The Roman Empire (100 BCE–395 CE)
One of history’s greatest civilizations and most powerful military/economic/cultural empires, the Roman Empire ruled over as much as 5 million square kilometers, 21% of the world's entire population (70 million people). Imperial Rome lasted c. 1,500 years, the Republican era 500 years, and the golden age (Pax Romana) about 200. Spreading Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian culture around the world, Rome had an immense influence on modern language, architecture, philosophy, law, religion, and politics. This long history that saw the first labor union in 600 BCE and many recurring governmental corruptions like pork barrel politics, depressions, banking failures, electoral manipulations, and class war offers many lessons that could teach us today—smart civilizations learn from other civilizations’ mistakes. In spite of a thousand political mistakes, Rome created “a majestic system of law” that separated legislative an executive powers and pioneered the checks and balances so essential to modern democracies. Far short of previous civilizations in philosophy, science, education, and industry; Rome nevertheless incorporated, evolved, and transmitted the wisdom, art, and progress of these earlier cultures.
-800 to present
Freedom from the narrow boxes defined by personal history
Anonymous (5000 BCE - )
Most of us, most of the time stay busy trying to impress people looking for approval, praise and fame. This enslaves and sells our souls to the tyrants of public opinion, the status quo, and to external personal whim. As an antidote to this, the cloak of anonymity opens wide doors of personal expression, creativity, and innovation. In ancient times, perhaps less personal ego fostered this approach, perhaps names were just eroded away by time as is surely the case with many of the quotations that comes to us through the annals of history, perhaps people needed to avoid religious or political persecution. The venerable tradition of using pseudonyms exemplifies both the need and benefit of freeing ourselves from the narrow boxes defined by our personal histories.
Antoninus Pius (Antonines)
86 – 161 CE
One of history's most enlightened, major political leaders
One of the best political leaders of all time, Antoninus began his reign by giving the country an immense amount of his personal fortune. Religious but free of superstition, he encouraged the tolerance of Jews, Christians, freed slaves, and other non-Roman religions. He brought Rome to its apex of prosperity and peace giving the Empire its most equitable period of all time. He liberalized the law, initiated the rights of defendants in trials still used today, told judges to treat defendants as innocent until proven guilty, enforced more equality between men and women, and never made decisions without working on consensus with the Senate. With virtually no enemies and hundreds of friends, he was immune to flattery and was so modest that it was impossible to tell he was emperor by just observing his behavior.
Āryadeva འཕགས་པ་ལྷ། (Kannadeva)
3rd C. CE
Born a king, Aryadeva became teacher to 1000 monks, a Mahasiddha, abbot of Nalanda University, disciple/teacher of Nagarjuna, 15th patriarch of Chan Buddhism, medicine doctor monk, and cofounder of the Mahayana school. One of “the six great commentators on the Buddha's teachings,” he wrote many important texts, exemplified in his path the progressive loss of a belief in a separate self, and remains a shining example of direct and complete realization.
Augustine ɔːɡəstiːn (Saint Augustine, Saint Austin, Augustine of Hippo)
354 – 430 CE
Philosophical Christian theologian, Neoplatonist, prolific writer of over 100 books, and strong influence on the evolution of Western philosophy; Augustine fought against slavery and pre-emptive war, supported women’s rights, and encouraged the acceptance of Jews. Although responsible for defining and promoting the concept of original sin, railing against magic, and fighting against paganism; his vision of the “heavenly city” positively influenced Marxism, the Enlightenment, and the environmental movement. Although used as a foundation for dogmatic belief systems, he appreciated doubt and described the search for truth and understanding as a “restless journey.” Channeling the mysticism of Plotinus and influenced by Virgil, Cicero, Stoicism, and Platonism; he became a focus for later philosophers like Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.
