Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1999 R. James Ferguson

Background Briefing:

Stoics and Cynics in the Roman World



- Introduction: Political and Social Viewpoints

- Founders and Schools

- Personal, Pragmatic, and Eclectic

- The Just Ruler


1. Introduction: Political and Social Viewpoints

The group of thinkers and writers we might label as 'stoics' and 'cynics' had a profound influence upon Roman social and political life. Beyond their intrinsic philosophical and ethical worth, the influence of these groups on political life in the Late Republic and Early Empire is worth outlining in some detail. Many of the conceptions developed by earlier philosophers find fuller fruit under the Roman imperial system. Furthermore, much of the original writing of the Stoic philosophers has been lost, and is only preserved in later writers and commentators such as Cicero and Diogenes Laertius.

In the case of Cynic philosophers, their significance does not reside only in their writings or theories. Their social practice, and the way they directly tried to put their ideas into use, form the major contribution made by their tradition. Therefore, we will need to see that way such figures as Diogenes the Cynic (mid fourth century B.C.), Crates (late 4th & early 3rd century B.C.) and Bion (early 3rd century) lived their lives, and the legacy they left after them.

For the purposes of this analysis, Stoics and Cynics include not only the major philosophers of each school, but also Romans who closely followed or were strongly influenced by these traditions. Cato the younger and Brutus were said to be adherents of the Stoic and or Academic doctrines, while Cassius was held to be a follower of Epicurus. Cicero's letters tell us of a work by Brutus called De Virtute, dedicated to Cicero, and apparently following the lines of the 'New Academy' (Rawson, 1985), perhaps with some Stoic ethics added. Cicero, himself a man of letters, was probably mainly influenced by this 'New Academy', which claimed to be the genuine inheritor of Plato's philosophy, following the thought of Philo of Larissa (c. 110-79 B.C.).

Cicero's general stance was not so much a strict scepticism, but rather, following Philo, 'a modest fallibilism, which permitted the philosopher a wide range of opinions, subject only to recognition that any one of them might be mistaken, and authorized truth or approximation to the truth' (Long & Sedly 1988, pp448-9). However, many of Cicero's political and ethical notions were strongly influenced by Stoic doctrines, e.g. De Officiis I.VI for the use of knowledge in the conduct of social duties. Likewise, in Cicero's study of the Republic and its laws, influenced by both Plato and Zeno, he accepted the notion of a mixed constitution, but modified it to give more power to the wiser elements in the state (The Republic V.8; see further Part of the problem for Cicero was the new conditions facing Rome as it expanded its geographical and cultural boundaries: -

By Cicero's time, the task of promulgating an international code of political and military ethics had become pressing: the Roman conquest had largely extinguished independent civic life and had sapped civil religion, melting the cities into a polyglot empire whose elite was suffused with the popularized philosophy or "theology" of a wide variety of competing Greek sects (Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics, Peripatetics, Old and New Academics and so on). . . . . In rising to the occasion, Cicero laid down some of the most influential, and surely the most oft-quoted, pronouncements ever made on the moral limits of war, on the duties of civil societies towards one another and on the obligations of citizens toward non-citizens. (Pangle 1998, p239)

Plutarch also records that Crassus was said to be fascinated by Greek philosophy, and to have kept a servant trained in the Greek philosophy (Plutarch Crassus 3). Likewise, the Academic Arius Didymus was Augustus' friend and teacher (Samuel 1988, p286). In both cases, it is difficult to tell what sustained effect these teachers had on the political lives of these magnates.

Greek culture and literature had an enormous impact on Roman intellectual life generally during the Republic period. Greek language, poetry, theatre, history and rhetoric profoundly influenced Roman forms of expression from the 3rd century B.C. onwards. The circle of Scipio Aemilianus, for example, included Greek historians and philosophers, just as Tiberius Gracchus' tutors included the Stoic philosopher Blossius of Cumae. The question we might ask, for example, was what influence, if any, such a tutor might have had on Tiberius Gracchus' political life. Answers to this question cannot be readily found in our ancient sources; Blossius may have been merely an ornament in rounding out the Gracchi's education, but it is likely that such an education would have helped provide the Gracchi's critical insight into the Roman social system (Dudley 1941). Blossius' political actions were not based entirely on Stoic conceptions: his democratic and later revolutionary impulses (when he joined the rebellion of Aristonicus in Asia Minor) were probably based on 'family traditions of allegiance to the Campanian democratic party' and in part on utopian views linked to the cult of the Syrian Sun-God (Dudley 1941, pp96-99). We can compare these 'revolutionary' trends with the more 'cautious conservatism of Scipio Ameilianus' which as more in line with the "'new model' Stoicism of Panaetius' (Dudley 1941, p97). Greek philosophy, then, is part of the general social context of the Gracchian reforms, but not its direct cause.

