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Epictetus (c.55-c.135 BC.)

Early Life

Epictetus was n distinguished Stoic philosopher, born as a slave at Hieropolis in Phyrgia in 55 BC. The names of his parents are unknown; neither is it know how he was brought to Rome. In Rome he was a slave to Epaphroditus for some time, a freedman of Nero, who had been one of his bodyguards. Origen recounts an anecdote about Epictetus, which, if true, illustrates the fortitude of Epictetus, and also that Epaphroditus was a most cruel master. Epictetus, when his master was twisting his leg one day, smiled and quietly said, "You will break it"; and when he did break it, only observed, "Did I not tell you that you would do so?"


It is not known how or when Epictetus managed to gain his freedom, but he could not have been still a slave when he left Rome because of an edict against philosophers at that time. This event, the only one in his life of which the date can be assigned, is said to have taken place in 89 BC., in the eighth year of Domitian's reign. Epictetus then retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, and it is a question whether he ever returned to Rome. The chief ground for believing that he did is a statement of Spartianus that Epictetus lived on terms of intimacy with the emperor Hadrian. It is true that his discourses contain frequent references to Nicopolis, and no internal evidence that they were delivered in Rome. However, this is not sufficient to overthrow the testimony of Spartianus. It is not known when he died. Suidas says that he lived till the reign of Marcus Aurelius, yet the authority or Aulus Gellius is strong on the other side. He, writing during the reign of the first Antonine, speaks of Epictetus, in two places, as being dead (Noct. Att. ii. 8; xvii. 19).


Epictetus led a life of exemplary contentment, simplicity, and virtue, practicing the morality which he taught. He lived in a small hut for quiet a time, with no furniture other than a bed and a lamp, and without an attendant. He benevolently adopted a child whom a friend had been forced by poverty to give up; he also hired a nurse to look after the child. Epictetus was the most dominant teacher of Stoicism during the period of the Roman Empire. His lessons were principally, if not solely, directed to practical morality. His favorite maxim, and that into which he resolved all practical morality, was "bear and forbear," (anexou kai apexou). He appears to have differed from the Stoics on the subject of suicide, which he condemned. We are told by Arrian, in his Preface to the Discourses, that he was a powerful and inspiring lecturer; and, according to Origen his style was superior to that of Plato. It is a proof of the esteem in which Epictetus was held, that on his death, his lamp was purchased by an admirer for 3000 drachmas (several thousand dollars by today's standards). Though it is said by Suidas that Epictetus wrote much, there is good reason to believe that he himself wrote nothing. His Discourses were taken down by his pupil Arrian, and published after his death in eight books, of which four remain. Arrian also compiled the Euchiridion or "manual," an abstract of the teaching of his master, and wrote a life of Epictetus, which is lost. Some fragments have been preserved, however, by Stobaeus. Simplicius has also left an eclectic commentary on his doctrine.