Who are Roman Era Philosophers?

The Roman period of the Ancient era of philosophy generally continues the classical Greek tradition and is usually considered to end with the Fall of Rome in the 5th Century.

It includes the following major philosophers:

Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.) Roman
Epictetus (c. A.D. 55 – 135) Greek-Roman
Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 121 -180) Roman
St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) Roman
Boethius (c. A.D. 480 – 525) Roman

Traditionally, the Fall of Rome was A.D. 476, when the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire was deposed, although St. Augustine and Boethius represent a link between the Roman and Medieval periods, and arguably the early Christian St. Augustine had more in common with the later Medieval philosophers than with the earlier Romans. There is also some overlap with the Hellenistic period, and the distinction is as much geographical as historical.

Stoicism and Neo-Platonism were the most influential philosophical schools among Roman philosophers, although there was also a revival of Cynicism.


Boethius (c. 480 – 525)


boethiusAnicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (usually known simply as Boethius) (c. 480 – 525) was a 6th Century Roman Christian philosopher of the late Roman period.

He is sometimes called the last of the Roman philosophers and the first of the Scholastics, and his final work, the “Consolation of Philosophy”, assured his legacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. His Latin translations of some of the works of Aristotle were the only ones available in Europe until the 12th Century.



Boethius (pronounced Bo-EE-tius) was born in Rome to an ancient and important patrician family which included emperors (Petronius Maximus and Olybrius) and many consuls on both sides. His father’s line also included two popes. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, was consul in 487.

His exact date of birth is disputed, although it is usually located at around A.D. 480, (the same year of birth as St. Benedict), or sometimes A.D. 475 or 476 (the same time as the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed). He was left an orphan at an early age and was educated by the pious and noble-minded Symmachus, whose daughter, Rusticana, he later married.

His father is recorded as proctor of a school in Alexandria, Egypt in the period around A.D. 470, and Boethius may have received some of his formidable education in Greek either there or in Athens. Either way, as early as 507 he was known as a learned man, and he entered the service of Theodoric the Great, the King of the Ostrogoths and de facto ruler of Italy (Theodoric had replaced Odoacer who had deposed the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 476). In 510, he became consul in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths, and by 520, at the age of about forty, Boethius had risen to the position of magister officiorum, the head of all the government and court services. In 522, his two sons were both appointed consuls, reflecting their father’s prestige.

In 523, however, Theodoric had Boethius arrested on charges of treason, possibly for a suspected plot with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I, or possibly just due to the political slander of his rivals (as Boethius himself claimed). He was stripped of his titles and wealth and imprisoned at Pavia in northern Italy, and finally executed in 524.

By the 8th Century, Boethius was represented as a martyr for the Christian faith (his family had been orthodox Christian for about a century, and Theodoric was an Arian heretic), and he is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church (although there some who dispute that he was a Christian at all, or that he abjuredthe Faith before his death).



Boethius’ lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin, and his completed translations of Aristotle‘s works on Logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Europe until the 12th Century. However, some of his translations were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.

He also produced commentaries on the “Isagoge” of Porphyry (c. A.D.233 -309), an important text on the Platonic treatment of the problem of universals, as well as several original treatises on Logic. Boethius’ theological works, which generally involve support for the orthodox position against Arian ideas and other contemporary religious debates, were much studied in the early Middle Ages.

Boethius’s most popular and enduring work, though, was the “Consolation of Philosophy”, which he wrote in prison in 523 while awaiting his execution. The work is cast as a dialogue between Boethius himself (bitter and despairing over his imprisonment) and the spirit of philosophy (depicted as a woman of wisdom and compassion), and is alternately composed in prose and verse. It teaches acceptanceof hardship in a spirit of philosophical detachment from misfortune, and parts of the work are reminiscent of the Socratic method of Plato’s dialogues.

The work takes up many problems of Metaphysics and Ethics, and it treats of the being and nature of God, of providence and fate, of the origin of the universe, and of the freedom of the will. Interestingly, it contains very little Christian influence, and its focus is much more on Neo-Platonism and even a recourse to Stoicism.

Many manuscripts survive, and it was extensively edited, translated, commentaried and printed throughout Europe from the late 15th Century onwards (including translations by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I), and it has been one of the most influential books in European culture. In particular, the concept of the “Boethian Wheel” (or the “Wheel of Fortune”), depicting the rise and fall of man, was frequently used in the “Consolation” and remained very popular throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

Boethius also produced texts on mathematics and the theory of music. His loose translation of Nicomachus’ treatise on arithmetic (and his translations of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on astronomy, if they were in fact completed, although they no longer survive) contributed to medieval education, and his mathematical texts were used in the early medieval universities. He also introduced the threefold classification of music: music of the spheres/world, harmony of human body/spirit and instrumental music (including the human voice).

St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430)


augustineSt. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354 – 430) was an Algerian-Roman philosopher and theologian of the late Roman / early Medieval period. He is one of the most important early figures in the development of Western Christianity, and was a major figure in bringing Christianity to dominance in the previously pagan Roman Empire. He is often considered the father of orthodox theology and the greatest

of the four great fathers of the Latin Church (along with St. Ambrose, St. Jerome and St. Gregory).

Unlike the later Scholastics who took Aristotle as the classical model to be integrated into Christian thought, Augustine developed a philosophical and theological system which employed elements of Plato and Neo-Platonism in support of Christian orthodoxy. His many works profoundly influenced the medieval worldview.



Aurelius Augustinus (usually known as simply Augustine) was born on 13 November 354 in Tagaste (or Thagaste), a provincial Roman city in Algeria, North Africa, and he was, by descent, a Berber. His father Patricius was a pagan, but his mother Monica (or Monnica) was a devout Catholic (and is herself revered as a Christian saint), so he was raised as a Catholic. At the age of 11, he was sent to school at Madaurus, an old Numidian town just south of Tagaste, famed both for its schools and for its pagan influence, where he became very familiar with Latin literature, as well as pagan beliefs and practices. Later he read the “Hortensius”, a dialogue by the Roman philosopher and politician Cicero, which was largely responsible for sparking his interest in philosophy.

At the age of 17, he went to Carthage, Tunisia (the metropolis of Roman Africa) to continue his education in rhetoric, and there he came under the influence of the controversial Persian religious cult of Manichaeism, much to the despair of his mother. He lived a hedonistic lifestyle for a time, including frequent visits to the brothels of Carthage, and developed a relationship with a young woman named Floria Aemilia, who would be his concubine for over fifteen years, and who bore him a son, Adeodatus.