Generally, philosophy was viewed as a worthwhile addition to polish a gentleman's training, but was held to be far less important than rhetoric. There had indeed been something of an intellectual battle between rhetoric and philosophy, which certainly goes back to the classic disputes between Isocrates and Aristotle in Athens. By the early 4th century in Greece the sophists were a class of wandering teachers who specialised in higher education, usually for political and career purposes. Their main tool was rhetoric combined with a loose use of logic which enabled 'the weaker argument to look the stronger' (see Plato The Apology). Through thinkers such as Hippias of Elis, Gorgias, and Protagoras of Abdera the sophists also developed an explicit attack on the attempt of philosophy to find certainty. Sophists argued that there were always two sides to a question and in the end man was the measure of all things, including truth. Plato, of course, attacked such positions, but also admitted that a true rhetoric, one which demonstrates absolute truth by means of true principles and a convincing psychological methodology, could be developed (see Plato Gorgias 504d; Kennedy 1963, p16)

The scepticism of the sophists, combined with an implicit view of natural moral law such that what is also is what ought to be, allowed the sophists to develop a plausible and saleable moral philosophy that was particularly appealing during the crises of the later 5th and 4th centuries B.C. Ironically, their doctrines were to go on and form part of the current which created the radical social criticism of Cynic thought, and underlay much of the later Sceptical position. These debates were also an impetus in developing the natural law arguments of Stoicism (Flew 1979, p330-1).

Thus began a debate between the claims of either rhetoric or philosophy as a proper higher education, with Isocrates and his followers attacking Plato's position, as well as that of the early Aristotle. For Plato rhetoric could only be as beneficial as the content it was dealing with, and was dangerous when used to persuade people to falsehoods. Furthermore, Plato enumerated two basic principles which helped improve the practice rhetoric; first, that the speaker should offer an initial definition of the nature of his topic, and second that he should carefully divide his topic up into its component parts, but deal with these systematically as part of an organic whole (Dixon 1971, p12).

Cicero, though a master in the persuasive art himself, lamented that these two halves of the same necessary education had been split. The true statesman needs oratory, a knowledge of ethics, politics and dialectic in order to truly effective (Rawson 1985, p282). Later in his life Cicero spend much of his effort in expressing the key conceptions of Greek philosophy through a variety of works, including the Academica, On Divination, On Ends, On Fate, and On the Nature of the Gods. For Cicero, persuasion and truth should go hand in hand.

Elsewhere, we find other Roman statesmen being enchanted by Greek philosophy. There seems to have been some slight revival of Aristotle's physical and biological philosophies after Sulla brought back the books collected by his school, The Lyceum, to Rome (Plutarch Sulla 26). The works of Aristotle and Theophrastus were now available to Romans, and seem to have influenced professional philosophers during the late Republic. The term Peripatetics is sometimes used for the school of thought following Aristotle, since it was the custom at the Lyceum to take walks as they debated.

2. Founders and Schools

Greek philosophy moved into different channels during the Hellenistic age. Essentially, philosophy had moved beyond the legacies of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, though dealing with many of the same issues. It often claimed justification for a viewpoint by re-interpreting these masters, often in the context of moral or political guidance for everyday people as well as those with high levels of education.

Socrates, of course, has been immortalized by the writings of his young pupil Plato, whose voluminous works created a tradition which was passed down through the Academy he founded. They would a major rebirth when joined to religious conceptions in the Neo-Platonism of the 2nd-4th centuries A.D. Socrates, however, left more than the rationalistic, formal and utopian tradition found in Plato. It must be remembered that Socrates did not himself write down his philosophical ideas. Instead, he pursued them through the radical questioning of social behaviour and commonly held social ideas. Indeed, the early dialogues of Plato show Socrates 'as a man with deep moral convictions and as someone who strove to get others to share them.' He was engaged in a form of persuasion, using dialectic to shift the respondents' mind to a path of less falsehood (Seeskin 1987, p8; Plato Apology 30a, 36c). Indeed, the Socratic method itself might be something rather different than the type of systematic philosophy which Plato engaged in later in his life. As noted by Seeskin: -

The conclusion . . . is that the Socratic method is neither subject, nor object, nor situation neutral: it requires a dialogical encounter in which the moral worth of the participants is at stake. To the degree that this encounter is the paradigm for understanding thought in general, discovery, intellectual advancement, always has had a practical dimension. If Socrates is right, there is no special branch of learning devoted to moral education. All education worthy of the name imposes a moral test . . . (1987, pp149-50)

Now, it is exactly this aspect of Socrates' life that is taken up by the Cynic philosophers. They imposed a kind of moral and social test on individuals and upon the cities in which they lived, using humour, satirical actions, and apparently stupid responses to develop a critical attack on the type of artificial life they saw around them. Thus when Plato described Diogenes of Sinope (circa 404-323 B.C.), one of the first major Cynics, as 'A Socrates gone mad', he was making an insightful statement (Diogenes Laertius Diogenes VI.54). The term Cynic itself, derives from the Greek term for dog; in a perhaps mythical encounter with Alexander the Great, Diogenes explains that he was called a dog because he would 'fawn on those who give me anything, I yelp at those who refuse, and I set my teeth on rascals.' (Diogenes Laertius Diogenes VI.60). As summarised by Helmut Koester: -

