Seneca

Jula Wildberger (American University of Paris)
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In terms of influence, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (c. 1 BCE – 65 CE) had no equal among the writers of his times. His prose became the paragon of a new style in contrast to the classical Latin of Cicero or the even older archaic diction that began to be favoured by men of letters in the second century (Aulus Gellius 12.2; Fronto. “Letter to Marcus Aurelius about Speeches” 2, p. 153-4 van den Hout). Quintilian, a star advocate and rhetorician some forty years younger than Seneca, presents a reading list for the Roman orator – our earliest history of Greek and Latin literature – in which Seneca is reserved for an unusually long discussion and given a special place of pride, as well as blame, at the very end of the recommendations. The rhetorician professes that he had always regarded it as necessary to warn of Seneca’s unhealthy influence since he was “more or less the only author in the hands of the younger generation”, who were now quite slavishly aping the “sweet vices” of his diction rather than his virtues (Institutio Oratoria 10.1.125-31; Dominik 1997; Habinek 2000; on Seneca’s style see, e.g., Husner 1924; Traina 1974; Bishop 1985; Billerbeck 1988; Armisen-Marchetti 1989; Hutchinson 1993; Setaioli 2000; Hine 2005; Wildberger 2010).

Together with the epic Pharsalia (or: Civil War) by Seneca’s nephew Lucan, who had learned a lot from his uncle, Seneca’s tragedies constitute the core of first century CE poetry before the Flavian era, and almost all that is left of post-archaic Roman tragedy. Their influence on Shakespeare and Renaissance drama in general should not be underestimated (Lefèvre 1978; Braden 1985; Miola 1992; Boyle 1997, 141-207).

As if this were not enough, Seneca was also an eminent author of philosophy, whose strong first-person voice resounds in Latin church fathers like Augustine (Doignon 1990; Traina 1997), just as it fuelled the Neo-Stoicism of Justus Lipsius and his circle (Morford 1991; Long 2003; Schäfer 2005) and inspired creative readings from the apocryphal correspondence between Seneca and the apostle Paul, known already to Hieronymus (De viris illustribus 12), up to contemporary readings such as Heiner Müller’s “Senecas Tod” (1992) or Luciano de Crescenzo’s Il Tempo e la Felicità (1998; on Seneca’s Nachleben see also Citti and Neri 2001; von Albrecht 2004; Ker 2009).

Life

In his life Seneca played a leading role as well. Born to a wealthy family of provincial landowners, he rose to become Nero’s spin doctor and advisor and one of the two men believed to have directed the fate of the Roman Empire during the happiest years of that young monarch’s reign.

Seneca’s father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Elder (born c. 55 BCE), also known as “Seneca rhetor”, originated from Corduba, the capital of the wealthy Romanized province Baetica, which was named after the river Baetis (now Guadalquivir) in southern Spain. The Elder Seneca was well off and also well connected, both in the province and in Rome. There he seems to have spent major stretches of his life as a leisured man of letters and avid listener of artful speeches performed by practitioners of the newly popular discipline of declamatio. As a very old man, drawing on his notes and his prodigious memory, he compiled excerpts of such speeches in two collections (Controversiae and Suasoriae), which demonstrate a certain family resemblance in style and manner of presentation among the Annaei (Trinacty 2009). After the Elder Seneca’s death at some time during the reign of Caligula (37-41 CE; Vottero 1998, 77), Seneca wrote a laudatory biography that may have introduced a posthumous edition of his father’s works (Frg. 97 Vottero).

Seneca’s mother Helvia, whom we know through a consolatory treatise addressed to her (Dialogus 12 = Ad Helviam matrem), was from southern Spain as well. She stayed in the province, where she gave birth to her three sons – Novatus (the oldest brother), Seneca (our author), and Mela (the father of Lucan) – supervising the family estates while her boys were educated in Rome under the direction of their father.