After a year or two teaching grammar back in his home town, he returned to Carthage where he spent nine years conducting a school of rhetoric, until, in 383 (at the age of 29), he moved to Rome to teach rhetoric. However, he was disappointedwith the apathetic and crooked Roman schools, and the next year he accepted an appointment as professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan, a highly visible and influential academic chair.

During his time at Rome and Milan, he had moved away from Manichaeism, initially embracing the Skepticism of the New Academy movement. A combination of his own studies in Neo-Platonism, his reading of an account of the life of Saint Anthony of the Desert, and the combined influence of his mother, his friend Simplicianus and, particularly, the influential bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose (338 – 397), gradually inclined Augustine towards Christianity. In the summer of 386, he officially converted to Catholic Christianity, abandoned his career in rhetoric, quit his teaching position in Milan, and gave up any ideas of the society marriage which had been arranged for him, and devoted himself entirely to serving God, the priesthood and celibacy. He detailed this spiritual journey in his famous “Confessions”, which became a classic of both Christian theology and world literature.

In 388, he returned to Africa, although his mother died on the way there, and his son Adeodatus died soon after, leaving him alone in the world, without family. He sold his patrimony, giving the money to the poor, and converted the family house into a monastic foundation for himself and a group of friends. In 391, he was ordained a priest (and later bishop) at Hippo Regius on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria, and he became a famous preacher, particularly noted for opposing Manichaeism and heresies such as Donatism and Pelagianism. He remained in this position at Hippo until his death in 430, working tirelessly to convert the diverse local racial and religious groups to the Catholic faith.

Augustine died on 28 August 430, aged 75, during the siege of Hippo by the Germanic Vandals, who destroyed all of the city except Augustine’s cathedral and library. His body was later moved to Pavia, Italy (or, according to another account, to Cagliari on the island of Sardinia). Almost throughout his life he had been a lonely, isolated figure, not attached to any intellectual or academic movement, and without any university or institutional support for his work. At the time of his death, he was apparently the only person in his whole town who possessed any books at all.

He was made a saint (patron saint of brewers, printers, sore eyes and theologians) of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and among the Orthodox he is known as Blessed Augustine or St. Augustine the Blessed. He is the patron of the Augustinian religious order (the Catholic monastic order of both men and women living according to a guide to religious life known as the Rule of Saint Augustine). In 1298, he was made a pre-eminent Doctor of the Church.


Augustine wrote over 100 works in Latin, many of them texts on Christian doctrine and apologetic works against various heresies. He is best known for the “Confessiones” (“Confessions”, a personal account of his early life, completed in about 397), “De civitate Dei” (“The City of God”, consisting of 22 books started in 413 and finished in 426, dealing with God, martyrdom, Jews and other Christian philosophies) and “De Trinitate” (“On the Trinity”, consisting of 15 books written over the final 30 years of his life, in which he developed the “psychological analogy” of the Trinity).

In both his philosophical and theological reasoning, he was greatly influenced by Stoicism, Platonism and Neo-Platonism, particularly the “Enneads” of Plotinus (his generally favourable view of Neo-Platonic thought contributed to its entrance into the Christian, and subsequently the European, intellectual tradition). He was also influenced by the works of the Roman poet Virgil (for his teaching on language), Cicero (for his teaching on argument) and Aristotle (particularly his “Rhetoric” and “Poetics”).

Augustine argued that Skeptics have no basis for claiming to know that there is no knowledge, and he believed that genuine human knowledge can be established with certainty. He believed reason to be a uniquely human cognitive capacity that comprehends deductive truths and logical necessity. In a proof for existence similar to one later made famous by Descartes, Augustine claimed “Si fallor, sum” (“If I am mistaken, I am”). He also adopted a subjective view of time, arguing that time is nothing in reality but exists only in the human mind’s apprehension of reality, and that time cannot be infinite because God “created” it.

Augustine struggled to reconcile his beliefs about free will and his belief that humans are morally responsible for their actions, with his belief that one’s life is predestined and his belief in original sin (which seems to make human moral behaviour nearly impossible). He held that, because human beings begin with original sin and are therefore inherently evil (even if, as he believed, evil is not anything real but merely the absence of good), then the classical attempts to achieve virtue by discipline, training and reason are all bound to fail, and the redemptive action of God’s grace alone offers hope. He opined that “We are too weak to discover the truth by reason alone”.

In his theological works, Augustine expounded on the concept of original sin (the guilt of Adam which all human beings inherit) in his works against the Pelagian heretics, providing an important influence on St. Thomas Aquinas. He helped formulate the theory of the just war, and advocated the use of force against the Donatist heretics. He developed doctrines of predestination (the divine foreordaining of all that will ever happen) and efficacious grace (the idea that God’s salvation is granted to a fixed number of those whom He has already determined to save), which later found eloquent expression in the works of Reformation theologians such as Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) and John Calvin(1509 – 1564), as well as Cornelius Jansen (1585 – 1638) during the Counter-Reformation.

Augustine took the view that the Biblical text should not be interpreted literally if it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given reason (e.g. he believed that God created the world simultaneously and that the seven-day creationrecorded in the Bible merely represents a logical framework, rather than the passage of time in a physical way). Although he believed that God had chosen the Jews as a special people, he considered the scattering of Jews by the Roman empire to be a fulfillment of prophecy, and believed that the Jews would be converted at the end of time. He associated sexual desire with the sin of Adam, and believed that it was still sinful, even though the Fall has made it part of human nature.

In “The City of God”, he conceived of the church as a heavenly city or kingdom, ruled by love, which will ultimately triumph over all earthly empires which are self-indulgent and ruled by pride. He emphasized the church’s strict independencefrom, and its superiority over, the civil state. Begun in the aftermath of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, it was to some extent written as a defence against those who blamed Christianity for the fall of Rome, and to restore the confidenceof his fellow Christians.


Marcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 121 – 180)


Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius (c. A.D. 121 – 180) was a Roman Emperor (the last of the “Five Good Emperors”) and philosopher of the Roman period. He is considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers.

Although, perhaps not a first-rank or original philosopher, his “Meditations” remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy. Looked at as a series of practical philosophical exercises intended to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, his works have had a profound influence over the centuries.



Marcus Aurelius was born on 26 April A.D. 121 in Rome (originally named Marcus Annius Catilius Severus at birth). His father was Marcus Annius Verus (of Spanish origin, served as a praetor and died when Marcus was just three years old); his mother was Domitia Lucilla (from a wealthy family of consular rank). He had no brothers and just one sister, Annia Cornificia Faustina, who was about two years younger than he. After his father’s death, Marcus Aurelius was adopted and raised by his mother and paternal grandfather Marcus Annius Verus.

