Episode 65: Seneca and the Julio-Claudians

Seneca the Younger (c 1 BCE-65 CE) practiced the philosophy of stoicism over the course of several volatile, and very different imperial reigns.

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The Life and Philosophy of Seneca the Younger

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 65: Seneca and the Julio Claudians. This program is about the life and works of the Roman philosopher and playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who lived from about 1 BCE until 65 CE. And I want to start this episode with a story. [music]

Seneca and the Revolt of Boudica

Seneca philosopher Queen Boudica by John Opie

John Opie’s Boudica Haranguing the Britains (1793). The philosopher Seneca may have taken actions that led to Boudica’s famous insurrection.

The year was 60 CE. And in the eastern reaches of the newly conquered province of Britiannia, trouble was brewing. In this part of Britannia, a cloudy and often foggy stretch of lowlands, often drizzled with rain from the North Sea – near the modern day city of Norwich, a great crime had been committed against a king called Prasutagus. Prasutagus ruled over a formidable tribe called the Iceni. In his will, Prasutagus had specified that when he died, half of his money would go to the emperor of Rome, and the other half would be given to his two daughters. It was a diplomatic plan – one designed to placate the colonizer and at the same time pay deference to the colonized – to bow under the yoke of imperial oppression and simultaneously maintain the indigenous power structure that predated Roman rule. But something went horribly wrong.

When the king died, Prasutagus’ lands and his personal property were pillaged, and his entire estate was confiscated. His wife was tied up and whipped, and his daughters were raped. Prominent tribesmen of the Iceni had their estates taken. The king’s wife, surely traumatized at the Roman assault on her family and her kingdom, survived. And while ancient sources have conflicting accounts of what, exactly, caused the murderous persecution of the Iceni upon the death of the king, they are in agreement about several prominent features of the queen. The queen was not content to fade into obscurity as a disenfranchised colonial subject. She was brave, and cunning, and would stop at nothing to exact revenge against her territory’s overlords. Her name was Boudica, and she would be remembered forever after for spearheading one of the most sudden, and most ferocious provincial revolts Rome ever faced.

Cassius Dio describes the famous warrior queen as “very tall, with a most sturdy figure and a piercing glance; her voice was harsh; a great mass of yellow hair fell below her waist and a large golden necklace clasped her throat; wound about her was a tunic of every conceivable color and over it a [short cloak] had been fashioned.”1 Dio tells of how Boudica summoned an assembly of warriors from her own and other tribes, and has the Icenian warrior queen offer the following speech. Boudica told an assembly of indigenous Britains,
You have had actual experience of the difference between freedom and slavery. Hence, though some of you previously through ignorance of which was better may have been deceived by the alluring announcements of the Romans, yet now that you have tried both you have learned how great a mistake you made by preferring a self-imposed despotism to your ancestrtal mode of life. You have come to recognize how far superior is the poverty of independence to wealth in servitude. . .to tell the truth, it is we who have made ourselves responsible for all these evils in allowing them so much as to set foot on the island in the first place instead of expelling them at once as we did their famous Julius Caesar. . . So great an island, or rather in one sense a continent encircled by water, do we inhabit, a veritable world of our own, and so far are we separated by the ocean from all the rest of mankind that we have been believed to dwell on a different earth and under a different sky and some of their wisest men were not previously sure of even our exact name. Yet for all this we have been scorned and trampled under foot by men who know naught else than how to secure gain. . .Be [no longer] afraid of the Romans. They are not more numerous than we are nor yet braver. And the proof is that they have protected themselves with helmets and breastplates and greaves and furthermore have equipped their camps with palisades and walls and ditches to make sure they shall suffer no harm by any hostile assault. These are some of the respects in which they are vastly inferior to us, and others are their inability to bear up under hunger, thirst, cold, or heat, as we can; for they require shade and protection, they require kneaded bread and wine and oil, and if the supply of any of these things fails them they simply perish. For us, on the other hand, any root or grass serves as bread, any plant juice as olive oil, any water as wine, any tree as a house. Indeed, this very region is to us an acquaintance and ally, but to them unknown and hostile. As for the rivers, we swim them naked, but they even with boats can not cross easily. Let us therefore go against them trusting boldly to good fortune. Let us show them that they are hares and foxes trying to rule dogs and wolves.” (RH 62.3-5)

The Roman governor, at this time, was in the north of Wales, where druids and rebellious tribespeople had gathered into rugged mountain valleys in a last-ditch effort to maintain sovereignty over their ancestral territories. Boudica and her forces fell on a town called Camulodunum, or modern day Colchester, eradicating a force sent against them and demolishing the settlement. Boudica crushed an army sent to relieve the Roman forces stationed at Camulodunum. She invaded modern day London, then called Londinium, razing and burning the newly founded settlement on the north bank of the Thames. The Icenian tribespeople killed tens of thousands of Romans, their own numbers swelling to as many as 300,000. Boudica’s rebellion was no longer a regional flareup. It was quickly becoming an existential threat to Roman Britain, which had been annexed by the emperor Claudius only seventeen years earlier, back in 43 BCE. The Roman governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, hurried down to face the insurgent armies, meeting Boudica’s forces somewhere in the West Midlands.

Boudica and Her Daughters - geograph.org.uk - 440656 philosopher seneca

Thomas Thornycroft’s Boudica and Her Daughters (completed 1883) stands a couple hundred feet north of the Houses of Parliament in London. The financial schemes of the philosopher Seneca might ultimately lie behind the tragic story of her rebellion. Photograph by Oxyman.

The battle that ensued was a contest for all of Britain, and it pitted Roman technology and military training against a force superior in numbers and burning with desire for freedom and independence. And technology and military training, as is so often the case in Roman history, won the day. The governor Suetonius picked topography advantageous to his forces, forming lines in a narrow valley, so that Boudica’s forces couldn’t flank his. The British forces came at the Romans in waves, dying first under Roman javelins and smashing up against Roman shields. Tacitus, though he admits that the numbers sound suspect, writes that “little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, at a cost of some four hundred Romans killed.”2 Boudica either drank poison, or fell sick and died shortly after the failed rebellion.

It’s a sad story on all sides, a tale of relations broken down between colonizers and colonized, of violent atrocities perpetrated all around. It is difficult for us today, conditioned as we are to tales of William Wallaces and George Washingtons, not to see Boudica as a tragic heroine whose bravery might well have ended Roman rule at the south side of the English channel. But the story we’re going to hear today isn’t about a subaltern freedom fighter and her doomed quest for independence. Our story today is about someone else.

To return to the root of this war – this British rebellion that began around 60 CE – when the Icenian king Prasutagus died, there ought to have been a peaceful power transition. He had offered half of his fortune to Rome’s emperor. His people were colonial subjects. As to why the Romans attacked the Iceni upon the king’s death, Tacitus merely says that old Prasutagus was trying to placate the Roman emperor, and the generous offer he left in his will had the opposite effect. It’s possible that the persecution of Prasutagus’ people was an isolated incident – an outbreak of prejudiced cruelty by Rome’s provincial agents with no clear ties to the capital. But the ancient historian Cassius Dio provides us with more information. Dio writes that the former emperor Claudius had loaned prominent Britons a great deal of money, and that maybe the sack of Prasutagus’ property and the assault on his family was an act of retaliation for not paying this money back. And Dio also writes that a certain exceedingly wealthy Roman moneylender – one in service to the emperor, had also “lent [the Iceni] on excellent terms [for himself] as regards to interest a thousand myriads [or ten million sesterces]. . .and had afterward called in this loan all at once and levied on them for it with severity.” (RH 62.2). If we take Cassius Dio’s story seriously, then, the vicious assault against Boudica and her people, the war that resulted, and the massacre of perhaps hundreds of thousands of Britons and Romans alike may have been caused by the greed and predatory lending of a single Roman tycoon. This tycoon was also a philosopher and a playwright. He left behind a sizable body of work. During his own lifetime and forever afterward, he was accused of rank hypocrisy – of preaching the staunch minimalism of stoic philosophy, and pursuing wealth with ruthless abandon. In 60 CE, he had already served as the tutor of the emperor, and was currently advisor to the 23-year-old Nero. The previous year, he had helped Nero kill his mother, Agrippina, and then justify the matricide before the senate. Over the course of his entire life, through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and then Nero, he worked and survived in the courts of some of the most volatile and sadistic emperors Rome would ever endure. His name was Lucius Annaeus Seneca. [music]

Introduction to Seneca

Seneca lived from about 1 BCE until 65 CE. Excepting the early years of Augustus and the final four years of Nero, Seneca was alive to see the entire roller coaster of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His works can be divided into three categories. First, his philosophical essays, like On Anger, On Benefits, On Clemency, On the Happy Life, and later, Natural Questions, explore a number of topics generally from the perspective of stoic philosophy. Second, Seneca’s epistles, including correspondences he wrote while exiled in Corsica in the 40s and the more famous letters he authored in the last year of his life, show the author using philosophy and rhetoric to try and work through some of the problems he faced during and after the time he reached middle age. And thirdly, Seneca wrote at least seven tragedies, bleak and bloody plays often about revenge and individuals who surrender to anger and passion. While he is deservedly famous for his philosophical and theatrical work, Seneca is also well known for serving as the Emperor Nero’s boyhood tutor, and later advisor, from 50-65 CE, which brought him into ever higher echelons of wealth. Over the course of a decade and a half, Seneca tried to mold young Nero into a clement, prudent, moderate ruler, remembering what he’d seen take place under Tiberius, Caligula, and later Claudius. The best that Seneca could muster up, however, failed, and in 65, Nero accused Seneca of being involved in an assassination plot. The philosopher was forced to kill himself. Lacking the sagacious counsel of his longtime advisor, Nero thereafter fell into increasingly violent and controversial behavior, until he lost the support of the Praetorian prefect, became declared a public enemy, and died in despair in the early summer of 68 CE.

Paul and philosopher Seneca with Plato and Aristotle

A manuscript from the early 800s depicting St. Paul on the left, the philosopher Seneca, and Plato and Aristotle on the right. It’s hard to overstate how influential Seneca was on early Christianity – something we’ll continue to explore in the next episode.

Approaching the life and works of Seneca for the first time is challenging. As we’ll see in this and the next three programs, Seneca isn’t always particularly likeable. He reaches us, through the pages of Cassius Dio and Tacitus, as a sell-out who wrote works of sanctimonious philosophy and praised asceticism while living in lavish wealth and comfort. In a famous passage in his letters, he brags about a particularly modest and plain outing with his friend, in which the two men only brought one carriage-load of slaves, and shared on a mattress and rugs a meal that only took his carriage-load of slaves an hour to prepare.3 While Seneca’s contradictions can be maddening, he was also the product of a different generation of Romans than the ones we’ve encountered before. For Cicero’s generation, the central preoccupation was war and the death of the republic. For Ovid’s, it was learning how to operate amidst the uneasy prosperity of the Augustan principate. For Seneca’s, it was attempting to stay alive under autocratic reigns characterized by paranoia, megalomania, homicide, and economic turmoil.

