More than a thousand years ago, the famed Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote to his friend, Lucilius Junior, the procurator of Sicily, “Every time you go out, your old desires are stirred anew, even before you reach your destination.” To him, traveling often was a sure sign that one’s mind was uneasy and unsettled. It also opened the door to more trouble than reward. “What has travel as such been able to do for anyone,” he wrote to Lucilius. “It does not control pleasures, curb desires, check outbursts of temper, or mitigate the wild assaults of love: in a word, it removes no trouble from the mind…all it does is provide a change of scene to hold our attention for a moment as some new trinket might entertain a child.”
It is a bleak outlook on venturing off to new places, especially during an age when travel has reached new levels of accessibility — though one that proponents of the Stoic school of philosophy are likely to agree with. That said, not all of us can control our desire to get away and discover new destinations so easily, and even those of us who admire the Stoic philosophers are prone to a little wanderlust every now and then.
If you fall into this camp, if you are a fan of Stoicism who can’t seem to beat back his or her love for roaming to new and beloved destinations, you’re in luck; we’ve put together a list of travel destinations related to the Stoic philosophers, so you can start planning that Marcus Aurelius- or Cato the Younger-inspired pilgrimage right away. From the sun-baked countryside of southern Spain and the forests of northern Hungary to ancient ruins on the coast of North Africa and a chilling prison in the bustling Vietnamese city of Hanoi, here are four must-visit destinations that should be on every Stoic philosopher’s travel list.
Located in the stunning Spanish region of Andalusia, framed to the north by the majestic Sierra Morena mountain range, Cordoba has long lured travelers for many reasons — from its historic monuments to the area’s rich cultural traditions. It is home to impressive examples of Moorish architecture, like The Mezquita, built by Abd al-Rahman in 784 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. It is also where you’ll find the famed Alcazar, once one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon. In addition to its Moorish architecture, Cordoba is also well-known as a center of Spanish flamenco. But long before any of these things came into being, tracing all the way back through the ages to 206 BC, Cordoba was a Roman settlement named Corduba.
By the time Julius Caesar ruled the Empire of Rome, Cordoba had become the flourishing capital of the Roman province of Hispania Baetica. It was during this time that the great Stoic philosopher, dramatist, and statesman, Seneca the Younger, was born in this bustling Roman city to a Spanish Roman knight, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Elder, and his wife, Helvia. It is believed he spent his very early childhood in the settlement of Corduba, before his aunt took him away to Rome when he was around five years old. There, Seneca would grow up to become an advisor to Emperor Nero and suffect consul — one of the highest elected political offices of the Roman Empire.
If you visit Cordoba today, you must make a stop at the city’s Roman temple. Discovered in the 1950s, it was possibly Cordoba’s most significant temple back when it was a Roman settlement. Constructed of the temple began during the reign of Emperor Claudius from 41-54 AD, and ended nearly half a century later, placing it far beyond the time of Seneca, but it is still worth a visit for those who want to get a taste of ancient Roman life in the philosopher’s birthplace.
How to get there: Cordoba, Spain is located just under two hours by train from Puerta de Atocha station in Madrid. If you are visiting from
In vibrant Budapest, the capital of Hungary, lie the ruins of the ancient town of Aquincum. Originally a settlement built by a Celtic tribe called the Eravisci, Aquincum became a military base for the Romans and part of the empire’s border protection system, known as limes, in 89 AD. The Romans built a fortress here, around which a city gradually developed and grew as time passed. In 106 AD, Aquincum became the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior and occasionally served as a headquarters for Rome’s emperors. It remained such until the time of Diocletian more than a century later.
While historians have studied Aquincum for its rich military history and its significance as a major stronghold within Roman Pannonia, modern-day philosophers know it for a different reason: Aquincum is where the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote some of the 12 books of the Meditations while he was on campaign in Pannonia. Internal notes within the texts indicate that the Roman emperor wrote the first book of the Meditations while he was campaigning against the Quadi, a Suebian Germanic tribe, along the river Granova (known today as the river Hron). He wrote the second book of the Meditations at the Roman legionary fortress of Carnuntum.
While visiting Aquincum, make sure to make a stop at the Aquincum Museum in Budapest. You’ll get to ogle at plenty of archaeological findings that date back to the early days of Aquincum, including the Aquincum Mithraeum — a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras, which was built inside a townhouse in the Roman city.
How to get there: If you want to visit the ruins of Aquincum, the best place to use as your home base is Budapest. From the capital city, drive 30 minutes northwest of the airport to the Aquincum Museum and settlement ruins.
