The Joy of a Humorless Stoic – Publius Rutilius Rufus

Alex Petkas

(click here for audio version)

You often hear Stoics protesting against their critics these days. Stoics are cast as dour and emotionless, overly stern, even lacking in social judgment. “On the contrary!,” some Stoics respond. “Cheer, for example, can be found in the pure satisfaction of a virtue that needs nothing external to cheer it up. Why, Stoics can even be funny!”

Sometimes you may even wonder where all these critics really are, with so many Stoics to be heard defending themselves now. But it’s true, there is a secret fear that gnaws at many people as they read about how Stoicism can improve their athletic performance, mental health, business results, and love life. Yes, but will I still be fun?

The question certainly bothered Cicero (106–43 BC), the Roman orator, who was also one of the weightier ancient critics of Stoic philosophers. One stern adherent of Stoicism helped Cicero form a strong and lasting judgment about this question, and about Stoic philosophy in general, early on in life.

His name was Publius Rutilius Rufus (c.158–c.78 BC). Rutilius was a statesman involved in the active life at Rome, and not an academic. He may therefore be a more interesting ancient role model for active people than, say, the scholarly Panaetius (c.180–109 BC) or Posidonius (c.135–51 BC).

Rutilius has been getting more attention lately, and he is worth reexamining now. This is not just because he was a textbook Stoic, and noted critic of frivolous entertainment, but also because he allows us to ask a bigger question: what do we make of the life of a good man who repeatedly loses?

In his recollections about Rutilius, Cicero usually remembers to add some bit of praise for the man’s honesty and integrity, his work ethic and precision. But when Cicero met him, Publius Rutilius Rufus was a failed politician. It was the early 70s BC, and Cicero was traveling in Asia as a young student. Rutilius was in semi-voluntary exile from Rome. He ended his days in exile too, without ever returning to visit the home that had rejected him. How did he end up that way?

Cato the Younger (“Uticensis”, 95–46 BC), who chose to end his life rather than live under Caesar’s rule: bronze bust, AD 60 (found in the House of Venus, Volubilis, and now in the Archaeological Museum of Rabat, Morocco). Cicero used some of his usual jibes on Stoics against his judicial opponent Cato the Younger in the speech Pro Murena, where he mentions Rutilius’ friend Tubero.

Making of a Stoic

Publius Rutilius Rufus was born in a middling upper-class family of Rome, in the 150s BC, making him a contemporary of Marius and the Gracchi brothers. As a youth, he convinced his parents to let him to spend inordinately long hours with the Stoic philosopher Panaetius of Rhodes (185–c.110 BC).

Young Publius’ case to his family for studying that supposedly effeminate Greek sophistry was strengthened when they learned that their boy would be frequenting the house of the great Scipio Aemilianus (also known as “Africanus the Younger”, 185–129 BC), where Panaetius often taught. Maybe he’d meet some respectable kids there?

Rutilius must have felt vindicated in his academic choice when Scipio picked him to join his retinue in the siege against Numantia, in Spain (134 BC). On that campaign he served alongside future greats like the young Gaius Marius (157–86 BC), Gaius Gracchus (c.154–121 BC), and the Numidian Jugurtha (c.160–104 BC), who was still an ally of Rome at the time.

Numantia (where Rutilius served under Scipio Aemilianus), Alejo Vera y Estaca, 1881 (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

Rufus’ devotion to Stoicism advantaged him early on, but it was also sincere. As an indication of the fervent company he kept in his youth, take Quintus Aelius Tubero, a Stoic schoolmate. Tubero was a nephew of Scipio Aemilianus. But he actually took all that “live according to nature” stuff seriously. When the great man died in 129, Tubero was asked to arrange the furnishings for his uncle’s massive funeral banquet.

