Moral letters by Seneca

What do you need to be a good man? Willpower.
(Letter 80, section 4)

Whatever you do, keep death in mind.
(Letter 114, section 27)

You must embed these thoughts deep in your heart, Lucilius.
(Letter 7, section 12)

Stoicism

The thing about Stoic philosophy is how wrong its premises are and how banal its teachings.

Stoics believed there is a God, that the universe or Nature is God, or God suffuses Nature. Human beings were created by God with a spark of Divine Reason within us. Our job is to clear away all the clutter of work, society, gossip, all relationships, friends and family, all the clamour which clogs up our lives, including all our own passions and emotions, love, anger and so on – in order to cultivate this fragment of the Divine Reason in each of is and, by doing so, bring our lives into alignment with the values of the universe/God. Then, by cultivating detachment from all earthly worries and passions, by strengthening our minds, we can prepare for the worst the world has to throw at us and defuse the ultimate terror, the fear of death.

That’s it. You can vary the wording and multiply the precepts with lots of specific examples (avoid gossip, avoid crowds, eat moderately, don’t get drunk, treat everyone with respect – ponder with the worst possible outcomes so nothing surprises you, analyse every situation with detachment), but it’s that simple and, after the initial novelty has worn off, that boring.

Seneca

The Roman author, tutor, Stoic philosopher, politician and immensely rich man, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC to 65 AD) is called Seneca the Younger because his father (54 BC to 39 AD) – author of a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric (which survives) and a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life (which is lost) – had the exact same name, so is known as Seneca the Elder.

Seneca the Younger, much more famous than his father, is sometimes just referred to as Seneca.

Seneca wrote a prodigious amount; later critics said too much. E.F. Watling, in his Penguin edition of Seneca’s plays, says that his best-loved works are the letters he wrote to one specific friend, Lucilius. Seneca himself titled these the Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (‘Moral Letters to Lucilius’), also known in English as the ‘Letters from a Stoic’. Seneca wrote this collection of 124 letters at the end of his life, from approximately 63 to 65 AD, after he had largely retired as tutor and adviser to the Emperor Nero, a post he’d held since 49 – sixteen years.

The letters are addressed to Lucilius Junior who was then procurator of Sicily and is known to posterity only through Seneca’s writings. (Seneca also dedicated his dialogue On Providence and his encyclopedic Natural Questions to this same Lucilius.)

Scholars fret about whether these were ‘real’ letters, and what the structure of correspondence was – did Seneca only respond to questions sent him by Lucilius? Where is Lucilius’s half of the correspondence? etc. But whether or not they were ever part of a ‘real’ correspondence, it is clear that Seneca wrote these letters with a wider readership in mind. They contain numerous carefully crafted passages obviously aimed at posterity and are structured so as to cover a wide range of subjects dear to Stoics. The 124 letters were published grouped together into 20 ‘books’.

Philosophy as therapy

The letters amount to a series of short moral lessons, designed to help Lucilius achieve the wisdom and peace of mind (‘a calm and correct state of mind,’ Letter 4) promised by Stoic doctrine. In order to do this the letters focus on the traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as removing oneself from the crowd; cultivating a contempt of death; learning to endure the ups and downs of life; acknowledging virtue as the supreme good, and so on.

The key point which the translator of the Oxford University Press edition, Elaine Fantham, makes in her introduction, is that the letters do not amount to a systematic exposition of Stoicism. Almost the reverse. They are like a series of lessons on ad hoc, specific topics, often beginning with an everyday experience and then extracting from it an insight or type of behaviour which Seneca tells Lucilius he can adopt in order to improve himself. Each letter contains ‘a little bit of profit’ (5) – like instalments in a self-help correspondence course.

Seneca wrote the letters not to promote a complete finished system of thought: he wasn’t necessarily interested in extrapolating a comprehensive system. As Fantham says, Seneca put moral impact before intellectual debate. He ‘puts the ability to avoid fear and desire ahead of any intellectual expertise’ (note, page 298). Seneca gave the work a new type of name, Epistulae Morales, and wrote them with a moral purpose to promote moral behaviour.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds…it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done and what to be avoided. (16)

Thus Seneca instructs Lucilius not about this or that point of abstract philosophical doctrine – but over and over again tells him that he must repeat certain thoughts in order to put them into practice, to make them part of his everyday waking thoughts.

Only Philosophy will wake us up, it alone will shake off our heavy sleep, so dedicate yourself wholly to it. (53.8)

Possibly the most consistent lesson (repeated so many times it gets a little boring) is cultivating a ‘contempt’ for death. When death comes it is over; it is nothing. We need to live with the idea of our death all the time, to get accustomed to it, so as to eliminate all fear and anxiety about it:

  • Let us order our minds so that we wish for whatever circumstances demand, and especially let us think about our ends without sadness. We need to be prepared for death before we are prepared for life. (61.3)
  • The more men have accustomed themselves to hardship, the more easily they will endure it. (76.34)
  • Whatever has been long anticipated comes as a lighter blow. (78.29)
  • Everyone approaches a hazard to which he has long squared himself with more courage and resists harsh events by contemplating them in advance. (107.4)

This accustoming to death takes effort so we must ‘practice thinking this over each day’ (4.5) and ‘ensure that what is now an urge becomes a lasting disposition’ (17.6).

Virtue does not come to a mind unless it is trained and taught and brought to its highest condition by constant exercise. (90.46)

Repeat, practice, memorise. The letters are lessons in how to think, in how to live life in order to maximise calm and reason, mental or psychological exercises which must be learned through constant repetition.

  • You must persist and build up strength by constant diligence until what is now a good intention becomes a good state of mind. (16.1)
  • These are things we must learn, in fact learn by heart. (123.17)

In this respect, the OUP is a good edition because Fantham precedes every letter with a short summary of its main topics, of its time and place of composition, and how it relates to other letters on the same topic. This is extremely useful. (Mind you, the 1917 translation by Richard Mott Gummere which is available online has something the Fantham edition hasn’t, which is attributing each letter a title such as ‘On saving time’, ‘On discursiveness in reading’ and so on. I imagine these titles aren’t in the original but they are extremely useful in remembering at a glance which letter is about what.)

There is some background information about Roman society, but not as much as you’d hope for, certainly nothing like the chatty detail you get in Cicero’s wonderful letters (Seneca consciously distances himself from Cicero’s style and gossipy subject matter in letter 118).

Like all Roman writers, Seneca now and then cites famous Roman heroes or historical figures as examples of ‘virtue’ (notably Marcus Porcius Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC, as the example of fortitude in the face of death; or Gaius Mucius Cordus who unflinchingly put his hand into a fire to prove his bravery).

There is a description of the lives of the super-rich at Baiae (51), a fascinating portrait of the conditions of slaves (47), a vivid comparison of the spartan bathhouses of old with their modern luxurious equivalents (86), a description of the grand retinues of foreign slaves rich people insist on travelling with (123), a description of viticulture and grafting techniques (86). Mostly, though, the letters are disappointing from a social history point of view. Philosophy is drab.

This Oxford University Press edition does not contain all of the letters – it contains 80 out of 124 (introduction p.xxxv) – but still claims to be the largest selection available in print.

Epistolary traditions

In a throwaway remark, Fantham indicates that there were two types of letter, two epistolary traditions: the philosophical letter of advice (pioneered by Epicurus, born 341 BC, and into which these letters fall) and chatty personal correspondence (Cicero, born 106 BC). [She doesn’t mention a third type which occurs to me, which is the crafted verse epistle as epitomised by Horace’s Letters or Ovid’s Black Sea Letters.]

The problem of suicide

A major stumbling block is Seneca’s worldview, the classical Roman worldview, which promotes suicide as a noble, honourable and virtuous response to all kinds of social humiliations, setbacks, not least the threats from tyrannical power.

It is a noble thing to die honourably, prudently and bravely. (77)

Part of the reason for cultivating a contempt for death, for having death continually in your thoughts, is so that, when the moment comes, it will feel like only a small additional step to fall on your sword or open your veins in a hot bath.

How many people death has been useful to, how many it frees from torture, poverty, laments, punishment, weariness. We are not in any man’s power when death is in our power. (91.21)

The historical model Seneca invokes repeatedly is Cato, who committed suicide in 46 BC two years into the civil war, when he was governor of Utica, a city in North Africa, as Julius Caesar’s army was closing in. Cato killed himself to deprive Caesar of the power of either executing him or (more likely) humiliatingly pardoning him, meaning he would ignominiously owe the rest of his existence to a tyrant.

Desiring neither option, Cato stabbed himself. In the event failed to kill himself, a doctor was called who patched up his stomach wound, gave him medicine, put him to bed. In the night Cato placed his fingers into the stomach wound, ripped it open, and proceeded to pull out his intestines until he died of shock. This is held up by Seneca as exemplary behaviour.

This makes sense within the long Roman tradition of preferring honourable suicide to dishonour, but it is just not a worldview any modern person shares and Cato is not a role model any modern person would wish to copy. Of course, this strand in Seneca’s writings is magnified by the fact that Seneca himself did something similar, committing suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero, his one-time pupil, in an exemplary fashion, calmly dictating notes about Stoic resilience as he bled to death in a hot bath.

Thus he has gone down as a hero of high-minded Stoicism but there are numerous objections to this notion. One is that plenty, thousands, of other Roman notables killed themselves over the centuries, famous examples being Anthony and Cleopatra, and they weren’t Stoic philosophers. So Seneca’s high-minded end wasn’t unique, far from it, it was a very common behaviour among the aristocratic class in the ancient world, and not only under the Empire but the Republic, too.

So a) it was far from being an act unique to ‘philosophers’ but b) it is obviously something very remote indeed from modern society. Sure, people still kill themselves. But not many people kill themselves at the command of an emperor, or to demonstrate their high-minded command over their destiny and a Stoic rising above the petty concerns of life and death. This whole worldview is so remote as to be science fiction.

There seems to me something perverse, almost creepy, about a philosophy which is constantly preparing its followers for death and for suicide. The words ‘death’ or ‘die’ recur on every page. I infinitely prefer Horace’s encouragement to enjoy life to the full while we can.

