Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Neroby James Romm
At the center, the tumultuous life of Seneca, ancient Rome’s preeminent writer and philosopher, beginning with banishment in his fifties and subsequent appointment as/i>
From acclaimed classical historian, author of Ghost on the Throne a high-stakes drama full of murder, madness, tyranny, perversion, with the sweep of history on the grand scale.
At the center, the tumultuous life of Seneca, ancient Rome’s preeminent writer and philosopher, beginning with banishment in his fifties and subsequent appointment as tutor to twelve-year-old Nero, future emperor of Rome. Controlling them both, Nero’s mother, Julia Agrippina the Younger, Roman empress, great-granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus, sister of the Emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of Emperor Claudius.
James Romm seamlessly weaves together the life and written words, the moral struggles, political intrigue, and bloody vengeance that enmeshed Seneca the Younger in the twisted imperial family and the perverse, paranoid regime of Emperor Nero, despot and madman.
Romm writes that Seneca watched over Nero as teacher, moral guide, and surrogate father, and, at seventeen, when Nero abruptly ascended to become emperor of Rome, Seneca, a man never avid for political power became, with Nero, the ruler of the Roman Empire. We see how Seneca was able to control his young student, how, under Seneca’s influence, Nero ruled with intelligence and moderation, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes, gave slaves the right to file complaints against their owners, pardoned prisoners arrested for sedition. But with time, as Nero grew vain and disillusioned, Seneca was unable to hold sway over the emperor, and between Nero’s mother, Agrippina—thought to have poisoned her second husband, and her third, who was her uncle (Claudius), and rumored to have entered into an incestuous relationship with her son—and Nero’s father, described by Suetonius as a murderer and cheat charged with treason, adultery, and incest, how long could the young Nero have been contained?
Dying Every Day is a portrait of Seneca’s moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess. In his treatises, Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed, exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death. As Nero’s adviser, Seneca was presented with a more complex set of choices, as the only man capable of summoning the better aspect of Nero’s nature, yet, remaining at Nero’s side and colluding in the evil regime he created.
Dying Every Day is the first book to tell the compelling and nightmarish story of the philosopher-poet who was almost a king, tied to a tyrant—as Seneca, the paragon of reason, watched his student spiral into madness and whose descent saw five family murders, the Fire of Rome, and a savage purge that destroyed the supreme minds of the Senate’s golden age.
There were many sides to the great Roman philosopher and writer Seneca. Romm (Classics/Bard Coll.; Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire, 2011) explores his contrasting, even conflicting, skills in surviving at the dangerous court of Nero. Seneca was a sage who preached a simple, studious life while amassing wealth and power in Nero's court. Romm, who teaches Greek literature and language, combed Seneca's profuse writings in an attempt to identify the true man. Was he a moral philosopher of the Stoic school or a greedy businessman and corrupt power monger? Are his tracts really political treatises, or were they propaganda, expounding his ideals or improving his image? The source material is vast, and the author seems to have explored it all: the Annals of Tacitus, the anonymous play Octavia and Cassius Dio's Roman History, along with writings by Suetonius, Plutarch and many others. Julia Agrippina the Younger recalled Seneca from Corsican exile to act as a tutor to her son, Nero, who she intended would succeed Emperor Claudius. Working with Nero must have been exceedingly unpleasant. He was a petulant, spoiled megalomaniacal brat likely responsible for Claudius' death and undoubtedly responsible for his brother's and mother's deaths and countless more. Seneca certainly failed to instill Stoic values in Nero, and he had little luck controlling him. He was the speechwriter, spin doctor, and image maker and became a wealthy landowner thanks to Nero's gifts. "As he himself implied in one of his several apologias," writes the author, "he was not equal to the best, but better than the bad." The task of determining Seneca's true nature is daunting, but the wide body of information available to Romm enables him to give us tantalizing but ambiguous clues to the man's mind. Like any good philosopher, he only shows us the questions and leaves readers to figure out the answers.
