Philodemus, c. 110–c. 35 bce
- David Blank
Philodemus (c. 110 Gadara, Syria–c. 35 bce Naples?) was an Epicurean philosopher. Philodemus eventually settled in Italy, where he was mentioned by Cicero as a companion of the Roman politician L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a composer of elegant verse and a good explainer of Epicurean doctrine, along with Siro, with whom he had a school of Epicureans in Naples that included a number of Roman poets in the circle of Vergil and Horace. Some of Philodemus’ epigrams were anthologized in the Garland of Philipp and became known to early modern scholars in the Palatine Anthology. His philosophical writings were unknown until they were found, in the 18th century, to be the vast majority of the book-rolls discovered in excavations of the “Villa of the Papyri” in Herculaneum.
The philosophical books of Philodemus so far known cover a wide variety of topics and show a particular interest in theology and religious observance; arts such as rhetoric, poetics, music; vices such as flattery, anger, greed, arrogance, and the character types of those who suffer from them; the history of other philosophical schools, such as the Platonic Academy and the Stoa, as seen in short biographies of their leading figures; longer, almost hagiographical accounts of the lives of the early Epicureans, and letters indicating their relations with one another. In these books Philodemus is frequently seen defending the interpretations of Epicurean doctrine by his own revered teacher Zeno of Sidon. He also stresses the manner in which an Epicurean school should be conducted, with a culture of “frank criticism” among junior and senior members and an understanding that, when one initially feels that a wise teacher is being unfair, overly critical, or even angry, it is the result of pedagogical strategy.
Updated in this version
Text completely rewritten to reflect current scholarship.
Born around 110 bce, in Gadara (near Umm Qais, Jordan), a town in Syria famed for its intellectual sons (Strabo 16.2.29), Philodemus left home for Alexandria, where in the early 90s he made the acquaintance of a number of philosophers before leaving for Athens. There he studied in the Epicurean school (the “Garden”) led by Zeno of Sidon, for whom he professed a lifelong admiration and allegiance. At some point, presumably after Zeno’s death (c. 75 bce), Philodemus left Athens, apparently for Sicily, and then went to Italy, where, as Cicero attests, by the year 55 bce, he had become a companion and philosophical advisor of L. Calpurnius (RE 90) Piso Caesoninus and a composer of witty, elegant verse (Pis. 28.68–72 and 74, with Asconius’ comment on 68). Philodemus is firmly associated with Naples (Neapolis) and the Epicurean school there, led by Siro (Cicero, Fin. 2.119), which included the Roman poets Virgil (see Cat. 5 and 8; Servius on Aen. 6.264), Horace (who mentions Philodemus in Satires 1.2.121), Plotius Tucca, Quintilius (RE 5) Varus, and L. Varius (RE 21) Rufus, the last of whom wrote a poem De morte, which may have related to Philodemus’ treatise on the same subject. Several books of Philodemus’ series On Vices are addressed to this group of poets (perhaps a common interest in the study of character-types, such as the “arrogant” or the “flatterer”); his fourth book, On Rhetoric, is addressed to the Roman politician C. Vibius (RE 16) Pansa Caetronianus, who died fighting Antony in 43 bce, and his book explaining what can be learned from Homer about the formation and conduct of a good king is dedicated to a young member of the family of the Pisones.
Cicero knew of Philodemus as a poet and philosopher, and his poetry seems to have had the greater resonance in the Greek world. Thus some of his epigrams, elegant, witty, erotic, and in some cases expressing aspects of life among Epicurean friends, were anthologized around 53 ce in the “Garland” of Philippus of Thessalonica, where he is one of the earliest poets to be included. Around 900 ce, poems from the “Garland” were incorporated into an anthology by Constantine Cephalas and thence into the manuscript of the Palatine Anthology, so that about 35 of Philodemus’ epigrams survived and were read in Byzantium. A list of the beginnings of about 175 epigrams discovered in Oxyrhynchus (POxy. 3724, later 1st century ce) includes 27 epigrams, attributed in the Anthology to Philodemus, and most of those not so attributed were probably his work. In one epigram (27 Sider), Philodemus invites Piso to his “humble shack” to join in the simple meal celebrating Epicurus’ birthday on the twentieth of the month of Gamelion (January-February; see calendar, greek); and in another (28 Sider), he lists the foods contributed to a modest potluck (eranos) suitable for Epicureans. Epicurean sentiments have been detected in some epigrams, such as one (29 Sider) recalling, with appropriate Epicurean detachment, activities shared with friends who have recently died. We have no way of testing Cicero’s claim—undoubtedly exaggerated—that Philodemus wrote reams of poetry to and about Piso expressing all his patron’s vices and debaucheries in elegant verse.
