Christian Niedan’s History Storytellers — Part Five: The Philosopher

by: Christina Niedan

The fifth installment of a twelve part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of historians and history-infatuated filmmakers. The series continues with a look at the life and sage teachings of the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger, with an interview with historian and author James Romm…

History repeats itself, especially when lessons of the past are not heeded by future generations. For Bard College Classical Studies professor and author James Romm, who specializes in ancient Greek and Roman history, it is the lesson of Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger’s deadly fate in service to Emperor Nero which recently warranted further examining. The reason for harking back to the earliest years of AD is that Seneca The Younger’s tutelage under Nero draws to mind distressing parallels with the anonymous testimony chronicled recently in the New York Times by a modern day Seneca equivalent working closely with Western society’s most powerful politician, Donald Trump. On September 6th 2018, Romm authored an article for the New Yorker, titled Seneca Could Have Written The Anonymous Times Op-Ed About Trump, opening thusly:

“Should a principled civil servant continue to serve under a morally bad regime? The question has special urgency when the civil servant is helping to run the suspect regime, keeping its leader from going deeper into error. The anonymous author of Thursday’s Times Op-Ed has answered this conundrum in a peculiar way: decrying the regime’s ills while staying in his or her post. The dilemma he or she faces would look familiar to Roman Stoic philosophers in the age of Nero, especially Seneca the Younger, who wrestled with it himself for fifteen years and never found a solution.”

I interviewed Romm in April 2014 for my film website, Camera In The Sun, and discussed his book, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero. The Roman dynamic Romm chronicles echoed the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s tutelage of Alexander the Great, whose conquests and legacy Romm examined in his 2011 book, Ghost on the Throne. Romm’s writings on the Hellenistic world also compelled Oliver Stone to consult him during the research phase of his sweeping 2004 film, Alexander. During our conversation, Romm discussed the realities of Nero and Seneca’s relationship, versus their portrayal on screen and stage:

James Romm: “The most famous portrayal of Nero in film is by Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis [with Nicholas Hannen as Seneca]. It’s a great sword & sandal epic from back in 1951 about the triumph of Christianity (because the movement was happening at the same time as Nero), and Peter Ustinov plays him as a kind of aging fop. But along the way it has very funny scenes involving Nero, who seems to be in his mid-40s in that movie — much older than the real Nero was, and much more of a comic character, kind of paunchy, and much more harmless than the real Nero. So that’s the image I had in my mind, as well as the image that all of us have of ‘fiddling while Rome burns.’ You know, the classic caricature of Nero, which also makes him sort of harmless, and deluded, and a whimsical figure. It was a surprise to me just how lethal he was, and how much Rome suffered from his paranoia and his insecurities. He ended up looking more like the figure of Commodus in Gladiator — a very dangerous and angry figure.

Seneca’s story hasn’t been put on stage in a long time. It does exist in a Roman play called Octavia, and I quote extensively from that play in my book. It’s a verse tragedy, but it’s historical in its plot, and uses Seneca and Nero as characters. That play became the basis Handel’s opera Agrippina, Claudio MonteVerdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, and Racine’s Britannicus. So a lot of 17th and 18th century works that were operatic or tragic were built out of this same story. Usually Seneca is a minor character. He’s not usually the focus. The focus is either Nero or his mother. So I’m turning things a slightly different way by taking Seneca as my focal point.”

That focal point is very quotable, including the enigmatic title phrase, “Dying Every Day” — the significance of which Romm explained as a bookend for the great philosopher’s biography:

Romm: “It’s a phrase from Seneca. He writes it twice in the course of his life  (once early, and once late) to describe the progress of human life dying every day. From the moment we’re born, we’re on a journey toward the grave. We talk about old people as dying, or sick people as dying. But in fact, we’re all dying. So that’s a very grim and maybe nihilistic viewpoint. But it was very much in line with Seneca’s worldview, and his personality. He looked at the dark side a lot of the time. He was interested in suicide. He was interested in apocalypse. He was interested in death of all kinds. It characterizes his philosophy, but also his life story. Because he was dying the whole time he was under Nero’s power. He had to give up all of his most cherished ideals, and then found he couldn’t get away, even when he wanted to. So he was living a kind of death.”

To add dramatic weight to the tragedy of Seneca’s death, it is very much worth remembering just how important he was as a writer, as well as a philosopher.