A number of episodes ago, we talked about how Cicero’s death in 43 BCE marked the end of a time when public oratory, and moreover individual political action, could have a significant effect on Roman laws. During his ascent up the cursus honorum, and particularly during his years as praetor and consul, Cicero’s public speeches and published works had a broad reaching impact in the society around him, swaying public opinion, bending and breaking careers, and in one case thwarting a famous conspiracy against the senate. Rome’s culture of public debate, however, died during the Second Triumvirate, and was carefully buried during the reign of Augustus. Rhetoric and oratory had once been the most powerful tools a young aristocrat could wield. By the end of the Augustan Age, however, the Roman aristocracy found itself simultaneously wealthy and powerless. In Seneca’s lifetime, the most eloquent petitions and rational discourses could be squelched by a single imperial gesture. Courageous politicking and intellectual freedom had been supplanted by a court culture of blandishment and deception, and a general turn away from public life. As the Julio-Claudian dynasty intermarried and fermented, leading to the catastrophic year of the four emperors in 69 CE, Seneca found himself weathering equal parts luck and ill fortune, and the large body of work that he left behind shows him exploring philosophical questions that must have plagued many Romans of his generation – how to behave with integrity and virtue under regimes that prized only loyalty, how to appreciate the basic necessities of life amidst the opulence and decadence of imperial Rome, and how to pursue lasting intellectual work in a society sometimes literally ruled by deranged tyrants.

As I said last time, this program will be the first of four shows on Seneca – this will cover his life; the next, his philosophical work; the two after after, his tragedy. In this episode, then, we’ll hear the story of Seneca and the Julio-Claudians. We’ll hear a good bit of history, especially from Tacitus and Cassius Dio, who covered the Julio-Claudians in some detail, but also Seneca himself, whose works frequently include discussions of the contemporary history around him. While learning the Julio-Claudian period is indispensible to understanding the works of Seneca, our next two writers, Petronius (c. 27-66 CE) and Statius (c. 45-96 CE) also lived during the era of Rome’s first imperial dynasty, and thus knowing a bit, especially, about the regimes of Claudius and Nero, is helpful background for their works, as well. And finally, the Julio-Claudian period of Roman history is the period under which Jesus Christ lived, and Seneca is nearly an exact contemporary of Christ himself, and Saint Paul, the author of so much of the New Testament, whose spiritual counsel is often so similar to Senecan stoicism that after Seneca’s death, some time in the 200s CE, an apocryphal correspondence between Seneca and Paul was written. Paul was, in biographer Emily Wilson’s words, “deeply influenced by Stoic philosophy, if not directly by Seneca.”4 During the lifetime of Seneca, then, the fate of the Roman Empire and the religious future of much of the world were both at stake, and thus this is a period of literature, philosophy, theology, history that’s good to know. So, with all that said, it’s time to dive into the turbulent life of Seneca, and the 99 years or so of the five Julio-Claudian emperors. [music]

Seneca’s Early Life

Like most prominent figures in Roman literature, Seneca was not from Rome. He hailed from further away from Rome than any other Latin writer we’ve met yet, being born in around 1 BCE in the city of Corduba, in the province of Hispania Ulterior, or modern day Córdoba, Spain. Corduba, at the foot of the Sierra Morena Mountains, lies inland, about 85 miles above the southern coast of the Iberian Peninsula. It had been annexed by the Romans way back in 206 BCE, although all of Hispania remained a volatile territory right up until the reign of Augustus. The peninsula, during Seneca’s life and before, was known for its rich resources and luxury goods.5 The philosopher himself grew up amidst olive trees and grape vines, and enjoyed orchards and vineyards throughout his life.

emperor nero and philosopher seneca

This bronze copy of Eduardo Barrón’s Nero and Seneca (1904) sits in the central part of Córdoba, Spain – the philosopher Seneca’s hometown.

Seneca, like many Roman writers, was an equestrian, born into that enterprising commercial class who often enjoyed great wealth and nonetheless lacked aristocratic pedigree. He was close with his mother, whose name was Helvia, who likely taught him Virgil and Ovid at a young age.

While Seneca was close with his mother, and even wrote a long tract to her in his forties, Seneca’s relationship with his father was somewhat fraught. His father, today known as Seneca the Elder, was a celebrity in his own right. Born during Caesar’s Gallic Wars in 54 BCE, Seneca the Elder lived over ninety years – perhaps long enough to see the coronation of Caligula in 37 CE. Seneca the Elder’s two surviving works, which he wrote in his old age, are the Persuasions and the Debates. These books are reflections on the debate and declamation culture he’d witnessed during his youth – scenes from the good old days of the late republic, when Romans could go at one another in the forum without fear of imperial punishment.

Seneca the Younger, in his surviving works, at least, attaches little importance to his affluent and intellectually nurturing childhood. On one hand he sought to appear as a self-made stoic philosopher whose merits were all earned, and later in life, amidst the Roman aristocracy, he didn’t want to advertise himself as a provincial and equestrian. Whatever his reasons for being reticent about his origins, Seneca was no Ben Franklin, arriving in the city with nothing but wit and a couple of pennies in his pocket. He was the product of an especially wealthy and intellectually engaged equestrian family – one that set each of its three sons up for success.

However, Seneca didn’t have a charmed childhood through and through. Seneca was the middle of three brothers, and his father lauded Seneca’s younger sibling as the most talented of the three boys. This younger brother, Mela, would later be the father of the poet Lucan. Much more seriously, Seneca had a lung disease for the duration of his 65 or so years of life – likely pulmonary tuberculosis. In one of his late letters he reflects on how painful discharges from his lungs, even back when he was young, “were virtually carrying me away with them altogether,” and that the pain was often so bad that it led him to reflect how “There are times when even to live is an act of bravery.”6 Seneca’s condition, whatever exactly it was, has prompted biographers to speculate that illness led him to pursue an intellectual life early on, rather than a political or military one.7

Seneca’s poor health, fortunately, was not bad enough to interrupt the philosopher’s education. His maternal aunt, with whom he was very close, brought him to Rome when he was about five years old, and there the boy began a course of studies that led him to study with a stoic philosopher called Attalus, and a Sextian philosopher called Sotion. Now, there was a lot of philosophical study and education going on in Rome by this juncture, and we won’t have room in this particular program to sort out the fine points of difference between stoicism, Rome’s homegrown Sextian philosophy, the Peripatetics, or Aristotelians, the Platonists, the Cynics, the Pythagoreans, the Epicureans, and on and on. We’ll talk about these next time, but at a high level it’s safe to say that after Cicero, philosophy had become an increasingly respectable thing to do in Rome, and was no longer being denigrated as a wimpy Greek import. What Seneca learned from his philosophical instructors encouraged him toward asceticism. He gave up fine foods like oysters and mushrooms, stopped wearing any perfume, stopped drinking wine, and ceased indulging himself with long hot baths.8 He became a vegetarian at 22 at the advice of one of his teachers, but soon gave it up. The emperor Tiberius, he recollects in one of his letters, did not look kindly on those with unusual dietary habits, as these habits reflected potentially seditious adherence to foreign cults. Seneca writes, “So at the request of my father, who did not really fear my being prosecuted, but who detested philosophy, I resumed my normal habits.”9 One gets the sense from this wryly humorous passage, and many others throughout the hundreds of pages Seneca left behind, that Seneca only took asceticism so far.

As Seneca’s philosophical studies intensified during his early twenties, his health grew poorer. Roman summers are notoriously hot, and a premodern metropolis of over a million citizens could not have had very good air quality during any season. Thus, during the philosopher’s mid-twenties, Seneca’s maternal aunt took him to Alexandria, where he spent the next ten years of his life – roughly the ages of 25 through 35. Coastal air and inland breezes, together with a notoriously cosmopolitan and intellectual climate, allowed Seneca to continue his philosophical and literary pursuits in decent health. We don’t know exactly why he stayed in Alexandria for so long. Amidst many of his lost works is a book he’s thought to have written about Egypt, which would have helped us understand this period of his life.10 It’s possible that the philosopher’s lung disease had grown so severe that he didn’t want to risk falling back into ill health. But another possible reason was that Rome, in the late 20s and early 30s CE, was no longer quite so safe as it had once been under the reign of Augustus. [music]

The Reign of Tiberius

When Seneca returned to Rome in about 34 CE, Rome’s second emperor, Tiberius, was in the turbulent twilight of his 23-year reign. The emperor, then in his mid-seventies, had been the dark horse of the Julio-Claudians, and Augustus’ last choice for an heir, after his three biological grandsons through his daughter Julia and friend and son-in-law Agrippa. When Agrippa died in 12 BCE, Augustus had made the questionable choice of forcing his stepson Tiberius to marry his daughter Julia. Tiberius, already married, had to divorce his wife, and the marriage reached its de facto end when Tiberius expatriated to the island of Rhodes, and Julia committed herself to a series of sex scandals, leading to her exile to a small island off the coast of Naples in 2 BCE.

Tiberius philosopher seneca

A bust of Tiberius in the Ny Carlsberg Glypotek in Copenhagen. The philosopher Seneca’s teens all the way until his late thirties took place under this emperor’s 23 years on the throne.

Tiberius’ brother Drusus had died during a military campaign in the western part of modern day Germany, and during the opening ten years CE, two of Augustus’ biological grandsons died and the third proved mentally unstable, and had to be exiled. This, very briefly, is the story of how a 56-year-old man with no biological relation to Augustus became the most powerful person in the Mediterranean, and maybe part of the reason why Tiberius by most accounts did not share his adopted father’s passion for governing.

According to Tacitus, Tiberius’ ascension to power was quite awkward.11 Out of either false modesty, actual modesty, or a real indisposition to rule at all, Tiberius seemed to want the senate to continue its operations mostly without him. And Tiberius faced a crisis early in his reign. His nephew and adopted son, Germanicus, went on a campaign with Tiberius’ biological son Drusus to quell a mutiny in the northwestern Balkans. Rather than punishing the troops, who were seeking out bonuses promised to them during Augustus’ reign, the ambitious Germanicus led the mutineers east over the Rhine, telling them that whatever spoils they captured would be their bonus pay. Germanicus’ campaign led to the recovery of military standards lost in the previous decade during the famous massacre of the Teutoburg forest, solved the problem of the mutineers, and led to a spectacular military triumph in 17 CE.12 Germanicus had become a national hero. The next year, Tiberius’ adopted son Germanicus was set up to rule the eastern portions of the empire, but in the autumn of 19, Germanicus died, killed by poison from an unknown source. The chief suspect was the Syrian governor Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso, and in a long and convoluted public trial, Piso stubbornly insisted on his innocence.13 The result of this debacle was Piso’s death and a permanent public tarnish on Tiberius’ record. The aging emperor had been a black sheep from the beginning – with public speculation now brewing about him poisoning his heroic adopted son, the unlikely emperor’s reputation sagged further downward. In 23, Tiberius’ biological son also died under mysterious circumstances, and, worryingly, the emperor seemed to feel no particular need to find a new successor.14

All of this happened while Seneca was still in Rome, before he’d left for Alexandria. And about two years after Seneca sailed south, Tiberius also left the city, moving to the island of Capri, in the southern part of the Bay of Naples. He left governing responsibilities to the Praetorian Prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus. And with the emperor’s adopted and biological sons both dead – with Sejanus’ political power growing ever more robust – with statues of him growing up all over the city, Sejanus seemed a likely heir to the imperial throne. In 25, the year before Tiberius departed, Sejanus had requested a marriage to Tiberius’ niece, Livilla, likely in an attempt to connect himself with the Julio-Claudians, but nothing had come of the attempt. Standing in the way, it seemed, was Livia, the wife of Augustus, still kicking around and in her eighties to witness the awkward mess her husband had ultimately left behind. When Livia died in 29, however, all bets were off, and Sejanus began his bid for executive power.

