Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, circa 1612–1613

Plato, in his Republic, spoke of an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy; he sought to ban tragic drama—in his eyes the purest, most destructive form that poetry could take—from his ideal state. Four centuries later, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher who took Socrates as his model to the point of trying to kill himself by drinking hemlock, composed, along with a series of treatises on the path to a virtuous life, verse tragedies more harrowing and bleak than any that Plato knew. He wrote both tragedies and philosophic tracts until his death, producing masterpieces in both genres, without acknowledging, in either one, that he was simultaneously pursuing the other.

Over the course of two millennia, many have found the gap between Seneca’s tragedies and treatises too great to bridge. In the fifth century AD, the poet Sidonius Apollinaris assumed that two brothers had authored the two corpora: “One tends the ground of shaggy Plato…another shakes Euripides’s stage.” Medieval humanists assigned the plays to the philosopher’s father, also named Lucius Annaeus Seneca (hence Seneca the Elder, to us), or to a son, “Marcus,” invented for this purpose. More recently the revered Seneca scholar Miriam Griffin, in an otherwise comprehensive 1976 biography of Seneca and survey of his thought, declined to even mention the tragedies; a single footnote explained that, since the views of created characters are not the same as their author’s, the plays would not be considered. (By this reasoning, many of Seneca’s prose dialogi, or “dialogues,” as they have been termed since antiquity, could be disregarded as well—but more on this below.)

The tragedies, with their dark depictions of a cosmos in moral collapse, are indeed far removed from the self-assured prose works. Seneca’s philosophy draws on the ideas of Stoicism, a discipline that had arisen in Athens in the fourth and third centuries BC and later became popular with Roman elites. Stoics urged the subordination of the self to the orderly laws of the universe and sought a guide to human behavior through observation of nature. In his essays and epistles, Seneca preached the merit of moderating anger and grief and of taking strength from reason, the force within the mind that leads one toward virtuous conduct. (In modern usage, “stoic” usually refers to only the first of these objectives.) Reason, for Seneca, had a divine origin, and following its promptings would bring its adherents closer to divinity. “God is near you, with you, inside you,” he writes in one of his many expositions of this Stoic ethical code. “A holy spirit dwells within us, our watchman and guard whether we are upright or wicked. It draws us toward it, just as it is drawn from us.” To always be guided by that divine force was the goal of the Stoic sapiens, the idealized sage whose happiness would be total despite any setbacks or losses.

By contrast, the tragedies represent a universe from which reason is disturbingly absent, and the divine takes the form of demons and underworld deities. These sinister forces are far more important in Seneca’s dramas than in the Greek plays they partly resemble, and the Olympian gods almost never appear to confront them. Typical Senecan tragic heroes wreak gruesome revenge or inflict horrific violence, with a ghost or Fury goading them or even summoned by them as an ally. They hear no voice of a “holy spirit” leading them to the good; they cannot moderate their destructive passions. They stand at the moral antipodes from the Stoic sapiens.

The distance between his ethical treatises and his nihilistic tragedies is only one of the complexities Seneca presents; another stems from his entry into politics, an arena where, as he knew, his Stoic code would be gravely challenged. Stoicism preached the value of personal freedom and moral autonomy; an early Roman practitioner, Cato the Younger, had helped lead the senatorial opposition to Julius Caesar and had killed himself rather than accept a life under Caesar’s dominion.

Seneca lived in an era when Caesarian power was well entrenched and the Senate severely compromised, yet he chose, perhaps in the early 30s AD, to become a senator. Even as he began writing tractates that often extolled the example of Cato’s suicide, he endured the cruelties of Caligula, who reportedly wanted him executed, and the abuses of Claudius, who had him exiled to Corsica on a charge that was likely contrived. In 49 AD he was recalled from exile to become tutor to young Nero, Claudius’s designated heir, and consented to serve the autocratic system that his Stoic hero Cato had so staunchly resisted.

In a ministerial career known through the histories of Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius, but about which his own writings are silent, Seneca spent some fifteen years at Nero’s side, advising the young and unstable new ruler after Claudius’s death in 54. Seneca wielded immense power in Nero’s name and got fabulously rich off his handouts. All the while he continued to publish treatises—two long works, De Ira (“On Anger”), urging control of one’s temper, and De Beneficiis (“On Benefits”), illustrating proper ways to give and receive, along with a variety of shorter works. Aware of the paradox of an imperial aide preaching Stoic tenets, Seneca’s enemies labeled him a tyrannodidaskalos, “tyrant-teacher,” and publicly decried his tactics for increasing his vast fortune (some of which may have sparked the revolt of Queen Boudicca in Britain in 60 or 61 AD). Modern assessments—Vasily Rudich, a classicist at Yale, has called Seneca an “immoral moralist”—have sometimes been equally harsh.