Come, let’s
Go to the cave of love
And look for music in a jollier key.
(Horace Odes, book 2, poem 1)

Themes in the letters

Despise death

We start to die from the day we are born. When we die there is nothing. There was nothing before life and there will be nothing after. So be not afraid.

  • What I am recommending to you is not just a remedy for this disease but for your whole life: despise death. (78.5)
  • First free yourself from the fear of death. (80.5)

Freedom

Despising death means we are free from the threats of tyrants or society. What is the worst they can do to us if we despise the worst, consider it nothing? Nothing can harm the calm and virtuous mind. By welcoming whatever will happen, it creates its own freedom no matter what the external circumstances. With typical extremity of metaphor or rhetoric, Seneca continually contrasts freedom, not with being bogged down or caught up or hampered by obligations – such as most of us encounter in real life – but with full-on hardcore Roman slavery:

  • You ask what is liberty? To be enslaved to no object, no necessity, no chances, to reduce Fortune to a level field. (51.9)
  • We must busy ourselves with our studies and the sources of wisdom…this is how we should rescue our mind from a most wretched enslavement and restore it to liberty. (104.16)
  • We have enslaved our spirit to pleasure whose indulgence is the beginning of all evils. (110.10)

Now it makes sense that Seneca uses as metaphor the slavery which was, arguably, the central fact of Roman life. But as with the way his mind, when he wants to imagine examples of adversity, leaps straight towards images of torture and execution, it’s another example of the extremity of metaphor and argument which underpins his ‘philosophy’ and makes so much of it feel so alien to the modern mind.

True friendship

Gauge a man before making him a friend. Be cautious, test out friends. But once someone is a friend, bind them to you, share everything with them. True friends share everything, including misfortune. Seneca says you have to learn to be a friend to yourself.

Avoid crowds

‘Shun whatever pleases the common herd’ (8). One iniquitous example can adversely affect you. A crowd presents all kinds of bad examples. People are emboldened to behave badly in crowds. So withdraw into yourself and study philosophy, but not so conspicuously as to draw attention or criticism. Don’t draw attention to your retirement and quietism. Quietly disappear.

Your body

A great and cautious man separates his mind from his body and spends the better part of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Provide it only as much as needed to preserve good health. Avoid excess. Consume as much plain drink as required to quench thirst, as much plain food as to quench hunger, the minimum clothes to protect you from the elements, a house sufficient to protect you from the weather.

Devote some days to eating as little as possible. Become familiar with the bare minimum needed to keep alive and healthy (so that if exile to a bare rock or sudden incarceration befall you, your body is ready for much reduced circumstances).

Don’t exercise to excess. Do as much as needed to keep healthy. Reserve your energy for cultivating the mind.

As to physical pleasures, avoid them like the plague; they enslave the body and then the mind.

  • Uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • First of all we must reject pleasures; they make men weak and effeminate and demand too much time and effort. (104.34)

Your house

Your house should be a size and contain only as much as needed to protect you from the elements. Despise ornament and decoration.

Possessions

Have as few as possible. ‘No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions.’ (18.13) Have them, but adopt a mindset where you could happily dispense with all of them, where they are all taken from you and you don’t care a jot, because you are secure in the untroubled citadel of your mind.

Enough

Don’t overdo it: don’t mortify your body, don’t insist on eating bread and water, living in a hut, neglecting your body, like the Cynics who, following Diogenes, set out to punish their bodies. Live comfortably and sensibly, just not to excess.

  • So correct yourself, take off your burdens and shrink your desires within a healthy limit. (104.20)

How to be content

And cultivate contentment by being happy with what you’ve got.

  • I will tell you how you can recognise the healthy man: he is content with himself. (72.7)
  • This is what philosophy will guarantee you, something which nothing surpasses: you will never be dissatisfied with yourself. (115.18)

Excess

Similar to his thoughts about suicide and anger, in that it sounds reasonable of Seneca to tell his follower not live to excess, but what Seneca has in mind is Roman excess, the off-the-scale lavishness and baroque luxury of the Roman emperors and the richest in the known world (as described in the letters from the fashionable resort of Baiae, 49, 51).

  • Too many amenities make the spirit effeminate…The stricter discipline of a simpler place strengthens the mind and makes it fit for great undertakings. (51.10-11)

The general point is not so much that indulgence is morally bad in itself: but that people enslave themselves by indulging the pleasures of the senses, deform their minds, make themselves into addicts, by coming to rely on excessive behaviour, on excessive drinking, excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive gambling.

It’s not so much that moderation is good in itself but that it stops you developing addictions and so becoming enslaved to them. Moderation leaves your mind free to focus on more important, ‘higher’ things. Moderation sets you free from all the snares of the senses.

That is why:

We ought to concentrate on escaping as far as possible from the provocations to vice. One’s mind must be hardened and dragged away from the enticements of pleasure. (51.5)

Anger

Quite apart from the letters, Seneca wrote no fewer than three treatises on anger. Fantham makes a really profound point about this which depends, again, on the profound difference between us and Roman society. This is that Roman emperors had complete power over all citizens, and all citizens had complete power over huge numbers of slaves. In this society an angry citizen could order his slave to be tortured or killed, just as an angry emperor could order anyone he fancied to be exiled, thrown into gaol, tortured or executed. Therefore controlling anger was much, much more important than it is in our society. Anger is not a good emotion with us but could have catastrophic consequences in Seneca’s world.

The mind

‘Nothing deserves admiration except the mind’ (9). The mind alone is worth cultivating. No other skills, activities, pastimes are worth cultivating.

  • Control your mind so as to bring it to perfection in the most calm condition, a mind which feels neither what is taken from it nor added to it, but keeps the same disposition however affairs turn out. (36.6)
  • A great and cautious man separates his mind from the body and spends much of his time with his better and divine part. (78.10)

Moral behaviour

Imagine the most moral, honourable person you can. Then imagine they are watching everything you say or do.

Fear, anxiety, stress

All these are caused by worry that the worst is going to happen. Well, imagine the worst has happened. Live with the worst, imaginatively – prepare yourself for the worst. Once you dispel anxiety about unnamed and exaggerated fears, you can get rid of the panic and examine the issue rationally, restoring order and calm to the mind, allowing Reason to operate unhampered by over emotions.

Philosophy

Philosophy, for Seneca, isn’t the working out of a complex system or ideology: it is a psychological or spiritual practice. It is an exercise to attain an attitude, cultivated with the sole aim of making its practitioner mentally strong and resilient against tyranny, suffering and death.

Philosophy is not a skill shaped for popular appeal or for display; it does not consist of words but of deeds. It is not taken up to make sure the day passes with some enjoyment, to take the boredom out of leisure; it moulds and shapes the mind, arranges one’s life, controls one’s actions, points out what is to be done or avoided; it is seated at the helm and steers the course of those adrift among treacherous shoals. Without it no man can live without fear or anxiety; countless things occur each hour that need the advice which we must seek from philosophy. (16.3)

Philosophy may include technical aspects such as types of argument and syllogism (which he consistently ridicules and dismisses for its pedantry) but, far more importantly, Seneca sees ‘philosophy’ as a kind of mental fortress, a psychological redoubt:

So withdraw into philosophy as far as you may; she will protect you in her bosom and in her shrine you will be safe. (103.4)

In doing so, it can raise us above the level of mere mortals:

This is what philosophy promises me, to make me equal to a god. (48.11)

Slavery

As you might expect Seneca admonishes Lucilius to treat his slaves as equals because they are as human as you or I:

Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. (47.10)

But, just as predictably, Seneca doesn’t actually recommend actually freeing them. (In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Juvenal’s Satires, Peter Green says this attitude was typical of Stoics: ‘[Juvenal] attacked wanton cruelty to slaves, but did not query the concept of slavery itself (another characteristically Stoic attitude.)] Introduction, page 23)

Letter 47 is fascinating for giving an extended description of the types of functions slaves performed in an aristocratic household and the brutal punishments they were liable to for the slightest infraction.

(It is a secondary consideration that in the long letter 90, a detailed list of the technical achievements and innovations which make up civilisation, Seneca despises them all and considers all of them – agriculture and irrigation and milling grain to make bread and architecture and glass windows and all the rest of it – only worthy of slaves and freedmen [who, apparently, largely made up the artisan class of Rome] and so far beneath an aristocrat like himself and his friend Lucilius. Aristocrats needed to rise above these slave occupations in order to practice the only thing worthwhile activity for humans, to cultivate the mind, perfect reason, acquire wisdom, so as to rise above passions and fear of death. That is the primary aim of the letter, but in order to make the point what comes over is a contempt for the artisan class, for engineers and innovators and craftsmen, which makes me dislike Seneca even more. His assumption is that all the achievements of the thousands of people who had perfected all aspects of civilisation and raised it to the luxurious heights of his day only matter insofar as they allow him to perfect his wonderful mind. It’s a privileged narcissism which is, in its own arrogant way, every bit as corrupt as the decadent court of the arch-egotist Nero.)

Self-help slogans

The book is stacked with improving and inspiring thoughts of the kind which have become over-familiar in the subsequent 2,000 years, particularly the last 50 years or so of self-help books.

  • I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. (2.1)
  • The best measure of wealth is to have what is necessary and the next best, is to have enough. (2.5)
  • The man at ease should take action, and the man at action should take ease. (5)
  • Who is well born? The man well set up by nature for virtue…it is the spirit that makes one noble. (44.5)
  • Nature made us teachable and gave us an imperfect reason but one which can be perfected. (50.11)

Although Seneca’s long porridgey paragraphs have the heavy feel of ‘philosophy’, the quality of the argumentation is often weak and many of the actual injunctions feel more like daytime TV, self-help guru-talk than Hegel or Hume. Once or twice he came close to the banal catchphrase mocked in the old TV sitcom, Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em: ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

I rejoice that you are studying with perseverance and abandoning all else for this one thing, to make yourself a better man each day. (5.1)

Critique

As with all philosophy, and especially ‘moral’ philosophy, there is no end to the debate, discussion, critique and commentary which the Letters from a Stoic have spawned over the past 2,000 years. A handful of themes struck me:

1. Simplistic values

The most obvious, for me, is the extreme difference in the social context between Seneca and us and in particular his concept of negative life events. For Seneca a bad turn of events is an ever-present threat under the tyranny of imperial rule. It is associated with prison, torture, enslavement and all the other dire possibilities of life under arbitrary Roman emperors such as Nero. Thus there is a misleading simplicity to most of his meditations. When he imagines something bad, it’s being thrown into prison or tortured or executed by the emperor. The conception of negative life events which he uses to underpin his entire Stoic system is disconcertingly simple and extreme – exile, torture, death – and so the mental lesson he is teaching is concomitantly simplistic: prepare your mind to be strong and noble under torture or the threat of death (see the harping on about torture and death in letters 67 and 70).

