How stoic was Seneca?

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
by James Romm
Knopf, 290 pp., $27.95

Hardship and Happiness
by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, translated from the Latin by Elaine Fantham, Harry M. Hine, James Ker, and Gareth D. Williams
University of Chicago Press, 318 pp., $55.00

Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, 1612–1613
Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, 1612–1613

The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca
by Emily Wilson
Oxford University Press, 253 pp., $29.95

In AD 65, the elderly philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was forced to commit suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero. He had once been the emperor’s tutor and adviser, though he had withdrawn into retirement when the true character of Nero’s reign became clear, and he had recently become rather too closely involved with an unsuccessful coup (quite how closely, we shall never know). He must have been expecting the knock on the door.

The knock came from the captain of a troop of praetorian guardsmen who had stationed themselves around Seneca’s house, just outside Rome. Ironically, the captain himself was also involved in the planned coup, but had decided to follow the emperor’s orders in order to save his own skin (“he was now adding to the crimes he had conspired to avenge,” as the Roman historian Tacitus tersely put it). After a brief interrogation, Seneca was told to end his own life, which he did only with great difficulty. He severed his arteries, but he was so old and emaciated that the blood hardly escaped; so he asked for the hemlock that he had stashed away for just that purpose, but that had little effect either. He died only when his slaves carried him into a hot bath and he suffocated in the steam.

While all this was going on, he had been offering words of encouragement to the friends who happened to be dining with him when the praetorians arrived (he was bequeathing to them, he claimed, the only thing he had left, and the best: “the image of his own life,” imago vitae suae); and he had been dictating to his secretaries, for future circulation, some last philosophical thoughts. His final words were to offer a libation to “Jupiter the Liberator.”

So Tacitus—probably the most acute analyst ever of the autocratic rule of the Roman emperors—described the scene in his Annales, half a century or so later; he was no doubt relying on some hard evidence (a few modern critics have even suggested an eyewitness account), but inevitably recasting it in his own terms. One of Tacitus’s favorite themes in the Annales is death and its corruption; he repeatedly stresses the idea that autocracy disrupted not only the natural rhythms of life but the processes of dying too. People died for the wrong reasons, in the wrong places, and in the wrong order. Children killed their parents. Funeral pyres were prepared before the victim had even breathed his last. In fact, Tacitus opens his narrative of Nero’s reign with the bleak, and significant, phrase: “The first death under the new Emperor….” The suicide of Seneca, as Tacitus tells it, can be seen as a prime example of how even dying had been corrupted.

That is partly because, try as he might, applying all the usually reliable methods, death almost defeated Seneca. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death—as the title of James Romm’s new biography, Dying Every Day, hints—he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. It is also because he made such a histrionic display out of the act of dying. Seneca publicly embraced Stoic philosophy, which took an uncompromising view of the importance of “virtue” in both living and dying (it was, in fact, much more uncompromising than the popular modern term “stoical”—in the attenuated sense of “stiff upper lip”—would ever suggest).

But Seneca’s death was a frankly hubristic imitation of the death of Socrates: with his last thoughts being dictated (as in Plato’s Phaedo), the attempted resort to hemlock, and a final offering to the gods (though in this case it was a libation to Jupiter, not, as in Socrates’ last words, a sacrifice to Asklepios). Even so, his death ends up no more than a very poor imitation of its model. As Emily Wilson nicely summed it up in The Death of Socrates (2007):

It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.

To be fair, over the years, not all judgments on Tacitus’s account of Seneca’s suicide have been so negative. Some admirers of the philosopher have chosen to see the death as an example of fortitude, and of tremendous philosophical courage amid the corruption of Roman imperial society. Seneca, it is argued, was a man whom Tacitus saw as one of the few potentially good influences on Nero, and who might have prevented his reign from developing as catastrophically as it did.

In his suicide, fighting against the recalcitrant frailty of his own body, he met unwaveringly the death to which he has been cruelly sentenced; and he turned it into the ultimate lesson in how to die (not for mere show was he dictating his last philosophical thoughts on his long-drawn-out deathbed, but for the true edification and education of future generations). This is presumably the message of Rubens’s famous painting, which shows Seneca standing almost naked in his small bath, in a pose strikingly reminiscent of the suffering Jesus in many Ecce homo scenes from medieval and later art: so suggesting triumph over death, not defeat by it.

