Seneca Rides Again! James Romm, Dying Every Day – Seneca at the Court of Nero

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Seneca, from double herm of Socrates and Seneca.  Antikensammlung Berlin.

Seneca, from double herm of Socrates and Seneca. Antikensammlung Berlin.

James Romm, Dying Every Day – Seneca at the Court of Nero, New York, Knopf, 2014 I was seduced into reviewing this book by a very upbeat and encouraging event at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street—an institution from which little encouraging has emerged in recent years. (Opponents of the obscene plan to gut the stacks and set up an Internet café in their place should remain on the watch!) Following an afternoon of research, during which I learned that in mid-nineteenth century Providence, Rhode Island purveyors of “healthy, hungry leeches” and tamed performing grizzly bears had more visibility in the marketplace than calligraphers, I felt drawn to a conversation between James Shapiro, the Columbia Shakespearean, who has written numerous well-received books on and around WS, and James Romm of Bard College, the author of a new book about Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, Dying Every Day – Seneca at the Court of Nero. Both have been fellows of the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, Shapiro wrote his splendid Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, surely the best treatment of the topic ever, while a Fellow, and Romm now follows him with his contribution to the “Seneca Problem.” The event was gratifying to the classicist in me, not to mention the New Yorker and denizen of the Reading Room. The spacious room appointed for the conversation was absolutely full; people who hadn’t reserved a place were turned away; the question and answer session was lively; the signed books looked as if they were selling out. Even if we can’t rest assured of the future of the 42nd Street Library, we can be certain that there are New Yorkers who are keenly interested in the Classics, the Roman Empire, Nero, Stoicism, and poor old Seneca, whose exit from life was such a protracted, painful, and messy affair.

Professor Romm makes it absolutely, emphatically clear that his book is about one particular “Seneca Problem,” the conflict of his wealth, partly gained through usury and imperial favor, and his embrace of political power as the tutor and “friend” of the Emperor Nero, and the severe moralism of the Stoic philosophy he propounded in his voluminous writings. Did Seneca, as a philosopher-statesman, successfully divide his public and intellectual lives or was he the worst sort of hypocrite? This is of course an issue which is as alive today as it was in Seneca’s time. None of us are happy when we contemplate a public figure whose actions differ from their stated principles. We have all known them. 1

There are other Seneca Problems as well, however, which Romm acknowledges in passing, as topics subsidiary to his main argument, or passes over as self-evident, for example the value of his philosophical writings, which he dismisses with sarcasm, but little analysis. He baldly states his scepticism about the Letters to Lucilius, disagreeing with Michel Foucault’s high estimation of them, in a footnote to page 151 on page 251. Yes, the quality and value of Seneca’s writings have been debated since his lifetime, as well as their influence. There are readers who find his so-called thinking tedious, and there are those who cannot abide his style. And Seneca still has some admirers in these quarters as well.

In spite of this lingering scepticism about Seneca’s merits and importance, his works retain some indelible, if vaguely defined prestige—whatever became of the Western Canon—in the minds of many college graduates, as well as on the physical and virtual shelves of booksellers. To judge by the availability of relatively cheap paperback selections of his philosophical writings and his tragedies, and the enthusiastic “reviews” of them on Amazon, Seneca most assuredly has his followers today—people who seem immune to the questions I have just mentioned. Perhaps this in itself is a sign that a book like Mr. Romm’s, which is functionally a biography, will find a ready market. Another American professor, Emily Wilson of the University of Pennsylvania, has written another book on Seneca, The Greatest Empire: the Life of Seneca, due to appear in November. It looks as if the old Stoic may be a hot item this year.