Germanicus’ widow Agrippina and two of her sons were exiled and then killed. Caligula, and his sisters Julia Drusilla, Julia Lavilla, and Agrippina the Younger survived the purge. By 31, it became clear that Sejanus was fully invested in a coup. His earlier bid to marry Tiberius’ niece Livilla was likely the result of the fact that the two were already lovers – a couple who sought to usurp power from the Julian side of the clan and overthrow Tiberius. The attempt failed. In 31, Sejanus was called to the senate, tried, and executed within a period of a few days.15 And while Tiberius had, throughout most of his reign, been a remarkably hands-off ruler, the failed plot against him got his attention.

The Legacy of Tiberius

There are different takes on what happened next. According to Suetonius, while on the island of Capri, Tiberius engaged in some – uniquely – abhorrent sexual behavior, behavior involving children, babies, killing, mutilating, and more run-of-the-mill stuff like pornography and large scale orgies.16 The subject of Tiberius’ sexual turpitudes during his absence from Rome may have been a wholesale invention on the part of Suetonius, who likes to leaven fact with fiction, but several sources, including Seneca, discuss the purges and persecutions that followed Sejanus’ unsuccessful bid for power. Tacitus describes heaps of uncountable corpses in the street, dead bodies that people were afraid to mourn since mourning over the dead might be seen as evidence of sedition. Seneca’s own description of Tiberius’ last years on the throne is less spectacular, but just as unsettling. Seneca writes that when he returned to Rome,
there was a common and almost universal frenzy for informing, which was more ruinous to the citizens of Rome than the whole civil war; the talk of drunkards, the frankness of jesters, was alike reported to the government; nothing was safe; every opportunity of ferocious punishment was seized, and men no longer waited to hear the fate of accused persons, since it was always the same. . .[Tiberius] denied all knowledge of his friends and comrades, and wished men only to see, to think, and to speak of him as emperor. He regarded his old friend as an impertinent meddler.17

The emperor Tiberius, in his late 70s, evidently had begun to think of himself as a man apart, following an initial mass homicide against those he believed had plotted against him. When Seneca’s ship docked in Rome in the mid-30s after his decade in Alexandria, the imperial bureaucracy Augustus had created was running largely on the inertia instigated by Rome’s first emperor. As to what would happen after Tiberius, the emperor wrote a will leaving it to two heirs. One, Tiberius Gemellus, was the emperor’s biological grandson. The other was Caligula, the son of Germanicus, whose father’s death Tiberius had once been suspected of.

Caligula was present at Tiberius’ villa when the 78-year-old emperor finally passed away. Cassius Dio and Suetonius speculate various ways by which Caligula might have caused his adopted grandfather’s death, but by the time the emperor died he was hardly well-liked, and if foul play were involved, quite a few Romans might have been waiting in line to kill him. Caligula’s first action upon taking power does suggest the circumspect mercilessness of an aspiring autocrat, however. Tiberius’ will left the empire, officially, to Caligula and to Tiberius’ biological grandson Tiberius Gemellus. Caligula had the will annulled, and saw to it that his rival was killed.

Roman historians are not kind to Tiberius. For anyone, leastwise a 56-year-old man who’d routinely been put on the back burner, following in Augustus’ footsteps would have been an impossible task, and Tiberius had ample reasons not to be fond of his stepfather in the first place. As harsh as the comic strip of fact and fiction we find about Tiberius in the historical record is, though, if we take more lurid details with a grain of salt, Rome’s second emperor’s most prominent defect as a leader may have simply been that he was a rather introverted man who didn’t really want to shoulder the dreadful responsibilities left to him to Augustus, especially after the deaths of his sons, and that Tiberius allowed far too much collateral damage when striking back against Sejanus’ attempt to seize power from him. These are grievous faults. Equally grievous, to Christian historians, is that Pontius Pilate, governor of Judaea, appointed under the reign of Tiberius, judged the trial that led to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in around 33 CE. But while Tiberius has significant marks against him in the historical record, even the sensationalizing Suetonius admits that when Tiberius did commit himself to the work of emperor, Tiberius was reasonably effective. Suetonius writes,
[A]bove all things, [Tiberius] was careful to keep the public peace against robbers, burglars, and those who were disaffected to the government. He therefore increased the number of military stations throughout Italy; and formed a camp at Rome for the [Praetorian] cohorts, which, till then, had been quartered in the city. . .Disturbances from foreign enemies he quelled by his lieutenants, without ever going against them in person; nor would he even employ his lieutenants, but with much reluctance, and when it was absolutely necessary. Princes who were ill-affected towards him, he kept in subjection, more by menaces and remonstrances, than by force of arms.18

These actions and characteristics – a general maintenance of public safety and the status quo, a reluctance to start wars, and a careful use of diplomacy in foreign relations – they all suggest a cautious ruler attempting to sustain an empire-wide stability and making rational decisions to do so. Maybe most notably, when Tiberius died, the Roman treasury had a surplus of over 3 billion sesterces, a cushion of wealth designed to insulate against the empire against calamities of all sorts.19 Over the course of the next three years and ten months – from 36-41 CE, Caligula spent it. And Seneca was there to watch the Julio-Claudians hit rock bottom. [music]

Seneca and Caligula

Seneca was growing increasingly famous by the time he wound up in the court of Caligula.20 The philosopher, at this point in his late 30s, had to tread lightly around the younger man. Seneca himself wrote of Caligula that Caligula “could not allow a single person to outrank him,” and thus outshining the emperor in any way carried perils with it.21 Cassius Dio offers a lurid tale of how Seneca barely survived the reign of Rome’s third emperor. He writes,
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many other great men, came very near being ruined, though he had done no wrong and there was no suspicion of such a thing, but just because he pled a case well in the senate while his sovereign was present. [Caligula] ordered him to be put to death, but let him go because he believed what one of his female associates said, that Seneca had a bad case of consumption and would die before a great while.22

This is one of many anecdotes one finds in the historical archive that suggest a young emperor whose insecurity matched his penchant for violence and displays of public domination. And many of these anecdotes come from Seneca himself. Seneca recollects how “Gaius Caesar, whom in my opinion Nature produced in order to show what unlimited vice would be capable of when combined with unlimited power, dined one day at a cost of tens of millions of sesteres.”23 Caligula’s vices, as Seneca recounts them, were manifold. Seneca records that Caligula killed a man’s son and forced the man to eat dinner with him, observing the man predatorily for any signs of grief.24 Murder, even of aristocrats, was a recreational pastime for Caligula. Seneca writes,
Indeed, so impatient was [Caligula] of any delay in receiving the pleasure which his monstrous cruelty never delayed in asking, that when walking with some ladies and senators in his mother’s gardens, along the walk between the colonnade and the river, he struck off some of their heads by lamplight. What did he fear? what public or private danger could one night threaten him with? how very small a favour it would have been to wait until morning, and not to kill the Roman people’s senators in his slippers?25

The young emperor, according to Seneca, was not only violent, but also possessed a level of arrogance that was almost solipsistic. Seneca wrote of Caligula becoming annoyed during a thunderstorm and screaming threats up at Jupiter to stop the noise so that he could watch some dancers who were performing. Seneca tells of how Caligula slept with another man’s wife and then told the man, at a dinner party, that he’d been disappointed by the woman’s performance.26

Gaius Caesar Caligula

Caligula’s four years on the throne (37-41) were as terrifying to the philosopher Seneca as they were to anyone in the Roman court, leading Seneca to write consolations dismissing earthly life as transient and frail. Such chaos at the executive level, as in other periods of ancient Mediterranean history, encouraged the growth of philosophies focused on personal ethics, self care, and posthumous salvation.

While dodging the murderous emperor’s tantrums must have taken up a fair amount of Seneca’s energy, the philosopher, now around the age of forty, made time to engage in intellectual work. He wrote a tract called the Consolation to Marcia during this period. This text was ostensibly a work written to comfort a noblewoman named Marcia. Marcia was one of Augustus’ wife Livia’s friends, and Marcia’s intellectual and cultured father, a historian of the Roman republic named Cordus, had been killed by Tiberius due to associations with Sejanus, and his work was burned. The loss of her father wasn’t the only thing poor Marcia faced – much more pressingly her son had died, which was the occasion for the Consolation to Marcia.

Now consolations, particularly as Seneca wrote them, were not actually inspirational tracts designed to help people work through their grief. As historian Aubrey Stewart writes, all three of the consolations that Seneca wrote are “more concerned with presenting facts of the universe and the human condition, rather than offering solace.”27 Maybe the best actual consolation Seneca has to offer his addressee is the dubious assurance that “If you grieve for the death of your son, the fault lies with the time when he was born, for at his birth he was told that death was his doom: it is the law under which he was born, the fate which has pursued him ever since he left his mother’s womb.”28 This maybe isn’t the first thing one ought to say to a grieving mother, but again, the consolation genre insofar as Seneca understood it was a platform for a writer to unravel philosophical speculations in the midst of calamity.

In all of the consolations that Seneca wrote, Seneca emphasized that within the perilous transience of human existence, human beings can nonetheless take solace in the inviolable worlds of their interior lives – their intellectual speculation and the pursuit of personal virtue. The following two rhetorical questions and answers, probably penned during the reign of Caligula, show the climate of trepidation and powerlessness many felt in the capital city in about 40 CE, with a mass murderer on the throne and the purges of Tiberius not ten years in the rear view mirror. Seneca asks, in the Consolation to Marcia,
What is man? a potter’s vessel, to be broken by the slightest shake or toss: it requires no great storm to rend you asunder: you fall to pieces wherever you strike. What is man? a weakly and frail body, naked, without any natural protection, dependent on the help of others, exposed to all the scorn of fortune. (XI)

The end of every person’s life, Seneca understood, was thus a foregone conclusion. But it brought with it certain benefits. Also in the Consolation to Marcia, Seneca tells his addressee, “Reflect that the dead [suffer] no evils, that all those stories which make us dread the nether world are mere fables, that he who dies need fear no darkness, no prison, no blazing streams of fire, no river of Lethe, no judgment seat before which he must appear, and that Death is such utter freedom that he need fear no more despots” (XIX). No more despots, Seneca is especially careful to emphasize, haunt Marcia’s father now that he’s died, nor her poor son. And late in this early piece, Seneca writes a sentence that might be the pith of his entire philosophy. That sentence is, “Great minds never love to linger long in the body: they are eager to burst its bonds and escape from it, they chafe at the narrowness of their prison, having been wont to wander through space, and from aloft in the upper air to look down with contempt upon human affairs” (XXIII).

The reason for such abstract philosophizing in Seneca’s Consolation to Marcia was to tell the grieving mother that her father and son were in a better place, and that beyond the infernal grinding of fortune’s wheel, we can remember not only the promise of peace in death, but also the indomitable sanctity of our intellectual and ethical worlds. The consolation may have been of some value to its addressee, but it was certainly of value to Seneca himself, and the notion of a philosophical sage, partitioned either physically or mentally from the sheepfolds of humanity, was something Seneca returned to again and again throughout his work, particularly during calamities he faced during the next decade of his life.

Seneca and Caligula’s Later Reign

At some point after his arrival back in Rome in about 35 CE – either during the reign of Caligula or the last two years of Tiberius’ time on the throne, Seneca was married. We don’t know whether he had one wife or two – the wife with whom he shared his later years, Paulina, may have been the very same one he married in the late 30s. But whomever he married at this juncture, the two had a son, and the boy died in 41 CE, either as a baby or a small child.

