In All the King’s Men (1946), Robert Penn Warren’s novel inspired by Huey Long, Warren uses a narrator, Jack Burden, to show the simultaneously corrosive and transformative effect that proximity to power can have, even on people of goodwill. We learn in James Romm’s Dying Every Day that it has ever been thus, with the stakes even higher in first-century Rome. In that era, the corrosive effect was itself transformative in the worst possible manner: A pitilessly common way to mollify a disgruntled dictator was to open a good-sized blood vessel and obligingly bleed to death. Hopefully, then, he would go easy on your family.
Nero, because of his vain determination to be known as a great musician and poet, comes to us caricatured as a feckless adolescent fiddling as Rome burned. It turns out that he was actually capable of much darker performance. Just in his inner circle, he had overseen deaths nearing double figures by the 12th year of his 14-year reign as princeps—the more precise term for an office often referred to as emperor. By 62 a.d., a partial butcher’s bill included his pubescent half-brother Britannicus and cousins Plautus and Sulla, all potential rivals; palace functionaries Narcissus and Pallas; Praetorian Guard leader Burrus; sex pal Doryphorus; stepsister and wife Claudia Octavia; and even his own mother, Agrippina, who had engineered his reign in the first place.
Such leadership makes it difficult for even good men to live up to their ideals, a fact illustrated by the life and works of Seneca, a Stoic philosopher and author, Roman senator, and Nero’s tutor and adviser. His proximity to the throne—exceptional for a Stoic supposedly uninterested in worldly matters—has made him a subject of scholarly dispute to this day. Was Seneca a decent man trying to manage an impossible situation or just another of Nero’s dark creatures?
The experience of Seneca the Younger—his Iberian father Seneca the Elder was a noted Roman rhetorician—with court-related agonies began with Caligula, whom he discusses in horrific detail in his De Ira (On Anger). Romm says that the work “show[s] the young senator reckoning up the spiritual cost of despotism: the psychic wounds of those forced to capitulate. It was the defining problem of Seneca’s age, and he was forced to grapple with it as no one else did, both in his writings and in his own life.”
It was a life that included exile by Caligula and, later, the rehabilitative beckon of Agrippina, who needed him as tutor for her son, Nero. He became a source of legitimacy and gravitas, supporting Agrippina’s plan to have the boy replace the current princeps, her new husband Claudius, a weakling who had been installed by the king-making Praetorian Guard after their elimination of the rampaging Caligula. That is, if “rampaging” quite captures the full horror of a monster capable of petulantly killing a man’s son and then forcing the man to drink to the crime, as Seneca describes in De Ira.
Seneca argues that rage must be stifled even in such cases lest it corrupt a person’s reason, which he valued more than life itself. Suicide, for Seneca, was preferable.
I will say to the man whom it befell to have a king shoot arrows at his dear ones, and to him whose master makes fathers banquet on their sons’ guts: “What are you groaning for, fool? . . . Everywhere you look you find an end to your sufferings. You see that steep drop off? It leads down to freedom. You see that ocean, that river, that well? Freedom lies at its bottom. You see that short, shriveled bare tree? Freedom hangs from it. . . . You ask, what is the path to freedom? Any vein in your body.”
For Romm, Seneca illustrates the psychic danger of accommodating villainy by a fastidious retreat into reason. “It is one thing for a great Stoic to ignore a man who jostled him in the public bath,” he writes, “or even one who spat in his face (two other tales told in De Ira). To accept the murder of one’s children goes beyond anger management, into the realm of moral self-annihilation.” But it isn’t only such final submission that has hurt Seneca’s reputation. His writings veer between obsequious truckling to power and gentle counseling against misbehavior. He didn’t just serve as Nero’s tutor; later he advised the tyrant, wrote his speeches, and was unable (or unwilling) to prevent his intimidation of the Senate. He may even have been complicit in the murder of Nero’s mother.