He had several family connections to various Roman emperors, mainly on his father’s side, and he had already attracted the attention of the ruling Emperor Hadrian as a young boy. He was made a member of the equestrian order when he was six. When Hadrian’s first adopted son died young, he adopted Anoninus Pius as his son and successor, on the precondition that Antoninus would in turn adopt both Marcus Aurelius (then called Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus) and his own grandson Lucius Aurelius Verus, and arrange for them to be next in line. Thus, Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Aurelius Verus were adopted by Anoninus Pius when he became Emperor in A.D. 138 and designated as his joint successors.

Marcus Aurelius received an education from some of the greatest scholars of his day: Euphorion for literature, Geminus for drama, Andron for geometry, Alexander of Cotiaeum for Greek, Caninius Celer and Herodes Atticus for Greek oratory and Marcus Cornelius Fronto for Latin. He was an intelligent, serious-minded and hardworking youth, and at quite an early age he became fond of the “Diatribai” (“Discourses”) of Epictetus, an important moral philosopher of the Stoic school.

He also started to have an increasing public role at the side of Antoninus, holding the position of consul three times in A.D. 140, A.D. 145 and A.D. 161, and increasingly involved in decisions. In A.D. 147 he received the proconsular imperium outside Rome and the tribunicia potestas, the main formal powers of emperorship. In A.D. 145, he married Annia Galeria Faustina (Faustina the Younger), who was Antoninus’ daughter and Marcus Aurelius’ own paternal cousin, and they were to bear 13 children, although only one son (Lucius Aurelius Commodus Antoninus, who would succeed him) and four daughters would outlive their father. When he married, he took the name Marcus Annius Verus.

When Antoninus Pius died in A.D. 161, Marcus Aurelius (or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus as he was then officially named) and Lucius Verus became joint Emperors, as had been arranged previously by Hadrian, although Verus (ten years younger and less popular) was probably subordinate in practice. During his reign, Marcus Aurelius was almost constantly at war with various peoples outside the empire, and having joint emperorship was probably a practical boon as well: Verus was authoritative enough to command the full loyalty of the troops, but already powerful enough that he had little incentive to try to overthrow Marcus Aurelius, and he remained loyal until his death during a pandemic of smallpox or measles while on campaign in A.D. 169, at which time Marcus Aurelius assumed sole emperorship.

As Emperor, he continued on the path of his predecessors by issuing numerous law reforms, and maintaining the status of Christians as legally punishable, although rarely persecuted in practice. The war with the revitalized Parthian Empire in Asia was essentially won by the end of the A.D. 160s, but the continuing battles against various Germanic tribes and other nomadic peoples along the northern borderand into Gaul and across the Danube (as well as minor revolts by ambitious generals) plagued Marcus Aurelius for the greater part of his remaining life.

Together with his wife, Faustina, Marcus Aurelius toured the eastern provincesuntil A.D. 173, including a visit to Athens where he declared himself a protector of philosophy. He also establish four Chairs of Philosophy in Athens, one for each of the principal philosophical traditions of the time (Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic and Epicurean).

After a triumph in Rome the following year, he marched again to the Danubian frontier, and a plan to annex Bohemia seemed poised for success after a decisive victory in A.D. 178, but was abandoned after Marcus Aurelius fell ill in A.D. 180.

Marcus Aurelius died on 17 March A.D. 180, in the city of Vindobona (modern-day Vienna, Austria). He was immediately deified and his ashes were returned to Rome where they rested in Hadrian’s mausoleum (modern Castel Sant’Angelo) until the Visigoths sacked the city in A.D. 410. His campaigns against the Germans and Sarmatians were also commemorated by a column in Rome.

Marcus Aurelius’ death is often held to have been the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire. He had named his son, Commodus, as Caesar in A.D. 166 and then as co-emperor with him in A.D. 177 (possibly just a pragmatic choice made out of Marcus Aurelius’ fear of succession issues and the possibility of civil war). But, as sole Emperor after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus’ instability, apathy and cowardice resulted in a series of crises and the start of the decline in imperial morals and attitudes.



Although his philosophical output was not large or original (unsurprising given the other calls on his time), the twelve books of his “Meditations”, written in Greek while on campaign between A.D. 170 and A.D. 180 as a source for his own guidance and self-improvement, remain revered as a literary monument and as a succinct statement of Stoic philosophy (although nowhere in the “Meditations” does Marcus Aurelius explicitly call himself a Stoic). The “Meditations” may be read as a series of practical philosophical exercises designed to digest and put into practice philosophical theory, and thereby to transform his own behaviour and his entire way of life.

Particularly important in his thought was his complete disbelief in an afterlife and the conviction that everything, even legends, will be turned into absolute oblivionand is already in the process of disintegrating and changing. In his opinion, to desirewas to be permanently disappointed and disturbed, since everything we desire in this world is “empty and corrupt and paltry”. Thus, death was desirable, because it would mark an end to all desires.

Despite his thoughts on life and death, Marcus Aurelius was an advocate of rational virtue, and had a kind of indifference towards the brutalities of life. He justified his deeds as an Emperor, such as his persecution of Christians and his frequent military campaigns, by pointing out the insignificance of worldly affairs. He showed no particular religious faith in his writings, but seemed to believe that some sort of logical, benevolent force organizes the universe in such a way that even “bad” occurrences happen for the good of the whole. He echoed Epictetus in his claims that all attributions of good or evil are the product of human judgements.

His Stoic ideas often revolved around the denial of emotion, a skill which, he says, can free a man from the pains and pleasures of the material world, and he claimed that the only way a man can be harmed by others is to allow his reaction to overpower him. In a number of passages, Marcus Aurelius exhorts himself to overcome the limited perspective of the individual and experience the world from a cosmic perspective, sometimes evoking the Stoic physics of flux inherited from Heraclitus. He believed that once one has overcome false value-judgements (e.g. that wealth and social standing are valuable, and that one should compete for them against others), one will experience the cosmos as a single living being (identified with God) rather than as a site of conflict and destruction.

Epictetus (c. A.D. 55 – 135)


epictetusEpictetus (c. A.D. 55 – 135) was a Greek/Roman philosopher of the Hellenistic period. He managed to overcome huge obstacles in developing from a crippled Roman slave to become one of the most popular and sought after philosophers of his time.

