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Who Is Publius Rutilius Rufus? An Introduction To The Man Who Could Not Be Corrupted



Publius Rutilius Rufus was one of the preeminent Stoic of the late Republic. He studied philosophy under Panaetius, another great Stoic who once wrote, “The life of men who pass their time in the midst of affairs, and who wish to be helpful to themselves and to others, is exposed to constant and almost daily troubles and sudden dangers.” Though he wasn’t speaking about Rutilius, he might as well have been. Rutilius stared down daily troubles and sudden dangers and all of Rome’s corruption with a fierce and noble resolve that was as rare among his peers as it is today. 

A promising young man in a rapidly growing empire, Rutilius’ advancement appeared both limitless and obvious to anyone who crossed paths with him. He was well read, well-trained, and as a speaker, according to one witness, “acute and systematic.” His Stoicism was obvious too, as the same observer said of Rutilius, the self-sufficiency of the philosophy “was in him exemplified in its firmest and most unswerving form.”

But living in a time of intrigue and political violence and outright corruption, it was only a matter of time that the meticulously honest Rutilius, ruled by his sense of Stoic duty, would eventually find himself a target. Rutilius was at the center of a major controversy that wound up triggering what the writer and podcaster Mike Duncan would later describe it, “the storm before the storm.”  As Duncan detailed in our interview, “In 94 BC, Rutilius was sent to the province Asia (western Turkey) to help fix the corrupt tax farming system. Incredulous that Rutilius was messing with their profits, the powerful tax farming companies back in Rome conspired to have Rutilius brought up on charges for corruption and extortion. The charges were ludicrous as Rutilius was a model of probity and would later be cited by Cicero as the perfect model of a Roman administrator. In the face of this farce, Rutilius refused to even offer a defense so as not to acknowledge its legitimacy.” 

And just like *that*, Rutilius’ property was seized and he was exiled. He was offered one small dignity: the choice of the place of his exile. With the stone-hard determination of a man who knows he did nothing wrong, Rutilius chose the very city he had allegedly defrauded. There, Duncan added, “he lived among the people he had allegedly abused, but who actually loved him because he had stopped the abuse.” 

Was he bitter or broken by the dishonor done to him? No, he doesn’t seem to have been. He just got on with his life and his work. We know that he wrote his History Of Rome there in exile. And we are told that a consoling friend attempted to reassure Rufus that with civil war likely in Rome, in due time all exiles would be allowed back. “What sin have I committed that you should wish me a more unhappy return than departure?,” Rufus replied. “I should much prefer to have my country blush for my exile than weep at my return!” 

But others were bitter, livid even, by the treatment of this honorable man. As Duncan told us, “Rutilius escalated partisan tensions back in Rome that ultimately triggered the great civil wars of the 80s BC.” When Marcus Aurelius, some two hundred years later, would remind himself over and over, that all he controlled was his character, that it didn’t matter what anyone said or did, that no matter what the mob thought or did, his job was to be good—it’s quite possible he held Rutilius’ example in mind. Under the daily troubles and sudden dangers, Rutilius did not crack. He did not compromise. You can lay violent hands on me, Zeno had said, but my mind will remain committed to philosophy. Rutilius lived it. 

Lessons & Exercises 

Don’t Follow the Mob

It’s a fitting warning about man’s nature that in the Old Testament, God would command his followers, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and to resist the pull of the multitude when they persecute someone on false charges, only to find thousands of years later that this would be the fate of the man who claimed to be his son.

This idea that the judgements of the mob were dangerous and must be avoided is a timeless theme. It was only a few generations before Jesus that Rutilius was brought up on and convicted of those obviously false charges by corrupt political enemies. Around the same time, in one of the first signs that the norms of the Roman Republic were collapsing, a mob gathered and stoned to death a man named Saturninus. Marius, the consul who encouraged Rufus’s demise, was powerless to stop the mob justice he had ridden to power on. 

Napoleon, a man who managed to effectively manipulate and direct the power of a reactionary movement would say that “when the mob gains the day, it ceases to be any longer the mob. It is the nation.” 

The Stoics would have been appalled at this, as they were appalled by the way they brought Rutilius up on trumped up charges, soiled his reputation, stole his possessions and sent him far from the country he loved. The mob is the enemy of rational thought, of virtue, of being in command of oneself. It is something to fear, not something to participate in or condone. 

Reading about someone like Rutilius—who under all incomparable pressure, refused to crack or compromise or bend the knee—we should take a minute to reflect. Are we standing apart from the rushing mobs of public opinion or are we being caught up in it? Are we thinking for ourselves or are we letting the energy of our time do that for us? When everyone sobers up from this moment, when the distance of history has given us some clarity—as it did with everything from various fashion trends to civil rights and the fall of the Republic—will we be proud of what we said and believed or ashamed?

Ignore the mob. Think for yourself. Stand alone. Do what’s right. That’s what matters.

You Must Go Into The Wilderness

Winston Churchill, who spent about 10 years in political exile after WWI, wrote that:

“Every prophet has to come from civilization, but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society and all that it has to give, and then he must serve periods of isolation and meditation. This is the process by which psychic dynamite is made.”

The period of difficulty and loneliness and loss that Rutilius went through—this was not simply some bad period in his life. No, it was a formative, soul-strengthening, priority-clarifying experience that made him who he was. He not only wasn’t bitter about the slanderous accusations and the trumped up political attack he was a victim of, he chose to go back to be with the citizens who actually appreciated his honesty and hard work. It was an awful experience, to be sure, but he accepted it with cheerful Stoicism. 

Psychic dynamite is not just handed to us. We aren’t born resilient or with confidence. We have to earn it. We have to make it. And that is only possible in difficult circumstances, it can only be found in the wilderness, where we are alone, where we are forced to adapt and adjust to circumstances outside our control.

It won’t be fun, but it is essential.


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!


Meet The Stoics:

Who Is Marcus Aurelius? Getting To Know The Roman Emperor

Who Is Seneca? Inside The Mind of The World’s Most Interesting Stoic

Who Is Epictetus? From Slave To World’s Most Sought After Philosopher

Who Is Cleanthes? Successor to Zeno & Second Head of the Stoic School

Who Is Cato? Roman Senator. Mortal Enemy of Julius Caesar.

Who Is Zeno? An Introduction to the Founder of Stoicism

Who Is Cicero? Getting To Know Rome’s Greatest Politician

Who Is Posidonius? The Most Academic Stoic

Who Was Panaetius? Spreading Stoicism from Greece to Rome

Who Is Paconius Agrippinus? An Introduction To The Red Thread Contrarian

Who Is Porcia Cato? An Introduction To The Stoic Superwoman

Who Is Gaius Rubellius Plautus? An Introduction To Nero’s Rival

Who Is Chrysippus? The ‘Second Founder of Stoicism’ Who Died Laughing

Who Is Diotimus? An Introduction To The Man Who Made An Extraordinary Mistake