Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

In "Dying Every Day", one of history's greatest philosophers plays the tutor to one of history's most notorious dictators. Alexander had his Aristotle. Nero had his Seneca. Romm animates the famed Stoic and makes us see his world - an imperial Rome full of conniving courtiers, shifting alliances, and the lust for power. I had always thought that Seneca must have lived above the fray according to the the values his Stoic philosophy prescribes, but Romm shows us how Seneca was unable to resist the siren song of power and became a major player in the vortex of court politics. The contradictions within the man were astounding - a brilliant Stoic philosopher who was simultaneously a power-hungry fat cat. And while we still read his works today, his record as a tutor to Nero is quite damning. It's also interesting to note that Seneca was born within a few years of Jesus - what a turbulent time he lived in!

Romm does a magnificent job of describing the struggle between the two aspects of Seneca's personality. Would-be philosopher kings - take note! Imperial Rome comes alive and the machinations of the court would give Game of Thrones a run for its money. Well worth a read - this book has just the right mix of edification and entertainment.

My favorite highlights below.

Attalus impressed young Seneca with his abstemious way of life, an asceticism that, he said, made him a king; by needing nothing — neither wealth, nor position, nor fine dress and food — he gained as much power and freedom as any monarch. “To me, he seemed even greater than a king, in that he was entitled to pass judgment on kings,” wrote Seneca many decades later—after he himself had tasted the same privilege.

Seneca’s speeches, to Caligula, seemed to lack solidity — ear-catching phrases strung together without binder to firm them up.

The Praetorians were thus the ultimate weapon of a princeps. Caligula, as his sanity deteriorated and his hostility to the Senate grew, would test that weapon’s limits — and finally exceed them.

“It seems that Nature produced him as an experiment, to show what absolute vice could accomplish when paired with absolute power,” Seneca said of Caligula’s madness.

Those wounds have begun to fester: Marcia is still grieving more than two years after the death of her son Metistius. In Stoic terms, she has dangerously lost touch with Reason, the element that makes her fully a person. The Divine enthroned this element within the human soul, just as surely as it put a thinking brain atop the human body. If Reason cannot be restored to its proper primacy, Marcia will lose her personhood and any hope of happiness.

Nature, for him as for all Stoics, was the master guide and template; it was allied with Reason and with God. Indeed these three terms, for Stoics, were close to synonymous.

Seneca compares our lot to that of a condemned criminal: “If you lament a dead son, his crime belongs to the hour in which he was born. A death sentence was passed on him then.”

This rhapsodic hymn to suicide stands as a second landmark in Seneca’s thought, like the equally fervent apocalypse scene in Consolation to Marcia. Stoics had long considered suicide to be a remedy for inescapable ills, including abuse by a cruel despot. But what had been a minor topic among the Greek Stoics became all too central in Rome in the age of the Caesars. Indeed, for Seneca, it became a kind of fixation. In writings throughout his career, he recurs again and again to agonizing questions of how, why, whether, and when to take one’s own life. Later ages decided he had been aptly named, deriving Seneca from the Latin phrase se necare, “to kill oneself.”

“It is the mind that makes us rich,” he told his mother, to dissuade her from mourning his fate. “The mind enjoys a wealth of its own goods, even in the harshest wilderness, so long as it finds what is enough to keep the body alive.” These words might have been written by Thoreau at Walden Pond, although the terms of Seneca’s exile, which allowed him to keep half his estate, gave him access to ready cash.

Corsica, as Seneca conjured it in Consolation to Helvia, was an ideal proving ground for the main Stoic tenet: true happiness comes from Reason, a force allied with Nature and with God.

Why would any devoted Stoic, having found a paradise of Reason beneath a benign firmament, ever return to the cesspool called Rome? The question goes to the heart of the enigma of Seneca’s life.

In Seneca’s view, however — a view that perhaps anticipates the thinking of modern environmentalists — the ceaseless advance of empire would turn the cosmos itself into an enemy. When everyone could go everywhere, when no boundaries remained intact, total collapse might not be far off.

Agrippa had founded a town in Germany as a haven for the Ubii, a tribe he had brought under Roman dominion. His son, Germanicus, later made it his base of operations. Agrippina herself had been born there, during her father’s glorious campaigns. This place, as yet only a regional outpost called Ara Ubiorum, was the focal point of her family’s heroic legacy, and Agrippina knew it. She persuaded Claudius to upgrade it to a colonia, a high-ranking Roman town with full legal status, and to name it after her. Never before had a Roman foundation commemorated a woman. Its full name, Colonia Agrippinensis, “Agrippina’s colonia,” proved too cumbersome for many Roman tongues, and so over time a shortened version, Colonia, gave rise to the modern name, Cologne (or Köln).

Elevating the lowborn or fallen, thereby making them dependent and loyal, was a time-honored strategy for Roman rulers, as it has been for autocrats everywhere.

Jewish ire from the moment he landed in Caesarea, Judaea’s administrative capital. When the Jews’ head rabbi, Jonathan, began carping at him, Felix hired thugs to stab the man to death with the short daggers they carried under their cloaks. These coldhearted assassins had a ruthlessly effective technique: they struck stealthily, then hid their daggers and, rather than run away, melded into the crowd surrounding their victim. The Sicarii, “dagger men,” became Felix’s personal hit squad and began terrorizing the province.

