Epictetus on Nero

Epictetus, the good instructor, performed his half in altering the management of Rome from the swill he had identified within the Nero White Home to the facility and decency it knew underneath Marcus Aurelius. — Stockdale, Ideas of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

The Emperor Nero was, it’s honest to say, one of the controversial Roman emperors. Some folks consider that his dangerous popularity is unjustified and solely as a result of propaganda of a handful of biased senators from later generations. I believe that’s a tough declare to substantiate. We shouldn’t dismiss historic proof as biased with out good purpose. Furthermore, on this article, I’m going to give attention to some direct criticism of Nero which comes from a supply a lot nearer to him. A well-known up to date of Nero’s, who was not a senator, didn’t write widespread histories, and was neither rich nor a member of the political elite. I’m talking of the Stoic thinker Epictetus.

After the purges, Nero’s habits turned much more erratic. He allegedly kicked his pregnant spouse, Poppea, to demise. The emperor then had a younger boy known as Sporus castrated, dressed him as a bride, and took him as his spouse, in a full wedding ceremony ceremony — the boy seemingly bore a remarkably resesemblance to Poppea. With a younger eunuch standing in for his useless spouse, and showing beside him in public dressed as an empress, Nero turned a laughing-stock amongst each the Senate and the legions. The next yr, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis (France) instigated a revolt, which failed, however however stoked a looming civil struggle between Nero and his basic Galba, governor of Hispania (Spain). Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate, and Galba named emperor as a substitute.

Awakening to search out his praetorian guards had deserted him, Nero fled Rome in disguise. He was one in every of solely a handful of Roman emperors, akin to Caligula and Commodus, who tried to deify themselves whereas residing however had been refused the distinction of deification by the Senate after their demise. Epictetus was in all probability aged round eighteen in 68 CE, when Nero killed himself as a way to keep away from seize by troopers loyal to Galba and the Senate — Epaphroditus assisted him in committing suicide.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale, in his attribute model, offers the next account of the drama on the imperial court docket, which Epictetus knew as a youth:

He was “purchased low cost” by a freedman named Epaphroditus, a secretary to Emperor Nero. He was taken to reside on the Nero White Home at a time when the emperor was neglecting the empire whereas he toured Greece as actor, musician, and chariot race driver. When residence in Rome in his private quarters, Nero was busy having his half-brother killed, his spouse killed, his mom killed, his second spouse killed. Lastly, it was Epictetus’s grasp Epaphroditus who minimize Nero’s throat when he fumbled his personal suicide because the troopers had been breaking down his door to arrest him. — Stockdale, Ideas of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

In truth, it’s doable that Epictetus didn’t arrive in Rome till shortly after Nero’s demise. In any case, he would have witnessed the aftermath, and he would have been capable of hear all about Nero immediately from Epaphroditus and the opposite members of his family.

Marcus Aurelius on Nero

The Emperor Marcus Aurelius held Epictetus in very excessive regard. They each admired the Stoic Opposition who overtly defied Nero’s rule. Within the Meditations, Marcus doesn’t point out Seneca, who sided with Nero for many of his reign, wrote his speeches, and defended him within the Senate. As a substitute Marcus mentions his admiration for Thrasea, the chief of the Stoic Opposition, who was executed by Nero, and Helvidius, his son-in-law, whom Nero exiled (Med., 1.14). Marcus solely mentions Nero as soon as. He compares Nero to the legendary tyrant Phalaris, when giving an instance of somebody, “pulled by the strings of need”, as degenerate as a wild beast (Med., 3.16). He makes it clear, on this passage, that Nero symbolizes the reverse of a very good man. Marcus due to this fact was not a fan of Nero however slightly of the Stoic Opposition who resisted his rule within the senate.

Concerning Marcus’ private angle towards Nero, we even have the testimony of Roman historians. Herodian claims that when he was confronted with the prospect of his son, Commodus, turning into emperor in his teenagers, Marcus Aurelius “was disturbed additionally by the reminiscence of those that had change into sole rulers of their youth”, particularly Nero, who “had capped his crimes by murdering his mom and had made himself ridiculous within the eyes of the folks.” The Historia Augusta likewise says that Marcus was afraid Commodus would possibly change into “one other Nero”, and that in a letter Marcus mentioned “Nero had deserved to die”, by which he meant that he inevitably confronted the revolt, which led to his suicide, as a result of he was such a nasty ruler. These histories, although ceaselessly unreliable, are in line with what Marcus himself writes about Nero being a wild beast, and a tyrant, within the Meditations. As we will see, Marcus was in whole settlement with Epictetus on this regard.

Epictetus’ level right here is that Nero shouldn’t be a morally good individual, however a wretched one…

Epictetus on Nero

Epictetus, like Marcus, has nothing optimistic to say about Nero. Furthermore, though males run round searching for to win the favor of kings and emperors, he says, it isn’t truly within the energy of such rulers to grant them happiness or slightly flourishing (eudaimonia). If it had been, he says, then “Nero can be flourishing (eudaimon)” however, after all, he was not. Epictetus provides that even the good Homeric king of kings, Agamemnon, who instigated the Trojan Conflict, didn’t really reside a very good life, or flourish, “although he was a greater man than Nero” (Discourses, 3.22). Epictetus’ level right here is that Nero was not a morally good individual, however a wretched one, and due to this fact couldn’t even profit himself, not to mention others, regardless of wielding supreme energy as emperor.

