Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Seneca, L. Annaeus
SENECA, L. ANNAEUS, the son of M. Annaeus Seneca, was born at Corduba, probably about a few years B. C., and brought to Rome by his parents when he was a child. Though he was naturally of a weak body, he was a hard student from his youth, and he devoted himself with great ardour to rhetoric and philosophy. He also soon gained distinction as a pleader of causes, and he excited the jealousy and hatred of Caligula by the ability with which he conducted a case in the senate before the emperor. He was spared, it is said, because Caligula was assured by one of his mistresses that Seneca would soon die of disease. The emperor also affected to despise the eloquence of Seneca: he said that it was sand without lime (Sueton. Calig. 53). Seneca obtained the quaestorship, but the time is uncertain. In the first year of the reign of Claudius (A. D. 41), the successor of Caligula, Seneca was banished to Corsica. Claudius had recalled to Rome his nieces Agrippina and Julia, whom their brother Caligula had exiled to the island of Pontia (Ponza). It seems probable that Messalina, the wife of Claudius, was jealous of the influence of Julia with Claudius, and hated her for her haughty behaviour. Julia was again exiled, and Seneca's intimacy with her was a pretext for making him share her disgrace. What the facts really were is unknown; and the innocence of Seneca and Julia is at least as probable as their guilt, when Messalina was the accuser.
In his exile in Corsica Seneca had the opportunity of practising the philosophy of the Stoics, to which he had attached himself. His Consolatio ad Helviam, or consolatory letter to his mother, was written during his residence in the island. If the Consolatio ad Polybium, which was also written during his exile, is the work of Seneca, it does him no credit. Polybius was the powerful freedman of Claudius, and the Consolatio is intended to comfort him on the occasion of the loss of his brother. But it also contains adulation of the emperor, and many expressions unworthy of a true Stoic, or of an honest man. The object of the address to Polybius was to have his sentence of exile recalled, even at the cost of his character.
After eight years' residence in Corsica Seneca was recalled A. D. 49, by the influence of Agrippina (Tac. Ann. xii. 8), who had just married her uncle the emperor Claudius. From this time the life of Seneca is closely connected with that of Nero, and Tacitus is the chief authority for both. On his return he obtained a praetorship, and was made the tutor of the young Domitius, afterwards the emperor Nero, who was the son of Agrippina by a former husband. Agrippina relied on the reputation of Seneca and his advice as a means of securing the succession to her son; and she trusted to his gratitude to herself as a guarantee for his fidelity to her interests, and to his hatred of Claudius for the wrongs that he had suffered from him.
It was unfortunate that the philosopher had so bad a pupil, but we cannot blame him for all that Nero learned and all that he did not learn. The youth had a taste for what was showy and superficial: he had no capacity for the studies which befit a man who has to govern a state. If Seneca had made a rhetorician of him after his own taste, that would have been something, but Domitius had not even the low ability to distinguish himself as a talker. There is no evidence to justify the imputation that Seneca encouraged his vicious propensities; and if Nero had followed the advice contained in Seneca's treatise, De Clementia ad Neronem Caesarem, written in the second year of Nero's reign, the young emperor might have been happy, and his administration beneficent. That Seneca would look upon his connection with Nero as a means of improving his fortunes and enjoying power, is just what most other men would have done, and would do now in the same circumstances; and that a man with such views would not be very rigid towards an unruly pupil is a reasonable inference. We know that he did not make Nero a wise man or a good man; we do not know that he helped to make him worse than he would have been; and in the absence of positive evidence of his corrupting the youth, and with the positive evidence of his own writings in his favour, it is a fair and just conclusion that he did as much with Nero as a man could who had accepted, and chose to retain a post in which his character could not possibly escape some imputation. He who consents to be the tutor of a vicious youth of high station, whom he cannot control, must be content to take the advantages of his post, with the risk of being blamed for his pupil's vices.
Claudius was poisoned by his niece and wife Agrippina A. D. 54, and Nero succeeded to the Imperial power. Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 2, &c.) states that both Burrus and Seneca attempted to check the young emperor's vicious propensities; and both combined to resist his mother's arrogant pretensions. A woman assuming the direct exercise of political power was a thing that the Romans had not yet seen, and it was inconsistent with all their notions. The opposition of Burrus and Seneca to the emperor's mother was the duty of good citizens.
