BMCR 2023.09.19

The Oxford handbook of Roman philosophy

, , , The Oxford handbook of Roman philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. 648. ISBN 9780199328383


[Authors and titles are found at the end of the review.]


Roman philosophy has arrived. What better stamp of approval could there be, what more reliable attestation that an area of study has made it as a bona fide academic field, than the publication of an Oxford Handbook? Gone are the days of apologetics and barely masked inferiority complexes vis-à-vis the celebrated achievements of the Greeks: the editors in their Preface breezily wave away such timidity, stating as a fact not only that “Roman thinkers have developed in new and stimulating directions the systems of thought they inherited from the Greeks,” but also that they “offer a range of perspectives that are of philosophical interest in their own right” (p. ix).

Nothing demonstrates this new self-confidence better than the fact that the volume starts not with the rehashing of such aetiological tales as the philosophers’ embassy of 155 BCE and other potted narratives of the transmission of Greek philosophical doctrine to Rome. Instead, Phillip Sidney Horky leads off with a survey of “Italic” philosophy: Pythagorean pseudepigrapha ascribed to such autochthonous thinkers as the Lucanians Aresas, Occelus, and Eccelus. This fascinating material dovetails with the Roman belief that rather than being a late Hellenistic import, philosophy had been at home on their peninsula for centuries before the arrival of Carneades et al. Cedite, Grai!

The publication of this volume is thus an important and welcome event and raises the expectation that it will, in the spirit of the Oxford Handbooks series, offer both a site map of the current state of the field and significant interventions in the debate over what Roman philosophy is and how it should be studied. At this point, there is good news and there is bad news. The good news is that, of the 34 chapters, most are good to excellent. I especially enjoyed John Sellars on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations as spiritual exercises; Malcolm Schofield on tensions between Cicero’s skepticism and doctrinalism; Tim O’Keefe on Lucretian innovation; Matthew Fox on Ciceronian dialogue; Erik Gunderson on rhetoric; James I. Porter on the darker sides of Stoicism; David Leith on medicine; Duncan F. Kennedy on time; Anthony Kaldellis on Byzantine thought; and Natania Meeker on the use of Lucretius in early modern libertine materialism.

The bad news is that despite the quality of the individual chapters, the volume as a whole is less than the sum of its parts. Its structure and the rationale behind the assignment of chapter topics remain unclear; there is a great imbalance in which figures and subjects are treated; there is very little dialogue among the chapters; and the book contains next to no general reflection on its larger topic. Normally, one would lay the blame for such shortcomings firmly at the door of the editors. In this case, however, a caveat is in order: the volume has been in the making for a very long time (one contributor states that he first wrote his chapter in 2015), and in the course of this extended gestation, the original editors were replaced with the team whose names appear on the cover. I do not know why this change occurred, and there is no mention of it in the volume itself. It is impossible to tell which chapters were commissioned by the original editors and which (if any) by their replacements, but it seems likely that the volume’s incoherence has something to do with this passing of the baton in mid-race. My criticisms in what follows are thus directed not at any individuals but, as it were, at the implied editors, an imagined controlling entity that in reality may never have existed.

How could one go about structuring a handbook on Roman philosophy? One might imagine a traditionally straightforward table of contents in which, say, chapters on historical periods (second century BCE, late Republic, etc.) would be followed first by contributions on individual authors (Lucretius, Cicero, etc.) and then, perhaps, further chapters on philosophical topics, genres of philosophical writing, and/or philosophical schools, with a final section on reception. This Handbook, by contrast, is structured thematically, a choice that in theory might be more intellectually stimulating, but in practice is simply confusing. There are four parts, titled “I. The Roman Philosopher: Affiliation, Identity, Self, and Other,” “II. Writing and Arguing Roman Philosophy,” “III. Inside and Outside of Roman Philosophy,” and “IV. After Roman Philosophy: Transmission and Impact.” Any putative difference between Parts I and II is lost on me: both sections contain a diverse selection of chapters on individual authors, as well as philosophical topics, schools, and genres of writing. Part III combines contributions on such philosophical concerns as “self and world,” “sex,” “time,” “death,” and “environment” with chapters on the historical context of Roman philosophy and such adjacent disciplines as rhetoric and medicine. This bifurcation is presumably what is meant by “inside” and “outside,” but the purpose of such a lumping-together is not clear; what a chapter on translation is doing in this section is anyone’s guess. Finally, Part IV seems designed to be the section on reception and indeed contains chapters on Ambrose, Augustine, Byzantine intellectual history, medieval Neoplatonism, the Renaissance, and the 17th and 18th centuries. Why two pieces on the Roman adoption of Presocratic and Aristotelian philosophy have been parked in the same lot is far less apparent.