He was one of the most influential teachers of the later years of the school of Stoicism, and considered by some to be the greatest of the Stoics. Because so little of the original early works of Stoicism has survived, his transcribed teachings are also a major source of our knowledge of the movement.



Epictetus (pronounced epic-TEE-tus) was born around A.D. 55 in the Roman city of Hierapolis (the present-day city of Pamukkale in south-western Turkey). He spent his youth in Rome as a slave to Epaphroditus, a wealthy freedman and secretary to the Roman Emperor Nero. He was either lame from birth or, as some sources have it, deliberately crippled by Epaphroditus. Even as a slave, he studied Stoic philosophy under one of the greatest Stoic teachers of the age, Gaius Musonius Rufus, before the latter’s exile by Nero for his ethical teachings.

He gained his freedom after his master was put to death by Nero’s successor Emperor Domitian, and began to teach philosophy in Rome. Around A.D. 93, however, Emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Rome (and ultimately from all of Italy), and Epictetus travelled to Nicopolis in north-western Greece. There, he founded his own philosophical school, which soon acquired a good reputation, attracting many upper-class Romans. His most famous pupil there was Arrian (Flavius Arrianus: c. A.D. 86 – 160), who studied under him as a young man and wrote the famous “Discourses” and the “Handbook” based on his lecture notes.

He lived a life of great simplicity, with few possessions. He was reportedly a powerful speaker and famed for his knowledge and wisdom. According to some reports, he was more popular in his day than Plato had been in his, and the Emperor Hadrian (among other eminent figures) favoured him and may have visited his school in Nicopolis. He never married and had no children, and for many years he lived alone, although in his old age he adopted a friend’s child (who would otherwise have been left to die), and brought him up as his own.

Epictetus died around the year A.D. 135 in Nicopolis.



So far as is known, Epictetus himself wrote nothing, and all that remains of his work was faithfully transcribed by his pupil, Arrian around the years A.D. 104 – 107. The main work is “The Discourses” (of which four of the original eight books have been preserved), and a popular digest of that work, entitled the “Enchiridion” (or “Handbook”).

The Stoicism school of philosophy had been founded nearly 400 years before Epictetus, and very little of the original works of Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280 – 207 B.C.) has survived. Most of our knowledge of Stoic philosophy therefore comes down to us from Epictetus, although it is difficult to tell to what extent he preserved the original doctines, and how much he innovated and adapted.

Epictetus focused more on Ethics (and less on Logic and physics) than the early Stoics had, and he brought to a logical conclusion Stoicism’s tendency to reduce philosophy to Ethics. He saw the role of the Stoic teacher as encouraging his students to discover the invariable and inviolable true nature of things. The nature of things falls into two categories: those which are subject to our exclusive power (e.g. judgment, impulse, desire, aversion, etc), and those which are not (e.g. health, material wealth, fame, etc). In order to achieve the ultimate goal of ataraxia (an undisturbed and serene state of mind), the philosopher should therefore concentrate on those things he has some control over, and not be affected by the external objects of our lives (over which we have no control). Essentially, then, Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions, in order to develop clear judgment and inner calm and the ultimate goal of freedom from suffering.

The Stoics were essentially materialists, and God was conceived of as a type of fiery breath that blended perfectly with all other matter in the universe and transformed matter from undifferentiated “stuff” into the varied forms that we see around us. The mind of each person was quite literally a fragment of God, and the rationality that we each possess therefore a fragment of God’s rationality. Living in harmony with nature, and accepting whatever fate brings were also important Stoics precepts. Epictetus argued that we can never fail to be happy if we learn to desire that things should be exactly as they are.


Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.)


CiceroMarcus Tullius Cicero (usually known simply as Cicero) (106 – 43 B.C.) was a Roman philosopher, orator and statesman of the Roman period. He was a central political figure during the turbulent reign of Julius Caesar, and politics was always the most important thing in his life, but he still managed to produce six influential books on rhetoric and eight on philosophy (much of it during enforced periods of exile).

He is generally perceived to be one of the most versatile minds of ancient Rome, and is widely considered one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists. While perhaps not an exceptional or original thinker, he was instrumental in introducing the Romans to the chief schools of Greek philosophy, and was declared a “righteous pagan” by the early Catholic Church (meaning that many of his works were deemed worthy of preservation – St. Augustine and others quoted liberally from his works).


Cicero was born on 3 January 106 B.C. in Arpinum, a hill town south of Rome. His father was a well-to-do and well-read member of the semi-noble equestrian (or knight) class with good connections in Rome, although with no familial ties to the Roman patrician or senatorial class. Little is known about his mother, Helvia.

He was an extremely talented student, whose learning attracted attention from all over Rome, leading to an opportunity to study Roman law under the prominent politician and legal authority Quintus Mucius Scaevola (c. 159 – 88 B.C.). His fellow students with Scaevola were Gaius Marius Minor, Servius Sulpicius Rufus (106 – 43 B.C., who became a famous lawyer), and Titus Pomponius Atticus (c. 110 – 32 B.C., who became Cicero’s closest friend, chief emotional support and adviser). Cicero also had the support of his family’s patrons, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus (163 – 89 B.C.) and Lucius Licinius Crassus (140 -91 B.C., who was a model to Cicero both as an orator and as a statesman).

In the late 90’s and early 80’s B.C., Cicero fell in love with philosophy, which was to have a great role in his life. The first philosopher he met was the Epicurean philosopher Phaedrus (d. 70 B.C.), when he was visiting Rome in around 91 B.C. In 87 B.C., Philo of Larissa (c. 159 – 84 B.C.), then head of the New Academy in Athens, visited Rome and Cicero enthusiastically absorbed the philosophy of Academic Skepticism at his feet. Cicero also met Diodotus (d. 59 B.C.), a Stoic, and for a time he adopted a modified Stoicism, and Diodotus became Cicero’s protégé and lived in his house until his death.

Cicero’s ambitions for an illustrious career in public civil service started with some time in military service in 90 – 88 B.C. (although he had no taste for military life), and then the early years in his career as a lawyer around 83 – 81 B.C., including the politically courageous defence of Sextus Roscius on a charge of parricide. After winning this sensitive case, however, Cicero thought it prudent to leave Italy for a while and travelled to Athens to stay with his childhood friend, Atticus. There, he further consulted with philosophers of the Academy and the New Academy, and particularly with the rhetorician Apollonius Molon of Rhodes (fl. 70 B.C.) in order to learn a less exhausting style of public speaking.

