Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.03.57

Andrew Erskine, The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action. Second edition (first published 1990). Bristol Classical paperbacks.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2011.  Pp. xv, 233.  ISBN 9781853997471.  $40.00.  

Reviewed by Andy Crane, University of Kent (

[A table of contents can be found at the end of the review.]

When the first edition of Andrew Erskine’s The Hellenistic Stoa: Political Thought and Action was published in 1990 very little had been written in English on Stoic political philosophy. Despite the disparaging accusation from one reviewer at the time that Erskine had “resurrected the corpse of Stoic socialism,”1 Erskine’s study marked the beginning of an increased academic interest in the topic, and books such as Dawson’s Cities of the Gods2 owe a great debt to Erskine and the work reproduced in this volume, as do more general studies on Hellenistic political philosophy such as Laks’ and Schofield’s Justice and Generosity.3

The Hellenistic Stoa is divided into 8 chapters. The first focuses on Zeno and his Politeia, beginning by arguing not simply for a later date of composition, but also that this later date was accepted by early members of the Stoa. A brief summary of Zeno’s philosophy is given before the philosophical and political background to the work is considered. Chapter 2 considers Zeno’s and Chrysippus’ views on slavery and society, using slavery as an example to show that early Stoics were not merely interested in society but were also engaged in analysing it. Erskine believes slavery is a particularly pertinent example because Zeno and Chrysippus saw society as a hierarchy of slavery, and the second chapter ends with the argument that the early Stoa saw homonoia as incompatible with slavery. Chapter 3, the book’s shortest chapter, examines the Stoics’ attitudes towards political participation, an activity that Erskine believes was acceptable both within the current system of government and if used to bring about change within a particular system. This, says Erskine, distinguished the Stoics from the Cynics and Epicureans. All three were dissatisfied with society, but Stoics did not resolve this issue by opting out altogether but rather by allowing for participation in the imperfect system. The second part of this chapter contends that early Stoic thought had a “democratic bias” (71), and that the mixed constitution which Diogenes Laertius says the Stoics preferred was a later development to be associated with Panaetius. Throughout each of these opening chapters comparisons are consistently drawn between the early Stoics and Plato and Aristotle.

The fourth chapter moves from the theoretical to the practical, arguing that the early Stoics’ behaviour in the third century BC shows that not only did their political philosophy support the idea of a democratic and independent Athens (as argued in the previous chapter), but they also worked towards this end. The first part of this argument is concerned with distancing Zeno from Antigonus II Gonatas. Erskine makes the convincing claim that the supposed association of Zeno and Antigonus originated in the work of Persaeus, who became a fixture at the Macedonian court. The suggestion that the many anecdotes that associate Zeno and Antigonus derive from Persaeus’ work on symposia provides a ground to question the authenticity of the relationship between the great philosopher and the king, and also explains why so many of the stories about Zeno are set at drinking parties, despite the fact that he was a renowned ascetic who declined most invitations to dinner. However, Erskine’s attempts to link Zeno with pro-democratic politicians at Athens are not as successful as his attempts to distance Zeno from Macedon. This argument is based on anecdotes from Diogenes Laertius, which are not necessarily any more reliable than those Erskine rejected when they connected Zeno to Antigonus. The third example Erskine uses is the least compelling of all, as he claims the embassy sent from Ptolemy that met with Zeno shows that the Egyptians felt Zeno supported the cause of a free democratic Athens. However, Erskine himself has already noted that by this period it was not uncommon for philosophers to be involved in diplomatic undertakings, and that the Stoics note ambassadorial missions as appropriate acts (87-88), so Zeno may have been selected for his reputation rather than his beliefs. The use of Stoic language in the propaganda of the pro-democratic politicians’ use of homonoia, eleutheria and douleia is again more convincing. However, the extent to which this shows the direct influence of Zeno on Chremonides can never be known, and the adoption of linguistic terms does not equate to an adoption of philosophical principles. The final part of the chapter contrasts the lack of Stoic contact with the close involvement of other schools with the powerful monarchies in the mid third century BC, and notes that the re-emergence of the Stoa coincided with a return to democratic thought in Athens.

Chapters five and six focus on property ownership and justice, the first on a theoretical level and the second by comparison with the Spartan revolution of the third century. Erskine argues that although the ideal Stoic society would not include property ownership, the preferred situation in reality would be for each person to have an approximately equal distribution of land. Further, it was the appeal of these Stoic ideas which gave the revolution its widespread impact. It is in this chapter that despite Erskine’s admirable methodological approach, the limited and unreliable nature of the sources becomes most evident. While his presentation of Sphaerus as the ideological influence behind the Spartan revolution has been accepted wholesale by many,4 the fact remains that there is no certain evidence for the level of involvement by Sphaerus asserted by Erskine, and no amount of scholarly vigour on behalf of the author can fully overcome the problem of the sources.

