The first companions of Epicurus were known as the kathegemones (those who led the way) and were considered members of Epicurus’ philosophical family, his philoi (affiliates or friends).
From this initial group, two sets of leaders emerged: we have the Four Men (hoi andrei) who are properly considered the founders of our tradition and whom Philodemus treats as ultimate authorities, frequently citing them to underline the legitimacy of his teachings. They are Epicurus, Metrodorus, Hermarchus and Polyaenus. We also have the lineage of Scholarchs who succeeded Epicurus at the head of the Athens school. This article concerns these diadochi (from diadokhoi, “Successors”).
Diogenes Laertius in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, mentions by name only the first nine of these Scholarchs. From later sources, we have two more that are mentioned in the times of emperor Hadrian, and due to their recognized authority, I’m extending the term Scholarch to include all four founders. Also, in the spirit of honoring the sages, and although they do not fall within the lineage of the Scholarchs proper, there were other extraordinary teachers who contributed greatly to the spread and the preservation of Epicureanism (Philodemus of Gadara, Lucretius, Philonides of Laodicea, and Diogenes of Oenoanda). They are included here as a homage.
Our tradition preserved itself through direct transmission and succession. As we saw with Philodemus, later Epicureans were very interested in preserving the teachings of the original Four Masters. Claiming a place under the succession (in his case, through Zeno) was therefore of great importance to Philodemus.
Our Hegemon Epicurus of Samos
Later generations of philosophers would call him “the Herald who saved us”. Read D. Laertius’ account of his life here.
Metrodorus of Lampsacus (the Younger)
Metrodorus was known as a great administrator, linguist and financier, and was recognized as a sophos (sage) by the Epicureans and as “almost another Epicurus” by Cicero.
He was born in 331/330 BC in Lampsachus, and died in 278/7 BC, seven or eight years before his master. He never left Epicurus except once for six months spent on a visit to his native land. He never acted as Scholarch but was among the Four Men.
Polyaenus of Lampsacus
The son of Athenodorus, a citizen of Lampsacus and mathematician, was considered a kind man. He died prior to Epicurus in 286 BC. He never acted as Scholarch but was among the Four Men.
Hermarcus of Mitylene
Hermarcus, a student of rhetoric, was the successor of Epicurus as second scholarch and the first convert to the teachings of Epicurus in the early days when Epicurus first began teaching. He was born in Mitylene, Lesbos in 340 BCE from a poor family and died around 250 BC of paralysis.
Hermarcus was the only one among the founders who was there both prior to Epicurus’ teaching mission, and at the time of his death when, according to Philodemus, he assisted the Hegemon, “wrapped him in a shroud, and kept vigil beside his remains“, perhaps a testimony of the tender love that existed among the first Friends of Epicurus who had grown old together in philosophy and were as family.
Some of the extant sayings in our tradition have been attributed to him, and it is believed that he was almost exclusively vegetarian and that he considered meat-eating an unnecessary desire because it contributes not to the maintenance of life but to a variation in pleasure.
He had been a young pupil of aged Epicurus, later attained succession as Scholarch c. 250 BCE and died 219-8 BCE. His life-long best friend was Hippoclides. Two of his writings remain: there are broken fragments of On Philosophy, and an interesting work titled On Irrational Contempt, a diatribe against the Sceptics where he argues in favor of a naturalist moral realism.
Polystratus is the first Scholarch who had not been a founding member and it’s here that issues of inheritance begin to harm the school, apparently because some non-Epicurean children of scholarchs would claim inheritance. Over the long-term, this seems to have harmed the continuity of the Athenian Garden.
We also know that Rome introduced legislation requiring the successors in the provincial philosophical schools to be Roman citizens in order to avoid subversion, which would later greatly diminish the number of available successors. The law would not be abolished until the second century of Common Era.
Dionysius of Lamptrai
He became the fourth succeessor of Epicurus in 219-8 BCE after contending for succession against Diotimos, as Polystratus had failed to designate the next Scholarch. It is most likely here that, according to Empress Plotina who wrote during the second century of Common Era, the pupils had to carry out an election to choose their next Hegemon.
Basilides of Tyre
He was born in Syria c. 245 BCE, appointed successor in 205 BCE and died c. 175 BCE. He had been pupil of Artemon, and he taught Philonides of Laodicea. Philodemus’ writings on anger are likely based on his work.
Philonides of Laodicea
Although not a Scholarch, he was an important missionary to Asia who spread Epicureanism in the East (Phoenicia, Syria) and is hailed by NewEpicurean.com as one of the unsung heroes of our tradition.
Apollodorus of Athens, the Kepotyrannos
The sixth Hegemon (190-110 BC) rose to the succession c. 147 BCE and had been known as the tyrant of the Garden due to the discipline he implemented. He wrote over four hundred books and is believed to have possibly restored the finances of the Athenian school, which may be how he got his nickname. We must remember that there were inheritance issues after the four founders passed away.
