Stoicism and the Roman Empire

Stoicism as a historical force in antiquity


            This guide covers a topic that was until recent years overlooked by academia: the philosophy of Stoicism’s impact on antiquity, and the philosophy’s role as a historical force.  While Stoicism is typically studied on the periphery of ancient philosophy and classics, it rarely receives historical coverage. Curious, as Stoicism was essentially the state religion of the Nerva-Antontine dynasty, and featured heavily in Roman political thought from at least 2nd century BCE. In reality Stoicism was as influential a force in antiquity as was the Christianity that followed it, and this guide aims to introduce the reader to the various key concepts, primary documents and contemporary pieces of research which will lend to an investigation of the topic: Stoicism and the Roman Empire and Stoicism as a historical force.   

An Introduction to Stoicism

Stoicism is the philosophy that contemporary man has more or less forgotten but ironically was the most influential European philosophy from the time of Alexander of Macedon well into the early modern era, profoundly influencing New Testament ethics (most noticeably the writings of Paul), notions of social justice and aristocratic culture.[1] While Stoicism is a fully developed philosophical system, including disciplines of physics, logic and ethics, for the purposes of this guide we will focus on the latter, as that field informs the behavior of historical actors.

Stoicism was founded in the early third century B.C.E. by Zeno of Citium. Zeno lectured on a colonnaded porch (Stoa) in Athens and this is seemingly how the philosophy came to be named. The earliest Stoic writings are unknown to us except in a few outstanding fragments and in references mentioned from other period philosophers and historians, complete Stoic works come much later, well into the Common Era[2][3]. While the philosophy evolved over its formative period to be less severe, shedding qualities of self-denial and extreme austerity inherited from Cynicism, it remained from its conception to the days of Marcus Aurelius fundamentally the same.

The Stoic ethical system begins with the claim that much of the pain and suffering in the world is the result of faulty judgment, as the untrained man too readily clings to things outside of his control, and so is disturbed when they are taken from him.[4][5] The Stoics argued that the virtuous individual, having cultivated a will in accord with nature (prohairesis), would free himself of such grief.[6][7] Nature, as defined by the Stoics, refers to the Logos, the universal reason binding together all of humanity, all people being equal and sharing in bonds of fellowship.[8] Living in accordance with reason and virtue, the Stoics held that in order to live properly one must recognize this common reason and the essential value of all people, treating others with fairness and magnanimity.[9] The Stoics held that action and choice were extensions of virtue, and sought to behave constantly in a fashion consistent with those goods; they sought to build a self-sacrificing and tempered character, and so wielded the knowledge necessary to rule others and to be ruled by deferring to those with greater shares of wisdom.[10] The ultimate goal of the Stoic philosopher is to become a “sage,” an individual unperturbed by external misfortune by the wielding of an aegis of virtue.[11] The sage is immune to misfortune; his happiness determined not by riches and the capricious happenings of fate but by “virtue…in a will which is in agreement with Nature”, a love of goodness, beauty and fairness, satisfied in his purity of character and judgment.[12]

The Logos (nature) grants to human beings an appreciation of beauty, truth and love, classically referred to as the “three treasures.” It is upon this appreciation that virtue is founded, as originally postulated through the Platonic tradition.[13] The Stoic virtues are temperance (decorum/sophrosyne), justice (lawfulness/dikaiosyne), fortitude (courage/andreia) and wisdom (prudence/sophia). As all share the same nature, the same Logos (in the Christian sense: we are all God’s children), all must be treated fairly, with magnanimity and impartially through the cultivation of justice.[14] As we naturally appreciate beauty, we must restrain ourselves from ugliness and destructive behaviors and so cultivate temperance, restraining ourselves from unnatural, vicious indulgences and abandonment. Similarly we must love ourselves to assert ourselves in the world; hence Stoics cultivate courage, to endure “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” to act with spirited expedience when duties call. Finally, the virtue of wisdom is the appreciation and questing after of truth, the prudent tempering of our character and the rational pursuit of an examined life, a search for and application of the knowledge of what is within and outside of human control. Ultimately wisdom is the virtue responsible for informing our opinions of nature correctly by means of the rational process, as misinformed opinions of the nature of the world (i.e. expecting people to drive correctly or hurricanes not to destroy property) often results in agony when events inevitably turn out differently.[15]

Stoicism rose to become an influential philosophy by the time that Alexander’s great empire was being divided up amongst the Hellenistic successor kings. Stoicism is a philosophy of selfless endurance, of striving toward godliness. The early Stoics used myths such as the story of Heracles, a tale in which the hero had soldiered through a laborious life of service to humanity and in the end became a god, as allegories to explain the tenets of Stoicism. Chrysippus of Soli argued that Homer and Hesiod were in fact Stoics, using a form of allegorical interpretation to delineate Stoic themes in the classical texts.[16] These examples were immediately intelligible to the Greek mindset so much so that “nearly all the successors of Alexander – … all the principal kings in existence following Zeno – professed themselves Stoic.”[17]

By the middle of the 2nd century B.C.E. Stoicism had influenced the aristocracy of the Hellenistic world but had not yet expanded west of Greece proper in any significant way. While studying at the Stoic school in Athens, Panaetius of Rhodes had a chance encounter with Scipio Africanus, who was himself also a student. A friendship soon developed and in 146 B.C.E. the former traveled to Rome after finishing his education to join Scipio’s circle of intellectuals, thinkers and advisors who were then tasked with modernizing the commonwealth.[18] The Stoic philosopher remained in service of Rome for the next fifteen years, disseminating notions of Stoic service, ethics and duty at the highest level of the Roman aristocracy, and profoundly influenced the intellectual culture of the period. Panaetius focused on presenting the ethics of Stoicism while in Rome, inspiring contemporary Roman philosophers such as Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to do likewise; his presentation of the philosophy to the Roman aristocracy greatly influenced the philosophical practice as a lifestyle for the Roman statesmen.[19] 

