Very little is known of the life of Epictetus. It is said that he was a native of Hierapolis in Phrygia, a town between the Maeander and a branch of the Maeander named the Lycus. Hierapolis is mentioned in the epistle of Paul to the people of Colossae (Coloss. iv., 13); from which it has been concluded that there was a Christian church in Hierapolis in the time of the apostle. The date of the birth of Epictetus is unknown. The only recorded fact of his early life is that he was a slave in Rome, and his master was Epaphroditus, a profligate freedman of the Emperor Nero. There is a story that the master broke his slave’s leg by torturing him; but it is better to trust to the evidence of Simplicius, the commentator on the Encheiridion, or Manual, who says that Epictetus was weak in body and lame from an early age. It is not said how he became a slave; but it has been asserted in modern times that the parents sold the child. I have not, however, found any authority for this statement.
It may be supposed that the young slave showed intelligence, for his master sent or permitted him to attend the lectures of C. Musonius Rufus, an eminent Stoic philosopher. It may seem strange that such a master should have wished to have his slave made into a philosopher; but Garnier, the author of a “Memoire sur les Ouvrages d’Epictete,” explains this matter very well in a communication to Schweighaeuser. Garnier says: “Epictetus, born at Hierapolis of Phrygia of poor parents, was indebted apparently for the advantages of a good education to the whim, which was common at the end of the Republic and under the first emperors, among the great of Rome to reckon among their numerous slaves grammarians, poets, rhetoricians, and philosophers, in the same way as rich financiers in these later ages have been led to form at a great cost rich and numerous libraries. This supposition is the only one which can explain to us how a wretched child, born as poor as Irus, had received a good education, and how a rigid Stoic was the slave of Epaphroditus, one of the officers of the imperial guard. For we cannot suspect that it was through predilection for the Stoic doctrine, and for his own use, that the confidant and the minister of the debaucheries of Nero would have desired to possess such a slave.”
Some writers assume that Epictetus was manumitted by his master, but I can find no evidence for this statement. Epaphroditus accompanied Nero when he fled from Rome before his enemies, and he aided the miserable tyrant in killing himself. Domitian (Sueton., Domit. 14), afterwards put Epaphroditus to death for this service to Nero. We may conclude that Epictetus in some way obtained his freedom, and that he began to teach at Rome; but after the expulsion of the philosophers from Rome by Domitian, A.D. 89, he retired to Nicopolis in Epirus, a city built by Augustus to commemorate the victory at Actium.