Seekers after God by Frederic William Farrar

SEEKERS AFTER GOD BY THE REV. F. W. FARRAR, D.D., F.R.S., CANON OF WESTMINSTER. SENECA. “Ce nuage frange de rayons qui toucbe presqu’ a l’immortelle aurore des verites chretiennes.”–PONTMAOTIN. INTRODUCTORY. On the banks of the Baetis–the modern Guadalquiver,–and under the woods that crown the southern slopes of the Sierra Morena, lies the beautiful and famous
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“Ce nuage frange de rayons qui toucbe presqu’ a l’immortelle aurore des verites chretiennes.”–PONTMAOTIN.


On the banks of the Baetis–the modern Guadalquiver,–and under the woods that crown the southern slopes of the Sierra Morena, lies the beautiful and famous city of Cordova. It had been selected by Marcellus as the site of a Roman colony; and so many Romans and Spaniards of high rank chose it for their residence, that it obtained from Augustus the honourable surname of the “Patrician Colony.” Spain, during this period of the Empire, exercised no small influence upon the literature and politics of Rome. No less than three great Emperors–Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius,–were natives of Spain. Columella, the writer on agriculture, was born at Cadiz; Quintilian, the great writer on the education of an orator, was born at Calahorra; the poet Martial was a native of Bilbilis; but Cordova could boast the yet higher honour of having given birth to the Senecas, an honour which won for it the epithet of “The Eloquent.” A ruin is shown to modern travellers which is popularly called the House of Seneca, and the fact is at least a proof that the city still retains some memory of its illustrious sons.

Marcus Annaeus Seneca, the father of the philosopher, was by rank a Roman knight. What causes had led him or his family to settle in Spain we do not know, and the names Annaeus and Seneca are alike obscure. It has been vaguely conjectured that both names may involve an allusion to the longevity of some of the founders of the family, for Annaeus seems to be connected with _annus_, a year, and Seneca with _senex_, an old man. The common English composite plant ragwort is called _senecio_ from the white and feathery pappus or appendage of its seeds; and similarly, Isidore says that the first Seneca was so named because “he was born with white hair.”

Although the father of Seneca was of knightly rank, his family had never risen to any eminence; it belonged to the class of _nouveaux riches_, and we do not know whether it was of Roman or of Spanish descent. But his mother Helvia–an uncommon name, which, by a curious coincidence, belonged also to the mother of Cicero–was a Spanish lady; and it was from her that Seneca, as well as his famous nephew, the poet Lucan, doubtless derived many of the traits which mark their intellect and their character. There was in the Spaniard a richness and splendour of imagination, an intensity and warmth, a touch of “phantasy and flame,” which we find in these two men of genius, and which was wholly wanting to the Roman temperament.

Of Cordova itself, except in a single epigram, Seneca makes no mention; but this epigram suffices to show that he must have been familiar with its stirring and memorable traditions. The elder Seneca must have been living at Cordova during all the troublous years of civil war, when his native city caused equal offence to Pompey and to Caesar. Doubtless, too, he would have had stories to tell of the noble Sertorius, and of the tame fawn which gained for him the credit of divine assistance; and contemporary reminiscences of that day of desperate disaster when Caesar, indignant that Cordova should have embraced the cause of the sons of Pompey, avenged himself by a massacre of 22,000 of the citizens. From his mother Helvia, Seneca must often have heard about the fierce and gallant struggle in which her country had resisted the iron yoke of Rome. Many a time as a boy must he have been told how long and how heroically Saguntum had withstood the assaults and baffled the triumph of Hannibal; how bravely Viriathus had fought, and how shamefully he fell; and how at length the unequal contest, which reduced Spain to the condition of a province, was closed, when the heroic defenders of Numantia, rather than yield to Scipio, reduced their city to a heap of bloodstained ruins.

But, whatever may have been the extent to which Seneca was influenced by the Spanish blood which flowed in his veins, and the Spanish legends on which his youth was fed, it was not in Spain that his lot was cast. When he was yet an infant in arms his father, with all his family, emigrated from Cordova to Rome. What may have been the special reason for this important step we do not know; possibly, like the father of Horace, the elder Seneca may have sought a better education for his sons than could be provided by even so celebrated a provincial town as Cordova; possibly–for he belonged to a somewhat pushing family–he may have desired to gain fresh wealth and honour in the imperial city.

Thither we must follow him; and, as it is our object not only to depict a character but also to sketch the characteristics of a very memorable age in the world’s history, we must try to get a glimpse of the family in the midst of which our young philosopher grew up, of the kind of education which he received, and of the influences which were likely to tell upon him during his childish and youthful years. Only by such means shall we be able to judge of him aright. And it is worth while to try and gain a right conception of the man, not only because he was very eminent as a poet, an author, and a politician, not only because he fills a very prominent place in the pages of the great historian, who has drawn so immortal a picture of Rome under the Emperors; not only because in him we can best study the inevitable signs which mark, even in the works of men of genius, a degraded people and a decaying literature; but because he was, as the title of this volume designates him, a “SEEKER AFTER GOD.” Whatever may have been the dark and questionable actions of his life–and in this narrative we shall endeavor to furnish a plain and unvarnished picture of the manner in which he lived,–it is certain that, as a philosopher and as a moralist, he furnishes us with the grandest and most eloquent series of truths to which, unilluminated by Christianity, the thoughts of man have ever attained. The purest and most exalted philosophic sect of antiquity was “the sect of the Stoics;” and Stoicism never found a literary exponent more ardent, more eloquent, or more enlightened than Lucius Annaeus Seneca. So nearly, in fact, does he seem to have arrived at the truths of Christianity, that to many it seemed a matter for marvel that he could have known them without having heard them from inspired lips. He is constantly cited with approbation by some of the most eminent Christian fathers. Tertullian, Lactantius, even St. Augustine himself, quote his words with marked admiration, and St. Jerome appeals to him as “_our_ Seneca.” The Council of Trent go further still, and quote him as though he were an acknowledged father of the Church. For many centuries there were some who accepted as genuine the spurious letters supposed to have been interchanged between Seneca and St. Paul, in which Seneca is made to express a wish to hold among the Pagans the same beneficial position which St. Paul held in the Christian world. The possibility of such an intercourse, the nature and extent of such supposed obligations, will come under our consideration hereafter. All that I here desire to say is, that in considering the life of Seneca we are not only dealing with a life which was rich in memorable incidents, and which was cast into an age upon which Christianity dawned as a new light in the darkness, but also the life of one who climbed the loftiest peaks of the moral philosophy of Paganism, and who in many respects may be regarded as the Coryphaeus of what has been sometimes called a Natural Religion.

It is not my purpose to turn aside from the narrative in order to indulge in moral reflections, because such reflections will come with tenfold force if they are naturally suggested to the reader’s mind by the circumstances of the biography. But from first to last it will be abundantly obvious to every thoughtful mind that alike the morality and the philosophy of Paganism, as contrasted with the splendour of revealed truth and the holiness of Christian life, are but as moonlight is to sunlight. The Stoical philosophy may be compared to a torch which flings a faint gleam here and there in the dusky recesses of a mighty cavern; Christianity to the sun pouring into the inmost depths of the same cavern its sevenfold illumination. The torch had a value and brightness of its own, but compared with the dawning of that new glory it appears to be dim and ineffectual, even though its brightness was a real brightness, and had been drawn from the same etherial source.



The exact date of Seneca’s birth is uncertain, but it took place in all probability about seven years before the commencement of the Christian era. It will give to his life a touch of deep and solemn interest if we remember that, during all those guilty and stormy scenes amid which his earlier destiny was cast, there lived and taught in Palestine the Son of God, the Saviour of the world.

