Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus
born с 4 BC, Corduba, Spain
died AD 65, Rome

Roman philosopher, statesman, and playwright.

He was trained as an orator and began a career in politics and law in Rome с AD 31. While banished to Corsica for adultery (41–49), he wrote the philosophical treatises Consolationes. He later became tutor to the future emperor Nero and from 54 to 62 was a leading intellectual figure in Rome. An adherent of Stoicism, he wrote other philosophical works, including Moral Letters, a collection of essays on moral problems. He also left a series of verse tragedies marked by violence and bloodshed, including Thyestes, Hercules, and Medea. His plays influenced the development of Elizabethan drama during the Renaissance, notably William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (1593–94) and John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (с 1613).

Seneca, marble bust, 3rd century, after an original bust of the 1st century; in the Staatliche ...

By courtesy of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany

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▪ Roman author
born c. 55 BC, , Corduba, Spain
died AD 39, , Corduba?

      author of a Latin work on declamation, a form of rhetorical exercise. Only about half of his book, Oratorum sententiae divisiones colores, survives; a 4th-century epitome preserves some of the rest, including two more prefaces, giving lively sketches of the persons whom he quotes.

      Seneca disapproved of the artificial cleverness, often degenerating into absurdity, of many declaimers. He preferred the firmly disciplined style of Cicero. But he preserved some hundred examples of the declaimers' art. In the prefaces to the divisions of his work, he made valuable and amusing observations on the literary life of the early empire. He also preserved various accounts, such as Livy's, of the death of Cicero. The romantic topics of many of the suasoriae became part of the collection of tales known as the Gesta Romanorum.

▪ Roman philosopher and statesman [4 BC–AD 65]
byname  Seneca The Younger  
born c. 4 BC, , Corduba, Spain
died AD 65, , Rome
 Roman philosopher, statesman, orator, and tragedian. He was Rome's leading intellectual figure in the mid-1st century AD and was virtual ruler with his friends of the Roman world between 54 and 62 during the first phase of the emperor Nero's reign.

Early life and family
      Seneca was the second son of a wealthy family. The father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Elder), had been famous in Rome as a teacher of rhetoric; the mother, Helvia, was of excellent character and education; the older brother was Gallio, met by St. Paul in Achaea in AD 52; the younger brother was the father of the poet Lucan. An aunt took Lucius as a boy to Rome; there he was trained as an orator and educated in philosophy in the school of the Sextii, which blended Stoicism with an ascetic neo-Pythagoreanism. Seneca's health suffered, and he went to recuperate in Egypt, where his aunt was the wife of the prefect, Gaius Galerius. Returning to Rome about the year 31, he began a career in politics and law. Soon he fell foul of the emperor Caligula, who was deterred from killing him only by the argument that his life was sure to be short.

      In 41 the emperor Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with the princess Julia Livilla, the Emperor's niece. In that uncongenial milieu he studied natural science and philosophy and wrote the three treatises entitled Consolationes. The influence of Agrippina, the Emperor's wife, had him recalled to Rome in 49. He became praetor in AD 50, married Pompeia Paulina, a wealthy woman, built up a powerful group of friends, including the new prefect of the guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus (Burrus, Sextus Afranius), and became tutor to the future emperor Nero.

      The murder of Claudius in 54 pushed Seneca and Burrus to the top. Their friends held the great army commands on the German and Parthian frontiers. Nero's first public speech, drafted by Seneca, promised liberty for the Senate and an end to the influence of freedmen and women. Agrippina, Nero's mother, was resolved that her influence should continue, and there were other powerful enemies. But Seneca and Burrus, although provincials from Spain and Gaul, understood the problems of the Roman world. They introduced fiscal and judicial reforms and fostered a more humane attitude toward slaves. Their nominee Corbulo defeated the Parthians; in Britain a more enlightened administration followed the quashing of Boudicca's (Boudicca) rebellion. But as Tacitus, the historian (c. 56–117), says, “Nothing in human affairs is more unstable and precarious than power unsupported by its own strength.” Seneca and Burrus were a tyrant's favourites. In 59 they had to condone—or to contrive—the murder of Agrippina. When Burrus died in 62 Seneca knew that he could not go on. He received permission to retire, and in his remaining years he wrote some of his best philosophical works. In 65, Seneca's enemies denounced him as having been a party to the conspiracy of Piso. Ordered to commit suicide, he met death with fortitude and composure.