Seneca’s powerful role in Nero’s palace prevented him from writing openly about his own times, and this has created a further problem for interpreters, since few of the treatises, and none of the tragedies, can be assigned a firm date or set in a sequence without knowing more about his life. Yet even when two works appear to be linked closely in time, the differences between them can be astonishing. During the year of Nero’s accession, late 54 to late 55 AD, Seneca composed a fictional oration, De Clementia (“On Mercy”), demonstrating for the young ruler a moderate, humane way to use his power, which, Seneca granted, was absolute.

The work, which survives in incomplete form, has nothing in common, apart from flattery of Nero, with the Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii, or “Pumpkinification of the Deified Claudius,” a burlesque describing, in snarky prose and parodic verses, the journey of Claudius’s soul after death; yet Seneca composed the lampoon and the sober tractate at almost the same moment. Cruel and giddily funny, the Apocolocyntosis—the title is an enigma, since the work contains no mention of pumpkins—is unlike anything else in Seneca’s corpus. A few scholars today maintain that he cannot be the author, even though testimony from the historian Cassius Dio makes the attribution all but certain. It is perhaps a piece of whimsy written for an inaugural party, preserved by pure chance and revealing the author’s delight in maligning the man who had banished him to Corsica.

Two of Seneca’s final works form a similarly mismatched pair. In his mid- or late sixties, now largely retired from Nero’s court, which had turned paranoid and vicious, Seneca departed from the essay form and devised a new vehicle for his Stoic ideas, an anthology of letters notionally addressed to a friend named Lucilius. In the Moral Epistles (also known as Letters to Lucilius and various other titles), Seneca reveals his private thoughts and emotions, especially the apprehension of a death he saw fast approaching.

In the same years, Seneca turned his thoughts outward, to the cosmos around him, in his Natural Questions, an exploration of the cause and meaning of events like earthquakes, comets, and storms. The two works show Seneca innovating as he addresses a wider and more intimate set of concerns in the last phase of his life, and also casting about for a way to appease the increasingly mistrustful Nero. In the Moral Epistles, Seneca ignores the emperor entirely, perhaps hoping to demonstrate he would keep a judicious silence if allowed to leave politics for good; in the Natural Questions he offers Nero embarrassingly fulsome praise.

Neither strategy succeeded, nor did Seneca’s offer, recorded memorably by Tacitus, to surrender his huge estate in exchange for a peaceful exit from the palace. Despite his compromises, Seneca’s favorable reputation made him an asset to Nero’s corrupt regime, even if Nero himself, influenced by a new crop of more servile advisers, found him increasingly irksome. By 65 AD, Nero had already ordered the murders of several members of his court, and needed only a small pretext to add Seneca to the list. That pretext came in a failed coup attempt, with which Seneca may or may not have been involved but to which he could be plausibly linked. Seneca committed suicide on Nero’s orders, still dictating fresh material, according to Tacitus’s record of the scene, as his life ebbed away.

Seneca had not reached seventy at the time of his death but had written brilliantly in half a dozen genres, both in poetry and prose—a versatility that surpasses the surviving work of all other ancients and even rivals that of Goethe. Even posthumously, Seneca’s corpus kept expanding. It soon came to include a historical drama, Octavia, composed in the style of his plays and featuring Seneca himself as a character, as well as a more conventional tragedy, Hercules on Mt. Oeta. The first is clearly the work of a contemporary imitator, the second, probably so. But both have been handed down in manuscripts under Seneca’s name. There is also an intimate and mutually admiring correspondence purported to be between Seneca and the apostle Paul. These forged letters, with their fiction that Seneca had Christian leanings, supplied the Middle Ages with a reason to preserve an author who was otherwise difficult to characterize or comprehend.


Seneca considered his Moral Epistles a kind of spiritual remedy for those who would come after him, but posterity has not always embraced his legacy. The humanist Justus Lipsius, who edited Seneca’s complete works in the early seventeenth century, sought to revive Senecan Stoicism as a template for ethical life, but in subsequent eras Seneca’s reputation sank. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while Plato and Plutarch dominated American college curricula, Seneca languished. Some readers found him dour or overly prescriptive, compared with the more jocose Greeks; Michel de Montaigne, an early admirer and imitator, asserted, “Plutarch leads us, while Seneca drives us.” Others felt confused by the great volume of his prose works and their discursive style, shifts of voice and perspective, obscurities, and outright inconsistencies.