While Philodemus the epigrammatist became known to scholars from the early 17th century divulgation of the Palatine Anthology, the only ancient mentions of Philodemus’ prose work, from the tenth book of his Collection of Philosophers, are found in Diogenes Laertius’ reports on companions of Epicurus (10.3, 24). This situation changed dramatically with the discovery in the mid-18th century, of the library housed in a small room of the “Villa of the Papyri” in Herculaneum and buried in the explosive eruption of Vesuvius in 79 ce (see papyrology, greek). The great majority of the books eventually identified from this library are works of Epicurean philosophy, including various books of Epicurus’ great work On Nature, works of Colotes of Lampsacus, Polystratus, Demetrius of Laconia, and many books by Philodemus. This discovery is absolutely unique. Not only is this the only library (see libraries) from Greco-Roman antiquity found with its books in place, but the papyri of Philodemus are the only manuscripts we have of any classical author that derive from his own lifetime; indeed, they were probably in Philodemus’ possession, and at least one, containing his history of the Academy (PHerc. 1021), is a rough draft. The presence of Philodemus’ library has given rise to the conjecture that the Villa belonged to Piso and that, perhaps, Philodemus lived there; but the Villa was buried a century after Philodemus’ death, and his association with it is controversial.
Scholars are still discovering new titles among the works of Philodemus from this library, which include books on Epicurus’ life and example; the letters of the early school members; the lives of Stoic and Academic philosophers; theology and religious observance and belief; the senses; several books of at least ten he wrote on vices, their opposite virtues, and the people affected by them; books on ways of living and the conduct of communities of Epicurean friends; four on death; and a large number of books on the liberal arts, including five books on verse, eight and perhaps more on rhetoric, one of originally four on music. On the other hand, among the more than fifty books we know of, we have little of Philodemus that focuses on Epicurean physics or canonics; this may or may not be due to an accident of preservation. As to canonics, the fragmentary book on the senses attributed to Philodemus by scholars is particularly concerned to show that the senses themselves are infallible, that error comes from our minds’ processing of raw, irrational sensations. There is also a book on the technique of inference from signs, derived in part from the lectures of Zeno, in part from a book by Demetrius of Laconia. There Philodemus reports the views of his fellow Epicureans that the only legitimate mode of drawing inferences from signs draws on empirical evidence to make inferences about things similar in relevant ways to those we know.
Philodemus founded his philosophy in the study of all the writings of Epicurus and the first generation of his pupils: Metrodorus of Lampsacus, Colotes, Polyaenus (1) of Lampsacus, and Hermarchus of Mytilene, all of whom he considered authoritative. This written corpus that he refers to as the pragmateia (“course”) was collected by Philodemus’ own master, Zeno, whose collection and interpretation of these writings Philodemus defended in a number of his own works, some expressly based on Zeno’s lectures. He understands much of his writing as clarification of the correct interpretation of the views of the sect’s founders and as a defense of those interpretations against those of some other school members who themselves interpret the founders differently, as well as against followers of other schools. In general, his works often begin with an exposition of the views of one or more opponents—views often unknown to us otherwise and for which he is an important source—then move on to refute those views from Philodemus’ Epicurean point of view.
An important aspect of Zeno’s influence on Philodemus regarded the best way to conduct an Epicurean school or community of friends. More senior and more junior members of the garden had to take note of one another’s mistakes, both intellectual and behavioral or moral, and point them out. The “art” of doing this effectively, in such a way as to be helpful, spur one’s colleagues to improve themselves, and yet not alienate them, is described by Philodemus in his book On Frank Criticism (parrhêsia). There was danger in the application of this technique, and the behavior of the sage at the head of the school could easily be thought arrogant or enraged, his acceptance of gifts from his grateful pupils could be thought to make him a flatterer or parasite, and it is one aim of Philodemus’ ten books On Vices—including On Anger, On Arrogance, On Flattery, On Household Management—and those On Ways of Life—including On Frank Criticism—to make clear that the sage did not, indeed could not, suffer from these faults.
Introducing the subject of Philodemus’ disgraceful poetry for Piso, Cicero notes (Pis. 70) that Philodemus was polished not only in philosophy but also in studies neglected by his fellow Epicureans. These neglected areas are the so-called liberal arts, the pleasures of which Plutarch charged (Non posse 1092D) that Epicureans denied themselves; Epicurus (Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 13.588A) himself praised his new pupil Apelles for coming to the study of philosophy uncorrupted by liberal studies (paideia). Philodemus argues that technai, arts such as music, poetry, and writing or speaking well, as taught by their professional exponents, are not suitable pursuits for the philosopher, whom they would distract from the life of philosophy, the only activity capable of bringing happiness. Such arts work with complex and arbitrary rules that result in overly elaborated products inattentive to the natural factors that determine the parameters within which these arts would effectively achieve their aims of, for example, persuasion, information, or enjoyment. Many arts, however, also have less elaborate forms that employ only a few rules and cater to these natural factors that make them effective.