The founder of Cynic philosophy, Diogenes of Sinope . . ., who was called "the dog" (kyon) because of his impudence, hesitated at nothing when he wanted to demonstrate his rejection of cultural values and bourgeois conventions. Diogenes proclaimed no specific philosophical doctrine, nor did his successors; but later Cynics were often influenced by Stoic philosophy. Their frugality and impudence were chiefly expressions of their repudiation of the conventions of society. On the positive side they stressed following only natural standards of behavior, acted as pastoral counsellors, and volunteered to work for others. Cynic philosophy was not based upon the formulation and handing down of doctrines, but upon the creation and transmission of striking examples for behavior. (Koester, I, 1987, p153-154)

Cynics came to be regarded as philosophical watchdogs, stripping away unnecessary and untenable ideas and practices. This notion is already found in Plato's Republic, where there is a detailed and perhaps humorous account of why philosophers and dogs are alike.

The key notion of the Cynic doctrine was that one should live in accord with nature, without worrying about a host of unnecessary and indeed dangerous secondary distractions. This allowed one to live completely, and without slavish dependency on others, or in a slavish surrender to one's own inflated desires. In such a condition of nature, man could find self-sufficiency, autarky, and thereby be prepared for every eventuality, for every fortune. Such a person was not the citizen of the puny and insufficient city-state, but indeed a citizen of universe, a kosmopolites (Diogenes Laertius Diogenes VI, 62-3; Pangle 1998, p242). The Cynics were often itinerant teachers, wondering throughout the Graeco-Roman world with no more than their cloak, leather wallet, a stick, and their sharp tongues. By the mid-third century we find the following (un)popular image of the Cynic from the poet Leonidas of Tarentum: -

Wallet and hard old goatskin,

flask and staff for his treat,

empty purse of dogskin,

hat for his blasphemous head,

these are the spoils that Famine

won from Sochares - dead.

(in Ferguson 1973, p84)

Other Cynics included Crates, who gave away his fortune to enjoin a life of simplicity, attacking the hedonistic and selfish way of life (Ferguson 1973, p85) that was common to the richer classes of the Hellenistic world. Crates was nicknamed 'the Door-Opener' because he would walk into private homes, uninvited, and teach the inhabitants. Bion of Borysthenes followed a similar social philosophy, once again pointing to the notion of self-sufficiency based on a simple life lived in accord with the limits and abilities of nature (Ferguson 1973, p86). From the third century B.C. the Cynics also made sue of the diatribe, a persuasive, popular discourse without technical language, designed to influence ordinary people and attack opposing views (see Koester, I, p154). Some of these ideas on the simple life were taken up the Roman writer Varro, especially in his Menippean Satires, which were written perhaps in the 70's B.C. (Rawson 1985, p283), though Varro has watered their doctrines down and accepts the worship of gods and other social practises.

The notion of the cosmopolitan nature of man, at home in every country, with a shared human nature common to all races and all classes, would be taken up at a later date by the Stoic philosophers. In turn, it once again emphasised the individual and his place in the universe. It developed an ethic that had to be adapted (by Cicero and Seneca, among others) to conform with Roman notions of public duty and public life. The Hellenistic schools, generally, turned more towards the fate of the individual, the idiotes, rather than towards expounding complete political systems. This was because of two trends. The individual soul, with its rational mind, was held to provide a more satisfactory level at which to solve philosophical and ethical problems. Neither the polis nor a republic could truly provide an environment which seriously dealt with human happiness (contra Aristotle & Plato). Instead of inventing an ideal utopian state, an ideal and remote epistemology, or a workable constitution, the Stoics in argued for a particular attitude towards life that would generate the least pain and the greatest clarity of thought.

