(PHILOSOPHY, ROME and its EMPIRE – continued)
Around 200 BCE, some conservative Romans wished that their city avoid entanglements in Greece in order to avoid contacts with fancy philosophies they believed would corrupt their fellow Romans. One of them, the statesman Marcus Porcius Cato – Cato the Elder – disliked the softer manners of the Greeks. He was fluent in Greek but opposed to Greek literature, poetry and art, and he opposed Greek medicine, claiming that it was poisoning Romans. Cato joined other Roman conservatives in fighting against the spread of Greek sophistication. He was influential in deporting from Rome two Epicureans whom he thought had been sneering at religion, and he played a role in deporting a host of other philosophers and rhetoricians from east of the Adriatic.
Romans adopted Greek philosophies despite these conservatives. The conservative general, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who took power as a dictator in 82 BCE, was also intellectually aggressive, and after retiring he took up gardening and became an Epicurean. Another intellectually aggressive individual, Julius Caesar, a generation after Sulla, also became an Epicurean, but he was in politics to his end.
Stoicism was adopted more widely accepted. Cicero, a contemporary of Caesar, saw the Greeks as having thought of every philosophical alternative, and he sided with the Stoics against the Epicureans, for whom he had contempt. He believed it necessary to persuade Romans that there were gods who governed all things, that these gods were the benefactors of mankind and that the gods judged the character, acts, intentions and the piety of individuals. Cicero had come to believe in Stoicism's brotherhood of man, and he saw this brotherhood as compatible with Roman imperialism. Rome, he believed, had created safety, that Rome was the light of the world, and the Roman Empire was the work of the gods.
Another Stoic was Marcus Brutus, of et tu Brute fame. He was a senator with a reputation as an idealist. Fifteen years younger than Caesar, Caesar had considered him almost a son. He was at least close to him, Caesar having pardoned him for his alliance with his adversary Pompey. When he joined the conspiracy his prestige inspired twelve other senators to join in the assassination conspiracy. Brutus' philosophy about the brotherhood of man did not inhibit him from slashing into Caesar with his knife. Caesar, he thought, was doing a disservice to the state by turning himself into a king. Brutus paid for his act with his life. Surrounded by hostile forces two years after the assassination, he committed suicide. A follower of Epicurus might have seen it as another example of the benefits of living a peaceful life outside of politics.
And there was the Stoic philosopher Seneca, one century later. He too became mixed up in politics. He accepted the position of tutor to the adopted son of an emperor, a boy named Nero. Nero took power at the age of sixteen, after his mother poisoned her husband, Emperor Claudius. Nero remained under Seneca's influence for the first five years of his rule. Seneca became a power behind the throne and applied his Stoic sentiments by opposing the use of torture as evidence. And he was opposed to slow death and physical torments involved with execution by crucifixion. During this time, Nero gave slaves the right to file complaints against their masters – a tiny reform. Nero also pardoned people who had written unflattering descriptions of him. He left the charge of treason unused. He gave assistance to cities that had suffered from disasters. And, he won the hearts of many of his subjects by lowering taxes. But no matter Seneca's wisdom, Nero was a mediocrity unsuited emotionally for the power that had been given him. Difficulties grew, including Nero getting rid of his mother by having her murdered. Seneca retired during Nero's eighth year of rule. His replacement was Tigellinus, who amused Nero with his callousness and described Stoics, including Seneca, as hypocrites for proclaiming preference for living simply. Seneca began to devote himself again to study and writing. Three years later, he was accused of conspiring to kill Nero – most likely a falsehood. Seneca was ordered by Nero to kill himself, and he did so, severing several of his veins and bleeding to death.
Copyright © 2009-2011 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.