LETTERS FROM A STOIC
ADVISORY EDITOR: BETTY RADICE
, statesman, philosopher, advocate and man of letters, was born at Cordoba in Spain around 4
Despite his relatively undistinguished background and ever-recurrent ill health, he rose rapidly to prominence at Rome, pursuing the double career in the courts and political life for which he had been trained.
He began also quickly to acquire celebrity as an author of tragedies and of polished essays, moral, literary and scientific.
Sentenced to death by successive emperors (Caligula in
37 and Claudius in
41), he spent eight years in exile on the island of Corsica, allegedly for an affair with Caligula’s sister.
49, he was made praetor, and was appointed tutor to the boy who was to become, in
54, the emperor Nero.
On Nero’s succession Seneca acted for some eight years as an unofficial chief minister.
The early part of this reign was remembered as a period of sound imperial government, for which, according to our sources, the main credit must be given to Seneca.
His control over an increasingly cruel emperor declined as enemies turned Nero against him with representations that his popularity made him a danger, or with accusations of immorality or excessive wealth ill assorting with the noble Stoic principles he professed.
Retiring from public life he devoted his last three years to philosophy and writing, particularly the
Letters from a Stoic
65, following the discovery of a plot against the emperor, which might have resulted in Seneca’s elevation to the throne, he and many others were compelled by Nero to commit suicide.
His fame as an essayist and dramatist lasted until two or three centuries ago when, unaccountably, he passed into literary oblivion.
lives in Islington, London.
An exiled Scot, now a barrister, he decided that Seneca was overdue for discovery while at Wadham College, Oxford, where he was an Open Classical Scholar and gained a First in Honour Mods.
He served in Kenya and Uganda with African troops as a subaltern in a Highland Regiment, and after a year at Cambridge learning another African language (Chinyanja), he returned to Africa for three years as a District Officer.
This was followed after Zambia’s independence by a year as a Magistrate, trying witch-doctors, hearing appeals from tribal courts over a vast area and revising this translation at intervals of leisure in the bush.
His practice at the bar in Gray’s Inn tends to be concerned with action by local authorities.
He holds strong views on the importance and difficulties of good translation.
Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium
TRANSLATED WITH AN
BY ROBIN CAMPBELL
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published 1969
Copyright © Robin Alexander Campbell, 1969
All rights reserved
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was born at Cordoba, then the leading town in Roman Spain, at about the same time as Christ.
His father, Marcus Annaeus Seneca, was an imperial procurator
who became an authority on rhetoric, the art of public speaking and debate.
He was the father not only of our Seneca, who speaks of his ‘old-fashioned strictness’,
but also of Novatus, later known as Gallio, the governor of Achaea who declined to exercise jurisdiction over St Paul (Acts XVIII, 11–17), and of Mela, less ambitious than his brothers but an able financier (and father of the brilliant young poet Lucan).
Seneca suffered severely from ill health, particularly asthma, throughout his life; he tells us that at one time the only thing which held him back from committing suicide was the thought of his father’s inability to bear the loss.
He spent a period of his early life in Egypt (where the husband of a devoted aunt named Marcia was the viceroy of the emperor Tiberius from
16 to 31), there acquiring experience in matters of administration and finance.
He also studied the geography and ethnology of Egypt and India
and developed a lasting interest in natural science, speculative rather than empirical (although Pliny speaks of him as an authority on geology, marine life and meteorology, and others have admired his remarks on, for example, evolution or the explanation of rings round the sun).
His interest was drawn at an early age to Pythagorean mysticism and various cults of eastern origin then gaining adherents in Rome, before his final acceptance, in large part, of the Stoic philosophy.
After training for the bar he took successfully to public life, becoming quaestor in spite of the handicaps of his health, his foreign background and comparative lack of family or other connexions.
When Caligula succeeded Tiberius in
37, Seneca had become a leading speaker in the Senate, and so aroused the jealousy
of the new emperor that according to Dio Cassius he ordered his execution and was only induced to let him off by a woman close to the imperial throne who said that Seneca was ‘suffering from advanced tuberculosis and it would not be long before he died’.
This incident apparently resulted in his temporary retirement from political affairs.
41, in the first year of the reign of Caligula’s successor, Claudius, Seneca again came under sentence of death – commuted to banishment – for reasons which we do not know.
The pretext was adultery with Julia Livilla, the late emperor’s sister; the more likely explanation
is that the new ruler’s consort, the notorious Messalina, considered him dangerous.
His exile on the island of Corsica does not seem to have been endured as stoically as it might have been.
