“Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back.”

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.

Death smiles at us all; all a man can do is smile back. - Marcus Aurelius

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)

“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 movie 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.

In the movie, 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 buries them and collapses at their graves when slave traders 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. There, Maximus leads Proximo’s gladiators to defeat the more powerful Roman fighters, much to the crowd’s admiration. Commodus goes down to greet the winners, and to his shock, finds Maximus as the victor.

Maximus gains more popularity by defeating Rome’s only undefeated gladiator, Tigris of Gaul, and sparing his life.

Meanwhile, Commodus’ sister Lucilla and senator Gracchus plot to overthrow and kill Commodus. But Commodus discovers the plot and sends his Praetorian guards to execute Proximo and his gladiators. Maximus escapes, but the Praetorians soon ambush him.

In a surprise move, when Commodus confronts Maximus, he challenges him to a duel.

  • 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.

After their exchange, 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 kills 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 inflicted earlier by Commodus.

Russell Crowe in Gladiator (2000). Image: ™ and © 1999 Universal Studios and DreamWorks LLC; photo, Jaap Buitendijk

History vs. Gladiator

Is the story of Maximus the Gladiator true?

The movie Gladiator is not quite accurate historically. While most of the story is fictional, some 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.

As in the movie, Lucilla was the daughter of Marcus Aurelius and the sister of Commodus. In reality, when Lucilla was between 11 and 13 years old, Marcus married her off to his adoptive brother and co-emperor, Lucius Verus. At 19 years, she became a widow when Verus suddenly died while returning from the war.

A little later, Marcus Aurelius arranged her second marriage to Pompeianus.

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 assume emperorship. But Pompeianus declined for reasons unknown.

So Marcus promoted him to the post of his chief general in the Marcomannic War. From his deathbed, Marcus 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, and it was Pompeianus who lead the army from then on. Lucilla was there when Marcus died.

After returning to Rome, Lucilla started her life as a private citizen. In 182, Commodus implicated her as an accomplice to a nephew of Pompeianus for a failed assassination attempt. Commodus banished her to the Italian island of Capri, and sometime later, sent a centurion to kill her. She was about 33 years old.

However, unlike the movie, Marcus Aurelius never wanted to restore Rome to a republic state, as before Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor from 27 BCE to 14 CE.

There was another general who was close to Marcus Aurelius in his youth, Claudius Maximus. This Maximus was a Stoic philosopher and was one of Marcus’ teachers. Marcus mentions him in Meditations:

From Maximus [I learned]:

Self-control and resistance to distractions.
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.

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 1.15

History holds Commodus as an arrogant and inglorious son and a timorous and undeserving successor to the mightiest Stoic to have ever walked this earth, Marcus Aurelius — The Philosopher King and the last of The Five Good Emperors.

The Five Good Emperors

“The Five Good Emperors” — Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire between 96 and 180. None of the five were blood relatives, though they ruled successively.

Nerva was chosen to ascend the throne by the assassins of Domitian, the king who had banished all philosophers out of Italy. Epictetus, one of those who formed The Stoic Opposition against the autocracy, had to flee to Nicopolis.

Trajan, a valiant warrior and a hero of the people, was chosen by Nerva. He reduced the taxes, started the “alimenta” fund system for the poor children, and often visited people’s homes without his guards.

Hadrian, adopted and chosen by Trajan, traveled a lot. He was an architect, a poet, and a rhetorician. He climbed Mount Etna, Sicily, and Jabal Agra, near Syria, to watch the sunrise. He started the imperial trend of wearing a beard.

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.

Marcus Aurelius was The Philosopher King. He was the Emperor of Rome 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.

Final Words

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.

To learn more, check out the 21 Unforgettable Stoic Quotes on Death.

• • •

Author Bio: Sandip Roy – a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related medical topics.

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