There were many sides to the great Roman philosopher and writer Seneca. Romm (Classics/Bard Coll.; Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire, 2011) explores his contrasting, even conflicting, skills in surviving at the dangerous court of Nero.
Seneca was a sage who preached a simple, studious life while amassing wealth and power in Nero’s court. Romm, who teaches Greek literature and language, combed Seneca’s profuse writings in an attempt to identify the true man. Was he a moral philosopher of the Stoic school or a greedy businessman and corrupt power monger? Are his tracts really political treatises, or were they propaganda, expounding his ideals or improving his image? The source material is vast, and the author seems to have explored it all: the Annals of Tacitus, the anonymous play Octavia and Cassius Dio’s Roman History, along with writings by Suetonius, Plutarch and many others. Julia Agrippina the Younger recalled Seneca from Corsican exile to act as a tutor to her son, Nero, who she intended would succeed Emperor Claudius. Working with Nero must have been exceedingly unpleasant. He was a petulant, spoiled megalomaniacal brat likely responsible for Claudius’ death and undoubtedly responsible for his brother’s and mother’s deaths and countless more. Seneca certainly failed to instill Stoic values in Nero, and he had little luck controlling him. He was the speechwriter, spin doctor, and image maker and became a wealthy landowner thanks to Nero’s gifts. “As he himself implied in one of his several apologias,” writes the author, “he was not equal to the best, but better than the bad.”
The task of determining Seneca’s true nature is daunting, but the wide body of information available to Romm enables him to give us tantalizing but ambiguous clues to the man’s mind. Like any good philosopher, he only shows us the questions and leaves readers to figure out the answers.