On his return to Rome, Cicero’s reputation rose very quickly. In 79 B.C., he married Terentia, a wealthy heiress of patrician background. The marriage, which was initially a marriage of convenience, was harmonious for over 30 years, until their divorce in 45 B.C., and they had two children, Tullia Ciceronis (b. 78 B.C.) and Marcus Tullius Cicero Minor (b. 65 B.C.) . He rose to the position of quaestor (a financial administrator, which also made him a member of the Roman Senate) for western Sicily in 75 B.C.. His career received a further fillip from the great success of his prosecution of Gaius Verres (120 – 43 B.C.), a corrupt governor of Sicily.

Despite his lack of social standing, he was able to ascend the Roman cursus honorum (sequence of public offices) and was made consulin 63 B.C., at the relatively young age of 43. After helping to suppress a conspiracy, however, he was forced into exile in Thessalonica, Greece in 58 B.C., although he was rehabilitated just a year later and his properties restored. When Julius Caesar (100 – 44 B.C.) invaded Italy in 49 B.C., Cicero, having thown in his lot with Caesar’s main rival, Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus: 106 – 48 B.C.), again fled Rome, this time to Illyria (modern-day Albania). Caesar eventually pardoned him, but Cicero returned to Rome very cautiously.

Soon after his divorce from Terentia in 45 B.C., his daughter (and favourite) Tullia died, and for a long time Cicero was inconsolable. He was also saddened that his son Marcus insisted on pursuing a military career rather than philosophy, even if later Marcus rose to the position of proconsul of Syria and the province of Asia.

In the wake of Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., Cicero became a popular leader during the period of instability that followed, supporting Octavian (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.), Caesar’s heir and adopted son (later to become Emperor Caesar Augustus). He orchestrated political attacks on Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius: 83 – 30 B.C.) who was jockeying for power and scheming to take revenge on Caesar’s murderers. In reprisal, he was hunted down by Mark Antony’s forces and was himself summarily assassinated on 7 December, 43 B.C. at Formia, between Rome and Naples.



Among 60 speeches (both as a lawyer and as a senator) and over 900 letters of Cicero which have been preserved, six influential books on rhetoric and eight on philosophy have come down to us (although some in fragmentary condition). Given that they were designed with a political purpose in mind, we cannot be sure of Cicero’s actual opinions, and it should be noted that the dialogue form of many of them is useful for an author who wishes to express a number of opinions without having to endorse one.

In the political chaos following the dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 – 78 B.C.), and the First Triumvirate (the unofficial political alliance of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus), Cicero sought to reinstate (and, if possible, improve) what he thought of as the “golden age” of the Roman Republic, ruled by a selfless nobility of successful individuals. He also looked to boost the influence of his own family’s equestrian class, rather than relying on the self-serving and often corrupt patrician class. His political vision is detailed in the “De Re Publica”, of which unfortunately only fragments remain, including the famous Dream of Scipio.

He tried to use philosophy to bring about his political goals, which, in an age when serious philosophy was still very much centred in Greece, required making it accessible to a Roman audience through Latin translations of the major Greek works and summaries of the beliefs of the primary Greek philosophical schools of the time (Skepticism, Aristotelianism, Stoicism and Epicureanism). He was well acquainted with all these schools (he had teachers in each of them at different times of his life), and he is the source of much of our knowledge about these schools. He professed allegiance throughout his life to the Skepticism of the New Academy (which, as a politician and a lawyer, with the need to be able see as many sides of an argument as possible, is probably understandable).

Who are Hellenistic Philosophers?

The Hellenistic period of the Ancient era of philosophy comprises many different school of thought developed in the Hellenistic world (which is usually used to mean the spread of Greek culture to non-Greek lands conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.). It is usually considered to begin with the deaths of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. and of Aristotle in 322 B.C.).

It includes the following major philosophers:

Pyrrho (c. 360 – 270 B.C.) Greek
Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.) Greek
Zeno of Citium (334 – 262 B.C.) Greek
Philo of Alexandria (20 B.C. – A.D. 50) Egyptian-Jewish
Plotinus (A.D. 205 – 270) Egyptian-Greek

Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Syrians living outside Greece incorporated elements of Persian and Indian philosophy into their works, superimposing these ideas on the legacy handed down by the Socratic and Pre-Socratic philosophers of Classical Greece.

During this period, Stoicism, Skepticism, Epicureanism and Neo-Platonism flourished.

To some extent the Hellenistic period overlaps the Roman period, and the distinction is as much geographical as historical.

Plotinus (c. A.D. 204 – 270)


plotinusPlotinus (c. A.D. 204 – 270) was an Egyptian/Greek/Roman philosopher of the Hellenistic period. He is widely considered the founder (along with his less famous teacher Ammonius Saccas) of the Neo-Platonism movement. Many later Christians and Muslimswere influenced by his Neo-Platonism (or by Platonism acquired through the mediation of Plotinus’ teachings).

More than just a commentator on Plato, though, Plotinus was an original and profound thinker in his own right, who borrowed and re-worked all that he found useful from earlier thinkers (including Plato) to develop a complex spiritual cosmology and its related theory of morality, as well as a unique theory of sense-perception and knowledge.



Plotinus (pronounced plo-TINE-us) was born around A.D. 204, based on the report of his student, Porphyry (c. A.D. 233 – 309). The 4th Century historian, Eunapius, reported that he was born in Lycoplis, in the Nile Delta of Egypt, of Greek, Roman or possibly Hellenized Egyptian descent.

From all accounts, his personal and social life exhibited the highest moral and spiritual standards from an early age. He took up the study of philosophy at the age of twenty-seven, around the year A.D. 232, and he travelled to the great centre of learning Alexandria to study. There he read the works of Aristotle and Plato (both of whom had a strong influence on his thought) and was introduced to the works of the Aristotelian Alexander of Aphrodisias, the Neo-Pythagorean Numenius, and various Stoics. But he expressed dissatisfaction with every teacher he encountered until he happened on Ammonius Saccas (considered, along with Plotinus, one of the founders of Neo-Platonism), whereupon he declared to a friend, “this is the man I was looking for”. He began to study intently under his new instructor, remaining in Alexandria for the next eleven years.

Around the age of 38, he decided to investigate the philosophical teachings of the Persian and Indian philosophers. With this in mind, he joined the army of Gordian III (Jordanus) as it marched on Persia, although, when the campaign failed and Gordian died, Plotinus found himself abandoned in a hostile land, and only with difficulty found his way back to relative safety in Antioch.

