1902 Encyclopedia > Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Lucius Annaeus Seneca
(Seneca the Younger)
Ancient Roman advocate, philosopher, tragedian and statesman

(c. 4 BC - 65 AD)




LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA (c. 3 B.C-65 A.D.), the most brilliant figure of his time, was the second son of the rhe-torician Marcus Annaeus Seneca, and, like him, a native of Corduba in Hispania. From his infancy of a delicate con-stitution, he devoted himself with intense ardour to rhetorical and philosophical studies and early won a reputation at the bar. Caligula threatened his life, and under Claudius his political career received a sudden check, for the influence of Messalina having effected the ruin of Julia, the youngest daughter of Germanicus, Seneca, who was compromised by her downfall, was banished to Corsica, 41 A.D. There eight weary years of waiting were relieved by study and authorship, with occasional attempts to procure his return by such gross flattery of Claudius as is found in the work Ad Polybium de Consolatione or the panegyric on Messalina which he afterwards suppressed. At length the tide turned; the next empress, Agrippina, had him recalled, appointed praetor, and entrusted with the education of her son Nero, then (48) eleven years old. Seneca became in fact Agrippina's confidential adviser ; and his pupil's accession increased his power. He was consul in 57, and during the first bright years of the new reign, the incomparable quinquennium Neronis, he shared the actual administration of affairs with the worthy Burrus, the praetorian praefect. The government in the hands of these men of remarkable insight and energy was wise and humane; their influence over Nero, while it lasted, was salutary, though sometimes maintained by doubtful means. When there came the inevitable rupture between mother and son they sided with the latter; and Seneca, who drew up all Nero's state papers, was called upon to write a defence of matricide. We must, however, regard the general tendency of his measures; to judge him as a Stoic philosopher by the counsels of perfection laid down in his writings would be much the same thing as to apply the standard of New Testament morality to the career of a Wolsey or Mazarin. He is the type of the man of letters who as courtier and minister rises into favour by talent and suppleness (comitas honesta), and is entitled as such to the rare credit of a beneficent rule. In course of time Nero got to dislike him more and more; the death of Burrus in 62 gave a shock to his position. In vain did he petition for permission to retire, offering to Nero at the same time his enormous fortune. Even when he had sought privacy on the plea of ill health he could not avert his doom; on a charge of being concerned in Piso's conspiracy he was forced to commit suicide. His manly end might be held in some measure to redeem the weakness of his life but for the testimony it bears to his constant study of effect and ostentatious self-complacency ("conversus ad amicos, imaginem vitae suae relinquere testatur").

