Gateway to the Classics: The Burning of Rome by Alfred J. Church
The Burning of Rome by  Alfred J. Church

The Death of a Philospher

Scarcely a word passed between the two Tribunes as they traversed the distance, some four miles or so, that lay between the camp and Seneca's villa. Silvanus was heartily ashamed of his errand, and Subrius, who bitterly felt his own helplessness, could only pity him, and would not say a word that might sound like a reproach. Under these circumstances to be silent was the only course. Arrived at the villa, Silvanus called a Centurion, took him apart, and gave him his instructions.

"I shall not go in," he said to his companion. "It would be past all bearing."

"You will not hinder my entering?" asked Subrius.

"Certainly not, if it pleases you to go."

Silvanus gave the necessary orders to the Centurion, and the two were ushered by a slave into the apartment where Seneca was sitting with his wife and his friends.

The Centurion stepped forward and saluted. "Lucius Annacus Seneca," he said, "Cæsar, having come to the conclusion that it is not to the interests of the State that you should live any longer, graciously, of his clemency, permits you to choose for yourself the manner of your death."

The unhappy wife of the doomed man uttered a loud shriek, and fell back half fainting in her chair; his two guests started up from their seats with pale and terror-stricken faces. Seneca remained absolutely calm and unmoved.

"This," he said with a smile, "is not the usual fee that a pupil pays to his teacher, but it may not be the less acceptable, for that. Sir," he went on, turning with a courteous gesture to the Tribune, "is our friend, if I may call him so, who has just brought me this gift, under your command?"

"The gods forbid!" cried Subrius eagerly. "I had never come on such an errand. Yet I knew that it was to be executed. Forgive me if I intrude unseasonably."

"You need scarcely ask my pardon," replied the philosopher. "Condemned men are seldom troubled by a too great abundance of visitors and friends. How much time do you allow me, friend?" he asked, turning to the Centurion.

The man hesitated. "Would two hours suffice?" he asked. "I would fain return to Cæsar before he sleeps."

"Jupiter forbid," said Seneca, "that I should keep Cæsar from his needful rest! That would be ill-done of his old tutor. And surely two hours will suffice to rid an old man of what little life remains to him. But the time is not long, and I must not waste it. Let me see then what has to be done. First, then, my will."

The Centurion interposed. "It is not permitted to any one so circumstanced to change his will."

"Why so?"

"Cæsar grants validity to the wills of those whom he suffers thus to execute justice on themselves, but his clemency must not be abused, possibly to his own injury, or the injury of loyal persons."

"You mean that I might strike out a legacy that I had left to Cæsar himself, or to Tigellinus. Nay, I was but thinking to make my friends here a little present in remembrance of to-day. And to you, sir," he added, addressing the Centurion, "I would gladly have offered some little token of my regard. The bringers of good news should not miss their reward. But if it is otherwise ordered, we must obey. After all, the best thing that I have to leave to my friends is the picture of my life. Is it permitted to me to spend the time that remains in the company of my wife and friends? You can easily make sure of my not escaping."

The Centurion intimated that there would be no objection to this, saluted, and withdrew.

"You will stay with me, sir?" he said to Subrius; "though indeed it is presumption in a civilian to pretend to show a soldier how to die. Nay," he added, for the Prætorian, inexpressibly touched by the cheerful composure with which the old man met his fate, could hardly keep down his emotion, "Nay, but we look to you, who have faced death so often, to help us to be calm."

He turned to his two friends, who were weeping unrestrainedly. "Surely I have been the dullest of masters if I have not taught you better than this. By all the gods! if you would not disgrace me, command yourselves better. Philosophers forsooth! and the moment your philosophy is wanted, it breaks down. Life is brief, and death is sure. These are the very commonplaces of wisdom, and yet one would think that you had never heard them. And what is there that surprises you? That an old man should die, and an old man whom Nero hates? The only marvel is that I have been suffered to live so long. He has murdered his brother, his mother, his wife; it was only fitting that he should murder his tutor. All that I taught him has perished; it is time for the teacher to follow the way of his precepts."