In one other hanging passage, Epictetus makes use of the metaphor of coinage for example the stamp of a very good man’s ethical character:

What’s the stamp of his opinions? It’s gentleness, a sociable disposition, a tolerant mood, a disposition to mutual affection. Produce these qualities. I settle for them: I contemplate this man a citizen, I settle for him as a neighbor, a companion in my voyages. (Discourses, 4.5)

That is contrasted with the character of Emperor Nero, who’s none of these items and not a very good man.

Solely see that he has not Nero’s stamp. Is he passionate [lit. “quick to anger”], is he filled with resentment, is he fault-finding? If the whim seizes him, does he break the heads of those that are available his method? (In that case), why then did you say that he’s a person? (Ibid.)

Certainly, Epictetus exclaims “It’s the stamp of Nero. Throw it away: it can’t be accepted, it’s counterfeit.” He appears to be utilizing the analogy of coinage cleverly right here. George Lengthy, the translator, writes in his notes: “Maybe Epictetus implies that some folks wouldn’t contact the cash of the detestable Nero.” It’s doable that cash stamped with Nero’s picture had been not classed as authorized tender, after he was condemned by the Senate, and that some had been melted down and recast, though many do survive right this moment.

So far as Epictetus is worried, simply as cash stamped with Nero’s picture are “counterfeit”, Nero himself was a counterfeit human being. He was not even an actual man however slightly a brute, an irrational beast. Marcus Aurelius, we noticed earlier, says the identical factor of Nero, maybe influenced by this passage. To be extra particular, Epictetus describes Nero’s character right here as “fast to anger” (ὀργίλος), “bitter and complaining” (μηνιτής), and “fault-finding” or “argumentative” (μεμψίμοιρος).

The Stoic Opposition to Nero

Epictetus, in contrast, admired the Stoic Opposition and others who stood as much as Nero’s tyranny. At the start of the Discourses, Epictetus recounts an anecdote during which Thrasea Paetus, the chief of the Stoic Opposition, is boasting of his political defiance in opposition to Nero.

Thrasea used to say, I’d slightly be killed right this moment [by Nero] than banished tomorrow. What then did Rufus say to him? When you select demise because the heavier misfortune, how nice is the folly of your selection? But when, because the lighter, who has given you the selection? Will you not examine to be content material with that which has been given to you? (Discourses, 1.1.)

Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ personal Stoic instructor, was a mentor to the Stoic Opposition. He seems to be counseling Thrasea to not search out demise at Nero’s arms by intentionally frightening him, however to oppose him properly, and settle for demise when it comes. Nero lastly ordered his execution in 66 CE. Thrasea was revered by later generations of Romans as a well-known political martyr.

Epictetus additionally admires the Cynic thinker Demetrius, a buddy of Thrasea, who was with him when he was executed. He says that Demetrius neither flattered nor feared tyrants, and he praises the Cynic for standing as much as Nero. In response to Epictetus, when Nero needed to execute Demetrius, the thinker merely replied, “You threaten me with demise, however nature threatens you” (Discourses, 1.25).

Epictetus notably admired Paconius Agrippinus, one of many Stoic Opposition, as a result of he says he wouldn’t even contemplate debasing himself on Nero’s behalf.

Because of this, when Florus was deliberating whether or not he ought to go all the way down to Nero’s spectacles, and likewise carry out in them himself, Agrippinus mentioned to him, Go down: and when Florus requested Agrippinus, Why don’t you go down? Agrippinus replied, As a result of I don’t even deliberate concerning the matter. For he who has as soon as introduced himself to deliberate about such issues, and to calculate the worth of exterior issues, comes very close to to those that have forgotten their very own character. (Discourses, 1.2)

The reference is to massive festivals organized by Nero the place the attendees had been surrounded by armed guards, and compelled to applaud. Nero generally ordered Roman elites who had fallen out of favor with him to carry out on the stage, as a way to humiliate themselves earlier than the general public. In the event that they refused, they had been beheaded. Epictetus describes them worrying: “But when I don’t take an element within the tragic appearing, I shall have my head struck off.” That is harking back to a passage in Plato’s Apology, the place Socrates says {that a} good man, when going through hazard, wouldn’t even weigh-up the possibilities of residing or dying, however would merely select to do what he considers honorable.

Epictetus additionally praises a senior Roman senator known as Plautius Lateranus who exhibited braveness when Nero ordered him beheaded, throughout his purge of the Piso conspiracy.

Will you not stretch out your neck as Lateranus did at Rome when Nero ordered him to be beheaded? For when he had stretched out his neck, and acquired a feeble blow, which made him draw it in for a second, he stretched it out once more. (Discourses, 1.1)

The person who was ordered to execute Lateranus was seemingly one in every of his co-conspirators however Lateranus saved absolute silence and didn’t betray his involvement to Nero. Epictetus makes it clear to his Stoic college students that they need to do nothing to help a tyrant like Nero, even when they’re threatened with execution.