63 BCE – 14 CE
Founder, first Emperor, and architect of the greatest empire of ancient history, the Pax Romana golden age, the longest period of prosperity in history, a regime that lasted almost 1500 years; Augustus became heir to Julius Caesar when 18 and leader of the western world at 31. Living simply like a philosopher instead of a king, he began with his world in corrupted chaos and established a balanced blend of order and freedom. He made good laws, helped both rich and poor, personally oversaw extensive infrastructure, 250,000 miles of roads, created police, fire-fighting, and courier services. He ruled Rome for 40 years and yet died believing he was a complete failure.
Cato (the Younger, Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis)
95 – 46 BCE
Incorruptible politician, insightful Stoic philosopher, long-time stubborn rival and opponent to Julius Caesar’s despotism; Cato was one of the most active defenders of the Roman Republic and his suicide was considered by later Romans a great psychological and cultural victory over Caesar's tyranny. Hero in Virgil’s Aeneid, mentioned in the first paragraph of Moby Dick, immortalized through the ages in plays, novels, poetry, opera, and television; Dante described him in Purgatorio as a “saved soul” who was “worthy of so much reverence that never a son owed his father more.” Immune to bribes and corruption, he became a symbol for individual liberty over governmental tyranny; democracy over monarchy, reason over belief and superstition; Cato greatly influenced George Washington and the founding of the US government.
106 – 43 BCE
One of Rome's greatest orators and writers with an immense influence on European languages greater than any other writer in history, Cicero introduced Greek philosophy and as a ground-breaking translator invented new Latin terms for philosophical concepts. His rediscovery sparked both the 14th Renaissance and the 18th century Enlightenment. Refusing an invitation for highest office from Julius Caesar, he championed democracy, fought against dictatorship and for these reasons was killed by Mark Antony. He inspired both the American and French Revolutions as well as everything from Jefferson’s writing of the Declaration of Independence to Copernicus placing the sun rather than the earth at the center of our solar system.
Cleopatra Κλεοπᾰ́τρᾱ Φιλοπάτωρ (Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator )
69 – 30 BCE
History’s most famous femme fatale
Egyptian pharaoh, naval commander, linguist, diplomat, medical author, and one of history’s most famous femme fatales; Cleopatra was actually known to have had only two lovers, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. These were the two most powerful leaders of the time and consequently the two most likely to save her struggling, precarious dynasty. This strategy came close but failed and after her death, Egypt became a Roman province. Cicero knew her personally and—along with Virgil, Horace, and Ovid—described her negatively. This, at least in part, was a result of history being written by the victors and Egyptian sources like the Libyka give her more praise and respect. Even Plutarch was more positive and described her influence as based more on personality and charm more than just beauty. A descendant Ptolemy I, a Macedonian Greek general and companion of Alexander the Great, her story comes down to us today through the perspectives of luminaries including Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Chinese scholar Yan Fu, Elizabeth Taylor, 43 movies, 200+ plays and novels, 45 operas, and 5 ballets.
161 – 192 CE
55 – 135 CE
Born a slave, Epictetus found freedom and—until he was banished in 93 CE—taught philosophy in Rome as a way of life. He taught that the foundation of all philosophy is self-knowledge, that we all have basic goodness, and that we are not separate but interconnected and one with each other and all of the world. His influence extends from Marcus Aurelius to medal-of-honor winning US vice-presidential candidate James Stockdale and includes artists like James Joyce, Tom Wolfe, David Mamet and J.D. Salinger.
Faustina (Annia Galeria, Faustina the Younger)
130 – 176 CE
Although married to Marcus Aurelius for 30 years, bearing 13 of children, and called by him “so obedient and affectionate a wife;” Faustina was still subject to vicious gossip, called “as faithless as she was beautiful,” and the Augustan History described adulteries with gladiators, sailors, and aristocrats. Their son, Commodus who became the next emperor was know as “a gladiator’s gift to Faustian.” The daughter of Emperor Antoninus Pius and cousin to Emperor Hadrian; Aurelius called her “Mother of the Camp” and she accompanied him on his military campaigns. The soldiers loved her and her devoted husband gave her divine honors after she died including building in her memory one of the Forum’s most beautiful temples, placing her statue in Rome’s Temple of Venus, and establishing in her name a fund for the education and support of orphaned girls.