But not many modern readers of the letters are going to have the same concerns – that they will thrown into prison, tortured or forced to commit suicide at the whim of a Roman emperor. The worst things I can imagine happening to me are: being in a life-changing accident i.e. becoming wheelchair-bound or having a stroke; being diagnosed with a terminal or life-changing illness; something bad happening to my loved ones, especially my children. But my day-to-day worries are more humdrum, recalcitrant, fiddly, frustrating: worried about my performance at work, this or that bit of the house needs maintenance, I’m worried about money, about not being able to pay my bills – fuel bills, heating bills, food bills.

I know Stoic thought can be applied to these modern circumstances i.e. I should try to cultivate mental detachment and resilience so I am ready to face bad events and rise above them. But the extremity and the simpleness of the situations Seneca describes and which form the basis of his entire philosophy (arbitrary arrest, torture, execution) rarely if ever occur in modern Western life and so all his much-repeated lessons rarely if at all apply to me. Modern life is more complex and multi-faceted than Seneca’s philosophy allows.

Seneca’s ‘philosophy’ is worth reading as an extremely vivid insight into the mindset of the Stoic classes during the tyranny of Nero but is, in my opinion, of limited use or value to modern readers leading modern lives.

2. Hypocrisy

I’ve just read Tacitus’s Annals where Seneca is described as being one of the richest men in Rome, with mansions as big as Nero’s and gardens even bigger, hundreds of servants, immense wealth in gold and assets. (In fact Seneca’s extreme wealth became proverbial to later generations: Juvenal’s tenth satire describes how Seneca, ‘grown too wealthy’ lost his magnificent gardens.) So it’s pretty ironic, knowing the man was a byword for obscene wealth, to read Seneca’s continual recommendation of the plain, simple life, eschewing pleasure and cultivating virtue. It’s easy advice for the ridiculously rich to give. The hypocrisy is summed up by a character in John Marston’s 1603 play, The Malcontent, which Watling quotes:

Out upon him! He writ of temperance and fortitude, yet lived like a voluptuous epicure and died like an effeminate coward. (The Malcontent, Act 3, scene 1, line 28)

Not quite accurate (Seneca definitely did not die ‘like an effeminate coward’) but the first half, the epicure accusation, has force. This point was epitomised, for me, in a throwaway remark of Seneca’s in a letter which is intended to be about exercise and physical frailty:

I have just returned from my ride. I am just as tired as if I had walked as far as I have been sitting. It is an effort to be carried for a long time, and I rather think the effort is greater because riding is contrary to nature. (55.1)

It is an effort to be carried for a long time. (In a sedan chair, presumably.) Well, what about the slaves who were doing the carrying? Bet it was a bit of an effort for them, too. Seneca’s writings cannot escape from the taint of the astonishing level of privilege enjoyed by his class in general, and the extraordinarily privileged lifestyle enjoyed by him – according to Tacitus the richest man in Rome – in particular.

3. How Christians appropriated Stoic rhetoric

Many of the lessons Seneca spells out to Lucilius are very familiar from the long tradition of Western moralists, from Erasmus, through Montaigne, on into the Enlightenment and then diffused out into the broader culture by thousands of Victorian moralists.

My mum used to tell us kids, ‘Moderation in everything’. You don’t need to read Seneca to already know half of his nostrums and tags. I suggest that much of it seems so familiar because Stoic teachings were taken over wholesale by the early Christians and formed the basis of much Christian everyday morality. Obviously not the bits specific to Christian theology (the Fall, Original Sin, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection etc) but the fundamental theist worldview is often indistinguishable from Christianity:

  • No one is worthy of God unless he despises possessions. (18.13)
  • God is near you, he is with you, he is within you. (41.1)
  • What is enough for God is not too little for masters. (47.18)
  • The place which God occupies in this universe is the place which mind occupies in man. (65.24)
  • God comes to men. Indeed, what is actually nearer, he comes into men. No mind is good without God. (73.16)
  • Whatever is good for us our God and father placed at hand. (110.10)

My point is that in the advice about day-to-day living, the Christians appropriated Stoic teachings so completely that the advice to Lucilius to cultivate the mind, avoid the crowd and their superficial entertainments, practice virtue, despise the knocks of Fortune and cultivate a contempt for death – all these are the familiar background hum of Christian morality, the subjects of hundreds of thousands of Sunday sermons and public lectures, recycled on radio phone-ins and daytime TV and millions of self-help columns in magazines and newspapers and books. Which explains why when we moderns come to read Seneca we are so rarely surprised and so often find his nostrums familiar and reassuring.

4. Repetition

Above all, like any good teacher, he repeats the same key points again and again, in different formulations, approached from different angles, but coming back again and again to the same fundamental idea: rise above the fortuitous events of your life; rise above all emotions and attachments; cultivate ‘philosophy’, which means a Buddhist detachment from everyone else and even from yourself; live with the idea of death so continually that it eventually presents no fears. And then you will have conquered yourself, your fear of death and you will be…free.

  • I am forcing my mind to focus on itself and not be distracted by outside events…The real calm is when a good state of mind unfolds. (56.6)
  • The wise man is full of joy, cheerful and calm, undisturbed. He lives on equal terms with the gods…The wise man’s mind is like the universe beyond the moon: there it is always fine and calm. (59.14)
  • Abandon those distractions which men have rushed to enjoy; abandon riches, which are either a danger or a burden to their possessors; leave the pleasures of body and mind, which soften and weaken you; abandon ambition, which is a bloated, hollow and windy condition with no limit. (84.11)
  • There is only one way the dawn can come: if a man takes in this knowledge of things human and divine and does not just sprinkle it over himself but but steeps himself in it; if he goes over the same things repeatedly (110.8)

But repetition is not argumentation. Despite Seneca using the word ‘philosophy’ all the time, this isn’t really philosophy at all. It is, as I’ve said, more like exhortation to a good frame of mind, moral uplift, encouragement to develop a tough attitude, therapy for the anxious, a self-help manual. And incredibly repetitive.

Unvexed by terrors and uncorrupted by pleasures we shall dread neither death nor the gods. We shall know that death is not an evil and the gods do not exist for evil. What harms us is as weak as what is harmed; the best things lack the power to harm. What awaits us, if we ever emerge from these dregs to the sublime and lofty region, is peace of mind and liberty free from the errors which have been driven out. What does that liberty consist of? Not fearing men or gods; wanting neither what is base nor excessive; having the greatest power over oneself. It is an incalculable good to become one’s own master. (75.17-18)

5. Family and friends

In nearly 300 pages of relentless insistence that we rise above all attachments and emotions, nowhere does he mention family (in just one letter, 104, he mentions his wife, Paulina).

Family was a very big thing indeed for noble Romans, so it’s a striking absence in the context of Seneca’s own time. But regarded as instructions for modern readers, his insistence on boiling your life right down to a relentless focus on cultivating your virtue and your indifference to death completely ignores the scores of relationships most people have in their lives, starting with their family.

Most modern therapy involves getting to grip with your childhood experiences and your relationship with your parents. But parents, spouses or children are completely absent from Seneca’s teachings. His Stoicism is an impressively selfish concern, in which he endlessly exhorts Lucilius to forget about everyone but himself, to focus on his own mind and anxiety of death etc, to think about no-one but me me me.

This makes his ‘philosophy’ inapplicable, in practice, to anyone who has parents, partners or children and really cares for them, is involved in their day-to-day wellbeing and, especially when it comes to children, to their little triumphs or setbacks. None of that for Stoic Seneca. He is in his study toughening up his mind by envisaging torture in every detail so as to be able to rise above it, when the time comes.

But it struck me that this deliberate ignoring of family sheds light on and helps to explain the humanistic obsession with friendship. Seneca’s letters on the importance of having one, key soulmate-level friend are one of the sources for the obsession with friendship which is a central theme of humanist writings from the 15th century onwards.

Friends know that they have everything in common…the true friendship which neither hope nor fear nor self-interest can sever, the friendship with which men die and for which they die. (6.2)

It’s possible to interpret this obsession with Perfect friendship as the Stoic replacing the messy, uncontrollable web of family relationships, with all its unpredictable ups and downs, with One Relationship with One Special Friend. To use the modern buzzword, it’s a very controlling approach. When you read the great humanist works on this subject (Cicero, Montaigne, Bacon) what comes over is that you are only going to meet one or two soulmates in your life and that you will become identical in interests and affections with this one special person. In a science fiction kind of way, you and the True Friend of humanist tradition will become one person.

So, to put it crudely, humanist teaching about friendship a) is a way of ducking the uncontrollable mess of family ties and responsibilities and b) ends up with you looking in a mirror. Solipsistic narcissism.

Horace

As Roman ‘moralists’ go, I prefer Horace. He’s lighter, funnier, his affable tone is more persuasive, more inspiring for me, than Seneca’s dour and relentless lecturing. Seneca sounds like the tutor he was:

I hereby order you to be slow in speaking. (40.14)

Whereas Horace sounds like a friend offering gentle advice:

Try not to guess what lies in the future, but,
As Fortune deals days, enter them into your
Life’s book as windfalls, credit items,
Gratefully…
(Horace, Odes, book 1, poem 9)

Seneca thinks of himself as embattled – quick! time is short! the enemy is at the door! focus on the essentials!