What is significant and interesting about Seneca lies for Romm in his double life, as it emerged after his arrival at Rome from Spain, his establishment as a rhetorician, then as an emulator of Cicero’s Romanization of Greek philosophy, then as the tutor of the young Nero, then as his advisor, and finally as a fallen courtier. He was to pay for his lost wealth and influence with his suicide at Nero’s command—which, like everything else about Seneca is controversial: some have seen a noble gesture in it, and others empty, egotistical theatrics. Romm takes pains to present this as an engaging, dramatic narrative in a lively, up-to-date prose. Seneca himself tells us nothing about his life in his writings. Our main sources are the historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio and the imperial biographer Suetonius, each with his own judgments and prejudices. It happens that two of these are lively, compelling writers, and one of one of them, Tacitus, is a great one. There is always the question of the need for a modern writer to tell a familiar story all over again, when ancient writers told the story so well, if with distinct, contradictory points of view. Commented editions of these writers fit the bill, and for literary enjoyment, they remain unsurpassed. For that matter, would anyone entrusted with the transmission of the classics want to interpose his or her own writing between modern students or readers and the glorious originals? It was fashionable in the nineteenth century—and even remains so today to some extent—to retell such stories in novels, and historical narratives have had their vogue, either for popular audiences or specialists, who desire either contemporary mediation or interpretation. In the 1970s the eminent Danish philosopher Villy Sørensen did just that in his Seneca, The Humanist at the Court of Nero, because he felt that the events, the personalities, and the moral ramifications of their collision to be essential for his time. Why does James Romm feel compelled to take on the same task? After reading the book, I’m not quite sure. Perhaps it is merely to make the utmost effort to bring together two sides of Seneca’s life, which Seneca assiduously separated while alive.

In the scholarly world, Silver Latin has enjoyed considerable popularity in recent decades, and Seneca’s writings are well-represented in modern texts and commentaries. An authoritative book, Miriam Griffin’s Seneca: a Philosopher in Politics, first published in 1976, remains in print, and an admirable collection of essays, Seneca, edited by C. D. N. Costa (Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1974), includes a 39-page survey by Dr. Griffin, which covers pretty much the same material as Romm’s book, much more trenchantly and, to be sure, more economically. These are written for the most part in sturdy Oxonian prose, built to haul information, argument, and ideas, and may require a little more effort than Romm’s self-consciously user-friendly idiom. A touchstone for “modern Senecan scholarship” is Seeing Seneca Whole – Perspectives on Philosophy, Poetry and Politics, ed. Katharina Volk and Gareth D. Williams, Boston, 2006, which raises many vital questions not touched on in Romm’s biographical approach. And there is much else.

Romm borrows mannerisms from crime journalism and pulp fiction to give his narrative a sensationalistic tone, peppered with anachronistic phrases and other banalities. We encounter sentences like “The walls of the holy city (Jerusalem) were drenched in gore.” (p. 48) “In De Ira he held up the model of Cato, who kept his cool even when a man publicly spat in his face.” (p. 103) “It was well past midnight when Anicetus’ hit squad arrived at Agrippina’s villa.” (p. 113. Romm is especially fond of the phrase “hit squad.”), and chatty phrases like “in cahoots” (p. 37) Sometimes his rhetoric derails into absurdity: “[…}Herculeius answered by hitting her on the head with a club. The other officer standing by, Obaritus, drew his sword. Agrippina was all out of strategems. There was little left for her but to die.” (p. 114) I should think the blow on the head would have sufficed to neutralize whatever strategems remained there. Tacitus, instead of this clichéd final sentence, gives her one last dying gesture, that of baring her belly and commanding the men to strike her womb, which Romm mentions in another context. Not only does Romm’s language pale beside that of his source, it makes less sense. Both Tacitus and Suetonius were masters of gossip and innuendo, enobling the subterfuges of repressed free speech in artful prose, and this penny dreadful transformation serves them ill.

Even more dismal is Romm’s (or his editor’s) adoption of what seems to be a literary application of the documentary film maker Ken Burns’ use of constant repetition to keep the inattentive viewer on track of people and events. Historical figures, institutions, and events are constantly reidentified, as if he had never done this at their first occurrence in his narrative. The endlessly repeated identifications of Locusta, Nero’s “staff toxicologist,” are especially annoying. This constant repetition of narrative signposts weighs down the exposition, like those idiotic  padlocks people hang on bridges. It is depressing to read a book written expressly for the lazy reader.

