Adviser to the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, author of many influential tragic plays, frequent commentator on the meaning of death, and a suspected conspirator in a plot to assassinate Nero, Seneca ended his own life in a three-part suicide: slitting his wrists, then swallowing poison, and finally suffocating in a hot steam bath.
He was born in 4 B.C. in Córdoba on the Iberian peninsula to a wealthy rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder and his wife, Helvia. A sickly child, young Seneca was sent to Rome, where studied rhetoric and Stoic philosophy and was looked after by his aunt (whose name is not known). The two of them lived for fifteen years in Egypt, and in 31 A.D. returned to Rome, where Seneca was elected a magistrate.
The Senecas, both father and son, had trouble with the Emperors. The Elder got into a dispute with Caligula, who spared his life only because he was so old. When Claudius succeeded Caligula, he banished Seneca the Younger to Corsica for having an affair with Caligula’s sister, Julia Livilla. In exile, Seneca wrote his Consolationes, consoling a friend on the loss of her son. Death, and how to prepare for it, occupied much of Seneca’s works throughout his career.
By 49 A.D. Seneca was back in good graces with the royal family, and Caligula’s sister, Agrippina the Younger, who was Claudius’ fourth wife, invited him to Rome to tutor her 12-year-old son, Nero. When Claudius died in 54 A.D.—probably poisoned by his wife—the ambitious Agrippina finagled the imperial succession for Nero instead of Claudius’ older son, Britannicus, and Seneca became the young Emperor’s adviser. Agrippina turned against her son and began urging Britannicus to depose him. Nero had Britannicus poisoned and then, with the complicity of Seneca, he engineered the murder of his mother. According to the historian Tacitus, Seneca then wrote a glowing defense of Nero’s actions to present to the Senate.
Although a Stoic who believed contentment was achieved by a simple, unassuming life, Seneca did not shy from palace intrigue, and he became enormously wealthy by currying favor with the Emperor and by masterminding a scheme in which money was lent on extortionate terms to the aristocracy in the Roman province of Britain.
Seneca’s notable plays, which had great influence on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in England and on the works of Corneille and Racine in France, included such tragedies based on Greek mythology as Herculess Furens (The Madness of Hercules), Troades (The Trojan Women), The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Thyestes, Agamemnon, Oedipus, and Medea. British revenge tragedies, beginning with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and culminating in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, owe their inspiration to Seneca.
Seneca’s views on death are embodied in his many essays and epistles, with such titles as “On the Shortness of Life,” “On the Terrors of Death,” “On Despising Death,” and “On Old Age.” In them he expresses such Stoic views as:
Life is long enough, and it has been given in
sufficiently generous measure to allow us to accomplish
great things if we use our time well.
If you are angry with your slave, or your master, or
your patron, or your employee, just wait a little while.
Death will come, and that will make you all equals.
Since wailing cannot recall the dead, and sadness
cannot alter fate, and death, once it comes, is permanent,
our grief is futile and should cease.
The wise man does not hasten his death, but when it
comes he should make a graceful exit.
Alas, Seneca’s exit was none too graceful. In 65 A.D. a Roman statesman named Piso hatched a plot for Nero’s assassination. At least forty senators and other officials were conspirators, and although Seneca was not directly involved, Nero suspected him along with the others—and ordered him and his wife Pompeia Paulina to commit suicide. The usual way was to slit one’s wrists, and both of them did so. Nero ordered Pompeia spared and her wounds were bound up. As for Seneca, his blood coagulated and wouldn’t flow. He then took poison, which was also ineffective. Finally, in desperation, he drew a hot bath in hopes that it would encourage the flow of his blood. Instead, at last achieving success in doing away with himself, he suffocated in the steam from the bath. He was sixty-nine.
During the Middle Ages, Seneca’s writings were very popular because of the views he expressed in his essays “On Anger” and “On Clemency,” which echoed the teachings of Christ. Some overly enthusiastic Christians even insisted that he had been converted by Saint Paul and that his final bath was an attempt to baptize himself.