Seneca in the Court of Nero: The Politics of Philosophy

Almost 10 years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis for my ancient history degree.

I don’t know how many people will be interested in 70+ pages of Roman history & Stoic philosophy but in case anyone out there is interested I present to you my thoughts as to why Nero was actually a great Emperor.



Lucius Annaeus Seneca is a controversial figure, equally noted for his greed and hypocrisy as his philanthropic texts.  While many questions surround him, and have done for the last two-thousand years, his legacy remains an enigma.  This may perhaps be because the right questions have not been addressed.  In this thesis, I will argue that Seneca cannot be dichotomized as either a politician with philosophical leanings or as a philosopher who dabbled in politics.  He was equally both, and the idea that one excludes the other has led to some of the ambiguity surrounding him.  Politically, he may have been the most important man in the Roman Empire, at least in the beginning of Nero’s reign.  Seneca employed this power in various ways, but disseminating his Stoic ethos was at the heart of his methodology.

Nero’s principal amicus was responsible for most of the important nominations of Nero’s reign, including the general Corbulo, the historian Fabius Rusticus, and the Praetorian Prefect Tigellinus.  Nero may not have been influenced directly by these men, but many of Seneca’s written works formulated the basis of the young Princep’s education.  The De Clementia, addressed to Nero on his 18th birthday, is the most obvious of these, but there were many more.

Seneca’s efforts to indoctrinate Nero with the Stoic philosophy were surprisingly successful, considering the hive of scum and villainy that Nero’s court is usually portrayed by in the written sources.  Much evidence, particularly numismatic and literary, helps to reveal that Nero’s court was, for a time, surprisingly flourishing.  It was one in which the Silver Age of Latin flourished, where not a Senator was sentenced to death until 62 CE, and where the doors to Temple of Janus were closed for the first time since Augustus.  It is an indication, of a sort, of the influence that Seneca had, and the degree of success he had in instructing the youthful Nero with Stoic ideals.



Where only one work is represented, the ancient author is subsequently referred to in an abbreviated version.  Ancient titles are listed in Italics.

For instance, Dio Cassius Roman History 61.10.4 would become Dio 61.10.4 for subsequent references.

For modern works, I have, upon introducing the source, included the author’s full name and title.  Authors with only one work are subsequently listed by surname only.  Authors with more than one work continue to be listed with their corresponding title.  Modern works titles are underlined, except for ‘journal articles,’ which receive inverted commas.

Table of Contents

Introduction                                                                                      1

Chapter One.  The Nature of Seneca’s Stoicism                     7

Chapter Two.  The Precedent of Nero’s Predecessors             19

Chapter Three. Seneca’s Methods: Friends, Clients, and Relationships 25

Chapter Four.  Seneca’s Methods: Wisdom and Written Works      37

Conclusion                                                                               55

Works Cited                                                                                          58



It is said that the winners write history, but in the case of the Roman Empire that is not, strictly speaking, entirely true.  Our written sources are provided by senators and upper-class aristocrats, effectively the class who lost the power struggle that saw Republic morph into Empire.  The oft-lamented vanquished liberty that the Empire replaced was nothing more than senatorial oligarchy.  Emperors indeed had the power to sentence a senator to death, but in return senators could sentence their Emperor to an eternity of infamy.  Claudius, for instance, improved life in Italy and the provinces, virtually created the civil service organization, and produced the port at Ostia.  Because he killed some thirty-five senators,[1] however, he has been branded into history as a limping, lisping, ludicrous caricature of a hunchback.  Claudius’s stepson has likewise been vilified.  Nero has become a near synonym for megalomania and corrupt depravity.  The good parts of his reign were minimized and ultimately attributed by the historians to others.  Seneca, a senator, and Burrus, the Praetorian Prefect, are the two men who receive the lion’s share of credit, and it was Seneca who had a large influence upon Nero personally.  How accurate is this portrayal?  Seneca held various positions, including consul in 56 CE, but his most effective role was more informal—that of amicus principis.    It appears that by the time he returned from Corsica in 49 CE, his political life existed primarily as a by-product of his philosophy.  His decision to tutor Nero, and others in his cadre, meant that he would have to re-enter political life.  The politics were a necessity that Seneca needed to embrace in order to allow his philosophies a chance to be applied and to avoid, for instance, the Cassandra-like fate of Thrasea Paetus,[2] Demetrius the Cynic, or other philosophers lacking political clout.  Politics created a structure of relevance and application that allowed Seneca to apply his philosophy to most aspects of his life.  He was indeed foremost a philosopher, and his philosophical precepts—often erroneously depicted as a moral or intellectual fraud—did govern his political behavior.  During his sixteen-year long return he used paper, policy, and partners to help ingrain the Stoic ideal of the sage into Nero.

Seneca held the belief that the ideal man, the Sage, was perfect—yet almost mythical, an unattainable ideal that nonetheless everyone should strive for.  He was prone to testing himself, curious to see how far along the path of the Sage he had come.  He mentioned the need for his daily moral self-examination in the De Ira 3.36 and maintained a similar sentiment in Epistle 28.  These tests could vary in scale from substituting his servant’s food for his own,[3] to living above a bath-house,[4] or riding in a peasant’s cart with only two slaves.[5]  He often, in the above letters and elsewhere, advocates a series of tests or exercises in order to assess one’s own character.  In De Beneficiis, Seneca uses the allegory of tying and untying a knot as something that ‘tests sharpness of wits and provokes mental effort…which… banish[es] indifference and sloth from our minds….’[6] This concept was also expressed in De Providentia.  His view of excellence and strength being achieved through hardship[7] helps to explain not only why he stuck with Nero even as things grew worse, but also why he trained Nero in the manner that he did in the first place.  As he said: ‘Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.’[8]  This theme is further strengthened by his statement that people need to be trained and developed the same as animals.[9]   Seneca’s writing shows a continual use of judgment; his work was rife with a subtext of instruction replete with a considered appraisal–‘even the lawyer Cicero does not…show such a propensity for thinking and talking about moral assessment and decision in terms of judging and passing judgment.’[10]

Did Seneca think he could ingrain this process into Nero?  Was the tutoring of Nero part of his spiritual exercises?  Veyne believes that: ‘[i]n him, we see an anguished haste to be put to the test.’[11]  Veyne does not explore this concept in terms of Nero’s tutelage, but the acceptance of Nero as a pupil would certainly qualify as part of this constant testing.  It is, at the least, taking on a huge responsibility.  It would fit Seneca’s overall habit of clarifying Stoicism to those around him, and providing Stoic instruction to any in need.

Though Seneca re-entered politics because it allowed him to apply his philosophies, it would be an over-statement to dismiss completely his political career.    ‘Emphasis is generally placed on Seneca’s appointment as Nero’s tutor in 49; but at the same time he was encouraged to resume his political career by nomination to a praetorship.[12]  Politics may have been a practical necessity rather than an ideal function, but Seneca participated fully in all realms of Roman rule once he returned to court.  That was, in fact, the point—a solitary, isolated philosopher would be unnecessary, superfluous.  As F.A. Lepper sees it:

It is not impossible that in 54 Seneca consciously set out to convince the philosophizing politicians in the Senate that the young Nero had the makings of an Optimus Princeps and would develop into a man of firm principles under his continuing tuition.  It is also possible he made some progress with the difficult task of instilling the necessary zeal into Nero himself.[13]

Lepper’s statement, commendably qualified as it is, not only reverses the importance of Seneca’s actions by looking at them primarily from the senatorial perspective, he also does not look into the matter after this supposition.  The support of the Senate was of course ideal for the Emperor, but by Nero’s time perhaps not as necessary as it had been for his ancestors.[14]



 The overall structure of this paper will be split in four chapters.  The first will address some of the more obvious potential objections to the thesis.  From there, I will look at the modern scholarship on Seneca and explain why I feel the discourse about him is misleading.  The chapter will end with an examination of Seneca’s Stoicism and an explanation of the exact values he held and propagated to his devotees.  The second chapter should provide some scrutiny on Seneca before he returned to Rome as Nero’s tutor and friend in 49 CE.  This background information is important to establish the kind of man being appraised.  The third chapter will provide some observations about Seneca and his exact methods in dealing with Nero.  It will be suggested that Seneca’s lessons lasted most—if not all—of the rest of his life.  Chapter Four will continue this theme, with an analysis of Seneca’s major written works.  I will also look at the end of Seneca’s life, underlining his views on suicide and the extent of his legacy absorbed by Nero.

There are in addition the usual disclaimers about such an analysis.  It can be misleading to assume that Seneca meant everything he wrote and furthermore that he acted upon his ideal notions in the chaotic, licentious era in which he lived.  As Miriam Griffin noted, ‘there is a really serious danger involved in assuming that what Seneca wrote must be mirrored in what he did as a statesman, namely, the temptation to simplify what Seneca wrote and what actually happened.’[15]    However, this disclaimer is true for many other philosophers or writers in general—for instance the Elder Cato, Cicero, Thucydides, or, most closely, Marcus Aurelius do not perhaps suffer from the same charges of hypocrisy but none can be said to have fully lived up to their professed ideals either.  Seneca often failed in personally reaching the principles he professed–though he acknowledged this, admitting ‘I’m far from being even a passable man, let alone a perfect one.’[16]  Elsewhere, he states ‘[w]e are all inconsiderate and unthinking, we are all untrustworthy, discontented, ambitious…we are all wicked.’[17]  Motto observes that ‘he, too, is making the very journey toward wisdom that he solicits in others.’[18]  The thought that Seneca lived up to his ideals less than the aforementioned is far from new and still surprisingly prevalent.[19]  The important issue is that he had a fully conceived set of ideals with which he attempted to indoctrinate many of his associates, most importantly his young pupil Nero.

In the first chapter, I will try to address the potential arguments that may be thought to invalidate this thesis.  There are sure to be some I have overlooked, but it is enough, perhaps, to claim that there is nothing in the ancient sources that absolutely contradicts the idea of Seneca as an earnest tutor, and furthermore that the modern understanding on the issue owes too much to the biased accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius.  Secondly I will address the modern scholarship concerning Seneca and why I feel his role is misunderstood—that the questions asked about him are not so much unanswerable as based on both assumptions and dichotomies that are equally false.

Finally, I will look at Stoicism and more specifically what it means to say that Seneca, who was a leading figure of the middle Stoa, was a Stoic.  I will briefly look at Seneca’s place in the pantheon of Stoic philosophers, and provide an explanation of the specific views he held.  In order to understand what he taught Nero, it will be necessary to first understand what his actual beliefs were.





The contention of this paper –that Seneca’s philosophy necessitated his political actions, and that his instruction of Nero was firmly based on those philosophical precepts—is far from unassailable; a few major objections can be raised to counter the idea.    I have attempted to address some of the more obvious ones below.  The following are individually pertinent objections, but none are so strong as to invalidate this hypothesis.

First, unlike virtually every other philosopher of the time, Seneca wrote in Latin rather than Greek.  This leads some, such as Griffin, to claim that it was ‘a sure sign that his interest in writing was at least as great as his interest in philosophy.’[20]  This is not necessarily true, however.  Though the custom was not merely arbitrary—Greek was more conducive to philosophy than Latin—Seneca’s brand of Stoicism did not require an extensive vocabulary.  Latin could, for the most part, convey his message as easily as Greek.  There were times when he noted that Latin was not precise enough, such as Epistle 9, where he says that the Greek term apathia could not simply be translated via its nearest Latin equivalent: impatientia.  These instances were apparently not frequent enough to discourage him and he established his philosophy well enough in Latin that any criticism based on the medium of language seems to be unfounded.

Secondly, Seneca had already in 44 C.E. written De Consolatione ad Polybium.  In this he used the death of Polybius’ young son as a pretext to ask for his own return to court.  His Stoic principles seem to be lacking entirely from this situation.  As stated above, however, it can be inferred that Seneca was frustrated on Corsica primarily because he had no outlet to apply his philosophy.  Indeed, in a possible allusion to his exile on Corsica, he wrote that ‘[n]othing is so bitter as long suspense….’[21]  The death of a child in antiquity was, though tragic, perhaps not laced with the same heartbreaking connotations as today.  Perhaps most importantly, this really had no bearing on his instruction of Nero that began five years later.