Seneca is at once the most eminent among the Latin writers of the Silver Age and in a special sense their representative, not least because he was the originator of a false style. The affected and sentimental manner which gradually grew up in the first century A.D. became ingrained in him, and appears equally in everything which he wrote, whether poetry or prose, as the most finished product of ingenuity concentrated upon declamatory exercises, sub-stance being sacrificed to form and thought to point. Every variety of rhetorical conceit in turn contributes to the dazzling effect, now tinsel and ornament, now novelty and versatility of treatment, or affected simplicity and studied absence of plan. But the chief weapon is the epigram (sententia), summing up in terse incisive antithesis the gist of a whole period. "Seneca is a man of real genius," writes Niebuhr, "which is after all the main thing; not to be unjust to him, one must know the whole range of that litera-ture to which he belonged and realize how well he understood the art of making something even of what was most absurd." His works were upon various subjects. (1) His Orations, probably the speeches which Nero delivered, are lost, as also a biography of his lather, and (2) his earlier scientific works, such as the monographs describing India and Egypt and one upon earthquakes (Nat. Qu., vi. 4, 2). The seven extant books of Physical Investigations (Natur-ales Qumstiones) treat in a popular manner of meteorology and astronomy ; the work has little scientific merit, yet here and there Seneca, or his authority, has a shrewd guess, e.g., that there is a connexion between earthquakes and volcanoes, and that comets are bodies like the planets revolving in fixed orbits. (3) The Satire on the Death (and deification) of Claudius is a specimen of the " satira Menippea " or medley of prose and verse. The writer's spite against the dead emperor before whom he had cringed servilely shows in a sorry fashion when he fastens on the wise and liberal measure of conferring the franchise upon Gaul as a theme for abuse. (4) The remaining prose works are of the nature of moral essays, bearing various titles,—twelve so-called Dialogues, three books On Clemency dedicated to Nero, seven On Benefits, twenty books of Letters to Lucilius. They are all alike in discussing practical questions and in addressing a single reader in a tone of familiar conversation, the objections he is supposed to make being occasionally cited and answered. Seneca had the wit to discover that conduct, which is after all "three-fourths of life," could furnish inexhaustible topics of abiding universal interest far superior to the imaginary themes set in the schools and abundantly analysed in his father's Contro-versiie, and Suasorise, such as poisoning cases, or tyrannicide, or even historical persons like Hannibal and Sulla. The innovation took the public taste,—plain matters of urgent personal concern sometimes treated casuistically, sometimes in a liberal vein with serious divergence from the orthodox standards, but always with an earnestness which aimed directly at the reader's edification, pro-gress towards virtue, and general moral improvement. The essays are in fact Stoic sermons ; for the creed of the later Stoics had become less of a philosophical system and more of a religion, especially at Home, where moral and theological doctrines alone attracted lively interest. The school is remarkable for its anticipation of modern ethical conceptions, for the lofty morality of its exhorta-tions to forgive injuries and overcome evil with good ; the obligation to universal benevolence had been deduced from the cosmopolitan principle that all men are brethren. In Seneca, in addition to all this, there is a distinctively religious temperament, which finds expression in phrases curiously suggestive of the spiritual doctrines of Christianity. Yet the verbal coincidence is sometimes a mere accident, as when he uses sacer Spiritus; and in the same writings he sometimes advocates what is wholly repulsive to Christian feel-ing, as the duty and privilege of suicide.

Eight of the tragedies which bear Seneca's name are undoubtedly genuine. In them the defects of his prose style are exaggerated: as specimens of pompous rant they are probably unequalled ; and the rhythm is unpleasant owing to the monotonous structure of the iambics and the neglect of synapheia in the anapaestic systems. The praetexta Octavia, also ascribed to him, contains plain allusions to Nero's end, and must therefore be the product of a later hand.

