The Stoic Opposition

The Senators that defied Emperors

Quaestor Reading the Death Sentence to Senator Thrasea Paetus. Wikipedia, public domain.

Introduction

The Stoics opposed to the tyrannical rule of the emperors of the 1st century: namely Nero and Domitian. The Stoics in question are Republican Senators, advocating for the restoration of equal power regarding the Emperor and the Senate, plus a more philosophical approach to governance.

As you can imagine the emperor had the final say over the policy’s enacted, which would affect the whole empire. Policies of this kind would be debated in the Senate; however, the emperor always had the final say.

The Stoic opposition and its origin

This opposition came about because of the emperors increasing overreach, human beings can only tolerate it for so all before it becomes a problem. Over time, Nero became paranoid; this paranoia, fueled by some close advisors: given the nature of Nero’s mentality he would not take much convincing. Subsequently, Nero would trail and execute anyone he or his advisors perceived is a threat.

The most influential of the condemned Romans was a man called Thrasea Peatus the leader of the Stoic opposition and student of Musonius Rufus.

Musonius Rufus

The man named above was the main influence on the Stoic opposition. Along with Cato. Musonius Rufus was a Stoic philosopher teaching out of Rome. Remembered by history as the Romans answer to Socrates: Musonius and his teaching methods are simple and to the point, as a Stoic should be.

Musonius had a powerful reputation as a philosopher in Rome. He spoke with purpose and conviction and drew crowds of people who would listen to him speak. He acquired his reputation through his eloquent and tenacious rhetoric; having their ears, he would strip the objective world we live in of the value-judgments mankind has placed on it.

This, in turn, stands as an example of the ideas he would preach. There was never a hint of hypocrisy in what he taught and his way of life, if the people ever needed an example of his teachings he was it.

The Flavian Emperors

Opposition under Nero

I have given a brief insight into Nero above. Here is the full story, as I have come to know it.

Rubellius Plautus was the leader of the Stoic opposition under Nero, in 60 AD he was exiled to Asia Minor along with Musonius Rufus. Nero was informed about a potential rebellion were Plautus was exiled to. Nero was rightly fearful of this man: Rubellius fate was sealed, Nero sent a centurion to assassinate him.

Plautus got wind of Nero’s intentions and was contemplating going on the run (possibly to Syria) however, Musonius convinced him to stay and accept his fate. He was killed while preparing for his routine exercise.

The fate of Musonius was not so, he returned to Rome only to be exiled again by Nero. This time he was exiled to an island along with a handful of his followers.

As the years pasted, the movement was gaining momentum, Nero was becoming ever more gripped by paranoia, as a result of his treatment of the Roman people reached a breaking point. All over the empire, there was talk of rebellion, and Nero’s control over the army was dubious at best. The political scene was one filled with twist and turns, with all the political weight on the emperor, one could easily find themselves overwhelmed.

All of this, and other factors, lead to Nero’s eventual downfall; the Stoic opposition been one. However, Nero’s attitude towards the population overall was bound to have catastrophic results for the young emperor.

Opposition under Domitian

Domitian, like the other Flavian emperors, has a distasteful attitude towards philosophy and the men who study such teachings.

This is true with the follows of Stoicism in particular; their belief: that the path to happiness can be achieved through virtue alone(excellence of character). Put yourself in Domitian’s position for a minute, you have an entire empire to run and maintain. And the behavior of these insolence Senators has the nerve to tell you how the empire should be administrated. You are the most powerful men on the planet. What would you do?

In Roman society, the path which points towards glory and power is the virtuous one, which any roman should strive for. And so the rightful path for any roman aristocrat is to become emperor. Or at the very lest win his favor.

For the Stoics, however, their perception of virtue was one of good moral character. Act with honor and integrity in every aspect of life, ever compromise one’s principles, for if you do, you will compromise your soul in the process.

This is why Domitian and the other Flavian emperors are suspicious of the philosophers. They are a threat to there rule, so they thought — I can see there suspicion in my own minds-eye: good teachers and mentors bring about an educated and competent populous, which, in turn, leads to more competition within court life.

Now, he can’t just order a purge on all the philosophers in Rome; much to his dismay, many citizens of Rome admired there wisdom and insight. One man of note is again, Musonius Rufus; the man with an excellent reputation as a philosopher in Rome. What to do then with these troublesome philosophers? At the time, many Romans feared exile over death. And so the members of the Stoic opposition were consistently sent into exile. If this did not compel the Stoics to comply, then death would be there fate.

The Stoic opposition I would assume, was the main voice for the Roman people, given that not many other parties dared to voice their concerns. To this end, they would have rallied around the Stoics, in theory that is.

This opposition to the Flavian dynasty did last throughout their time on the throne. Advocating for resistance via civil discourse on the Senate floor: challenging the emperor whenever they disapproved of a particular policy/action taken.

As we know from the previous part of this article, the consequences were extreme. Not only was it there own life as risk, but that of there entire family. Rubellius Plautus, when we were killed, his family was spared for a little while. However, his entire family was eventually executed by Nero in 66 AD.

The actions of these Senators had ever lasting effects on future students of Stoicism. An example to follow and imitate; like the two Stoics who talk of there legacy and influence, in the next section of the article.

The opposition and there legacy

An artistic impression of the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Public domain.

Epictetus

One Stoic philosopher who showed great appreciation for the opposition was Epictetus. In the discourse, Epictetus speaks of the Stoic opposition and there fight against the Flavian emperors. When speaking to his students about what they intend to do after they leave, he recommends they follow the moral example of the Stoic Senators opposition of the Flavian dynasty.

Epictetus also praises the way Paconius Agrippinus handle his exile, and of Helvidius Priscus for his part in the Stoic opposition under Vespasian; he was, however, eventually executed by Vespasian after two terms of exile.

Marcus Aurelius

As mentioned previously, Epictetus was fond of the Stoic opposition and the beliefs they were fighting for. However a Roman emperor by the name of Marcus Aurelius: the last of the five good emperors and a fellow Stoic. Was with no doubts, an admirer of the Stoic opposition, even his Stoic tutor was a descendant of one of the men who opposed the Flavian emperors.

In the Meditations, Marcus dedicates the first book to the men and woman who developed and shaped him into the man he was to become. Of these acknowledgements, Marcus takes the time to thank his Stoic tutor, as he would tell stories to the young Marcus about the Stoic Senators resistance to the Flavian emperors.

One other man of note is an Aristotelian philosopher who taught Marcus about the history of the late Roman Republic and the man who was trying to save it from ruin. This man is Cato the Younger.

Conclusion

That life is hard. But who is to say this is a bad thing? Where there is adversity, there is a chance to practice virtue. As Seneca would remind us. The legacy of Cato regarding the students of Stoicism is one of the pinnacle examples of how a Stoic should conduct themselves among society. A testament to the Stoic way of life.

Refinement of one’s character is never easy. However, the Stoics had a reason to do so. Always try to do the right thing in every aspect of life, typically this would go against societal norms: to the Stoics, this is another sign that it is the right move to make.

References: all of the material from this article is from Wikipedia and the Daily Stoic website.

The discourse of Epictetus: he talks about some of the notable figures of the Opposition.

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