Seneca the Younger

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Duble herma of Socrates and Seneca Antikensammlung Berlin 07.jpg
Ancient bust of Seneca, part of a double herm (Antikensammlung Berlin)
Other names Seneca the Younger, Seneca
Born c. 4 BC
Cordoba, Hispania
Died AD 65 (aged 68–69)
Rome
Nationality Roman
Era Ancient philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Stoicism

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca /ˈsɛnɪkə/; c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature.

He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero. While he was forced to commit suicide for alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero, he may have been innocent.[1][2] His father was Seneca the Elder and his elder brother was Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, called Gallio in the Bible.

Biography[edit]

Family and education[edit]

This Baroque marble imaginary portrait bust of Seneca, by an anonymous sculptor of the 17th century, creates a rugged persona that verges on caricature (Museo del Prado).

His family was from Cordoba in Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) and, like his father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca "the elder," he was born there.

He was the second son of Helvia and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder. His older brother, Gallio, became proconsul in the Roman province of Achaea. His younger brother Annaeus Mela's son was Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.

In Rome he was trained in rhetoric and was introduced to Hellenistic Stoic philosophy by Attalus and Sotion. Seneca's own writings describe his poor health. At some stage he was nursed by his aunt; as she was in Egypt from 16 to 31 AD, he must have at least visited and perhaps lived there for a period.

Seneca and his aunt returned to Rome in 31 AD, and she helped him in his campaign for his first magistracy.

Imperial advisor[edit]

Caligula began his first year as emperor in 38, and there was a severe conflict between him and Seneca; the emperor is said to have spared his life only because he expected Seneca's natural life to be near its end.

In 41, Claudius succeeded Caligula, and then, at the behest of his third wife Messalina, banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with Caligula's sister Julia Livilla. Seneca spent his exile in philosophical and natural study (a life counseled by Roman Stoic thought) and wrote the Consolations. In 49, Claudius' fourth wife Agrippina the Younger had Seneca recalled to Rome to tutor her son Nero, then 12 years old; on Claudius' death in 54, she secured recognition of Nero, rather than Claudius' son Britannicus, as emperor.

From 54 to 62, Seneca acted as Nero's advisor, together with the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. Seneca's influence was said to be especially strong in the first year.[3] Tacitus and Dio suggest that Nero's early rule, during which time he listened to Seneca and Burrus, was quite competent. The ancient sources suggest that over time, Seneca and Burrus lost their influence over Nero. In 59 they had reluctantly agreed to Agrippina's murder, and afterward, we are told by Tacitus that Seneca wrote a dishonest[vague] exculpation of Nero to the Senate.[4] With the death of Burrus in 62 and accusations[vague] of embezzlement, Seneca retired and devoted his time again to study and writing.

Cassius Dio reports the common uncomplimentary rumors circulating about Seneca's hypocrisy and venality:

"Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy. For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant; while inveighing against the associates of the powerful, he did not hold aloof from the palace itself; and though he had nothing good to say of flatterers, he himself had constantly fawned upon Messalina and the freedmen of Claudius, to such an extent, in fact, as actually to send them from the island of his exile a book containing their praises — a book that he afterwards suppressed out of shame. Though finding fault with the rich, he himself acquired a fortune of 300,000,000 sesterces; and though he censured the extravagances of others, he had five hundred tables of citrus wood with legs of ivory, all identically alike, and he served banquets on them"[5]

There is also speculation in Peter Salway's History of Roman Britain that Seneca had been involved in forcing large loans on the indigenous British aristocracy in the aftermath of Claudius's Roman conquest of Britain, and then calling them in suddenly and aggressively. The suggestion is that this contributed to Boudica's rebellion, and so possibly to his own fall.

Disgrace and suicide[edit]

Luca Giordano, The death of Seneca (1684)

In 65, Seneca was caught up in the aftermath of the Pisonian conspiracy, a plot to kill Nero. Although it is unlikely that he conspired, he was ordered by Nero to kill himself. He followed tradition by severing several veins in order to bleed to death, and his wife Pompeia Paulina attempted to share his fate. Tacitus (writing in Book XV, Chapters 60 through 64 of his Annals of Imperial Rome, a generation later, after the Julio-Claudian emperors) gives an account of the suicide, perhaps, in light of Tacitus's Republican sympathies, somewhat romanticized. According to it, Nero ordered Seneca's wife to be saved. Her wounds were bound up and she made no further attempt to kill herself. As for Seneca himself, his age and diet were blamed for slow loss of blood, and extended pain rather than a quick death; taking poison was also not fatal. After dictating his last words to a scribe, and with a circle of friends attending him in his home, he immersed himself in a warm bath, which was expected to speed blood flow and ease his pain. Tacitus writes: “He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, even when in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of life’s close.”[6]

Legacy[edit]

As a humanist saint[edit]

Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle in a medieval manuscript illustration (c. 1325–35)

The early Christian Church was very favorably disposed towards Seneca and his writings, and the church leader Tertullian called him "our Seneca".[7]

Medieval writers and works (such as the Golden Legend, which erroneously has Nero as a witness to his suicide) believed Seneca had been converted to the Christian faith by Saint Paul, and early humanists regarded his fatal bath as a kind of disguised baptism.