At the NYPL event, Professor Romm confessed with considerable relish that he expected his colleagues to hate his book, and I can see why. Scholarly readers like to read something new, an insight which will help them move forward in their own work, and, as a non-specialist, I am unable to to find anything of the sort in this book. It is also essential to explain one’s methods, and, as far as I can see, there are none here, beyond unargued speculation and a particular arbitrariness in chronology.

On page 46, Romm embarks on what I take to be a digression on the activities of Seneca’s brother Novatus (then going by his adoptive name Gallio), pronconsul of Achaia, and Antonius Felix, pronconsul of Judaea. For the sake of brevity, I’ll say that this brought them into connection with the Apostle Paul. This concatenation culminates on p. 49, where Romm mentions “a curious legend” that Paul and Seneca became warm friends during Paul’s “house arrest” in Rome. He then cites “a collection of letters […] that purports to be a correspondence between Seneca and Paul, each expressing admiration of the other’s teachings and even arranging meetings to learn more. Most scholars have considered these letters spurious for generations, but the idea that the two great moralists of their age were in some kind of dialogue is hard to resist.” Romm’s endnotes, which are not linked to his main text by numbers, but gathered at the back identified by page numbers, do not even identify the letters, much less discuss the validity of the evidence they provide. Presumably the lay reader, for whom this book is intended, if she or he reads Momigliano’s “Note sulla leggenda del cristianesimo di Seneca” in Rivista storica italiana 62 (1950), will learn more. This kind of teasing obfuscation unfairly misleads the layman and infuriates the scholar. It also seems odd for Romm, who elsewhere shows a low opinion of Seneca’s thought and writing, to mention him in the same breath as Paul, as two of “the great moralists of their age.” This casual teaser brings up the complex issues of the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity, which have been discussed at length over the centuries, with largely negative results today.

A collection of nine Latin tragedies has come down to us with an attribution to Seneca. These are the only complete surviving Roman tragedies, and they are the only extensive body of poetry under Seneca’s name. Scholars and readers tend to approach them as a separate entity, and their attribution has been doubted, both singly, and as a whole. Today most are generally accepted as Seneca’s, although Octavia, the only surviving historical play (fabula praetextata), important for Romm as a source on Nero and his unfortunate wife, is considered the work of an admirer of Seneca, who appears as a character in the play. It has been thought that he wrote his tragedies in secret as private creations, never intending to see them performed. Their chronology has not been convincingly established, although one of Romm’s endnotes cites a couple of attempts. Costa called them undatable, although he is willing enough to consider them a pastime of Seneca’s exile on Corsica between 41 and 49 A.D. Romm with disarming honesty stresses the doubts over the dating of the plays most emphatically and more than once. Yet, on page 34ff., he attempts to date Medea to the period following Claudius’ conquest of Britain in A.D. 43, when Seneca himself was exiled to Corsica at the emperor’s behest, on the basis of its “message,” i.e. that the hypertrophy of culture and technology, which let ships sail to the far north, that is, Britain, would lead to an apocalypse, expressed in the play through Medea’s horrific slaughter of her children. As evidence he cites the “play’s most famous passage” (without giving a reference to specific line numbers either in the Latin or a translation, a terrible disservice to the lay readers the book is supposed to serve, another sign of the thoughtless, chaotic editing of this book. The relevant chorus, by the way, begins at line 301 and ends at 379.) The final lines of the chorus invoke the extent of the known world in all directions, culminating in legendary Thule in the extreme north, and may well refer to Britain, where Seneca himself comfortably lent money to the inhabitants. (His recall of the debts owed him may have played a role in setting off Boudicca’s War.) However, the disparaging reference to navigation as a potentially harmful technology when overdeveloped, and the catalogue of far-off places, including Thule, are topoi which extend throughout ancient Greek and Roman literature. One cannot rule out a reference to Britain, but it is not necessary for the understanding or appreciation of the chorus. Then on page 76, Romm pursues the argument by dating further, using it to connect Medea with Seneca’s essay De Ira. First he pairs it with the tragedy Phaedra, conjecturing that “it is tempting to think that Seneca wrote” Phaedra in the time of Messallina, Claudius’s third wife, and Medea in that of Aprippina, his fourth, “women whose prevailing passions sort well with the heroines he portrayed. But there are no clues, either within the plays themselves or in other sources, that allow us to establish their dates.” (But he has just attempted to date Medea. Seneca must indeed have composed the plays in the utmost secrecy, since neither empress would have been flattered by the comparison, and if Seneca were in exile at the time, he is unlikely to have had the affairs of court at the front of his mind, even if he managed somehow to keep abreast of events. Agrippina after all secured his recall from exile, and he owed her a debt of gratitude.) Romm goes on to warn us that “Few today would think to read De Ira together with Medea, though the works might well have been composed concurrently.” Medea is a portrait of “anger run amok,” while in De Ira he discourses on the need to curb anger and to act with reason. Opposite, but naturally dovetailing attitudes. Romm chooses to dwell on the differences, finally asking “in which body of work do we hear the real Seneca?” At this point Romm’s line of thought becomes a red herring, because it is not hard to see the author of De Ira imagining anger at its worst as a negative moral message. In returning to the historical context Romm places both Phaedra and Medea in the context of impotentia, a lack of self-control to which women are especially inclined, according to Roman males, exemplified especially by the two female monsters, Messalina and Agrippina. Romm’s reflections here are thoughtful, if erratic, but ultimately vitiated by the weak chronological reasoning that supports them. “It is tempting to think that…” merely throws a speculation before the reader without taking responsibility for it.