The philosophy was naturally intelligible to the Roman statesmen, as it was to the Greeks. In the early history of the Republic the Roman citizen valued virtue and selfless duty to the republic before all else. The people of Rome venerated the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who unflinchingly abandoned his farm and family to repel the Gauls as the ideal role model and found the incorruptible and austere Cato the Younger who dared to resist the tyranny of Gaius Julius for sake of upholding his duty to the republic as a living example of the embodiment of their national pride, so inspiring his compatriots to virtue and integrity.[20][21] Both men embodied the Stoic virtues of temperance, prudence, justice and courage and were interpreted by Livy and Plutarch respectively as being ideal Romans: men who heroically served the community of the republic with no compromise and held loyalty not to individuals or to gods but the idea of what Rome could become, who laid down their lives in dutiful service, with no complaints. Polybian Roman soldiers fielded their own equipment and received no pay, offering their service to war not for a reward but for love of the country and its people.[22] The Roman social structure, mythology (itself borrowing heavily from the Greek tradition), patron-client relationship, and its system of laws were also compatible with Stoic conceptions of social justice.

The Roman aristocracy in the years following the advisement of Panaetius began to hire Stoic tutors for their children and the philosophy became ingrained as knowledge of the examined and good life.[23] As it had been with the Hellenistic successors, by early antiquity Stoicism had become the philosophy of the imperial life, prevalent not only in the education of equestrian senators but also at the highest level of power: the emperorship itself. Early exercises in Stoic kingship were abortive and premature, as was the case with Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (who ordered the suicide of his tutor Seneca), but by the reign of the first of the “Five Good Emperors” in 96 C.E. Stoic wisdom reached an apex, affording to the Roman citizenry rulers who ensured a lengthy period of prosperity, justice and harmony even in the face of mounting external and internal disaster and misfortune, including the devastating “Antonine Plague” and barbarian adventurism.

While Stoicism may have persisted to be influential in the education of the Roman aristocracy, after the death of Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius (180 C.E.), there is no evidence to suggest that it was still prevalent as a political culture, or that it had any influence on the behavior of the transitory emperors to follow in the third century, who left no writings which have survived and judging from their recorded actions alone seem to have had no higher principles in mind.[24] As Christianity became more popular Stoicism appeared in a state of flux, respected by the early Church fathers but falling into disuse as a way of life and a political philosophy. In 529 C.E. Emperor Justinian closed the philosophy schools, judging the pagan character of the Hellenistic philosophies to be at odds with the Christian society he envisioned ministering.[25] Subsequently, Stoicism became a more academic philosophy, the writings of Stoics such as Seneca praised for technical usage of Latin rather than for moral guidance. While the ethical content of the philosophy was still praised in theory, its moral merits were often attributed to the subtle influence of the Christian God by contemporary apologists, the latter of which went so far as to claim that several key Stoic philosophers were in fact Christians all along.[26]

Ancient Philosophy and What It Meant to the Ancients

Pierre Hadot introduced the importance of the “spiritual exercise” in ancient philosophy, defining such as "practices which could be physical, as in dietary regimes, or discursive, as in dialogue and mediation, or intuitive, as in contemplation, but which were all intended to effect a modification and a transformation in the subject who practice them. The philosophy teacher's discourse could be presented in such a way that the disciple, as auditor, reader, or interlocutor, could make spiritual progress and transform himself within."[27] Hadot, encountering contemporary analytical criticisms of seemingly incoherent and contradictory ancient philosophical works, revolutionized the study of the discipline by arguing that such works were not systematic treatises as the moderns had erroneously assumed, but rather served as dialectical exercises intended to mold the character of the student.[28]

In this fashion the ancient philosophical teachings were not intended to transmit information (as modern philosophical texts are) but rather “to produce a certain psychic effect in the reader or listener” so that disciples could more wisely “orient themselves in thought, in the life of the city, or in the world.”[29] These dialectical exercises “aimed at realizing a transformation of one’s vision of the world and a metamorphosis of one’s personality.”[30] Philosophy in the ancient tradition was not simply an abstract knowledge that one could detach him or herself from, but rather required the perpetual attention of the will “[kept] ready at hand at each instant [of] life,” practiced on a constant basis to achieve serenity and the healthy operation and direction of the soul; philosophy was a sublime knowledge at the core of the student’s existence, informing one’s behavior and thoughts. The ancient philosophical schools did not attempt to “procure a total and exhaustive explanation of reality, but to link, in an unshakable way, a small group of principles, vigorously articulated together,” the discourse serving as didactic meditation on the nature of the world in order to provide “the means [for students] to maintain their psychic equilibrium.”[31] While ancient philosophical thought was often divided into separate domains of study (i.e. logic/dialectic, physics and ethics) for pedagogic purposes, it was not interpreted as lacking unity in practice; philosophy was practiced as “a single act, renewed at every instant, that one can describe, without breaking its unity, as being the exercise of logic as well as of physics or of ethics, according to the directions in which it is exercised.”[32] In this fashion philosophy constituted a single, unified act, a way of being and of identity, constantly in mind and of gross influence in the disposition of the character; there existed no division between theoretical and practical, philosophy was a way of life.  In the case of the Stoics, the practice of premeditation of possible future misfortune served to inform the character of students on the basis of prescribed principles, and so tempered mental habits with virtue by means of the rational process.[33]

