Authors: Seneca the Younger

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Roman playwright

c. 4 b.c.e.

Corduba (now Córdoba, Spain)

April 65 c.e.

Rome (now in Italy)


Seneca (SEHN-ih-kuh) was the son of Annaeus Seneca, a famous rhetorician of Corduba known as Seneca the Elder, whose own contributions to literary history had a profound influence on his son. Seneca the Younger, in his writings, lavished praise on both of his parents. Helvia, his mother, was a strong woman of character who is specifically honored in To My Mother Helvia, on Consolation. The family possessed wealth and high rank, and at an early age Seneca was sent to Rome to be educated. As a student of rhetoric and philosophy, the young man came to the notice of Emperor Caligula, under whose patronage he entered the Roman Senate and gained fame as an orator. Accused by Empress Messalina of conducting a love affair with Caligula’s sister, Seneca was banished to Corsica by Emperor Claudius. Many of Seneca’s philosophical writings were written during his exile, but his conduct while in Corsica apparently exhibited little of the Stoicism he advocated. Unhappy in his banishment, he begged to be recalled to Rome. In the year 49 c.e. Agrippina, the new wife of Claudius, procured his return and made him a tutor to her eleven-year-old son Domitius, later Emperor Nero.

Seneca the Younger

(Library of Congress)

Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, prefect of the Praetorian guard, exercised great influence over Nero and were, according to Tacitus, responsible for the mildness that marked the early years of that monarch’s reign. In his writings, Seneca attributes words to Nero that perhaps reflect Seneca’s own aspirations for peace and tolerance. Through Nero, Seneca was for a time virtually the ruler of Rome, but after the death of Burrus in 62 c.e., his position as an adviser became dangerous because of the restraints he tried to impose on his debauched and brutal master. New advisers to Nero, who cared little for good government or justice, were at the emperor’s ear. Nero was constantly in need of money, and Seneca was wealthy, enormously so. Moreover, enemies had pointed out to the emperor that Seneca was Nero’s greatest rival at oratory and poetry, that Seneca was very popular with the Romans, and that he had disparaged Nero’s poetry and horsemanship. Seneca, learning of the dangerous situation, went to Nero and asked permission to retire from public life. Tacitus declares that Seneca knew that retirement from Nero was not an option and that his request would ultimately lead to his death. The request was denied, and although he was not immediately condemned, Seneca spent far less time at the court.

In 65 c.e. Seneca was accused of plotting against Nero. Ordered by the emperor to commit suicide, Seneca cut the veins of his wrists and his knees and, while entertaining friends at his villa near Rome, allowed himself to bleed to death. The fact that Seneca’s death occurred about the time of Nero’s attack on Christians has led some historians to suggest that Seneca may have himself become a Christian, but no evidence exists to support that possibility.

It is difficult to associate Seneca’s writings with his life, for too little information has been saved that relates the two. In his philosophical writings Seneca delineated a Stoicism that he himself apparently failed to practice. In addition to his philosophical writings Seneca left nine tragedies, probably designed to be read rather than to be viewed on the stage. During the period between 1580 and 1640 Seneca’s plays greatly influenced Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists; stage devices such as ghosts, murders, and long-winded harangues by the chief characters were borrowed directly from Senecan drama. Some authorities have maintained that the Senecan plays are an adjunct to his philosophical writings, each play illustrating a point of Stoic doctrine—Thyestes, for example, dealing with retribution. Precise dating of the plays is next to impossible.

