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Nobody’s Perfect

Frank Freeman

The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca, by Emily Wilson, Oxford University Press, 288 pp, $29.95, ISBN: 9780199926640

Seneca (1 BCE-65 CE) wrote in one of his Epistles that, “The greatest empire is to be emperor of oneself (Imperare sibi maximum imperium est).” The whole question of this fascinating fluidly written biography is whether Seneca himself practised what he preached and was truly emperor of himself. There is no doubt that he strove valiantly, Emily Wilson, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, shows us, but also no doubt that he often failed terribly. A Catholic monk was once quoted, when asked what he and his fellows did all day, as replying “We fall down and then we get up.” This is what Seneca did (and indeed after his death his works were the Stoic writings most adaptable to Christian theologians, as Wilson points out) but the monks had a source outside of themselves, they believed, for forgiveness. Stoicism does not: there is only the striving. And for some thinkers that striving was suspect.

Cicero, for instance, assassinated in 43 BCE, was highly critical of Stoicism. Here is Wilson on Cicero’s view:

Cicero’s central disagreement with what he perceived to be standard Stoic ethical belief was that he saw it as entirely unrealistic. He suggested . . . that the ideal of the Stoic wise person had no relationship with lived reality. Moreover, the Stoic ideal is not even ideal, since the Stoic wise person is far too cut off from emotional engagement with the world around him. Cicero strongly disagreed with the Stoic goal of apatheia, or “being without passion.” He argues at length . . . that it is neither possible nor desirable for a person to be rid of all feelings of grief, rage, or fear.

This is a valid point to consider when thinking about Stoicism and similar ideas in Buddhism. But Seneca, Wilson points out, “saw Stoicism as an absolutely useful model for a pragmatic political person in the center of Roman political power” and whereas Cicero had clung to the old Republican ideal of Rome, Seneca had embraced the new emperor-centred view; you did not have much choice if you wanted to thrive, or, sometimes, survive. Wilson writes: “It was more important than ever to hang on to an ideal of tranquillity in a world where it was so difficult to achieve”, that is in a world where the emperors were Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. And then there was Stoicism’s teaching, as opposed to that of the Epicureans, that it was good, or at least “indifferent” (a handy umbrella term), to be politically active.

The one thing Seneca was never indifferent to was success. He was the middle son in a family that lived in Corduba (now Cordoba), Spain. His family was of the equestrian class, which Wilson calls lower upper class. He was close to his mother but, from the little we know his relationships with his father and brothers were fraught with complexity. His father appears to have pitted the brothers against one another, emphasising the value of declamation or rhetoric in their education.

“Middle children,” writes Wilson, “often find themselves trying to imitate both their older and their younger siblings, and stretched between the two.” Like his younger brother, Mela, Seneca wanted to be an unworldly philosopher, above the fray of political ambition ‑ and to be praised for it by his dominating father. But like his older brother, Novatus (later Gallio), he also aspired to be a successful career politician ‑ which was another avenue by which to gain praise from his father, and probably his mother as well. Like Novatus, Seneca hoped to combine political success with integrity.

But first he had come to Rome at around the age of five for his education in rhetoric and philosophy. During his teenage years and early twenties, a lung ailment ‑ Wilson says this was probably pulmonary tuberculosis; Seneca himself called it “snuffling” ‑ which he had suffered from since childhood, grew worse until he thought seriously of suicide. He survived the crisis, and in his Epistles states that this was because of his father, friends, and his philosophical studies. But Wilson says what he wrote in To Helvia (his mother), that another aunt had taken him to Egypt for ten years and that the warm dry weather healed him was more likely the truth. In Egypt, Julius Caesar may or may not have burned down the library at Alexandria, according to Wilson, but “there were plenty of books available” there. Not much is known about this period of Seneca’s life; a treatise he wrote on Egypt has been lost and it is not known whether he wrote any of his voluminous works during this period.

When his aunt travelled back with him to Rome in 31 CE, she was able to wrangle a “quaestorship”, “the first official rank on the standard career ladder” for men wanting to go into political office. A man usually had to serve as a general for ten years before attaining this rank: “Seneca entirely skipped this step, thanks no doubt to his aunt’s influence.”

The first emperor Seneca served under was Tiberius, the adopted son of Augustus. Tiberius, not much interested in politics, spent a good part of his reign “on the island of Capri ‑ supposedly entertaining himself with constant sex orgies”. But when he heard about a plot by Sejanus to wrest power from him, he had him killed, and was not in a very good mood for the rest of his reign. The latter was marked by a “culture of informing”, what Wilson calls the “ancient equivalent of McCarthyism”, though instead of suffering blacklisting one suffered sudden death. “Seneca’s years under Tiberius,” Wilson writes, “gave him a good glimpse of how important it was for an emperor to be able to be generous and merciful to his subjects ‑ topics on which he insisted in his public advice to Nero.”

