[Draft – I haven’t finished this but I’m publishing it to help provide inspiration for a Wikipedia draft article on the Stoic Opposition.]
Thrasea, or Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, was a Stoic Roman Senator, executed by the Emperor Nero in 66 AD. We know a reasonable amount about the circle of Stoics associated with him because they formed an important political faction opposing the tyrannical rule of emperors they considered tyrannical and autocratic, particularly Nero and later Domitian. For convenience, scholars today refer to them as the Stoic Opposition of the 1st century AD but they also appear to have been inspired by earlier Stoics and other philosophers of the Roman Republic who shared similar political ideals, particularly Cato of Utica and his nephew and son-in-law Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar.
Thrasea and his circle are also of interest because of their importance to the late Roman Stoics whose philosophical writings survive.
Gaius Rubellius Plautus (33 – 62 AD) was a wealthy Roman nobleman and a rival contender for the imperial throne during the reign of Nero, as grandson of the Emperor Tiberius and therefore part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. As early as 55 AD, Nero’s mother Agrippina was accused of plotting to replace him as emperor with Plautus. His critics claimed that he had become a follower of Stoicism and he was associated with the Stoic opposition to Nero. Indeed, Musonius Rufus accompanied him into exile when he was banished by Nero in 60 AD. In 62 AD, in response to rumours that Plautus’ was plotting a rebellion in the eastern empire, Nero had him beheaded. Later, in 66 AD, Nero had Plautus’ widow, children, and father-in-law executed as well.
Thrasea – TBD
Thrasea, or Publius Clodius Thrasea Paetus, came from a wealthy and highly-regarded family. Thrasea was hated and feared by the Emperor Nero. Thrasea was related by marriage to the Stoic poet Persius, who was a member of Seneca’s circle. We don’t know very much about his initial rise to prominence under Nero but he distinguished himself enough to succeed Seneca, in 56 AD, in the temporary post of suffect consul. He earned a reputation for someone prepared to oppose the emperor and to defend the freedom of the senate. By 58 AD, he was openly opposing Nero’s tyrannical behaviour, and the collusion of the senate. Nero had his own mother brutally murdered. Seneca wrote a speech justifying this, which was been read in the senate. All senators were required to respond and pressured into congratulating Nero on this heinous crime. However, Thrasea refused, walking out of the senate in protest, ‘since he could not say what he would, and would not say what he could’, according to Cassius Dio. For the next four years, until 62 AD, Seneca continued to act as Nero’s advisor, while Thrasea began to build the Stoic opposition to his regime. From roughly 63 AD onward, Thrasea refused to attend senate meetings, which was widely seen as a political protest against Nero’s regime.
Thrasea clearly admired Cato of Utica as another Stoic who defended the freedom of the Senate and Republican values. He wrote a famous Life of Cato, which though lost was one of the main sources for Plutarch’s surviving Life of Cato.
When Nero had Thrasea executed the others, including Helvidius and Agrippinus received lesser penalties.
…the infamous Nero, a little before he put Thrasea to death, whom he hated and feared intensely, nevertheless when someone accused him of a bad and unjust decision in court, said: “I wish Thrasea were as good a friend to me as he is a most excellent judge.” (Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft)
Helvidius Priscus, was the son-in-law of Thrasea, and another highly-regarded member of the Stoic opposition. He was married to Thrasea’s daughter Fannia, who is also portrayed as a Stoic. He lived through the reign of Nero, and was eventually executed by the Emperor Vespasian. Helvidius greatly admired Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius both mention holding him in high regard.
Fannia was the daughter of Thrasea, and wife of Helvidius Priscus. She also seems to have been an important member of the Stoic opposition faction.
Paconius Agrippinus, was another Roman senator and Stoic philosopher, accused alongside Thrasea and sent into exile. He was held in very high regard by Epictetus.
Arulenus Rusticus, c. 35 – 95 AD, another senator and Stoic follower of Thrasea. He was executed by the emperor Domitian for writing a public speech praising Thrasea. He was the ancestor of Junius Rusticus, the main Stoic tutor of Marcus Aurelius, creating a direct link between Marcus and the circle of Thrasea.
In 66 AD, the young Arulenus Rusticus offered to use his tribunal veto to save the life of Thrasea, who was being tried before the Senate on a completely trumped up charge, so that Nero could have him executed. Thrasea refused, saying that this would merely place the life of the tribune in danger without saving him. The implication was that Arulenus was courageously offering to risk his own life, in open defiance of Nero, to buy Thrasea a temporary reprieve.
