Born around 50 AD in Hierapolis, Phrygia (modern-day Pamukkale, Turkey), Epictetus came into the world as property of another man. Even his name ‘Epictetus’, derived from the Greek word “ἐπίκτητος” meaning “acquired,” reflects his slave born status. His early life serves as a reminder that despite overwhelming circumstances, each of us can rise from darkness and contribute powerful and lasting ideas to the world.
Epictetus served under Epaphroditos, a powerful freedman who was the secretary to Emperor Nero. While the specifics of this relationship remain largely unknown, it’s clear that Epaphroditos permitted, or perhaps even encouraged, Epictetus to pursue education. This rare and conflicting grace from his owner led to Epictetus’s initiation into Stoic teaching.
The stoic emphasis on freedom immediately resonated with Epictetus. It was not a conception of personal freedom to travel or pursue goals with free will, rather, it was freedom as a state of mind. He once noted: “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” Even in chains, he recognized the essence of true freedom — mastery over one’s desires and emotions.
This duality of experience — a philosophical education within the bonds of slavery — deeply influenced Epictetus’s perspective. He often wove these themes into his teachings, reminding his listeners that external conditions don’t define our inner tranquillity. In his famed Discourses, he proclaimed, “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the view which they take of them.”
Over time, fortune favored Epictetus. With the demise of Nero, and subsequent transitions in Roman leadership, Epictetus was eventually granted his freedom. Yet, instead of rejoicing in the pleasure of emancipation, he channeled his energy towards education. Moving to Nicopolis in Northwestern Greece, he established a philosophical school, taking the mantle from a former teacher, Rufus.
Reflecting on his early life, one wonders if Epictetus would have been the same profound philosopher had he not been a slave. Slavery, though cruel and inhumane, honed his mind, sharpened his insight, and helped to develop his spirit. By mastering the art of distinguishing between what’s in our control and what’s not, he could find peace in turmoil. As he wisely said, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
In his story, we’re reminded that regardless of our circumstances, our minds remain the last free place that we can always control. To focus only on the constraints of Epictetus’s early life would be to miss a core theme of his teachings. It’s not our adversity that shapes us, but rather, our mental response.