how to think like a roman emperor summary

Book Summary: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor by Donald J. Robertson

The Book in Three Sentences

In this summary of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson compiles all the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and turns them into a practical guide to Stoicism. The author eloquently illustrates how the Roman emperor used the ancient school of philosophy to build emotional resilience and face adversity. The book combines elements from ancient philosophy and modern psychology to help people endure adversity. 

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor Summary


The author’s philosophical journey started after his father passed away. Robertson wanted to know about the nature of loss, happiness, and death, so he studied philosophy, religion, and psychology. He eventually studied philosophy at university, but he disliked the classes because they felt too academic. At the time, Robertson became interested in modern therapy and started working as a psychotherapist. His personal and professional life turned upside down the moment he discovered Stoicism.

Chapter 1: The Dead Emperor

The Stoic philosophy prepares you for some of the hardest things in life, including death. Embracing death doesn’t come naturally to most people, so this is something we must cultivate over time. No matter who you are, you’ll be insignificant to future generations. The moment we accept our mortality, that’s the moment we stop worrying and start living. Whether we like it or not, death is inevitable and a natural part of life.

The Story of Stoicism

More than two thousand years ago, a Phoenician young man named Zeno transported dye through the Mediterranean. During the journey, his ship was caught in a storm and the man lost his cargo. His misfortune led him to an unexpected philosophical journey. Back in Athens, Zeno found books by Socrates and Xenophon and he felt inspired to learn as much as I could about philosophy. Zeno became Crates’s disciple and learned all about Cynicism, but Zeno decided to found his own philosophy. Cynicism was all about developing virtue, but Zeno wasn’t satisfied with the philosophy and wanted something more practical. Zeno’s school was called Stoa Poikile (or the Painted Porch) which gave the name to his new philosophy: Stoicism.

The core principle of Stoicism is that we must remain indifferent toward external things. The purpose of life is to find virtue and to do that, we must endure hardships and renounce desire. Interestingly, the Stoics believe that we need external things in life (wealth, health, reputation, and so on), but since they’re outside our control, our happiness and well-being shouldn’t depend on them.

What Did the Stoics Believe?

The Stoic philosophy is all about virtue or achieving excellence in character. To excel, humans must think clearly and reason well. As we said above, external things have value, but they shouldn’t determine your emotions. The Stoics said that certain things are preferable to others and they called them “preferred indifferents”. That said, you should never pursue an external thing if you have to sacrifice virtue in the process. Despite what a lot of people believe, the Stoics weren’t unemotional. They believed that healthy emotions should replace unhealthy emotions.

Chapter 2: The Most Truthful Child in Rome

Back when Rome was the biggest empire in the world, people spoke about wisdom and virtue, but this didn’t reflect in their actions. Long before Marcus Aurelius became Roman emperor, he already embodied the principles of Stoicism and despite being well off, he had a simple lifestyle.

According to Stoicism, we respond to events in two stages. First, there’s an initial impression that’s involuntary. This is an emotional reflex that bypasses reason and is often seen in animals. Second, we add voluntary judgments of assent to those impressions. This is choosing not to go along with the initial impression. With enough practice, we can respond to certain situations calmly. If we allow passion to develop our emotions can spiral out of control and we make poor or irrational decisions. Our initial impressions don’t matter, how we respond to them does.

How to Speak Wisely

Speaking plainly and honestly was important back when Marcus Aurelius was emperor and it’s still important today. Philosophy should be simple and modest, not an excuse to become vain and ostentatious. To be honest and simple in terms of language, you need two things: conciseness and objectivity. This means that the words we use shouldn’t evoke strong feelings because once we judge events with words like “good” or “bad”, we start behaving irrationally. When we do this, not only are we vocalizing how we feel, but we also allow that emotion to take over.

Objective representation is the idea of separating value judgments from mere facts. To put this into practice, describe events objectively and without bringing up your emotions. What we often see as a disaster, is an exaggerated description of a mundane event. Also, planning how you’ll deal with hypothetical worst-case scenarios prepares you for them.

Chapter 3: Contemplating the Sage

Letting your emotions take over won’t solve a thing and you’ll regret it afterward. Most intense emotions are temporary, but if you let them go wild, there can be serious consequences. One of the most difficult emotions to handle is anger. To become aware of your flaws, you should find a mentor who has mastered them and listen to their opinion.

