the mind is saved from anxiety and preserved in its natural equanimity

One of the most robustly established findings in the entire field of modern psychotherapy research is the fact that anxiety tends to abate naturally during prolonged exposure to feared situations, under normal conditions.

me: Note that JB Peterson observes that exposure therapy doesn’t seem to reduce fear. Instead it trains bravery, a trait that generalizes to surmount other anxieties in life.

if exposure is terminated too soon, the technique may actually backfire and increase anxiety and sensitization to the feared situation.

However, anxiety also habituates almost as reliably, in most cases, when the threat is merely imagined, something known as in vitro, or “imaginal,” exposure.

escape is not something we should demand from life or feel we really need as a coping tool—that sort of dependence on being able to escape from stressful situations just creates its own problems. Marcus tells himself that he doesn’t literally need to get away from it all because true inner peace comes from the nature of our thoughts rather than pleasant natural surroundings. He tells himself that resilience comes from his ability to regain his composure wherever he finds himself. This is the “inner citadel” to which he can retreat, even on the frigid battlefields of the northern campaign.

The universe is change: life is opinion.

Gaining cognitive distance is, in a sense, the most important aspect of Stoic anxiety management. This is what Marcus meant by “life is opinion”: that the quality of our life is determined by our value judgments, because those shape our emotions

7. Temporary Madness

No matter how perverse that conclusion may seem, it’s justified in their own mind. If we constantly think of others as being mistaken rather than simply malicious, as deprived of wisdom against their wishes, we will inevitably deal more gently with them

Often all that holds us back from committing one vice is another vice, he says (another idea that goes back at least to Socrates). Many people refrain from crime, for instance, because they’re afraid of being caught, not because they’re virtuous.

often requires more effort to deal with the consequences of losing our temper than it does just to tolerate the very acts with which we’re angry.

your own anger is a bigger threat to you than the thing you’re angry about

The actions of others are external to us and cannot touch our character, but our own anger transforms us into a different sort of person, almost like an animal, and for Stoics that’s the greater harm

to accept their wrongdoing toward others while expecting them never to wrong you is both inconsiderate and foolish

8. Death and the View from Above

seems more obvious to me now than ever before that the lives of most men are tragedies of their own making

Though men desire wealth and other such things, these no more improve a man’s soul than a golden bridle improves a horse. We contaminate ourselves with these externals, blending and merging into things when we confuse them with our soul’s natural good.

Life is warfare and a sojourn in a foreign land