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Death of Seneca

The death of Seneca is a set-piece in the historical account. It has the quality of performance (Tacitus, Annales 15.61-64; Dio, 62.25). Seneca performs martyrdom. He ‘witnesses’ the cruelty of Nero. He demonstrates his own braveness. He associates himself with a tradition of philosophical martyrs that looks back to Socrates.

On news of his sentence, Seneca asked to revise his will. This was refused. He told his audience that since he could not leave them material wealth, he left them the example of his life. When his friends began to mourn, he rebuked them. There is nothing unexpected here. The character of Nero is well known. One who has killed a mother and a sister will not blanch at killing a tutor. Then he spoke with Paulina, his wife, begging her not to mourn overly. She reported her intent to die. Seneca praised her resolution.

He had his veins opened, but changed his mind. His wounds were bound. There was time for one more philosophical treatise, which he dictated. He thereby showed the sound balance of his mind. He opened up his veins once more, but the blood would not flow fast enough. He took poison, hemlock, as Socrates had taken, but the poison would not act on his weakened system. Finally, he was carried into the bath-house, where he died in the steam and water.

Paulina cut her wrists, but messages from Nero persuaded her to relent.


Seneca’s suicide has been a favourite topic for artists. The pathos of the great philosopher was a way of symbolising a bravery in the face of despotism. He also rationality and Classical learning, a way of life that was under assault from the debaucheries of Nero and luxury. Seneca could thus be made to stand for many things.

There is every reason to think Seneca consciously manipulated his death in building a legend. He demonstrated his stoic lack of emotion in the face of his demise, his rational understanding of the political situation, and his control over pain. He continued to show loyalty to his friends and to his philosophical teachings. His death demonstrated a Roman mode of life: disciplined and rational. He died with his friends around him, for no good man would ever be truly alone.


A 3715

Manuel Dominguez Sanchez, The Death of Seneca [Museo del Prado]

Seneca was not the only one to die in this way. Several of the victims of the Pisonian purge went calmly to their deaths: Lucan, Piso himself, the consul Vestinus. It was a model of dying seen before. Valerius Asiaticus had made a show of arranging his funeral pyre so as not to damage his garden when informed that Claudius wished him  dead (Tacitus, Annales 11.1-3) . His death was a symbolic of the tyranny of Messalina, but also that he would be undisturbed by such tyrannical acts.

Thrasea Paetus was to follow much the same course.

The Result of Martyrdom

What stems from these deaths?

  • Ethically, the deaths demonstrate and witness the immorality of the emperor.
  • Politically, the oppositional figure is dead and no longer threatens the emperor.
  • Historically, the death leaves a legacy. In demonstrating tyranny, it further weakens any consensus supporting the emperor.
  • Practically, does the death advance the cause of liberty?

One could take a brutal view of these deaths. The emperor got his way and the cause of liberty was not advanced. All that happened was that the emperor became more suspicious of those around him, and less reluctant to deploy force. But one suspects, ultimately, the political capital of the emperor was eroded and eventually if all good man were seen as being under threat from the emperor, then someone would do something. One might suspect that the wave of deaths under Nero led directly to Nero’s own.

These deaths symbolised a resistance to imperial power. If the emperor could not intimidate these individuals, they were in some way free. Whatever the exact circumstances, whatever the doubts about Seneca’s acquiescence in and support of the imperial regime early in his career, his death was for freedom.

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