Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in Corduba, Spain, about 4 b.c.e. He came from a learned and wealthy family: His father, Seneca the Elder, was a well-known rhetorician, and his mother, Helvia, was an attractive, erudite woman with a deep interest in philosophy and the liberal arts. They had three sons: Annaeus Novatus, the oldest, an accomplished orator, writer, and politician; Anneaus Mela, the youngest, remembered as the father of the Roman poet Lucan; and Lucius Annaeus, renowned philosopher, statesman, orator, and playwright.

During infancy, Seneca left Spain for Rome, where his family established permanent residence. When he came of age, he received instruction in grammar, rhetoric, and philosophy. He was bored by the teachings of dull grammarians, spurred on by the training of outstanding rhetors, and fascinated by the discussion of leading philosophers. By combining philosophy with rhetoric, the young Seneca aimed to pursue a philosophical, contemplative life along with an oratorical, political career.

Seneca’s active political career was interrupted by the poor health that he had endured since childhood. Because of his illness and in order to have a change of scene, he went to Egypt, where his maternal aunt, the wife of the governor, aided him, through her devotion and care, in regaining his strength. On his return to Rome, through the influence of this devoted aunt, he obtained the quaestorship about 33 c.e., perhaps becoming aedile or tribune of the plebeians about 36 or 37.

While advancing politically, Seneca also distinguished himself as a lawyer, a philosopher, and an author, winning not only glory and riches but also the jealousy of the mad Emperor Caligula, who threatened to put the philosopher to death. Only Seneca’s chronic ill-health and rumors that he would soon die of natural causes dissuaded the emperor from ordering his execution.

Having almost lost his life, Seneca decided to relinquish his dangerous oratorical career to devote himself more and more to philosophy and literature. After Caligula’s assassination (41 c.e.) and the ascension of his uncle Claudius, Seneca was accused by Messalina, Claudius’s third wife, of an illicit intrigue with Julia, sister of Caligula and niece of Claudius. On this unfounded charge, Seneca was banished to Corsica for eight years from 41 to 49 c.e. He was recalled by Agrippina, Claudius’s fourth wife, with the stipulation that he become the tutor of her twelve-year-old son, Nero. To assist the philosopher in educating Nero, she appointed Burrus, later elevated by her to the post of prefect of the Praetorian Guard. Both men attempted to restrain Nero’s excesses and Agrippina’s lust for power. When Claudius was murdered by Agrippina in 54, Nero became emperor at the age of seventeen. Under the tutelage and guidance of Seneca and Burrus, the early principate of Nero, known as the Quinquennium Neronis, was marked by clemency and equity in government.

This era of good government, however, was soon to end. Agrippina, coveting for herself supreme control of the state and becoming annoyed by the humane administration of Seneca and Burrus, threatened to give the throne to Britannicus, son of Claudius by Messalina. Nero, filled with dread, ordered Britannicus’s murder. Hostility between mother and son continued to mount until Nero finally succeeded in having his mother bludgeoned to death. The emperor’s increasing waywardness, Burrus’s sudden and unexplained death in 62 c.e. , and the debauched Tigellinus’s elevation as court favorite led Seneca to request permission to retire. When Nero refused to grant this request, the philosopher bravely withdrew of his own accord from the court and the city and commenced a life of self-exile, seclusion and study, composing during...

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these three years of retirement some of his most famous literary works.

Retirement, however, could not rescue Seneca from Nero’s malevolence. Accused of complicity in the Pisonian Conspiracy—a conspiracy that had as its aim the murder of Nero and the transfer of power to Piso—Seneca was ordered by Nero’s military officers to commit suicide. Seneca, like Socrates, faced death with fortitude, courage, and dignity, relying on the precepts of the Stoic philosophy that had so strongly and for so long molded his own character. Forbidden to make his last will, Seneca turned to his friends and observed that he could only leave them his richest possession—“the image of his life.”


