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Ancient bust of Seneca, part of a double herm (Antikensammlung Berlin)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca, or Seneca the Younger) (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. He was later forced to commit suicide for complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate this last of the Julio-Claudian emperors; however, he may have been innocent.[1][2]



Miriam Griffin says in her standard modern biography of Seneca[3] that "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." It is thus necessary to regard what one reads as alleged fact with extreme skepticism.

Griffin infers from ancient sources that Seneca was born in either 8, 4, or 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.[4] Griffin says that, allowing for rhetorical exaggeration, means "it is fair to conclude that Seneca was in Rome as a very small boy."

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

He was the second son of Helvia and Lucius Annaeus Seneca (there is no ancient evidence for the name Marcus), the 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 in the Roman province of Achaea. His younger brother Annaeus Mela's son was Marcus Annaeus Lucanus.

At Rome he was trained in rhetoric and was introduced to Hellenized Stoic philosophy by Attalus and Sotion. Seneca's own writings describe his poor health. At some stage he was nursed by his aunt; as she was in Egypt from 16 to 31 AD, he must have at least visited and perhaps lived for a period in Hellenistic Egypt.

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

Caligula began his first year as emperor in 38, and there was a severe conflict between him and Seneca; the emperor is said to have spared his life only because he expected Seneca's natural life to be near its end.

In 41, Claudius succeeded Caligula, and then, at the behest of his third wife Valeria Messalina, banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with Julia Livilla. Seneca spent his exile in philosophical and natural study (a life counseled by Roman Stoic thought) and wrote the Consolations, fulfilling a request for the text made by his sons for the sake of posterity. In 49, Claudius' fourth wife Agrippina the Younger had Seneca recalled to Rome to tutor her son Nero, then 12 years old; on Claudius' death in 54, she secured Nero's recognition as emperor, rather than Claudius' son Britannicus.

From 54 to 62, 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.[5] Many historians consider Nero's early rule with Seneca and Burrus to be quite competent. However, over time, Seneca and Burrus lost their influence over Nero. In 59 they had reluctantly agreed to Agrippina's murder, and afterward Seneca wrote a dishonest exculpation of Nero to the Senate.[6] With the death of Burrus in 62 and accusations of embezzlement, Seneca retired and devoted his time again to study and writing.

Luca Giordano, The death of Seneca (1684)

In 65, Seneca was caught up in the aftermath of a plot to kill Nero. Although it is unlikely that he conspired, he was ordered by Nero to kill himself. He followed tradition by severing several veins in order to bleed to death, and his wife Pompeia Paulina attempted to share his fate. Tacitus (writing in Book XV, Chapters 60 through 64 of his Annals, a generation later, after the Julio-Claudian emperors) gives an account of the suicide, perhaps, in light of Tacitus's Republican sympathies, somewhat romanticized. According to it, Nero ordered Seneca's wife to be saved. Her wounds were bound up and she made no further attempt to kill herself. As for Seneca himself, his age and diet were blamed for slow loss of blood, and extended pain rather than a quick death; taking poison was also not fatal. After dictating his last words to a scribe, and with a circle of friends attending him in his home, he immersed himself in a warm bath, which was expected to speed blood flow and ease his pain. Tacitus, however, in his Annals of Imperial Rome says that Seneca suffocated by the water vapor rising from the bath. “He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, even when in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of life’s close.”[7]

An improving 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 by Pasquier a "French Seneca" and Thomas Fuller praised Joseph Hall as "our English Seneca". Many who have considered his ideas not to be particularly original, still argued he was important in making the Greek philosophers presentable and intelligible.[8]

Even with the admiration of an earlier group of 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 Pumpkinification (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.[9] 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."[9]

According to Tacitus however, Suilius's accusations did not hold up under scrutiny.[10] 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.[11]

In 1966 scholar Anna Lydia Motto also challenged this view of Seneca, arguing that his image has been based almost entirely on Suilius's account, while many others who might have lauded him have been lost.[12]

"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 Suilius alone."[13]

More recent work is changing the dominant perception of Seneca as a mere conduit for pre-existing ideas showing originality in Seneca's contribution to the history of ideas. Examination of Seneca's life and thought in relation to contemporary education and to the psychology of emotions is revealing a relevance of his thought. For example, Martha Nussbaum in her discussion of desire and emotion includes Seneca among the Stoics who offered important insights and perspectives on emotions and their role in our lives.[14] Specifically devoting a chapter to his treatment of anger and its management she shows Seneca's appreciation of the damaging role of uncontrolled anger, and its pathological connections. Nussbaum later extended her examination to Seneca's contribution to political philosophy[15] showing considerable subtlety and richness in his thoughts about politics, education and notions of global citizenship and finding a basis for reform minded education in Seneca's ideas that allows her to propose a mode of modern education which steers clear of both narrow traditionalism and total rejection of tradition.