Herennius Senecio, who died in 93 AD, was another member of the Stoic opposition to Domitian, who wrote a book praising Helvidius Priscus.
He was accused by Celer of, among other things, being a friend and sympathizer of Plautus, and inciting rebellion against Nero in Asia.
Publius Egnatius Celer was a Stoic teacher, who taught and then was paid off to make false accusations against Barea Soranus. He was later accused by Musonius Rufus. He was perceived as someone who assumed the role of a philosopher, but was vicious at heart.
Place was then given to the witnesses, and the appearance among them of Publius Egnatius [Celer] provoked as much indignation as the cruelty of the prosecution had excited pity. A client of [Barea] Soranus, and now hired to ruin his friend, he professed the dignified character of a Stoic, and had trained himself in demeanour and language to exhibit an ideal of virtue. In his heart, however, treacherous and cunning, he concealed greed and sensuality. As soon as money had brought these vices to light, he became an example, warning us to beware just as much of those who under the guise of virtuous tastes are false and deceitful in friendship, as of men wholly entangled in falsehoods and stained with every infamy. (Tac. Ann. 16.32)
Epictetus is believed to be referring to Celer, as a hypocrite, when he warns his students not to say one thing in their Stoic school and do another outside it, in the courts or the senate:
Thus a friend is overpowered by the testimony of a philosopher: thus a philosopher becomes a parasite; thus he lets himself for hire for money: thus in the senate a man does not say what he thinks; in private (in the school) he proclaims his opinions. (Discourses, 4.1)
The Roman knight, Gaius Musonius Rufus, was said to the most important philosopher at Rome during his lifetime. He was a contemporary of Thrasea, with links to his circle. He is best known today as the teacher of Epictetus, and the texts of several of his lectures, and some isolated sayings attributed to him, survive.
Musonius was sent into exile by Nero along with Rubellius Plautus in 60 AD. He returned to Rome two years later but was exiled a second time by Nero in 65 AD as part of his purge following the Pisonian Conspiracy. He was again able to return to Rome in 68 AD under the Emperor Galba. The Emperor Vespasian banished philosophers from Rome in 71 AD but this time Musonius was allowed to remain, as he was held in such exceptionally high regard. However, in 75 AD he was eventually exiled by Vespasian, returning after his death in 79 AD. The date of his death is unknown, although it must have been at some point between this and 101 AD.
Epictetus refers to Helvidius, when discussing “How a man on every occasion can maintain his proper character” by acting in accord with reason, and viewing pain and pleasure as indifferent.
Priscus Helvidius also saw this, and acted conformably. For when [the Emperor] Vespasian sent and commanded him not to go into the senate, he replied, “It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.” Well, go in then, says the emperor, but say nothing. Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent. But I must ask your opinion. And I must say what I think right. But if you do, I shall put you to death. When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.
What good then did Priscus do, who was only a single person? And what good does the purple do for the toga? Why, what else than this, that it is conspicuous in the toga as purple, and is displayed also as a fine example to all other things? But in such circumstances another would have replied to Caesar who forbade him to enter the senate, I thank you for sparing me. But such a man Vespasian would not even have forbidden to enter the senate, for he knew that he would either sit there like an earthen vessel, or, if he spoke, he would say what Caesar wished, and add even more. (Discourses, 1.2)
Epictetus also praises Paconius Agrippinus for showing a typical Stoic attitude toward justice.
When Agrippinus was governor, he used to try to persuade the persons whom he sentenced that it was proper for them to be sentenced. “For,” he would say, “it is not as an enemy or as a brigand that I record my vote against them, but as curator and guardian; just as also the physician encourages the man upon whom he is operating, and persuades him to submit to the operation.” (Epictetus, fr. 22)
Epictetus also describes Agrippinus’ use of what sounds like a standard Stoic consolation technique, except that it’s applied to his own problems.
