Why was Stoicism so successful in Rome?
Following Plato and Aristotle, there arose four major schools of Hellenistic philosophy: cynicism, skepticism, epicureanism, and the subject of today’s post, stoicism. Although it is incredibly difficult to quantify its popularity, statistical studies of extant Graeco-Roman records estimate that stoicism constituted 12% of all known philosophers, trailing only behind the Academic-Platonists.[i] Most notably, stoicism remained a leading philosophy in the Roman Empire when most other Hellenistic philosophies gradually faded into the background.[ii] Yet the course of stoicism’s development was far from smooth, having been alternatively persecuted by Emperors who disliked it and openly embraced by Emperors who attempted to live by it. Certainly, stoicism never reached the heights that Christianity eventually hailed among the Roman public; in fact, it largely remained an elite body of knowledge reserved only for the upper-class and those in power. However, its prominence in Roman politics compared to other schools of Hellenistic philosophy nevertheless demonstrates its utility and compatibility with the existing Roman sociopolitical structure. So, why was stoicism able to become popular in both Republican and Imperial Rome? To explore this question, let us traverse through the history of stoic philosophy in search of trends and commonalities.
What even is stoicism?
If you were to hear the term “stoic” in modern vernacular, you may picture a stern but calm old man staring deep into your soul. In reality, the stoics, founded by Zeno of Citium in 300 BC, were unique in that they defined philosophy less as a body of knowledge intended to explore metaphysical inquiry, but as a moral code to guide the way of life. For the stoics, virtue was the only good and the only thing for which man can be held responsible. Inheriting the Aristotelian concept of eudaimonia (happiness/flourishing), Zeno asserted that virtue alone is necessary and sufficient to achieve eudemonic satisfaction.[iii] On the other hand, external matters, including the body, material possession, reputation, and fame, were considered “frail, inferior, subject to restraint – and none of our affair.”[iv] Although the denunciation of earthly matters may sound similar to the rhetoric of Diogenes, you should be wary to equate stoicism to cynicism. In fact, stoicism sought to find a balance between the harsh asceticism of the cynics and the aristocratic privileges of Peripatetics (Aristotelians) by recognizing the existence of “indifferents” to eudaimonia that could nevertheless be preferred (proēgmena) or dispreferred (apoproēgmena).[v] For example, wealth can increase a person’s ability to practice virtue; but since it does not definitively benefit the possessor under all circumstances (say, someone uses money to buy heroin), it should not have inherent value. As such, Stoicism does not emphasize absolute apathy for all earthly matters, but rather that you should not be psychologically subject to anything – manipulated and moved by it.
As Zeno’s ideas were developed by the likes of Cleanthes and Chrysippus, Stoicism soon became one of the dominating schools in the Hellenistic sphere. As a result of its popularity, the Stoics were sent to Rome in 155 BCE along with the Academics and Peripatetics in order to aid in diplomatic efforts. The philosophers yielded great reception through public performances and laid the foundation for the ultimate shift of philosophy away from Athens.[vi] The later Greek Panaetius, who developed a more balanced version of stoicism that valued worldly goods and pursuits, befriended the famed general Publius Scipio Aemilianus (Scipio Africanus’ adoptive grandson) and contributed to the diffusion of stoicism to the Roman upper class through regular exchange and deliberation.[vii]
The History and Popularity of Stoicism in Rome
Stoicism first became relatively popular during the fraught time of the transition between the late Republic and the Empire, which alludes to the first reason for its popularity in Rome — that it offers comfort in times of adversity. Although the majority of Roman people were highly eclectic in that they derived ideas from a broad variety of philosophies, many statesmen, including Tiberius Gracchus, enjoyed the company of stoic counselors who propelled the pervasiveness of stoicism in Roman politics.[viii] There were also a handful of stoic legislators, many of whom particularly opposed to Caesar’s rule. Perhaps the most renowned practitioner of stoicism is Cato the Younger, whose dedication to asceticism and whose political opposition to the “tyrant” Julius Caesar deemed him “the perfect stoic” by Seneca.[ix] From marching barefoot in the freezing rain (ouch) to delivering orations filled with stoic maxims, Cato became a proud arbiter of stoic philosophy through his own actions and words.[x] Cicero’s writings came to be another crucial source of information about Roman stoicism; however, he himself maintained a skeptical stance towards the philosophy, defending it in De Officiis and Tusculanae Disputationes while critiquing it in De Finibus.[xi] Nevertheless, he respected the stoic tradition (yes, even his political rival Cato) and argued in favor of stoicism more than any other sect of Hellenistic philosophy. It is not difficult to infer why stoicism may become popular in such turbulent times as the fall of the republic (as well as the reigns of Nero and Vespasian much later.) At the root of the philosophy, stoicism teaches its followers to accept, endure, and adapt to hardship; to find inner peace regardless of external circumstances. For the majority of the Roman population who had little control over political clamor, stoicism brought them what they really needed: a wise, tolerant, and soothing advisor who assured them that “hey! At least you had control over your virtuousness.”
