Seneca the Younger

(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111201580-Seneca.jpg Seneca the Younger (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Roman philosopher and statesman{$I[g]Roman Empire;Seneca the Younger} An influential intellectual, Seneca also showed great abilities as coadministrator of the Roman Empire during the first years of Nero. In literature, Seneca’s essays and tragedies were influential from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, when English playwrights took his dramas as models.

Early Life

Although Seneca (SEHN-ih-kuh) the Younger was born in Corduba, his father, known as Seneca the Elder, was a conservative Roman knight who had achieved fame as an orator and teacher of rhetoric in Rome. His mother, Helvia, was an extraordinarily intelligent, gifted, and morally upright person whose love for philosophy had been checked only by her husband’s rejection of the idea of education for women.

The familial conflict was handed down to the next generation: The oldest of the three brothers, Gallio, pursued a splendid political career, but the youngest, Mela, spent his life making money and educating himself (the poet Lucan was his son). Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the second child and bearer of his father’s name, was torn between public life in the service of a corrupted state and life as philosopher and private man.

Going to Rome at a very early age, Seneca received an education in rhetoric, which was the first step toward becoming an orator with an eye to public offices. The youth also saw teachers of Stoic philosophy who taught a life of asceticism, equanimity in the face of adversity, and an evaluation of the daily work of the self, which laid the foundations of Seneca’s eclectic philosophical beliefs.

In Rome, Seneca lived with an aunt; she guarded the precarious health of the thin, feeble boy. His physical deficiencies and what were perhaps lifelong bouts with pneumonia almost led the young man to suicide; only the thought of how much this act would hurt his aging father stopped him. As intense studies distracted his mind from his sufferings, Seneca would later state that he owed his life to philosophy. In the light of his physical afflictions and his own description of himself as small, plain, and skinny, scholars doubt the veracity of the only extant antique copy of a bust of Seneca, which shows the philosopher and statesman as a corpulent old man with sharp but full features and receding hair.

Seneca’s ill health apparently caused him to spend a considerable portion of his youth and early manhood in the healthier climate of Egypt. It was not before 31 c.e. that he permanently left the East for Rome.

Life’s Work

As a result of the lobbying of his aunt, Seneca successfully entered public service as quaestor (roughly, secretary of finances), in 33. Although it is no longer known which positions he held during this period, it is most likely that he continued in ever more prestigious offices.

Besides serving the state under two difficult emperors, Tiberius and Caligula, Seneca began to achieve wealth and fame as a lawyer. From the later works that have survived, one can see how his witty, poignant, almost epigrammatical language fascinated Seneca’s listeners and how his pithy sentences, which reflected his enormous vocabulary, must have won for him cases in court. Further, Seneca’s consciously anti-Ciceronian style, which avoided long sentences and ornamental language, established his fame as an orator. Early works (now lost) made him a celebrated writer as well. Seneca’s first marriage, dating from around this time, cannot have been a very happy one; he fails to mention the name of his wife, despite the fact that they had at least two sons together, both of whom he wrote about in the most affectionate terms.

Under the reign of Caligula (37-41 c.e.), Seneca’s ill health proved advantageous. His oratorical success had aroused the envy of the emperor, who derogatorily likened Seneca’s style to “sand without lime” (meaning that it was worthless for building), and Caligula sought to execute Seneca. Seneca was spared only because one of the Imperial mistresses commented on the futility of shortening the life of a terminally ill man. Later, Seneca commented, tongue in cheek, “Disease has postponed many a man’s death and proximity to death has resulted in salvation.”

In 41, the first year of the reign of Claudius I, a struggle for power between Empress Valeria Messallina and Caligula’s sisters Agrippina and Julia Livilla brought Seneca into court on a trumped-up charge of adultery with Princess Julia. Found guilty, Seneca escaped death only because Claudius transformed the sentence into one of banishment to the barren island of Corsica. There, for the next eight years, Seneca dedicated his life to philosophy, the writing of letters, and natural philosophy; he also began to draft his first tragedies....

(The entire section is 1989 words.)