The philosopher then turned to his wife Paulina. He changed his tone to one of tenderness.

"Dearest," he said, as he clasped her in his arms, "we must part. That is a sorrow which all husbands and wives must face; and, after all, the tyrant has not anticipated fate by many years. I will not ask you not to grieve for me; that would be against nature; but it is also against nature to grieve without ceasing. The years that have been given us have not, I trust, been ill-spent; to recollect them is a solace of which no one can rob you."

"Nay," cried Paulina, "I shall need no solace, for there shall be no parting. Nero bids you die, but he does not forbid me to die with you."

"Well said," answered Seneca. "That is worthy of my own true wife. It was only right to show you that there might yet be happiness in life for you, but if you prefer the glory of death I must not hinder you. And yet," he added with a smile, "of any one but you I should be inclined to be jealous. You put me into the shade. I have no choice between living and dying. I do but prefer one death to another; but you prefer it to life."

To open the artery in one of the arms was reckoned the easiest and least painful way of inflicting death. Husband and wife held out their arms together, and the former administered the stroke. For some reason it failed of its effect. Possibly in the case of the wife the old man's strength did not suffice to make the wound sufficiently deep. Anyhow she survived. It was to the interest of some of those who surrounded her that she should live. Accordingly the Centurion who was in waiting outside was informed of what had happened, and despatched a mounted messenger to Nero with an account of what had been done and a request for instructions. The man returned in a very short time with strict injunctions that the wife must not be permitted to die. The wound was bound up, and she survived, though as long as she lived the bloodless pallor of her face showed how near she had been to death.

With Seneca himself the process of dying was long and painful. He could not bleed to death, it seems, for, what with the weakness of old age, and the excessive spareness of his diet, there was but little blood in his body. To no purpose did he sever the veins in his legs. Painful convulsions followed, but death still seemed remote.

His fortitude remained unshaken. "If I cannot die," he said to his friends, "at least let me make use of life. Send me my secretaries."

The secretaries came, and he dictated to them, in a voice that was surprisingly firm and distinct, his last thoughts about life and death. Never had his eloquence been more clear and forcible.

He had just finished when a newcomer was announced. This was the physician Annæus Statius, a long-tried and faithful friend, who had been Seneca's medical attendant for many years. The philosopher's chamberlain had sent for him as soon as he was aware of the errand on which the soldiers had come.

"You are come in good time, Statius," said Seneca. "Your art has so fortified me against death that when I want to depart I cannot. Have you the draught ready?"

"Yes, it is ready," replied the physician. "I brought the hemlock ready pounded, and Stilicho has mixed it."

He clapped his hands, and a slave brought in the cup.

"Ah!" said the old man with a smile, as he took and drained it, "I am after all to have the crowning honour of a philosopher's life, and die as Socrates died."

But even this was not to be. The poison, which would have sent a fatal chill through a frame warm with vigorous life, seemed powerless to affect one so cold and feeble.

"How is this, my friend?" said Seneca after a while. "My time is more than past, and our good friend the Centurion will be wanting to finish the work himself. What say you?"

"I half feared it," replied the physician. "There is no life in you for the poison to lay hold of."

"What do you advise then?"

"A hot bath might hasten matters," replied the man of science. The hot bath was tried, but the old man grew cheerful and even playful.

"The feast is ended, and though some of the dishes have been tasteless and ill-cooked, it has not been ill-furnished on the whole. Now it is time for the libation. To Jupiter!—not the 'Preserver'; that he is for those only who seek to live,—let me rather say 'Liberator,' for he is indeed about to set me free." As he spoke he scooped up some of the water in the hollow of his hand, and threw it on the slaves that were in attendance. A few minutes later he spoke again.

"There must be an end of this. Take me into the hot chamber. That will finish it. Is it not so, Statius?" he said, looking to the physician.

"Doubtless," replied Statius; "but it will be a painful process."

"Well," said the philosopher, "that is only to be expected. For what says Cicero? 'The departure of the soul from the body does not happen without pain.' "

A few minutes afterwards he had ceased to live.

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