Lucius Annaeus Seneca, often in English called “Seneca the Younger” (Latin: Seneca Minor) to distinguish him from his father (Seneca the Elder), was an eminent philosopher in Neronian Rome.
Seneca was born in Corduba, Hispania (mod. Cordova, Spain) at the turn of the new millennium. The Annaei were a very prominent family, and Seneca was the uncle of Lucan his father, Seneca the Elder, was an eminent rhetorician who could give his son the best education.
He served under his uncle, the prefect of Egypt, from 26–31 CE, and upon returning to Rome, embarked on his political career. After an alleged affair with the emperor Caligula’s youngest sister, Julia Livilla, Seneca was exiled to Corsica in 41 CE. In 49, Agrippina, another of Caligula’s sister and wife of new emperor Claudius, had her husband recall Seneca back to Rome to tutor her son, Nero, the future emperor.
Because of his relationship with the young Nero, and perhaps also from his background, Seneca’s role in the royal court grew, and he held special influence over Nero’s actions. In turn, Seneca’s connections and rhetorical training successfully advertised Nero’s actions during the first part of his reign.
Over time, however, the relationship soured (as it had with many of Nero’s older friendships, including the other Annaei Lucan and Cornutus), and Seneca was implicated in the Pisonian conspiracy, and some in the conspiracy even wanted to place Seneca on the imperial throne. He was forced to commit suicide in 65 CE.
Seneca’s output was enormous and varied, and extant works of his include philosophical letters and essays, a scientific treatise, tragedies, a Menippean satire, and possibly epigrammatic poetry. Tragically, what he was most famous for—his oratory—does not survive.
Seneca is most famous for his philosophical works, which can be divided into two types. The first are his Dialogi, which, despite the name, are not really dialogues at all, but a collection of treatises on the application of Stoicism and addressed to various friends. The treatises are: Ad Marciam, Ad Helviam Matrem, Ad Polybium, De Ira in three books, De Vita Beata, De Constantia Sapientis, De Otio, De Tranquillitate Animi, De Brevitate Vitae, and De Providentia.
The first three are written as consolations, and are often grouped together as the Consolationes. The incidences which needed consolation are the death of Marcia’s son (Ad Marciam), his own exile (Ad Helviam Matrem), and the death of Polybius’ brother, the emperor Claudius (Ad Polybium). Rather than real consolatory letters, these consolations are long essays urging the addressee to adopt the Stoic beliefs in handling grief.
For example, in the Ad Marciam, Seneca urges Marcia to end her mourning and live without grief. In doing so, he argues that she should have expected her son to die, rather than live her life hoping for the best. With this pessimistic outlook, if something bad does occur, because she already prepared for it, it will not hurt her. As cold as that sounds, he points to Livia, the wife of Augustus and great-grandmother to the then current emperor Caligula, who ended her mourning as soon as her son Drusus (father of Caligula) was buried.
The other philosophical essays cover a range of topic important to Stoicism. Though called dialogi, they differ from those of Plato or Cicero by dropping all dramatic trappings and any pretense of an actual conversation. Instead, Seneca argues with hypothetical points made by unnamed interlocutors before continuing the rest as an extended lecture.
A large collection of letters from Seneca to his friend Lucilius also exist. Unlike Cicero’s (or Pliny’s) letters, these 124 letters are concerned with the philosophical life and individually can be as long as a full essay. The purpose of the letters are more instructive than conversational. Seneca makes a series of small, casual observance with the (apparent) hope that Lucilius will shift more and more towards becoming a Stoic sage himself.
Tangential to his philosophical corpus, Seneca penned the Naturales Quaestiones, an examination of natural phenomena in seven books. The purpose, it has been argued, is less of an impassioned study of nature and more of an attempt to link Stoic principles and ethics with the will of nature.
In addition to the philosophical and scientific works, Seneca also composed several tragedies from Greek myths. Ten of these have come down to us in manuscripts, though only eight (Hercules Furens, Traodes, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes) or nine (with Hercules Oetaeus included) are likely written by Seneca.
One tragedy, the Octavia, while attributed to Seneca in the manuscripts, is clearly post-Senecan, as it refers to the death of Nero. Some scholars also think the Hercules Oetaeus is spurious as well due to its departure in style and dramaturgy from “genuine Senecan tragedy” (Sutton, p. 6).
The tragedies are mirrors of Seneca’s philosophical teachings, and each can be boiled down to a central fault that Stoicism recognized, though they were also, in general, teachings shared among most Greeks and Romans. For example, the central point of the Phaedra is to stay away from passion and lust, while that of Medea is to keep anger in check, or that of Thyestes is to refrain from jealousy lest you become a cannibal. These were crucial concerns for the Stoics, but they were also crucial concerns for being a good person, with or without Stoicism.
The character of the plays differ greatly from Greek or earlier Roman tragedies. Gore and the gruesome are more readily shown on stage (rather than announced), and the tragic gave way to horror.
The language also differs from its predecessors. Unlike earlier Roman drama, which were largely translations and adaptations of the Greek originals, Seneca’s poetry has more in common with Augustan poetical approaches to the source material, borrowing freely from Vergil and Ovid. There is little resemblance to the choral nature of Greek tragedy, and instead Seneca infused them with rhetoric and oratorical flourishes. For this reason, many scholars have argued that the tragedies were originally meant for public readings and were not actually performed, though such an accusation rests on too many assumptions about how tragedy ought to be rather than how the texts we have actually work.
Beyond tragedy, one Menippean satire (i.e. a satirical work made up of both prose and poetry sections) by Seneca survives: the Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii (“Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius”). This work narrates the journey of the recently deceased emperor Claudius as he petitions the gods on Olympus for deification (in Greek, apotheosis, thus the name). However, after Augustus read a list of his numerous crimes, he was sent to be tortured in Hades instead.
Additionally, some thirty epigrams are often attributed to Seneca, but many are extremely doubtful, and the handful that have ancient attribution are still suspect.
Style and Legacy
Seneca both in his own time and immediately thereafter was more known for his oratorical direction than his tragedies or philosophy. His biggest claim to fame was inspiring orators to take up a more Asiatic style of oratory, replete with rhetorical flourishes, short and pithy phrases, and an avalanche of vivid images, all of which contrast with the classic Attic style of longer periods, careful balancing, and simple purity that Cicero half-adopted.
There seems to have been some antagonism between those who took up Seneca’s model of oratory and those who preferred Cicero’s Latin instead. Seneca’s appears to have been more popular with his contemporaries and immediately afterward, though by the third century, following influential works by Asconius and especially Quintilian, Cicero again overtook Seneca as the model for Latin eloquence.
Seneca’s emphasis on living a virtuous life throughout his writings led to a boom in popularity among Christian writers as early as the third century. Letters claiming to be written between Seneca and St. Paul even appeared in the fourth century, which all but ensured his status as a pre-Christian saint throughout the Middle Ages.
Latin: Phi Latin Texts
Books and Articles
- Brad Inwood 2008. Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Dana Ferrin Sutton 1986. Seneca on the Stage. Leiden: Brill.