Nero pronounced the funeral oration in memory of Claudius. The panegyric on the deceased emperor was listened to with decency and patience till Nero came to that part of his discourse in which he spoke of the foresight and wisdom of Claudius, when there was a general laugh. The speech, which Nero delivered, was written by Seneca in a florid style, suited to the taste of the age, with little regard to truth, and none for his own character, for he afterwards wrote a satire (Apocolocyntosis) to ridicule the Apotheosis of the man whom he had despised and praised.
In the first year of his reign Nero affected mildness and clemency, and such was the tone of his orationes to the senate; but these professions were the words of Seneca, uttered by the mouth of Nero; the object of Seneca was, as Tacitus says, either to give public evidence of the integrity of his counsels to the emperor, or to display his abilities. There might be something of both in his motives; but it is consistent with a fair judgment and the character of Seneca's writings to believe that he did attempt to keep Nero within the limits of decency and humanity. A somewhat ambiguous passage of Tacitus (Ann. xiii. 13), seems to affirm that he endeavoured to veil Nero's amour with Acte under a decent covering; and Cluvius (Tacit. Ann. xiv. 2) states that the amour with Acte was encouraged to prevent a detestable crime. "What a part for a Stoic to play," says one of Seneca's biographers, "whose duty it was to recall his disciple to the arms of his wife, the virtuous Octavia." The Stoic probably did the best that he could under the circumstances.
The murder of Britannicus A. D. 55 was followed by large gifts from Nero to his friends; and "there were not wanting persons to affirm, that men who claimed a character for sober seriousness, divided among themselves houses and villae at that time, as if it were so much booty." (Tacit. Ann. xiii. 18.) The allusion is supposed to be to Seneca and Burrus; but the passage of Tacitus contains no distinct charge against either of them. It was unlucky for Seneca's reputation that he was rich; for a man in power cannot grow rich, even by honest means, without having dishonesty imputed to him.
The struggle for dominion between Nero and his mother could only be decided by the ruin of one of them; and if Seneca wished to enjoy credit with Nero, it was necessary that he should get rid of this imperious woman. Fabius Rusticus Bays that Seneca maintained Burrus in his post of Praefectus Praetorio, when Nero intended to remove him on the ground of his supposed adherence to the cause of Agrippina (Tacit. Ann. xiii. 20). But Plinius and Cluvius Rufus said that Nero never doubted the fidelity of Burrus, and that in his alarm and his impatience to get rid of his mother, he could not be pacified till Burrus promised that she should be put to death, if she should be convicted of the designs which were imputed to her. Burrus and Seneca paid Agrippina a visit, with some freedmen, to be witnesses of what took place. Burrus charged her with treasonable designs, to which Agrippina replied with indignant eloquence. A reconciliation with Nero followed, her accusers were punished, and her friends rewarded; neither Burrus nor Seneca was under any imputation of having prejudiced Nero against her.
The affair of P. Suilius (A. D. 58) brought some discredit on Seneca. Suilius had been a formidable instrument of tyranny under Claudius, and was justly hated. He was charged under a Senatus-consultum, which had amended the Lex Cincia, with receiving money for pleading causes; a feeble pretext for crushing an odious man. The defence of Suilius was an attack on Seneca: he charged him with debauching Julia, the daughter of Germanicus, and hinted at his commerce with women of the imperial family, probably meaning Agrippina; and he asked by what wisdom, by what precepts of philosophy he had, during a four-years' intimacy with an emperor, amassed a fortune of three hundred million sestertii: at Rome he was a hunter after testamentary gifts, an ensnarer of those who were childless; Italy and the provinces were drained by his exorbitant usury. His own profits, Suilius said, were moderate, and earned with toil; and he would endure any thing rather than humble himself before an upstart favourite. We must assume that Suilius supposed that Seneca had moved against him in this matter: his words were reported to Seneca, and perhaps aggravated. A charge was got up against him, it is not said by whom, as to his infamous delations under Claudius, and he was banished to the Balearic Islands. The words of such a man are no proof of Seneca's guilt; but the enormous wealth of Seneca gave a colour of truth to any thing that was said against him. (Tacit. Ann. xiii. 42.)
Nero's passion for Poppaea brought the contest between him and his mother to a crisis (Tacit. Ann. xiv. 1. A. D. 59). Poppaea burned to become the wife of Nero, but she saw that it was impossible while Agrippina lived. She plied Nero with her blandishments, her tears, and even her sarcasms; and at last he resolved to kill his mother, and the only question was as to the way of doing it. After an unsuccessful attempt to drown her, Nero, terrified at the failure of his plan, sent for Burrus and Seneca. Whether they were previously acquainted with the design against Agrippina's life is uncertain (Tacit. Ann. xiv. 7). Dion Cassius (lxi. 12), with his usual malignity, accuses Seneca of instigating Nero to the crime. Burrus and Seneca were long silent in the presence of Nero; either they thought that it would be useless to dissuade the emperor from his purpose, or, what is more probable, they saw that either the mother or the son must perish. Seneca broke the silence by asking Burrus if orders should be given to the soldiers to put Agrippina to death. Burrus replied that the soldiers were devoted to the family of Germanicus, and would not shed the blood of his children; but Anicetus, he added, would finish what he had begun. Anicetus performed his promise, and Agrippina died by the hand of assassins, A. D. 60.
The imperial murderer fled as if he could leave his conscience behind him, to the city of Naples, whence he addressed a letter to the senate upon the death of his mother: he charged her with a conspiracy against himself, on the failure of which she had committed suicide. The author of the letter was Seneca (Tacit. Ann. xiv. 11): it is not extant, but a few words from it are quoted by Quintilian (Inst. Oral. viii. 5). This letter is Seneca's great condemnation: he had consented to Agrippina being assassinated, and he added to this crime the despicable subterfuge of a lie which nobody could believe. From this time Nero felt more free, and Seneca in due time had his reward.
In A. D. 63 Burrus died, and he may have been poisoned. Nero appointed two commanders of the Praetorians in place of Burrus, Fennius Rufus and Sofonius Tigellinus, whose infamy has been perpetuated with that of his master. The death of Burrus broke the power of Seneca: it diminished his influence towards good, and Nero was now in the hands of persons who were exactly suited to his taste. Tigellinus and Rufus began an attack on Seneca. His enormous wealth, a never-failing matter of charge against Seneca, his gardens and villae, more magnificent than those of the emperor, his exclusive claims to eloquence, and his disparagement of Nero's skill in driving and singing, were all urged against him; and it was time, they said, for Nero to get rid of a teacher. Seneca heard of the charges against him: he was rich, and he knew that Nero wanted money. He obtained an interview in which he addressed the emperor in a studied speech (Tacit. Ann. xiv. 53). He asked for permission to retire, and offered to surrender all that he had. Nero affected to be grateful for his past services, refused the proffered gift, and sent him away with perfidious assurances of his respect and affection. Seneca now altered his mode of life, saw little company, and seldom visited the city, on the ground of feeble health, or being occupied with his philosophical studies.
When Nero, after plundering Italy and the provinces, began, like the Eighth Henry of England, the pillage of the temples and of things dedicated to religion, in order to meet his extravagant expenditure, Seneca, who feared that he might be involved in the odium of the sacrilege, though it is not said why he feared (Tacit. Ann. xv. 45), prayed for leave to retire into the country; and when it was refused, he kept his chamber on the pretence of sickness. A story was current that Nero tried to poison him, but the attempt failed. The conspiracy of Piso gave the emperor a pretext for a more direct attack on his teacher's life, though there was not complete evidence of Seneca being a party to the conspiracy (Tacit. Ann. xv. 60). Certain words of Seneca to Antonius Natalis, which were of a suspicious character, were repeated to Nero; and Granius Sylvanus, a tribune of a Praetorian cohort, was sent by the emperor to Seneca to demand the meaning of them. It happened that Seneca was returning from Campania, and had rested at a villa four miles from the city. In the evening the tribune with a band of soldiers surrounded the house where Seneca was supping with his wife Pompeia Paullina and two friends. Seneca explained the words that he had used to Natalis, and the tribune carried them to the emperor. Nero was in close council with the two great ministers of his cruelty, his wife Poppaea and Tigellinus. Nero asked if Seneca was preparing to die voluntarily; and on the tribune replying that he saw no signs of fear, no gloomy indication in his words or countenance, he was ordered to go back and give him notice to die. The tribune, himself a party to the conspiracy of Piso, did not show himself again to Seneca, but he sent in a centurion with the order of death. Without showing any sign of alarm, Seneca asked for his testament, apparently with the intention of adding some legacies, but the centurion refused to allow