Dante placed Seneca in the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo. Seneca makes an appearance as a character in Monteverdi's opera L'incoronazione di Poppea.

Girolamo Cardano in his apologia of Nero 'Neronis Encomium' Basel, 1562,[8] claims Seneca was a fraud, a fake philosopher, a corruptor of Nero, and that he deserved death.

The "Pseudo-Seneca" a Roman bust found at Herculaneum, one of a series of similar sculptures known since the Renaissance, was hoped to be a portrait of Seneca illustrating his Stoic qualities, until the inscribed Roman portrait (illustration above) was identified.

An improving reputation[edit]

Seneca remains one of the few popular Roman philosophers from the period. He appears not only in Dante, but also in Chaucer and to a large degree in Petrarch, who adopted his style in his own essays and who quotes him more than any other authority except Virgil. In the Renaissance, printed editions and translations of his works became common, including an edition by Erasmus and a commentary by John Calvin.[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson, John of Salisbury, Erasmus and others celebrated his works. French essayist Montaigne, who gave a spirited defense of Seneca and Plutarch in his Essays, was himself considered by Pasquier a "French Seneca";[10] similarly, Thomas Fuller praised Joseph Hall as "our English Seneca". Many who have considered his ideas not to be particularly original, still argued he was important in making the Greek philosophers presentable and intelligible.[11]

"Seneca", ancient hero of the modern Cordoba; this architectural roundel in Seville is based on the "Pseudo-Seneca" (illustration above)

Even with the admiration of an earlier group of intellectual stalwarts, Seneca is not without his detractors. In his own time, he was widely considered to be a hypocrite or, at least, less than "stoic" in his lifestyle. His tendency to engage in illicit affairs with married women and close ties to Nero's excess test the limits of his teachings on restraint and self-discipline. While banished to Corsica, he wrote pleas for restoration rather incompatible with his advocacy of a simple life and the acceptance of fate. In his Pumpkinification (54) he ridiculed several behaviors and policies of Claudius that every Stoic should have applauded; a reading of the text shows it was also an attempt to gain Nero's favor by flattery—such as proclaiming that Nero would live longer and be wiser than the legendary Nestor. Suillius claims that Seneca acquired some "three hundred million sesterces within the space of four years" through Nero's favor.[12] Robin Campbell, a translator of Seneca's letters, writes that the "stock criticism of Seneca right down the centuries [has been]...the apparent contrast between his philosophical teachings and his practice."[12]

According to Tacitus however, Suillius's accusations did not hold up under scrutiny.[13] It would make sense that Seneca's position of power would make him vulnerable to trumped-up charges, as many public figures were at the time.[14]

In 1966 scholar Anna Lydia Motto also challenged this view of Seneca, arguing that his image has been based almost entirely on Suillius's account, while many others who might have lauded him have been lost.[15]

"We are therefore left with no contemporary record of Seneca's life, save for the desperate opinion of Publius Suillius. Think of the barren image we should have of Socrates, had the works of Plato and Xenophon not come down to us and were we wholly dependent upon Aristophanes' description of this Athenian philosopher. To be sure, we should have a highly distorted, misconstrued view. Such is the view left to us of Seneca, if we were to rely upon Suillius alone."[16]

More recent work is changing the dominant perception of Seneca as a mere conduit for pre-existing ideas showing originality in Seneca's contribution to the history of ideas. Examination of Seneca's life and thought in relation to contemporary education and to the psychology of emotions is revealing a relevance of his thought. For example, Martha Nussbaum in her discussion of desire and emotion includes Seneca among the Stoics who offered important insights and perspectives on emotions and their role in our lives.[17] Specifically devoting a chapter to his treatment of anger and its management she shows Seneca's appreciation of the damaging role of uncontrolled anger, and its pathological connections. Nussbaum later extended her examination to Seneca's contribution to political philosophy[18] showing considerable subtlety and richness in his thoughts about politics, education and notions of global citizenship and finding a basis for reform minded education in Seneca's ideas that allows her to propose a mode of modern education which steers clear of both narrow traditionalism and total rejection of tradition.

Some writers regard Seneca as the first great western thinker on the complex nature and role of gratitude in human relationships.[19] Girolamo Cardano printed a savage attack on Seneca in 1562, in Basel. The title of the book is Encomium Neronis and it is available in English as Girolamo Cardano Nero: an Exemplary Life Inkstone, 2012. Cardano says that he was a crook of the worst kind, an empty rethorician who was only thinking to grab money and power, after having poisoned the mind of the young emperor. Cardano says, that he well deserved death.

