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Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

Author: James Romm
Rating: 9/10
Last Read: January 2016

Quick Summary: An overview of the life of Seneca, putting his philosophical works into context with his life and surroundings.  Discusses palace intrigues with the emperor Nero.

If you like history or philosophy, it is an excellent read.

Life, properly regarded, is only a journey toward death. We wrongly say that the old and sick are “dying,” when infants and youths are doing so just as certainly. We are dying every day, all of us

Key Takeaways

Nothing is created in a vacuum.  Seneca's letters are a source of immense wisdom still today... but when added into the context of his life, his goals, and his aspirations they can take on a totally different slant.

Nothing can be proven, but the theory fits with a pattern of opportunism in much of Seneca’s work. His command of the written word was so deft, his rhetorical skills so subtle, that it was easy for him to help himself while also helping others.

History is super fucking interesting and way better than anything we can make up.  

Elsewhere in De Ira Seneca calls to mind the sufferings of Asian viziers in old Greek legends. Harpagus served as chief minister to a Persian king but offended his master by disregarding an order. The king took a gory revenge: he served Harpagus a stew of his own children’s flesh, then showed him the severed heads to reveal what he had eaten. How did Harpagus like his dinner? the king asked, with Caligulan cruelty. Harpagus’ choking reply was “At a king’s table, every meal is pleasant.” The flattery at least gained him this, Seneca says grimly: he did not have to finish his meal.

My Highlights

Amici vitia si feras, facias tua. If you put up with the crimes of a friend, you make them your own. —ROMAN PROVERB --loc 47

Consolation to Marcia, written about A.D. 40, takes the form of a letter addressed to a mother grieving for a dead son, but it was meant to be read widely. Seneca would play the same rhetorical trick his entire life, allowing his readers to listen in on what seemed to be an intimate exchange. --loc 306

Nothing can be proven, but the theory fits with a pattern of opportunism in much of Seneca’s work. His command of the written word was so deft, his rhetorical skills so subtle, that it was easy for him to help himself while also helping others. --loc 324

Marcia’s grief, for Seneca, exemplifies a universal human blindness. We assume that we own things—family, wealth, position—whereas we have only borrowed them from Fortune. We take for granted that they will be with us forever, and we grieve at their loss; but loss is the more normal event—it is what we should have expected all along. --loc 336

life, properly regarded, is only a journey toward death. We wrongly say that the old and sick are “dying,” when infants and youths are doing so just as certainly. We are dying every day, all of us. --loc 343

Not only in Rome, but everywhere and in all times, good men have knuckled under to despots. --loc 410

Elsewhere in De Ira Seneca calls to mind the sufferings of Asian viziers in old Greek legends. Harpagus served as chief minister to a Persian king but offended his master by disregarding an order. The king took a gory revenge: he served Harpagus a stew of his own children’s flesh, then showed him the severed heads to reveal what he had eaten. How did Harpagus like his dinner? the king asked, with Caligulan cruelty. Harpagus’ choking reply was “At a king’s table, every meal is pleasant.” The flattery at least gained him this, Seneca says grimly: he did not have to finish his meal. --loc 411

Seneca’s hymn to suicide is thus very much of its time. By his day, suicide had come to signify, for aristocratic victims of the emperors, an inability to fight back; the best one could hope for was to embarrass the princeps by a highly public exit. --loc 459

Prexaspes was another vizier like Harpagus, a right-hand man to a Persian monarch. His master, Cambyses, a notorious drunk, set out one day to prove to his court that wine did not affect him. He set up an archery course, with Prexaspes’ son as the target; then, good as his word, he shot the boy through the heart. The story is related in De Ira just before the hymn to suicide above (in which Prexaspes is recalled as “the man whom it befell to have a king shoot arrows at his dear ones”). But Seneca leaves the sequel to the story curiously untold. Years later Prexaspes found himself in possession of dangerous information. He knew that a group of plotters had murdered Cambyses’ heir and put an impostor on the throne. He had colluded with the plot’s leaders, who valued his high standing among the Persian people. When the people became uneasy about their king’s legitimacy, the plotters asked Prexaspes to reassure them. Prexaspes climbed a high tower in a central square of the capital. From a window at the top, he called out to the populace below—but not as instructed. He denounced the impostor and revealed the plot, confessing that he himself had killed the true heir to the throne, on Cambyses’ orders. Then he launched himself off the tower and fell to his death. Inspired by his deed, the Persians rallied against the conspirators and soon overthrew them and their false king. --loc 463

Was life under such arbitrary power worth living? It was the question Seneca had posed in De Ira and, in a different way, in Consolation to Marcia. For Lucius Junius Silanus, the answer—no—was clear enough. Three days after his dismissal, on the same day Claudius wed Agrippina, he took his own life. --loc 618

As in the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel, the very complexity of civilization seemed to carry the seeds of its own destruction—or at least to have a fixed terminus, reached at a regular point every few thousand years. To Seneca, who lived in a city that had reached unimagined levels of sophistication, that terminus seemed not far off. --loc 633

