Seneca the Younger (Lucius Annaeus Seneca Minor) was born around the year 4 BCE in Cordoba in southern Spain. He was a rhetorician, writer, poet and Roman philosopher. Called the “Philosopher” he was the son of Seneca the Elder (Seneca Maior) called “Rhetor” (Seneca Rhetor). He was the educator of Emperor Nero’s, at the beginning of his reign he had considerable influence in the court.
Origin and early life
He was the second son of Hevia and Lucius Annaeus Seneca. His older brother Junius Annaeus Gallio was proconsul of one of the Roman provinces. The younger brother was Annaeus Mela.
There are doubts as to the date of his birth. Very little information about Seneca’s early life has survived to this day. According to historian Miriam T. Griffin, he could have been born in 8, 4 or 1 BCE. According to her, it is most likely that he was born between 4 and 1 BCE and moved to Rome in 5 CE. Sam Seneca stated that he had arrived in Rome in the arms of his mother’s half-sister.
In his youth, Seneca studied rhetoric and philosophy in Rome. His first teacher Attalos instilled in his interest in Stoic philosophy. Due to poor health, Seneca went to Egypt in 16 CE. He returned to Rome in 31 CE. Ten years later, however, he was sent by Corso Claudius under the influence of his third wife Messalina. Seneca never forgave the emperor for his exile and after his death, he wrote in his honour a malicious panegyric Praise of the divine Claudius.
Guardian of Nero
He returned from exile while this ruler was alive, this time through the intercession of his fourth wife, Agrippina, who in 49 CE made him the educator of her son, the future Emperor Nero. After the death of Claudius in 54 CE, Seneca, together with the prefect Burrus, became one of the main advisers to young, then only 17-year-old Nero. In the first years of his reign, Nero was not interested in politics and listened to the advice of his educators.
This is what Tacitus writes about it:
The tendency, in fact, was towards murder, had not Afranius Burrus and Seneca intervened. Both guardians of the imperial youth, and — a rare occurrence where power is held in partnership — both in agreement, they exercised equal influence by contrasted methods; and Burrus, with his soldierly interests and austerity, and Seneca, with his lessons in eloquence and his self-respecting courtliness, aided each other to ensure that the sovereign’s years of temptation should, if he were scornful of virtue, be restrained within the bounds of permissible indulgence.
– Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 2
The beneficial influence of Burrus and Seneca on Nero is also confirmed by another Roman historian Cassius Dion.
Criticism of Seneca and wealth
Cassius Dio also mentions a less glorious chapter in Seneca’s life. Seneca was to be involved in offering high-interest loans (40 million sesterces) to the local aristocracy after the Britain conquest by Claudius in 43 CE. He then demanded the sudden payment of his debt, which, according to Cassius Dio, led directly to the outbreak of the Boudica Rebellion1.
Tacitus mentions that in 58 CE Senator Publius Sullius Rufus accused Seneca of enriching herself at the expense of the Italian population and the provinces. According to Cassius Dion, his fortune was then estimated at 300 million sesterces. The Roman poet Martialis, irritated by the sulk and greed of the Roman aristocracy, referred to him as Seneca praedives, meaning “Super-Rich Seneca”. Seneca owned estates incl. in Baja, Nomentum and in Egypt itself.
At that time, Seneca made the treatise De vita beata (“On the Happy Life”), in which he defended himself by claiming that living in wealth was in line with the Stoic philosophy. In his opinion, wealth is neither good nor bad, but it is useful in ensuring the comfort of life. Additionally, he states that the sage is served by wealth more than poverty (paupertas), and that money can act as an instrument in attaining virtue. Interestingly, Stoicism made it clear that the most important value in life is the virtue that brings happiness; wealth, health, freedom or social status do not affect this. Thus, Seneca clearly tried to save face, and they also prove their hypocrisy.
Finally, it is worth quoting the words of Seneca himself in Epistles: “It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor”.
Seneca was a stoic, philosophizing within the tradition of Stoic thought, although he refers to the thoughts of many earlier non-stoic philosophers, hence the philosophy of Seneca as syncretizing. Seneca, however, created his own original concept of philosophy. The language of Seneca’s philosophy was Latin. He distinguished three main branches of philosophy: ethics, logic and physics, with the first, like the earlier Stoics, the most important. His philosophy is therapeutic and wisdom. Seneca appears in her works as a soul doctor, life therapist.
