Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Roman philosopher and statesman [4 BC–AD 65]
byname Seneca The Younger
born c. 4 bc, Corduba, Spain
died ad 65, Rome
Roman philosopher, statesman, orator, and tragedian. He was Rome’s
leading intellectual figure in the mid-1st century ad and was virtual
ruler with his friends of the Roman world between 54 and 62 during the
first phase of the emperor Nero’s reign.
Early life and family
Seneca was the second son of a wealthy family. The father, Lucius
Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Elder), had been famous in Rome as a teacher
of rhetoric; the mother, Helvia, was of excellent character and
education; the older brother was Gallio, met by St. Paul in Achaea in ad
52; the younger brother was the father of the poet Lucan. An aunt took
Lucius as a boy to Rome; there he was trained as an orator and educated
in philosophy in the school of the Sextii, which blended Stoicism with
an ascetic neo-Pythagoreanism. Seneca’s health suffered, and he went to
recuperate in Egypt, where his aunt was the wife of the prefect, Gaius
Galerius. Returning to Rome about the year 31, he began a career in
politics and law. Soon he fell foul of the emperor Caligula, who was
deterred from killing him only by the argument that his life was sure to
In 41 the emperor Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of
adultery with the princess Julia Livilla, the Emperor’s niece. In that
uncongenial milieu he studied natural science and philosophy and wrote
the three treatises entitled Consolationes. The influence of Agrippina,
the Emperor’s wife, had him recalled to Rome in 49. He became praetor in
ad 50, married Pompeia Paulina, a wealthy woman, built up a powerful
group of friends, including the new prefect of the guard, Sextus
Afranius Burrus, and became tutor to the future emperor Nero.
The murder of Claudius in 54 pushed Seneca and Burrus to the top.
Their friends held the great army commands on the German and Parthian
frontiers. Nero’s first public speech, drafted by Seneca, promised
liberty for the Senate and an end to the influence of freedmen and
women. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, was resolved that her influence should
continue, and there were other powerful enemies. But Seneca and Burrus,
although provincials from Spain and Gaul, understood the problems of the
Roman world. They introduced fiscal and judicial reforms and fostered a
more humane attitude toward slaves. Their nominee Corbulo defeated the
Parthians; in Britain a more enlightened administration followed the
quashing of Boudicca’s rebellion. But as Tacitus, the historian (c.
56–117), says, “Nothing in human affairs is more unstable and precarious
than power unsupported by its own strength.” Seneca and Burrus were a
tyrant’s favourites. In 59 they had to condone—or to contrive—the murder
of Agrippina. When Burrus died in 62 Seneca knew that he could not go
on. He received permission to retire, and in his remaining years he
wrote some of his best philosophical works. In 65, Seneca’s enemies
denounced him as having been a party to the conspiracy of Piso. Ordered
to commit suicide, he met death with fortitude and composure.
Philosophical works and tragedies.
The Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine
Claudius) stands apart from the rest of Seneca’s surviving works. A
political skit, witty and unscrupulous, its theme is the deification—or
“pumpkinification”—of Claudius. The rest divide into philosophical works
and the tragedies. The former expound an eclectic version of “Middle”
Stoicism, adapted for the Roman market by Panaetius of Rhodes (2nd
century bc), and developed by his compatriot Poseidonius in the 1st
century bc. Poseidonius lies behind the books on natural science,
Naturales quaestiones, where lofty generalities on the investigation of
nature are offset by a jejune exposition of the facts. Of the
Consolationes, Ad Marciam consoles a lady on the loss of a son; Ad
Helviam matrem, Seneca’s mother on his exile; Ad Polybium, the powerful
freedman Polybius on the loss of a son but with a sycophantic plea for
recall from Corsica. The De ira deals at length with the passion of
anger, its consequences, and control. The De clementia, an exhortatory
address to Nero, commends mercy as the sovereign quality for a Roman
emperor. De tranquillitate animi, De constantia sapientis, De vita
beata, and De otio consider various aspects of the life and qualities of
the Stoic wise man. De beneficiis is a diffuse treatment of benefits as
seen by giver and recipient. De brevitate vitae demonstrates that our
human span is long enough if time is properly employed—which it seldom
is. Best written and most compelling are the Epistulae morales,
addressed to Lucilius. Those 124 brilliant essays treat a range of moral
problems not easily reduced to a single formula.
