Seneca as teacher and minister of Nero.
1. The dissolution of Roman particularism.
With Nero’s self-inflicted fall, the Julian dynasty disappeared from the world stage. The empire, established by the great Julius and his adopted nephew Augustus through the force of arms, was considered the inheritance of a family that intimidated doubters of their right with their military might. Since the two founders of the family lacked their own male heirs and the Julian bloodline was only maintained through the female branch, the adoption of the Claudian lineage into the collective household brought about a conflict between two lines. While the numerous deaths that had already thinned the family under Augustus and cast a shadow over his reign were wrongly attributed by popular legend to poisoning, there was no shortage of actual murders among his successors, in which Nero’s mother eventually proved herself to be a master, until this emperor cleared the way around him and stood as the last sprout of the Caesar family.
The descendants of the men who fell in battle against Caesar and Augustus had been called to share in the glory of the victors through marriage into the imperial family, and they all suffered the same dark fate that plagued the descendants of the triumphant. When the last of the Julians begged a freedman for the mercy of a death blow, the corpses of the Antonii, Aemilii, Junii, Pompeii – all related to the Caesars – as well as the last scion of the dictator Sulla, had piled up for a hundred years at the foot of the throne. A vast grave covered the memories of the civil wars; victors and defeated who had been granted mercy were consigned to the same oblivion by generations that lived for new ideas and interests.
Even among that part of the nobility which had not succeeded in achieving the dangerous and ultimately murderous honor of being admitted into the Caesar family, the first century of the empire had made a tremendous impact. After the civil wars had decimated numerous families and the proscriptions of the last Triumvirate had deprived the old clans of their heads and possessions, the remaining houses fell into decline through extravagance, involvement in court intrigues, or imperial revenge, which punished their representatives for their participation in the numerous conspiracies.
Caesar and Augustus had widened the gaps that the civil wars had torn in the ranks of the Senate, expelled the impoverished and downtrodden who could no longer represent the dignity of the high body, and removed supporters of the republican past with a commanding nod or the force of their dictatorship. In the vacancies created on the benches of the noble corporation by time and the censor’s command, they brought low-born followers who had proven themselves in civilian service and in the army during the civil wars, as well as those who had demonstrated themselves as pillars of the new regime in the provincial colonies.
Meanwhile, a transformation was taking place among the common people, which, like the transformation of the Senate, weakened Roman urban particularism and prepared it to merge into the broad currents of a world community. The Triumvirs had won their battles with the help of foreign peoples, who were still considered barbarians at that time, and rewarded the foreign hordes with citizenship and a share of the Italian estates, the loss of which was a punishment for their opponents. Mixing and daily interaction with these newcomers gradually smoothed out the peculiarities and memories of the lower classes, especially in the capital, and the nobles found themselves, as far as they managed to maintain themselves above the new mixture, isolated in the middle of a mass with which they had lost their connection.
Emperor Claudius completed this isolation of the old nobility – when the Senate was once again thinned out despite the latest replacements – by invoking the example of his ancestors from Julius Caesar to Tiberius, who had brought freedmen and the flower of provincial cities and colonies into the Senate, and also introduced representatives of the Gallic Aedui into the corporation of the nobility.
And so it happened that the old gentlemen of the curia and representatives of Roman particularism in the Senate, after the old bond connecting them with the local public had been loosened and almost cut off, saw themselves surrounded by a new elite drawn from those just-defeated barbarians, who were better equipped to sympathize with the more recently arrived world public teeming in Rome than could the Calpurnians, Cornelians and other important members of the old regime.
The last remainder of these high nobles was still exhausted by the harsh fate imposed on them by Nero’s government, and under the Flavians, the era of the new Senate could begin, which was supplemented by representatives from rural towns, colonies, and barbarians, just as the emperors from now on had their origin outside of Rome and then outside of Italy, and finally emerged from the barbarians.
The decline of the Caesar family also manifested itself in the weakening of the military prowess of its leaders. The victor of Actium, who left the school of Apollonia as a young man to take up the fight for his uncle’s will against all Roman factions and, in alliance with his general, put an end to the civil wars, was strengthened in the wisdom of his decision by the destruction of his legions in Germany in the last years of his reign, that the risks of foreign ventures must yield to the fusion of the imperial peoples. His two stepsons, Tiberius and Drusus, had to be content with securing the Rhine and keeping the peoples south of the Danube in check, and the futile incursions of his nephew, Germanicus, into Germany forced Tiberius to order the legions on the Rhine to stand down. Caligula continued this policy in the north but himself stormed into Gaul to depose and execute Lentulus Gaetulicus, who had aroused suspicion with his troops on the Rhine against Tiberius with impunity and had now conspired in collusion with the emperor’s sisters. Claudius even took command of the army that invaded Britain under Aulus Plautius and his legate Flavius Vespasianus, personally laying the foundation for Roman rule beyond the Channel, while his predecessor had only negotiated with British friends from the coast of Gaul.
Nero, on the other hand, never led troops or commanded an army and, in the final moment when Vindex in Gaul and Galba in Spain rose up, he was so overwhelmed by the rumors that alarmed the Roman crowds that he himself robbed his bodyguard of the desire to draw their swords for him.
Tacitus already pointed out (Annal. 13, 3) a characteristic that distinguished Nero from his ancestors on the throne. In the context of the funeral speech for Claudius, written by Seneca, the author of the history of the emperors mentioned that at that time it was noted how Nero was the first of the Roman rulers to use foreign eloquence. Julius Caesar, Tacitus adds to explain this retrospective, could compete with the greatest masters for the palm of speech. Augustus spoke fluently off the cuff, had a dignified delivery befitting a prince, and practiced a devoted and expressive style that contained all sought-after phrases and flowing expressions. Tiberius was a master of careful word weighing and made an impression with the power of his thoughts, if he did not prefer to speak ambiguously on purpose and leave the interpretation to the listeners. Even the disturbed mind of Caligula, the opponent of the Julian family, was said not to have ruined the power of the imperial eloquence, while we hear from Suetonius (Calig. cap. 53) that the son of Germanicus gained great ease and skill through a thorough study of eloquence and believed himself to be far superior to his teacher Seneca, whose delivery he considered artificial and contrived and whose speeches he despised as mere panegyrics. Probably the threat attributed to him, that he would “draw the sword of his nocturnal meditations” if he wanted to speak (in the Senate to defend or defeat a high accused person), was only a caricature with which his opponents in the noble circles made fun of the passion that sometimes emerged in his speech. Tacitus credits the allegedly dimwitted Claudius, who occasionally allowed himself some naive combinations in private conversations, with the fame that, when he appeared prepared, he combined elegance with understanding, and even Suetonius admits (Claud. 40) that he was not without the gift of speech as a whole.
With Nero, the art of living speech had completely come to a halt, and while his arm for wielding the sword with which his ancestors won world domination had grown weak, his mind also possessed none of that power with which the founders of the Julian power, before drawing the sword as evidence of their right, wrestled with their opponents on the forum and in the curia. The forum had long been silent; the Senate, whose willingness and compliance the emperors from Augustus to Claudius knew how to gain or enforce depending on the nature of their minds and changing circumstances, was finally appeased by a rhetorical prompter until the assembly of the fathers was convinced of the end of their rule by bloody executions. After Nero’s fall, the storm of eloquence between the collaborators of the Neronian government, the accusers of the opposition, and the republicans broke out once again in the curia, but was soon pacified by a hint from Mucian and Domitian, the deputies of the still absent Vespasian.
The Julio-Claudian period, during which the fiction of hereditary succession was supported by military might and Roman eloquence, is over and the rulers of the world could now come from any corner of the earth.
Another aspect in which Nero’s person marks a turning point in the history of Roman genius deserves special attention. We mean his position on the world of gods, in which he shared neither Augustus’s conviction of his alliance with the heavenly powers nor Caligula’s fanatical belief in his real divinity. He wanted to be nothing more than a human being, a pure human and a mere mortal, but to represent in his person the highest that human nature can produce in power and intellectual ability.
2. Nero as nothing more than a human being.
He was, as Suetonius (Nero, ch. 56) puts it, “a despiser of religion throughout.” The worship of the Syrian goddess, which he once dedicated himself to, he soon abandoned after having desecrated the image of the goddess in a proud and contemptuous manner. He then developed a lasting affection for a girl’s toy, a doll, which an unknown man from the people had given him as a countermeasure against hostile pursuits. When the amulet proved effective in the discovery of a conspiracy, he elevated it to his highest being, offered it a triple daily sacrifice and used it to keep his opponents in fear by pretending that it provided him with insights into the future.
His profane-autonomous nature, which was primarily focused on the acquisition of power, also manifested itself in his practice of “false arts,” to which he devoted money, effort, and study, according to Pliny (Natural History 30.5). As a sorcerer and necromancer, he exerted control over the shades of the underworld and forced them to appear before him and speak to him about the future. When Tiridates came to Rome to pay homage and receive investiture with Armenia, he had to provide Nero with new insights into magic and initiate him into the secrets of magical rites. Commanding the shades and rulers of the underworld was almost as important to him as his desire to be the foremost in playing the zither and singing tragedy.
While there are many reports of public expiatory, supplicatory, and thanksgiving festivals during his imperial reign, as Tacitus expressly notes, it is mostly the Senate that arranges such events. For example, the Senate orders thanksgiving festivals for individual favorable turns in the Armenian War, as well as for Nero’s rescue from the hostile plots of his internal enemies such as Sulla, Plautus, and Piso, or for the redemption of the vows made by the assembled fathers during the pregnancy of Poppaea. When the augurs, as well as the Sibylline Books, spoke out for the purification of the city and for penitential festivals following notable events such as the fire of Rome, the Senate had taken the initiative for consulting the soothsayers and the sacred books.
The Senate did a service to the emperor by calming the people with supplicatory festivals after the fire of Rome left them homeless and distraught. The accompanying thanksgiving festivals for the Armenian War were a tribute to the overlord, to whom the successes of his military servants were laid at his feet in his palace, and the arrangement of festivals for the defeat of his mother and noble opponents expresses the renewed recognition of his rule.
Religion had become a dead machinery of state service. The relieved sigh with which Augustus acknowledged the favor of the gods after the defeat of Antony, who had accepted him as co-ruler over the earth, belonged to a bygone era. The admiration that came to Virgil when he glorified the renewal of religion in the cult celebrations of Aeneas on his travels was soon limited to his brilliant praise of the Roman profession of world domination and to the episodes in which he celebrated the heroes of the recent historical past. Perhaps one gradually felt the groan in the verses of the national poet, with which he brought out the features for his picture of the Trojan emigrant from the treasure trove of his cult scholarship and laboriously united them into holy idylls. The religious consecration, which Ovid spread over the daily life of the household and the people in his “Fasti,” was soon only enjoyed aesthetically, as the restoration poets of the Augustan period owed their success, in which they basked, certainly primarily to the smoothing of their diction, which flowed without gaps, extravagances, and disturbing exhaustion.
