Nero Claudius Caesar


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Next follows a discourse on a Happy Life, addressed to Gallio. Seneca
seems to have intended this as a vindication of himself, against those
who calumniated him on account of his riches and manner of living. He
maintained that a life can only be rendered happy by its conformity to
the dictates of virtue, but that such a life is perfectly compatible with
the possession of riches, where they happen to accrue. The author pleads
his own cause with great ability, as well as justness of argument. His
vindication is in many parts highly beautiful, and accompanied with
admirable sentiments respecting the moral obligations to a virtuous life.
The conclusion of this discourse bears no similarity, in point of
composition, to the preceding parts, and is evidently spurious.

The preceding discourse is followed by one upon the Retirement of a Wise
Man. The beginning of this tract is wanting; but in the sequel the
author discusses a question which was much agitated amongst the Stoics
and Epicureans, viz., whether a wise man ought to concern himself with
the affairs of the public. Both these sects of philosophers maintained
that a life of retirement was most suitable to a wise man, but they
differed with respect to the circumstances in which it might be proper to
deviate from this conduct; one party considering the deviation (391) as
prudent, when there existed a just motive for such conduct, and the
other, when there was no forcible reason against it. Seneca regards both
these opinions as founded upon principles inadequate to the advancement
both of public and private happiness, which ought ever to be the ultimate
object of moral speculation.

The last of the author’s discourses, addressed to Aebucius, is on
Benefits, and continued through seven books. He begins with lamenting
the frequency of ingratitude amongst mankind, a vice which he severely
censures. After some preliminary considerations respecting the nature of
benefits, he proceeds to show in what manner, and on whom, they ought to
be conferred. The greater part of these books is employed on the
solution of abstract questions relative to benefits, in the manner of
Chrysippus; where the author states explicitly the arguments on both
sides, and from the full consideration of them, deduces rational
conclusions.

The Epistles of Seneca consist of one hundred and twenty-four, all on
moral subjects. His Natural Questions extend through seven books, in
which he has collected the hypotheses of Aristotle and other ancient
writers. These are followed by a whimsical effusion on the death of
Caligula. The remainder of his works comprises seven Persuasive
Discourses, five books of Controversies, and ten books containing
Extracts of Declamations.

From the multiplicity of Seneca’s productions, it is evident, that,
notwithstanding the luxurious life he is said to have led, he was greatly
devoted to literature, a propensity which, it is probable, was confirmed
by his banishment during almost eight years in the island of Corsica,
where he was in a great degree secluded from every other resource of
amusement to a cultivated mind. But with whatever splendour Seneca’s
domestic economy may have been supported, it seems highly improbable that
he indulged himself in luxurious enjoyment to any vicious excess. His
situation at the Roman court, being honourable and important, could not
fail of being likewise advantageous, not only from the imperial profusion
common at that time, but from many contingent emoluments which his
extensive interest and patronage would naturally afford him. He was born
of a respectable rank, lived in habits of familiar intercourse with
persons of the first distinction, and if, in the course of his attendance
upon Nero, he had acquired a large fortune, no blame could justly attach
to his conduct in maintaining an elegant hospitality. The imputation of
luxury was thrown upon him from two quarters, viz, by the dissolute
companions of Nero, to whom the mention of such an example served as an
apology for their own extreme dissipation; (392) and by those who envied
him for the affluence and dignity which he had acquired. The charge,
however, is supported only by vague assertion, and is discredited by
every consideration which ought to have weight in determining the reality
of human characters. It seems totally inconsistent with his habits of
literary industry, with the virtuous sentiments which he every where
strenuously maintains, and the esteem with which he was regarded by a
numerous acquaintance, as a philosopher and a moralist.

The writings of Seneca have been traduced almost equally with his manner
of living, though in both he has a claim to indulgence, from the fashion
of the times. He is more studious of minute embellishments in style than
the writers of the Augustan age; and the didactic strain, in which he
mostly prosecutes his subjects, has a tendency to render him sententious;
but the expression of his thoughts is neither enfeebled by decoration,
nor involved in obscurity by conciseness. He is not more rich in
artificial ornament than in moral admonition. Seneca has been charged
with depreciating former writers, to render himself more conspicuous; a
charge which, so far as appears from his writings, is founded rather in
negative than positive testimony. He has not endeavoured to establish
his fame by any affectation of singularity in doctrine; and while he
passes over in silence the names of illustrious authors, he avails
himself with judgment of the most valuable stores with which they had
enriched philosophy. On the whole, he is an author whose principles may
be adopted not only with safety, but great advantage; and his writings
merit a degree of consideration, superior to what they have hitherto ever
enjoyed in the literary world.

