Stoic Politics and the Republic of Zeno

Mock up of books by StoicsZeno’s Republic was one of the earliest works written by the founder of Stoicism.  It was well-known in the ancient world and seems to have been frequently quoted down to the time of the last famous Stoic, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, nearly five hundred years later.  However, it was probably known in later centuries mainly through quotations in doxographies and commentaries.  The work has long been lost and is known to us now only through a handful of fragments.  For the curious, Malcolm Schofield’s The Stoic Idea of the City is a detailed scholarly analysis of the fragments relevant to reconstructing the contents of Zeno’s Republic.

The Republic was a response to Plato’s magnum opus of the same name.  However, having studied in the Platonic Academy under later teachers, Zeno apparently engaged in a fairly serious critique of Plato’s philosophy in general, and his Republic in particular.  We can potentially better understand some of the fragments from Zeno’s Republic  by bearing in mind that it was largely written in opposition to Plato’s views, and using that knowledge to help guide our interpretation.

I’m going to begin with a summary of its key features and then provide the relevant fragments with some commentary.  From the admittedly slender evidence, it appears we can say of Zeno’s Republic:

  1. It was a highly-regarded work, down to the time of Plutarch and perhaps even to Marcus Aurelius, and well-known, at least through excerpts.
  2. It said we should ideally look upon all other human beings as our fellow-citizens, having equal rights, apparently an early reference to Stoic cosmopolitanism.
  3. The emphasis is on a community founded on philosophical principles and constituted for the common good, rather than that of an elite.
  4. One lifestyle is held common to all, in some sense.
  5. Men and women, of all races, dress alike, presumably in the traditional garb of a Cynic or Stoic philosopher: a single coarse wool cloak wrapped around the body.
  6. Women are held in common and adultery is apparently not condemned, any laws against it being abolished, so that sexual relationships are not restricted by marriage.
  7. Temples are abolished because Zeus is omnipresent throughout the whole of nature and gods do not inhabit buildings constructed by men.

We might also infer, or speculate, based on the fragments, as follows:

  1. The Republic appears to imply that the distinction between citizens and resident foreigners should be  abolished.  (Zeno who was Phoenician by birth died a resident foreigner in Athens, not a citizen.)
  2. As all humans in the ideal Stoic republic are viewed as fellow-citizens with equal rights, like a common family or herd, it seems to imply that the institution of slavery must have been abolished.
  3. Likewise, no distinction is made between men and women.  Saying that all people have equal rights therefore appears to imply that women would have equal rights to men.  His student and successor, Cleanthes wrote a book entitled On the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women.  From two surviving lectures by the Roman Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus, we can see that Stoics taught men and women should both be taught philosophy as both sexes are capable of attaining wisdom and virtue.
  4. The absence of law courts suggests that legal trials are considered unnecessary because all citizens are assumed to be wise and virtuous; courts are only required for the vicious.  (It’s a Utopia.)
  5. Ancient Greek gymnasia were mainly used to train athletes for public games.  The absence of gymnasia suggests either that athletes would obtain exercise in other ways or perhaps that public sports and games are abolished.  The later Stoics, particularly Marcus Aurelius, do appear to look down on athletic games is a low form of entertainment for the masses.  (They might view modern spectator sports the same way perhaps – passively watching sport for entertainment as opposed to actively doing sport for exercise or self-improvement.)
  6. Gymnasia were also used by sophists and philosophers for the education of young men.  We’re told that Zeno was critical of the Greek education system.  So the abolition of gymnasia may be part of his critique of traditional education in general.  The Academy of Plato, which Zeno had attended, and Lyceum of Aristotle were located in the grounds of gymnasia.  So this may also imply the abolition of such schools.  Would the alternative somehow resemble the Stoa Poikile, which consisted of a more open venue for philosophical debate close to where Socrates had lectured in the agora?

According to Athenaeus of Naucratis:

Pontianus said that Zeno of Citium thought that Love was the God of Friendship and Liberty and the author of concord among people, but nothing else. Hence, he says in his Republic, that “Love is a God, who cooperates in securing the safety of the city.” (Deipnosophistae)

From this we can infer that friendship and liberty were the important values of Zeno’s ideal Stoic republic and that it was designed to promote concord or harmony between its citizens, whose goal must presumably have been to live in agreement with Nature and in accord with wisdom and justice toward one another.  From the other authors below, we have slightly more detailed information.


