previous next

L. Annaeus, second son of the preceding, was born at Corduba about B.C. 3. He was from infancy of a delicate constitution, and liable to serious illnesses, in one of which he owed his life to the devoted care of his maternal aunt, in whose company, he tells us, he was brought to Rome. His instructors there were the eminent philosophers Fabianus, Attalus, and Sotion , under whom he studied with unremitting ardour, carrying his zeal for their precepts so far as to cultivate a somewhat ostentatious asceticism. His prudent father, alive to the jealousy of the court, recommended less perilous forms of virtue. Caligula, who affected to be a severe critic of Seneca's style, unquestionably envied his talent, and had marked him out for destruction, but was induced to spare his feeble health, which seemed to threaten an early grave. Under Claudius, Seneca rapidly rose to eminence. As quaestor he had the promise of a political career opened to him. He was also a successful pleader, a skilful professor of eloquence, and a leader in the world of fashion. But he had made powerful enemies. An intimacy was known to exist between him and Iulia Livilla, youngest daughter of Germanicus, which was liable to an unfavourable construction; so that when Messalina by her intrigues effected the exile of the princess, she was able to involve Seneca in a similar fate (A.D. 41). He was banished to Corsica, where he spent eight years, a fretful and helpless spectator of events. With the downfall of Messalina his fortunes revived. Agrippina, wishing to use him as the instrument of her ambitious projects, and perhaps, as Dio insinuates, captivated by his engaging person, contrived to secure his appointment as tutor to her son, the young Nero, then eleven years of age, and already destined for the throne. This was a position exactly suited to Seneca's genius. There is every reason to believe that he endeavoured to imbue his pupil's mind with maxims of wisdom and clemency; and the early part of Nero's reign, the “golden quinquennium” of justice and mercy, was long remembered as due to the influence of Seneca and Durrus, who jointly administered the State. It soon became evident, however, that Nero could not be controlled. The tutor tried to retain his influence by dangerous and unworthy concessions to the vices of the pupil, but without success. It was Nero who held Seneca bound by the magnetism of fear, of a more violent will, and of imperial splendours. The minister was compelled to follow the downward course of Nero's policy, giving such colour as his practised rhetoric afforded to its odious features till Agrippina's murder—the motive of which he was called upon to embody in a state-paper—brought the climax to a long series of inconsistencies between profession and practice, and showed him at once the moral hollowness and the actual insecurity of his position. From this time Nero seems to have turned against him; and although the long-foreseen blow did not descend until A.D. 65, when Piso's conspiracy gave a decent pretext for accusing him, yet for several years Seneca had been prepared for death, and had made generous, but ineffectual, attempts to disarm the emperor's malice. Bidden to effect his own death, the philosopher, with his high-born and beautiful wife Paulina, who insisted on dying with him, opened his veins. Paulina was restored by her friends to life, though with difficulty: he, after suffering excruciating agony, which he endured with cheerfulness, discoursing to his friends on the glorious realities to which he was about to pass, was at length suffocated by the vapour of a stove.

Seneca is undoubtedly the most brilliant figure of his time, and, except Tacitus, the most important

So-called Bust of Seneca the Philosopher. (Naples Museum.)

thinker and writer of the post-Augustan Empire. He embodied all the leading characteristics of the age, with which, unlike the majority of Roman citizens, he was in thorough harmony; and consequently he has been judged with more prejudice even by posterity than might have been expected.

That he was a truly great or good man can scarcely be maintained; that he was even a great thinker is open to question; but the inconsistencies of a life passed amid such overpowering temptations must not blind us to his real earnestness of purpose, or to the merit of exercising, under constant risk, a restraining influence on perhaps the vilest character known to history. It is impossible to doubt Seneca's love for virtue. Amid exaggerations, conceits, paradoxes, follies, the moral end is always held out as the only one worthy of being consistently followed, to which every kind of speculative knowledge is subordinate. His death, though not without a conscious study of effect, was a truly noble one; and we must believe him sincere when, on comparing himself with others and reconsidering his actions and omissions, he declares that he can look back with satisfaction upon his life. His opinion, thrice expressed, to the effect that true wisdom will not seek for an impracticable standard of purity in a hopelessly corrupt age, must be referred to the lower level of moral excellence, which Stoicism considered alone compatible with public life, and not to the ideal of the unencumbered, untempted sage.