Alongside these artists of language, however, there were also two true and still touching poets who kept themselves apart from the political interests of their time and created their eternity through the depiction of their soul experiences. The one, who allegedly died in the year of Virgil’s birth, always called upon with respect, even forced, until the time of Macrobius, the recognition of the originality of his diction, which was used by the singer of the Aeneid; the other, who emerged in the last days of Augustus, was revered in a circle of quiet people whose private cult he owed, which allowed him to survive the dangerous path to the Middle Ages in some manuscripts. Both Lucretius and Manilius have set themselves to the interpretation of the mystery of the universe and have put their poetry into the inner experience and the mastery of the powerful material through the bound speech. Both proud to have broken new paths for the spirit, the former the creator of his diction, the latter in possession of his own power, which he strengthened by the example of his predecessor and occasionally adorned with the rhetorical combinations of later times, while he remained independent of the small change of formulas from which the poets of the Augustan era gathered the poetic language treasure of the nation.
Both of them stand far above the official service which the poets of the Latin golden age dedicate to the glorification of the nation and the rulers. Free from Roman particularism, they cast deep glances into the course and law of history, and dedicate their interest mostly to the experiences, troubles, and inner triumphs of the soul. Though they practiced their poetic gift on opposing systems, the older one on the Epicurean formation of the world from itself and on the liberation of man from the terrors of the old temple service; but the younger one also brought the modern spirit of freedom into the heavenly absolutism of the Stoics, and transformed the harmony of the world, nature, and man with their divine archetype and source into a free assent of the image (alterno consensu, Astronomicon 2, 60 ff.). The encounter and covenant between the heavenly and the earthly, the supreme reason and the upward-striving and expanding soul, is based on their mutual need, by which they seek each other and confirm the kinship in a free alliance. Thus, Manilius gave bold expression to the sense of god which expanded the breast of men at his time, stating that man, as a related image, goes up to seek himself above, in heaven, in his father (4, 883 ff., 905 ff.) and, on the other hand, God descends into the breast of man, takes up residence there, and likewise allows Himself to be sought (2, 108).
Lucretius, the enemy of the gods, has only declared war on the higher beings of antiquity. Even in his world created by his own power of imagination, gods emerge; for him, one god is Epicurus, who freed humanity from the terrors of the old service, and even Empedocles, whom he celebrates, can hardly, as he believes, have come from human seed (On the Nature of Things 1, 734). If Manilius attributes the divine status to Augustus a few times (Astronomy 1, 9) or presents it as certain and assured, he is far from the courtly service of Horace and only celebrates the “divine horizon” of humanity, which makes gods itself, sends divine beings to the stars, and under the rule of Augustus will expand the heavens (4, 963-965).
Although Lucretius and Manilius did not have a great reputation among the public, the simplicity of their diction echoes the ideal that their time aspired to. The ideal was a god-man, emerging from the power of the autonomous world or from the mutual attraction between the upper and earthly regions. Against this background of the zeitgeist, Nero’s purely human nature and his separation from the higher powers appear all the more peculiar, but even more striking when compared to Caligula with all the pomp of his divinity.
Nero wanted to embody all the greatness attainable in the world as a human being and rule over humanity; in contrast, Caligula adorned himself with the attributes of divinity to demonstrate his omnipotence. Manilius saw the expansion of the heavens through the naturalization of a god-man as evidence of the divine power of humanity; for Nero and Caligula, the choice between being a pure human or a god-man was also a matter of power. Both wanted to prove the extent of their own personality; Nero insisted on himself, and the son of Germanicus refused to bend to anything in the world and, like a Stoic, said that nothing was dearer or more honorable to him than his “steadfastness” / “imperturbability” (αδιατρεψία), as he expressed it scholastically (Suetonius, Caligula 29). He thought his predecessors were weak and timid because they did not yet know their power well: as he told his grandmother Antonia (Suetonius, Ibid.), he had realized that he was free to do anything and everything against everyone.
Caesar and Augustus had fought their way to power with the sword and had to face the strength of their opponents, and then established their principate through leniency and respect for old customs. Before retreating to Capri to avoid personal friction with the nobility, Tiberius had ingratiated himself with the watchword of liberal absolutism, that he was nothing but a servant of the state. “I have said it now and often,” he told the Senate (Suetonius, Tiberius, chapter 29), “a good and prosperous ruler must be a servant of the Senate and the people, for the general good and also for the private good, and I have had and still have masters in you who are good, fair, and friendly.”
This modesty and such detours seemed outdated to Caligula’s self-esteem; he no longer wanted to recognize any dangers, to possess the basis of his power within himself, and as the sole owner of the world, to be master over everything that his granting and grace still allowed the private individuals to enjoy. Compared to Nero, and probably also in his eyes, he was still a novice and beginner in this exercise of power, because he hid behind the masks of the heavenly ones to impress his contemporaries.
As this mighty overlord of the world, he emerged from his palace with the crown of rays and other insignia of the ancient gods, let himself be greeted by the cheering people as the present deity, threatened the Senate with the sword, stormed to Gaul to crush conspirators, made the impossible possible in colossal buildings, delighted the masses as a singer, dancer, charioteer, and fencer, dealt with disagreeable persons who wanted to be something special with humorous sparks, planned the reform of the law according to his own dictates, directed world literature with his not uneducated taste, and had a special eye on Virgil, whom he (Suetonius, Calig. Chap. 36) denied creative spirit, probably because he had struggled to revive the ancient gods in their worn-out majesty.
Caligula was right. The heavens could become the prey of the bold. The gods no longer felt entirely safe in their old seats, and among the people, there spread the legend that they were considering fleeing and bidding farewell to their homes. In Alexandria, for example, as Plutarch tells us in “Antony,” on the night before the battle of Actium, they had heard the gods leaving the city, filling the air with their voices and the noise of departure, while the sound of holy instruments accompanied their flight. The departure of the gods went out through the northern city gate, which faced the enemy camp. Josephus has told us about the same departure of the national God of the Jews from his sanctuary, informing the last defenders of Jerusalem that their God had gone over to the Romans and now resided in Italy. The gods, both Jehovah and Isis, had become wanderers, seeking refuge with the victors.
While the foreign invaders turned some souls away from the Capitoline god, the Romans also felt something of the fickleness of their divine protectors. The Republican cursed their treacherous fickleness. In the evening of the battle of Pharsalus, Lucan has his Pompey recognize (Phars. 7, 647) that the gods had fled his camp, that is, according to the view of Magnus and his poet, from Rome, the Republic, and the Senate. However, the poet of the Pharsalia also has vengeance in store and in sight for this injustice that the ancient gods have committed against the freedom and destiny of humanity: Rome adorns and arms (7, 455ff.) the spirits of its great men with lightning and divine rays, sends them to the heavenly civil war against the old deities above, and below in the temples of the traitors, swears by its chosen shades and blessed ones.
The supposed disturbed mind, as Tacitus expresses it, or the excessive ambition of Caligula consisted in wanting to walk and command among men as a god while still alive. The idea itself was not new. His ancestor, the triumvir Antony, had already shown himself as Dionysus, according to the fashion of the Greek-Macedonian rulers, in Egypt, Asia, and even to the Athenians who went out to meet him with his wife and children and greeted him as Liber Pater. On this last occasion, the daring Athenians got into trouble when they invited him to marry their Athena, for which they had to pay their goddess’s dowry of a thousand talents (Seneca Rhetor, Suasoria I). The court of the triumvir with Cleopatra was that of a god, and Plancus, the traitor of all the parties of the civil war, dressed up as his divine servant Glaukus in Alexandria to please Liber Pater, sliding naked and blue-painted on the ground with a reed crown on his head and ending in a fish tail before his divine master (Vellej. Paterc. II, 83).
However, this was in barbarian lands or in the provinces. Augustus allowed himself to be worshipped in temples in provincial towns in connection with the deity Roma. The modest and even timid Claudius founded a temple in the military colony of Camulodunum in the newly re-opened Britain, where he was worshipped as a deity while a native priesthood officiated. What was new about Caligula was only the openness and recklessness with which he presented himself as a living pantheon in the middle of Rome, in front of the eyes of the Senate and the high aristocracy. Suetonius has transmitted to us numerous sayings of this emperor, but none of them testified to folly or an insane mind. Either they contain a witty and pointed characterization of outstanding personalities of the early imperial period, the nobility, and literature, or they are the stark expression of the arrogance with which he looked down on the broken and abandoned Rome at his feet, abandoned even by his own nobles. Some sayings of the latter kind may have been invented by his aristocratic opponents.
Whether Nero, by taking a different path to assert his state power, was warned by the violent death of his maternal uncle, or whether he lacked the elemental fire and sanguineous energy that propelled Caligula’s will and imagination upwards and onto the throne of the Capitol, we shall not inquire here. Enough, he wanted to exercise sovereignty over the world as a prince, without divine attributes, and stand at the head of humanity as a human being. “No prince,” he said, “has known what he may do” (Suetonius, Nero Chapter 37). He wanted to show how far the power of the human ruler could go.
The Greek-Macedonian spirit of the Orient did not hesitate to flatter Nero on coins as Zeus and as the savior of the world (σωτηρ της οιχουμενης), and his mother as the mother of God (θεομητωρ). However, Nero himself did not follow through on the request of Senator Cerialis Anicius, after the suppression of the Pisonian conspiracy, that a temple be immediately built for him at state expense. Being human and achieving all human triumphs for his person was the highest goal for him. Tacitus suggests in his confused pragmatism and convoluted language that he did not want to comply with his enemies, who wished for his imminent death and the orderly and prosaic condition of his apotheosis (Annal. 15, 74). Moreover, that proposer took his own life shortly thereafter, as he had been denounced as an enemy of the prince in his will by the father of Lucan, who was allegedly an accomplice of his son and Piso in the death sentence. Nero had probably already known his man before.
But to get a complete view of the field on which Nero and his teacher and minister worked together, we still need to visit a special school of humanity, the exercise halls of controversial debates.
3. The humanist school of the rhetoricians.
The father of our wise man, the rhetorician Annäus Seneca, wrote down his memories of the controversial exercises of his time for his sons, the oldest Novatus, who was later adopted by the rhetorician Gallio, the philosopher Lucius Annäus Seneca, and Mela, the father of Lucan, and provided prefaces to the ten books of his work, five of which are preserved in their entirety, and the others only in extracts, which are highly important for the history of Roman intellectual life. He reports that if he had not been held back at home in the Spanish city of Corduba by the civil wars that engulfed the whole world, he would have been able to hear Cicero, and so had fully experienced the catastrophe that Roman eloquence suffered under the last triumvirate.
In one of the declamation exercises that he presented to his controversy group (Suasoria 6), the question is debated whether Cicero should make amends to Antonius, and the majority of the speakers declare it impossible for the great orator to re-enter a Senate that had been cruelly purged and ignominiously replenished, and in which he would find himself like a stranger in a foreign world, condemned to silence. Such is the fate, exclaims a hot-head, that has befallen the Roman people, that we must ask whether it is better to live with Antonius or to die with Cato.
After this confession of the times, we need not emphasize further that interpreting the law in the interest of political disputes was no longer possible or necessary. At Actium, the issues of the forum were decided and the debates were closed. The exercises of the school had to avoid questions for which there was no longer a field of inquiry and instead focus on pre-existing themes. When the new school had taken off and attracted general attention removed from politics, Augustus was occasionally present as a listener and did not withhold his judgment on the remarkable heads in private, such as when he wished one person, who spoke too fast and too fiercely, to be restrained and said of another, who was particularly strong in extemporizing in court, that he had his genius in bearing, so he did not always need to change his approach.
Once he attended a controversial exercise with Agrippa and Maecenas, in which Latro, a friend and compatriot of Seneca and one of the leaders of the new school, dealt with the topic of adoption and the elevation to the nobility associated with it (Controv. 2, 12). However, in the heat of his discourse, he was reminded by a hint from Maecenas of the low origins of many noble families, while a prince sat before him who was in the process of adopting his two young grandsons, and that Agrippa, their father, was one of those who had earned nobility through their deeds. His friends regretted that an excuse would only have caused more offense. Nevertheless, the matter passed without further incident, and Seneca concluded the chapter with praise for the freedom that was granted under the divine Augustus.
During the reign of Augustus and the first half of Tiberius’ rule, there developed an intellectual activity whose significance even the emperors themselves could not yet fully grasp. Seneca explains this to his sons in the preface to the first book of his Controversiae: “Cicero also practiced declamation, but on theses; the subject matter in which we trained was so new that it required a new name; we call it Controversiae, Cicero called it Causae”. The old master of eloquence thus trained himself on invented cases that remained within the limits of existing law and did not go beyond the questions that arose in public actions. The more recent rhetoricians, who could no longer attain the reality of the republican proceedings of the Forum, exercised themselves on chimerical questions that affected the law itself and subjected it to doubt and scrutiny, even calling for its denial.
The outer aspects of these debates later gave them a bad reputation, after they had achieved their purpose and borne fruit. Tacitus complains in the essay de Orat. Chap. 35 about the harm suffered by the spirits in the rhetoric schools, about the refined declamation subjects that are far from all truth and reality, and cites as discouraging examples of these topics the praise of tyrant murderers and the choice of prostituted women for the office of virgin priestesses. Quintilian (5, 12, 17-20) sees in the declamations only the pleasure of a castrated and dissolved being. Even Petronius, who still stood on the border of the time that saw the flowering of these studies and who otherwise shows a fine sense receptive to the noble efforts of his time in his “Satyrikon”, speaks harshly about the “madness of the declamators, who introduce the students into a foreign world and estrange them from the forum”. Indeed, the rhetor Seneca portrays (Preface to Controv. Book 4) the heroes he presents to his sons in a dubious way, making them appear as self-satisfied speech heroes. Such a declamator, he writes, brings together all the means of attraction; he disregards argumentation because it is tedious and offers little occasion for rhetorical flourishes. He wants to bring himself, not the matter, to the fore. Accustomed to the applause of a habitual circle, he becomes weak on the forum or collapses altogether.
However, the topics of those exercises are sought and absurd, the hair-splitting of casuistry petty, and the language, when the declaimers crush the law of the Twelve Tables in invented collisions, overly pointed. But only at first glance. Rather, if we examine the fabric of these subtle distinctions, points, and exaggerating antitheses more closely, we see a dawn shimmering through it, heralding the rise of a self-aware spirit.
The easiest exercises of the rhetoric school are the Suasoriae. The speaker descends into the soul of a great man who decides about himself and at the same time about the future of the world. There, Cicero advises whether it is appropriate and possible for him to make peace with the conquerors under the new conditions. There, in Suasoria 1, Alexander the Great stands at the edge of the old world and deliberates whether he should venture the journey across the ocean, whether there is another world over there, and whether man needs one such as his old one.
It is told of a painter of antiquity that a single brushstroke was enough for him to transform a weeping face into a laughing one. The painter called the stroke that gave his picture the right touch a “printer”; with a bold shadow, he completed the roundness, with a stroke of light, the life of his work. In this sense, the rhetoricians vied with each other as colorists in mastery. A true color caused a sensation; the discoverer was congratulated on his immortality, and once Latro was so delighted with a striking color that he exclaimed (Controv. 1, 2) that he wanted to kiss it.
We cannot imagine how feverish the excitement that prevailed in these controversy halls. To the minds compressed by the Caesarist conditions, the cutting antitheses and pointed sentences were a delight. They tore apart the frozen atmosphere of the present and opened up a view into the great human life. In place of the former party motives, general maxims, moral laws, and the secret driving forces of the soul’s life came to the fore. The fact that the masters of this rhetoric were no longer at home in the forum, as Seneca, for example, recounts (Controv., Book 4, Preface) before the great declamator Latro, that he once, in defending a compatriot, completely lost his composure, started stammering, and only came back to himself when his request was granted and the hearing was moved from the forum to a basilica, does not diminish the merit of these men. There was no longer any room for rhetorical heroics in the forum, and large actions that gave wings to eloquence occurred only in exceptional cases under the Caesars until Nero.
Let us not fail to mention that the Greeks were the first to develop controversies, topics, and their execution in their political leisure, as Seneca noted once (Controv. 5.33) that a particular topic was especially famous among the Greeks, and another time (I, 1) he draws attention to a legal subtlety that the Romans added to the Greek treatment of the topic. Nevertheless, the main thing is that this struggle between morality and law, human rights and state laws, was transferred to the imperial capital and took place before the eyes of the Caesars and guardians of the law.
Now for some examples! It concerns (Controv. I, 1.) the son who, against the will of his father, supports the father’s brother in distress, and is therefore disinherited and rejected, adopted by the uncle who has in the meantime become rich, and again rejected by him because he feeds the father, who has in the meantime become poor, against his will. The batteries in favor of the disobedient son thunder: nature stands above paternal command, the world would perish if pity and compassion did not extinguish anger, not every command is owed obedience, the destitute is human. Shouldn’t we extend him the necessities of life? The voice of the people is sacred, which condemns the harsh command, justice decides against the law for the condemned, we alone have control over our emotions and they are not subject to any foreign power, there are unwritten laws that stand above all written laws, it is unjust not to extend a helping hand to the fallen; that is the universal right of mankind. Finally, Latro brings the color that the young man has not to excuse himself, but to boast, and Fuscus the color of religion, which he usually employs, that piety justifies the accused.
In another controversy (1, 6), the debate is about nobility of birth. A son, taken in by a pirate captain, is not redeemed by his father despite his pleas. He is then freed by the pirate’s daughter and accompanies her back home, where he marries her. His father disowns him for not abandoning her and choosing a woman of his own class. But, as the defenders of the pirate’s daughter argue, birth and innate status cannot be a stain on her. We are not asked which class we belong to; nature determines that. Our merit only begins where we belong to ourselves and can determine ourselves. Marius created himself when he won his consulates, and Pompey became Magnus without inherited ancestors, while some illustrious individuals defile the images of their forefathers with their vices.
It was a similar controversy in which Latro, facing Augustus and his court, believed he had committed a serious offense. At that time (II, 12), the father, whose disinherited son marries a prostitute and has a son with her, was guilty. He had come to the same son’s request, who was on his deathbed, had also granted his request and adopted his son, but was accused of madness by the deceased’s brothers. Perhaps Augustus was more embarrassed than the rhetorician of the moment, not so much because of the chapter of adoption, with which Roman society was just dealing with his plans with the sons of Agrippa, but because the orator opened up a train of thought for him with his antithesis of the intrinsic value and the ancient, often degenerate nobility, which he would have liked to pursue completely and make useful for his rule. Nothing could have been more welcome to him than to remind the old families, to whom he had to deliver bloody battles, of the dignity of the lower classes and to remind them of modesty after their defeat. But he could not and should not pursue this thought too far yet; for now, such a profound upheaval was still confined to the classroom, and he himself had to be satisfied with a cautious internal policy and with the art that his court poet Horace used to lull the restless claims of the high nobility to sleep.
However, the rhetoricians worked on breaking down the barriers that separated the social classes from each other. In another controversy (Controv. II, 9), there is again a rebel, whom his poor father had disowned because he refused to accept an offer of adoption from a wealthy man who had disowned his own three sons, despite his father’s command, out of love for him. The defense of this noble rebel and outcast gives the colorists an opportunity to curse the Furies of desire and slavery that have entered into the “one and blood-related family” of humanity and are tearing it apart, and to outdo each other with expressions of hatred against wealth. Fabianus Papirius thought he had accomplished much with his words, “I do not want to be rich!” but Rufus Vibius triumphed with the statement, “I do not say I do not want to, but I do not know how to be rich.” They did not realize that soon a humane emperor would come who would make everyone poor.
One important controversy (V, 33), whether the poor man who raises and mutilates abandoned children to use them for begging damages the commonwealth, is directed against the slavery of the rich and the tolerance of gladiatorial games. The colorists who took on this cruel egoist only do so in order to accuse the entire society of complicity in the same crime. You should be concerned, Labienus asks, if someone picks up your children from the desert and abandonment, which they would have to perish if no one picked them up? Do you also care that the lords among you keep herds of castrated men and mutilate their favorites to keep them usable for their debauchery longer? Does it bother you that those fortunate ones cultivate their wastelands with slave hordes of freemen, that they seduce the inexperience of unhappy youths and throw the most beautiful ones who were fit for the war camp into the gladiatorial games? What do you think of the fencing master who presses a young man to the sword and yet is not accused of damaging the commonwealth – of the pimp who guards female prisoners and goes free?
Finally, the Colorists call upon their allies from heaven to destroy the earthly accusation with their protection. For example, in contrast to the law that “the priestess must be chaste of chaste, pure of pure descent”, there is the following case (Controv. I, 2): a young woman is captured by pirates, bought by a pimp, and exhibited; she kills a soldier in a struggle, whom she could not convince to spare her, like her previous visitors; acquitted by the court, she is returned to her family and applies for the position of a Vestal Virgin. After the advocates of wickedness exhausted their skills and disputed the purity of the girl, the artists of light come and create a halo of sanctity around the pure and chaste one. The gods, says Fuscus, wanted to demonstrate their power through this girl, so that it would be visible that no human force could resist the divine. Freedom should appear in the captive, modesty in the prostitute, and the innocence of the accused as a miracle. Marillius, Latro’s teacher, after describing the grandeur and majesty that radiated from the face of the young woman, exclaimed: boldly say it, everyone came to her like to a prostitute and left as if from a priestess. (This is the color that Latro could not admire enough.)
Another, Albutius, explains that the gods instilled fear of the future priestess’ chastity in the wild and violent, and gave the young woman the strength to kill the soldier who refused to heed the heavenly warning. They have saved the young woman in her danger for themselves and given her the first voice for the priesthood. Silo Pompey added the turning point at a time when even matrons give instruction in lust, the girl was proof that the pure can also preserve their innocence unharmed in the brothel. Finally, Triarius allows the accused to contest in court that the soldier fell by her hand. “A figure beyond human,” she tells the judges, “surrounded me and infused my arm with a strength more than masculine. Whoever you are, immortal gods, who wanted to rescue chastity from that dishonorable place with a miracle, you have not helped an ungrateful person. She dedicates her modesty to you, to whom it is due.”
