Epictetus was born in the 50s CE in Hierapolis, a considerable Greek-speaking town in the region of Phrygia, in what is now southwestern Turkey. In our sources he is next mentioned as being in Rome, and enslaved to Epaphroditus, a freedman and secretary of Nero. This would place him in Rome either before the year 68, the year of Nero’s death, or after 81, when Epaphroditus served as secretary to the emperor Domitian. While still enslaved he studied under the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus (Dissertationes 1.9.29), something not entirely unexpected, since intelligent slaves in wealthy Roman households were often educated, so they could serve as teachers. Eventually Epaphroditus freed Epictetus, and the latter began teaching independently in Rome. The emperor Domitian banished all philosophers from Italy in 89. Philosophers in this period were sometimes seen as politically dangerous and had a habit of criticizing emperors publicly. Presumably in response to Domitian’s edict, Epictetus left Rome with his highly-regarded school, which was attended by rich and powerful aristocrats, and settled in Nicopolis on the west coast of Greece. He taught there until his death, around the year 135.
Little is known about Epictetus’ personal life. He was lame (Dissertationes 1.8). According to the Christian theologian Origen, Epictetus’ master punished him by twisting his leg so as to break it (Contra Celsum 7.53). This master may have been Epaphroditus, but there is little evidence he was so cruel. The short biography of Epictetus in the Byzantine encyclopedia known as the Suda maintains that the lameness was the result of rheumatism.
Like Socrates, Epictetus did not leave behind any writings of his own. The texts relating the words of Epictetus were written by one of his students, Arrian (Lucius Flavianus Arrianus Xenophon), who lived ca. 86–160 CE. Arrian was one of the highly placed Romans who studied with Epictetus at Nicopolis, while in his twenties (ca. 105–113). Arrian’s distinguished military and political career included reaching the highest available office, the consulate. He also wrote historical works, including one on Alexander the Great (the Anabasis) and a history of India. The preserved texts about Epictetus include the Discourses (Greek title Διατιβαί, Latin Dissertationes, hereafter abbreviated Diss., as is traditional) and the Manual (Greek Ἐγχειρίδιον, Encheiridion, abbreviated Ench.), which is the work edited here. In the introduction to the Diss. Arrian explains that he recorded the conversations Epictetus had with his students. There has been much debate about how accurate this claim is. But since the style of writing in the Diss. differs from Arrian’s style in his other writings, most scholars agree that Arrian’s writings accurately reflect the thought, terminology, and teaching style of Epictetus, rather than Arrian’s own (Graver 2019, section 1). Four books of the Diss. are preserved. The Byzantine scholar Photius, writing in the ninth century, knew of eight books (Bibliotheca 58). The Ench. is a brief abridgment of the Diss. The fact that not all chapters of the Ench. have correspondences in the Diss. seems to support the notion that there were originally eight books of Diss.