Juvenal’s account,[22] that Seneca actually preferred to go to Athens upon his recall from exile, is another indication that perhaps he was not fulfilling his life’s work by choice.  Griffin feels this indicates ‘a reluctance for the terrible scheme in which Agrippina’s patronage involved him.’[23]  The notion that he wanted to go to the city of philosophers at least testifies to his philosophical leanings.  Above all, it can be pointed out that rarely do we allow satirists to define historical figures—considering how much, for instance, Aristophanes’ Socrates differs from Plato’s or Xenophon’s.[24]  Though it would have been difficult to deny Agrippina her wish, there is no sense that Seneca wished he had chosen differently, no mention in his writings of a desire he had gone to Athens and thus Juvenal’s assertion seems to have little to back it up.  The origins of this story do show his leaning towards philosophy, perhaps to indicate that Seneca was corrupted by Agrippina and, in her absence, Nero.

Speaking of the lady, the account of Agrippina explicitly banning Nero from learning philosophy[25] should also be considered, but it is clear that Seneca did not unmindfully abide by Agrippina’s wishes.  Though only Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii  (hereafter Apocolocyntosis) and De Clementia can be definitively dated to the time period from 49 CE to 62 CE, Seneca at this time was primarily practising philosophy not with pen and paper but with people and policy.  The fact that his writings were in Latin may have been in response to her edict as well.  Ultimately, as will be examined in the Chapter Three, this could have been a large cause of the chasm that quickly rose to separate them.

These then are among the primary reasons to doubt the findings of this paper.  Each is a reasonable protestation, but upon careful consideration there is not enough evidence to repudiate completely the claims presented here.  Though this paper does tend to assert a positive assessment of Seneca, it is not meant to be blind apology.  Many of the accusations that have survived since his lifetime very likely have some truth.  Other criticism, such as the charges that Seneca debauched young boys, and indeed was responsible for teaching Nero this habit,[26] can probably be dismissed.  More serious were the allegations raised by P. Suillius, who claimed that Seneca was corrupt and hypocritical.  Their conflict began when Seneca revived the Cincian laws.[27]  Ironically, Suetonius actually recorded this as part of Nero’s good deeds:

In the case of wills it was provided that the first two leaves should be presented to the signatories with only the name of the testator written upon them, and that no one who wrote a will for another should put down a legacy for himself; further, that clients should pay a fixed and reasonable fee for the services of their advocates. (Suetonius Nero 17)


That Seneca was unbelievably wealthy cannot be contested.  There is no doubt that Seneca accrued large amounts of wealth.  He had estates throughout Italy and across the Empire—in Spain, Egypt, and Britain.  This wealth, coupled with his unique status as Nero’s chief amicus, could have engendered much resentment.  Tacitus[28] describes the charges in general terms against Seneca and captures much of the bitterness held against the Spanish statesman in the Annals:

They assailed Seneca with various charges, representing that he continued to increase a wealth which was already so vast as to be beyond the scale of a subject, and was drawing to himself the attachment of the citizens, while in the picturesqueness of his gardens and the magnificence of his country houses he almost surpassed the emperor. They further alleged against him that he claimed for himself alone the honours of eloquence, and composed poetry more assiduously, as soon as a passion for it had seized on Nero.


It does not seem possible for Seneca to be an earnest Stoic, distributing his wisdom to Nero, and also match the description of Suillius as a greedy, corrupt individual.  Seneca’s defense against the charges was quickly forthcoming.[29]  His offer to return to Nero the gifts he had received[30] does somewhat belie the indictment.  Nor does it seem that any of the allegations, even if entirely true, would contradict the idea that Seneca was truly indoctrinating Nero with the Stoic ideology.

The argument could be put forth that if Seneca did indeed violate most of his principles, his hypocrisy would be the true lesson for Nero.  Actions speak louder than words, and Nero is certainly portrayed as impressionable by Tacitus in particular.  While this view was the prevalent ancient one, this approach does not seem to fit the established understanding of Rome in the 50s and 60s CE.  Nero cannot be said to have obtained the defects of his tutor; nor does the history of Rome during Nero’s reign reveal rule by covetous, grasping villains who covered their aberrant corruption with hypocritical protestations of judicious acumen.  Seneca’s faults, the extent of which can be contested ad infinitum, neither can be said to have interfered with his lessons for his pupil, nor to have overwhelmed the import of his works.

Modern scholarship tends to be extreme—either very pro-Seneca or quite anti-Seneca.  Something about the Spanish statesmen seems to inspire hyperbole from his chroniclers.  Anna Motto describes Seneca thus:  ‘Tutor, guardian, minister, victim of Nero, author of tragedies, scientific treatises, philosophical treatises, philosophical essays, and moral epistles, he was a man to honor—and to serve—at any age.’[31]   H. B. Timothy, for his part, is certain that Seneca ‘is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating figures ever to have passed across the stage of history.’[32]  The modern discourse on Seneca can also lead to strange conclusions.  Moreford claims that Nero ‘turned to artistic pursuits not so much from innate depravity…as because his initiative in rhetoric was stifled by his teacher.’[33]  There is not a lot of proof that Seneca ‘stifled’ an interest in rhetoric.  More importantly, this assertion neglects the fact that it was Nero’s earlier tutors who imbedded the artistic impulses in him.[34]

Unenthusiastic evaluation of Seneca has flourished for the last 2000 years.  Both Cassius Dio[35] and Fronto[36] were highly critical of Seneca.  F.H. Sandbach’s assessment of Seneca is fairly stringent but indicative of the negative position:

The distasteful flatteries by which he tried to secure his return from exile and the mockery in the Pumpkinification of the late emperor’s disabilities do not recommend him.  As Nero’s tutor or mentor he maintained his position by acquiescing in crimes that culminated in matricide and during the ten years of power or influence accumulated for himself a huge fortune.[37]


Other modern writers give Seneca good press, though they do ensure to note the ambivalent treatment given to him by the ancient writers.  Seneca certainly doesn’t lack biographers, but most needlessly provide moral judgment, which becomes either a reference to his hypocrisy or a defense of said hypocrisy.  Villy Sorensen believes that Seneca offered good advice but did not often trouble to follow it himself.[38]  Lepper remarks, ‘It can never have been easy to read Seneca without thinking of his public career and wondering how far he managed to put his precepts into practice.’[39]   He has even been called ‘history’s most notable example of a man who failed to live up to his principles.’[40]  Gummere’s assessment is that Seneca’s ‘personality has always been somewhat of a puzzle….’[41]  At the other extreme, Paul Veyne states he has no intention of defending Seneca , though he then proceeds to list eleven separate points that do just that.[42]  Other writers, notably Brad Inwood, tend to concentrate on Seneca’s philosophical contributions without much consideration for the corresponding political affects his philosophy brought about.[43]

Despite his espoused support of gentleness and mercy in De Clementia and opposition to the gladiatorial games, his compassion does not seem to have extended much farther than the Empire’s borders.  He supported war, claiming that ‘Caesar’s conquest of Gaul [was] good for Rome’[44] and believed it was ‘praiseworthy to extend empire.’[45]   This attitude is typically Roman, and it should be remembered that Seneca never transcended nor was cognizant of a need to transcend his cultural background, despite some obvious criticisms of it.  To put it in another way: ‘Since on so many points Seneca expressed views which have since become common, it is easy to forget that they were not so common in his own day—and to reproach him for not having put his ideas into practice…’[46]  This is certainly hypocritical by contemporary standards, but using modern ethics to judge ancient people does not necessarily help to increase our understanding of them.

Whether Seneca was ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ is largely a question of perspective.  Most troubling are the assessments, beginning with Quintillion,[47] that dichotomize his political and philosophical impacts.  This legacy thrives in contemporary times. Greenhalgh[48]  refers to Seneca as ‘a wise statesman if an indifferent philosopher.’  Miriam Griffin in her biography of Nero assumes that ‘De Clementia is a pretense to fool the public.’[49]    She elsewhere claims that in De Clementia and Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii ‘the philosopher was at the service of the statesman.’[50]   The overall nature of his writings is misunderstood as a result of this dichotomy. ‘Seneca’s writing thus has a markedly apolitical character.’[51]  Sandbach represents this opinion most explicitly:  ‘Thus although ideas drawn from philosophers were always of importance to Seneca, primarily he was not a philosopher but a rhetorician, a senator, a man at the heart of public affairs.’[52]

Veyne is among the few who see Seneca as a philosopher rather than a statesman dabbling in philosophy, but his division is equally arbitrary and imprecise. He believes that Seneca ‘made practical concessions to the compromises (or worse) of politics, but he never made intellectual concessions.  He wrote as a philosopher, never as a senator.’[53]  It is striking that so many feel that Seneca was either one or the other. This assessment, with the implication that it is possible to be only a philosopher when divorced from all other competing descriptions, is one that certainly needs to be examined further.

The idea that unless a philosopher is sitting at his desk, interacting with ‘philosophy’ but never ‘reality’ he is not to be taken seriously is not only anachronistic, as the ancient world did not have the same view of lovers of wisdom, but also erroneous.  Robespierre, Boethius, Hobbes, Sartre, and even Socrates were all active in the politics of their day and yet are not considered to have disqualified themselves from the ranks of philosophers.  Due to this unspoken, perhaps unrealized distinction, Lucius Annaeus Seneca is often either used in a philosophical or a political/historical context.   To separate Seneca into one sphere or the other is simply not a valid approach to his role in Nero’s court.

Seneca’s interest in philosophy seems to have begun at a young age.  He refers with fond remembrance to Papirius Fabianus[54] and Sotion and Attalus[55]and their acute influence upon him.  Seneca marked a progression away from the ancient Stoa.  His view on ethics was at the time original and progressive.  ‘He rejects the doctrine of an instant conversion from folly to wisdom in preference for a progressive mode of ethical development.’[56]

To say, of course, that Seneca was a Stoic does not necessarily reveal much about him, as Stoicism varied a great deal amongst its individual adherents.[57]  Seneca clearly possessed a unique flavour of Stoicism; so much so, in fact, that towards the end of his life he was perhaps as much Cynic as Stoic.  Though ‘Seneca decidedly saw himself, and was seen by antiquity, as a Stoic,’[58] the term does not strictly speaking fit him completely.  Towards the end of his life, his ideal of the sage changed from the Stoic standards Hercules, Socrates and Cato to his own contemporary Demetrius the Cynic, who receives high praise.[59]  The division between the two schools is perhaps a matter of semantics.  As Seneca said:

it seems to me there is the same amount of difference between philosophy and the other studies as there is within philosophy itself, between that branch which deals with mankind and that which deals with the gods…In a word, between the two areas of philosophy there is as much difference as between a man and a god.[60]


Stoicism has been compared to and contrasted with Epicureanism,[61] Cynicism, Existentialism, Buddhism, and Taoism, to name a few.  Even specifically narrowing the parameters of the definition to Seneca’s personal brand of Stoicism does not completely address the issue.  Stoicism exists as much in the attempt to address the un-definable as the definable.  Any attempt to address Stoicism without this concern may be somewhat remiss.  Still, even granting that no definition can ever capture Stoicism, or even a particular person’s Stoicism, we have sufficient writings from Seneca that should make it possible to obtain a somewhat accurate capture of his beliefs.  Griffin believes that ‘Stoicism has enjoyed a long history because it remained applicable in different political circumstances, being in essence not a doctrine for states but for individuals, not for political man but for moral man.’[62]  The morality of Stoicism is therefore the art of living, making it a pragmatic, useful philosophy.

For Seneca, philosophy was a simple matter.  As he said, ‘look at the amount of useless and superfluous matter to be found in the philosophers.’[63]  He was instead interested in how life should be lived.  The adjectives ‘pragmatic’ and ‘practical’ are often used to describe his works, but they are not the words he would have chosen.  ‘Essential’ is probably how he would have described it.  As he wrote in Epistle 78.3, indulging in a bit of hyperbole himself:  ‘I owe it to philosophy that I rose from my bed and regained my strength.  I owe my life to philosophy.’ He certainly would not want to split his creed into various categories; he wanted to look at it from a broad perspective.  His complete earnestness aside, he was not above mocking Stoicism either.  In the Apocolocyntosis, he notes that Claudius has ‘something of a Stoic god in him, I see it now: he has neither intelligence nor individuality.’[64]

Early Stoicism had roots in Aristotle, Plato, and even pre-Socratic influences—particularly Heraclitus.[65]  This Hellenic influence had largely waned by Seneca’s time, and he was free, for the most part, to define his own course of action.  Stoicism is often described as pragmatic, and it has been claimed the equally pragmatic nature of Romans is what made Stoicism so popular.  This is obviously an over-generalization, but as an ethos Stoicism did provide an explicit raison d’etre that many other philosophies and religions could not match. Constant training and practice—askesis—could involve logical exercises, Socratic dialogue, meditation, reflection, positive affirmations,[66] and ultimately everyday application.  This is true of Stoicism in general, and Seneca seems to have personally agreed upon the importance of meditation.  In Epistle 16, he states his belief that:

…no one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom, and that the perfection of wisdom is what makes the happy life, although even the beginnings of wisdom make life bearable.  Yet this conviction, clear as it is, needs to be strengthened and given deeper roots through daily reflection.


The Tao of Stoicism was nature, the totality of all.  At its simplest, Stoicism was simply living in accordance with nature.  ‘Nature’ could certainly be understood as a divine being, which as Paul Veyne interprets it meant that ‘[t]he Stoics are deists, but their deity was simply the incarnation of reason, a way of explaining the order of the universe.’[67]  The ideal life was that of the Sage—which was something that everyone should try to attain, although it was impossible to accomplish except perhaps once or twice per millennium.  Seneca would list his role-models as Socrates, Cato the Younger, and of course the ever-popular Hercules, but in general no one could ever reach this ideal.  For the most part, the idea of the sage existed primarily as a construct of the mind.  He detailed more obvious examples of such constructs for example centaurs and giants,[68] but this idea of abstract concepts can be linked to other theoretical ideas—such as the clemency he stressed to Nero.  The idea of the Sage as an ideal cannot be stressed strongly enough when dealing with Seneca and his place in Nero’s court.[69]  The Sage would be the best possible ruler, thus Seneca’s attempts at putting Nero’s feet on the path of Stoicism.

The relationship between Nero and Seneca was intricately complex. A useful metaphor is provided by the philosopher himself: Seneca was fond of painting both his actions and those of other Stoics as akin to those of doctors.  The analogy has traversed the ages, and many historians today echo that sentiment.  ‘The Stoics were not moralists exacting that duties should be fulfilled or the social contract be respected.  They were physicians whose every action was aimed at the patient’s recovery of health.’[70]  But there are problems with this analogy.   Marcus Wilson[71] discusses the limitations of the medical analogy—it is not so much the case of doctors healing patients but more patients treating other patients.  And as Seneca says, ‘No treatment seems harsh if its merit is salutary.’[72]  Seneca was then not a doctor ‘curing’ Nero so much as a fellow-traveller accompanying him on his journey.

Stoics believed that human reason, coming directly from Nature, was ultimately both practical and necessary.  Humans were the only thing on earth that Nature allowed the autonomous use of rational capacity.  Mercy or clemency would therefore be a natural byproduct from proper use of reason, from making correct decisions.  ‘Of all the virtues, in truth, none befits a human being more [than clemency] since none is more humane.’[73]  Proper use of reason and its corresponding effects, including clemency, are enough for happiness.  Seneca, therefore, felt that to act with clemency was to assert one’s humanity.  There is some indication that Seneca felt that the morality of Nero was analogous to the morality of the state, or at least that the same advice that was good for Nero the individual was also good for the Empire.  ‘The morals of the state, moreover, are better mended by the sparing use of punitive measures….’[74]  The state of the Empire, in particular Rome, seems to have waxed and waned with Nero’s ethical health.





Now that the objections have been accounted for and Seneca’s philosophy briefly investigated, this chapter will look at the history of Seneca’s political actions, of his interactions with Nero’s two predecessors before he returned to Rome as Nero’s tutor and friend in 49 CE.  Seneca was sentenced to death in 37 CE by Gaius and, after surviving that, sentenced again to death in 41 CE by Claudius.  Did he support the attempted coup planned by Gaetulicus and Lepidus?  Was Seneca part of an opposition (Stoic or otherwise) to the principate?  Or was he simply unlucky enough to live under men who killed many innocent people?

There is little known about Seneca’s early years.  Based on the facts that we have, however, his return to Rome in 49 CE seems to have been primarily motivated by an impetus that was philosophic in origin and nature.  As Sorensen notes, ‘Seneca could hardly refuse an appointment offered by an empress to whom he was indebted, and for philosophical reasons he could scarcely reject that involvement in public affairs which the classical Stoic writers had encouraged.’[75]

His thorough dislike of Corsica seems surprising for one who needed time alone for meditation and declared that god and Nature are interchangeable.[76]  He would have left for almost anything.  As an aristocratic nobleman, he must have longed for the finer things in life, his friends, and his family.  However, agreeing to tutor young Domitius was not a desperate, ends-justify-the-means attempt at freedom.  He probably saw the opportunity to teach Nero as a real chance to put his theories into action, to see how far along the path of the Sage he had travelled.  He was constantly testing himself and this would for him be a true indicator of his own progress.  Seneca’s actions imply a deliberate course of action, an example of Stoic principles wielded to forge Nero with precise specifications.

Philosophy cannot be developed apart from the socio-political context in which the philosopher lived, and Seneca was affected profoundly by the events of his time.  He first rose to prominence during the reign of Gaius.  There is only one mention of Seneca in Suetonius’ Caligula, but it is telling:[77]

When about to begin an harangue, he [Caligula] threatened to draw the sword of his nightly labours, and he had such scorn of a polished and elegant style that he used to say that Seneca, who was very popular just then, composed ‘mere school exercises,’ and that he was ‘sand without lime.’[78]


This is consistent with the account in Suetonius Caligula 34, where the Emperor is portrayed as jealous of others, including Livy, Virgil, and Homer.  Suetonius’ account is elaborated upon by Cassius Dio, who writes that Seneca’s life was actually in danger:

On the other hand, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many others as well, came near being destroyed, though he had neither done any wrong nor had the appearance of doing so, but merely because he pleaded a case well in the senate while the emperor was present.  Gaius ordered him to be put to death, but afterwards let him off because he believed the statement of one of his female associates, to the effect that Seneca had a consumption in an advanced stage and would die before a great while.[79]

Both of these accounts are from sources that can be erratic in their veracity, to say the least, and it is possible that Caligula’s supposed jealousy may be a typical topos of tyrants.  Our understanding of the period is further clouded by the fact that none of Seneca’s works from this time remain extant.  Inferring from our sources, however, seems to imply that his works were more literary in nature than philosophical.  Caligula’s criticism would seem odd if it was aimed at philosophical writings.  On the other hand, Seneca had shown a philosophical bent from an early age.  One thing is certain: by the end of Caligula’s reign Seneca considered him the worst possible princeps.  In De Ira, Caligula is criticized several times,[80] likewise in De Constantia Sapientis 18.1, and elsewhere he is accused of the same offense with which Nero charged the Christians after the fire of 64 CE: odium generis human.[81]   Seneca speculated that ‘nature produced [Gaius] as an example of the effect of supreme wickedness in a supreme position.’[82]  It is not difficult to imagine that Seneca had the example of Caligula as a worst-case scenario in mind while aiding and tutoring Nero.  The legacy of Gaius Caligula as a tyrant and monster outlived the man and provided Seneca with another archetypal disaster with which to dissuade Nero from abusing his power.

The most important event for Seneca during Caligula’s time in the principate was the supposed revolt of Gaetulicus in Germany.  Though Caligula’s campaign in Germany was minimized by Suetonius,[83] the fact that Gaetulicus and Lepidus were subsequently executed,[84] and Agrippina and Julia banished,[85]  suggests that Caligula in fact had very good reasons for his northern campaign.  Seneca’s involvement in this conspiracy is not attested, but it would account for Caligula’s ire perhaps more neatly than mere jealousy.  Seneca wrote that ‘Gaius has not been able to make me betray my friendship with Gaetulicus.’[86]

Any opposition towards Caligula from Seneca would seem to have been from personal reasons rather than a general Stoic opposition to the principate.[87]  If any credence can in fact be placed in the veracity of his writings, it cannot be assumed that he opposed the principate—his provocative use of the word rex, among other things, suggests the opposite.  His writings show him to be a staunch supporter of the principate and fairly explicitly pro-royalty, thus the question of whether he belonged to the Stoic opposition seems moot. As Veyne says:

he did not resemble Tacitus, playing the nostalgic anti-Cesarion [sic]…Although he held the senate in high esteem, Seneca never belonged to the Stoic opposition, hiding their noble arrogance, nostalgia for the republic, and secret anti-Caesarism under the cloak of philosophy.[88]

If Seneca did oppose Caligula, it certainly establishes a pattern of resistance that would lend credence to Nero’s accusation that Seneca participated in the Pisonian conspiracy.  At the same time, had Seneca actively participated in the conspiracy against Gaius, his fate would not have been different from that of Gaetulicus or Lepidus.

It was not until Caligula’s successor that Seneca was actually exiled, although Dio maintains that Seneca’s exile was not caused by Claudius himself:

The acts I have named, now, were the acts of Claudius himself, and they were praised by everybody; but certain other things were done at this time of quite a different nature by his freedmen and by his wife Valeria Messalina. The latter became enraged at her niece Julia because she neither paid her honour nor flattered her; and she was also jealous because the girl was extremely beautiful and was often alone with Claudius. Accordingly, she secured her banishment by trumping up various charges against her, including that of adultery (for which Annaeus Seneca was also exiled), and not long afterward even compassed her death.[89]

It was common, however, for the wives of Claudius to receive blame they may not have truly warranted.  Along those lines, Tacitus professes that Seneca owed a personal grudge to Claudius and believed that that was part of the reason why Seneca agreed to tutor Nero:

Agrippina, that she might not be conspicuous only by her evil deeds, procured for Annaeus Seneca a remission of his exile, and with it the praetorship. She thought this would be universally welcome, from the celebrity of his attainments, and it was her wish too for the boyhood of Domitius to be trained under so excellent an instructor, and for them to have the benefit of his counsels in their designs on the throne. For Seneca, it was believed, was devoted to Agrippina from a remembrance of her kindness, and an enemy to Claudius from a bitter sense of wrong.[90]

Seneca’s relationship with Julia will unfortunately remain a mystery.  It is usually supposed that the charges were trumped-up, but if he did have a relationship with the younger Julia it would provide an interesting parallel with his second wife, Pompeia Paulina.  She was also an aristocrat who was much younger than Seneca, though this was hardly an uncommon arrangement.  His relationship with Agrippina is probably what led to his eventual recall once she replaced Messalina as Claudius’ overpowering woman du jour.  It is not clear whether he was exiled for cavorting with Germanicus’ daughter, whether it was Imperial jealousy or whether he was suspected of more serious crimes, such as the coup that was possibly planned by Gaetulicus and Lepidus.  If Messalina—and not Claudius—was responsible for Seneca’s exile, it would match with his return, seemingly reconciled with Claudius, shortly after her death.

With that in mind, considering that Seneca ultimately alienated Gaius, Claudius, and Nero, Seneca’s position is perhaps not so straightforward as has been assumed.  His nephew Lucan may very well have belonged to Stoic opposition, which incriminates Seneca at least by proxy.  Both of his brothers died as a result of the Pisonian conspiracy.  And Seneca did write some potentially inflammatory statements, after all.  In De Otio he was at his most explicit:  ‘[i]f the State is so corrupt that it cannot be aided, if it is overwhelmed by evils, the wise man will not struggle in vain nor will he devote himself to it when it is profitless to do so.’[91]    How would Nero have taken this, particularly when coupled with Seneca’s withdrawal from his state functions?  Perhaps the question as of 65 CE is not whether Seneca opposed the idea of the Princeps in general, but whether he opposed Nero specifically.  The answer is indecipherable, but there is evidence to suggest that Seneca, for all his disagreements with Nero, continued to endorse both the officer and the office.