Of Seneca's poetical writings, some few epigrams are preserved in the Anthologia Latina. We possess also nine tragedies correctly ascribed to him, viz.: Hercules Furens, Troades (or Hecuba), Phoenissae (not all genuine), Medea, Phaedra (or Hippolytus), Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, and Hercules Oetaeus, and one praetexta, the Octavia, incorrectly ascribed. Doubts have been thrown on the identity of the tragedian with the philosopher, but they are quite unfounded. The tragedies no doubt belong to his earlier life, and probably were written, partly during his exile, partly after his return to Rome, to assist the poetic proclivities of Nero. They are free imitations of Greek originals, which have in most cases survived so as to admit of a comparison. Both in dramatic power and loftiness of tragic feeling the Latin plays are immeasurably inferior. They abound, however, in brilliant declamation, philosophic contemplation, and witty aphorisms. They can hardly have been intended for the stage, to which they are wholly unsuited; but they are admirably fitted for declamatory reading, though even for this purpose overloaded with rhetoric.

Seneca's prose works were numerous and important; a considerable portion are lost, but the larger and more valuable part remains. Among the former are his speeches, written to be delivered by Nero, a treatise De Situ Indiae, another De Situ et Sacris Aegypti, another De Motu Terrarum; several treatises on moral philosophy, viz.: Exhortationes, De Officiis, De Immatura Morte, De Superstitione, De Matrimonio, Quo Modo Amicitia Continenda Sit, De Paupertate, De Misericordia, De Remediis Fortuitorum, and De Verborum Copia; a biography of his father, a panegyric on Messalina, and several books of letters. His extant works comprise (a) the twelve so-called dialogues, viz.: Ad Lucilium de Providentia, Ad Serenum de Animi Tranquillitate, Ad S. de Otio, Ad S. de Constantia Sapientis, Ad Novatum de Ira Libri III., Consolatio ad Marciam, Consolatio ad Polybium, Consolatio ad Helviam Matrem, De Vita Beata ad Gallionem, De Brevitate Vitae ad Paulinum; (b) three books, Ad Neronem de Clementia; (c) seven books, De Beneficiis ad Aebutium Liberalem; (d) twenty books of moral letters, Ad Lucilium (but the collection is incomplete); (e) seven books, Naturales Quaestiones, addressed to Lucilius; (f) a political satire on the death and apotheosis of Claudius, called by διο ἀποκολοκύντωσις, which is of interest as the only remaining example of the Satura Menippea; (g) fourteen spurious letters of a correspondence with St. Paul, which seem to have imposed upon St. Jerome (De Vir. Illust. 12). See Epistola.

From this catalogue it will be seen how wide was the field embraced by Seneca's genius. Little need be said about his scientific works, except that they show no mean acuteness of conjecture and considerable knowledge of physical theories, though these are often subordinated to an ethical purpose. His views of nature are in the main Stoic, and his examples are probably drawn from Greek sources.

It is on his moral treatises that Seneca's fame rests. In the particular department that he selected, viz., the application of certain leading principles to practical life, he excels all other writers of antiquity. Nominally a Stoic, he belonged really to the Eclectic School, culling precepts from every form of doctrine with impartial appreciation. “The remedies of the soul,” he says, “have been discovered long ago: it is for us to learn how to apply them.” On this text his system is a comment. It requires, above all else, a thorough knowledge of the human heart, and in this Seneca is preëminent. In that dark and perilous period, when universal mistrust prevailed, the moralist must be able to dive into the secret recesses of the soul, drawing to light its hidden disquiet, and fortifying it against the blows of circumstance or the deeper thrusts of human turpitude. No writer, ancient or modern, shows a more complete mastery of the pathology of mind. Many of his letters are of the nature of sermons; others are spiritual meditations; others, brilliant attacks on the falsehood and vice of the time. In all these is the same incisiveness of style, the same fertility of illustration, the same varied experience, the same emphatic and reiterated pressing home of his point. This last feature is apt to weary the reader; and Seneca, well aware of the danger, endeavours, by every artifice of rhetorical ingenuity, to maintain the interest of his theme. “To impress the dull conscience, reiteration is a necessity: to knock once at the door when night is come is never enough: you must knock frequently and hard.” This leads him to use a tone of exaggeration which, by its seeming insincerity, does injustice to the writer's heart, and has caused him to be too severely judged. His religious and moral maxims so often approximate to those of Christianity that the fathers of the church adopted the view that he had adopted their faith, to which the fictitious correspondence with St. Paul seemed to lend support. The coincidences, however, though sufficiently remarkable, are accidental only, and arise from the character of his mind, which was essentially that of a “seeker after God.”