Yet as both Romm and Wilson in The Greatest Empire insist, it is impossible not to see some ambivalence, at the very least, in Tacitus’s version of Seneca’s last hours, and in his evaluation of the man more generally. Romm focuses in particular on that phrase imago vitae suae (“the image of his own life”), which was to be, as Tacitus put it, Seneca’s bequest to his followers. Roland Mayer has argued that we should detect here a reference to the kind of imago that was displayed in elite Roman houses: one of those series of ancestor portraits intended to spur on future generations to imitate the achievements of their great predecessors. That is very likely one resonance of the phrase: Seneca was offering a positive example to be followed in the future. But, as Romm rightly observes, “Imago is a multilayered word,” and like “image” in English, it also suggests “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false seeming.”

The problem about Seneca is that it was always difficult to pin him down (and so it remains). What Tacitus is saying, in his carefully chosen words, is that in his last hours he was “shaping…still” an imago of himself that he had been working on, revising, and adjusting for most of his life, in many different forms. Like it or not, there is something elusive, even a whiff of “spin,” about Seneca.

Romm finds a vivid symbol of that elusiveness in the surviving likenesses of the philosopher (“images” in yet another sense). Before the nineteenth century, the favored image of Seneca (now demoted to “Pseudo-Seneca”) was “a gaunt, haggard, and haunted” portrait sculpture that has survived in several ancient versions. It is not named, but it so matched everyone’s preconceptions of what the elderly philosopher must have looked like that it was simply assumed to be him. In 1813, however, a double-sided portrait—showing two male heads, back to back—was unearthed in Rome, probably dating to the third century AD: one was clearly labeled, in Greek, “Socrates,” the other, in Latin, “Seneca” (“the two sages joined at the back of the head like Siamese twins sharing a single brain,” as Romm has it).

This Seneca is completely different: full-faced, bald, and slightly bland, looking more like the caricature of a bourgeois businessman than of a tortured philosopher. Quite why Romm concludes, as he seems to, that this is the “true” likeness of Seneca, I fail to understand (some not hugely talented Roman sculptor a couple of centuries after Seneca’s death almost certainly had no better idea than we do of what he really looked like). But the contrast is still telling, and points to Seneca’s shifting, uncertain, often self-contradictory identities.

Roman double herm of Seneca and Socrates, third century AD
Roman double herm of Seneca and Socrates, third century AD

Perhaps an even more powerful symbol of that confusion would have been the famous painting by Rubens. The sources for this are strikingly mixed: the pose reflects the Jesus of Ecce homo; the face is that of the haggard “Pseudo-Seneca,” in Rubens’s day taken as an authentic likeness; the rest of the body is drawn from another famous ancient sculpture, now in the Louvre, that was traditionally believed to be the old philosopher standing in the bath where he finally died. This has been almost universally reinterpreted as an elderly fisherman (and in its new display in the Louvre, the bath—which turned out to be a modern addition anyway—has been removed).

These ambivalences about who Seneca was, what he stood for, how we recognize him—and even more, how far we admire or deplore him—run right through his life story and the many volumes of his surviving writing, genuine and otherwise. These range from philosophical and scientific treatises (he was a particular expert on earthquakes), through some disturbingly bleak tragic dramas and a hilarious skit (very probably, but not absolutely certainly, by him) about the emperor Claudius being made a god after his death, to some flagrantly apocryphal correspondence between the philosopher and Saint Paul.

These letters point again, like the Rubens, to his incorporation into that select Christian group of “good pagans,” and try to link the ethics of Christianity with Seneca’s Stoic philosophy. In fact, as Wilson notes, some Christians in the Middle Ages even claimed that Seneca had been converted to Christianity in his final moments “and was, as it were, baptized by the bath of his death.” In fact the ideological links between Stoicism and Christianity were weak at best (though both were broad churches). Hard-line Stoicism was a deterministic, fatalist doctrine that valued a virtuous life (and death) beyond almost everything else, with very little room for human frailty indeed.

Seneca’s career might most generously be described as “checkered.” Born to a family of Roman settlers in Spain around 4 BC, he came to Rome, along with his elder brother Novatus, where both of them made their way up the social and political hierarchy of the city. Novatus really did have contact with Saint Paul: his main modern claim to fame derives from his walk-on part in the Acts of the Apostles, when as Roman governor of Achaea he refused to prosecute Paul as the Jews demanded (probably more a sign of his distrust of the Jews than any fondness for Christians).

Seneca himself spent most of his life in the dangerous penumbra of the imperial court, combining the preaching of hard-line Stoic philosophy (renowned for its commitment to unadulterated virtue) with dynastic wheeling and dealing and a taste for the high life. He certainly cultivated connections with the sisters of the emperor Caligula, and early in the reign of Claudius was exiled to Corsica on the charge of adultery with one of them, Julia Livilla (maybe trumped up, maybe not). It was not until almost eight years later (in AD 49), when another of the sisters, Agrippina, married Claudius that Seneca was recalled to Rome and took on what in hindsight we know was the unenviable job of tutor to her son, the future emperor Nero.

