As they did with many intellectual pursuits, the Romans learned philosophy* from the Greeks. Beginning in the 100s B.C., Greek philosophers visited Rome and lectured widely. By about 100 B.C., Greek philosophy was well established among upper-class Romans, who commonly traveled to Greece to study. By 50 B.C., the first Roman philosophers had translated the works of selected Greek philosophers into Latin and had begun to create philosophical literature of their own.
Lucretius. Lucretius was one of the founders of Roman philosophy. Around 50 B.C., he composed On the Nature of Things, which was a lengthy poem that attempted to explain the teachings of the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Lucretius’s goal was to free the Roman people from the two great fears that haunted human existence—the fear of the gods and the fear of death—by providing a scientific explanation for events in the natural world.
As a follower of Epicurus, Lucretius believed that the gods did not affect human lives or events. Therefore, Lucretius argued, humans alone were responsible for their own happiness. He attempted to show that worlds were created and destroyed merely as a result of physical processes, without any divine plan. Lucretius also claimed that physical processes accounted for many other events that were often explained by the action of the gods. The world, he believed, consisted of only two things: atoms and empty space. Besides atoms and void, nothing else existed. Hence, all events and objects could be explained in purely physical or material terms.
* philosophy study of ideas, including science
Cicero. A prominent statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero studied Greek philosophy as a youth and remained interested in philosophy throughout his life. He began writing philosophy somewhat late in life. He composed most of his philosophical works during a period of less than two years— following the death of his daughter in about 45 B.C. Apparently Cicero wrote philosophy as a way to forget his great sorrow.
Cicero attempted to make philosophy attractive to Romans by combining it with rhetoric*. He translated Greek works on ethics* that had relevance to Roman life into understandable and often stimulating dialogues*. As a follower of Stoicism*, Cicero believed that the laws of any society must be based on the universal law of nature, which he saw as the rationality that existed in nature. His strong beliefs were already apparent in his first philosophical work, De Republica, in which Cicero described his ideal vision of the future of Rome.
Seneca. Like Cicero, Seneca was a prominent statesman who wrote Stoic philosophy in Latin rhetorical prose*. He had a wonderful gift for summing up his thoughts in short, memorable phrases. Like Lucretius, Seneca’s goal was to help people overcome fears by explaining natural phenomena in scientific terms. Unlike Lucretius, however, Seneca believed that the gods controlled everything that happened in the world.
In his writings, Seneca emphasized human relationships, and he called for mutual love and forgiveness. He believed that clemency, or mercy, was the most desirable human quality. More than any other ancient philosopher, Seneca insisted that slaves were human beings who should be treated with the same respect given to others.
Marcus Aurelius. All Roman philosophy was based on Greek models, and after Seneca, Roman philosophers used Greek, rather than Latin, to express their ideas. One of the best known of these later Roman philosophers was Marcus Aurelius, who was emperor of Rome in the late A.D. 100s.
Marcus Aurelius had read and admired Greek Stoic philosophers, especially the work of Epictetus. He wrote his own personal reflections regarding this work in the form of a diary, the first in Western literature. He supported the Stoic view that the world is governed by God, and that humans should accept whatever lot God assigns them. Unlike earlier Roman philosophers, Marcus Aurelius did not cite examples from Roman history or recognize a distinctly Roman use for philosophy. Rather, he regarded himself as a citizen of the world, and he used philosophy as something that transcended national boundaries.
Neoplatonism. During the A.D. 200s, the most important development in Roman philosophy was Neoplatonism, which revived the philosophy of Plato, the great Greek philosopher of the 300s B.C. The philosopher Plotinus, who founded Neoplatonism, came to Rome in A.D. 244 from Alexandria in Egypt. Neoplatonists believed that the world and everything in it flowed from a great being, with whom each person’s soul was reunited after death. A carefully thought-out system of philosophy, Neoplatonism also had a strong mystical* component. Neoplatonism greatly influenced Christianity, which was gaining widespread popularity during this period. After Plotinus, the center of philosophy shifted away from Rome to the East, and pagan* Roman philosophy came to an end. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Roman; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic.)
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* ethics branch of philosophy that deals with moral conduct, duty, and judgment
* dialogue text presenting an exchange of ideas between people
* Stoicism philosophy that emphasized control over one's thoughts and emotions
* prose writing without meter or rhyme, as distinguished from poetry
POLITICS AND PHILOSOPHY IN ANCIENT ROME
In ancient Rome, politics played an important role in most aspects of life, including philosophy. The Roman philosopher Seneca provides a good example. Seneca was a prominent politician who was exiled for eight years during the emperor Claudius's reign. Some historians believe that Seneca's writings in praise of poverty and the simple life were attempts to console himself. After his return from exile, Seneca became a tutor and then a major adviser to the young emperor Nero. However, he soon fell out of favor with Nero and was charged with conspiracy. As punishment, Nero forced Seneca to commit suicide.
* mystical referring to the belief that divine truths or direct knowledge of God can be experienced through meditation and contemplation as much as through logical thought
* pagan referring to a belief in more than one god; non-Christian