Stoicism and Roman Politics: Introduction and Prospects

By the year 129 B.C., writes D.R. Dudley, the Stoic philosophy was firmly established among the ruling classes of Rome in a form cut to suit the Roman virtues.

“Unless,” said I, “philosophers became kings, or those who now bear the name of king study philosophy truly and adequately... there will be no respite from evils for the cities, my dear Glaucon, no, nor for humanity itself...”

So Socrates in the Republic of Plato (V. 473. c). But how many instances can history show of either of these combinations? Marcus Aurelius? The Jesuits in Paraguay? The “benevolent despots” of the eighteenth century? Too few, no doubt, to allow any statistical verification of Socrates’ proposition. Yet philosophy has not lacked chances, if not of directing, at least of influencing the conduct of political affairs. And, in this sort, there can seldom have been such grounds for hope or reward for success as the prospects that opened up, briefly, before the Stoic philosopher Panaetius and his Roman friends. For Stoicism was first effectually brought to Rome by Panaetius of Rhodes.

As with America before the voyage of Columbus, one hears of earlier visits, but they led to nothing; permanent occupation dates from Panaetius. The year in which he came cannot be determined, though it was about 145 B.C., nor is it known by whom he was introduced to Scipio Aemilianus. Laelius and Polybius are both possibilities. There can, however, be no doubt that it was between 145 and 129 B.C., and in the so-called “Scipionic circle,” that Stoicism first took root in Rome. By 129 B.C., when Panaetius left for Athens on the death of Scipio, it had been firmly established. To understand how this was accomplished, it is necessary to understand the personal factors involved as well as the background of contemporary politics.

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