Philospher, politician and playwright; b. c. 4 BC (Corduba, Spain), d. 65 AD (Rome)
Seneca was the son of a wealthy family; his father had been a well known teacher of rhetoric. As a boy Lucius came to live with an aunt in Rome to attend a school of philosophy (he was exposed to Stoicism and the ascetic version of the Pythagorean school) and rhetoric. He was of frail health and had to be sent to live with an aunt in Egypt.
Seneca returned to the capital in his mid-thirties and entered a career in law and politics. His was the time of cruel and power-hungry emperors, and he was soon in danger of deadly persecution by emperor Caligula. The emperor was swayed by the argument that Seneca's life was bound to be short anyway. His successor emperor Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica on the accusation that he had an adulterous affair with his nice, princess Julia Livilla.
Seneca spent the years 41 - 49 on Corsica studying science and philosophy and writing. In 49 Claudius' wife Agrippina managed to have him recalled, and Seneca began a successful career. He became praetor (judicial officer) and tutor to the future emperor Nero.
Claudius, an emperor with scientific inclinations who attempted to consolidate the state administration from tyrannical misuse, was assassinated in 54. Formulation of policy under the new emperor now was in the hands of Seneca and his friend Burrus, the prefect of the guard. Seneca drafted Nero's first speech, which promised more authority for the Senate and restrictions on the power of ordinary people and women.
First administrative reform under Seneca and Burrus brought better treatment of slaves and other judicial and fiscal reforms. In the provinces improvements to the administration reduced the occurrences of revolts. But Seneca and Burrus were working under Nero, who soon showed his penchant for tyranny and utmost cruelty. In 59 Seneca and Burrus were obliged to support the murder of Agrippina.
Burrus died in 62. Seneca asked for permission to retire, and he withdrew from public life to concentrate on writing. His works did not find favour with his ancient enemies, who in 65 accused him of participation in a conspiracy. Seneca was ordered to commit suicide. He put an end to his life, composed and a true Stoic.
Seneca's writings, which consist mainly of philosophical works and tragedies, show an impressive breadth of themes and styles. the Apocolocyntosis div Claudii is an audacious political farce best translated as "The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius." The Naturales quaestiones are an investigation of nature to the extent that a Roman can study natural science. Several works address aspects of the human character such as consolation in the loss of a loved one, clemency when in power, the passion of anger and others, all seen from the perspective of Stoicism. The Epistulae morales are 124 essays on a range of moral questions.
Seneca's tragedies are generally stiff with ranting monologues, but they were among the first classical works for theatre to be rediscovered by the Renaissance and had a more than justifiable influence on Shakespeare and his successors.
The importance of Seneca's works is not so much in their originality (which is mostly hard to find) but in the fact that they brought Rome into contact with existing intellectual achievements of the Greek world. After his death Seneca's memory was affected by hostile influences, and the Roman world remained ambivalent towards him. The 16th century discovered his moral writings; Erasmus edited a Latin printing, and an English translation appeared in 1614. Spain, Seneca's country of birth, is particularly interested in keeping his memory alive.
Portrait: drawing by Peter Paul Rubens; public domain (Wikipedia)