By a curious coincidence, the careers of these two brothers—Seneca’s older brother Novatus, and Pallas’ brother Antonius Felix—are bound together by an unlikely thread: the travels of the apostle Paul. --loc 843

Only philosophic contemplation, he argues, can fulfill that quest. Only those who study philosophy are truly alive, in that they move outside the prison of time into the realm of eternals. All others, those who follow worldly pursuits, are squandering their time, merely running out the ever-ticking clock of mortality. --loc 972

“To fight against an equal is risky; against a higher-up, insane; against someone beneath you, degrading,” --loc 1202

But De Clementia is more emphatic on this point. “We have all of us done wrong,” Seneca intones here, in words that would not be out of place in a modern Christian sermon, “some seriously, some lightly, some intentionally, some pushed into it by accident or carried away by the wrongdoing of others; some have stood by our good designs not firmly enough and have lost our guiltlessness, unwillingly, while trying to keep our grasp on --loc 1563

Seneca had made the bargain that many good men have made when agreeing to aid bad regimes. On the one hand, their presence strengthens the regime and helps it endure. But their moral influence may also improve the regime’s behavior or save the lives of its enemies. For many, this has been a bargain worth making, even if it has cost them—as it may have cost Seneca—their immortal soul. --loc 2088

According to Seneca’s definition in the treatise, Nero’s giving had been not a beneficium, an act of generosity, but a means of asserting power and imposing obligation. --loc 2200

In the fog-bound glens of eastern England, Boudicca, warrior-queen of the Iceni, was gathering a mighty host determined to end Roman rule. At her hands, more than 80,000 Romans and their allies would soon be killed, and the Roman army would come within a hairsbreadth of an epic disaster. --loc 2206

According to Dio’s account, before the rebellion began, Seneca had called in his loans to British tribal leaders, abruptly and on harsh terms. That put many Britons into bankruptcy, while others were broken by the corrupt finance officer in charge of the region, Decianus Catus. Together, Dio suggests, Catus and Seneca forced Britons into a corner where they had nothing to lose by revolt. Tacitus, by contrast, says nothing of Seneca’s moneylending in Britain, though he confirms that Catus had made enemies there by rapacity. For Tacitus, the principal spark of the conflict was the flogging of Boudicca and the rape of her daughters, committed by arrogant Roman troops grown scornful of British tribesmen. --loc 2246

Then Nero turned to a more salient point. “If you return money to me, it won’t be your moderation spoken of by every mouth, but my greed; if you leave your princeps, it will be chalked up to fear of my cruelty. Your self-restraint would earn great praise; but it doesn’t befit a wise man to get glory for himself while bringing ill repute on a friend.” --loc 2329

The most consequential departure was that of Burrus, the stalwart Praetorian prefect, recently dead. The gruff old soldier had been one of few who stood up to Nero, speaking his mind and then, if asked to reconsider, saying to the princeps: “I’ve told you already, don’t question me twice.” --loc 2452

Discomforts overwhelm the body, Seneca muses, in the same way that vice and ignorance overwhelm the soul. The sufferer may not even know he is suffering, just as a deep sleeper does not know he is asleep. Only philosophy can rouse souls from such comas. --loc 2563

By insisting that death is everywhere and cannot be escaped, Seneca seems to relieve himself of the burden of action. For indeed, Seneca was taking very little action in these years to help himself or others. --loc 2672

The will to power, Atreus implies, lurks in even the most detached, self-contented sage. --loc 2945

Seneca’s prose works offer forgiveness, but in the bleak world of the tragedies, the sin of weakness comes back on the sinner’s head a thousandfold. In a gruesome messenger speech, we hear how Atreus butchered, fileted, and stewed Thyestes’ children. Then we watch as Thyestes unknowingly consumes the horrid casserole. --loc 2964

A great stream of manacled men surged toward Nero’s residence, so many that the suspects had to be detained outside, near the gates, for lack of rooms to torture them in. --loc 3167

Seneca allegedly once told Nero—the occasion of the remark is not known—“No matter how many you kill, you can’t kill your successor.” But in this case, as in many others, Nero proved his teacher wrong. He had indeed eliminated all possible successors, men belonging to the Julian line, by the end of 65. --loc 3376

The power to die, Seneca had promised, was present at every moment and transcended every oppression. --loc 3430

Domitian again, as his father had done, banished the Stoics from Rome, including Epictetus, whose magnetic personality had by now become a phenomenon. Epictetus landed in Nicopolis, in the Greek East, and began attracting new followers. His conversations and quips were written down by one of them, young Arrian of Nicomedia (later a famous historian), and began circulating as the Discourses and Encheiridion (“Handbook”). In time these writings, in Greek, filtered back to Rome, where they came under the eyes of an aristocratic youth named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. One day, after his elevation to princeps, this Marcus would quote the sayings of Epictetus in his own writings—bringing Stoic philosophy back into the palace from which it had been exiled since the death of Seneca. --loc 3519

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