Praise for James Romm’s DYING EVERY DAY
“Romm adeptly expounds the puzzle of Seneca’s life.” —The New Yorker
“James Romm stitches this tapestry of evil together with a practiced hand.” —Buffalo News
“A splendid and incisive historical page-turner. . . . This is how history should be written: vivid storytelling springing to life at a master’s touch. . . . Romm’s narrative proves so compelling precisely because he concentrates on character, combining erudite scholarship with a novelist’s flair for telling detail. The result becomes an exception to the rule: When exercised with wisdom, dexterity and fervor, literary power shines as incorruptible.” —Wichita Eagle
“Thoroughly engaging and fascinating. . . . A high-stakes drama, laced with murders, madness, and despotism. . . . The highlight of the spring season.” —Hudson Valley News
“Romm’s compulsively readable account of imperial intrigues (incest, murder, suicide) brings contradictory visions of Seneca into three-dimensional focus.” —Chronogram
“Romm’s approach combines the commonly known with the fascinating, but more obscure. He makes a sustained point of showing Seneca as neither black nor white, neither totally deserving of his fate, nor so noble that all charges should drip off his well-oiled back. He shows different sides to the emperors as well and puts the women of the Caesars into their well-deserved positions of prominence. . . . The fact that Romm presents the Stoic philosopher in this novel complex light and that he shows sides of the more famous that aren't common knowledge leaves me feeling [like] I got an awful lot out of reading it. Have I mentioned, I really, really liked this book?” —N. S. Gill, About.com
“Historians from Seneca’s contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm doesn't claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.” —Julia Jenkins, Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)
“Extensively researched. A book that will be welcomed by both scholars and those with a more casual interest in history. In addition and most important to our time is the detailed study of power politics and the inevitable consequences of weakness and corruption allowing power to be concentrated into few hands… An engrossing account of a time when rational thought was set aside in favor of passion and when good men cowed in the face of tyranny and did nothing to stem it.” —New York Journal of Books
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Read an Excerpt
Seneca and Nero had been together for ten years now. Nero had grown up, and Seneca had grown old. The princeps had found new allies, among them another former tutor, a Greek freedman named Anicetus (“Invincible”). Nero had elevated this man to admiral of the Misenum fleet, a naval force he was grooming to be his own corps d’élite—the Praetorians being more devoted to his mother. Other freedmen, slaves, and foreigners had begun to rise at court, men whose complete dependence and subservience gratified Nero. The voices that whispered against Seneca and Burrus had grown in number and stridency, and Nero had shown more willingness to listen.
It was to Anicetus, not to Seneca or Burrus, that Nero turned as he approached the great crisis of his reign, in the summer of 59. By that time, the young man’s love for Poppaea had brought him to a pitch of dire resolve. He had decided on a crime that the future will believe with difficulty, and ages to come, with reluctance, as the play Octavia forecast—correctly. He had decided to kill his mother.
It was what he had wanted to do years before but was prevented by Seneca and Burrus. Now, abetted by Anicetus, Nero found the courage to act. Perhaps Poppaea goaded him on, as Tacitus claims, by insisting she could never be his wife as long as Agrippina lived. But Nero needed no Lady Macbeth to harangue him into crime. He had already killed his adoptive brother on his own initiative; his mother posed a greater threat and caused him greater psychic torment.
Did Seneca take part in Nero’s matricidal plan? Tacitus wondered but didn’t know. Dio made Seneca chief instigator, though like much of his testimony on Seneca, this seems little more than slander. The question of collaboration is indeed hard to resolve. A princeps could not have easily hid such a plot from a high-ranked counselor, but perhaps Seneca no longer ranked very high. If Nero kept him in the dark, declining to consult his old ally against Agrippina, then relations between teacher and pupil had truly gone downhill. If Seneca was consulted, he may have seen he could not prevent Nero from acting but could at least help him succeed. Under that scenario, he may have consented to murder if it could be done cunningly, so as to look like an accident.
Cunning was indeed what was needed, for a daughter of Germanicus could not be attacked either with blades or legal writs. Poison too was out of the question; Agrippina, having long suspected Nero’s intentions, had taken precautions, perhaps even fortifying herself with antidotes. A technologically savvy method was called for, and Nero was a great lover of technology. One day he saw in the theater, according to Dio, a collapsible boat that fell apart when a lever was worked, simulating a shipwreck. The idea took root in his obsessed mind. With a move as clean and remote as the proverbial push of a button, Nero could crush his mother, or drown her, or both, far out in the water and away from the public’s eyes. He delegated the mission to Anicetus.
Constructing the trick ship in secret was no simple task. Anicetus no doubt recruited his best shipwrights at Misenum and also trained loyal sailors who would crew on the fateful voyage. Meanwhile Nero set about making up with his mother. The two had become estranged of late—some breakup had followed their overly intimate union— but Nero hastened to repair the breach. He had to regain Agrippina’s trust enough to get her on that boat.
