Frank McLynn is a historian of some note. The author of biographies on as historically diverse a cast as Robert Louis Stevenson, Napoleon Bonaparte, Carl Jung, Charles Stuart and Lord Stanley, McLynn was awarded the 1985 Cheltenham Prize for Literature (for The Jacobite Army in England) and is a Visiting Professor in the Department of Literature at Strathclyde University. All of this is not shorthand for saying that McLynn brings substantial credits and busloads of credibility with him to the writing desk. Which is a good thing because, despite the sparkling nature of his topic here, Marcus Aurelius: A Life (Da Capo) is a bit of a slog.

Don’t get me wrong: one gets the feeling that everything one reads in the book is correct. Everything. But — perhaps unsurprisingly — McLynn writes like an academic. Marcus Aurelius: A Life is dense and distant and — perhaps as a result — seems very, very, very long. Actually, at nearly 700 pages, it is very, very, very long. Not that I mind long books but there’s very little here that is joyous.

There is a self-contradiction right at the heart of the Stoic’s version of goodness or virtue, which is compounded when we come to discuss their conception of evil. We are constantly told that the only good is moral good and that what defines moral good is that it should conform with the law of reason and be located within the domain of humanity…

And so on. Not necessarily what one signs up for when wanting to learn about one of the original philosopher kings.

That said, one never gets the feeling that Marcus Aurelius: A Life is not perfectly researched and accurately put down — or, at least, as much as history will allow. That is to say that, if the ride is not joyous, it is at least correct. If you want to discover all that is known about Marcus Aurelius and you only want to look in one place, this, then, is certainly it.

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