These are the outlines of a new world that the striving spirits of the time of Augustus and Tiberius were constructing. In those lecture halls, the youth was inspired by a way of life in which moral freedom triumphed over the precepts of a declining era, and humanity was united in a new covenant. Latro and his companions thus prepared the ground for Christianity, or rather, to express it more accurately, the later Christian teachers merely filled out the framework that the contemporaries of the first Caesars had erected for their world-building. These first builders designed those antitheses of the moral and the legal, the heavenly and the earthly, in which the Christians later moved, and they created the extravagant language in which a heart dissatisfied with the legal order expressed its desires and puzzles. Here, under the eyes of Augustus, the framework for those stories of saints and miracles was laid out, which then edified the Christians; indeed, the controversial debates also drew the outlines for those legends in which Christian martyrs and holy virgins maintain their purity against the enticements and torments of the world.
4. Seneca’s rhetorical education.
In the preface to the first book of his Controversies, the rhetorician Seneca refers to his sons’ regret that time and age prevented them from hearing men of such great intellectual power as the declaimers. However, the moral philosopher Seneca personally knew some of them and attended their speeches. In his later letters (e.g. Epist. 40), he speaks of those he still heard himself and criticizes their style of delivery. Fabianus Papirius, whose “Colores” his father often mentioned, was even one of his teachers, whose memory he held in high esteem at all times (Epist. 100).
Fabianus had written almost more about philosophy than Cicero and also had a respected name in natural science. He made an impression on Seneca, particularly through his delivery and his focus on the attitude of the audience. As our sage explains in the quoted letters, Fabianus still leaned towards Cicero’s detailed, calmly calculated conclusion in his speeches, while the others sought to captivate the audience with dazzling surprises and wanted to overwhelm the masses with the sound of their rhetorical figures and cadences.
Seneca had the choice of which direction to follow. Cicero was still considered by the older generation as the model of the coherent style devoted to the subject matter yet asserting its authority, but the younger generation demanded stimulants and in the midst of the roaring current of speech the glitter of the play of colors, sparks of light, and dazzling flashes. The impetuosity of the last masters, such as Asinius Pollio, who played a significant role in the controversies, and the hasty rush of Haterius could not satisfy the future master who wanted to take the lead for his time. He missed in them a penetrating depth of power. “He who does not control himself cannot rule,” he writes (Epist. 40), “he who does not allow himself to be led cannot lead. A speech that is supposed to serve to heal our souls must penetrate our inner selves.”
To find this path to the inner self, he purified the language of his time from the restlessness of superficiality and the haste with which the declaimers attacked their listeners. He did not want to and could not do without the ornaments of the newer style, the “Colores,” which had made the rhetoricians popular, but he subordinated them to his ideal purpose and made them means. He agreed with Petronius (Satyr. 2) and Emperor Augustus (Suet. Octav. K. 86), who condemned the newer pointed writing style as an Asian deception of language that came to Rome through Greece, to the extent that he derived the newer style (Epist. 40) from the Greeks, but he accepted its services and combined it, as he expressed it, with Roman prudence and dignity.
He could even less do without the antitheses and invigorating lights of the new style, as his speech was based on a great antithesis. The background of the picture to which his works unite is formed by the horrors of civil wars and the arbitrary power of the great men who unleashed and exhausted themselves in them. Standing high above Tacitus in this regard, for whom the principate was a rootless phenomenon or a dark deus ex machina, he sees the announcement of Caesarism in the earlier struggles of the great men for the principate. The republican strife is considered by him to be settled, the principate as an irreversible phenomenon, and the only question for him is what to make of it. Equally generous and far-sighted as Tacitus, he lets nobility and self-sacrificing sympathy shine on the dark picture offered by the degeneration and dissolution of the great men, which the slaves showed their masters during the civil unrest, and condemns the people and the great men who take pleasure in the bloody spectacles of the circus. The world with its conflicts and sufferings was for him the starting point for his comprehensive antithesis, from where the soul rises to a higher order full of light and peace, the principate a passage to a moral world empire. Finally, he condensed the sparks with which the rhetoricians delighted in the struggle for the laws of nature and conscience against positive law into guiding stars, stripping them of the appearance of momentary impromptus and giving them the weight of commanding truths.
Cicero had the composure amidst the tumultuous battles of the civil wars to design and refine the grand structure of his speeches. There was only one question that occupied people’s minds, whether to burden the scales of the Senate or the democracy with the weight of words. Now, in the midst of an expanded horizon, the time had become restless and impatient, and while they had the anticipation of a great moral task, they were tormented by the emptiness of the moment, where a moving verdict or a meaningful antithesis were welcome.
Tacitus, who is not fond of the statesman Seneca, also speaks (at the beginning of the second century) somewhat unfavorably of the writer, calling him (Annal. 13, 3) a poet who catered to the taste of his time. Quintilian, the contemporary of the historian, cannot express strongly enough (Instit. 10, 1, 125-131) his corrupt writing style that is prone to all kinds of seductive excesses. Fronto, in his correspondence with the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (around 160 AD), only writes bon mots to him, not real maxims, and compares his aphorisms to stiff passers-by who thunder through the field in their heated rush but cannot hold their ground or stand up to a serious fight.
These unfavorable judgments arose from that reaction of ancient Rome whose beginning we will encounter during the time of Domitian, while under the reign of the same emperor, the fusion of European asceticism with Jewish monotheism already began. Since the beginning of the second century, both directions have solidified alongside and against each other, and Seneca was compensated in the circles that laid the foundation for Christianity from Rome for the rejection that his countrymen expressed about him until he belonged completely to the Christian Church. But the impatience of his time, which he wanted to calm and satisfy with his maxims, had also not remained foreign to him. He wanted to reap what he sowed himself, and not satisfied with the role of teacher and preacher, he trusted himself with the power to rule Rome from the pinnacle of power and lead it to the right path.
5. Seneca at the Court of Claudius.
With his rich talent, which he developed from studying rhetoric to natural sciences, Seneca could count on an outstanding position among his contemporaries. He was also not lacking in self-esteem and entered society with the confidence that no level of it could be denied to him, while the simplicity of his demeanor showed everyone that he had an inner life into which he could withdraw from the world according to his own choice.
Born in Cordoba at the beginning of the first Christian century, he was in Rome in the midst of his philosophical studies when his old-fashioned Roman-minded father persuaded him to give up the Pythagorean abstinence from eating meat, which he had been enthusiastic about through his teacher Sotion. The edict of Tiberius against the Jews and followers of Isis, which made the rhetor Seneca fear for his son’s becoming a suspect, falls according to Tacitus in the year 19 AD. Seneca was then about nineteen years old, and this coincidence of two dates is one of the most striking proofs of the unreliability of Josephus’s chronology, who dates that edict in the last year of Tiberius’s reign (37 AD).
As a young man (Juvenal, Quaest. Natur. 6, 4), Seneca wrote a book on earthquakes, and his memory of observing a fiery meteor under Augustus (died 14 AD) proves the liveliness of his early interest in nature, which he kept up until his old age. Pliny (Hist. natur. 6, 21) refers to his book on India, and Servius, in his notes on the Aeneid, speaks of a book on the country and religion of the Egyptians. According to his own hints (ad Helv. Kap. 17), he accompanied his mother’s sister from Egypt and was present when she lost her husband on the ship after a sixteen-year administration of that province and returned to Rome. He himself talks about it (Epist. 49) as if he acted as a lawyer earlier, and probably the speeches that Quintilian (10, 1, 129) lists among his writings alongside dialogues are documents of his earlier judicial practice, while the dialogues, dedicated to the orientation in the philosophical systems of the Greeks, are modeled after Cicero’s and Livy’s.
So we have reliable information about a rich and diverse literature that made Seneca famous until the end of the reign of Tiberius. In any case, the consolation letter to Marcia belongs to the early time of Caligula, as the author (chapter 1) speaks of the changed times that made it possible for the grieving widow of her son to retrieve the writings of her husband, who had been sentenced to death by Sejan. Caligula was the one who, among other banned writings (Suet. Cal. chap. 16), sought out and allowed the writings of Cordus Cremutius to circulate freely.
The depressed circumstances of the last years of Tiberius’s reign, spent in seclusion at Capri, weighed on society in Rome and restricted the space for talents. Seneca had become an adult, also a man of a circle of admirers, but without the court, a high-spirited mind lacked the lever to effectively intervene in society. The reckless and agitated time of Caligula’s reign made room again, and Seneca could hope for a future with his enterprising spirit, if only the audacious genius on the throne had wanted to allow someone other than himself to benefit from the new freedom!
Moreover, Caligula, who summoned the world with its old gods before his judgment seat and took away the coats of arms and badges of honor from the noble families like discarded creatures, was also a strict and dangerous critic in literature. The Roman reaction, which had been spreading in wider circles since Domitian, was already announcing itself in him; for example, he no longer considered Livy’s language to be the correct expression of original Latin, let alone Seneca’s adorned style, lacking weight and full rounding, which he called “sand without lime” (i.e., not mortar). He, who was proud of his eloquence, competed with the most famous lawyers and invited the knights to his speeches in the Senate through edicts for his accusation and defense speeches, once wanted to have Seneca’s life (Dio Cassius 59, 19) because he had skillfully conducted a legal case in front of him, and he only let him go again when one of the women in his circle said he was emaciated and would not live much longer.
But was it really just the style that annoyed the emperor about the teacher of the time? Only the fame of his eloquence that aroused the envy of the high rival? Or did he fear that Seneca, with his intimacy with the two imperial sisters, Agrippina and Julia, whom he had included in the prayer of the consuls and the homage oaths of the senior officials at the beginning of his reign, pursued political purposes?
We find one of Seneca’s closest friends, Lucilius Junior, to whom he dedicated the writing on providence and the investigations into nature and to whom he directed his collection of letters, in close relations with the commander of the legions in Germania, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus (Gätulicus), whom Caligula executed because he had conspired with the sisters and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus to overthrow him. In the preface to the fourth book of his investigations into nature, Seneca reminds Lucilius, when looking back at the most critical situations of his life, that “the friendship of Gätulicus had not deprived him of the trust of Caligula.” Until the final catastrophe, we will get to know Seneca’s friends and relatives as helpers and confidants in his most complicated situations. Did Lucilius really not know anything about the conspiracies of the field marshal in his immediate vicinity and did he really not deceive Caligula’s trust? Was Seneca really not privy to the secret of Julia and Agrippina? Let us first ask these questions.
One of Claudius’s first acts, when he ascended to the throne after the downfall of his predecessor, was to recall the two sisters whose banishment Caligula had deemed sufficient in the punitive expeditions in Gaul. Already in the first year after their return (41 AD), the younger sister, Julia, was sent back into exile, where she lost her life before the end of a year at the hands of her mortal enemy. Messalina, Claudius’s fifth wife, had already noticed, hurt by her arrogant behavior towards herself, with jealousy her fawning indulgence towards the emperor and, fearing that she would alienate the weak man towards the women, used the rumors of her debauchery to overthrow her. Seneca’s name was also mentioned in these rumors, and when he was still at the height of his favor with Nero later on, Publius Suilius called him the adulterer of the imperial house in his heated speech against him, in the midst of the Senate (58 AD Tacit. Annal. 13, 42. 43).
