Notes on the manuscript tradition of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”

A slim undated hardback of an old English translation of the “meditations” of the emperor Marcus Aurelius came into my hands last week for a couple of pounds in a seaside second-hand bookshop.  The long preface by the unnamed translator  -who proves to be George Long, a 19th c. scholar – was a bit odd, but contained some definite gems such as the following:

A man’s greatness lies not in wealth and station, as the vulgar believe, not yet in his intellectual capacity, which is often associated with the meanest moral character, the most abject servility to those in high places and arrogance to the poor and lowly; but a man’s true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examination, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right, without troubling himself, as the emperor says he should not, about what others may think or say, or whether they do or do not do that which he thinks and says and does.

Is this not well said?

But it left me wondering, as I always do, how the often-translated thoughts of Marcus Aurelius in 12 books came down to us.  A search for an edition proving fruitless, I eventually found a JSTOR article that enlightened me.[1]

The manuscripts are:

  • A – Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1950, 14th century.  This is the only complete text.
  • T – A now lost manuscript (labelled P by Farquharson) used by Xylander for the editio princeps of Zurich, 1559.  This too was complete, although Xylander describes it as mutilated.[2]
  • D – Cod. Darmstadtinus 1773, 14th century.  This contains extracts from books 1-9.  The text is very close to that found in A.
  • M – Cod. Monacensis 323, 16th century.  This contains short excerpts from books 2-4, and also 7.50.
  • C – Excerpts in several manuscripts from books 1-4.20.
  • W – Excerpts in several manuscripts; 4.33, and excerpts from books 4.33, 6, 7, 8, and 11.
  • X – Excerpts in several manuscripts; 4.49 and excerpts from books 5-12.
  • The ‘Folium Treverense’ containing 5.6.6-5.12.3.
  • There are also quotations from books 2 and 4-12 in Bryennius, a 15th century Byzantine scholar, who presumably had access to a complete manuscript.

An edition is referred to as well – that of J. Dalfen, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: Ad se ipsum libri XII, Teubner: Leipzig, 1979; 2nd revised ed. 1987.  But of course this is not online.  An earlier edition of I.H. Leopold, 1908, ought to be accessible online somewhere?

  1. [1]D.A. Rees, Joseph Bryennius and the text of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”, Classical Quarterly, N.S. 50 (2000), 584-596.  JSTOR
  2. [2]M. Antonini Imperatoris Romani, Et Philosophi De seipso seu vita sua Libri XII.   Xylander is online here at the BSB.

15 thoughts on “Notes on the manuscript tradition of Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”

  1. Mr. Pearse,

    I really appreciate your blog! I’m a classics major who has dabbled a bit in patristics (if only, as an Anglican, so that I can hold meaningful conversations with my EO and RC friends). Regarding Marcus Aurelius and Stoic philosophy in general–would a popular resurgence of this kind of philosophy be a positive development for the post-Christian west? I know the philosopher-emperor was no friend of the church, but Seneca and Epictetus seem more so. Sorry if this sort of discussion is outside the subject!


  2. Hi Peter (call me Roger),

    Thank you very much for your kind words. Have you looked at Basil the Great’s work on classical literature? here and here?

    I’m no seer, and the future is closed to me. Whether a resurgence in moralism would be good for a society that adopted it depends very much on the society in question! Stoicism did little for the poor and vulnerable; it was, after all, entirely compatible with great evils in ancient society. As the old man said in Plutarch’s Moralia, we all know what is right, but the Laecedamonians do it.

    I think any discussion of the possible futures of western society – if any – would inevitably be political. On politics we all have our own opinions, which seem right to us; so such a discussion would be off-topic for this blog. I would only say that I don’t believe that our society will continue as it is, and that we are in a transitional, temporary phase. What happens next depends on many things!

  3. Roger,

    Thanks for the links to St. Basil! I agree about the transitional, temporary phase. Having been born in it (I’m only 30 this fall), I feel uncomfortably close to its end. “What rough beast” etc.

    Peter J.

  4. Dear Roger
    thankyou for that. I am more sanguine about the possibilities for Stoicism, if not for our current social structure. There is an appetite for Marcus Aurelius as an exponent of the philosophical life.

  5. Dear Roger

    Actually, I think the best discussion of the MSS of Marcus is D.A. Rees, “Some Features of the Textual History of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations,” in R. Palmer and R. Hamerton-Kelly (eds), Philomathes: Studies and Essays in the Humanities in Memory of Philip Merlan (Nijhoff, 1971), 183-193. Rather obscure, and certainly not available online, but I thought I’d draw your attention to it, in case it had passed you by.

    Robin Waterfield

  6. HI Roger: Just rediscovered your wonderful blog. I started re-reading Aurelius’s “Communings” the other day (this time in my endless attempt to learn Greek) and became very interested in the Colophon in C. R. Haines’ Loeb Aurelius, particularly the footnote: “found at the end of the Vatican MS.” A bit of research led me to Codex Vaticanus 1950, but it has not, apparently, been digitized yet. Have you happened to find an image? Best. Dale (aging, retired philosophy major (Ph.D.) with an “interest in everything, and nothing else,” to borrow a definition from Umberto).

  7. Hi Roger:
    Your notes on the Aurelius manuscript transmission was very good! Thank you. It led to further research on my part. I bought a print on demand edition of Leopold a couple of months ago and found it missing a few pages. The Perseus site used the same incomplete text. I wrote the Webmaster about it a couple of days ago, received no acknowledgement, but a complete Leopold version seems to be now online at their site. (I subsequently determined that Book Γ ε’ – ζ’ was also missing.)

    On Sun, Dec 26, 2021, 8:15 AM Dale Lichtblau wrote:
    The version of Leopold’s M. Antoninvs Imperator Ad Se Ipsvm that is currently on your (wonderful) site is missing about five and one-half pages of Book IV γ’ to κ’ (and perhaps more).

    I think a complete version is available at

    Thank you,
    Dr. Dale Lichtblau

    Fair Winds and Following Seas

    I’ve been “collating” varous translations of Bk IV 35 (Hays, Long, Staniforth, Hard, Farquharson, Casaubon), for there seems to be some controversy over the best translation of έφήμερος (Dickie, 1976; Fraenkel, 1946). (Would you happen to know of other English translations I might examine?)

    I was also very interested in Pindar’s Pythian 8. 95-97. (Bernard Williams uses the line on the dedication page of his Shame and Necessity.)

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply