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Lucius Annaeus Seneca - Biography


Lucius Annaeus Seneca, [The Younger] (c.3 BCE-AD 65)

We learn not in the school, but in life.


Lucius Annaeus Seneca the younger was born in Corduba (present-day Córdoba), Spain, around 3 BCE. He was the second son of three in a wealthy family. His father was a famous teacher of Rhetoric in Rome. Early in life, Seneca went to Rome with his Aunt, who was wife to the prefect Gaius Galerius, and there he was educated in philosophy in the school of the Sextii. His schooling was a blend of Stoicism and ascetic neo-Pythagoreanism. While in school he earned the reputation for being an excellent orator. Seneca experienced some ill health and followed his aunt to Egypt to recover. He returned to Rome in 31 AD, and began his career in law and politics.

He gained prestige in Rome in the courts while he was also known as a writer of tragedies and essays. However, he fell out of favor with the emperor Caligula in 39 AD, and the emperor Claudius finally exiled Seneca to Corsica in 41 AD, charging him with committing adultery with Claudius' niece, the princess Julia Livilla. In Corsica he pursued his studies of philosophy and natural sciences, writing the three treatises titled Consolationes. In 49 AD he was invited back to Rome on the recommendation of the Emperor's wife, Agrippina. In 50 AD he married an influential and well-connected woman named Pompeia Paulina, and became praetor. His new friends included the prefect of the guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus, and Seneca was appointed tutor to the future emperor Nero. Upon Nero's succession, this lead to his unofficial appointment as chief minister.

Seneca has been credited with influencing a period of sound government during the first part of Nero's reign. However, Seneca's enemies gradually turned Nero against him, suggesting that his popularity and wealth made him a threat. In 62 AD he retired from public life to devote himself to writing and philosophy. It was during this time that he wrote the Letters to Lucilius. In 65 AD Seneca was accused of playing a part in a plot against Nero. As a noble gesture, Seneca complied with the emperor's wish that he commit suicide.

Seneca considered himself to be a Stoic, although his personal life seems to contradict the noble attitude of his texts. His philosophical works are influenced by "Middle Stoicism", an adaptation in response to the Roman market by Panaetius of Rhodes 200 years earlier, and developed by Poseidonius in the first century BC. The work of Poseidonius is the main influence behind Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca's books on natural science. The three texts of the Consolations are consolatory exercises for the loss of three sons: Ad Marciam consoles a woman on her son's death, Ad Helviam matrem Seneca's mother on his exile, and Ad Polybium, Polybium on his lost son. Seneca's work De ira is a study in the consequences and control of anger. His work De clementia is addressed to Nero, and argues that mercy is the great sovereign quality of an emperor. His studies on the life and qualities of a wise stoic include De tranquillitate animi, De constantia sapientis, De vita beata, and De otio. De beneficiis examines the benefits of both giver and receiver in an exchange, and De brevitate vitae is an argument that humans have a long enough life span only if time is used properly. Seneca's 124 essays entitled the Epistulae morales address a number of moral problems. Dedicated to his friend Lucilius Junior, these essays are considered among Seneca's best philosophical works.

Seneca's tragedies are perhaps his most influential works for Western literature. His stoicism and rhetoric, his use of gloomy atmosphere and horror, can all be seen as influential to Renaissance tragedy in particular. His plays are considered written for recitation, rather than stage performance. There are nine plays attributed to him, including Hercules Furens, Medea, Troades, Phaedra, Agamemnon, Oedipus, Hercules Oetaeus, Phoenissae, and Thyestes.

When Stoicism was seen to have affinities with Christianity it gained new life, which has kept Seneca's work from falling into obscurity. There are letters that substantiate the theory that Seneca knew St. Paul, indeed his older brother Gallio was said to have met Paul in Achaea in 52 AD. Seneca's works were studied by Augustin, Jerome, and Boethius, and were included in anthologies used in the Middle Ages. Dante, Chaucer and Petrarch were all familiar with his writings. The first English translation of his moral treatises appeared in 1614, edited by Erasmus. We can see his influence on writers of the 16th to 18th centuries in the work of Calvin, Montaigne, and Rousseau. His work was harshly critiqued in the 19th century, but since his 2000th year celebration in Spain, where he is included among the first "Spanish" thinkers, his work has been enjoying a revival. His 40 surviving books pay tribute to a unique writer of considerable versatility.