Philosophical works and tragedies.
      The Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) stands apart from the rest of Seneca's surviving works. A political skit, witty and unscrupulous, its theme is the deification—or “pumpkinification”—of Claudius. The rest divide into philosophical works and the tragedies. The former expound an eclectic version of “Middle” Stoicism, adapted for the Roman market by Panaetius of Rhodes (2nd century BC), and developed by his compatriot Poseidonius in the 1st century BC. Poseidonius lies behind the books on natural science, Naturales quaestiones, where lofty generalities on the investigation of nature are offset by a jejune exposition of the facts. Of the Consolationes, Ad Marciam consoles a lady on the loss of a son; Ad Helviam matrem, Seneca's mother on his exile; Ad Polybium, the powerful freedman Polybius on the loss of a son but with a sycophantic plea for recall from Corsica. The De ira deals at length with the passion of anger, its consequences, and control. The De clementia, an exhortatory address to Nero, commends mercy as the sovereign quality for a Roman emperor. De tranquillitate animi, De constantia sapientis, De vita beata, and De otio consider various aspects of the life and qualities of the Stoic wise man. De beneficiis is a diffuse treatment of benefits as seen by giver and recipient. De brevitate vitae demonstrates that our human span is long enough if time is properly employed—which it seldom is. Best written and most compelling are the Epistulae morales, addressed to Lucilius. Those 124 brilliant essays treat a range of moral problems not easily reduced to a single formula.

      Of the 10 “Senecan” tragedies (tragedy), Octavia is certainly, and Hercules Oetaeus is probably, spurious. The others handle familiar Greek tragic themes, with some originality of detail. Attempts to arrange them as a schematic treatment of Stoic “vices” seem too subtle. Intended for playreadings rather than public presentation, the pitch is a high monotone, emphasizing the lurid and the supernatural. There are impressive set speeches and choral passages, but the characters are static, and they rant. The principal representatives of classical tragedy known to the Renaissance world, these plays had a great influence, notably in England. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, and Cyril Tourneur's Revengers Tragaedie, with their ghosts, witches, cruel tyrants, and dominant theme of vengeance, are the progeny of Seneca's tragedies.

Stature and influence.
      Hostile propaganda pursued Seneca's memory. Quintilian, the 1st-century AD rhetorician, criticized his educational influence; Tacitus was ambivalent on Seneca's place in history. But his views on monarchy and its duties contributed to the humane and liberal temper of the age of the Antonines (Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus; AD 138–192). Meanwhile, the spread of Stoicism kept his philosophy alive: new horizons opened when it was found to have Christian affinities. There was a belief that he knew St. Paul and a spurious collection of letters to substantiate it. Studied by Augustine and Jerome, Seneca's works consoled Boethius in prison. His thought was a component of the Latin culture of the Middle Ages, often filtered through anthologies. Known to Dante, Chaucer, and Petrarch, his moral treatises were edited by Erasmus; the first complete English translation appeared in 1614. In the 16th to 18th century Senecan prose, in content and style, served the vernacular literatures as a model for essays, sermons, and moralizing. Calvin, Montaigne, and Rousseau are instances. As the first of “Spanish” thinkers, his influence in Spain was always powerful. Nineteenth-century specialization brought him under fire from philosophers, scientists, historians, and students of literature. But later scholarly work and the interest aroused by the bimillenary commemorations of his death in Spain in 1965 suggested that a Senecan revival might be under way. In his 40 surviving books the thoughts of a versatile but unoriginal mind are expressed and amplified by the resources of an individual style.

Donald Reynolds Dudley

Additional Reading
Text and commentaries (Dialogi): A. Bourgery and R. Walty, 4 vol. (1922–42). (Epistulae morales): L.D. Reynolds, 2 vol. (1965). (Naturales quaestiones): P. Oltramare, 2 vol. (1929).

General works.
C.W. Mendell, Our Seneca (1941), is good on Seneca the writer. A.L. Motto, Seneca Sourcebook (1970), is a guide to Seneca's thought as reflected in his extant prose works; F.L. Lucas, Seneca and Elizabethan Tragedy (1922), is a good introduction to the subject, although written before recent advances in Senecan studies. C.D.N. Costa (ed.), Seneca (1974), contains seven essays by British scholars. Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (1976), is definitive.

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Universalium. 2010.

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