  • I am being besieged right now…the enemy is at our backs…I need a heroic spirit (49.9)
  • Fortune is waging war with me but I will not do what she orders, I will not accept the yoke. (51.8)
  • A real man prefers his sleep to be broken by a bugle than a chorus. (51.12)

This sense of the world as a battlefield, a fight, a struggle against countless enemies all trying to seduce your God-given soul, was inherited by Christianity. It dominates the letters of St Paul who wrote the most influential letters in Christendom, and used rhetoric similar to Seneca when he urged his followers to ‘fight the good fight’ (First letter to Timothy).

To understand Paul, we must grasp that he is at war, with the angels of heaven at his back. The Acts of the Apostles is, at its base, a power-struggle between Christ and Satan, wrenching whole peoples away from Satan’s grasp. (Jesus Walk Bible Studies)

In contrast to this worldview of unrelenting embattled paranoia, Horace writes a letter to a friend inviting him to come round and try the new wine they’ve just bottled on his estate. There’ll be other friends there, and they’ll stay up late together laughing and joking. Seneca’s remedy for the fickleness of human existence is to be continually, constantly thinking about death all the time.

Give me courage to meet hardships; make me calm in the face of the unavoidable…Say to me when I lie down to sleep: ‘You may not wake again!’ And when I have waked: ‘You may not go to sleep again!’ Say to me when I go forth from my house: ‘You may not return!’ And when I return: ‘You may never go forth again!’

Well, you may win the lottery this weekend. You may run down the escalator and bump into the woman of your dreams. If you start speculating about things which may happen, the sky’s the limit. In which case – why focus only on the bad things which ‘may’ happen. Lovely things ‘may’ happen, too. Pondering Seneca’s use of the conditional to dwell only on the most extreme negative outcomes (torture, execution) makes the reader realise how much he is obsessed with the dark side of life, and so insists that we be brutally harsh with ourselves:

  • Cast out whatever desires are lacerating your heart and if they cannot be pulled out any other way then you must tear out your heart with them. In particular, uproot pleasures and treat them with absolute loathing. (51.13)
  • We believe pleasure is a moral failing…Pleasure is a shameful thing. (59.1-2)

What a stupid attitude. Horace has an equally frank acceptance of how time is limited and we are hurrying towards our deaths, but he draws the exact opposite conclusion, which is: carpe diem, enjoy the moment. Instead of considering yourself under siege from wicked temptations so that you have to harden your heart against all affection, think of life as a blessing, bless every moment it brings you, and savour the fleeting pleasures. Horace gets my vote.

Last word to Martial

Martial book 11, epigram 56, begins, in the translation by James Michie:

Because you glorify death, old Stoic,
Don’t expect me to admire you as heroic…

And ends ten lines later:

It’s easy to despise life when things go wrong;
The true hero endures much, and long.


Credit

Selected Letters of Seneca, translated and introduced by Elaine Fantham, was published as an Oxford University Press paperback in 2010. All quotes are from this edition.

Related links

Roman reviews

Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

**********

Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus – 2

Introduction

In the first of these two reviews of Tacitus’s Annals I briefly explained the background to the Annals and the development of ‘history’ as a genre up to Tacitus’s time, then went on to summarise Tacitus’s account of the reign of Tiberius, 14 to 37 AD.

Frustratingly, the manuscript we have of the Annals breaks off at the death of Tiberius and omits the four-year rule of Gaius (Caligula) from 37 to 41 AD, and the first six years of Gaius’s successor and uncle, Claudius i.e. from 41 to 47. Gaius’s reign is colourfully depicted in Suetonius’s Life of Caligula but Tacitus is invaluable because he embeds the scandal which Suetonius focuses on into a much more sober, year-by-year account of the humdrum legal and administrative acts of each emperor. They complement each other perfectly, which makes it all the more vexing that there’s such a big lacuna for the vital years of these key emperors.

To summarise the missing early part of Claudius, which we know from other sources: In 38 or early 39 AD, Claudius had married a third wife, Valeria Messalina, who was his first cousin once removed. Soon afterwards she gave birth to a daughter, Claudia Octavia. A son, initially named Tiberius Claudius Germanicus, and later known as Britannicus, was born just after Claudius’s accession in 41.

The translator of the Penguin edition of the Annals, Michael Grant, divides his text into two big parts, separated by this huge gap in the original text. Within each part he groups clumps of annals, or individual years, into long ‘chapters’, and gives these informative, dramatic titles. Grant’s divisions over-write Tacitus’s division of his work into 16 books and specific years. Grant’s chapters are as follows. (My previous review summarised part one of Grant’s text. This review addresses part two.)

Part two: Claudius and Nero

  1. The fall of Messalina (book 11)
  2. The Mother of Nero (book 12)
  3. The fall of Agrippina (book 13 to book 14 section 13)
  4. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  5. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  6. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  7. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  8. Innocent victims (book 16)

As I described in my previous post, on a careful rereading of the text I think it would have been better to have divided the text up by year rather than chapter, as Grant does. Starting a new section/chapter for each new year would reflect Tacitus’s intention, of producing a year-by-year ‘chronological sequence of events’, in Tacitus’s own words (p.269).

The annalistic approach is very formulaic: the account of each year starts with the announcement of who were the two consuls for that year (still, despite decades of imperial rule, very important figures, not least as the Romans’ main way of dating events). Then each year ends with a short list of notable Romans who died during that year. In between the two, Tacitus lists key events of that year in foreign policy and military campaigns, its notable laws and prosecutions, fires, food shortages and so on. That is the basic annalistic scaffold on which Tacitus then hangs his longer, more flowing descriptions of the activities of the emperors and royal family, along with (generally scathing) comments on their characters.

There is another, distinct strand to Tacitus’s work, which is his interest in foreign affairs i.e. the management of the Roman provinces (the appointment of new governors, the impeachment of existing governors for corruption). This covers the numerous tribal rebellions and wars on the borders, be they on the Rhine with the Germans, in the Middle East against the Parthians, or elsewhere. Tacitus devotes a lot of space to these, giving detailed accounts of diplomatic manoeuvrings, envoys to Rome etc, as well as vivid accounts of military campaigns and battles. Notable is the section about Britain under Claudius, including Caractacus’s noble plea for mercy when he was led in triumph through Rome (pages 264 to 269). But this whole area is so complex that (with the exception of Boudicca’s revolt) I’ve omitted it from my summary.

Claudius (reigned 41 to 54)

Historians nowadays consider Claudius to have been a ‘painstaking and bold administrator and reformer’ but, in Tacitus’s hands, the most memorable aspects of his reign are the portraits of his scheming and amoral third and fourth wives, Messalina and Agrippina.

(Just a reminder: these chapter titles are not in Tacitus, they are Michael Grant’s additions. And the years I give are also not in the text. The system of dating by BC or AD wasn’t invented until 500 years later, and wasn’t widely adopted till the Middle Ages. See M.I. Finley’s essay on the subject.)

In the summary that follows, the chapter titles in Heading 2 are Michael Grant’s. Sitting under them, in heading 3, are the years which Tacitus covers. I’ve made these. They are not clearly indicated in Grant’s text, or the original Tacitus. (Remember, Tacitus didn’t use the BC/AD system, he dated every year by the two consuls who served during it; whereas I have just used the year as per our Christian calendar). Where the year is notable for something important, such as the murder of Claudius or the revolt of Boudicca, I’ve added these into my year headings.

Chapter 9 The Fall of Messalina

47 AD

The big gap in Tacitus’s text resumes in 47 AD, in the middle of hectic events, as Claudius’s third wife, Messalina, takes aim at a rival, Poppaea Sabina.

Chronologers reckoned it was the 800th year since the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) and so Claudius held Secular Games. Prominent in them were Claudius’s son, Britannicus, who was six years old (b.41) and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who was 10 (b.37) who would soon be adopted as Claudius’s son and heir.

(Nero’s mother was Agrippina the Younger, who was herself the daughter of Germanicus and Agrippina the Elder. So Nero was popular with the mob for being the only surviving male descendant – the grandson – of the hugely popular Germanicus. Agrippina was also one of three sisters to Gaius, who had ruled as the emperor Caligula from 37 till he was assassinated in 41. Gaius was said to have had incestuous relations with all three of his sisters. Agrippina managed to survive Gaius’s short reign and lived on into Claudius’s, when she became one of the many targets of Claudius’s malevolent third wife, Messalina. However, Agrippina not only survived Messalina but, after the latter’s downfall and execution, replaced her as Claudius’s fourth and final wife.)

At about this time Messalina became infatuated with the best-looking man in Rome, Gaius Silius. She forced him to divorce his wife, Julia Silana, and host her at not particularly concealed assignations. They carried on their affair openly while the obtuse Claudius pursued his responsibilities as Censor.

Tacitus portrays Claudius as responsible and sensible: he carries out the census, he commands the building of a new aqueduct, he suggests three new letters are added to the Roman alphabet, he proposes to the senate the creation of a Board to support the art of soothsaying. In foreign policy Claudius forbade further aggression against the Germans and ordered Roman troops – who were building camps in recently occupied German territory – back across to the west bank of the Rhine.

48 AD

Claudius makes his famous intervention in a debate in the senate about whether Gauls, by now Roman citizens for three or four generations, should be allowed to run for office in Rome. Claudius argued strongly that they should, pointing out how Rome’s strength derived from its policy of assimilating neighbouring towns and tribe and then entire regions, turning enemies into loyal citizens. (This speech is regularly cited by historians as exemplifying the core secret of Rome’s success, which was assimilating territories and peoples into the empire.)

Claudius promoted senators of long standing to patrician rank as many patrician families had died out. He concluded his census which showed a citizen body of 5,984,072 (which presumably included all men, women and children; neither Tacitus nor Grant clarify whether this included slaves or not).

Meanwhile, Messalina pursued her affair, and while Claudius was busy at Ostia, she openly and bigamously married Silius. It might seem incredible that a consul designate and the emperor’s wife should marry:

But I am not inventing marvels. What I have told, and shall tell, is the truth. Older men heard and recorded it. (p.246)

According to Grant the reign of Claudius saw a great increase in the power of the secretaries of state, often ex-slaves, and three of these now informed Claudius, not only that his wife had bigamously remarried but had, in legal terms, divorced him – and that this opened the way for her new husband, Silius, to seize power.

The commander of ‘the Guard’ was summoned, confirmed the story and said Claudius must move fast to retain their loyalty. Claudius was panicking thinking this was a real coup attempt. Command was taken by Narcissus, ex-slave and secretary general. He it was who lined up a series of witnesses to testify to Messalina’s promiscuity, many affairs, degenerate behaviour, and now this bigamous marriage. Tacitus describes a bloodbath of officials who had helped or slept with Messalina and then how, at dinner that evening Claudius began to soften against his (absent) wife and so Narcissus moved quickly, instructing another slave to go to her house where he found her wretched, weeping on the ground beside her mother, and quickly run her through with a sword. The senate ordered all statues and public memorials to her name to be removed. Claudius never referred to her again.

This two or three pages of breathless narrative are rightly considered among Tacitus’s greatest passages, by which scholars mean it has the immediacy, pace and bloody inevitability of a thriller.

Chapter 10 The Mother of Nero (Agrippina)

Central to Tacitus’s critique is that Claudius was in thrall to the advice of his secretaries who were all freedmen, namely Narcissus who took the lead in getting rid of Messalina. Now they all proposed to Claudius various candidates for his next wife. But Agrippina took advantage of being Claudius’s niece and so often being in his company, plus being allowed to give him caresses and kisses. She seduced him and won the competition. Weak and easily led, Claudius asked the senate to pass a law allowing an uncle to marry his niece (Claudius was brother of the long-dead Germanicus, whose daughter Agrippina was.)

Tacitus describes how Lucius Vitellius worked his way into Agrippina’s good books by a) managing to derail the marriage of Claudius’s daughter, Octavia, to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus by falsely accusing the latter and having him dismissed – thus making Octavia available to be engaged to Agrippina’s son; and b) making a big speech in the senate asking for the law to be changed to allow uncles to marry nieces and for the senate to give Agrippina to Claudius as a kind of national gift.

Once in post Agrippina sought power in every way she could. This included recalling Lucius Annaeus Seneca, from exile. He had been banished by Claudius for adultery with Germanicus’s daughter, Julia Livilla. Now Agrippa recalled him (earning his gratitude) and made him tutor to her son. She enforced the suicide of one of her rivals, Lollia Paulina. Another lady whom the emperor casually praised, Calpurnia, was struck down.

Claudius decided to extend the boundaries of Rome, leading Tacitus into an interesting digression about the various sets of boundary markers (p.262).

50 AD

Responding to pressure from Agrippina’s agents Claudius adopted her son, Lucius Domitius, as his own. It was at this moment that the boy, previously a member of the Ahenobarbus clan, was awarded a name which ran in the Claudian clan, ‘Nero’, marking his entry into the prestigious (haughty and arrogant) gens Claudii. At the same time Agrippina was given the honorific ‘Augusta’.

In this year Tacitus gives detailed description of uprisings and wars in Britain.

51 AD

On the basis of a supposedly trivial incident – when Britannicus and Nero met and Nero greeted the other by his name but Britannicus greeted Nero as ‘Domitius’ – Agrippina claimed this was a alight against the decision of the senate and people of Rome and persuaded Claudius to banish or execute all Britannicus’s tutors. His guards and slaves loyal to him were dismissed. Some of the Guard commanders were loyal to Britannicus so they were replaced by Sextus Afranius Burrus, who knew who his boss was: Agrippina.

52 AD

Senators who couldn’t comply with the House’s financial requirements were expelled. Lucius Arruntius Furius Scribonianus was exiled for enquiring from astrologers about the emperor’s death. Claudius suggested a law that any woman marrying a slave should herself be enslaved. A tunnel was built linking the Fucine lake and the river Liris. Claudius held naval games on the lake to celebrate. Rebellion broke out in Judaea.

53 AD

Nero, now aged 16, married the emperor’s daughter, Claudia Octavia, born in 40 and so aged 12 or 13. This was arranged by Agrippina to solidify Nero’s position as the heir apparent. Agrippina continued her power-hungry and aggressive behaviour. She coveted the gardens of Titus Statilius Taurus and so got his deputy as governor of Africa to accuse and discredit him in the senate. Titus committed suicide. Agrippina got his gardens.

Claudius handed over sweeping powers to the order of knights, the issue at the heart of the civil war between Marius and Sulla back in the 80s BC. He exempted the island of Cos from taxation. The city of Byzantium pleaded for a remission of their taxes and this was granted.

54 AD – Murder of Claudius

Bad omens. Bees landed on the Capitol. Deformed animals were born. Agrippina decided to dispose of Domitia Lepida, her cousin once removed and Nero’s aunt, mother to Claudius’s previous wife, Messalina. She manoeuvred Claudius into having her executed (p.282).

Britannicus was now approaching his 14th birthday, traditionally the age when a Roman aristocrat began to play a part in public life. Agrippina began to worry that Claudius was beginning to regret adopting Nero and coming round to preferring his own son as successor so she moved quickly to poison her husband. She had poison supplied by the arch-poisoner, Locusta, and administered by the emperor’s taster, Halotus. She blocked anyone coming to see the body, giving out a story that the emperor was alive but ill, while she organised the smooth accession of Nero.

On 13 October 54 the palace doors were opened, and Nero appeared accompanied by a battalion of the palace guard and their commander, Sextus Afranius Burrus (who owed his position to Agrippina). Nero was carried in a litter to the Guards’ camp where he was acclaimed emperor, a decision quickly ratified by the senate and then the provinces.

Chapter 11 The Fall of Agrippina

The final section of the Annals is devoted to the reign of Nero. It is quite substantial (70 pages in the Penguin translation). Grant divides it into five chapters:

  1. Nero and his helpers (book 14 sections 14 to 65)
  2. Eastern settlement (book 14 sections 1 to 32)
  3. The burning of Rome (book 15, sections 32 to 47)
  4. The plot (book 15, sections 48 to 74)
  5. Innocent victims (book 16)

The Nero chapters are notable for the kind of melodramatic set-pieces which Tacitus excelled at, in this case describing the Great Fire of Rome or Agrippina’s murder. At moments like this you can very much see how, for the ancients, no amount of dedication to the ‘historical truth’ or the moralising urge to judge and assess, can trump the more basic aim of inflaming awe and wonder with dramatic effects.

Nero’s reign opened with a flurry of murders. Agrippina got agents to poison governor of Asia Marcus Junius Silanus because he was brother to Lucius Junius Silanus Torquatus, whose engagement with Octavia she had broken and forced to commit suicide, and because Marcus was a descendant of Augustus. Then she secured the imprisonment and suicide of Narcissus, freedman and secretary to Claudius, the central figure in the downfall of Messalina.

Tactitus notes the restraining effect of two key figures, the commander of the Guard Sextus Afranius Burrus, and Nero’s tutor Lucius Annaeus Sextus. Burrus was all soldierly efficiency and seriousness of character; Agrippina had appointed Seneca Nero’s tutor in which role he taught the teenager Stoic principles and public speaking.

It was Seneca who wrote the funeral oration for Claudius which Nero delivered. Nero went on to insist the senate would reassert its ancient rights and decisions. Nero’s first acts were all leniency and forgiveness.

55 AD – Murder of Britannicus

Quite quickly Nero fell in love with a former slave girl, Acte, and became slowly alienated from the virtuous wife, Claudia Octavia, who Agrippina had engineered his marriage to. Agrippina was infuriated at Nero’s love for a common slave girl and tried to ban it. Division grew between mother and son. Nero next deposed the freedman Pallas, who had virtually run the empire for Claudius and been instrumental in Claudius choosing Agrippina as his fourth wife.

Tacitus gives a vivid almost farcical account of the florid events surrounding Nero’s decision to poison his rival, Claudius’s biological son, Britannicus (p.290). Britannicus was the last male heir of the Claudian clan whereas Nero was a Claudian only by adoption.

Realising her position was now seriously threatened, Agrippina made common cause with Nero’s spurned wife Octavia, and cast around for supporters. To isolate Agrippina, Nero withdrew her guard and expelled her from the imperial palace. Then her rival, Junia Silana, had a spy report to Nero that Agrippina was conspiring with one Rubellius Plautus to overthrow and replace him. Nero was terrified, but spared Plautus, for the time being. Tacitus tells us one of his sources claims Seneca restrained the emperor, and also from executing Burrus as being somehow implicated. The plot rebounded and Junia Silana was exiled, her accomplices executed.

56 AD

Echoing Suetonius, Tacitus claims Nero dressed up and went about the streets, from tavern to brothel, beating up passersby, stealing stuff from shops. The emperor’s example emboldened other criminals. ‘Rome at night came to resemble a conquered city.’ A senator who beat up Nero when he assaulted him, apologised when he realised his identity but was forced to commit suicide.

Nero egged on disputes among rival gangs of ballet dancers, encouraging them to degenerate into real gang fights. Tacitus devotes a page to a debate in the senate about whether misbehaving freed slaves should be re-enslaved.

57 AD

Tacitus takes the opportunity to differentiate his kind of history from mere almanacs. Talking of the completion of a huge amphitheatre in the Field of Mars, he says:

But that is material for official gazettes, whereas it has traditionally been judged fitting to Rome’s grandeur that its histories should contain only important events. (p.298)

An interesting indication of the way that history was conceived as a literary genre, with appropriate tone and subject matter; lofty subject matter; important events and imperial players.

A law was passed that provincial officials were banned from giving gladiator or animal shows. These a) cost provincials a fortune b) were used as cover by governors to hide their irregularities.

Another law decreed that if a man was murdered by a slave, not only all the slaves, but all the freed slaves in his household would be executed as punishment.

58 AD

The endless war between Rome and Parthia for possession of the kingdom of Armenia heated up.

A detailed account of how Nero was introduced by his fellow libertine, Otho, to his lover Poppaea, how she then seduced Nero and eclipsed Acte as his chief concubine. As a result Nero fell out with Otho, eventually consigning him to Lusitania as governor. (This Otho was to return and seize power in the Year of Four Emperors, 69 AD, following Nero’s death, events Tacitus describes in detail in his ‘Histories’.)

Various cities (Puteoli, Syracuse) petitioned Rome for favours. Persistent complaints about tax farmers led Nero to contemplate scrapping all indirect taxes. Rebellious tribes in Germany fought the Romans or each other.

