Dr. Peter Hunt
Epictetus was an ex-slave and a leading Stoic philosopher in the Roman Empire during the second-century. His devoted student, Arrian, recorded Epictetus’ lectures and conversations in eight books titled Discourses, of which only four are extant. As an exslave and teacher, one expects to see him deal with the topic of slavery and freedom in great detail. However, few scholars have researched the relationship of Epictetus’ personal life and his views on slavery. In order to understand Epictetus’ perspective, it is essential to understand the political culture of his day and the social views on slavery. During his early years, Epictetus lived in Rome and was Epaphroditus’ slave. Epaphroditus was an abusive master, who served Nero as an administrative secretary. Around the same period, Seneca was a tutor and advisor to Nero. He was a Stoic philosopher, who counseled Nero on political issues and advocated the practice of clemency. In the mid to late first-century, Seneca spoke for a fair and kind treatment of slaves. He held a powerful position not only as an advisor to Nero, but also as a senator. While he promoted the humane treatment of slaves, he did not actively work to abolish slavery. Epaphroditus and Seneca both had profound influences in the way Epictetus viewed slaves and ex-slaves, relationships of former slaves and masters, and the meaning of freedom. As a philosopher and teacher, Epictetus’ views influenced his students and other scholars. Many of his students were aristocratic young men, who pursued political careers after completing their education with Epictetus. Even after his death, other scholars continued to study his Stoic philosophy. Marcus Aurelius was one such scholar, who was known as the philosopher emperor. He often quoted Epictetus and used his teachings as a guideline for his own life. As an emperor, he was in a position to change the laws for treatment of slaves and the institution of slavery. While he instituted laws to protect the slaves from extreme abuses by their masters, he also implemented stricter laws against runaway slaves. Neither Stoic philosophy nor its philosophers actively sought to eradicate slavery, but certain individuals saw slavery as a negative impact to their society. Even though Seneca and Marcus Aurelius shared the same philosophy as Epictetus, they came from the top echelon of the social order. Due to their social status, their opinions of slavery differ from those of Epictetus, an ex-slave.
Funk, Angela Marie, "Epictetus, Stoicism, and Slavery" (2011). Undergraduate Honors Theses. 615.