4 B.C.-A.D. 65
Roman statesman, philosopher, and writer
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, better known as Seneca the Younger, was a talented statesman, a respected philosopher*, and a gifted essayist and playwright. As an adviser to Emperor Nero for over a decade, he was one of the most powerful men in the Roman Empire. Seneca was a brilliant orator*, a shrewd businessman, and one of the richest men in the world. He also had one of the broadest literary talents ancient Rome was ever to see. Along with Cicero and Lucretius, he helped adapt Greek philosophy to the Latin language and the Roman way of life. His writings in philosophy and his plays in verse influenced many later writers, particularly in the Renaissance*.
Early Life and Education. Only a little is known of Seneca’s life before A.D. 41. He was born in Corduba (now Cordoba) in southern Spain in 4 B.C. to a very wealthy Italian family. He was the second son of Seneca (whom we know as Seneca the Elder), who was also a noted orator and writer. At about age eight, Seneca was sent to Rome with his aunt to study grammar and rhetoric*. He later studied philosophy and law.
Political Career. Through his aunt’s influence, Seneca was elected to his first government position, that of quaestor*. By the reign of Emperor Claudius, which began in A.D. 41, he had become well known as an orator. That same year, for reasons that are not clear—perhaps because Claudius was jealous of Seneca’s oratorical skills—the emperor exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. He remained in exile for eight years, writing extensively yet living a life of great poverty, until Claudius recalled him to Rome in A.D. 49 and made him a praetor* and tutor to the emperor’s adopted son, Nero, who was then 12 years old.
When Nero came to power in A.D. 54, Seneca became one of his two chief advisers. The other was the general Burrus. During the next eight years, Seneca and Burrus managed to guide Nero through a period of good government. It was Seneca who made sure that Nero treated the Senate with respect. Although a senior senator himself, Seneca did not regularly attend Senate meetings, preferring to work quietly behind the scenes. His role in government was not well defined, but he obviously had a great deal of power. Many of his relatives were given important government positions as well.
As time went on, Seneca had less influence over Nero’s behavior, which became increasingly offensive, even outrageous. By A.D. 59, Nero—suspicious of the people around him—had his own mother put to death. In A.D. 62, Seneca asked Nero to allow him to retire. Nero refused, but Seneca withdrew from public life anyway. He spent much of the rest of his life away from Rome, devoting himself to philosophy and writing. In A.D. 65, Nero accused Seneca of conspiracy against him and forced him to commit suicide.
Seneca's Philosophy. Seneca based his philosophical studies and writings on Stoicism*, which first arose in Greece around 300 B.C. However, he did not adhere to the strict Stoic teachings. Drawing upon other philosophical sources and his own personal views, he developed a broader vision of Stoicism by which he could live and teach others.
Like other Stoic philosophers, Seneca believed that everything that occurs in the universe happens according to a divine plan. To be happy, people must accept the fate that the gods deal them and live a life of virtue. In a life without virtue, even wealth and power cannot bring happiness. He stressed the kinship of all humans, even slaves, and he called for love and forgiveness among all people.
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* orator public speaker of great skill
* Renaissance period of the rebirth of interest in classical art, literature, and learning that occurred in Europe from the late 1300s through the 1500s
* rhetoric art of using words effectively in speaking or writing
* quaestor Roman financial officer who assisted a higher official such as a consul or praetor
* praetor Roman official, just below the consul in rank, in charge of judicial proceedings and of governing overseas provinces
* Stoicism philosophy that emphasized control over one’s thoughts and emotions
Seneca believed that philosophy should not be just an interesting intellectual game. It should be, first and foremost, a means of helping people learn how to live their lives so that they are content. Almost everything he wrote was intended to educate his readers so they could live virtuous lives. In addition to his contributions to philosophical ideas, Seneca made an important contribution to the Latin vocabulary of philosophy.
Seneca has often been criticized for praising poverty and the simple life while living a life of great wealth and power himself. He not only built on his large inheritance to become extremely wealthy, he also did little when Nero committed murders and other immoral acts. In his own defense, Seneca claimed that he was only human and had to struggle, as any other person would, to live a virtuous life. In fairness, it should also be noted that Seneca tried to convince Nero to be more moderate in his behavior and that he left Nero’s court when he no longer had any influence over the emperor.
Seneca’s Writings. Seneca wrote both prose and poetry. Most of his prose works are writings in philosophy, and most of his poetry works are plays. The two types of works are very different in style, so much so, in fact, that some scholars have questioned whether the same man wrote both of them. Seneca’s philosophical writings aspired toward moral tranquility and peace of mind. But his dark tragedies portrayed disturbing, bloody subjects and moral chaos.
Seneca’s philosophical works, which include Moral Essays, Letters to Lu- cilius, and Natural Questions, provide important insights for scholars interested in the history of Stoic philosophy. The philosophical works are also important as works of literature because of the brilliant, lively style in which they were written.
The Natural Questions concern events and processes in the natural world, or what is called physics today. The Moral Essays cover several basic moral issues, including friendship and mercy. Like sermons, they were intended to improve the morals of the reader. For example, Seneca wrote the essay on mercy to urge Nero to be more lenient. The Letters to Lucilius, taken together, are Seneca’s longest work. They address his personal moral concerns, such as how he could continue to serve future generations although he was retiring from politics. The letters are letters in form only—Seneca never intended them to be real correspondence. The variety of issues they address and their informal, yet beautifully crafted, style have made them the most popular of Seneca’s prose works. In this excerpt from Letter 41, Seneca applies the Stoic philosophy to everyday life:
In a human being too, what should be praised is what belongs to his own self. He has a fine household and a beautiful home, he cultivates a large estate, lends large amounts of money; none of these things is in himself, all are around him. Praise in him what cannot be snatched away and cannot be given, what is man’s peculiar quality. You ask what this is? His soul, and reason perfected in the soul.
Remember: Consult the index at the end of Volume 4 to find more Information on many topics.
Nine of Seneca’s plays survive, all of them tragedies. There is much debate on whether Seneca wrote his plays to be read or recited, or actually performed by actors on a stage. Modern productions suggest they can be effective theater. He modeled his plays after earlier Greek tragedies, and they include many Greek mythical figures, such as Hercules and Oedipus. But Seneca’s plays are filled with even more horror and violence than the Greek models on which they are based and leave almost nothing to the imagination of the reader. (See also Drama, Greek; Drama, Roman; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic; Philosophy, Roman; Praetor; Quaestor; Stoicism.)