Helvidius Priscus was a 1st-century Stoic philosopher. He was born to a low Plebeian class family but rose to become a powerful figure in the Roman Empire. From an early age, Helvidius seemed to sense how he might transcend his humble origins. A few decades after Helvidius died, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote that Helvidius “devoted his extraordinary talents to higher studies, not as most youths do to cloak a useless leisure with a pretentious name, but that he might enter public life better fortified against the chances of fortune.”
Where did he pick up that mindset? Reading and studying for strictly practical purposes? It could have been from any number of the Stoics before him. At the core of Stoicism is a belief that philosophy is training. One analogy the Stoics liked is the trainer who prepares a boxer for a big fight. Philosophy prepares the student to face anything like throws at them.
Helvidius pursued an office in government and was selected tribune by the people of Rome in 56AD. Around this time, he married a woman named Fannia, the daughter of Thrasea—the Stoic senator who fearlessly opposed the emperor Nero. In 65 AD, when Thrasea did not attend the empress’s funeral, Nero (who was likely involved in her death) sentenced Thrasea to death. And while he was at it, he exiled Helvidius and Fannia to distant Macedonia. They were allowed to return after Nero’s death, but it didn’t take long for Helvidius to fall foul with the emperor Vespasian. Vespasian insisted on being called “Caesar.” Helvidius believed Vespasian hadn’t earned the royal title and was the lone senator to continue addressing him by his common name. Vespasian’s dismay for a man who refused to bow down to him eventually boiled over (more on this below). Around 75 AD, Helvidius was executed on Vespasian’s orders.
Pity The Evil
Roughly half a century after Helvidius’ execution, in a lecture about remaining steadfast in the face of evil and preserving your character at any cost, Epictetus told this story:
When Vespasian sent for Helvidius Priscus and commanded him not to go into the senate, he replied, “It is in your power not to allow me to be a member of the senate, but so long as I am, I must go in.” “Well, go in then,” says the emperor, “but say nothing.” “Do not ask my opinion, and I will be silent.” “But I must ask your opinion.” “And I must say what I think right.” “But if you do, I shall put you to death.” “When then did I tell you that I am immortal? You will do your part, and I will do mine: it is your part to kill; it is mine to die, but not in fear: yours to banish me; mine to depart without sorrow.”
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius thanks his brother for telling him about Helvidius. He then writes over and over about how all we can ever control is ourselves. And how asking for a world without shameless people and evil acts is to ask the impossible. And how the Vespasian types don’t harm anyone but themselves—”To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice—it degrades you.” And how the Vespasian types actually deserve pity. “When people injure you,” he wrote, “feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion.”
Take A Leaf Out Of History
Helvidius’ name doesn’t only appear in the two thousand year old works of philosophers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Robert Byrd—a senator who, like Helvidius, rose from humble beginnings—stepped onto the floor of the Senate on November 20, 2002. To call out his fellow senators, who have “rolled over” to the overreaches of their president, Byrd told the story of the clash between Helvidius and Vespasian “as a reminder of what a true Senator should be:”
Both did their parts. Helvidius Priscus spoke his mind. The Emperor Vespasia killed him. In this effeminate age it is instructive to read of courage. There are members of the U.S. Senate and House who are terrified apparently if the president of the United States tells them, urges them, to vote a certain way that may be against their belief. So in this day of few men with great courage—relatively few—let us take a leaf out of Roman history and remember Helvidius Priscus.
As we talked about above, the Stoic studies “that he might enter public life better fortified. Byrd’s bravery was a product of studying Helvidius’. Helvidius’ came from Thrasea’s. Thrasea’s from Cato’s. All of the Stoics had at least one vaunted predecessor, one hero, one historical figure whose book they took a leaf from.
P.S. The bestselling authors of The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, have teamed up again in their new book Lives of the Stoics: The Art of Living From Zeno To Marcus. Along with presenting the fascinating lives of all the well-known and not so well-known Stoics, Lives of the Stoics distills timeless and immediately applicable lessons about happiness, success, resilience, and virtue. The book is available for pre-order and is set to release on September 29!