SENECA: DIALOGUES AND LETTERS
LUCIUS ANNAEUS SENECA
, statesman, philosopher, advocate and man of letters, was born at Cordoba in Spain around 4
. Despite his relatively undistinguished background and ever-recurrent ill health, he rose to prominence at Rome, pursuing the double career, in the courts and political life, for which he had been trained. He began also quickly to acquire celebrity as an author of tragedies and of polished essays, moral, literary and scientific. Falling foul of successive emperors (Caligula in
39 and Claudius in
41) he spent eight years in exile on the island of Corsica, allegedly for an affair with Caligula's sister. Recalled in
49, he was made praetor, and was appointed tutor to the boy who was to become, in
54, the emperor Nero. On Nero's succession Seneca acted for some eight years as an unofficial chief minister. The early part of this reign was remembered as a period of sound imperial government, for which, according to our sources, the main credit must be given to Seneca. His control over an increasingly cruel emperor declined as enemies turned Nero against him with representations that his popularity made him a danger, or with accusations of immorality or excessive wealth ill assorting with the noble Stoic principles he professed. Retiring from public life he devoted his last three years to philosophy and writing, particularly the
Letters to Lucilius
65, following the discovery of a plot against the emperor, in which he was thought to be implicated, he and many others were compelled by Nero to commit suicide. His fame as an essayist and dramatist lasted until two or three centuries ago, when he passed into literary oblivion, from which the twentieth century has seen a considerable recovery.
C. D. N. COSTA
read Classics as a Rhodes Scholar at St John's College, Oxford, and has spent most of his working life at Birmingham University, where he is now Emeritus Professor of Classics. His main research has been writing commentaries on the works of Seneca (
and the tragedy
), and he has also edited Lucretius V, a book of essays on Horace and
Greek Fictional Letters
. Some of his translations of Seneca's
have been given broadcast readings by Paul Scofield on BBC Radio 3.
Edited and translated by
C. D. N. COSTA
Published by the Penguin Group
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This edition first published 1997
Reprinted with corrections 2005
Translation and notes copyright Â© C. D. N. Costa, 1997, 2005
All rights reserved
The moral right of the editor has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject
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This volume of translations from Seneca's prose works is intended partly to supplement the earlier Penguin Classics selection of his letters by Robin Campbell,
Seneca: Letters from a Stoic
(Harmondsworth, 1969) and partly to reflect the increased interest in Seneca which has been a notable feature of classical scholarship in the latter half of this century. I would like to thank Penguin Classics for encouraging me in this project, and also Messrs Aris & Phillips for permission to use some of the translations (slightly adapted) which I wrote for the two volumes they published for me.
Seneca's life spanned one of the most colourful and important periods of Rome's history. He was born in Cordoba, probably some time between 4 and 1
, and he committed suicide in
65 because of his alleged association with the ill-fated conspiracy of Piso against Nero. Thus he lived under the first five emperors of the Roman Principate, and those varied and turbulent times both deeply affected the course of his life and closely informed the content of his writings. He is a distinguished example of a major literary figure who also played a leading part for many years in the public life of his country. One of the interesting aspects of reading Seneca is to observe, where we can, the interaction between the troubled political world in which he moved and the writings in which he reflected on that world, and tried to come to terms with it and to draw lessons for the benefit of those to whom he addressed his works.
From Spain Seneca was brought to Rome as a small child by an aunt, probably a stepsister of his mother Helvia. Otherwise we know very little about his early life. His education at Rome opened up to him the worlds of rhetoric and philosophy, which remained dominant interests for the rest of his life. Here too there was clearly a domestic influence at work. His father was passionately interested in the theory and practice of rhetoric, and has left us two important collections of rhetorical exercises culled from his own observation of rhetoricians and their pupils, the
. We also know from his own writings that Seneca suffered from chronic ill-health, and (perhaps partly
for that reason) he seems not to have been politically ambitious and gained a quaestorship only around the late 30s
. He probably married twice, losing his first wife in childbirth some time before 41, and subsequently enjoying a happy marriage with Pompeia Paulina.