Scipio, though an admirer of Stoicism, was also the greatest Roman of his day. In his eulogy, a different nephew of the deceased hero thanked the immortal gods that Scipio “was born in the seat of the world’s government”[1] and rose up to guide it. Tubero, thinking he would thereby honor Scipio’s philosophical contempt for luxury, produced trappings for the feast which he thought his dead uncle would appreciate: shabby goatskin mats to go on the benches, and cheap Samian pottery for the dishes.

Crates the Cynic (c.365–285 BC) would have been proud, or at least indifferent. But the Roman people didn’t like the paradox. “It cost him the praetorship,” Cicero remarked of Tubero.[2]

Filthy-rich ancients: Pithyus, Lucullus, Crassus, Sulla, Croesus, Midas (engraving by Philips Galle, after Maarten van Heemskerck, Haarlem, Netherlands, 1563).

Rise of Rutilius

Rutilius showed somewhat better political judgment than his virtuous friend Tubero. He made praetor in 118 BC. His first run for the consulship, in 116, also gave him his first experience of battling Roman corruption. Both were spectacular failures. Not only did he lose the election to M. Aemilius Scaurus (c.159–89 BC), he also lost when he prosecuted Scaurus afterward for electoral bribery. Once acquitted, Scaurus prosecuted Rutilius on the same charge. That case failed too. But after the scuffle, Scaurus was no less consul and Rutilius’ reputation was quite a bit dirtier for his effort.

But a Stoic dusts himself off and gets back up again. Later, Rutilius joined steady old Quintus Metellus (c.155–91 BC) as a legate in the expedition to Numidia against Jugurtha (109 BC). Since Rutilius practiced Stoic indifference to fate, he could be relied on to stand his ground calmly in an embarrassing fiasco. Two years later, with victory on the horizon, Gaius Marius, the new consul, defied the Senate and had the People’s Assembly (comitia centuriata) transfer command of the Numidian war from Metellus to himself. So Metellus quit Africa in a huff before Marius got there – and left Rutilius the honor of actually handing Marius the keys.

Rutilius managed to win the consulship two years later (105), as a “new man” (novus homo), someone without any post-holders in the family tree. The Romans were faced with a war against northern barbarians called the Cimbri, an opportunity which promised glory and prestige to a competent commander like Rutilius. But, never one to sacrifice too lavishly to the goddess Fortune, he had bad luck this time too. The command went to the tacky nouveau-riche Mallius Maximus.

Rutilius once again hardened his nose and set his hand to the home front. He hired gladiator coaches to show Roman soldiers how to duck and parry better, and worked hard to win himself a reputation as an eminent military disciplinarian.[3] Being a man of duty (what the Stoics called kathēkon), Rutilius would never begrudge his efforts to a good cause simply because he himself might not enjoy the fruits. As operations against the Cimbri flagged, it was Gaius Marius who was appointed, instead of Rufus, to take over command of the war. Then Marius decided not to bring his own Numidian army to Gaul, but instead requisitioned the new and obviously superior one that Rufus masterfully trained.[4] The Stoic was unruffled. Maybe he could see it as a compliment? Either way, Rutilius remained content in the knowledge that he had done a right deed.

The exiler becomes the exiled: Gaius Marius among the ruins of Carthage, Joseph Kramer, c.1750 (priv. coll.).

Trial of a Stoic

Of all the right deeds of Rutilius Rufus that were punctuated with humiliation, nothing tops his mission to Asia. Now in his early sixties, Rufus joined the like-minded Q. Mucius Scaevola (140–82 BC) on a governing mission to the province of Asia – which was a cash cow for gangs of Roman equestrian businessmen. They held lucrative government contracts for things like extracting taxes from the trembling locals, a practice which was profitable in direct proportion to how abusive and extortionary it was. They were given the misleadingly friendly name of “publicans” (publicani) – working for “the people”!

Rufus was considerably older than his commanding proconsul Scaevola, and, though inferior in rank, he generously instructed his mentee in the punctilious arts of rooting out corruption. With their forces combined they were shockingly efficient. As their nervous staff looked on encouragingly, the duo bankrupted or expelled many powerful and crooked operators. When Rutilius and Scaevola returned to Rome they were commended in the Senate politely praised during the more sober stages of dinner parties.