During the first century B.C., the statesman and Stoic philosopher Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis — better known today as Cato the Younger — dared to oppose the might of Julius Caesar. All his life, Cato was known for his deep and inflexible sense of morality, his incorruptibility, his steadfastness in his beliefs and his political inclinations. As a quaestor (or investigative public official), Cato the Younger demonstrated his hard-line sense of right and wrong, persecuting former quaestors for dishonesty and illegal acts, namely the misappropriation of funds. Later, as a senator of Rome, he aligned himself with the Optimates — the Roman Republic’s traditionalist senatorial faction, which fought to extend the power of the senate and keep Rome from becoming an imperialist empire.
Until the very end of his life, Cato the Younger fought alongside the Optimates for the conservation of the senate. However, despite the philosopher and statesman’s best efforts to preserve this republican state and keep it from becoming an imperial system, it became clear at the Battle at Thapsus that Julius Caesar would indeed become the political leader of Rome, sealing its transition to a dictatorship. In response, Cato chose to end his life — in a manner that has invited much philosophical debate — in the ancient city of Utica. It has been dubbed the oldest Phoenician settlement on the North African coast, founded sometime around 1100 B.C. In status, it was second only to Carthage among the ancient Phoenecian settlements on the continent and remained a prosperous and strategically significant port for more than a thousand years.
The ancient city of Utica no longer exists, much of its remains and history lost to the ages, but travelers can visit some of its ruins and get a glimpse of what life must have been like here. To do so, you’ll have to journey to present-day Tunisia, near the mouth of the Majardah River. The settlement’s ruins sit on a low hill dotted with cypress trees and wildflowers, which yields views of beautiful rolling farmlands. Archaeological excavations here have uncovered a great many graves dating from the settlement’s earliest days, though modern-day Stoics visiting to pay homage to Cato might be most interested in the site’s preserved Roman city ruins. Also worth a visit is the Musee d’Utique, which features everyday objects uncovered at the ancient necropolis, imported Greek pottery, impressive marble statuary that dates back more than two thousand years, and more. The ruins of the city itself are just 800 meters or so down the road from the museum, and boast three Roman villas with preserved mosaics, preserved examples of Roman water engineering, and even the skeleton of a teenage girl — just keep in mind that the only way to see these wonders it to hire a guide, and most tours are in French.
How to get there: Utica makes for an easy day trip from either Tunis or Bizerte. You can take a non-express Tunis-Bizerte bus to the tiny village of Zhena. The Musee d’Utique, just 2 km away, is the best spot to begin your visit.
Hanoi, North Vietnam
One of history’s more recent Stoic followers was Vice Admiral James Stockdale, a high-ranking military officer who was recognized for the incredible valor he showed across nearly eight years of imprisonment in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. A decorated American war hero born in Illinois, and the recipient of a Medal of Honor, two Purple Hearts, four Silver Star medals and more, Stockdale studied the works of Epictetus, Plato, Xenophon, and Homer during his college years and later in life after joining the Navy as a pilot. His favorite philosopher was the Stoic Epictetus, who taught him that the fear of death, not death itself, was the epitome of evil. Through Epictetus, Stockdale also learned that Stoic philosophy could be summarized into three words: fearlessness, tranquility, and freedom.
Stockdale’s studies of Stoicism, particularly Epictetus’s approach to the philosophy, would prove invaluable during his time as a prisoner of war at the Hoa Lo prison in Vietnam, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” When his plane was shot down by enemy forces, he supposedly whispered to himself, “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” During his imprisonment, he used Stoic teachings to help other prisoners keep their morale up through indescribable horrors. It is said that he assured his fellow prisoners that breaking under torture was nothing to feel guilty about, and that guilt was also something Epictetus and the Stoics hoped to free men from.
After suffering in Hanoi for close to half a decade and being subjected to methods of torture that included leg irons and extended periods of grueling isolation, Vice Admiral Stockdale tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists with a shard of glass. The North Vietnamese saved him, and from that day forward, ceased his torture.
Perhaps one of the most poignant stories about Stockdale’s time in prison was when one fellow prisoner, realizing that Stockdale must be a fellow Stoic, scribbled a stanza from Henley’s poem Invictus on a scrap of paper and left it for Stockdale to read. He wrote, “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”
If you would like to visit the Hoa Lo Prison in remembrance of war heroes like Vice Admiral Stockdale the next time you’re traveling through Vietnam, you can reach it relatively easily if you are staying in Hanoi. Keep in mind the prison’s current displays focus more on Vietnamese revolutionaries imprisoned here in the early 20th century when France had control over Vietnam. The scant depictions of the experiences American POWs suffered through during confinement paint a much softer picture than the reality, but the prison is still worth visiting.
How to get there: Hoa Lo Prison is located 14 minutes from Hanoi by car, or one hour (about 3 miles) on foot. To access the prison complex, you’ll have to enter through a gate on Hoa Lo Street (known among inmates as “the Monster’s Mouth”). You’ll see the words “Maison Centrale” lettered in an arc over the entrance.