December 6, 2022

Book review: Seneca – the fun of ancient Roman intrigue, philosophy, with a dash of hemlock

Seneca’s life is a good example of how fortunes can change. If you’re stuck in a 21st century rut and wondering if things will ever change, just think of Lucius Annaeus Seneca in 1st century Italy. One minute he’s exiled on an island, the next he’s tutor to the Imperial heir. That should give you hope – although bear in mind the illustration works both ways. One moment Seneca was happily alive, the next Nero had ordered him to kill himself. 

By Emily Wilson, Seneca: A Life is a breeze though the recorded life of the famous Stoic philosopher who lived from 4BC to 65AD.  The trouble is not much of his life is recorded. His early years are mostly undocumented and over half of his literary output has been lost – including all his political speeches and private letters. By necessity this book concentrates on the 20 year period of his life from which his surviving works date. But none of these are directly autobiographical, and even when they seem to be, Wilson admits that ‘every apparent report of biographical fact is slippery and often untrustworthy.’ His works often contradict each other – or even themselves. Seneca is not an easy subject to biographize and to what extent the picture Wilson builds of Seneca is accurate is uncertain. But the detail that does exist and the overviews of contemporary life make an absorbing book for anyone interested in ancient Rome.

Seneca tries hard to find a philosophical means to live life, but his greatest contribution is really to illustrate the maxim Do what I say not what I do. He was a Stoic, and said that what mattered was mastering oneself. Money and possessions were unnecessary. But he was excessively wealthy – this was a man who ordered for his dinner parties several identical tables made of citrus wood and ivory. And by several I mean 500.  ‘Being poor is not having too little, it is wanting more,’ he said. Possibly with great insight, possibly with a sigh of regret as he signed the cheque for more furniture.

He spoke well and his aphorisms are often spot. ‘It is easier for the will to give up things completely than to use them moderately’, he said perspicaciously. ‘I count as indifferent, that is, neither good nor bad, these things: disease, pain, poverty, exile, death’. But his life, as reported, is at odds with his ideas. Like the dieter finding himself eating another cake, he knows what to do but struggles to do it.

Wilson’s tale of Seneca’s life is approachable, easy to read and full of interesting details and explanations about topics such as Stoicism, ancient travel and Cicero. In lieu of definitive facts there are some quite-possible-thats, but writing about a figure from so long ago will involve some conjecture and generalisation.  Seneca didn’t find the peace of mind he craved, but his ideas show an understanding of what may be necessary to achieve it.


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