Dio Cassius, meaning one of the epitomizers who abbreviated and distorted his text with insertions after centuries, begins (61, 10) a list of all the weaknesses and vices of Seneca that contradicted his philosophy with his adulterous affair with Julia. This long digression, for which hardly anyone had the passion at the beginning of the Middle Ages, and which is probably taken from a writing from the time of Marc Aurel, who disliked Seneca, even undermines his credibility when he takes up rumors of his illicit dealings with Agrippina and accuses him, the “husband,” of still enjoying pleasure boys and receiving instruction from Nero in the same vice. Some of these antitheses say, “He, who despised the company of the powerful, could not be removed from the palace. He attacked the flatterers and courted Messalina and the freedman of Claudius to such an extent that he sent them a writing from his island that contained praises of them, which he later suppressed out of shame.” There is so much truth to this accusation that Seneca sought the heights of society and considered them the right place for a reformer. He had aroused rumors about his more than intimate relationships with Julia by believing in the power of the female sex, which he shared with the Greek reformers. The Cynics, who first proclaimed the equality of women and their vocation to wisdom, found enthusiastic female supporters and prophetesses of their doctrine. Women belonged to the friendship bond of Epicurus, were the most eager proselytes of the oriental cults in the first century of our era, which penetrated into Roman families through their mediation, and they also held a prominent position in the first Christian communities. Seneca himself assumes that the women to whom he addressed two consolation letters, the Marcia and his mother, have the most complete knowledge of his philosophy and has given the most winning expression to the presentation of his wisdom in these two essays. However, if he once believed that his doctrine would spread its rays in the widest form from the highest points of society, it cannot be surprising that he also sought to win the power of women for himself at that height. As for his punishment on the island, he was still lucky this time (because later, he paid for his upward striving with his life) as Claudius pardoned him with banishment to Corsica.
The writing that he sent from here to the cabinet secretary of Claudius and later wished to see forgotten was prompted by the death of the brother of Polybius and the weak hope that, through the intercession of this powerful freedman, he could change the stubborn mind of the emperor towards him. His calculation failed, as the emperor’s confidant, according to Dio Cassius, who followed the later view of Messalina’s wickedness, lost his life through her intrigues soon after the dispatch of that writing. The authenticity of this writing, which some admirers of Seneca would like to attribute to forgery, is proven by its style and conformity with the consolatory reasons of other letters to the distressed. The extravagance of the glorification of the emperor, in which Seneca instructs the mourners to “elevate themselves by looking at the great and radiant protective deity, the physician of the sick and broken humanity, and the common consolation of all people” (ad Polyb. chap. 31-33), he may have regretted later. But it conforms to the ideal he had formed of the emperorship, and even if the lost chapters, which, according to the allusion of those Dionysian antitheses, contained some incense for Messalina and therefore fell victim to the later excitement against this woman as the scum of the female world, were still available to us, they could not testify against the authenticity of the document.
This passage discusses Seneca’s family background and their social standing. Seneca’s wife, Paulina, came from a wealthy and respected family, and his father had a successful career in oratory that brought great wealth to others. Seneca himself, as an advocate, likely accumulated a fortune that he believed was necessary for achieving a high social position. Seneca’s brother, Mela, sought wealth by applying for procuratorships to manage crown revenues in the provinces. Mela’s son, Lucan, enjoyed independence at the Neronian court, likely due in part to his wit and the support of his beloved Polla. Seneca’s elder brother, Novatus, also gained a considerable inheritance through adoption by Gallio, who was also active in the book of controversies. The Annii, Seneca’s family, understood how to provide a solid foundation for their social appearance in the world, using the spirit of the late republican and early imperial era.
It is suspected that the prefect of Rome’s grain supply, Paulinus, to whom Seneca dedicated his treatise on the brevity of life, written soon after the death of Caligula, was a young relative of his wife. A son from this marriage died three weeks before the father’s banishment to Corsica (ad Helv. Chap. 2).
The dispute between two women and the victory of one finally paved the way for the exile’s return. What Messalina could not achieve, perhaps because of his previous relationship with Julia, the victor, Agrippina, accomplished. The latter brought a wild storm into the harbor of rest in which Claudius, who had been sheltered by his fifth wife, who had given him Britannicus and Octavia, believed he was safe, a storm that eventually uprooted the entire Claudian dynasty.
Claudius, a sensible and benevolent prince whose legislation, bold constructions, the cleansing and rejuvenation of the Senate with fresh blood, and his expedition to Britain are evidence of his activity, was served by energetic freedmen who spared him the vexations and haughtiness of the aristocracy. Besides his inclination to overindulge at the table, he only had the weakness of being bound to the endearments of women by sensuality, and his innate timidity, intensified by previous setbacks, made him feel a need to be urged and persuaded by them. The man who pursued a measured course in his military policy and civic legislation, who could not be deterred by any objections or difficulties in carrying out his plans, such as his regulation of the Tiber, was capable of being worked up by female advisers and of dictating the most impulsive commands in a fit of excitement, expressed with stuttering and blustering speech.
Both women who vied for him since the first days of his ascent to the throne (41 AD), equally endowed with beauty, had a mixture of Antonian and Octavian blood. Julius Antonius, the son of the Triumvir and Fulvia, spared at the request of Octavia, sister of the victor of Actium and abandoned wife of the defeated, was raised and married to Marcella, Octavia’s daughter from her first marriage to Marcellus, and fathered two Antonias in this union. The younger Antonia, married to a Domitian, Lucius Ahenobarbus, gave birth to Domitia Lepida, who was married to M. Valerius Messalinus, who gave birth to Messalina. The younger Antonia, in her marriage to Drusus, Tiberius’s brother, bore Germanicus, who fathered the younger Agrippina with Agrippina I, daughter of Agrippa and Julia, and therefore granddaughter of Augustus.
In the family memories of the latter, the rival of Messalina, memories of the deadly hostility of the Claudian family towards their ancestors were stacked one on top of the other. Germanicus, although himself a Claudian, fell victim to the envy of his uncle Tiberius, according to popular belief. His wife Agrippina I had incurred Tiberius’s displeasure when she threw herself onto the bridge over the Rhine during the retreat of her husband’s lieutenant from Germany and prevented its destruction by the settlers on the left bank who already feared the arrival of the enemy from the other side. The emperor, who was tired of Germanicus’s ventures as useless quests for glory, was reluctant to see her interfere in military policy as a manly woman and want to maintain the way for the future in the fateful forests and swamps. That famous cameo, kept in Paris, which depicts Germanicus and Agrippina on the occasion of their journey to the eastern provinces, the latter holding the role of Demeter with her mild laws in her hand, and the former as Triptolemus, blissfully sowing the earth with his seed on a dragon chariot, also shows that the couple had higher ideas than their abilities and circumstances allowed. It was as if in Agrippina, as well as in her elder sons Nero and Drusus, the wild blood of Antonius and the raging Fulvia boiled, and the hidden gloom with which Agrippa looked upon the successes of the one he wanted to serve alone on earth had come to life and finally wanted to seize the rule, which he also believed himself worthy of. As long as Livia lived, who pretended to moderate her son’s suspicion of the Caesar blood in Agrippina and her desires for power, Tiberius still held on. Driven into exile with her oldest son Nero after Livia’s death, Agrippina died of hunger like him. When she was dragged into exile, she attacked the captain who was to take her away and lost an eye in the struggle. Shortly before, her second equally passionate son Drusus had succumbed to the three-year torment he had suffered under the abuse of his guards in the underground dungeon of the Palatium. Finally deprived of food, he still managed to cling to life for a week with the straw from his bed and avenged himself with curses and imprecations on Tiberius, who was vainly pursuing the blood of Caesar and would not escape the revenge of the hated house’s descendants.
This thirst for revenge, which she begged for in the depths of the Palatine, was now present in Agrippina. The caresses with which she lured Claudius were meant to pave the way for her and the son she brought with her to ascend the throne. As power-hungry as her mother and brothers, she, the daughter of an emperor (Germanicus), sister of an emperor (Caligula), and wife of an emperor, wanted to become the mother of an emperor through her son, which was only possible through the death of Claudius and the downfall of his hated house.
Tacitus attributes to her, in one of her later outbursts of rage when she was deceived in her calculation of ruling through her son, the threat to reveal all the harm that she had caused to the Claudian house through the secret of her marriage (Tac. Annal. 13, 14). The way to the emperor’s bed had been made possible for her through the comedy of that sham marriage, which Messalina consummated with the consent of Claudius with Silius, and which ultimately led to her downfall. Claudius had given her permission to marry Silius through a divorce decree because he had been convinced that this sham act could only prevent a dangerous conspiracy. However, his freedman Narcissus had frightened him during the wedding celebration of the new couple by pretending that it was serious and the first step towards his downfall, and thus Narcissus gave the enemies of Messalina the opportunity to remove her from the way. It is very likely that Agrippina, the mistress of intrigue, had her hand in this complicated and bloody affair, as later through the rumors of her circles and in her memoirs, she depicted Messalina as a lascivious woman who had her own pleasure chambers for her lovers in the palace and who would sneak away from her drunken husband’s bed at night to satisfy an insatiable desire in the public pleasure resorts of the masses, as Juvenal portrays it in his gruesome caricatures of the emperors.
After the removal of Messalina, the timid Claudius was hesitant about marrying his niece, a union that was considered incestuous according to Roman custom and legal opinion. When the Senate, at the instigation of Agrippina, had lifted the disturbing law, the powerful freedman Pallas helped by pointing out to the emperor that this connection would reconcile the quarrel between the Claudians and Julians and secure his own house against the danger that could arise from Agrippina’s marriage with another family. But his niece already had a son who was older than his own Britannicus and who had to transfer the conflict between the two imperial houses to the bosom of the family.
The elder of the two Antonias, in whom the blood of the two men from Actium was mixed, had bestowed the Domitian family with the dangerous honor of marriage with the imperial house. Cnejus Domitus, her husband’s son, was married by Tiberius (29 AD) to the granddaughter of the younger Antonia, our Agrippina, and was the father of the later Nero.
Suetonius tells some traits of the grandfather of the last Caesar (Nero, chap. 4) that, though in the color of the imperial era, correspond entirely to the hard and arrogant family character of the Domitians. In his youth, he had a name as a master in racing and later, in the Germanic War, he was one of the numerous sub-commanders to whom Augustus awarded triumphal decorations. He was presumptuous, extravagant, and cruel, forced the censor Plancus to avoid him on the street in his aristocratic pride as an aedile, had Roman knights and women appear on stage in the mime game as a praetor and consul, and held animal fights and fencing games in all parts of the city with such cruelty that Augustus, after warning him seriously in secret, had to rein him in through a public command.
Whose son, one of the four nobles whom Tiberius had appointed as distributors of the aid intended for rebuilding Rome after the fire of 36 AD, was soon involved in the case of Albucilla, the wife of a public informer, and accused of involvement in her majesty’s crimes and excesses, but saved from further harm by the death of Tiberius, which occurred soon after while he was trying to gain time to prepare his defense (Tacitus Ann. 6, 45, 47-48).
The traits that Suetonius (Nero, ch. 5) attributes to his portrait, such as his cheating in private and official matters or even the accusation of incest with his sister Domitia Lepida, may be exaggerated or partly invented. However, the incident where, as a companion of young Gaius, grandson of Augustus, at a banquet in the East, he knocked down a freedman who refused to get drunk on command and was subsequently dismissed from the prince’s entourage, and then on the market place in Rome knocked out an eques who spoke somewhat too freely in a dispute, seems to be quite in keeping with the recklessness of earlier Roman noblemen, which was intensified by the leisure of the time and ultimately by the princely position of the nobleman admitted to the imperial house. His description by Velleius Paterculus (II, 10) as a “young man of the most noble simplicity” is of no significance to a historian who writes in the glory of the Sejanian regime and finds everything related to the house of Tiberius praiseworthy.