Two major doctrinal philosophies emerged during the early 3rd century; those of Epicurus (Epicureanism) and Zeno (Stoicism). Stoicism is named after the Stoa, the 'painted colonnade' at Athens, where Zeno of Citium (334-262 B.C.) and his pupils used to gather to discuss and teach their particular views on philosophy. Zeno had first trained under the Cynic Crates, but soon moved away from the 'ethical extremism' of Cynicism, find some place for conventional social values (Long & Sedley 1988, p3). Developed by thinkers such as Cleathes and Chrysippus, Stoicism became centrally concerned with the way a person could live morally good life in accord with nature. The emphasis on man's nature may perhaps have been derived from Crates, but was developed into a more complete, self-supporting system of thought. For Zeno, impressions from our sense may either be genuine, or false (i.e. phantasms). Man, however, has the mental ability, using reason and past knowledge, to assess whether an impression is true or false. For Zeno, true knowledge is grasped by the mind of man (Cicero Academica 2.145). A true impression 'is an affection occurring in the soul, which reveals itself and its cause' (Chrysippus, as cited by Aetius 4.12.2, in Long & Sedly 1988, p237). It is an impression capable of grasping its object (Long & Sedly 1988, p250). The Stoics developed the idea that the mind will be able to accord, literally grasp, a true impression, which is not so much a perception as a cognition. This acceded-to-cognition becomes the criterion of truth (Diogenes Laertius 7.54). It is a unique human ability, and is the basis for the creation of a true and systematic body of knowledge, episteme, that is, epistemic and systematic knowledge. It takes us beyond mere sensations, and beyond mere opinions, doxa (Long & Sedly 1988, p160). This, of course, goes against the primacy (the reality) of Universals, or forms, as posited in Platonic thought. For the Stoics, there are no Ideas in the Platonic sense, instead the mind of men uses concepts (Aetius I.10.5, Stobaeius I.136-137, in Long & Sedly 1988, p179). The Epicureans attacked this Stoic view, arguing that impressions could not be true or false, only later judgements concerning them. The Sceptics in the Academy attacked a different point; they felt that a foolish man would accede to false impressions, not knowing that he is doing so. The credence-to-impression would then fail as a criterion for truth (Sextius Empiricus Against the Professors 7.151-7, in Long & Sedly 1988, pp254-5).

For the Stoics all the matter, the stuff in the universe is imbued and mixed with an intelligent principle which is called 'god' or 'reason' (Long & Sedly 1988, p7, p273; Diogenes Laertius 7.134). In other formulations, it is viewed as a kind of divine breath, pneuma, which is dispersed through the universe, making it a divine, intelligent being, which may be called Zeus, or the Logos. The Cosmos periodically returns to a purifying and ethereal state of fire, then recreates itself (Diogenes Laertius 7.137). In this world, man, though not really free, can find happiness by attempting, in accord with the rational element in himself, to live in accord with this nature. Distracting passions and false judgements need to be set aside, and the causal order of the universe has to be discovered and accepted. This involved the Stoics in the creation of a rigorous dialectical methodology, and in the creation of a strict code of conduct aimed at decreasing our unhappiness. Certain things are held to be good; prudence, justice, moderation, courage, while their opposites are held to be bad and to be avoided. All other issues, wealth, reputation, death etc., are matters of indifference (Diogenes Laertius 7.101-3), since they were not direct functions in accord with nature (Cicero On Ends 3.17,20-2, in Long & Sedly 1988, pp360-1).

The Stoics, it can be seen, had a different view of the world and man's place in it to the early Cynics. Freedom from suffering and pain, which are decreed by the inexorable workings of Providence in the divine order, can only be achieved by a proper use of reason to understand he real limitations of the human condition. The kind of Providence we are talking about is not the blind working of an unknown Tyche, as we can seen from Epictetus' (55- c.135 A.D.) view: -

Whenever you find fault with Providence (provoia), only consider and you will recognize that what happens is in accordance with reasons. 'Yes,' you say, 'but the wicked man is better of.' In what respect? In money; for in respect to that he is superior to you, because he flatters, is shameless, lies awake nights. What is surprising in that? . . . I would have the rest of you always remember, then, and be ready to apply the following truth: That this is a law of nature for the superior to have the better of the inferior, in the respect in which he is superior; and then you will never be indignant. (Epictetus Discourses III.xvii. 1-7).

The best in man is his reason, and perfect reason was held to be 'man's peculiar good' (Seneca Letters 76.9-10, in Long & Sedly 1988, p395). Man's psyche, by its very nature, was a fragment of the divine reason, and needed to avoid being entangled with unnecessary emotions, and not pursue morally indifferent attainments. Nor should we desire those things which are beyond our control (Epictetus Discourses III.xxiv), but instead engage in normal human activities in so far as we can without disturbing our soul. Therefore, under conditions of extreme pain, mutilation, or incurable illness, a wise man may commit 'a well-reasoned suicide both on behalf of his country and on behalf of his friends' (Diogenes Laertius 7.130), a doctrine that was probably already known to men such as Cato, Cassius and Brutus.

These conceptions of the Stoics came under attack by the more sceptical positions taken in the 'New Academy' by thinkers such as Carneades, who argued that to every proposition an equal and counter proposition could be generated. Since this was so, the Stoic conception of the world were uncertain and their ethical formations equally shaky. Therefore, the wise man should abstain from such judgements, i.e. engage in epoche as well as ataraxia (literally = freedom from disturbance).