The problems which for many years tormented his mind were beginning to find their solution, amid far other scenes, by men whose creed and condition he despised. While Seneca was being guarded by his attendant slave through the crowded and dangerous streets of Rome on his way to school, St. Peter and St. John were fisher-lads by the shores of Gennesareth; while Seneca was ardently assimilating the doctrine of the stoic Attalus, St. Paul, with no less fervancy of soul, sat learning at the feet of Gamaliel; and long before Seneca had made his way, through paths dizzy and dubious, to the zenith of his fame, unknown to him that Saviour had been crucified through whose only merits he and we can ever attain to our final rest.

Seneca was about two years old when he was carried to Rome in his nurse’s arms. Like many other men who have succeeded in attaining eminence, he suffered much from ill-health in his early years. He tells us of one serious illness from which he slowly recovered under the affectionate and tender nursing of his mother’s sister. All his life long he was subject to attacks of asthma, which, after suffering every form of disease, he says that he considers to be the worst. At one time his personal sufferings weighed so heavily on his spirits that nothing save a regard for his father’s wishes prevented him from suicide: and later in life he was only withheld from seeking the deliverance of death by the tender affection of his wife Paulina. He might have used with little alteration the words of Pope, that his various studies but served to help him

“Through _this long disease, my life_.”

The recovery from this tedious illness is the only allusion which Seneca has made to the circumstances of his childhood. The ancient writers, even the ancient poets, but rarely refer, even in the most cursory manner, to their early years. The cause of this reticence offers a curious problem for our inquiry, but the fact is indisputable. Whereas there is scarcely a single modern poet who has not lingered with undisguised feelings of happiness over the gentle memories of his childhood, not one of the ancient poets has systematically touched upon the theme at all. From Lydgate down to Tennyson, it would be easy to quote from our English poets a continuous line of lyric songs on the subject of boyish years. How to the young child the fir-trees seemed to touch the sky, how his heart leaped up at the sight of the rainbow, how he sat at his mother’s feet and pricked into paper the tissued flowers of her dress, how he chased the bright butterfly, or in his tenderness feared to brush even the dust from off its wings, how he learnt sweet lessons and said innocent prayers at his father’s knee; trifles like these, yet trifles which may have been rendered noble and beautiful by a loving imagination, have been narrated over and over again in the songs of our poets. The lovely lines of Henry Vaughan might be taken as a type of thousands more:–

“Happy those early days, when I
Shined in my Angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught But a white celestial thought;

* * * * *

“Before I taught my tongue to wound My conscience with a sinful sound
Or had the black art to dispense A several sin to every sense;
But felt through all this fleshy dress, Bright shoots of everlastingness.”

The memory of every student of English poetry will furnish countless parallels to thoughts like these. How is it that no similar poem could be quoted from the whole range of ancient literature? How is it that to the Greek and Roman poets that morning of life, which should have been so filled with “natural blessedness,” seems to have been a blank? How is it that writers so voluminous, so domestic, so affectionate as Cicero, Virgil, and Horace do not make so much as a single allusion to the existence of their own mothers?

To answer this question fully would be to write an entire essay on the difference between ancient and modern life, and would carry me far away from my immediate subject.[1] But I may say generally, that the explanation rests in the fact that in all probability childhood among the ancients was a disregarded, and in most cases a far less happy, period than it is with us. The birth of a child in the house of a Greek or a Roman was not necessarily a subject for rejoicing. If the father, when the child was first shown to him, stooped down and took it in his arms, it was received as a member of the family; if he left it unnoticed then it was doomed to death, and was exposed in some lonely or barren place to the mercy of the wild beasts, or of the first passer by. And even if a child escaped this fate, yet for the first seven or eight years of life he was kept in the gynaeceum, or women’s apartments, and rarely or never saw his father’s face. No halo of romance or poetry was shed over those early years. Until the child was full grown the absolute power of life or death rested in his father’s hands; he had no freedom, and met with little notice. For individual life the ancients had a very slight regard; there was nothing autobiographic or introspective in their temperament. With them public life, the life of the State, was everything; domestic life, the life of the individual, occupied but a small share of their consideration. All the innocent pleasures of infancy, the joys of the hearth, the charm of the domestic circle, the flow and sparkle of childish gaity, were by them but little appreciated. The years before manhood were years of prospect, and in most cases they offered but little to make them worth the retrospect. It is a mark of the more modern character which stamps the writings of Seneca, as compared with earlier authors, that he addresses his mother in terms of the deepest affection, and cannot speak of his darling little son except in a voice that seems to break with tears.

[Footnote 1: See, however, the same question treated from a somewhat different point of view by M. Nisard, in his charming _Etudes sur les Poetes de la Decadence_, ii. 17, _sqq_.]

Let us add another curious consideration. The growth of the personal character, the reminiscences of a life advancing into perfect consciousness, are largely moulded by the gradual recognition of moral laws, by the sense of mystery evolved in the inevitable struggle between duty and pleasure,–between the desire to do right and the temptation to do wrong. But among the ancients the conception of morality was so wholly different from ours, their notions of moral obligation were, in the immense majority of cases, so much less stringent and so much less important, they had so faint a disapproval for sins which we condemn, and so weak an indignation against vices which we abhor, that in their early years we can hardly suppose them to have often fathomed those “abysmal deeps of personality,” the recognition of which is a necessary element of marked individual growth.

We have, therefore, no materials for forming any vivid picture of Seneca’s childhood; but, from what we gather about the circumstances and the character of his family, we should suppose that he was exceptionally fortunate. The Senecas were wealthy; they held a good position in society; they were a family of cultivated taste, of literary pursuits, of high character, and of amiable dispositions. Their wealth raised them above the necessity of those mean cares and degrading shifts to eke out a scanty livelihood which mark the career of other literary men who were their contemporaries. Their rank and culture secured them the intimacy of all who were best worth knowing in Roman circles; and the general dignity and morality which marked their lives would free them from all likelihood of being thrown into close intercourse with the numerous class of luxurious epicureans, whose unblushing and unbounded vice gave an infamous notority to the capital of the world.

Of Marcus Annaeus Seneca, the father of our philosopher, we know few personal particulars, except that he was a professional rhetorician, who drew up for the use of his sons and pupils a number of oratorical exercises, which have come down to us under the names of _Suasoriae_ and _Controversiae_. They are a series of declamatory arguments on both sides, respecting a number of historical or purely imaginary subjects; and it would be impossible to conceive any reading more utterly unprofitable. But the elder Seneca was steeped to the lips in an artificial rhetoric; and these highly elaborated arguments, invented in order to sharpen the faculties for purposes of declamation and debate, were probably due partly to his note-book and partly to his memory. His memory was so prodigious that after hearing two thousand words he could repeat them again in the same order. Few of those who have possessed such extraordinary powers of memory have been men of first-rate talent, and the elder Seneca was no exception. But if his memory did not improve his original genius, it must at any rate have made him a very agreeable member of society, and have furnished him with an abundant store of personal and political anecdotes. In short, Marcus Seneca was a well-to-do, intelligent man of the world, with plenty of common sense, with a turn for public speaking, with a profound dislike and contempt for anything which he considered philosophical or fantastic, and with a keen eye to the main advantage.

