Seneca 4 BC - AD 65


Seneca 4 BC - AD 65

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, also called Seneca the Younger, was a Roman politician, a philosopher, and orator. He also wrote several philosophical works as well as tragedies.

Image Above

Marble bust of Seneca, back to back with Socrates.

Bust created around 3rd century.

Staatliche Museen Berlin

Seneca's Family

Secena's family was more than well-off. They called Corduba, or Córdoba, in southern Spain, their home. Corduba had been occupied by the Romans since 152 BC.

Roman Bridge, Córdoba, Spain
Roman Bridge, Córdoba, Spain
Photo Jim Gordon. Map Wiki.


Seneca's father was Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Sr. also called Seneca the Elder. Seneca the Elder was born at Corduba in the fifties BC. He is well-remembered for his work Oratorum et rhetorum sententiae divisiones colores, or in other words Sentences, Divisions, and Colors of the Orators and Rhetoricians.

Oratorum et rhetorum sententiae divisiones colores

Intellectual Output — Seneca Sr.




Seneca's mother was Helvia.

Seneca the Elder and Helvia had three sons:

The oldest son was Lucius Annaeus Novatus, who became Junius Annaeus Gallio, after his adoption by the Roman Senator and rhetorician Junius Gallio, who had been a good friend of Seneca the Elder.

Gallio Jr. became an excellent orator, as well as proconsul of Achaea in Greece, in which capacity he met the Apostle Paul.

Seneca Jr. wrote his work De Ira (On Anger) in the style of a letter written to his brother Novatus.

Gallio was born around 5 BC.


Seneca Jr., who would become known as Seneca the philosopher, was the second son.

He was born around 4 BC - AD 1.


The youngest son was Lucius Annaeus Mela, who became the father of the poet Lucan.


Seneca's Early Years

Seneca the Elder moved his entire family to Rome when Seneca Jr was still a child. This was in order to secure his sons a Roman education and hopefully a fruitful career in Roman politics.

Seneca Sr. hooked the boys up with the finest tutors, and wee Seneca advanced in philosophy, rhetoric, and law.

But son Seneca's feeble health, probably tuberculosis and asthma, made him semi-suicidal and prompted a visit to aunt and uncle Gaius Galerius in Egypt to restore both his mental and physical health.


Who Ruled at the Time?

In his lifetime, Seneca witnessed the reign of the following emperors:

Augustus, who ruled 27 BC - AD 14

Octavian (Augustus Caesar) 63 BC - AD 14



Tiberius, who ruled 14 - 37

Tiberius Caesar Augustus 42 BC - AD 37



Caligula, who ruled 37 - 41

Caligula 12 - 41



Claudius, who ruled 41 - 54, and

Claudius 10 BC - AD 54



Nero, who ruled 54 - 68,
and became Seneca's murderer.

Nero 37-68

Seneca's Career in Rome

Surviving a shipwreck and seeing his uncle drown didn't help in his struggle against dark moods, but Seneca was the sturdy intellectual type. Back from Egypt in 31, Seneca was ready for his career as a Roman politician.

He became a quaestor (lowest ranking regular magistrate in ancient Rome) and entered the Senate.

Seneca also got married, probably to Pompeia Paulina, who survived him.

Thanks to his exceptionally bright mind, Seneca climbed the career ladder swiftly and excelled as a skilled orator.

With a jealous eye, Emperor Caligula observed Seneca's rise to fame and wanted him eliminated. What saved Seneca's hide?

Some historians believe that Seneca saved his life by means of his outstanding oratorical talent. Others say, Caligula reflected for a minute on Seneca's poor health and let him be as his poor physical shape would lead to his demise soon enough.

Whatever the case, Caligula himself eventually expired in AD 41, aged 28.

But Seneca couldn't catch a break. Caligula's uncle and successor, Emperor Claudius, became convinced that Seneca had an affair with his, Claudius', niece, Julia Livilla. So he sent Seneca into exile on Corsica.

And there were worse exile destinations. The island of Corsica was, and still is, one of the most beautiful places in Europe.

Here is more on Corsica.

Jenny White is
Julia Livilla in the 1968 series The Caesars

Julia, by the way, was also sent into exile. Her one-way ticket took her to the island of Pandateria, today's Ventotene, where she died in the year 41 or 42.

Did Seneca and Julia actually have an affair? Probably absolutely not.

What was at the root of this mess?

Merle Oberon is Messalina Valeria in the 1937 movie I, Claudius

The trouble had a name. It was Messalina Valeria, third wife of Emperor Claudius. This marriage had ended in AD 40, placing this experience in Claudius' pre-emperor column.

And if you liked Joan Collins' Alexis, you enjoy Messalina, who was twice the bitch and not even acting. It was thanks to her and her web of neatly weaved intrigues, that Seneca found himself on the ferry to Corsica.


Seneca's father and his son had just recently died, and life was all about getting back up at this point.

Although Seneca asked for clemency, he had to sit tight for 8 long years. It took the execution of Messalina in 48, and the wedding of Emperor Claudius' to a new wife, Agrippina, before, in 49, Seneca was allowed to return to Rome.

Agrippina, by the way, who was also called Julia Agrippina, or Agrippina the Younger, was Claudius' niece (the sister of Julia Livilla). She turned out to be the schemer behind Messalina's death, thus proving to be quite the handful herself.

Back to Seneca.

Seneca was allowed to continue his political career. In AD 50, he became praetor (powerful judicial officer in ancient Rome) and was again well-established and mostly content.

That same year, the Emperor asked Seneca to become the tutor of his adopted son. What did Seneca find in the nursery? Wee Nero, 12 years old.

Where did he come from?


Seneca and Nero

Nero was the son of Agrippina and Agrippina's first husband, the Roman consul Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, who died in AD 40. Agrippina married again, this time Passienus Crispus, one of the most esteemed Roman politicians at the time, whom she served with poison tea and cookies and whose consequent passing made her a young and enormously wealthy widow.

Now in her third marriage — married to the Emperor Claudius, which was Claudius' fourth marriage, and which, by the way, was incestuous by Roman law — Agrippina was ready to pave the road for her offspring.

Claudius adopted Nero and, overlooking his own son Britannicus (by Messalina) declared Nero heir to the throne.

Agrippina then manipulated Claudius into marrying his daughter Octavia (by Messalina), to her son Nero.

Nero marrying his stepsister Octavia could be potentially bad press should someone feel conservatively with regards to incest. Hence Octavia was legally transferred to another family, Octavia's previous marriage agreement to one Lucius Junius Silanus was annulled, and in 53, Nero and Octavia were married.

As far as Agrippina was concerned, Claudius' work here on earth was done.

It was one October day in the year 54, when Claudius didn't return from his afternoon tea with Agrippina. Nero, only 16 years old, became the new emperor. The new sticker on the letterbox read

Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus
and mother Augusta Agrippina.


What's an Augustus or an Augusta?

The Latin word augustus means venerable.

Agrippina had received the title Augusta in AD 50, but she couldn't really relax until her son became Augustus as well.

In Agrippina's case, this status elevation was unprecedented. So far, a Roman first lady was made Augusta only after her husband had died. Agrippina was the first empress who received this title while her husband was still alive.

The Romans now had to salute not only their emperor but also his wife each morning. Agrippina's head appeared on many coins and wherever else she could manage to place an image of herself. On some of these images she even sported a diadem, the symbol reserved to depict a goddess.

Back to the imperial court.

To tie up loose ends, Britannicus, too, was invited to one of Agrippina's poisonous tea parties. The last time Britannicus drew a breath was in the year 55.


Seneca, Burrus, and the Quinquennium Neronis

Thus, Nero ruled together with his dominant mother, and with the help of Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

Previously, the office of prefect had been occupied by two individuals, but Agrippina thought one man would be easier to handle, and had influenced her husband to make changes accordingly.

These two advisers, Seneca and Burrus, of course, strongly recommended cutting the umbilical chord.

Which Nero did.

In 56, he retired his mother by excluding her from official political business.

From 56, marking the year of Agrippina's forced retirement, until 62, Seneca and Burrus governed the country from their positions as chief advisers.

Tacitus, arguably the greatest historian, says that the working relationship between Seneca and Burrus "had unanimity rare for men in such powerful positions."

The results?

There was only good behavior on Nero's part, apart from the occasional night of partying. And there were plenty of swell improvements in Roman life, society, and its administration. Seneca wrote Nero's speeches, and yes, Seneca became even wealthier. Young Nero could be very generous.

This time period of harmony and good goings, the first five years of Nero's reign, is also called Quinquennium Neronis, The Five-Year-Period of Nero. It is considered a perfect pattern of good government.

But trouble was around the corner.

Seneca Declines

Nero fancied Poppaea Sabina, and by AD 58 they were having an affair. Mother Agrippina disapproved while girlfriend Poppaea Sabina did all she could to convince Nero that Agrippina had become a liability.

In AD 59, Nero was ready for his move. Together with Anicetus, a former tutor of Nero's and now prefect of the fleet at Misenum, a plot was hatched to kill Nero's mother by sinking her on a boat, thus making it look like an accident.

Although injured, Agrippina survived the incident by managing to swim to shore.

When Nero heard the news of her survival, it scared the living daylights out of him. And rightly so. The types of Agrippina wouldn't let a personal assassination attempt go unpunished.

