Seneca's Life and Writings

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (also known as Seneca the Younger) was born shortly before 4 BCE, into a family of equestrian status in the well-established Roman colony of Corduba, in Spain, which was the birthplace of several important Roman authors of this period. His similarly named father (Seneca the Elder) was the author of two surviving rhetorical textbooks, and a history of his own times which was never published and is lost. The younger Seneca was brought to Rome by his aunt (his mother’s sister), who cared for him there during a long period of illness in his teens. Nonetheless, at Rome he eagerly acquired a rigorous education, and in his later writings he remarks on the high quality of philosophical and rhetorical training he received (Ep. 100.12, 108.3). He spent time convalescing in Egypt with his aunt and her husband, who held the very senior post of Prefect of Egypt. When he returned to Rome, he began his political and legal career at a later age than most. But this late start did not impede him. His family's connections helped him attain election to the quaestorship, the first rung on the ladder of offices, and one that earned admittance to the Senate. His oratorical skills ensured a quick rise to prominence, and soon he was in contact with the most powerful players in the Roman Empire.

During the reign of Caligula (37–41 CE), at the age of about 40, Seneca was almost killed for being too good an orator. The third century historian Dio Cassius describes the incident as follows:

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many others as well, came near being destroyed, though he had neither done any wrong nor had the appearance of doing so, but merely because he pleaded a case well in the Senate while the emperor was present. Gaius [Caligula] ordered him to be put to death, but afterwards let him off because he believed the statement of one of his female associates, to the effect that Seneca had a consumption in an advanced stage and would die before a great while. (Dio, Roman History 59.19.7, trans. Cary).

This was in the year 39. Two years later the next emperor, Claudius, exiled Seneca to the island of Corsica on the charge that he had committed adultery with Julia Livilla, Caligula’s sister and the main target of Claudius’ ire (Dio 60.8.5, who says the charge was fabricated). There he remained for nine long years. During his exile Seneca wrote a moving consolation to his mother (Consolatio ad Helviam Matrem) in which he writes of the pleasures of living a simple life and observing the natural world, as well as a fawning consolation to one of Claudius’ freedmen (Consolatio ad Polybium). While on Corsica he clearly missed the power and prestige offered by Rome, while also cultivating a persona of philosopher who should be removed from the highs and lows of political life (see Bartsch 2017 for more on the personae Seneca assumed under Nero). That being said, he was happy to be recalled in 49 to tutor the young son of Agrippina the Younger, the future emperor Nero (born in 37, reigned 54–68).

From this point forward, Seneca’s fortune was attached to Nero and the vicissitudes of the emperor’s rule. He continued to write, and this period saw the publication of his work on the prevention and control of anger (De Ira). He also began composing his eight extant tragedies (unless some of these were written during his time on Corsica, as some scholars believe). Claudius died in 54, an event Seneca celebrated in his satirical Apocolocyntosis, “The Gourdification [of Claudius]”—the title is a wordplay on apotheosis or deification. With Nero’s accession to the throne, Seneca became one of the most powerful, and richest, men in the world.

Along with the praetorian prefect, Burrus, Seneca steered the initial years of Nero’s rule. These years are sometimes termed the quinquennium Neronis (“Nero’s Five [Good] Years”), a period that the emperor Trajan (98–117 CE) said were the best of Rome’s history (Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus 5). The young Nero cared relatively little for the nitty-gritty of rule, preferring to practice the lyre and pursue pleasure. Addressing him in a surviving essay De Clementia (“On Mercy”), Seneca advised an enlightened policy of rule that would mimic that of the first emperor, Augustus (reigned 27 BCE to 14 CE). Indeed, one can see in Neronian architecture, art, and literature, a conscious response to the Augustan age. Nero, however, increasingly exerted his independence from Seneca and Burrus, and the quinquennium ended in 59 CE with Nero’s murder of his mother Agrippina, the woman who had engineered his succession to the throne.

Nero started to listen to the advice of other advisors, who encouraged him to indulge his personal interests and whims. This led to a vibrant arts scene, but also to increasing tension with the Senate (see Osgood 2017). Nero’s often strange behavior and mistreatment of members of the senatorial class led to fears of a conspiracy and a more paranoid atmosphere at court. Seneca began to wish to retire from court, especially after Burrus’ death in 62 CE.

This is the time during which Seneca seems to have written Naturales Quaestiones. The evidence for the date comes from the work itself. That Book 7 was written between 60 and 64 CE can be inferred from the fact that Seneca mentions the appearance of a comet in 60 (7.17.2, 7.21.3), but does not mention another that appeared in 64. Book 6 refers to a recent major earthquake in Campania, which occurred either in 63 or 62 (see Hine 2006: 68–72). He likely worked on Naturales Quaestiones until 64 CE, although it is impossible to know when exactly it was completed.

Seneca was exceptionally prolific in in the last three years before his death in 65. This was the period of Seneca’s 124 “Moral Letters” (Epistulae Morales, abbreviated Ep.) addressed to his friend Lucilius, then imperial procurator of Sicily, about Stoic practice. In these letters Seneca portrays himself as both a teacher and a fellow student (homines dum docent discunt, Ep. 7.8), who details the trials and triumphs of one trying to live a good life in the distorted mores of the Neronian era. Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes also probably dates from this period. It is a sort of distorted meditation on the politics of the day with a strong focus on tyranny, hatred, and revenge.

