WHAT: DYING EVERY DAY: Seneca at the Court of Nero
WHEN: Published by Knopf March 14, 2014
WHERE: Ancient Rome.
WHY: “Gripping, erudite…and occasionally quite grim.
“Was Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger an exemplar of Stoic virtue who, pulled into politics in the service of Emperor Nero, did his best to modulate the young despot’s cruelty? Or was he a shrewd manipulator whose ethical treatises were just a cynical attempt to restore a reputation sullied by his complicity in Nero’s cruel and decadent court? Tacitus, who wrote a lot about Seneca, seems to have had trouble making up his mind.
“Romm suggests that we might bring together these conflicting portraits by understanding Seneca as a serious thinker who suffered from passivity and obsequiousness, and had the misfortune to live at a time when intellectual activity had become particularly dangerous. Seneca’s elegant humanistic vision (which would influence, among other things, Roman Catholic church doctrine), therefore, was not fraudulent, but aspirational, and somewhat tragic: ideals articulated by a flawed man who was all too aware of his inability to live up to them.
“Romm’s narrative vividly describes the intensity of political life in the Nero years and pays particular attention to the Roman fascination with suicide.”
—Brendan Driscoll, BOOKLIST
“Romm explores the great Roman philosopher and writer’s contrasting,
even conflicting, skills in surviving at the dangerous court of Nero.”
The beginning of the book:Here is one way to describe the career of Seneca, writer, thinker, poet, moralist, and for many years, top advisor and close companion of the emperor Nero:
By a strange twist of fate, a man who cherished sobriety, reason, and moral virtue found himself at the center of Roman politics. He did his best to temper the whims of a deluded despot, while continuing to publish the ethical treatises that were his true calling. When he could no longer exert influence in the palace, he withdrew and in solitude produced his most stirring meditations on virtue, nature, and death. Enraged by his departure, the emperor he had once advised seized on a pretext to force him to kill himself. His adoring wife tried to join him in his sober, courageous suicide, but imperial troops intervened to save.
And here is another way to describe the same life:
A clever manipulator of undistinguished origin connived his way into the center of Roman power. He used verbal brilliance to represent himself as a sage. He exploited his vast influence to enrich himself and touched off a rebellion in Britain by lending usuriously to its inhabitants. After conspiring in, or even instigating, the palace’s darkest crimes, he tried to rescue his reputation with carefully crafted literary self-fashionings. When it was clear that the emperor’s enmity posed a threat, he sought refuge at the altar of philosophy even while leading an assassination plot. His final bid for esteem was his histrionic suicide, which he browbeat his unwilling wife into sharing.