His wife Helvia, if we may trust the panegyric of her son, was on the other hand a far less commonplace character. But for her husband’s dislike to learning and philosophy she would have become a proficient in both, and in a short period of study she had made a considerable advance. Yet her intellect was less remarkable than the nobility and sweetness of her mind; other mothers loved their sons because their own ambition was gratified by their honours, and their feminine wants supplied by their riches; but Helvia loved her sons for their own sakes, treated them with liberal generosity, but refused to reap any personal benefit from their wealth, managed their patrimonies with disinterested zeal, and spent her own money to bear the expenses of their political career. She rose superior to the foibles and vices of her time. Immodesty, the plague-spot of her age, had never infected her pure life. Gems and pearls had little charms for her. She was never ashamed of her children, as though their presence betrayed her own advancing age. “You never stained your face,” says her son, when writing to console her in his exile, “with walnut-juice or rouge; you never delighted in dresses indelicately low; your single ornament was a loveliness which no age could destroy; your special glory was a conspicuous chastity.” We may well say with Mr. Tennyson–

“Happy he
With such a mother! faith in womankind Beats with his blood, and trust in all things high Comes easy to him, and, though he trip and fall, He shall not blind his soul with clay.”

Nor was his mother Helvia the only high-minded lady in whose society the boyhood of Seneca was spent. Her sister, whose name is unknown, that aunt who had so tenderly protected the delicate boy, and nursed him through the sickness of his infancy, seems to have inspired him with an affection of unusual warmth. He tells us how, when her husband was Prefect of Egypt, so far was she from acting as was usual with the wives of provincial governors, that she was as much respected and beloved as they were for the most part execrated and shunned. So serious was the evil caused by these ladies, so intolerable was their cruel rapacity, that it had been seriously debated in the Senate whether they should ever be allowed to accompany their husbands. Not so with Helvia’s sister. She was never seen in public; she allowed no provincial to visit her house; she begged no favour for herself, and suffered none to be begged from her. The province not only praised her, but, what was still more to her credit, barely knew anything about her, and longed in vain for another lady who should imitate her virtue and self-control. Egypt was the headquarters for biting and loquacious calumny, yet even Egypt never breathed a word against the sanctity of her life. And when during their homeward voyage her husband died, in spite of danger and tempest and the deeply-rooted superstition which considered it perilous to sail with a corpse on board, not even the imminent peril of shipwreck could drive her to separate herself from her husband’s body until she had provided for its safe and honorable sepulchre. These are the traits of a good and heroic woman; and that she reciprocated the regard which makes her nephew so emphatic in her praise may be conjectured from the fact that, when he made his _debut_ as a candidate for the honours of the State, she emerged from her habitual seclusion, laid aside for a time her matronly reserve, and, in order to assist him in his canvass, faced for his sake the rustic impertinence and ambitious turbulence of the crowds who thronged the Forum and the streets of Rome.

Two brothers, very different from each other in their habits and character, completed the family circle, Marcus Annaeus Novatus and Lucius Annaeus Mela, of whom the former was older the latter younger, than their more famous brother.

Marcus Annaeus Novatus is known to history under the name of Junius Gallio, which he took when adopted by the orator of that name, who was a friend of his father. He is none other than the Gallio of the Acts, the Proconsul of Achaia, whose name has passed current among Christians as a proverb of complacent indifference.[2]

[Footnote 2: Acts xxv. 19.]

The scene, however, in which Scripture gives us a glimpse of him has been much misunderstood, and to talk of him as “careless Gallio,” or to apply the expression that “he cared for none of these things,” to indifference in religious matters, is entirely to misapply the spirit of the narrative. What really happened was this. The Jews, indignant at the success of Paul’s preaching, dragged him before the tribunal of Gallio, and accused him of introducing illegal modes of worship. When the Apostle was about to defend himself, Gallio contemptuously cut him short by saying to the Jews, “If in truth there were in question any act of injustice or wicked misconduct, I should naturally have tolerated your complaint. But if this is some verbal inquiry about mere technical matters of your law, look after it yourselves. I do not choose to be a judge of such matters.” With these words he drove them from his judgment-seat with exactly the same fine Roman contempt for the Jews and their religious affairs as was subsequently expressed by Festus to the sceptical Agrippa, and as had been expressed previously by Pontius Pilate[3] to the tumultous Pharisees. Exulting at this discomfiture of the hated Jews and apparently siding with Paul, the Greeks then went in a body, seized Sosthenes, the leader of the Jewish synagogue, and beat him in full view of the Proconsul seated on his tribunal. This was the event at which Gallio looked on with such imperturbable disdain. What could it possibly matter to him, the great Proconsul, whether the Greeks beat a poor wretch of a Jew or not? So long as they did not make a riot, or give him any further trouble about the matter, they might beat Sosthenes or any number of Jews black and blue if it pleased them, for all he was likely to care.

[Footnote 3: Matt. xxvii. 24, “See ye to it.” Cf. Acts xiv. 15, “Look ye to it.” Toleration existed in the Roman Empire, and the magistrates often interfered to protect the Jews from massacre; but they absolutely and persistently refused to trouble themselves with any attempt to understand their doctrines or enter into their disputes. The tradition that Gallio sent some of St. Paul’s writings to his brother Seneca is utterly absurd; and indeed at this time (A.D. 54), St. Paul had written nothing except the two Epistles to the Thessalonians. (See Conybeare and Howson, _St. Paul_, vol. i. Ch. xii.; Aubertin, _Seneque et St. Paul_.)]

What a vivid glimpse do we here obtain, from the graphic picture of an eye-witness, of the daily life in an ancient provincial forum; how completely do we seem to catch sight for a moment of that habitual expression of contempt which curled the thin lips of a Roman aristocrat in the presence of subject nations, and especially of Jews! If Seneca had come across any of the Alexandrian Jews in his Egyptian travels, the only impression left on his mind was that expressed by Tacitus, Juvenal, and Suetonius, who never mention the Jews without execration. In a passage, quoted by St. Augustine (_De Civit. Dei_, iv. 11) from his lost book on Superstitions, Seneca speaks of the multitude of their proselytes, and calls them “_gens sceleratissima_,” a “_most criminal race_.” It has been often conjectured–it has even been seriously believed–that Seneca had personal intercourse with St. Paul and learnt from him some lessons of Christianity. The scene on which we have just been gazing will show us the utter unlikelihood of such a supposition. Probably the nearest opportunity which ever occurred to bring the Christian Apostle into intellectual contact with the Roman philosopher was this occasion, when St. Paul was dragged as a prisoner into the presence of Seneca’s elder brother. The utter contempt and indifference with which he was treated, the manner in which he was summarily cut short before he could even open his lips in his own defence, will give us a just estimate of the manner in which Seneca would have been likely to regard St. Paul. It is highly improbable that Gallio ever retained the slightest impression or memory of so every-day a circumstance as this, by which alone he is known to the world. It is possible that he had not even heard the mere name of Paul, and that, if he ever thought of him at all, it was only as a miserable, ragged, fanatical Jew, of dim eyes and diminutive stature, who had once wished to inflict upon him a harangue, and who had once come for a few moments “betwixt the wind and his nobility.” He would indeed have been unutterably amazed if anyone had whispered to him that well nigh the sole circumstance which would entitle him to be remembered by posterity, and the sole event of his life by which he would be at all generally known, was that momentary and accidental relation to his despised prisoner.

