Making Sense Of Seneca

dish_rubens seneca

In a review of a pair of new books about Seneca, Mary Beard explores the less-than-virtuous life of the famed philosopher, claiming that the “contradictions in this career are obvious and they troubled many ancient observers, just as they have troubled many later ones.” She reconsiders the Roman Stoic’s perspective toward his death:

In his suicide, fighting against the recalcitrant frailty of his own body, he met unwaveringly the death to which he has been cruelly sentenced [by emperor Nero]; and he turned it into the ultimate lesson in how to die (not for mere show was he dictating his last philosophical thoughts on his long-drawn-out deathbed, but for the true edification and education of future generations). This is presumably the message of Rubens’s famous painting, which shows Seneca standing almost naked in his small bath, in a pose strikingly reminiscent of the suffering Jesus in many Ecce homo scenes from medieval and later art: so suggesting triumph over death, not defeat by it.

Yet as both [Dying Every Day author James] Romm and [Emily] Wilson in The Greatest Empire insist, it is impossible not to see some ambivalence, at the very least, in Tacitus’s version of Seneca’s last hours, and in his evaluation of the man more generally. Romm focuses in particular on that phrase imago vitae suae (“the image of his own life”), which was to be, as Tacitus put it, Seneca’s bequest to his followers. Roland Mayer has argued that we should detect here a reference to the kind of imago that was displayed in elite Roman houses: one of those series of ancestor portraits intended to spur on future generations to imitate the achievements of their great predecessors. That is very likely one resonance of the phrase: Seneca was offering a positive example to be followed in the future. But, as Romm rightly observes, “Imago is a multilayered word,” and like “image” in English, it also suggests “illusion,” “phantom,” or “false seeming.”

(Image of The Death of Seneca by Rubens, c. 1615, via Wikimedia Commons)