Duble herma of Socrates and philosopher Seneca Antikensammlung Berlin 07

A double herm with the philosopher Seneca facing one way and Socrates the other, thought to be from 200-250 CE, in the Altes Museum in Berlin. The statue, which is the only surviving image from antiquity that unambiguously depicts Seneca, suggests the centrality of Seneca in Roman philosophy by this time period.

Seneca’s Consolation to Marcia, written around the same time he lost his own child, advises its addressee to remember that the world is topsy-turvy and her boy at least now has peace in death. And in a different consolation – this one written to Seneca’s mother Helvia, Seneca seems to gruffly take his own advice. Seneca reminds his mother that “you had buried my child, who perished in your arms and amid your kisses,” but that she should stay strong and not let it affect her. Seneca writes, “[A]s recruits cry aloud when only slightly wounded, and shudder more at the hands of the surgeon than at the sword. . .veterans. . .allow their hurts to be dressed without a groan, and as patiently as if they were in someone else’s body.”29 This is a strikingly abrupt dismissal of the death of the philosopher’s own son, and it has naturally led readers to wonder about the depth of Seneca’s personal relationships. On one hand, steeling himself against the adversities of mortality was a cornerstone to Seneca’s philosophy, and stoicism more generally. On the other, if all he left behind on the subject of his son’s death was a short string of detached sentences advertising his indifference to the affair, one wonders about the man’s capacity for love and attachment in the first place. The fragments that survive of a treatise he wrote on marriage, after all, drily posit that marriage should be founded on reason, economic soundness, and social advantage, and not passion.30 These are not exactly the sentiments of a loving family man.

Rather than speculating on the matter, it’s important to remember that everything Seneca left behind – his early consolations, his essays, and his late letters – it was all written for the public. Cicero’s letters to his friends and family, produced a hundred years before, may have been polished up a bit, but they are nonetheless puzzle pieces of a private correspondence that reveal the psychology of a frustrated, ambitious, insecure, ingenious, and affectionate person. Seneca’s, on the other hand, are written with various broader public agendas – to develop ideas within stoic philosophy, to chaperone future emperors into successful reigns, and frequently, to get Seneca something that he needed.

The Consolation to Marcia, after all, was in part designed to ingratiate a powerful noblewoman with direct connections to the Julio-Claudian dynasty. A century before, Cicero could stand up and address the citizen body and senate to advance his agenda, and navigate his way through the forum without fear of imperial punishment. Seneca, on the other hand, had to be more cautious, building alliances within the imperial court often by smuggling politically motivated content into consolations and essays. And in the decade after his Consolation to Marcia was written, Seneca found himself having to take to his pen often to get what he needed.

Around the time Seneca’s son died, Caligula announced to the senate that he planned to expatriate to Alexandria in Egypt. There, he said, he planned to be worshipped as a living god. The senate and Praetorian Guard, looking back over the previous four years of chaos and financial disaster, came to the conclusion that enough was enough, and in late January of 41 CE, Caligula was stabbed to death by high ranking members of the Praetorian Guard. As the day wore on, fighting broke out between the emperor’s assassins and an inner guard of Caligula’s loyalists. The senate, with the leadership of Caligula’s chief assassin Cassius Chaerea, began preparations to restore the republic. But as had been the case upon the assassination of Julius Caesar a hundred years before, also, incidentally, spearheaded by a man named Cassius, the public and military proved less opposed to autocracy than the senate had anticipated. Assassins desperately tried to kill off members of Caligula’s family. His wife was murdered. His young daughter was also killed. And as predatory assassins searched for Julio-Claudians to kill, and military loyalists hunted for Julio-Claudians to save, a soldier named Gratus fortuitously stumbled upon the next emperor of Rome. This, by the way, is one of the best scenes from the works of Suetonius. Suetonius writes that prior to Caligula’s assassination,
When the assassins of [Caligula] shut out the crowd under pretence that the emperor wished to be alone, Claudius was ousted with the rest and withdrew to an apartment . . .and a little later, in great terror at the news of the murder, he stole away to a balcony hard by and hid among the curtains which hung before the door. As he cowered there, a common soldier, who was prowling about at random, saw his feet, intending to ask who he was, pulled him out and recognized him; and when Claudius fell at his feet in terror, [the soldier] hailed him as emperor. . .[Later, soldiers] placed him in a litter, took turns in carrying it, since his own bearers had made off, and bore him to the Camp.31

Claudius never forgot this moment, and he remained generous to the Praetorian Guard throughout his thirteen years on the throne, from 41 to 54 CE. The unlikely emperor, whose capacity for leadership and imperial administration proved famously surprising, would go on to suppress six assassination attempts and execute somewhere around 35 senators on charges of conspiracy. Keenly conscious of what had happened to his predecessors Tiberius and Caligula, Claudius intended to live to ripe old age, and anyone in the imperial court who smelled suspicious was exiled or killed outright. And a fairly early victim of Claudius’ penchant for keeping his court populated exclusively with loyalists was Seneca himself.

Seneca’s Exile in Corsica

Carl Hummel Turm des philosopher Seneca auf Korsika

Carl Hummel’s Tower of Seneca on Corsica (1870). Hummel, who imagines a pastel-saturated pastoral landscape crowned by a magnificent domicile, was probably as unconvinced as contemporary scholars are that the philosopher Seneca’s banishment was pure misery.

At the beginning of Claudius’ reign, Seneca was in a good position. His finances, and his intellectual reputation were growing. He may at this point have already established himself as a dramatist, although the details about Seneca’s career as a playwright are particularly sparse. Seneca was definitely well connected at court. He had always had and cultivated strong relationships with powerful women – his mother, his aunt, the friend of the former empress for whom he wrote Consolation to Marcia. During Caligula’s reign, Seneca had become friends with Caligula’s sisters Agrippina and Julia Livilla, somehow carrying out these relationships amidst the dangerous maelstrom of Caligula himself. Caligula evidently didn’t perceive the philosopher’s friendships with his sisters as a threat. But the next imperial family was not so keen on having a forty-something equestrian from Hispania keeping company with Julio-Claudian women.

In 42, Claudius and his wife Messalina had Seneca exiled. The reason for this exile was allegations of Seneca carrying on a sexual relationship with Caligula’s younger sister Julia Livilla, the emperor’s niece. We don’t know if the allegations were true, but whatever had actually happened, Julia Livilla got the worst of it, rather than Seneca. The young woman, who would have been about 23, was exiled to a small island west of Naples, and executed by means of forced starvation. Seneca, on the other hand, merely faced exile – a forced stay on the island of Corsica.

Seneca, like Cicero and Ovid before him, bemoaned his exile to no end. The exile lasted from 42 to 50 CE, and in terms of forced imperial exiles he could have done far worse. We see in Ovid’s Tristia and Letters from the Black Sea endless petitions to at least be allowed a more pleasant place of exile – somewhere with milder weather than frosty Tomis, on the east coast of modern day Romania. He probably would have given his fortune to be moved to the warmer and more culturally familiar hills of Corsica.

By the way Seneca describes Corsica in the texts that he wrote there, it sounds as though he were chained up to a rocky island and endured eight years of unending suffering. However, as biographer Emily Wilson writes,
Seneca’s negative depiction of his material conditions on the island is largely fictional. In the same passage where he complains of Corsica as a barren rock inhabited only by barbarians, he also notes that many people, including Romans, have come to the place of their own accord. Corsica was actually the location of a vibrant Roman colony, including plenty of elite, well-educated gentlemen.32

Wilson notes that Seneca probably had his older brother with him, and his wife and that he had slaves, and “Life with friends and family, and at minimum four or five slaves, does not really seem like solitary confinement.”33 In addition to all these amenities, Seneca’s personal fortune was never confiscated. And it was during his exile that Seneca wrote two more consolations – consolations which, perhaps more than any other texts he wrote, contain statements that just don’t look very good to posterity. Let’s start with the first of these texts – the Consolation to Helvia.

The Consolation to Helvia, which I mentioned briefly earlier, was an essay Seneca wrote to his mother, in order to comfort her in the midst of his exile. He begins this tract with the statement that, “[W]hile turning over all the works which the greatest geniuses have composed, for the purpose of soothing and pacifying grief, I could not find any instance of one who had offered consolation to his relatives, while he himself was being sorrowed over by them.”34 It’s not the most modest introduction, and several sections in, it becomes clear that Seneca is far more interested in praising his own strength and spiritual fortitude than he is in communicating anything to his mother. As mentioned before, Seneca vastly exaggerates the desolation and cultural impoverishment of the fertile and forested site of his exile, asking, “What can be found barer or more precipitous on every side than this rock? what more barren in respect of food? what more uncouth in its inhabitants? more mountainous in its configuration? Or more rigorous in its climate?” (IV). Seneca may have been following the tradition of Ovid’s exilic poetry here, but nonetheless the way in which he describes his circumstances is as disingenuous as it is melodramatically self serving. The fourth section of the Consolation to Helvia sees Seneca at the apex of his considerable arrogance. He writes,
[My exile] is, I admit, the severest that you have ever sustained [, mother]: it has not merely torn the skin, but has pierced you to the very heart. . .Lay aside lamentations and wailings, and all the usual noisy manifestations of female sorrow: you have gained nothing by so many misfortunes, if you have not learned how to suffer. . . I distinctly tell you that I am not miserable: I will add, for your greater comfort, that it is not possible for me to be made miserable. . . I should not only say that I was not unhappy, but should avow myself to be the most fortunate of men, and to be raised almost to the level of a god. . .[The counsels of the wise]. . . have ordered me always to stand as it were on guard, and to mark the attacks and charges of Fortune long before she delivers them; she is only terrible to those whom she catches unawares; he who is always looking out for her assault, easily sustains it. (IV)

To be fair to Seneca, he had lived through some awful emperors, he’d lost a son, suffered a debilitating lung disease, and perhaps been on the verge of an imperially sanctioned execution which had been commuted to exile. He may very well have felt that while on Corsica he’d fallen off the edge of the earth. At the same time, his laudations of his personal heroism and resolution do grow tiresome pretty quickly when reading the Consolation to Helvia. Seneca is at his best in this text when creating short, aphoristic flights of prose in which he inures himself to his reduced circumstances, as when he writes, “The poverty of an exile, therefore, causes no inconvenience, for no place of exile is so barren as not to produce what is abundantly sufficient to support a man” (X). And while we know that Seneca himself likely went into exile with a retinue of slaves and family members, it’s still a nice thought, and beautifully put.

Seneca may have been writing tragedies while in exile – we’ll talk about that more soon, but another text that he most certainly wrote is called the Consolation to Polybius. This piece was probably done around 43 or 44 CE. The addressee, Polybius, was a freedman counselor on whom the emperor Claudius relied heavily. The professed reason for the Consolation to Polybius is the death of Polybius’ brother. But the entire essay, not even mentioning the brother’s name, is a two parts stoic philosophizing and one part, very awkwardly, outright flattery toward the emperor in an attempt to secure a return to Rome. As he had in his previous Consolation to Marcia, Seneca comforts Polybius by essentially telling him that all life is fleeting and the entire universe is on a crash course with annihilation, anyway. Seneca writes, “this entire universe, containing gods and men and all their works will some day be swept away and plunged a second time into its original darkness and chaos. Weep, if you can, after this, over the loss of any general life!”35 Don’t cry, Seneca says, because all we are is dust in the wind. It’s powerful sounding stuff, but I don’t know if it was of any particular use to a man who was missing his brother.