this, on which Seneca told his friends that since he was forbidden to reward their services, his last testamentary bequest must be the portraiture of his life, which, if they kept in their memory, they would have the reputation of an honest life and of a constant friendship. He cheered his weeping friends by reminding them of the lessons of philosophy, and that he who had murdered a brother and a mother could not be expected to spare his teacher. Embracing his wife, he prayed her to moderate her grief, and to console herself for the loss of her husband by the reflection that he had lived an honourable life. But as Paullina protested that she would die with him, Seneca consented, and the same blow opened the veins in the arms of both. Seneca's body was attenuated by age and meagre diet; the blood would not flow easily, and he opened the veins in his legs. His torture was excessive; and to save himself and his wife the pain of seeing one another suffer, he bade her retire to her chamber. His last words were taken down in writing by persons who were called in for the purpose, and were afterwards published. Tacitus for some reason has not given the words, and he did not think proper to give the substance of them. The soldiers, at the entreaty of the slaves and freedmen of Seneca, stopped the wounds of Paullina, and she lived a few years longer; but her pallid face showed that the stream of life was largely drawn from her. Scandal, as usual, said that when she found that Nero did not wish her death, she was easily prevailed upon to submit to live. Seneca's torments being still prolonged, he took hemlock from his friend and physician, Statius Annaeus, but it had no effect. At last he entered a warm bath, and as he sprinkled some of the water on the slaves nearest to him, he said, that he made a libation to Jupiter the Liberator. He was then taken into a vapour stove, where he was quickly suffocated, A. D. 65. The body was burnt without ceremony, according to the instructions in a codicil to his will, which was made when he was in the full enjoyment of power and wealth. Seneca died, as was the fashion among the Romans, with the courage of a stoic; but with somewhat of a theatrical affectation which detracts from the dignity of the scene. Tacitus has not strongly censured Seneca in any passage; but Dion Cassius collected from among the contradictory memoirs of the time every thing that was most unfavourable to his character. Seneca's great misfortune was to have known Nero; and though we cannot say that he was a truly great or a truly good man, his character will not lose by comparison with that of many others who have been placed in equally difficult circumstances. Whether he was privy to Piso's conspiracy or not, is a matter which has been warmly discussed, but cannot be determined; nor if we suppose that he was in the conspiracy, would that circumstance be an additional blot on the life of a man who had aided the tyrant in killing his mother. Seneca's fame rests on his numerous writings, which, with many faults, have also great merits.
The following are Seneca's works:—
1. De Ira, in three books, addressed to Novatus. Opinions vary as to the time when it was written. Lipsius concludes from book iii. c. 18, that it was written in the time of Caligula, in which case it would be the earliest of Seneca's works. But this conclusion is by no means certain; and it is unlikely that he wrote so freely of Caligula while the "beast" was alive. The author has exhausted the subject. In the first book he combats what Aristotle says of Anger in his Ethic.
2. De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem Liber, which has been already mentioned. It is one of Seneca's best treatises. The conclusion from c. 17, that Seneca had been in Egypt, is by no means sure.
3. De Consolatione ad Polybium Liber, which has also been already mentioned: it was written in the third year of Seneca's Corsican exile. It is sometimes placed after the treatise De Brevitate Vitae. Diderot and others maintain that it is not the composition of Seneca, because it is not worthy of him, and contains sentiments inconsistent with the Consolatio ad Helviam and ad Marciam. But this internal evidence is not supported by any external evidence; and an unprejudiced criticism will vindicate the work as Seneca's, though it disgraces him. It contains (c. 26) a humiliating picture of the Roman world crouching before an enfranchised slave and a stupid master (Schlosser, Univ. Hist. Uebersicht, vol. iii. pt. 1. pp. 221, 410.)
4. Liber de Consolatione ad Marciam, written after his return from exile, was designed to console Marcia for the loss of her son. Marcia was the daughter of A. Cremutius Cordus. (Tacit. Ann. iv. 34; and the Consol. ad Marciam, c. 22.)
5. De Providentia Liber, or Quare bonis viris mala accidant cum sit Providentia, is addressed to the younger Lucilius, procurator of Sicily. The question that is here discussed often engaged the ancient philosophers: the stoical solution of the difficulty is that suicide is the remedy when misfortune has become intolerable. Lipsius calls this a Golden Book. In this discourse Seneca says that he intends to prove "that Providence hath a power over all things, and that God is always present with us." (c. 1.)
6. De Animi Tranquillitate, addressed to Serenus, probably written soon after Seneca's return from exile. It is in the form of a letter rather than a treatise: the object is to discover the means by which tranquillity of mind can be obtained. This work may be compared with the treatise of Plutarch περὶ εὐθυμίας. This treatise was written soon after Seneca's return from exile (c. 1), when he was elevated to the praetorship, and had become Nero's tutor. He speaks as one who felt himself ill at ease in the splendour of the palace after living a solitary and frugal life.
7. De Constantia Sapientis seu quod in sapientem non cadit injuria, also addressed to Serenus, is founded on the stoical doctrine of the impassiveness of the wise man. "This book," saith Lipsius, "betokeneth a great mind, as great a wit, and much eloquence; in one word, it is one of his best."
8. De Clementia ad Neronem Caesarem Libri duo, which has been already mentioned. There is too much of the flatterer in this; but the advice is good. The second book is incomplete. It is in the first chapter of this second book that the anecdote is told of Nero's unwillingness to sign a sentence of execution, and his exclamation, "I would I could neither read nor write." The work was written at the beginning of Nero's reign.
9. De Brevitate Vitae ad Paulinum Liber, recommends the proper employment of time and the getting of wisdom as the chief purpose of life. Life is not really short, but we make it so.
10. De Vita Beata ad Gallionem, addressed to his brother, L. Junius Gallio, is probably one of the later works of Seneca, in which he maintains the stoical doctrine that there is no happiness without virtue; but he does not deny that other things, as health and riches, have their value. "No man hath condemned wisdom to perpetual poverty." The conclusion of the treatise is lost.
11. De Otio aut Secessu Sapientis, is sometimes joined to No. 10.
12. De Beneficiis Libri septem, addressed to Aebucius Liberalis, is an excellent discussion of the way of conferring a favour, and of the duties of the giver and of the receiver. The handling is not very methodical, but it is very complete. It is a treatise which all persons might read with profit. The seventh chapter of the fourth book contains the striking passage on Nature and God:—"What else is Nature but God, and a divine being and reason which by his searching assistance resideth in the world and all the parts thereof?" &c.
13. Epistolae ad Lucilium, one hundred and twenty-four in number, are not the correspondence of daily life, like that of Cicero, but a collection of moral maxims and remarks without any systematic order. They contain much good matter, and have been favourite reading with many distinguished men. Montaigne was a great admirer of them, and thought them the best of Seneca's writings (Essay of Books). It is possible that these letters, and indeed many of Seneca's moral treatises, were written in the latter part of his life, and probably after he had lost the favour of Nero. That Seneca sought consolation and tranquillity of mind in literary occupation, is manifest. The thoughts which engaged him and the maxims which he inculcated on others were consolatory to himself at least, while he was busied with putting them into form; and that is as much as most philosophers get from their speculations in the way of comfort. Seneca was old when he wrote these epistles, (Ep. 12.)
14. Apocolocyntosis, is a satire against the emperor Claudius. The word is a play on the term Apotheosis or deification, and is equivalent in meaning to Pumpkinification, or the reception of Claudius among the pumpkins. The subject was well enough, but the treatment has no great merit; and Seneca probably had no other object than to gratify his spite against the emperor. If such a work was published in the lifetime of Seneca, he must have well known that it would not displease either Agrippina or Nero; and it leads to the probable inference, that the poisoning of Claudius was not a matter which he would complain of. In fact, the manner of the death of Claudius was a subject for the wits of that day to sport with. (Dion Cass. lx. 35, and the notes of Reimarus.)
15. Quaestionum Naturalium Libri septem, addressed to Lucilius Junior, is one of the few Roman works in which physical matters are treated of. It is not a systematic work, but a collection of natural facts from various writers, Greek and Roman, many of which are curious. The first book treats of meteors, the second of thunder and lightning, the third of water, the fourth of hail, snow, and ice, the fifth of winds, the sixth of earthquakes and the sources of the Nile, and the seventh of comets. Moral remarks are scattered through the work; and indeed the design of the whole appears to be to find a foundation for ethic, the chief part of philosophy, in the knowledge of nature (Physic). He says (book vii. c. 30), —"How many things are there besides comets that pass in secret, and never discover themselves to men's eyes? For God hath not made all things subject to human sight How little see we of that which is enclosed in so great an orb? Even he who manageth these things, who hath created them, who hath founded the world, and hath inclosed it about himself, and is the greater and better part of this his work, is not subject to our eyes, but is to be visited by our thoughts." This is the man whom some have called an Atheist.