Seneca’s program for Nero was a consistent effort lasting at least until his retirement in 62 CE and arguably until his death.  Indeed, even his death was a lesson, for Nero and others, and one that Nero and his famous last words Qualis artifex pereo[92] may even have learned well.[93]  This chapter will look at the various methods—apart from written—that Seneca used for Nero’s instruction, while emphasizing their frequent nature.  Seneca’s relationship with Agrippina and indeed with his entire cadre of followers will be considered.  Additionally, some of the longstanding assumptions about Nero’s reign will be examined.  In arguing that Nero was not the bloodthirsty autocrat posterity has deemed him, I hope to suggest that Seneca’s strategy was far more successful than one might assume, for instance, from Dio’s reference to Seneca as ‘The Tyrant’s teacher.’[94]

To say that the principate under Nero was a unique construction and experience is a truism—for each emperor, a combination of foreign rebellions and alliances, intrigue by Roman senators and equites, the Emperor’s own personality and actions, to name but a few factors, formed to create a distinctive principate.  Yet there were certainly a few characteristics of the court that helped to define the times; Nero’s reign did differ from those of his predecessors.  The legacy and memory of Germanicus permeated upper-class Rome long after his death—Seneca was exiled due to his closeness to Germanicus’ children, and returned to court with a chance to tutor his grandson.  Nonetheless, Seneca attempted to return the court to Augustan ideals, in essence trying to erase—or at least ignore other than as an example of what not to do—the reigns of Gaius and Claudius.  Nero attested to these Augustan leanings when he declined the perpetual consulship in 58.

It seems definite that many of the elite were originally highly optimistic.  Lucans’ first book of the Pharsalia and Calpurnius Siculus’ Bucolics reflected the optimism at the beginning of Nero’s reign.[95]  The Golden Age of Latin had passed, but the Silver Age was flourishing—Seneca, Lucan, Petronius, Columella, Persius Flaccus and other talented writers were active during Nero’s reign.  To suppose this was a result of chance or coincidence is to ignore the role the Princeps had in encouraging or suppressing literature and art.  Freedmen, not quite as important as they had been under Claudius, were still vastly influential, holding positions that under Vitellius would begin to go to equites.  Though there were uprisings in Britain and Parthian troubles in Armenia, Nero had until his final year in power a relatively peaceful time.  He did have some unique challenges as well.  Griffin illustrates how one of Nero’s greatest difficulties was in dealing with a large number of rivals:

The three factors leading to uncertainty over the succession: lack of an acknowledged hereditary principle, lack of a law of succession, and the habit of intermarriage with aristocratic Roman families, meant that Nero was faced with a frightening number of potential rivals and heirs. [96]


Considering that no senator lost his life until 62 CE,[97] it seems valid to state that Nero indeed practised the clemency his instructor so fervently recommended.  For instance, Nero’s pan-Hellenic leanings, so often disparaged, were actually perfectly in character for an Emperor—and not just later ones such as Hadrian.  Susan E. Alcock[98] examines the purpose and reasons behind Nero’s fourteen month trip to Greece and finds his behavior was largely consistent with precedents set by Claudius, Augustus, Julius Caesar, and even Alexander the Great.  Griffin finds that Nero did take an active role in government[99] and suggests that methods outlined in De Clementia were in fact frequent in Nero and Seneca’s relationship.[100]

A more positive picture than the traditional, Quo Vadis-like reign of atrocities seems possible.  This picture is changing, but modern historians—most notably Vasily Rudich, who imagines the reign of Nero as ‘a time of terror and of a crisis of values’[101]—continue to sustain this overused, under-examined trope.  It is succinctly put by Elsner and Masters: ‘Nero … falls victim to the misfortune of not being Augustus.’[102]  It may even be possible partially blame Seneca for this:  ‘The popularity that Seneca had promised Nero was general, but the sort of favour that he was later encouraged to pursue led inevitably to the alienation of the more traditional upper class elements.’[103]  He exacerbated the ill-feelings towards him with his continued public-performances and interest in horse-races.  Suetonius was particularly scandalized by this.[104]  Nero’s alienation of the upper-class cost him life and legacy, and has shrouded his reign with false expectations. There are, luckily, many indications that defy this shroud of misinformation.[105]

The coins of Nero’s reign reveal several innovations and unique developments.  Numismatic evidence, for instance, shows that Nero closed the temple of Janus in 64 (or 66) CE for the first time in 75 years.[106]  This was obviously propaganda but the fact that he could use it as propaganda is telling.  For the first time, coins began to proclaim Ex Senatus Consulto,[107] showing the extent to which Nero went in order to gain the approval of the Senate.  Though he did cut the metal of his coins,[108] which Pliny portrays as a sign of Nero’s greed, this perhaps indicates a fiscal responsibility not immediately associated with his reign.  His popularity extended to most of the people of Rome and the Empire,[109] as evidenced by Otho’s evocation of his name upon his ascension,[110] as well as the successes obtained by his pretenders after his death.[111]

Also worth considering is the fact that the Quinquennium Neronis cannot be attributed with confidence to a specific part of Nero’s principate.  For years, scholars had believed Nero’s good years were in the first part of his reign, when Seneca and Burrus purportedly had the greatest amount of influence.  In contrast, Hind argued that the Quinquennium Neronis must have been around 60-65 CE.[112]  Lepper placed it at the end of Nero’s reign.[113]  Any part of his reign could be considered to fit Trajan’s comment that he had the best five years in Roman history.[114]  If Nero was half the megalomaniacal autocrat our sources portray, it would seem to be easy to identify his only or best good years.   How much of this is attributable directly to Seneca will never be known, but it would be naive to assume that Nero’s years of good rule were unrelated to the presence of his powerful minister.  This may, of course, place too much reliance on something that Trajan may not even have said, but the fact remains that very little Nero’s time in power was obviously bad.  Tthough no one would deny that after the Pisonian conspiracy in 65 things got much worse, especially for senators, the evidence is enough to reserve judgment at least about the reign of terror that Tacitus and others have portrayed.

Though Seneca had a somewhat unprecedented role in the Roman Empire, his status was not unique.  There were many influential men who had had philosophers as advisors.  Alexander III of Macedon and Aristotle[115] were the most famous example, and Alcibiades and Socrates were another well-known pair.  Rome itself had more recent instances as well: Tiberius Gracchus had the advice of Blossius,[116] Scipio Aemilianus was instructed by Panaetius[117] and Cicero was counselled by Diodotus.[118]  These Romans were all important, but none had the lofty position of Nero as unquestioned leader of the Empire.[119]  That Nero was following Seneca’s lead was established the very first day of Nero’s reign.[120]  Gummere calls Seneca’s efforts with Nero ‘a magnificent experiment,’[121] and in many ways that is exactly what Seneca’s education of Nero was—an experiment.  That it failed as notably as the city of Heliopolis[122] does not mean its potential was any less for its lack of achieved potential.  Though he could not have made the comparison, it is not unreasonable to think that Seneca hoped that Nero would become the sort of Emperor that Marcus Aurelius became one hundred years later.

Seneca was not the only prominent philosopher or even Stoic in Nero’s court.  Tacitus[123] says that philosophers were a common sight.  The Suidas mentions the Peripatetic Alexander of Aegae and the Stoic Chaeremon as being familiar to Nero; and of course, there were other Senators, such as Thrasea Paetus, who practised philosophy.  It remains clear, however, that Seneca was by far the most influential of these men, both for Nero and for the Empire itself.  Because they know the end, modern writers tend to suspect that Seneca’s grand experiment was doomed from the start.  Lepper claims that Nero learned just enough about philosophy from Seneca and others that he came to believe they would oppose his position once his tyranny became evident.[124]  This suggestion is based on several assumptions and is in any case false—Nero never faced serious Stoic opposition and the men responsible for his downfall (Galba and Vindex most notably) were certainly not Stoic in any conventional sense of the term.

Their relationship certainly would lead to difficulties for both of them—for Seneca because he would receive recognition for all of Nero’s actions, good and bad.  For Nero, the same problem, only inverted, would continue to plague him.  Seneca would receive much of the credit for the buildings Nero erected, laws he passed, and appointments he made.  Ultimately, the ambiguity of their relationship seems to have caused much confusion, both in ancient times and modern.  It was far simpler than many have made it out to be: Seneca was training Nero with Stoic ideals, teaching him to uphold Senecan principles.  This has been interpreted in varying ways.  Moreford believes Agrippina had a specific task for the exiled Spaniard.  ‘Seneca was to prepare the senate to accept Nero…as the new princeps.’[125]  The senate had accepted Gaius in very similar circumstances in 37 CE, less than twenty years earlier; more importantly, the point that Seneca was preparing the Senate to accept Nero is almost correct—but reversed.  He was, more precisely, preparing Nero to be acceptable to the senate.

Seneca did not practise philosophy solely in the abstract; his many epistles and consolations would have been less effective had he not been in the position to enact his beliefs.  His high status under Nero was one way he could affect change in Neronian Rome; his multitude of allies and supporters were another.[126]  This was what any Roman would do in his position, of course, but the particular men Seneca chose reveal much about his methodology.  Fabius Rusticus, a fellow Spaniard, was grateful enough to record a positive account of his patron in his history,[127] Annaeus Serenus became Prefect of the Watch.[128]  Faenius Rufus, Lucan, Caesonius Maximus, and Seneca’s freedman Annaeus Cornutus[129] flourished.  Seneca ‘was probably instrumental in sending the great general Corbulo to the East.’[130]  It has been speculated that Seneca was friends with Sejanus,[131] and that the equally notorious Tigellinus[132] was his ally or even client.  Miriam Griffin has assembled a most comprehensive list, revealing just how much power Seneca had.[133]

A man who thrived between Sejanus and Tigellinus was himself one of the more influential clients Seneca had.  Seneca had not nominated Burrus to the post; of course, Agrippina had already done that under Claudius.  In his ascendancy, however, Seneca seems to have pulled the Prefect into his orbit.  Griffin suggests Burrus and Seneca became good friends because both were provincials, and had a common background between them.[134]  Burrus is often depicted as Seneca’s co-regent, the muscle and integrity to Seneca’s wit and brains.[135]  Rudich believes that Seneca and Burrus ‘attempted to exercise for a short while…some occasional pressure on Nero for personal improvement, not for any governmental action or gain.[136]  Seneca clearly thought very highly of him as well.[137]  Nonetheless, there is little to show that Burrus was involved in day-to-day government.

If he had truly been a partner with Seneca, it is odd that Burrus has emerged relatively unscathed from the judgment of his peers.  The criticism of Seneca has been constant through the ages—Burrus, for his participation in Nero’s court, is considered far more honorable.  It is true that Burrus was not as rich as Seneca, nor did he write books praising clementia, but his reputation being intact suggests—though certainly does not prove—that he may have been Seneca’s subordinate.  There is some support for this theory in Tacitus:  ‘We have it on the authority of Fabius Rusticus that a note was written to Caecina Tuscus, intrusting to him the charge of the praetorian cohorts, but that through Seneca’s influence that distinguished post was retained for Burrus.[138]

Fabius Rusticus was hardly a disinterested party, as Tacitus acknowledges, but neither is it completely unreasonable to suppose Seneca could and would have done such a thing.  Also worth considering, as Warmington does, is the notion that Burrus as an eques could not have been responsible for initial harmony between the Senate and Nero.[139]

The existence of a large body of men, whose importance varied from slave to the Praetorian Prefect, is vital for two reasons.  For one, it provided Seneca a pool of men he could rely upon, a potential counterforce with which he could potentially counter the worst of Nero’s whims or reward his good tendencies.  Secondly, his clients, particularly Lucan and Annaeus Cornutus, were usually influenced by his Stoic ideals, showing that he was indeed effective at disbursing his message.

One person who certainly was never Seneca’s client was Agrippina.  Seneca’s relationship with Agrippina was contentious, a dramatic battle over Nero’s affection and thus the Empire itself.  This is at least the way it has been portrayed in the sources.  Suetonius does not mention much about Burrus, but Tacitus describes their roles thus:

These two men guided the emperor’s youth with a unity of purpose seldom found where authority is shared, and though their accomplishments were wholly different, they had equal influence. Burrus, with his soldier’s discipline and severe manners, Seneca, with lessons of eloquence and a dignified courtesy, strove alike to confine the frailty of the prince’s youth, should he loathe virtue, within allowable indulgences. They had both alike to struggle against the domineering spirit of Agrippina, who inflamed with all the passions of an evil ascendancy…. [140]


This construction seems to neglect the background of the characters involved.  If one disregards the idea that Agrippina was power-hungry, it is difficult to accept the picture as it has been painted.  Agrippina, who suffered at least as badly as Nero from source-bias, knew Seneca well and it seems odd that she would have been surprised at the actions he took upon his return.   Burrus was himself her client as well, at least originally when he was nominated as Prefect in 51 CE.  This begs the question: why would Agrippina hire a philosopher for her son and instruct him not to teach philosophy?  Why would she choose an exiled court figure when other candidates abounded?[141]  She would have known several other orators available without the philosophical accoutrement from her marriage to the orator Passienus Crispus.

