Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Greatest Empire, A Life of Seneca by Emily Wilson

The Greatest Empire is a biography of the philosopher, writer, politician Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was born in Cordoba, Spain circa 4 B.C. and who died, by his own hand under political pressure, in 66 A.D. 

I should state right away that the "Greatest Empire" referred to in the title is not the Roman Empire, under which Seneca lived.  Seneca, a master of wordplay, believed that if one could conquer oneself, control one's own impulses, then one had conquered the greatest empire possible.  To be Emperor of oneself was Seneca's goal in life, but one that he could not always live up to, because he was, after all, human.

This scholarly work, which I received as a review-copy, includes a timeline, maps, notes, further reading suggestions, a bibliography, art credits and a full Index.  The writing style is convoluted, stilted, and dryly academic at times.  But the author's female perspective on a paternalistic and misogynistic society is refreshing to read.  And she provides parenthetical explanations for those readers who are not up to speed on Roman and Mediterranean history.

When attempting a biography of an ancient Roman citizen, one is limited to the ancient sources that have survived to our day.  Those sources have not changed for centuries.  Modern writers attempt to re-interpret these sources, provide lots of context for readers, and apply our modern thoughts and philosophies to the facts related in the sources.  In Seneca's case, there is the risk that the era was more interesting than the man, which was a thought I had at times while reading this book.

Seneca was a Socratic and Stoic philosopher, a writer of literature, plays and popular aphorisms, and a speechwriter for his former pupil, the Emperor Nero.  Seneca is 18 years old when Rome's first permanent Emperor dies, Augustus.  Then Seneca lives through the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius.  The Emperor Nero pressures Seneca to take his own life.  

The author refuses to accept the common picture that is painted of Seneca as an opportunistic, ass-kissing hypocrite.  Many hold up Seneca as a prime example of a worthy man who sold his soul to get power and wealth.  Seneca himself said he tried: be engaged in the world without losing integrity.
The author believes this about Seneca:
He was neither a monster nor a saint; he was a talented, ambitious, deeply thoughtful man, who struggled to create an uneasy compromise between his ideals and the powers that were.
I found the sections of the book that discuss the philosophies of the era the most interesting:  Cynicism, Hedonism, Platonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism, and the Peripatetics, the Pythagorians, and the Sextians!  Everybody wanted to find solace in life and to "overcome grief, pain and fear of death".  Judaism was the annoying old-timer of philosophies because the followers of the monotheistic Judaism refused to worship Roman Emperors.  And the relatively new Catholicism was just as troublesome.

The author aims to link Seneca's remaining writings, and writings we know existed, with the man's life.  That is a life that began in the province of Spain, moved to the capital Rome where he fell ill from his recurring Tuberculosis, moved to another province, Egypt, back to Rome, then into exile on Corsica due to a sex-scandal, then back to Rome where he became filthy rich and very powerful.  Then things went very badly for Seneca, sending him into a peripatetic life around Italy, which eventually lead to his death by suicide to escape execution by the Emperor Nero.

The author describes Seneca's childhood, family life and education.  That information comes mainly from Seneca the Elder's writings, another philosopher.  That is an interesting section that explains the Roman manner of teaching, which was based on the Greek manner of teaching:  debate, argument, declamation, rhetoric, memorization.  All fathers wanted their sons to become lawyers!

We also get snippets from Seneca's letters to his family.  These are wonderful for the details that are revealed about daily life in Ancient Rome.  The section of the book on Seneca's influence through the ages since the fall of Rome could be developed into a book in itself, it is so rich with references and potential material.  It comes across as feeling rushed in The Greatest Empire.

What was Seneca like, based on what the author tells us?  Well, he was pretty typical for his class, time, and place.  He was a macho jerk, self-righteous, self-important, ambitious, self-pitying, pompous, falsely modest, a narcissist, a slave owner, and a hypocrite. 

Seneca's insights into human nature still apply to us today, since human nature is the one true constant over time.  The author states Seneca's ever-true observation:
...psychological truth of his central insight that watching acts of pain and cruelty does real harm to our souls.
That harm is a fact.  Our moral compass is destroyed by watching real and simulated acts of pain and cruelty.  Children can be exposed to that harm without choice, but most people damage themselves by their choices of cultural consumption.  Perhaps that insight alone is reason for people to continue to read Seneca's philosophical works?

From the book's (very long!) description:
By any measure, Seneca (?4-65AD) is one of the most important figures in both Roman literature and ancient philosophy. He was the most popular writer of his day, and his writings are voluminous and diverse, ranging from satire to philosophical "consolations" against grief, from metaphysical theory to moral and political discussions of virtue and anger.

He was also the author of disturbing, violent tragedies, which present monstrous characters in a world gone wrong. But Seneca was also deeply engaged with the turbulent political events of his time. Exiled by the emperor Claudius for supposed involvement in a sex scandal, he was eventually brought back to Rome to become tutor and, later, speech-writer and advisor to Nero.

He was an important eyewitness to one of the most interesting periods of Roman history, living under the rule of five of the most famous--and infamous--emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero), through the Great Fire of Rome (64AD), and at a time of expansion and consolidation of Roman imperial power throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as various foreign and internal conflicts. Suspected of plotting against Nero, Seneca was condemned and ultimately took his own life in what became one of the most iconic suicides in Western history.

The life and works of Seneca pose a number of fascinating challenges. How can we reconcile his bloody, passionate tragedies with his prose works advocating a life of Stoic tranquility? Furthermore, how are we to reconcile Seneca the Stoic philosopher, the man of principle, who advocated a life of calm and simplicity, with Seneca the man of the moment, who amassed a vast personal fortune in the service of an emperor seen by many, at the time and afterwards, as an insane tyrant?

In this vivid biography, Emily Wilson presents Seneca as a man under enormous pressure, struggling for compromise in a world of absolutism. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca thus offers us, in fascinating ways, the portrait of a man with all the fissures and cracks formed by the clash of the ideal and the real: the gulf between political hopes and fears, and philosophical ideals; the gap between what we want to be, and what we are.

The Greatest Empire is published by Oxford University Press.
Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide.

Here are direct links to the book at

If you are interested in reading some of Seneca's works, for FREE, then here is a link to Seneca's page at Project Gutenberg, the grand-daddy of free e-book sites on the Internet.  Click on a work listed on that page, and you are brought to a download page, where you can choose your e-book format of choice.  You can also choose to read the book on-line in HTML format.

If you wish to read about Seneca in Ancient Roman texts, you could try Suetonius's life of Nero, in which Seneca plays a major role.

How bonkers was Nero?  Well, this TV production gives a good idea, and shows the beginning of the end of the Roman Emperor Nero.

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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