At one point (p. 135) a Freudianism (“In Tigellinus, Seneca had a new enemy at court, one who was allied with the emperor’s libido, against those who embodied his superego.”) pops up out of nowhere, adding very little to our understanding of the situation. There has certainly been no previous sign that Mr. Romm is attempting a Freudian interpretation of Nero’s reign, as Gregorio Marañón psychologized Tiberius in his Tiberio, historia de un resentimientoI (1948, Eng. trans. 1956).

If there has been some difficulty in reconciling Seneca’s tragedies with his philosophical work, there have been even more questions surrounding a curious satirical work called the Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius. The humorous Greek word means something like “gourdification,” which ridicules the apotheosis declared after Claudius’ death. It is Seneca’s only humorous work, among an oeuvre which is relentlessly serious. Yet, it fits in with Seneca’s role as Nero’s tutor and the atmosphere at court at the time of Claudius’ death. Seneca, Nero, and Agrippina were not the only ones to find reasons to hate and ridicule Claudius. Romm’s discussion of this Menippean satire, that is, a combination of prose and verse like Petronius’ Satyrica, important to his portrait of Seneca as a courtier, is one of the more persuasive parts of his book, although his stress on the problems (or mysteries, as he says) surrounding the work is hardly conducive to a focused and precise analysis of the problems. I agree that it is basically a performance piece intended to celebrate the demise of an unpopular ruler and the accession of a new one, who, apart from the requisite flattery, gave people reason to hope for some improvement, even the dawn of a new age, to use imperial Roman parlance. Interpretations can become quite detailed and problematic, especially where political and theological issues are concerned, but it is sensible to bear in mind that it is not intended as a serious work, whatever political baggage it might carry. Both Petronius and Seneca intended their satires to be read at court as entertainment. In addition to the generally valid points Romm and others have made, I’d suggest that the Apocolocyntosis be understood in the context of Seneca’s relationship with his tutee, Nero, who was seventeen at the time. He was by no means an enthusiastic pupil, and the simple literary and mythological allusions in the work seem intended to foster his lagging interest in giving him an accessible taste of literary culture, as well as a flattering semblance of learning, as the central member of the audience. The crude excremental humor also seems directed at youth. We all know how fond the Romans were of potty humor, but in the Apocolocyntosis is is exceptionally basic. As earthy as it is, the racy wit of the Satyrica falls into another realm of sophistication. At least it is aimed at grown-ups. In this way, the Apocolocyntosis fits Seneca’s double role as Nero’s tutor and, later, advisor. He role was not only to educate a less-than-promising philosopher-king in the making, but his prestige as a rhetorician and philosopher was supposed to mask the youth’s shortcomings and to lend him credibility in terms of the humanitas so much desired in a Princeps, but, after Augustus, not yet found.