Her insistence that Seneca not teach philosophy to Nero may have been a large part of the rift between them—that is, of course, if we can believe Suetonius, always a tenuous affair.  It seems clear that Seneca and Agrippina had different views on the ideal government—Agrippina wished to continue in the vein of Claudius,[142] while Seneca seems to have been pushing for a return to Augustan ideals.   Most importantly, both saw themselves as the primary decision-maker in the Empire.  This would have led to some of the strife that manifested itself in a few notable episodes.  Pallas’s dismissal,[143] though it is attributed by Tacitus to Nero,[144] Seneca’s removal of Agrippina from the Armenian delegation,[145]  and allegedly the death of Britannicus,[146] are the most notorious of these episodes.  Their conflict seems to have been exaggerated, at least until near the end of Agripinna’s life.

Both Seneca and Burrus had achieved high positions and reached goals that would have been impossible with Agrippina.  Seneca had a preeminent position, replete with vast amounts of prestige and auctoritas.  Burrus was a relative non-entity before she raised him to Prefect and he owed her his career.  Agrippina, for her part, had also seen her most longed-for goal achieved as well.  Her son was now the Emperor, something she allegedly stated she would die to see happen.[147]  Seen this way, the idea of a rivalry or competition might be more of a literary creation than historical reality.  Indeed, Burrus, who by all accounts worked in tandem with Seneca, saved Agrippina on at least one occasion[148] and refused to kill her on a second.[149]  Neither Seneca nor Burrus sanctioned Nero’s ultimate attempt at killing his mother.  Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ vivid prose aside, we truly do not know what their reactions were.

Though most modern historians agree with Tacitus’s traditional account of Agrippina’s death, the entire affair is rather dubious.  Veyne accepts the standard account of Agrippina’s death[150] as does Motto,[151] and Griffin.  Griffin’s sentiments are not uncommon:

it was in their interest to keep Agrippina alive, for Nero would only heed them while he saw them as a refuge from his mother.  Once she was gone, the full scope of his power would become clear to him, nor would there ever lack people to remind him of it.[152]


Griffin does not assume that Seneca and Burrus wanted Agrippina dead, but she does envisage a competition for Nero between the two factions.  Rawson, however, points out the great number of inconsistencies in Tacitus and Suetonius,[153] which casts significant doubt upon the validity of the tradition.  The picture is complex; particularly because if Tacitus and Suetonius are to be dismissed,[154] little else can arise to fill that void.  Any complicity by Seneca in Agrippina’s murder would raise objections to his preferred policy of clementia.  It is possible that this incident epitomizes Seneca’s infamous hypocrisy—clemency for all, save those who opposed him.  The fact that Nero was not made unpopular by Agrippina’s execution,[155] however, indicates possibly more than the model of the cruel tyrant committing matricide that is still prevalent.  Without dismissing the sources too much, however, I believe that they are confused enough in their account to allow a withdrawal of judgment concerning the details.

The overall picture is vague, and there are too many issues that cannot be satisfactorily explained.  It does seem that none of Seneca’s interactions with Agrippina show that he was anything other than a philosopher attempting to transmit his philosophy to Emperor and Empire.  That is debatable, but far more certain is the impression that his minions of Stoicism were cast throughout the Empire in various functions, each of the tacit reminders of his pro-Stoic policy concerning Nero and the State.






 In the preceding chapter we saw how Seneca’s relations with his many clients and his patrons—at first Agrippina and later Nero—enabled him to spread his message of Stoicism.  Though he certainly made a concerted effort at teaching Nero, it would not be accurate to say the Princeps was his only student.  This chapter will further this theme, with the emphasis now changing to his written works—three in particular, along with the occasional Epistle, will be focused upon.  After the above has been addressed, I will attend to the final conflict between teacher and student that, eventually, led to each of their suicides.  Seneca’s famed views on suicide and how they apply to his overall ethos will be considered, before some final thoughts in conclusion complete this theis.


The year 54 CE, when Nero began his reign as Princeps and Seneca had in his pupil a tabula rasa on which to work his beliefs, was the first of a few critical years which show Seneca seeking to forge his student in the fires of Stoicism.  Seneca’s influence was based equally on his character and force of personality as much as his official actions:  ‘Even in the sphere of legislation then, it is Seneca’s influence on Nero personally, not in the Senate, that is best attested, and even within the sphere of imperially sponsored legislation….’[156]  Though most of Seneca’s writings reflect his desire to address Stoic issues to a wider audience, there are three fundamental texts that may be read in conjunction with more official acts.  Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, De Clementia, and De Beneficiis, provide a clear window through which we can observe Seneca’s efforts.  That this is not more widely understood is a result partially of source hostility, but even amidst the haze of partiality, a clear picture can be glanced.

Two important questions can at this point be considered.  Firstly, to what degree can we assume that what Seneca wrote matched what he did—i.e., was he recording his ethical and moral beliefs to better the Emperor and Empire as a whole, or masking his selfish actions with misleading propaganda?  Secondly, to what extent, if any, did Nero receive these messages—either the wholesome, written one or the selfish, misleading one?  Neither of these questions could be conclusively answered even during their lifetimes, of course, let alone two thousand years later, but a careful examination of Seneca’s writings and Nero’s actions at the beginning of his reign do provide at the least an indication that Seneca did mean what he wrote and that Nero, for several years at least, followed him.

As with any contentious historical topic, the question of source authenticity becomes compelling.  Tamsyn Barton[157] argues that most of the negative views held about Nero are merely literary topoi that should not be taken too seriously.  This is probably largely true as Nero shares with others, particularly Gaius and Domitian, the characteristics of a tyrant.  How much should be believed is at the crux of the historiographical issue.  Rubies describes the potential difficulties of relying on Tacitus as the major source for the time period:

while admiring Tacitus for his rhetorical skill, modern scholars have only paraphrased his ‘factual account’ of Nero; while claiming to separate reality from legend, they have easily deluded themselves into swallowing Tacitus’ overall rhetoric.  All too easily they have called ‘facts’ what cannot be retrieved outside the framework of a Roman rhetorical tradition.[158]

If this is true of Tacitus it would be even more accurate in describing Suetonius and the epitomized Dio Cassius.  Earlier I argued that Tacitus’s account of Agrippina’s death was not dependable—this was a particularly egregious example and not indicative of the overall value of Tacitus’s work.  It creates a problem if the historians had an agenda that could have led them to distort their portrayal of Seneca, particularly because the latter would have had just as good of motivation to misrepresent his affairs.  The fact that Seneca often seems to have ignored his own advice, however, may be explained because the advice was not meant for him—it was meant for the Emperor.

Seneca left behind a large body of work, too sizeable to examine fully everything he wrote in the space available here.  Leaving out his dramatic works, which do seem to have been meant in a different context, there are a many comments scattered throughout his writing that help to contribute to the overall depiction of Seneca as a practitioner of Stoicism.  Epistle 14 is interesting in that it focuses on the question of whether a Stoic should be involved in politics.  Seneca recommends a course which can only be described as disingenuous: ‘the sage will guard against the appearance of avoiding giving offense to the powerful, since avoiding offence is the same as blaming them.’  In the De Tranquillitate Animi, Seneca explains how he is required to act politically and argues that if one means to retreat from public life it should be step by step.  A common thread is noticeable in most of his works.  The tone is often that of a tutor, of an advisor, almost, one might say, of a sage.  Inwood comments on how he was ‘struck by how very frequent the language of judging is in his works.  The nouns iudex and iudicium abound, and not in trivial or trivially metaphorical senses….’[159]

The three works that predominantly illuminate his plan for educating Nero vary in scope and purpose, but all provide clear moral guidance for the young Princeps.  Seneca immediately established his presence in the court of Nero upon the youth’s accession.  He had, of course, been well-known under Nero’s immediate predecessors, but it was with the release of Apocolocyntosis in 54 that he introduced himself to the current generation.  He had, in fact, already been acclaimed as the mastermind behind Nero’s successful accession speech[160] but the Apocolocyntosis at least as much as Nero’s speech firmly established that a new regime had been established.

Whether the meaning of Apocolocyntosis was clear to Seneca’s contemporaries, it has been misunderstood by modern scholars.   Sandbach seems genuinely horrified and calls it ‘a satire on the deification of the dead man, which in the worst of taste makes game of physical disabilities and sneers at his intellectual and moral deficiencies.’[161]  Vasily Rudich speculates that it was an early sign of Seneca’s falling out with Nero.   He claims it is ‘hardly an appropriate pedagogical exercise in Augustan pietas.  It is not surprising that eventually his pupil learned to despise philosophers and to humiliate many of them mockingly in public.’[162]   Some of the insults heaped upon Claudius in Apocolocyntosis may very well have stemmed from a personal grudge on Seneca’s part, but Tacitus’s notion that he was ‘an enemy to Claudius from a bitter sense of wrong’[163] perhaps overstates the matter, and it is unlikely that he ever would have written it if there were not a larger purpose.[164]  The primary function was not meant to be difficult to grasp—it simply served as one of the earliest written lessons from Seneca to Nero regarding ethics and the art of ruling.  In the introduction to his 1984 translation, P.T. Eden proposes that ‘[t]he chief function of the work is obliquely didactic, to make of Claudius an example to Nero of how not to govern…[this message] was shortly to be made abundantly clear in De Clementia.[165]  This analysis does seem to be consistent with Seneca’s actions and other writings.  It is thus neither a political nor a philosophical treatise—it was a treatise exemplifying philosophy applied through politics.

In other words, the Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii was part of Seneca’s programme of learning for Nero.  It may have been more vicious than later works, though it certainly is not excessively hostile as far as satires go.  Though it seems unique and incongruent with Seneca’s extant works, the quality of the writing indicates that perhaps Seneca had written other satires that have not survived.  The reign of Claudius had not been an utter disaster, but Seneca was presented with a fertile field replete with his pick of several fruits of failure to present to Nero.

Seneca’s efforts certainly seem to have worked, for the first few years at least.  In a thorough examination of the promises Nero made to the Senate and how many of them were kept, Griffin concludes that Nero actually did keep most of them.[166]  And with the aforementioned difficulties in placing the Quinquennium Neronis, it is not unfeasible to perceive Seneca’s influence as lasting throughout the entirety of his life, possibly even after his death.  Nero’s suicide, in the end, was not so different from Seneca’s.

The Apocolocyntosis, then, had multiple purposes perhaps not the least of which may have been pure entertainment value.  The lessons for Nero it contained, however, were distinctly lucid.  Claudius in this case served the function of the anti-ideal—Seneca would later choose more extreme examples including Caligula,[167] Gaius Julius Caesar,[168] Alexander the Great,[169] Cyrus,[170] and Cambyses.[171]  Whatever Nero’s feelings for his step-father were, the public lampooning of him could only have served as dissuasion of the highest magnitude.  This may have been a very deliberate attempt at manipulation.  Griffin remarks that two characteristics of Nero were ‘particularly emphasized [by Tacitus and Suetonius]: his desire for popularity and his fear and insecurity.  Seneca had played on just these qualities when he urged Nero to practise clemency in order to win the love of his subjects….’[172]

Seneca continued this theme a year or two later in the De Clementia,[173] where he demonstrates to Nero that a good example set by the Princeps would be reflected throughout the Empire.  The sense of reproach that would later emerge in De Beneficiis is absent, and the tone is one of optimistic instruction, though a large amount of it is missing.  Looking at the extant writing, however, it is still clear that Seneca intended this as part of his collection of instruction manuals on how to rule.

