The Death of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens

The Death of Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, commonly known as either Seneca or Seneca the Younger, was born around 4 BC in Corduba, Hispania (modern-day Spain). Alongside Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, Seneca’s writings on Stoic philosophy are some of the greatest surviving works from Roman history and the ancient world and still provide benefit to people to this day.

As we’ll come to see, Seneca’s life is a mix of brilliance and tragedy.

Early Life, Family, and Exile

Seneca was part of a prominent family as one of three sons. His father, Seneca the Elder, was well-known in the Roman Empire as an orator, writer, and teacher in Rome itself. Seneca’s mother, Helvia, was from a prominent Baetician family.

At around the age of five, Seneca was taken to Rome for his education. He immersed himself in the literature, grammar, and rhetoric that were part of the standard education in imperial Rome at the time.

Seneca also found a particular love for Stoicism, a school of thought emphasizing rationality and self-control. Through these Stoic ideas and Stoic ethics, he found a robust personal philosophy that inspired works like Seneca’s Letters.

Through the principles of Stoic philosophy, Seneca appears to have learned a manual for everyday life. For example, he wrote:

“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”

To me, this quote highlights his awareness of the dichotomy of control and the need to accept responsibility for how we view the world around us and have the power to change ourselves for the better.

Why was Seneca banished?

His banishment to the island of Corsica in 41 AD, during the reign of Emperor Claudius, was officially due to a charge of adultery. He was accused of having an illicit affair with Julia Livilla, the sister of Agrippina the Younger and one of Emperor Caligula’s sisters.

During his time in Corsica, he continued his writings and philosophical studies, producing works such as “Consolations” which were addressed to his family and friends, demonstrating his resilience and intellectual vigor even in adverse circumstances.

Seneca spent roughly eight years in exile. His return to Rome in 49 AD was orchestrated by Agrippina the Younger, who had become the wife of Emperor Claudius. She recognized Seneca’s talents and potential influence and arranged for his recall to Rome to become the tutor and advisor to her son, young Nero, who would later become emperor.

This marked the beginning of a new, albeit troubled, phase in Seneca’s political life. One that would ultimately lead to Seneca’s death and have him commit suicide.

A Tutor to Emperor Nero:

While his contributions to Stoicism are clear to see, his career in politics and law was nowhere near as smooth. This area of his life was marred by health issues and political turmoil.

Despite these challenges, Seneca still rose to the station of consul and, as we’ve seen, was the advisor and tutor to young Emperor Nero, the future emperor sadly known for his tyrannical reign.

Seneca spent his final years between AD 54 and 65 as Nero’s tutor.

Ultimately, Seneca fell out of favor with Nero as he slowly lost influence with the Emperor. He even tried to retire twice from his service. Nero refused on both attempts.

Towards the last few years of his life, Seneca spent more and more time away from court. It is believed that he preferred to live on his country estates rather than in Rome. In this time, Seneca devotes much of his time concentrating on his studies, writing works like De Providentia.

However, in 65 AD, after the Pisonian conspiracy, a plot to assassinate Nero—he was forced to commit suicide due to his alleged involvement in the conspiracy against the emperor.

Accounts of the event say that Seneca’s death was in keeping with the Stoic ideal – calm, resigned, and rational, even at the end.

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Seneca Quotes:

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy for which much of the original work has been lost. However, we have been left with a number of texts and fragments from ancient Rome to help us understand it’s teachings and wisdom.

As a Stoic philosopher, Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote a great deal over the course of his life, and I’ve included some of my favourite quotes from his work below:

“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according to what others think, you will never be rich.”

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”

“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow, and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”

Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

“A gift consists not in what is done or given, but in the intention of the giver or doer.”

“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”

“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable.”

“You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.”

“Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realise how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them.”

Seneca argues that philosophy should be a habit that is built into daily life, not just a subject for study. Through the practice of Stoicism, we come to live a happy life, or what the Stoics called eudaimonia.

Seneca emphasizes the importance of virtue as the only good and the path to a good life. He also explains that the wise person learns mastery over their emotions, accepts what fate brings them, and prioritises self-awareness and improvement.

Seneca’s contribution and philosophical insight have marked him as one of the greatest Roman philosophers, and his work is still as relevant today as it was in the Roman imperial period. It has helped many people find peace in their own life.