The shorter, more univocal treatises of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, who adopted aspects of Seneca’s ethical Stoicism, have been judged easier to interpret and have attracted far larger audiences. Seneca’s fortunes reached a low ebb with the 1949 edition of the Oxford Classical Dictionary: E. Phillips Barker, who had earlier translated the Moral Epistles for Oxford University Press, called Seneca’s character “detestable” and found in his writings evidence of mental illness.

But a rehabilitation of Seneca’s reputation and a resurgence of interest in his work have taken place in recent decades, leading to a burst of new scholarship and the first comprehensive set of English translations in four centuries. An important turn came in the 1980s after the US publication of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality. Seneca was a major presence in that work, among a large cast of ancient philosophers. Seneca’s nightly practice, described in De Ira, of reviewing, in a mood of gentle self-inspection, the ethical errors of the previous day exemplified for Foucault the private epimeleia heautou, cultivation of oneself, that he regarded as the salutary core of ancient philosophic practice. The shared self-assessments and mutual encouragements of Seneca and his friend Lucilius, as depicted in the Moral Epistles, extended that epimeleia into the realm of social relations. The notion of epimeleia heautou lent the title to the third and last volume of Foucault’s work, The Care of the Self. For the first time in centuries, a philosopher had taken Seneca seriously as a guide to ethical conduct.

National Archaeological Museum, Naples

‘Medea’; fresco from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae, 10–20 AD

Since Foucault’s day, Seneca’s renewed relevance has continued to grow, owing principally to the efforts of the classicist Shadi Bartsch and her colleagues at the University of Chicago. Working with Martha Nussbaum, Elizabeth Asmis, and David Wray, Bartsch has supervised the publication of an impressive Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, just now reaching completion (The Complete Tragedies are the last of seven volumes), organized an important conference, and co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Seneca with Alessandro Schiesaro. These efforts have marked Seneca’s return, after long obscurity, to the forefront of the classical canon.

The introduction to the Companion offers an eloquent riposte to Barker’s harsh dismissal of Seneca in 1949: Bartsch and Schiesaro argue that a modern understanding of “what it is to be a person”—one who embraces conflict and contradiction—has prompted a new appreciation of Seneca’s career. Where Barker saw evidence of “neurotic maladjustment,” Bartsch and Schiesaro describe a “self-satirizing, self-policing eye” that strikes them as being sympathetic to contemporary sensibilities. If Seneca had trouble maintaining a stable self, these authors argue, that renders him more recognizable in an age more tolerant of multiplicity and mutability.

In her own contribution to the volume, “Senecan Selves” (note the plural), Bartsch reconsiders the old charge of hypocrisy, acknowledging Seneca’s moral compromises at Nero’s side but also giving him credit for “self-shaping”—the creation of an idealized, aspirational “self” in the prose works, especially in the Moral Epistles. Similarly, Matthew Roller investigates the precise meaning of the Latin term dialogi, applied since antiquity to ten of Seneca’s prose works. Only one of these, De Tranquilitate Animi, has true dialogue form, with named speakers, yet all the dialogi admit voices beyond that of the author: unnamed adversaries, masks and personae, unattributed quotes from poets and sages. (Early modern readers lacked typographic conventions for such changes of speaker; Erasmus, who edited a 1529 anthology, complained in a preface that he often didn’t know whether Seneca was speaking, or his opponent, or some unidentifiable third party.)

It’s a challenging task to compile an overview of such a polyphonous author, but the Cambridge Companion does so with insight and skill. The volume addresses Seneca’s political career less than one might hope, though Bartsch has perhaps reserved some of those questions for the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to the Age of Nero, which she is also co-editing (with Kirk Freudenburg and Cedric Littlewood).

The authorship question surrounding the Senecan tragedies is now considered settled in Seneca’s favor, but their reputation, like that of the prose works, has not been secure.1 After a burst of prominence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—the era when Marlowe, Shakespeare, Corneille, and Monteverdi took inspiration, if not actual plots and characters, from them—the plays fell into neglect or were dismissed as bombastic, lurid, implausible, or gratuitously violent; they were compared unfavorably with the Greek tragedies, which avoid the onstage bloodshed in which Seneca revels. But in 1966, Yale’s John Herington, in an eloquent essay in the journal Arion, helped readers to see the idiosyncrasies of the Senecan plays not as flaws but as attributes of a new kind of theater: not “representations of people in action,” as in the Greek plays, but “representations of passion in people and things. The symbolic and the abstract have entered into the fabric of the drama.”

