Roundup: Women in Ancient Stoicism

Were any ancient Stoics women?  That’s a question that comes up periodically.  I’ll keep updating this article because there are lots of bits of information worth adding.  It’s a complex question so there’s a lot more to say.  I’m just going to say a few words by way of an introduction, though.  Then I’ll link to several articles on women in Stoicism:

In ancient Athens, before the time of Socrates, philosophers and Sophists mainly taught aristocratic, or at least very wealthy, young men.  Philosophical discussions often took place in the grounds of Athenian gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering. Socrates was reputedly a stonemason who lived a very modest life, and was a man of modest means.  He could be described as a lower middle class Athenian, although one who lived very simply.  However, he had several very wealthy and powerful friends.  We’re told his childhood friend Critias, a wealthy agriculturalist, removed Socrates from his father’s workshop and became a sort of patron, helping him to commit his life to the study of philosophy.

Socrates was therefore able to study the works of philosophers and Sophists and, in a paradoxical manner, he became a sort of teacher himself.  He didn’t lecture, though, or charge a fee.  He asked questions and told stories.  However, that meant that he was able to do philosophy with anyone.  He became famous for discussing philosophy with the young and old, rich and poor, citizens and immigrants alike.  For instance, Phaedo of Elis, had reputedly been enslaved and forced to work as a male prostitute until Socrates had Critias buy his freedom.  He went on to become one of Socrates’ most famous followers.  Xenophon also depicts Socrates engaging in philosophical discussion about the art of love with a female high-class prostitute (hetaira) called Theodote.

The fact that Socrates discussed philosophy with women would probably have been controversial to many Athenians.   However, he went further.  Socrates liked to describe how his approach to philosophy had been inspired by several women.  First of all, he mentions that his mother Phaenarete, who was a midwife, influenced him because she taught him about matchmaking.  In Plato’s Apology, of course, his entire philosophical mission  derives from the pronouncement of the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia or priestess of Apollo.  She told his childhood friend Chaerephon that “no man is wiser than Socrates”.  Socrates was also inspired by two of the famous maxims inscribed in her temple: “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess” (all things in moderation).  In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates famously describes how he was taught about love and philosophy by a mysterious and otherwise unknown priestess called Diotima of Mantinea.  Curiously, Socrates also seems to portray her employing his own trademark question and answer method (“Socratic questioning”).  Moreover, some scholars have wondered whether Plato made this name up to disguise the fact that he’s actually referring to Aspasia, the consort of Pericles.  Socrates was known to have been a member of her intellectual circle and also learned about love from her.  So either these two women played a similar role in his life or they’re different names for the same woman, which would make her influence appear even more significant.

Some Sophists and philosophers argued that different virtues are appropriate to different types of people.  Socrates, however, believed that all the virtues are forms of wisdom and therefore also that virtue is essentially the same in men and women.  That suggests that women are capable of learning wisdom and virtue, just like men.  Indeed, he’s committed to that view because he admits having learned about wisdom and virtue from several women.

The Stoics were heavily indebted to Socrates and by some accounts were regarded as a Socratic school of philosophy.  Epictetus, for example, tells his students repeatedly to emulate Socrates.  It’s probably under the influence of Socrates, therefore, that Cleanthes, the second head of the Stoic School, wrote a book entitled: On the Thesis that Virtue is the same in Man and in Woman.  We have several surviving lectures from the great Roman Stoic, Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, including two on the role of women in philosophy entitled: That Women Too Should Study Philosophy
and Should Daughters Receive the Same Education as Sons?  The Stoic doctrine in these lectures is clearly the same as Socrates’ position: girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys.

Musonius believed that women are capable of the same virtues as men, such as wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation, although they may express them differently, given their different roles in society at that time.   So it would be going too far to call Musonius Rufus a proto-feminist, although it’s to his credit that people have even looked at his writings from that perspective.  He certainly had a much more progressive attitude toward women than many other Roman intellectuals.  Nevertheless, I think this attitude probably goes all the way back to Zeno and Cleanthes, and that they inherited it largely from Socrates.  In Zeno’s ideal Republic, we’re simply told that anyone can become a philosopher, rich or poor, citizen or immigrant, man or woman, etc.  Men and women, in the ideal Stoic society, appear to be viewed as equals.