Notable Works and Philosophy

Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters From A Stoic) – This book contains a collection of Letters from Seneca to his friend Lucilius. They cover everything from personal advice to philosophical discussion on wealth, life, time, moral philosophy, and culture, heavily influenced by Stoic philosophy.

De Ira (On anger) – A short essay in which Seneca writes of the risks of acting in anger and the benefits of the control of anger, addressed to his brother Novatus

Brevitate Vitæ (On the shortness of life) – A short essay where Seneca explains; any life, no matter how long, is enough for a person if it is lived wisely, addressed to Paulinus.

De Providentia (On providence) – A philosophical treatise addressed to Lucilius and written in the final year of Seneca’s life, her Seneca addresses the co-existence of Stoic theory with the evil of the world.

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3 Exercises & Lessons From Seneca’s works

1. Daily Reflection and Journaling

  • Exercise: Every evening, set aside 10-15 minutes for reflection. Write down the events of the day, focusing on your responses and decisions. Assess them through the lens of Stoic virtues: Were your actions rational and virtuous? How did you handle situations that were out of your control? Did you allow emotions to overwhelm your reason? This practice of self-examination, inspired by Seneca’s emphasis on self-improvement and self-awareness, helps in recognizing and correcting irrational or unhelpful patterns of thought and behavior.

  • Goal: To cultivate self-awareness, fight your ego, and improve decision-making and emotional regulation.

Seneca distinguishes the need to separate what is real from what is imagined. Journaling can help us achieve this. He wrote:

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

2. Practicing ‘Premeditatio Malorum‘ (Pre-Meditation of Evils)

  • Exercise: Begin your day by contemplating potential challenges or difficulties you might face. This isn’t about pessimism, but rather preparing yourself mentally for adversity. Think about how you would apply Stoic principles to respond to these situations. For instance, if you anticipate a stressful workday, imagine how you would maintain composure and rationality in the face of stress.

  • Goal: To build mental preparedness and resilience, reducing the impact of stress and adversity when they actually occur.

Seneca wrote:

“He who has learned to suffer has learned to live. He will be a combatant in all life’s struggles, and a victor in some.”

3. Voluntary Discomfort

  • Exercise: Occasionally practice voluntary discomfort to lessen the fear of hardship and build resilience. This could be as simple as skipping a meal, taking a cold shower, or avoiding luxuries for a day. The idea is to get accustomed to discomfort, realizing that you can endure and remain content even without certain comforts or conveniences. Despite Seneca’s wealth, he himself practiced this by living austerely from time to time, despite his wealth.

  • Goal: To reinforce the understanding that happiness and contentment are not solely dependent on external circumstances or comforts.

Despite the norms of Roman culture, Seneca makes a point of practicing discomfort in his own life, writing:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'”

Suggested Readings

How to Get Started with Stoicism: A resource to help you start your journey into Stoic philosophy, cover the basics, and learn from the ancient Stoics themselves, such as Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Musonius Rufus.

The Best Stoic Books (Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius): A detailed look into the best Stoic books from the ancient philosophers.

On Managing Anger: A more detailed look at anger, inspired by the essay by Seneca. This covers the risks of anger as a violent emotion and how we can learn to stop anger from controlling our actions and even harness it’s power.

10 Rules From Seneca: This is a look at Seneca’s advice on how to live a good life and 10 rules that explain what Seneca thinks of natural philosophy, Stoic theory, and human life.


Q: How did Seneca influence Stoicism? A: Seneca made Stoicism more accessible and practical, focusing on daily life’s ethical and moral questions. His writings simplified Stoic philosophy, making it more relatable to a broader audience.

Q: Are Seneca’s works relevant today? A: Absolutely. Seneca’s influence on modern thinking can be seen in his insights into human nature, ethics, and the art of living a meaningful life, which are timeless and continue to ring true in our modern society.

Q: Did Seneca write plays? A: Yes, he was also a playwright. Seneca’s tragedies, though less studied than his philosophical works, are significant contributions to Latin literature.

Q: Was Seneca’s relationship with Nero always strained? A: Initially, Seneca had a considerable influence over Nero, but as Nero’s reign progressed, their relationship soured, culminating in Seneca’s forced suicide.

Q: Can Seneca’s philosophy help in modern life? A: Yes, the core principles of Stoicism, as taught by Seneca, like rationality, resilience, and focusing on what one can control, are highly applicable in modern life’s challenges.

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