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Lucius Annaeus Seneca (SEHN-ih-kuh), better known as Seneca the Younger, was born in 4 b.c.e. in Corduba (now Córdoba, Spain). His father, 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 passed 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 Seneca, the second child and the bearer of his father’s name, was torn between public life in the service of a corrupt state and life as philosopher, writer, and private man.

Coming to Rome at a very early age, Seneca received an education in rhetoric. Not only was it the first step toward becoming an orator with an eye to public offices; it also introduced the youth to the discussion of subtle ethical questions, and thus presented him with a specific model of intellectual inquiry that would shape his literary output. He encountered 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 the mature Seneca’s eclectic philosophical beliefs.

In Rome, Seneca lived with an aunt who guarded the thin, feeble boy’s precarious health. As a result of his aunt’s lobbying, Seneca successfully entered public service in 33 c.e. Besides serving the state under the two difficult emperors Tiberius and Caligula, Seneca began to achieve wealth and fame as a lawyer; early works (now lost) made him a celebrated writer, as well. Yet his status at the top of Roman society also threatened his life. Only ill health saved him from the jealous wrath of Caligula, whose mistresses persuaded him of the pointlessness of executing a seemingly moribund man. In 41 c.e., however, the first year of the reign of Claudius I, a struggle for power among the women around the emperor brought Seneca into court on a trumped-up charge of adultery. Found guilty, he escaped death only because Claudius commuted the sentence into banishment to the barren island of Corsica. On Corsica for the next eight years, Seneca dedicated himself to philosophy and the writing of letters; probably, he also began to draft tragedies. The most powerful works completed in this era are his letters of advice and consolation to his mother, Ad Helviam matrem de consolatione (c. 41-42 c.e.; To My Mother Helvia, on Consolation, 1614), and the essay De ira libri tres (c. 41-49 c.e.; Three Essays on Anger, 1614).

Seneca was recalled by Claudius after the execution of Claudius’s second wife, Seneca’s enemy Messalina. Yet the exiled orator and writer, whose fame had grown during his absence, was not allowed to retire to Athens. Instead, he was made the tutor of the young boy Nero, the adopted son of the emperor. Although the dating of all Seneca’s nine tragedies is uncertain, most scholars believe that they were written, and privately recited or performed, in this period between his return in 49 c.e. and Claudius’s death in 54 c.e., when Nero’s accession propelled his tutor to the fore of imperial governance. In a nice demonstration of his characteristically wide range of literary skills, Seneca commenced to write both the official funeral eulogy of Claudius and the brilliant satire Apocolocyntosisdivi Claudii (c. 54 c.e.; The Deification of Claudius, 1614), in which a bumbling and cruel former emperor is consigned to the underworld.

While helping to govern Rome during Nero’s early reign, Seneca found time to write more essays, among which De clementia (c. 55-56 c.e.; On Clemency, 1614) clearly demonstrates a direct concern with the education of the young, absolute ruler. Yet with Nero’s awakening thirst for power, Seneca found himself in a position of complicity, and his literary and rhetorical skills were compromised. In 59 c.e., after Nero ordered the assassination of his (Nero’s) mother, it was Seneca who drafted the son’s speech, which cleverly concealed the facts.

Seneca’s final request for retirement in 62 c.e. was refused by Nero, who kept him in Rome, although removed now from the court. Seneca’s best philosophical work was written during this time; in his remaining three years, he finished De providentia (c. 63-64 c.e.; On Providence, 1614) and wrote Quaestiones naturales (c. 62-64 c.e.; Natural Questions, 1614) and his influential Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (c. 62-65 c.e.; Letters to Lucilius, 1917-1925), in which he establishes the form of the essay. Early in 65 c.e., a probably false accusation implicated Seneca in a conspiracy to assassinate Nero, who ordered him to commit suicide. With Stoic tranquillity and in the tradition of Socrates and Cato the Younger, Seneca opened his arteries and slowly bled to death, dying in Rome. His literary accomplishments survived, and have influenced generations of readers.