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Over fifty years ago, the great Hellenist Maurice Bowra argued in two seminal articles that we can interpret the epigrams of the fourth-century CE satirist Palladas of Alexandria as evidence for Palladas’ changing religious views (1959, 1960). According to Bowra, Palladas moved from a pessimistic belief in the all-consuming power of cruel, unfeeling Fortune (Tyche) to the conviction that he had found a psychological “safe harbor” (limÄ“n), where Tyche held no sway over him. While Bowra acknowledged ([1960], 124) that this supposed new attitude could be called “philosophical”, he nonetheless downplayed the influence of any specific philosophical school on Palladas’ characterization of Tyche, or, indeed, on his morality in general. In this paper, I shall contend that Palladas’ corpus, particularly the hortatory epigrams in Book 10 of the Palatine Anthology, shows the marked influence of Stoic thinking on the universe, free will, and the ethical telos – thinking that is critiqued and challenged in the epigrams.

We must first set aside Bowra’s conversion narrative, which, given the absence of secure dates for most of the Palladan poems, is impossible to prove (Cameron [1965a, b]). Having done so, we can immediately detect a consistent theme throughout Book X: the necessity for man to accommodate Tyche. This necessity, and its implications for the balance between fate and free will, had much concerned the Stoa from its beginnings, and we may conjecture that Palladas had knowledge (though not, perhaps, directly) of early Stoic writings on the topic. His epigram 10.73, at any rate, is startlingly similar to Cleanthes’ famous Hymn to Zeus. Both works suggest a distressingly blunt attitude toward fate: we should follow the divine will freely, since in the end we will be compelled to do so whether we like it or not (see further Bobzien [1998]). Yet, whereas Cleanthes is comfortable with this state of affairs because his Zeus is entirely virtuous, Palladas is deeply cynical: he finds no evidence whatsoever that the divine will is inimical to wickedness – after all, Zeus himself would have killed his father if he could (10.53).

To provide guidance in ethical living, the Stoics crafted the persona-theory, which presents human existence as a drama within which we are assigned parts (Gill [1988], Asmis [2001]). The goal of life, the telos, consists in playing these parts to the best of our ability. Again, Palladas evokes this theory only to undermine it: the whole world is indeed a stage, but to succeed as actors, we must put aside our seriousness (spoudÄ“) or else be overwhelmed by suffering (10.72). The cosmos is not a drama, but a farce – a series of random turns of fortune without order, meaning, or moral. As proof, Palladas notes that Fortune not only does not punish the wicked, but actively rewards them – a fact to which the only reasonable response is either laughter or despair (10.87).

These epigrams demonstrate that Palladas has turned Stoic ethics on its head, by denying to Stoic divinity (right reason, orthos logos, or Providence, Pronoia) the absolute virtue the Stoics claimed for it. The logos that governs the cosmos may be irresistible, but it is also irrational, alogos (10.62). We are still bidden by Palladas to obey it, albeit only for the sake of personal peace (hesychia, 10.46). Nonetheless, mortals have the moral high ground over the divine. We recognize the rewards and punishments that are properly due to the virtuous and the wicked, in accordance with the Stoic definition of justice (SVF III.262), while the divine logos either lacks this knowledge, or willfully ignores it. Zeno and Cleanthes would surely recoil in horror at such conclusions. Nonetheless, it is a testimony to the entrenched influence of their school that an author writing at the end of pagan antiquity still felt it necessary to challenge the Stoa for defending Providence in a chaotic world.