Gateway to the Classics: Pictures from Roman Life and Story by Alfred J. Church
Pictures from Roman Life and Story by  Alfred J. Church

The Last Hours of a Philosopher

I have called Seneca (for it is of him that I am writing), a philosopher, but it has often been doubted whether he is entitled to the name. In his early manhood he was banished to Sardinia, and he showed a deplorable want of fortitude in bearing the deprivations of exile. He contrived somehow to amass enormous wealth, and he has been accused by one historian, who, however, is obviously unfair, of amassing it by exactions which roused a province to revolt. It is unjust, of course, to judge a tutor by the crimes which his pupil may commit, especially if that pupil comes of a race tainted by madness and crime, and is subjected to the awful temptations of despotic power. Still we have seen Seneca, as Nero's accomplice in crime, do what a good man would sooner have perished than be privy to. On the other hand, there is much that might be argued, did time and space allow, in Seneca's favour. Anyhow, he died with courage and dignity. It may be said indeed that this was an occasion to which a Roman, whatever his character, was seldom unequal. Still there was something more than mere stolidity or bravado in the way in which Seneca bore himself.

A formidable conspiracy against Nero, described in the last chapter, had been detected and crushed. Among the accused was Seneca. Probably he knew of the conspiracy, but he had carefully abstained from taking any part in it. The only thing even alleged against him was the statement of one of the informers that Piso had sent him (the informer) to Seneca with a complaint that he was not allowed to see him, and that Seneca had replied that frequent interviews would not be for the benefit of either of them, adding that his own life depended on the safety of Piso. An officer was sent to interrogate the accused man, who had that day returned from one of his seats in Campania to a villa in the suburbs. The house was surrounded with troops, and the philosopher, who was dining with his wife and two friends, was examined. He allowed that the informer's account was true to a certain extent. Piso had complained of not being allowed to see him, and he had pleaded in excuse his feeble health and his love of quiet. The other remark he did not acknowledge. The officer carried back this answer to his employers. Asked whether Seneca seemed to be thinking of suicide—the common death of the accused in these days of terror—he replied that he had seen nothing to make him think so. The accused was perfectly cheerful and calm. The officer was sent back with the fatal order: Seneca must either kill himself or be killed. The man, who was himself one of the conspirators, made an effort to save the victim. He went to his general—he was a tribune of the Praetorians—and asked him whether he should execute the order. (It should be explained that there was a party for offering the throne to Seneca.) The general, another conspirator, hoped to save himself, and told him to obey. He went, but had the grace to stay outside and delegate his task to a centurion.

Seneca heard the message without dismay, and called for his will. The centurion said that he must not have it. The philosopher turned to his friends and said, "I am forbidden to recognise your services by a legacy; but I can at least leave you the example of my life." They burst into tears. He rebuked them. "Why," he asked, "have we been studying the maxims of philosophers for so many years, except to help us in a crisis like this? Who did not know the savagery of Nero? He has murdered his mother and his brother. It was only left to him to murder his tutor."

Then he spoke to his wife, bidding her to be of good courage and find consolation in the memory of the days that they had spent happily and virtuously together. She declared that she would die with him. "I have tried," he said, "to reconcile you to life; but if you prefer death, let it be so. I will not grudge it, though yours will be the more illustrious end."

With one blow the two cut the veins in their arms. Seneca was old and feeble, and the blood flowed slowly. So great were his sufferings that he persuaded his wife to leave him, lest his own courage should fail. When she was gone, he called his secretaries and dictated what we may call his farewell to the world. Tacitus says that he will not repeat what was so well known to his readers. Unhappily it is now lost. His agony was still protracted, and he begged his physician, who was also a kinsman, to give him a dose of hemlock, the poison with which Socrates had been put to death by his countrymen. The dose was administered, but in vain. He then was placed in a warm bath. Playfully scattering the water on the slaves who stood by, "This is a libation," he cried, "to Jupiter the Deliverer." At last he managed to find release from his pain in the suffocating heat of the calidarium  (the hot chamber). His funeral was conducted with the utmost simplicity. For this he had provided by a will made at the very height of his wealth and power. Whatever may be thought of Seneca's life, his death was the death of a philosopher.

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