Then came Caligula, emperor from 37 to 41 CE. By all accounts he was worse than Tiberius, though perhaps, Wilson says, not quite as bad as he was portrayed to be in subsequent histories. Bad enough, though, to imprison and then kill a man “whose elegant clothes and hair” enraged him and then to have the man’s father over for dinner and to offer him gifts, which the father accepted graciously. Seneca, writing about this episode ‑ Wilson says he had nothing good to say about Caligula ‑ says, “You ask me why he [the father] did this? Because he had another son.” Caligula almost had Seneca put to death, for committing the terrible crime of making an eloquent speech before the Senate, but did not because a woman in his retinue told him Seneca was close to death. We don’t know for sure if this story is true or made up to explain how Seneca survived Caligula’s reign, but, in Wilson’s words: “In either case, a notable feature of the story is that it is through a woman that Seneca’s life is saved: silver-tongued Seneca was clearly appealing to women.”

When Caligula was assassinated in 41 CE, the praetorian guard demanded that Claudius, Octavia’s (sister of Augustus) grandson, become emperor. Claudius’s wife, Messalina, accused Seneca and Julia Livilla, Caligula’s youngest sister, of adultery. Seneca was exiled to Corsica, while Julia Livilla was exiled elsewhere and then punished with a death by starvation. According to some sources, Seneca might also have been sleeping with Agrippina, Caligula’s other sister and future mother of Nero. (Wilson notes that Seneca was most likely married twice, but we know for sure he was married to Paulina, and that he “followed the standard Stoic line . . . which was that love between the sexes was not a source of delusion and frustration but rather a natural and spiritual necessity, which should be founded on reason, not passion”.)

Seneca lived on Corsica for eight years, in a tower and with slaves to attend to him. He got a lot of writing done, including one essay in which he complained about his hardships there. He complained about these non-existent troubles (he had his own tower, slaves, and a large Roman community to socialise with), Wilson says, was first, to identify himself with one of his favourite poets, Ovid, who had indeed suffered in his exile; and second, because, “If he presented himself as perfectly happy in exile, his chances of ever being recalled back to Rome would not be improved.”

But he was recalled to Rome because Messalina conspired with a lover against Claudius while the emperor was away. Claudius found out and had them both killed. (After a while Roman court life becomes awfully redundant.) Claudius then married ‑ who else? ‑ Agrippina, his niece, though he waited a while, afraid of what the public would think. After they married in 49 CE, Agrippina asked Seneca to return to Rome to be her son, Nero’s, tutor. Wilson wonders why Seneca ever positioned himself as wanting to leave Corsica in the first place ‑ it seems, she says, like “an antelope, begging the lion to let him back inside his den”. All she can conjecture is that he was still politically ambitious and wanted to be at the centre of power and that he probably wanted to do good there. Whether he had a real choice to go back or not after Agrippina asked him to return is unclear.

But he did return and become Nero’s tutor. When at age seventeen, in 54 CE, Nero became emperor, Seneca served as one of his advisers and for a few years things went well. Nero was, relatively speaking, generous and merciful (and Seneca became very wealthy). But as time went by, the emperor became more and more theatrical and cruel. Seneca must have remembered Tiberius and Caligula. The nadir came ‑ after years of struggle between Nero and his mother for power ‑ when Nero told Seneca and Burrus, the head of the praetorian guard, that his mother had to be killed. After a period of silence, Seneca took the lead and told Burrus to have the guard do it. “What are we to make of Seneca’s roll in this appalling story?” Wilson asks.

Agrippina was Seneca’s most important benefactor. She was the woman who had secured his recall from exile and had made him an essential member of court by appointing him as the tutor, and then primary adviser of her son. And yet he not only colluded in her murder but took the lead in strategizing on how it should be done . . .

He then wrote a letter to the senate saying Agrippina had wanted to share power with Nero, perhaps even assassinate him. But, Wilson writes, “the public was disgusted. People were more outraged, we are told, by Seneca than by the barbarous Nero, at whom there was no longer any point in being shocked . . .”

There was a man at court, however, another Stoic, Thrasea Paetus, who stood up to Nero. When Seneca delivered a speech to the senate about the death of Agrippina, he walked out. He maintained that there was a good reason not to kowtow to Nero, “namely, that even those who flattered the emperor were likely to be killed anyway; why compromise oneself if safety is never guaranteed?”. He also said: “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” Wilson comments: “The existence of Thrasea suggests at least the possibility of refusing to compromise under Nero ‑ a possibility that Seneca manifestly did not take up. This is not the only time that Seneca looks rather shabby in comparison to Thrasea.” Thrasea, it is interesting to note, was neither a philosopher nor a writer, but an aristocrat and politician.