How to Follow Your Values

While relying on a mentor is a great idea, not everyone has access to one. In those cases, you can use two strategies: writing and imagining. You can think of a role model and use that mental image to help you make decisions. To do so, you should first write down those qualities you admire in someone else. This will make the image memorable and it’ll make you internalize those qualities. Apart from finding virtues in real people, you should also look for an ideal Sage. This would be a made-up person who embodies all the values you’d like to have. Ideally, you’d model these people’s behaviors and attitudes by asking yourself “What would they say?” or “What would they do?”

The key to these strategies is to start small. Often, small changes can lead to big consequences. The author also recommends the learning circle. This involves using the morning to prepare for the day, using the rest of the day to live according to your values, and using the night to review and reflect.

Chapter 4: The Choice of Hercules

There’s a risk to indulging in pleasure when you’re using it as a way to escape your emotional problems. Pleasure, in itself, is empty and it’ll never give you lasting happiness.

“The Choice of Hercules” is an allegory that describes two paths in life. Pursuing self-control leads to nobility, but pursuing a life of pleasure doesn’t. When Hercules was young, he found an unfamiliar path that divided into. He was then confronted by two goddesses. One was a beautiful woman called Kakia, but she claimed to be called Eudaimonia (a Greek word that means happiness and fulfillment) and she promised that her path was going to be pleasant, and full of luxuries. The second goddess, Arete, was modest, and with a serious expression, she told Hercules that her path was long, arduous, and difficult. She said that to reach fulfillment, you have to undertake courageous and honorable actions. Hercules chose the path of virtue (Arete) and was not seduced by vice (Kakia).

In life, we also have two paths. The right one is unpleasant, but you’ll be able to endure its hardships and come out the other end a better person. There’s something more satisfying than pleasure. We call that something purpose.

How to Conquer Desire

When you live under virtue, you get a profound and lasting happiness that you’ll never get by overindulging. The Stoics recognized two types of pleasure: the one you get from external things (such as food or sex) and the deeper, inner kind. The author refers to the latter as Stoic joy. To get this sense of delight, you must act in accord with virtue in yourself, in others, and in the world.

To experience more fulfillment and life, we must get rid of empty pleasures. With this in mind, the author suggests a simple framework:

  1. Examine the consequences of your habits
  2. Identify warning signs
  3. Separate your impressions from reality
  4. Replace the habit with a healthier one

To introduce something that leads to positive feelings:

  1. Plan activities that align with your values
  2. Look at the qualities you admire in others
  3. Practice gratitude for what you have

Chapter 5: Grasping the Nettle

Marcus Aurelius was physically weak but mentally tough. He achieved this by having a strong character and embracing some Stoic techniques. Marcus often reminded himself that pain is momentary and that his attitude toward pain determined its intensity. It isn’t the pain that upsets us, but our judgment of it.

How to Tolerate Pain

Although we categorize pain as something bad, the Stoics persuade us to describe it as something that’s either “good” or “bad”. For them, pain is indifferent because it’s something external and as such, it’s outside of our control.

To see the pain as something indifferent:

  1. Separate mind from body. The author calls this cognitive distancing
  2. Remember that the fear of pain is more harmful than the pain itself
  3. Describe physical sensations objectively rather than emotionally
  4. Be precise when analyzing the sensations you feel
  5. See the sensation as something temporary
  6. Accept the sensation
  7. Remember that you can practice courage and endurance

Chapter 6: The Inner Citadel and Wat of Many Nations

One of the Romans’ many enemies was the Sarmatians, a menacing nomadic tribe. Thanks to his Stoic principles, Marcus led the Roman army to victory numerous times and defeated the Sarmatians. This required discipline and preparation and, luckily for Rome, Marcus had both.

How to Relinquish Fear

By preparing the worst-case scenarios, the Stoics were able to turn obstacles into opportunities. They also performed actions knowing that the outcome was outside of their control. They referred to this technique as “reverse clause”. The idea is to do your best, but be indifferent toward the results. Similarly, we should judge people for their intentions and not for their outcomes. Accepting the fact that you might fail, can help you avoid negative feelings like anger, surprise, or frustration.

