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Seneca the Younger

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca, or Seneca the Younger; Σένεκας in Ancient Greek literature) (c. 4 BC – AD 65) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero.

Biography

As Griffin says in her standard modern biography of Seneca "The evidence for Seneca's life before his exile in 41 is so slight, and the potential interest of these years, for social history as well as for biography, is so great that few writers on Seneca have resisted the temptation to eke out knowledge with imagination." Therefore what one reads as supposed fact has to be read with extreme caution.

According to Griffin it can be inferred from ancient sources that he was born on any of the three following dates 8, 4, and 1 BC. She thinks he was born between 4 and 1 BC and was resident in Rome by 5 AD. Seneca says that he was carried to Rome in the arms of his mother's stepsister. As Griffin says, allowing for rhetorical exaggeration, "it is fair to conclude that Seneca was in Rome as a very small boy."

His family was from Corduba, Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula), and we might infer that he may have been born there, although there is no documentary evidence for this.

He was the second son of Helvia and Lucius Annaeus Seneca (there is no ancient evidence for the name Marcus), a wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder. Griffin says that it is probable that the Annaei came from Etruria or the "area further east towards Illyria." There is no way of knowing when the family came to Spain.

Seneca's older brother, Gallio, became proconsul at Achaia. Seneca was uncle to the poet Lucan, the son of his younger brother Annaeus Mela.

At Rome he was trained in rhetoric and was introduced into Stoic philosophy by Attalus and Sotion. Seneca tells us about his poor health and at some stage he was nursed by his mother's stepsister. As she was in Egypt from 16 – 31 AD it can be inferred that Seneca visited Egypt, although for how long we do not know.

Seneca and his aunt returned to Rome in 31 AD and she helped him in his campaign for his first magistracy.

Around 37 AD, he had a severe conflict with the Emperor Caligula who only spared his life because he believed the sickly Seneca would not live long anyway. In 41 AD, Messalina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, persuaded Claudius to have Seneca banished to Corsica on a charge of adultery with Julia Livilla. He spent his exile in philosophical and natural study and wrote the Consolations.

In 49 AD, Claudius' new wife Agrippina had Seneca recalled to Rome to tutor her son, then 12 years old, who was to become the emperor Nero. On Claudius' death in 54 AD, Agrippina secured the recognition of Nero as emperor over Claudius' son, Britannicus.

From 54 – 62 AD, Seneca acted as Nero's advisor, together with the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. Seneca's influence was said to be especially strong in the first year.. Many historians consider Nero's early rule with Seneca and Burrus to be quite competent. Over time, Seneca and Burrus lost their influence over Nero. In 59 AD they had to reluctantly agree to Agrippina's murder, and afterwards Seneca wrote a dishonest exculpation of Nero to the Senate. With the death of Burrus in 62 AD and accusations of embezzlement, Seneca retired and devoted his time to more study and writing.

In 65 AD, Seneca was caught up in the aftermath of the Pisonian conspiracy, a plot to kill Nero. Although it is unlikely that he was a co-conspirator he was ordered to kill himself by Nero (by opening his veins), as did his wife Pompeia Paulina who chose to share his fate. Tacitus gives an account of the suicide in his Annals (Book XV, Chapters 60 through 64). Nero ordered that Seneca's wife be saved. The wounds were bound up, and she did not make a second attempt. Unfortunately for Seneca, his old age and diet caused the blood to flow slowly, thus causing pain instead of a quick death. He then took poison, but it didn't work. He dictated his last words to a scribe, and then jumped into a hot pool. He did not try to drown, but instead, it appears, tried to make the blood flow faster. Tacitus wrote in his Annals of Imperial Rome that Seneca died from suffocation from the steam rising from the pool.

Reputation

Seneca remains one of the few popular Roman philosophers from the period. His works were celebrated by Ralph Waldo Emerson, John of Salisbury, Erasmus and others. Montaigne was considered to be a "French Seneca" by Pasquier. While his ideas are not considered to be original, he was important in making the Greek philosophers presentable and intelligible.