The death of Tiberius in the spring of 37 AD opened the prison for Cneius, and at the end of that year, on December 15th, a son was born to him, Lucius Domitius. The joyous and jubilant life into which Agrippina and her sister plunged after Caligula’s accession to the throne, and perhaps also his wife’s intimacy with the young emperor, seem to have made life at court unbearable for him; besides, he was sick. He moved to Pyrga in Etruria, where he died of dropsy in the third year of his son’s life. In his will, he made the emperor the heir, and his son the third part, but Caligula, together with his own property, seized the young Lucius’ share, so that when his mother was immediately banished, he was left as an orphan.
This is the beginning, very early on, of the story of the later Nero, with dates that have been taken up and used by historians with no small degree of haste to explain his character. “Here,” for example, says Schiller, when Suetonius (Nero Chap. 6) relates that the “almost helpless and poor” boy was raised by his aunt Octavia Lepida, mother of Messalina, under two tutors, a dancer and a barber, “the first seeds of his later follies and crimes were sown.” Lepida, Schiller continues, “seems to have done everything to alienate the boy from his mother. Here the hypocrisy and lack of deeper feelings, which are so characteristic of Nero later, received their first foundation and development.” However, the poor portrayal that Suetonius gives of this period of Nero’s childhood recalls his portrayal of Domitian growing up in abandonment and degradation and is subject to the same suspicion of exaggeration. Furthermore, in the service of his pragmatism, Schiller cites a passage from Tacitus’ Annals (12.64) that describes Lepida trying to win over her nephew from his mother through flattery and gifts. But this dispute between the aunt and the strict and harsh mother, who also demanded from her son the strict demeanor of a future ruler, occurred thirteen years later, at a time when Agrippina was preparing to eliminate Claudius, was in a hurry because she feared Lepida’s increasing influence with the Emperor, and as a prelude to the main blow, pushed through the bloody execution of her sister-in-law as a conspirator (ibid. Chap. 65). Moreover, the period in which Nero was left to the education of the supposed servant couple can only be counted in months, as the death of his father was soon followed by that of Caligula, and his mother immediately returned from exile and received the entire inheritance of the deceased Cnejus.
Nero was eleven years old when, after the fall of Messalina, his mother secured permission from Claudius for Seneca to return from Corsica and also obtain the praetorship in 49 AD. The celebrated orator and thinker, moral philosopher and polymath, was to make the boy interesting to the public and raise Rome’s expectations of his future maturity to the highest level. Tacitus suggests (Annal. 12, 9) that she also counted on the worldly-wise philosopher to stand by her side in the struggle for power, assuming that besides gratitude for her release from exile, she could also expect from him a provoked attitude towards Claudius.
Thus arises the question in every scene of the court drama that developed up to the emperor’s death: did Seneca know what they meant, did he know the end they were working towards, and to what extent did he help achieve the goal?
The woman who led the dangerous game had no feeling for difficulties and proceeded from success to success. What were Seneca’s thoughts when he saw her rise to become the co-regent of the emperor with such speed and the spirit of the mannish women who had previously been close to the throne return with increased passion? Claudius had to confer upon her the title of Augusta in the Senate. She did not fail to attend when the emperor received foreign envoys, and she sat beside him on his tribunal, surrounded by the bodyguard, when the captured British leader Caractacus was presented. The gentle, but later hardened forms of diplomacy of Livia had taken on imperious severity and a military costume in her. She appeared as a military colonel at the reviews of the Praetorians; and she attended, alongside Claudius, the naval battle he held to celebrate the draining and regulation of Lake Fucinus, wearing a military cloak. To show her military greatness abroad (Tacit. Annal. 12, 27), she ordered the dispatch of a veteran colony to her birthplace, the town of the Ubii, which was subsequently called the Agrippinian Colony (Cologne on the Rhine).
She was, in a colossal sense, what the last wife of Caligula, Milonia Casonia, was, who (Sueton Cal. chap. 25) delighted her husband when she rode alongside him in warrior’s garb during military reviews. What her mother had enjoyed, imperial power combined with military splendor, was her ideal.
Like her brother, she revered power as the highest and her natural dowry. With him, she already shared the desire for revenge against the enemies of her father and mother, brooding over it, when after their banishment along with her sister and brother by Tiberius, they were entrusted to the care of their grandmother Antonia, the only woman of maternal tenderness we hear of in the history of the Caesar house. The only difference was that she did not share his divinity complex or the fervor for his deification. She was profane, and power was evidence of human strength to her.
We ask further: Did the freedman Pallas act alone with Agrippina’s consent when he induced Claudius in 50 AD to adopt Lucius Domitius as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus and to betroth him to Octavia, who was now his sister and therefore had to be transferred to another family by adoption? Did the boy’s educator and secret minister of the Agrippinian circle not anticipate that it was now happening to Britannicus, who was three years younger than his older brother Nero, and that he was being surpassed?
The secret was quickly revealed because before Nero reached the age for the male toga in December of 51, he was already introduced into the Senate by Claudius in March, appointed by him as consul for the twentieth year, and immediately invested with proconsular power and the title of princeps juventutis, thus designated as the heir to the throne. And at the end of the following year, the fifteen-year-old prince was married to the thirteen-year-old Octavia
Did Seneca also remain unaware of the significance of the appointment of Burrus Afranius as commander of the praetorian guard, which Agrippina had secured after the dismissal of the double command that dated from the time of Messalina? Was it by chance that the command of a unit suitable for action was entrusted to a reliable, uninspired man, whose performance of duty could be confidently expected? Was it a mere coincidence that the new commander, with his stern severity and loyalty, was suited to a Stoic diplomat who also, no matter what the cost, stood firmly on the line that he believed led to the welfare of the world?
Was that Seneca’s main job at Agrippina’s court, to prepare speeches for his pupil, with which he secured pardons for individual cities in the Senate, such as Ilium, the homeland of the ancestors of the Julians, and for Rhodes, or support for other cities that had been hit by misfortunes?
Gradually, things become gloomy at court. Narcissus recognizes the danger that if Nero were to come to power and destroy the entire Claudian house, he would have risked his life in vain at the downfall of Messalina. The Empress senses his mood, perhaps also knows that he has accused her to her husband for her dealings with Pallas, and accuses him of embezzlement in front of the emperor when his construction project at Lake Fucine does not go according to plan, to which he proudly accuses her of licentiousness and overly bold plans.
Claudius is introspective and grumbles in his evening drunkenness about the suffering he has with the women, whose scandals he must endure and then punish. Agrippina, warned by this, hastens to eliminate her supposed rival, Octavia Lepida. Narcissus, who opposed the murder, sees it as a harbinger of his downfall if he does not succeed in protecting his master’s life from stalking, and begs the gods and the unfortunate boy, Britannicus, embracing him tenderly, to grow up, drive away his father’s enemies, and punish the murderers of his mother (even if he himself has to pay for it).
Did Seneca not notice anything about these gloomy domestic stories, was he also unaware of how Agrippina, when Narcissus suddenly fell ill, sought healing in the Sinuessa bath, poisoned her husband with the help of a freedman, and had him finally killed by a doctor? Was he not present during the confusion that prevailed in the Palatium on the morning and afternoon after that October night (54 AD) – not involved in the appeal to the Senate to pray to the gods for the emperor’s recovery, who was already dead, no eyewitness to how Agrippina had mimes come to keep the people in ignorance of the events of the night through their performance before the emperor until the noon hour calculated by the astrologers, and sought to hold back Britannicus, as well as his sisters Octavia and Antonia, with tender caresses and consolations in the Palatium?
Certainly, Seneca was also in the palace when at noon the doors opened, Burrus stepped out with Nero, presented him to the shouts of the bodyguard and then accompanied him to the Praetorium, where he was greeted as emperor after the promise of the donative.
That it was aimed at the elevation of Nero since Agrippina’s entry into the palace, could be in no doubt. The meaning of the boy’s earlier appointment with the proconsular power was explained to the Praetorians by a donative and to the people by circus games and a gift of provisions. What everyone saw coming, Seneca and Burrus must have known all the more surely, but no word is transmitted from them from which we could draw conclusions about their opinion on the public secret. In one case, however, their silence is alarming. Narcissus made an effort to prevent the murder of Octavia Lepida, and perhaps it would have cost Seneca and Burrus only one word to let the freedman achieve his noble intentions; why did they not speak this word?
In the first days of Nero’s reign, Agrippina had Julius Silanus, whom we will encounter again when Nero kills the last representative of the Junian branch of the Caesar family, who was related to her by marriage, poisoned. Equally arbitrarily, she had Narcissus, who had burned the letters of Claudius against his murderer with brilliant magnanimity, imprisoned and put to death. The former crime was committed without Nero’s knowledge, the latter against his will; but this time Seneca and Burrus stood up to the Empress Mother, forbidding further bloody arbitrary actions and calling out a stern “stop!” to her. They could not previously speak such a word in favour of Nero’s aunt, as it would have aroused an embarrassing storm against Agrippina and shaken the structure on which they were working for Nero’s benefit. They agreed with the mother of Nero’s haste towards the throne and with the means she used to conquer power against the former rights of Britannicus. The wise philosopher and his military-minded comrade persuaded themselves that the questionable incidents on their way would ultimately be beneficial to the rule of virtue, morality, and kindness. We can only assume for their benefit and must accept that they were not informed about the way in which Agrippina hastened the end of her husband’s life.
The philosophical instruction that Nero received from Seneca was likely to have been very summary, and in any case, Seneca only provided the main direction, as two notable philosophers were at his side for the details. Agrippina’s alleged warning to her son not to forgive his high destiny and not to delve too far into philosophy would have been in vain, as the tutor himself had no inclination to lose himself in the dialectics of ancient systems. The historical backdrop of his moral instruction, as in his writings, would have been the teachings of the civil wars, that the arbitrary and violent actions of the ancient families made the rule of a single individual necessary, with admonishing references to the late mercy of Augustus, the dark severity of Tiberius, and the excesses of Caligula’s godliness. Grace, kindness, and benevolence were already the themes that the teacher had impressed upon the student in the first senate speeches he had prepared for him, and by adding the ideas of equality of the rhetorician’s school and human rights above traditional customs, he would have presented to the pupil his destiny in the picturesque image that all graces would flow down to the earth from him as the pinnacle of humanity.
His treatise “On Grace,” published at the end of Nero’s first year of rule, was intended to remind the world that his ideal had been realized, and the golden age had returned to humanity.
6. The Humanitarian on the Throne.
The period in which the young prince, who was elevated to the throne at the age of seventeen, exercised the mercy and power recommended to him by his teacher, spans five years and lives on in the memory of later times as the Quinquennium of Nero. Trajan is said to have stated that all Caesars pale in comparison to him (Aurel. Victor. cap, 5.).