The second major challenge to Stoicism was developed by Epicurus (341-271 B.C.). In summary, the Epicurean position includes the following features: -

All that has independent existence is body, which is shown to consist of an infinity of atomic particles, and infinite space, much of it void. Secondary properties do exist too, but parasitically on these. Our world, like literally countless others, is the accident and transient product of complex atomic collisions, with no purposive purpose or origin or structure, no controlling deity. And the soul, itself a complex atomic conglomerate, perishes with the body. With these conclusions, physics can eliminate the psychologically crippling fear of divine intervention in this life and retribution in the next. Cognitive certainty is attainable through the senses, combined with a set of natural conceptions and intuitions. . . . Despite our ultimately atomic construction, we are genuinely autonomous agents, capable of structuring our own lives in accordance with the one natural good, pleasure. Epicureanism's means of teaching us to maximize the pleasantness of life include eliminating fears of the unknown; recognizing the utility of mutual benefits and non-aggression; and mapping out the natural limits of pleasure, any attempt to exceed which is merely counterproductive. (Long & Sedly 1988, pp6-7)

Epicurus and his followers developed a personal philosophy which emphasised the reasonable satiation of normal human pleasures, shunning both broader political and social concerns. He developed the atomic theory of Democritus into a materialistic philosophy in which the existence of gods and the afterlife were both doubted. His school was situated in 'the Garden' in Athens, but soon spread through the Mediterranean world. It influenced the Romans from the 2nd century onwards. The philosophical poem by Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, presents a coherent world-view based on these doctrines. Nonetheless, Epicureanism, with its strong denial of civic and political virtues, was generally viewed with suspicion in the later Republic.

3. Personal, Pragmatic and Eclectic

The theories of Zeno and Chrysippus were brought down to a more pragmatic level by thinkers such as Panaetius and Epictetus in the 1st century A.D. This ethical brand of Stoicism argued that man could never know or fully understand his personal or collective fate, and therefore man should cease to strive for worldly or ideal ends, but instead calmly accept our condition. There is a focus on a certain attitude to life, promoting not so much desperate, as a tolerance of ourselves and others. Epictetus had once been a slave and came from Hierapolis (in Phrygia), had lived in Rome was later on expelled by the emperor Domitian, went on to found a school in Nicopolis (western Greece), and taught the historian Arrian who published his lectures as the Dissertations (Koester, I, p354). This patient attitude within Stoicism has flavoured the meaning of the ordinary meaning of the word 'stoic' in English.

By the time of the early empire, however, the clear-cut divisions between the different schools had begun to blur. Cicero, for example, was also influenced by Platonic and Epicurean notions, though in the main turning them towards a more pragmatic version of Stoic thought (see Pangle 1998). Likewise, Pliny the Younger was influenced by Stoic conceptions, though he would not be regarded as an adherent of this philosophy (Arnold 1911, p117). As noted by Samuel Dill: -

The marks of demarcation between them [the schools] faded; men were less inclined to dogmatise, and began to select and combine elements from discordant schools. In this movement the eclectic and the sceptic had very much the same object in view - the support and culture of the individual life." (Dill 1919, p290).

At this time we often finds references to 'philosophy' in a general sense. The repeated expulsions of philosophers from Rome was aimed at limiting this personal, anti-authoritarian stance, rather than any particular school or creed. Also, there was a fear that they would corrupt the gullible, i.e. especially Roman women and the young.

Likewise, the distinction between Stoic and Cynic became somewhat difficult at this time. The Cynic in part can be distinguished by his social role: a poor, wandering figure haranguing plebeians and emperors alike, using vehement language and actions to make his point. Such a social image does not apply to all Cynics, however. The cultured Demetrius, who discoursed with Thrasea, made eloquent criticism of both the emperors Nero and Vespasian. Indeed, Dudley argues that during the first century the Stoic and Cynic philosophers were 'practically indistinguishable, alike in their rationale and their propaganda' (Dudley 1937, p137). Therefore, the term 'Stoic opposition', which has been used to posit an active opposition to the corruption of social and political power in the hands of dominant men in Roman affairs, which began as early as the time of Julius Caesar, should be replaced with the more accurate notion of a broader 'philosophical opposition'.

4. The Just Ruler

Stoic theory had earlier on favoured the notion of a mixed constitution as the best form of government, as indeed, Panaetius had regarded the Roman Republic. Thus Cicero hard argued that the victories of the Roman people were at first maintained by their justice and excellence: -

. . . the truth is that as long as the empire of the Roman people was maintained through acts of beneficence rather than injustices, wars were waged either on behalf of allies or for the empire, wars were terminated with clemency or only the necessary harshness, our senate was a refuge for kings, populaces, and nations, our magistrates and rulers strove to win glory only from the equitable and faithful defense of provinces and allies; and thus our rule could more truly be called a paternal protectorate of the entire earth rathe than an empire. This policy and discipline declined gradually, and in truth after Sulla's victory we abandoned it. (Cicero On Duties 2.26-28, in Pangle 1998, p256).

