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Epaphroditus


Statuette of Epaphroditus. Palazzo Altieri, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Epaphroditus of Chaeronea (Palazzo Altieri, Rome)
Epaphroditus: name of two Roman patrons of the literary arts, a courtier and a grammarian. Both were born between 20 and 25 and died in c.96. They are mentioned as sponsors of the careers of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the Greek philosopher Epictetus.

Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus

"Epaphroditus" (Επαφροδιτος) was a common name for a slave, and may or may not suggest that the master demanded sexual services from his servant. We don't know who was Epaphroditus' master, but it is likely that he was emancipated by the emperor Claudius (41-54). Because freedmen usually accepted the name of their former master, the official name of Epaphroditus was Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus, to which Augusti libertus ("freedman of the emperor") could be added.

Epaphroditus was a courtier of Claudius' stepson and successor Nero. He is mentioned as apparitor Caesarum, which means that he was some sort of servant of the imperial family, but his duties are not mentioned. As viator tribunicius he must have served someone with the powers of a tribune, and this can have been none other than the emperor. At some stage, Epaphroditus obtained the position of a libellis, which means that he drafted Nero's replies to petitions. The precise nature of the first two positions is unclear, but the a libellis was one of the most important men at the imperial court.

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Bust of Nero. Glyptothek München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Nero (Glyptothek, Munich)

It was probably at this stage in his career, in 65, that Epaphroditus learned that a senator named Gaius Calpurnius Piso and many others had organized a coup. Epaphroditus immediately reported it to the emperor and the conspirators were arrested. In this context, the Roman historian Tacitus calls Epaphroditus "Nero's freedman", which does not exclude the possibility that he had not obtained the office of a libellis yet, and reached this position as a reward for saving the emperor's life. On the other hand, the fact that he could decisively intervene suggests that he was already a man of great importance.

After the execution of the conspirators, Epaphroditus received military honors. He was now a wealthy man and owned large gardens on the Esquiline hill, east of the Domus Aurea ("golden house"), which Nero had started to construct after the great fire that had destroyed Rome in 64.

Epaphroditus remained loyal to his emperor until the very end. When Nero was declared a public enemy by the Senate in June 68, Epaphroditus and two or three other freedmen accompanied the ruler on his escape from Rome, and when Nero realized that he should commit suicide to prevent a worse death, Epaphroditus offered a helping hand.

After this, he disappears from our sources. Keeping a low profile, he survived the fall of Nero and the brief reigns of Galba (68-69), Otho (first half 69), and Vitellius (second half of 69). The last-mentioned started to put an end to the influence of freedmen on the imperial bureaucracy, a policy that was continued by Vespasian (69-79), Titus (79-81), and Domitian (81-96), who, according to Suetonius, appointed Epaphroditus as his secretary.

This piece of information may be wrong, because Epaphroditus, while living in retirement, protected the philosopher Epictetus, until Domitian expelled all philosophers from Rome. It is unlikely that the emperor reappointed a man who had been sympathetic to Nero and was connected to the opposition. This also casts some doubt on the story of Epaphroditus' death: according to, again, Suetonius, Domitian had Epaphroditus executed in 95.


Bust of Domitian. Museo Arqueológico, Sevilla (Spain). Photo Marco Prins.
Domitian (Museo Arqueológico,  Sevilla)

Epaphroditus of Chaeronea

The other Epaphroditus was born in Chaeronea in Greece, probably in 23. He was a slave in the house of Archias, a famous grammaticus (= teacher of Greek literature) who educated the young man. Later, Epaphroditus was sold to and freed by a Roman knight named Marcus Mettius Modestus, who was prefect of Egypt in the fifties and resided in Alexandria. After his emancipation, the freedman was officially called Marcus Mettius Epaphroditus, as can be seen on the little statue in the Palazzo Altieri in Rome.

He settled in Rome, where he founded a school, owned two houses, founded a library that boasted no less than 30,000 scrolls, and published several books. We know several titles:

  • A grammatical Commentary on Homer, fragments of which survive. Epaphroditus appears to have had an interest in the etymology of place names.
  • A commentary on the Aitia ("causes") by Callimachus of Cyrene.
  • A commentary on the Shield of Heracles, which was attributed to the legendary poet Hesiod.
  • Two other literary works, called the Lexeis ("words" or "literary styles") and the Peri Stoicheiôn (on "first principles of language").
Like his namesake, the grammarian from Chaeronea may have experienced problems during the reign of Domitian, when the Mettius family fell into disgrace. Epaphroditus died during the reign of the emperor Nerva (96-98).

Identical?

It is tempting to assume that the two men are identical. They were both freedmen and masters of the Greek language, and their careers supplement each other: a boy born in Chaeronea can have been a slave in Alexandria, may have been emancipated by Claudius, can have been promoted by Nero, may have changed his name to dissociate himself from the Julio-Claudian dynasty, can have published several treatises during the reigns of Vespasian and Domitian, and may have fallen into disgrace in 95. The sources only contradict each other on the subject of Epaphroditus' death, and this contradiction is not really something to worry about as Suetonius' information may be wrong.


Roman portrait bust, said to be of Flavius Josephus. From Les Dossiers d' Archéologie (2001).
Roman portrait bust, said to be of Flavius Josephus (from Dossiers d' Archéologie, 2001; ©!!!)


Epaphroditus and Josephus

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus mentions an Epaphroditus as his patron in the Jewish Antiquities, his Autobiography, and Against the Greeks. But which one? Although the identification of the protector of Josephus may seem a triviality, it is in fact a very important question, because Against the Greeks was a highly polemical defense of Judaism in a decade that is marked by anti-Semitic measures. The emperor Domitian wanted the Jews to pay more taxes (the fiscus Judaicus) and executed his relative Flavius Clemens, who had sympathized with the Jews.

Now if Josephus collaborated with the first Epaphroditus, Against the Greeks must have been published before Epaphroditus was executed, in other words before 95 and during the reign of Domitian. If this is correct, Against the Greeks must be read as a brave attempt to contradict the emperor himself. It is possible that the execution of Tiberius Claudius Epaphroditus was related to the publication of Josephus' treatise. On the other hand, if Josephus' patron was the Chaeronean Epaphroditus, Against the Greeks was published during the reign of the benign emperor Nerva, and no great risks were involved.

Of course it can not be excluded that the Epaphroditus mentioned by Josephus is a completely different man; the name itself is not uncommon.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2005
Revision: 16 May 2008
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