Prof A. Poliseno
Stoicism in Ancient Rome
In the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about how "the wise
man" understands the limits that the world places on him, and
lives within them. Is the concept of "the wise man" one
that Roman Stoicism received from the Greek Stoa? Or is it something
the Romans developed?
by Gn Equitius Marinus
The wisdom (phronesis) is a rational behaviour, a virtue that determines
what is good and what is wrong for a man. It is not the sapientia,
considered a philosophical knowledge of high thoughts, but a knowledge
of the best way of living life. During the centuries, it has assumed
different meanings connected with ethic and virtue.
Homeric ethic was identified with the concept of aretè,
synonim of strenght and bravery (from aristos, W Jager, Paideia,
Firenze 1959, I,31; A Poliseno, L'etica nel mondo antico: dall'approvazione
alla responsabilità, Civ Classica, 1986, VII,3). The hero
had to be valiant and had to overcome the others; Homer was read
by young people with the aim of soliciting to find out the aretè
of those heroes (Isocrates, Panegirico, 159). The competition fo
glory did not have any brake, and did not have any form of respect
for the rivals.
The Attic culture substituted sophrosyne to areté, and determined
the end of the Iliac values, introducing moderation for the finding
of glory. It discovered that the theoretic basis of living was sapientia
(sophia), an heritage of the few; the most had to be satisfied with
his study and philosophia; phronesis was a practical wisdom, the
science of the good and wrong things for every man. These are the
four cardinal virtues of Plato, Aristotheles and Theofrastos.
Crisippos gave phronesis other virtues: discernment, carefulness,
ability on choosing the way of doing things, et c.; to sophrosyne
gave the meaning of opportunity, dignity, moderation, firmness and
During ellenistic age the concept of wisdom took great importance,
and Epicuros estimated it more important than philosophy itself
(Epistula ad Meneceum, 132). Zenon said that ethos was the "source
of life from wich come the good actions and reflect the external
appearance too". Every action was intended as a katorthoma,
a perfect action derived from the orthos logos.
Between katorthoma, expression of logos, and the mistakes, amartemata,
there are many intermediate actions, the most of all we do. Those
done as for nature are suitable, katheconta, and indicate the musts
and the obligations that a man has got in some circumstances.
The wise man is at the beginning a so perfect being, that stoics
said that in the history on manhood used to live just a few of them.
Wisdom is the condition for continuing living.
The kathekon, as a convenient action for the nature, is man's duty.
This concept assumed a more limited meaning, and Roman culture took
it from Greek Stoicism, enriching it and being enriched by it. This
process was completed when Romans identified this concept with their
Romans used to have their values, handed down as mos maiorum: pietas,
the religious duty that obliged men to gods, patria, relatives;
Virgilius calls Enea pius for the obligation versus his father.
Fides: the loyalty that inspires trust. All these qualities had
their root in the natural mood of a vir, the virtus that contained
all the qualities toghether, and that transformed a vir in a bonus
Stoicism had inside the alternative between adhesion to logos
and requirements of the body, physis; Romans did look for their
conciliation with bigger diligence.
Kathekon - officium for Romans - was everything done for one reason
(Cicero: quod autem ratione est, id officium appellamus; est igitur
officium eius generis, quod nec in bonis ponatur nec in contrariis,
De finibus bon. et mal., III,58). Virtue consisted in judging the
real value of events, in knowing what is right and what is wrong,
what useful and what good or evil.
Stoics took some of these ideals. E.g., the concept of aequitas
was already known in the Roman world, but used to represent the
ideal entreaty, was the rigorous and scrupulous interpretation of
With Stoicism matured the concept of humanitas. Cicero mostly gave
his contribute to this ideal, but Panetius stated it firstly. Caesar
calls Procillus and sends him as ambassador to Ariovistus, summa
vitute et humanitate adulescentem (De Bell. Gall., I,47,4). Humanitas,
civil and social ideal of Cicero's age, cosisted in "recognizing
and respecting the man in every man", overcoming nationalism
(A. Traina, Comoedia. Antologia della palliata, Bari, Laterza, 1955,p.
During imperial age, in Stoicism there are three moments of practical
moral, and stronger ties among philosophy and religion born. The
lesser participation to the political life brought to a better concentration
on oneself, and determined a greater involvement in the amelioration
of one's morality. So happened a folding with himself.
In Roman times it is still believed that logos regulates all the
world. Epittetus believed that men could not follow the statement
"know yourself and your destiny" without that premise.
It is simple to answer to the question if the concept of wisdom
came directly to Rome or was adapted in some way. And it is not.
It is simple because moral concepts in the centuries continue to
have their core identity. And it is not because it is not simple
to show when and how they changed something, as the time of penetration
and the geografical area were really vast.
During all his periods, Stoicism remained faithful to the belief
that freedom from every affection could be reached only by a man
that would represent the full explanation of logos, but that then
have to reckon with the nature of man that is composed by spirit
and matter. During Principate, when the freedom of public law was
little, the stoic had to resign to the fact that the true freedom
was the one of the natural law: the interior independence.
The adaptation to the real world is a need and a must for the man
that wants to keep living, and renunciate to sacrifice his life
to rational statements. Even the wise stoic had to resign to this
life, and understood that the only way to profess his beliefs was
to have and to live with good sense: aspiring to the best, and being
satisfied with the possible.
The ideal had to be transcendent and immanent at the same time:
if too high for his possibilities, it would have remained useless;
if too simple, his utility would have been exhausted in a few. Marcus
Aurelius, before being stoic was Roman, and had to balance accounts
with the reality of life.
Stoicism had great importance in rendering human kind wiser. His
coherence and brotherhood ideals did not remain inert in the history
of personal and social ethic.