There are a number of extra passages the place Epictetus praises those that defied Nero’s rule, and accused him of being a tyrant. Certainly, we’re informed that Thrasea, the chief of the Stoic Opposition was well-known for saying, paraphrasing Socrates, “Nero might kill me however he can’t hurt me.” Arrian selected to shut the Enchiridion of Epictetus with the unique model: “Anytus and Meletus might kill me however they can’t hurt me.” Given the reward that Epictetus heaps on the Stoic Opposition, I believe his readers can be prone to take this concluding quote as a refined nod of respect to Thrasea.

It’s maybe value mentioning that the author Philostratus tells us that Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’ beloved Stoic instructor, was imprisoned and later exiled by Nero. He was compelled to do laborious labor on the subsequently deserted canal via the Isthmus of Corinth, in Greece. If it had labored, this canal would have been a marvel of engineering. The Cynic thinker Demetrius, a local of Corinth, was shocked to search out the Stoic in chains digging with a pickaxe. Musonius seemingly struck the earth once more, then appeared up and mentioned:

‘Do I upset you, Demetrius, to be digging the isthmus for Greece? I ponder what you’ll have thought if you happen to noticed me taking part in the cithara like Nero?’

Musonius meant that at the very least he was doing one thing constructive, in contrast to Nero, who was useless and obsessed together with his personal movie star. (The cithara is a stringed instrument, like a harp.) Nero was performing music at his personal festivals, to the pretend applause of a captive viewers, whereas the Stoic, regardless of being in chains, was serving to to construct a canal, which may truly profit the entire empire.

Epictetus was the slave of Nero’s Greek secretary, one in every of his most senior courtiers, so his unfavorable account of Nero’s character is about as shut as we get to first hand testimony from a critic of Nero. In stark distinction, the reward that Seneca heaps on Emperor Nero, typically makes for uncomfortable studying. For instance:

You, Caesar, can boldly say that all the things which has come into your cost has been saved secure, and that the state has neither overtly nor secretly suffered any loss at your arms. You’ve coveted a glory which is most uncommon, and which has been obtained by no emperor earlier than you, that of innocence. Your exceptional goodness shouldn’t be thrown away, neither is it ungratefully or spitefully undervalued. Males really feel gratitude in the direction of you: nobody individual ever was so expensive to a different as you might be to the folks of Rome, whose nice and enduring profit you might be. — Seneca, On Clemency

Seneca was writing early in Nero’s rule, however shortly after the homicide of the emperor’s younger half-brother, and rival for the throne, Britannicus. However, he emphatically repeats a number of occasions the declare that Nero is totally harmless of any wrongdoing and “has by no means shed the blood” of one other Roman. It appears to me that Seneca, a well-known rhetorician, would have been taken by his elite Roman viewers as skirting round the truth that Britannicus’ blood was, certainly, by no means spilled, as he was poisoned. In any case, regardless of Seneca’s assist, and really public protection of him, Nero would repay him, ultimately, by ordering him to take his personal life.

In response to the historian, Cassius Dio, Thrasea, who protested in opposition to Nero by strolling out of the Senate, informed his associates, together with many fellow-Stoics:

If I had been the one one which Nero was going to place to demise, I may simply pardon the remaining who load him with flatteries. However since even amongst those that reward him to extra there are a lot of whom he has both already disposed of or will but destroy, why ought to one degrade oneself to no function after which perish like a slave, when one might pay the debt to nature like a freeman? As for me, males will discuss of me hereafter, however of them by no means, besides solely to report the truth that they had been put to demise. — Thrasea, quoted in Cassius Dio

Thrasea was ultimately executed for refusing to reward Nero; Seneca had already been executed, by this time, regardless of having publicly praised Nero to extra and “loaded him with flatteries” for a few years. It typically puzzles fashionable readers that Seneca’s identify is by no means talked about in any surviving Stoic textual content, regardless of the very fact the we all know, e.g., that Marcus Aurelius had learn him. It’s doable that the above passage offers the reason, by suggesting that Thrasea might have instigated a damnatio memoriae in opposition to Seneca, amongst his fellow-philosophers, due to the latter’s assist for Nero.

Epictetus, likewise, warns his college students to not flatter tyrants, and by no means to change into beholden to them. He was acquainted with how Nero persecuted philosophers, akin to his personal instructor, Musonius. He might even have had a ringside seat to watch the purges following the Piso conspiracy, or at the very least its chaotic aftermath. In any case, I believe it’s past dispute that Epictetus considered Nero as a really dangerous emperor. Nero was a person filled with pathological anger, consumed by bitterness, obsessive about discovering fault and taking revenge, who had his critics beheaded on a whim, says Epictetus. The lads who stood as much as him are ethical heroes, and Epictetus presents them to his college students as Stoic exemplars, or function fashions to be emulated. Nero, mentioned Epictetus, was a wild beast, not an actual man, and Marcus Aurelius agreed with that verdict.



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