The Stoicism of Augustus

The Lost Exhortations to Philosophy

The Lost Exhortations to Philosophy

’Tis glorious to tower aloft amongst great men, to have care for fatherland, to spare the downtrodden, to abstain from cruel bloodshed, to be slow to wrath, give quiet to the world, peace to one’s time. This is virtue’s crown, by this way is heaven sought. So did that first Augustus, his country’s father, gain the stars, and is worshipped in the temples as a god. — Pseudo-Seneca, Octavia

The most famous Stoic philosopher is, without doubt, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Countless people have read his book The Meditations since the first English translation appeared in the early 17th century. Many moviegoers also became familiar with Marcus from Richard Harris’ portrayal of him in the Hollywood sword-and-sandals epic Gladiator (2000). However, it’s less well-known that, over a century before Marcus was born, the first Roman emperor was also a student of Stoicism and the author of an essay praising philosophy.

The man we call Augustus (63 BC — 14 AD) was the founder of the Roman empire. Early in his life he was known as Octavian, the grand-nephew of the dictator Julius Caesar. Lacking any legitimate offspring, Caesar adopted Octavian and named him his heir. Following Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March 44 BC, Rome went through a long period of political instability which culminated in the naval Battle of Actium (30 BC). The fleet of Octavian defeated the combined forces of Mark Antony and his lover, Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. Octavian was left the sole ruler of Rome and gradually accumulated more and more powers. In 27 BC, the senate granted him the titles Augustus and Princeps, or first citizen, effectively becoming emperor and defining the role that would be occupied by his successors for centuries to come.

Augustus was certainly never remembered as a Stoic philosopher in the sense that Marcus Aurelius was. However, the historian Suetonius claims in Lives of the Caesars that Augustus was the author of numerous writings including a lost work titled Exhortations to Philosophy. We’re told that late in life Augustus would read these to a group of his intimate friends, as though delivering a class in a lecture room. Suetonius also mentions a text by Augustus called “Reply to Brutus on Cato”. We can probably assume this was a response to Brutus’ eulogy for his uncle, the famous Republican Stoic, Cato of Utica. Brutus, one of the main assassins of Augustus’ adoptive father, Julius Caesar, was also reputedly a student of Stoicism.

So, in addition to Augustus’ Exhortations to Philosophy, his Reply to Brutus on Cato may have touched on philosophical themes, as may his other lost writings. These claims become more plausible when we learn that, earlier in his life, Augustus had two Stoic tutors.

Athenodorus Canaanites & Arius Didymus

Athenodorus Canaanites, from Canaana near Tarsus, a student of Posidonius of Rhodes, was Octavian’s first Stoic tutor. He began teaching the young man in the city of Apollonia, Illyria (modern day Albania), and later followed Octavian on his return to Rome in 44 BC, aged 19. Athenodorus reputedly wrote a lost work dedicated to the elder sister of Octavian, Octavia Minor.

Octavian’s other, and probably slightly later, Stoic tutor was Arius Didymus of Alexandria. Arius was the author of an important summary of early Stoic teachings, long fragments of which survive today in the anthologies of the doxographer Stobaeus. Seneca says, in On Clemency, that although Augustus naturally had a temper, and executed many enemies earlier in his life, he changed completely later in his reign. Around 16 BC a man called Gnaeus Cornelius Cinna Magnus was caught plotting to assassinate Augustus. Following the advice of his wife, Livia, Augustus decided that he could no longer continue executing his enemies, and adopted a policy of clemency toward Cinna, after which plots against him apparently ceased. Arius was an expert on Stoic psychotherapy, and later, around 9 BC, wrote a highly-regarded consolation letter to Livia, the wife if Augustus, containing Stoic psychological advice to help her cope emotionally with the loss of her beloved son, Drusus. The philosophy’s value in consoling his wife, Livia, appears to have strengthened Augustus’ association with Stoicism.

Suetonius, the historian, said that Augustus had at first been interested in studying Greek literature. He trained in Greek rhetoric, although he never mastered the language, but later became more interested in philosophy, particularly Stoicism.

Later he became versed in various forms of learning through association with the [Stoic] philosopher Areus [Didymus] and his sons Dionysius and Nicanor. — Suetonius, The Lives of Caesars

We’re told that in reading both Greek and Latin, “there was nothing for which he looked so carefully as precepts and examples instructive to the public or to individuals”. He would copy these down verbatim and send them to members of his household, generals and provincial governors, who might especially benefit from them. Suetonius says Augustus even recited “entire volumes” to the senate and called the attention of the public to them through proclamations, including a speech by Publius Rutilius Rufus, another Stoic, titled “On the Height of Buildings”.

Although more of Arius’ writings survive, in this article I’m going to focus on Athenodorus and his possible influence upon Octavian. For example, in his Moralia, Plutarch recounts the following anecdote:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home [presumably from Rome to Tarsus], and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” — Plutarch, Moralia, Sayings of Romans: Caesar Augustus

This strategy of taking what modern therapists would call a “time-out” before acting on feelings of anger was fairly well-known in the ancient world. However, Athenodorus gives a very clear example of how this was to be accomplished in practice by pausing to recite the Greek alphabet. Perhaps it worked, as Seneca refers to Augustus as an example of someone who ruled without anger.