Finally it must be stressed that ancient philosophy was not only tasked with transforming the mental inclinations, desires and judgments of its students but also their actions so that “the animated words of the philosopher are at the service of the philosopher’s way of life.”[34] One of the most striking examples of this maxim is demonstrated in Xenophon. Socrates, having been cornered to provide an explanation of the nature of justice in argument by the sophist Hippias, responds with a typically Stoic sentiment: “Instead of speaking of it, I make it understood by my acts.”[35] Epictetus would expand upon this logic in his framing of the Roman brand of Stoicism which became prevalent during the reign of the Five Good Emperors, summarizing it aphoristically in the Enchiridion:

Never call yourself a philosopher, nor talk a great deal among the unlearned about theorems, but act conformably to them. Thus, at an entertainment, don't talk how persons ought to eat, but eat as you ought. For remember that in this manner Socrates also universally avoided all ostentation. And when persons came to him and desired to be recommended by him to philosophers, he took and recommended them, so well did he bear being overlooked. So that if ever any talk should happen among the unlearned concerning philosophic theorems, be you, for the most part, silent. For there is great danger in immediately throwing out what you have not digested. And, if anyone tells you that you know nothing, and you are not nettled at it, then you may be sure that you have begun your business. For sheep don't throw up the grass to show the shepherds how much they have eaten; but, inwardly digesting their food, they outwardly produce wool and milk. Thus, therefore, do you likewise not show theorems to the unlearned, but the actions produced by them after they have been digested.[36]

            Simplicius, writing contemporaneously to Epictetus, confirmed the Stoic philosopher’s doctrine and disdain for ostentatious study, claiming in this commentary of the philosophical manual that “the real essence of man is his rational soul, which makes use of the body, as its instrument of action.”[37] Action in accordance with underlying principles is the final form of an instruction in ancient philosophy.[38]

A New Historiography


Because Stoicism can be shown to have been both prevalent and religiously observed in the lives of the Roman aristocracy, most clearly during the reign of the Nerva-Antontine Dynasty (Five Good Emperors), it can clearly be explored as a historical force. Contemporary understandings of philosophy should not be imposed into ancient accounts; clearly practice of philosophy, which can be clearly demonstrated by Roman aristocrats of the period, was synonymous with what we consider religion rather than mere intellectual contemplation. Accordingly, the behavior of historical actors might very well have been influenced by Stoicism.

            One key way in which Stoicism can be interpreted as a historical force is in the decline of the Roman Empire. While Roman statesmen publicly espoused Stoics values (such as charity, universal human rights, the equality of man and a well ordered, lawful government) and concurrently experienced a period of flourishing, the military men to follow during the Crisis of the Third Century, to whom we have no evidence suggesting they studied or applied philosophy, contributed a barbaric age which fatally splintered the Empire. This topic is explored in the section to follow entitled “Sources in Historiography of the Decline of the Roman Empire and Stoicism.”

            While we might not conclude with this point, it must at least be acknowledged that Stoicism was a historical force of notable power. The reader is invited to consider the following sources for an exploration into this new and compelling historiography.



Reference Works

Algra, K.A. Polyhistor: Studies in the History and Historiography of Ancient Philosophy : Presented to Jaap Mansfeld on His Sixtieth Birthday (Philosophia Antiqua). Edited by Pieter Willem Van Der Horst and David Runia.  Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 1996.

This work concentrates on the Presocratics, Hellenistic Philosophy, the sources of our knowledge of ancient philosophy (esp. doxography) and the history of scholarship. The 22 contributors include M. Baltes, J. Barnes, J. Brunschwig, W.M. Calder III, J. Dillon, P.L. Donini, J. Glucker, A.A. Long, L.M. de Rijk, D. Sedley, P. Schrijvers, and M. Vegetti. The volume concludes with a complete bibliography of Jaap Mansfeld's scholarly work thus far.

Algra, K. A., Barnes, J., Mansfeld, J. and Schofield, M. The Cambridge History of Hellenistic Philosophy. Cambridge: CUP, 2000.

A full account of the philosophy of the Greek and Roman worlds from the last days of Aristotle (c. 320 BC) until 100 BC. The History is organized by subject, rather than chronologically or by philosophical school, with sections on logic, epistemology, physics and metaphysics, ethics and politics. It has been written by specialists but is intended to be a source of reference for any student of ancient philosophy, for students of classical antiquity and for students of the philosophy of later periods. Greek and Latin are used sparingly and always translated in the main text.

Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by J.B. Bury. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2004.

Gibbon’s work was the first general history that covered the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (starting at the reign of the “Age of the Antonines"), and in many regards is still a keystone work to this day; all subsequent investigations into the field compare against Gibbon. Although now hundreds of years old, Gibbon’s history is remarkably exhaustive and well cited and introduces the reader to all the major forces and sources applicable to the study. While many contemporary historians have held issue with Gibbon’s final interpretations and conclusions, as a general history work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is nearly unparalleled, meticulously surveying the ancient sources and the contemporary scholarship of his time. It also must be mentioned that Gibbon’s work is a pleasure to read!

Inwood, Brad. The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics (Cambridge Companions to Philosophy). Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

This volume offers an exploration through the ideas of the Stoics in three ways: through the historical trajectory of the school itself and its influence; the recovery of the history of Stoic thought; and finally, the ongoing confrontation with Stoicism.