Roman double herm of Seneca and Socrates, third century AD
After Nero came to the throne in AD 54, Seneca remained at first one of his closest advisers and speechwriters. He is supposed to have written the eulogy to the dead Claudius that the new emperor pronounced at the funeral—which generally went down well with the assembled mourners, even though, as Tacitus remarked darkly, it was the first time that any emperor on any such occasion had had to rely “on borrowed eloquence.”

But as the standard account goes, Nero soon proved hard to handle, and it would take more than a few elegant speeches to manage successfully his relations with the Senate and the more upright courtiers and army officers (though it is clear that, for longer than he might have liked to admit, Seneca did continue to “lend” his eloquence to help the emperor cover up some of his worst crimes). After he had seen Nero arrange the deaths of his own stepbrother, Britannicus, his mother Agrippina, and his stepsister and wife, Octavia, Seneca eventually found it more comfortable, morally and in other ways, no doubt, to distance himself from the court. He may even have played, as the emperor believed, a significant part in the conspiracy that led to his death sentence.

The contradictions in this career are obvious and they troubled many ancient observers, just as they have troubled many later ones. Part of this is the question of how to reconcile Seneca’s intimate involvement in the brutal power politics of the Roman court with the high-minded philosophical ethics he professed. That indeed is the question that Miriam Griffin addressed in her classic study, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (first published in 1976), and it is one to which both Romm and Wilson also turn.

How could the true Stoic philosopher, who wrote so strenuously of the importance of virtue in politics, square his conscience with the role he had chosen to play at Nero’s right hand? Or to put it another way, how could a man who denounced tyranny take on the job of tutor to a tyrant? Sophisticated modern critics, as Wilson writes, have generally avoided the charge of hypocrisy (it implies, she concedes, “a simplistic and even anachronistic set of expectations about how life ought to relate to literary work”). But to be honest, hypocrisy is precisely the charge that comes to mind—unsophisticated as that may be—just as it did two thousand years ago.

It was not only in the relationship of political theory to political practice that problems were felt about Seneca’s character; there were other tricky matters, notably wealth. Stoics in general were supposed to be indifferent to riches, and Seneca often opted for an especially hard line in praising poverty as a philosophical good; for Stoics virtue itself (and certainly not cash) was the only real aim. But it was widely believed that he had used his position at court to amass riches on an enormous scale.

Tacitus, in fact, records the accusation against Seneca of one Suillius Rufus (not a very pleasant character himself) that he had, as Romm says, “heaped 300 million sesterces in four years as a palace insider.” This would have been a vast fortune, given that the annual pay of a Roman legionary soldier at the time was less than a thousand sesterces. Dio Cassius, writing in the early third century AD, adds that he owned five hundred tables of citrus wood, with ivory legs, all identical, for serving his dinner parties; and Dio even alleges later that the revolt of Boudica in Britain in AD 60 or 61 was sparked by Seneca suddenly choosing to call in the loans he had outstanding in the province. If that is the case, he was obviously exploiting the provincials too.

Seneca does sometimes attempt to address the paradoxes of wealth. In his treatise On the Happy Life, for example (newly translated by James Ker in the collection of Senecan essays gathered together under the title Hardship and Happiness), he suggests that riches are acceptable, provided that they are not ill-gotten and properly used, and the philosopher can rise above them. Nevertheless it is hard not to see this unpleasantly plutocratic side of Seneca in the bourgeois businessman of the double portrait, and to draw an unflattering contrast between him and the truly austere Socrates to whom he has been attached in the sculpture.

These problems are hardly assuaged by a closer look at Seneca’s surviving writings. As individual works they can be extremely engaging, despite some occasionally off-putting first impressions. It is true, for example, that there is a sometimes monotonous preoccupation with dying and the preparation for death throughout his philosophical work, from his short essays or Letters (which include the slogan “we are dying every day” of Romm’s title) to several of the longer treatises collected in Hardship and Happiness. These often harp on the same basic, Stoic message: one should not grieve over death (for it is inevitable) but over having been born; the dead are not afflicted by any suffering after death; no one dies “too soon,” as they were surely fated only to live as long as they did.

But Seneca is adept at sugaring the pill, or rather at building some of these philosophical truisms into vivid pictures of Roman life. So we learn in passing about Roman children’s games (they would play at dressing up in purple-bordered togas, pretending to be consuls and judges), or about the difficulties of being a governor’s wife in a Roman province (always liable to be the subject of gossip). And one of the most memorable and often-quoted descriptions of the noise generated by a Roman bathhouse (the pummeling and pumping of flesh, the screams of men having their armpits roughly plucked) comes from one of Seneca’s Letters whose principal theme is nothing to do with bathing, but concerns mental and philosophical concentration.