In the later period, however, the consensus shifted generally towards the idea that the monarchy of a just king was the best type of government. In this light, we can find a 'Stoic' such as Seneca (the younger, 4 B.C. - A.D. 65) supporting one man rule in his De Clementia. Addressing the young emperor Nero, Seneca argues: -

For he is the bond by which the commonwealth is united, the breath of life which these many thousands draw, who in their own strength would be only a burden to themselves and the prey of others if the great mind of the empire should be withdrawn . . . Such a calamity would be the destruction of the Roman peace, such a calamity will force the fortune of a might person to its downfall. (De Clementia, I.4.1)

It must be emphasised that this statement was made in hindsight, after the series of dangerous wars, starting with Sulla, had culminated in the even more severe conflict between Octavian and Mark Antony. Public recognition of the relative peace under the rule of Augustus, and even under lesser leaders such as the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius, should not be under-estimated. This concept of the best and highest leader is discussed in relation to an original state of nature in one of Seneca's letters: -

But the first men and those who sprang from them, still unspoiled, followed nature, having one man as both their leader and their law, entrusting themselves to the control of one better than themselves. For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger . . . (Seneca Epistle xc).

Seneca here repeats the fairly common notion of the original and just king, ruling by consensus and for the common good. These ideas were promoted as models by Seneca, and later on by Dio Chrysostom, who had been expelled from Rome by Domitian, but was later on recalled and tried to influence the emperor Trajan, circa 104 A.D.(Dio Chrysostom Second Discourse on Kingship 71-2; Koester I, p358).

Epictetus, who himself had been a slave and was then freed, was perhaps among contemporary Stoics the most critical of the Imperial system (Millar 1965, pp143-7), arguing that there was no substantial difference between a slave and emperor if both their souls were in bondage. He was, however, willing to admit that emperors had a place in maintaining the worldly order: -

Do you philosophers, then, teach us to despise our kings? - Far from it. Who among us teaches you to dispute their claim to things over which they have authority? (Epictetus Discourses I,xxix, 9-10).

At first glance, then, it seems surprising that Stoics and other philosophers of this period would form an opposition to the Principate as developed by Augustus. However, the apparent later support for kingship was limited by a number of factors. First, the ruler must have the highest moral values, being not only the most powerful, but the best of men. Seneca in his letter continues: -

. . . among men, the best is regarded as the highest. That is why it was to the mind that a ruler was assigned; and for that reason the greatest happiness rested with those peoples among whom a man could not be more powerful unless he were the better. (Seneca Epistles xc, 4)

Likewise, Dio Chrysostom's First Discourse concludes with a tale comparing the difference between the 'Peak Royal' and the 'Peak Tyrannous' which 'appear to be practically one and undivided, inasmuch as they are seen from a distance . . . " (First Discourse on Kingships 68).

The Stoics, then, could only support one-man rule or the Principate in so far as it lived up to these ideals or they could try to influence it to do so. This seems to have been one of the points of difference between an unbending figure such as Cato, who had never accepted the dominance of Caesar, and other figures such as Cicero and Brutus. Cicero, certainly, had hoped to influence Caesar, first by his notion of the concordia ordinum, and secondly is his pleas for a truly benign rule based on clementia and wisdom. Brutus, too, in his association with Caesar's government as praetor, was willing to help govern the Roman state under Caesar, but perhaps soon felt that the man's pride and dominance were too great. Since Caesar was neither the wise 'Stoic' ruler, nor could be readily influenced, opposition was the only resort left. The motivations for killing Caesar, were of, course, only to a small degree based on such philosophical doctrines, but were based on need for Roman elites to have competitive access to high office. Caesar's death, however, neither restored the free working Republic, nor brought more noble leaders into power.

Similar comparisons can be made in attitudes to the emperor Nero. The philosopher and writer Seneca had been a tutor of the young Nero before he became emperor, and then, along with Burrus (commander of the Praetorian guard), became one of his main ministers in government. Seneca's De Clementia is a powerful appeal to Nero to use his power with mercy, but it highlights the concept that the power of the Princeps was limited only by the ruler's self-restraint. The 'philosophical director' can only try to influence such a ruler; in this view neither direct opposition or coercion are workable alternatives. Earlier Stoic theory, as represent in the De Officiis of Cicero (see Griffin 1976, p343), regarded public office as a service to fellow men, a duty which can only be avoided on certain grounds. Seneca also, in his letter 105, also states that a 'philosopher should not dissociate himself from the usages and customs of the Society' (see Wistrand 1979, p96). Yet Seneca soon found that he wished to withdraw from this public role. His attempts to influence the young emperor soon became ineffective, as Nero's murder of his own mother, Agrippina, indicates. Seneca went so far as to actually help write Nero's hypocritical speech to the Senate, describing Agrippina's treasonous attempt to murder him (Tacitus Annals xiv.44), This shows how far Seneca himself was unable to live up to his own ideals, let lone to guide Nero to those ideals. In his later work, the De Otio, Seneca argues that if the State is (morally) destroyed and beyond salvation, the Sage should not risk himself in vain (Wistranda 1979, p99). In 65 A.D., Seneca would commit suicide upon the orders of Nero, who resented his withdrawal, was envious of Seneca's great wealth, and suspected him of treachery.