Guan Yu 关羽 (Guan Gong, Guān Yǔ)
160 – 270 CE
Considered a Bodhisattva and protector of Dharma in the Chinese Buddhist tradition, the ”Saintly Emperor Guan" and “subduer of demons” in Taoism, Guan Yu is also revered today by families, businesses, Chinese secret societies and Triads, by the criminal underworld as well as policemen. One of the best known Chinese historical figures throughout East Asia, he represents the epitome of loyalty and righteousness. Revered for his bravery and virtue, he has also become a popular figure in historical fiction, Chinese opera, movies, manga and even video games.
Gwanggaeto the Great 광개토태왕
374 – 413 CE
An early, conquering ruler, Gwanggaeto expanded Korea’s territory to it’s historically largest extent, established his country as one of the greatest in East Asia on equal standing with China, and began a golden age of Korean culture. His reign extended into Inner Mongolia, Western Manchuria, and the Russian seaside provinces. Considered the greatest Korean hero and today still seen as a nationalistic symbol, he established his own era name of “Eternal Rejoicing” and inaugurated a government for his son, Jangsu who ruled for 79 years, the longest reign in all of East Asian history. Debate between Korean and Japanese scholars over the meaning of a text inscribed on a 6.39 meter monument to Gwanggaeto remains in contention today.
76 – 180 CE
65 – 8 BCE
One of the most famous Roman poets during his time and still considered one of the best from any time, Horace also became a spokesman for the Caesars during Rome’s change from Republic to Empire. A continuing aspect of Western education until our own times, he influenced Milton, Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Omar Khayyam, Kipling, Robert Frost and most Western poets. The insight and wisdom condensed in his famous phrases like “carpe diem“ vividly live in our own culture more than 2000 years after his time.
Hua Mulan 花木蘭
386 – 534 CE
350 – 415 CE
Greek female philosopher, physicist, astronomer, mathematician, and head of a Neoplatonic tradition living and teaching in Egypt; Hypatia was known as a symbol of virtue even by many Christians who thought of her as far above the other philosophers of her own time. Considered the first famous "witch" tortured by Christians whose leader was later sainted, historians mark her murder by this mob as the end of Classical antiquity, the downfall of Hellenistic philosophy. Famous through history and referred to by historians, philosophers, feminists, scientists, and novelists; she is still popular today and associated with names like Marcel Proust, Carl Sagan, Umberto Eco, Dr. Who, and modern movies like Rachel Weisz’s 2009 Agora.
3 BCE – 30 CE
Descriptions of Jesus were written in New Testament documents between 70 and 150 CE, a time of many different Christian books, many different gospels. In 170 CE church leaders first decided which books were “official,” which weren’t. More were added later and the modern version finalized at The Council of Hippo in 393. Some historians believe this selection was at least partially based on politics, patriarchy, and power. In any case, many of the banned and burned books known as Gnostic Gospels seem to have more wisdom and understanding, more connection to the non-thought lineage than the officially recognized texts. Our quotes come from one of these, The Gospel of Thomas discovered in 1945.
Kumārajīva कुमारजीव, 鸠摩罗什
344 – 413 CE
One of the world's greatest translators, the first to teach Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school in China, and symbol of early cultural cooperation; Kumārajīva supervised a team that translated the Diamond, the Lotus, the Prajñāpāramitā and more than 74 scriptures. This helped bridge the traditions of India, Central Asia, and China. With a non-sectarian and open mind, he focused on the sense rather than a literal translation and “revolutionized Chinese Buddhism.” His teaching became the Huayan or Flower Garland school, a foundation for the Chan (Zen) Buddhiist school as well as for the later revival of Taoism. The Emperor Yao Xing became his disciple and because of their work together, c. 90% of the Chinese population became Buddhists.
Lucian of Samosata
125 – 180 CE
Monumental influence on western literature.