Works[edit]

Works attributed to Seneca include a dozen philosophical essays, one hundred and twenty-four letters dealing with moral issues, nine tragedies, and a satire, the attribution of which is disputed.[20] His authorship of Hercules on Oeta has also been questioned.

Seneca generally employed a pointed rhetorical style. His writings expose traditional themes of Stoic philosophy: the universe is governed for the best by a rational providence; contentment is achieved through a simple, unperturbed life in accordance with nature and duty to the state; human suffering should be accepted and has a beneficial effect on the soul; study and learning are important. He emphasized practical steps by which the reader might confront life's problems. In particular, he considered it important to confront one's own mortality. The discussion of how to approach death dominates many of his letters.

Seneca's tragedies[edit]

Woodcut illustration of the suicide of Seneca and the attempted suicide of his wife Pompeia Paulina

Many scholars have thought, following the ideas of the 19th century German scholar Friedrich Leo, that Seneca's tragedies were written for recitation only. Other scholars think that they were written for performance and that it is possible that actual performance had taken place in Seneca's lifetime.[21] Ultimately, this issue cannot be resolved on the basis of our existing knowledge.

The tragedies of Seneca have been successfully staged in modern times. The dating of the tragedies is highly problematic in the absence of any ancient references. A relative chronology has been suggested on metrical grounds but scholars remain divided. It is inconceivable that they were written in the same year. They are not all based on Greek tragedies; they have a five act form and differ in many respects from extant Attic drama, and while the influence of Euripides on some of these works is considerable, so is the influence of Virgil and Ovid.

Seneca's plays were widely read in medieval and Renaissance European universities and strongly influenced tragic drama in that time, such as Elizabethan England (Shakespeare and other playwrights), France (Corneille and Racine), and the Netherlands (Joost van den Vondel). He is regarded as the source and inspiration for what is known as 'Revenge Tragedy', starting with Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and continuing well into the Jacobean Period.

Tragedies:

  • Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Phaedra
  • Thyestes
  • Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta): there is doubt by some scholars whether this tragedy was written by Seneca.
  • Agamemnon
  • Oedipus
  • Medea
  • Octavia: closely resemble Seneca's plays in style, but is written by someone with a keen knowledge of Seneca's plays and philosophical works, a short time after Seneca's death, perhaps in the 70s of the 1st century AD.

Essays and Letters[edit]

Other[edit]

Spurious[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bunson, Matthew, A Dictionary of the Roman Empire page 382. Oxford University Press, 1991
  2. ^ Fitch, John (2008). Seneca. City: Oxford University Press, USA. p. 32. ISBN 978-0-19-928208-1. 
  3. ^ Cassius Dio claims Seneca and Burrus "took the rule entirely into their own hands," but "after the death of Britannicus, Seneca and Burrus no longer gave any careful attention to the public business" in 55 (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXI.3–7)
  4. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 7.
  5. ^ Cassius Dio, Book LXI.33.9..
  6. ^ Tacitus, (Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb). The Annals of Imperial Rome Book XV (New York, Barnes & Noble 2007). p 341
  7. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 1.
  8. ^ printed in English as Nero. An exemplary life. Inkstone, 2012
  9. ^ Richard Mott Gummere, Seneca the philosopher, and his modern message, p.97.
  10. ^ Gummere, Seneca the philosopher, and his modern message, p.106.
  11. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 3.
  12. ^ a b Campbell, Robin Letters from a Stoic (London 1998) 11.
  13. ^ Tacitus The Annals (New York 2003) 267.
  14. ^ Tacitus The Annals (New York 2003) All.
  15. ^ Lydia Motto,Anna Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966) pp. 254–258
  16. ^ Lydia Motto,Anna Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966) pp. 257
  17. ^ Nussbaum, M. (1996), The Therapy of Desire. Princeton University Press
  18. ^ Nussbaum, M. (1999) Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education. Harvard University Press
  19. ^ Harpham, E. (2004) Gratitude in the History of Ideas,19–37 in M. A. Emmons and M. E. McCulloch, editors, The Psychology of Gratitude, Oxford University Press.
  20. ^ Brockett, O. (2003), History of the Theatre: Ninth Ed. Allyn and Bacon. p. 50
  21. ^ George W.M. Harrison (ed.), Seneca in performance, London: Duckworth, 2000.
  22. ^ "Seneca: On Clemency". Thelatinlibrary.com. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  23. ^ "Apocryphal epistles". Earlychristianwritings.com. 2006-02-02. Retrieved 2011-07-26. 
  24. ^ Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1892) St Paul and Seneca Dissertations on the Apostolic Age

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]