Nero sent for Seneca and Burrus, and explained his predicament.

What to do?

Seneca inquired if Burrus would be willing to let his boys take care of Agrippina. Negative. Burrus reminded that his job was the protection of the royal family, not its elimination. Her family had been in high standing with the guards. Besides, Anicetus was the one who failed, he should be the one to clean up this mess.

Nero then sent Anicetus on his way to finish the job.

Agrippina's messenger, Agerinus, who had come to Rome with the message of Agrippina's "accident", was still waiting to speak to Nero directly. Nero thought on his feet (although it was probably Seneca's idea.) When Agerinus entered, Nero threw a sword at his feet, screamed that his mother had sent an assassin, and had his guards take Agerinus away in chains.


Anicetus and his troops arrived at Agrippina's country house located at Lake Lucrino, 30 car-minutes from Naples. He surrounded the estate, forced the gates open, found her at home, and ended her life with his sword.

Tacitus mentioned that in AD 59 "Nero ceased delaying his long-mediated crime" indicating that Nero might pondered his mother's murder once or twice in the past.

Seneca tried to keep Nero's name as clean as he could.

... Seneca wrote the emperor's speech of self-exculpation - perhaps the most famous example of how the philosopher found himself increasingly compromised in his position as Nero's chief counsel.

Certainly as a Stoic, Seneca cuts an ambiguous figure next to others who made their opposition to Nero clear, such as Thrasea Paetus and Helvidius Priscus.

His participation in court politics probably led him to believe that he could do more good from where he stood than by abandoning Nero to his own devices - if he even had this choice.

Anger, Mercy, Revenge by Robert A. Kaster and Martha C. Nussbaum, University of Chicago Press


In June 62, Nero's wife Octavia conveniently died of poison and Nero was free to marry his second wife, Poppaea Sabina.

The year 62 was also the year during which Burrus died, and poisoning by Nero was a possible cause. Seneca asked to be retired but Nero denied the request.

On January 21, 63, Nero and Poppaea Sabina's daughter Claudia was born. Nero was delighted, and mother as well as daughter were declared Augusta. Claudia would remain the emperor's only child. But the baby died after only four months.

In 64, Seneca asked again to be sent into retirement, but was denied again.


Seneca's Final Chapter

In 65, Poppaea Sabina died prematurely, and Nero married Statilia Messalina.

Killed or accident?

By that time Seneca didn't care anymore because he had run into his own final troubles when in the same year the Pisonian Conspiracy unfolded. The conspirators wanted Nero dead and C. Calpurnius Piso as replacement.

Seneca's nephew Lucan was involved in the plot and Nero accused Seneca, who might or might not have been mixed up in this affair, of conspiracy and ordered him to poison himself.


After cutting his veins, Seneca gets into the Bathtub while his sorrowful friends swear their hate - Painting by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez
After cutting his veins, Seneca gets into the bathtub
while his sorrowful friends swear their hate

Painting by Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, 1871
 Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid



Seneca's Death

Ever the stoic, Seneca followed orders and opened his veins. His blood flow was slow and Seneca asked for poison to speed up the process. It still took a long time for him to die, but Seneca eventually managed.

Pompeia Paulina, Seneca's wife, tried to follow suit but Nero ordered his guards to prevent her from killing herself.

Seneca was cremated, and there was no funeral ceremony.

Pompeia Paulina remained a widow for the few final years of her life.





"Oderint, dum metuant"

"Let them hate, so long as they fear."

From Senea's "De ira" (On Anger) and "De clementia" (On Mercy)





More History


Seneca Quote

Illi mors gravis incubat
Qui notus nimis omnibus
Ignotus moritur sibi.

On him does death lie heavily,
who, but too well known to all,
dies to himself unknown.

Seneca in Thyestes.


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Homines dum docent discunt.

Even while they teach, men learn.

Seneca in Epistulae Morales.



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Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.

For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.

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Ignoranti, quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est.

If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.

Seneca in Epistulae ad Lucilium.



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Seneca's Works - Tragedies









Seneca's Works - Other

Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius)

Quaestiones Naturales (Natural Questions)

De Consolatione - Ad Marciam (On Consolation - To Marcia)

De Consolatione - Ad Helviam Matrem (On Consolation - To Mother Helvia)

De Consolatione - Ad Polybium (On Consolation - To Polybius)

De Ira (On Anger)

De Providentia (On Providence)

De Constantia Sapientis (On the Steadfastness of the Wise Man)

De Otio (On Leisure)

De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life)

De Tranquillitate Animi (On Mental Tranquility)

De Vita Beata (On the Happy Life)

De Clementia (On Mercy)

De Beneficiis ( On Benefits)

Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii
Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius)


Here you can read Seneca's Works in Latin.



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