Syrian satirist, Roman rhetorician, Egyptian official, traveling teacher, and prolific, popular author; Lucian used sarcasm, irony, and humor to make fun of philosophical schools, superstition, religious practices, plutocracy, and paranormal beliefs. His writings include the first science fiction, A True Story (complete with journeys to the moon and to Venus, extraterrestrials, artificial life, and interplanetary warfare), the oldest known version of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice,” and his invention of the comic dialogue genre in his parodies on the Platonic dialogue. Depicted in a Byzantine encyclopedia as burning in hell because of his criticism of Christianity, he became a monumental influence on western literature. His books inspired Shakespeare's Timon of Athens and Hamlet, Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Erasmus's Encomium Moriae, Thomas More's Utopia as well as Botticelli's paintings. His influence extends through the ages by way of Voltaire, Diderot, Cyrano de Bergerac, Jules Verne, David Hume, Henry Fielding, and many more.
Lucretius (Titus Carus)
99 – 55 BCE
The greatest Western philosophical poet, a complete evolutionist, writer of the “loftiest poetry that any age has known” and the “most marvelous performance in all antique literature” (Durant); Lucretius described religion, the universe, and medicine from a rational point of view without superstition, faith, or dogma. An Epicurean with allegiance to only Venus and the power of love, he left behind all other gods and proposed a scientific understanding of the world including atomic theory and evolution. A huge influence on ancient times, people like Virgil and Horace; he also inspired Enlightenment era people, humanism, Thomas Jefferson and modern psychology.
121 – 219 CE
Mary of Magdala
3 BCE – 120 CE
Called the ”Apostle to the Apostles" by the 3rd century theologian Hippolytus, the story of Mary of Magdala resembles that of Mahākāśyapa – the only one of the Buddha’s disciples to understand the Flower Sermon. In the Gospel of Mary, she was the only disciple to understand Jesus’ inner teachings about basic goodness, discovering the truth within ourselves rather than an external authority, the dangers of following charismatic leaders and sets of rules and laws rather than the wisdom within.
Nagabodhi ནཱ་ག་བོ་དྷི། (The Red-Horned Thief)
Nagabodhi—a Brahmin turned thief—decided to rob the mahasiddha, Nagarjuna. Before he could do anything though, a golden chalice flew out a door and landed in his hands. He returned and something similar happened with a golden plate. At his third return, all of Nagarjuna’s wealth came to him as well as an invitation to eat and talk with the famous sage. Nagarjuna taught Nagabodhi meditation and gave him a houseful of precious treasures. Nagabodhi’s attachment and fixation on these however manifested as a large and painful horn growing out of the top of his head. Further instruction and practice enabled him to finally see through his delusion to the extent that he became Nagarguna’s successor. Mahasiddha #76
c. 150-250 CE
Considered the most important Buddhist philosopher after the historical Buddha, Nāgārjuna founded the “middle way” Madhyamaka school, developed the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, the concept of śūnyatā, or "emptiness," the ultimate and relative “Two Truths.” He also served as the head of Nālandā University and as the "father of iatrochemistry" practiced Ayurveda medicine. An important factor in Buddhism’s spread to Tibet, China, Japan and other Asian countries, his teachings represent the pinnacle of philosophical insight and wisdom.
Ovid oʊvɪd (Publius Ovidius Naso)
43 BCE – 18 CE
Great poet and major influence on the Renaissance, Humanism, and world literature
Philodemus Φιλόδημος (of Gadara)
110 – 35 BCE
Innovative philosopher-poet, student of Epicures and Zeno, first generation Epicurean, praised by Cicero, and a big influence on Horace; Philodemus was originally most well known for his poetry. However since 1738 when the ancient papyrus scrolls of Herculaneum were discovered under lava flows from Mt. Vesuvius that also destroyed Pompeii and with the help of x-rays and computers in recent years, his influence was discovered to extend to music, history, ethics and theology.
