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Epictetus was born a slave around 55 CE in Hierapolis, Phrygia (now Pamukkale, Turkey). His name in Greek means “acquired”, though his birth name and his parents are unknown. His master was Epaphroditus, who was an administrator for the Roman Emperor Nero, though when Epictetus came to Rome is also unknown. While in Rome, Epictetus is said to have studied for some time under Musonius Rufus, a stoic philosopher and Roman senator. Epictetus eventually became a freeman (but here again, it is unknown how and when) and began to teach and lecture about Stoic philosophy, predominantly in ethics. In 89 CE the Roman Emperor Domitian, whose opponents were inclined toward Stoicism, banished all philosophers from Rome. Epictetus fled to Nicopolis in Epirus, Greece, where he founded his own school. Epictetus never married but adopted a child out of benevolence. Although Epictetus is said to have been crippled in one leg and walked around Nicopolis with a limp, he nevertheless remained active, teaching and lecturing until his death in 135 CE.
The works that are attributed to Epictetus include the Discourses, which comprised four books, and the so-called Handbook (The Encheiridion), a kind of condensed version of the Discourses, intended to capture the relevant Stoic teachings on living a good life which one could carry around and commit to memory. Epictetus wrote neither work himself: both books were compiled and written by Arrian of Nicomedia, whom scholars have good reason to believe that he faithfully committed his teacher’s thoughts and sayings to writing as he claims in the preface to the Discourses.
Written by Yoshi Nakazawa, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
Adapted from Graver, Margaret (2008), “Epictetus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/epictetus/