But Novatus–or, to give him his adopted name, Gallio–presented to his brother Seneca, and to the rest of the world, a very different aspect from that under which we are wont to think of him. By them he was regarded as an illustrious declaimer, in an age when declamation was the most valued of all accomplishments. It was true that there was a sort of “tinkle,” a certain falsetto tone in his style, which offended men of robust and severe taste; but this meretricious resonance of style was a matter of envy and admiration when affectation was the rage, and when the times were too enervated and too corrupt for the manly conciseness and concentrated force of an eloquence dictated by liberty and by passion. He seems to have acquired both among his friends and among strangers the epithet of “dulcis,” “the charming or fascinating Gallio:” “This is more,” says the poet Statius, “than to have given Seneca to the world, and to have begotten the sweet Gallio.” Seneca’s portrait of him is singularly faultless. He says that no one was so gentle to any one as Gallio was to every one; that his charm of manner won over even the people whom mere chance threw in his way, and that such was the force of his natural goodness that no one suspected his behaviour, as though it were due to art or simulation. Speaking of flattery, in his fourth book of Natural Questions, he says to his friend Lucilius, “I used to say to you that my brother Gallio _(whom every one loves a little, even people who cannot love him more)_ was wholly _ignorant_ of other vices, but even _detested_ this. You might try him in any direction. You began to praise his intellect–an intellect of the highest and worthiest kind,… and he walked away! You began to praise his moderation, he instantly cut short your first words. You began to express admiration for his blandness and natural suavity of manner,… yet even here he resisted your compliments; and if you were led to exclaim that you had found a man who could not be overcome by those insidious attacks which every one else admits, and hoped that he would at least tolerate _this_ compliment because of its truth, even on this ground he would resist your flattery; not as though you had been awkward, or as though he suspected that you were jesting with him, or had some secret end in view, but simply because he had a horror of every form of adulation.” We can easily imagine that Gallio was Seneca’s favorite brother, and we are not surprised to find that the philosopher dedicates to him his three books on Anger, and his charming little treatise “On a Happy Life.”

Of the third brother, L. Annaeus Mela, we have fewer notices; but, from what we know, we should conjecture that his character no less than his reputation was inferior to that of his brothers; yet he seems to have been the favorite of his father, who distinctly asserts that his intellect was capable of every excellence, and superior to that of his brothers.[4] This, however, may have been because Mela, “longing only to long for nothing,” was content with his father’s rank, and devoted himself wholly to the study of eloquence. Instead of entering into public life, he deliberately withdrew himself from all civil duties, and devoted himself to tranquility and ease. Apparently he preferred to be a farmer-general (_publicanus_) and not a consul. His chief fame rests in the fact that he was father of Lucan, the poet of the decadence or declining literature of Rome. The only anecdote about him which has come down to us is one that sets his avarice in a very unfavourable light. When his famous son, the unhappy poet, had forfeited his life, as well as covered himself with infamy by denouncing his own mother Attila in the conspiracy of Piso, Mela, instead of being overwhelmed with shame and agony, immediately began to collect with indecent avidity his son’s debts, as though to show Nero that he felt no great sorrow for his bereavement. But this was not enough for Nero’s malice; he told Mela that he must follow his son, and Mela was forced to obey the order, and to die.

[Footnote 4: M. Ann. Senec. _Controv_. ii. _Praef_.]

Doubtless Helvia, if she survived her sons and grandsons, must have bitterly rued the day when, with her husband and her young children, she left the quiet retreat of a life in Cordova. Each of the three boys grew up to a man of genius, and each of them grew up to stain his memory with deeds that had been better left undone, and to die violent deaths by their own hands or by a tyrant’s will. Mela died as we have seen; his son Lucan and his brother Seneca were driven to death by the cruel orders of Nero. Gallio, after stooping to panic-stricken supplications for his preservation, died ultimately by suicide. It was a shameful and miserable end for them all, but it was due partly to their own errors, partly to the hard necessity of the degraded times in which they lived.



For a reason which I have already indicated–I mean the habitual reticence of the ancient writers respecting the period of their boyhood–it is not easy to form a very vivid conception of the kind of education given to a Roman boy of good family up to the age of fifteen, when he laid aside the golden amulet and embroidered toga to assume a more independent mode of life.

A few facts, however, we can gather from the scattered allusions of the poets Horace, Juvenal, Martial, and Persius. From these we learn that the schoolmasters were for the most part underpaid and despised,[5] while at the same time an erudition alike minute and useless was rigidly demanded of them. We learn also that they were exceedingly severe in the infliction of corporeal punishment; Orbilius, the schoolmaster of Horace, appears to have been a perfect Dr. Busby, and the poet Martial records with indignation the barbarities of chastisement which he daily witnessed.

[Footnote 5: For the miseries of the literary class, and especially of schoolmasters, see Juv, _Sat_. vii.]

The things taught were chiefly arithmetic, grammar–both Greek and Latin–reading, and repetition of the chief Latin poets. There was also a good deal of recitation and of theme-writing on all kinds of trite historical subjects. The arithmetic seems to have been mainly of a very simple and severely practical kind, especially the computation of interest and compound interest; and the philology generally, both grammar and criticism, was singularly narrow, uninteresting, and useless. Of what conceivable advantage can it have been to any human being to know the name of the mother of Hecuba, of the nurse of Anchises, of the stepmother of Anchemolus, the number of years Acestes lived, and how many casks of wine the Sicilians gave to the Phrygians? Yet these were the dispicable _minutiae_ which every schoolmaster was then expected to have at his fingers’ ends, and every boy-scholar to learn at the point of the ferule–trash which was only fit to be unlearned the moment it was known.

For this kind of verbal criticism and fantastic archaeology Seneca, who had probably gone through it all, expresses a profound and very rational contempt. In a rather amusing passage[6] he contrasts the kind of use which would be made of a Virgil lesson by a philosopher and a grammarian. Coming to the lines,

“Each happiest day for mortals speeds the first, Then crowds disease behind and age accurst,”

the philosopher will point out why and in what sense the early days of life are the best days, and how rapidly the evil days succeed them, and consequently how infinitely important it is to use well the golden dawn of our being. But the verbal critic will content himself with the remark that Virgil always uses _fugio_ of the flight of time, and always joins “old age” with “disease,” and consequently that these are tags to be remembered, and plagiarized hereafter in the pupils’ “_original_ composition.” Similarly, if the book in hand be Cicero’s treatise “On the Commonwealth,” instead of entering into great political questions, our grammarian will note that one of the Roman kings had no father (to speak of), and another no mother; that dictators used formerly to be called “masters of the people;” that Romulus perished during an eclipse; that the old form of _reipsa_ was _reapse_, and of _se ipse_ was _sepse_; that the starting point in the circus which is now called _creta_, or “chalk,” used to be called _caix_, or _carcer_; that in the time of Ennuis _opera_ meant not only “work,” but also “assistance,” and so on, and so on. Is this true education? or rather, should our great aim ever be to translate noble precepts into daily action? “Teach me,” he says, “to despise pleasure and glory; _afterwards_ you shall teach me to disentangle difficulties, to distinguish ambiguities, to see through obscurities; _now_ teach me what is necessary.” Considering the condition of much which in modern times passes under the name of “education,” we may possibly find that the hints of Seneca are not yet wholly obsolete.

[Footnote 6: Ep. cviii.]

What kind of schoolmaster taught the little Seneca when under the care of the slave who was called _pedagogus_, or a “boy-leader” (whence our word _pedagogue_), he daily went with his brothers to school through the streets of Rome, we do not know. He may have been a severe Orbilius, or he may have been one of those noble-minded tutors whose ideal portraiture is drawn in such beautiful colours by the learned and amiable Quintilian. Seneca has not alluded to any one who taught him during his early days. The only schoolfellow whom he mentions by name in his voluminous writings is a certain Claranus, a deformed boy, whom, after leaving school, Seneca never met again until they were both old men, but of whom he speaks with great admiration. In spite of his hump-back, Claranus appeared even beautiful in the eyes of those who knew him well, because his virtue and good sense left a stronger impression than his deformity, and “his body was adorned by the beauty of his soul.”