Romm: “He was really the first philosopher in antiquity to write in very personal terms about his own struggles and his own moral dilemmas. Socrates never wrote anything, and Plato and Aristotle were both writing in abstract terms, or using Socrates as a mouthpiece. And then further figures, early stoics and epicureans, were writing more or less abstractly about moral problems. But Seneca really personalized it, and wrote in the first person a lot of the time — himself a test case for a lot of his moral precepts.”

Yet, such test cases need a properly challenging environment — and in Nero, Seneca had a morally complex counterpart, who began their dynamic at an impressionable age.

Romm: “He [Seneca] was appointed as Nero’s tutor when Nero was only twelve, when his mother Agrippina was grooming him to be the next Princeps. Nero didn’t have a father, didn’t have any adult male figure in his life, so he needed guidance. Rome needed to see that he was being well-trained and well-educated, so his mother appointed the best teacher she could think of, which was Seneca — a man who had already written widely, who had gained a reputation as a great literary figure, a great philosopher…and who happened to be in exile. So he could be recalled and put forever into Agrippina’s debt.

We don’t know how often they met, or where, or what their personal interactions were like. All we know is that Agrippina was not keen on having her son taught philosophy. She thought it was a waste of time. She wanted Nero taught rhetoric, oratory, the kind of things he would need as a ruler. Seneca does talk in his letters that he wrote at the end of his life about certain kinds of students, and how to educate them. And there’s some thought that he was referring obliquely to Nero. But it’s really hard to know.

Seneca was put in the position where he would have to make Nero angry in order to enforce any kind of moral order on the regime. Nero didn’t like to be talked down to. He didn’t like to be parented. But he needed a lot of restraint. So Seneca chose early on not to use a heavy hand. Do damage control, rather than confront the Princeps openly. Of course as time went on, he had less and less influence, and his restraints were broken through one by one. You know, I start the book with a Roman proverb: ‘If you tolerate the crimes of a friend, you make them your own.’ Which is basically the situation Seneca was in. He had to stand by and watch as murders were committed, and lots of estates were plundered, and so on, and didn’t really raise his voice in opposition. He was even the beneficiary, because he received a lot of wealth from those plundered estates of murdered enemies.

The Great Fire of Rome was in the summer of ‘64. It started in the Circus Maximus, the chariot track, and spread to five of the seven hills. So about two-thirds of the city was destroyed, and huge numbers of people died, or were made homeless. The devastation was enormous. The loss to Rome’s treasury was enormous. Nero had to start ransacking the estates of rich people, and shaking down temples for their artwork and such, in order to raise money. Seneca never writes about the fire in all of his many literary works. Never mentions it. Just another example of the kind of silences that are just gaping wide in his work. He couldn’t address it without angering Nero, so he didn’t.

It seems that in ‘62 (two years after the murder of Agrippina, but shortly after the death of Seneca’s closest ally at court, Burrus) Seneca first proposed buying his way out of politics. So giving Nero all of his estates, in exchange for being allowed to leave. But that request was refused. Then he tried again a couple of years later in ‘64, after the Great Fire of Rome, and after the ransacking of the great temples that caused him such great distress. Then, his own death came in ‘65. He was close to getting out, but it’s like they say with the mafia — it’s when you think you’re out, they suck you back in.

Seneca did finally have to commit suicide. But at least he had a more noble end than Agrippina. They all more or less came to the same end. Nero had a deep-seeded terror of Agrippina, and resentment of all she had done to manipulate him. So when the chance came to get rid of her, even though she had not provoked him in any way and had sat peaceably on the sidelines for a couple of years, he still just couldn’t abide her being on the scene. It’s one of those cases where someone just can’t get the resentment out of their system until they act.”


Author’s Note (Update): In 2016, James Romm served as co-editor of new translations of sixteen ancient Greek plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and others — titled The Greek Plays, and published by Penguin Random House. The following description of the book appears on Romm’s website:

“The great plays of Ancient Greece are among the most enduring and important legacies of the Western world. Not only is the influence of Greek drama palpable in everything from Shakespeare to modern television, the insights contained in Greek tragedy have shaped our perceptions of the nature of human life. Poets, philosophers, and politicians have long borrowed and adapted the ideas and language of Greek drama to help them make sense of their own times.”

Among the most famous modern political examples of that adaptation of Greek tragedy language is a portion of the improvised speech Robert Kennedy delivered in Indianapolis on April 4th, 1968, referring to the assassination of Martin Luther King earlier that day:

“For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’”


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