This is the most explicit part of Seneca’s agenda—while it is not too much a strain of creditability to infer that the Apocolocyntosis was meant for Nero, the De Clementia was actually directly addressed to Nero.[174]  Clementia was a princely virtue, a way of distinguishing oneself that can only be shown towards inferiors ‘and had been recognized since the time of Caesar as supremely the virtue of a conqueror.’[175]

Seneca stated his intended direction and the layout of his argument—the first book of the De Clementia did not match with his promise, but was ‘a most appropriate subject on which to be seen instructing the new emperor.’[176]  The importance of the Emperor is stressed to the entire system of Roman government very early in the De Clementia:

he [the Emperor] is the bond by which the commonwealth is united, the breath of life which these many thousands draw, who in their own strength would be only a burden to themselves and the prey of others if the great mind of the empire should be withdrawn…Such a calamity would be the destruction of the Roman peace, such a calamity will force the fortune of a mighty people to its downfall.[177]

This may seem an obvious assertion, but at the time Seneca was writing this was a daring stance.  The ancient and powerful families of Rome certainly expected at least an acknowledgement of Republican ideals, and there were fellow Stoics opposed to the Principate for its very nature.[178]  For Seneca, the most prominent Stoic of his time, to espouse the Empire and Emperor created a significant precedent.[179]  Griffin speculates as to why Seneca felt this way: ‘Seneca’s originality in defining De Clementia, like his provocative-ness in using rex, had its source in political realism which led him to reject both philosophical rigidity and political hypocrisy.’[180]  It may actually have been idealism rather than realism that led Seneca to postulate his perfect ruler—nothing in Seneca’s work indicates a desire for anything other than the principate.  He did seem to honour the position—if not always the man—as well, as indicated by his statement to Nero:

it is a mighty burden you have taken upon yourself; no one today talks of the deified Augustus or the early years of Tiberius Caesar, or seeks for any model he would have you copy other than yourself; the standard for your principate is the foretaste you have given.[181]


Other Stoics may indeed have opposed the principate, but it seems that Seneca truly felt it was the best system of government available. He was not the only Stoic to believe this, but was probably the most prominent: ‘Seneca …was in agreement with Stoic teachings in considering society to be most secure under a just king….’[182]  The word ‘just’ could as easily read ‘merciful’—it was a very early view of the social contract.  The position of ‘King’ was not license to act without repercussions.  Seneca thought that  ‘Nature herself conceived the idea of the king…’[183]  Nature meant to Seneca, of course, the divine—he thought not that a King was the best possible system men had created, but rather the ideal system created by God/Nature.

Seneca claims in Book Two to have had inspiration in this book from a single utterance of Nero’s: ‘How I wish that I had never learned to write!’[184]  Seneca’s successive rhetoric tends to sound overly flattering, the words of a pusillanimous sycophant.  This disregards, however, the system of positive reinforcement Seneca used for Nero’s education.  It seems heavy-handed and transparent—as indeed it is, but it is the profuse praise of an instructor for his favorite pupil, rather than the babblings of a toady currying favor with his more powerful master.  Seneca even says part of his system is to ensure ‘that what is now a natural impulse may become a principle.’[185]  This recurring idea of training, of ensuring the formation of principles, helps to show that Seneca’s purpose in returning to Rome was indeed to instruct his pupil.  The positive reinforcement was a balance to the negative—such as the illustration of bad rulers looked at above.

That Seneca considered mercy to be an inherently important quality in his instruction of the Emperor is stressed again and again.  He praises it with strong language: ‘Mercy, then, makes rulers not only more honoured, but safer, and is at the same time the glory of sovereign power and its surest protection.’[186]  He also maintains that ‘it is mercy that makes the distinction between a king and a tyrant’[187] and ‘the difference between a tyrant and a king is one of deeds, not of name…’[188] pointing out how many people Sulla needlessly killed as an example.  While at this point, he may not have suspected that Nero’s mercy would have had any bearing on his fortunes, his dealings with Claudius and Gaius probably would have kept the possibility in the back of his mind.

The idea of the ruler existing as part of an organic whole is stressed as well.  Seneca seemingly strives to impress upon Nero how important his actions are in relation to the rest of the realm.  ‘In the eyes of a ruler let no man count for so little that his destruction is not noted; be he what he may, he is part of the realm.’[189]  Combined with this is the thought that punishment must be extracted only when necessary—that cruelty has no place in an Emperor’s arsenal.  ‘No one resorts to the exaction of punishment until he has exhausted all the means of correction.  This is the duty of a father, and it is also the duty of a prince, whom not in empty flattery we have been led to call ‘the Father of the Country.’’[190]  Seneca’s conscious parallel of Prince and father here would later be more elaborately developed in De Beneficiis.

It is clear that some, if not all, of the lessons in De Clementia were lost on Nero.  The example of Augustus and Cinna[191] seems to have been completely disregarded by Nero after the Pisonian conspiracy, but there are a couple of factors that help to explain this.  Nero was much younger in 65 CE than was Augustus in 4 CE.  Cinna had plotted by himself; Nero felt surrounded by conspirators in the wake of Piso’s plotting.  It should not be discounted, either, that Nero may have considered how Augustus came to power—ruthlessly and bloodily—of more importance than how he remained.  Seneca had himself made the contrast—depicting the young Augustus as ‘hot-headed [and] flared up with anger’[192]in order to stress the mercy, but for the youthful Nero the real lesson may have been provided by his great-grandfather’s youthful actions.

How much Nero absorbed of the lessons is quite difficult to ascertain; far more noticeable were Seneca’s effort to train his pupil.  Seneca’s influence was definitive in some areas: Warmington observes that Nero’s interest in natural phenomena, such as discovering the source of the Nile or sounding the depth of Lake Alcyon, may have been imparted by Seneca.[193]  Seneca’s influence was more of a personal, less institutional nature, and the education he provided for Nero was typically Stoic.  When a prince is avenging a wrong-doing, for instance, Seneca cautions that he should ‘be slow in believing, to ferret out the truth, to befriend innocence….’[194]  Though the Pisonian conspiracy indicates Nero may have skipped this lesson, it does show that Seneca was attempting to mould Nero into an acceptable Emperor.  Seneca’s emphasis on Claudius’s cruelty[195] was another case where inappropriate behaviour by Nero’s three immediate predecessors was brought to his attention.  Seneca even trotted out one of his favorite analogies, albeit in a new context: ‘Numerous executions are not less discreditable to a prince than are numerous funerals to a physician….’[196]  If there was any doubt as to what he meant, Seneca later in the Epistles portrayed Stoics as doctors.

Unlike the Apocolocyntosis or especially De Clementia, the De Beneficiis is not always clear in purpose.  It meanders and appears to be largely subtext; it seems to have been written almost as stream-of-consciousness. Seneca stated his plan of organization but quickly departed from it.  It was written a bit later then the others, sometime between 59-63 CE, which provides some indication of a continuous attempt at education rather than one that died early on.  Seneca’s interest in the subject was not unique: ‘It is…only natural that any Stoic with an interest in ethics or political thought should have regarded questions about the role of good deeds in human societies as important.’[197]  The innovative element of the matter was a matter of perspective; Seneca’s talk of benefits was clearly meant for the influential and powerful.

The intended recipient of De Beneficiis is somewhat puzzling.  Seneca addresses Aebutius Liberalis as though he were a vastly important person, though the little that is known about him implies that he was a non-important provincial equestrian.  This contrasts greatly with Seneca’s usual addresses.  It may be reading too much into the words to assume that they were meant for Nero in addition to or instead of Aebutius Liberalis—on the other hand it has been speculated that: ‘Quite conceivably he was chosen as addressee of a work on acts of kindness simply because of his highly appropriate name, Liberalis.’[198]

Seneca argues that benefits given equal love returned.  It is a new approach, if read from Nero’s perspective, that promises safety and affection in return for the granting of favours.  This would be important for any Roman aristocrat of course, as all had clients and amici to whom this could relate.  If it was true for an eques or Senator, however, it was that much more relevant for the Princeps, whose clientele was the entire Empire and more.  Seneca had seen Gaius and Claudius each lose the goodwill they had established early in their reigns, and this was a pro-active attempt to steer Nero away from that course.  Seneca’s definition of ‘benefit’ leaves little doubt as to where he is aiming. ‘A benefit cannot possibly be touched by the hand; its province is the mind.’[199]  He envisages benefits as a sort of spiritual coinage, an invaluable favour earned by the giver.  He elaborates on this definition shortly after.  The passage takes on additional resonance when read as advice to the Emperor.

What then is a benefit? It is the act of a well-wisher who bestows joy and derives joy from the bestowal of it, and is inclined to do what he does from the prompting of his own will.  And so what counts is…the spirit of the action, because a benefit consists…in the intention of the giver or doer.[200]


Throughout the work there are many sections that seem to have Nero in mind; Seneca begins the work with basic, general advice.  He gives the kind of instruction that applies to a man of Aebutius Liberalis’s standing—Seneca, for instance, recommends choosing only those who are truly worthy to receive gifts.[201]  More importantly, he warns that merely giving gifts is not sufficient:

Many men we find ungrateful, but more we make so, because at one time we are harsh in our reproaches and demands, at another, are fickle and repent of our gift as soon as we have made it, at another are fault-finding…Thus we destroy all sense of gratitude, not only after we have given our benefits, but even while we are in the act of giving them.[202]


Seneca uses Tiberius as an example of one who gave benefits only grudgingly and thus ensured they were not benefits at all.[203]  For Seneca, the most important part of a benefit was not the monetary value but the corresponding esteem that came with it.  ‘A gift is not a benefit if the best part of it is lacking the fact that it was given as a mark of esteem.’[204]

Seneca continues to spell out in great detail factors that would help train a young man.  He stresses that a benefit given too late may as well not be given at all.[205]  He points out that ‘there are very many who by the harshness of their words and by their arrogance make their benefits hateful, so that, after being subjected to such language and disdain, we regret that we have obtained them.’[206]  The nature of some of the instructions throughout the treatise is general: ‘There is no fickleness in leaving a wrong course when it has been recognized as such and condemned….’[207]  This is an important quality that Seneca perhaps would have seen lacking in Gaius and Claudius.  Another possible reference to Gaius is Seneca’s claim that one does not owe anything—including gratitude—to bloodthirsty tyrants.[208]  Seneca goes so far as to claim that there is nothing a tyrant can give that would justify any sort of gratitude at all.  The warning to Nero is implicit.

In short, this is a guidebook to ruling, in which Seneca advocates a proactive system of reward.  Though the general advice is relevant to any Roman with clients or amici, several sections in the work appear actually to address the young Princeps.  Seneca says to his addressee that he enjoys being able to ‘watch the expression of your face…’[209]  Some of his language sounds like a teacher instructing his pupil:  ‘You will come to see that what I am saying is not too bold, although at first it may not accord with your own ideas, if only you will give me your attention….’[210]  The description of riches[211] again conjures visions of Nero.  His address to Liberalis[212] again seems aimed at Nero rather than Liberalis.  Book Three uses several examples of how it is possible for a master to receive benefits from his slaves.  The parallels between Nero and Empire are hard to miss.  This works inversely as well, for Seneca had elsewhere argued that the Princeps could be considered the servant rather than the master.[213]  Many of these same instances had additionally been used earlier when he was directly addressing Nero in De Clementia.

The Spanish Stoic followed this with many demonstrations of how a father can receive benefits from his children.  With Nero’s titles including Pater Patriae—a title that Tiberius himself rejected—the parallels are once more clear.  Nero as father of the Empire had much to gain from the goodwill of the populace, Seneca seems to have argued.  Some believe, however, that there was a disastrous side-effect to this lesson.  ‘The popularity that Seneca had promised Nero was general, but the sort of favour that he was later encouraged to pursue led inevitably to the alienation of the more traditional upper class elements.’[214]  This is true to some extent, and a similar sentiment is expressed by Goddard: ‘Nero’s greatest mistake, in the end, was his failure to please those who would write the record of his reign.’[215]  However, this must be considered an unfortunate, unforeseen consequence and does not lessen the importance of the lesson being taught, particularly with Seneca’s memories of Gaius spurring him to ensure that history would not repeat itself.  Seneca had already addressed how the Emperor should treat, if not Senators, at least important men:  ‘[if] mercy should be shown even to captives and purchased slaves,  with how much more justice do they require that free, free-born, and reputable men should not be treated as mere chattels[?]…’[216]

Much of the tutor/pupil relationship alluded to in his writing may have arisen unconsciously.  It certainly was not beyond Seneca’s writing abilities to layer his text with multiple meanings.  There were other examples of parallel relationships.  Seneca recalls Diogenes’ subtle opposition to Alexander III, claiming ‘what Diogenes refused was even more than Alexander was able to give.’[217]  Diogenes was not Aristotle,[218] yet he was a philosopher who spoke his mind to a King with absolute power.  Particularly relevant to the Stoic’s relationship with his pupil is the description of the debt owed to the physician/teacher by his pupils.[219]  Near the end of the work, Seneca admonishes: ‘thus it is that you have no longer any veneration for your teacher….’[220]  Book 4 argues that if an ancestor acts nobly and well, their progeny will reap the benefits.  For Nero, the last of his line and with no male heir yet, this would have been a telling point.