Plutarch is one of our main sources for information about Zeno’s Republic.  Plutarch makes it clear that Zeno’s Republic was written as if it were a dream, i.e., a Utopian vision of an ideal society rather than a roadmap for practical political change.  He writes:

Moreover, the much-admired Republic of Zeno, the founder of the Stoic sect, may be summed up in this one main principle: that all the inhabitants of this world of ours should not live differentiated by their respective rules of justice into separate cities and communities, but that we should consider all men to be of one community and one polity, and that we should have a common life and an order common to us all, even as a herd that feeds together and shares the pasturage of a common field. This Zeno wrote, giving shape to a dream or, as it were, shadowy picture of a well-ordered and philosophic commonwealth. (On the fortune or the virtue of Alexander)

However, he then goes on to make the bizarre claim that it was Alexander the Great who had come closest to realizing this ideal in practice.  Alexander had died and his empire fragmented when Zeno was an adolescent boy.  Now, it’s possible that Zeno may have made some such allusion in his own writings perhaps looking back upon the reign of Alexander and romanticizing it somewhat, although it sounds like this is Plutarch’s crude attempt to link Stoicism to the subject of the text.

What he actually tries to say is that Alexander ignored the advice of his tutor Aristotle to treat himself as the leader of the Greeks, and to view them as his kin, and to treat other people as if he was their master, viewing them as inferior, like plants or animals.  Instead, Alexander viewed all men, Greek or barbarian, as his kin as long as they shared his values and he saw himself as unifying the whole world.

He bade them all consider as their fatherland the whole inhabited earth, as their stronghold and protection his camp, as akin to them all good men, and as foreigners only the wicked; they should not distinguish between Grecian and foreigner by Grecian cloak and targe, or scimitar and jacket; but the distinguishing mark of the Grecian should be seen in virtue, and that of the foreigner in iniquity; clothing and food, marriage and manner of life they should regard as common to all, being blended into one by ties of blood and children.

This passage may reflect language or ideas found in the Republic, although the analogy with the empire of Alexander the Great, seems strained.  The latter remarks appear to reinforce the notion that the whole earth is regarded as one fatherland, or city, i.e., that the Republic endorsed ethical cosmopolitanism.  Also, that individuals are to be regarded as foreign not on the basis of their race but on the basis of being vicious or not sharing the same values as the Stoic citizens.  It’s not clear what Plutarch means here by clothing and food, marriage and manner of life being common to all.

The allusion to a herd of animals feeding in a common pasture is intriguing because the later Stoics sometimes refer to the metaphor of the wise man as a bull protecting his herd, or kin, against predatory lions.  So it’s tempting to wonder if this metaphor also goes back to Zeno’s Republic.

Diogenes Laertius

Diogenes Laertius quotes from a critic of Stoicism called Cassius the Skeptic, so these remarks have to be interpreted cautiously:

Some, indeed, among whom is Cassius the Skeptic, attack Zeno on many accounts, saying first of all that he denounced the general system of education in vogue at the time, as useless, which he did in the beginning of his Republic. And in the second place, that he used to call all who were not virtuous, adversaries, and enemies, and slaves, and unfriendly to one another, parents to their children, brethren to brethren. and kinsmen to kinsmen; and again, that in his Republic, he speaks of the virtuous as the only citizens, and friends, and relations, and free men, so that in the doctrine of the Stoic, even parents and their children are enemies; for they are not wise. Also, that he lays down the principle of the community of women in his Republic, and … teaches that neither temples nor courts of law, nor gymnasia, ought to be erected in a city; moreover, that he writes thus about money: that he does not think that people ought to coin money either for purposes of trade, or of travelling. Besides all this, he enjoins men and women to wear the same dress, and to leave no part of their person completely covered.

If we attempt to offer a defence of Zeno in response to this hostile account we might say:

  1. The general system of Greek education he’s alluding to was probably training in rhetoric, which Stoics thought should be replaced by philosophy and probably some sort of physical training and self-discipline, perhaps modelled very loosely on the Spartan agoge.
  2. The Stoics do typically call the unwise slaves but they include themselves in this category because nobody is perfect, and they would probably say that we’re all hostile to one another to some extent, until we achieve wisdom.
  3. The remark about the principle of the community of women  may be related to Plutarch’s remark about marriage being somehow held in common.  The further remark below suggests that it means that among the wise, sexual relations are not to be restricted by marriage.  In other words, it seems clear that the condemnation of adultery and any laws against it are abolished in Zeno’s Republic.
  4. The remark about temples is fleshed out by Lucan in the Pharsalia where Cato of Utica is portrayed explaining that for Stoics Zeus is omnipresent throughout Nature and therefore temples are unnecessary – gods do not inhabit buildings constructed by men.
  5. The reference to men and women wearing the same dress resembles Plutarch’s remark about clothing somehow being held in common.
  6. It’s not clear what leaving no part of their person completely covered means but Zeno and the Cynics were known for wearing only a single coarse wool cloak, wrapped around the body, with no undershirt, and often leaving the shoulders bare, so this may simply be a reference to men and women both wearing the traditional philosopher’s cloak, and philosophers often also walked barefoot.