Some writers regard Seneca as the first great western thinker on the complex nature and role of gratitude in human relationships [16] There has also been a recent theory presented that there were in fact two Senecas. While the evidence seems marginal at best, a small number of doctorate works have noted stylistic discrepancies across the corpus of Senecan work. The theory, though a published dissertation, has been roundly viewed as false.


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). He is regarded as the source and inspiration for what is known as 'Revenge Tragedy', starting with Thomas Kyd's 'The Spanish Tragedy' and continuing well into the Jacobean Period.


  • Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Phaedra
  • Thyestes
  • Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta): there is doubt by some scholars whether this tragedy was written by Seneca.
  • Octavia: closely resemble Seneca's plays in style, but is probably written by someone with a keen knowledge of Seneca's plays and philosophical works, a short time after Seneca's death, perhaps in the '70s of the first century A.D.


  • (40) Ad Marciam, De consolatione (To Marcia, On consolation) - Consoles her on the death of her son
  • (41) De Ira (On anger) - A study on the consequences and the control of anger
  • (42) Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione (To Helvia, On consolation) - Letter to his mother consoling her on his absence during exile.
  • (44) De Consolatione ad Polybium (To Polybius, On consolation) - Consoling him on his missing son
  • (49) De Brevitate Vitae (On the shortness of life) - Essay expounding that any length of life is sufficient if lived wisely.
  • (62) De Otio (On leisure)
  • (63) De Tranquillitate Animi (On tranquillity of mind)
  • (64) De Providentia (On providence)
  • (55) De Constantia Sapientis (On the Firmness of the Wise Person)
  • (58) De Vita Beata (On the happy life)


  • (54) Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius), a satirical work. {Also has references to Nero as having a longer life than Nestor at the hands of the three fates—obvious flattery.}
  • (56) De Clementia (On Clemency) - written to Nero on the need for clemency as a virtue in an emperor.[1]
  • (63) De Beneficiis (On Benefits) [seven books]
  • (63) Naturales quaestiones [seven books] of no great originality but offering an insight into ancient theories of cosmology, meteorology, and similar subjects.
  • (64) Epistulae morales ad Lucilium - collection of 124 letters dealing with moral issues written to Lucilius Junior.
  • (370?) Cujus etiam ad Paulum apostolum leguntur epistolae: These letters, allegedly between Seneca and St. Paul, were revered by early authorities, but currently are not believed to be authentic by most scholars. [2] [3]

As a humanist saint

Plato, Seneca, and Aristotle in a medieval manuscript illustration (c. 1325–35)

The early Christian Church was very favorably disposed towards Seneca and his writings, and the church leader Tertullian called him "our Seneca".[17]

Medieval writers and works (such as the Golden Legend, which erroneously has Nero as a witness to his suicide) believed 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 virtuous 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 makes an appearance as a character in Monteverdi's opera L'incoronazione di Poppea.