204 – 249 CE
The founder of Neoplatonism and inspiration for mystics of many traditions - Gnostic, Islamic, Polytheistic, Christian, Jewish - Plotinus was taken as an inspiration and guide by such diverse thinkers as Bertrand Russell and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Radhakrishnan and Coomaraswamy, Coleridge and Yeats, the Sunni and Ismaili Shia in Islam, emperor Julian and St. Augustine. He emphasized contemplation as a powerful, transforming practice and how mind shapes perception, rather than passively receiving something “objective.” His experience and teaching of the “union with the One” translates as an early Western version of the Eastern concept of “Enlightenment.”
Plutarch (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)
46 – 120 CE
Teller of tales and distiller of wisdom, philosopher, magistrate and Delphic priest; Plutarch was frequently paraphrased and quoted by Shakespeare. Ralph Waldo Emerson called his writings "a bible for heroes,” Montaigne's Essays include over 400 references, and he was admired by Boswell, Ben Jonson, Alexander Hamilton, John Milton, Louis L'amour, Francis Bacon, and Robert Browning. An example of Mencius’ sage whose words and actions cause the stupid to become wise, Plutarch remains an enormous influence on world literature as well as an example of finding meaning, inspiration, and profound lessons from experiences and events.
35 – 100 CE
Master of oratory, first advocate for a child-centered education, Roman rhetoriciann teacher to Pliny, and major influence on St. Jerome, Hippo, Juvenal, and John Stuart Mill; Quintilian also—according to Petrarch—“provided the inspiration for a new humanistic philosophy of education.” He became lost to history however until 1416 when Pogio while searching a filthy old dungeon found a copy of his masterpiece, Institutio Oratoria "buried in rubbish and dust.” A major inspiration in the development of humanism, on Bach’s music, and Martin Luther’s philosophy; Quintilian helped establish a solid intellectual foundation for the “words over the sense” and analyzed the symbolic, metaphorical, and figurative nature of language.
20 – 200 CE
Rabbinic Sages (20 – 200 CE)
Academies in Galilee, Tiberias and Caesarea; teachers of the Mishnah, transmitters of the Jewish traditions passed down for centuries orally, and written down during the first 200 years of this millennium; these sages taught and recorded commentaries and reflections on the Hebrew Bible. Their writings became the foundation of Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, and customs eventually evolving into over 6,200 pages.
Seneca ˈsɛnɪkə (Lucius Annaeus)
4 BCE – 65 CE
Stoic philosopher, polititian, author, and first great Western thinker to describe the importance of relationship gratitude; Seneca taught and advised emperor Nero and for his efforts was forced to commit suicide. Humanist saint still popular and influential today, he influenced Dante, Chaucer, Petrarch, Erasmus, John Calvin, Shakespeare, Montaigne who was considered a "French Seneca,” and Joseph Hall considered “an English Seneca." Slandered by contemporaries, historians, and modern novelists as a sycophant to Nero and hypocrite, he did compromise to political expediency but also balanced faith and freedom promoting a simple and accepting lifestyle beyond anger, just politics, and global citizenship.
Sima Qian 司馬遷 (Ssu-ma Ch'ien)
145 – 86 BCE
Father of Chinese historians
Father of Chinese historians, Court Astrologer, and and for centuries considered author of the greatest history book ever written; Sima Qian—although imprisoned, castrated, and enslaved—managed to write a monumental and innovative history of China including a series of biographies that went back more than 2000 years. His writings and writing style had a deep influence on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese cultures. Sorting through myth and imagination, he went beyond the tradition of only writing about the emperors and generals, used more than 75 books to cross-check for accuracy, refused to include information he couldn’t verify, and traveled extensively interviewing people about their personal experience of events. He wrote the earliest known biography of Lao Tzu.
365 – 427 CE
Greatest Chinese poet during the Six Dynasties period (220 - 589 CE), one of the biggest poetic influences on Zen and Beat poetry, and in a small group of history’s best poets; stories say Tao Yuanming drained rivers of wine with friends in glades on moonlit nights celebrating the miracle and wonder of moment-to-moment perception. Military/government career drop out, back-to-the-land champion, discoverer of Peach Blossom Spring; he didn’t follow in the steps of any religion, didn’t do any of the recommended practices; he reveled in the fulness of here-and-now working in his garden, reading books, playing the zither, chopping wood and carrying water.