1. Editions of the Tragedies:

Delrio (Antwerp, 1576; Paris, 1620); Lipsius (Leiden, 1588); Gruter (Heidelberg, 1604); Scriverius (Leyden, 1621-51); Gronovius (Leyden, 1661; Amsterdam, 1682); Schröder (Delft, 1728). More modern editions are those of F. H. Bothe (Leipzig, 1819); T. Baden, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1821); Peiper and Richter (Leipzig, 1867); Holtze in Tauchnitz series (Leipzig, 1872); and Leo, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1878-79).

2. Editions of Complete Prose Works:

Erasmus (Basle, 1515-20); Muretus (Rome, 1585); Gruter (Heidelberg, 1593); Lipsius (Antwerp, 1605); Variorum edition with Gronovius's notes in 2 vols. (Leiden, 1649; Amsterdam, 1672), enlarged and illustrated by Ruhkopf (Leipzig, 1797-1811); F. Haase in the Teubner series, 3 vols. (1852, 1872- 1874); Holtze in Tauchnitz series in 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1832, 1873-78); Œuvres Complètes de Sénèque, avec la traduction française de la collection Panckoucke par Charpentier et F. Lemaistre, précédes d'une notice sur Sénèque et d'une préface par Charpentier, 4 vols. (Paris, 1860-61, 1867-73) (Garnier); Œuvres complètes de Sénèque, avec traduction en Français, being part of Nisard's collection of Latin authors in Didot's Latin classics (Paris, 1877). The Workes of L. A. Seneca, both Morall and Naturall, translated by Thos. Lodge, D. in Physicke (London, 1614), contains all but the Apocolocyntosis and the (spurious) epistles to St. Paul.

3. Editions of Separate Works

De Providentia, by Nauta (Leiden, 1825); Ad Marciam, by Michaelis (Haarlem, 1840); Lib. de Beneficiis et Clementia, by M. C. Gertz (Berlin, 1876); Dialogorum Lib. XII, ex Recensione et cum Apparatu Critico, H. A. Koch, revised by Vahlen (Jena, 1879). These dialogues are also edited by Gertz (Copenhagen, 1886); the Epistolae Morales, by Schweighäuser (Strassburg, 1809); Selectae Epist., with arguments and French translation by Sommer (Paris, 1872); Epistolae Aliquot, by Bücheler (Bonn, 1879); Nat. Quaestiones, by Köler (Göttingen, 1819); the Apocolocyntosis, by Schusler (Utrecht, 1844), and by Bücheler in the Symbola Philol. p. 31 (Bonn) and in his smaller edition of Petronius (Berlin, 1882).

4. General Criticism.

A full list of the authorities for Seneca will be found in Teuffel's History of Roman Literature, vol. ii., translated by Warr (London, 1892). Biographical notices in Merivale, Romans under the Empire, chs. 52-54. On his philosophical and religious ideas, see Zeller, Gk. Phil., English translation under “Eclecticism.” Also his Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics, translated by Reichel; Farrar, Seekers after God (London, 1869); Martha, Les Moralistes sous l'Empire Romain (Paris, 1872); Dörgens, Senecae Disciplinae Moralis cum Antoniniana Comparatio (Leipzig, 1857); Gelpke, De Senecae Vita et Moribus (Berne, 1848).

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: