During his retirement, Seneca’s major work was his Epistulae Morales
(`Moral Letters’), a collection of letters written to his younger friend
Lucilius Iunior, who was then governor of Sicily. They contain advice
and discussions of philosophical questions, often drawing on the
writer’s own experience.
In letter 56 Seneca describes to Lucilius the noise pollution he endures
living over a public bathhouse. A partial translation of this was included
in stage 10 of the Cambridge Latin Course. He argues that,
troublesome as the noise is, true inner calmness can defeat it .
Noise from weightlifters was one of the problems. The picture, from a
4th century A,.D. Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily, shows a female
practitioner of the sport.
Seneca writes that he was `finished’ when he heard the sound of a
ballplayer (pilīcrepus) counting his throws.
The unctiō plēbēia (`cheap massage’) Seneca mentions involved the
use of oil (unctiō is literally anointing) but seems to have been less
gentle than the one shown here
A lot of the noise probably may have come from a
palaestra (seen here) or hall next to the baths rather than
from the baths themselves
He refers at the end to how Ulysses dealt with the Sirens, whose
unbearably beautiful singing lured sailors to their death: he equipped
his crew with ear-plugs and had himself tied to the mast so that he
could listen but be unable to harm himself
Though accepting ideas from other traditions, Seneca, like many upper
class Romans and like the fictional Euphrosyne in Book IV of the
Cambridge Latin Course, was basically a Stoic and believed that true
happiness depended on the ability to accept any event with inner calmness,
not on the events themselves.
He believed in the divinity of nature itself rather than in the multiple gods of
popular belief. However, he accepted the value of prayer and his surviving
works do NOT contain the statement often nowadays attributed to him that
`Religion is considered by the many as true, by the wise as false and by
rulers as useful.’
He emphasised the importance of living a virtuous life but accepted the
possibility that death could mean just the ending of conscious existence –
not to be feared because this was also our state before we were born.
Though arguing that one should not allow oneself to become attached to
anything that could be lost, he stressed the importance of affection for
friends and children and also of laughter.
Whilst not an advocate of human rights in the modern sense, he recognised
the humanity of slaves and argued for treating them humanely (see next
(Epist. Mor. 47.10)
• Vīs tū cogitāre istum quem servum tuum vocās ex īsdem
sēminibus ortum eōdem fruī caelō, aeque spīrāre, aequē
vīvere, aequē morī! tam tū illum vidēre ingenuum potes
quam ille tē servum.Vīve cum servō clementer, comiter
quoque, et in sermōnem illum admitte et in cōnsilium et
in convīctum.
• Will you reflect that the man you call your slave comes
from the same seed, enjoys the same sky, lives and dies
just as you do! You can see the freeman in him just as
he can see the slave in you. Be kind and also affable in
your dealings with a slave, admit him to your
conversation, your plans and your dinner-table.
• Seneca’s work, which included essay as on various
philosophical topics as well as his plays and the Letters to
Lucilius, was intended to be read by (or to) the public. His
letters are thus crucially different from from those of
Cicero which were never intended for publication.
• His writing tends to avoid the `periods’ (long, complex
sentences) found in Livy and other Earlier prose writers.
• He is always trying to impress with clever statements, a
feature which some critics have found annoying:
– Fronto, tutor to the 2nd.century emperor Marcus Aurelius,
compared Seneca to a diner who threw olives into the air and
caught them in his mouth.
– The 19th century British historian Lord Macaulay complained `I
cannot bear Seneca….His works are made up of mottoes. There
is hardly a sentence which might not be quoted but to read him
straightforward is like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce (鳀魚
醬 ).’
In 64 B.C., a fire destroyed a large area of the city of Rome and Nero took advantage of
this to start construction of a huge new palace (the `Domus Aurea’) though he also
directed relief work and promoted rebuilding of the rest of the city on safer lines. There
were rumours that Nero himself had started the blaze deliberately but Nero put the blame
on Rome’s small Christian community and is said by the historian Tacitus to have even
burned Christians alive as human torches.
In 65 B.C. a conspiracy against Nero was discovered and Seneca was accused, rightly or
wrongly, of involvement. He was ordered to commit suicide and attempted this by the normal
method of having his veins opened (as did Salvius in the last stage of the Cambridge Latin
Course) but neither this nor poison proved fatal and he finally died of suffocation from steam in
a hot bath. His death became a favourite subject for painters in later ages.
During his lifetime and afterwards, Seneca was accused of failure to practise
what he preached and it was alleged by one of his enemies that he had
become immensely wealthy through service to Nero. The Greek historian
Cassius Dio also claims that he lent a large sum of money to a British chieftain
and that demands after the man’s death for immediate repayment were one
reason for the rebellion led by the king’s widow, Boudicca, in 61 A.D.
Our information about Nero comes largely from historians who were members of the Roman
aristocracy. There is, however, some evidence that Nero was popular among ordinary people
and a 16th century scholar Girolamo Cardano argued that he was in fact a good ruler, a view
also held by Napoleon Bonaparte. An English translation of Cardano’s book has recently been
published and the translator’s own defence of Nero (and criticism of Seneca) can be read at
• A noble philosopher who guided Nero well in his
early years and met an undeserved death
• A hypocritical champion of his own interests and
of those of the Roman elite, whose advice Nero
discarded in order to take better care of ordinary
• A source of inspiration and sound practical advice
down the centuries?
– The Dutch Renaissance scholar Erasmus advised a
friend `to study Plato and Seneca, love his wife, and
disregard the world’s opinion’
– Queen Elizabeth I of England `did much admire
Seneca’s wholesome advisings’
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