4th to 5th C. CE
21st Zen Patriarch, poet, one of the most influential Indian Buddhist philosophers, and co-founder of the Yogacara school; Vasubandhu’s writings on Abhidharma are still widely studied as a major foundation of Mahayana teachings. The Second Patriarch of the most popular branch of Buddhism in Japan, the Jōdo Shinshū school that claims 20% of Japan’s population today; he pioneered the “Mind Only” tradition, the beginnings of Dzogchen, formal logic, and the non-dual nature of reality. These teachings seeped into Western philosophy through people like Immanuel Kant and George Berkeley.
Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)
70 – 19 BCE
“The most lovable of Romans” and its greatest poet, advocate/inspiration/teacher for small farmers, Dante's guide through hell and purgatory, considered a great magician, seer, and saint as well as the embodiment of human knowledge and experience; Virgil began life as a poor farmer and once had to swim for his life to escape soldiers. Given patronage by Augustus he wrote the Aeneid that became the Roman national epic and standard text for school curricula after Augustus refused Virgil’s dying wish to have it burned. For hundreds of years his poems were opened at random as an oracle for insight into uncertainty and to solve problems.
Wang Bi 王弼
226 – 534 CE
Although he only lived 23 years, for more than 1,700 years most Chinese scholars have considered Wang Bi the most important interpreter of the Tao Te Ching and his edition of this has been used for almost every translation into a Western language. A political theorist who challenged the prevailing Confucian orthodoxy, he interpreted Lao Tzu in a way consistent with Confucius and compatible with both indigenous Chinese beliefs and the introduction of Indian Buddhism. Interesting and inspiring how one so young can understand so deeply and influence the course of history so much.
Yang Xiong 揚雄
53 BCE – 18 CE
"Confucius from the western parts,” poet, philosopher, I Ching scholar, and politician; Yang Xiong became one of the most famous people of the entire Han dynasty. His most well-known and influential book was Exemplary Sayings (法言) which includes him in our lineage of aphorists. He took a middle-ground approach between Xunzi and Mencius describing basic human nature as neither basic goodness or basic badness characterizing it as a complex combination.
“The final reason for Rome's defeat was the failure of mind and spirit to rise to a new and great opportunity. They were split into the sharpest oppositions, extremes, a narrow selfishness that kept men blind when their own self-preservation demanded a world-wide outlook. Material development outstripped human development; the Dark Ages took possession of Europe, classical antiquity ended.”
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“There was a thin, small stream of fine learning and of fine thinking up to the 1st century—witness Lucretius and Cicero—but it did not spread into the mass of the people... the broad principles of modern geology shine through the speculations of Lucretius; [but] the true figure to represent the classical Roman attitude to science is not Lucretius, but that Roman soldier who hacked Archimedes to death”
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“Although Pius had two sons, he preferred the welfare of Rome to the interest of his family, gave his daughter Faustina in marriage to young Marcus, and with a noble disdain or rather ignorance of jealousy, associated him to all the labors of government... Their united reigns are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of government.”
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“The contradiction between the teaching of The Prince and that of the Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence shows that this profound political thinker has so far been studied only by superficial or corrupt readers. The Court of Rome sternly prohibited his book. I can well believe it; for it is that Court it most clearly portrays.”
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“Those who read what the beginning of Rome was, and what her lawgivers and her organization, will not be astonished that so much virtue would have maintained itself during so many centuries; and that so great an empire should have sprung from it afterwards.”
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“Imperial Rome poured forth her living sea
From senate house and prison and theater
When Freedom left those who upon the free
Had bound a yoke which soon they stooped to bear.”
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“It was during the 4th century that Christianity overcame the pagan cult and magical rites... The persecutions of which they were the cause rank among the major misfortunes that have visited the West.”
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“It is usual to ascribe the fall of the Western Roman Empire to barbarian invasion from without; could it have been due in part to barbarian multiplication within?”
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