In the preface to a volume of his anthology (Controversiae 2, praef. 3-4), Seneca senior underscores the ambition of his two older sons Novatus and Seneca, whom he describes as embarking on a career to become Roman senators, in contrast to their younger brother Mela’s preference for a life of disinterested contemplation. Our author himself, however, almost never mentions his career as a public speaker and politician, and in the rare cases he does so, we encounter strong gestures of rejection. All his previous life was a waste of time, he says (Naturales quaestiones 3 praef. 2; Hine 2006); only late, after an Odyssey of errors, did he recognize the right path to a good life: retreat and full dedication to philosophy (Epistulae morales 8.3). Instead, he gratefully records what he has learned from his teachers: the Greek Neo-Pythagorean Sotion (Epistulae morales 49.2; 108.17-22), another Greek teacher, the Stoic Attalus (e.g. Epistulae morales 108.3) and the Roman orator-philosopher Papirius Fabianus (e.g. Epistulae morales 100), an adherent of a short-lived Roman school maintained by Q. Sextius and his son Sextius Niger, who according to Seneca had very much in common with the Stoics (Epistulae morales 64.2).

Seneca’s aunt, his mother’s stepsister, was married to C. Galerius, who from 16 CE until his death in 31 held the office of praefectus Aegypti, governing this vital province for the emperor. This was one of the most prestigious and influential positions a Roman knight in the Roman Empire could aspire to. Seneca spent some time in Egypt with his aunt and uncle to cure a severe illness, possibly consumption. Weak health and respiratory problems would continue to plague him throughout his life (Ad Helviam 19.2; Epistulae morales 54.1-2; 78.1-4; Griffin 1992, 42-3). It is not unlikely that this visit encouraged him to study and write about Egypt and its Cults (De situ et sacris Aegyptiorum), but it should also be noted that he became one of the wealthiest landowners in this province, second only to the emperor himself (Mratschek 1993, 308). With his aunt’s support Seneca began his senatorial career, rather late, obtaining the office of a quaestor not long before 39 CE. At that time, he was already a distinguished orator, so much so that emperor Caligula deemed him worthy of derogatory remarks which were recorded (Suetonius. Gaius 53). It could seem at least a plausible anecdote that Caligula, begrudging him his talent, wanted to do away with him and only desisted because an unknown lady at his court told him that the orator was terminally ill and would soon pass away in any case (Cassius Dio 59.19).

Whatever the historical facts, Seneca managed to survive Caligula’s reign – only to be exiled at the end of 41, not long after he had lost his father and his only son (Ad Helviam 2.4-5). Under Caligula’s uncle and successor, the new emperor Claudius, he was accused of having committed adultery with Caligula’s sister Iulia Livilla and relegated to Corsica. It cannot be excluded that he actually had an affair with that princess, but his conviction might quite as well have served as the convenient pretext for incriminating the woman. Adultery was the usual indictment in such cases, and it should be noted that Seneca was punished rather lightly, neither losing his life nor his property. On the other hand, he seems not to have been a stranger to Caligula’s family. It was another of Caligula’s sisters, Agrippina, who in the meantime had become the wife of Claudius, that secured an amnesty for Seneca early in 49. As Tacitus puts it:

But not to have reputation only for evil deeds, Agrippina successfully petitioned for remission in the case of Annaeus Seneca’s exile, and a praetorship for him along with it. She thought this measure would prove popular in view of Seneca’s literary fame, and she also planned to have Domitius’ [= Nero’s] early years mature under such a teacher. Moreover, they would profit from the man’s advice in their imperial aspirations, for (it was believed) Seneca would be loyal to Agrippina through remembrance of her benefaction, and hostile to Claudius because of the wrong he had suffered. (Annales 12.8, Transl. J. C. Yardley 2008, slightly altered)

If it had not been clear to him from the beginning, Seneca must soon have realized that Agrippina was promoting the succession of her own son Nero, to the detriment of Britannicus, Claudius’ son with the previous empress Messalina and lawful heir to the throne. According to the historians, Claudius finally began to oppose these attempts in 54, but died all of a sudden before anything was achieved, poisoned, as the rumours went, by his niece and wife Agrippina. At last Seneca was able to express his dislike of the old emperor in his scathing Pumkinification of Claudius (Apoocolocynthosis), a satire in the Menippean style of mixing verse and prose that dramatizes the failed apotheosis of the deceased monarch.