See also


  1. ^ Bunson, Matthew, A Dictionary of the Roman Empire page 382. Oxford University Press, 1991
  2. ^ Fitch, John (2008). Seneca. City: Oxford University Press, USA. p. 32. ISBN 9780199282081. 
  3. ^ Miriam T. Griffin. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, Oxford 1976
  4. ^ Cons Helv. 19.2
  5. ^ Cassius Dio claims Seneca and Burrus "took the rule entirely into their own hands," but "after the death of Britannicus, Seneca and Burrus no longer gave any careful attention to the public business" in 55 (Cassius Dio, Roman History, LXI.3-7)
  6. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 7.
  7. ^ Tacitus, (Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb), The Annals of Imperial Rome Book XV (New York, Barnes and Noble 2007) p 341
  8. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 3.
  9. ^ a b Campbell, Robin Letters from a Stoic (London 1998) 11.
  10. ^ Tacitus The Annals (New York 2003) 267.
  11. ^ Tacitus The Annals (New York 2003) All.
  12. ^ Lydia Motto,Anna Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966) pp. 254-258
  13. ^ Lydia Motto,Anna Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966) pp. 257
  14. ^ Nussbaum, M. (1996), The Therapy of Desire. Princeton University Press
  15. ^ Nussbaum, M. (1999) Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defence of Reform in Liberal Education. Harvard University Press
  16. ^ Harpham, E. (2004) Gratitude in the History of Ideas,19-37 in M. A. Emmons and M. E. McCulloch, editors, The Psychology of Gratitude, Oxford University Press.
  17. ^ Moses Hadas. The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca, 1958. 1.

Further reading

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Time discovers truth.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca, or Seneca the Younger) (c. 4 BC - 65 AD) was a Roman philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and humorist. He was son of Seneca the Elder.



The spirit in which a thing is given determines that in which the debt is acknowledged...
  • He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.
    • On Benefits, Book II, 22, line 1
  • Ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est.
    • If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable, Epistulae Morales
  • Might makes right.
    • Hercules Furens
  • Successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.
    • Hercules Furens, Book I, 1, line 84
  • Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.
    • Hercules Furens
  • A good mind possesses a kingdom.
    • Thyestes, 380
  • The spirit in which a thing is given determines that in which the debt is acknowledged; it's the intention, not the face-value of the gift, that's weighed.
    • Moral Letters to Lucilius
  • He who profits by crime commits it.
    • Medea
  • He who does not prevent crime when he can encourages it.
    • Troades
  • Illi mors gravis incubat
    Qui notus nimis omnibus
    Ignotus moritur sibi
    • On him does death lie heavily who, but too well known to all, dies to himself unknown.
      • Thyestes, chorus 2.
  • Worse than war is the fear of war.
    • "Thyestes"
  • Everywhere is nowhere. When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances, but no friends.
    • Ad Lucilium Epistle 2, line 2
  • Omnis enim ex infirmitate feritas est.
    • All cruelty springs from weakness.
      • As quoted in Caxtoniana: A Series of Essays on Life, Literature, and Manners (1864) by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • Death is the release from all pain and complete cessation, beyond which our suffering will not extend. It will return us to that condition of tranquility, which we had enjoyed before we were born. Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn. Death is neither good nor evil, for good or evil can only be something that actually exists. However, whatever is of itself nothing and which transforms everything else into nothing will not all be able to put us at the mercy of Fate.


The best ideas are common property.
  • Tanta stultitia mortalium est. (1, line 3)
    • What fools these mortals be.
  • Non qui parum habet, sed qui plus cupit, pauper est. (2, line 6)
    • It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor.
  • Love of bustle is not industry. (3, line 5)
  • Live among men as if God beheld you; speak to God as if men were listening. (10, line 5)
  • The best ideas are common property. (12, line 11)
  • Nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe.
    • Hope not without despair, despair not without hope.
      • Ep. civ. 12, as translated by Zachariah Rush
  • Men do not care how nobly they live, but only how long, although it is within the reach of every man to live nobly, but within no man's power to live long. (22, line 17)
  • A great pilot can sail even when his canvas is rent. (30, line 3)
  • Man is a reasoning animal. (41, line 8)
  • That most knowing of persons — gossip. (43, line 1)
  • It is quality rather than quantity that matters. (45, line 1)
  • Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47, line 10)
  • Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors. (47, 11)[1]
  • You can tell the character of every man when you see how he receives praise. (52, line 12)
  • Nothing is so certain as that the evils of idleness can be shaken off by hard work. (56, line 9)
  • All art is but imitation of nature. (65, line 3)
  • Sapiens vivit quantum debet, non quantum potest.
    • The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can. (70, line 5)
  • It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness. (84, line 13)
  • It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing. (88, line 45)
  • Do not ask for what you will wish you had not got. (95, line 1)
  • We are mad, not only individually, but nationally. We check manslaughter and isolated murders; but what of war and the much-vaunted crime of slaughtering whole peoples? There are no limits to our greed, none to our cruelty. And as long as such crimes are committed by stealth and by individuals, they are less harmful and less portentous; but cruelties are practised in accordance with acts of senate and popular assembly, and the public is bidden to do that which is forbidden to the individual. Deeds that would be punished by loss of life when committed in secret, are praised by us because uniformed generals have carried them out. Man, naturally the gentlest class of being, is not ashamed to revel in the blood of others, to wage war, and to entrust the waging of war to his sons, when even dumb beasts and wild beasts keep the peace with one another. Against this overmastering and widespread madness philosophy has become a matter of greater effort, and has taken on strength in proportion to the strength which is gained by the opposition forces.
    • 95, beginning at line 30, as translated by Richard M. Gummere
  • Non vitae sed scholae discimus. (106, line 12)
    • Not for life, but for school do we learn.
      • Often misquoted as Non scholae sed vitae discimus. (Not for school, but for life do we learn.)
  • A great step towards independence is a good-humored stomach, one that is willing to endure rough treatment. (123, line 3)

