Getting to know Seneca

Posted by Mark Ward on Friday, July 19, 2019

Who was Seneca? Seneca was an influential and often quoted Stoic philosopher. Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Cordoba, Hispania (modern-day Spain). Known as Seneca the Younger and Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Senaca, later raised in Rome, was a pivotal teacher and advisor to Emperor Nero. A rich and powerful man of Rome, Seneca narrowly escaped a death penalty in 41 A.D, endured exile and died by forced suicide in 65 A.D

Birth of Seneca the Younger

Seneca was born in 4 B.C. to Helvia and Seneca the Elder (Marcus Annaeus Seneca). Seneca was the second of three brothers and born in Cordoba, Hispania which is now modern Spain.

Little is known of Senecas youth, though it is thought he was taken to Rome around the age of 5. In Rome Seneca was taught rhetoric, philosophy and literature. Seneca left Rome in his twenties and returned ten years later.

Seneca in Exile

Seneca wasn’t far from controversy in his life. As a rich powerful man, he appeared to use his literary and rhetoric incredibly well. Julia Livilla, sister of Emperor Caligula and Agrippina were amongst Seneca’s powerful friends. Sadly for both Caligula and Seneca, Caligula was assassinated in 41 A.D. The new Emperor Claudius and the Empress Messalina accused Senaca and Livilla of adultery.

The accusations were likely fabricated or at least used as political leverage primarily to remove Livilla and her followers. Nevertheless, the Senate placed a death sentence on Seneca. Claudius commuted the sentence to exile and Seneca was sent to Corsica, while Livilla found herself exiled to Ventotene. Livilla passed away a few short years into her exile.

Every night before going to sleep, we must ask ourselves: what weakness did I overcome today? What virtue did I acquire?

  • Seneca

Whilst in exile Seneca wrote the Consolation to Helvia to his mother and also became remarried to Pompeia Paulina, shortly after their son was born.

Fate it seems would take another turn for Seneca. After Claudius had dispatched his third wife, Messalina. Agrippina (sister of Livilla and later the mother of Nero) married her Emperor Claudius, her uncle and persuaded Claudius to allow Seneca to return to Rome after 8 years in exile.

Senecas Most influential writings

As a prolific writer, Seneca is an often quoted Stoic. Critics of his lifestyle may say he said and wrote more about being Stoic than living by it, Marcus Aurelius in contrast in Meditations reflected on how to live Stoicially amongst the challenges that are inevitable in life. Epictetus is simply quoted as:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.

  • Epictetus

Seneca wrote a great deal of material. In terms of Stoic writing, he is often regarded as writing very readable and enjoyable literature.

Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic is a collection of over a hundred letters Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius. Seneca wrote these letters as he approached the end of his life. Letters from a Stoic ( Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium ) unlike Meditations from Marcus Aurelius does appear to have been written with publication or distribution in mind. Letters from a Stoic is a highly recommended read.

On the Shortness of Life

An essay from Seneca written in 49 A.D. Seneca on the Shortness of Life is an intriguing read. The essay brings together a number of Stoic ideas together.

Seneca and Nero

Nero became inline for Emperor on his adoption by Emperor Claudius when Claudius married Agrippina. Agrippina, as you recall, was amongst Seneca’s friends.

Seneca would become one of Nero’s teachers and later a principal advisor to Nero. Seneca’s relationship with Nero would have been rewarding in power, influence and wealth. However, at the same Nero presented many challenges to his advisors and teachers.

Nero became Emperor at the young age of 16 in 54 A.D., and Seneca prepared Nero’s first speech before the Senate. In his early rule its often believed that Agrippina, Nero’s mother, effectively ruled through her young son.

In a later twist to the tale of Nero and Agrippina, Nero would have his mother killed for plotting against him. Agrippina was unapproving of the affair Nero was involved in with Poppeae. In the context of the highly political and social circles of Rome, it isn’t beyond reason that Agrippina would indeed plot against her son. Poppeae later became Nero’s second wife.

The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not

  • Seneca

In the years following Nero’s murder of his mother, Rome was subject to a tyranical rule under Nero, with a series of high profile deaths and self-absorbed spending.

In 62 A.D another of Nero’s key advisors died. At the time Nero was involved in treason trials and Nero appointed a number of new key advisors, Seneca without the support of Agrippina and his ally Burros, resigned his post as advisor.

Seneca was now largely removed from any influence or support from Nero.

Death of Seneca

Politically isolated from Nero for some time and having lost a number of his supporters and friends, Seneca was to be met by what is regarded as either one of his most Stoic or one of his most self-indulgent moments.

In 65 AD a number of powerful conspirators plotted against Nero in an attempt to return Rome to glory and rescue Rome from the tyrannical rule of Nero. In 65 AD after the great fires which destroyed large parts of Rome which Nero blamed on the Christians, a plot to assassinate Nero was formed.

Milichus discovered the plot and reported it to Nero. Over forty men were accused of being involved in the plan. Natalis accused Seneca of being part of the scheme. Seneca refuted the claim, however by this time he was very much out of favour with Nero and message was sent to Seneca that he was to commit suicide.

Tribune and soldiers arrived at the villa of Seneca to enforce the sentence of forced suicide. In telling his wife to not grieve, Pompeia told him that she would die with him. Unknown to them both was Nero’s instruction to the Tribune that Pompeia was to live.

Seneca and Pompeia made their first attempt at forced suicide by cutting their wrists. This was proving unsuccessful and Seneca requested poison to hasten the death. Pompeia was removed from the room. The poison also proved too slow-acting and Seneca was placed in a warm bath to speed the bleeding. Here he passed on 12 April, 65 A.D.

Life is never incomplete if it is an honorable one. At whatever point you leave life, if you leave it in the right way, it is whole

  • Seneca

Want to know more on Stoicism or philosophy? Highly recommend Massimo Pigliucci at RationallySpeaking or Donald Robertson at