Emily Wilson’s brilliant – and troubling – biography of Seneca starts in characteristic fashion, with her subject’s death. (Her two previous monographs likewise dealt with characters who seemed to live too long.) Lucius Annaeus Seneca, suspected of conspiracy against the emperor Nero, was forced, AD65, to kill himself. He first attempted to cut his wrists, but the blood began to congeal in the wounds. He resorted to a dose of hemlock, but that too failed to do the job. At last he stepped into a hot bath and managed, rather unheroically, to suffocate in the steam (he suffered from chronic respiratory problems). His suicide was, in Wilson’s words, “haphazard and full of mistakes”.
Like his death, Seneca’s life raises the question of what might constitute success. He was born into a prominent family, circa 4BC, in what is now Cordoba in Spain. Like other boys of his background, he studied rhetoric and philosophy in Rome. After some 10 years in Egypt, he returned to Rome and launched a remarkably successful political and literary career. The culture of fear, suspicion and conspiracy under the first Roman emperors was such that Seneca later felt that he had to justify his ability to remain alive in the early stages of his career. He eventually did run into trouble, was condemned to death, then spared, then exiled to Corsica, and finally recalled and employed as tutor for the young Nero. After his unlikely comeback, he became one of the empire’s richest men – while advocating an ascetic life of self-sufficiency. In his old age, he tried to disentangle his affairs from those of Nero, but the emperor forced him to engineer his own “long-awaited death”.
Seneca is one of just two or three ancient authors for whom we have significant evidence other than what can be gleaned from their own works: he was so prominent that we would know about him even if he had written nothing. And he wrote a lot: philosophical treatises, letters and violent tragedies – all of which Wilson reads with penetrating assurance. The texture of her biography changes depending on the sources available: for his early youth, she reconstructs the kind of experiences a young provincial boy might have had. For his Roman years, she emphasises “the disconnect between political realities and acceptable forms of speech”. In the political imagination of Seneca’s contemporaries, Rome was still a republic ruled by a senate, but in fact this was no longer so. Wilson illuminates the gap between discourse and reality, between philosophical aspiration and political compromise. The parallels with our world are easy to draw: for example, the supposedly sovereign people of today elect their representatives, who then act as the markets dictate. Then, as now, questions of hypocrisy, wealth and consistency (or rather constantia, as Seneca put it) seem relevant. Then, as now, there is the issue of what philosophy might obtain for the poor and the politically disempowered.
Wilson’s meticulous work deserves better copy-editing: there are several minor inaccuracies (including a rather amusing Latin mistranslation on page 35). This does not detract from the author’s achievement: she offers an important and wide-ranging analysis via her focus on a single, troubled and fascinating figure.
Seneca: A Life
By Emily Wilson
Allen Lane, 272pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781846146374 and 6381 (e-book)
Published 5 March 2015