Unfortunately, the equestrians controlled the juries in Rome’s standing court for gubernatorial extortion. The indignant businessmen found a prosecutor to assist them with some payback. Gaius Marius in those days was a great puppetmaster for the party opposed to Rutilius, and he was widely suspected to be involved too, but as usual, he made it hard to trace his work. Luckily for Q. Mucius Scaevola, Marius’ son had contracted an advantageous marriage into his ancient and storied family, the gens Mucia. But somebody had to be thrown to the publican wolves, and poor Rutilius became the fall guy.

The prosecutor had Rutilius called up on charges of extortion (res repetundae). He ended up getting convicted, by a jury of his foes, of the very offense which he had sought to curtail in Asia. His property was confiscated and he left Rome for good.

Cincinnatus, “A virtuous roman”: Cincinnatus abandons the Plough to dictate Laws to Rome, Juan Antonio Ribera y Fernández, 1806 (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

Rutilius on Roman Oratory

Rutilius conspicuously chose the province of Asia as the destination for his exile, a proof of his probity, as it were. It was there that a twenty-something Cicero visited old Rutilius at Smyrna, when he was making a student tour of the east, hunting for the best advice from the best rhetoric teachers and philosophers.

Rutilius had been thinking a lot about recent Roman history lately, since he was writing his memoirs and a history of his own times. Cicero sat and listened attentively as Rufus offered his take on what was wrong with Roman politics in general and with Roman oratory in particular: too much emotional appeal. Rutilius then recalled to him the story of a legal case he once served in as a young apprentice for the defense team.

Rutilius had been dispatched from the court to the home of the lawyer who was scheduled to speak last, Servius Sulpicius Galba (consul in 144 BC), to make sure that he was coming. When he arrived, he was asked to wait. He sat so long that he grew anxious. Then, out from a cramped room emerged Galba, looking flushed and ready, and a few scribe slaves, pallid and shaken, whom Galba had spent the last few hours thundering at in order to practice his case.

Such abuse! And then Galba came, and stormed through his defense speech to tears and outbursts of applause from a packed courtroom. These histrionics secured an acquittal for his client, could you believe it? Against a prosecution team led by Cato the Elder (a.k.a. the Censor, 234–149 BC)! That summed up the problem for Rutilius.

And that was why Rutilius Rufus, when he was preparing for the trial that would soon end his career, declined the help of Marcus Crassus (115–55 BC) and Marcus Antonius (143–87 BC), the two most moving orators of their day. He refused to exploit people’s base passions and twist them to his own ends. Rutilius would allow neither himself nor any of his defense team so much as to stomp their foot in his trial.

Cicero later retold the story of Galba’s dramatic tear-jerking performance, but with admiration – now that was a man who worked hard, and knew how to win. And in Cicero’s eyes, Crassus was so good that he could have gotten Rufus acquitted even by a jury of vengeful mobsters. Wouldn’t that have been better for Rome? Especially considering the troubles that she faced shortly after Rufus’ fall – the Social War, Marius, Cinna, Sulla…

Sulla confiscating and selling the possessions of proscribed citicens (Rutilius was not there to protest), engraving by Hans Weiditz, Augsburg, Germany, 1531.

