Sometimes you learn new things by way of the most unexpected pathways. For instance, I just found out about an obscure — and yet very important — Stoic philosopher named Gaius Blossius, who lived in the 2nd century BCE, in Republican Rome. I discovered him because he is a minor but significant character in Roma, a long-ranging novel on the first thousand years of Rome’s history, written by Steve Saylor.
I must confess that Saylor has been a regular source of what I refer to as my “Roman porn,” i.e., historical novels I listen to when I go to the gym (because exercising would otherwise be an excruciatingly boring activity). I have read most of his “Roma Sub Rosa” books, which feature a fictional ancient detective, Gordianus the Finder. Those stories are set near the end of Republican Rome, at the time of Cicero, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Mark Anthony.
While Saylor’s novels are well written and enjoyable, I soon discovered that they are also remarkably well researched from a historical perspective. Several times while listening to them I had the suspicion that he was making up a minor character or secondary plot in the story, which of course would have been perfectly normal. But I checked. And every time it turned out that the character in question was, in fact, a historical figure, and that the episode had gone down more or less as Saylor described it — with all due caution about the perils of historical reconstruction, of course.
So the other day I was on my elliptical at the gym while listening to the chapter of Roma that features the well known story of the Gracchi brothers. You see, the conceit of the novel is that the the various major events are told through the eyes of (fictional) minor characters, with the actual historical figures mostly in the background, occasionally interacting with the protagonists. The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, were both elected Tribunes of the Plebes, about ten years apart from each other. The Tribunes were the representatives of the people, even though the Gracchi were members of the Roman aristocracy (their mother was the daughter of the famous Scipio Africanus, the guy who defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama in the Second Punic War).
Both Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to pass legislation that would enact dramatic agrarian reforms, redistributing huge swaths of Roman controlled territory, thing them from a few rich landowners and giving them to veterans and the poor. Call it socialism, ancient Roman style. As you might imagine, that didn’t go down well with the robber barons of the time, who lynched first Tiberius, and then, a decade later, his brother.
Tiberius is considered the first member of what later became known as the populares party, which worked on behalf of the plebe and was opposed by the optimates (literally, “the best people”), attempting to preserve the inherited rights of the aristocracy. Julius Caesar famously aligned himself with the populares, and a good argument can be made that the collapse of the Roman Republic and the beginning of Empire was due to the inability, or unwillingness, of the Senate to fairly resolve the agrarian question.
What does any of this have to do with our Gaius Blossius? From the little we know about him (based on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans), he hailed from the city of Cumae near Naples, in Campania, southern Italy. He was a friend and close advisor of Tiberius Gracchus. Blossius had studied Stoicism with Antipater of Tarsus, who himself had been a student of Diogenes of Babylon (the first Stoic to publicly teach in Rome, during a diplomatic mission in 155 BCE). Antipater later became the teacher of the middle Stoic Panaetius, a fact that connects him with Cicero, whose On Duties is largely based on Panaetius’ work by the same title.
After Tiberius was assassinated and his body thrown into the Tiber river, Blossius was interrogated by the two Consuls, the highest officers in the Roman Republic. He apparently freely admitted that he would have done anything that Tiberius had asked of him. The Consuls pressed him: “What? What would you do if Tiberius ordered you to burn the Capitol?” At which point Blossius responded that Tiberius would not have ordered such a thing. Unless he deemed it to be in the interest of the Roman people.
That was a pretty gutsy response, as Blossius may have then been tried and executed for treason. But the Consuls, perhaps thinking that he was, after all, “just” a philosopher, let him go.
That turned out to be a mistake. Blossius left Rome and moved to the province of Asia (modern Western Turkey), where he joined the rebellion against Rome led by Aristonicus, also known as Eumenes III, a pretender to the throne of Pergamon, near the modern city of Bergama, in Turkey. The revolt was initially successful. Aristonicus was able to seize a number of cities in Anatolia, conquer the island of Samos (where both Pythagoras and Epicurus had been born), and kill the Roman Consul, Publius Licinius. However, the Roman Senate eventually dispatched another Consul, the experienced Marcus Perperna, to the region, who was able to extinguish the revolt. When the upraising failed, Blossius committed suicide, in typical Stoic fashion.
The reason this story is important is because it speaks to a broader issue that often comes up in discussions of Stoicism: the alleged lack of interest by the Stoics in political and social issues. This is simply not the case as it emerges from the historical record. I have written before about the so-called Stoic opposition to the tyranny of the emperors Nero, Vespasian, and Domitian. And of course there is the well known story of Cato the Younger, who was very much politically involved and eventually took up arms against Julius Caesar. So did, of course, another prominent Stoic politician of the time: Marcus Brutus.
But the case of Blossius is particularly interesting because before he resorted to an armed revolution he worked within the system, helping Tiberius Gracchus to craft his policies on behalf of the Roman plebe, unjustly treated by the arrogant landowners and the Roman Senate.
It is true that Stoicism, per se, does not endorse any particular kind of political ideology or notion of social justice. But I find this a feature, not a bug, of the philosophy. The world is too complicated for any totalizing, universalist notion to actually do much good. The Stoic, however, has as her foremost goals in life to practice virtue (one of which is justice) and to be helpful to his brothers and sisters across the human cosmopolis. This is what Gaius Blossius tried to do. He failed and paid for it with his life, but as Epictetus reminds us:
“What good, you ask, did Priscus [one of the Stoic opposition] achieve, then, being just a single individual? And what does the purple achieve for the tunic? What else than standing out in it as purple, and setting a fine example for all the rest?” (Discourses I, 2.22)
That is why we still talk, and ought to talk, about people like Helvidius Priscus and Gaius Blossius.