The philosopher – and celebrated public speaker – Seneca the Younger, after eight years in exile on the island of Corsica, was summoned back to Rome in AD 49 (aged around 50) to take on what might at first sight look like an enviable job. Emperor Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina, had chosen Seneca to be tutor to her young son Nero (aged 12), who had become, with his mother’s glittering marriage, step-son to the emperor. This was quite a reversal of fortune for Seneca, who had been exiled in AD 41 on a charge (probably false) of adultery with another of Claudius’ relatives.
When Nero in turn became emperor, Seneca would go on to play a key role in the imperial government. Seneca’s position was in many respects an unprecedented one. Tacitus’ history of this period (the Annals, written in the 110s AD) gives us some sense of the dynamics of the relationship between Seneca and Nero; Seneca’s own extensive writings also cast light on how he sought to guide, indeed to manage, Nero as a young ruler.
As tutor to the adolescent Nero, Seneca was not given a free hand. Particularly in later centuries, Seneca has been admired as an exponent of Stoic philosophy; Agrippina made clear (according to Suetonius’ biography of Nero, written in the 120s AD) that philosophy was not to be on her son’s curriculum. Nero was apparently keen on poetry (Suetonius and Tacitus disagree on whether he was any good at writing verse). But a young man destined for a prominent role in public life needed above all to be a good public speaker; Seneca, known for his eloquence, was to instruct him in rhetoric. Agrippina’s ambitions for her son would be fulfilled in just a few years: by the time Claudius died (poisoned by Agrippina, it was widely believed), Nero, a little older than Claudius’ son Britannicus, had been adopted by the emperor. And it was Nero who succeeded in the year 54, becoming emperor at the unprecedented age of only 16.
For all Seneca’s tuition, Nero still needed some help with his public speaking. He was expected to give the eulogy at Claudius’ funeral and to address the Praetorian Guard, whose military presence in Rome protected the emperor – and whose support was crucial. Seneca found suitable words for his pupil to deliver and also composed Nero’s inaugural speech to the Senate. Senators were appreciative when Nero respectfully emphasised how keen he was to follow the example of Augustus, the principate’s founder. Later speeches, too, were widely believed to be Seneca’s compositions.
Seneca was now in an extraordinarily influential position. He was tutor, or rather adviser, to the most powerful teenager in the history of the Roman world. But how was he to frame advice and guidance to a young man who seems to have become increasingly resistant to being told what to do? For the first few years of Nero’s reign, Seneca, together with Burrus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard, appears to have been relatively successful in persuading Nero to attend to government business and to maintain good relations with the senatorial elite, who saw themselves as Rome’s governing class. We may speculate that Seneca’s relationship with Nero’s mother Agrippina, herself a smart political operator, was sometimes strained. Tacitus – a man very hostile to the idea that a woman should be involved in imperial government – tells how Seneca prompted Nero to intervene, when Agrippina tried to take part in the official welcome of envoys from Armenia (Annals 13.5).
Seneca’s treatise De clementia, “On mercy,” a work addressed to Nero and written very early in his reign (AD 55/6), shows the kind of strategies Seneca might use to persuade Nero to act as he ought. Seneca argues that, through exercising leniency against those who offend him, the Good Emperor does not put himself in danger but strengthens his own position. Seneca (in an approach termed “protreptic”) repeatedly praises the ways in which Nero already exemplifies the qualities of the ideal ruler.
Although the treatise On mercy is addressed to the emperor, Seneca was, we may imagine, very much aware of how others (particularly members of the Senate) would interpret the advice he was offering Nero. Many senators had, under Claudius, been subject to harsh punishments widely seen as unjustified; members of the Senate under Nero would surely be reassured that Nero’s most influential adviser counselled, on grounds both moral and pragmatic, against such cruelty. Seneca stressed that the Good Emperor relies on his subjects – and the subjects on their emperor.
Nero’s notorious appetite for partying, his taste for poetry, his enthusiasm for the circus races were perhaps viewed as forgivable in such a youthful ruler. Some were initially pleased when stories circulated that Nero had fallen out with his mother Agrippina over his choice of girl friend. But Nero’s move in AD 59 to have Agrippina killed was deeply shocking. Did Seneca and Burrus know what was planned? If so, they were faced with a dilemma. Should they risk opposing the emperor – and bringing his anger down on themselves – or should they collude with matricide?
Nero’s initial attempt to get rid of his mother in a staged boating accident failed. Instead, her messenger was framed as an assassin and Nero’s soldiers were despatched to kill his mother. Certainly, Seneca and Burrus seem to have been involved in the cover-up. It was said that Seneca composed the letter Nero sent to the Senate justifying his mother’s killing (Tacitus, Annals 14.10–11).
In 62, after the death of Burrus, Seneca tried to take a step back; he wanted to return Nero’s gifts (according to Tacitus, Annals 14.53–6). Nero refused. But Seneca retreated all the same, citing his poor health. In his final years he wrote his Moral Epistles, a series of 124 letters to a single addressee, his younger friend Lucilius, which offer advice on how to live a better life with the help of Stoic philosophy. The letters cover a huge range of topics and sometimes touch on issues such as public service. Seneca advises his friend to withdraw from the public sphere and devote himself to philosophically inspired self-improvement. But it is very striking that Nero, with whom Seneca had been so closely associated for more than a decade, is never mentioned once.
In the year 65 there was a conspiracy to get rid of Nero and make a senator called Gaius Calpurnius Piso emperor in his place. Although there’s no evidence that Seneca was involved in the conspiracy, he (and many other prominent Romans) were accused of complicity; Nero sent soldiers instructing Seneca to take his own life.
At around this time Nero was intent on a huge project, which is often taken as a symbol of his reign, his Golden House, a vast and glittering residential complex in the heart of Rome, built on land where, in the summer of 64, a devastating fire had destroyed earlier buildings. Nero’s Golden House was remarkable not just for its lavish decoration and its coloured marbles from all over the empire; according to Tacitus (Annals 15.42), Nero’s architects were celebrated for their ability to achieve through art what nature had refused. The new palace was a triumph of ingenuity; the principal dining room, for instance, had a revolving ceiling.
This was just the kind of elaborate luxury which Seneca had criticised repeatedly – and in great detail – in his Moral Epistles and elsewhere. Never naming Nero, Seneca attacks those whose houses boast elaborate water features and coloured marbles, as well as the use of gold. It is tempting to imagine that Seneca had Nero in mind – and that Nero took particular pleasure in going against his old tutor’s austere moralising. Perhaps indeed he took inspiration from Seneca’s detailed denunciations of ‘unnatural’ luxury. The Golden House could be seen as Nero’s final act of rebellion against Seneca.
Catharine Edwards is Professor of Classics & Ancient History at Birkbeck, University of London. Her books include The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome.
If you’re able to visit the British Museum’s exhibition (on until 24th October 2021) Nero: the man behind the myth, you’ll see some stunning material on display, particularly from the Golden House. Seneca himself has a fairly low profile in the exhibition, though he’s represented by a copy of a portrait and a wonderful manuscript of the Apocolocyntosis (or Pumpkinification), his satire on the emperor Claudius.
Tacitus’ account of the reigns of Claudius and Nero in his Annals is accessibly translated by J.C. Yardley in the Oxford World’s Classics edition; my own translation of the life of Nero is to be found in the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars. Barnaby Taylor’s recent Antigone article on Seneca’s Moral Epistles offers an excellent introduction to his philosophical writing.