It was not until mere school-lessons were finished that a boy began seriously to enter upon the studies of eloquence and philosophy, which therefore furnish some analogy to what we should call “a university education.” Gallio and Mela, Seneca’s elder and younger brothers, devoted themselves heart and soul to the theory and practice of eloquence; Seneca made the rarer and the wiser choice in giving his entire enthusiasm to the study of philosophy.

I say the wiser choice, because eloquence is not a thing for which one can give a receipt as one might give a receipt for making _eau-de-Cologne_. Eloquence is the noble, the harmonious, the passionate expression of truths profoundly realized, or of emotions intensely felt. It is a flame which cannot be kindled by artificial means. _Rhetoric_ may be taught if any one thinks it worth learning; but _eloquence_ is a gift as innate as the genius from which it springs. “_Cujus vita fulgur, ejus verba tonitrua_”–“if a man’s life be lightning, his words will be thunders.” But the kind of oratory to be obtained by a constant practice of declamation such as that which occupied the schools of the Rhetors will be a very artificial lightning and a very imitated thunder–not the artillery of heaven, but the Chinese fire and rolled bladders of the stage. Nothing could be more false, more hollow, more pernicious than the perpetual attempt to drill numerous classes of youths into a reproduction of the mere manner of the ancient orators. An age of unlimited declamation, an age of incessant talk, is a hotbed in which real depth and nobility of feeling runs miserably to seed. Style is never worse than it is in ages which employ themselves in teaching little else. Such teaching produces an emptiness of thought concealed under a plethora of words. This age of countless oratorical masters was emphatically the period of decadence and decay. There is a hollow ring about it, a falsetto tone in its voice; a fatiguing literary grimace in the manner of its authors. Even its writers of genius were injured and corrupted by the prevailing mode. They can say nothing simply; they are always in contortions. Their very indignation and bitterness of heart, genuine as it is, assumes a theatrical form of expression.[7] They abound in unrealities: their whole manner is defaced with would-be cleaverness, with antitheses, epigrams, paradoxes, forced expressions, figures and tricks of speech, straining after originality and profundity when they are merely repeating very commonplace remarks. What else could one expect in an age of salaried declaimers, educated in a false atmosphere of superficial talk, for ever haranguing and perorating about great passions which they had never felt, and great deeds which they would have been the last to imitate? After perpetually immolating the Tarquins and the Pisistratids in inflated grandiloquence, they would go to lick the dust off a tyrant’s shoes. How could eloquence survive when the magnanimity and freedom which inspired it were dead, and when the men and books which professed to teach it were filled with despicable directions about the exact position in which the orator was to use his hands, and as to whether it was a good thing or not for him to slap his forehead and disarrange his hair?

[Footnote 7:
“Juvenal, eleve dans les cris de l’ecole Poussa jusqu’a l’exces sa mordante hyperbole.”– BOILEAU.]

The philosophic teaching which even from boyhood exercised a powerful fascination on the eager soul of Seneca was at least something better than this; and more than one of his philosophic teachers succeeded in winning his warm affection, and in moulding the principles and habits of his life. Two of them he mentions with special regard, namely Sotion the Pythagorean, and Attalus the Stoic. He also heard the lectures of the fluent and musical Fabianus Papirius, but seems to have owed less to him than to his other teachers.

Sotion had embraced the views of Pythagoras respecting the transmigration of souls, a doctrine which made the eating of animal food little better than cannibalism or parricide. But, even if any of his followers rejected this view, Sotion would still maintain that the eating of animals, if not an impiety, was at least a cruelty and a waste. “What hardship does my advice inflict on you?” he used to ask. “I do but deprive you of the food of vultures and lions.” The ardent boy–for at this time he could not have been more than seventeen years old–was so convinced by these considerations that he became a vegetarian. At first the abstinence from meat was painful, but after a year he tells us (and many vegetarians will confirm his experience) it was not only easy but delightful; and he used to believe, though he would not assert it as a fact, that it made his intellect more keen and active. He only ceased to be a vegetarian in obedience to the remonstrance of his unphilosophical father, who would have easily tolerated what he regarded as a mere vagary had it not involved the danger of giving rise to a calumny. For about this time Tiberius banished from Rome all the followers of strange and foreign religions; and, as fasting was one of the rites practiced in some of them, Seneca’s father thought that perhaps his son might incur, by abstaining from meat, the horrible suspicion of being a Christian or a Jew!

Another Pythagorean philosopher whom he admired and whom he quotes was Sextius, from whom he learnt the admirable practice of daily self-examination:–“When the day was over, and he betook himself to his nightly rest, he used to ask himself, What evil have you cured to day? What vice have you resisted? In what particular have you improved?” “I too adopt this custom,” says Seneca, in his book on Anger, “and I daily plead my cause before myself, when the light has been taken away, and my wife, who is now aware of my habit, has become silent; I carefully consider in my heart the entire day, and take a deliberate estimate of my deeds and words.”

It was however the Stoic Attalus who seems to have had the main share in the instruction of Seneca; and _his_ teaching did not involve any practical results which the elder Seneca considered objectionable. He tells us how he used to haunt the school of the eloquent philosopher, being the first to enter and the last to leave it. “When I heard him declaiming,” he says, “against vice, and error, and the ills of life, I often felt compassion for the human race, and believed my teacher to be exalted above the ordinary stature of mankind. In Stoic fashion he used to call himself a king; but to me his sovereignty seemed more than royal, seeing that it was in his power to pass his judgments on kings themselves. When he began to set forth the praises of poverty, and to show how heavy and superfluous was the burden of all that exceeded the ordinary wants of life, I often longed to leave school a poor man. When he began to reprehend our pleasures, to praise a chaste body, a moderate table, and a mind pure not from all unlawful but even from all superfluous pleasures, it was my delight to set strict limits to all voracity and gluttony. And these precepts, my Lucilius, have left some permanent results; for I embraced them with impetuous eagerness, and afterwards, when I entered upon a political career, I retained a few of my good beginnings. In consequence of them, I have all my life long renounced eating oysters and mushrooms, which do not satisfy hunger but only sharpen appetite; for this reason I habitually abstain from perfumes, because the sweetest perfume for the body is none at all: for this reason I do without wines and baths. Other habits which I once abandoned have come back to me, but in such a way that I merely substitute moderation for abstinence, which perhaps is a still more difficult task; since there are some things which it is easier for the mind to cut away altogether than to enjoy in moderation. Attalus used to recommend a hard couch in which the body could not sink; and, even in my old age, I use one of such a kind that it leaves no impress of the sleeper. I have told you these anecdotes to prove to you what eager impulses our little scholars would have to all that is good, if any one were to exhort them and urge them on. But the harm springs partly from the fault of preceptors, who teach us how to _argue_, not how to _live_; and partly from the fault of pupils, who bring to their teacher a purpose of training their intellect and not their souls. Thus it is that philosophy has been degraded into mere philology.”

