Lucius Annaeus Seneca (often known simply as Seneca) (ca. 4 BC – 65 AD) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work humorist, of the Silver Age of Latin literature. He was tutor and later advisor to emperor Nero. He was later forced to commit suicide for alleged complicity in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate this last of the Julio-Claudian emperors; he may have been innocent. His father was Seneca the Elder and his older brother was Gallio.
Miriam Griffin says in her standard modern biography of Seneca that “the evidence for Seneca’s life before his exile in 41 is so slight, and the potential interest of these years, for social history as well as for biography, is so great that few writers on Seneca have resisted the temptation to eke out knowledge with imagination.” It is thus necessary to regard what one reads as alleged fact with extreme skepticism.
Griffin infers from ancient sources that Seneca was born in either 8, 4, or 1 BC. She thinks he was born between 4 and 1 BC and was resident in Rome by 5 AD. Seneca says that he was carried to Rome in the arms of his mother’s stepsister. Griffin says that, allowing for rhetorical exaggeration, means “it is fair to conclude that Seneca was in Rome as a very small boy.”
His family was from Cordoba in Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula), and he may have been born there, although there is no documentary evidence for it. There is no way of knowing when the family came to Spain. According to Griffin, the family probably came from Etruria or the “area further east towards Illyria.” He was the second son of Helvia and Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder. His older brother, Gallio, became proconsul in the Roman province of Achaea. His younger brother Annaeus Mela’s son wasMarcus Annaeus Lucanus.
At Rome he was trained in rhetoric and was introduced to Hellenized Stoic philosophy by Attalus and Sotion. Seneca’s own writings describe his poor health. At some stage he was nursed by his aunt; as she was in Egypt from 16 to 31 AD, he must have at least visited and perhaps lived for a period in Hellenistic Egypt.
Seneca and his aunt returned to Rome in 31, and she helped him in his campaign for his first magistracy.
Caligula began his first year as emperor in 38, and there was a severe conflict between him and Seneca; the emperor is said to have spared his life only because he expected Seneca’s natural life to be near its end.
In 41, Claudius succeeded Caligula, and then, at the behest of his third wife Valeria Messalina, banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with Caligula’s sister Julia Livilla. Seneca spent his exile in philosophical and natural study (a life counseled by Roman Stoic thought) and wrote the Consolations, fulfilling a request for the text made by his sons for the sake of posterity. In 49, Claudius’ fourth wife Agrippina the Younger had Seneca recalled to Rome to tutor her sonNero, then 12 years old; on Claudius’ death in 54, she secured recognition of Nero, rather than Claudius’ son Britannicus, as emperor.
From 54 to 62, Seneca acted as Nero’s advisor, together with the praetorian prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus. Seneca’s influence was said to be especially strong in the first year. Many historians consider Nero’s early rule with Seneca and Burrus to be quite competent. However, over time, Seneca and Burrus lost their influence over Nero. In 59 they had reluctantly agreed to Agrippina’s murder, and afterward Seneca wrote a dishonest exculpation of Nero to the Senate. With the death of Burrus in 62 and accusations of embezzlement, Seneca retired and devoted his time again to study and writing.
There is also speculation in Peter Salway’s History of Roman Britain that Seneca had been involved in forcing large loans on the indigenous British aristocracy in the aftermath of Claudius’s Roman conquest of Britain, and then calling them in suddenly and aggressively. The suggestion is that this contributed to Boudica’s rebellion, and so possibly to his own fall.
In 65, Seneca was caught up in the aftermath of a plot to kill Nero. Although it is unlikely that he conspired, he was ordered by Nero to kill himself. He followed tradition by severing several veins in order to bleed to death, and his wife Pompeia Paulina attempted to share his fate. Tacitus (writing in Book XV, Chapters 60 through 64 of his Annals, a generation later, after the Julio-Claudian emperors) gives an account of the suicide, perhaps, in light of Tacitus’s Republican sympathies, somewhat romanticized. According to it, Nero ordered Seneca’s wife to be saved. Her wounds were bound up and she made no further attempt to kill herself. As for Seneca himself, his age and diet were blamed for slow loss of blood, and extended pain rather than a quick death; taking poison was also not fatal. After dictating his last words to a scribe, and with a circle of friends attending him in his home, he immersed himself in a warm bath, which was expected to speed blood flow and ease his pain. Tacitus, however, in his Annals of Imperial Rome says that Seneca suffocated by the water vapor rising from the bath. “He was then carried into a bath, with the steam of which he was suffocated, and he was burnt without any of the usual funeral rites. So he had directed in a codicil of his will, even when in the height of his wealth and power he was thinking of life’s close