The year 41 was a sad landmark for Seneca, and the point from which his life becomes far better documented for us. In that year he was charged with adultery with Julia Livilla, a sister of the emperor Gaius, and exiled (strictly the milder form called
) to Corsica. It is difficult now to disentangle what truth there may have been in the accusation, but two of our sources for it, Dio Cassius (60.8) and Tacitus (
. 12.8.3), imply Seneca's innocence. At any rate he remained in exile until 49, when he was recalled through the influence of Agrippina, mother of the later emperor Nero. He then became praetor, and Agrippina's motives for favouring him were clear when she appointed him tutor to the twelve-year-old Nero. This was the beginning of a perilous relationship with Nero that lasted for the rest of Seneca's life. From Nero's accession Seneca acted as his official counsellor, minister and speech-writer, having in this position a staunch ally in Burrus, the prefect of the praetorian guard. For several years the young Nero was sufficiently tractable in their hands; Seneca himself became suffect consul in 56; and Rome and the empire enjoyed a period of moderately good and peaceful government. But as Seneca grew older and Nero increasingly became mentally and morally unstable, Seneca's influence declined sharply, and after the death of Burrus in 62 he attempted to withdraw from public life. Nero was unwilling to let him go, but from 64 he was at last allowed to retire and live the life of a recluse. However, within a year an unsuccessful conspiracy was formed to kill Nero and replace him by C. Calpurnius Piso. Nero believed (probably wrongly) that Seneca was implicated and ordered him to commit suicide. With no choice in the matter Seneca took his own life in April 65. It was a disastrous episode for his family generally, as
both of his brothers and his nephew, the poet Lucan, also met similar fates from alleged association with the conspiracy.
Seneca's life was, to simplify somewhat, that of a compulsive writer (mainly on personal ethics), and a more reluctant man of affairs. Inevitably, students of his works and his times look for harmonies between these two sides of his activities, and often critically point out discrepancies. The commonest charge against him is that his great wealth and the outward show of his life were inconsistent with his philosophical precepts, which were based mainly on Stoic insistence on non-material values for the good life. In his own lifetime he was criticized on the score of his wealth. Tacitus tells us (
. 13.42.4) that Suillius Rufus attacked him in 58 for acquiring a huge fortune, partly from usury; and critics have not been lacking ever since to assert a discrepancy between his preaching and his practice. He must have been sensitive to gibes about his own wealth, and it is possible that part of his treatise
De Vita Beata
(17 ff.) is an oblique self-defence, where he stresses that having wealth can be justified if you use it wisely. Individual readers will decide for themselves; but it must be allowed on Seneca's behalf that, for a public figure living in the dangerously volatile atmosphere of Nero's Rome, it cannot have been easy to be both materially prosperous and philosophically sincere, and at the same time avoid resentment.
Seneca has the unusual distinction as a writer of having produced works of great brilliance in both prose and verse â and of having strongly influenced later European literature in both media. His poetical productions, with which we are not here concerned, comprise eight tragedies which are agreed to be by him (
). Two others are attributed to him,
which is highly disputed but may be partly his; and
, which is certainly not by him. A collection of epigrams has also come down under his name, most or all of which are clearly spurious.
Seneca's surviving prose works consists of: (1) ten treatises, conventionally called âdialogues' (
), preserved in an important manuscript, the Codex Ambrosianus (
De Constantia Sapientis
Consolatio ad Marciam
De Vita Beata
De Tranquillitate Animi
De Brevitate Vitae
Consolatio ad Polybium
Consolatio ad Helviam Matrem
); (2) two other treatises,
(âNatural Questions' â a long work which investigates a range of natural phenomena, both celestial and terrestrial); (4)
(âLetters on ethical topics' â 124 of them, addressed to his friend Lucilius).
Finally, there is the
, a satirical work written in a form of mingled prose and verse, called âMenippean' after Menippus of Gadara who popularized it. This is a biting satire on the deification of the recently dead emperor Claudius, in which we may see Seneca both demonstrating his literary versatility and paying off an old score.
Seneca's works, especially the treatises and the letters, have a double importance: in the history of Latin prose style, and in the transmission of Greek and Roman philosophical ideas to posterity. His Latin style represents the perfection of a type of Latin prose that developed from the infusion of rhetorical elements that had been influencing writers from late Republican times, and affected poetry as well as prose. Rhetoric or declamatory training had long formed the third stage in the education of Roman youths, and all the tricks of the oratorical trade that budding lawyers and statesmen had originally learned in order to persuade their audiences came to be used in written as well as spoken Latin, and particularly in works with a didactic aim like moralizing histories or philosophical tracts. Senecan Latin shows marked differences from the earlier style of which Cicero was an acknowledged master, and even in translation it is possible to note the characteristic hallmarks
of this later style: epigram, pungent aphorism (the
), antithesis, a generally snappy and staccato tone. There are other elements too, much favoured by Seneca, that may derive from Hellenistic philosophical writing and teaching techniques â some conventional imagery, colloquialisms and other informalities of style, the imaginary objector who is introduced only to be demolished. And no catalogue of Seneca's stylistic elements could omit his use of
, examples or illustrations of famous individuals from past and present, to underline a moralizing point. He is almost obsessional in the use of this technique, and the reader sometimes gets weary of protracted illustrations and suspects didactic overkill.
