Seneca the Younger

(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

0111201580-Seneca.jpg Seneca the Younger (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.


Seneca (SEHN-ih-kuh) the Younger was born into a wealthy Roman family living in the province of Spain. His father, Seneca the Elder, sent him to Rome to be educated in the best rhetorical schools in preparation for a career in Roman politics. In addition to rhetoric, Seneca studied philosophy, particularly Stoicism. His public career was punctuated by reversals of fortune that would test the fortitude of even a Stoic saint. By 37 c.e., Seneca was a renowned public speaker and had won appointments to several political positions. However in 41 c.e., the emperor Claudius was persuaded by his wife, Messallina, to send Seneca into exile. In 49 c.e., after Valeria Messallina was executed for conspiring against Claudius, his new wife, Agrippina the Younger, convinced him to recall Seneca to Rome to be tutor for her twelve-year-old son, Domitius (later called Nero).

At Claudius’s death in 54 c.e., the young Domitius (Nero) became emperor and retained Seneca as a close adviser. Despite the philosopher’s influence, Nero became increasingly violent. In 59 c.e., for example, he ordered the bludgeoning death of his mother. In 62 c.e., Seneca asked Nero for permission to retire from the imperial court. In 65 c.e., he was accused, perhaps wrongly, of plotting to assassinate the emperor, and he committed suicide.

Despite the demands of his public life, Seneca was a prolific writer. He is the author of essays that elucidate Stoic teachings on such topics as mercy, anger, kindness, fate, happiness, and peace of mind. Also extant is a collection of 124 letters in which he discusses ethical issues. In addition, he composed a book about natural phenomena. Seneca is traditionally considered to be the author of nine tragedies on themes from Greek mythology, such as Medea, Oedipus, and Hercules. Also attributed to him is a satire about the death of the emperor Claudius, Apocolcyntosis divi Claudii (c. 54 c.e.; The Deification of Claudius, 1614).


Seneca’s philosophic...

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Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In addition to tragedies, Seneca wrote a number of moral essays, or “dialogues,” each dealing with a particular philosophical concept, such as providence, anger, and the happy life, and several consolatory essays (one addressed to Marcia on the loss of her son, another to Polybius on the loss of his brother, a third to his mother, Helvia, to console her for his absence when he was exiled to Corsica). He also wrote a treatise, De clementia (c. 55-56 c.e.; On Clemency, 1614), addressed to the young Emperor Nero, a lengthy discourse, De beneficiis (c. 58-63 c.e.; On Benefits, 1614), a scientific work entitled Quaestiones naturales (c. 62-64 c.e.; Natural Questions, 1614), and more than one hundred moral epistles covering innumerable ethical and philosophical topics pertinent to humankind’s daily existence: the quest for virtue, the exposure of vice, the extolling of friendship, the condemnation of war, beneficence to slaves, and the distempers of modern humanity—people’s boredom, despair, restlessness, and insecurity. Finally Seneca wrote a satire concerning the dead Emperor Claudius entitled Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (c. 54 c.e.; The Deification of Claudius, 1614).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Seneca—philosopher, statesman, tutor, minister, and victim of Nero—was one of the most renowned political and literary figures of Imperial Rome. A writer accomplished in many genres, Seneca was the author of intense tragedies, brilliant moral epistles, persuasive philosophical essays, learned scientific treatises, and a witty, entertaining satire. This polymath, this Renaissance man, was an innovative, creative artist, one who originated a new type of drama, as well as a new literary prose style. He not only transmitted Stoic philosophy to his contemporaries but also altered and improved it, making its doctrines less rigid, more personal, more humane.

Although Seneca allied himself to the Stoics more closely than to any other philosophical sect, it was his practice to cull his precepts from many varied sources, binding himself to the dogmas of no particular school, philosopher, or author. His writings reveal him as an eclectic and a seeker after truth: “I can dispute with Socrates, doubt with Carneades, achieve tranquility with Epicurus, conquer human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics.”

Seneca’s wide-ranging eclecticism stems from the varied nature of his life, his studies, and his interests. As a youth, he came under the influence of philosophers of the various schools. At the outset of his career, he pursued a legal practice. He traveled to Egypt, took an interest in farming and in vine-growing, and achieved...

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Seneca the Younger

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

Seneca was remembered by later generations of Romans as one of their most beloved and courageous philosophers and statesmen. Born of a wealthy Italian family of aristocratic rank in Spain, he received a first-rate education in rhetoric, law, and philosophy. Although he established an enviable reputation early on as a brilliant court orator and writer, it was as tutor and adviser to Nero that he exercised his greatest influence on Rome. As a Stoic philosopher, Seneca encouraged his pupil to follow the traditional ideals of duty, compassion, restraint, and seriousness of purpose in governing the Roman Empire. Unfortunately, Nero soon demonstrated that such lessons were lost on him, engaging in murderous excesses similar to those that had plagued his predecessors’ reigns. In 62 c.e. Seneca asked to retire to his country estates and bequeath his vast fortune to the emperor. Following the unsuccessful Pisonian conspiracy against Nero, Seneca was accused of complicity in the plot and forced to commit suicide. There is little to suggest that Seneca was a conspirator, and Nero more than likely saw this as a convenient pretext for eliminating a man who had so recently and publicly served as his “conscience.”

Further Reading:

Boyle, A. J. Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1997. A study of Seneca’s tragedies and his influence on Renaissance dramatists. Includes bibliography and index.

Davis, Peter J. Shifting Song: The Chorus in Seneca’s Tragedies. New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1993. An examination of Seneca’s tragedies and...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Does the stoicism of Seneca the Younger ever undermine the effect of his tragedies?

What thematic differences are there between Euripides’ Mdeia (431 b.c.e.; (Medea, 1781) and Seneca’s Medea?

What do Seneca’s plays reveal about the characteristics of his Roman audiences?

In addition to some of his characters, William Shakespeare was influenced by Seneca in the construction of his plays, in their supernatural features, and in other ways. Review this influence.

Investigate Edith Hamilton’s assertion that Seneca’s tragedies exemplify “the Roman way as distinguished from the Greek way.”


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Further Reading:

Boyle, A. J. Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1997. A study of Seneca’s tragedies and his influence on Renaissance dramatists. Includes bibliography and index.

Davis, Peter J. Shifting Song: The Chorus in Seneca’s Tragedies. New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1993. An examination of Seneca’s tragedies and Latin drama, with emphasis on the use of the chorus. Includes bibliography.

Griffin, Miriam T. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. 1976. Reprint. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. A biography of Seneca that examines his...

(The entire section is 481 words.)