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LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA (c. 3 B.C.—A.D....

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Originally appearing in Volume V24, Page 638 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA (c. 3 B.C.—A.D. 65), statesman and philosopher, was the second son of the rhetorician. His teachers were Attalus, a Stoic, and Sotion, a pupil of the Sextii. In his youth he was a vegetarian and a water-drinker, but his father checked his indulgence in asceticism. He devoted himself to rhetorical and philosophical studies and early won a reputation at the bar. Gaius criticised his style as mere mosaic (commissuras meras) or " sand without lime," yet being in reality jealous of his successes he would have put him to death had he not been assured that he was too consumptive to live long (Suet. Calig. 63; Dio Cassius lix. 19. 7). Under Claudius his political career (he had been quaestor) received a sudden check, for the influence of Messallina having effected the ruin of Julia, the sister of Gaius, Seneca, who was compromised by her downfall, was banished to Corsica, A.D. 41. There eight weary years of waiting were relieved by study and authorship, with occasional attempts to procure his return by such gross flattery of Claudius as is found in the work Ad Polybium de consolatione or the panegyric on Messallina which he afterwards suppressed. At length the tide turned; the next empress, Agrippina, had him recalled, appointed praetor, and entrusted with the education of her son Nero, then (48) eleven years old. Seneca became in fact Agrippina's confidential adviser; and his pupil's accession increased his power. He was consul in 57, and during the first bright years of the new reign, the quinquennium Neronis, he shared the administration of affairs with Burrus, the praetorian prefect. The government in the hands of these men was wise and humane; their influence over Nero, while it lasted, was salutary, though some-times maintained by doubtful means (see NERO). We must, however, regard the general tendency of Seneca's measures; to judge him as a Stoic philosopher by the counsels of perfection laid down in his writings would be much the same thing as to apply the standard of New Testament morality to the career of a Wolsey or Mazarin. He is the type of the man of letters who rises into favour by talent and suppleness (comitas honesta), and is entitled as such to the rare credit of a beneficent rule. In course of time Nero got to dislike him more and more; the death of Burrus in 62 gave a shock to his position. In vain did he petition for permission to retire. Even when he had sought privacy on the plea of ill-health he could not avert his doom; on a charge of being concerned in Piso's conspiracy he was forced to commit _suicide. His manly end might be held in some measure to redeem the weakness of his life but for the testimony it bears to his constant study of effect and ostentatious self-complacency. His second wife, Pompeia Paulina, of noble family, attempted to die with him. His enormous wealth was estimated at 300 millions of sesterces. He had Soo ivory tables inlaid with citron wood (Dio lxi. 10, lxii. 2). Some of the Fathers, probably in admiration of his ethics, reckoned Seneca among the Christians; this assumption in its turn led to the forgery of a correspondence between St Paul and Seneca which was known to Jerome (cf. Augustin, Ep. 153: " Seneca . . . cujus etiam ad Paulum apostolum leguntur epistolae "). This has given rise to an interesting historical problem, most thoroughly discussed in many works on the Church in the Roman Empire. Seneca is at once the most eminent among the Latin writers of the Silver Age and in a special sense their representative, not least because he was the originator of a false style. The affected and sentimental manner which gradually grew up in the first century A.D. became ingrained in him, and appears equally in everything which he wrote, whether poetry or prose, as the most finished pro-duct of ingenuity concentrated upon declamatory exercises, sub-stance being sacrificed to form and thought to point. Every variety of rhetorical conceit in turn contributes to the dazzling effect, now tinsel and ornament, now novelty and versatility of treatment, or affected simplicity and studied absence of plan. But the chief weapon is the epigram (sententia), summing up in terse incisive antithesis the gist of a whole period. " Seneca is a man of real genius," writes Niebuhr, " which is after all the main thing; not to be unjust to him, one must know the whole range of that literature to which he belonged and realize how well he understood the art of making something even of what was most absurd." His works were upon various subjects. (1) His Orations, probably the speeches which Nero delivered, are lost, as also a biography of his father, and (2) his earlier scientific works, such as the monographs describing India and Egypt and one upon earthquakes (Nat. Qu. vi. 4. 