I very much regret having to find this readable effort lacking in so many ways. Most reviewers in the popular press have found it eminently readable, but I found it to be painfully so. There is nothing for the student here, and the casual reader will find too many misleading conjectures to unlearn, if she or he decides to read further on the subject. The primary fault of Dying Every Day is the author’s unwillingness to cut through the problems and doubts inherent in the subject and to attempt to reach any real conclusions. At its conclusion we are left with the same conundrum we began with. The relationship between the quite separate and different elements of Seneca’s life and work remain uncertain, because they are not really explored. Griffin’s straightforward conclusion, that Seneca’s involvement in politics was in fact consonant with his Stoic philosophy, motivated not by ambition, but by the need to take some responsibility in educating and guiding the ruler. On the other hand, Seneca gladly, it seems, acquired wealth, although he avoided spending it on luxuries. His philosophical works actually do reflect some feelings of a disjunction between his philosophical ideals and his mode de vivre, and a resulting feeling of malaise. After all in his late Epistles he does in fact style himself as a person suffering from a disease who sincerely desires to be cured, possibly through the philosophy pursued in that work. Or perhaps death, as the exit of the diseased individual from a diseased world, would be the only real cure (p. 152).

One might also consider that this approach through Seneca’s far from enviable life may be less fruitful than the study of what he has left us—mainly his moral philosophy and his tragedies. As I have said these have had their admirers and detractors over the centuries, and their influence has been spottier than has been assumed, as G. M. Ross incisively observed in his essay, “Seneca’s Philosophical Influence” in Costa’s collection cited above. Nonetheless Seneca left his mark both as philosopher and tragic poet on the Renaissance and on an area of particular importance to English-speakers, the tragic genre, practised both in Latin and in English over the sixteenth century, without which we should not have Shakespeare. Stoicism, more through the influence of Marcus Aurelius, whom Romm praises lavishly as the philosopher-emperor to which Seneca aspired in Nero and possibly in himself, as I have mentioned, has influenced the pop philosophy of our time, as the Amazon “reviews” attest, as well as the doctrines of various self-help programs. Romm never directly comes to terms with Seneca’s philosophical work in his book, although one passage—actually his introduction of Seneca’s nephew, Lucan, the poet—makes his low estimation clear: “Though still in his late teens, the boy had already shown huge literary talent, outpacing in poetry his uncle’s immense prolixity in prose. In him, the fantastic wordiness of the Annaeus clan, passed down from its rhetorician patriarch Seneca the Elder, had reached its acme.” (p. 122) Romm’s easy dismissal is an appalling disservice to a poet who was great in his way and left a crucial mark on English drama and poetry, from Marlowe and Shakespeare to Milton and beyond. As so often, Romm sneaks in this facile observation where it doesn’t seem to require a supportive argument, and it is patently unfair both to Lucan and to his uncle. This sort of evasion in fact abrogates Romm’s stated purpose, to bring Seneca’s life and work into a unified perspective. Contemporary lay readers, like the people who so enthusiatically thronged the conversation at the 42nd Street Library, deserve better. — Also don’t miss the four-part discussion on France Culture, Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance: 1. Sénèque, Lettres à Lucilius 2. Sénèque, De la vie heureuse 3. Sénèque, La Tranquillité de l’âme 4. Sénèque, De la Brièveté de la vie

  1. Actually, in the session at the Public Library a special opportunity was missed. James Romm’s book concerns the disappointment of Seneca’s life in comparison with the high thoughts he purveyed in his writings. James Shapiro’s Contested Will relates the search for an acceptable person on whom Shakespeare’s plays would sit well according to the preconception of the times. The Victorians wanted an intellectual and a statesman; the Comtean Looney wanted a well-educated, well-travelled, well-connected aristocrat.
About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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