For this reason it is right to praise Agrippinus, because, although he was a man of the very highest worth, he never praised himself, but used to blush even if someone else praised him. His character was such, said Epictetus, that when any hardship befell him he would compose a eulogy upon it; on fever, if he had a fever; on disrepute; on exile, if he went into exile. And once, he said, when Agrippinus was preparing to take lunch, a man brought him word that Nero ordered him into exile; “Very well,” said he, “we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” (Epictetus, fr. 21)
The town of Aricia was apparently the first stop outside of Rome, for those travelling south and east. Epictetus likewise concludes the first of his Discourses, ‘On what is under our control and what is not’, with the following anecdote:
Wherefore, what was it that Agrippinus used to remark? “I am not standing in my own way.” Word was brought him,
“Your case is being tried in the Senate.”
“Good luck betide! But it is the fifth hour now” (he was in the habit of taking his exercise and then a cold bath at that hour); “let us be off and take our exercise.”
After he had finished his exercise someone came and told him,
“You have been condemned.”
“To exile,” says he, “or to death?”
“What about my property?”
“It has not been confiscated.”
“Well then, let us go to Aricia and take our lunch there.”
This is what it means to have rehearsed the lessons one ought to rehearse, to have set desire and aversion free from every hindrance and made them proof against chance. I must die. If forthwith, I die; and if a little later, I will take lunch now, since the hour for lunch has come, and afterwards I will die at the appointed time. How? As becomes the man who is giving back that which was another’s. (Discourses, 1.1.28-30)
Epictetus also tells a story about Agrippinus giving advice to another Roman politician, who was undecided about whether to contribute to a festival in honour of Nero, by performing some part in a tragedy. (Possibly Gessius Florus, the notoriously unpopular procurator of Judea.)
Wherefore, when Florus was debating whether he should enter Nero’s festival, so as to make some personal contribution to it Agrippinus said to him, “Enter.” And when Florus asked, “Why do you not enter yourself?” he replied, “I? why, I do not even raise the question.” For when a man once stoops to the consideration of such questions, I mean to estimating the value of externals, and calculates them one by one, he comes very close to those who have forgotten their proper character.
Come, what is this you ask me? “Is death or life preferable?” I answer, life. “Pain or pleasure?” I answer, pleasure. “But unless I take a part in the tragedy I shall be beheaded.” Go, then, and take a part, but I will not take a part. “Why not?” Because you regard yourself as but a single thread of all that go to make up the garment. What follows, then? This, that you ought to take thought how you may resemble all other men, precisely as even the single thread wants to have no point of superiority in comparison with the other threads. But I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful. Why, then, do you say to me, “Be like the majority of people?” And if I do that, how shall I any longer be the red? (Discourses, 1.2.12-13)
Epictetus’ Handbook concludes with the saying attributed to Socrates: “Anytus and Meletus can kill me but they cannot harm me.” However, according to Cassius Dio, Thrasea was well known for paraphrasing this as: “Nero can kill me but he cannot harm me.” Knowing this, young Stoics reading the Handbook perhaps took its final sentence as a subtle nod to Thrasea.
Junius Rusticus – TBD
Junius Rusticus was a Stoic philosopher who became the main tutor of the young Marcus Aurelius. He was a direct descendant of Arulenus Rusticus, a prominent member of the Stoic Opposition.
Marcus appears to be familiar with and an admirer of Thrasea and his circle. He must have read Epictetus’ comments about them in The Discourses, but he had presumably also heard stories about them in person from his main Stoic teacher, Junius Rusticus. However, in The Meditations, he says of the Aristotelian philosopher Severus, from whom he learned love of truth and justice,
…that through him I came to know Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dio, Brutus, and to conceive the idea of a balanced constitution, and of government founded on equity and freedom of speech, and of a monarchy which values above all things the freedom of the subject. (Meditations, 1.14)
He appears to be referring to Thrasea and his associate Helvidius, opponents of Nero, alongside the great Stoic hero of the civil war, Cato of Utica, and his Stoic-influenced nephew Brutus, who was one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. The Dio he had in mind was possibly Dio Chrysostom, a contemporary of Epictetus who also studied under Musonius Rufus and combined Stoicism, Cynicism, Platonism and an interest in rhetoric.
Elsewhere, by contrast, Nero is mentioned as a tyrant.
Marcus’ Latin tutor, Fronto, despised Seneca and several time writes of him in a dismissive or sarcastic way in their correspondence, e.g.,
There are certainly some acute and weighty sayings in his books but little pieces of silver are sometimes found in sewers; and is that a reason for us to undertake the cleaning of the sewers?
We don’t know if or how Marcus responded to these criticisms but it doesn’t appear that they openly argued over this, so he may either have agreed or said nothing.
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.