To this he later adds:

They say too, that the wise man will love those young men, who by their outward appearance, show a natural aptitude for virtue; and this opinion is advanced by Zeno, in his Republic. And they also teach that women ought to be in common among the wise, so that whoever meets with any one may enjoy her, and this doctrine is maintained by Zeno in his Republic, and by Chrysippus in his treatise on the Republic […] and then, they say, we shall love all boys equally after the manner of fathers, and all suspicion on the ground of undue familiarity will be removed.

From what Diogenes Laertius and others say, it appears Zeno’s Republic shared some common ground with the political views attributed to Diogenes the Cynic, to whom a Republic was also attributed.

He maintained that all things are the property of the wise, and employed such arguments as those cited above. All things belong to the gods. The gods are friends to the wise, and friends share all property in common; therefore all things are the property of the wise. Again as to law: that it is impossible for society to exist without law; for without a city no benefit can be derived from that which is civilized. But the city is civilized, and there is no advantage in law without a city; therefore law is something civilized. He would ridicule good birth and fame and all such distinctions, calling them showy ornaments of vice. The only true commonwealth was, he said, that which is as wide as the universe. He advocated community of wives, recognizing no other marriage than a union of the man who persuades with the woman who consents. And for this reason he thought sons too should be held in common.

And he saw no impropriety either in stealing anything from a temple or in eating the flesh of any animal; nor even anything impious in touching human flesh, this, he said, being clear from the custom of some foreign nations. Moreover, according to right reason, as he put it, all elements are contained in all things and pervade everything: since not only is meat a constituent of bread, but bread of vegetables ; and all other bodies also, by means of certain invisible passages and particles, find their way in and unite with all substances in the form of vapour.

These Cynic teachings may possibly shed light on the meaning of the doctrines attributed to Zeno’s Republic.


The Epicurean Philodemus is also clearly hostile to the Cynic-Stoic tradition and he may be drawing on similar sources to Diogenes Laertius.

Cleanthes in his book On the Way to Dress mentions it [the Republic] with praise as a work of Diogenes, and gives a general account of its contents, with further discussion of some particular points; and Chrysippos in his work On the State and Law makes mention of it…. In his work On the State, while talking about the uselessness of weapons, he says that such a view was also stated by Diogenes, which is something that he could only have written about in his Republic. In the treatise Things which should not be chosen for their own sake, Chrysippos states that Diogenes laid down in his state that knucklebones should serve as legal currency.  This is to be found in the work of which we are talking and also in the first book of the treatise Against those who have a different idea of practical reason. In his work On the life in accordance with reason he also makes mention of [Diogenes’ Republic], together with the many impieties contained in it, to which he gives his approval; and he frequently mentions the work and its contents with praise in the fourth book of his treatise On the beautiful and pleasure. And in the third book of his work on justice he speaks of cannibalism as a teaching…. Diogenes himself in his Atreus, Oedipus, and Philiscos acknowledges as his own teachings most of the foul and impious ideas that are to be found in the Republic. Antipater in his work Against the Philosophical Schools mentions Zeno’s Republic and the doctrines that Diogenes expounds in his Republic, expressing amazement at their impassibility. And some say that the Republic is not by the Sinopean but by someone else…We must now go on to summarize the noble thoughts of these people, expending as little time as possible in describing their opinions. It pleases these holy people, then, to assume the lives of dogs, to speak shamelessly and without restraint to everyone without distinction, to masturbate in public, to wear a doubled cloak, to abuse young men whether they love them or not, and whether or not the young men willingly surrender themselves or have to be forced … boys are held in common by all… they have sexual relations with their own sisters and mothers and other close relatives, and with their brothers and sons. To achieve sexual gratification, there is nothing that they will abstain from, not even the use of violence. The women make advances to men, and seek to persuade them in every way to have intercourse with them, and if they fail in their efforts, offer themselves in the market-place to anyone whatever. Everyone misbehaves with everyone else, husbands have intercourse with their maidservants, wives abandon their husbands to go off with those who better please them. The women wear the same clothing as men and take part in the same activities, differing from them in no way at all.