There’s very slender evidence, though, about real women who were actually practising Stoicism in the ancient world.  Nevertheless, here are some links to articles from my blog on women who appear to have, perhaps, been Stoics:

  • First of all, an honourable mention should go to Hipparchia of Maroneia, a female Cynic philosopher, and wife of Crates of  Thebes, the teacher of Zeno of Citium – she’s likely to be someone Zeno knew given the influence Crates had over him.
  • The mysterious old woman who looked after Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic School, and was possibly his sister.
  • Porcia Catonis, the daughter of the famous Roman Stoic Cato of Utica.
  • Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition, and seemingly a member of the movement herself.
  • Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor, one of the daughters of the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

(You may notice I’ve placed them in chronological order here, rather than the sequence in which they were published.)

NB: Please comment below if you can think of any other references to women in ancient Stoicism.  Thanks.


Lady Stoics #4: Chrysippus’ Mysterious Old Woman

Diogenes Laertius several times mentions a mysterious unnamed old woman associated with Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school.

Of Chrysippus the old woman who sat beside him used to say, according to Diocles, that he wrote 500 lines a day.

The Greek could also mean that the old woman attended to or looked after him.  The next sentence reads:

Hecato says that he [Chrysippus] came to the study of philosophy, because the property which he had inherited from his father had been confiscated to the king’s treasury.

Are we perhaps meant to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two sentences that the old woman had the financial means to look after Chrysippus who was left penniless?

She seems also to have observed his output as a writer, and perhaps read his books.  The remark attributed to her here seems to refer to Chrysippus’ writing in the past tense, though.  Indeed we’re actually told she outlived him, although Chrysippus reputedly made it to seventy three.  How much older than him could she have been then?  It’s implied by several authors that Chrysippus liked wine and here that he may have died from alcohol consumption:

Chrysippus turned giddy after gulping down a draught of Bacchus; he spared not the Porch nor his country nor his own life, but fared straight to the house of Hades.  Another account is that his death was caused by a violent fit of laughter; for after an ass had eaten up his figs, he cried out to the old woman, “Now give the ass a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs.” And thereupon he laughed so heartily that he died.

We also seem to be told that he addressed some of his  philosophical writings to an old woman and sought her opinion on them, as though she were his patron.

He [Chrysippus] appears to have been a very arrogant man. At any rate, of all his many writings he dedicated none to any of the kings. And he was satisfied with one old woman’s judgement, says Demetrius […].

This last remark seems to follow on from the previous sentence, implying that Chrysippus was arrogant because addressed his writings to (presumably) the same the old woman, whereas other authors would often court the approval of powerful rulers.

It’s therefore curious that although many of Chrysippus’ works listed by Diogenes Laertius are explicitly dedicated to someone by name, none of them seem to bear a female name.  However, perhaps there’s another clue to her identity.  He immediately follows the passage above by mentioning Chrysippus’ sister:

When [King] Ptolemy [IV Philopator of Egypt] wrote to Cleanthes requesting him to come himself or else to send someone to his court, Sphaerus undertook the journey, while Chrysippus declined to go.  On the other hand, he sent for his sister’s sons, Aristocreon and Philocrates, and educated them.

This first remark portrays Chrysippus as being arrogant, back when he was a promising student of Cleanthes, for refusing to become an ambassador for Stoicism to the court of King Ptolemy.  His fellow Stoic, Sphaerus of Borysthenes, had to go instead.  We’re perhaps meant to connect this with the passage above about his arrogant disregard for the patronage of kings and preferring the judgement of the “old woman”.

Could the “old woman” in question, therefore, have been Chrysippus’ sister?  We’re told that her sons became students of Chrysippus.  We hear nothing more about Philocrates but Aristocreon clearly became a dedicated and enthusiastic follower of Stoicism.  Indeed, we know that Chrysippus dedicated dozens of books to his sister’s son:

  • Introduction to the Mentiens [the Liar] Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, one book.
  • Of the Mentiens Argument, addressed to Aristocreon, six books.
  • To those who solve the Mentiens by dissecting it, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
  • On the Solution of the Mentiens, addressed to Aristocreon, three books.
  • Solutions of the Hypothetical Arguments of Hedylus, addressed to Aristocreon and Apollas, one book.
  • Of the Sceptic who denies, addressed to Aristocreon, two books.
  • Of Dialectic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
  • Of Art and the Inartistic, addressed to Aristocreon, four books.
  • Of the Good or Morally Beautiful and Pleasure, addressed to Aristocreon, ten books.

And for all we know he may have dedicated other books to Aristocreon that aren’t mentioned here.  There was clearly a very close intellectual bond between Chrysippus and his nephew so it would make sense if Diogenes Laertius had intended to imply that the young man’s mother, Chrysippus’ sister, was the “old woman” who attended to Chrysippus and to whom his works were dedicated, rather than to a king.  Indeed, it’s quite possible the works named above could have been written in honour both of Aristocreon and his mother.

