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Rome's philosopher-politician. Finding the ideas of Marcus Aurelius, in his time and in ours

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The Augustan Aristocracy, by Ronald Syme. New York: Oxford University Press. 504 pp. $69. Marcus Aurelius, A Biography, by Anthony Birley. Revised edition. New Haven: Yale University Press. 320 pp. $25.

A hundred years ago, perhaps the ``Meditations'' of Marcus Aurelius not ``Resurrection,'' by Leo Tolstoy, would have appealed to a politician like Gary Hart in the last days of his public career. O tempora, o mores!

Once a household name, Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from AD 161 to 180. Today it's clearer than ever why he thought of himself as a failed philosopher. His ``Meditations,'' originally called ``To Himself,'' were not meant for publication. They are suffused with a deep sense of dignity in the face of personal failure.

As Anthony Birley shows, they are the reflections of a man who would have traded all his power for the life of a philosopher.

According to political historians, Marcus Aurelius was the last good emperor; historians of ideas place him in the shadow that fell between pagan and Christian Rome. Birley's recent, thorough revision of a work originally published in 1966, presents Marcus to a reading public a little sadder, a little wiser than the one Matthew Arnold addressed in the 1860s when he said that Marcus was ``perhaps the most beautiful figure in history....''

Birley began his studies of Marcus under Sir Ronald Syme. More than 50 years ago Sir Ronald himself published a work still useful, and still in print - ``The Roman Revolution'' - and since then has published many studies of the men and families that made Rome great. His new ``The Augustan Aristocracy'' gives the context for the Roman values Birley helps us see in Marcus Aurelius.

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