In another lively passage, Seneca brings vividly before us a picture of the various scholars assembled in a school of the philosophers. After observing that philosophy exercises some influence even over those who do not go deeply in it, just as people sitting in a shop of perfumes carry away with them some of the odour, he adds, “Do we not, however, know some who have been among the audience of a philosopher for many years, and have been even entirely uncoloured by his teaching? Of course I do, even most persistent and continuous hearers; whom I do not call pupils, but mere passing auditors of philosophers. Some come to hear, not to learn, just as we are brought into a theatre for pleasure’s sake, to delight our ears with language, or with the voice, or with plays. You will observe a large portion of the audience to whom the philosopher’s school is a mere haunt of their leisure. Their object is not to lay aside any vices there, or to accept any law in accordance with which they may conform their life, but that they may enjoy a mere tickling of their ears. Some, however, even come with tablets in their hands, to catch up not _things_ but _words_. Some with eager countenances and spirits are kindled by magnificent utterances, and these are charmed by the beauty of the thoughts, not by the sound of empty words; but the impression is not lasting. Few only have attained the power of carrying home with them the frame of mind into which they had been elevated.”

It was to this small latter class that Seneca belonged. He became a Stoic from very early years. The Stoic philosophers, undoubtedly the noblest and purest of ancient sects, received their name from the fact that their founder Zeno had lectured in the Painted Porch or Stoa Paecile of Athens. The influence of these austere and eloquent masters, teaching high lessons of morality and continence, and inspiring their young audience with the glow of their own enthusiasm for virtue, must have been invaluable in that effete and drunken age. Their doctrines were pushed to yet more extravagant lengths by the Cynics, who were so called from a Greek word meaning “dog,” from what appeared to the ancients to be the dog-like brutality of their manners. Juvenal scornfully remarks, that the Stoics only differed from the Cynics “by a tunic,” which the Stoics wore and the Cynics discarded. Seneca never indeed adopted the practices of Cynicism, but he often speaks admiringly of the arch-Cynic Diogenes, and repeatedly refers to the Cynic Demetrius, as a man deserving of the very highest esteem. “I take with me everywhere,” writes he to Lucilius, “that best of men, Demetrius; and, leaving those who wear purple robes, I talk with him who is half naked. Why should I not admire him? I have seen that he has no want. Any one may despise all things, but no one _can_ possess all things. The shortest road to riches lies through contempt of riches. But our Demetrius lives not as though he _despised_ all things, but as though he simply suffered others to possess them.”

These habits and sentiments throw considerable light on Seneca’s character. They show that even from his earliest days he was capable of adopting self-denial as a principle, and that to his latest days he retained many private habits of a simple and honourable character, even when the exigencies of public life had compelled him to modify others. Although he abandoned an unusual abstinence out of respect for his father, we have positive evidence that he resumed in his old age the spare practices which in his enthusiastic youth he had caught from the lessons of high-minded teachers. These facts are surely sufficient to refute at any rate those gross charges against the private character of Seneca, venomously retailed by a jealous Greekling like Dio Cassius, which do not rest on a tittle of evidence, and seem to be due to a mere spirit of envy and calumny. I shall not again allude to these scandals because I utterly disbelieve them. A man who in his “History” could, as Dio Cassius has done, put into the mouth of a Roman senator such insane falsehoods as he has pretended that Fufius Calenus uttered in full senate against Cicero, was evidently actuated by a spirit which disentitles his statements to my credence. Seneca was an inconsistent philosopher both in theory and in practice; he fell beyond all question into serious errors, which deeply compromise his character; but, so far from being a dissipated or luxurious man, there is every reason to believe that in the very midst of wealth and splendour, and all the temptations which they involve, he retained alike the simplicity of his habits and the rectitude of his mind. Whatever may have been the almost fabulous value of his five hundred tables of cedar and ivory, they were rarely spread with any more sumptuous entertainment than water, vegetables, and fruit. Whatever may have been the amusements common among his wealthy and noble contemporaries, we know that he found his highest enjoyment in the innocent pleasures of his garden, and took some of his exercise by running races there with a little slave.



We have gleaned from Seneca’s own writings what facts we could respecting his early education. But in the life of every man there are influences of a far more real and penetrating character than those which come through the medium of schools or teachers. The spirit of the age; the general tone of thought, the prevalent habits of social intercourse, the political tendencies which were moulding the destiny of the nation,–these must have told, more insensibly indeed but more powerfully, on the mind of Seneca than even the lectures of Sotion and of Attalus. And, if we have had reason to fear that there was much which was hollow in the fashionable education, we shall see that the general aspect of the society by which our young philosopher was surrounded from the cradle was yet more injurious and deplorable.

The darkness is deepest just before the dawn, and never did a grosser darkness or a thicker mist of moral pestilence brood over the surface of Pagan society than at the period when the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in His wings. There have been many ages when the dense gloom of a heartless immorality seemed to settle down with unusual weight; there have been many places where, under the gaslight of an artificial system, vice has seemed to acquire an unusual audacity; but never probably was there any age or any place where the worst forms of wickedness were practiced with a more unblushing effrontery than in the city of Rome under the government of the Caesars. A deeply-seated corruption seemed to have fastened upon the very vitals of the national existence. It is surely a lesson of deep moral significance that just as they became most polished in their luxury they became most vile in their manner of life. Horace had already bewailed that “the age of our fathers, worse than that of our grandsires, has produced us who are yet baser, and who are doomed to give birth to a still more degraded offspring.” But fifty years later it seemed to Juvenal that in his times the very final goal of iniquity had been attained, and he exclaims, in a burst of despair, that “posterity will add _nothing_ to our immorality; our descendents can but do and desire the same crimes as ourselves.” He who would see but for a moment and afar off to what the Gentile world had sunk, at the very period when Christianity began to spread, may form some faint and shuddering conception from the picture of it drawn in the Epistle to the Romans.

We ought to realize this fact if we would judge of Seneca aright. Let us then glance at the condition of the society in the midst of which he lived. Happily we can but glance at it. The worst cannot be told. Crimes may be spoken of; but things monstrous and inhuman should for ever be concealed. We can but stand at the cavern’s mouth, and cast a single ray of light into its dark depths. Were we to enter, our lamp would be quenched by the foul things which would cluster round it.

In the age of Augustus began that “long slow agony,” that melancholy process of a society gradually going to pieces under the dissolving influence of its own vices which lasted almost without interruption till nothing was left for Rome except the fire and sword of barbaric invasions. She saw not only her glories but also her virtues “star by star expire.” The old heroism, the old beliefs, the old manliness and simplicity, were dead and gone; they had been succeeded by prostration and superstition by luxury and lust.

“There is the moral of all human tales, ‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past, First freedom, and then glory; when that fails, Wealth, vice, corruption,–barbarism at last: And history, with all her volumes vast, Hath but one page; ’tis better written here Where gorgeous tyranny hath thus amassed All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear, Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask.”

The mere elements of society at Rome during this period were very unpromising. It was a mixture of extremes. There was no middle class. At the head of it was an emperor, often deified in his lifetime, and separated from even the noblest of the senators by a distance of immeasurable superiority. He, was, in the startling language of Gibbon, at once “a priest, an atheist, and a god.” [8] Surrounding his person and forming his court were usually those of the nobility who were the most absolutely degraded by their vices, their flatteries, or their abject subservience. But even these men were not commonly the repositories of political power. The people of the greatest influence were the freedmen of the emperors–men who had been slaves, Egyptians and Bithynians who had come to Rome with bored ears and with chalk on their naked feet to show that they were for sale, or who had bawled “sea-urchins all alive” in the Velabrum or the Saburra–who had acquired enormous wealth by means often the most unscrupulous and the most degraded, and whose insolence and baseness had kept pace with their rise to power. Such a man was the Felix before whom St. Paul was tried, and such was his brother Pallas,[9] whose golden statue might have been seen among the household gods of the senator, afterwards the emperor, Vitellius. Another of them might often have been observed parading the streets between two consuls. Imagine an Edward II. endowed with absolute and unquestioned powers of tyranny,–imagine some pestilent Piers Gaveston, or Hugh de le Spenser exercising over nobles and people a hideous despotism of the back stairs,–and you have some faint picture of the government of Rome under some of the twelve Caesars. What the barber Olivier le Diable was under Louis XI., what Mesdames du Barri and Pompadour were under Louis XV., what the infamous Earl of Somerset was under James I., what George Villiers became under Charles I., will furnish us with a faint analogy of the far more exaggerated and detestable position held by the freedman Glabrio under Domitian, by the actor Tigellinus under Nero, by Pallus and Narcissus under Claudius, by the obscure knight Sejanus under the iron tyranny of the gloomy Tiberius.