Felix was impressed by what he heard about universal love and salvation through faith. Over the next two years, Felix had Paul fetched from his cell on several occasions, and he and Drusilla listened raptly to his preachings. It was a strange confluence that brought a Jewish princess, a Christian apostle, and the brother of Claudius’ most powerful freedman together in the same room, but such were the complexities of the Roman world in the first century A.D. Stranger still was the fact that Paul, the only person in that room with no freedom, wealth, or power, was also the only Roman citizen.

Almost nothing is known of Paul’s life in Rome. But a curious legend holds that while there, he struck up a warm friendship with Seneca.

The marriage of Nero and Octavia spelled triumph for Agrippina. By 53, she had succeeded in making Nero’s succession likely, though not inevitable. And she had taken other steps to shore up her ability to control events. She was proving herself to be, by any account, one of the all-time master strategists of the game of dynastic politics.

Rome had as yet no rituals for the acclamation of a princeps. Only twice before had there been an orderly transfer of power. For lack of a longer tradition, the soldiers adopted the procedure used for Claudius the last time around. Nero was taken in a covered litter to the Praetorian camp outside the city walls. There he delivered a speech — Dio specifies that Seneca had written it for him — to the assembled soldiery. He accompanied his grand words with a grand gift: as much as 20,000 sesterces, or two decades’ worth of pay at the centurion salary level, per man. The soldiers hailed him as imperator, as they had done for Claudius.

Rome now had the youngest ruler the Western world had ever seen. Even Alexander the Great, the paragon of precocity, had entered his third decade before assuming rule over Macedon and starting his conquest of the East. Nero was still sixteen, yet reigned over an empire larger than Alexander’s had ever been.

“To fight against an equal is risky; against a higher-up, insane; against someone beneath you, degrading,” Seneca wrote in De Ira.

With an unerring eye for detail, De Ira caricatures the self-regard and self-importance of the Roman nobility. The work even explains these traits in a way that might look familiar to a modern psychologist. The wealthy and powerful indulge their children and give them no training in overcoming indignities. “The one to whom nothing was refused,” Seneca writes, “whose tears were always wiped away by an anxious mother, will not abide being offended.” The ability to laugh, he suggests, is an antidote to the petulance that comes with privilege.

Burrus and Seneca made an odd pair, one a career soldier, the other a moralist and writer who had never borne arms. But they had by now built a bond of mutual trust. Together they worked to guide the young Nero and counter the sway of his mother. “They exercised different but equal influence [on Nero],” Tacitus comments admiringly, “Burrus by his soldierly sense of duty and his gravity of character, Seneca by his instruction in eloquence and his upright civility.” It was a rare instance when men who might have been rivals became collaborators, aided by shared goals and, increasingly, a common enemy.

Like most Romans, Seneca mistrusted ambitious women, especially mothers who sought power through their sons.

Agrippina, according to two sources, went into open mourning for the young man whose cause she had espoused so recently and with such fatal consequences. Perhaps her tears were political theater, designed to arouse opposition to Nero, but she also had grounds for remorse. Her best means of restoring her waning power at court was gone. She had used Britannicus as a pawn in a high-stakes showdown, and her son had bested her with a lightning blow.

Nero now had an expert poisoner in his service and, more important, the courage to deploy her weapons. The threat that Nero’s power posed must have been present to Seneca’s mind at every state dinner thereafter.

He had attained both the wisdom of a sage and the power of a palace insider — but could the two selves coexist?

Seneca was not ready to give up on the ideal of a moral principate. His greatest assets, virtuosic eloquence and literary ingenuity, were still as potent as ever.

Such thinking, at any rate, is one way to explain the genesis of De Clementia (“On Mercy”), the most inspiring political treatise produced under the Roman principate — or, perhaps, the cleverest piece of propaganda.

Kindness from rulers wins adoration from subjects and results in a long, secure reign; severity breeds fear, and from fear springs conspiracy.

Nero preemptively bribed many of his courtiers with lavish gifts — rewards for their complicity in Britannicus’ death — but Agrippina had a large estate and could hope someday to outbribe him.

The paradox of a moral philosopher who was rich and getting richer raised concern in Seneca’s time, as it has in ours. Other sages had enjoyed royal subsidies — Aristotle, for one, had profited handsomely from his friendship with Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great’s father — but none had been quite so intent on building a fortune.

Diogenes the Cynic was an ascetic by choice. He rejected his family’s bourgeois status, got himself exiled from his native city, and went about in a threadbare cloak with only the barest possessions, a bag for his crust of bread and a cup for scooping water from fountains. When one day he saw a boy drinking from his hands, he smashed the cup, disgusted by his own love of luxury.

The most damning charge of all, because it could not be refuted, stemmed from his close collaboration with Nero. “Even after denouncing tyranny, he had become a tyrannodidaskalos — a tyrant-teacher,” Dio quotes Seneca’s critics as saying, using a rare and potent Greek word. That charge has shadowed Seneca for two millennia.