At the age of 40, he made his way to Rome, where he stayed for most of the remainder of his life. There, he began to attract a number of students, although he had taught in Rome for twenty years before the arrival of Porphyry (a Phoenician Neo-Platonic philosopher and important commentator on the Logic of Aristotle), who was destined to become his most famous pupil, as well as his biographer and editor. Among his other students were Amelius Gentilianus of Tuscany, Zethos (an Arab who left Plotinus a legacy and some land), Castricius Firmus (one of several Roman Senators), Eustochius of Alexandria (a doctor who zealously attended Plotinus until his death), and also several women including Gemina (in whose Roman house he lived, along with her daughter, also Gemina).

While in Rome, Plotinus gained the respect of the Emperor Gallienus and his wife Salonina and tried to interest them in rebuilding an abandoned settlement in Campania, to be known as “Platonopolis” or the “City of Philosophers” and where the inhabitants would live under the constitution set out in Plato’s “Laws”, although the project never materialized.

Plotinus was an ascetic and a meditative man. A vegetarian for most of his life, he also shunned public baths with their promiscuous nudity. He wrote the essays that became the famous “Enneads” over a period of seventeen years from about A.D. 253 until a few months before his death. Towards the end of his life, urged by Porphyry, he began to collect his treatises (mainly material from his lectures and debates with his students) into systematic form, and to compose new ones.

He died in A.D. 270 of a long and disfiguring illness, possibly leprosy. He spent his final days in seclusion on the estate in Campania bequeathed by his friend and student, Zethos, and attended by another of his students, the doctor Eustochius.



Plotinus’ most famous work is his “Enneads”, written over the last 17 years of his life. He left them as an enormous collection of notes and essays, with poor spelling and in atrocious handwriting (partly due to his failing eyesight), requiring extensive editing. It was his student Porphyry who polished, compiled and arranged them into the six books of nine treatises each that we now know.

Plotinus’ Metaphysics is based on a chain of three hypostases (or underlying states or substances), the “One”, the “Nous” and the “Soul”, which are related to each other and affect each other through the plan or formative principle known as the “Logos”. He was essentially a Monist and a Pantheist of the world-rejecting type (or, arguably, a Panentheist). His beliefs can also be seen as coming close to an early exposition of Idealism, although he made no attempt to discover how we can get beyond our ideas in order to know external objects.

He taught that there is a supreme, totally transcendent “One”, beyond all categories of being and non-being, containing no division, multiplicity or distinction. He explicitly denied sentience, self-awareness, thought or any other action to the “One”, which is above all understanding, and can be best approached by negative theology. This “One” is the source of the world, although not through any act of creation, either willful or otherwise (as such an activity cannot be ascribed to the unchangeable, immutable “One”), but by a process of emanation (a view sometimes known as Emanationism). Plotinus believed that the multiple cannot exist without the simple, and so the “less perfect” must of necessity emanate from the “perfect” or “more perfect”. In this way, all of “creation” emanates from the “One” in a constant ongoing process of succeeding stages of lesser and lesser perfection, with the “One” providing the ultimate foundation and location for all existents.

The first emanation from the “One” is the “Nous” (which can be variously translated as “intelligence”, “thought”, “the divine mind”, “logos”, “order” or “reason”), the true first principle, which Plotinus identified (at least metaphorically) with the Demiurge of Plato’s “Timaeus”. The “Nous” is not a self-sufficient entity like the “One”, but rather possesses the ability to contemplate both the “One” (as its prior) as well as its own thoughts and the ideas which are in its spiritual nature (which can be identified with Plato‘s Forms or Ideas).

From “Nous” proceeds the “Soul” (or “Psyche”), the dynamic, creative, temporal power, which itself is subdivided into two: the upper aspect (or “World Soul”), the contemplative part which governs the Cosmos and remains in contact with the “Nous”, ensuring that the individual embodied souls eventually return to their true divine state within the “Nous”; and the lower aspect (identified with “Nature”) which allows itself to be multiply divided into individual human souls.

Finally, after the first three degrees which form a sort of trinity, the third level of emanation is the universe itself (i.e. the sky, the stars, good and evil spirits, human souls and matter). Matter and the world of the senses is the the lowest and least perfected level of being, so far removed from divinity that Plotinus sometimes identified matter with “evil”. Human souls (which were in a state of pre-existence in the “Nous”), are now imprisoned in material bodies although, like the “Soul”, they have two levels of activities, the rational (which tends to the formation of ideas) and the informative (which tends to the informing of the body). Later Neo-Platonicphilosophers added hundreds of other intermediate beings as emanations between the One and humanity, but Plotinus’ system was relatively simple in comparison.

Unlike the orthodox Christian notion of creation ex nihilo (“out of nothing”), then, Plotinus’ emanation ex deo (“out of God”) confirms the absolute transcendence of the “One”, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence, and in no way affecting or diminishing itself by these emanations, similar to the emanations from the sun. Plotinus held that we can recognize the “One” by the Goodor through Beauty, and that it is even possible to attain an ecstatic or mystical union with the “One” (a kind of enlightenment or liberation common in many Eastern religions), which Porphyry claims that Plotinus attained four times during the years he knew him.

Plotinus saw Ethics and morality as a kind of upward progression from the world to God, the reverse of the downward progression of the emanations. Man is able to make this return by means of catharsis (purification from matter), which is marked by three types of virtues, the ethical (or practical), the dianoetic (or contemplative) and the ecstatic. The ethical virtues (such as temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice) assure us of the practical domination of the sensible world, and open the way toward the operation of the superior contemplative virtues. The dianoetic virtues are the aesthetic and rational virtues which separate intelligible ideasfrom matter and contemplate them as they exist in either the “World Soul” (which is the residence of beauty) or in the “Nous” (which is the location of truth). The ecstatic virtues, however, are the only ones which can lead us to the absolute perfection of the “One” and the supreme state of happiness. In the state of ecstasy, man remains passive and unconscious of everything except his union with the “One”.

In his ethical system, then, authentic human happiness (or eudaimonia) consists of identifying with that which is the best in the universe (a focus on the Forms and the “One”) or with the highest capacity of Reason. Plotinus held that happiness is beyond anything physical (the “true human” being an incorporeal contemplative capacity of the soul, and superior to all things corporeal), and so potentially available to all people (this was the first real introduction of a Eudaimonism attainable only within consciousness). A happy person will not sway between happy and sad, as the Stoics believed, because the body (whether mentally incapacitated, asleep or even undergoing torture) is irrelevant to the source of happiness. The “perfect life”, therefore, involves a person who commands reason and contemplation.

