Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher who was noteworthy throughout his life for his enlightened thoughts and strength of character. It is only fitting, then, that his death also served as a symbol of his beliefs.
Seneca the Younger was a man of many great deeds. His philosophical thoughts were remarkable, and he is considered one of the philosophers who spread Stoicism throughout the Roman Empire. However, he was often questioned for his immense wealth, because a Stoic is not meant to value material things, but Seneca was incredibly restrained in his fortune and chose to live a simple life in spite of it.
In his later life, Seneca was chosen by Agrippina, Nero’s mother, to be her son’s tutor. This was a decision that ultimately led to Seneca’s tragic fate. When Nero became Emperor, Seneca acted as his advisor and had some positive influence over Nero. However, the Emperor grew increasingly mad and dictatorial.
Because of Seneca’s closeness to Nero, he was detested by many within the Senate. At the same time, Nero grew paranoid by a conspiracy against him and made the decision (likely from the encouragement of his mother) to have Seneca killed.
As Nero’s tyranny overtook Rome, his relationship with Seneca grew increasingly sour. Seneca, for all his Stoic beliefs of cosmopolitanism and virtue, believed he could try to diminish Nero’s cruelty, but he could not. Before Nero found out about the conspiracy against him, led by Piso, Seneca had already become increasingly absent from court.
In his last years, Seneca lived secluded in his own land to the south of Rome. In that time, he dedicated himself solely to studying and writing. His famous philosophical work Letters to Lucilius was written in this period. Seneca believed there was no better way to help a corrupt emperor than to meditate and write for posterity.
When Nero handed down Seneca’s sentence (death by suicide), the Stoic took it with a calm composure. Seneca was one of Socrates’ admirers, so he likely noticed the comparison between his own sentence and that of his predecessor.
For those who are not familiar with Socrates’ death, he was arrested and sentenced to death by poison. However, he had many admirers and friends who offered to help him flee his imprisonment, but Socrates did not accept. He believed in democracy, and democracy had decided his fate. He knew it was the honorable thing to adhere to the Greek laws he believed in so dearly and to carry out his sentence.
Honor in Death
Seneca was condemned to commit suicide for his assumed alliance with the Pisonian conspiracy to overthrow Nero, although it is doubtful that Seneca was ever a part of this conspiracy. Pompeia Paulina, Seneca’s wife, tried to share his fate, to which Seneca reported: “we will die together.” However, Nero worried that the public opinion would go against him for having Paulina killed and he demanded she be spared.
In The Annals, Tacitus wrote of Seneca’s death and recorded his alleged last words: “I leave you the example of my life, the best and most precious legacy now in my power. Cherish it in your memory, and you will gain at once the applause due to virtue, and the fame of a sincere and generous friendship.”
After listening to Seneca, everyone present reportedly started to cry. He urged his friends to stop, as Stoic philosophy teaches us to face calamities of life with courage and a prepared spirit. He remarked there was no surprise in Nero’s cruel behavior.
Seneca remained calm and courageous when facing death, adhering to one of his own key Stoic principles that there is no need to fear death. His life was lived in virtue and honor, and therefore he had no regrets.
He was an elderly man and it took very long for his blood to pour out from his cut veins. He was in excruciating pain, so he asked his friend (a doctor) to help him die as Socrates did, by poison, but his body was too weak and did not respond to the poison as expected. He eventually died from his wounds.
One could argue that Seneca didn’t truly die, as his legacy has endured to our modern age. We are still studying and applying his teachings to our everyday lives in an attempt to live as he did. His great philosophical works have made him immortal in a sense, and his courage in the face of death offers inspiration to us all.