Book Club Discussion Series | Seneca, Part 1: Introductory Notes
Kosmos Society Book Club Discussion Series
March 2017: Seneca’s Phaedra
Seneca | Part One: Introductory Notes
A guest post by Georgia Strati
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (known as Seneca the Younger) was, according to the standard biographical entries, a Roman philosopher, statesman, orator, and tragedian, living between c. 4 BCE (reign of Augustus), when he was born in Corduba (modern Córdoba), Spain, and 65 CE (reign of Nero), the year of his death in Rome.
The key moment in his life is considered the fact that he became first tutor and gradually the political advisor of Nero when the latter became Roman emperor in 54 CE. The challenge of assessing Seneca’s life and philosophical integrity is a particular demanding one, since his ethical and didactic Stoic writings do not necessarily and always correlate with all dimensions of his life practices. One of the main accusations—even during his time by his contemporaries—was that he himself was enjoying great wealth, cultivating a luxurious style at the court of Nero, while at the same time and on a theoretical level he was praising the merits of poverty. Dio Cassius (c. 150–235 CE), Roman historian and author of Ῥωμαϊκά (Roman History), writing about Seneca and accentuating these points famously calls him τυραννοδιδάσκαλο (teacher of a tyrant):
οὐ μόνον δὲ ἐν τούτῳ ἀλλὰ καὶ ἐν ἄλλοις πάντα
τὰ ἐναντιώτατα οἷς ἐφιλοσόφει ποιῶν ἠλέγχθη.
καὶ γὰρ τυραννίδος κατηγορῶν τυραννοδιδάσκαλος ἐγίνετο,
καὶ τῶν συνόντων τοῖς δυνάσταις κατατρέχων οὐκ ἀφίστατο τοῦ παλατίου…
Nor was this the only instance in which his conduct was seen to be
diametrically opposed to the teachings of his philosophy.
For while denouncing tyranny, he was making himself the teacher of a tyrant;
while inveighing against the associates of the powerful,
he did not hold aloof from the palace himself;
(Dio Cassius. Roman History, Volume VIII: Books 61–70, Epitome of Book LXI.10.2: p. 56–57.
Translated by Earnest Cary, Herbert B. Foster. Loeb Classical Library 176. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925)
Seneca’s relationship with Nero, for which he was mainly criticized, especially after the unscrupulous series of murders by the latter, eventually deteriorated reaching the climax point of absolute alienation when he was accused by the emperor of being part of the so called Pisonian Conspiracy, named after the head or figure head C. Calpurnius Piso, aiming to kill him. In April of 65 CE, Seneca was allowed to take his own life, as happened to most men of his rank, after an imperial command ordered his death. Tacitus’ description of Seneca’s death parallels for many the death of Socrates: Seneca rebukes the tears of his followers; he impassively carries out the sentence, committing suicide almost willingly; he even takes hemlock when his bleeding cuts (in arms, ankles, and knees) prove ineffectual (though his lack of blood circulation blocks the poison from taking effect.) He finally has to suffocate in a vapor bath. At all times during the suicide he discourses eloquently and stoically, and he even dictates an extensive text … after opening his veins. He offers a libation, to Jupiter Liberator (evidently a reference to the liberation of the soul in death) and exhorts his friends to live by his philosophical teachings.”
Even if the question of an eventual conscious imitation of the death of Socrates is yet to be answered and has already been challenged by some scholars, as uncontested remains the fact that both reports of their deaths, as presented in Tacitus and in Plato’s Phaedo respectively, depict thinkers who both died engaged in philosophical discourse among friends:
Ille interritus poscit testamenti tabulas; ac denegante centurione
conversus ad amicos, quando meritis eorum referre gratiam prohiberetur,
quod unum iam et tamen pulcherrimum habeat, imaginem vitae suae
relinquere testatur, cuius si memores essent, bonarum artium famam fructum constantis amicitiae laturos.
(Annales ab excessu divi Augusti. Cornelius Tacitus.
Charles Dennis Fisher. Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1906.
Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will,
and, on the centurion’s refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that
as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only,
but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him,
the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered,
they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship.
(Complete Works of Tacitus. Tacitus. Alfred John Church.
William Jackson Brodribb. Sara Bryant. edited for Perseus.
New York. Random House, Inc. Random House, Inc. reprinted 1942.)
The examination of the imago vitae suae is to be further pursued.
Please join in the ongoing conversation.
Georgia Strati is a lawyer by education and has been studying Classics since 2003.
Bartsch, Shadi/Schiesaro, Alessandro 2015, Seneca: An Introduction, in: S. Bartsch/ A. Schiesaro (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Seneca, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1-12.
Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Compton.Victim_of_the_Muses.2006
Griffin, Miriam T. 1974. Imago Vitae Suae, in: C.D.N. Costa (ed.), Seneca, London/Boston: Routledge/Kegan Paul, 1-38.
Veyne, Paul 2003. Seneca, The Life of a Stoic, New York/London: Routledge.
 For primary biographical information, see the relevant entry in Encyclopedia Britannica, available under: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lucius-Annaeus-Seneca-Roman-philosopher-and-statesman. For a more detailed presentation of his life and works, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/seneca/#H1
 Biographical accounts of this period are attested in the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus, who was only a child when Seneca died.
 On the problem of evaluating Seneca’s ethical premises under the scope of his lifestyle, see for example: S. Bartsch/A. Schiesaro (2015), 1ff.
 M. T. Griffin (1974), 31. See also P. Veyne (2003), 5–6.
 M. T. Griffin (1974), 24–25.
 For example, s. M. T. Griffin (1974), 28.
 See for example: P. Veyne (2003), 172.
 “For ancient philosophy, teaching by example was a necessity, even at the brink.” P. Veyne (2003), 172.
Image credit: Luca Giordano, The Death of Seneca, around 1684–1685, Louvre, via Wikimedia Commons