He is said to have written upwards of 400 books, none of which is extant and only two are mentioned by title: a Life of Epicurus and a Collection of Doctrines.
Zeno of Sidon
The seventh Hegemon is believed to have been born in Sidon (modern Lebanon) c. 166 BCE and succeeded his teacher Apollodorus as the head of the school c. 100-75 BCE
Some Epicureans call the Scholarchs that came after Apollodorus sophists, a term which carries negative connotations, perhaps because of the innovations they introduced. Many of these innovations were the result of interaction and debate with other schools. Some believe they were attempts to reconcile the writings of the founders with new insights.
The school had relied on memorization of sayings for many generations. Zeno was a prolific writer of over 400 books who engaged in textual criticism of Epicurus and revitalized the intellectual life of the school by rebelling against what he perceived as an inability to adapt, which is probably part of what inspired the accusations of sophistry. Perhaps the discipline he endured under Apollodorus gave him a rebellious edge?
In any case, he seems to have gathered a huge circle around him and to have influenced many important thinkers of his day, including Cicero (who greatly admired his logical and noble thought), Atticus, Demetrius the Laconian, Lucretius, and Philodemus. If the greatness of a teacher can be judged by the greatness of his students, then Zeno must have been one of the great Epicurean Masters, an incredibly important figure.
Philodemus’ works On Frank Criticism and On Anger are part of the Epitome of Conduct and Character, which is based on the Lectures of Zeno.
Titus Lucretius Carus
Lucretius (95-52 BCE) was a poet and author of De Rerum Natura, a didactic work that gives a complete exposition of the Epicurean system. This manuscript was rediscovered in the 15th Century by Poggio Bracciolini, its influence trickled down to Pierre Gassendi (who tried to reconcile atomism with Christianity), Giordano Bruno and other naturalist thinkers. According to many (including the author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern), Lucretius is the reason for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In other words, his words lifted humanity from the Dark Ages.
Philodemus of Gadara
Philodemus was not a Scholarch, but studied in Alexandria and later under Zeno in Athens, went on to teach philosophy to wealthy Romans, and preserved many of Zeno’s lectures in the library at Herculaneum. In spite of this, and unlike his master, he was orthodox in his views and often cited the original four founders in order to claim legitimacy. As a result of this, he is a hugely importance source.
The importance of his work cannot be underestimated. These scrolls were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but later rediscovered and many of the fragments deciphered. The remains of Philodemus’ work inspired the Philodemus Series at societyofepicurus.com and will likely continue to inspire our teaching mission.
The eighth Hegemon, Phaedrus, was a wealthy Athenian who lived from 138 – 170/69 BCE, having sought political exile in Rome in 88 BCE and later returning to Athens to succeed Zeno as Scholarch c. 75-70 BCE. He was a great orator and was known for writing witty epigrams.
He became the ninth Hegemon c . 70-50s BCE, and lived unfortunately during a time when the school in Athens, the house where Epicurus had lived, was in ruins. There is evidence of his efforts to save the building.
With him ends the supremacy of the Athenian school (around 51 BCE), which would no longer receive donations from the satellite schools in other cities. As Epicureanism expanded in Rome as it had done in the east, there was an increased division between the orthodox (gnesioi, or authentic) and the sophistic (sophistai) wings of the tradition.
By now, there were Epicurean communities in Lampsacus, Mitylene, Miletus, Thebes, Antiochia (which became a major center and even had an Epicurean library with smiling gods’ statues), Alexandria, Chalcis, Apameia, Gadara, Kos, Naples, Pergamom, Rhodes, Amastris, Oenoanda, and Herculaneum.
Diogenes of Oenoanda
Diogenes lived in a small town in what is now Turkey. He erected a wall with an Epicurean inscription in order to teach philosophy to the people of his town. There’s an abridged version of the contents of Diogenes’ Wall at epicurus.info, another one here, and newepicurean.com has a feature on it.
During the 2nd Century of Common Era, Popilius Theotimus, scholarch of the Garden at Athens, turned to Plotina, the Epicurean empress who had raised Emperor Hadrian, with a request to abolish the law that required the successor to be a Roman citizen. She succeeded in utilizing her influence on the emperor to change the laws.
HONORARY MENTION: THE EPICUREAN EMPRESS PLOTINA
As a side note, we do not know how early Plotina chose to follow Epicurus, whom she called Savior, or whether she raised Hadrian as an Epicurean, but we do have reason to believe that Plotina’s philosophy greatly influenced the emperor. It must be noted that the following words were inscribed on Hadrian’s coins: Humanitas, Felicitas, Libertas (Humanity, Happiness, and Freedom).
We know that Emperor Hadrian personally wrote to the Epicurean scholarch Heliodorus, the successor to Popilius Theotimus, conceding financial support to his school. Later in 178 Emperor Marcus Aurelius renewed interest in the Epicurean school in Athens by an endowment of ten thousand drachmas.