The philosopher Plutarch elsewhere mentions in passing that Aristocreon later erected a bronze statue of Chrysippus, upon which he had engraved the verse:

Of uncle Chrysippus Aristocreon this likeness erected;
The knots the Academy tied, the cleaver, Chrysippus, dissected.

These words obviously celebrate Chrysippus’ success as a critic of Plato’s Academy and perhaps relate to the arguments contained in some of the books dedicated to Aristocreon, such as his surprisingly extensive writings on the solution to what’s called in the translation above the “Mentiens Argument”, better known today as the Liar Paradox.  When a person says “I lie”, the puzzle is whether he actually lies or not in doing so.  If he lies, he speaks truth; if he speaks truth, he lies.  Epictetus mentions several times in the Discourses that his students are familiar with Chrysippus’ (now lost) answer to this paradox.

So, cautiously, I’m tempted to speculate as follows…  It’s possible Chrysippus’ sister lived in his house and attended to him.  Chrysippus was born in the city of Soli in Cilicia, so his sister probably also came from Soli.  They most likely had the status of foreign residents (metics) in Athens. That normally meant they could not own property in Athens itself, although they may have owned property nearby in Attica. Some scholars read the reference to an old woman attending on Chrysippus as being about a slave but there’s some indication that Zeno disapproved of slave-owning, and if they were metics without property, living with their friends, it’s quite possible that he or Chrysippus would have owned no slaves themselves. So the old woman may be a family member, most likely the sister of Chrysippus mentioned elsewhere.

Perhaps she attended his lectures.  Philosophical discussions in ancient Athens were often held in the gymnasia, which women were strictly prohibited from entering.  However, the Stoic school was located in the Stoa Poikile, a public building on the edge of the agora or city-centre, to which women were potentially admitted during the Hellenistic period.

We’re told Chrysippus became a philosopher after his family fortune was seized by a king.  However, Chrysippus’ sister may have married into wealth in which case she could have acted as a patron, explaining his controversial preference for the old woman over the patronage of kings such as Ptolemy IV.  Chrysippus clearly dedicated many of his works, perhaps those criticizing the Academy and Skeptics, to her son Aristocreon, a dedicated student of Stoicism.  If his sister was the “old woman” then presumably he also sought her approval for the teachings expressed in them.  Although most of those works appear to be about logic, one of them is also about art and another about ethics, particularly the role of pleasure, which we can assume contained a critique of hedonism dedicated to his nephew.

Marcus Aurelius Stoicism

Lady Stoics #3: Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor

We don’t know much about female Stoics, except perhaps some of the daughters of famous Stoics who appear also to have been influenced by Stoics.  For example, Porcia Catonis, the daughter of Cato of Utica, is portrayed in a manner that suggests she may have been a Stoic, as is Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea, the leader of the Stoic Opposition.

One of the daughters of Marcus Aurelius, Annia Cornificia Faustina Minor (160-212 AD), may perhaps also have learned something of Stoicism from her famous father.  At least, Cornificia appears to have been more committed to honouring her father’s memory and following his moral example than her younger brother Commodus was, though.

When she was in her fifties the tyrannical emperor Caracalla had her executed, by forced suicide, as part of a purge.

[Caracalla], when about to kill Cornificia, bade her choose the manner of her death, as if he were thereby showing her especial honour. She first uttered many laments, and then, inspired by the memory of her father, Marcus, her grandfather, Antoninus, and her brother, Commodus, she ended by saying: “Poor, unhappy soul of mine, imprisoned in a vile body, fare forth, be freed, show them that you are Marcus’ daughter, whether they will or no.” Then she laid aside all the adornments in which she was arrayed, having composed herself in seemly fashion, severed her veins and died.

Other than that we don’t know much about her.  However, if she actually said “show them that you are Marcus’ daughter” as she faced death then it suggests she may perhaps have been inspired by his Stoicism.


Lady Stoics #2: Fannia

Fannia was part of the “Stoic opposition” against Nero, led by her father, the Stoic political hero Thrasea, along with her celebrated husband Helvidius Priscus.  She lived during the reign of Nero and died around 103 AD, under the reign of Trajan.  In Fyodor Bronnikov’s painting Reading of Thrasea Paetus’ Death Sentence, she is presumably depicted as one of the women who comfort her father, Thrasea.

