Thrasea Paetus was born in 14 AD, the same year the first Roman Emperor Augustus died. It was now six decades since Cato The Younger bled out alongside The Roman Republic. In Thrasea’s Rome then, for most, the old Republic ideals—freedom, mainly—were ancient history. They accepted what Rome had become—a regime of increasingly autocratic and unpredictable power.
Thrasea’s early inclinations shaped him into someone who simply couldn’t accept what Rome had become. He developed a love for history and philosophy. It must have started before he knew or thought to categorize them because the figures of the distant Republic were alive and real to Thrasea. As he grew older, he only grew more and more appalled at how Rome was drifting further and further from the world he read about. Like Seneca, he pursued a senatorial career with the motivation of shaking the Senate out of this wicked stupor. His rise through the ranks coincided with the emperor Nero’s reckless and murderous rise to tyranny.
Thrasea’s peers mostly chose to go along to get along. The response to Nero murdering his mother in 59 AD is illustrative. Thrasea’s fellow senators proposed awarding their master honors for what he’d done. It was put to a vote for which Thrasea, disgusted, did not stick around. Declining to vote is today a kind of senatorial strategy, but Thrasea’s abstention left no ambiguity. He ratcheted up both his open opposition of Nero and his more reticent plotting against Nero’s life. In 63 AD, Thrasea assessed the probability of galvanizing change in the State was zero and walked away. In 65 AD, word of Thrasea and his co-conspirators (now known as The Stoic Opposition) got to Nero, who went on an enemy elimination spree. Nero looked for and found a plausible enough pretext to give Thrasea a death sentence. Thrasea wrote Nero directly with two questions: What are the charges and when is the trial? Nero, expecting to read a plea for mercy, couldn’t believe “the defiant independence of the guiltless man.” Nero sent his goons to deliver the death decree at once. Thrasea received them at his home with sincere indifference. “Nero can kill me,” he said, “but he cannot harm me.”
Veins on both his arms were opened. As he bled out, he said to Nero’s aids, “You have been born into times in which it is well to fortify the spirit with examples of courage.”
Lessons & Exercises
Choose A Cato
Seneca, in his letters to Lucilius, urges him to choose a role model to provide a standard to live by:
“Choose yourself a Cato…Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.”
According to Plutarch, from an early age, Thrasea chose Cato as his Cato. The Stoics talk over and over again about studying the lives of the “greats.” Why? To learn what to do and what not to do. To be inspired by their splendid achievements for the common good, to be horrified by their selfishness and greed, and to direct this understanding of both towards private victories.
Find yourself a Cato or whomever to use as an example of who to be and who not to be. Diligently study them—today and tomorrow and forever—and then, when you find yourself in a tough situation, let their model guide you.
The modern misconceptions—that Stoicism is “resignation,” that the Stoics and the idea of political resistance don’t go together—would come as a surprise to the many tyrants and oppressors that found themselves in conflict with the Stoics over the centuries. Thrasea’s obstinate resistance of Nero’s tyranny was a constant, exhausting drain on his rule. And as it happened, Nero hadn’t eliminated Thrasea soon enough. The dissension inside the Senate, which Thrasea dedicated his career to trying to create, was further along than perhaps even he knew. Nero’s support was eroding slowly, but after Thrasea’s forced suicide, it crumbled. He woke up one morning and found his bodyguards had abandoned their duties. He knew his clock was ticking. Instead awaiting capture, he grabbed a knife and stabbed himself in the throat.
About a century later, in the opening pages of Meditations, the emperor Marcus Aurelius describes his gratitude, “that I encountered Thrasea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion and Brutus, and conceived of a society of equal laws, governed by equality of status and of speech, and of rulers who respect the liberty of their subjects above all else.”
Thrasea’s refusal to accept injustice, to accept the status quo, to kowtow to anyone who wanted him to bow to the regime set in motion a train of events that led to change. He embodied what Stoicism is about. His strength of conviction that he, one person, can change history. His sense of duty and purpose that makes it impossible to do anything but stand up. His example continues to remind us that people with that power end up changing the world, regardless of how entrenched or overwhelming their enemies are.
Martin Luther King Jr. captured it perfectly. “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up,” he said, “they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” All of us fighting for something, trying to make change have that power to straighten up, stand up, to refuse to roll over. Thrasea used that power. Will you?
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!