Long, A.A. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

One of the definitive textbooks and general reference works on the philosophy of Stoicism. Most useful for purposes of this research, Long provides an examination of Stoicism as a philosophy of life and not merely an academic philosophy, which is key to understanding the Roman Stoics during the decline of the empire. Long’s volume is a key reference work for tracing the history of Stoicism and Stoic thought well into the modern times and contains an exhaustive bibliography and linguistic guide.

Remes, Paulina. Neoplatonism (Ancient Philosophies). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Platonism and neoplatonism are married to the development of Stoicism: both philosophies greatly influenced each other and the students and statesmen that studied them. Accordingly Remes’ work is an appropriate reference. This book is exceptional in that it synergies new findings in the field to create a cutting edge textbook and general overview of Neoplatonism. It performs exceptionally as a general introduction and as a reference source.  Using an accessible, thematic approach, the author explores the ideas of leading Neoplatonists such as Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, Simplicius and Damascius, as well as less well-known thinkers. She situates their ideas alongside classical Platonism, Stoicism, and the neo-Pythagoreans as well as other intellectual movements of the time, including Gnosticism, Judaism, and Christianity.

Sedley, David. The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy. Cambridge: CUP, 2003.

The Cambridge Companion to Greek and Roman Philosophy is a wide-ranging introduction to the study of philosophy in the ancient world. A team of leading specialists surveys the developments of the period and evaluates a comprehensive series of major thinkers, ranging from Pythagoras to Epicurus. There are also separate chapters on how philosophy in the ancient world interacted with religion, literature and science, and a final chapter traces the seminal influence of Greek and Roman philosophy down to the seventeenth century.

Sellars, John. Stoicism (Ancient Philosophies). Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

A general guide to the ancient philosophy of Stoicim, Sellars provides an amazing portrait of the intellectual culture of the period. Stoicism is notable for its outstanding rigor, comprehensive coverage and scope, as well as its ability to provide answers to specific reference queries regarding the philosophy. A special attention is paid to the historical development of Stoicism. Stoicism is considered to be one of the keystone general guides on the philosophy for which it is named.

Strange, Steven and Jack Zupko. Stoicism: traditions and transformations. Cambridge: CUP, 2004.

An essential reader, including essays by various experts in the field of Stoic studies including Lawrence Becker, this volume focuses on the topic of influence of the Stoicism on historical action. A special emphasis is placed upon the impact that Stoicism has had on historical periods and contemporaneous commentators.  Stoicism: traditions and transformations also provides articles which provide close coverage of Stoic philosophical concepts ranging from passion, to duty and to public service. This reader offers a critical understanding of the relationship Stoicism played within history, a major area of research often neglected until recent years; the volume serves as a primer in the general study of this domain.

Zalta, Edward N. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Cambridge.

While the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a general reference work in philosophy, it provides extremely useful, thorough entries on various topics relating to the historiography of ancient history, philosophy and Stoicism. Most applicable to the researcher are the articles tracing the history of ideas in ancient philosophy. It is a treasure in its online form, capable of answering reference queries about the general domain of ancient philosophy in the same way Sellar’s book does for the specific study of Stoicism.  

Primary Sources

Betty Radice, trans. The Letters of the Younger Pliny (New York: Penguin Classics, 1963).

Pliny includes a conversation with Hadrian (10.97) which is very revealing as a portrait of the Emperor’s psychology and rationales for action. In this letter Hadrian argues for universal law, justice and liberality, Stoic notions of the day.

David Magie, trans. Historia Augusta (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1921).

The Augustan History is a late Roman collection of biographies, in Latin, of the Roman Emperors, their junior colleagues and usurpers of the period 117 to 284. It presents itself as a compilation of works by six different authors (collectively known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae), written in the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I, but the true authorship of the work, its actual date, and its purpose, have long been matters for controversy. The Augustan History is problematic but nonetheless invaluable and its often fantastic claims can be checked against more rigorous accounts such as Dio and Herodian. The volume pays special attention to the character and personal behavior of the Roman emperors and is thus an aid to understanding the period, even if the precision of fact is often lacking. 

Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster, trans., Dio Cassius: Roman History (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1924).

Dio’s history is the best and most complete source and portrait of the life and time of the Stoic emperors, and places the period into the context of the greater history of the Roman polity. Dio’s thoughtful and often philosophical tone is an aid to a thematic understanding of the period. Roman History ultimately provides the bulwark of essential fact and historical coverage which underlies the guide. 

Edward C. Echols, trans. Herodian of Antioch's History of the Roman Empire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1961)

While Dio offers complete historical coverage of the rise and apex of the Empire, Herodian pays special coverage to the decline and corruption following the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a dysfunction which is central to the argument laid to bear. Eight books cover the period of 180-238, from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the reign of Gordian III. Specifically Herodian covers the beginnings of the “Crisis of the Third Century” and the endemic failings of a Roman polity without proper respect of tradition or principled rule. A moral account, Herodian’s work is nonetheless extremely important for understanding the turbulent death throes of the Empire. 

Elizabeth Carter, trans. Moral discourses ; Enchiridion and fragments (Charleston: Nabu Press, 2010).

The works of Epictetus were the essential teachings for Stoics during the reign of the Five Good Emperors, either through direct dissemination or by adaption of allied schools. An understanding of Epictetus is essential to understanding the psychology of Roman Stoics, as is demonstrated by Pierre Hadot.

Gregory Hays, trans., Meditations (New York: Modern Library, 2003).