In addition to comforting Polybius with statements about the looming end of all creation, Seneca also tells the freedman that Polybius will be okay because he lives under the reign of Claudius. In other words, Seneca sneaks praises of Claudius sideways into his consolation, telling his bereaved addressee,
[Y]ou cannot allow either joy or grief, or anything else to occupy any part of you: you owe your entire self to [Claudius]. Add to this that, since you have always declared that [Claudius] was dearer to you than your own life, you have no right to complain of misfortune as long as [Claudius] is alive: while he is safe . . .you have lost nothing, your eyes ought not only to be dry, but glad. In him is your all, he stands in the place of all else to you: you are not grateful enough for your present happy state (which God forbid that one of your most wise and loyal disposition should be) if you permit yourself to weep at all while [Claudius] is safe. . . Fortune, refrain your hands from [Claudius], and show your power over him only in doing him good: allow him to heal the long sickness from which mankind has suffered; to replace and restore whatever has been shattered by the frenzy of our late sovereign: may this star, which has shed its rays upon a world overthrown and cast into darkness, ever shine brightly. (VII, XIII)

L Annaei Senecae philosophi 1643 frontispiece

The frontispiece to a 1643 collection of the philosopher Seneca’s works. Living under the tumultuous reigns of the Julio-Claudians encouraged Seneca to cherish the values of self control, moderation, and personal betterment.

It’s hard to see these lines as anything other than self-interested wheedling. In possession of some connection with Claudius’ prized advisor, Seneca shamelessly used the freedman’s brother’s death as an excuse to try and get himself back into the emperor’s good graces. Perhaps just as incriminatingly, if the philosopher were as hardy and austere as he so often professed to be – if he were so capable of hardening himself to the afflictions of mortality, couldn’t he simply be content with the rich intellectual life he was able to lead on Corsica? We’ll talk a bit more about this paradox next time – for now let’s delve into a couple of the other things Seneca wrote in the 40s CE.

However uneven and hypocritical we may find the consolations to be, they, along with Seneca’s other published works by the mid-40s, were helping the philosopher’s reputation grow, year after year. A common theme in all of Seneca’s writings, but especially during the 40s, is the equipoise and the courage of the wise man under duress. This theme wells up throughout the three consolations Seneca wrote, and it begins to surface more prominently in his essays On Providence, and On the Constancy of the Wise Man. It’s a subject that Seneca thought often of as he crested middle age, and these two essays, together with the consolations, can be thought of as a sort of first period of Senecan prose – prose in which the philosopher tried to come to terms with his intellectual ambitions and simultaneous powerlessness beneath the fists of the Julio-Claudians.

Another work probably written during the 40s is Seneca’s essay On Anger.36 This tract, in a sentence, is a stoic philosophical essay that castigates anger as a dreadful bane on human existence, and encourages one to resist one’s immediate emotional impulses and exercise rationality instead, refusing to let initial impulses and impressions translate into long-term passions and beliefs. To me, On Anger shows a maturer and more socially conscientious Seneca than the self-aggrandizing To Helvia or the eloquent but hackneyed On the Constancy of the Wise Man – a Seneca who is beginning to move beyond fiery attempts to bolster his reputation as a man of letters, and toward using philosophy to make changes in the world around him for the public good. The long essay, a favorite of Christians during late antiquity and the middle ages, denounces anger as a disease. Seneca writes,
[N]o plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame. . . Some of the wisest of men have in consequence of this called anger a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and vey like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possess are not sane, look at their appearance; for as there are distinct symptoms which mark madmen, such as a bold and menacing air, a gloomy brow, a stern face, a hurried walk, restless hands, changed colour, quick and strongly-drawn breathing; the signs of angry men, too, are the same: their eyes blaze and sparkle, their whole face is deep red with the blood which boils up from the bottom of their heart.37

To fight against this pandemic, Seneca assures his reader, an individual needs self control and careful cogitation, the standard tools of the stoic philosopher. These are not, obviously, ideas original to Seneca. Back Episode 6, we heard the Late Bronze Age poet who wrote the ancient Egyptian Instructions of Amenemope advise, “Sleep on it before speaking, / For a storm come forth like fire in hay is / The hot-headed man.”38 Similarly, the Book of Proverbs tells us, “Fools show their anger at once, / but the prudent ignore an insult” (Prov 12:16), and Seneca’s entire treatise might be summed up by a later couplet in the same book, again Proverbs: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, / but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Prov 14:29).39 Caution, prudence, and avoiding reckless passions are widely promoted in the wisdom literature of the Ancient Mediterranean. What is perhaps most interesting about Seneca’s On Anger is that it is openly motivated by recent figures in Roman history – namely Caligula. The former emperor, in Seneca’s assessment, was a cankerous combination of unchecked fury and limitless power. Seneca’s essay, citing numerous examples of Caligula’s brutality, makes a case for an emperor, and population more generally, who collectively mitigate their worst impulses act behave with reason and self control.

While I won’t say much about Senecan drama in this program, it is likely that during the forties he had written and was continuing to produce his tragedies – plays on figures familiar to us from earlier episodes, like Oedipus, Medea and Agamemnon, and other heroes from earlier Greek tragedy. Senecan drama is, even within the context of the tragedies of antiquity, dark and violent. The Senecan tragic heroes are generally insatiable in their lust for power and revenge – in some of their most breathtaking moments of the plays, a character will flirt with the notion of a turn toward reason and clemency, and then, swearing these off, do something even bloodier and more perverse than they were initially contemplating.

The intense interest in anger that Seneca exhibited was a concern of stoic philosophy in general. But it was also a symptom of what he’d seen happening under Tiberius and Caligula, and to a lesser extent Claudius – summary executions motivated either by suspicions of conspiracy or outright whim – a self-perpetuating cycle of violence that started with chaotic ascensions and ended with chaotic assassinations. Earlier, I pointed out a paradox in Seneca’s Consolation to Polybius, asking why the aspiring stoic sage wanted so badly to throw himself back into the pandemonium of the Roman court. And I think the best answer to this question – other than that Seneca wanted the pleasures and resources unique to the capital city – is that Seneca wanted to use his intellectual work to help influence imperial conduct and policy. One of the more prominent differences between Epicureanism and stoicism is that stoics valued civic and political engagement, whereas Epicureans seemed more content to wait it out on the tranquil peripheries of the world.40 Seneca, as the 40s wore on, and he thought about what he’d seen from the thrones of the Julio-Claudians, began to believe that Rome needed a wise and sagacious ruler – one who would temper his anger and dispense justice according to a rich knowledge of stoic ethics. And Seneca himself would be just the man to help create this ruler – this philosopher king. Unfortunately for Seneca, when he was allowed to return to Rome in 50 CE, Marcus Aurelius, Rome’s real philosopher king, was not to be born for seventy years. In his place there stood a twelve year old boy, the son of Caligula’s sister Agrippina, named Nero. [music]

Seneca’s Recall to Rome and the Beginning of Nero’s Tutelage

The reasons for Seneca’s recall to Rome involve an ugly scandal at the apex of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Some time in 48 CE, while the emperor Claudius was away on business, his wife Messalina was married to a man who’d recently been elected consul. The marital status of the imperial couple at this point was unclear – Claudius had evidently given Messalina annulment papers prior to his departure, but the immediacy of her remarriage reveals either brazen arrogance, an attempted coup, or both. If Messalina and her new husband Gaius Silius planned to seize power, however, they found the 58-year-old Claudius to be as stubbornly perceptive and intelligent as ever. The emperor sentenced Gaius Silius to death, and another imperial official sanctioned the death of Messalina.

Claudius then remarried, this time to his niece Agrippina. It was the emperor’s fourth marriage, and Agrippina’s second. By this time, Agrippina had been the adopted granddaughter of a Roman emperor, the sister of a Roman emperor, and the wife of a Roman emperor. And in 50 CE, Agrippina completed the circuit, becoming the mother of a future Roman emperor, when Claudius adopted Agrippina’s son Nero as his own. This is the part of the story, and really the part of Roman history, where Seneca returns and starts to play a key role.

Claudius’ previous wife Messalina, as it turned out, had been more behind the exile of Seneca than Claudius himself. Agrippina had always been a partisan of Seneca, and when she married her uncle she made it clear that she wanted young Nero to have a tutor who was as brilliant and famous as he was experienced in the Julio-Claudian court. For the next five years, as Nero grew from the ages of 12 to 17, Seneca was a daily presence in his life.

Between 50 and 54 CE, then, Rome’s most famous living philosopher tutored its future emperor, an arrangement that by all rights might have produced a clearheaded and administratively talented ruler. Seneca had lived through decent imperial reigns and horrible ones. He was lavishly educated and his philosophy promoted moderation and self-criticism, qualities particularly useful for an autocrat. He had even shown recent interest in guiding the conduct of emperors in his treatise On Anger, and had thus done at least some thinking through key things a head of state ought to know. But considering how things turned out later, something went wrong with Nero’s course of study, something due to a combination of Nero’s innate qualities, his mother’s instructional demands on Seneca, and, perhaps due to Seneca himself. As Suetonius tells it,
[Nero] was instructed, when a boy, in the rudiments of almost all the liberal sciences; but his mother diverted him from the study of philosophy, as unsuited to one destined to be an emperor; and his preceptor, Seneca, discouraged him from reading the ancient orators, that [Seneca] might longer secure [Nero’s] devotion to himself. Therefore, having a turn for poetry, [Nero] composed verses both with pleasure and ease.41

It’s a revealing statement, if it’s true. If Suetonius is correct, Nero studied rhetoric but not philosophy, learning the performative aspects of oratory without the rest of the education a typical Roman aristocrat had, studying style, but never substance. No wonder the emperor later displayed such an appetite for being on stage. And if Suetonius is correct that Seneca primarily taught Nero Senecan oratory in order to secure the emperor’s awe and adulation, then the young man had an altogether insulated, and blinkered education, studying a narrow curriculum and being taught by a man who wanted to make him a loyal disciple, and not a well-rounded future leader.

emperor nero and philosopher seneca (Barrón)

Eduardo Barrón González’s Seneca and Nero (1904). The emperor’s expression of boredom and combatively closed fists contrast magnificently with Seneca’s stooped posture and open scroll, the two men symbolically not quite facing one another.

It’s difficult, however, to blame Seneca wholesale for Nero’s later descent into dangerous and erratic behavior. Tacitus writes that “Nero, even in his childish years, turned his vivacious mind to other interests [than his studies]: he carved, painted, practiced singing or driving, and occasionally in a set of verses showed that he had in him the rudiments of culture.”42 The young man evidently had an appetite for the fine arts from a very early age. Further, Seneca had other obligations than teaching the teenage Nero rhetoric. Upon Seneca’s return to Rome in 50 CE, Agrippina not only made him Nero’s tutor – she also maneuvered to secure Seneca a praetorship – that third rung of the old republican cursus honorum. The returned exile had more duties than simply honing the intellect of his own pupil, and, well connected at court and in the forum, respected for his philosophy and tragedies, Seneca began to grow into one of the wealthiest people in the empire.