Seneca, besides his prose works, was the author of some tragedies. The
Medea, the Troas, and the Hippolytus, are ascribed to him. His father is
said to have written the Hercules Furens, Thyestes, Agamemnon, and
Hercules Oetaeus. The three remaining tragedies, the Thebais, Oedipus,
and Octavia, usually published in the same collection with the seven
preceding, are supposed to be the productions of other authors, but of
whom, is uncertain. These several pieces are written in a neat style;
the plots and characters are conducted with an attention to probability
and nature: but none of them is so forcible, in point of tragical
distress, as to excite in the reader any great degree of emotion.—-

PETRONIUS was a Roman knight, and apparently of considerable fortune. In
his youth he seems to have given great application to polite literature,
in which he acquired a justness of taste, as well as an elegance of
composition. Early initiated in the gaieties (393) of fashionable life,
he contracted a habit of voluptuousness which rendered him an
accommodating companion to the dissipated and the luxurious. The court
of Claudius, entirely governed for some time by Messalina, was then the
residence of pleasure; and here Petronius failed not of making a
conspicuous appearance. More delicate, however, than sensual, he rather
joined in the dissipation, than indulged in the vices of the palace. To
interrupt a course of life too uniform to afford him perpetual
satisfaction, he accepted of the proconsulship of Bithynia, and went to
that province, where he discharged the duties of his office with great
credit. Upon his return to Rome, Nero, who had succeeded Claudius, made
him consul, in recompense of his services. This new dignity, by giving
him frequent and easy access to the emperor, created an intimacy between
them, which was increased to friendship and esteem on the side of Nero,
by the elegant entertainments often given him by Petronius. In a short
time, this gay voluptuary became so much a favourite at court, that
nothing was agreeable but what was approved by Petronius and the
authority which he acquired, by being umpire in whatever related to the
economy of gay dissipation, procured him the title of Arbiter
elegantiarum. Things continued in this state whilst the emperor kept
within the bounds of moderation; and Petronius acted as intendant of his
pleasures, ordering him shows, games, comedies, music, feats, and all
that could contribute to make the hours of relaxation pass agreeably;
seasoning, at the same time, the innocent delights which he procured for
the emperor with every possible charm, to prevent him from seeking after
such as might prove pernicious both to morals and the republic. Nero,
however, giving way to his own disposition, which was naturally vicious,
at length changed his conduct, not only in regard to the government of
the empire, but of himself and listening to other counsels than those of
Petronius, gave the entire reins to his passions, which afterwards
plunged him in ruin. The emperor’s new favourite was Tigellinus, a man
of the most profligate morals, who omitted nothing that could gratify the
inordinate appetites of his prince, at the expense of all decency and
virtue. During this period, Petronius gave vent to his indignation, in
the satire transmitted under his name by the title of Satyricon. But his
total retirement from court did not secure him from the artifices of
Tigellinus, who laboured with all his power to destroy the man whom he
had industriously supplanted in the emperor’s favour. With this view he
insinuated to Nero, that Petronius was too intimately connected with
Scevinus not to be engaged in Piso’s conspiracy; and, to support his
calumny, caused the emperor to be present at the examination (394) of one
of Petronius’s slaves, whom he had secretly suborned to swear against his
master. After this transaction, to deprive Petronius of all means of
justifying himself, they threw into prison the greatest part of his
domestics. Nero embraced with joy the opportunity of removing a man, to
whom he knew the present manners of the court were utterly obnoxious, and
he soon after issued orders for arresting Petronius. As it required,
however, some time to deliberate whether they should put a person of his
consideration to death, without more evident proofs of the charges
preferred against him, such was his disgust at living in the power of so
detestable and capricious a tyrant, that he resolved to die. For this
purpose, making choice of the same expedient which had been adopted by
Seneca, he caused his veins to be opened, but he closed them again, for a
little time, that he might enjoy the conversation of his friends, who
came to see him in his last moments. He desired them, it is said, to
entertain him, not with discourses on the immortality of the soul, or the
consolation of philosophy, but with agreeable tales and poetic
gallantries. Disdaining to imitate the servility of those who, dying by
the orders of Nero, yet made him their heir, and filled their wills with
encomiums on the tyrant and his favourites, he broke to pieces a goblet
of precious stones, out of which he had commonly drank, that Nero, who he
knew would seize upon it after his death, might not have the pleasure of
using it. As the only present suitable to such a prince, he sent him,
under a sealed cover, his Satyricon, written purposely against him; and
then broke his signet, that it might not, after his death, become the
means of accusation against the person in whose custody it should be
found.

