Statue head from Carl Mille's antique collection at Millesgården, Lidingö
Statue head from Carl Mille’s antique collection at Millesgården, Lidingö

I’ve started reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, the complete collection translated by Richard M. Gummere; the dog-eared paperback edition I had read and re-read earlier was only a selection of forty letters out of the 124 he wrote.

Seneca has always fascinated me (and many others), writing so eloquently about how to live a good life, only concerned with your character, etc. – only to live his life quite differently. Many brand him a hypocrite, but I think he was merely human, struggling like all of us. I think he tried. Behind the scenes, he managed the empire during the first years of Nero‘s reign, an uninterested Nero happily leaving him to it, and he did a pretty good job together with Burrus. One wonders how things would have gone with him as a ruler. Would he have become a philosopher emperor or given in to his less, shall I say, flattering sides? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to imagine the insecurity of life at court, especially at Nero’s. Assassinations, even of close family members (Nero had his mother put to death, for example, and he’s also suspected of murdering his wife), executions or orders for suicide, and exile were an everyday business. Seneca could see Nero sinking into madness a little more every day, fearing he’d be next. He was almost ordered to commit suicide by Caligula and escaped it only because Caligula thought he was dying (of tuberculosis); later, he also spent eight years in exile in Corsica under Claudius. Maybe he thought power and riches would protect him from the whims of the capricious rulers. But those would only threaten or become the envy of an emperor.

He was forced to retire eventually, and curiously enough, Nero let him go after refusing him twice before. He left his riches to Nero, retired to the country, read philosophy, and wrote these letters, among other works. Unfortunately, it didn’t save him in the end. Accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Nero, he was forced to take his own life.

The Letters may be his attempt to be stoic about his fate (pun intended). He had no riches or power anymore, but a Stoic wouldn’t need them. Or maybe the distance from the court provided the perspective he needed. It certainly made it easier for him to live a little closer to his Stoic ideals.

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