The late Emperor Augustus also did and said many memorable things, which prove that he was not under the dominion of anger. — Seneca, On Anger, 3.23

Seneca goes on to explain that Augustus was satisfied to leave the company of critics, without feeling the need to take revenge on them.

Let everyone, then, say to himself, whenever he is provoked […] Have I more authority in my own house than the Emperor Augustus possessed throughout the world? Yet he was satisfied with leaving the society of his maligner. — Seneca, On Anger, 3.24

In his earlier years, Octavian is believed to have had quite a violent temper but perhaps Seneca means to suggest that later in life, as Augustus, he overcome this tendency, perhaps in part as a consequence of his training in Stoicism.

There were several philosophers called Athenodorus but it seems likely Seneca again means the tutor of Octavian when he mentions with approval a saying from Athenodorus: “Know that you are freed from all desires when you have reached such a point that you pray to God for nothing except what you can pray for openly” (Letters, 10). In other words, our deepest desires should be such as we would be unashamed to admit in public — a typical Cynic-Stoic theme that recurs in the writings of Marcus Aurelius.

Elsewhere Seneca also writes that Athenodorus said “he would not so much as dine with a man who would not be grateful to him for doing so” (On Tranquillity, 7). Seneca says he takes this to mean that Athenodorus would not eat with men who lay on banquets as a way of repaying their friends for their services because in doing so they rate their own generosity, with food and drink, too highly compared with friendship.

The Exhortations to Philosophy

These sayings of Athenodorus are interesting. However, Seneca also quotes a lengthy excerpt from his writings, which seems especially relevant. It’s explicitly addressed to young Roman men who are considering a life in public office, just like Octavian was when he first met Athenodorus.

It argues that although their desire to benefit society is a noble one, political office is inherently corrupting. It advises them to remain in private life and focus on improving their own character first and foremost. They can more safely benefit society by providing a living example of wisdom and virtue than by trying to exercise political influence over others. In other words, what Seneca quotes at length from Athenodorus is a typical example of an exhortation, a genre also known as philosophical protreptic.

Although Augustus’ Exhortations to Philosophy has long been lost, we know his tutor Athenodorus’ exhortation reads like this…

The best thing is to occupy oneself with business, with the management of affairs of state and the duties of a citizen: for as some pass the day in exercising themselves in the sun and in taking care of their bodily health, and athletes find it most useful to spend the greater part of their time in feeding up the muscles and strength to whose cultivation they have devoted their lives; so too for you who are training your mind to take part in the struggles of political life, it is far more honourable to be thus at work than to be idle. He whose object is to be of service to his countrymen and to all mortals, exercises himself and does good at the same time when he is engrossed in business and is working to the best of his ability both in the interests of the public and of private men.

As noted above, these are words of advice explicitly aimed at Roman youths training themselves for future political careers, possibly including the young Octavian. However, Athenodorus continues,

But because innocence is hardly safe among such furious ambitions and so many men who turn one aside from the right path, and it is always sure to meet with more hindrance than help, we ought to withdraw ourselves from the forum and from public life, and a great mind even in a private station can find room wherein to expand freely. Confinement in dens restrains the springs of lions and wild creatures, but this does not apply to human beings, who often effect the most important works in retirement. Let a man, however, withdraw himself only in such a fashion that wherever he spends his leisure his wish may still be to benefit individual men and mankind alike, both with his intellect, his voice, and his advice.

Although, in a sense, the highest calling in life involves a commitment to the welfare of society, nevertheless public office can have a corrupting influence. So one is best advised to avoid a career in politics and retire instead to private life, where wise counsel can still be given from the sidelines. We should not live like hermits, however, but as philosophers, scholars, and teachers, who share their wisdom with others and provide them with role models.

The man that does good service to the state is not only he who brings forward candidates for public office, defends accused persons, and gives his vote on questions of peace and war, but he who encourages young men in well-doing, who supplies the present dearth of good teachers by instilling into their minds the principles of virtue, who seizes and holds back those who are rushing wildly in pursuit of riches and luxury, and, if he does nothing else, at least checks their course — such a man does service to the public though in a private station.

He goes on to ask whether one does more good for society as a magistrate, whether dealing with international or domestic cases (praetor peregrinus or praetor urbanus), or as one who can show people through his own example “what is meant by justice, filial feeling, endurance, courage, contempt of death and knowledge of the gods, and how much a man is helped by a good conscience”. It is better to be a wise and virtuous role model, Athenodorus is saying, and provide an example through your own character and way of life than to exert influence over society through public office.

If then you transfer to philosophy the time which you take away from the public service, you will not be a deserter or have refused to perform your proper task. A soldier is not merely one who stands in the ranks and defends the right or the left wing of the army, but he also who guards the gates — a service which, though less dangerous, is no sinecure — who keeps watch, and takes charge of the arsenal: though all these are bloodless duties, yet they count as military service.