59 AD – Murder of Agrippina

Tacitus puts Nero’s decision to finally eliminate his mother down to the taunts of his new lover Poppaea. Agrippina tried to counter this by appearing before Nero in lascivious clothes and seduced him to incest. Seneca commissioned Acte to re-enter his life and warm him that such sacrilege would alienate the Guards on whom his power rested. Interestingly, Tacitus openly states various versions of these stories attributed to other historians (whose works are now lost).

Tacitus openly states in several places that when the sources agree he won’t mention them; but where they disagree he will cite them and the disagreements and let the reader decide.

The death of Agrippina takes 6 pages to describe and is semi-farcical. After rejecting poison and the dagger, Nero settled on the madcap scheme of getting Agrippina onto a ship with a collapsible section which would fall on her. And this is what he did, inviting her to a long friendly banquet at Baiae, then seeing her off in a beautifully appointed ship whose ceiling, at a signal, caved in. This killed Agrippina’s attendant and when another cried out that she was the emperor’s mother, she was beaten to death by the crew, so Agrippina disguised herself. Then the galley slaves all went to one side of the ship in order to capsize it, but Agrippina managed to get free and swim to safety. This sounds like a fairy story.

Nero was waiting for news and was appalled to learn it hadn’t worked. So he called in his most senior advisers, Seneca and Burrus. Burrus declared the Guard would not touch a member of the imperial family and descendant of Germanicus. So they conceived a plot whereby Nero would drop a sword by the feet of the servant Agrippina had sent to tell Nero she had survived this terrible accident – and then claim he was an assassin sent by Agrippina.

This is as farcical and laughable as the collapsible boat gambit.

Nero promptly had a freedman, Anicetus, take soldiers and surround Agrippina’s house. Slaves fled. Anicetus, a naval captain and lieutenant then beat and stabbed Agrippina to death. Her body was quickly cremated with no ceremony.

Nero cringed in fear all night long until Burrus got colonels and captains of the Guard to come and congratulate him on escaping the conspiracy, at which he recovered his spirits. Nero then sent a long letter to be read out in the senate justifying his actions with a long list of Agrippina’s incriminating behaviour leading up to the supposed ‘conspiracy’. This was written by Seneca and reflected badly on him.

Many bad omens. And Nero was scared of the public response. But there was much thanksgiving for his safety and he returned to Rome amid cheering crowds as at a triumph.

Chapter 12 Nero and his Helpers

With Agrippina out of the way, Nero finally let rip. ‘There was no stopping him.’ (p.320) Tacitus describes Nero’s addiction to singing to his own accompaniment on the lyre, and chariot racing. He goes into less detail than Suetonius but is much more damning. When Nero institutes the ‘Youth Games’ and:

In the wood which Augustus had planted around his Naval Lake, places of assignation and taverns were built, and every stimulus to vice was displayed for sale…Promiscuity and degradation throve…Never was there so favourable a climate for debauchery as among this filthy crowd. (p.321)

Nero performed for the crowd on the lyre. He formed a corp of young knights known as the Augustiani, to maintain ‘a din of applause day and night’. He fancied himself a poet and sat around at dinner parties extemporising verses with cronies.

This method is apparent from Nero’s poems themselves which lack vigour, inspiration and homogeneity.

Tacitus, like Suetonius, had copies of these poems, all now lost to us. Meanwhile, back in the annalistic list of political events: the senate settled a riot which had broken out between citizens of Pompeii and Nuceria. Cyrene secured the expulsion of a governor. Two famous men died (Cnaeus Domitius Afer and Marcus Servilius Nonianus). It’s Tacitus’s listing of these kinds of humdrum events which provide the scaffolding or background hum of his year-by-year annals.

60 AD

Nero institutes 5-yearly games on the Greek model. Tacitus stages a set-piece debate between its critics who thought games should only be held in temporary buildings put up for the events, and that permanent buildings were an incitement to sloth and vice; and its proponents who thought they had to change with the times and permanent buildings saved money in the long run. (p.323).

It’s worth mentioning that ‘ballet dancers’, in all these ancient accounts, are closely associated with booing, hissing, throwing chairs and rioting. In a note, Grant explains that:

These were the highly popular, sophisticated dances of the pantomimi who danced traditional themes in dumb-show, with music and chorus. These performances were first seen in Rome under Augustus. (p.402)

Many bad omens and portents. A comet, which was universally taken as the sign of a change of emperors. Much talk that Nero’s successor would be Rubellius Plautus. Rumour spread that a bolt of lightning had hit and split a table at which Nero was sitting (!). Nero, with notable restraint, didn’t have Plautus killed, simply told him to move with his family to their estate in Asia. According to his Wikipedia article:

Plautus appears to have been a follower of Stoicism. According to Tacitus, Tigellinus wrote to Nero: ‘Plautus again, with his great wealth, does not so much as affect a love of repose, but he flaunts before us his imitations of the old Romans, and assumes the self-consciousness of the Stoics along with a philosophy, which makes men restless, and eager for a busy life.’ When he was exiled from Rome by Nero, Plautus was accompanied by the famous Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus. He was associated with a group of Stoics who criticized the perceived tyranny and autocratic rule of certain emperors, referred to today as the Stoic Opposition.

What interest me about this passage is the idea that Stoicism, as well as being a reputable philosophy, was also a fashionable pose and allowed its proponents to swank and pride themselves on maintaining the values of ‘the old Romans’. So I noticed when, later on, the corrupt head of the Guard, Gaius Ofonius Tigellinus, in calumniating Plautus, says:

Plautus is rich and does not pretend to like retirement. He parades an admiration of the ancient Romans but he has the arrogance of the Stoics, who breed sedition and intrigue. (p.339)

‘The arrogance of the Stoics’, eh?

More about the never-ending war in Armenia, prosecuted by Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo. The ancient town of Puteoli was given the status of a Roman settlement and named after Nero. Tacitus describes the challenge of keeping colonies of Roman soldiers consistently populated since many didn’t marry or have children, and many came from different regiments and were even different nationalities.

Nero sorts out a squabble about who’s elected praetor (15 men apply for 12 places). A knight called Vibius Secundus was convicted for extortion when governor of Mauretania and expelled from Italy.

61 AD – Boudicca’s revolt

Disaster in Britain. The ambitious new governor, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, appointed in 58, continued his predecessor’s policy of aggressively subduing the tribes of modern Wales, and was successful for his first two years in the post. Tacitus gives a vivid description of his amphibious assault on the island of Mona (modern-day Anglesey), its shores lined with the enemy, shrieking women and spooky druids. The Romans conquer the island and chop down the groves sacred to the Druids, who conducted human sacrifices there.

But while he was Paullinus was subduing Anglesey rebellion broke out on the other side of the province. Since this is a legendary part of our history it’s worth citing at length:

Prasutagus, king of the Icenii, after a life of long and renowned prosperity, had made the emperor co-heir with his two daughters. Prasutagus hoped by this submissiveness to preserve his kingdom and household from attack. But it turned out otherwise. Kingdom and household alike were plundered like prizes of war, the one by Roman officers, the other by Roman slaves. As a start his widow, Boudicca, was flogged and their two daughters raped. The Icenian chiefs were deprived of their hereditary estates as if the Romans had been given the entire country. The king’s own relatives were treated like slaves.

The huge temple to the god Claudius could be seen from everywhere, symbolising their oppression, and its priests used their power to bleed households dry with taxes and levies. The greed of the Roman agent, Catus Decianus, had driven the entire province to rebellion.

So the Iceni rebelled and raised neighbouring tribes. They stormed the Roman settlement of Camulodonum. Omens were, of course, seen everywhere. The empty theatre echoed with shrieks. At the mouth of the Thames a phantom settlement was seen in ruins. The sea turned blood red and left human corpses on the ebb tide. The garrison and a small cohort of reinforcements sent from London were massacred.

Suetonius marched his army all the way back from Wales to London. Interestingly:

Londinium did not rank as a Roman settlement, but was an important centre for business men and merchandise.

Nonetheless Suetonius realised he couldn’t hold it against massed tribes, so abandoned it. When Boudicca’s forces stormed into it all the men were killed and all the women raped. Same happened at St Albans (Verulamium). Tacitus says 70,000 perished, for the Britons did not take prisoners with a view to exchanges:

They could not wait to cut throats, hang, burn and crucify, as though avenging in advance, the retribution which was on its way. (p.329)

Tacitus gives us a typical rhetorical set-piece: first he gives Boudicca a genuinely inspiring speech as she rouses her troops to face the Roman army, which has followed and now set up opposite them. Then he gives verbatim what he claims is the pre-battle speech of Suetonius. Both are effective in their different ways. It was a massacre. The Romans killed all the Britons and their camp followers. Boudicca poisoned herself.

However, the Romans then fell out among themselves. The newly arrived imperial agent didn’t like Suetonius and briefed against him. A former imperial slave, Polyclitus, was sent to assess the situation. Suetonius was relieved of duty and his replacement took a softly-softly approach. Peace of a sort returned to the province.

Tacitus returns to his annalistic approach with notes on two noteworthy trials. What strikes me is that, despite existing for hundreds of years, the Romans were continually finding loopholes or omissions in their laws, which the senate patched up and emperors approved or modified.

The City Prefect, Lucius Pedianus Secundus, was murdered by one of his slaves. The traditional punishment was that every other slave in the household would be executed. Popular sentiment protested against this, rioting began and the senate house was surrounded. Tacitus uses this to give us another of his verbatim speeches, this time by Gaius Cassius Longinus in favour of enforcing the traditional law. The speech reveals that Pedianus had 400 slaves. His peroration is striking:

Our ancestors distrusted their slaves. Yet slaves were then born on the same estates, in the same homes, as their masters, who had treated them kindly from birth. But nowadays our huge households are international. They include every alien religion – or none at all. The only way to keep down this scum is by intimidation…Exemplary punishment always contains an element of injustice. But individual wrongs are outweighed by the advantage of the community. (p.334)

Many argued to spare the innocent, or the women slaves, but Cassius’s view prevailed, and the emperor Nero backed it up, lining with troops the route along which those condemned for execution were taken.