First and foremost, the “clemency” of this time was beneficial to the Senate. The People’s Tribune and guardian of democracy, who lived on in the tribunician power of the empire, gradually stirred.
Later, nothing was more flattering for Nero and his democratic pleasure than the expression of his humorous confidant Vatinius: “I hate you, Nero, because you are a pater conscriptus (senator)!” Although Seneca frequently mentions in his writings that after the irrevocable destruction of the Republic by the war of the faction leaders, the salvation lay in the rule of one, he never goes into detail on the position of the Senate in the new regime, let alone bestowing a benevolent and sympathetic glance on it. In his writing “On Grace,” which is akin to the official extract of the spirit of Nero’s first year of rule, the position of each individual is derived from the gracious decision of the prince, without thinking of a unique position of the Senate and its own rights. Furthermore, Seneca (de benef. 7, 4) has already expanded the king’s law of the prince to the extent that everything belongs to him according to civil law, and his ruling power, even if each individual has property rights over their possessions, can claim it as his own in other respects, what is denied to him as his own. The teacher of Nero makes this statement clear with the dangerous example of the wise man who, according to law and ownership, possesses only his own, but according to the idea (as Moser aptly translates “animo”), possesses everything and receives what others give him from his own. Even in this context, no consideration is given to the participation of the senatorial legislation in the arrangements concerning private property.
However, Nero still bowed to the Senate, and Tacitus praised the dignified and conciliatory manner in which Seneca, as the chief minister of the prince and leader of the Senate, recognized and upheld the rights of his peers within it. Even as a ruin, the Senate remained the only constituted power alongside that of the prince; under Augustus, the imperial regime had been established in a pact with it, and the empire had yet to conceive of a form in which it could outlive its decrepit partner’s final fate.
Thus, the program Seneca had prepared for his pupil’s first address from the throne (Tacit. 13, 4) included assurances of loyalty to the Senate. The Augustan division of powers would remain, with the Senate retaining legislative and judicial authority over its own rank, as well as sovereignty over the provinces still under its control, and the emperor holding the imperium over the armies and overseeing the provinces reserved for him.
The recognition of this parity with the archaic corporation and the republican upper officials was also acknowledged by Nero when he did not allow his fellow consul, Antistius, to take an oath of allegiance to his decrees on assuming his first consulate as emperor in 55 AD. The Senate praised this compliment and hoped to spur the young man to more substantive demonstrations of his obedience. Shortly thereafter, it acted unilaterally to the benefit of the aristocracy’s rights and obtained Nero’s confirmation of a resolution that resolved an old issue against the interests of democracy.
It was about the fees of the advocates in court. Two centuries before the Christian era, a law had forbidden them, but had not prevented eloquence from making some powerful and rich, especially since the last political struggles of the Republic. However, under Claudius, the Senate’s hatred of one of the boldest public prosecutors, Suilius, had inspired the aristocratic class with a real enthusiasm for the selfless defence of the law and for contentment with posthumous fame and the consciousness of doing good. Claudius, besieged by both parties and reminded of the plight of the plebeians who, dependent on the peaceful work of study, could not survive without the moderate income from it, nor could they contribute to the promotion of legal and rhetorical knowledge, sided with the democracy and was against the monopoly of the rich, who could expand their clientele through their unpaid legal assistance. He was not swayed by the aristocratic viewpoint (which Tacitus shares in Annals 11.7) that emphasizing the monetary aspect was not quite proper, and struck a middle ground between the two interests, according to which the sum of ten thousand sesterces (about four hundred and fifty thalers) was set as the maximum for the lawyer’s fee.
Agrippina expressed her dissatisfaction with her son’s deviation from this Claudian compromise. However, both the influence of Seneca, who could not forget the origin of his civil independence, and Nero’s own democratic inclination led to the later resolution, according to which (Suetonius, Nero, chap. 17) the parties were required to pay a “specified and fair” amount for the legal representation, while the court proceedings, the costs of which were covered by the state treasury, were free of charge.
The senators made a new attempt to assert their master interest in the following year (56 AD) when they sought to enforce a resolution that would subject freedmen to their arbitrary disposal again. The “arrogance” of freedmen was to be broken by the provision that patrons were given the right to withdraw freedom from the “non-useful”, but the views of the prince were in favor of those who pointed out the injustice of making the whole pay for the offenses of individuals, the wide dissemination of this group, their significant representation in the city, also as servants of the administration and the priesthoods and as the cohort of night watchmen, finally on the origin of most knights and many senators from their own ranks and on the Roman principle, according to which, despite the division of classes, freedom must be a common good. His proposal that in individual cases the guilt of the freedmen should be examined, but their rights should not be curtailed in general, was passed (Tacitus Annals 13, 26-27).
Later (61 AD) he had a difficult time when he had to decide between the popular agitation that arose against the execution of the entire slave gang of the city prefect Pedanius Secundus, who was killed by one of his household servants, and the aristocratic harshness that demanded the execution of the old law (Tacitus Annals 14, 42-45). No lesser figure than C. Cassius, a Stoic and one of the leaders of the republican opposition, and a descendant of Caesar’s murderer, was the main speaker in the Senate this time. He, who had hitherto kept silent about all changes and innovations that had always appeared to him as “deteriorations” of the traditional, in order not to be too much stigmatized as a defender of the old, believed this time that he had to take the floor because the general mood seemed to have decided for leniency. In fact, his speech, in which he praised the system of suspicion against slaves of the ancestors, but now, since one had nations with different religious rites, with foreign worship or even none around, called the fear of controlling this scourge of the world absolutely necessary and justified the injustice of a great example with the decimation in military discipline, was accompanied and answered by confused voices that countered him with the number of those threatened (the household of the murdered man consisted of 400 heads), the age, the sex, and the undeniable innocence of most. But no one from the respectable but intimidated minority dared to speak out openly and in detail in favor of the opposite. The prince also did not consider it possible to change the majority, which a few years before (57 AD Tacitus 13, 32) had equated the freedmen who were freed by will with slaves in a similar case. After he had scolded the crowds who threatened with fire and demolition through an edict, he had the streets through which the condemned were being led, occupied militarily on both sides.
On the other hand, he opposed the proposal that even the freedmen who had lived under the same roof as the convicts should be deported from Italy. If compassion and mercy, he declared in Seneca’s style and slave-friendliness, had not softened the ancient custom, then one should not exaggerate it further. This same slave-friendliness led to his appointment of a special judge who had the task (Seneca, De Beneficiis 3.22) of investigating mistreatment of slaves by their masters and putting limits on the cruelty and arbitrary behavior of masters, as well as their stinginess in providing food.
Now let’s hear how another Stoic and leader of the aristocratic opposition expressed the dissatisfaction of his group with the emperor’s interest in another segment of the oppressed masses. Nero remained faithful to the principle of his ancestors, which was to remove the provincials from the exploitation by the administrators as much as possible. He himself determined by an edict (Tacitus, Annals 13.32) that no administrator of a senatorial or imperial province should provide gladiatorial games, animal hunts, or other performances, so as to deprive them of the occasion for extortion, through which they compensated themselves for their expenses, or the means to bribe the large masses, who after such pleasures did not easily bring up an accusation for any abuse of power. However, the audacity of a rich Cretan magnate, Claudius Timarchus, who publicly boasted that it depended on him whether the administrators of Crete would be granted thanks for their performance, gave rise to a detailed discussion in the Senate (62 AD). It was conducted in the grand style, as even the noble, condescending speech of Patus Thrasea, which Tacitus (Annals 15.20.21) cites as a masterpiece, still proves. The right of accusation, Thrasea, this leader of the Republicans, thinks, may remain for the provincials to boast of their power, but false praise obtained by the entreaties of officials should be prohibited. Otherwise, if praetors, consuls, or even private individuals were sent for reporting, the provinces trembled before the judgment of an individual; now, they came to meet the “outsiders,” flatter them, and encourage them to assume the judgment of the administrators, which was only the prerogative of their peers, the “citizens,” and their court, the Senate.
Apparently, there was a profound shift in the tendency in which a part of the Senate wanted to perceive and decide on the matter at hand. For the aristocratic nobility and rigidity of Thrasea, only the high officials who grant the right of accusation as an act of grace but reject false praise, and who generally do not want to place any weight on recognition from the provincials, exist. Meanwhile, the more humane members of the Senate had the interests of the provincials in mind and wanted to free them from the pressure of the officials by prohibiting all expressions of gratitude or deputations.
The consuls, who certainly also knew the emperor’s view, did not dare to let the resolution come to perfection despite the noisy applause that Thrasea received. Only when the emperor had informed the Senate of his view did they unite in a resolution that no longer allowed Thrasea’s contemptuous motivation to shine through.
The prohibition for governors to give festivals and other games in their provinces indirectly led to a restriction of gladiatorial massacres. Nero also set an example for the elimination of atrocities in Rome itself, from which the more lenient customs and views gradually moved away. So, during the game he held in the wooden amphitheater erected in the Campus Martius area, he did not allow anyone, even the convicted, to be killed.
“But he committed a highway robbery,” is the dialogue that Seneca introduces after describing the massacre at the gladiatorial games (Epist. 7). “Well then, he deserved to be hanged.” “He killed a man.” “If he killed, then he deserves to suffer the same fate.” “But what have you, miserable person, deserved to see such things?”
In our account of Seneca’s spiritual interpretation of Roman universalism, we highlighted the statement in which he praises it as proof of Roman magnanimity that the children of Rome did not confine themselves within the walls of a city, but extended themselves for interaction with the whole world and recognized the world as their homeland. Nero wanted to make this free exchange of spirits true in the exchange of earthly goods as well. “Through the complaints of the people,” writes Tacitus (Annals 13, 50-51), “he came up with the idea (in 58 AD) whether it would not be better to abolish all customs duties and thus make the most beautiful gift to mankind.” He aimed to eliminate port fees, for “the elders, who moderated his ardor and prophesied the dissolution of the empire if the necessary income to maintain it was reduced,” expressly stated that after the abolition of “port duties,” there would also be a demand for the fall of direct taxes. The experienced ones who cooled the emperor’s enthusiasm for freedom of communication also pointed out the finance leaseholder societies sanctioned by consuls and tribunes of the people and what they call the still jealous sense of freedom of the Roman people, which would not easily submit to an infringement of its rights. But this “Roman people” were the moneylenders of the capital city who, involved in tax payment in the provinces, had to be significantly affected by a reform of the customs system. Nero was therefore forced to be content with a reform of the tax system: he abolished some inventions of the finance genius of the leaseholders, clarified the confusion of the tax edicts, in which the leaseholders felt comfortable, facilitated and organized the recourse against the tax collectors to the praetor in Rome and the courts in the provinces, and sought to promote shipping through some benefits. It was only granted to a later emperor, Pertinax (192, 193 AD), to enforce the abolition of customs duties on the banks of rivers, at the ports of cities, and at crossroads (Herodian 2, 4).
7. The Death of Agrippina.
In the records of Nero’s early years of reign, he appears to us as a capable child, capable of being moved by noble ideals. He willingly followed the guidance of his teacher and was personally attached to the humane tendency of his time, which valued humanity over national identity. Both his own nature, inclined towards waiting, and the wise policy of his minister, led him to be flexible with the Senate, if their decisions could not be rejected without a harsh collision. At the same time, as in the case of the slave question, he did not hold back his views, which differed from the aristocratic point of view, and patiently waited for the time to come when he could soften and correct the harshness of a senatorial decision.