The encouraging spirit of an essay of consolation sent to his dearly loved mother Helvia is entirely absent in another addressed to Polybius, an ex-slave who had become a trusted servant of the emperor, which contains some abject flattery and was probably never meant to be published.
He had by now suffered the loss not only of his father but of a son, and his first wife died while he was away.
The only solace for him in these eight long years of loneliness and near despair was the reception given to the poems, tragedies and essays to friends which he continued composing during his banishment.
His fortunes turned dramatically in
Messalina had been executed and the emperor’s new wife, Agrippina, had Seneca recalled to Rome, appointed to the high office of praetor and made tutor to her twelve-year-old son Lucius
Domitius Ahenobarbus (the boy who was shortly to become the emperor Nero).
Agrippina’s motives, according to Tacitus, apart from the instruction of her son, were a confidence that because of his ‘literary fame’ the move would gain them popularity, and a belief that he would prove a reliable ally and a useful adviser to herself and Nero in their plans for future power.
There is no evidence that Seneca was connected with the poisoning of Claudius in
But he wrote the speeches which the seventeen-year-old Nero delivered after his accession, and was probably the author of a witty, if to us a little tasteless, attack on the death ruler’s memory (the
or ‘Pumpkinification’, an imaginary tale of the rebuffs received by the recently deceased emperor when he presents himself at the portals of Heaven and his application for admission is debated by the Gods).
Nero did make a formal speech in honour of his predecessor, which was said to display ‘a great deal of polish’ and to be a good example of Seneca’s ‘attractive style, well tuned to the ears of his time’.
The new regime opened well and ‘Nero’s first five years’ were later spoken of as a period of unequalled good government, the emperor Trajan even calling them the finest period in the history of imperial Rome.
For this Rome was indebted to Seneca and an army officer named Burrus.
These two, ‘the most influential as well as the most enlightened of the men who surrounded Nero’ (Dio),
‘whose wide experience was common knowledge’ (Tacitus),
prevented the hot-headed young man from carrying out a lot of murders on his accession and aimed at channelling some of his energies into ‘permissible pleasures’.
Only briefly alarmed by the poisoning of Britannicus and acting throughout in complete harmony they succeeded in keeping public business out of Agrippina’s hands and in their own.
Tacitus ascribes the secret of the influence of Seneca to ‘his tuition of Nero in
public speaking, and his engaging manners and high principles’, that of Burrus to ‘his military responsibilities and austerity of character’.
The two of them ‘took over total power, and exercised it, to the utmost of their ability, in the best and justest way conceivable, thus each alike arousing all men’s approval’ (Dio).
While Nero amused himself they set about the problems of government; we notice – to give instances of their activity – legal and financial reforms including the reduction of indirect taxation and steps to prevent peculation and extortion by provincial governors, and the prosecution of a successful war in Armenia to settle the empire’s eastern frontier.
Seneca’s geographical interests appear in the dispatch of an expedition ‘to investigate the source of the Nile’.
Yet another of his interests was shorthand, the Roman system of which he is said to have completely revised.
Neither he nor Burrus appears to have held any standing legal or constitutional office that could be said to give them the authority they wielded during these years.
Seneca, ‘the real master of the world’,
seems simply to have been the moving force behind the throne.
It is probably safe to say that Nero (unlike Aristotle’s celebrated pupil at a similar age, Alexander the Great) was still under the influence of a teacher of undoubted personal charm, and was quite content to leave to him the direction of affairs in which he had little real interest.
Once the young emperor began to listen to other advisers and increasingly to indulge his more violent and vindictive impulses this happy situation was doomed.
58 Seneca was being attacked by people like Publius Suillius Rufus.
Accusations seem to have ranged in gravity from sleeping with the emperor’s mother (obviously the man had failed to learn his lesson from his ‘thoroughly deserved’ banishment for ‘seducing imperial princesses’) and the introduction of the emperor to paederasty, to the uselessness
of his studies and the affectedness of his oratorical style.
But the campaign against him generally centred on the apparent contrast – it has been a stock criticism of Seneca right down the centuries – between his philosophical teachings and his practice.
Instances of this hypocrisy, according to Suillius, were the philosopher’s denunciations of tyranny, which did not stop him from being tutor to a tyrant; of flattery, ill according with the attitude he had adopted, especially from exile, towards ex-slaves who headed departments in Claudius’ administration; of extravagance, in spite of (allegedly) giving banquets served at five hundred identical tables of citrus wood with ivory legs; and, above all, of wealth.
‘What kind of wisdom,’ asked Suillius, ‘what philosophical teachings, had led him to acquire three hundred million sesterces within the space of four years in royal favour?
