The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

Upon the breaking out of the conspiracy of Piso, in which some of the
principal senators were concerned, Natalis, the discoverer of the plot,
mentioned Seneca’s name, as an accessory. There is, however, no
satisfactory evidence that Seneca had any knowledge of the plot. Piso,
according to the declaration of Natalis, had complained that he never saw
Seneca; and the latter had observed, in answer, that it was not conducive
to their common interest to see each other often. Seneca likewise
pleaded indisposition, and said that his own life depended upon the
safety of Piso’s person. Nero, however, glad of such an occasion of
sacrificing the philosopher to his secret jealousy, sent him an order to
destroy himself. When the messenger arrived with this mandate, Seneca
was sitting at table, with his wife Paulina and two of his friends. He
heard the message not only with philosophical firmness, but even with
symptoms of joy, and observed, that such an honour might long have been
expected from a man who had assassinated all his friends, and even
murdered his own mother. The only request which he made, was, that he
might be permitted to dispose of his possessions as he pleased; but this
was refused him. Immediately turning himself to his friends, who were
weeping at his melancholy fate, he said to them, that, since he could not
leave them what he considered as his own property, he should leave at
least his own life for an example; an innocence of conduct which they
might imitate, and by which they might acquire immortal fame. He
remonstrated with composure against their unavailing tears and (388)
lamentations, and asked them, whether they had not learnt better to
sustain the shocks of fortune, and the violence of tyranny?

The emotions of his wife he endeavoured to allay with philosophical
consolation; and when she expressed a resolution to die with him, he
said, that he was glad to find his example imitated with so much
fortitude. The veins of both were opened at the same time; but Nero’s
command extending only to Seneca, the life of Paulina was preserved; and,
according to some authors, she was not displeased at being prevented from
carrying her precipitate resolution into effect. Seneca’s veins bleeding
but slowly, an opportunity was offered him of displaying in his last
moments a philosophical magnanimity similar to that of Socrates; and it
appears that his conversation during this solemn period was maintained
with dignified composure. To accelerate his lingering fate, he drank a
dose of poison; but this producing no effect, he ordered his attendants
to carry him into a warm bath, for the purpose of rendering the
haemorrhage from his veins more copious. This expedient proving likewise
ineffectual, and the soldiers who witnessed the execution of the
emperor’s order being clamorous for its accomplishment, he was removed
into a stove, and suffocated by the steam. He underwent his fate on the
12th of April, in the sixty-fifth year of the Christian aera, and the
fifty-third year of his age. His body was burnt, and his ashes deposited
in a private manner, according to his will, which had been made during
the period when he was in the highest degree of favour with Nero.

The writings of Seneca are numerous, and on various subjects. His first
composition, addressed to Novacus, is on Anger, and continued through
three books. After giving a lively description of this passion, the
author discusses a variety of questions concerning it: he argues strongly
against its utility, in contradiction to the peripatetics, and recommends
its restraint, by many just and excellent considerations. This treatise
may be regarded, in its general outlines, as a philosophical
amplification of the passage in Horace:–

Ira furor brevis est: animum rege; qui, nisi paret,
Imperat: hunc fraenis, hunc tu compesce catena.
Epist. I. ii.

Anger’s a fitful madness: rein thy mind,
Subdue the tyrant, and in fetters bind,
Or be thyself the slave.

The next treatise is on Consolation, addressed to his mother, Helvia, and
was written during his exile. He there informs his mother that he bears
his banishment with fortitude, and advises her to do the same. He
observes, that, in respect to himself, (389) change of place, poverty,
ignominy, and contempt, are not real evils; that there may be two reasons
for her anxiety on his account; first, that, by his absence, she is
deprived of his protection; and in the next place, of the satisfaction
arising from his company; on both which heads he suggests a variety of
pertinent observations. Prefixed to this treatise, are some epigrams
written on the banishment of Seneca, but whether or not by himself, is
uncertain.

Immediately subsequent to the preceding, is another treatise on
Consolation, addressed to one of Claudius’s freedmen, named Polybius,
perhaps after the learned historian. In this tract, which is in several
parts mutilated, the author endeavours to console Polybius for the loss
of a brother who had lately died. The sentiments and admonitions are
well suggested for the purpose; but they are intermixed with such fulsome
encomiums on the imperial domestic, as degrade the dignity of the author,
and can be ascribed to no other motive than that of endeavouring to
procure a recall from his exile, through the interest of Polybius.

A fourth treatise on Consolation is addressed to Marcia, a respectable
and opulent lady, the daughter of Cremutius Cordus, by whose death she
was deeply affected. The author, besides many consolatory arguments,
proposes for her imitation a number of examples, by attending to which
she may be enabled to overcome a passion that is founded only in too
great sensibility of mind. The subject is ingeniously prosecuted, not
without the occasional mixture of some delicate flattery, suitable to the
character of the correspondent.

These consolatory addresses are followed by a treatise on Providence,
which evinces the author to have entertained the most just and
philosophical sentiments on that subject. He infers the necessary
existence of a Providence from the regularity and constancy observed in
the government of the universe but his chief object is to show, why, upon
the principle that a Providence exists, good men should be liable to
evils. The enquiry is conducted with a variety of just observations, and
great force of argument; by which the author vindicates the goodness and
wisdom of the Almighty, in a strain of sentiment corresponding to the
most approved suggestions of natural religion.

The next treatise, which is on Tranquillity of Mind, appears to have been
written soon after his return from exile. There is a confusion in the
arrangement of this tract; but it contains a variety of just
observations, and may be regarded as a valuable production.

(390) Then follows a discourse on the Constancy of a Wise Man. This has
by some been considered as a part of the preceding treatise; but they are
evidently distinct. It is one of the author’s best productions, in
regard both of sentiment and composition, and contains a fund of moral
observations, suited to fortify the mind under the oppression of
accidental calamities.

We next meet with a tract on Clemency, in two books, addressed to Nero.
This appears to have been written in the beginning of the reign of Nero,
on whom the author bestows some high encomiums, which, at that time, seem
not to have been destitute of foundation. The discourse abounds with
just observation, applicable to all ranks of men; and, if properly
attended to by that infatuated emperor, might have prevented the
perpetration of those acts of cruelty, which, with his other
extravagancies, have rendered his name odious to posterity.

The discourse which succeeds is on the Shortness of Life, addressed to
Paulinus. In this excellent treatise the author endeavours to show, that
the complaint of the shortness of life is not founded in truth: that it
is men who make life short, either by passing it in indolence, or
otherwise improperly. He inveighs against indolence, luxury, and every
unprofitable avocation; observing, that the best use of time is to apply
it to the study of wisdom, by which life may be rendered sufficiently
long.

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.

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