In Epistemology, Plotinus also offered a well-developed theory of knowledge. He distinguished four kinds of knowledge: sense knowledge, which is an obscure representation of truth; reason cognition, which gives us knowledge of the essences of things; intellectual cognition, which gives us knowledge of ourselves; and ecstasy, which consists in a supernatural intuition of God, in which our natural knowledge ceases in the divine unconsciousness.

He held that, although sensations or sense knowledge provide a direct, realistic perception of material things, because they are ever-changing, such knowledge is not actually reliable or valuable. In internal sense perception, the imaginationalso functions actively, and memory can be attributed to the imaginative power, which serves not only in the recall of sensory images but also in the retention of the words or verbal formulae in which intellectual concepts are expressed. Rational knowledge is a cognition of intelligible realities, roughly equivalent to Plato’s Forms or Ideas, in the Divine Mind or “Nous”. The climax of knowledge consists in an ecstatic or intuitive mystical union with the “One” which is experienced by few.


Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C. – A.D. 50)


PhiloPhilo of Alexandria (AKA Philo Judaeus, Philo the Jew and Yedidia) (c. 20 B.C. – A.D. 50) was a Jewish-Egyptian philosopher of the Hellenistic period, and one of the most important Jewish Philosophers of ancient times.

He tried to fuse and harmonize ancient Greek philosophy and Judaism, using a composite of Jewish exegesis (or interpretation of authoritative texts) and the art of allegoryhe had learned from Stoic philosophy. Given the similarity of the resulting combination to Christian teachings, some have argued that Philo is actually the “founder of Christianity” and that he strongly influenced the New Testament.


Philo was a Hellenized Jew born around 20 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. In addition to his Jewish education, studying the laws and national traditions, he was obviously thoroughly educated in Greek philosophy and culture, as can be seen from his superb knowledge of classical Greek literature. He had a deep reverence for Plato in particular, and clearly had a first-hand knowledge of the prevailing Stoica ltheories, some neo-Pythagorean works, and at least a passing acquaintance with Cynicism and the moral popular literature.

He appears to have come from a wealthy and prominent family, and to have been a leader in his community, which was at that time the largest Jewish communityoutside of Palestine. His brother, Alexander Lysimachus, was a very wealthy, prominent Roman government official responsible for collecting dues on all goods imported into Egypt from the East. Philo complained that his official functions even forced him to abandon his studies.

The very few biographical details we have are found in Philo’s own works and in those of the 1st Century Jewish historian, Josephus. The only event that can be determined chronologically was his participation (and leadership) in the deputation which the Alexandrian Jews sent to the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 39 or 40 A.D. in order to ask for protection against attacks by the Alexandrian Greeks, to seek relief from anti-Jewish riots promoted by Flaccus, the Roman governor of Alexandria, and also to complain about the introduction of statues of the emperor into the synagogues.

Although this is the latest known fact in Philo’s life, he is assumed to have died around A.D. 50.


Philo’s works may be divided into expositions of Jewish Law, apologetical works and philosophical treatises. His expositions of Jewish Law include the “The Exposition of the Law” (a treatise covering the creation of the world, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, the laws written by Moses and the laws on general virtues); the “Allegorical Commentary on Genesis” (a systematic application of the method of allegorical interpretation, and the chief source of information on Philo’s ideas) and <b“Questions and Solutions” (a series of questions on each verse of the Mosaic books of the Bible). The apologetical writings include the “Life of Moses” (a résumé of the Jewish Law intended for a larger public), “On Repentance” (a treatise written for the edification of the newly converted), the treatises “On Piety” and “On Humanity”, the “Apology for the Jews” (written to defend his coreligionists against calumnies), the “Contemplative Life” (written to cultivate the best fruits of the Mosaic worship), and the “Against Flaccus” and the “Embassy to Caius” (both intended to establish the truth about the pretended impiety of the Jews). His philosophical treatises include “On the Liberty of the Wise”, “On the Incorruptibility of the World”, “On Providence” and “On Animals”.</b

Philo made his philosophy the means of defending and justifying Jewish religious truths and the scripture of the Hebrew Bible, which he regarded as fixed and determinate. Thus, he used philosophy both as an aid to truth, and as a means of arriving at it, and he selectively chose from the philosophical tenets of the Greeks, conveniently ignoring those that did not harmonize with the Jewish religion.

Given this standpoint, Philo incorporated and combined doctrines from various Greek schools, including the Stoic doctrine of God as the only efficient cause as well as the general Ethics and use of allegories of Stoicism, the Heraclitean doctrine of strife as the moving principle, Plato’s exposition of the world as having no beginning and no end, the number-symbolism of Pythagoreanism (as well as its belief in the body as the source of all evil), and the doctrine of the Logos from various elements of Greek philosophy.

Philo’s interpretation of the Hebrew Bible is based on on the assumption of its two-fold meaning, the literal (adapted to human needs) and the allegorical (the “real” meaning, which only the initiated can comprehend). Thus, a special method is required to determine the the correct allegory and therefore the real meaning of the words of scripture. This may involved excluding the literal sense of certain passages of the Bible altogether (e.g unworthy, senseless, contradictory or inadmissible passages). He suggested special rules that might direct the reader to recognizethose passages which demand an allegorical interpretation, such as passages that contain the doubling or repetition of a phrase, an apparently superfluousexpression, the use of a synonyms or a play on words, even the use of certain participles, adverbs, prepositions, etc.

In Metaphysics, Philo’s conception of the matter out of which the world was created was similar to that of Plato and the Stoics, holding that God did not create the world-stuff (which, in its essentially evil nature, resists all contact with the divine), but rather found it ready at hand and acted more as a demiurge (or cosmic craftsman). He frequently compared God to an architect or gardener, who formed the present world according to a pattern of an ideal world. He assigned an especially important position to the “Logos” (similar in nature to the Hebrew phrase “word of God”), which he saw as executing the various acts of the Creation (given that God himself can not actually come into contact with matter), with God creating only the soul of the good. Also following the Stoics, Philo designated God as “the efficient cause”, and matter as “the affected cause”.

For Philo, sense-perception and sensibility has its seat in the body, but is in need of guidance by reason (that part of the spirit which looks toward heavenly things). He believed that in the pre-temporal condition (before the existence of time), the soul was without body and sex, and free from earthly matter, morally perfect, without flaws, but still striving after a higher purity. Since the beginning of time, though, the soul lost its purity and was confined in an earthly body, although retaining a tendency toward something higher. The body, however, is a source of danger, as it easily drags the spirit into the bonds of sensibility and temptation (sensibility being the source of the passions and sensual desires, which attack the sensibility in order to destroy the whole soul).