It may be reading too much into the work to assume that everything that could possibly be meant for Nero truly was.  If Seneca meant it for Nero, why would he not simply have addressed it thus?  There are clearly enough instances, however, to see how very likely it is that De Beneficiis stands as part of the corpus Seneca was constructing to train the young Emperor.  The message in De Beneficiis is slightly obscured by the meandering and parenthetical nature of the work, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that its ultimate purpose was meant to convince Nero that in order to become successful, he would have to ensure the love of the people.  If Seneca failed in anything, it was in making clear that the people included the base plebeians as well as the patrician class.  Nero had widespread support, but as Rubies noted:  ‘[It was] not that Nero did not have any appeal—but he appealed to the mob, and the Greeks, rather than the senatorial class.’[221]

These three books, therefore, provide an indication that Seneca dedicated his life to Stoic instruction, at least since his return from Corsica.  The sources largely confirm this theory;[222] the overall impression is unmistakable.  It is ironic that his philosophic tendencies are dismissed because they were applied to a political context, when that context was precisely what allowed the tendencies to be so successful.  Nero’s reign had its share of atrocities and calamities, to be sure, but no more than any other Emperor.  Seneca was far from the only person responsible for the successes and struggles of Nero’s regime, but he was possibly the most important one.

From his return to the Roman Court until his eventual retirement, Seneca strove to run the Empire according to his principles and to train Nero in those same principles.  The questions concerning his status as a politician versus his status as a philosopher, as well as his potential hypocrisy have obfuscated the issue, but it is clear from his words and his deeds that Seneca’s return and subsequent involvement in running the Empire had always at their base a Stoic source.  His words and actions point to the same thing—Seneca meant to run Rome as close to Stoic ideals as possible and training Nero to adopt those ideals was vital to his efforts.  Seneca’s participation lasted as long as his life and did not, in fact, end with his retirement—it ended with his enforced suicide.



Seneca, both his brothers and his nephew all committed suicide in 65.  It is not certain whether this implies that the entire family had been involved in the Pisonian conspiracy or whether it was an indication of Nero’s overwhelming paranoia.[223]

It was an end that Seneca was well prepared for.  He had twice[224] cited a line from Virgil:[225] ‘I’ve lived; my destined course I now have run.’  In an extended analysis of Seneca and his view’s on suicide, Timothy Hill concludes that Seneca’s suicide was an extreme act of futility:

Seneca is in particular concerned with the ability of the individual to preserve his or her capacity for ethical action when confronted by the overwhelming power of a tyrant.  Seneca seems to see the confrontation of the individual and the absolute ruler as ethically paradigmatic, and his pages are accordingly filled with reiteration upon reiteration of the fundamental clash between the powerless individual and the overwhelming authority of the absolute ruler….[226]


Though compelling, this view disregards many important factors.  It is uncertain whether, even after being ordered to his death, Seneca would have seen Nero as a tyrant of the likes of Gaius or Cambyses.  Seneca’s innocence in the Pisonian affair cannot likewise be assumed.  It would be exceedingly valuable to know how much he participated, of course, especially considering the charge that Seneca himself was to replace Nero as Princeps,[227] but it simply seems impossible to ascertain.  My sentiment that Seneca’s suicide was his final lesson for Nero is, I think, born out, by Tacitus’ account:

Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion’s refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship. At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. “Where,” he asked again and again, “are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come?”[228]



Perhaps stating that the lesson was meant for Nero only would be neglecting too many others—Seneca would have had his wife, friends, and quite likely posterity in mind. After so many years of instruction for Nero, however, Seneca surely would have had him in mind.  The idea that his greatest possession was the pattern of his life, speaks volumes concerning how he viewed his legacy.  Seneca’s death speech may be fictional, but Tacitus apparently had access to Seneca’s last words as dictated to his secretaries.[229]  Assuming the events recorded in the Annals are even a vague paraphrase of the events, the message of Seneca’s death seems to have harmonized and collaborated with the message of his life.



I have suggested that a sign of Seneca’s success is that Nero’s reign was actually much better than is portrayed by the sources.  Seneca’s efforts at training Nero seem to have ended in failure: considering Seneca’s retirement in 62,[230] often meant to show he had given up on Nero, his suicide in 65 and Nero’s own following a few years later in 68 CE.  It is misleading, however, to rely on Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio and their sources because they give an impression of Nero’s reign that does not necessarily match the reality.  In the case of Tacitus, at least, it does not seem completely appropriate for him to criticize a wealthy Senator, whose writings were obsessed with morality, and who progressed under and at times even helped guide a corrupt emperor.[231]  On the other hand, without their written accounts there would not be much known at all.  Though I believe that the reality of Nero’s Rome was less dreadful than has been conventionally conceived, and I would suggest that this is largely due to the efforts of Seneca, the point is perhaps moot.  Had Nero ignored every single part of Seneca’s advice, it would not have meant that Seneca was not imparting it, though it may have cast aspersions on the effectiveness of his recommendations.  Seneca’s writings and actions are unambiguous—his intentions were clear and consistent.  I would suggest the reason why Seneca’s actions have been assessed so diversely is largely due to inaccuracies or partiality in the written sources.

The indication, as I alluded to in my opening paragraph, is certainly that Nero alienated the elite of Rome.  If this is true, it was not for lack of trying.  There is varying evidence, from numismatic to literary, that attests to Nero’s respectful platitudes and efforts at the beginning of his reign towards the Senate.  ‘The Princeps could only satisfy upper class sentiment by perpetual, exhausting, and often thankless effort…it shows how great were his efforts in the early years and what it would have cost to maintain them.’[232]  Even the hostile sources are not consistent in their portrayal of Nero as a monster.  Suetonius remarks: ‘It is strange how amazingly tolerant Nero seemed to be on the insults that everyone cast at him in the form of jokes and lampoons.’[233]

The view of Seneca as an unheeded, unneeded voice of reason goes back to at least The Octavia.[234]  This may have been written before the Flavian historians really started demonizing Nero, but it was nevertheless written after Nero was declared an enemy of the people and condemned to damatio memoriae.  Though it precedes much of the bias, it does not predate it all.  More interestingly, Seneca is portrayed as a voice of reason, however ineffective.[235]  Seneca was, it turned out, completely correct in his claim that ‘mercy enhances not only a ruler’s honour, but his safety.’[236]  The warnings of safety provided apt foreshadowing to the events of 68 that led to Nero’s death.

This process would have been continuous and there are conceivably thousands of examples not captured by Tacitus or Suetonius or in works no longer extant.  Little is heard about the six years that Seneca tutored Nero before Claudius’s death, but there is no reason to think Seneca was not using the time to shape his young protégé.   Fresh from his exile, Seneca would have had every reason to mold Nero into something more morally sound than Claudius or Gaius.  The state of the Empire under Nero did, for many years, match the principles that Seneca espoused; revealing that Seneca’s attempts at teaching Nero Stoic ideals were initially largely successful.   Whatever the reasons for their falling out and the move away from the promising beginning, it seems clear that the tutor did not suddenly stop teaching the pupil, though the pupil may very well have suddenly stopped listening to the tutor.   It would be an overstatement to call Nero’s reign a philosophical experiment, but there is some element of truth in it.  Seneca had seen absolute power corrupt absolutely, and using principles rooted in Stoicism, he tried to ensure it would not happen again.  The ultimate failure of this experiment resulted in the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but Seneca’s efforts gave it as good a chance to survive as anything could have.

Works Cited


Ancient Sources


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Edward Arnold, 1929. 

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Plutarch.  Life of Demetrius.  Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert.  London:

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[1] Suetonius Life of Claudius 29.

[2] Thrasea Paetus walked out of the senate in protest when thanks were being offered for Nero’s safe delivery from Agrippina (Tacitus Annals 16.21.1) and from 63-66 was retired from political life.

[3] Seneca Epistle 18.

[4] Seneca Epistle 56.

[5] Seneca Epistle 87.

[6] Seneca De Beneficiis 5.12.1-2

[7] Exemplified by the example of the trees in De Providentia 4.16.

[8] Seneca De Providentia 6.1.

[9] Seneca De Providentia 16.5, 17.1.

[10] Brad Inwood Moral Judgment in Seneca 78.

[11] Paul Veyne.  Seneca: The Life of a Stoic 112.

[12] Mark Moreford.  ‘The Training of three Roman Emperors’ 58.

[13] F. A. Lepper, ‘Some reflections on the Quinquennium Neronia’ 101.

[14] This is debatable, but considering the Emperors of 69 CE and the Flavians, none of whom relied upon the Senate for their authority, the support of the Senate was clearly less important for Nero than for his grandfather.

[15] Miriam Griffin Seneca 11.

[16] Seneca Epistle 57.3.

[17] Seneca De Ira 3.26.4.

[18] Anan Motto Seneca 55.

[19] Seneca did frequently stress the need to be consistent; see Epistles: 34.4, 35.4, and 120.9.


[20] Griffin Seneca 7.  This need to divide Seneca into parts—in this case into a philosopher/writer—is repeated by Griffin and others and causes some misleading assumptions in the modern scholarship—I will address this shortly in my examination of the modern consensus on Seneca.

[21] Seneca De Beneficiis 2.5.1.

[22] Juvenal Satires 5.109.

[23] Griffin Seneca 62.

[24] See in particular Aristophanes The Clouds compared to Xenophon’s Memorabilia or Plato’s Apology.

[25] Suetonius Nero 52.

[26] Dio Cassius Roman History 61.10.4.

[27] Seneca’s revival of laws that had originally passed in 204 BCE and were revived by Augustus in 17 BCE forbade fees for services by advocates, see Tacitus Annals 13.42.

[28] Tacitus Annals 14.52-56.

[29] In addition to whatever countermeasures Seneca enacted verbally and through his clientage, he published his defense in De Vita Beata (23.1).  In addition, book five of De Beneficiis also seems in part an attempt to defend the practice of charging high-interest rates in Britain and elsewhere.

[30] Tacitus Annals 15.45.

[31] Motto Seneca 15.

[32] H.B.Timothy The Tenants of Stoicism 1.

[33] Moreford 60.

[34] Suetonius Nero 6.

[35] Dio 61.10.

[36] Fronto Correspondence 155.1-3.

[37] Sandbach The Stoics 161.

[38] Sorensen Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero 134.

[39] Lepper 101.

[40] Robin Campbell Seneca: Letters from a Stoic 14.

[41] Richard Gummere Seneca the Philosopher and his Modern Message 7.

[42] Veyne 10-11.

[43] See Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca: Stoic Philosophy at Rome or  ‘Seneca in His Philosophical Milieu.’

[44] Seneca Ad Marciam, De Consolatione 14.3.

[45] Seneca Ad Helviam matrem, De Consolatione 9.7.

[46] Sorenson 144.

[47] Quintillian Institutio Oratoria 10.1.126-31.

[48] Greenhalgh, The Year of the Four Emperors 5.

[49] Griffin Nero 47.

[50] Griffin Seneca 182.

[51] Cooper and Procope Seneca: Moral and Political Essays xxv.

[52] Sancbach 152.

[53] Veyne 14.

[54] Seneca Epistle 100.

[55] Seneca Epistle 108.

[56] Colish The Stoic Tradition From Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages 48.

[57] Brunt in ‘Stoicism and the Principate’ 7 notes that ‘eclecticism was the mode’ for most Stoics.

[58] Colish 4.