Eventually, Seneca could stand court life no longer, especially Nero’s “autocratic and histrionic” behaviour and he asked for permission to resign. Nero refused, but Seneca, pleading illness, received no visitors and stayed home to read and write. During this time he wrote some of his most famous works, including On the Shortness of Life, Natural Questions, and his Epistles. Here is an example from the latter which Wilson quotes to illustrate its theme of “dailiness”:

We die every day. You see, every day a little bit of our life is taken away from us, and even at the moment we are growing, our life is decaying. We lose our infancy, then childhood, then adolescence. Even up to yesterday, all past time is gone; even this day that we are spending now, we share with death. It’s not the last drop that empties the waterclock, but whatever has flowed out before.

Wilson comments: “What matters, then, is not what Seneca did over his years as Nero’s advisor, but rather, what he did today . . .” But also that the “major theme of the collection is how to deal with the passage of time.

Another theme is “the emptiness of consumer goods”. Here is Seneca’s take:

Suppose you acquire, heaped up, the property of many ultra-rich people. Imagine that fortune carries you far beyond mere private wealth: you get a golden roof, purple clothes, and so much luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth beneath your marble floors. So much that you don’t just possess wealth: you trample on it. Let’s say you also have statues, pictures, any of the most modern and fancy kinds of artwork. All you learn from this is how to desire more stuff.

Back in Rome, without Seneca’s restraining influence, “Nero’s foreign and domestic policies tended more and more toward the theatrical”. It all ended for Seneca when he was implicated in a conspiracy against Nero. Seneca was at his “well-tended estate at Nomentum” when the order came to commit suicide. This did not go well for Seneca although he tried, according to Wilson, as he had his whole life, to emulate Socrates. He tried slashing his arms, the backs of his knees, and then, when his blood coagulated (Seneca exercised vigorously all his life), called for hemlock, which did not kill him either. All the while, according to the sources, he was declaiming as if for the public’s ear. Finally he died when he asked his servants to put him in a hot bath and the steam suffocated him. Wilson says that his death was of a piece with his life, “highly theatrical” and “composed of a series of compromises”. We can criticise him for this, as we can for his actions under Nero. “But,” Wilson writes, “one can also admire the ways that he kept trying, despite his failures ‑ just as he had done in life, in his constant attempts to continue along the path of philosophical virtue.” Nero followed him into the netherworld four years later but with “no loyal wife or family members or friends to stand by his side in death, since he had killed them all.”

Wilson’s epilogue about Seneca’s after-life in literature is just as fascinating as the life itself. He was said by early Christians to have become a Christian himself and there was even an “apocryphal Latin correspondence between Seneca and Paul”. Seneca’s elder brother, Novatus, was the man called Gallio in the book of Acts who pardoned Paul, so the connection was not too farfetched. The correspondence between Paul and Seneca has Seneca being in debt to Paul but Wilson argues that the current of influence flowed in the other direction, that “Paul was deeply influence by Stoic philosophy, if not directly by Seneca.” St Jerome called Seneca, “our Seneca” and Augustine admired him but was more critical of him than St. Jerome, critical in the same way Cicero was of the Stoics: that it was impossible to live by their philosophy. Wilson writes that according to Augustine, “The Stoic ideal of the wise man is both empirically false (no such person could ever exist in a postlapsarian world) and morally wrong, since it suggests that fallen humans have the power, through mere will, to control their own happiness.”

Throughout the medieval and Renaissance years and into the Enlightenment, Seneca’s reputation fluctuated. His plays, which I have not mentioned, were, at times, as influential in the world of drama as his other writing were for philosophy. (Wilson also speculates that Seneca poured his conflicted emotions about court life into these plays, which tend to focus on violence and rage.) “In purely formal terms,” she writes, “much in early modern drama was modeled on Senecan tragedy, including the five-act structure.”

Wilson wraps up her book in discussing views of Seneca in the twentieth century. TS Eliot thought his dramas had less influence on Elizabethan drama than had been claimed, and some compared him with Nazi collaborators. But the pendulum swung back in the sixties when, “In Britain, Ted Hughes created a stripped-down version of his Oedipus in 1968, which emphasized the horror and bleakness of the original.” Seneca was also a big influence on Foucault and “Seneca’s discussion of anger, and of the emotions in general, bears comparison with modern analysis of emotional disturbance and mental health, having particular affinities with the cognitive therapy movement in psychology.” Finally, Wilson writes about Stoicism and Seneca in popular culture in the latter twentieth and early twenty-first century, as evidence by movies such as Gladiator (2000) and Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full (1995). She also brings in The Hunger Games trilogy in this analysis; not only does it have a character named Seneca Crane but, “The books meditate on Senecan themes, including the emptiness of life in the service of elite pleasure, and the central Senecan question of how to maintain integrity when trapped in horrible circumstances.”


Frank Freeman’s poetry has appeared in The New York Quarterly, Tiger’s Eye, The Aroostook Review and The Axe Factory. His book reviews have appeared in America Magazine, Bloomsbury Review, Commonweal, The Literary Review and The Rumpus, among others. His story “The Snowstorm” can be found in the current St. Katherine’s Review.