A different approach was that of the senator Thrasea Paetus, who was a follower of Stoic doctrines. Upon hearing Nero's speech on the death of Agrippina, this Thrasea 'who had been used to pass over previous flatteries in silence or with brief assent, then walked out of the Senate, thereby imperilling himself, without communicating to the other Senators any impulse towards freedom.' (Tacitus Annals xiv, 12). Thrasea, however, was not allowed to retire in peace. His withdrawal was taken as criticism. Since Thrasea apparently did not enter the Senate for three years, and did not take the oath of allegiance to the Princeps, (Tacitus Annals xvi, 22), he began to be attacked in the Senate. A certain Marcellus made these accusations: -

I miss the presence of an ex-consul in the Senate, of a priest when we offer our vows, of a citizens when we swear obedience, unless indeed . . . Thrasea has openly assumed the part of a traitor and an enemy. In a word, let the man, wont to act the senator and to screen those who disparage the prince, come among us; let him propose any reform or change he may desire. (Tacitus Annals xvi.28).

This withdrawal and silence was treated as treasonous, just as would the silence of Sir Thomas in relation to Henry VIII's marriage and the creation of the Church of England in another age. We have reached a rather difficult stage, where in spite of the wishes of a philosopher, Cicero was perhaps correct to argue that "The Sage never stays outside of politics" (in Wistrand 1979, p98). Both Thrasea and Seneca may have been killed because their prestige meant that their philosophical attitudes had direct political repercussions.

Although the later Stoics admired 'Republican' exemplars such as Cato, this does not mean that were agitating for a direct return to the Republic. Indeed, a leader such as Augustus was quite willing to promote himself as a promoter of the Republic, while the later emperor Trajan was happy to issue 'restored' republican coinage glorifying Brutus the tyrannicide (Toynbee 1944, p45). The Principate borrowed the ideology of the Republic and later on of Stoicism for its own propaganda purposes.

However, the resistance to emperors did go beyond moral grounds in the case of a certain Helvidius Priscus, who refused to acknowledge even the benign emperor Vespasian by his imperial titles, and during Priscus' praetorship left the emperor 'unhonoured and unmentioned in all his edicts' (Suetonius Vespasian xv). Priscus, however, was seeking to have those who had informed on Thrasea, his father-in-law, condemned, but this move had been crushed by an amnesty (Dudley 1937, p135). Indeed, this may have been a more general move to find some solidarity in the Senate against sycophant prosecutors, perhaps aiming at a more active and revived Senate. Vespasian, it turn, only expelled the Cynic Demetrius, who accosted and insulted him publicly (Dio Cassius, lxv, 13; see Suetonius Vespasian). At a later date we find the emperor Domitian killing the Stoic adherents Junius Rusticus and Herennius Senecio because they wrote in praise of Thrasea and Priscus, and later on banishing all philosophers from Rome and Italy (Suetonius Domitian, viii, 2-4).

At this stage we might note that the theory of the Principate did not yet readily equate with the term 'kingship'. While relying on the support of the Praetorian guard and provincial armies, the emperors still called upon Republican fictions to bolster claims to their unique dignitas and auctoritas. The coins of these emperors regularly include references to consular, proconsular and tribunician powers. Nor was the issue of the succession assured in the early Principate. Although emperors such as Augustus might wish their descendants to follow them, this could be only done by pushing their nominated relative through republican offices, by establishing their command of armies, by allocating them the power of republican institutions, and building up a body of real support for them. In fact none of the first five emperors was followed by their sons. Usually, the best (or available) person within the 'imperial' family was chosen, in the case of Claudius, nominated by the Praetorian guard.

During the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. any moral attack on great Roman leaders was also a political attack, directly undermining their prestige and therefore their dignitas. This was an age where charisma remained an important issue in maintaining stable rule. This is well known in the attempt of figures such as Julius Caesar and Augustus to build up their prestige through religious offices and other honours. Caesar's clementia, the special religious honours granted to him while alive, his posthumous divine status, Octavian's new title of Augustus, were all aimed at increasing the prestige and authority of these men. These aspects were more emphasised in the imperial cults of the east, but turn full circle with the exceptional divinisation of Caligula within his life-time. The following emperors step back from this position, but in turn they accept something of a philosophical interpretation of their rule. We find Pliny making the following Panegyric to the emperor Trajan: -

It is therefore with increased confidence . . . that I make this my earnest prayer: 'If he rules the State well and in the interests of all,' first preserve him for our grandsons and great-grandsons, then grant him one day a successor born of him in the image of the adopted son he is, or if fate denies him this, guide and direct his choice to someone worthy to be adopted in your temple on the Capitol. (Pliny Panegyric 94.5).

