Who Was Epictetus?

     Epictetus was born a slave during the time of the Roman Empire.  The exact dates of his birth and death are unknown, but he must have lived roughly between the time periods of 50 to 135 A.D.  A Greek from Hierapolis, Phrygia, (in modern day Turkey), he later lived in Rome with his master.  He was permitted to study philosophy under the greatest Stoic teacher of the day, Musonius Rufus, and apparently became a notable Stoic philosopher himself while in Rome and at some point he obtained his freedom.  He was forced to flee Rome when all philosophers were banished from that city by Emperor Domitian, and he took up residence in Nicopolis, Epirus, in Greece, where he established his own school of Stoic philosophy.
     Epictetus lived very simply with few possessions and never locked the door of his habitation.  After his iron lamp had been stolen, he replaced it with a modest earthenware lamp, and felt pity not for himself because of the loss of his lamp, but for the thief because of his wrong-doing.  He married late in life in order to help raise a baby who would have been exposed and left to die by his parents.  Epictetus was lame.  Some say he was lame his entire life.  Others say that his slave owner was twisting his leg in anger, to whom Epictetus calmly said: "Master, if you keep on twisting it, it will break."  When it broke, he merely said: "I told you it would break."  
     As a slave, he naturally had an inclination towards freedom and thus freedom was a central theme of his lectures.  Yet as a Stoic, he understood that external circumstances, including one's status as either a slave or a free-born man, are all outside of the sphere of one's control.  True freedom consists of identifying what is under our control, what truly belongs to us, and exercising our autonomy in that sphere.  For the Stoics and for Epictetus, our freedom lies in our ability to live virtuous lives despite our circumstances.  
     Like Socrates, Epictetus wrote nothing himself.  It is thanks to one of his pupils, Arrian, who transcribed his lectures, that the teachings of Epictetus are preserved for us today.