BORN: 4 BCE, Corduba (now Cordoba), Spain
DIED: 65 CE, Rome
GENRE: Nonfiction, drama, poetry
Medea (composition date unknown)
Thyestes (composition date unknown)
On Favors (63 CE)
Natural Questions (63 CE)
Moral Epistles (64 CE)
Seneca. Archive Photos / Getty Images
Seneca (known as Seneca ‘‘the Younger’’) is the principal Stoic philosopher, essayist, and tragedian of imperial Rome. A prolific and versatile writer, Seneca was a respected man of letters who also fully and actively participated in the politics of his time. Serving as tutor and advisor to the young emperor Nero, Seneca helped to direct Nero’s political policies between the years 54 and 62 CE, ensuring a greater measure of tolerance and justice in Rome. Seneca’s tragedies—alternately lauded for his powerful portrayals of extreme circumstances and mental states and criticized for his presentation of lurid onstage violence—left a permanent mark on English drama and are considered his most enduring contribution to literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Studies, Travel to Egypt, and Tuberculosis. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BCE, or shortly before, in Corduba (modern Cordova) in southern Spain, the second son of Seneca the Elder, a famous rhetorician and teacher. Brought to Rome by his maternal aunt when he was a small child, Seneca embarked on the study of grammar and rhetoric, eventually turning to philosophy. During that period, he traveled to Egypt, where his aunt and uncle were living, while his uncle served as provincial governor. Seneca experienced a serious illness during this stay, and scholars agree that he probably suffered from ill health for most of his life due to a tubercular condition.
Exile, Return, and Rise to Power. When he returned to Rome in 31 CE after a long convalescence in Egypt, he held the government post of quaestor (magistrate) and was eventually admitted to the Roman Senate. He rose to fame as both an orator and an author. His popularity and stature, as biographers speculate, aroused the jealousy of the emperor Caligula. He survived the brief rule of Caligula (37-41 CE) only to be exiled to Corsica in the first year of Claudius’s reign (41 CE). The charge was adultery with Caligula’s sister, Julia Livilla, brought by the new empress, Claudius’s young wife, Messalina.
Seneca’s exile came at a time of great personal distress—both his father and his son had recently died. For much of these eight tedious years, Seneca devoted his time to literary compositions, including his treatise On Anger (41 CE). By this time, his Stoic philosophy was well developed. Stoics regarded emotions as unhealthy effects of the unnatural condition they called ‘‘vice.’’ In his elaborate exposition, Seneca defines anger as ‘‘the burning desire to avenge a wrong,’’ and represents it as the most hideous of all the emotions. He then offers prescriptions on how to prevent and extinguish anger.
In 48 CE, Messalina was executed. The following year, Seneca, through the agency of Agrippina, Claudius’s new wife, was allowed to return to Rome in order to work as tutor to her son Nero and to assume the office of praetor (a high ranking magistrate and army commander). His literary and philosophical reputation was now well established, and this appointment as Nero’s tutor placed Seneca again at the center of the Roman world. When Agrippina poisoned her emperor-husband, and Nero ascended the throne in 54 CE, Seneca suddenly wielded immense power and influence.
Political Power. For the first eight years of Nero’s reign, Seneca and the commander of the praetorian guard, Afranius Burrus, acted as his chief ministers and political counselors, shaping and substantially controlling his policies. Historians assert that during these years Seneca’s influence on Nero was a tempering one, for he encouraged the young ruler to work toward a more enlightened and socially beneficent state. They also note, however, that Seneca must have bowed to many of Nero’s wishes in order to preserve his position in the court and that he may have aided, or helped to cover up, Nero’s murder of his mother, Agrippina, in 59 CE.
Between Seneca’s return from exile in 49 CE and his effective retirement in 62 CE, he wrote most of his philosophical dialogues. These works espouse Stoic positions on ethical issues: They advocate virtue, endurance, and self-sufficiency; they condemn evil, emotions, and the false values of wealth and power; they praise reason, wisdom, and poverty; they show contempt for the fear of death. To this period too are dated On Mercy (55-56 CE), written as advice to Nero, and Pumpkinification (54 CE), a sharp satire deriding the deification of Claudius, designed to reflect well on the image of the new potentate.
As Nero’s rule progressed, Seneca became increasingly subject to criticism for the gap between his Stoic exhortations and Nero’s tyrannical tendencies, which included the murder of his stepbrother, Britannicus, in full view of the imperial court. Seneca also drew attacks for hypocrisy; his praise of poverty did not prevent him from amassing a huge fortune through his position in the court. His treatise On the Happy Life (c. 58 CE), in which wealth is justified as a potential instrument of virtue, was probably written as a personal apologia.
Seneca’s Moral Epistles. One of Seneca’s longer philosophical works, On Favors (c. 61 CE), illuminates Roman social and moral codes by examining, in detail, the complexities surrounding individual acts of kindness. Its composition late in Seneca’s political career—as the monstrous acts of the former pupil he no longer controlled began to breach Roman codes—is but one of many ironies defining Seneca’s life.
