The philosopher Seneca was born in Cordoba between 4 BC and 1 AD. He was taken to Rome at an age by an aunt on his mother’s side who was the wife of Gaius Galerius, prefect in Egypt from 16-31 AD. He studied grammar and rhetoric in the forum, but soon turned to philosophy, and as part of his varied education, studied under the eclectic philosopher Sotion, Attalus the Stoic and Papirius Fabianus. Later on in life he was a close friend of the cynic Demetrius. After travelling to Egypt with his uncle, he returned to Rome in 31 AD, where he was named quaestor thanks to his family connections.
He was already known for his exceptional skills both as an orator and a writer when Emperor Gaius (Caligula) came to power in the year 39. As Dion recounts, the megalomaniac emperor could not bear the idea of Seneca’s brilliance outshining him and in the year 41 he was exiled to Corsica on a trumped-up charge of adultery with Caligula’s sister, Julia Livilla. He remained there until 49, when through Agrippina’s influence, he was recalled to Rome and named praetor. He became tutor in 51 to the young Nero, who made Seneca his political adviser and chief minister when he came to power. For the next eight years, Seneca and Burrus governed the empire together modestly but efficiently, with a political style based more on compromise and diplomacy than innovation or idealism. However, after Nero’s henchmen began to exercise more and more influence over him, Seneca’s position became untenable. After Burrus’s death in 62, Seneca found himself politically isolated and asked Nero to allow him to retire from the court – donating his immense fortune to Nero in the bargain. Nero granted him his wish, albeit unwillingly, only accepting the fortune later, and Seneca spent most of his time withdrawn from public life, rarely in Rome, and often in the company of friends – until the year 65 AD, when he was accused of taking part in Piso’s plot against Nero. If Piso had in fact won, Seneca may well have returned to public office, but since the plot was uncovered, he was forced to commit suicide.
The extant works of Seneca can be divided into four distinct genres: moral dialogues, letters, tragedies and epigrams. Seneca’s philosophy pervades all these works – rather than writing a specific work of philosophy, his thought and Stoic ideas were expressed throughout his works and come out in his commentaries on everyday situations.
The Dialogues are ten moral works preserved in a lone manuscript in the Ambrosian Library, all of which are relatively short except the one entitled De ira. This long dialogue was addressed to his brother Novato, who asked him to write something to help control his anger.
In exile he wrote the treatise De providencia, addressed to Lucilius Junior, as well as Consolatio ad Helviam matrem, the most charming and stylish of his personal notes, written to his mother. The treatise De constantia sapientis is in the same category as De providencia, and was probably written after the year 47. On returning to public office, he wrote the dialogue De brevitae vitae, most probably in the year 55. He addressed to his father-in-law Paulinus the dialogue De vita beata, a fascinating but controversial defence of his way of life as a Stoic philosopher.
In retirement from political life, he wrote the book Naturales quaestiones, addressed to Lucilius, on the subject of natural phenomena, in which ethics and physics were combined.
One work totally different from the rest was the half-prose, half-verse Apocolocyntoxis divi Claudii, a scathing satire on the coronation of Claudius, which mixed political criticism with vicious personal attacks.
Of all Seneca’s literary output, his nine tragedies stand out as the truest reflection of the creative, independent spirit he showed throughout his life, and most especially in the period when he was educating Nero. Nine tragedies have survived, of which Hercules Oetaeus is probably, and Octavia is certainly, spurious.