I was looking forward to this book having enjoyed Frank McLynn’s previous superb joint biography of Villa and Zapata. However while the focus of the Villa and Zapata study was on explaining the significance of the two men in the context of their times and places, in this instance Frank McLynn attempts to argue for the significance of Marcus to all ages.
This leads to two problems with the book. On one hand a tendency to compare Marcus with later leaders which seems a bit anachronistic. Second, despite estabilishing Marcus’ responsibility for a ferocious persecution of Christians during his reign, which included many deliberately sadistic executions in contravention of Roman law, and despite Marcus’ genocidal tendencies in his wars against the German tribes, the author is determined to convince the reader of Marcus’s inate humaneness and philosophical significance.
Thought is important as the origin of action. But no matter how novel or insightful Marcus’s philosophy may be, something that is a central concern of this book, it does not absolve transgressions. And judged by his actions Marcus was a ruthless and bloody man who, in addition to his personal crimes, bequeathed the Roman empire its worst emperor, his son Commodus. Consequently McLynn’s argument of the importance of Marcus as one of the great people of all time seems overstretched and internally contradictory. As I read the book the figure I was most reminded of was not Churchill, Grant or Smuts, who McLynn discusses, but rather the Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadzic – a learned but pretentious man who showed his true face as a bloody warlord and debased his learning in war crimes and the persecution of minorities.
Overall the book feels like it could have done with a more robust editing, both to challenge the sort of fundamental problems suggested above, but also to discipline McLynn’s language and tendencies to show off his own erudition: for his next book Frank McLynn should be reminded that less is more.