Rutilius’ Legacy

Publius Rutilius Rufus is usually a side character, a support to other people’s stories, as he is in my latest podcast series on the life of Gaius Marius. But he certainly deserves to have his story told well on its own terms. A relatively recent book, Lives of the Stoics, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, does this for a wider audience than Rufus has seen in a very long time.[5]

Holiday and Hanselman’s version of Rutilius owes some of its content and spirit to the moral and rhetorical tradition that rose up about Rutilius two generations after his death. On the one hand, Rutilius became a trite theme for young rhetoric students in the Roman empire to harangue their clasroooms with, e.g., “Now, compose a speech as Rutilius Rufus, refusing to accept Sulla’s offer to cancel the corruption verdict and restore you to Rome.” (That did happen)

This “textbook” moral example is the version of Rutilius that a miserable Ovid refers to in one of his epistolary poems from exile in Pontus:

i nunc et veterum nobis exempla virorum
   qui forti casum mente tulere refer,
et grave magnanimi robur mirare Rutili
   non usi reditus condicione dati.
Smyrna virum tenuit, non Pontus et hostica tellus,
   paene minus nullo Smyrna petenda loco.

“Now go and recall for us the examples
Of men of old who bore their fate with brave mind,
And marvel at the heavy oak of great-souled Rutilius
Who did not use the opportunity of return when it was given.
But Smyrna held that man, not the hostile earth of Pontus:
Smyrna! a site more desirable than practically any other.” (Epistulae Ex Ponto 1.3.61–6)

But more importantly for our modern Stoics, Rufus was a favorite example of Seneca. He acknowledges that Rutilius was an example smoothed by overuse in the schools (see Epistle 24). But, for Seneca, that just seemed to be confirmation that the stock Rutilius character really worked. So Seneca brings him up frequently, and concisely, alongside Socrates, as a sage whose obedient endurance of an unjust verdict could help a Lucilius, or us, to steel ourselves for the slights and losses we would face in our less exemplary lives.[6]

Bust of Seneca, Plaza de España, Seville, Spain.

Many laughs were had at Rutilius’ expense in his day, no doubt many more than are recorded. Cicero jokes that the defense team in the fateful corruption trial refused to show any emotions “for fear of being reported to the Stoics”.[7] Rutilius’ friend Lucilius (died 103 BC), the Roman satirist, warned that Rutilius was a little too serious to read his own satires.

But as his career shows, Rutilius Rufus was in fact widely loved, and enjoyed many rich friendships – including with funny people like Lucilius. Friends came and visited him in his exile, and the residents of beautiful Smyrna adored him. He had a fascinating career and made a positive impact on the lives of many.

We might marvel, like the authors of the Lives, that so decent a man would rise so inordinately high in such a corrupt society. But the fact that someone like Rutilius flourished the way he did in politics, for Cicero, was surely an indication that there was still some good left in Rome back in those days.

Rutilius Rufus is a reminder to us all that there can be great honor and joy even in a life mostly remembered for its embarrassments.

Alex Petkas is a former professor of Classics. He is the host of The Cost of Glory, a new podcast retelling the Lives of Plutarch, with selections from the Moralia as well; an audio version of this artcile can be heard here. Links to his work can be found at His previous essays for Antigone, on Homer’s Odyssey and the Roman rebel Sertorius can be read here and here.

Further Reading

Cicero writes about Rutilius Rufus at greatest length in his Brutus and De Oratore. Plutarch’s Life of Marius, Sallust’s Jugurthine War, and Appian’s Civil Wars provide the main narrative of his times. The entry for Rutilius Rufus in the old Pauly Wissowa dictionary is still a great starting point to find additional references in the ancient sources, for those with a basic grasp of German.


1 Cicero, Pro Murena 75.
2 Ibid. 76.
3 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 2.3.2.
4 Frontinus, Stratagems 4.2.2.
5 Rutilius stands out in the book among a lineup including other little known but nonetheless storyworthy figures like Aristo and Diogenes of Babylon. Rutilius’ bio gets the subtitle “The Last Honest Man.” Lives is a series of short biographes, considerably more readable than Book 7 of Diogenes Laertius. Unlike Diogenes it includes the more familiar Roman figures like Cato the Younger and Epictetus. Some of these guys actually were funny, and the book is very well researched and worth the time.
6 The Holiday/Hanselman Lives of the Stoics version of Rutilius thankfully has more color than that.
7 ne Stoicis renuntiaretur, Cicero De Oratore 1.230.