Following the death of Burrus in 62 CE, Seneca retired from public life. His last works include a scientific volume on Natural Questions (c. 62 CE), and the letters addressed his friend Lucilius, known as the Moral Epistles (c. 62-65 CE). The latter became Seneca’s most popular prose work from antiquity to the present day, and its popularity is easy to understand. The fctive pose of correspondence enables Seneca to cover an enormous range and variety of subject matter, addressed in an informal manner that strikes readers as authentic and sincere. The epistles have been called the forebears of the modern discursive essay.
In 65 CE, Seneca was accused of participating in an unsuccessful conspiracy against Nero. The emperor ordered him to commit suicide, and Seneca obeyed, dying in a highly theatrical manner with self-conscious allusions to the death of Socrates and to his own place in history. His final act, judged a heroic one, was recorded by Tacitus in his Annals.
Senecan Drama. A good portion of Seneca’s body of writing survives to the present day; among his lost works are writings on science, geography, and philosophy, as well as all of his speeches. In addition to his prose, he is today remembered for his contribution to the Roman stage. At least seven complete tragedies can be assigned to Seneca. Two others may be his, but their authorship is disputed; one more, Phoenissae, exists in fragments, suggesting that it was never finished. Scholars surmise that the tragedies were written between 45 and 55 CE.
Most of his plays, such as Medea and Oedipus, are based on existing works by the Greek dramatists Euripides and Sophocles, respectively; however, they differ from their Greek models in two main respects: their style is highly rhetorical, filled with sophisticated wordplay and verbal argumentation, and their atmosphere is gloomy and larded with portents of horror.
Seneca’s tragedies reflect more vividly than the philosophical works the cultural and moral turbulence of early imperial Rome. Born during the reign of Augustus and committing suicide three years before Nero’s similar fate, Seneca was encompassed by the social and moral convolutions of his era. Power resided essentially in one man, who could be (as Caligula was) violent and cruel. In Rome, and especially at the court itself, nothing and no one was secure. Political and personal freedoms were nullified. The themes of Seneca’s tragedies—vengeance, madness, passions, murder, incest, and hideous death— were the stuff of his life experience. The most frequently cited example of Senecan gore is from Thyestes, where Atreus exacts vengeance on his brother, who seduced the former’s wife, by serving him a meal made of his own children. Over and over again in these plays, passion leads to madness and chaos, and the natural universe responds by giving way to disorder and preternatural happenings.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Seneca's famous contemporaries include:
Ovid (43 BCE-17 CE): influential Roman poet, author of the Metamorphoses.
Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE): Roman naval commander and naturalist.
Petronius (c. 27-66 CE): Roman humor writer, author of the Satyricon.
Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE): Emperor of Rome, 41-54.
Jesus of Nazareth (c. 4 BCE-30 CE): Jewish teacher; central figure of Christian religion.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Seneca's tragedies are an integral part of a theatrical tradition that encompasses the entirety of Western history, from ancient Greece to the present day. Here are some examples of great stage tragedies:
The Trojan Women (415 BCE), a play by Euripides. This tragedy follows the characters of Helen, Cassandra, Hecuba, and Clytemnestra after the sacking of Troy.
The Jew of Malta (1589), a play by Christopher Marlowe. The protagonist of this revenge tragedy, Barabas the Jew, was the model for Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
Coriolanus (1623), a play by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare deftly explores the choice between democracy and autocracy in this bloody tragedy, set in Rome during the fifth century BCE
Phedre (1677), a play by Jean Racine. This masterpiece of the French stage depicts a story from Greek mythology, Phaedra's unrequited love for her stepson Hippolytus.
Works in Literary Context
The scholarly consensus is that as a thinker, Seneca was not very original; his teachers were disciples of the Roman Stoic philosopher Quintus Sextius, and Seneca rarely strayed from their beliefs. As for his literary endeavors, the soundness of Seneca’s education gave him a wide variety of models on which to base them: the epics of Homer; Greek poets and dramatists, as well as his fellow Romans Horace, Virgil, and Ovid; the early Stoics, Plato, Aristotle, and the entire spectrum of Hellenistic philosophy; and Roman rhetoricians from Cicero to Caesar. The copious references to other texts in his dramas reflect his absorption of these literary traditions.
Textuality and Theatricality. Senecan tragedy engages in a constant counterpoint with the dramatic and poetic tradition. This intertextuality underscores one of the recurrent themes of Senecan tragedy, the recycling of the past as the present. The world of early imperial Rome was indeed dominated by the forms of its own past—political, social, religious, and legal—and by the playing out of conventional rituals and roles. Inevitably, in this theatrical world, Senecan tragedy frequently draws attention to its own theatricality. Medea requires Jason as an audience to give meaning to her own murderous play; the Trojan dead are summoned as ‘‘spectators’’ to Cassandra’s recited play in Agamemnon. The recurrent focus on action as spectacle, and behavior as role-playing, show Seneca’s interest in drawing attention to the conventions and artifice of the stage.
