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Reconciling Epicurean Friendship and Roman amicitia in the Works of Philodemus

Sonya Wurster

This paper contends that, although Philodemus of Gadara’s doctrines on friendship retain the essential elements of Epicurus’ teachings, he reshapes and adds to these teachings to reflect the social and cultural reality of his contemporary late-republican, Roman context. Where Epicurus had stressed the utilitarian nature of friendship among a community of Epicureans, Philodemus highlights both the utilitarian and affectionate nature of friendship. Moreover, although he discusses the nature of friendship within an Epicurean community, Philodemus also seeks to show that friendship can exist between Epicureans and those outside the community, including with those of higher social standing and greater wealth. This paper focuses on Philodemus’ statements on the topic of befriending people of greater wealth and social standing to show that he offers advice to fellow wise men on how to be true friends with wealthy individuals and avoid being parasites and flatterers. I argue that his recommendations on how to avoid this sort of behavior are a response to Roman stereotypes of Greek philosophers as flatterers and parasites, such as those found in Cicero’s In Pisonem and Catullus 47.

There are few recent discussions on Philodemus’ doctrines on friendship and few attempts to interpret his teachings within his contemporary cultural context. Tsouna (1997) examines the relationship between Philodemus’ doctrines on friendship and those on frank speech, but she does not analyze these by looking at how they relate to his Roman context. Instead she interprets them in relation to previous Hellenistic philosophy. Glad (1995 and 1996), Konstan (1997) and Konstan et al. (1997) have noted that Philodemus offers suggestions in De liberate dicendi for how to engage with those of higher social status outside the school and perceive this as a response to his socio-cultural context. Glad (1995) also notes that the difference between friends and flatterers was not a new theme in the late republic and that classical sources discuss friends and flatterers as the inverse of each other; however, the number of works dealing with the topic of flattery which appeared in the late republic and early empire demonstrates that there was renewed interest in the topic.

This paper will briefly summarize Philodemus’ doctrines on friendship to establish the specific ways in which they differ from Epicurus’. Secondly, it will contend that Philodemus argues that wise men are the antithesis of flatterers because they are actively engaged in constant frank criticism. Finally, I will discuss Philodemus’ related argument that wise men are not parasites who sponge off their patrons. Rather, Epicurean wise men act with gratitude and reciprocity toward their friends, regardless of social status, in a manner outlined in Philodemus’ own doctrines on friendship. In differentiating wise men from parasites, he euphemistically employs the language of friendship to describe the relationship between wise men and their financial supporters in such a way that is consonant with his Roman context.  

Supporting evidence for these arguments will be drawn from Philodemus’ works De adulatione and De liberate dicendi. At De adulatione 2.1-6 Philodemus directly challenges the perception that wise men are flatterers. He specifically defines them in opposition to the flatterer by virtue of the fact they win over audiences with their teachings about Epicureanism, while flatterers do so by humoring their audiences. At De liberate dicendi 14a.1-10 Philodemus deals with a similar theme, and once again he frames the role of wise men as one of teaching others how to make good choices and avoid bad ones through honest criticism and not flattery. With regard to difference between parasites and wise men, at De oeconomia 23.23-30 and in Epigram 27 Philodemus shows that Epicurean wise men provide friends with ethical advice that will allow them to live happier lives in return for gifts from wealthy men.

Session/Panel Title

Epicurean Philosophy in Roman Poetry

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