A philosopher, writer, orator and statesman, Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) was Rome’s leading intellectual during the middle of the first century AD. Brought back from exile, he and his friends would virtually rule Rome in the first years of Nero’s reign.
The second son of a wealthy family, Seneca was educated in the philosophy of the Sextii. This was heavily influenced by stoicism, whose followers believed that virtue is based on knowledge and that the ups and downs of everyday life should be accepted calmly.
As a young man, Seneca fell very ill and visited Egypt to recover. He returned to Rome in 31 AD and began a career in politics. Seneca soon fell foul of Emperor Caligula, who only let him live because he was told that Seneca’s health meant that he would probably die soon anyway.
When Claudius took the throne, things got even worse. Accused of adultery with the emperor’s niece, Julia Livilla, Seneca was banished to Corsica in 41 AD. He was already famous as a writer and thinker. He continued his work in exile, writing philosophy and drama. Taking the classic stoic line, he wrote that “one man’s exile was but a drop in the sea of human upheaval”.
Claudius stayed in Corsica for eight years until Agrippina, Claudius’ third and final wife, arranged his return to Rome to tutor her son, Nero. This raised ethical problems: stoics avoided extravagant living and believed in a brotherhood of man long before Christians preached the same message. Living under absolute rule of an emperor, stoics were forced to walk a fine line between integrity and hypocrisy.
Position of power
Back in Rome, the murder of Claudius propelled Seneca’s student, Nero, to the top job. As a key member of his court, Seneca found that he and his friends were, in effect, governing Rome. His job was to help Nero become a reasonable emperor – a difficult job given his young age and his murderous mother.
For a while, Seneca succeeded in controlling Nero’s darker side. As an influential courtier, he also introduced important reforms to taxes and the courts. He also promoted a more humane attitude to slaves.
Boundaries becoming blurred
As Nero grew older, however, he proved much harder to control. His cruelty and depravity became more common. For Seneca, the line between integrity and hypocrisy became blurred. As one of Nero’s key advisors, Seneca had condoned (or may even have been involved in) the emperor’s murder of his own mother.
After repeated requests, Seneca was finally allowed to retire in 62 AD. But it was not to last long. Three years later, he was accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate Nero. Despite thin evidence, an officer was sent to demand his suicide. As a stoic, Seneca met his end calmly.
One of the leading philosophers of ancient Rome, Seneca left behind a large body of essays, letters, tragedies and poems that have preserved his thoughts for almost two thousand years. Although he knew that his actions had not lived up to his ideals, he hoped that history would forgive him.