Chapters seven and eight move from Greece to Rome and contend that a divide can be seen in the second century BC between those who followed the less palatable philosophy of the early school and those who tried to distance themselves from their more extreme predecessors. The first example used is that of the Gracchi, so again the concepts of property and justice are central. Erskine argues that the comparison of the Gracchi with Agis and Cleomenes used by Plutarch in his Parallel Lives (but certainly originating at a much earlier date5) was the result of “Stoic arguments which began by debating Sphaerus’ activities in Sparta and ended up being applied to Tiberius Gracchus” (152). The early Stoa’s preference for democratic constitutions and a rough equality of land holdings (discussed in chapters 4-6) are echoed in the reforms of the Gracchi and were the result of their association with Blossius of Cumae. Erskine contrasts the ideas of Blossius with Panaetius: the former, he believes, was more radical and traditional while the latter tempered his Stoicism to suit the political realities of Rome. The section of chapter seven that deals with the democratic elements of the Gracchi’s reforms again suffers from the uncertain nature of the sources, as although Erskine argues convincingly that the brothers’ reforms were democratically motivated, he is not able to show that these ideas are purely Stoic and not influenced by more general Greek thought.

The final chapter examines the later Stoics’ justifications for empire and is used to illustrate the increased acceptance of contemporary society; while the earlier Stoics have been shown to theoretically reject slavery in several different forms (the moral slavery of bad men, chattel slavery and subordination – including imperial subjugation of a state), Roman Stoics revert to an attitude to slavery more compatible with Plato and Aristotle, as well as with the Roman empire. For the later Stoics slavery is beneficial to those who are not capable of self governance, and as such, empire is also in the interests of states who cannot govern themselves.

The principal problem with the second edition of Erskine’s work is that it is hardly a second edition at all. No changes have been made to the contents of the first edition, and even typographical errors have not been corrected. Fortunately these were minimal in the first edition, for example, “Tiberius proposed only to distributed ager publicus...” (170), but they illustrate that nothing has been done to reconsider the original work. This means that none of the criticisms of the first edition have been addressed. Erskine, on occasion, “moves from ‘possibly’ to ‘probably’ to ‘fact’ in a couple of pages,”6 and more regularly relies on repetition where self-referencing would be preferable.7 However, most frustrating of all is the lack of any serious discussion of the cosmopolis, particularly as Erskine acknowledges in the new preface that “In retrospect... I would say more about the place of cosmopolitanism in Stoic thought” (viii). Surely a second edition is the perfect opportunity to ‘say more’. Other than this new preface, the only other addition to the second edition is the inclusion of a bibliographical supplement, which by the author’s own admission is “far from exhaustive” (x).

The fact that nothing has been changed or expanded from the first edition of The Hellenistic Stoa means that ultimately the second edition appears to be something of a missed opportunity. The first edition was Erskine’s first major publication, and had its origins in his doctoral thesis and it would have been both interesting and beneficial to discover how – or indeed, if – the increasing number of studies in this area have changed his view since 1990. However, despite this, the influence his work has had in the intervening two decades highlights the quality of the original work, which first appeared at a time when Hellenistic political philosophy was woefully underrepresented in the English language and marked a turning point in our understanding of politics' relationship with philosophy in this period. Therefore, although any library or individual who owns a copy of the first edition will have no obligation to buy the second edition, it is still pleasing to see Bristol Classical Press making an important and influential work more easily available to those who are not yet fortunate enough to have access to a copy.

Table of Contents

Zeno’s Politeia 9
Slavery and Society 43
Political Participation 64
Third Century Athenian Politics 75
Property and Justice 103
The Spartan Revolution 123
The Gracchi 150
The Justification of the Roman Empire 181


1.   T.W. Africa, “Review” in The American Historical Review Vol. 96, No. 5 (Dec. 1991), 1514.
2.   D. Dawson, Cities of the Gods: Communist Utopias in Greek Thought, Oxford University Press, 1992.
3.   A. Laks and M. Schofield (eds.), Justice and Generosity: Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1995.
4.   Most notable in N.M. Kennel, The Gymnasium of Virtue: Education and Culture in Ancient Sparta, The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
5.   Cicero, De Off. 2.80
6.   T.W. Africa, “Review” in The American Historical Review Vol 96, No. 5 (Dec. 1991), 1514.
7.   P. Cartledge, “Review” in The Classical Review, Vol. 41, No. 1 (1991), 106.

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