In 54 CE, the emperor Claudius died while eating his favorite kind of mushrooms. Allegedly, Agrippina had him poisoned. Whether or not she actually killed her husband, Agrippina had certainly prepared craftily for the ascent of her son. Nero had married the biological daughter of Claudius and Messalina, Octavia. Agrippina chose a Praetorian prefect called Burrus to be Seneca’s co-advisor, which helped ensure the military’s support of her son. Inconveniently for Agrippina and her son, Claudius had a biological son named Brittanicus. Within a year of Nero’s ascent to the throne, though, Brittanicus was poisoned, and Agrippina and Nero held control of the empire.

While facing no official opposition at this juncture, Agrippina and the young emperor did not look very good after what had happened. The Roman emperor and his biological son had been murdered, and a fourth wife and an adopted son had usurped power. Around the time of Nero’s eighteenth birthday, perhaps Saturnalia of 55 CE, Seneca stepped in to help with a public relations stunt. He wrote a text called the Apocolycyntosis, which is best translated as the Pumpkinification of Claudius, or the Gourdification of Claudius, the only comedic work Seneca is known to have done. The text is a satire of the dead emperor, and moreover an attempt to remind readers of Claudius’ defects and failures in order to promote the rise of Agrippina and Nero. In the Apocolycyntosis, Claudius ascends to heaven, not as a deity or body of celestial light, but instead as a gourd (hence the word “gourdification” rather than “deification”). Seneca makes fun of Claudius’ limp and Mercury assumes, due to Claudius faltering speech, that Claudius isn’t a human. Claudius then meets Augustus, who criticizes Claudius for executing people without trials, and in the court of heaven, which is quite like the Roman senate, it’s decided that Claudius will be cast down to Hades, with Caligula as his taskmaster. The text is funny in a mean spirited sort of way, and it shows Seneca’s willingness to use his pen for partisan politicking. As 55 gave way to 56 CE, Seneca had been a provincial equestrian; he’d been a public intellectual and long time presence in the imperial court; he’d been an exile, and then a tutor, then a praetor. But with Nero on the throne, Seneca assumed his final, and his most infamous role – the increasingly powerless advisor of one of Roman history’s most notorious villains. [music]

Seneca and the Early Reign of Nero

Seneca and his co-advisor Burrus, again a praetorian prefect and military man, were both equestrians. Their job was to craft Nero’s public image, perform damage control when Nero’s behavior called for it, and help the emperor make foreign and domestic policy decisions. In turn, the two men received enormous salaries and were permitted a seemingly unlimited degree of nepotism. Seneca had his own partisans and foes, and in his position as imperial advisor he helped the former and thwarted the latter. On the subject of young Nero and his advisors, Tacitus writes that
[Nero’s] tendency, in fact, was towards murder, had not. . . Burrus and Seneca intervened. Both guardians of the imperial youth, and — a rare occurrence where power is held in partnership — both in agreement, they exercised equal influence by contrasted methods; and Burrus, with his soldierly interests and austerity, and Seneca, with his lessons in eloquence and his self-respecting courtliness, aided each other to ensure that the sovereign’s years of temptation should, if he were scornful of virtue, be restrained within the bounds of permissible indulgence. Each [advisor, however,] had to face the same conflict with the overbearing pride of Agrippina.43

The first five years of Nero’s reign, for Seneca, involved jockeying for power amidst Nero’s inner circle, and the slow decline of Agrippina’s influence over her son. A formidable presence by all accounts, the imperial mother wanted involvement in all aspects of her Nero’s life and a say in his policy decisions. An early crisis led to Agrippina’s physical removal from the palace in 55 CE.

Nero’s mother had worked carefully to get him married to his step sister Octavia. Nero, however, in the first year of his reign, was ignoring his wife and carrying on a public affair with a freedwoman named Acte. Agrippina saw this behavior as not only disgraceful, but also as insubordination toward her wishes. Brittanicus, the son of Claudius and the half-brother of the emperor, was still alive at this time, and Agrippina said she would support Brittanicus over her own son. In response, Nero had Brittanicus killed, and compelled his mother to live elsewhere. Seneca, whether out of practical self-preservation or a deliberate effort to withdraw Nero from the control of his mother, supported Nero in his adultery and fratricide. He could, after all, control the malleable and doltish young emperor – the brilliant Agrippina was a different story.

As all of this was going on, as Seneca grew his fortune, tightened his relations with the emperor, and even served a consulship in the 56, the philosopher still found time to write. And one of his works, addressed to the young Nero, is a careful tract urging Nero to be equitable, moderate and just. This treatise, called On Clemency, is equal parts cajolery and reasoned appeals for mercy and leniency. Let’s look at a section of this essay, written when Nero was about eighteen, in which Seneca first praises him and then subtly warns him against violent behavior. Seneca writes, addressing Nero as “Caesar,”
You, Caesar, can boldly say that everything which has come into your charge has been kept safe, and that the state has neither openly nor secretly suffered any loss at your hands. You have coveted a glory which is most rare, and which has been obtained by no emperor before you, that of innocence. Your remarkable goodness is not thrown away, nor is it ungratefully or spitefully undervalued. Men feel gratitude towards you: no one person ever was so dear to another as you are to the people of Rome, whose great and enduring benefit you are. . .[And notice the turn here.] The Roman people were in a state of great hazard as long as it was uncertain how your generous disposition would turn out; now, however, the prayers of the community are sure of an answer, for there is no fear that you should suddenly forget our own character. Indeed. . .great successes become the stepping-stones to greater ones, and those who have obtained more than they hoped, entertain even more extravagant hopes than before; yet by all your countrymen we hear it admitted that they are now happy, and moreover, that nothing can be added to the blessings that they enjoy, except that they should be eternal.44

In other words, you are great, everyone really likes you, we were a bit worried about you taking power but you’re doing pretty well overall, hint hint, just take it easy and don’t change anything. Now these words were written after Nero had had his stepbrother killed, and thus behind their blandishments and rosy optimism there’s a sense of pervasive dread. In 56, Seneca still thought that he might be able to mold Nero into a philosopher king, but at the same time he’d seen enough of the younger man to begin to have his doubts.

At this point, whatever his fears and doubts, Seneca was a card carrying member of team Nero, and he was enjoying lavish benefits from doing so. In the 50s, membership in the senate required an annual income of 300,000 sesterces. Seneca, by this juncture, had hundreds of millions. We know that Tiberius left the Roman treasury with a surplus of three billion sesterces, and that Caligula burned through it in no time. Nero, with a penchant for extravagance nearly unmatched in ancient history, showered money on anyone and anything he saw fit, and his fixers Seneca and Burrus were frequently the recipients of the emperor’s largesse. Seneca’s philosophical peers, particularly his fellow stoics, did not especially admire what he was doing.

Seneca’s contemporary Thrasea, a senator and a stoic, remained staunchly opposed to Nero and autocracy more generally, eventually leading to his execution in 66. A small group of Roman stoics, including Musonius Rufus, the teacher of the philosopher Epictetus, avowed their opposition to Nero and autocracy more generally, and by the end of the century, stoicism’s associations with political sedition were so widespread that they led the emperor Domitian to expel philosophers from Italy altogether. Another stoic, Seneca’s nephew Lucan, spent the last years of his life writing the Pharsalia, an epic that depicts Julius Caesar as a villain, the staunch republican Cato the Younger as a hero, and Roman emperors by extension the result of an ugly historical mistake.45 Seneca, in contrast to a small and publicly visible flock of stoics who opposed Nero, latched himself onto the emperor and lined his pockets accordingly. The historian Cassius Dio records that during the later years of Seneca’s life,
[Seneca] was convicted of doing precisely the opposite of what he taught in his philosophical doctrines. He brought accusations against tyranny, yet he made himself a teacher of tyrants; he denounced such of his associates as were powerful, yet he did not hold aloof from the palace himself: he had nothing good to say of flatterers, yet he had so fawned upon [Claudius and his family] that he had sent them from [Corsica] a book containing eulogies upon them. . .While finding fault with the rich, he himself possessed a property of [hundreds of millions]; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he kept five hundred three-legged tables of cedar wood, every one of them with identical ivory feet, and he gave banquets on them. In mentioning these details I have at least given a hint of their inevitable adjuncts, – the licentiousness in which he indulged at the very time that he made a most brilliant marriage, and the delight that he took in boys past their prime (a practice which he also taught Nero to follow).46

The “taking delight in boys past their prime” means that Seneca slept with adult men, not just boys, and that he taught Nero to do the same. You see here, all of the standard accusations against Seneca to be found in the historical archive – that he was a hypocrite in half a dozen different ways, and that he preached minimalism and practiced opulence and debauchery.

Seneca understood how he was increasingly being perceived. He attested that his hypocrisy was the hypocrisy of many ethical philosophers, writing in a later essay, Aliter loqueris, aliter vivis, or “You talk one way, and live another.” In this same essay, On the Happy Life, Seneca disavows that pleasure comes from wealth, writing that “These good things which men gaze at in wonder, which they crowd to see, which one points out to another with speechless admiration, are outwardly brilliant, but within are miseries to those who possess them.”47 Seneca’s criticism of wealth is the standard stoic one – material goods come and go, but the wise man’s pursuit of virtue takes place regardless of the turns of fortune’s wheel. In Seneca’s words, written around 59 CE, “A man should be unbiased and not. . .conquered by external things: he ought to admire himself alone, to feel confidence in his own spirit, and so to order his life as to be ready alike for good or for bad fortune.”48 As he wrote these standard stoic refrains, Seneca was swimming in a lake of sesterces, and a lot of his time must have been devoted to his business deals and money lending schemes, although he never says a word about these in his extant works.

During his early years in Nero’s court, Seneca knew that his lifestyle was out off script from his philosophy. He writes in On the Happy Life, “I have not arrived at perfect soundness of mind, indeed, I never shall arrive at it. . .I am steeped in vices of every kind. . .[but I am] one who has made some progress in virtue” (17). The self-criticism here, which isn’t unusual in Seneca’s surviving work, suggests that perhaps the philosopher’s greatest defect was not hypocrisy, but instead, a sort of insatiable general ambition. Seneca wanted it all – wealth, celebrity, artistic distinction and intellectual notoriety, and some of these were incompatible with one another. Seneca faced problems that many Roman stoics of his generation faced – they were supposed to want little, pursue personal virtue, and engage in the political life of their community. Only, this community, with its property requirements for senators, made wealth a prerequisite to political involvement, and the means by which such wealth was acquired demanded participation in a cutthroat mercantile system at loggerheads with a contemplative, virtuous life. Put more simply, stoicism, born in the Athenian Agora in about 300 BCE, was a philosophy suited more to a democratic city state than an autocratic empire. Seneca and his stoic contemporaries dealt with this problem in various ways – Thrasea by doubling down and dying for his beliefs, Musonius Rufus by leaving the city, and Rufus’ pupil Epictetus by actually living a life of minimalism and poverty and focusing his efforts on a small intellectual community. As for Seneca himself, wealthier year after year of young Nero’s early reign, Seneca endeavored to cling to key tenets of stoicism while playing power politics at the highest echelons of imperial Rome. Doing both of these at once would have been difficult for anyone.

Seneca and the Murder of Agrippina

As Seneca moiled over how to how to reconcile his philosophy and his lifestyle, Nero grew into his early 20s, and he had increasingly begun to resent anything that impeded his wishes. By 59 CE, the 22-year-old sought to end his prearranged marriage with Octavia and marry Poppaea Sabina, currently the wife of the future emperor Otho. By this time Nero had already moved his mother to Misenum, south of Rome in the Bay of Naples, to keep her out of the way. Yet Agrippina’s restless politicking, and perhaps her scrutiny more generally, proved intolerable to the ruthless young emperor, and so Nero decided to kill his mother.