Author Works Drama: The dating of Seneca’s plays is approximate; the following were written c. 40–55 c.e.: Agamemnon (English translation, 1581) Hercules furens (Mad Hercules, 1581) Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules on Oeta, 1581) Medea (English translation, 1581) Oedipus (English translation, 1581) Phaedra (English translation, 1581) Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women, 1581) Thyestes (English translation, 1581) Troades (The Trojan Women, 1581) Nonfiction: Ad Marciam de consolatione, c. 40–41 c.e. (To Marcia, on Consolation, 1614) Ad Helviam matrem de consolatione, c. 41–42 (To My Mother Helvia, on Consolation, 1614) De ira libri tres, c. 41–49 (Three Essays on Anger, 1614) Epigrammata super exilio, c. 41–49 Ad Polybium de consolatione, c. 43–44 (To Polybius, on Consolation, 1614) De brevitate vitae, c. 49 (On the Shortness of Life, 1614) Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii, c. 54 (The Deification of Claudius, 1614) De constantia sapientis, c. 55–56 (On the Constancy of the Wise Man, 1614) De clementia, c. 55–56 (On Clemency, 1614) De beneficiis, c. 58–63 (On Benefits, 1614) De vita beata, c. 58 (On the Happy Life, 1912) De tranquillitate animi, c. 59–61 (On the Tranquility of the Soul, 1614) De otio, c. 62 (On Leisure, 1614) Quaestiones naturales, c. 62–64 (Natural Questions, 1614) Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, c. 62–65 (Letters to Lucilius, 1917–25) De providentia, c. 63–64 (On Providence, 1614) Workes: Both Morall and Naturall, 1614 Ad Lucilium epistulae morales, 1917–25 (3 volumes) Seneca, Moral Essays, 1928–35 (3 volumes) Bibliography Boyle, A. J. Tragic Seneca: An Essay in the Theatrical Tradition. New York: Routledge, 1997. A study of Seneca’s tragedies and his influence on Renaissance dramatists. Includes bibliography and index. Davis, Peter J. Shifting Song: The Chorus in Seneca’s Tragedies. New York: Olms-Weidmann, 1993. An examination of Seneca’s tragedies and Latin drama, with emphasis on the use of the chorus. Includes bibliography. Griffin, Miriam T. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. 1976. Reprint. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. A biography of Seneca that examines his political viewpoints and his participation in government. Includes bibliography and index. Harrison, George W. M., ed. Seneca in Performance. London: Duckworth with the Classical Press of Wales, 2000. An analysis of Seneca’s dramas that looks at production and staging issues. Includes bibliography and index. Henry, Denis, and Elisabeth Henry. The Mask of Power: Seneca’s Tragedies and Imperial Power. Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1985. An interpretative study of Seneca’s tragedies, placing them in their cultural context. Includes a good bibliography. Holland, Francis. Seneca. 1920. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. For a long time, this work was the only biography on Seneca available in English. Still useful and readable, Holland’s study is thorough and aware of the problematic status of its subject. Kolbert, Elizabeth. ""Such a Stoic." The New Yorker, vol. 90, no. 46, 2015, p. 66. EBSCOhost, A biographical sketch of Seneca the Younger that focuses on his relationship with Nero and the politics of his time. Briefly reviews two contemporary book-length biographies of Seneca. Motto, Anna Lydia, ed. Further Essays on Seneca. New York: P. Lang, 2001. This volume continues the criticism and interpretation begun in Essays on Seneca. Motto, Anna Lydia, and John R. Clark. Essays on Seneca. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. A collection of articles on the Roman dramatist and his literary works. Includes bibliography and index. Roller, Matthew B. Constructing Autocracy: Aristocrats and Emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. This book takes as its subject Rome’s transition from a republican system of government to an Imperial regime and how the Roman aristocracy reacted to this change. According to Roller, writers and philosophers negotiated and contested the nature and scope of the emperor’s authority; among these were Lucan and Seneca the Younger, on whom the text focuses. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Seneca in English. Edited by Don Share. New York: Penguin, 1998. Discusses how Seneca's work fared in English translation and affected English dramatists. Sorensen, Villy. Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero. Translated by W. G. Jones. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A well-written, scholarly work that is understandable to a general audience. Brings alive the man, his time, and his political and philosophical achievements. Includes interesting illustrations. Sutton, Dana Ferrin. Seneca on the Stage. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986. This volume argues against tradition that Seneca’s tragedies were not merely written to be read but crafted to be performed. Supports its claim with its discovery of stage directions that are “clues” hidden in the text of the dramas. Tietze Larson, Victoria. The Role of Description in Senecan Tragedy. New York: Peter Lang, 1994. A study of the tragedies of Seneca with emphasis on the role of description in these plays. Includes bibliography.

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