The philosophical journal of Marcus Aurelius offers a unique insight into Hellenistic and Roman perceptions of Stoicism, cosmology, civic responsibility, philosophical thought and tenets of leadership. This is perhaps the most important record for the work, as it clearly reveals a Roman emperor who is also a philosopher whose actions are heavily influenced, almost religiously by Stoicism. The Gregory Hays translation of the Koine Greek is the best available. While the George Long translation is considered often considered authoritative, it’s stubborn insistence on using Victorian and formal English is not compatible with the researcher’s perception of hypomnema, or contemporaneous translations of similar writings.

H.W. Bird, trans. Aurelius Victor: De Caesaribus (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994).

Aurelius Victor’s work is another contemporaneous account of the same dubiousness as the Historia Augusta. Nevertheless, this colorful history covers the “Five Good Emperor” period and the subsequent decline in the morals and values of the Roman polity. De Caesaribus pays special coverage to the reign of Nerva, which is essential to understanding the concept of adoptive rule. 

John E. Hill, trans. Through the Jade Gate to Rome: A Study of the Silk Routes during the Later Han Dynasty, First to Second Centuries CE (Booksurge, 2009).

Hill’s work includes a translation of The Western Regions according to the Hou Hanshu from Book 88 of Hou Hanshu, the history of the late Han. This Chinese account is critical for an understanding of the cosmopolitan auspices of both the Roman and Chinese polities, and respective philosophical interpretations of their place in nature.

John Jackson, trans. Tacitus: The Annals (Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library, 1937).

The Histories of Tacitus, written c. 100–110, covers the Year of Four Emperors following the downfall of Nero, the rise of Vespasian, and the rule of the Flavian Dynasty (69–96) up to the death of Domitian. It is an essential record of the time before the Five Good Emperors, and naturally ends where his contemporaries initiate coverage.

John Dryden, trans. Plutarch's Lives (New York: Modern Library, 2001).

Plutarch's Lives, written at the beginning of the second century A.D., is a brilliant social history of the ancient world by one of the greatest biographers and moralists of all time. In what is by far his most famous and influential work, Plutarch reveals the character and personality of his subjects and how they led ultimately to tragedy or victory. Richly anecdotal and full of detail, Plutarch helps to depict the character which underlies historical action prior to the period of Five Good Emperors, and is thus invaluable for purposes of the guide.

Joseph D. Frendo, trans. Agathias: The Histories (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae) (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1975).

Agathias is a principal source for late Roman history and covering the origins and operation of the Byzantine politic. His focus, like many historians of antiquity, is on the manners, behaviors and morals of great leaders, and is thus excellent for purposes of this guide. While Agathias’ histories are lacking in precision of fact, they are nonetheless important for understanding the terminal period of the Roman Empire, when powerful forces were shearing the west from east expanses, many of which were coming from within.  Agathias is most notable as one of the only sources on the reign of Justinian and the foundation of the Byzantine domain. In this sense Agathias is useful for examining the broader theme of decline with an earlier age.

Kirsopp Lake, John Ernest Leonard Oulton and Hugh Jackson Lawlor, trans. The ecclesiastical history (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980).

The church history of Eusebius is an excellent insight into the thought of the post-Stoic Roman society and the progression of the Logos from Stoic cosmology to Church doctrine.

P.G. Walsh, trans. Livy: Ab urbe condita (London: Duckworth Publishers, 2008).

Livy’s monumental history of Rome since its founding up until 9 B.C. is an essential companion to the various other primary sources which cover the period of interest, as it was used extensively by contemporaneous writers as a basis of historical understanding.

Robert Graves and Michael Grant, trans. The Twelve Caesars (New York: Penguin Classics, 1957).

The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. The work, written in AD 121 during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, was the most popular work of Suetonius, at that time Hadrian's personal secretary, and is the largest among his surviving writings. The book offers similar coverage to Tacitus and can be considered a companion for cross reference and verification.

Robin Campbell, trans. Letters from a Stoic (New York: Penguin Books, 1969).

This volume includes the epistles of Seneca the Younger, a foundational work in Roman Stoic philosophy. Included as an aid to comprehension of the Roman Stoic.

Tad Brennan and Charles Brittain, trans. Simplicius: On Epictetus (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2002).

The essential Roman commentary on the most influential Stoic philosopher of the period. Through Simplicius we come to understand the Roman interpretation and adoption of Epictetus’ doctrines.

Sources in Historiography of the Decline of the Roman Empire and Stoicism


 Brown, Peter. The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989.


Explores Pirenne by interpreting the decline of the Empire as a period of widespread cultural innovation, rejecting Gibbon. Crucially, Brown proposes a world ultimately divided into three spheres of culture: Catholic Europe, Byzantium and Islam. The book is divided into two sections, the first half focusing on the power of religion and changing culture (‘The Late Roman Revolution’) and its role in transforming the traditional notions of Empire and imperial allegiance, paying special attention to Christianity’s role in decentralizing power. In Divergent Legacies, the second half, Brown reinterprets the fall of Rome as a creative process, synthesizing new European cultures and creating the foundation of medieval Europe.


Bury, John Bagnell. The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750. New York: Courier Dover Publications, 1958.


Bury proposes that it was not a grand and fatal failing which culminated in the decline of the empire but rather a combination of factors, all working in contingent concert, which brewed a perfect storm over the Empire, ultimately leading to atrophy and collapse. The historian presents and surveys such elements as a reliance on Goth auxiliaries, the treachery of Stilicho, the assassination of Aetius and the subsequent power vacuum, economic weakness and inflation, German encroachment and decline of discipline and standards in the military, as factors contributing to decline. Most importantly, Bury suggests that the events contributing to the Empire’s waning were not predestined or fatal but contingent, capable of being remedied through serious labor.


Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Adult, 2004.


The author argues that artificial deforestation and grazing contributed to desertification while excessive irrigation lead to salinization. These activities perpetuated by the Roman citizenry eventually resulted in the land becoming nonproductive, forcing farmers to relocate in overpopulating cities, escalating disease and resource shortage. Diamond uses modern scientific theory to come to his conclusions.


de Coulanges, Fustel. Histoire des Institutions Politiques de l’Ancienne France Cinquieme Edition. Paris: HACHETTE FRENCH, 1934.


Proposed that the Empire did not in fact fall outright but instead was gradually transformed to come under the influence of Germanic peoples, who in turn contributed to administrating matters of state. De Coulanges argues that the Germanic peoples did not conquer the Empire but instead entered into civic life, transforming the nature of the Roman politic.


Ferill, Arther. Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Thames & Hudson, 1988.


Reiterates Vegetius and argues that the Empire declined as a result of increased Germanization of the military, that the Latins and Greeks who once comprised the army and who were more-or-less faithful to the Emperor and the Roman civic system, were eventually replaced by foreigners who held their loyalty to particular generals who could win them loot on campaign. Overviews the military history of the late empire (second century on) and comes to the conclusion that poor strategic planning and degradation of the military lead to decline and fall.


Gibbon, Edward. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Edited by J.B. Bury. Rockville, MD: Wildside Press, 2004.


Gibbon proposes that it was the loss of civic virtue in late antiquity brought about by an increasingly popular Christian religion which inspired the Roman citizens to remain apathetic to imperial matters in such a fashion that they were unwilling to defend the Empire from external threats. The author argues that the people increasingly devoted themselves to delusions of an afterlife and the prospect of a better tomorrow rather than devoting the service needed to repel the barbarian incursions of the late fourth and early fifth century. Serves as a rigorous general survey of late antiquity as well as proposing the famous argument in its later chapters.


Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Complete Roman Army. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.


Goldsworthy argues that the Empire fell apart as a result of an endless process of civil war between military factions vying for power over the Empire. The army and government structure, argues Goldsworthy, was weakened as a result and was increasingly unable to defend itself against the growing number of enemies perched at the Empire’s borders. As civil war diminished central authority and seeded serious economic and social problems, the Empire was eventually unable to confront the foreign foes, who would overcome and conquer them. As with the other modern historians post-Gibbon, Goldsworthy relies on archeological evidence to form the basis of his argument. The Complete Roman Army also serves as an excellent and systematic treatise on the evolution of the Roman military, from the time of Polybius to late antiquity, featuring an especially noteworthy overview of the Parthian campaign.


Hadot, Pierre. The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2001.


Hadot offers a systematic deconstruction of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, focusing on the psychological and civic impact of the philosophy of Stoicism on the emperor, as well as stressing the impact that philosophy had in the second century aristocracy.  The author offers his authoritative opinion on how Marcus interpreted, utilized and contributed to the practice of Stoicism. Hadot also offers a succinct and compelling overview of the works of Epictetus. The author also offers a philological analysis of the Stoic Emperor’s works.


Hadot, Pierre. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995.


In this seminal work Hadot interprets ancient philosophy as a civic vocation rather than frivolous academic pursuit and bridges the philosophy of Stoicism to the behaviors of ancient Roman statesmen. Philosophy as a Way of Life also serves as an excellent primer on ancient philosophic practice and offers an exhaustive study of context, providing a vivid picture of the historical backdrop and its interactions with the philosophies involved.


Heather, Peter. The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


The historian argues that foreign encroachment did in fact play a significant role in the decline of the Empire, not by virtue of its own effect, but by the economic duress initiated by it. Heather argued that it was not the adventurism of the classical enemy of Rome, the Germanians, which ultimately signaled the death knell for the Empire’s fortunes but rather a reemerged enemy in the east which had devoured the Parthian Empire in the third century of the Common Era: the Sassanid Persians. Uses modern archaeological evidence to reinforce Bury and proposes that the movement of distant barbarian peoples forced tribes adjacent to the Empire’s borders to advance on Rome, signaling the end.


Jones, Arnold Hugh Martin. The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.


Considered by many to be the authoritative source on a narrative history of late Roman antiquity, Jones’ magnum opus is the ultimate reference, rigorously cited, for in depth general information about the decline period. While Jones relies heavily on primary source documents, as modern archaeology was only just in infancy when the volume was written, The Later Roman Empire is still considered the definitive work on the topic.


Liebeschuetz, John Hugo Wolfgang Gideon. Decline and Change in Late Antiquity. London: Ashgate Publishing, 2006.


A collection of essays on topics of ethical monotheism, the cultures of the barbarians and ethnogenesis. Liebeschuetz argues that an important factor in the decline of the Roman Empire was that Roman citizenship became devalued and meaningless by the late antiquity (a product of emerging and transformative cultural and social conventions), furthering ethnic division between barbarians and Romans and leading autonomy and power to the foederati.  The author further argues that the modern trend of history writing, which tends to avoid classifying the decline of the Roman Empire as a decline, is a product of the ideology of multiculturalism and not congruous with the evidence. For purposes of this guide, Liebeschuetz offers an excellent study of the evolution of Pagan virtues, Stoicism and civic philosophy against the emergent monotheism of late antiquity.


Long, Anthony A. Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.