Even with the admiration of such intellectual stalwarts, Seneca is not without his detractors. In his own time, he was widely considered to be a hypocrite or, at least, less than "stoic" in his lifestyle. His tendency to engage in illicit affairs with married women and close ties to Nero's excess test the limits of his teachings on restraint and self-discipline. While banished to Corsica, he wrote pleas for restoration rather incompatible with his advocacy of a simple life and the acceptance of fate. In his Pumkinification (54) he ridiculed several behaviors and policies of Claudius that every Stoic should have applauded; a reading of the text shows it was also an attempt to gain Nero's favor by flattery-such as proclaiming that Nero would live longer and be wiser than the legendary Nestor. Suilius claims that Seneca acquired some "three hundred million sesterces within the space of four years" through Nero's favor. Robin Campbell, a translator of Seneca's letters, writes that the "stock criticism of Seneca right down the centuries [has been]...the apparent contrast between his philosophical teachings and his practice."

According to Tactitus however, Suilius' accusations did not hold up under scrutiny. It would make sense that Seneca's position of power would make him vulnerable to trumped-up charges, as many public figures were at the time.

In 1966 scholar Anna Lydia Motto also challenged this view of Seneca, arguing that his image has been based almost entirely on Sulius's account, while many others who might have lauded him have been lost.

"We are therefore left with no contemporary record of Seneca's life, save for the desperate opinion of Publius Suilius. Think of the barren image we should have of Socrates, had the works of Plato and Xenophon not come down to us and were we wholly dependent upon Aristophanes' description of this Athenian philosopher. To be sure, we should have a highly distorted, misconstrued view. Such is the view left to us of Seneca, if we were to rely upon Suillius alone.

Works

Works attributed to Seneca include a dozen philosophical essays, one hundred twenty-four letters dealing with moral issues, nine tragedies, a satire, and a meteorological essay. One of the tragedies attributed to him, Octavia, was clearly not written by him. He even appears as a character in the play. His authorship of another, Hercules on Oeta, is doubtful.

Seneca generally employed a pointed rhetorical style. His writings contain the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy: the universe is governed for the best by a rational providence; contentedness is achieved by a simple, unperturbed life in accordance with nature and the duty to the state; human suffering should be accepted and has a positive effect on the soul; study and learning is important; et cetera. He emphasized practical steps by which the reader might confront life's problems. In particular, he considered it important to confront the fact of one's own mortality. The discussion of how to approach death dominates many of his letters.

Seneca's Tragedies

Many scholars have thought, following the ideas of the nineteenth century German scholar Leo, that Seneca's tragedies were written for recitation only. Other scholars think that they were written for performance and that it is possible that actual performance had taken place in Seneca's life time (George W.M. Harrison (ed.), Seneca in performance, London: Duckworth, 2000). Ultimately, this issue cannot be resolved on the basis of our existing knowledge.

The tragedies of Seneca have been successfully staged in modern times. The dating of the tragedies is highly problematic in the absence of any ancient references. A relative chronology has been suggested on metrical grounds but scholars remain divided. It is inconceivable that they were written in the same year. They are not at all based on Greek tragedies, they have a five act form and differ in many respects from extant Attic drama, and whilst the influence of Euripides on some these works is considerable, so is the influence of Virgil and Ovid.

Seneca's plays were widely read in medieval and Renaissance European universities and strongly influenced tragic drama in that time, such as Elizabethan England (Shakespeare and other playwrights), France (Corneille and Racine), and the Netherlands (Joost van den Vondel).

Tragedies:

Dialogues

Other

Seneca as a humanist saint

The early Christian Church was very favorably disposed towards Seneca and his writings, and the church leader Tertullian called him "our Seneca".

Medieval writers and works (such as the Golden Legend, which erroneously has Nero as a witness to his suicide) believed that Seneca had been converted to the Christian faith by Saint Paul, and early humanists regarded his fatal bath as a kind of disguised baptism. However, this seems unlikely as Seneca always professed to be Stoic.

Dante placed Seneca in the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, a place of perfect natural happiness where good non-Christians like the ancient philosophers had to stay for eternity, due to their lack of the justifying grace (given only by Christ) required to go to heaven.

Seneca the Younger also makes an appearance as a character in Monteverdi's opera L'incoronazione di Poppea.

See also

References

External links

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