She was the granddaughter of a famous Roman woman called Arria Major, whom she related the following story about to Pliny the Younger.  Arria’s husband, Caecina Paetus, was ordered to commit suicide for his part in a rebellion by the Emperor Claudius.  He did not have the courage to take his own life so Arria grabbed the dagger from him, stabbed herself with it, and returned it to him saying “It doesn’t hurt, Paetus!

Pliny the Younger described Fannia herself as a woman of fortitude and respectability but a political rebel. She followed her husband Helvidius Priscus into exile when he was banished by Nero for sympathizing with the Republican heroes Brutus and Cassius (which Nero prohibited).  She then followed him into exile for a second time under Vespasian for opposing his reign.  Priscus was later executed by Vespasian.

Fannia herself was exiled by Domitian in 93 AD for asking the Stoic Herennius Senecio to write a biography praising her late husband, and Herennius was executed.  During his trial, Fannia was asked threateningly if she’d instructed Herennius to write the book and she boldly confirmed that she had given her husband’s diaries to him.  Pliny writes that: “she did not utter a single word to reduce the danger to herself.”  Her possessions were seized, but Fannia saved her husband’s diaries and the biography of him.

When she was sick and apparently dying, her friend Pliny wrote of her:

Only her spirit is vigorous, worthy of her husband Helvidius and father Thrasea. but everything else is going down, and I am not merely afraid but deeply saddened. It pains me that so great a woman will be snatched from the eyes of her people, and who knows when her like will be seen again.  What chastity, what sanctity, what dignity, what constancy!

He goes on to say:

How pleasant she is, how kind, how respectable and amiable at once-two qualities rarely found in the same person. Indeed, she will be a woman whom later we can show our wives, from whose fortitude men too can draw an example, whom now while we can still see and hear her we admire as much as those women whom we read about. To me her very house seems to totter on the brink of collapse, shaken at its foundations, even though she leaves descendants. How great must be their virtues and their accomplishments for her not to die the last of her line. (Pliny the Younger, Letters 7.19.L)

History Stoicism

Lady Stoics #1: Porcia Catonis

Porcia Catonis was the daughter of Cato of Utica, Cato the Younger, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic.  We know little about her except a few anecdotes of dubious historical authenticity.  However, she appears to be portrayed as a female Stoic, dedicated to philosophy, following in the footsteps of her renowned father.

She lived in the first century BC, several generations before the Roman Stoics of the Imperial period, whose works survive today: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  She was a contemporary of Cicero and the Stoic Posidonius of Rhodes.  She was the wife of Brutus, a Roman politician and philosopher also influenced by Stoicism, who was to be the leading assassin of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Brutus’ mother was the half-sister of Cato the Younger, making him both Brutus’ uncle and later his father-in-law, via his marriage to Porcia.

At the end of his Life of Cato, Plutarch wrote:

Nor was the daughter of Cato inferior to the rest of her family, for sober-living and greatness of spirit. She was married to Brutus, who killed Caesar; was acquainted with the conspiracy, and ended her life as became one of her birth and virtue.

Plutarch’s Life of Brutus contains the following story:

Porcia, being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage, resolved not to inquire into Brutus’s secrets before she had made this trial of herself. She turned all her attendants out of her chamber, and taking a little knife, such as they use to cut nails with, she gave herself a deep gash in the thigh; upon which followed a great flow of blood, and soon after, violent pains and a shivering fever, occasioned by the wound.

Now when Brutus was extremely anxious and afflicted for her, she, in the height of all her pain, spoke thus to him: “I, Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, was given to you in marriage, not like a concubine, to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part in all your good and all your evil fortunes; and for your part, as regards your care for me, I find no reason to complain; but from me, what evidence of my love, what satisfaction can you receive, if I may not share with you in bearing your hidden griefs, nor to be admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust? I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets; but certainly, Brutus, a virtuous birth and education, and the company of the good and honourable, are of some force to the forming our manners; and I can boast that I am the daughter of Cato, and the wife of Brutus, in which two titles though before I put less confidence, yet now I have tried myself, and find that I can bid defiance to pain.”

Which words having spoken, she showed him her wound, and related to him the trial that she had made of her constancy; at which he being astonished, lifted up his hands to heaven, and begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia. So then he comforted his wife.

According to one story, when she later heard of Brutus’ death, Porcia committed suicide by swallowing hot coals.  Although other accounts contradict this, it became a well-known story and inspired several authors, most notably Shakespeare.

Porcia was sometimes referred to as Portia in Elizabethan English literature.  Shakespeare portrays her in the play Julius Caesar and in The Merchant of Venice he wrote:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.