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"Before I became old I tried to live well; now that I am old, I shall try to die well; but dying well means dying gladly."
Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, letter 61

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger (4 BC - 65 AD) was a Spanish-born Roman philosopher, writer, tragedian and statesman. A mainstay of late Stoicism, he is counted among the "Big Three" Stoics of the Roman Empire along with Epictetus and Emperor Marcus Aurelius, if being easily the most divisive of the trio due to his convoluted political life and relationship to the infamous Emperor Nero. He is traditionally considered a sort of Anti-Hero of philosophy, an author whose admittedly excellent treatises on Stoic moral sometimes clashed against the less-than-Stoic facts we know about his political life, and from the very Antiquity there has been discussion about how much truth does this characterization contain.

On the other hand, he could also be considered the favorite pagan philosopher of Christianity, whose authors were in such an awe of him that they came to the extent of considering him to be one of their own, even purporting that he traded letters with St. Paul. His influence would be also felt among classical thinkers through the ages, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Enlightenment, and it hasn't stopped today.

The son of a lawman of the Roman Hispania, the young Seneca soon developed his own interest in the intellectual arts, including philosophy, rhetoric, grammar and religion. This might have been in part because he was perennially Delicate and Sickly, suffering from asthma and other nasty diseases throughout his life, to the point he passed some years in the reportedly miraculous healing sites of Egypt in an attempt to get better; he once plainly stated he only refrained from putting himself out of his misery because it would have been cruel to make his father outlive him. In any case, he was a keen apprentice to several teachers in Rome, among them the School of the Sextii, a sect that combined Stoicism and Pythagoreanism, which led him to become vegetarian for a year (Pythagoreans believed in reincarnation, and it would be impolite to eat your late grandfather by accident) before abandoning the custom by advice of his father. Afterwards, Seneca would devote himself to mainstream Stoicism, which would define the rest of his career.

Although relatively late into his life, Seneca initiated the customary political career in Rome, where his impressive oratory soon made him the new sensation in the Senate in spite of his provincian origin and undistinguished family. This ironically brought him the disfavor of Emperor Caligula, who became so envious of his popularity that only Seneca's famous bad health saved him from execution, as it was believed he would likely die soon anyway and wasn't worthy the effort. Contrary to their expectations, Seneca didn't die, but his luck didn't improve either when Claudius succeeded Caligula, as the new emperor banished him on an accusation of adultery with Caligula's sister that was almost certainly false. His banishment was only revoked when Claudius married Agrippina, who convinced the emperor that Seneca would be an excellent tutor for her son, the future emperor Nero.

As per her wish, Seneca would return to the political life and act as Nero's informal adviser along with praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. At first, Seneca and Burrus managed to keep the emperor's worst tendences under control; if not making a good emperor out of him, at least keeping him out of their way while they issued reforms to alleviate taxes and punish corruption in Rome. They were pretty effective rulers, as under their management, the empire improved economically, achieved a strategically vital conquest of Armenia, and even advanced the exploration of the Nile. Seneca himself benefitted immensely from this relationship, enjoying a mandate as a consul and eventually becoming one of the richest men in Rome, to the point it's claimed that he accidentally caused Boudica's revolt when he called in suddenly a large series of loans he had imposed on the Britannian chieftains (although again, this point is not considered particularly credible).

However, it seems that over the years, Seneca and Burrus gradually lost their influence over Nero, whose courtesans and flatterers eventually drove to become a vicious despot. Seneca would be then forced into a very public feud with senator Publius Suillius Rufus, a rival adviser and a former supporter of Claudius who accused him of every crime under the sun and some new ones, and although Seneca managed to get Suillius investigated and banished for his own corruption, the bad rap of the case would never leave him, especially the feel that Seneca was being too lenient towards Nero's increasing debauchery. Certainly, Seneca and Burrus attempted to justify Nero's execution of Agrippina by claiming she had conspired against him, but few people bought it, and anyways, when Nero himself decided his two mentors were not sucking up enough to him, Seneca's own position went downhill. After the death of Burrus, likely poisoned, Seneca was accused of conspiracy too, and upon counting his options and deciding this was the end of the road, the Hispanic committed suicide.

Rating Seneca is, as mentioned above, complicated. Out of the three Roman Stoics, he went to have the least sympathetic career by modern standards: where Epictetus was a slave striving for virtue and Marcus Aurelius a dignified emperor voluntarily descending to ascetism, Seneca was a political animal who eventually became a millonaire thanks to his various involvements, giving the vibe of a Corrupt Corporate Executive. It has been argued that a lot of what we know about him was surely colored by sensationalism, envy, political enmities, and essentially falling on the wrong side of History - not to mention that being a spectacular social climber granted him the favor of neither the lower classes nor the Senate - but it's also perceivable that he and Burrus definitely acted in disingenuous ways right even before his relationship with Nero went sour. Seneca's own views on himself are obscure; his writings show a pristine vision of what was an ideal Stoic sage, but he explicitly admitted he wasn't one and carefully avoided sounding like such. He might have seen himself as a flawed human, content with being the best Stoic possible in the ways he was able to be, or maybe as a predecessor to Enlightened despotism, with his own set of priorities, or perhaps just your typical "do as I say, not as I do" kind of commentator, unable or uncaring to address his own contradictions.

He has also a bit of reputation of being a sexist author, or at least not a particularly egalitarian Stoic, considering that several of his colleagues did rise over the standards of Roman society in this aspect. It's true that Seneca shared the contemporaneous belief that women were inherently overemotional and prone to superficiality, but in turn, he also believed that they didn't have any less potential for virtue and wisdom than men and thererefore should not be treated condescendently, specifically admonishing those who thought that women couldn't benefit from studying philosophy — all of which could be actually considered quite progressive for his age. His Consolation, letters he wrote to try to console his mother for his own recent ordeals and a fellow noblewoman for her own son's death, are quite of an example of this, where he addresses them as equals to him and encourages them to keep on with the same stern tone he used for any of his male peers.

Interestingly, while mainstream Stoics like Epictetus absolutely abhorred their main rivals, the Epicureans, Seneca had a special sympathy for them, noting that even if their philosophy was flawed and unrealistic, they still got a lot of things right and had several common points with Stoicism. Like Bruce Lee, Seneca explicitly considered that everything useful should be adopted regardless of his origin, hence his quote that "whatever is true belongs to me".

Seneca could be described as the most human and relatable of the big three Roman Stoics. If Marcus Aurelius is the most quotable and famous for his maxims, Seneca has been universally considered the best pure writer of the trio, characterized by his clarity, naturality and sharpness, which reflect the accomplished orator he was in life. At the same time, his writings are often amusingly sour, and he doesn't hide that he didn't have the ideal personality and temper to be a Stoic, which likely didn't improve when exposed to the worst side of politics. You could say his troubled career has the interesting effect of making him almost a Decon-Recon Switch of Stoicism altogether, showing what would likely be the most realistic results of a common person, neither an emperor nor a slave, trying to make Stoic philosophy work while carrying his own baggage of troubles, ambitions and assets — stumbling and failing, even getting lost in the way, but ultimately reconciling with it and dying the death of a true Stoic.

In fiction

Film

  • The 1951 adaptation of Quo Vadis has him played by Nicholas Hannen.
  • Portrayed by Lamberto Picasso in the 1953 Italian film Nero and the Burning of Rome.
  • He is played by Mario Feliciani in Fire Over Rome.
  • John Malkovich plays him in the 2023 film On the Creation of Earthquakes.

Literature

  • He appears in Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis.

Live-Action TV


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