The childless and their legacies had been, if he might so put it, enticed into Seneca’s net, whilst all Italy and the provinces were being sucked dry by his practice of lending money at unlimited rates of interest.’
Seneca was indeed already celebrated for his riches.
Juvenal mentions ‘the great Gardens of the immensely wealthy Seneca’.
Agrippina, says Dio, had acquired for him ‘untold wealth from all sources’.
The agricultural writer Columella mentions the remarkable productivity of his wine growing estates, the best in Italy, at Mentana.
The reply, if any, which Seneca gave to his attackers’ criticisms of his wealth, was probably that contained in an essay
On the Happy Life
sent to his brother Gallio.
What counts, he says, is one’s attitude to wealth, which is the wise man’s servant and the fool’s master; he, like any good Stoic, could lose all he had at any moment without being a whit less happy.
This is the core of a long reply to the charge, which he states with complete frankness, that ‘philosophers do not practise what they preach’.
His everyday life did not lend countenance to
such attacks (we have at least his own accounts
of his plain diet and life-long teetotalism, his hard bed, cold baths and daily runs); and on this occasion he came to no harm from his enemies.
59 Nero had his mother put to death, the murder being carried out in cold blood after the calamitous failure of an attempt to stage an accident at sea.
There is reason to believe that Seneca and Burrus had no knowledge of or part in the planning of this crime, but as the facts became known did their best to lessen its impact on public opinion.
Seneca certainly drafted the letter sent to the Senate ‘explaining’ how her death was the result of the exposure of a dangerous plot of hers against the emperor’s life.
Dio would have us believe that Seneca averted a general massacre by saying to Nero, ‘However many people you slaughter you cannot kill your successor.’
tells us that the death (‘probably murder’) of Burrus in
62 ‘broke Seneca’s power’.
Enemies gained the ear of Nero with tales of Seneca’s popularity and growing wealth; the first was represented as being dangerous to the throne, the second as overshadowing the possessions of the emperor himself (whose abilities as an artist and a speaker were also, it was said, being disparaged by his old instructor).
Nero, they said, was now grown up and it was time for him to ‘shake off his tutor’.
Seneca, warned of this by friends, realized his danger and decided to ask the emperor for permission to retire from public life.
The request was granted and the parting was made amicable.
For the last three years of his life, Seneca devoted himself to philosophy and writing, including the
to Lucilius Junior, a native of Pompeii, a hard-working higher civil servant (procurator in Sicily at the time) who appears to have dabbled in literature and philosophy.
Spending his time moving around southern Italy with Paulina, his second
wife, Seneca now rarely visited Rome, and even, to disarm suspicion or for greater safety, gave (says Dio) his entire fortune to the emperor.
Tacitus mentions a story of an attempt on his life by poisoning, averted either because a slave gave the plot away or because the philosopher was, in fear of just such an attack, living on ‘an extremely simple diet of fruits growing wild and running water’.
65 came the disastrous conspiracy against the emperor by Piso and others, quite possibly including Seneca.
There was a report of a sub-conspiracy to kill Piso as well and make Seneca emperor – ‘being a man who seemed to be marked out for supreme power by the good qualities for which he was so famous’.
Many people lost their lives on the discovery of the plot.
Seneca, like many others, was asked to commit suicide, the then prevailing method of imperial execution.
Tacitus’ description of his death is not quickly forgotten.
His brothers and Lucan followed him, all by their own hands, in the course of Nero’s frenzied purge of enemies real and imagined.
According to some, a true Stoic, like Cato under the Republic, would have stayed on in political life to the bitter end.
But after the loss of all his influence over Nero, the Spaniard could hardly have hoped to be of useful service any longer to the Roman world, and (in an age in which many lived in recurrent dread of a capricious emperor’s message demanding, obliquely or otherwise, the recipient’s suicide) the alternative to his retirement was undoubtedly death.
Certain other Stoics, indeed, stood up to emperors and were rewarded for their opposition to misrule with martyrdom.
Seneca chose to spend what time was left to him in philosophy, and the reader may be left to decide, in fairness not forgetting his chronic ill health, whether his ‘lack of moral courage outside the study’ in this or earlier events detracts from his achievements.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the satirist of the century,
Juvenal, does not pick on the difference between this public figure’s conduct and his philosophical professions, of which a variety of later writers have made play.
‘Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature,’ asked Dr Johnson, ‘as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles without having good practice?’ Seneca, all the same, may well be history’s most notable example of a man who failed to live up to his principles.