In 65, discontent among the ruling class led to a full-blown conspiracy to assassinate Nero, led by the noble C. Calpurnius Piso. Seneca was an accessory to this conspiracy (Dio 62.24.1), and after the conspiracy failed, Seneca was compelled to commit suicide. Nero prevented Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, from following her husband into death as she intended. The historian Tacitus (died 120 CE) provides a memorable account of Seneca’s suicide that stresses the way in which he emulated the philosophically-motivated deaths of both Socrates and Cato the Younger (Tacitus, Annals 15.60–63, with Ker 2009). Tacitus tells us that Seneca’s last moments were spent teaching, both by his final words and by his actions. This blending of word and deed reflects the principled goals of Stoic philosophy. As Seneca himself says, “Philosophy teaches us to act, not to speak...This is the chief task of wisdom, and the best evidence of it too: that actions should be in accordance with words, that the person should be the same in all places, a match for himself” (Ep. 20.2).

Naturales Quaestiones

Stoics divided their philosophy into three interconnected parts: logic, ethics, and physics. Some would compare it to an egg with logic as the shell, ethics the albumen, and physics the yolk; or an orchard with logic the wall, physics the trees, and ethics the fruit. Regardless of the metaphor, all three parts are interrelated and necessary. While Seneca is usually thought of as a philosopher of ethics (Dante refers to Seneca morale in Inferno, 4.141), he was also interested in physics, as can be seen throughout the Naturales Quaestiones and as appears in some of the letters (Ep. 79) and dialogues (e.g. De Otio 5, opening of De Providentia). Logic, generally underrepresented in Seneca’s works, lies behind all the argumentation. For example, in Ep. 89, Seneca explains that:

The greatest authors, and the greatest number of authors, have maintained that there are three divisions of philosophy: moral, natural, and rational [logic]. The first keeps the soul in order; the second investigates the cosmos; the third works out the essential meaning of words, their combinations, and the proofs which keep falsehood from moving in and displacing truth. (Ep. 89.9).

Naturales Quaestiones blends all three parts of Stoicism but does so with a strong emphasis on physics. Indeed, the NQ is the longest and most comprehensive Latin investigation of meteorology that has come down to us. Greeks and Roman meteorology dealt with more than the weather; it was an attempt to understand phenomena such as earthquakes, the tides, comets, and lightning, as well as rain, hail, and other precipitation. Aristotle (348–322 BCE) wrote a Meteorologica that Seneca draws upon at certain moments in his NQ. Later, Stoics such as Posidonius (ca. 135–ca. 51 BCE) also took up these topics, and the scholars that Seneca draws on include the early Presocratics, such as Thales of Miletus (7th – 6th c. BCE) all the way to Seneca’s contemporaries.

Other Roman authors dealt with meteorology. For example, Lucretius (mid-1st c. BCE) wrote in his De Rerum Natura about meteorological events from an Epicurean point of view. Ovid’s Metamorphoses (late 1st c. BCE) provides mythological takes on underground rivers or elemental transformation. Both Lucretius and Ovid are authors that Seneca draws upon for inspiration, and it is clear that he views his Naturales Quaestiones as a creative, literary work of science. The literary and rhetorical polish is apparent throughout with vivid descriptions, allusive language, and the declamatory refinement typical of the Neronian period.

Naturales Quaestiones was originally at least eight books long, with books devoted to the following topics:

·      Terrestrial waters (Book 3)

·      The Nile River (Book 4a)

·      Precipitation (Book 4b)

·      Wind (Book 5)

·      Earthquakes (Book 6)

·      Comets (Book 7)

·      Rainbows and atmospheric “fires” (Book 1)

·      Lightning (Book 2).

This seems to be the order of topics originally intended by Seneca. The ordering of the books in the surviving manuscripts has apparently been disrupted in transmission. Work by Harry Hine and others has established what was probably the original sequence through internal references and features such as the preface of Book 3, which strongly signals the beginning of a new work. The DCC selections follow the restored order.

Prefaces occur in several of the books, as do ethical excurses on topics such as extravagant culinary fads (Book 3), sexual escapades featuring magnifying mirrors (Book 1), and the problematics of Roman ideas of “manifest destiny” (Book 5). Seneca contextualizes such excurses in creative ways, but he consistently points out connections between the learning of the treatise and the contemporary Roman world.

Why would Seneca choose to write a work of Stoic physics? Brad Inwood (2005:200) suggests an element of literary showing off: “This, he must have thought, was a challenge worthy of his considerable rhetorical talents. If he could pull this off, he would have an even stronger claim to fame as a writer, not just as a philosopher” (Inwood 2005: 200). It is clear, however, that such topics were interesting to Seneca throughout his life. He mentions a youthful work about earthquakes in Book 6. We know of a lost work on Egypt as well (Vottero 1998). And evidence of his interest in cosmology can be found throughout his tragedies (Rosenmeyer 1989). He clearly felt the pull of sublime landscapes, as he details in Ep. 41 the way that old-growth forests, caves, and the sources of rivers move observers “by a certain intimation of the existence of God” (quadam religionis suspicione, 41.3). Physics was a fundamental part of Stoicism, as mentioned above, and contemplation of the natural world was also part of Stoic spiritual exercises.

We should look at the NQ as Seneca’s own take on what such an intellectual contemplation of comets or earthquakes should do (Hadot 1995: 87–88). He hopes his reader—whether the addressee Lucilius, or you—will begin to be “present” in the world and appreciate the workings of rivers, the winds, or thunder. It is natural to want to learn more about such topics, in as much as our quasi-divine ratio and animus desire to explore the sublime (see Selection 10). Learning about nature thus brings us closer to god because Natura is god for the Stoics (NQ 1 pr. 13). Seneca engages in his investigations about nature, as approached from the various angles of each book, to lead the reader to the proper view of the divine. By achieving the correct perspective, understanding one’s place in the cosmos, and recognizing the foundations of rerum natura, one exercises the ratio that is natural (and unique) to mankind.

Suggested Citation

Christopher Trinacty, "Introduction," in C. Trinacty, Seneca: Natural Questions: Selections. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2022. ISBN: 978-1-947822-18-4