Philo’s doctrine of virtue is generally Stoic, although he was undecided whether the really virtuous condition required complete dispassionateness or just moderation. He frequently identified the Logos or the Garden of Eden with virtue and divine wisdom. He saw the fundamental virtue as goodness, from which proceed the four cardinal virtues (prudence, courage, self-control, and justice) like the four rivers proceeding from the river of Eden. However, unlike the Stoics, Philo sought in religion the basis for all Ethics.


Zeno of Citium (c. 334 – 262 B.C.)


zeno-citiumZeno of Citium (c. 334 – 262 B.C.) was a Greek philosopher of the Hellenistic period, active in Athens from about 300 B.C.

He is considered the founder of the Stoicism school of philosophy (which became the dominant philosophy of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and an influence on early Christianity). However, Zeno’s philosophy was more of a middle way between the Cynics’ complete rejection of society and the later Stoics’ obsession with duty.


Zeno of Citium (pronounced ZEE-no of SISH-um) was born around 334 or 333 B.C. in the Greek colony of Kition (or, Latinized, Citium), modern-day Larnaca on the island of Cyprus, off the coast of Turkey.

He was the son of a merchant, possibly of Phoenician heritage (Citium had a large Phoenician population), and plied the trade of merchant himself until the age of 42, when he opened his Stoic school of philosophy in Athens. The school was named for the stoa ( or “porch”) that Zeno used as his teaching platform.

At one point, when he was around thirty years old, he became a student of Crates of Thebes (c. 365 – 285 B.C.), the most famous Cynic philosopher living at that time in Athens. According to legend, Zeno was shipwrecked off the coast of Greece, and later wandered into a bookshop in Athens and was immediately attracted to the works of Socrates. On asking how to find the man, (Socrates was long dead by this time), the bookseller just pointed to the passing Crates of Thebes, and so Zeno became his student almost by default.

Zeno was described as haggard and sunburned, and led a spare, ascetic life, which coincides with the influences of Cynic teaching (and which was continued in his own Stoic philosophy, at least in part). His main enjoyment was to sit in the sun eating figs and drinking wine. He inherited the Cynics’ preference for gruff speech and shocking behaviour, continually mocking the wealthy of Athens and consorting with a crowd of ignorant serfs and beggars (he was not above begging himself).

The 3rd Century A.D. historian Diogenes Laërtius noted in his “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” that Zeno had very few female friends, preferring the company of men and boys (he did keep a female maid, apparently in order to avoid being labelled a misogynist). He lived, for a time at least, with Persaeus (306 – 243 B.C.), who may have been Zeno’s lover, servant or amanuensis, but was certainly his friend and favourite student. When Zeno was invited to act as an advisor to Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, he sent Persaeus in his stead, and he would go on to became an important figure at the Macedonian court.

Zeno died around 262 or 261 B.C. Diogenes Laërtius tells the rather strange tale that he tripped and fell leaving the school one day, and broke a toe. But, since a Stoic sage was expected to always do what was appropriate for Nature and, as Zeno was very old at the time (he would have been around 72), he felt it appropriate to die and consequently strangled himself. A tomb was built in honour of his moral influence on the youth of his era. Zeno’s pupil Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330 – 230 B.C.) succeeded him as head of the Stoic school.


None of Zeno’s own works have survived to modern times, and all we know of him is from quotations and anecdotes in the works of his followers and critics. Because his ideas were built upon by other Stoics, notably Chrysippus of Soli (c. 280 – 207 B.C.) and Epictetus, it is difficult to determine precisely what his own thoughts and teachings were.

Like the Cynics, Zeno recognised a single, sole and simple good, which is the only goal to strive for and which can only consist in Virtue. However, he deviated from the Cynics in his view that things which are morally indifferent could nevertheless have value to us.

Zeno preached that “man conquers the world by conquering himself”. He lectured his students on the value of “apatheia” (or the absence of passion), arguing that only by controlling one’s emotions and physical desires could one develop wisdom and the ability to apply it. He held that the practicing Stoic could suppress the influence of the passions by developing an indifference to both pain and pleasureby means of meditation.

He also invented the concept of “kathekon” (which has been variously translated as “befitting actions” or “appropriate actions for nature” or “proper function”) which carries the sense that Man (and all living beings) must act in accordance with Nature. The Stoic‘s goal should be “katorthomata” (a perfect achieved kathekon action, derived from the “orthos logos” or reason).

Zeno’s philosophy offered a middle way between the Cynics’ complete rejection of society and the later Stoics’ obsession with duty. The famous Stoic acceptance of Fate, in Zeno’s formulation, is nothing more than that: what happens, happens, and there is no point in complaining about it. Despite the influence of Stoicism on later Christian doctrines, Zeno’s worldview was probably closer to that of Taoism, Hindu Vedanta or some varieties of Sufism than to orthodox Christianity or Islam.

Of the many works Zeno was reported to have written, his “Republic” (written under Crates’ tutelage) is the most famous and, although it has not survived, more is known about it than any of his other works. It was written in conscious imitation of (or opposition to) Plato‘s work of the same name, and it outlined Zeno’s vision of the ideal Stoic society built on egalitarian principles, where virtuous men and women would live a life of simple asceticism.

Among the doctrines Zeno advocated in the work (some of which were considered rather shocking and verging on Anarchism) were: the denouncement of general education; the belief that only the virtuous can be regarded as true citizens; the view that men and women should be considered equals and even wear the same clothes; the idea that women should be held “in common” (basically the promotion of “free love”); the acceptability of sexual practices such as masturbation, homosexuality and prostitution (although, strangely, not adultery), and the discouragement of excessive modesty; the exhortation that the wise man should produce children; the belief that temples to the gods, law-courts and even money were unnecessary for rational beings; and his call for a city built on the principle of love.

In Metaphysics, Zeno believed that the whole Universe is God, a divine reasoning entity, where all the parts belong to the whole. Into this pantheistic system, he incorporated the beliefs of Heraclitus in a divine and creative fire, which extends throughout the Universe and foresees and produces everything. This divine fire or aether was for Zeno the basis for all activity in the Universe, operating on otherwise passive matter which neither increases not diminishes itself, and the Universe underwent regular cycles of formation and destruction. The primary fire passes through the stage of air, and then becomes water, the thicker portion becoming earth, and the thinner portion becoming air again, and then rarifying back into fire.

He believed that individual souls were part of the same fire as the world-soul of the Universe, and that the nature of the Universe is such that it accomplishes what is right and prevents the opposite, and is thereby identified with unconditional Fate while allowing it the free-will attributed to it.