The authoritative expert on Stoicism offers an exhaustive deconstruction of the philosophy of Roman-era Stoicism. This volume serves as an ideal reference for interpreting the nuances of the Roman civic philosophy. Long pays special attention to philology and interpretation of the primary documents.


Lot, Ferdinand. End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.


Lot offers a compelling view of the Crisis of the Third Century and its impact on the ancient Mediterranean economy, arguing that the endless civil war and war changed the cosmopolitan and economically interdependent landscape of the Empire (ref: Moss, The Birth of the Middle Ages) by promoting manorialism and local autonomy. The Roman trade network, which relied upon safe land and sea routes, was fatally disrupted by the Crisis which made intra-Empire trade difficult, and as a result local economies soon developed in order to ensure the survival of the people.


McNeil, William H. Plagues and Peoples. New York: Anchor, 1977.


Explores economic failings of the late Empire further, arguing that the devastating plagues of the late second century which ultimately destroyed half of the Empire’s population was responsible for creating an imbalance between state services and taxation, ultimately leading to collapse.


Musset, Lucien. Les Invasions : les vagues germaniques. Paris: University of France Press, 1994.

Musset expands upon the popular Pirenne Thesis, arguing that a “clash of civilizations” between the Greco-Roman and Germanic world culminated in a synthesis responsible for the creation of the Medieval era. Rather than interpret the fifth century as a decline and collapse of the Empire, Musset interprets it as a creative process in which German peoples transformed the pre-existing institutions to adapt to their culture while emulating the culture of Imperial Rome.


Pirenne, Henri. Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.


Henri Pirenne expands upon de Coulanges by proposing his “Pirenne Thesis,” which argued that the Empire did not cease to exist with the captures of Rome in the fifth century, but existed in a different form up until the Muslim incursions of the seventh century, at which time Mediterranean trade was disrupted to such a degree as to paralyze the Empire. This economic torpor, argues Pirenne, was fundamental in the decline of the Empire and lead to the consequent rise and flourishing of the Frankish kingdom, a polity which the author claims was a rightful heir to the Imperial title.


Richta, Radovan. Civilization at the Crossroads. White Plains, NY: International Arts and Sciences Press, 1968.


Richta argues that as the barbarians became better equipped to battle the Roman armies on the field, and as they discovered the tools to make heavier armors and the horseshoe, they eventually overcame their imperial foes and were capable of seizing the Empire. Richta infers that the Romans were capable of defeating the barbarians in the field prior to the fifth century due to a distinct advantage in arms, training and logistical technologies, and as the external foes eventually adapted these advantages, the playing field was evened. Features a historical survey of technology and its supposed impact on events.


Rostovtzeff, Michael. The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. Cheshire, CT: Biblo-Moser, 1926.


Rostovtzeff argues that third century debasement led to inflation and the Imperial office began to levy price controls on the economy which resulted in forcing merchants to sell goods below their market value so as to keep the Empire operational. These artificially low prices lead to a deficient supply of food and ultimately disrupted the economic life of urban citizens, reliant upon trade, forcing them to relocate to rural areas to focus on subsistence agriculture, depopulating the cities. Combined with excessive taxation, this lead to a faltering economy, which ultimately was unable to support the immense demand of the Empire’s operation. Serves as an excellent and definitive empirical survey of the economy of the late Roman Empire.


Stephens, William O. Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom. London: Continuum, 2007.


Stephens offers a psychological portrait of the Stoic devotee, as defined by the philosopher Epictetus, whose writings had a profound influence on Marcus Aurelius and the Stoic-influenced Roman aristrocracy during the 2nd century CE. The author pays special attention to Stoic reactions to stress, misfortune and duress, crucial areas of discipline for Emperors being besieged by civil war and barbarian incursion.


Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Tainter looks to the historical record and interprets the history of civilization as a history of complexity in that societies become more complex as they encounter problems, establishing new layers of government to address the issues involved. Tainter extrapolates this thesis to the history of late antiquity, a time in which Roman agricultural production was decreasing as population was increasing, resulting in a shortage of resources. Ultimately Tainter argues, by examining the archaeological evidence, that Roman solutions to these problems resulted in runaway expense, contributing to a fatal cycle. Critically, Tainter also proposes that the “fall” may have been preferred by local peoples, who may have been exhausted by the heavy taxation and tyranny of the Imperial office.


Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.


A massive ten volume work which surveys the entire global history of civilization and is not centered on the topic of the decline of the Empire. The author proposes his “plunder economy” thesis for the collapse of the Roman Empire within, calling into doubt previous models which interpreted the Decline as a chain of events. Without a proper budgetary system or means of creating revenue due to lack of exportable goods, argues Toynbee, Rome was only capable of maintaining the façade of flourishing by virtue of its constant expansion. Toynbee argues that the Empire finally ended when the title of Emperor became an irrelevant honor and which yielded no effective power save pomp and formality.


Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.


Ward-Perkins posits a new web of factors, in consideration of contemporary archaeological evidence, including political strife, external threats and increasingly devalued taxation. The author further contends that the external invasions caused irrevocable damage to the provincial economies and taxation systems, paralyzing the ability of the Emperor to equip and pay the legions, leading to both decreased national security as well as dissension among the ranks, and a diminished military quality, inspiring revolts by the foederati and pretender emperors.

Digital Resources

Digital resources become useful for studying this topic in two capacities: general reference research and viewing primary source documents.



Hundreds of quality articles concerning ancient history. A special emphasis is placed on Roman antiquity, which his most useful for purposes of this guide. The articles rely heavily on primary sources.