What this means in practice is a kind of drama so stylized that scholars dispute whether it ever was, or could have been, put on stage. Characters routinely speak in such a way that other characters cannot hear them (the origin of the Elizabethan “aside”), or name people or places that could not have been known in their ostensibly mythic setting. The passage of time is slowed down or sped up as needed, and even unity of place seems to be violated in Phoenician Women when Jocasta, standing on the ramparts of Thebes and imagining a bird or wind bearing her down to the battlefield below, is, in the next moment—whoosh—there. (The play seems to be unfinished, and it is possible that Seneca meant to smooth out this transition.) Psychology is occasionally ignored in favor of rhetorical effects, as in Phaedra’s final scene, in which Theseus appears to look on impassively as his wife stabs herself to death, then delivers a lament over the corpse of his son, Hippolytus, that takes no account of his wife’s body also lying before him.

Because of this “quasi-Cubist choppiness,” as Bartsch and Schiesaro call it in the Cambridge Companion, the Senecan tragedies have gained new stature among readers familiar with avant-garde and absurdist theater. Antonin Artaud championed them as predecessors of his Theater of Cruelty, professing particular admiration for Thyestes, a nightmarish depiction of revenge through cannibalism. In 1968, Artaud’s disciple Peter Brook brought Seneca’s Oedipus to a London stage, finding in it “theater liberated from scenery, liberated from costume, liberated from stage moves, gestures and business”; his version has since been revived several times. New verse translations have appeared, including one by Ted Hughes for the Brook production, Caryl Churchill’s 1993 Thyestes, and a recent collection of six plays rendered capably by Emily Wilson. The Complete Tragedies is the first English verse translation of all ten tragedies—the eight authentically Senecan ones, plus Octavia and Hercules on Mt. Oeta—since Elizabethan times.2

Herington identified “explosions of evil” as a key feature of Senecan drama, and this new, comprehensive edition allows us to see how true this is. Evil erupts out of the passions of unstable women like Medea, murderer of her children, and Phaedra, who destroys her stepson Hippolytus after he rejects her advances. It emerges from the underworld, as in the opening scene of Thyestes, in which the spirit of Tantalus is dragged up from Hades to blight the house of his grandsons, Atreus and Thyestes. It infects whole landscapes, brings on cataclysmic storms, shakes the solid earth, and drives the sun from the heavens. No gods descend to buffet such evil back, as they often do in the Greek tragedies from which Seneca worked. “Bear witness where you go that the gods do not exist,” cries Jason to Medea in the last line of Bartsch’s fine translation of Medea, as his wife tosses down to him, from her flying chariot, the bodies of the sons she has slain before our eyes. The same aerial exit ends the Medea of Euripides, but without the disturbing closing line.

Inevitably the focus on evil in the plays connects them with the moral philosophy of the prose works, but just how is hard to say. The translators of The Complete Tragedies—there are five in all, prominent Seneca scholars and able renderers of classical verse—wrestle with this timeless question in their introductory essays. Does the victory of evil in the plays, and the destruction of characters who seem to speak with Seneca’s voice—Thyestes, for example, who arrives onstage describing the ascetic serenity of his life in exile—undermine the message of the prose treatises, or reinforce it by negative example? Neither answer seems adequate, and both leave us with the further question of why Seneca adopted such different forms.

Bartsch’s introduction to Thyestes is masterful, as is her editorial work on the entire collection and on the complete series to which it forms the capstone. Recognizing, as many have done, the parallels between Thyestes’s return from exile to his home city, Argos, in order to assume (he thought) royal power, and Seneca’s own return to Rome in 49 AD to take his place at Nero’s side, Bartsch explores the moment when Thyestes stands at the threshold of rule and fears going forward, yet does so nonetheless after a long hesitation. Her analysis fuses the three strands visible in all her work on Seneca: the moral message of the prose works, the bleak vision of the tragedies, and the historical circumstance of the author’s collusion with an autocratic regime. “Which has failed, Thyestes or the philosophic system he follows?” she asks, before concluding with an uncharacteristic confession of aporia: “We will never know.” Neither, perhaps, did Seneca.