The Deaths of Seneca

The Deaths of Seneca

The Deaths of Seneca

The Deaths of Seneca


The forced suicide of Seneca, former adviser to Nero, is one of the most tortured -- and most revisited -- death scenes from classical antiquity. After fruitlessly opening his veins and drinking hemlock, Seneca finally succumbed to death in a stifling steam bath, while his wife Paulina, who had attempted suicide as well, was bandaged up and revived by Nero's men. From the first century to the present day, writers and artists have retold this scene in order to rehearse and revise Seneca's image and writings, and to scrutinize the event of human death.

In The Deaths of Seneca,James Ker offers the first comprehensive cultural history of Seneca's death scene, situating it in the Roman imagination and tracing its many subsequent interpretations. Ker shows first how the earliest accounts of the death scene by Tacitus and others were shaped by conventions of Greco-Roman exitus-description and Julio-Claudian dynastic history. At the book's center is an exploration of Seneca's own prolific writings about death -- whether anticipating death in his letters, dramatizing it in the tragedies, or offering therapy for loss in the form of consolations -- which offered the primary lens through which Seneca's contemporaries would view the author's death. These ancient approaches set the stage for prolific receptions, and Ker traces how the death scene was retold in both literary and visual versions, from St. Jerome to Heiner M ller and from medieval illuminations to Peter Paul Rubens and Jacques-Louis David. Dozens of interpreters, engaging with prior versions and with Seneca's writings, forged new and sometimes controversial views on Seneca's legacy and, more broadly, on mortality and suicide.The Deaths of Senecapresents a new, historically inclusive, approach to reading this major Roman author.


When the news broke, in late April of the year 65 CE, that Nero had forced his estranged adviser to kill himself, it was not the first time that Roman audiences had been through death with Seneca. No two words better distil Seneca’s literary voice than cotidie morimur, “we die each day” (Ep. 24.20), and throughout his writings in prose and poetry Seneca had confronted readers with repeated representations of himself and others facing death. Seneca’s death thus arrived in one sense as just the latest in a series, albeit the last and most real. In another sense, though, it was just the beginning: from the first century to the present, Seneca’s exitus has been retold through all manner of representations. Analyzing the representations together—those that preceded the death and those that followed—allows us to see how, in his own lifetime and beyond, (1) Seneca was a central force in the intellectual history of death and dying, and (2) death was the major focus in the invention of Seneca as a cultural figure. Interpreters have not overlooked the importance of Seneca’s death, or of death in Seneca. But when we examine this tradition as a whole, “Seneca” begins to appear in a new light.


Seneca’s death can be approached through three forms of representation that are useful for us to distinguish: ancient historical narratives, the literary projects of Seneca, and the tradition of reception in both word and image. The ancient historical narratives, most prominently . . .

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