His mother was the first to contribute to his growth out of childhood. The struggle with her tyranny, which according to Suetonius (Nero, ch. 34) once led him to the alarming and unsettling threat that he would withdraw as a private person to Rhodes in order to avoid constant criticism of his words and actions, lasted five years. Seneca, who saw both the dignity of the throne and his own influence endangered by the interventions of the Empress Mother in the government, stood by the growing child with advice and action. It was he who, in alliance with Burrus, put an end to Agrippina’s bloody orders in the early days of her son’s reign. He finally gave her a painful lesson. When she appeared again in the Senate to attend the audience of Armenian envoys and their request for help against the Parthians on the imperial throne, the minister gave the emperor a hint to go down from the throne and interrupt the audience on a pretext (Tacit. Annal. 13, 5. Dio Cass. 61, 3).
Seneca was also not against the love affair that Nero began with the libertine Otho and Claudius Senecio, the son of a freedman of Claudius, with the freedwoman Acte. The Stoic prince’s tutor dismissed his doubts with the comforting thought that his pupil seemed unable to overcome a certain unfamiliarity with Octavia, his wife, and also took into account the fact that the unpretentious, probably Greek girl would not affect anyone in the prince’s immediate circle. The mother, however, became suspicious and let herself be carried away by jealousy of the influence of a foreign woman to use harsh words about the freedwoman, which irritated the son and only drew him closer to the indulgent teacher. Indeed, a relative of Seneca, Annäus Serenus, commander of the bodyguard, to whom the writing “On Tranquility of Mind” is dedicated, and whose death later (Epist. 63) was very painful to his older friend, was chosen to take on the striking character of the love affair. Serenus publicly plays Acte’s lover and presents her with the gifts that Nero had dedicated to her. Agrippina then yields, flatters her son, gifts him from her private treasure, which was not inferior to the imperial one, and offers to entrust his love affair to her participation and knowledge. But Nero was no longer deceived and his closest friends, including Seneca, warned him of the deception of the harsh woman.
So the bitterness between mother and son escalated. Agrippina, who had recently received jewels and ornaments from the treasury of the imperial women sent by Nero, declined any further gifts that belonged to the imperial household, which he could only have given through her. In retaliation, Nero dismissed Pallas, who was in charge of the Fiscus, and (incidentally) left the palace in pride, accompanied by a group of loyal friends. Then came Agrippina’s threat that she would go to the Praetorium with Britannicus, whom the gods had reserved for her revenge, and boldly compete with the invalid Burrus and the “exiled Seneca,” who wanted to exercise dominion over mankind with his schoolmaster-like ways, and finally Britannicus’ death.
Tacitus clearly hints at Seneca when he remarks (Annal. 13, 18) that when Nero distributed the estate of his murdered brother among his friends, some men who professed strict principles were very suspicious that they were dividing the palaces and villas like loot among themselves, while others attributed it to the pressure which the prince exercised to secure a kind of forgiveness by obliging the most eminent men. Merivale outrightly refers to Seneca as the author of the crime and the crime itself as a masterpiece of statecraft. However, the report of the Roman annalist is contradicted by a very weighty testimony, that of Josephus.
Nothing can be more vivid and dramatic than Tacitus’ portrayal. First, Nero’s mind, already agitated by his mother’s threats, is further unsettled by an event during the first Saturnalia festival he celebrated as emperor. Chosen by lot as the king of the festival, he challenges Britannicus to sing a song before the guests, hoping that the awkward boy will become the subject of ridicule among the great company. But when the prince steps forward with determination and sings a song that depicts the woes of one deprived of his inheritance and rightful rule, and instead of laughter wins the sympathy of the drunken guests, Nero conceives his plan of murder. The execution took place in the presence of the court and a large company, during the meal and at the moderately occupied table where Britannicus was dining with noble peers in accordance with court custom. The boy fell lifeless as he drank from the cup into which he had just diluted his hot wine with water, which had been mixed with the poison prepared in a true hellish scene. “The guests were horrified; the impulsive ones fled; those who understood the ways of the world better did not move and watched Nero, who pretended to be ignorant and called the whole thing one of the ordinary and soon passing fits; Agrippina suppressed her horror, but it showed in her face; the immature Octavia had already learned to conceal pain, love, and emotions.” (Annal. 13, 16).
Tacitus also wants us to believe that Nero had already had the pile of wood on which the murdered prince was burned erected beforehand. With his interlocking insinuations of his pragmatism, he lets the crowd in the stormy rain that accompanied the burial of the ashes on the Campus Martius recognize the wrath of the gods over the crime, but many also forgive the fratricide in accordance with the judgment of heaven because it cut off the further horrors that the strife between brothers for power would have produced. Indeed, he crowns these religious interpretations with the thoughts of contemporaries of the event who, because of the violation and defilement of Britannicus by Nero in the days leading up to the catastrophe, declared the boy’s death a blessing.
All these chasing scenes, interpretations, and manipulations disappear before the testimony of a man who explicitly opposes his impartial judgment of Nero to the portrayals of flatterers and haters. Josephus had every opportunity during his first stay in Rome, at the height of Nero’s reign, to study the sentiments and judgments on the spot. Later, settled in Rome himself as a Flavian, he had years to examine the works of his Roman contemporaries for his historical work. He also lists the crimes of the dead emperor with the coldness of a stranger, but he distinguishes (Antiquities 20, 8, 2): “Nero secretly poisons Britannicus, but publicly he kills his mother.” These few words decide against the painting and pragmatic confusion of Tacitus for us. Whether the death of the unfortunate boy was due to poison or an epileptic fit is naturally no longer possible to determine. Seneca’s involvement in this episode was limited to the drafting of the edict in which Nero declared, after the death of his brother, that as the only surviving representative of the Claudian family, he would be all the more devoted to the Senate and people.
In the same year (55), Seneca appears as a member of a domestic jury appointed by Nero under Burrus’ chairmanship and with some freedmen as assessors and sent to Agrippina when she was accused by two enemies of the conspiracy against him. They were the elder sister of Domitia Lepida, whom Agrippina had murdered, who could not forget that she had taken away her husband, the wealthy orator Crispus Passienus, after her return from exile and had inherited him after a few years, and Julia Silana, who had lost her husband Silius through his fake marriage to Messalina and wanted to revenge herself on Agrippina for a fresh insult. Both had used the growing estrangement between mother and son, the dismissal of the former from the Palatium, and the public talk of their intrigues with the old nobility and the chiefs and leaders of the Praetorium and their displayed sympathy for the neglected Octavia to incite Nero through their freedmen with the specter of a conspiracy against his mother. However, she succeeded in calming the domestic court again through passionate appeals to the impossibility of seeking her salvation from her and her son’s enemies, and in obtaining an opportunity for some thoughtless words that had been snatched from her by the irritability of motherly love before the supreme tribunal of her imperial son. This audience led to the exile of Silana and her two freedmen and the execution of Domitia’s freedman.
The final downfall of Agrippina was to be brought about by a woman who, just like herself, had coveted the bed of Claudius and was determined to pave her way to Nero’s throne over her dead body. It was Sabina Poppaea, a coquette of gentle beauty, who knew how to exploit her intellectual education, the charm of her conversation, and the grace of her figure for her social advantage under the guise of modesty. Married to Rufus Crispinus, with whom she had already borne a son, she lured Otho, the friend and table companion of the emperor, to herself in order to win the prince through the confidant of the ruler. Otho, married to her, makes his master a household friend and, to make room for him, is compensated with the prefecture of Lusitania.
And again Seneca appears. Plutarch tells in his biography of Galba that Seneca was friends with Otho and got him the governorship of Lusitania. But did the emperor’s confidant need a recommendation? Was it not rather a matter of dissolving Otho’s marriage and sending him to the end of the world? Did Seneca therefore at least become involved in this matter to the extent that he helped his pupil to get rid of the annoying talk of an adulterous household friendship and sought with Nero the corner of the empire in which Otho could be hidden?
Now came the time when Nero shed the mantle of childhood and the man was born. The birth pangs were severe, and Seneca had to help once more. Poppaea urged Nero with her request to free himself from his mother’s guardianship. In her, the guardian Octavia saw the only obstacle that stood in the way of her connection with the prince; she did not think of Seneca’s and Burrus’s participation for Nero’s wife or she hoped to easily remove these supervisors after the fall of the mother.
So in March of the year 59, there was the banquet that Nero gave for Agrippina at Baiae, and the passionate demonstrations of his filial devotion and gratitude – the crossing of the mother to her neighboring country house at Bauli on the treacherous ship, which was to be handed over to the waves by the freedman Anicetus, admiral of the fleet of Misenum, her injury during the rescue, and the dark hours of the night in which mother and son stared at the abyss of nothingness that lay before them.
After the events of the night, the mother realized that the love and devotion her son had professed at the banquet in Baiae was only a pretense to lure her onto the ship. After this betrayal, there was no hope of reviving the childish affection between them, but rather it was certain that the exposed criminal, tormented by shame of his discovery, would pursue his plan with sure means. For the moment, the only way out was to gain time and pretend as if she did not suspect his intentions.
The son was no less shaken when instead of news of his mother’s death, a messenger arrived and reported that she had narrowly escaped a serious accident with only a slight injury, thanks to the kindness of the gods. With his knowledge of his mother, he saw at a glance that forgetting what had happened and restoring a peaceful relationship between them was impossible.
Burrus and Seneca, whom he called in his stupor, remained silent for a long time after he had explained the situation to them. Tacitus says that it is not known whether he revealed everything to them, but they saw through the matter, realized the futility of abstaining from violence, and did not dare to speak until Seneca gave Burrus a hint with a glance whether to assign the murder to the military. The commander of the Praetorian Guard replied, “Certainly not against a member of the House of Germanicus,” and assigned the matter to Anicetus. Nero breathed a sigh of relief and finally felt like a man when he took on the execution. The freedman rushed with his men from the fleet to Agrippina’s country house and had them knocked down by a ship captain and then killed by a captain with a sword. Seneca concluded the matter with an imperial report to the Senate in which Nero turned the messenger of the mother into a hired assassin and reported that she had committed suicide out of guilt. The antithesis of this report, preserved by Quintilian, “I cannot yet believe in my rescue, nor rejoice over it,” proves its Senecan origin.
Sallust says that rulers would maintain their power with the same means they acquired it, but the correct conclusion would be that they would also lose it with those means. The great connoisseur of the world and of life, Lucretius (de Rerum Natur. 5, 1152), knew better: “Violence and injustice recoil upon the head of him who caused them.” Agrippina succumbed to this justice, which runs through history and resolves the discord into the symphony of the whole; and Seneca, too, will pay the price for the activity with which he used the arts of deception for his purposes at the Claudian and Neronian courts, in order to establish the reign of virtue on earth and ultimately reached out his hand for supreme power. Nero, as a man, will bring the measure of violence with which his predecessors, up to the dictator Julius, founded and maintained their autocracy, to overflow and collapse under the weight of his deeds. With him, the house of the Julii-Claudian Caesars will fall.
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