We are grateful to Professor Nicolas Spinosa for identifying the present picture as the work of Salvator Rosa after examination of the original. The picture corresponds closely with a number of half-length 'Riberesque' depictions of saints and philosophers executed early in the artist's career, for example the Philosopher at Kedlestone Hall, National Trust, and the Saint Peter in the Kress collection, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut (see L. Salerno, Salvator Rosa, Milan, 1963, p. 115, nos. 4 and 5). Rosa trained in Naples with his brother-in-law, Francesco Francanzano, and then possibly with Ribera himself. The naturalistic treatment of the present subject, the rich brushwork and dramatic lighting are all evidence of Rosa's early admiration for the work of Ribera.
The choice of the stoic philosopher Bias of Priene as his subject, although unusual is in fact unsurprising given Rosa's profound interest in philosophy and his empathy with the stoic preference of the pursuit of virtue and harmony rather than material prosperity. His lack of success with religious themes and his unfashionably prudish approach to mythological painting meant that the austere rigour of the early philosophers provided him with a suitable and novel source of subject matter.
Bias of Priene was a philosopher numbered amongst the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, first referred to in Plato's Protagoras (342 E-343 A): 'A man's ability to utter such remarks [notable, short and compressed] is to be ascribed to his perfect education. Such men were Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mitylene, Bias of Priene, Solon of our city [Athens], Cleobulus of Lindus, Myson of Chen, and, last of the traditional seven, Chilon of Sparta. . . . and you can recognize that character in their wisdom by the short memorable sayings that fell from each of them'. Of those sayings, perhaps the most famous were 'Know thyself' and 'Nothing in excess', said by Solon and Cleobulos respectively, which were inscribed on either side of the doors to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Bias' aphorism is recorded as either 'Everything I have I carry with me' (reproduced here by Rosa in the Latin 'Omnia mea mecum porto' and supposedly said when advised to flee with his possessions from a Persian invasion of Priene) or 'Most men are bad' - both remarks supporting the view of Bias as a forerunner of the Stoic philosophers.
Bias' life is recorded by Diogenes Laertius in his Lives (I, 5: 81-8), where he notes that the philosopher was a famous orator and advocate who counselled: 'Measure life as if you have both a short and a long time to live. Love your friends as if you would some day hate them, the majority of mankind being bad. Be slow to set about an enterprise, but persevere in it steadfastly when once it is undertaken. Do not be hasty of speech, for that is a sign of madness. Cherish wisdom. Admit the existence of gods. If a man is unworthy, do not praise him because of his wealth. Gain your point by persuasion, not by force. Ascribe your good actions to the gods. Make wisdom your provision for the journey from youth to old age, for it is a more certain support than all other possessions'. He also said that he who could not bear misfortune was truly unfortunate; that it is a disease of the soul to be enamoured of things impossible of attainment, and that we ought not to dwell upon the woes of others. Being asked what is difficult, he replied 'Nobly to endure a change for the worse', and being asked what is sweet to men, answered 'Hope'. Even Heraclitus of Ephesus, who was notorious for arrogance towards the reputations of those generally admired for their wisdom, wrote of him 'In Priene lived Bias, son of Teutames, a man of more consideration than any'.