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What you need to know to write like a Roman emperor

Jamie Ryder

stoicathenaeum.com | Philosophy-led content marketing | eCommerce, hospitality and mental health writer

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Nailing a client’s tone of voice is a big part of copywriting. It’s shaping a brand message, defining the values of what a business stands for, sharing relatable language and stories that connect to a specific audience. When creating brand tone of voice, it’s helpful to look at people who we’re still talking about today and one of those people is the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

A Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius is famous for writing The Meditations, a journal of his private thoughts that was never intended for publication. It’s through The Meditations that we see Marcus’ (Yes, we’re on a first name basis) tone of voice and the ‘how’ of why his words still resonate after 2000 years.

Let’s break down Marcus’ philosophical brand tone of voice of across tone, cadence and language to see what writing tips we can glean:

The tone of a Roman emperor

In content marketing and writing, tone is the attitude that a writer brings to the text. It’s the shape of a message that transcends the words, revealing context and intention.

For example, if your partner sent you a text message that said ‘we need to talk’ you may feel worried. If the sentence was rephrased to ‘got a minute to chat?’ you may feel less anxious because the words have been interpreted in a different way. That’s the tone at work.

In Marcus’ case, he writes about heavy themes in The Meditations. This includes death, sickness, fame and war. With such heady subject matter, it’s tempting to see Marcus’ tone as dour and serious, as this passage on death records:

“How rapidly everything vanishes, physical bodies lost in the universe and the memory of them lost in eternity! Look at the nature of every object we perceive, especially those that entice us with the prospect of pleasure, frighten us with the prospect of pain, or are celebrated by humans in their vanity! How worthless, vile, sordid and short-lived things are, just corpses!”

Within his private journals, Marcus could savage the people around him and he frequently refers to the vulgarity of the world. Yet there is more than one aspect to his tone and in other parts of The Meditations he brings a wry humour to his thoughts:

“Hippocrates cured many an illness, before dying of an illness himself. The Chaldaens foretold the deaths of many people, but were then overtaken themselves by their death days. Alexander, Pompey and Julius Caesar wiped out entire cities by the dozen, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of horseman and foot soldiers in battle, and one day they too passed away.

Heraclitus, as a natural scientist, wrote a great deal about the destruction of the world by fire, and died with his insides filled with water, wrapped up in a poultice of cow dung. Democritus was killed by lice, and a lice of another kind killed Socrates.

In this passage, Marcus is reflecting on the famous deaths of the philosophers Heraclitus, Democritus and Socrates. There is a humorous irony in his words because Heraclitus spoke of fire in his teachings and it was thought he died of dropsy. There is also the ironic contrast of cow-dung poultices being compared with the loftiness of Heraclitus’ theories.

With Democritus and Socrates, Marcus is providing a dry assessment of Democritus perhaps dying from an infestation of lice (phthiriasis), whereas Socrates was killed by lice of another kind (humans).

Therefore, the tone of Marcus’ writing strikes a balance between seriousness and humour.

A cadence of urgency and abruptness

Cadence refers to the flow of the writing. It’s sentence structure, grammar and rhythm coming together. Think of how a musician sings and uses their voice to create different effects and stir specific emotions in listeners.

Marcus’ cadence is fast-paced and urgent, with his sentences running on from each other at a pace that continues to build towards the main idea he covers in each passage. A good example of this is:

“At the start of the day tell yourself: I shall meet people who are officious, ungrateful, abusive, treacherous, malicious and selfish. In every case, they’ve got like this because of their ignorance of good and bad.

But I have seen goodness and badness for what they are, and I know that what is good is what is morally right, and what is bad is what is morally wrong; and I’ve seen the true nature of the wrongdoer himself and know that he’s related to me – not in the sense that we share blood and seed, but by virtue of the fact that we both partake of the same intelligence, and so of a portion of the divine.

None of them can harm me, anyway, because none of them can infect me with immorality, nor can I become angry with someone who’s related to me, or hate him, because we were born to work together like feet or hands or eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against each other is therefore unnatural – and anger and rejection count as working against.”

This is a powerful passage made even more striking by the rhythm of the sentences. It sounds as if Marcus is lecturing himself, a declaration to tolerate the worst in people and to continue to work with them as best he can.

There are also times where Marcus’ cadence is abrupt:

“I consist of cause and matter.”

These types of pithy sentences and reflections are found throughout The Meditations. They reveal a man who is recording maxims to be remembered in the moment and apply them as best he can.

Vivid language

In a copywriting context, language is the type of imagery and descriptions that are used. Writing devices like metaphors, similes, symbolism and foreshadowing are all common.

The language of The Meditations is vivid, with Marcus using engaging metaphors and symbols to highlight themes of death, rebirth, life and fame. Here is a collection of some of my favourite entries with additional commentary:

“Beware of becoming Caeserified, dyed in purple.”

Marcus coined the term ‘Caeserified’ and was likely referring to Julius Caesar. In other words, don’t become a dictator and let your thoughts and actions be ‘dyed in the purple’ of excess, corruption and tyranny.

“Unlike a dance or a play or something like that, where if the performance is cut off at any point, the production as a whole is incomplete, the rational soul fully and completely finishes every one of its projects, whatever scene is being played and at whatever point it’s overtaken by death, so it can always say ‘I am fulfilled.’”

Marcus is referring to the rational soul acting virtuously all the time and that enlightenment is a timeless subject. If someone has perfected their reason, it won’t be made more perfect by living longer.

“Look at it this way; you’re elderly, put an end to allowing its enslavement; put an end to being tugged here and there like a puppet at the prompting of selfish impulses.”

Marcus uses this puppet analogy at several points in The Meditations and according to Robin Waterfield in his annotated version:

“He was probably thinking not so much of the kind of puppet that dangles from strings and is manipulated by a human agent as of the kind, popular in his day, that goes through its motions after being wound up, with its strings pulled by, for example, falling weights. In other words, his point is that it is a thoughtless, mechanical kind of action.”

“Be like a headland: the waves beat against it continuously, but it stands fast and around it the boiling water dies down.”

This analogy brings to mind the idea of resilience and the Stoic dichotomy of control. No matter how chaotic a situation, you have the power to control how you react.

Creating Marcus Aurelius’ brand tone of voice

Now that The Meditations has been broken down into these areas, Marcus’ brand tone of voice can be summarised:

Tone

  • Serious
  • Professional
  • Thoughtful
  • Funny
  • Conversational

Cadence

  • Abrupt
  • Urgent
  • Multiple grammar contractions indicate a conversational tone
  • Passages arranged into lists reveal a precise, orderly personality

Language

  • Colourful
  • Vivid
  • Descriptive
  • Educated

Writing tips from Marcus Aurelius

  •  Use vivid imagery to make your point: Marcus liked to use metaphors and symbolism to break down technical information to himself and drive home simple messages too.
  • Strike a conversational tone: In The Meditations, Marcus constantly addresses himself as ‘you’ and this technique makes the reader think he is also addressing them and it creates a stronger connection.
  • Create lists: When explaining complicated information or summing up points, write your content as bullet points to save time. Marcus loved making lists.
  • Write punchy sentences: Marcus wrote many short sentences to remind himself of key points. This approach can also be used to convey the right information to your readers.

First published on stoicathenaeum.com

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