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A Life of the Roman Philosopher, Seneca

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero. By James Romm. 290 pages. $27.95.


James Romm is a professor of classics at Bard College, and apparently a fan of the Roman philosopher Seneca, but as he points out, not all Romans of Seneca's day thought all that highly of him. In fact, they held two diametrically opposed views of Seneca: he was either a “. . . writer, thinker, poet, moralist, and for many years, top adviser and close companion of the Emperor Nero,” or else he was a “clever manipulator of undistinguished origin [who] connived his way into the center of Roman power [and] used his verbal brilliance to represent himself as a sage,” to make himself rich, and to assist Nero in the assassinations of rivals.

The great Roman historian Tacitus takes neither view. He is the best source, Romm tells us, of information on the age of Nero, and he is a keen student of human nature, but even he seems unable to solve the riddle of Seneca.

Seneca was a philosopher, a stoic, one to whom the world of politics ought to have been a matter of indifference, but he was also the tutor of the young Nero. When at age 17, Nero became emperor of Rome, holding power over millions, Seneca urged him to govern wisely and well, and at first, Nero did. At first, Seneca’s influence seems to have been highly positive. Unfortunately for both Seneca and Nero, the calming, civilizing influence of the philosopher did not last. And when Nero descended into murder and brutality, Seneca became one of his victims. Nero ordered him to commit suicide, and he did. He drank hemlock, sat in a hot bath, and opened a vein, achieving what he himself had once called the path to freedom. The title, Dying Every Day, was, by the way, a favorite theme of Seneca’s. We are all, he said often, dying every day. And one day, he was dead.

This book contains a wealth of detail, somewhat surprisingly, and reads almost like a novel. Reliance on ancient authors like Tacitus and Dio is a bit of a dicey proposition, but Romm, who writes in an engaging style and with an assured tone, makes the most of what sources there are, including Seneca’s writings themselves.