2). The seven extant books of Physical Investigations (Naturales Quaestiones; trans. John Clarke, with introd. by Sir Archibald Geikie, 1910) treat in a popular manner of meteorology and astronomy; the work has little scientific merit, yet here and there Seneca, or his authority, has a shrewd guess, e.g. that there is a connexion between earthquakes and volcanoes, and that comets are bodies like the planets revolving in fixed orbits. (3) The Satire on the Death (and deification, literally " pumpkinification ") of Claudius (ed. Biicheler, Berlin, 1882) is a specimen of the " satira Menippea " or medley of prose and verse. The writer's spite against the dead emperor before whom he had cringed servilely shows in a sorry fashion when he fastens on the wise and liberal measure of conferring the franchise upon Gaulish nobles as a theme for abuse. (4) The remaining prose works are of the nature of moral essays, bearing various titles—twelve so-called Dialogues, three books On Clemency dedicated to Nero, seven On Benefits, twenty books of Letters to Lucilius (ed. Hense, Leipzig, 1898; W. C. Summers published a selection in 1910). They are all alike in discussing practical questions and in addressing a single reader in a tone of familiar conversation, the objections he is supposed to make being occasionally cited and answered. Seneca had the wit to discover that conduct, which is after all " three-fourths of life," could furnish inexhaustible topics of abiding universal interest far superior to the imaginary themes set in the schools and abundantly analysed in his father's Controversiae and Suasoriae, such as poisoning cases, or tyrannicide, or even historical persons like Hannibal and Sulla. The innovation took the public taste,—plain matters of urgent personal concern sometimes treated casuistically, sometimes in a liberal vein with serious divergence from the orthodox standards, but always with an earnestness which aimed directly at the reader's edification, progress towards virtue and general moral improvement. The essays are in fact Stoic sermons; for the creed of the later Stoics had become less of a philosophical system and more of a religion, especially at Rome, where moral and theological doctrines alone attracted lively interest. The school is remarkable for its anticipation of modern ethical conceptions, for the lofty morality of its exhortations to forgive injuries and overcome evil with good; the obligation to universal benevolence had been deduced from the cosmopolitan principle that all men are brethren. In Seneca, in addition to all this, there is a distinctively religious temperament, which finds expression in phrases curiously suggestive of the spiritual doctrines of Christianity. Yet the verbal coincidence is sometimes a mere accident, as when he uses sacer Spiritus; and in the same writings he sometimes advocates what is wholly repulsive to Christian feeling, as the duty and privilege of suicide. In the tragedies which bear Seneca's name (Hercules Furens, Thyestes, Phoenissae, Phaedra, Oedipus, Troades, Medea, Agamemno, Hercules Oetaeus) the defects of his prose style are exaggerated: as specimens of pompous rant they are probably unequalled; and the rhythm is unpleasant owing to the monotonous structure of the iambics and the neglect of synapheia in the anapaestic systems. The praetexta Octavia, also ascribed to him, contains plain allusions to Nero's end, and must therefore be the product of a later hand. The doubt as to his authorship of the tragedies is due to a blunder of Sidonius Apollinaris (ix. 229-231); against it must be set Quintilian's testimony (" ut Medea apud Senecam," ix. 2. 8). The judgment of Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 4, 13, 42 sq., xiv. 52-56, xv. 6o sq.) is more favourable than that of Dio, who may possibly derive his account from the slanders of some personal enemy like Suilius. At least eighteen prose works have been lost, among them De superstitione, an attack upon the popular conceptions of the gods, and De matrimonio, which, to judge by the extant fragments, must have been interesting reading. Since Gellius (xii. 2. 3) cites a book xxii. of the Letters to Lucilius, some of these have been lost. The best text of the prose works, that of Haase in Teubner's series (1852), was re-edited in 1872–1874 and 1898. More recently Gertz has revised the text of Libri de beneficiis et de dementia (Berlin, 1876), H. A. Koch that of the Dialogorum libri xii. (completed by Vahlen, Jena, 1879), and Gertz the Dialogi (Copenhagen, 1886). There is no complete exegetical commentary, either English or German. Little has been done systematically since the notes of Lipsius and Gronovius. There is, however, Ruhkopf's ed. with Latin notes, 5 vols. (Leipzig, 1797–1811), and Lemaire's variorum ed. (Paris, 1827–1832, 8 vols., prose and verse). The text of the tragedies was edited by Peiper and Richter, 1867, 2nd ed. 1902, and by F. Leo (2 vols., Berlin, 1878–1879) ; verse trans. by F. J. Miller (Chicago and London, 1908). Nisard, Etudes de mceurs et de critique sus les pates de to decadence (4th ed., Paris, 1878), hascriticized them in detail. Of some 300 monographs enumerated in Engelmann may be mentioned, in addition to the above, G. Boissier, Les Tragedies de Seneque ont-ils iii representes ? (Paris, 1861); A. Dorgens, Senec. disciplinae moralis cum Antoniniana cornparatio (Leipzig, 1857) ; E. F. Gelpke, De Senec. vita et moribus (Bern, 1848) ; Holzherr, Der Philosoph Seneca (Rastadt, 1858). See also Sir S. Dill, Roman Society from_Nero to Marcus Aurelius (1904). (R. D. H.; X.)
End of Article: LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA (c. 3 B.C.—A.D. 65)
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