Perhaps as a result of this unsystematic approach, there is a great imbalance in what topics are treated and at what length. As the editors stress in the Preface, this is a volume on Roman not Latin philosophy, and Greek authors are therefore included. But what makes a Greek writer a Roman philosopher? There are chapters on Epictetus, Plutarch, and Dio Chrystostom, but bizarrely none on Philodemus, who gets but a page in a contribution on “Epicurean orthodoxy and innovation” and is mentioned in a few other chapters. One also wonders whether such Neoplatonists as Plotinus and Porphyry should not have been included; they did write in the Roman Empire after all, and their influence looms large in the chapters “Augustine’s Reception of Platonism” and “Latin Neoplatonism: The Imperial Period.”

On the Latin side, one might question the wisdom of having two chapters on Persius, while more central figures appear marginalized. Lucretius gets some airtime in the above-mentioned chapter on Epicureanism, and there is one separate piece devoted just to him. Cicero is the topic of a total of three chapters, which, however, focus nearly entirely on his philosophical method and writing style, rather than on the content and arguments of his works. The big loser is Seneca: he receives a single chapter on his moral psychology and makes but a few cameo appearances elsewhere. What is nearly entirely missing is a discussion on the social and political embeddedness of Roman philosophical practice. Ermanno Malaspina and Elisa Della Calce make a valiant effort in the one chapter dedicated to this topic (“Roman Philosophy in Its Political and Historiographical Context”), but cannot provide in-depth contextualization for the many centuries covered in the volume.

In addition, the vastly different styles and, as it were, genres of the individual chapters contribute to the impression that this is an omnium gatherum rather than a well-designed collection. The editors state that contributions are meant to be “essays” rather than “articles in an encyclopedia” (p. x), but as a matter of fact, a fair number of the chapters are general introductions, which in a handbook seems perfectly appropriate. Others are indeed essays in that they make original scholarly arguments that could form a self-standing article, and at least two of them have been previously published elsewhere. Some chapters are extremely specialized, for no apparent reason: why a piece on Senecan moral psychology rather than just on Seneca? Why focus on Apuleius’ demonology but not give the reader a general introduction to Apuleius? In some such cases, false advertising masks the narrow focus of a chapter: “Philosophers and Roman Friendship” is simply a discussion of Cicero’s De amicitia, while “Transmitting Roman Philosophy: The Renaissance” in reality concentrates on two letters by the Humanist Laura Cereta of Brescia.

In the context of a Handbook, it would have been nice if the chapters—many of which treat overlapping topics—could have engaged with or at least referred to one another. Cross-references, however, are few and far in between, and I noted just one case in which an author mentions another chapter in his text and adjusts his own treatment accordingly (James Ker, whose discussion of the genre of consolation largely skirts the topic of death, treated independently by James Warren). There are thus some lost opportunities of cross-chapter debate. For example, Orazio Cappello in his discussion of Academic arguments in Cicero presents his author as a committed Skeptic (if that’s not an oxymoron). Malcolm Schofield, by contrast, shows that there is a flip side to Cicero’s Skepticism, which is that in addition to viewing philosophy as a field of debate, Cicero also wants it to be a guide to life that provides actual precepts. Schofield thus, as it were, starts from a point where Cappello’s results are taken as read—figuratively speaking, since there is no indication that either author knows the other’s chapter. In the case of Pamela Gordon’s and Tim O’Keefe’s discussions of Lucretius’ Epicurean orthodoxy or lack thereof, the apparent ignorance of each other’s contribution to the volume is particularly amusing since both authors refer approvingly to the other’s earlier publications, which already make some of the same arguments. Thus, Gordon quotes a line from a paper by O’Keefe of 2020—apparently without realizing that O’Keefe has recycled the same phrase as the concluding sentence of his present chapter.