Bithynia secured the condemnation of its governor. In Gaul a census was carried out. The noble Publius Memmius Regulus passed away. Nero dedicated a new gymnasium.

62 AD

Big fuss about an ex-praetor who read out verses satirising Nero at a dinner party. He is condemned by the senate and Tacitus summarises the positions of various senators to show how the politics of the time worked, with some arguing for execution, others for exile. The senate referred their decision for leniency to Nero who was cross but accepted it. Another aristocrat included in a so-called will insults against senators and priests. Nero ordered him exiled from Italy and his writings burned.

Commander of the Guard Burrus died, probably of a throat tumour, though maybe poisoned by Nero. He was replaced by two commanders, one responsible, the other a crony of Nero’s private debaucheries.

Burrus’s death weakened Seneca’s position. One mentor is less powerful than two. His critics queued up to bad-mouth him to the emperor, attacking:

  1. his wealth, enormous and excessive for any subject
  2. the grandeur of his mansions and beauty of his gardens, which exceeded the emperors (!)
  3. his alleged bids for popularity

Nero listened to Seneca’s detractors and began distancing himself from him. This is the opportunity for Tacitus to put into Seneca’s mouth a noble and persuasive speech, asking to be allowed to retire (he was now 64 years old and had been tutor to Nero for 14 years) and happily handing most of his property over to Nero. Tacitus then has Nero reply with a speech even more eloquent and organised. Nero refuses to take back his gifts lest it reflect badly on him. But Seneca withdrew from Rome, terminated his large receptions and dismissed his entourage, in a bid to deflect criticism.

Tigellinus achieves sole command of the palace Guard and plays on Nero’s fears. As a result of his calumnies, Nero orders the killing of two exiles, Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix at Massilia. When his head is brought to Nero the emperor jokes that he’s gone grey. More elaborate are the measures taken to kill Plautus, in exile in Asia, but he too was killed and decapitated. When Nero was given his head, he is said to have exclaimed: ‘Nero! How could a man with such a long nose have frightened you!’

Nero wrote a letter to the senate denouncing Plautus and Sulla as traitors at which the senate voted him a thanksgiving. This occasioned disgust among freethinking men and led Nero to believe he could do anything. So he divorced his wife, Octavia and married Poppaea. The new wife swiftly set about disposing of the old one, concocting an accusation that Octavia was guilty of adultery and getting her exiled to Campania. (As usual, it’s the fact that Octavia’s slaves were tortured to extract false confessions, which I find so upsetting.) But this set off protests among the people who clamoured for Octavia’s return, overturning new statues of Poppaea. For a while Nero appeared to cave in – wild rejoicing – but then returned to his former stance – protests and rioting.

Poppaea is beside herself and renews her please to be rid of Octavia. So Nero concocts a second adultery confession, this time persuading admiral of the fleet Anicetus (who had played a leading role in dispatching Agrippina) to admit to adultery with Octavia. He was rewarded with peaceful retirement in Sardinia. Octavia was banished to the island of Pandateria. Much sympathy for another innocent royal woman exiled cf Julia the Elder, the Younger, Agrippina the Elder and Julia Livila.

Within days she was ordered dead. Soldiers arrived and forced the opening of veins all over her body in a hot bath. She was just 20. The senate ordered another thanksgiving and Tacitus breaks cover to record how disgustingly sycophantic that body had become.

Chapter 13 Eastern Settlement

63 AD

Latest episode of the war with Parthia over Armenia. Corn ships are destroyed by fire or storm, and some has rotted. Some people were adopting ‘children’ in order to count as fathers and so gain advantage in elections for posts where fatherhood gave an advantage (ever since Augustus’s laws designed to increase the population). Then, once elected, they repealed the adoptions. The senate decreed that these fictitious adoptions should carry no weight.

Prosecution of a governor of Crete who suggested his power was above the senate. At Nero’s prompting a decree was passed forbidding votes of thanks to governors at provincial assemblies. I’m including stuff like this to show what the nuts and bolts of ruling the empire really consisted of.

The Gymnasium was struck by lightning and burned down. A statue of Nero inside was melted into a shapeless mass. An earthquake demolished Pompeii (not the famous volcanic eruption of 79 AD).

Poppaea gave Nero a daughter. Both were awarded the honorific ‘Augusta’, according to the law of inflation of titles (at first rare and precious, eventually standard and ordinary). The senate voted a thanksgiving (of course), Nero instituted some games. Four months later the baby died, but the sycophancy continued. The dead baby was declared a goddess and a temple and priest created.

Latest episode of the war against the Parthians, also known as The Armenian Question. The figure to emerge most clearly from this is the Roman general, Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo, now awarded plenary powers comparable to those awarded to Pompey to fight the pirate menace in 67 BC. Corbulo brings off an honourable truce with the Parthian prince Tiridates.

Back in Italy, Latin rights are awarded to the tribes of the Maritime Alps. Magnificent gladiatorial displays but Tacitus deprecates the number of women and senators ‘disgracing themselves in the arena.’

Chapter 14 The Burning of Rome

64 AD

Frustrated at giving only private performances of his singing and lyre playing, Nero now vows to take part in public performances. First one is Naples then he crosses to Greece. In the event Nero abruptly cancelled his trip to Greece, and another one to Egypt. Maybe he was scared. he gave it out that he couldn’t let the people of Rome be without him.

Tacitus describes a typical public banquet. Nero gave magnificent ones but the most extravagant was given by his creature, Tigellinus. It was held on a raft in the middle of a lake. On the shore were brothels populated by aristocratic women, opposite them naked women posing. Tigellinus had collected birds and animals from remote countries.

Nero went through a public wedding with one of his pervert cronies named Pythagoras, in which Nero wore a bridal dress, and then marriage night sex was performed in view of the invited guests.

Then the Great Fire of Rome, ten days in July 64. When it was finally brought under control two-thirds of Rome had been destroyed. Nero was at Antium when it started. He took steps: he threw open the Field of Mars and his own gardens and constructed emergency accommodation for the homeless. He reduced the price of corn.

Of Rome’s 14 districts only 4 remained intact. Three were completely destroyed. The other seven were reduced to a few mangled ruins. Nero determined to build back better. He had a huge new palace built full of extravagance. New streets were built on an orderly plan. Houses had a height limit. Nero sagely offered to pay for the building of many of these and to ensure builders rubble was cleared away before houses were occupied.

Sensible fire provisions were put into place: a fixed proportion of each house was to be of stone; guards were appointed to ensure a better water supply; each building had to keep firefighting equipment.

But old timers remembered the huge number of ancient shrines and temples and treasures from the earliest times which had been consumed. And thought the old plan was healthier because the winding narrow alleys provided many bits of shade whereas the new more open streets were more exposed.

Nonetheless, despite all Nero’s wise ordinances, his reputation still suffered. It was said that while the city burned he took to his private stage and performed a song about the Fall of Troy. Others said he had actively started the fire because he wanted to rebuild the city and name it after himself. To distract attention away from himself he blamed the Christians. This is so important I quote at length:

To suppress this rumour [that he started the fire] Nero fabricated scapegoats – and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called). Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate. But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome. (All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.)

First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned – not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies apparently the original Latin could also be translated ‘because the human race detested them’].

Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs, or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutes for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer. Despite their guilt as Christians and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed to one man’s brutality rather than to the national interest. (15.44)

Meanwhile Italy was ransacked for funds and all the provinces ruined by exactions to pay for the rebuilding of Rome. Gold statues and offerings were stolen and melted down. Agents were sent out to plunder Greece and Asia, emptying temples of all their valuables.

Seneca tried to avoid the unpopularity of being involved in any of this policy by asking leave to go to his country retreat. When this was forbidden he very publicly kept to his house, feigning illness. Rumour had it that a slave was despatched to poison him but Seneca forestalled all such efforts by living on fruit and running water.

A group of gladiators revolted at Praenaste and there was a naval disaster, caused by Nero ordering the fleet to return on a set date, when a storm drove it ashore at Cumae, destroying many ships. Many omens portended mighty changes!

Chapter 15 The Plot (65 AD)

Gaius Calpurnius Piso had going for him that he was a member of the aristocratic gens Calpurnii with an extensive network of influential connections; he was popular, he defended his fellow citizens in court; he was a loyal friend, affable to all including strangers; and he was tall and handsome. On the downside, he lacked seriousness and self control, was superficial, ostentatious and sometimes dissolute. But then, as Tacitus remarks in a telling comment:

Many people are fascinated by depravity and disinclined for austere morals on the throne.

Maybe the common people, then as now, enjoy royal gossip and identify with ‘bad’ behaviour. As Tacitus himself remarks at several points – people enjoy gossip and scandal (‘Discreditable versions are always popular’, p.376).

Tacitus describes in detail the growth of the conspiracy to assassinate Nero and replace him with Piso, the Pisonian Consipracy, listing the recruitment of the main conspirators, but then the problems: delay while they squabbled about where the murder should take place, and Piso’s fears that several equally well-qualified alternatives might replace him (accurately anticipating the anarchy of 69).

They decided to kill Nero at some games, in front of the crowd, but the night before, the lead conspirator, Flavius Scaevinus, had a banquet, freed all his favourite slaves, made his will and ordered a freedman, Milichus, to take his dagger to the sharpeners. This Milichus saw all these signs and nerved himself to go, next morning, to Nero’s gardens and ask for an interview with the emperor’s freedman and secretary.

After initial scepticism, Nero was persuaded, and suspects were brought in who, under terrible torture, implicated each other. The conspiracy unravelled. Men implicated their family and friends. One strand was the implication of Seneca, who probably wasn’t in the conspiracy, but Nero had wanted to get rid of for some time. On flimsy evidence an officer was sent to execute him. Seneca had time to address his household and tell them to follow his Stoic philosophy and staunch their tears. His wife insisted on dying with him and they both cut open the veins in their arms.

Seneca took some time to die, his blood flowing weakly, he ordered veins to also be opened at his ankles and behind his knees. He had time to dictate a dissertation (!). Seeing as he was not dying, he asked for poison (hemlock) to be administered, but this didn’t work, either. Then he was placed in a bath of warm water, which didn’t work. And then into ‘a vapour-bath, where he suffocated’. What is a vapour-bath?

