The great philosophical exodus of 86 BCE
A pivotal event in Greco-Roman relations determined the future of western philosophy
Is history the result of inevitable, predictable dynamics, as Marx thought? Or does it depend on the outsized effect of “great men” (and women!) like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra? Or is it just, as Winston Churchill allegedly put it, one damn thing after another?
I have no idea. But I can’t help be fascinated by history. Which is ironic, since it was one of my least favorite subjects in high school. The history of philosophy is no less intriguing, so much so that my colleague Peter Adamson has argued that studying history of philosophy is (one way of) doing philosophy.
Not sure I’d go that far myself, but there is one particular episode in history that dramatically affected the history of philosophy, and that might provide us with some interesting food for thought. The story is recounted in some detail in chapter 1 of The Cambridge Companion to the Stoics, written by David Sedley.
It begins in 86 BCE, when the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla puts Athens under siege because the Athenians sided with King Mithridates VI of Parthia against Rome in the First Mithridatic War that took place during 87 and 86 BCE. The Athenian forces were under the command of the general Archelaus and of Aristion—an Epicurean philosopher! Which is particularly odd, since Epicureans were notoriously averse to getting involved in politics, since this would likely cause much pain and get in the way of the their stated goal of ataraxia, or tranquillity of mind.
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