Publius Rutilius Rufus stared down daily troubles 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

Bust of Publius Rutilius Rufus

Publius Rutilius Rufus

Publius Rutilius Rufus was one of the preeminent Stoics of the late Republic. He studied philosophy under Panaetius, another great Stoic who once wrote, “The life of men who pass their time amid affairs, and who wish to be helpful to themselves and 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. 

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 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 as “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 of 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 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. 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 judgments 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 and convicted of those 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.

THE HALL OF STOIC PHILOSOPHERS

Junius Rusticus

Seneca

Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus

Statue of Thrasea Paetus

Thrasea Paetus

Lucius Annaeus

Diotimus

Publius Rutilius Rufus

Porcia of Cato

Cicero

Posidonius

Panaetius of Rhodes