The first attempt involved sending Agrippina out on the water in a boat that wasn’t seaworthy. This venture, arranged by one of Nero’s earlier tutors, failed – the boat held together and Agrippina realized what was going on. News of his mother’s survival terrified the young emperor. And as Tacitus tells it,
[A]s Nero was waiting for the messengers who should announce the doing of the deed, there came the news that she had escaped with a wound from a light blow, after running just sufficient risk to leave no doubt as to its author. Half-dead with terror, [Nero] protested that any moment she would be here, hot for vengeance. And whether she armed her slaves or inflamed the troops, or made her way to the senate and the people, and charged him with the wreck, her wound, and the slaying of her friends, what counter-resource was at his own disposal? Unless there was hope in Seneca and Burrus! [Nero] had summoned them immediately: whether to test their feeling, or as cognizant already of the secret, is questionable. — There followed, then, a long silence on the part of both: either they were reluctant to dissuade in vain, or they believed matters to have reached a point at which Agrippina must be forestalled or Nero perish. After a time, Seneca so far took the lead as to glance at Burrus and inquire if the fatal order should be given to the military.49


Antonio Rizzi’s Nero and Agrippina (19th century). Several artists have painted Nero experiencing remorse for his matricide – Rizzi adds a figure I presume to be an extremely conflicted Seneca in the background, gripping the sleeve of his own tunic in agitation.

It is a grotesque scene – a craven emperor, fearful of his mother, and a complicit pair of advisors, willing to plot a matricide to keep in Nero’s good graces. Agrippina had been Seneca’s friend for over twenty years – since the reign of Caligula. She had stood by him even through a public sex scandal that had led to the death of her sister, got him recalled from Corsica, and set him up in a position of incredible wealth and power. And according to Tacitus, at least, Seneca proved willing to send her to her death in something like thirty seconds. Assassins were deployed, and Agrippina was murdered.

It’s difficult to imagine how Seneca lived with himself after this. One answer is that he bought into his own lies. Seneca wrote Nero’s letter to the senate justifying the matricide. The official imperial message was that Agrippina had been behind all of the nastier excesses of Claudius’ reign, and that Nero did not feel safe with his mother alive. Perhaps even more than Nero himself, Seneca’s reputation was tarnished by the murder and the press release that condoned it. The emperor, by 59, was known for his deadly impulses, but as the senate heard the malarkey Seneca had written to justify the murder of Rome’s former empress, they realized just how spinelessly complicit Seneca had become, and that the philosopher, who had once seemed a potential check on Nero’s worst tendencies, was now enabling them. Seneca’s contemporary, the aforementioned stoic philosopher called Thrasea, walked out of the senate as the letter was being read.

Brooding, Seneca wrote a book called On Benefits, in which he attempted to justify his betrayal of Agrippina and continued profiteering through her son. The book is about favors and gifts, and the obligations that arise as a result of them. Probably thinking of Agrippina, Seneca argued that favors imposed no obligation unless they were granted with rationality and clear motivations. And thinking of Nero, Seneca argued that the greatest favors or benefits one could give were not material, but instead spiritual and intellectual. In On Benefits, then, Seneca thus exculpates himself from having owed Agrippina anything – the former empress’ favors were doled out due to a raging personal ambition, and so he owed her nothing. The same book also lets Seneca see himself as the stronger partner in his relationship with Nero – the young emperor might be showering Seneca with money, but Seneca was giving the emperor wisdom and good counsel.

Perhaps this latest philosophical tract helped Seneca sleep at night. But the death of Agrippina removed the one real check on Nero’s power, and as 59 gave way to 60 CE, Rome entered a decade that would prove worse than any it had faced since the civil wars of the previous century.

Nero’s Later Reign and the Death of Seneca

Seneca’s last five years – 60-65 CE, saw him carefully trying to extract himself from Nero’s court, and for once in his life, actually trying to stay out of the bedlam of high society in order to write and research. As he had frequently done, Seneca wrote a tract valorizing something he was already doing – his book On Leisure extols the benefits of retiring from the crowds of the court and forum and seeking tranquility in isolation. Another book from this period, Natural Questions, shows Seneca turning further away from politics and high society in order to contemplate biology, astronomy, geology, and their relations to humankind’s place in the cosmos. As Seneca gushed over the joys of his impending retirement, Rome faced a series of catastrophes.

The 60s began with the revolt of Boudica I described at the opening of this program – that same revolt that may have been a result of Seneca’s own predatory lending. The Roman-Parthian War, a 5-year conflict that had begun back in 58, finally came to a close in 63, but in 64, the Great Fire of Rome tore through the city. Two years later, the first Jewish-Roman war broke out after a revolt in Judea. And as all this happened, Rome found itself ruled by a matricidal megalomaniac more interested in playing the lyre and acting onstage than governing, or doing anything at all socially acceptable, for that matter. Theatrical arts were not only off limits as an aristocratic pursuit. As classicist Philip Hardie writes, “Nero’s appearances on the real stage were unacceptable. . .because such an unambiguous entry into the world of the actor threatened the delicate suspension of disbelief that governed the roles played by emperor and subjects in the world of Roman politics.”50

Nero unabashedly applied himself to stagecraft, and in 62, Seneca’s co-advisor passed away. Burrus, who had been a praetorian prefect, had been Seneca’s main link to the military, and without him, the philosopher was left alone to navigate the perils of the court. Generally, Seneca ate and drank minimally for the sake of his health and stress, visited his estates frequently, and laid low. During these years, as Seneca entered his mid-60s, he wrote about the process of aging, and began work on what is now probably his most famous work – either called the sMoral Letters or the Letters to Lucilius. These letters, addressed to Seneca’s friend in Sicily, variously explore issues Seneca had dealt with over the past few decades – in a nutshell, how to be a good stoic amidst the hurly burly and messiness of contemporary life. While we’ll spend some time with these letters in the next show, I will briefly say here that the letters show Seneca looking back over the full course of his life and coming to terms with its end. This end came, perhaps, a bit sooner than the philosopher expected.

Rubens- Der sterbende Seneca

Peter Paul Rubens’ The Dying Seneca (1612/13). The image, likely drawn from Tacitus’ Annals 60.1, is an accurate portrait of the philosopher’s last moments as written in the historical record. The image is also a depiction of Seneca’s many contradictions – a person with great strength as well as egregious faults – one who did his best to keep his eyes on the sublime but ended up as vulnerable and mortal as anyone.

After the Great Fire of 64 CE, Nero began work on the Domus Aurea, or the Golden House, a palace complex at least a hundred acres in size in the center of the city that sat on the burnt out husks of previous buildings. The cost of this project was titanic – according to Tacitus (14.45), provinces in Asia Minor, Greece, and elsewhere were pillaged, and even their sacred statues were stolen. The Roman public was not happy. The senate continued to be disgusted with the murderous buffoon to whom they all had to defer. Seneca, for whom the early sixties were a bumpy ride of imperial favor and disfavor, was running scared. And in 65 CE, a carefully plotted and large scale assassination attempt on Nero was carried out – an affair that historians call the Pisonian Conspiracy.

Eleven conspirators, led by a prominent statesman named Gaius Calpurnius Piso, planned to catch Nero on the way to the circus and stab him to death. Tacitus, who covers the Pisonian Conspiracy most extensively, writes that Piso was an eloquent orator and courteous with friends and strangers, that Piso was tall and handsome, and that at the same time Piso was a party boy enjoyed his fair share of vice (Annals 15:48). And Tacitus also writes that Piso was the victim of other conspirators, who planned to kill Piso, pin the imperial murder on him, and then, of all things, pass imperial power over to Seneca himself (Annals 15.65). This is a fascinating possibility, and with Seneca’s ambitious nature and moral elasticity, involvement in a double plot to seize imperial power for himself is not unbelievable. But Seneca was also old and in frail health, and little in late works like Natural Questions and the Letters to Lucilius indicates a burning ambition for unchecked power. It’s not unlikely that Seneca knew of the plot, but he most likely wasn’t a ringleader.51

Unfortunately for everyone but Nero, the emperor got wind of the planned assassination, and Seneca himself was implicated indirectly. One of the conspirators, when questioned, recalled Seneca telling him that “[my] own existence depend[s] on the safety of Piso,” Piso again being the chief conspirator.52 Whether or not this was true – Seneca certainly had made many enemies – Nero bought into it. The philosopher, then about 66 years old, was ordered to kill himself.

There are many famous deaths in Roman history, and Seneca’s numbers among them. Ever since his Consolation to Marcia twenty-five years before, and probably long before that, one of the pillars of Seneca’s ideology had been that one should accept death with fearless indifference. Clinging fast to mortality and physical possessions, after all, was evidence of investment in the specious and transient things in the universe. A directive for suicide, then, would give Seneca a chance to practice what he preached, to imitate the great Socrates and Cato the Younger, and to secure his posthumous reputation.

By all accounts, though, the suicide, planned as a sort of theatrical tragedy for Seneca’s acquaintances, didn’t go well. Cassius Dio records that Seneca ordered his wife Paulina to kill herself alongside him. In Tacitus’ account, Paulina decides she wants to do so. I’m not sure which is true, if either, but any biography of Seneca has to include an account of his famous death, so I’m going to read it straight from Tacitus. Fairly long quote here. Tacitus writes that when Seneca heard Nero’s death sentence,
Seneca, nothing daunted, asked for the tablets containing his will. The centurion refusing, [Seneca] turned to his friends, and called [his friends] to witness that “as he was prevented from showing his gratitude for their services, he left them his sole but fairest possession — the image of his life. If they bore it in mind, they would reap the reward of their loyal friendship in the credit accorded to virtuous accomplishments.” At the same time, he recalled them from tears to fortitude, sometimes conversationally, sometimes in sterner, almost coercive tones. “Where,” he asked, “were the maxims of your philosophy? Where that reasoned attitude towards impending evils which they had studied through so many years? For to whom had Nero’s cruelty been unknown? Nor was anything left him, after the killing of his mother and his brother, but to add the murder of his guardian and preceptor.” After these and some similar remarks, which might have been meant for a wider audience, he embraced his wife, and, softening momentarily in view of the terrors at present threatening her, begged her, conjured her, to moderate her grief — not to take it upon her for ever, but in contemplating the life he had spent in virtue to find legitimate solace for the loss of her husband. Paulina replied by assuring him that she too had made death her choice, and she demanded her part in the executioner’s stroke. Seneca, not wishing to stand in the way of her glory, and influenced also by his affection, that he might not leave the woman who enjoyed his whole-hearted love exposed to outrage, now said: “I had shown you the mitigations of life, you prefer the distinction of death: I shall not grudge your setting that example. May the courage of this brave ending be divided equally between us both, but may more of fame attend your own departure!” Aforesaid, they made the incision in their arms with a single cut. . . [Tacitus then tells of how Nero halted Paulina’s suicide, as he hadn’t ordered it, and then goes on to explain how Seneca actually died.] Seneca, in the meantime, as death continued to be protracted and slow, asked Statius Annaeus, who had long held his confidence as a loyal friend and a skilful doctor, to produce the poison — it had been provided much earlier — which was used for dispatching prisoners condemned by the public tribunal of Athens. It was brought, and [Seneca] swallowed it, but to no purpose; his limbs were already cold, and his system closed to the action of the drug. In the last resort, he entered a vessel of heated water, sprinkling some on the slaves nearest, with the remark that he offered the liquid as a drink-offering to Jove the Liberator. He was then lifted into a bath, suffocated by the vapour, and cremated without ceremony. It was the order he had given in his will, at a time when, still at the zenith of his wealth and power, he was already taking thought for his latter end.53