As friend and mentor of Nero and as ghost-writer of the new emperor’s speeches (Tacitus. Annales 13.3; see also Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria 8.5.18), Seneca must have had some influence on the administration of the empire, although the extent and precise nature of his impact is difficult to assess. Apart from the consulship in 56 – modestly after his older brother and only as suffectus – he did not hold any public office. It is clear that whatever factual power he had rested on a solid military basis since he cooperated with Afranius Burrus, the commander of the palace guards (praetoriani), and lost his influence soon after Burrus’ death in 62. Seneca must have been involved in the unsavoury power struggle between Nero and his mother Agrippina, which soon induced Nero to murder Britannicus, his rival to the throne. Very likely Seneca was one of those close and powerful friends that saw themselves enmeshed in Nero’s crime by, willingly or unwillingly, accepting the emperor’s liberal gifts of villas and palaces “as part of the prey, so to speak” (Tacitus. Annales 13.18) – if a murder had been committed at all (doubts are raised, e.g., by Barrett 1996, 140-1. 171-2; less sceptical is Schmitzer 2005).

In 59, when Nero turned against his mother herself, Seneca and Burrus came to the rescue after a first attempt to murder her had failed: someone was found to complete the crime, and a cover-up story explaining her death was presented to the public. This, at least, is the account of Tacitus (Annales 14.7-11), who for the most part used sources favourable to Seneca and in general does not appear hostile to our author (Griffin 1992, 441-4; see also Abel 1991; Turpin 1998; Brinkmann 2002; Schmal 2008; Ker 2009). Tacitus devotes two emblematic scenes to the downfall of the philosopher near the emperor’s throne, one in which Seneca is dismissed and at the same time not dismissed from court (Annales 14.52-6 in 62 CE) and another, Seneca’s great death scene in 65, presented as the “emblem of his life” (imago uitae suae), which has become famous through a host of treatments and imitations in literature and the visual arts (Annales 15.60-64; Ker 2009). The scene also serves as a monument for Seneca’s beloved and loyal second wife Paulina (Epist. 104.1-2): much younger than her husband, she did not wish to be left behind when he was ordered to commit suicide by Nero, but had her veins cut as well. Her death was prevented by Nero’s henchmen, and so stayed alive for a few more years, devoting herself to the memory of her husband, “her face and limbs bleached to a pallor that displayed how much of her vital spirit breath she had already poured forth” (Annales 15.64).

Such a life raises controversies, and already in the centuries after Seneca’s death we find traces of two contrary strands of assessment. One side praises Seneca as a man of moral principles and a generous benefactor, who used his influence on Nero to prevent bloodshed as long as he could (Tacitus. Annales 13.2; Martial 12.36; Iuvenal 5.108-10); the other side accuses him of hypocrisy, intimating that it was his greed which caused the revolt of Boudicca in Britain and that he did not hesitate to abuse his power to incriminate an opponent (Cassius Dio 61.10; 62.2.1; Tacitus. Annales 13.42-3; Griffin 1992, 427-37; Trillitzsch 1971). Seneca’s frequent praises of a simple life-style and his confessed admiration for ascetics like the Cynic Demetrius (e.g. De beneficiis 7.1) for many readers lose their credibility in view of the fact that he acquired a fortune equivalent to the possessions of a multi-billionaire today (Mratschek 1993, 307-8). The recent death of Britannicus, whether disregarded or not, tinges any reading of Seneca’s political treatise and mirror for a prince On Mercy (De clementia), in which the author professes the need to curb Nero’s extraordinarily strong dislike of violence according to the rational limits set out by Stoic principles.

In general, is it not unlikely that a number of Seneca’s works served practical ends in addition to their intellectual agenda, e.g. as a personal apology (Griffin 1992, 17 on De vita beata); as a demonstration that he and his family were aligned with the right kind of people (Stewart 1953 on Dialogus 6 = Ad Marciam) or that he had been banished unjustly and should be recalled from exile (Dialogi 11 and 12, the consolation of his mother Helvia and the one for Claudius’ freedman Polybius, which is full of flattery for Polybius himself and his beloved master); or again as a cover-up for the involuntary retreat of Seneca’s father-in-law (Griffin 1992, 401-7 on De brevitate vitae) and possibly of Seneca himself, when in the Epistulae morales, which he probably began to compose after his break with Nero in 62, he presents his letter-writing self as old, frail and weary of public appearances.