In anthropology, he is a dualist. He considers the body to be a prison of the soul. In ethics, he orders to combat and eliminate feelings, especially the most dangerous of them – anger. Virtuous action is voluntary and understandable, and the entity acting according to their commands will achieve happiness. Only virtue gives happiness.
Seneca’s views were widely known among Roman plebes. The philosopher was opposed to gladiator fights, and his dislike of this type of games was widely known even in the environment of gladiators themselves. An inscription was discovered in one of the Pompeii dining rooms: The philosopher Annaeus Senecas is the only Roman writer to condemn the bloody games.
Early Christianity was very positive about Seneca and his views. Tertullian, a Christian thinker from the 2nd/3rd century CE, described him as “our Seneca”.
Removal from power
Over time, the influence of Seneca and Burrus on the emperor decreased. In 59 CE, with the quiet approval of Seneca and Burrus, Nero ordered the murder of his influential mother. Tacitus mentions that Seneca then had to translate Nero before the Senate.
After Burrus’s death in 62 CE, Seneca’s position in Nero’s eyes decreased to such an extent that he preferred to move away from the imperial palace. He asked Nero for an audience and with his consent, he retired from public office. He explained himself with the need for rest, age and generally poor health. Accused of excessive wealth, he went to the province, where he devoted himself to meditation. Sometimes he visited Rome.
However, leaving Rome did not save him from Nero’s suspicion. Seneca was accused in 65 CE of participating in a Pizon plot against Nero’s life. Seneca’s involvement in the plot seems unlikely. The former pupil of the philosopher at that time was already afraid of the influence and seriousness of Seneca and sought the opportunity to get rid of the uncomfortable witness of his crimes. Finally, he sent a squad of soldiers to give them to Seneca, which sentenced Nero to death.
Tacitus writes about Seneca’s reaction to this judgment:
[…] nothing daunted, asked for the tablets containing his will. The centurion refusing, he turned to his friends, and called them to witness that “as he was prevented from showing his gratitude for their services, he left them his sole but fairest possession — the image of his life. If they bore it in mind, they would reap the reward of their loyal friendship in the credit accorded to virtuous accomplishments.” At the same time, he recalled them from tears to fortitude, sometimes conversationally, sometimes in sterner, almost coercive tones. “Where,” he asked, “were the maxims of your philosophy? Where that reasoned attitude towards impending evils which they had studied through so many years? For to whom had Nero’s cruelty been unknown? Nor was anything left him, after the killing of his mother and his brother, but to add the murder of his guardian and preceptor.”
After these and some similar remarks, which might have been meant for a wider audience, he embraced his wife, and, softening momentarily in view of the terrors at present threatening her, begged her, conjured her, to moderate her grief — not to take it upon her for ever, but in contemplating the life he had spent in virtue to find legitimate solace for the loss of her husband. Paulina replied by assuring him that she too had made death her choice, and she demanded her part in the executioner’s stroke. Seneca, not wishing to stand in the way of her glory, and influenced also by his affection, that he might not leave the woman who enjoyed his whole-hearted love exposed to outrage, now said: “I had shown you the mitigations of life, you prefer the distinction of death: I shall not grudge your setting that example. May the courage of this brave ending be divided equally between us both, but may more of fame attend your own departure!” Aforesaid, they made the incision in their arms with a single cut. Seneca, since his aged body, emaciated further by frugal living, gave slow escape to the blood, severed as well the arteries in the leg and behind the knee.20 Exhausted by the racking pains, and anxious lest his sufferings might break down the spirit of his wife, and he himself lapse into weakness at the sight of her agony, he persuaded her to withdraw into another bedroom. And since, even at the last moment his eloquence remained at command, he called his secretaries, and dictated a long discourse, which has been given to the public in his own words, and which I therefore refrain from modifying.
– Tacitus, Annals, XV, 62,63
The verdict was clear, Seneca was to commit honorary suicide. Seneca cut himself several veins to bleed out. His young wife Pompei Paulina also decided to give her life. Tacitus claims that Nero, being full of admiration for marital fidelity, ordered Paulina to save her. Due to a poor diet and serious age, blood from the cut veins of Seneca flowed very slowly. It hurt him more than it had the intended effect. In addition, the philosopher took poison, which also did not bring the expected results.
After dictating the scribe’s last words, he ordered to plunge into the hot waters of the bathhouse. The heat opened the vessels, accelerated the flow of blood and ended its life. His body was then burned.