The Internet Classics Archive

This website courtesy of MIT provides full text copies of various primary sources from the classics, including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca the Younger.



Perhaps the most invaluable classics and antiquity website on the internet – Bill Thayer (University of Chicago) offers dozens of primary sources from antiquity, many of which he himself translated into English. Latin and Greek versions are available as well. Most of the primary sources listed in this guide are available here, if not at the Internet Classics Archive.  


Materials for the Construction of SHAKESPEARE'S MORALS: The Stoic Legacy to the Renaissance

While this website is most useful for examining the Stoic legacy to the Renaissance, as the title implies, it is also an invaluable source reader for Cicero, Plutarch and Seneca. One of the most useful and unique features is an index of subject terms which can be interactively traced to the text. The website is edited and maintained by Ben R. Schneider, Jr. of Lawrence University.


Ancient philosophy at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

A useful set of peer-reviewed articles on ancient philosophy from Anaximander onward. Peer-reviewed and very rigorous, these articles present as excellent reference sources in research and for general understanding of the ancient mind. Be sure to check out the article “Stoic Philosophy of Mind.”


Internet Ancient History Sourcebook

A subject organized repository of primary sources for ancient history. The subject organization is perhaps the most useful and powerful feature of Fordham’s Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The highly interactive format of the website allows the reader to select a period of ancient history of interest and then examine various aspects of that age ranging from food to gender and sexuality, to kingship. The Hellenistic History and Rome sections offer essential sources and perspectives on Stoicism.  

Other Sources

This topic receives little coverage in academic databases. Modern study of Stoicism included it as a footnote between Platonism and Medieval philosophy and traditionally glossed over the Hellenistic philosophies in general; many academics in philosophy considered such philosophies to be unworthy of serious study. There has been a huge resurgence in Stoicism in the last decade, spurred at least in part by Hollywood’s 2000 epic Gladiator which featured a Stoic emperor and a Stoic-minded protagonist. Regardless, contemporary Stoic studies tend to focus on “New Stoicism” and Stoicism as a contributor and laboratory of psychology rather than as a historical force.

Clearly interpreting Stoicism as a historical force is a concept married to philosophy and history, a grey area many academics do not tend to tread. Contemporary exports may contend that Stoicism had a marked impact on contemporary religious thought and how we interpret psychology of mind, yet few have considered Stoicism as a factor along with religion, economics and politics. Accordingly the reader is advised to consider monographs primarily for research, although the journals do offer compelling insights capable of buttressing and enriching foundational research.


This guide was created by Chris Krause of San Jose State University. He has a degree in history from St. Joseph’s College and wrote extensively on Stoicism as an undergraduate. He is also a member of the New Stoa, a digital community of modern practicing Stoics. He can be reached at




[1] Ralph Stob, “Stoicism and Christianity,” Classical Journal 30 (1934-1935): 217-224.

[2] pseudo-Plutarch Philosophers' Opinions on Nature, Diogenes Laertius' Lives of Eminent Philosophers (3rd c. CE), and Stobaeus' Excerpts (5th c. CE)—and their sources Aetius (ca. 1st c. CE) and Arius Didymus (1st c. BC-CE)

[3] A.A.Long, Hellenistic Philosophy, p.115.

[4] Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.

[5] Seneca, Ep. 59.18

[6] Seneca Ep. 66.32

[7] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.49a

[8] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.8

[9] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20, 5.22, 1.1, Epictetus, Enchiridion 31 etc

[10] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.6

[11] Epictetus, Enchiridion 2.

[12] Bertrand Russel. A History of Western Philosophy. p. 254

[13] Republic 443d.

[14] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.9

[15] Epictetus, Enchiridion 5, Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2.1, 8.47

[16] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 334, 336.

[17] Murray 45-48.

[18] Marcia L. Colish. The Stoic tradition from antiquity to the early Middle Ages, 1985. p. 10-11.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Livy, Book 3, sect 14

[21] The Parallel Lives (1919), p. 257 Plutarch

[22] Roman Warfare (1999) Adrian Goldsworthy

[23] The Parallel Lives by Plutarch graphs numerous statesmen of the period who were privileged to the same character of tutors Marcus describes in such extensive detail in Book I of the Meditations

[24] John Sellars. Stoicism. 2006. pp. 135-136.

[25] Agathias. Histories, 2.31.

[26] Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. p. 1.

[27] Pierre Hadot. What is ancient philosophy?. 2002. Harvard University Press, p6.

[28] Hadot. La philosophie antique: une ethique ou une pratique?. p. 8 also: Presentation au College International De Philosophie, pp. 1-2

[29] Hadot. Jeux de langage  et philosophie. p. 341. Also: Hadot. La philosophie antique: une ethique ou une pratique?p.11.

[30] Hadot. Philosophy as a Way of Life. p. 21.

[31] Pierre Hadot. Philosophie, discours philosophique , et divisions de la philosophie chez les Stoiciens. p. 216.  Also: Hadot. Philosophy as a Way of Life. p. 22.

[32] Hadot. Philosophy as a Way of Life. p. 25.

[33] As in Premeditation of Seneca; ep. 63.14;91.3-4, 7-8. also: Marcus Aurelius provides a sound example of such a practice in Meditations 2.1

[34]Ibid. p. 23.

[35] Xenophon. Memorabilia. 4.4.10. as translated in Philosophy as a Way of Life

[36] Epictetus. Enchiridion. Trans Elizabeth Carter. 46.

[37] Simplicius. Commentary on Epictetus' Enchiridion. Trans. Richard H. Lewis.1.12 

[38] Meditations. 4.2.