In fact, not only can you imagine future setbacks, but you can also try to imagine them as if they’re already happening. Anticipating your death is an important part of Stoicism. For example, exposing yourself to small sources of stress that build up more and more makes you resilient. This is often referred to as “stress inoculation” in behavioral psychology, but the stoics called it “premeditation of adversity”.

During the premeditation of adversity, several psychological processes take place:

  1. Emotional habituation: this is when exposing ourselves to negative situations makes negative feelings less impactful.
  2. Emotional acceptance: this is learning to live with unpleasant feelings
  3. Cognitive distancing: this is detaching our feelings from our judgments
  4. Decatastrophizing: this is reevaluating a worst-case scenario in a balanced manner to see how you cope with that situation
  5. Reality testing: this is considering how likely or not a scenario is likely to happen
  6. Problem-solving: this is coming up with solutions to problems
  7. Behavioral rehearsal: this is rehearsing how we’ll act if something bad happens

Despite giving us a sense of tranquility and peace, leaving our problems behind to go on vacation is a sign of weakness. But there’s a way to find inner peace and the place where we retreat is within ourselves. He calls this state the “inner citadel”.

To get there, Marcus Aurelius reflected on two Stoic principles:

  1. The contemplation of impermanence: everything around us is in constant change and it will soon be gone
  2. Cognitive distance: disturbances arise from ourselves, not from external things. Our interpretation of external events determines the quality of our life.

To decatastrophize, Marcus used a strategy called “time projection”. This is seeing a problem that’s happening now, but contemplating it twenty years from now. If it seems trivial then, it means it’s not worth thinking about it now. Similarly, some psychologists use something called “worry postponement”. Since worrying can become a never-ending process that doesn’t help you solve your problems, you select a time of the day when you’re allowed to worry. Once that time is over, you can’t think about the problem again.

This is how it works:

  1. Self-monitoring involves looking at signs of worry
  2. Postpone thinking about the subject until “worry time”
  3. Don’t suppress your thoughts, you just let go of them. Writing them down can help you
  4. Return your attention to the present moment
  5. Focus on the worry, let it go if it seems unimportant, or use different techniques to overcome it (see the worst-case scenario, imaginal exposure, or premeditation of adversity).
  6. Remember that it’s not the thing in question that worries you, but your interpretation of it

Chapter 7: Temporary Madness

Marcus Aurelius had to deal with many stressful situations: war, rebellion, other people’s egos, and enemy armies. Regardless of the situations before him, Marcus always responded with dignity and calm, even when people betrayed him.

How to Conquer Anger

Everyone has a temper and we must work to overcome it. Not getting upset about things beyond our control takes time and patience. The Stoics saw anger as a form of desire; the desire to harm someone who has committed some injustice.

To deal with anger use the following techniques:

  1. Self-monitoring: identify anger early, such as when your voice changes, your muscles tense, or you frown
  2. Cognitive distancing: remember that events are neutral but anger comes from your interpretations of those events
  3. Postponement: before responding, wait for your feelings to become less intense
  4. Modeling virtue: ask yourself what virtue can help you in this situation
  5. Functional analysis: compare the consequences of choosing anger versus choosing reason

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius references these methods in different ways:

  1. We’re social animals and as such, we’re predisposed to help each other
  2. See a person’s character as a whole
  3. Remind yourself that no one does something wrong on purpose
  4. No one’s perfect, including yourself
  5. You don’t know the other person’s intentions
  6. Remember we’re all going to die
  7. Our judgment upsets us, not our actions
  8. Anger harms us
  9. We have virtues to deal with anger
  10. Never expect others to be perfect

Chapter 8: Death and the View from Above

Death is an inevitable part of life. When you have to confront death, accept it or endure it, but don’t add to it. From the moment we come into this world, we know one thing with certainty: we’re all going to die. Death isn’t so bad though. Philosophers have described it as a loss of awareness, the absence of experience, or a release from pain. In other words, death is a state of peacefulness. Whether we like it or not, we’re all going to die one day. But we have a choice. We can die well or we can die badly. To die well, you can rely on the teachings of philosophy.

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