[Footnote 8:
“To the sound
Of fifes and drums they danced, or in the shade Sung Caesar great and terrible in war, Immortal Caesar! ‘Lo, a god! a god!
He cleaves the yielding skies!’ Caesar meanwhile Gathers the ocean pebbles, or the gnat Enraged pursues; or at his lonely meal Starves a wide province; tastes, dislikes, and flings To dogs and sycophants. ‘A god! a god!’ The flowery shades and shrines obscene return.” DYER, _Ruins of Rome_.]

[Footnote 9: The pride of this man was such that he never deigned to speak a word in the presence of his own slaves, but only made known his wishes by signs!–TACITUS.]

I. It was an age of the most enormous wealth existing side by side with the most abject poverty. Around the splendid palaces wandered hundreds of mendicants, who made of their mendicity a horrible trade, and even went so far as to steal or mutilate infants in order to move compassion by their hideous maladies. This class was increased by the exposure of children, and by that overgrown accumulation of landed property which drove the poor from their native fields. It was increased also by the ambitious attempt of people whose means were moderate to imitate the enormous display of the numerous millionaires. The great Roman conquests in the East, the plunder of the ancient kingdoms of Antiochus, of Attalus, of Mithridates, had caused a turbid stream of wealth to flow into the sober current of Roman life. One reads with silent astonishment of the sums expended by wealthy Romans on their magnificence or their pleasures. And as commerce was considered derogatory to rank and position, and was therefore pursued by men who had no character to lose, these overgrown fortunes were often acquired by wretches of the meanest stamp–by slaves brought from over the sea, who had to conceal the holes bored in their ears;[10] or even by malefactors who had to obliterate, by artificial means, the three letters[11] which had been branded by the executioner on their foreheads. But many of the richest men in Rome, who had not sprung from this convict origin, were fully as well deserving of the same disgraceful stigma. Their houses were built, their coffers were replenished, from the drained resources of exhausted provincials. Every young man of active ambition or noble birth, whose resources had been impoverished by debauchery and extravagance, had but to borrow fresh sums in order to give magnificent gladiatorial shows, and then, if he could once obtain an aedileship, and mount to the higher offices of the State, he would in time become the procurator or proconsul of a province, which he might pillage almost at his will. Enter the house of a Felix or a Verres. Those splendid pillars of mottled green marble were dug by the forced labour of Phrygians from the quarry of Synnada; that embossed silver, those murrhine vases, those jeweled cups, those masterpieces of antique sculpture, have all been torn from the homes or the temples of Sicily or Greece. Countries were pilaged and nations crushed that an Apicius might dissolve pearls[12] in the wine he drank, or that Lollia Paulina might gleam in a second-best dress of emeralds and pearls which had cost 40,000,000 sesterces, or more than 32,000_l_.[13]

[Footnote 10: This was a common ancient practice; the very words “thrall,” “thralldom,” are etymologically connected with the roots “thrill,” “trill,” “drill,” (Compare Exod. xxi. 6; Deut. xv. 17; Plut. _Cic_. 26; and Juv. _Sat_. i. 104.)]

[Footnote 11: _Fur_, “thief.” (See Martial, ii. 29.)]

[Footnote 12: “Dissolved pearls, Apicius’ diet ‘gainst the epilepsy.”–BEN JONSON.]

[Footnote 13: Pliny actually saw her thus arrayed. (Nat. Hist. ix. 35, 36.)]

Each of these “gorgeous criminals” lived in the midst of an humble crowd of flatterers, parasites, clients, dependents, and slaves. Among the throng that at early morning jostled each other in the marble _atrium_ were to be found a motley and hetrogeneous set of men. Slaves of every age and nation–Germans, Egyptians, Gauls, Goths, Syrians, Britons, Moors, pampered and consequential freedmen, impudent confidential servants, greedy buffoons, who lived by making bad jokes at other people’s tables; Dacian gladiators, with whom fighting was a trade; philosophers, whose chief claim to reputation was the length of their beards; supple Greeklings of the Tartuffe species, ready to flatter and lie with consummate skill, and spreading their vile character like a pollution wherever they went: and among all these a number of poor but honest clients, forced quietly to put up with a thousand forms of contumely[14] and insult, and living in discontented idleness on the _sportula_ or daily largesse which was administered by the grudging liberality of their haughty patrons. The stout old Roman burgher had well-nigh disappeared; the sturdy independence, the manly self-reliance of an industrial population were all but unknown. The insolent loungers who bawled in the Forum were often mere stepsons of Italy, who had been dragged thither in chains,–the dregs of all nations, which had flowed into Rome as into a common sewer,[15] bringing with them no heritage except the specialty of their national vices. Their two wants were bread and the shows of the circus; so long as the _sportula_ of their patron, the occasional donative of an emperor, and the ambition of political candidates supplied these wants, they lived in contented abasement, anxious neither for liberty nor for power.

[Footnote 14: Few of the many sad pictures in the _Satires_ of Juvenal are more pitiable than that of the wretched “Quirites” struggling at their patrons’ doors for the pittance which formed their daily dole. (Sat i. 101.)]

[Footnote 15: See Juv. _Sat_. iii. 62. Scipio, on being interrupted by the mob in the Forum, exclaimed,–“Silence, ye stepsons of Italy! What! shall I fear these fellows now they are free, whom I myself have brought in chains to Rome?” (See Cic. _De Orat_. ii. 61.)]