The judgments on Seneca's writings have been as various as the opinions about his character; and both in extremes. It has been said of him that he looks best in quotations; but this is an admission that there is something worth quoting, which cannot be said of all writers. That Seneca possessed great mental powers cannot be doubted. He had seen much of human life, and he knew well what man was. His philosophy, so far as he adopted a system, was the stoical, but it was rather an eclecticism of stoicism than pure stoicism. His style is antithetical, and apparently laboured; and when there is much labour, there is generally affectation. Yet his language is clear and forcible; it is not mere words: there is thought always. It would not be easy to name any modern writer who has treated on morality, and has said so much that is practically good and true, or has treated the matter in so attractive a way.
People will judge of Seneca, as they do of most moral writers, by the measure of their own opinions. The less a man cares for the practical, the real, the less will he value Seneca. The more a man envelops himself in words and ideas without exact meaning, the less will he comprehend a writer who does not merely deal in words, but has ideas with something to correspond to them. Montaigne (Defence of Seneca and Plutarch) says: "the familiarity I have had with these two authors, and the assistance they have lent to my age and to my book, which is wholly compiled of what I have borrowed from them, obliges me to stand up for their honour." In another place (Essay of Books) he compares Seneca and Plutarch in his usual lively way: his opinion of the philosophical works of Cicero is not so favourable as of Seneca's; and herein many people will agree with him. The judgment of Ritter (Geschichte der Philosophie, vol. iv. p. 189) is a curious specimen of criticism. If Diderot is extravagant in his praise of Seneca, Ritter and others are equally extravagant in their censure. Ritter finds contradictions in Seneca; and such we may expect in a man who lived the life that he did. We cannot suppose that his conscience always approved of his acts. A practical philosopher, who has lived in the world, must often have done that which he would wish undone; and the contradiction which appears between a man's acts and his principles will appear in his writings. Ritter remarks that he has treated of the doctrines of Seneca at some length, because they show how little talent the Romans had for philosophy. Perhaps the historian of Philosophy may provoke a like remark by his criticisms. Seneca applied himself chiefly to Ethic, which in its wide sense is the art of living happily, without which philosophy has no value. To Physic he paid some attention, and he does not undervalue it as an instrument towards an end. Of the other division of philosophy, Logic, he knew little and cared nothing; and it is of no value except so far as it may be an aid to Physic and Ethic. Ritter says: "his zeal to establish a science which shall be simple and merely adapted for the practical purpose of purity of morals, carries him so far, that he declares even the liberal sciences and philosophical Physic to be useless, so far as they are not capable of application to Ethic. This zeal leads him to expressions which are scarcely reconcileable with a philosophical style of thinking. To wish to know no more than is necessary is a kind of intemperance; such a knowledge makes us only proud: he considers it as a sample of the prevailing luxury." The passages to which Ritter refers are in the Epistolae (Ep. 88, 106). The latter contains the striking passage: "sed nos ut caetera in supervacuum diffundimus, ita philosophiam ipsam. Quemadmodum omnium rerum, sic litterarum quoque intemperantia laboraraus; non vitae, sed scholae discimus." Which is the wiser, Seneca or his critic, let every man judge for himself. There is enough in Ethic, or the practical application of knowledge to life, to employ us all. Those who have no taste for Ethic, as thus understood, may indulge, if they have money and leisure, in the "intemperantia litterarum," of which kind of intemperance a large part of all literature is an example.
Seneca, like other educated Romans, rejected the superstition of his country: he looked upon the ceremonials of religion as a matter of custom and fashion, and nothing more. His religion is simple Deism: the Deity acts in man and in all things; which is the same thing that Paul said when he addressed the Athenians, "for in him (God) we live and move and have our being" (Acts, xvii. 28). Indeed there have been persons who, with the help of an active imagination, have made Seneca a Christian, and to have been acquainted with Paul, which is a possible thing, but cannot be proved. The resemblance between many passages in Seneca and passages in the New Testament is merely an accidental circumstance. Similar resemblances occur in the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Antoninus. The fourteen letters of Seneca to Paul, which are printed in the old editions of Seneca, are apocryphal.
Seneca wrote other works which are no longer extant, though the titles of some of them are known. Quintilian (Inst. Or. x. 1. § 128) says, "he treated also on almost every subject of study; for both orations of his, and poems, and epistles, and dialogues, are extant." The fragments of the lost works are contained in the complete editions of Seneca. Niebuhr discovered the fragment of a work on Friendship in the Vatican, and the beginning of another "De Vita Patris."