The title Dialogue (
) applied to the group of ten treatises in the Ambrosian Codex deserves a word, as it is not immediately clear why it is used. We do not know whether Seneca himself used the term of his treatises, but Quintilian (10.1.129 â late first century
) used it in a catalogue of Seneca's works, so it must have been thought to reflect some recognizable formal feature of them. They are not dialogues in the sense of question-and-answer exchanges between participants in a debate (like the dialogues of Plato); but the term
was used technically in the sense of the attribution of remarks to a speaker, named or anonymous (Quintilian 4.2.31 ff.). This rhetorical device is common in Seneca, as we saw above, and so the label
may well have been applied in a widened sense to treatises in which the device was a characteristic element. It is at any rate a convenient label, provided that its formal limitations are borne in mind.
The above remarks apply in general to both the treatises and the letters, but a few points should be noted more particularly about the letters. Though there were two important collections of Latin letters before Seneca â Cicero's correspondence and the verse epistles of Horace â the real model for his
was clearly the Greek philosophical letter. This was the sort used from the fourth century
onwards for instruction in ethical, educational or literary theory, of which we have examples from Plato,
Epicurus and St Paul. They offered a means of communicating in a style that was more friendly, intimate and personal than was appropriate to a formal treatise, and allowed a teacherâpupil relationship to be lightened by humour, personal anecdote and domestic allusions. This is entirely the spirit of many of Seneca's letters to Lucilius.
They were written towards the end of his life (probably the years of semi-retirement, 63â4), and addressed to Lucilius, a slightly younger friend, who at the time was procurator of Sicily. They share with the treatises a moralizing and didactic aim: Lucilius is being helped to understand the claims and teaching of Stoicism, and to learn how to align his life as far as he can with Stoic ideals (see next section). But compared with the treatises, most of the
are more lightweight in tone and more freewheeling in structure. The letter form gives a flexible two-way framework, which allows Seneca to talk about himself as much as he exhorts Lucilius. The result is that autobiographical details are a very obvious and appealing feature of the
, in which Seneca is far from always acting the finger-wagging mentor, but frequently pokes fun at himself and his own philosophical pretensions. A good example of this is Letter 56, in which he complains about noisy lodgings he has taken; he goes on to suggest that this is not a problem for one who has acquired inner calm and philosophical detachment; and then he sabotages this high moral lesson by admitting that he himself will take the easier option of moving house.
We cannot be certain to what extent these letters were a genuine correspondence. Seneca is clearly talking through Lucilius to a wider audience, and Lucilius' presence is less evident in some of the later letters. Possibly the correspondence started as a genuine exchange between friends; but as it progressed and Seneca increasingly enjoyed this medium of philosophical communication, he began to think of publication, and Lucilius' importance as a notional addressee declined. But however Seneca envisaged them, the
have undoubtedly been his most popular works,
especially in the Middle Ages, and they are widely regarded as his greatest achievement.
It is clear then that, supreme stylist though he was, Seneca's aim in writing his treatises and letters was not simply to indulge his literary art. He saw himself as a philosophical evangelist, and many of his works are consciously protreptic, exhortations to others to study philosophy and to benefit from its teachings. His own beliefs were founded mainly on Stoicism, one of the major philosophical systems that had developed in the Greek world in Hellenistic times. However, he was no hidebound Stoic, but eclectic in accepting other explanations of the physical world, and other views on moral values appealed to him, from whatever source they came. The Romans were not on the whole philosophical innovators, but they took over Greek ways of thinking and adapted them to their own needs and inclinations. Seneca himself was not an original thinker, but he was a brilliant expositor of received ideas, and his treatises and letters are our most important sources for Greek Stoicism in its Romanized form. (Two other important witnesses for this are Epictetus, late first/early second centuries
, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the second century
But even if the Romans did not show much originality in philosophy, they taught it vigorously, and we know something about Seneca's early training and his philosophical mentors. In his youth he was influenced by a school founded by Quintus Sextius in the Augustan period, and he was personally taught by two of Sextius' disciples, Sotion and Fabianus. From this school he seems to have derived his own brand of eclectic Stoicism. Another teacher important for his development as a thinker was the Stoic Attalus, whom he admired greatly and quotes several times in the
(e.g., 110 in our selection).