This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
In AD 59, Nero ordered the murder of his mother. This was the start of a reign of terror that caused the deaths of many others, including his wife Octavia. In AD 64, a fire destroyed much of Rome and Nero put the blame for the conflagration on the small Christian community of the city. Nero further cemented his reputation as an uncaring despot when he decided that the ruined centre of Rome would be an ideal location to build the Domus Aurea, the “Golden House” that would serve as his palace.
A large group of powerful people in Rome had had enough. In AD 65, the stage was set for a coup. Gaius Calpurnius Piso, handsome and well-liked, intended to have Nero assassinated, leaving the way clear for him to be declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard.
Unfortunately, Piso’s plot was betrayed. Things unravelled quickly. More than forty men were accused of having conspired against Nero. Some of them were banished. Others were executed. Members from the upper echelons of society were, according to ancient Roman custom, ordered to commit suicide, including Piso himself.
Tangled up in this web of deceit, somehow, was Seneca the Younger (ca. 4 BC–AD 65), the man who had served as Nero’s leading adviser. Seneca is considered one of the foremost proponents of (Roman) Stoicism, originally an Hellenistic philosophy founded in the third century BC in Athens by Zeno of Citium.
Roman Stoics believed that the gods determined one’s fate: one should simply accept that whatever happened was the result of divine will. At the same time, this didn’t mean that one shouldn’t get involved in earthly matters: Stoics believed that one had to uphold the moral order whenever possible. Seneca tried to influence Nero for the better and he embraced the Stoic ideal that the entire world was a community, advocating, for example, the humane treatment of slaves.
Lest we look at the Stoics with too kindly an eye, it should be pointed out that Seneca never advocated slavery be abolished. That would have been inconceivable as regards to the economic realities of the ancient world, which saw no need to develop machines to take over from cheap and plentiful human labour, nor did they have any moral objections to the very idea of slavery. Furthermore, a Stoic would have embraced a division of the human race between masters and slaves as natural: masters would have to be humane, while slaves had to simply endure their fate.
Sadly, Seneca didn’t seem to exert much of an influence on Nero after the first few years of his reign. In AD 62, and again in 64, Seneca tried unsuccessfully to retire, but was forced to stay. When the Pisonian conspiracy had been revealed, Nero decided that Seneca, too, must have been in on the plot, even though he was probably innocent.
Nevertheless, Nero ordered his old adviser to kill himself.
Tacitus, in his Annals (15.60–64), describes the details and circumstances of Seneca’s death. Seneca was at a villa he owned a little outside of Rome. Granius Silvanus, tribune of the Praetorian Guard, arrived with a group of soldiers right when Seneca was at supper with his wife, Pompeia Paulina, and two of his friends.
Silvanus relayed the Emperor’s orders, after which Seneca calmly tried to explain that he had nothing to do with the conspiracy. The tribune returned to Rome, but Nero told him to go back to Seneca and order him to kill himself. Tacitus notes that SIlvanus took the long way back to Seneca’s villa, as he had himself been one of the conspirators. In the end, he resolved to send a centurion in his stead and demand that the philosopher perform the deed.
The centurion arrived back at Seneca’s villa and told him what had to be done. Tacticus continues (Annals 15.61):
Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion’s refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life [imago vitae suae], which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship. At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke. “Where,” he asked again and again, “are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero’s cruelty? After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor.”
Seneca then turned and embraced his wife, asking her not too grieve too much. But Paulina told him flatly that she, too, had resolved to die. Together, they cut the veins on their arms. However, Seneca bled only a little, supposedly due to his age and his “frugal diet”, so that he also cut his knees and legs. Seeing his wife suffer, both on account of her own wounds and her seeing him try vainly to kill himself, Seneca ordered his wife to withdraw to another room.
But Nero had ordered Pompeia Paulina to live. Her slaves and freedmen, by the order of the soldiers, tended to her wounds. Tacitus suggests that she didn’t realize this at the time; perhaps she had fainted on account of the loss of blood. In the meantime, Seneca was dictating his last words to scribes. As bleeding to death was taking too long, he asked one of his friends to prepare a poison, perhaps inspired by the death of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (who had been condemned to drink hemlock).
However, the poison, too, had little effect.
In the hope of easing his pain and causing the blood to flow out more quickly, Seneca took a bath with warm water. Some of the water he sprinkled about, proclaiming it a libation to Jupiter the Liberator. Seneca expired soon afterwards. He was then, according to his wishes, cremated without any of the usual, and often ostentatious, funeral rites.