Writing in jocular tones, admitting to having lost his temper, Nero cajoled his mother into joining him at Baiae, the sumptuous resort surrounded by lakes and a quiet bay, for the celebration of that year’s Quinquatria, a rite of Minerva held at the spring equinox.
Both Nero and his mother had villas at Baiae, as did many of the Roman elite. The place was famous for high living, loose morals, and easy pleasures, a den of vice that good men should shun, in the eyes of Seneca— though he did sometimes go there. In his disdain, Seneca painted a vivid picture: “Why do we need to see drunken men wandering the beach and boaters on riotous pleasure cruises, and the lakes resounding with songs of musicians? . . . Do you think Cato would ever have lived there, to count the adulteresses as they sail past, the many kinds of boats painted with vivid colors, the roses bobbing everywhere on the lake’s surface?” No was of course his answer, though he perhaps made the high season at Baiae sound more appealing than he meant to.
Boating was the great thing at Baiae. Because most of the villas stood along a curving shore, or across a small bay at Puteoli, partiers could get from house to house by boat, putting in at small private docks. In her grander days, Agrippina had plied these waters in a state warship rowed by picked sailors. Just down the coast from her villa, an estate called Bauli, was the naval station at Misenum, where such ships and crews stood ready. Now, though, it was a different boat that arrived from Misenum for her use, a luxury yacht fi tted out with regal ornaments, manned by a special crew— many of them Anicetus’ trained assassins.
Nero had this boat moored at a Baiae villa, where he had arranged a grand dinner party in Agrippina’s honor. He presented the boat to his mother after dinner as a gift. It was only one of the many filial gestures he made that night, in an effort to overcome her distrust. Agrippina had her guard up, for she had long suspected her son might seek her life. But the splendidly arrayed ship appealed to her vanity, and Nero’s kisses, as he put her on board, seemed sincere.
It was a cloudless, windless night, “with a calm that seemed sent by the gods to reveal the crime,” as Tacitus says in one of his most memorable sentences. The ship slipped along through shallow water, on its coasting voyage from Baiae to Bauli. Agrippina reclined with a friend, Acerronia, on a special couch on the vessel’s rear deck. The two women talked warmly of the evening’s entertainment and of the fond attentions of Nero. Nearby stood another of Agrippina’s entourage, her procurator—manager of her estates—Crepereius Gallus.
Without warning, a section of roofi ng above these three collapsed, slamming onto Gallus with the full force of its lead- reinforced weight. The man was immediately crushed to death.
Had Agrippina not been reclining on her couch, or had Acerronia not been sitting lower still as she bent over her friend’s feet, both would have died with Gallus. But the couch saved them. Its back and arms extended high enough to block the force of the falling lead. The two women got out from under the lethal weight and emerged into a frantic scene.
Anicetus’ agents among the crew were trying to complete their mission. They had expected the ship to break apart and pitch Agrippina into the sea, but this had failed to happen. Confused and seemingly lacking a backup plan, they rushed about on the boat’s splintered deck. Some had the idea of capsizing the craft by putting all their weight on one side. But other crewmen who were not part of the plot, perhaps surmising what their comrades were up to, countered them by running to the opposite side. Shouts echoed across the bay’s still surface, barely heard, if at all, by those on shore.
As the boat gradually tipped, Agrippina and Acerronia slid into the water. Acerronia, perhaps failing to see the design behind the calamity, called out that she was Agrippina and asked for rescue. Her cries drew a hail of blows from oars and other naval gear, as nearby assassins saw a chance to finish their job. Acerronia was clubbed to death in the water, while Agrippina, who had kept a prudent silence, took only a hit on the shoulder. Glimpsing the lanterns of some fishing smacks nearby, she swam off unnoticed. Indefatigable to the last, she had escaped Nero’s deathtrap.
Safely returned to Bauli, Agrippina reflected on her position. Nero clearly meant to kill her but had gone to extreme lengths to keep the crime secret. Her high stature as daughter of Germanicus, and her son’s timidity, had prevented an open attack, and these might now be enough to save her. She sent a messenger to Nero to inform him of the night’s events, pretending it had all been a freak accident. If she could feign trust in her son, prevent him from striking a second blow, she could somehow rally support and strengthen her position. Already crowds of well-wishers, festival-goers who had heard about the collapse of the ship, were gathered outside her villa. She had a fighting chance, if she could only survive this night.