It’s a sad passage, of course. The rich old philosopher wanted to read his will out to his friends, so that he could tell them all the things he was giving away to them. He exhorted them to remember to face this calamity with the stiff upper lip of stoicism, accepted his loving wife’s decision to die alongside him, and died a slow, gruesome death. As biographer Emily Wilson writes, “The failure of each successive method of death is both terrible (he could not even kill himself successfully) and blackly funny, as Tacitus surely intended” (210). But the philosopher’s death was also, as Wilson observes, a piercing and tragic mirror of the life that he’d lived. Wilson writes,
Seneca’s wish to control his final moments was highly visible here, but so too was the impossibility for him of achieving the Stoic ideal of perfect constancy and calm within the pressures and violence of Neronian Rome, and given Seneca’s own frailties. One can sneer at a death that took so long and that was so difficult to achieve; Seneca failed repeatedly at something that everybody manages, in the end. But one can also admire the ways that he kept trying, despite his failures—just as he had done in life, in his constant attempts to continue along the path of philosophical virtue. . .Seneca’s death, despite and because of his own best efforts, can be seen as a vivid image of his life. It was a slow, painful, highly theatrical and rhetorical confrontation between philosophical idealism and human weakness in the face of political power. (212)

The remainder of Nero’s rule, which lasted three more years up until the summer of 68, was marked by further violence and dysfunctionality. The Pisonian Conspiracy’s other literary casualties included the poet Lucan and the brilliant and enigmatic satirist Petronius. Nero’s procuratorial appointee to Judea, Gessius Florus, pillaged the Jerusalem temple treasury and set in motion the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73, and the rise of Vespasian and the Flavian Dynasty. More immediately threatening to Nero, in the spring of 68, to the west, the governor of the largest province in Spain, Servius Sulpicius Galba, had declared himself emperor. When the praetorian prefect declared allegiance to Galba, Nero’s days were clearly numbered, and by early June Nero was dead. While Seneca’s death, as we saw, was a compromised and painful affair, at least it took place in the company of his friends and family. Nero, in contrast, the last of the Julio-Claudians, died alone.

Moving on to Seneca’s Works

For all of his hypocrisies, and in spite of his betrayal of Agrippina and the unknowable quantities of people he affected through his activities as a landowner and financier, Seneca’s reputation soared during the first centuries of Christianity. The parallels between the Pauline epistles in the New Testament and stoicism more generally are something we’ll discuss soon, and Seneca’s reputation with early Christians certainly wasn’t hurt by the fact that he was brought down by the same regime that probably took down Saint Paul himself. The book of Acts tells of how during Paul’s fifth visit to Jerusalem, he fled a mob of Jewish traditionalists persecuting him for irreligious behavior, and then surrendered to Roman centurions, who thereafter brought him to Rome under arrest. Paul arrived there in 60 – the year after Agrippina’s murder, and spent two years preaching Christianity while on house arrest. He lived through the Great Fire of 64 but died some time before Nero’s assassination, various early historians generally agreeing that Paul died a martyr’s death. Saint Peter, whose pontificate began around 33 CE, is believed to have been crucified in Rome under Nero during the same timeframe, and thus two of Jesus Christ’s most famous apostles had a surprising degree of things in common with Nero’s embattled tutor. Lactantius, Tertullian, and Saint Jerome wrote fondly of Seneca, and it wasn’t until Saint Augustine that Christianity produced a more cautious assessment of Seneca’s work.

What I wanted to do in this long program on Seneca’s life was to outline the turbulent historical juncture at which the brand new doctrines of Christianity were being codified and raveled together with ongoing developments in older Hellenistic philosophies, all beneath the chaos of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Seneca, Peter, Paul, and Christ himself, all born within a decade of one another, explored and taught others how to live with dignity and grace in an ugly period of history. Seneca’s unique position allowed him a chance to share his sternly minimalist ethics with the most powerful person in the Mediterranean. The Hellenistic period in general, following the sixth book of Plato’s Republic, gave rise to a number of tracts on how philosophical advisors ought to give counsel to kings, and in introducing Nero to stoicism Seneca was given a philosopher’s ultimate dream – to put thought into action and change the course of history. But for Nero, access to ultimate power, and unending pleasure made stoicism particularly unappealing. A crusty middle aged provincial from Hispania might tell him to live a life of moderation and contemplation, but limitless power was his, and the sparkling vices of the capital city were lined up for the taking. Senecan stoicism, like its close relative, Christianity, was fated to recruit more disciples from the downtrodden masses than the wealthy and powerful, whose pleasurable lives did not require contemplation of virtue or otherworldly matters to make them bearable.

Next time, we’re finally going to talk a lot about stoicism – its rise around 300 BCE under Zeno of Citium, its evolution over the course of the Hellenistic age, and the formal and technical contributions that Seneca made to stoic ethics over the course of his intellectual career. While this isn’t a philosophy show, I still try to put major theological and philosophical texts in dialogue with literature and history, and with Seneca we’ve come to a point at which we can no longer give short shrift to this major school of antique thought. Stoicism is a rich and beautiful philosophy in its own right, and the story of how it came to have so many adherents in Seneca’s age is one of the central parts of ancient Rome’s intellectual history. Further, if the ideology printed New Testament were a pie chart, at least a third of the pie is a set of notions entirely shared with stoicism, and so in learning about it we’ll be doing practical ground work prior to studying the Gospels and the books that come after them in the Bible. I’ve got a quiz on Seneca and the Julio-Claudians at literatureandhistory.com if you want to give it a whirl. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded a pair of fun poems having to do with – uh – goblins. The first, Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” is one of the most famous long poems from the nineteenth century – a story about a pair of loving sisters and some monstrous creatures who try to separate them from one another, told in some of the most sensual language the Victorian period produced. The second goblin poem is a much more obscure one – a poem by the nineteenth-century Indiana regionalist writer James Whitcomb Riley called “The Nine Little Goblins.” It’s a cute poem – partly for kids – about goblins standing on a fence. And my grandpa may very well – even at the age of 95 – still have Riley’s “The Nine Little Goblins” memorized from his schooldays in Ohio during the Great Depression. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. I’ve got a song coming up if you want to hear it. If not, see you soon.

Still listening? Well, we sure covered a lot in this episode. There were plenty of things that merited a song, but really, one stood out above all the others, and that is the Emperor Nero, Seneca’s benefactor and killer, a man who truly lived in a cocoon of his own reality. Amidst his many pursuits, Nero fancied himself a musician, although later Roman historians have little reverence for Nero’s singing or lyre playing. Some of his famous last words, as he prepared for suicide, were Qualis artifex pereo, or “What an artist dies in me,” which suggests the extent of reverence the emperor had for his own artistic capabilities. According to various sources, the Emperor Nero staged competitions and participated in athletic games in which his own victory was a foregone conclusion, shamelessly using his autocratic power to seize the laurels of all sorts of contests. I got to thinking about Nero, and his by all accounts inflated self-conception, and wrote this rock tune, which is called “Nero Stomp.” In it, we first hear how Nero sounds to himself, and then, how he might have sounded to others. Hope it’s entertaining, and Seneca and I will see you next time. [“Nero Stomp” Song]


1.^ Dio, Cassius. Complete Works of Cassius Dio. Delphi Classics, 2014. Roman History (62.2). Further references noted parenthetically in this transcription.

2.^ Tacitus. The Complete Works of Tacitus. Delphi Classics, 2014. Annals 14.37. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically in this transcription.

3.^ See Letter 87.2-3.

4.^ See Wilson, Emily. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca. Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 216-7.

5.^ See Pliny, Natural History 37.77.

6.^ Seneca. Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (LXXVIII). Selected and Translated with an Introduction by Robin Campbell. Penguin Books, 1969, p. 130.

7.^ See, for instance, Wilson, Emily. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca. Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 33.

8.^ Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (CVIII).

9.^ Ibid, quoted in Campbell (1969), p. 207.

10.^ See Wilson (2014) p. 4.

11.^ See Annals I.9-11.

12.^ Annals II.26-41.

13.^ Annals III.11-19.

14.^ Annals IV.7-8, Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, 62.

15.^ See Dio Roman History LVII.22-LVIII.10.

16.^ See the Life of Tiberius XLIII-XLV. Translators, up until very recently, continued to expurgate these chapters.

17.^ On Benefits 5.25, 3.26. Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 25921 and 24750.

18.^ Suetonius. Life of Tiberius (34). Printed in Suetonius. Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 3271.

19.^ See Dio, Roman History (LIX.1) and Suetonius, Life of Caligula (37).

20.^ See Dio (59.19.7-8).

21.^ See Epistulae Morales (94.64). Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 13336.

22.^ Dio 59.19.7-8. Printed in Dio, Cassius. Complete Works of Cassius Dio. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 17144.

23.^ Consolation to Helvia X. Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 6330.

24.^ On Anger 2.33.

25.^ On Anger 3.18.

26.^ On Constancy 18.

27.^ Stewart, Aubrey. “Introduction.” Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 5501.

28.^ To Marcia X. Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 5696.

29.^ To Helvia II, III. Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 6163-7.

30.^ See Wilson (2014), p. 75.

31.^ Claudius (X). Printed in Suetonius. Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 10559-64.

32.^ Wilson, Emily. Wilson, Emily. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca. Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 86.

33.^ Ibid, p. 87.

34.^ To Helvia I. Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 6135. Further references noted parenthetically.

35.^ To Polybius I. Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 6603. Further references noted parenthetically.

36.^ See Wilson, 2014, p. 91.

37.^ On Anger 2.1. Printed in Seneca. Delphi Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 16012, 15991.

38.^ Anonymous. “The Instructions of Amenemope.” Printed in The Literature of Ancient Egypt. Ed. William Kelly Simpson, et. al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 227.

39.^ New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael Coogan, et. al. Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 911, 913.

40.^ See Wilson (2014), p. 115.

41.^ Nero (52). Suetonius. Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Locations 5663-8.

42.^ Annals (13.3). Printed in Tacitus. The Complete Works of Tacitus. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 10882.

43.^ Ibid (15.2), Location 10860.

44.^ On Clemency (I). Printed in Seneca. Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 18654.

45.^ To be fair, Lucan composed it after a falling out with Nero, who had formerly been his friend and benefactor, and the Pharsalia rehearses the standard praises of the emperor (I.54-62).

46.^ Dio (61.10). Printed in Dio, Cassius. Complete Works of Cassius Dio. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 18198.

47.^ On the Happy Life (2). Printed in Printed in Seneca. Complete Works of Seneca the Younger. Delphi Classics, 2014. Kindle Edition, Location 19285.

48.^ Ibid (8), Location 19377.

49.^ Annals (14.7).

50.^ Hardie, Philip. “Ovid and Early Imperial Literature.” In Hardie, Philip, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Ovid. Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 40.

51.^ See Wilson (2014), p. 207.

52.^ Annals (60.1).

53.^ Ibid, 15.63-4, 15.64.