Our materials for a knowledge of Seneca are ample, and are variously pre-sented in such works as Merivale's Romans under the Empire, cc. 52-54 ; teller's Greek Philosophy (Eng. tr. Eclecticism, pp. 202-245) ; and the histories of Roman literature by Bernhardy, Teuilel (§§ 282-285), and Simcox (ii. pp. 1-27, London, 1SS3). His elder brother Annaeus Seneca Novatus, afterwards adopted by a Junius Gallio, was the proconsul of Achaia before whom St Paul pleaded (Acts xviii. 12). The date of Seneca's birth must be approximately inferred from Nat. Qu., i. 1, 3; Ep., 10S, 22. His mother's name was Helvia; her sister brought him as a child to Rome and nursed him tenderly. His teachers were Attalus, a Stoic, and Sotion, a pupil of the Sextii. In his youth he was a vegetarian and a water-drinker, but his father checked his indulgence in asceticism. Before his exile he had served as quaestor, was married, and had two children born. Caligula said his style was mere mosaic (commissuras meras) or "sand without lime," and would have put him to death, had he not been assured that so consumptive a subject could not last long (Suet., Calig., 63; Dio Cassius, lix. 19, 7). Upon a Pompeian fresco a butterfly appears as charioteer of a dragon,—Seneca and Nero. His second wife was Pompeia Paulina, of noble family; she attempted to die with him. His enormous wealth was estimated at 300 millions of sesterces. He had 500 ivory tables inlaid with citron wood (Dio, lxi. 10, lxii. 2). The judgment of Tacitus (Ann., xiii. 4, 13, 42 sq., xiv. 52-56, xv. 60 sq.) is more favourable than that of Dio, who may possibly derive his account from the slanders of some personal enemy like Snilius. Seneca has found many champions—Lipsius (the introduction to his ed.); Diderot, Essai sur les Règnes de Claude et de Néron (iii. 1-407, Paris, 1S75); Volquardsen, Ehrenrettung (Hadersleben, 1839); Martha, Les Moralistes sous l'Empire Romain, (2d ed., Paris, 1866). For the dates of his works, see H. Lehmann, in Philology*. viii. p. 309 ; F. Jonas, De ordine librorum Sen. (Berlin, 1870) ; A. Martens, De Sen. vita (Altona, 1871) ; also R. Volkmann, in Mager's Pädagog. Revue, xviii. pp. 259-276 (1857). At least eighteen prose works have been lost, among them De superstitione, an attack upon the popular conceptions of the gods, and Dc matrimonio, which, to judge by the extant fragments, must have been interest ing reading. Since Gellius (xii. 2, 3) cites a book xxii. of the Letters to Lucilius, some of these have been lost. His style is elaborately criticized by Quintilian (Inst., x. 1, 125-131), also by Fronto (p. 155 sq.; Gellius, xii. 2, 1). The doubt as to his authorship of the tragedies is due to a blunder of Sidonius Apollinaris (ix. 229-231); against it must be set Quintilian's testimony (" ut Medea apud Senecarn," ix. 2, 8). Some of the Fathers, probably in admiration of his ethics, reckoned Seneca among the Christians ; this assumption in its turn led to the forgery of a correspondence between St Paul and Seneca, which was known to Jerome (comp. Augustin, Ep., 153: "Seneca . . . cujus etiam ad Paulum apostolum leguntur epistolae"). This has given rise to an interesting historical problem, most thoroughly discussed in the commentary on the Ep. to the Philippians by Dr Lightfoot, bishop of Durham (London, new ed., 1879, pp. 270-333), who cites (p. 278 note) among_ earlier authorities A. Fleury, St Paul et Sénèque (Paris, 1853) ; C. Anbertin, Étude (1853), also new ed. Sènèque et St Paul (Paris, 1870) ; F. C. Baur (1858), republished in Drei Abhandlungen (Leipsic, 1876) ; F. W. Farrar, Seekers after God (London, s.a.) ; and G. Boissier, in the Revue des Deux Mondes, xcii., 1871, pp. 40-71. Add the articles by F. X. Kraus in Theolog. Quartalschrift, vol. xlix. pp. 609-624 (Tübingen, 1867) and by A. Harnack in Theolog. Lit.-Zeitung, 1881, pp. 444-449, the latter being a review of E. Westerburg, Untersuchung der Sage, dass Seneca Christ gewesen sei (Berlin, 1881).

The best text of the prose works, that of Haase in Teubner's series (1852), was re-edited in 1872-74 ; he followed the critical labours of Fickert (Berlin, 3 vols., 1842-45). More recently Gertz has revised the text of Libri de heueßeiis et de dementia (Berlin, 1876) and H. A. Koch that of the Dialogorum libri XII. (completed by Vahlen, Jena, 1S79). There is no complete exegetical comment- ary, either English or German. Bücheler's edition of the _______ may be found in Symbolaphilol. Bonneris., i. (1864), pp. 31-89. Little has been done systematically since the notes of Lipsius and Gronovius. There is, however, Ruhkopf's ed. with Latin notes, 5 vols. (Leipsic, 1797-1811), and Lemaire's variorum ed. (Paris, 1827-32, 8 vols., prose and verse). The text of the tragedies was edited by Peiper and Richter for Teubner's series (1867), and more recently by F. Leo (Berlin, 2 vols., 1878-79). Nisard, Études de mœurs et de critique suites poètes de la décadence (4th ed., Paris, 1878), has criticized them in detail. Of some 300 monographs enumerated in Engelniarm may be mentioned, in addition to the above, G. Boissier, Les tragédies de Sénèque ont-ils été représentés? (Paris, 1861) ; A. Dörgens, Senec. disciplina moralis cum Antoniniana comparatio (Leipsic, 1857); E. F. Gelpke, De Senec. vita et moribus (Bern, 1848): Holzherr, Der Philosoph Seneca (Rastadt, 1858). (R. D. H.)






The above article was written by: R. D. Hicks, M.A., Fellow and Lecturer in Classics, Trinity College, Cambridge.



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