Meanwhile at Baiae, Nero, accompanied by Anicetus, had fretted for hours awaiting word of the plot’s outcome. The news that it had failed sent him into a tailspin. He knew that his mother would now spot his intentions. Wounded but not killed, Agrippina would become more dangerous than ever. She might march on his villa that very night with a band of armed slaves, or make her way back to Rome to denounce him before the Senate. Nero was determined that his mother must die before the next day dawned, but he had no idea how to proceed. In despair, he sent for his two senior counselors to be roused from their chambers—Seneca and Burrus.
None of Seneca’s meditations on morality, Virtue, Reason, and the good life could have prepared him for this. Before him, as he entered Nero’s room, stood a frightened and enraged youth of twenty-three, his student and protégé for the past ten years. For the past fi ve, he had allied with the princeps against his dangerous mother. Now the path he had first opened for Nero, by supporting his dalliance with Acte, had led to a botched murder and a political debacle of the first magnitude. It was too late for Seneca to detach himself. The path had to be followed to its end.
Every word Seneca wrote, every treatise he published, must be read against his presence in this room at this moment. He stood in silence for a long time, as though contemplating the choices before him. There were no good ones. When he fi nally spoke, it was to pass the buck to Burrus. Seneca asked whether Burrus could dispatch his Praetorians to take Agrippina’s life.
Now it was Burrus’ turn to face the awful choices that came with collaboration. He too declined to do what the situation, and what full loyalty to Nero, demanded. The Praetorians, he said, had too strong an allegiance to Agrippina, and to the memory of her father. He suggested that Anicetus and the sailors at Misenum finish what they had started.
Nero’s old guard had temporized at a critical pass and thus ceded power to the new. Anicetus eagerly took on the task that Seneca and Burrus had cast off, and Nero instantly affirmed how highly he rated this boon. “Only today did I get control of the empire,” he declared, “and it was a mere freedman who conferred such a great gift.” This barb was aimed at Seneca who, despite having worked for a decade to firm up Nero’s power, had now been found wanting. The sage’s influence over the princeps, long in decline, had taken another lurch downward.
With opportune timing, the messenger sent earlier by Agrippina, Agerinus, now arrived with news of his mistress’s “accident.” Nero was grateful for a pretext, however slim, to move openly against his mother. As Agerinus delivered his message, Nero dropped a sword by the man’s feet and ordered him seized as an assassin. Then he dispatched Anicetus to Bauli.
It was well past midnight when Anicetus’ hit squad arrived at Agrippina’s villa. In spite of the hour, the grounds and beach were thronged with Agrippina’s well-wishers. Anicetus ordered them to disperse, then broke down the door and began removing household slaves.
Agrippina was in her bedroom with a lone servant, but even this last companion disappeared when armed men were heard in the house. The queen mother was alone when Anicetus and two other officers burst into her room. She had been hoping it was her messenger Agerinus arriving; his long delay meant she was still in grave danger.
Agrippina’s only chance was to shame her attackers out of completing their mission, to remind them of the glory of her line. But she was exhausted, shaken from the night’s ordeal, and wounded. The best she could manage, according to Tacitus, was to protest that Anicetus must have made some terrible mistake. Surely Nero would never order her death.
The captain accompanying Anicetus, a man named Herculeius, answered by hitting her on the head with a club. The other officer standing by, Obaritus, drew his sword. Agrippina was all out of stratagems. There was little left for her but to die.
Agrippina had been betrayed by those she had put in power, by Nero above all, but also by Burrus, Anicetus, and not least, Seneca. The sage she had rescued from Corsica, who owed all he had to her, had declined to raise his voice against her murder. Politics had first made bedfellows of her and Seneca—in the literal sense, some claimed. But politics, and her son’s disordered mind, had arranged things such that only one of them could survive.
The foremost woman of her age—sister of one emperor, wife of a second, mother of a third, the last of Germanicus’ children—was about to die, friendless, abandoned, alone. One last, bold gesture remained to her, a gesture reported by three ancient sources. The author of Octavia describes it best:
Dying and wretched, she makes one last request of her assassin:
to sink his lethal sword in her womb.
“Here’s where to bury your sword, right here—
The place from which such a monster came. . . .”
After those words, she lets her sad soul seep out through savage wounds together with a final groan.
Meet the Author
James Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. His books on the ancient world include Ghost on the Throne, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought, Herodotus and, as editor, The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander.
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Romm's history reads like a novel. A real page turner that leaves you agape at the horrors of Roman politics.