1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Seneca

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SENECA, the name of two famous men (father and son), natives of Corduba (Cordova) in Spain, who attained eminence in Rome under the Early Empire.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 54 B.C.A.D. 39), called Seneca “the elder” or “the rhetorician,” belonged to a well-to-do equestrian family of Corduba. His praenomen is uncertain, but in any case Marcus is an arbitrary conjecture of Raphael of Volterra. During a lengthy stay on two occasions at Rome he attended the lectures of famous orators and rhetoricians, to prepare for an official career as an advocate. His ideal orator was Cicero, and he disapproved of the florid tendencies of the oratory of his time. During the civil wars (which kept him in Spain and thus prevented him from ever hearing Cicero speak) his sympathies, like those of his native place, were probably with Pompey, as were those of his son and his grandson (the poet Lucan). By his wife Helvia of Corduba he had three sons: L. Annaeus Novatus, adopted by his father's friend, the rhetorician Tunius Gallio, and subsequently called L. Junius Gallio; L. Annaeus Seneca, the philosopher; Annaeus Mela, the father of the poet Lucan. As he died before his son was banished by Claudius (41; Seneca, ad Helviam, ii. 4), and the latest references in his writings are to the period immediately after the death of Tiberius, he probably died about A.D. 39. At an advanced age, at the request of his sons, he prepared, it is said from memory, a collection of various school themes and their treatment by Greek and Roman orators. These he arranged in ten books of Controversiae (imaginary legal cases) in which 74 themes were discussed, the opinions of the rhetoricians upon each case being given from different points of view, then their division of the case into different single questions (divisio), and, finally, the devices for making black appear white and extenuating injustice (colores). Each book was introduced by a preface, in which the characteristics of individual rhetoricians were discussed in a lively manner. The work is incomplete, but the gaps can be to a certain extent filled up with the aid of an epitome made in the 4th or 5th century for the use of schools. The romantic elements were utilized in the collection of anecdotes and tales called Gesta Romanorum (q.v.). For books i., ii., vii., ix., x. we possess both the original and the epitome; for the remainder we have to rely upon the epitome alone. Even with the aid of the latter, only seven of the prefaces are available. The Controversiae were supplemented by the Suasoriae (exercises in hortatory or deliberative oratory), in which the question is discussed whether certain things should or should not be done. The whole forms the most important authority for the history of contemporary oratory. Seneca was also the author of a lost historical work, containing the history of Rome from the beginning of the civil wars almost down to his own death, after which it was published by his son. Of this we learn something from the younger Seneca's De vita patris (H. Peter, Historicorum Romanorum fragmenta, 1883, pp. 292, 301), of which the beginning was discovered by B. G. Niebuhr. The father's claim.to the authorship of the rhetorical work, generally ascribed to the son during the middle ages, was vindicated by Raphael of Volterra and Justus Lipsius.

Editions.—N. Faber (Paris, 1587); J. F. Gronovius (Leiden, 1649, Amsterdam, 1672); (critical) C. Bursian (Leipzig, 1857); A. Kiessling (Leipzig, 1872); H. J. Müller (Prague, 1887, with many unnecessary conjectures). See also article by O. Rossbach in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyklopädie, i. pt. 2 (1894); Teuffel-Schwabe, Hist. of Roman Literature (Eng. trans., 1900), 269; M. Schanz, Geschichte der römischen Litteratur, ii. 1 (1899); and the chapter on “The Declaimers,” in G. A. Simcox, History of Latin Literature, i. (1883). On Seneca's style, see Max Sander, Der Sprachgebrauch des Rhetor A. S. (Waren, 1877–1880); A. Ahlheim, De Senecae rhetoris usu dicendi (Giessen, 1886); E. Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa (1898), p. 300; on his influence upon his son the philosopher, E. Rolland, De l'influence de Sénéque le pére et des rhéteurs sur Sénéque le philosophe (1906). On the use of Seneca in the Gesta Romanorum, see L. Friedländer, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms (Eng. trans., iii. p. 16 and appendix in iv.).

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 consalatione 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 sometimes 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 500 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 product of ingenuity concentrated upon declamatory exercises, substance 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. Bücheler, 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 casuistic ally, 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 anapestic 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. 60 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 clementia (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, Études de mœeurs et de critique sur les poètes de la décadence (4th ed., Paris, 1878), has criticized them in detail. Of some 300 monographs enumerated in Engelmann may be mentioned, in addition to the above, G. Boissier, Les Tragedies de Sénèque ont-ils été représentés? (Paris, 1861); A. Dörgens, Senec. disciplinae moralis cum Antoniniana comparatio (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.)