Of the 10 “Senecan” tragedies, Octavia is certainly, and Hercules
Oetaeus is probably, spurious. The others handle familiar Greek tragic
themes, with some originality of detail. Attempts to arrange them as a
schematic treatment of Stoic “vices” seem too subtle. Intended for
playreadings rather than public presentation, the pitch is a high
monotone, emphasizing the lurid and the supernatural. There are
impressive set speeches and choral passages, but the characters are
static, and they rant. The principal representatives of classical
tragedy known to the Renaissance world, these plays had a great
influence, notably in England. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, John
Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and Cyril Tourneur’s Revengers
Tragaedie, with their ghosts, witches, cruel tyrants, and dominant theme
of vengeance, are the progeny of Seneca’s tragedies.
Stature and influence.
Hostile propaganda pursued Seneca’s memory. Quintilian, the 1st-century
ad rhetorician, criticized his educational influence; Tacitus was
ambivalent on Seneca’s place in history. But his views on monarchy and
its duties contributed to the humane and liberal temper of the age of
the Antonines (Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus; ad
138–192). Meanwhile, the spread of Stoicism kept his philosophy alive:
new horizons opened when it was found to have Christian affinities.
There was a belief that he knew St. Paul and a spurious collection of
letters to substantiate it. Studied by Augustine and Jerome, Seneca’s
works consoled Boethius in prison. His thought was a component of the
Latin culture of the Middle Ages, often filtered through anthologies.
Known to Dante, Chaucer, and Petrarch, his moral treatises were edited
by Erasmus; the first complete English translation appeared in 1614. In
the 16th to 18th century Senecan prose, in content and style, served the
vernacular literatures as a model for essays, sermons, and moralizing.
Calvin, Montaigne, and Rousseau are instances. As the first of “Spanish”
thinkers, his influence in Spain was always powerful. Nineteenth-century
specialization brought him under fire from philosophers, scientists,
historians, and students of literature. But later scholarly work and the
interest aroused by the bimillenary commemorations of his death in Spain
in 1965 suggested that a Senecan revival might be under way. In his 40
surviving books the thoughts of a versatile but unoriginal mind are
expressed and amplified by the resources of an individual style.
Donald Reynolds Dudley
The death of Seneca
Type of work: Drama
Author: Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65)
Type of Plot: Tragedy of revenge
Time of plot: The Heroic Age
First presented: ñ A.D. 60
Thyestes, wooden on the stage, is nevertheless a closet drama of
horrific intensity. Remarkable for its scenes of terror, such as the
banquet at which the father partakes of his own children, the Senecan
tragedy was a landmark in dramatic history, influencing in particular
many Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge plays.
Atreus (a' tri- as), the oldest son of Pelops and the rightful ruler of
Argos, who is the protagonist in the most fiendish revenge play in the
history of the theater,
Thyestes (thi-es'tez), Atreus' brother, who seduces his wife and steals
the golden ram, the symbol of power in the kingdom. Having been defeated
and banished by Atreus, Thyestes accepts with forebodings his brother's
invitation to return to Argos. There he is fed the bodies of his sons at
a banquet. Learning the truth, his greatest regret is his inability to
get similar vengeance on Atreus.
Tantalus (tan'ts-las), a son of Thyestes.
Thyestes' Two Other Sons. They are murdered by their uncle, who roasts
their bodies for their father's banquet.
Agamemnon (a'ga-mem'non) and Menelaus (ò¸'ïý-la'as), sons of Atreus.
Megaera (òý-ga'ra), one of the Furies.
The Ghost of Tantalus, the former king of Argos, who is summoned back to
witness the fury of his descendants.
Pelops (pe'lops), the father of Atreus and Thyestes and the son of
Tantalus, who is sacrificed by his father to the gods.
Megaera, one of the Furies, summoned the ghost of Tantalus to return
from Hades to Argos, where Tantalus in life had been king, to watch
revenge, hate, and havoc spread across that kingdom. Tantalus was
hesitant because of the part he had played in the story of his royal
house, but Megaera forced him to witness the fate of his descendants.
The grandsons of Tantalus, the sons of Pelops, whom Tantalus had
sacrificed to the gods, were at war with one another. The oldest of
Pelops' sons, Atreus, was the rightful ruler of Argos, but his brother,
Thyestes, had seduced Atreus' wife and carried her away. With them they
took the golden ram, the symbol of power held by the ruler of the
kingdom. Civil war broke out, and Thyestes was defeated. After his
defeat he was exiled by Atreus.