Nero ordered Seneca’s wife’s wounds to be bound and she lived on for several years. Tacitus lists all the conspirators and their ends. The most famous one to posterity, beside Seneca, was Seneca’s nephew, the poet Lucan, who was just 25 and had joined the conspiracy because he was angry at Nero for blocking his career.

At least 41 individuals were accused, 19 senators, seven knights, 11 soldiers, and four women. 20 were executed or forced to commit suicide, 13 were sent into exile.

There was an outbreak of sycophancy with various senators calling for a thanksgiving, a Triumph, creation of a temple specifically to thank the gods for Nero’s survival and lots of other bum kissing.

Chapter 16 Innocent Victims

Nero believed the fantasies of a Carthaginian, Caesellius Bassus, who swore he had discovered the ancient treasure of Dido on his land and would give it to Nero. This encouraged the emperor to even more spendthrift behaviour, digging the nation deeper into debt.

Nero presided over the second five-yearly games and insisted on competing as a singer and lyre player. Tacitus echoes the claim made in Suetonius that audiences weren’t allowed to leave the theatre during Nero’s performances, and some fell sick and died, others were killed in the crush. He adds that Guards were stationed throughout the audience to cuff anyone who didn’t cheer loudly enough. Aristocrats such as Vespasian were reported for not cheering enthusiastically enough, but he was destined to survive and become emperor himself in 69.

Poppaea died. She was pregnant. In Tacitus’s account Nero, in a fit of anger, kicked her just once and that was enough (Suetonius gives the impression that Nero kicked her to death). Tacitus thinks it was an accident because a) he genuinely loved her b) he was desperate for a son and she was pregnant. Nero read her eulogy. She was buried in the Mausoleum Augustus built.

Nero continues enforcing the deaths of those he suspects, forcing the senate to denounce some of its own members. The gruesome triple suicide of Lucius Antistius Vetus, his daughter Antistia Pollitta and mother-in-law Sextia. Bum-licking toadyism reached new heights: one Servius Cornelius Orfitus suggested the names of the months should be changed to celebrate Nero’s family, so that April became ‘Neroneus’, May ‘Claudius’ and June ‘Germanicus’.

Campania was hit by a hurricane. Rome was hit by a plague. A disastrous fire at Lugdunum (modern Lyons) was alleviated when Nero assigned 4 million sesterces to its reconstruction (the same amount its people had contributed to Rome’s rebuilding after the fire). This kind of incident gives a welcome break from the hothouse, blood-soaked atmosphere of imperial politics, but also remind us that a lot of the political events were of sublime indifference to the 60 million or so citizens who just got on with their day-to-day lives, working, shopping, trading, eating, teaching children, managing households, across the vast expanse of the huge empire.

66 AD

A sordid conspiracy by banished Antistius Sosianus to alleviate his punishment by incriminating Publius Anteius and Marcus Ostorius Scapula, who paranoid Nero suspected, both of whom were forced to commit suicide. If this succession of worthy citizens who are snitched on by informers who pandered to Nero’s paranoia and jealousy of anyone richer than him gets a little wearing, Tacitus agrees:

Even if I were describing foreign wars and patriotic deaths, this monotonous series of events would have become tedious both for me and for my readers. For I should expect them to feel as surfeited as myself by the tragic sequence of citizen deaths – even if they had been honourable deaths. but this slavish passivity, this torrent of wasted bloodshed far from active service, wearies, depresses and paralyses the mind. (p.388; book 16, section 14).

Tacitus goes onto lament the death of the author, Petronius, devoting a page to his unconventional life, his dissipation, and witty popularity. Without trying Petronius was admitted to Nero’s inner circle and became his arbiter of taste. However, this inflamed Nero’s chief crony, Tigellinus, against him, and Tigellinus concocted the usual accusations, which easily triggered Nero to order his court arbiter’s death. Petronius opened his veins but continued attending a banquet and listening to light verse as he expired. Then he dictated a letter detailing all Nero’s sexual partners and perversions which he had sent to the emperor, who was shaken to see how much was known about him.

The final passage of the Annals describes yet another indictment of a good man, Thrasea, and his family, by the sycophantic toadies in the senate, inspired by Nero. Then the manuscript breaks off.

The missing portion of the work described the visit of King Tiridates to Rome, the start of the Jewish Revolt, Nero’s visit to Greece, the revolt of military commander Gaius Julius Vindex in Gaul, which triggers a general revolt against Nero and the selection by the senate of Servius Sulpicius Galba, governor of Hispania, to replace Nero. Nero fled to the villa of a freed slave, Phaon, and there got slaves to help him commit suicide.

Thoughts

Suetonius’s Life of Nero is a more enjoyable read than the Tacitus. It’s shorter and more to the point. It goes into more detail about Nero’s addiction to singing, playing the lyre and chariot racing than Tacitus does, and presents a more coherent and persuasive profile of the emperor. Tacitus embeds all this in annals which report all the important events of each year so that the sheer welter of events becomes tiring and, as Tacitus himself concedes, towards the end, really wearing.

I suppose the Annals is a great work, but probably best read in chapters or sections: the cumulative effect of so many cruel murders, villainous informers, of so much slavish sycophancy to the emperor and the suicides of so many aristocrats, eventually becomes numbing.


Credit

Michael Grant’s fluent, energetic translation of Tacitus’s Annals was published by Penguin Books in 1956. References are to the revised 1971 edition, as reprinted in 1988.

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Roman writers

As well to remember that all Roman literature was written by an elite for an elite about an elite, and is overwhelmingly conservative and traditionalist in tone. Even when they’re writing about farmers or ordinary citizens or soldiers, Roman writers are doing it from the perspective of privileged members of the highly educated aristocratic classes. The only possible exceptions are the first two entries in the list, the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence, whose work features numerous slaves and tradesmen (often cooks) – though here again, we should be cautious about treating these characters and their views as documentary evidence, as they are clearly based on standardised stereotypes which owe their origins, in any case, to the Greek theatre.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of Roman authors, that would be much longer. These are the important Roman authors and this is by way of being an ideal or personal, reading list.

The Republic

Plautus (Titus Maccius Plautus, 254 to 184 BC) Plautus’s comedies are the earliest Latin literary works to survive in their entirety: Asinaria, Aulularia, Captivi, Casina, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus.

Terence (Publius Terentius Afer, 195 to 159 BC) Six plays: Andria (The Girl from Andros), Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law), Heauton Timorumenos (The Self-Tormentor), Phormio, Eunuchus, Adelphoe (The Brothers). Fanous for his t-shirt motto:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto – I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me

Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106 to 43 BC) statesman, lawyer, scholar, philosopher. Cicero wrote more than 75% of the extant Latin literature that is known to have existed in his lifetime, including law court speeches, letters, treatises on rhetoric, philosophy and politics.

Julius Caesar (100 to 44 BC) author of accounts of his wars in Gaul, Egypt, Spain and Africa.

Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus, 99 to 55 BC) poet and philosopher whose only known work is the philosophical poem De rerum natura or ‘On the nature of things’, a poetic exposition of the philosophy of Epicureanism.

Sallust (Gaius Sallustius Crispus 86 to 35 BC) author of two historical monographs, on the Jugurthine War and the Catiline conspiracy.

Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, 84 to 54 BC) known for an anthology of 116 carmina or poems which are divided into three parts according to their form: sixty short poems in varying meters, called polymetra, eight longer poems, and forty-eight epigrams.

Livy (Titus Livius, 59 BC to 17 AD) author of a monumental History of Rome titled Ab Urbe Condita Libri (‘Books from the Founding of the City’) which originally comprised 142 ‘books’, 35 of which still exist in reasonably complete form.

The Empire

Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 to 19 BC) composed three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics and the epic poem, Aeneid.

Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 to 8 BC) the leading Roman lyric poet during the rule of the emperor Augustus: famous for his Odes, Satires, Epistles and Epodes.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BC to 18 AD) younger contemporary of Virgil and Horace, together considered the three canonical poets of Latin literature. His three three main works are the Metamorphoses, the Ars Amatoria (‘Art of Love’) and Fasti.

Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC to AD 65) philosopher, statesman, dramatist and satirist: a dozen essays and 124 letters dealing with moral issues, 9 tragedies: Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women), Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes.

Lucan (Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, 39 BC to 65 AD) known for his epic Pharsalia or De Bello Civili (‘On the Civil War’) about the wars between Julius Caesar and Pompey.

Plutarch (46 to after 119 AD) Greek philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest, author, among many other works, of the Parallel Lives, biographies of 50 eminent Greeks and Romans.

Tacitus (Publius Cornelius Tacitus, 56 to 120 AD) widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians known for two incomplete works, the Annals and the Histories, covering the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) to 70 AD in the First Jewish–Roman War (66 to 73). Also a dialogue on oratory, the Germania or De origine et situ Germanorum and the life of his father-in-law, Agricola, the general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain (De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae). In the latter, a leader of the rebellious Scots is given a long speech criticising the Roman Empire which includes the famous quote:

ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant – they create a desert and call it peace

Juvenal (Decimus Junius Juvenalis, 55? to 150? AD) author of 16 satires divided into five books.

Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, 61 to about 113) lawyer, author and magistrate famous because he wrote hundreds of letters, 247 of which survive: the most notable are the hundred or so in his correspondence with the emperor Trajan in his capacity of governor of the Roman province of Bithynia, one of which asks advice about how to treat the new sect of Christians (one of the earliest references to Christianity) and the exchange where his friend Tacitus asks him for his memories of the eruption of Mount Etna which Pliny witnessed.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, 69 to 122 AD) historian whose most important surviving work is De vita Caesarum, a set of biographies of 12 successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian.

Petronius (Gaius Petronius Arbiter, 27 to 66 AD) was a courtier to the emperor Nero and is believed to be the author of the scandalously satirical novel, the Satyricon.

Cassius Dio (Lucius Cassius Dio, 155 to 235) Roman historian and senator of Greek origin who published 80 volumes of the history of ancient Rome, from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy through to 229 AD, covering about 1,000 years of history.


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