Seneca the Younger

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Ancient bust of Seneca, part of a double herm (Antikensammlung Berlin)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca, or Seneca the Younger) (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.


[edit] Biography

Griffin says in her standard modern biography of Seneca[1] that "The evidence for Seneca's life before his exile in 41 is so slight, and the potential interest of these years, for social history as well as for biography, is so great that few writers on Seneca have resisted the temptation to eke out knowledge with imagination." Therefore what one reads as alleged fact must be read with extreme caution.

Griffin infers from ancient sources that Seneca was born in either 8, 4, or 1 BCE. She thinks he was born between[vague] 4 and 1 BCE and was resident in Rome by 5 CE. Seneca says that he was carried to Rome in the arms of his mother's stepsister.[2] Griffin says that allowing for rhetorical exaggeration means "it is fair to conclude that Seneca was in Rome as a very small boy."

His family was from Corduba in Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula), and one might infer that he may have been born there, although there is no documentary evidence for it.

He was the second son of Helvia and Lucius Annaeus Seneca (there is no ancient evidence for the name Marcus),[vague] the wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder. Griffin says that it is probable that the Annaei came from Etruria or the "area further east towards Illyria." There is no way of knowing when the family came to Spain.

Seneca's older brother, Gallio, became proconsul in the Roman province of Achaea. His younger brother Annaeus Mela's son was Marcus Annaeus Lucanus became the poet Lucan.

At Rome he was trained in rhetoric and was introduced to Hellenized 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 CE, he must have at least visited and perhaps lived for a period in Hellenistic Egypt.

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

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

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] Many historians consider Nero's early rule with Seneca and Burrus to be quite competent. However, over time, Seneca and Burrus lost their influence over Nero. In 59 they had reluctantly agreed to Agrippina's murder, and afterward 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.

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, 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 for 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, however, in his Annals of Imperial Rome says[citation needed] that Seneca suffocated by the vapor rising from the bath.

[edit] Reputation

Seneca remains one of the few popular Roman philosophers from the period. His works were celebrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, John of Salisbury, Erasmus and others. Montaigne was considered by Pasquier a "French Seneca" and Thomas Fuller praised Joseph Hall as "our English Seneca". While his ideas are not considered to be original, he was important in making the Greek philosophers presentable and intelligible.[5]

Even with the admiration of such 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. Suilius claims that Seneca acquired some "three hundred million sesterces within the space of four years" through Nero's favor.[6] 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."[7]

According to Tacitus however, Suilius' accusations did not hold up under scrutiny.[8] 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.[9]

In 1966 scholar Anna Lydia Motto also challenged this view of Seneca, arguing that his image has been based almost entirely on Sulius's account, while many others who might have lauded him have been lost.[10]

"We are therefore left with no contemporary record of Seneca's life, save for the desperate opinion of Publius Suilius. 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."[11]

[edit] Works

Works attributed to Seneca include a dozen philosophical essays, one hundred twenty-four letters dealing with moral issues, nine tragedies, a satire, and a meteorological essay. One of the tragedies attributed to him, Octavia, was clearly not written by him. He even appears as a character in the play. His authorship of another, Hercules on Oeta, is doubtful.

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

[edit] Seneca's Tragedies

Many scholars have thought, following the ideas of the nineteenth century German scholar 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 life time (George W.M. Harrison (ed.), Seneca in performance, London: Duckworth, 2000). 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 at all based on Greek tragedies, they have a five act form and differ in many respects from extant Attic drama, and whilst the influence of Euripides on some 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.


  • Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta) and Octavia closely resemble Seneca's plays in style, but are probably written by a follower.

[edit] Dialogues

[edit] Other

[edit] Seneca as a humanist saint

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".[12]

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

Dante placed Seneca in the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, a place of perfect natural happiness where good non-Christians like the ancient philosophers had to stay for eternity, due to their lack of the justifying grace (given only by Christ) required to go to heaven.

Seneca the Younger also makes an appearance as a character in Monteverdi's opera L'incoronazione di Poppea.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Miriam T. Griffin. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976
  2. ^ Cons Helv. 19.2
  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. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 3.
  6. ^ Campbell, Robin Letters from a Stoic (London 1998) 11.
  7. ^ Campbell, Robin Letters from a Stoic (London 1998) 11.
  8. ^ Tacitus The Annals (New York 2003) 267.
  9. ^ Tacitus The Annals (New York 2003) All.
  10. ^ Lydia Motto,Anna Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966) pp. 254-258
  11. ^ Lydia Motto,Anna Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966) pp. 257
  12. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 1.

[edit] Further reading

[edit] External links

Wikisource has original works written by or about:

NAME Seneca the Younger
ALTERNATIVE NAMES Lucius Annaeus Seneca
SHORT DESCRIPTION Roman philosopher

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