Seneca: Stoic, Satirical, and Stereotypically Roman

Although know primarily for his plays and stoicism, Seneca the younger was also a believer of Epicureanism. The contradictions in his life, actions, and beliefs made him a stereotypical first century Roman. He led two separate lives, one in public, and the other in private. These lives did not match up, but they made him Roman.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Younger) was born in Cordoba in 4 BCE, but soon brought to Rome by his mother’s step-sister, where he studied under the Stoic Attalus. Seneca was not a very healthy child, so much of his childhood was spent indoors and studying. He also spent time in Egypt, where he learned about life outside of Rome. He held many positions, including orator, quaestor, and lawyer, but the most influential in his life was as a tutor to the young Nero. In 31 CE he became involved in law and politics. Caligula and Claudius both strongly disliked him, mostly for his orations about them and not taking his comments back, and for his relations with their female relatives. Caligula attempted to have Seneca assassinated, but chose to exile him instead. Seneca returned to Rome after Caligula’s death. Claudius had him exiled to Corsica in 41 CE for his relationship with his niece, but Agrippina convinced Claudius to have Seneca brought back to Rome in 49 CE. After the death of Claudius and the ascension of Nero, Seneca served as one of the Emperor’s most trusted advisors, and began his playwriting career. In 62 CE Seneca became suspect in one of the attempts to murder Nero and Agrippina, and he was asked to retire from public life. Senecea obliged, as he had amassed a great fortune during his life and was content to just write for pleasure. It was during this time that he wrote some of his best works of philosophy and tragedy. Nero became suspicious of Seneca, and in 65 CE he ordered the playwright to commit suicide. Like the good stoic he was, Seneca complied. He slit his wrists, but the death was not fast enough, so he poisoned himself with hemlock. That too proved not a quick enough death (the hemlock was slowed due to blood loss), so Seneca put himself into a bath and suffocated himself in the steam. His wife, Paulina, attempted to take her own life as well, but Nero’s guards, on orders from Nero himself, prevented her from doing so. Seneca was cremated and laid to rest without any honors on orders from Nero.

Seneca wrote Apocolocyntosis (The Pumpkinification of Claudius) to express his displeasure and annoyance with the extravagance and opulence that the Roman Emperors had embraced. The Apocolocyntosis was written in the first person as a report of the events and reactions to Claudius’ attempt to gain godhood after his death. The piece is satirical, and reminds me very much of Voltaire’s Candide. The Pumpkinification of Claudius opens with the death of Claudius and his arrival in heaven. None of the gods really knew what to do with him, and only Hercules had the bravery to approach him. Claudius tried his best to make himself seem important, but Fever, the only god to come with him from Rome, set everything straight. Claudius gets angry and orders Fever to be executed, but no one listens to him. After arguing with Hercules for a little while Claudius finally realizes that he is out of his depth, and Hercules becomes scared of Claudius in a “he’s crazy” sort of way. They attempt to decide what type of god Claudius should become, but get nowhere; Claudius is either unqualified or has made angry the other gods in most areas of heaven. Jove, Janus, and the other gods debate things for a while, and decide that Claudius is too crazy to stay in heaven yet from his lineage and (some) deeds he deserves to be a god. They decide to send him back to Earth as a pumpkin to be rid of him and to prevent him from causing further damage.

While not the only satire Seneca wrote, The Pumpkinification of Claudius is certainly the most famous. Seneca wrote mostly tragic plays and essays on stoic philosophy. In his tragedies Seneca’s characters are not portrayed as crazy people, but they do have one flaw which makes them seem fanatical. In The Pumpkinification of Claudius, Seneca wrote about his main character, Claudius, as having flaws which drive him and make him seem crazy. In Claudius’ case it is his obsession with his own power that makes him weak and pathetic yet too dangerous for the gods to simply ignore. Claudius is seen as obsessed with himself and the idea of himself. That’s why he believes he deserves to be a god. This satire was written by Seneca to express how gobsmacked he was by the whole idea of the Julio-Claudians as Emperors of Rome. Claudius wasn’t completely bad, but in Seneca’s eyes (portrayed by the gods) he was no Augustus. Augustus may have had a high impression of himself, but he used the idea of Emperor to better Rome in addition to himself. Seneca portrays Claudius as a power-mad fool who needs to be taught a lesson, but no one knows quite how exactly to do it. The gods would rather just ignore him and go on with their lives. Perhaps this is how Seneca feels the people of Rome fee about their Emperor: they know who he is, but since he doesn’t outwardly influence their daily lives they just ignore him and go about their business. Claudius is virtually useless as anything except a figurehead, so he could be a pumpkin and it wouldn’t make any difference to anyone but Claudius. The people would pay him lipservice in public, but in the privacy of their own homes they could talk about him however they wished. For Seneca, the public life was all for show, while the private life was the true person. Both were aspects of the same individual, but for the public a person had to mask their true nature.

In addition to being a stoic, Seneca was also an epicurean and a voluptuary. These contradictions make him exceedingly Roman. In public, Seneca was a devout stoic, promoting moderation in all things, and accepting life for whatever it was. Most of his essays and treatises were written in a style fitting a stoic philosopher. In private, Seneca enjoyed the pleasures of being a Roman citizen. He was able to amass a fortune during his time as tutor and advisor to Nero, and he took full advantage of everything that he could procure for himself using his position. Seneca was also a very good orator, and was known to be able to justify anything to anybody using words alone.

Bibliography:

  • Atchity, Kenneth J. (editor). The Classical Roman Reader. Oxford University Press: New York, 1997.
  • Hornblower, Simon and Tony Spawforth (editors). Who’s Who in the Classical World. Oxford University Press: New York, 2000.
  • Wilson, Edwin and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: A History. McGraw-Hill: New York, 2000.

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