The Satyricon of Petronius is one of the most curious productions in the
Latin language. Novel in its nature, and without any parallel in the
works of antiquity, some have imagined it to be a spurious composition,
fabricated about the time of the revival of learning in Europe. This
conjecture, however, is not more destitute of support, than repugnant to
the most circumstantial evidence in favour of its authenticity. Others,
admitting the work to be a production of the age of Nero, have questioned
the design with which it was written, and have consequently imputed to
the author a most immoral intention. Some of the scenes, incidents, and
characters, are of so extraordinary a nature, that the description of
them, without a particular application, must have been regarded as
extremely whimsical, and the work, notwithstanding its ingenuity, has
been doomed to perpetual oblivion: but history justifies the belief, that
in the court of Nero, the extravagancies mentioned by Petronius were
realized (395) to a degree which authenticates the representation given
of them. The inimitable character of Trimalchio, which exhibits a person
sunk in the most debauched effeminacy, was drawn for Nero; and we are
assured, that there were formerly medals of that emperor, with these
words, C. Nero August. Imp., and on the reverse, Trimalchio. The various
characters are well discriminated, and supported with admirable
propriety. Never was such licentiousness of description united to such
delicacy of colouring. The force of the satire consists not in poignancy
of sentiment, but in the ridicule which arises from the whimsical, but
characteristic and faithful exhibition of the objects introduced. That
Nero was struck with the justness of the representation, is evident from
the displeasure which he showed, at finding Petronius so well acquainted
with his infamous excesses. After levelling his suspicion on all who
could possibly have betrayed him, he at last fixed on a senator’s wife,
named Silia, who bore a part in his revels, and was an intimate friend of
Petronius upon which she was immediately sent into banishment. Amongst
the miscellaneous materials in this work, are some pieces of poetry,
written in an elegant taste. A poem on the civil war between Caesar and
Pompey, is beautiful and animated.

Though the Muses appear to have been mostly in a quiescent state from the
time of Augustus, we find from Petronius Arbiter, who exhibits the
manners of the capital during the reign of Nero, that poetry still
continued to be a favourite pursuit amongst the Romans, and one to which,
indeed, they seem to have had a national propensity.

——–Ecce inter pocula quaerunt
Romulidae saturi, quid dia poemata narrent.–Persius, Sat. i. 30.

—-Nay, more! Our nobles, gorged, and swilled with wine,
Call o’er the banquet for a lay divine!–Gifford.

It was cultivated as a kind of fashionable exercise, in short and
desultory attempts, in which the chief ambition was to produce verses
extempore. They were publicly recited by their authors with great
ostentation; and a favourable verdict from an audience, however partial,
and frequently obtained either by intrigue or bribery, was construed by
those frivolous pretenders into a real adjudication of poetical fame.

The custom of publicly reciting poetical compositions, with the view of
obtaining the opinion of the hearers concerning them, and for which
purpose Augustus had built the Temple of Apollo, was well calculated for
the improvement of taste and judgment, as well as the excitement of
emulation; but, conducted as it now was, it led to a general degradation
of poetry. Barbarism in (396) language, and a corruption of taste, were
the natural consequences of this practice, while the judgment of the
multitude was either blind or venal, and while public approbation
sanctioned the crudities of hasty composition. There arose, however, in
this period, some candidates for the bays, who carried their efforts
beyond the narrow limits which custom and inadequate genius prescribed to
the poetical exertions of their contemporaries. Amongst these were Lucan
and Persius.—-

LUCAN was the son of Annaeus Mela, the brother of Seneca, the
philosopher. He was born at Corduba, the original residence of the
family, but came early to Rome, where his promising talents, and the
patronage of his uncle, recommended him to the favour of Nero; by whom he
was raised to the dignity of an augur and quaestor before he had attained
the usual age. Prompted by the desire of displaying his political
abilities, he had the imprudence to engage in a competition with his
imperial patron. The subject chosen by Nero was the tragical fate of
Niobe; and that of Lucan was Orpheus. The ease with which the latter
obtained the victory in the contest, excited the jealousy of the emperor,
who resolved upon depressing his rising genius. With this view, he
exposed him daily to the mortification of fresh insults, until at last
the poet’s resentment was so much provoked, that he entered into the
conspiracy of Piso for cutting off the tyrant. The plot being
discovered, there remained for the unfortunate Lucan no hope of pardon:
and choosing the same mode of death which was employed by his uncle, he
had his veins opened, while he sat in a warm bath, and expired in
pronouncing with great emphasis the following lines in his Pharsalia:–

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