But exile was not sufficient punishment for Thyestes. The fierce hatred
of Atreus, burning over his brother's crimes and his own misfortune in
the loss of his wife, demanded greater revenge. A tyrant who believed
that death was a comfort to his subjects, Atreus brooded over fierce and
final vengeance upon his younger brother. He felt that no act of revenge
could be a crime when committed against a man who had worked against him
as his brother had. Moreover, he felt that he, as a king, could do as he
wished; private virtues were not for rulers.
When an attendant suggested that Atreus put Thyestes to the sword,
Atreus said that death was only an end. He wanted Thyestes to suffer
even greater torture. The punishment Atreus finally hit upon was a
scheme to feed Thyestes' own children to him at a banquet.
Atreus took the first step toward accomplishing his revenge. He sent his
own sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, as emissaries of good will to Thyestes
and asked the exile, through them, to return to a place of honor at his
brother's side. Fearing that his sons, forewarned, might lack the
discretion needed to act as friendly ambassadors, he did not tell them
the part they were playing in his scheme of revenge.
Thyestes, trusting the king, returned to Argos with his three sons,
including one named Tantalus, after his greatgrandfather of famous
memory. But when he looked again at familiar landscapes, Thyestes felt a
sense of foreboding. His footsteps faltered, and his sons noted his
apparent unwillingness to return. The offer of peace and half the
kingdom seemed to Thyestes unlike his brother's earlier hatred and fury.
He felt that there had been too much hate and bloodshed between them for
real peace. But his sons, silencing his doubts, led him on to the court
Atreus, overjoyed to see his brother and nephews in his power and
apparently unmindful of the revenge plotted against them, concealed his
hatred and welcomed them to the kingdom once again.
Atreus announced a great feast to celebrate his brother's homecoming.
Then, taking the three sons of Thyestes aside, he led them to a grove
behind the palace and there slew them with all the ceremony of a
sacrifice to the gods. The first he stabbed in the neck, the second he
decapitated, and the third he killed by a thrust through the body. The
boys, knowing that appeals were useless, suffered death in silence.
Atreus drew off their blood and prepared the carcasses like so much
beef. The limbs he quartered and placed upon spits to roast; the bodies
he hacked into small pieces and placed in pots to boil.
The fire seemed reluctant to burn as an accomplice to his deed, but
Atreus stood by and acted as cook until the ghastly banquet was ready.
As he cooked, the sky grew dark and an unnatural night settled across
the face of the earth. The banquet prepared, Atreus felt that he was the
equal of the gods themselves.
The feast began. After the banquet had progressed to the point that the
guests were glutted by all they had eaten, Atreus prepared for Thyestes
a drink of wine and blood drained from the bodies of Thyestes' sons.
All the while a premonition of evil hung like a cloud in the back of
Thyestes' mind. Try as he would, he could not be gay and enjoy the
feast, for vague terrors struck at his heart. When Atreus gave him the
cup of blood and wine, he could not lift it to drink at first, and when
he did try to drink the wine seemed to roll around the brim of the cup
rather than pass through his lips. Filled with sudden fears, Thyestes
demanded that Atreus produce his sons.
Atreus left and returned with the heads of the three sons on a platter.
Thyestes, chilled with horror at the sight, asked where the bodies were.
He feared that Atreus had refused them honorable burial and had left
them for the dogs to eat. Atreus told Thyestes that he had eaten his own
children. Then Thyestes realized why unnatural night had darkened the
Still Atreus was not satisfied. He felt disappointed that he had not
planned to force Thyestes to drink some of his children's blood while
they were yet alive. The king bragged of what he had done and described
how he himself had committed the murders and spitted the meat before the
Atreus, enjoying his revenge, could never believe that the greatest
weight upon Thyestes' mind was regret that he had not thought of such
revenge and caused Atreus to eat of his own children.
Seneca's Thyestes is undoubtedly the most lurid, gruesome, and
undramatic tragedy to survive from antiquity, and perhaps the most
fiendish revenge play in the literature. It is spectacle rather than
true drama. Whereas genuine tragedy arises from character conflicts or
internal divisions within character, spectacle relies on sensational
events carried out by characters who exist merely for the sake of the
events and who have no actual existence of their own. This is certainly
the case with every character in Thyestes. Each exists simply to
emphasize the horror of Atreus' revenge on his brother Thyestes, where
Thyestes is fed his own butchered sons at a hideous banquet.
Another important point of difference between true drama and spectacle
is their use of language. The speech of authentic tragedy approximates,
in a formal way, the devices of normal conversation to reveal passions.