Such a prayer, though concerned with the contiguity of peaceful imperial rule, also is conditional upon good rule being in the interests of all. This is compatible with Stoic notions of governance as the greatest service, and also implies some kind of moral contract between the ruler and his subjects. Of course, this 'settlement' between philosophy and political power may have involved a trade-off between a positive libertas and the benefits of peace. The philosophical opposition, when not trying to influence the Princeps towards better rule, seems to have been a movement of protest, rather than a revolutionary tradition. Likewise, Roman political thought was more comfortable with the promotion of a mores-based Republic or kingship, rather than a truly universal, cosmopolitan world order (see Pangle 1998).


Bibliography and Further Reading


CICERO De Natura Deorum & Academica, trans H. Rackham, Cambridge Ma, Harvard University Press, 1979

CICERO De Officiis, trans. W. Miller, Cambridge Ma, Harvard University Press, 1975.

CICERO De Re Publica & De Legibus, trans. C. Keyes, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1977

DIO CASSIUS Dio's Roman History, trans. E. Cary, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1968

DIO CHRYSOSTOM Discourses, trans. by J. Cohoon, London, Heineman, 1932

DIOGENES LAERTIUS Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 2 vols, trans. R. Hicks, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1970

EPICTETUS The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, 2 vols., trans. W. Oldfather, London, Heineman, 1926

LONG, A.A. & SEDLEY, D.N. The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary, Cambridge, CUP, 1988

PLINY Letters and Panegyric, trans. B. Radice, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1975

PLUTARCH Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. R. Warner, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1985

SENECA Ad Luculium Epistulae Morales, trans. R. Gummere, Vol II, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1962

SENECA De Clementia, in Moral Essays, trans. J. Basore, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 19

SUETONIUS The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984

TACITUS Annals and the Histories, trans. A. Church & W. Brodribb, Chicago, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952


ADCOCK, F.E. Roman Political Ideas and Practice, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1964

ARNOLD, E.V. Roman Stoicism, Freeport, Books for Libraries Press, 1911

CLARKE, M. The Roman Mind: Studies in the History of Thought from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, N.Y., Norton, 1968

DEVINE, Francis "Stoicism on the Best Regime", Journal of the History of Ideas, 31, 1970, pp323-336

DILL, Samuel Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, London, Macmillan, 1919

DIXON, Peter Rhetoric, London, Methuen, 1971

DUDLEY, Donald A History of Cynicism, Hildesheim, G.O.V., 1937

DUDLEY, D.R. "Blossius of Cumae", The Journal of Roman Studies, 31, 1941, pp. 94-99

FEARS, J. Princeps A Diis Electus: The Divine Election of the Emperor As a Political Concept at Rome, Rome, American Academy at Rome, 1977

FERGUSON, John The Heritage of Hellenism, London, Thames and Hudson, 1973

FLEW, Antony (ed.) A Dictionary of Philosophy, London, Pan, 1979

GRIFFIN, Miriam Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford, Clarendon, 1976

HAMMOND, M. "Res Olim Dissociabiles: Princeps Ac Libertas; Liberty Under the Early Roman Empire", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 67, 1963, pp93-113

HARRIS, B.F. "Stoic and Cynic Under Vespasian", Prudentia, 9, 1977, pp105-114

KENNEDY, George The Art of Persuasion in Greece, Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1963

KOESTER, Helmut Introduction to the New Testament: Vol. I, History, Culture, and Religion of the Hellenistic Age, N.Y., Walter de Gruyter, 1987

MILLAR, Fergus "Epictetus and the Imperial Court", JRS, 55, 1965, pp141-48

PANGLE, Thomas L. "Socratic Cosmopolitanism: Cicero's Critique and Transformati0on of the Stoic Ideal", Canadian Journal of Political Science, 31 no. 2, January 1998, pp235-262

RAWSON, Elizabeth Intellectual Life in the Late Roman Republic, Baltimore, John Hopkins, 1985

SAMUEL, Alan E. The Promise of the West, London, Routledge, 1988

SANDBACH, F.H. The Stoics, London, Chatto & Windus, 1975

SEESKIN, Kenneth Dialogue and Discovery: A Study in Socratic Method, Albany, State Uni. of N.Y. Press, 1987

TOYNBEE, Jocelyn "Dictators and Philosophers in the First Century A.D.", Greece & Rome, 13, 1944, pp43-58

WIRSZUBSKI, C. Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome during the Late Republic and the Early Principate, Cambridge, CUP, 1950

WISTRAND, Erik "Stoic Opposition to the Principate", Studi Classice, 18, 1979, pp93-101


Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1999 R. James Ferguson