Works

Quintilian highlights the breadth of Seneca’s oeuvre, mentioning “speeches, poems, letters and dialogues” (orationes […] et poemata et epistolae et dialogi). In several respects, this list is at odds with the corpus of extant works. It does not contain, for example, De Clementia and the Apocolocynthosis, two of the works mentioned above.

More strikingly, there is no explicit reference to drama. Tacitus has some enemies of Seneca accuse him of writing “poems” more frequently since Nero became interested in poetry himself (Ann. 14.52.3 carmina; see also Plinius, Epistulae 5.3.2; Vottero 1997, T 14-16), and several epigrams have been transmitted under Seneca’s name (Bajoni 1990; Dingel 2007; Breitenbach 2010). Until the 17th century there persisted the idea that the tragedies belong to a different author, “Seneca Tragicus”, who was then identified with Seneca’s father (Bocciolini Palagi 1978; van der Poel 1984). However, the epigrams are most likely spurious, and since we do not have any other poetry by our author, the word “poems” in Quintilian is usually taken to refer to, or at least include, the eight tragedies Agamemnon, Hercules Furens, Medea, Oedipus, Phaedra, Phoenissae, Thyestes and Troades ascribed to a Seneca in the manuscript tradition. It is now widely agreed that Hercules Oetaeus was written by someone else, just like the Roman historical tragedy (praetexta) Octavia transmitted together with these plays, which dramatizes the death of Claudius’ daughter Octavia at the orders of her husband Nero and features Seneca as one of its characters.

There is no conclusive evidence that would allow a secure dating of the tragedies. Stylistic analysis, passages that might include topical references to datable events, and assumptions about the dangers that a certain plot might have been taken as an allusion to imperial crimes are adduced for staking out a time frame between 49 and 54 for the majority of the plays and after 62 for Thyestes and Phoenissae (Nisbet; Fitch 2008, 20).

The plays are modelled on and engage with their famous counterparts by the three great Attic tragedians, but composed in the baroque, sententious, highly rhetorical and often gory style of first century Rome (Burck 1971; Hutchinson 1993). The preponderance of speech and static description led to the thesis that the tragedies were written for recitation rather than for actual performance on stage (Zwierlein 1966), a thesis whose refutation has yielded a better understanding of the form and functioning of Senecan drama in contrast to its Attic forebears (Braun 1981. 1982; Sutton 1986; Harrison 2000; Stroh 2008).

Another question frequently raised with regard to the tragedies is their relation to Seneca’s philosophical work and the philosopher’s ideas about poetry and drama (Dingel 1970; Staley 2010). While some read the plays as a dramatic exemplification of tenets and values professed by Seneca philosophus (Marti 1947; Wiener 2006; more moderate: Hine 2004), others analyze philosophy as a means rather than the end of Seneca’s dramatic art, highlighting for example his aesthetics of cosmic inversion (Rosenmeyer 1989; Schmitz 1993) or the power of passions to counter authorial control and shape their own representation (Schiesaro 2003).