In the main, De Vita Beata gives an exposition of Stoic values, enshrining Reason and Virtue as the sources of happiness. A sapiens or wise man — the perfect master of the Stoic creed — will require nothing more than these. But, Seneca concedes, those less perfect, those still making their way toward wisdom, can use some help from Fortune.

Riches do not befit a wise man, Seneca concedes, but since he is not one, the rule doesn’t apply. He argues, in effect, that he need not practice virtue until he has attained it — even if, as his critics would no doubt counter, such practice might advance him toward his goal.

Seneca had made the bargain that many good men have made when agreeing to aid bad regimes. On the one hand, their presence strengthens the regime and helps it endure. But their moral influence may also improve the regime’s behavior or save the lives of its enemies. For many, this has been a bargain worth making, even if it has cost them — as it may have cost Seneca — their immortal soul.

One problem Seneca deals with is that of gifts given by kings and tyrants, which cannot be refused, yet cannot be recompensed. He recalls that Socrates was invited to join the court of a Macedonian king but declined on the grounds that had he accepted, he would not have been able to return the royal largesse. Seneca admires Socrates for avoiding what he calls a life of “voluntary servitude.”

Boudicca launched her war chariots, the tanks of their day, but the drivers, unprotected by metal breastplates, were easily dispatched by well-aimed arrows. The discipline of Roman troops, always Rome’s greatest military asset, held up under the blows of British axes. The battle may have lasted all day, as Dio records, or only a short time, as Tacitus implies, but its outcome was decisive.

Did Seneca indeed touch off Rome’s worst provincial uprising by carrying his profiteering too far? The answer depends on a choice between Dio’s desire to see the worst in Seneca and Tacitus’ more mixed appraisal — the same choice that faces us at many turns. We know Seneca lent money at interest and managed a far-flung financial empire; we also know that rebel Britons were hard pressed by debt. Whether there was a link between the two is ultimately a judgment call.

Seneca reflected on how nausea had driven him to desperation. “I endured incredible trials because I could not endure myself,” he writes, using a typically pointed turn of phrase. Then he let his thoughts wander down their usual path, toward the search for a virtuous life, a life of moral awareness. Discomforts overwhelm the body, Seneca muses, in the same way that vice and ignorance overwhelm the soul. The sufferer may not even know he is suffering, just as a deep sleeper does not know he is asleep. Only philosophy can rouse souls from such comas.

In the Letters, Seneca anticipates death as a great philosophic challenge, the ultimate test of character and principle. Seneca’s moral heroes, Socrates and Cato, had had their finest moments when they met that test. Socrates had calmly drunk a cup of lethal hemlock, then vowed an offering to the gods for having healed him. Cato had resolutely torn out his own bowels rather than have his wound stitched up. Seneca had chosen the compromises of the court over the absolute quest for virtue, yet he glimpsed a final chance to join these sages. His death might in the end redeem his complex, imperfect life.

In a third passage of Natural Questions, Seneca confronted his Nero problem by way of historical analogy. As was well known to Seneca’s readers, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great had brought a philosopher to his court to elevate its moral standing — much as Seneca had been brought to Nero’s. For years that sage, Callisthenes, had dutifully played his part, until one day, for unknown reasons, he shook off subservience. He stood up at a banquet and, before the assembled high command, denounced Alexander’s pretensions to godhood. Within a few months, he was dead, on Alexander’s orders. Seneca recalls this notorious murder in the following way: “This is an eternal charge against Alexander, that no virtue, no success in war will redeem. Whenever someone says, ‘He killed many thousands of Persians,’ there will come a reply: ‘... and Callisthenes.’ Whenever it is said ‘He killed Darius, who ruled the greatest empire of that time,’ there will come a reply: ‘... and Callisthenes.’” The reminder of Alexander’s stained legacy carries an implied warning for Nero: if he too kills a philosopher, the crime will darken his name forever.

“Exile, torture, disease, war, shipwreck—think on these,” Seneca counsels. “Let us take in with our mind the worst thing that can possibly happen, if we don’t want to be mastered by it” — for it will eventually come to pass. The rise of cities only portends their fall; we should greet that fall with untroubled minds. Besides, he remarks — changing tack and offering multiple solaces — new buildings will sprout from under the ashes. A better city will rise than the one destroyed by the flames.

Accepting tainted power rather than staying in virtuous exile — this was Thyestes’ sin, and one familiar to Seneca.

That second goal was very nearly achieved. During one torture session, Faenius was assisted by another closet conspirator, Subrius Flavus, while Nero himself looked on. At a certain point, Flavus realized the absurdity, the bizarre futility, of what was taking place: of three men in the room who wanted Nero dead, two were attacking the third, while Nero stood by and watched, unarmed and outnumbered. Flavus used covert gestures to suggest to Faenius that they kill Nero then and there; he even began to draw his sword. But Faenius passed up the plot’s unexpected second chance. He shook his head to Flavus and turned back to his work. The crackdown had gone too far, and he had too little nerve, for a sudden reversal of direction.