Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.56

Stefano Maso, Filosofia a Roma: dalla riflessione sui principi all'arte della vita. Studi superiori 806.   Roma:  Carocci editore, 2012.  Pp. 245.  ISBN 9788843065318.  €22.50 (pb).  

Reviewed by Stefano Costa, Università degli Studi di Milano (

Roman philosophy is commonly considered an appendix of Greek philosophy or a sub-section of Roman literature (with some Greek authors of the Imperial Age in addition);1 this short but very useful book aims to present the contributions of philosophers first in Republican Rome, then in the whole area of Roman empire, as an independent chapter of history of philosophy.

The book begins with a long chapter (nearly a half of the whole work) outlining Roman philosophy (Caratteri della filosofia romana), a chapter that Maso himself presents as the fundamental part of his study (p. 12). Divided into seven sections, this chapter gives a sense of the historical framework, discussing the historical and symbolic significance of 155 B.C. and 529 A.D., seeing in the latter the height of Christian philosophic thought (1.1). These preliminary considerations are sketched in synoptic chronological tables (1.2), where the main authors are listed.

Maso then discusses how philosophy entered Rome and played its relevant role in education, after the main Greek schools had received formal regulation (1.3). He offers an overview of philosophic trends present in Rome before 155 B.C. as claimed above all by Cicero (1.4); in addition there were branches of the Pythagorean school, given an original Roman interpretation more than a century later by the school of the Sestii (1.5). Referring chiefly to Seneca’s writings, Maso highlights some features of the Sestii’s institution that eloquently represented how a philosophic system could be translated into a Roman frame of mind: the voluntaristic ethics, the attention to the self-consciousness, the spiritual exercise of meditation. These features, already part of Socratic askesis, became the “centro di gravitazione” (p. 44) for the whole of philosophy from Late Republic.

Maso appropriately ends the chapter with three short sections on Platonic and Aristotelian (1.6), Epicurean (1.7) and Stoic (1.8) philosophy. After discussing Cicero as a translator of Platonic works he describes Plotinus and his influence on fourth-century Christianity. Concerning Aristotelism, Maso points out some important contributions: Andronicus of Rhodes’s edition, Cicero’s conciliatory – more than eclectic – approach between Aristotelism and Platonism, Seneca’s Aristotelian references in De ira, and Alexander of Aphrodisias’ rationalization of Aristotelian teaching. The only original interpretation of Aristotelian thought in Roman philosophy is attributed to Boethius. In the understandably shorter section on Epicureanism, Lucretius, Cicero and Seneca – analysed more in detail in following chapters – are mentioned, as well as Plutarch and Diogenes of Oenoanda. Maso reserves a larger space to Stoicism that “massimamente attese e divenne decisivo nel mondo romano”: Posidonius, Panaetius, Blossius of Cuma are pointed out, along with their revival due to Cicero; Seneca’s importance is emphasized, a “crocevia imprescindibile” for the later conception of Stoicism and for his having achieved the project of a rhetorical philosophy. The section ends with Epictetus’ opinions about the discipline of assent, Marcus Aurelius’ sense of the transitory, and short but very relevant references to Musonius Rufus, Demetrius the Cynic, Persius and Juvenal.

The rest of the book is divided into four chapters of similar length centred on the main authors: Lucretius (2), Cicero (3), Seneca (4), and Marcus Aurelius (5). Each chapter is structured in the same way and divided into six sections: biography and summary of the works, epistemology, rhetoric and logic, physics and metaphysics, ethics, politics. Maso respects the peculiarity of each author. The most developed parts in the section on Lucretius are those concerning physics and ethics (2.4 and 5), while more than half of the chapter on Cicero is occupied by chronology and summary of the contents of his works. Seneca’s works too are explained with a “breve, ma puntuale accenno”,2 but Maso prefers to give more space to the analysis of Seneca’s thought, which is more original than Cicero’s: for example, some paragraphs of epistles 58 and 65, where Seneca deals with Platonism and Aristotelianism, and the role of ethics. The fifteen pages on Marcus Aurelius are enough to point out the grounds of his thought, above all the belief that the individual, as a responsible part of cosmic order, has to comply with it by a moral behaviour constantly submitted to self-examination.

Maso’s book offers a very good overview of the main features of Roman philosophy and sufficient information for further searching. The high scholarly level is confirmed by the rich and up-to-date bibliography that also includes a great number of titles of literary criticism.3 It is quite evident that Maso has written primarily for philosophers, who will find a book structured according to the main subjects of their doctrine (epistemology, ethics, metaphysics etc.) and offering data concerning the classical authors (life, works, chronology) unnecessary for philologists, as is the transliterated Greek, and the translations and biographical notes of quoted authors added as an appendix (pp. 219-235). Nevertheless, classical scholars will appreciate Maso’s attention to De beneficiis, underlining how social interest persisted in Seneca’s late writings, and, thanks to the numerous quotations of ancient authors spread throughout the book,4 the reader never loses contact with the primary texts.

Besides some inconsistent printing,5 I have only a few criticisms. I think it is excessive to say that “l’epicureismo ebbe un estimatore di eccezione nel filosofo Seneca” (p. 60): Seneca certainly valued Epicurus and his maxims, but less his school.6 Also it is ambiguous when Maso defines as “ateismo” (p. 62) the Epicurean conception of the gods’ indifference to human things. And an explanation of the prosimetric form of Apocolocyntosis (p. 154) would be helpful.

Maso’s writing is fluent and clear: the subjects follow one another in easy continuity without logical leaps. The use of repetitions and interrogative forms (p. 142) draws the reader’s attention to main points of argumentation, making the book suitable for students.


1.   See for example the very valuable works of G. Cambiano, La filosofia in Grecia e a Roma (Roma-Bari 1987) and M. Erler, “Filosofia romana” in Fritz Graf Introduzione alla filologia latina (Roma 2003), pp. 707-789 (or. ed. Stuttgart-Leipzig 1997), both quoted by Maso.
2.   Note the courageous attempt to classify the epistles (p. 158).
3.   I do miss Alberto Grilli, Vita contemplativa: il problema della vita contemplativa nel mondo greco-romano (Brescia 2002), and some contributions on the relationship between Seneca’s works as philosopher and dramatist: for example Giancarlo Mazzoli, “Il tragico in Seneca”, Lexis 15, 1997, pp. 79-91; Alessandro Schiesaro, The Passions in Play. Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama (Cambridge 2003); Chiara Torre, “Seneca tragico vs. Seneca filosofo. Nuovi approcci a una vecchia querelle” in A. Costazza (a c. di), La filosofia a teatro (Milano 2009), pp. 41-61.
4.   Both in the text and in footnotes. See the index at pp. 241-245.
5.   p. 49: 56 instead of 36; p. 215: storico instead of stoico.
6.   See for example ben. 4,2 and ep. 99,25-26.

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