Philodemus criticizes various critics and their rules about how to compose verse, but insists that there is an art of poetry that has rules, but only a few; the goal of the poet, he says, should be ‘”in diction to imitate that which teaches in addition useful things, and in content to partake of what is between that of wise people and vulgar ones” (On Poems V columns 25.30–26.20). The philosopher may learn and practice these uncomplicated arts, in the same way that one may usefully learn how to cook simply, avoiding the complexities of professional chefs, or how to be a good steward of money and property without working hard at the arts involved in making excessive amounts of money (cf. Philodemus’ On Household Management cols. xvi–xvii). Philodemus asserts that the canonical three kinds of rhetoric actually share only the name rhetoric, that political and forensic rhetoric are not technical and that their practice will give one a life of unhappiness, while sophistic or panegyric rhetoric is a technê that allows one to compose speeches of praise and blame and to write clearly, but only if one avoids the arbitrary rules laid down by its teachers and adheres to the “one naturally beautiful” language; it has method, but like poetics, not much of it (Rhetoric IIb, PHerc. 1672.22.29–39). As for music, Philodemus strenuously denies the idea promulgated by Damon of Oia, Plato, and the Stoic Diogenes (3) of Babylon, that the formation of moral character or one’s emotions can be affected by music itself. Music’s melodies and rhythms are perceived by the senses, which for the Epicurean are irrational, and only the words that may be set to music are capable of reaching our rational faculty. Music itself may be enjoyable, Philodemus says, but the philosopher should not expend time and effort learning to play, but should take advantage of the performances of others.
- David Sider. The Epigrams of Philodemus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Philodemus’ epigrams are available in this edition, with translation and extensive commentary.
There is no complete edition of the works of Philodemus. For the many full and partial editions of books by Philodemus, the reader is referred to several up-to-date online bibliographies of editions of his books:
- The Herculaneum Society, “The Books from Herculaneum”
- Monet, Annick. “Philodemus: Une bibliographie des principales oeuvres de Philodème de Gadara Bibliothèque des Sciences de L’Antiquité.”
- Thesaurus Herculanensium Voluminum, maintained by the Würzburger Zentrum für Epikureïsmusforschung. Digitalized texts of many editions of Philodemus’ works can be found here.
Some recent editions of books by Philodemus, with translation, commentary, and extensive introduction, are especially important as reconstructions of entire book-rolls that were fragmented and stored separately; they represent the modern standards for editing these texts:
- Delattre, Daniel. Philodème de Gadara: Commentaires sur la musique Livre IV. Paris, France: Les Belles Lettres, 2007.
- Delattre, Daniel, and Jackie Pigeaud, eds., Les Épicuriens. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Paris, France: Gallimard 2010. A number of works by Philodemus are translated into French and included in this work.
- Janko, Richard. Philodemus, On Poems, Book One. Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 2000.
- Janko, Richard. Philodemus, On Poems, Books Three and Four: With the Fragments of Aristotle, On Poets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Janko, Richard. Philodemus, On Poems, Book Two with the Fragments of Heracleodorus and Pausimachus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.
- Nicolardi, Federica. Filodemo: Il primo libro della Retorica. La scuola di Epicuro 19. Naples, Italy: Bibliopolis, 2018.
- Obbink, Dirk. Philodemus, On Piety, Part I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Links to Digital Materials
- Del Mastro, Gianluca “Chartes”. This site contains extensive bibliographies and other information on each Herculaneum papyrus, including a sample photograph.
Two Oxford Bibliographies Online are especially relevant:
- Armstrong, David, Jeffrey Fish, Patricia Johnston, and Marilyn Skinner, eds. 2004. Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Auvray-Assayas, Clara, and Daniel Delattre, eds. Cicéron et Philodème: La polémique en philosophie. Paris, France: Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2001.
- Blank, David. “Philodemus.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Essler, Holger. Glückselig und unsterblich: epikureische Theologie bei Cicero und Philodem (mit einer Edition von PHerc. 152/157, Kol. 8–10). Basel, Switzerland: Schwabe 2011.
- Fleischer, Kilian. “Dating Philodemus’ Birth and Early Studies,” Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 55 (2018): 119–127.
- Gigante, Marcello. Philodemus in Italy: The Books from Herculaneum (trs. D. Obbink). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
- Longo Auricchio, F., G. Indelli, and G. Del Mastro 2011: “Philodème de Gadara.” In Dictionnaire des Philosophes Antiques V.A de Paccius à Plotin. Edited by Richard Goulet, 334–359. Paris, France: CNRS Editions, 2011.
- Obbink, Dirk, ed. Philodemus on Poetry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
- Tsouna, Voula. The Ethics of Philodemus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
- Voojs, Cornelius J., and Dirk A. van Krevelen. Lexicon Philodemeum. Pars Altera. Amsterdam, The Netherands: N. V. Swets 1941.
- Vooys, Cornelius J. Lexicon Philodemeum. Pars Prior. Purmerend, The Netherlands: J. Muusses 1934.
- Usener, Hermannus. Glossarium Epicureum. Edendum curaverunt, Marcello Gigante, and Walter Schmid. Rome, Italy: Edizioni Dell’Ateneo & Bizzarri, 1977.
- Warren, James, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.