Moral Essays

  • Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes uiros.
    • Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.
      • On Providence, 5, line 9
  • Veritatem dies aperit.
    • Time discovers truth.
      • On Anger, 2, line 22
  • Whom they have injured they also hate.
    • On Anger, 2, line 33
  • I do not distinguish by the eye, but by the mind, which is the proper judge of the man.
    • On the Happy Life, 2, line 2
  • A great fortune is a great slavery.
    • To Polybius on Consolation, 6, line 5

On Tranquility of the Mind

A letter to Serenus as translated in Tranquillity of Mind and Providence (1900) by William Bell Langsdorf
Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.
  • We are all chained to fortune: the chain of one is made of gold, and wide, while that of another is short and rusty. But what difference does it make? The same prison surrounds all of us, and even those who have bound others are bound themselves; unless perchance you think that a chain on the left side is lighter. Honors bind one man, wealth another; nobility oppresses some, humility others; some are held in subjection by an external power, while others obey the tyrant within; banishments keep some in one place, the priesthood others. All life is slavery. Therefore each one must accustom himself to his own condition and complain about it as little as possible, and lay hold of whatever good is to be found near him. Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it. Small tablets, because of the writer's skill, have often served for many purposes, and a clever arrangement has often made a very narrow piece of land habitable. Apply reason to difficulties; harsh circumstances can be softened, narrow limits can be widened, and burdensome things can be made to press less severely on those who bear them cleverly.
  • That man lives badly who does not know how to die well.
  • Should I be surprised that dangers which have always surrounded me should at last attack me? A great part of mankind, when about to sail, do not think of a storm. I shall never be ashamed of a reporter of bad news in a good cause.
    • Variant translation: I shall never be ashamed of citing a bad author if the line is good.
  • Virtue runs no risk of becoming contemptible by being exposed to view, and it is better to be despised for simplicity than to be tormented by continual hypocrisy.
  • Our minds must have relaxation: rested, they will rise up better and keener. Just as we must not force fertile fields (for uninterrupted production will quickly exhaust them), so continual labor will break the power of our minds. They will recover their strength, however, after they have had a little freedom and relaxation.
  • Whether we believe the Greek poet, "it is sometimes even pleasant to be mad", or Plato, "he who is master of himself has knocked in vain at the doors of poetry"; or Aristotle, "no great genius was without a mixture of insanity"; the mind cannot express anything lofty and above the ordinary unless inspired. When it despises the common and the customary, and with sacred inspiration rises higher, then at length it sings something grander than that which can come from mortal lips. It cannot attain anything sublime and lofty so long as it is sane: it must depart from the customary, swing itself aloft, take the bit in its teeth, carry away its rider and bear him to a height whither he would have feared to ascend alone.
    • Quotations Seneca makes this passage have been attributed to him, but he states himself to be quoting others, including Aristotle: "There is no great genius without some touch of madness."


  • Quemadmodum gladius neminem occidit, occidentis telum est.
    • A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer's hand.
  • It is foolish to stop in the middle of a crime.


  • Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.
    • As quoted in What Great Men Think About Religion (1945) by Ira D. Cardiff, p. 342; No original source for this has been found in the works of Seneca, or published translations (see: talk).

Notes and references

External links

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