Seneca the Elder

Seneca the Elder

Life

Annaeus Seneca, often called Maior (“the Elder”) to differentiate him from his more popular son Seneca the Younger, was born in Corduba, Hispania (mod. Cordova, Spain) in the middle of the first century BCE.

Little of his life is known. His praenomen is conjectured to be either Lucius or Marcus, as his sons held those two names. His family was prominent in Spain and were wealthy enough to receive the finest education. He spent time in Rome, where he trained in oratory, after which he became an advocate back in Corduba.

Seneca straddles the period between the late Republic and early Empire. He would have received his training in Rome during the  end of the Second Triumvirate when although there was still room for forensic oratory, it was becoming more dangerous to practice it. He must have made something of a name for himself, though, as his family only prospered.

He had three sons by his wife Helvia: Annaeus Novatus, a Roman politician and orator; Seneca the Younger (L. Annaeus Seneca); and M. Annaeus Mela, a philosopher and the father of Lucan.

Seneca died sometime before his son’s exile in 41 CE.

Works

Seneca’s surviving works are the Controversiae (four of ten books survive) and the Suasoriae (one of possibly two survives), and together they are usually called the Declamationes, though their full name is properly the Oratorum et Rhetorum Sententiae, Divisiones, Colores. Additionally, a Late Antique summary of all books of the Controversiae survives, giving us a fuller understanding of the missing six books and the overall work.

The Controversiae are cases where the law (and morality) can be difficult to apply. Similarly to the Controversiae, the Suasoriae are scenarios involving famous or otherwise outstanding figures involved in a crucial decision. The purpose of the suasoria is to guide and persuade the figure into making the right choice.

The works are divided into three parts. The first part, sententiae, give opinions and quotes of various figures on the problems at hand. The second part consists of the divisiones, summaries of the of the main arguments. Last are the colores, are interpretations or other statements that “color” the debate, essentially adding a rhetorical twist.

Seneca’s writings offer a rare glimpse into oratory as it transitioned from public advocacy during the Republic to sophistic displays of skill during the Empire. As laws transitioned from politics to the word of the emperor, orators shied away from giving speeches on them. Seneca’s “declamations” are thus less concerned with the presentation of facts of a law and more concerned with making a lively exhibition, a mere rhetorical exercise, and this would become the standard for oratory for generations.

Texts Online

Latin: Phi Latin Texts

Further Reading

  1. Lewis A. Sussman, 1978. The Elder Seneca. Leiden: Brill.