Rhetoric. Part of what made imperial Rome theatrical was its love of rhetoric, and Seneca’s tragedies, like his philosophical dialogues, are highly rhetorical. Seneca is a master of both expansive declamation and the compressed or ‘‘pointed’’ style of discourse. Seneca’s tragedies and prose works are the product of a sensibility informed by rhetoric, at a time when rhetoric was the controlling principle of both education and literary composition. Contemporary audiences responded fully to all kinds of dialectical and verbal ingenuity. Senecan tragedy is rhetorical, as Elizabethan tragedy is rhetorical; both are the product and index of an age.
Influence on Elizabethans. Seneca’s works were approved by the early Christian Church and studied by medieval writers such as Francesco Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Dante Alighieri. Even more than his prose and philosophical writings, Seneca’s tragedies influenced European, and especially Elizabethan, literature in a profound manner. The introduction of Seneca to English audiences—through a performance of the Troades at Cambridge University in 1551—marked an important event in the history of English drama. Many later playwrights, including such luminaries as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and William Shakespeare, eagerly modeled their works on Seneca’s style and themes. Scholars list the tragedies of Seneca among the most significant influences on the Elizabethan theater, noting that many stock characters and situations derive directly from Seneca’s plays. On the continent, Seneca served as a model for seventeenth-century playwrights Pierre Corneille and Jean Baptiste Racine.
Works in Critical Context
Seneca is admired for the elegant presentation of ideas in his prose and for the powerful influence he exerted on Elizabethan and later drama. Critics have praised the prose style of his essays, letters, and treatises as one of the foremost examples of the ‘‘pointed,’’ or epigrammatic, style of the Latin Silver Age, noting its didactic yet accessible tone and skillful use of colorful figures of speech.
Moral Epistles: A Hit for Two Thousand Years. Seneca has remained a popular literary figure for nearly two millennia. The early Christian writers admired his philosophical writings, finding in them many similarities to Christianity and judging Seneca the most Christian of the pagan authors. In the Middle Ages, his works figured very prominently, along with Cicero’s, among the main educational texts used. His essays and epigrams, incorporated into commonplace books and termed ‘‘Seneks,’’ served as an important tool for teaching morality. His epistles were a major influence on Montaigne, regarded as the founder of the modern essay form. His drama, through its profound impact on Elizabethan theatre, has remained influential to the present day.
Seneca was defended in the eighteenth century by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. Writing in 1893, critic John W. Cunliffe wrote extensively of Seneca’s influence on Elizabethan tragedy, labeling him ‘‘the most modern of the ancients.’’ Twenty-first-century critics continue to debate the issues that have been at the center of Seneca studies since his own time. Some grant him the status of a major thinker, while others see his philosophical concepts as superficial. Dialogue continues on the question of whether Seneca’s dramas were intended to be performed or simply declaimed to an audience. The relationship between the tragedies and the philosophical works, particularly the degree to which the plays express a Stoic perspective, continues to be a subject of debate. Some contemporary scholars have closely scrutinized Seneca’s historical context; others have become interested in his handling of character portrayal and psychology. For instance, in his discussion of grief in his book Everything Has Two Handles (2008), Tufts University psychologist Ronald Pie judges Seneca’s works from this modern perspective. He writes, ‘‘Seneca was hard-nosed but not completely insensitive when it came to grief and mourning,’’ and goes on to state that ‘‘many psychologists and psychiatrists would disagree with Seneca’’ on some of his views.
Responses to Literature
1. Analyze the qualities of dialogue and rhetoric in one of Seneca’s tragedies. How does Seneca’s rhetorical style affect the way you understand the play?
2. Studying one of Seneca’s philosophical dialogues; discuss how the author uses the text to accomplish underlying political motives. Why do you think Seneca’s work was favored by the Church and used as a teaching tool during the Middle Ages?
3. Respond to the philosophical content in Seneca’s prose or letters. What is your attitude toward Stoicism? Can you trace any modern group of thinkers or artists that adopt a Stoic attitude? How are their modern ideas alike or different from Seneca’s?
4. Choose one of Shakespeare’s well-known tragedies— perhaps Othello, Hamlet, or King Lear—and compare it to a play written by Seneca. What do the works have in common in terms of style and theme? Can you identify why the Elizabethans were drawn to Seneca’s works?
Beacham, Richard C. The Roman Theatre and Its Audience. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Bieber, Margarete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961.
Boyle, A. J. Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition. London: Routledge, 1997.
Braden, Gordon. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger’s Privilege. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.
Costa, C. D. N., ed. Seneca. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974.
Griffin, Miriam T. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Henry, Denis, and Elisabeth Henry. The Mask of Power: Seneca’s Tragedies and Imperial Rome. Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Phillips, 1985.
Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy: The Influence of Seneca. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.
Fitch, John G. ‘‘Sense-pauses and Relative Dating in Seneca, Sophocles and Shakespeare.’’ American Journal of Philology 102 (1981): 289-307.
Tarrant, R. J. ‘‘Senecan Drama and Its Antecedents.’’ Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978): 213-63.