By now, it’s clear that Athenodorus is writing an exhortation, encouraging his young readers to embrace the life of a philosopher.

As soon as you have devoted yourself to philosophy, you will have overcome all disgust at life. You will not wish for darkness because you are weary of the light, nor will you be a trouble to yourself and useless to others. You will acquire many friends, and all the best men will be attracted towards you, for virtue, in however obscure a position, cannot be hidden, but gives signs of its presence. Anyone who is worthy will trace it out by its footsteps.

He’s saying that a Roman youth can choose a private life of wisdom and virtue, through training in philosophy, and others will still seek him out because of his character and reputation. Stoic philosophers continue to dedicate themselves to the common welfare of mankind but they do so by sharing learning rather than engaging in lawmaking or politics. However, there’s another sort of retirement from public life, which is just vice and idleness, because it lacks any concern for the welfare of others.

But if we give up all society, turn our backs upon the whole human race, and live communing with ourselves alone, this solitude without any interesting occupation will lead to a want of something to do. We shall begin to build up and to pull down, to dam out the sea, to cause waters to flow through natural obstacles, and generally to make a bad disposal of the time which Nature has given us to spend. Some of us use it grudgingly, others wastefully. Some of us spend it so that we can show a profit and loss account, others so that they have no assets remaining: something than which nothing can be more shameful. Often a man who is very old in years has nothing beyond his age by which he can prove that he has lived a long time. — Athenodorus quoted in Seneca, On Tranquility, 3

The Stoics firmly believed in the brotherhood of all mankind. One of the cardinal virtues of their philosophy is justice (dikaiosune), consisting of both fairness and benevolence toward others. As Marcus Aurelius would later put it, to turn our backs on others is to be alienated from Nature as a whole, a form of injustice and impiety.

If I remember, then, that I am a part of such a whole, I shall be well contented with all that comes to pass; and in so far as I am bound by a tie of kinship to other parts of the same nature as myself I shall never act against the common interest, but rather, I shall take proper account of my fellows, and direct every impulse to the common benefit and turn it away from anything that runs counter to that benefit. And when this is duly accomplished, my life must necessarily follow a happy course, just as you would observe that any citizen’s life proceeds happily on its course when he makes his way through it performing actions which benefit his fellow citizens and he welcomes whatever his city assigns to him. — Meditations, 10.6


It’s hard to say how much the young Octavian’s Stoic tutors influenced his developing character and later career as Augustus. There are some tantalizing details, though. We’re told by he author Lucian that Augustus’ stepson and successor, the Emperor Tiberius, also studied Stoicism, under an otherwise unknown tutor called Nestor. Perhaps Augustus merely dabbled in Stoicism but set a precedent, planting seeds in imperial Roman society that would only grow to maturity, over a hundred years later, with Marcus Aurelius.

There are obvious differences. Augustus was at times perhaps a more politically opportunistic and violent ruler than Marcus. He was also curiously vain by comparison. Augustus notoriously insisted that all depictions of him should show him in the prime of life. Not a single statue exists today showing what he actually looked like later in life, although he lived to seventy-five — a grand old age by Roman standards. In sharp contrast, several statues of Marcus Aurelius, apparently in his late fifties, survive to this day, some of which look frankly haggard.

Marcus mentions the first Augustus three times in The Meditations. (The names of Roman nobles can be confusing: later emperors including Marcus also bore the name Augustus.) He says that everyday words from the past now have an archaic ring to them, as do the names of famous men such as Augustus. The founder of the empire was once flesh and blood but now he’s remembered by statues and stories in history books. Marcus notes that he has watched this happen, in his own lifetime, with the emperors Hadrian and, his adoptive father, Antoninus Pius (4.33). He knew them as real people but by the time he’s writing The Meditations, they’re already beginning to be seen as merely names in history books.

Elsewhere, Marcus reminds himself that even his most illustrious predecessors are now gone, returned to dust, and that this is his own fate, despite the supreme position granted to him.

First of all, be untroubled in your mind; for all things come about as universal nature would have them, and in a short while you will be no one and nowhere, as are Hadrian and Augustus. — Meditations, 8.5

Finally, Marcus once again uses Augustus, and the image of his entire court, to contemplate the transience of power, fame, human life, and indeed all material things.

Speak both in the senate and to anyone whatever in a decorous manner, without affectation. Use words that have nothing false in them. The court of Augustus, his wife and daughter, his descendants and forebears, his sister, and Agrippa [his general], his relatives, associates and friends, Areius [Didymus], Maecenas [his friend and political advisor], his doctors, his sacrificial priests — an entire court, all of it dead. — Meditations, 8.30-31

As it happens, in this passage, Marcus also mentions Arius Didymus, one of the Stoic tutors of Augustus, whom we met earlier. Marcus reminds himself that even the Stoic philosophers who taught the first Augustus, are long dead and gone.

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