They lived in barrels, they camped on top of columns, or in caves: the lives of the sages are often inconceivable to the modern reader. Seneca, however, that rich, compromised sophisticate of the first century AD, is instantly kin, his voice weary with consumerism, his problems definitively first-world. ‘Being poor is not having too little,’ he observed. ‘It is wanting more.’
Those in need might disagree. But from where Seneca was sitting, in his personal banqueting suite with 500 ivory-legged tables (all matching, no less — matching furniture in Rome was considered staggeringly smart, due to the lack of means of mechanical reproduction) he was able to cultivate the elegant indifference to luxury that speaks to our age so vividly.
Seneca has recently reached a new mass market by lending his name to a character in The Hunger Games trilogy, as the author of this admirably versatile biography points out. ‘The books meditate on Senecan themes,’ writes Emily Wilson, bringing her enormous intellect to bear on the YA franchise for a moment
including … the central Senecan question of how to maintain integrity while trapped in horrible circumstances. One of the characters [Peeta] says before entering the arena, ‘I want to die as myself’ — a deeply Senecan desire.
Seneca’s pre-occupation with his own death arose from his ghastly predicament as the emperor Nero’s former tutor and chief adviser. Nero murdered the rightful heir to the throne, his half-brother Britannicus, then cut swathes through his family and trusted circle; for a period of about six years, Seneca must have known that death was coming for him, too. He claimed asceticism and ate largely figs and dry bread (harder to poison).
Small wonder the great wealth he had accrued under Nero felt rather hollow. ‘It is absolute torture to be obliged to somebody you don’t like,’ he wrote in De Beneficium. This account of his life shows how very deeply he must have meant that.
Wilson cleverly highlights the dissimulatio or ‘double-speak’ at work in his writing, and in the debased Roman culture at large. Cicero was an orator, but Seneca only a few generations later was content to be merely a speechwriter.
The difference can be related to the so-called ‘death of oratory’, much lamented in ancient sources, whereby oratory lost its power to enact political change after Cicero and the death of the Roman Republic.
The ensuing period, under scrutiny here, is what Molesworth might call ‘the good bit’ — that of the most egregious emperors. When they were bad they were horrid. Claudius ordered his niece Julia Livilla to die by starvation; Nero kicked the pregnant Poppaea to death; even Seneca seems to have decided that his younger wife wanted to die alongside him, and slit her wrists for her (soldiers in attendance patched her up and she lived for years after).
The rot spread. Romans enjoyed banquets where surmullet fish were brought to the table in glass jars to die in front of the guests, so that they might admire their beauty as they changed colour; mirrors, those rare commodities, were used for orgies; and to top it all, prisoners were killing one another in the Colosseum during the lunch break while no one of importance was even watching! Seneca complained about this last in a piece of writing which is strikingly analysed by Wilson, who notes that his concern was not for those in mortal combat, but that the ordinary spectators might be polluted by what they saw. The debate becomes eerily like our one about video nasties, though Wilson is too restrained to say so.
There is a great deal of wisdom here but not very much vim in the writing (and far better that way round). Seneca was the middle son of a mid-ranking family of the equestrian class and he was born in Cordoba, coming to Rome probably about the age of four (we are treated to a picture of a toy horse ‘like’ one he would have played with). Probably tubercular throughout his life, he spent a decade in Alexandria, climbing Rome’s greasy pole quickly before being given a stark choice by the cranky Emperor Claudius between Corsica or death. Seneca made distinctly un-Stoic lamentations about his enforced holiday.
Morally our author is tough on Seneca, contrasting, for example, his lickspittle approach to Nero with Boudicca’s resistance. But she is a persuasive extoller of his writing and the final chapter about his diverse legacy is breathtaking. To early Christians he was ‘Our Seneca’, author of a (forged) 3rd century correspondence with St Paul. To T.S. Eliot his dramas were horribly pagan. In Milton, he emerges as Satan. In postwar Germany, retellings of Seneca’s relationship with the bloody Nero ‘became a particularly popular way of trying to think through the legacy of Nazism and collaboration’. The reward for living under tyranny? Eternal relevance.