The final sentence is interesting in light of other evidence that suggests the Stoics taught that virtue is the same in men and women, and that they should wear the same attire.

Marcus Aurelius

In the first book of The Meditations, Marcus gives thanks that he learned to love his family, truth, and justice from the Aristotelian Claudius Severus.  He learned from him the concept of a republic in which the same law applies to all, administered with equal rights and freedom of speech, where the sovereign’s primary value is the freedom of his subjects.  Marcus never mentions Zeno by name and we’ve no idea to what extent his vision of the ideal “republic” would resemble the Republic of Zeno but his comments are striking and worth mentioning in this context.

From my “brother” [Claudius] Severus, to love my kin, and to love truth, and to love justice; and through him I learned to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus; and from him I received the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed; I learned from him also consistency and undeviating steadiness in my regard for philosophy; and a disposition to do good, and to give to others readily, and to cherish good hopes, and to believe that I am loved by my friends; and in him I observed no concealment of his opinions with respect to those whom he condemned, and that his friends had no need to conjecture what he wished or did not wish, but it was quite plain. (Meditations, 1.14)

It may seem odd to modern readers that Marcus refers to a republic with “kingly government” that makes the freedom and equality of citizens its priority.  We’re told by Diogenes Laertius that the Stoics advocated government with a mixed constitution, which is perhaps what Marcus envisaged, i.e., a combination of direct democracy, rule by elected officials and senators, and the appointment of an emperor who lived as close as possible to the style of a private citizen.  His role would be to serve the people and collaborate with the senate, like Antoninus and Marcus, rather than operating like a dictator, as  emperors like Nero and later Commodus did.  (The Roman emperor was traditionally acclaimed by the legions and approved by the senate, often under duress; it’s not clear how they would be fairly appointed in a more free and equal republic.)

Surprisingly, from an Aristotelian, Marcus learned of the Stoic opposition to Nero, two of the leading figures being Thrasea and Helvidius.  (Notably Marcus mentions these famous Stoics but not Seneca, whose collaboration with Nero they criticized.)  The other figures he has in mind are thought to be as follows…  Cato of Utica, the famous Stoic who opposed Julius Caesar, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent him turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship.  Brutus, his nephew, influenced by Stoicism and Platonism, who was the leading assassin of Caesar.  And the Dio he mentions is most likely Dio Chrysostom, a student of Epictetus, who opposed the Emperor Domitian, and was influenced by a mixture of Cynicism, Platonism, and Stoicism.  The overall theme is one of political opposition by philosophers against the tyrannical Roman emperors Nero and Domitian, and the dictator Julius Caesar.

The following come from the Historia Augusta and describe Marcus’ rule in terms that echo his remarks about freedom in The Meditations.

And now, after they had assumed the imperial power, the two emperors [Marcus and Lucius] acted in so democratic a manner that no one missed the lenient ways of [Antononius] Pius; for though Marullus, a writer of farces of the time, irritated them by his jests, he yet went unpunished. (Historia Augusta)

We’re told that in terms of his relationship with the Senate, he would say:

It is juster that I should yield to the counsel of such a number of such friends than that such a number of such friends should yield to my wishes, who am but one.

Like Antoninus before him, he presented himself as ruling collaboratively with the Senate and even respecting their authority.  By contrast, autocratic emperors like Nero and Commodus chose to sideline the Senate.

The following is particularly striking when compared to Marcus’ remarks above:

Toward the people he [Marcus] acted just as one acts in a free state.  He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few. (Historia Augusta)

Stoic Therapy Toolkit

Mini stoic therapy cover

Five-page summary of key Stoic ideas and practices.

Subscribe to download my Stoic Therapy Toolkit (PDF) free of charge, and receive your email newsletter.

We won't send you spam and you can easily unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

One thought on “Stoic Politics and the Republic of Zeno”

  1. Alexander does seem to have been reasonably “cosmopolitan”, certainly towards the end of his reign which caused him some problems with his Macedonian followers who took a more “we won, you do as we say” approach to empire. He adopted Persian dress and some Persian customs and arranged for the sons of the Persian nobility to be educated with their Greek equivalents. The latter may well have been an attempt to forge a trans-national elite, such as would be needed to rule a very large empire (which Alexander almost certainly thought would get yet larger), but it seemed very odd to the Greeks who were not backward at looking down on other cultures and were probably looking forward to throwing their weight around given the history between the two peoples. So, for Plutarch, given the examples he would have had at his disposal, choosing Alexander as a “cosmopolitan” wasn’t utterly unreasonable.

What do you think?