The great lost opportunity of this Handbook is the near-absence of any general reflection on the field of Roman philosophy (the one exception, again, is the chapter of Malaspina and Della Calce, but those few pages cannot replace a more comprehensive treatment). The Preface is just over two pages long and obviously more concerned with the practicalities of the volume. It would have been helpful to have an introductory chapter on the changing fortunes of Roman philosophy since antiquity, with a special focus on its ongoing rehabilitation during the last quarter of a century, which might have pointed the reader to Miriam Griffin’s and Jonathan Barnes’s pioneering Philosophia togata volumes, as well as to such more recent collections as those edited by Pierre Vesperini, Gernot Müller and Fosca Mariani Zini, and Gareth Williams and myself.[1] It would also have been useful to have some overviews of the important work done in recent years on so many of the individual authors, whether in such a general chapter or in the individual contributions, many of which do little to introduce the reader to the scholarly state of play in whatever area they happen to cover.

In sum, then, the volume can be successfully mined for many fine chapters on various authors and topics of Roman philosophy. What it is not is anything that could be described as a “handbook.” To quote the editors, “Roman philosophy is, in one sense, still under construction, and very likely always will be” (x). Perhaps the raw material amassed here will inspire readers to some more ambitious constructions.


Authors and Titles


  1. Italic Pythagoreanism in the Hellenistic Age, Phillip Sidney Horky
  2. Epicurean Orthodoxy and Innovation: From Lucretius to Diogenes of Oenoanda, Pamela Gordon
  3. Ethical Argument and Epicurean Subtext in Horace, Odes1 and 2.16, Gregson Davis
  4. Seneca and Stoic Moral Psychology, Gretchen Reydams-Schils
  5. Marcus Aurelius and the Tradition of Spiritual Exercises, John Sellars
  6. Apuleius and Roman Demonology, Jeffrey Ulrich
  7. Philosophers and Roman Friendship, David Konstan
  8. Debate or Guidance? Cicero on Philosophy, Malcolm Schofield


  1. The Epicureanism of Lucretius, Tim O’Keefe
  2. Cicero and the Evolution of Philosophical Dialogue, Matthew Fox
  3. The Stoic Lesson: Cornutus and Epictetus, Michael Erler
  4. Persius’s Paradoxes, Aaron Kachuck
  5. Plutarch, George Karamanolis
  6. Parrhēsia: Dio, Diatribe, and Philosophical Oratory, Dana Fields
  7. Consolation, James Ker
  8. The Shape of the Tradition to Come: Academic Arguments in Cicero, Orazio Cappello
  9. Persius on Stoic Poetics, Claudia Wiener


  1. Translation, Christina Hoenig
  2. Roman Philosophy in Its Political and Historiographical Context, Ermanno Malaspina and Elisa Della Calce
  3. Rhetoric, Erik Gunderson
  4. Self and World in extremis in Roman Stoicism, James I. Porter
  5. Medicine, David Leith
  6. Sex, Kurt Lampe
  7. Time, Duncan F. Kennedy
  8. Death, James Warren
  9. Environment, Daniel Bertoni


  1. Roman Presocratics: Bio-Doxography in the Late Republic, Myrto Garani
  2. Reading Aristotle at Rome, Myrto Hatzimichali
  3. Christian Ethics: The Reception of Cicero in Ambrose’s De officiis, Ivor J. Davidson
  4. Augustine’s Reception of Platonism, Anne-Isabelle Bouton-Touboulic
  5. Roman Quasity: A Matrix of Byzantine Thought and History, Anthony Kaldellis
  6. Latin Neoplatonism: The Medieval Period, Agnieszka Kijewska
  7. Transmitting Roman Philosophy: The Renaissance, Quinn Griffin
  8. “The Art of Self-Deception”: Libertine Materialism and Roman Philosophy, Natania Meeker



[1] Griffin and Barnes, Philosophia Togata: Essays on Philosophy and Roman Society (Oxford 1989); Barnes and Griffin, Philosophia Togata II: Plato and Aristotle at Rome (Oxford 1997); Volk and Williams, Roman Reflections: Studies in Latin Philosophy (New York 2016); Vesperini, Philosophari: usages romains du savoir grecs sous la République et sous l’Empire (Paris 2017); Müller and Mariani Zini, Philosophie in Rom—Römische Philosophie? Kultur-, literatur- und philosophiegeschichtliche Perspektiven (Berlin 2018).