Magazine article The Spectator

'Seneca: A Life', by Emily Wilson - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Seneca: A Life', by Emily Wilson - Review

Article excerpt

Seneca: A Life Emily Wilson

Allen Lane, pp.253, £25, ISBN: 9781846146374

They lived in barrels, they camped on top of columns, or in caves: the lives of the sages are often inconceivable to the modern reader. Seneca, however, that rich, compromised sophisticate of the first century AD, is instantly kin, his voice weary with consumerism, his problems definitively first-world. 'Being poor is not having too little,' he observed. 'It is wanting more.'

Those in need might disagree. But from where Seneca was sitting, in his personal banqueting suite with 500 ivory-legged tables (all matching, no less -- matching furniture in Rome was considered staggeringly smart, due to the lack of means of mechanical reproduction) he was able to cultivate the elegant indifference to luxury that speaks to our age so vividly.

Seneca has recently reached a new mass market by lending his name to a character in The Hunger Games trilogy, as the author of this admirably versatile biography points out. 'The books meditate on Senecan themes,' writes Emily Wilson, bringing her enormous intellect to bear on the YA franchise for a moment

including ... the central Senecan question of how to maintain integrity while trapped in horrible circumstances. One of the characters [Peeta] says before entering the arena, 'I want to die as myself' -- a deeply Senecan desire.

Seneca's pre-occupation with his own death arose from his ghastly predicament as the emperor Nero's former tutor and chief adviser. Nero murdered the rightful heir to the throne, his half-brother Britannicus, then cut swathes through his family and trusted circle; for a period of about six years, Seneca must have known that death was coming for him, too. He claimed asceticism and ate largely figs and dry bread (harder to poison).

Small wonder the great wealth he had accrued under Nero felt rather hollow. 'It is absolute torture to be obliged to somebody you don't like,' he wrote in De Beneficium . This account of his life shows how very deeply he must have meant that.

Wilson cleverly highlights the dissimulatio or 'double-speak' at work in his writing, and in the debased Roman culture at large. Cicero was an orator, but Seneca only a few generations later was content to be merely a speechwriter.

The difference can be related to the so-called 'death of oratory', much lamented in ancient sources, whereby oratory lost its power to enact political change after Cicero and the death of the Roman Republic. …

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