[59] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.3.1, 7.8.2.  This shift is not altogether surprising, considering that Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, began his studies as a Cynic.

[60] Seneca Naturales Quaestiones 1.

[61] Though Seneca himself dismissed Epicureans as ‘an effeminate, sheltered set who philosophize over their cups…’ Seneca De Beneficiis 4.2.1.

[62] Griffin Nero 172.

[63] Seneca Epistle 88.

[64] Seneca Apocolocyntosis 8.5.2.

[65] For more on Heraclitus and the Pre-Socratics, see Burnet, John, Early Greek Philosophy or Kirk, G.S., Raven, J.E. & Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers.

[66] Such as that mentioned by Marcus Aurelius in Meditations 2.1.

[67] Veyne 119.

[68] Seneca Epistle 58.15.

[69] Griffin sees this as having a strong political-legal connection, i.e. in legal cases involving the elite.

[70] Veyne 94-5.

[71] Marcus Wilson ‘The subjugation of grief in Seneca’s Epistles’ in Braund and Gill The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature.

[72] Seneca De Ira 1.6.2.

[73] Seneca De Clementia 1.3.2.

[74] Seneca De Clementia 1.22.2.

[75] Sorensen 133.

[76] Seneca De Beneficiis 4.7.1-2.

[77] Tacitus’ account, of course, has not yet been re-discovered.

[78] Suetonius Caligula 53.2.

[79] Dio 59.19.

[80] See especially 1.20.8-9 2.33.3, 3.18.3-4, and  3.19.

[81] Seneca De Tranquillitate Animi 15.1.

[82] Seneca Ad Helviam matrem, De consolatione 10.

[83] Suetonius Caligula 43.

[84] Dio 59.22.

[85] Dio 59.22.

[86] For far more on this subject, see Zeph Stewart’s ‘Sejanus, Gaetulicus, and Seneca.’

[87] Though there may well have been a Stoic opposition—Sorensen writes, ‘As Caligula was carrying out an energetic purge of the intellectuals, it was in their interest to bring him down, an interest which it was possible to justify by means of Stoic philosophy’ (97).

[88] Veyne 158.

[89] Dio 60.8.

[90] Tacitus Annals 12.8.

[91] Seneca De Otio 3.3.

[92] Suetonius Nero 49.

[93] Though Nero is traditionally portrayed as cowardly in his final act, his last words could just as easily be conceived of as witty or droll.

[94] Dio 61.10.2.

[95] As pointed out by Scullard in From the Gracchi to Nero 304.

[96] Griffin Nero 193-196.

[97] Wiedemann The Julio-Claudian Emperors 56.

[98] See ‘Nero at Play’ in Reflections of Nero: culture, history, & representation.

[99] Griffin Nero 45.

[100] Griffin Nero 47.

[101] Rudich Political Dissendence Under Nero xvii.

[102] Elsner and Masters Reflections of Nero: Culture, History, & Representation 1.

[103] Griffin Nero 112.

[104] Suetonius Nero 20-22.

[105] It is possible that using Fabius Rusticus who was bitter at having seen his patron sentenced to death, helped to begin the anti-Nero bias.  This would have been elaborated upon by Pliny, Tacitus, and other Flavian historians.  If so, it would mark a true irony that Seneca’s death, which he likely prided himself on, led to a large degree to the portrayal of his protégé as a monster.

[106] See RIC vol 1 2nd ed Plate 39.17,18;  Plate 42.6.

[107] Wiedemann 56.  See RIC vol 1 2nd ed Plate 38.1-5.

[108] Pliny Historia Naturalis 33.13.47.

[109] Suetonius Nero 57.

[110] Suetonius Otho 7.

[111] Suetonius Nero 57.

[112] As argued in ‘The middle years of Nero’s reign.’

[113] As argued in ‘Some reflections on the Quinquennium Neronia.’

[114] Aurelius Victor Epitome de Caesaribus.


[115] Plutarch Life of Alexander 7.

[116] Plutarch Life of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus.

[117] Cicero Laelius de Amicitia.

[118] Cicero Brutus 309.

[119] The exception is Alexander, and Aristotle did not accompany his pupil to war.  His nephew, Callisthenes, did and was rewarded by Alexander for his efforts by being executed in 328 BCE.  See Arrian Anabasis 4.14.

[120] Tacitus Annals 13.3.

[121] Gummere Seneca the Philosopher and his Modern Message 46.

[122] Plutarch Life of Tiberius Gracchus.

[123] Tacitus Annals 14.16.

[124] Lepper 101.

[125] Moreford 58.

[126] Griffin Seneca 75-76.  She examines his role in the Senate and argues that Seneca must not have spent much time there.

[127] Tacitus Annals 13.30.2.  Though his history is lost, Tacitus alludes to it in positive terms.

[128] For more on their friendship see Pliny Historia Naturalis 22.96; Tacitus Annals 12.13.

[129] Colish 250.

[130] Gummere 24.

[131] Stewart ‘Sejanus, Gaetulicus and Seneca’ as well as Griffin Seneca 45-48.

[132] As T.K. Roper capably argues in ‘Nero, Seneca and Tigellinus’.  See also Wiedemann 59.

[133] Griffin Nero 78-79.

[134] Griffin Nero 79.

[135] Tacitus Annals 13.1.

[136] Rudich 16.

[137] Seneca De Clementia 2.1.1.

[138] Tacitus Annals 13.20.

[139] Warmington Nero: Reality and Legend 28-9.

[140] Tacitus Annals 13.1.

[141] Zaph Stewart in ‘Sejanus, Gaetulicus and Seneca” 84 advances his own theory on the matter—that the two had been allies for nearly 15 years.

[142] As policy in the latter years of Claudius’s reign may very well have been based on Agrippina’s decisions.  See Tacitus Annals 13.5, where Agrippina is shown protesting a change to Claudius’s policy at the very beginning of Nero’s reign.

[143] Tacitus Annals 13.14.

[144] It is likely that Seneca did approve of Pallas’s dismissal, as he was placing hand-picked men in key positions.

[145] Tacitus Annals 13.5.

[146] Tacitus Annals 13.16.

[147] Tacitus Annals 14.9.

[148] Tacitus Annals13.20.

[149] Tacitus Annals 14.7.

[150] Veyne 21.

[151] Motto 28.

[152] Griffin Seneca 78.

[153] See Alexis Dawson ‘Whatever happened to Lady Agrippina?’ This has influenced my thinking to the degree that I remain highly skeptical of stories containing collapsing boats, drunken swimming, and completely unjustified matricide, but many of Rawson’s further speculations seem to be just that: pure speculation.

[154] I hope I have not made the mistake of believing Tacitus and Suetonius where convenient and dismissing them where it is not.  The narratives are unbelievable in their account of the death of Agrippina—though I do not feel it subtracts from their use in other instances.

[155] As pointed out by Wiedemann 58.

[156] Griffin Nero 80.

[157] As argued in the article ‘The Inventio of Nero.’

[158] Rubies 41.

[159] Inwood Moral Judgment in Seneca 77.  See also Griffin’s comments on the De Clementia being about the iudex—a reference to Claudius’ activities as judge and the subsequent resentment that was engendered.

[160] Tacitus Annals 13.3.

[161] Sandbach 151.

[162] Rudich 7.

[163] Tacitus Annals 12.8.

[164] In addition, as Dio suggested, it is possible that Messalina—not Claudius—was the force behind Seneca’s exile.

[165] Eden 13.

[166] Griffin Nero 53.

[167] See page 21 above.

[168] Seneca De Beneficiis 2.12.1-2.

[169] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.2.5.

[170] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.3.1.

[171] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.3.1.

[172] Griffin Nero 104.

[173] Some historians try to date this work before the death of Britannicus due to Seneca’s claim that Nero had not shed a drop of blood.  Considering that Britannicus’ death may be equally attributed to Agrippina, epilepsy, or some other unknown factor, there is no need to assume that Tacitus and Suetonius are correct in stating that Nero caused his step-brother’s death.  It would therefore have been written in either December 55 or sometime in 56 CE.

[174] This could almost be seen as part of a series with the De Ira, which had a similar function—advice on how to rule well—but was meant primarily to instruct Novatus not to take advantage of his position as governor of Achaea.

[175] Cooper and Procope 120.  Though Caesar certainly emphasized his clemency, this virtue really gained import in the Hellenic world since the Wars of the Diadochi.  The competing acts of clementia shown by Demetrius and Ptolemy in Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius, for instance, reveal these tendencies.

[176] Cooper and Procope 121.

[177] Seneca De Clementia 1.4.1-2.

[178] For a discussion on Stoic opposition to the principate, see Griffin Nero 171-177.

[179] Later Emperors in Rome—beginning with the Five Good Emperors—would take for granted what Seneca was formulating a century before Marcus Aurelius died.

[180] Griffin Seneca 170.

[181] Seneca De Clementia 1.1.6.

[182] Sorenson 151.

[183] Seneca De Clementia 1.19.2.

[184] Seneca De Clementia 2 1.1; Suetonius Nero 10.

[185] Seneca De Clementia 2.2.2.

[186] Seneca De Clementia 1.11.4.

[187] Seneca De Clementia 1.12.3.

[188] Seneca De Clementia 1.12.1.

[189] Seneca De Clementia 1.16.2.

[190] Seneca De Clementia 1.14.2.

[191] Seneca De Clementia 1.9.

[192] Seneca De Clementia 1.11.1.

[193] Warmington 27.

[194] Seneca De Clementia 1.20.2.

[195] Seneca De Clementia 1.23.1.

[196] Seneca De Clementia 1.24.2.

[197] Inwood, Seneca’s De Beneficiis 68.

[198] Cooper and Procope 183.

[199] Seneca De Beneficiis 1.5.1.

[200] Seneca De Beneficiis 1.6.1.

[201] Seneca De Beneficiis 1.1.2.

[202] Seneca De Beneficiis 1.1.4.

[203] Seneca De Beneficiis 2.7.2-3.

[204] Seneca De Beneficiis 1.15.6.

[205] Seneca De Beneficiis 2.2.1.

[206] Seneca De Beneficiis 2. 4.1.

[207] Seneca De Beneficiis 4.38.1.

[208] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.19.7-9.

[209] Seneca De Beneficiis 6.1.1.

[210] Seneca De Beneficiis 2.34.2.

[211] Seneca De Beneficiis 6.3.2-4.

[212] Seneca De Beneficiis 6.42.1.

[213] Seneca De Clementia 8.1.2.

[214] Griffin Nero 112.

[215] Goddard 79.

[216] Seneca De Clementia 18.1-2.

[217] Seneca De Beneficiis 5.4.4.

[218] This would admittedly be a more analogous relationship.  The story may well be apocryphal, but Seneca uses it as a fable with a moral lesson rather than a valid historical instance.

[219] Seneca De Beneficiis 6.16.1-4.

[220] Seneca De Beneficiis 7.28.2.

[221] Rubies 38.

[222] Though there are of course some exceptions; for instance, the Lady Agrippina’s death as discussed in Chapter 3, pages 33-36 above.

[223] Nero’s actions and attitude in 65 foreshadow Domitian, who had famously said: ‘the situation of emperors was a most wretched one, for everyone thought that their suspicions of conspiracy were groundless until they were killed.’ Suetonius Domitian 21.

[224] Seneca De Beneficiis 5.17.5,; Seneca De Vita Beata 19.1.7.

[225] Virgil Aenid 4.653.

[226] Hill Ambitiosa Mors 153.

[227] Tacitus Annals 16.65.

[228] For a full account of Seneca’s death, see Tacitus Annals 15.60-64.

[229] Tacitus Annals 15.63.

[230] This was at traditional age for retirement of 65 years.  See Wiedemann’s comments 59.

[231] See for instance Brian Jones’ observations in The Emperor Domitian.

[232] Griffin Nero 94.

[233] Suetonius Nero 39.

[234] The Octavia was most likely written sometime between 70-100 CE . The exchange between Seneca and Nero on pages 274-5 is fitting:  Nero responds to Seneca’s pleadings for justice with ‘Let him be just who has no need to fear.’

[235] The accuracy of the portrayal of Seneca does vary:  it also quickly has him exclaim: ‘Happier far/was my retreat upon the rocky shores/of Corsica….’ 271.

[236] Seneca De Clementia 2.4.

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