The influence of stoic philosophy carried through the reign of Augustus, where its emphasis on morality made it popular among scholars and writers. Stoicism encountered little resistance during the early Julio-Claudian Dynasty, for it did not clash significantly with the autocratic system of Imperial Rome. As Professor Peter Brunt of Oxford notes, “Stoicism produced concord in a state and peace among peoples; it taught men to obey the laws, but not to despise the authority of ‘kings,’ for neither laws nor kings could give or take away anything essential to a man’s blessedness.”[xii] Of course, the vain and politically opportunistic Augustus was far from the embodiment of a stoic philosopher-king, but even he likely absorbed some stoic teachings from Athenodorus of Tarsus and Arius Didymus, two influential stoic philosophers who were personal counselors to the first emperor.[xiii] More importantly, stoic doctrines became increasingly attractive to writers during the golden age of Roman literature: Vergil’s Aeneid centered on providential themes; Horace’s Odes echoed stoic proverbs and praised stoic heros; and Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita attempted to adapt the stoic message of virtue to the particular needs of Augustan society.[xiv] It is through the popular dissemination of these works of literature that stoicism became fundamentally integrated into Roman culture and identity. Livy deserves a special mention here. As a moralist historian, Livy didactically searched for ethical precepts to rationalize his evaluations of Roman founding history.[xv] Stoicism offered him a moral code of virtue and vice, which he readily embraced and advocated for. This ethical framework was certainly another cause of stoicism’s popularity in Rome — it was able to offer its disciples a clear code of conduct in an era prior to the development of Christianity and big daddy Jesus.
The first and second century AD marked the dissemination of stoic philosophy through the famous Roman Stoics — Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — who collectively built the legacy of Roman stoicism. Since I plan to cover them individually in future articles (and also because I’m too lazy to turn this post into a 6000+ word essay,) I will not talk about their lives and teachings in great detail. Instead, I will try to illustrate the connection between them and the greater Roman perception of stoicism. Roman Stoicism truly experienced unprecedented flourishment during these two centuries.[xvi] The sources of such vitality were fundamentally two: on one hand charismatic teachers like Musonius and Epictetus, and on the other hand influential political figures like Seneca and Marcus.[xvii] Notably, Seneca was the advisor of Emperor Nero during his early political career and actually led him on a rather competent path, according to Tacitus and Dio. Meanwhile, Emperor Marcus Aurelius committed himself to a life of kingship, public service, and philosophical meditation. Now, it may seem surprising that there were so many prominent stoic statesmen, but a reason for stoicism’s popularity, especially among the rich and powerful, rested in the fact that it was tolerant of public life and other worldly pursuits. Though stoic teachings tended to encourage quietism, neither did they disvalue the state or the individual who took part in public life, as long as one’s preoccupation with political activity were not to impair their virtue and spiritual welfare.[xviii] Stoicism’s advocacy for inner detachment rather than non-involvement makes it an attractive intellectual outlet for those who are still unwilling or unable to let go of wealth or power. Unlike epicureanism and cynicism which denounce any pursuit of wealth and power, stoicism offers the elite a sort of “philosophical guidance that didn’t urge them to renounce wealth or power,” as UChicago Professor Ada Palmer suggested (side note, please check out her blog it is a work of art.)[xix]
