How Stoical Was Seneca?

In AD 65, the elderly philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca was forced to commit suicide on the orders of the emperor Nero. He had once been the emperor’s tutor and adviser, though he had withdrawn into retirement when the true character of Nero’s reign became clear, and he had recently become rather too closely involved with an unsuccessful coup (quite how closely, we shall never know). He must have been expecting the knock on the door.
The knock came from the captain of a troop of praetorian guardsmen who had stationed themselves around Seneca’s house, just outside Rome. Ironically, the captain himself was also involved in the planned coup, but had decided to follow the emperor’s orders in order to save his own skin (“he was now adding to the crimes he had conspired to avenge,” as the Roman historian Tacitus tersely put it). After a brief interrogation, Seneca was told to end his own life, which he did only with great difficulty. He severed his arteries, but he was so old and emaciated that the blood hardly escaped; so he asked for the hemlock that he had stashed away for just that purpose, but that had little effect either. He died only when his slaves carried him into a hot bath and he suffocated in the steam.
While all this was going on, he had been offering words of encouragement to the friends who happened to be dining with him when the praetorians arrived (he was bequeathing to them, he claimed, the only thing he had left, and the best: “the image of his own life,”imago vitae suae); and he had been dictating to his secretaries, for future circulation, some last philosophical thoughts. His final words were to offer a libation to “Jupiter the Liberator.”
So Tacitus—probably the most acute analyst ever of the autocratic rule of the Roman emperors—described the scene in his Annales, half a century or so later; he was no doubt relying on some hard evidence (a few modern critics have even suggested an eyewitness account), but inevitably recasting it in his own terms. One of Tacitus’s favorite themes in the Annales is death and its corruption; he repeatedly stresses the idea that autocracy disrupted not only the natural rhythms of life but the processes of dying too. People died for the wrong reasons, in the wrong places, and in the wrong order. Children killed their parents. Funeral pyres were prepared before the victim had even breathed his last. In fact, Tacitus opens his narrative of Nero’s reign with the bleak, and significant, phrase: “The first death under the new Emperor….” The suicide of Seneca, as Tacitus tells it, can be seen as a prime example of how even dying had been corrupted.
That is partly because, try as he might, applying all the usually reliable methods, death almost defeated Seneca. For a philosopher who had devoted so much of his writing to preparations for death—as the title of James Romm’s new biography, Dying Every Day, hints—he made a very bad job of it when his own turn came. It is also because he made such a histrionic display out of the act of dying. Seneca publicly embraced Stoic philosophy, which took an uncompromising view of the importance of “virtue” in both living and dying (it was, in fact, much more uncompromising than the popular modern term “stoical”—in the attenuated sense of “stiff upper lip”—would ever suggest).
But Seneca’s death was a frankly hubristic imitation of the death of Socrates: with his last thoughts being dictated (as in Plato’s Phaedo), the attempted resort to hemlock, and a final offering to the gods (though in this case it was a libation to Jupiter, not, as in Socrates’ last words, a sacrifice to Asklepios). Even so, his death ends up no more than a very poor imitation of its model. As Emily Wilson nicely summed it up in The Death of Socrates (2007):
It is as if trying to learn about death from Socrates has made Seneca all but incapable of experiencing death for himself. The academic study of the subject has desiccated his body until it has no blood left to spill.
To be fair, over the years, not all judgments on Tacitus’s account of Seneca’s suicide have been so negative. Some admirers of the philosopher have chosen to see the death as an example of fortitude, and of tremendous philosophical courage amid the corruption of Roman imperial society. Seneca, it is argued, was a man whom Tacitus saw as one of the few potentially good influences on Nero, and who might have prevented his reign from developing as catastrophically as it did.
In his suicide, fighting against the recalcitrant frailty of his own body, he met unwaveringly the death to which he has been cruelly sentenced; and he turned it into the ultimate lesson in how to die (not for mere show was he dictating his last philosophical thoughts on his long-drawn-out deathbed, but for the true edification and education of future generations). This is presumably the message of Rubens’s famous painting, which shows Seneca standing almost naked in his small bath, in a pose strikingly reminiscent of the suffering Jesus in many Ecce homo scenes from medieval and later art: so suggesting triumph over death, not defeat by it.
Yet as both Romm and Wilson in The Greatest Empire insist, it is impossible not to see some ambivalence, at the very least, in Tacitus’s version of Seneca’s last hours, and in his evaluation of the man more generally. Romm focuses in particular on that phraseimago vitae suae (“the image of his own life”), which was to be, as Tacitus put it, Seneca’s bequest to his followers. Roland Mayer has argued that we should detect here a reference to the kind of imago that was displayed in elite Roman houses: one of those series of ancestor portraits intended to spur on future generations to imitate the achievements of their great predecessors. That is very likely one resonance of the phrase: Seneca was offering a positive example to be followed in the future. But, as Romm rightly observes, “Imago is a multilayered word,” and like “image” in English, it also suggests “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false seeming.”
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