Among the prose works in Quintilian’s list we can recognize the Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (“Letters to Lucilius about ethical questions”), Seneca’s most famous and influential creation. “Dialogues” is the name of a collection of ten prose texts transmitted together under this title in one manuscript, which was the source of all extant copies (Reynolds 1968. 1977). The pieces themselves are a rather diverse body of writings, whose common denominators are the overall subject area and the fact that they are short in comparison to the larger treatises and the Epistulae morales. None of the Dialogi is a dialogue in the proper sense of the word. Seneca’s prose is always dialogic insofar as there is a constant presence of someone the author talks to – be it the addressee, an anonymous interlocutor or an anonymous second person plural. But only Dialogus 9 = De tranquillitate animi (“On Peace of Mind”) shows the rudiments of a prose drama: it begins with an extensive utterance made by the addressee Annaeus Serenus, who lays out the symptoms of his mental discomfort, while Seneca’s diagnosis and suggestions for therapy make up the rest of the Dialogus. Therapy of emotions is also the focus of the three-book treatise On Anger (Dialogi 3-5 = De ira) and the three consolations addressed to Marcia, Helvia and Polybius (Dialogi 6, 11 and 12). The other Dialogi concern various questions of what is good or bad in moral agency: a defence of divine providence, asserting that a good person never suffers true evil (Dialogus 1 = De providentia); an argument that the sage never suffers any harm (Dialogus 2 = De constantia sapientis); a discussion of the nature the good life (Dialogus 7 = De vita beata); a justification of a retreat from public life (Dialogus 8 = De Otio); advice on how one should use one’s time and properly assess its value (Dialogus 9 = De brevitate vitae). In terms of genre, these latter Dialogi are disputationes, speeches on a philosophical question of theoretical or hortatory content, often designed for a larger audience and thus more polished and elaborated than other modes of presentation at the philosopher’s school (Halbauer 1911, 17-18). Seneca himself refers to disputationes as something practiced both by professional philosophers and members of the learned elite to which he himself belonged (e.g. Epistulae morales 7.9; 20.2; 38.1; 40.12; 49.12; 75.2; 76.1), and from his comments on Fabianus’ style (Epistulae morales 100.1-3) it is clear that such disputationes were often published in written form later. It is, however, doubtful that they should be identified with the ‘speeches’ in Quintilian’s list. These probably were forensic orations now lost to us (Vottero 1998 T 2-13; p. 11-13).

Not mentioned by Quintilian, but probably included in his reference to Seneca’s wide range of learning, are further treatises and disputationes of which we know the titles and have fragments, e.g. on marriage (De matriomonio) or superstition (De superstitione). Also omitted are the other large multi-volume works we know of: On benefits (De beneficiis), written after Claudius’ death and before the Epistulae morales (Benef. 1.15.6; Epist. 81.3; Griffin 1992, 399; Griffin and Inwood 2011, 3); the lost Libri moralis philosophiae, an encyclopedia of ethics that Seneca had begun to write in the last years of his life (Epistulae morales 109.17; Vottero T 90-96); and the Natural Questions (Naturales quaestiones), an exploration of the sublunar world , which achieves a striking blend of Greek natural science and Roman ethics (Gauly 2004; Hine 2006 and 2010).

Apart from their intrinsic value, Seneca’s philosophical works are an important source for our knowledge of ancient Stoicism. Recent scholarship increasingly shows the depth and precision of his engagement with this school. Strong influences of Platonism and of Epicurus’ thought and writings can also be detected (Donini 1982; Helmig and Bonazzi 2007; Mutschmann 1915; Schottlaender 1954-55; Setaioli 1988; Obstoj 1989). Nevertheless, the view that Seneca was an eclectic more interested in moral edification than the rigors of systematic thought is now being abandoned (Inwood 2005. 2007; Wildberger 2006. 2010). The immediacy of his appealing hortatory style still touches many of his readers – and disgusts others. It is not only a prominent example of Latin “diatribic” speech and thus a model for both preachers and essayists, it is also the vehicle for the voice of a fallible, broken but engaging authority, not unlike that of Cicero in his letters to Atticus, one of Seneca’s models for the Epistulae morales (21.4; 97; 118.1). Even though for Seneca conscientia does not yet mean “conscience” in our modern sense of phenomenal awareness, his reflexive, often almost confessional, epistolary soliloquies and his constant attention to the various ways in which the world appears to and presses upon us are a milestone on humankind’s quest toward understanding what it means to have a conscious self (Misch 1907; Hadot 1969; Foucault 1986; Edwards 1997; Inwood 2005, 322-52; Bartsch and Wray 2009; for the tragedies compare, e.g., Segal 1983; Fitch and McElduff 2002; Littlewood 2004).

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Citation: Wildberger, Jula. "Seneca". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 February 2012 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=4012, accessed 26 February 2024.]

4012 Seneca 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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