Besides the works which have been enumerated there are extant ten tragedies, which are attributed to Seneca: Quintilian (Inst. Or. ix. 2. § 9) and other Latin writers quote these plays as the works of Seneca. The plays are entitled Hercules Furens, Thyestes, Thebais or Phoenissae, Hippolytus or Phaedra, Oedipus, Troades or Hecuba, Medea, Agamemnon, Hercules Oetaeus, and Octavia. After all the discussion that there has been about the authorship of these tragedies, there seems no other person to whom we can assign them than Seneca, the teacher of Nero. The titles themselves, with the exception of the Octavia, indicate sufficiently what the tragedies are, Greek mythological subjects treated in a peculiar fashion. They are written in Iambic senarii, interspersed with choral parts, in anapaestic and other metres. The subject of the Octavia is Nero's ill-treatment of his wife, his passion for Poppaea, and the exile of Octavia. Seneca himself is one of the personages of the drama, and he is introduced in the second act, deploring the vices of the age and his own unhappiness in his elevated station. There seems no reason why this tragedy should not be attributed to the same author as the other nine, except the fact that it is not contained in the oldest Florentine MS. of the tragedies; nor is there such difference between this and the other tragedies, in character and expression, as to make it a probable conclusion that it is not by the same hand. If it is a work of Seneca, it must have been written after the exile of Octavia, A. D. 62. [Octavia.]
These tragedies are not adapted, and certainly were never intended for the stage. They were designed for reading or for recitation after the Roman fashion, and they bear the stamp of a rhetorical age. The Greek tragedies themselves, of which these Latin tragedies are an imitation in form only, are overloaded with declamation, especially those of Euripides. The tragedies of Seneca contain many striking passages, and have some merit as poems. Moral sentiments and maxims abound, and the style and character of Seneca are as conspicuous here as in his prose works. But there is a wonderful difference between the Latin tragic writer and the Greek dramatists. A comparison of the Medea of Euripides and of Seneca is instructive: the dullest understanding will feel that the Greek play is intended and is suited for acting, and that the Roman play was not intended for the stage, and could not be acted. These Roman tragedies are, in fact, little more than dramas in name and in form: the form, indeed, is precisely Greek, but there is no substance under the form. The Octavia, which some critics violently condemn, is perhaps the best of them, viewed as a drama. There is something to move the affections: there is a tragical situation of an unhappy woman suffering from a brutal husband and a rival favourite, and a catastrophe in the wretched fate of Octavia. The study of the tragedies of Seneca has had some influence on the French drama.
The editio princeps of Seneca is that of Naples, 1475, folio. The subsequent editions of the whole works of Seneca and of particular treatises are numerous. The edition of J. F. Gronovius, Leiden, 1649—1658, is in 4 vols. 12mo.: that of Ruhkopf, Leipzig, 1797—1811, 5 vols. 8vo.; Bipont edition, Strassburg, 1809, 5 vols. 8to. There are three complete French translations of the works of Seneca, of which that of Lagrange is the last, and is said to be the best. The last edition of Lagrange's version is that of Paris, 1819, 13 vols. 12mo.: the life of Seneca makes the fourteenth volume. The French translations of particular treatises are very numerous.
A list of the English translations of Seneca, or of separate treatises, is contained in Brüggemann's work. The first edition of "The Workes of L. Annaeus Seneca, both Morall and Naturall, translated by Thos. Lodge, D. in Physicke," was published in London in 1614, with a Latin dedication to Chancellor Ellesmere; and "The Life of L. Annaeus Seneca described by Justus Lipsius." This translation contains all the works of Seneca except the Apocolocyntosis, and the Epistles to Paul. The translation has considerable merit, and was a great thing for a man to do who also translated Josephus, and in other respects contributed to the literature of England.
One of the best editions of the tragedies of Seneca is that by Schröder, Delft, 1728, 4to. There is an edition by F. H. Bothe, Leipzig, 1819, 2 vols. 8vo. There are two French translations of the tragedies, the latter of which is by M. Levée in his Théâtre des Latins, Paris, 3 vols, 8vo. 1822. An English translation of the tragedies by several hands appeared in 1581.
Bähr, Geschichte der Römischen Literatur, vol. i. contains very copious references to all the literature that belongs to the works of Seneca. [G. L.]