The language of spectacle, however, being florid and highly artificial,
tends toward bombast. Spectacle operates by set pieces, rhetorical
essays that develop simple ideas at great length, by tedious and lush
descriptive passages, and by sententiae, or moralizing epigrams. Sencea
used all three, and the result is that his characters speak in a highly
unnatural way, instead of communicating they attitudinize.
This characteristic of Senecan drama had led many scholars to believe
that Seneca wrote his plays for private recitation rather than public
performance. In fact there is no reason for assuming that the plays were
not produced. Spectacle, rhetorical overindulgence, and horrors were a
part of public entertainment under the Roman Emperors Caligula,
Claudius, and Nero, who ruled during Seneca's maturity. We know that
Seneca's tragedies were staged in the Elizabethan period, and that they
had immense influence on the dramas of Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare,
Webster, and others.
The subject of Thyestes derives from Greek legend, and is based upon an
incident that occurred in the tragic family descended from Tantalus.
Although Sophocles, Euripides, Ennius, Accius, and Varius had dramatized
the story of Thyestes earlier, none of their plays has survived to
provide a basis of comparison. Seneca's treatment of the myth has some
interest in its own right, but it also serves to illuminate his own
He handles the figure of Thyestes rather sympathetically, making him the
victim of Atreus' lunatic lust for revenge. Seneca plays down the fact
that Thyestes seduced Atreus' wife, stole his symbol of power, and
caused a civil war. When Thyestes appears on stage, he assumes the role
of the Stoic hero, determined to bear whatever fate has in store for
him, and he frankly prefers the hardships of exile to the pomp of power
that Atreus has treacherously extended to him. Exile has tempered his
character. And here we remember that Seneca himself underwent eight
years of exile on Corsica, after being accused of an intrigue with
Claudius' niece Julia. The parallel is striking, but it extends even
further. Like Thyestes, Seneca was recalled from exile with the promise
of power. He was to tutor and guide Nero in the art of statesmanship.
When Nero became Emperor in A.D. 54, Seneca was able to exercise some
control over him for the first five years of his reign; but then Nero
began acting on his own, and Seneca retired from public life. Thyestes
is Seneca's personal testament on the instability of power and the
helplessness of those who incur the wrath of an absolute and maniacal
ruler. The only solution Seneca finds in this play is the same one he
found in life—to bear one's misfortune with Stoic dignity. Eventually
Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide for an alleged conspiracy. And
Seneca met his death bravely.
Through the murky rhetoric of Thyestes three important themes emerge:
cannibalism, the nature of kingship, and the necessity of maintaining a
Stoic endurance in the face of a murderous disintegrating cosmos. The
appearance of Tantalus and Megaera the Fury at the beginning is not
accidental. Tantalus served his son, Pelops, as food for the gods, and
as part of his eternal torment he must not only witness the kin murders
of his descendants, he must abet them. Presumably he inspires the idea
of the cannibalistic revenge in Atreus' mind, but Atreus carries it out
with gloating satisfaction. Atreus is an unrelieved monster, raging with
Against him Seneca sets the idea of kingship founded on morality and
restraint. The aphoristic conversation between Atreus and the attendant
in act 2, scene 1, is a debate on whether kings should serve the people
or the people should be utterly subservient to the king. In the first
case morality is the main law, and in the second the will of the the
tyrant. The point is made that morality creates a stable kingdom, but
tyranny is supremely unstable. Later, the chorus says that true kingship
lies in self-control, not in wealth, power, or pomp.
Unfortunately these observations make no impression whatever on Atreus,
who is intent on proving his godlike power over human life, much like
the Roman Emperors Seneca knew. In striving to become like a god in his
pride, Atreus becomes loathsomely bestial. Seneca constantly generalizes
from the concrete situation of Atreus and Thyestes to the universe. When
kings are corrupt, society is corrupted, and the rot extends throughout
the cosmos. Nature mirrors human conditions in Seneca: the fire
hesitates to boil the children; an unnatural night falls upon the
banquet. The play is full of hyperbole about the disintegrating
universe, rendered in very purple poetry. Against this profusion of
rhetoric stand the pithy epigrams, like a Stoical element trying to bear
up tightly against the frenetic declamations. The Stoic attitude can
never prevail in a world full of crime, but it can enable a man to
endure great stress with courage. Seneca, in Thyestes, embodied the
shame of Rome and his own valor in a style eminently suited to his