*** interlude: I feel the need to add a picture to break up the text. Here’s a statue sculpted by Eduardo Barron in 1891 depicting Nero (left) and Seneca (right). Doesn’t Nero look like such an angsty emo teenager here? Gen Z representation in the 1st century AD 😩
However, this period of intellectual robustness was underlined by ruthless persecution from displeased emperors including Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. Seneca, having almost been killed by Caligula in 31 CE then exiled by Claudius in 41 CE, famously committed suicide on Nero’s orders (top 10 anime betrayls), while Musonius and Epictetus were exiled to Greece by Vespasian and Domitian respectively. Imperial opposition to the diffusion of stoicism is not surprising, considering that the intellectual persecutions coincided with a period of increased authority, censorship, and propaganda. Although stoic teachings never opposed the existence of political authority or a monarchical government, neither would they comply with the orders of ‘tyrants,’ whose vile conduct conflicted with their own moral purpose.[xx] Therefore, it makes sense that these stoic philosophers would oppose the rule of these tyrannical emperors, ultimately causing their own demise while doing so.
Stoicism after Rome
With the rise of Christianity, the prominence of stoicism in Rome began to dwindle. However, despite being overtaken by Christianity as the dominant philosophy, stoicism continued to influence both Christian theology and later enlightenment thinkers. To start with, Christianity was far more inspired by and sympathetic to Stoicism than most of its Hellenistic rivals. In many ways stoic ideas actually influenced Christian teachings: for example, Paul’s writings in the Bible often shared striking similarities with the lectures of Roman stoics (see footnote for a comprehensive analysis.)[xxi] Although the Stoic insistence on materialism and pantheism was criticized and rejected, the emphasis on virtue was often seen as pretty much the best that people could manage before the coming of Christ. Many later Christian figures, such as St. Augustine, Tertullian, and Peter Abelard, also praised and adopted stoicism.[xxii] Stoicism has also had a pervasive influence on Western philosophical thought throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. From Descartes and Spinoza to Rousseau, Kant, and Adam Smith, the Roman Stoics gave enlightenment thinkers an ethical code that was based not on God’s law but on reason and observation.[xxiii] Even as we step into the 21st century, we’re seeing a stoic revival of sorts as more people begin to pick up stoic literature for the first time. Based on its ability to provide comfort and an ethical framework in addition to its tolerance of government and worldly affairs, stoicism has a bright future and will probably endure in our society for years to come.
This originally shorter article idea turned into a rather long essay. It was certainly worth it though. After reading some writings of the great roman stoics, I have nothing but respect for these long-bearded men, though it will probably take me a lot of time and effort to truly embody the stoic mindset. Hopefully, having Seneca constantly mumbling in my head will at least offer me some comfort in times of inevitably stress and hardship. For anyone remotely interested in philosophy, I believe that stoicism is a wonderful starting point, for it is accessible, applicational, and most importantly, so incredibly wise.
Recommended further readings if you are as insecure and lost in life as I am:
Enchiridion – Epictetus
Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
Letters from a Stoic – Seneca
On the Brevity of Life – Seneca
[i] Massimo Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified 2015, accessed August 16, 2021, https://iep.utm.edu/stoicism/.
[ii] Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[iii] Dirk Baltzly, “Stoicism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified April 10, 2018, accessed August 14, 2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/.
[iv] Epictetus, Enchiridion, 2nd ed., trans. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Pub., 1955), 2.
