“Death smiles at us all …”
The quote above is attributed famously to Marcus Aurelius, the last emperor of the Pax Romana (Latin for “Roman Peace”) — 200 years of peace and stability across the Roman Empire that ended with his death. During his reign from 161 to 180, Rome became one of the largest empires to have ever existed.
But the reason those words are assumed to be from Marcus Aurelius is that he was also a philosopher; in fact, the last great Stoic philosopher of antiquity. His book Meditations, which first appeared in print in 1559, is still bought in large numbers today.
So, what is the truth? Did Marcus Aurelius say, “Death smiles at us all?”
The Quote Marcus Aurelius Never Said
Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back.
No, as historical records show, Marcus Aurelius did not say it. The quote comes from the movie Gladiator (2000), in which the lead character says it while alluding to Marcus Aurelius. What comes close is this quote, “Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed.” (Meditations 2.17)
Another quote that draws near is the last line of the last book of Meditations, which various authors have translated from Greek as follows:
• Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you go.
— Meditations 12.36 (trans. Hans Urs von Balthasar)
• So make your exit with grace — the same grace shown to you.
— Meditations 12.36 (trans. Gregory Hays)
• Go then in peace: the god who lets you go is at peace with you.
— Meditations 12.36 (trans. Martin Hammond)
Story of The Gladiator Maximus
“Death smiles at us all…” was first spoken by the protagonist Maximus in the epic historical drama film Gladiator, loosely based on Daniel P. Mannix’s 1958 book The Way of the Gladiator. The film won five Academy Awards at the 73rd Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and four BAFTA Awards at the 54th British Academy Film Awards, including Best Film.
Russell Crowe played Maximus Decimus Meridius — a general in the Roman army who intends to return home after victory against the Germanic tribes. When he meets Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the king reveals he wishes Maximus to succeed him instead of his son Commodus, to help save Rome from corruption and restore the Republic.
On hearing this, Commodus flies into a jealous rage and murders his father (which is a historical error; Marcus died of old age and disease).
Commodus declares himself the new emperor of Rome and asks Maximus for his loyalty. When Maximus refuses, the Praetorian guards capture him for plotting to murder the king.
But Maximus escapes and runs back to his home country, Spain, to find his house burned down and his wife and son dead. He collapses from grief when slave traders find and capture him.
They sell him to Proximo, a gladiator trainer who urges his fighters to see death as a Stoic would—natural and inevitable.
Ultimately, we’re all dead men, sadly we cannot choose how, but we can decide how we meet that end in order that we are remembered as men.— Proximo, Gladiator
Maximus initially refuses to fight but soon turns out to be the invincible gladiator inside every arena he steps in.
In Rome, Commodus declares the next gladiatorial games to commemorate the death of his father. Proximo prepares his troupe to take part.
Once there, Maximus leads Proximo’s gladiators to victory. They defeat stronger competitors, including the far more formidable Roman fighters, much to the delight of the crowd.
Commodus travels down from his royal throne in the stands to greet the winners in the arena. To his shock, he finds that Maximus is the victorious gladiator.
Maximus gains immense popularity when he defeats Rome’s only undefeated gladiator, Tigris of Gaul, but spares his life.
Meanwhile, Commodus’ sister Lucilla and senator Gracchus plot to overthrow and kill Commodus with the help of Proximo’s men. Commodus discovers the plot and sends the Praetorian guards to execute Proximo and his gladiators.
Maximus escapes, but the royal guards soon ambush and capture him. When Commodus goes to meet Maximus, he challenges Commodus to a duel. In a surprise move, Commodus accepts.
- Maximus: “You would fight me?!”
- Commodus: “Why not? Do you think I am afraid?“
- Maximus: “I think you have been afraid all your life.”
- Commodus: “Unlike Maximus, the invincible, who knows no fear?”
- Maximus: “I knew a man once who said, ‘Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back.’”
- Commodus: “I wonder, did your friend smile at his own death?”
- Maximus: “You must know. He was your father.”
The man Maximus was alluding to was Marcus Aurelius, father of Commodus.
Before leaving, Commodus stabs Maximus with a stiletto and asks the guards to strap on his armor to hide his wound.
In the arena, however, even with his punctured lung, Maximus manages to kill Commodus.
Then he orders the reinstatement of Senator Gracchus, effectively restoring Rome to a republic state. He says, “These are the wishes of Marcus Aurelius.”.
Who killed Maximus Decimus Meridius?
Maximus dies of his wound, a punctured lung, inflicted earlier by Commodus.
History vs. Gladiator
From a historical standpoint, the film has many similarities, but also a few notable differences.
Is the story of Maximus the Gladiator true?
Gladiator, the film, is not historically accurate. Most of the story is fictional, but many parts reflect the actual events from Roman history.
