- Seneca is our principal source on Stoicism, but he is also the most controversial.
- The emperor Nero made him the richest man in the empire, before ordering him to commit suicide.
- Owing to his wealth and close association with Nero, he has been viewed as a hypocrite.
Stoic philosophy has exerted an important influence on the history of ideas, including on the thought of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Adam Smith, and J.S. Mill.
In the field of mental health, Stoicism inspired what has become the most common form of talking treatment, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Aaron Beck (who passed away in 2021), the father of CBT, wrote that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.”
Seneca is our most important primary source on ancient Stoicism, followed by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Musonius. He is also the most flamboyant and controversial. The emperor Nero made him the richest man in the empire, before ordering him to commit suicide.
How might we explain the discrepancy between the man and his teachings?
Seneca was probably born in 4 BCE, the same year as Jesus, in Corduba (modern-day Córdoba), Hispania (Spain).
His father, Seneca the Elder, was a Roman equestrian who wrote books on rhetoric and Roman history. His elder brother Novatus, known as Gallio, was a senator, and his younger brother Mela was the father of the poet Lucan.
Seneca was raised from a young age in Rome. His tutors included Attalus the Stoic, Sotion, and Papirius Fabianus. The boy Seneca so admired Attalus that he “practically laid siege to his classroom.” He was “the first to arrive and the last to leave” and often left with the desire to be poor.
He suffered from poor health—possibly tuberculosis on a background of asthma—and, from his mid-twenties, spent several years convalescing in Alexandria, where he resided with his mother’s sister and her husband Gaius Galerius, the governor of Egypt.
The trio sailed back to Rome in 32, but Galerius perished en route in a shipwreck.
Political career and exile
A few years after his return, Seneca was elected quaestor, making him a senator.
According to the historian Cassius Dio (d. c. 235 CE), Seneca, “who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many others as well,” spoke so eloquently in the senate that the emperor Caligula ordered his execution, but then stayed the order upon being told that he was in any case terminally ill.
In 41, the throne passed to Caligula’s uncle Claudius, and the new empress Messalina, to reduce the threat that she posed, accused Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla of adultery with Seneca. The Senate passed a death sentence on Seneca, which Claudius commuted to exile on Corsica.
On Corsica, Seneca wrote the Consolations to Polybius, a letter purporting to comfort Polybius, Claudius’ literary secretary, on the death of his brother, but more likely aimed at flattering the emperor in the hope of being recalled from exile.
Association with Nero
In 49, following the downfall of Messalina, Agrippina the Younger, a sister of Caligula and Julia Livilla, married her uncle Claudius, and had Seneca recalled to tutor her 12-year-old son Nero.
When the lad acceded to the throne in 54, Seneca became his adviser and, alongside the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, provided good government for the first five, relatively benign, years of his reign, the so-called quinqennium Neronis.
In 58, the senator Publius Suilius Rufus, who had been close to Claudius, began attacking Seneca with a series of accusations centred upon his rapid rise to fabulous wealth. “By what kind of wisdom or maxims of philosophy” he inveighed, “had Seneca within four years of royal favour amassed three hundred million sesterces?” In response, Seneca prosecuted Suilius, who was banished to the Balearic Islands.
In 59, Nero had Agrippina murdered, and Seneca wrote the self-exculpatory speech that he delivered to the Senate, a speech so artful that the senators moved to congratulate the emperor upon his own mother’s murder.
Downfall and suicide
But now the tide would turn against our man.
After the death of Burrus in 62, Seneca lost whatever remained of his restraining influence over Nero. Having read the runes, he twice petitioned to retire, once in 62 and again in 64, but Nero refused to cut him loose. Still, he contrived to spend almost all his time on his country estates, working, among others, on his Letters to Lucilius.
His prolonged absences from court may have stoked Nero’s suspicions. When, in 65, the Pisonian conspiracy to overthrow Nero came to light, the emperor condemned a first wave of 19 people to death, among whom Seneca and his nephew Lucan.
By the end of the year, Seneca, his two brothers, and the 25-year-old Lucan had all four been made to commit suicide.
According to the historian Tacitus (d. 120 CE), Seneca modelled his death on that of Socrates, discussing philosophy with his friends and chiding them for their outbursts of emotion.
He slit one vein, and then another, and then a few more, but would not bleed enough to die. Now in considerable pain, he took some hemlock, but this too failed to do the deed. At last, to dilate his veins and ease the pain, he immersed himself in a hot bath and finally “suffocated” to death.
His wife Pompeia Paulina, whom he had married in later life, attempted to share his fate, but Nero sent the order that she be rescued and bandaged up.
Seneca had seen the writing on the wall, which is why he worked so assiduously in his final years, seeking, by the Letters, to make himself as immortal as any mortal can be.
Even his thespian suicide may have been a part of his immortality project. Tactitus hints as much when, having related Seneca’s last words to his friends, he writes, “After these and some similar remarks, which might have been meant for a wider audience…”
Upon his death, Seneca’s works were instantly popular and, according to Quintilian, “in the hands of every young man”. Seneca has been read by most everyone since, including the “French Seneca,” Michel de Montaigne, who modelled his Essays upon the Letters.
A criticism that has dogged Seneca down the centuries is the discrepancy between his biography and his philosophy, and it is true that the venal and vainglorious adviser to Nero can seem remote from the congenial and avuncular Stoic of the Letters.
I’ll say three things in Seneca’s defence.
- First, it might be that the mud stuck to him, as it would have done to Socrates had Plato and Xenophon not set out to rescue his reputation. The image of Socrates painted by Aristophanes is nothing like the noble and stirring Socrates of Plato’s Apology.
- Second, what else could Seneca have done in the face of Nero? Even if he had been able to walk away in the early years, he may have seen it as his duty to remain and rein in the emperor as much as he could—and it does seem that the empire owed him and Burrus at least five years of relative stability.
- Finally, Seneca never claimed to be a sage, or even to be leading a life consistent with philosophy. In Letter 27, he tells Lucilius: “I am lying in the same ward, as it were, conversing with you about our common ailment and sharing remedies.” In Letter 87, he discusses the embarrassment he feels whenever his mule-driven country wagon crosses a more luxurious carriage. The blushes, he says, are “proof that the habits I approve and admire are not yet firmly established. He who blushes in a shabby carriage will boast in an expensive one. It’s only a little progress that I have made so far. I don’t yet dare to wear my frugality out in the open; I still care about the opinions of travellers…”
In the Divine Comedy (1320), Dante places “moral Seneca” in limbo, in a magnificent, seven-walled castle alongside Lucan and other virtuous pagans such as Socrates, Plato, and Cicero. Here they forever abide, the philosophers, between earth and sky, in the seven-walled fortress of the mind.
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories: Stoicism by Its Best Stories.
Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, Letter 108.
Cassius Dio, Roman History, LIX, 19.
Tacitus, Annals, XIII, 42.
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, X, 1, 126.
Michel de Montaigne, Essays, 1, 25.
Dante, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, IV.