[v] Baltzly, “Stoicism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[vi] Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[vii] Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[viii] Donald Robertson, “The Philosophers of the Stoic School,” Donald Robertson, last modified March 14, 2013, accessed August 16, 2021, https://donaldrobertson.name/2013/03/14/the-philosophers-of-the-stoic-school/.
[ix] Peter A. Brunt, “Stoicism and the Principate,” Papers of the British School at Rome 43 (1975): 2, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40310718.
[x] Haviland Nelson, “Cato the Younger as a Stoic Orator,” The Classical Weekly 44, no. 5 (December 18, 1950), https://doi.org/10.2307/4342830.
[xi] Charles N. Smiley, “Stoicism and Its Influence on Roman Life and Thought,” The Classical Journal 29, no. 9 (June 1934): 651, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3289820.
[xii] Brunt, “Stoicism and the Principate,” 3.
[xiii] Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xiv] P. G. Walsh, “Livy and Stoicism,” The American Journal of Philology 79, no. 4 (1958): [Page #], https://doi.org/10.2307/292348.
[xv] Michael Roderick, “To What Extent Can Livy Be Considered a Moral Historian?,” The Portsmouth Point (blog), entry posted March 6, 2016, accessed August 20, 2021, http://portsmouthpoint.blogspot.com/2012/03/to-what-extent-can-livy-be-considered.html.
[xvi] Baltzly, “Stoicism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xviii] Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
[xix] Ada Palmer, “Stoicism’s Appeal to the Rich and Powerful,” Ex Urbe (blog), entry posted March 27, 2019, accessed August 15, 2021, https://www.exurbe.com/stoicisms-appeal-to-the-rich-and-powerful/.
[xx] Brunt, “Stoicism and the Principate,” 11.
[xxi] Smiley, “Stoicism and Its Influence,” 654-657.
[xxii] Pigliucci, “Stoicism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Baltzly, Dirk. “Stoicism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified April 10, 2018. Accessed August 14, 2021. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/stoicism/.
Brunt, Peter A. “Stoicism and the Principate.” Papers of the British School at Rome 43 (1975): 7-35. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40310718.
“Cato the Younger – the Most Interesting Stoic Ever?” What Is Stoicism? (blog). Entry posted December 3, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2021. https://whatisstoicism.com/stoicism-definition/cato-the-younger-most-interesting-stoic-ever/.
Epictetus. Enchiridion. 2nd ed. Translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Educational Pub., 1955.
Nelson, Haviland. “Cato the Younger as a Stoic Orator.” The Classical Weekly 44, no. 5 (December 18, 1950): 65. https://doi.org/10.2307/4342830.
Palmer, Ada. “Stoicism’s Appeal to the Rich and Powerful.” Ex Urbe (blog). Entry posted March 27, 2019. Accessed August 15, 2021. https://www.exurbe.com/stoicisms-appeal-to-the-rich-and-powerful/.
Pigliucci, Massimo. “Stoicism.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last modified 2015. Accessed August 16, 2021. https://iep.utm.edu/stoicism/.
Robertson, Donald. “The Philosophers of the Stoic School,” Donald Robertson, last modified March 14, 2013, accessed August 16, 2021, https://donaldrobertson.name/2013/03/14/the-philosophers-of-the-stoic-school/
Roderick, Michael. “To What Extent Can Livy Be Considered a Moral Historian?” The Portsmouth Point (blog). Entry posted March 6, 2016. Accessed August 20, 2021. http://portsmouthpoint.blogspot.com/2012/03/to-what-extent-can-livy-be-considered.htm.
Smiley, Charles N. “Stoicism and Its Influence on Roman Life and Thought.” The Classical Journal 29, no. 9 (June 1934). http://www.jstor.org/stable/3289820.
Walsh, P. G. “Livy and Stoicism.” The American Journal of Philology 79, no. 4 (1958): 355-75. https://doi.org/10.2307/292348.