Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Seneca the Younger)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Seneca the Younger)

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Seneca the Younger) (ca. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65) Roman playwright, satirist, essayist, and philosopher The ascetic and conservative writer Seneca— sometimes called Seneca the Younger to distinguish him from his father, the rhetorician Seneca the Elder—was a major figure in Rome's silver age of literature (A.D. 14-117). His biography is sketchy. He was probably born in Corduba (present-day Cordoba, Spain); his parents were Etrusco-Italian intellectuals. Seneca grew up in Rome, where he displayed remarkable curiosity and perception while studying philosophy and rhetoric under Attalus the Stoic. As a young man, he appears to have recuperated from chronic illness among relatives in Egypt and returned to Rome to run for a local magistracy in A.D. 31. For a quarter of a century, he conducted his public career while also writing some 10 tragedies, 10 dialogues, letters, and expository essays. Maintaining a stoic philosophy and pragmatic outlook, he lived through the consolidation of the Julio-Claudian dynasty under its first five emperors—Augustus (ruled 27 B.C.-A.D. 14), Tiberius (14-37), Caligula (37-41), Claudius (41-54), and Nero (54-68). Seneca's admirer, the historian TACITUS, declared that the orator's skills suited the demands of the day. His skill at public speaking roused jealousy in Caligula, who lacked the author's grace, courtesy, and suasion, particularly as it related to the rules of war and the justification of peace. Years later, in “De beneficiis” (“On Benefits,” A.D. 63), the author wrote, “How came Caligula to be emperor of the world? a man so cruel, that he spilt blood as greedily as if he were to drink it” (Seneca 1882, 68). In his last year, Seneca saluted survivors of perilous times with a brief essay, “De providentia” (“On Providence,” A.D. 64).

After Caligula's death, because of a conflict with the emperor Claudius's wife Messalina, Seneca entered an eight-year exile on Corsica in A.D. 41 on a charge of adultery. He later consoled himself in “De vita beata” (“On the Happy Life,” A.D. 58) with the fact that Aeneas, Rome's mythic progenitor, was a refugee from Troy. In exile, Seneca composed “Ad Helviam matrem” (“To My Mother Helvia,” A.D. 42) as a filial solace during his absence. The moral treatise “Ad Polybium de consolatione” (“To Polybius on Consolation,” A.D. 44) vindicates the imperial form of government but attacks Caligula, Claudius's predecessor, for self-absorption and gambling. The author returned to the imperial court as tutor and counselor to young Nero in A.D. 49, perhaps because of the author's reputation for phrasing sententiae (aphorisms) in his moral essays—for example:

✵ Great wealth is great slavery.

✵ A realm established on injustice never lasts.

✵ A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man refined without trial.

✵ All cruelty derives from weakness.

✵ After a failed harvest comes more sowing.

✵ Shame may restrain what the state does not outlaw.

✵ The most powerful man controls himself.

✵ Wisdom does not come by accident.

Seneca served Nero grudgingly as councillor and adviser, acting as go-between with a disapproving Senate. His version of the FABLE ANDROCLES AND THE LION in De beneficiis (“On Benefits,” A.D. 64) reflects his doubts about Nero's ability to govern mercifully and equitably. The author retired at age 58 and lived out his last three years in intellectual pursuits.

Scolding Emperors

Seneca's essay topics range from providence and caution to leisure, tranquility, blessings, pardon, and the brevity of life. He condemned imperial faults with the lively “Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii” (“The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius,” A.D. 54), a Merippean SATIRE that consists of ridicule in alternating prose and verse mocking the deification of Claudius. The text taunts the imperial cult by which emperors were believed to ascend to heaven and, on the strength of their achievements on earth, become gods. Claudius arrives at the gate of the underworld in range of Cerberus, the hellish guard dog. Seneca smirks at his diffidence: “He saw that black, shaggy dog, which was certainly not the sort of thing you'd like to meet in the dark, and in a loud voice he cried out: ’Claudius is on his way!'” (Arbiter and Seneca 1986, 231). At a dramatic moment in the emperor's presentation, the ghost of Augustus opposes the elevation of Claudius, whose beheadings of enemies demeaned the title of Caesar. Seneca proposes that the deification of a man as vice-ridden as Claudius endangers Roman faith in all the gods. The satire mocks the dead emperor by decreeing that he will spend eternity rattling dice in a bottomless box.

A later essay addressed to Nero, “De clemen- tia” (“On Clemency,” A.D. 56), encourages him to agree to amnesty for Seneca to clear his reputation of a sex crime. The author describes the ideal emperor as one who embraces mercy as a model of equity and beneficence for Roman citizens. Seneca asserts, “It is for low and vulgar spirits to brawl, storm, and transport themselves: but it is not for the majesty of a prince to lash out into intemperance of words” (382). His essay admonishes an empire that suppresses freedom of speech, another form of SLAVERY. Tragically, Seneca died after Nero ordered his former teacher to commit suicide for his alleged involvement in conspiracy. Seneca's development of the essay as a clarification of personal moral views and behavior influenced later writers including St. Jerome, Francis Bacon, and Michel de Montaigne.


Arbiter, Petronius, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca. The Satyricon; The Apocolocyntosis. Translated by John Patrick Sullivan. London: Penguin, 1986.

May, Larry. War Crimes and Just War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Seneca’s Morals of a Happy Life, Benefits, Anger and Clemency. Translated by Roger LEstrange. Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1882.