The moviemakers modeled Maximus on Pompeianus, a senior commander in the Roman army during its wars against the Parthian and the Marcomannic tribes. Like Maximus, Pompeianus rose from humble origins and became a distinguished general and a trusted advisor to Marcus Aurelius.
Did Maximus and Lucilla have a relationship?
In the movie, Lucilla and Maximus had a romantic relationship while they were both young. It ended and both married separately. Lucilla later became a widow after having a son, while Maximus had a son from his wife, and they lived back in Spain.
Like the character in the film, Lucilla was Marcus Aurelius’ daughter and Commodus’ sister.
In reality, when Lucilla was around 13 years old, Marcus married her off to his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus. She became a widow at the age of 19 when Verus died unexpectedly while returning from the war.
A little later, Marcus Aurelius arranged her second marriage to Pompeianus.
Did Marcus Aurelius offer his throne to Maximus?
As in the movie, Marcus had offered to name Pompeianus as his immediate heir and successor to the throne till Commodus was mature enough to become Rome’s emperor.
When Pompeianus declined, for reasons unknown to history. Then Marcus promoted him to the post of Chief General in the Marcomannic War.
Marcus was on his last few breaths before the war could end. From his deathbed, he asked Commodus to stay at the front to uplift the army’s morale, and Pompeianus to watch over Commodus.
But soon after Marcus’ death, Commodus left the camps. Thereon, it was Pompeianus who lead the army.
Lucilla was there at the battlefront when Marcus died.
Lucilla returned to Rome and started her life as a private citizen, as the daughters of deceased Roman kings were no longer considered royal. Interestingly, just before his death, Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor from 27 BCE to 14 CE, adopted his wife Livia as his daughter, allowing her to retain her royal status.
In 182 CE, Commodus implicated Lucilla of being an accomplice in a failed assassination attempt on the Roman Emperor by Pompeianus’ nephew. Commodus banished her to the Italian island of Capri, and sometime later, sent a centurion to kill her. She was about 33 years old at the time of her murder.
However, unlike in the film, Marcus Aurelius never wanted to restore Rome to a republic state, as it had been before Augustus Caesar.
Claudius Maximus was another general who was close to Marcus Aurelius in his youth. This Maximus was a bona fide Stoic philosopher and was one of Marcus’ teachers. Marcus mentions him in his book Meditations:
From Maximus [I learned]:
Self-control and resistance to distractions.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.15
Optimism in adversity—especially illness.
A personality in balance: dignity and grace together.
Doing your job without whining.
Other people’s certainty that what he said was what he thought, and what he did was done without malice.
Never taken aback or apprehensive. Neither rash nor hesitant—nor bewildered, or at a loss. Not obsequious—but not aggressive or paranoid either.
Generosity, charity, honesty.
The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.
That no one could ever have felt patronized by him—or in a position to patronize him.
A sense of humor.
History holds Commodus as an arrogant and inglorious son and a timorous and undeserving successor to Marcus Aurelius—The Philosopher King. Marcus Aurelius was the last of The Five Good Emperors and the mightiest Stoic to have ever walked this earth.
The Five Good Emperors
“The Five Good Emperors” — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius — ruled the Roman Empire between 96 and 180 CE. Though they ruled successively, none of the five emperors were related by blood.
1. Nerva was chosen to ascend the throne by the assassins of Domitian, the king who had banished all philosophers from Italy. Epictetus, one of those who formed The Stoic Opposition against the autocracy, had to flee to Nicopolis.
2. Trajan, a valiant warrior and a hero of the people, was chosen by Nerva. He reduced the taxes, started the “alimenta” fund system for poor children, and often visited people’s homes without his guards.
3. Hadrian, adopted and chosen by Trajan, traveled a lot. He was an architect, a poet, and a rhetorician. He climbed Mount Etna, in Sicily, and Jabal Agra near Syria, to watch the sunrise. Hadrian also started the imperial trend of wearing a beard.
4. Antoninus Pius was adopted by Hadrian on the condition that he adopt the future emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus to succeed him. He started the Puellae Faustinianae, a charitable institution for the daughters of the poor. He ruled for 23 years.
5. Marcus Aurelius was The Philosopher King. He ruled the Roman Empire for 20 years through wars and plague, with intelligence and prudence, and wrote the last great book on ancient Stoicism, Meditations.
“The Five Good Emperors” was a term first used by Machiavelli and later adopted and popularized by historian Edward Gibbon, who said under these men, the Roman Empire “was governed by absolute power under the guidance of wisdom and virtue.”
Edward Gibbon wrote in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “If a man were called upon to fix that period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the deaths of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
The two best among the five were Trajan and Marcus.
While the quote (Death smiles at us all…) is not a direct quote from Marcus Aurelius, but it fairly manages to tell us in a terse sentence how the Stoics saw death — as a natural phenomenon not to be afraid of.
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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism)
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