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Roman making a speech (Florence, about 50 BC) Thanks to VROMA for the image

A Roman man making a speech (Florence, about 50 BC) Thanks to VROMA for the image

Romans meet Greek philosophy

Roman men didn’t begin studying philosophy until about 200 BC. At that time, the Romans were conquering Greece. So a lot of Roman soldiers and generals spent a lot of time in Greece, and got a chance to talk to Greek philosophers.

The Romans found out that Greek philosophers like SocratesPlato, and Aristotle had been doing a lot of thinking about philosophy just recently. Some Romans got interested. By about 50 BC these Romans were even beginning to write philosophy themselves, though most of it was pretty much just translating Greek philosophy into Latin.

Lucretius and the Epicureans

One of the first Roman men who wrote about philosophy was Lucretius. (Men wouldn’t let most women study philosophy.) Lucretius followed Greek Epicurean philosophy. He left us a long poem, called On the Nature of Things, explaining Epicurean philosophy in Latin for people who couldn’t read Greek.

Bust of Cicero (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Bust of Cicero (Capitoline Museum, Rome)

Cicero and the Skeptics

Cicero was another man who wrote about philosophy at just about the same time as Lucretius. He was mostly a Skeptic philosopher. Like other Skeptics, Cicero thought that you should question any ideas or facts you heard about. You should always ask “How do they know that?” or “How can they be sure?” or “What about this other thing?” Cicero tried to use philosophy to make men more logical thinkers, so that they would make better decisions about how to run the government. But Cicero also held some Stoic ideas, especially that men should try to be as good as possible.

Seneca and the Stoics

About a hundred years later, in the time of the emperors Claudius and Nero, another philosopher called Seneca wrote another set of essays about Stoic philosophy. Seneca thought that men should not waste time on things that really didn’t matter. Instead, they should use their time well, to help improve the world. And they should improve their own minds by studying philosophy.

Ambrose: a mosaic of a white man with a short beard and his name written over him in Latin

Bishop Ambrose of Milan

Gnostics, Neo-Platonism, Cynics

Soon after Seneca’s time, many men and women began to look for a closer, more direct relationship to the gods or to God. Some people, like the Christian Gnostics, tried to use magic spells and secret knowledge to get closer to God. The Christian followers of Montanus thought you could get closer to God through prayer. Pagan Neo-Platonists used philosophical ideas that came from Plato‘s ideas about the perfect form. They tried to perfect themselves and get closer to God that way. At the same time, a revival of Cynic philosophy formed a protest movement against imperial power.

Christian philosophy: Augustine and Ambrose

Later Christians developed their own philosophical ideas. St. Augustine and St. Ambrose, in the late 300s AD, both studied earlier philosophers. They tried to create a Christian philosophy that would include both Christian ideas and Greek and Roman philosophy. Their Christian philosophy would include Aristotle and Neo-Platonism.

The fall of the Roman Empire did not stop men (or a few women) from thinking about these ideas. In both the Islamic Empire and medieval Europe, men like al Tusi and Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas kept on trying to make religion agree with philosophy. They tried to get closer to God through philosophy.

Learn by doing: how could these ideas help you be a better person?
More about medieval philosophy

Bibliography and further reading about Roman philosophy:


Greek Philosophy
Islamic philosophy
Chinese philosophy
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