The trickier question, however, goes beyond any of the individual works, to ask what his writing as a whole adds up to, and just how uncomfortably self-contradictory it is. It may well be largely generic differences that explain the contrast between the restrained control of Seneca’s philosophical Letters and treatises and the outlandish and frightening passions on display in his tragedies. (The Thyestes, in which he replays the mythical cannibalistic feast of King Atreus, who serves up to his brother the flesh of his own children, is one of the most upsetting works of classical literature to survive.)

But the idea that Seneca could one minute (as Tacitus tells us) ghostwrite Nero’s funeral eulogy for the emperor Claudius, praising his wisdom and good judgment, and the next minute compose a devastating satire, pouring scorn on the lumbering, limping, and stammering Claudius and his claims to divine status, has often seemed not far short of hypocrisy. Funny as the skit is—it pictures poor old Claudius struggling up to join the Senate of the gods on Mount Olympus, only to be instantly dismissed and sent back down to Hades—there is something slightly distasteful about it coming from the pen of a philosophical guru who set such store by moral probity and ethical consistency.

These are the contrasts, conflicts, and ambiguities that Romm and Wilson confront: How do we make any consistent and coherent sense of Seneca? Both are partly successful, but only partly. Romm seems rather too ready to shrug his shoulders and put down Seneca’s faults, as he sees them, to some version of the human condition: “Seneca was human, all too human, with the flaws and shortcomings that the human condition entails.” At other points he prefers to sidestep the problem, as biographers of Seneca often do, and focus his attention on the more straightforward story of the emperor Nero instead; and a fairly racy story it turns out to be, sprinkled with “deluded despots,” “stiff-necked Stoics,” “fog-bound glens,” and such breathless, half-accurate hyperbole as “he had committed the most audacious murder of the century and had gotten clean away with it.”

Wilson has a much stronger line, in suggesting that the search for consistency—elusive, even impossible, though it might have been—was precisely Seneca’s project, and his problem. As she cleverly insists, “the most interesting question is not why Seneca failed to practice what he preached, but why he preached what he did…given the life he found himself leading.” Ultimately, she claims, he was trying to assert mastery (or “empire” as her title has it, taken from one of the Letters) both over himself and over the world. It is a bravely argued case. But even she, in a different way, finds some of the biographical traps difficult to negotiate: her chapter on Seneca’s youth, for example, occasionally sinks to desperate speculation about his early playmates, and is illustrated by a painted Roman toy horse—just like baby Seneca might once have owned.

But from time to time Dying Every Day and The Greatest Empire seem to nudge us toward some more interesting conclusions that do not sweep the issues of hypocrisy under the carpet, but put them into a wider political setting. These take us back to Tacitus, and to his preoccupation with Seneca—who in the relevant books of his Annales is almost as prominent a character in the story of Nero’s reign as the emperor himself.

For Tacitus, another of the corrupting effects of Roman autocracy was on the meaning of words and deeds. (In this respect, his Annales are an unsettling precursor of Orwell’s 1984.) In his cynical analysis of the imperial court, nobody meant what they said or said what they meant. In fact, survival depended on dissembling and on concealing true feelings, on acting rather than being; hence, in part, his stress on Nero’s ambitions on the stage.

This was a world embedded in doublethink and doublespeak. Nero entertained his mother lavishly, gave kisses, and said fond farewells on the very evening he planned to kill her. The Senate voted to give divine honors to Nero’s dead baby daughter, although most of them knew it to be ridiculous (or at least were chuckling at Seneca’s skit on the deification of Claudius). The emperor held a lavish triumphal celebration for his victories, not on the battlefield but in musical and athletic contests. And when the young Britannicus keeled over at the emperor’s dinner party, poisoned on Nero’s orders, it was only his sister, Octavia, who reacted “correctly”—she just went on eating. It was left to the hopelessly naive, untrained in the conventions of autocracy, to give the “natural” response and ask if the poor boy was all right.

It is, as both Romm and Wilson find, very hard to uncover the “real” Seneca. There are certainly plenty of first-person pronouns found throughout his work, but these “I”s are even more performative than is usual in autobiographical writing. Even the most private of Seneca’s works are (in Wilson’s words) “carefully constructed works of public performance…. Seneca’s literary work plays a fascinating dance with the reader’s desire for information about his lived experience.” And that is precisely why they are important to Tacitus. For him Seneca was the “perfect” imperial courtier—the true imago, for whom (like Octavia) hypocrisy and dissembling were a way of life. The irony was that in the end it saved neither of them from a difficult death. Philosophy was like dissembling: it turned out not to help anyone.

Source: The New York Review of Books by Mary Beard