II. It was an age at once of atheism and superstition. Strange to say, the two things usually go together. Just as Philippe Egalite, Duke of Orleans, disbelieved in God, and yet tried to conjecture his fate from the inspection of coffee-grounds at the bottom of a cup,–just as Louis XI. shrank from no perjury and no crime, and yet retained a profound reverence for a little leaden image which he carried in his cap,–so the Romans under the Empire sneered at all the whole crowd of gods and goddesses whom their fathers had worshipped, but gave an implicit credence to sorcerers, astrologers, spirit-rappers, exorcists, and every species of imposter and quack. The ceremonies of religion were performed with ritualistic splendour, but all belief in religion was dead and gone. “That there are such things as ghosts and subterranean realms not even boys believe,” says Juvenal, “except those who are still too young to pay a farthing for a bath.” [16] Nothing can exceed the cool impertinence with which the poet Martial prefers the favour of Domitian to that of the great Jupiter of the Capitol. Seneca, in his lost book “Against Superstitions,”[17] openly sneered at the old mythological legends of gods married and gods unmarried, and at the gods Panic and Paleness, and at Cloacina, the goddess of sewers, and at other deities whose cruelty and license would have been infamous even in mankind. And yet the priests, and Salii, and Flamens, and Augurs continued to fulfil their solemn functions, and the highest title of the Emperor himself was that of _Pontifex Maximus_, or Chief Priest, which he claimed as the recognized head of the national religion. “The common worship was regarded,” says Gibbon, “by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful.” And this famous remark is little more than a translation from Seneca, who, after exposing the futility of the popular beliefs, adds: “And yet the wise man will observe them all, not as pleasing to the gods, but as commanded by the laws. We shall so adore _all that ignoble crowd of gods_ which long superstition has heaped together in a long period of years, as to remember that their worship has more to do with custom than with reality.” “Because he was an illustrious senator of the Roman people,” observes St. Augustine, who has preserved for us this fragment, “he worshipped what he blamed, he did what he refuted, he adored that with which he found fault.” Could anything be more hollow or heartless than this? Is there anything which is more certain to sap the very foundations of morality than the public maintenance of a creed which has long ceased to command the assent, and even the respect of its recognized defenders? Seneca, indeed, and a few enlightened philosophers, might have taken refuge from the superstitions which they abandoned in a truer and purer form of faith. “Accordingly,” says Lactantius, one of the Christian Fathers, “he has said many things like ourselves concerning God.” [18] He utters what Tertullian finely calls “the testimony of A MIND NATURALLY CHRISTIAN.” But, meanwhile, what became of the common multitude? They too, like their superiors, learnt to disbelieve or to question the power of the ancient deities; but, as the mind absolutely requires _some_ religion on which to rest, they gave their real devotion to all kinds of strange and foreign deities,–to Isis and Osiris, and the dog Anubus, to Chaldaean magicians, to Jewish exercisers, to Greek quacks, and to the wretched vagabond priests of Cybele, who infested all the streets with their Oriental dances and tinkling tambourines. The visitor to the ruins of Pompeii may still see in her temple the statue of Isis, through whose open lips the gaping worshippers heard the murmured answers they came to seek. No doubt they believed as firmly that the image spoke, as our forefathers believed that their miraculous Madonnas nodded and winked. But time has exposed the cheat. By the ruined shrine the worshipper may now see the secret steps by which the priest got to the back of the statue, and the pipe entering the back of its head through which he whispered the answers of the oracle.

[Footnote 16: JUV. _Sat_. ii. 149. Cf. Sen. _Ep_. xxiv. “Nemo tam puer est at Cerberum timeat, et tenebras,” &c.]

[Footnote 17: Fragm. xxxiv.]

[Footnote 18: Lactantius, _Divin. Inst_. i. 4.]

III. It was an age of boundless luxury,–an age in which women recklessly vied with one another in the race of splendour and extravagance, and in which men plunged headlong, without a single scruple of conscience, and with every possible resource at their command, into the pursuit of pleasure. There was no form of luxury, there was no refinement of vice invented by any foreign nation, which had not been eagerly adopted by the Roman patricians. “The softness of Sybaris, the manners of Rhodes and Antioch, and of perfumed, drunken, flower-crowned Miletus,” were all to be found at Rome. There was no more of the ancient Roman severity and dignity and self-respect. The descendants of Aemilius and Gracchus–even generals and consuls and praetors–mixed familiarly with the lowest _canaille_ of Rome in their vilest and most squalid purlieus of shameless vice. They fought as amateur gladiators in the arena. They drove as competing charioteers on the race-course. They even condescended to appear as actors on the stage. They devoted themselves with such frantic eagerness to the excitement of gambling, that we read of their staking hundreds of pounds on a single throw of the dice, when they could not even restore the pawned tunics to their shivering slaves. Under the cold marble statues, or amid the waxen likenesses of their famous stately ancestors, they turned night into day with long and foolish orgies, and exhausted land and sea with the demands of their gluttony. “Woe to that city,” says an ancient proverb, “in which a fish costs more than an ox;” and this exactly describes the state of Rome. A banquet would sometimes cost the price of an estate; shell-fish were brought from remote and unknown shores, birds from Parthia and the banks of the Phasis; single dishes were made of the brains of the peacocks and the tongues of nightingales and flamingoes. Apicius, after squandering nearly a million of money in the pleasures of the table, committed suicide, Seneca tells us, because he found that he had only 80,000_l_. left. Cowley speaks of–

“Vitellius’ table, which did hold
As many creatures as the ark of old.”

“They eat,” said Seneca, “and then they vomit; they vomit, and then they eat.” But even in this matter we cannot tell anything like the worst facts about–

“Their sumptuous gluttonies and gorgeous feasts On citron tables and Atlantic stone,
Their wines of Setia, Gales, and Falerne, Chios, and Crete, and how they quaff in gold, Crystal, and myrrhine cups, embossed with gems And studs of pearl.” [19]

Still less can we pretend to describe the unblushing and unutterable degradation of this period as it is revealed to us by the poets and the satirists. “All things,” says Seneca, “are full of iniquity and vice; more crime is committed than can be remedied by restraint. We struggle in a huge contest of criminality: daily the passion for sin is greater, the shame in committing it is less…. Wickedness is no longer committed in secret: it flaunts before our eyes, and

“The citron board, the bowl embossed with gems, … whatever is known
Of rarest acquisition; Tyrian garbs, Neptunian Albion’s high testaceous food, And flavoured Chian wines, with incense fumed, To slake patrician thirst: for these their rights In the vile atreets they prostitute for sale, Their ancient rights, their dignities, their laws, Their native glorious freedom.

has been sent forth so openly into public sight, and has prevailed so completely in the breast of all, that innocence is not _rare_, but _non-existent_.”

[Footnote 19: Compare the lines in Dyer’s little-remembered _Ruins of Rome_.]

IV. And it was an age of deep sadness. That it should have been so is an instructive and solemn lesson. In proportion to the luxury of the age were its misery and its exhaustion. The mad pursuit of pleasure was the death and degradation of all true happiness. Suicide–suicide out of pure _ennui_ and discontent at a life overflowing with every possible means of indulgence–was extraordinarily prevalent. The Stoic philosophy, especially as we see it represented in the tragedies attributed to Seneca, rang with the glorification of it. Men ran to death because their mode of life had left them no other refuge. They died because it seemed so tedious and so superfluous to be seeing and doing and saying the same things over and over again; and because they had exhausted the very possibility of the only pleasures of which they had left themselves capable. The satirical epigram of Destouches,–

“Ci-git Jean Rosbif, ecuyer,
Qui se pendit pour se desennuyer,”

was literally and strictly true of many Romans during this epoch. Marcellinus, a young and wealthy noble, starved himself, and then had himself suffocated in a warm bath, merely because he was attacked with a perfectly curable illness. The philosophy which alone professed itself able to heal men’s sorrows applauded the supposed courage of a voluntary death, and it was of too abstract, too fantastic, and too purely theoretical a character to furnish them with any real or lasting consolations. No sentiment caused more surprise to the Roman world than the famous one preserved in the fragment of Maecenas,–

“Debilem facito manu,
Debilem pede, coxa,
Tuber adstrue gibberum,
Lubricos quate dentes;
Vita dum superest bene est;
Hanc mihi vel acuta
Si sedeam cruce sustine;”

which may be paraphrased,–

“Numb my hands with palsy,
Rack my feet with gout,
Hunch my back and shoulder,
Let my teeth fall out;
Still, if _Life_ be granted,
I prefer the loss;
Save my life, and give me
Anguish on the cross.”

Seneca, in his 101st Letter, calls this “a most disgraceful and most contemptible wish;” but it may be paralleled out of Euripides, and still more closely out of Homer. “Talk not,” says the shade of Achilles to Ulysses in the Odyssey,–

“‘Talk not of reigning in this dolorous gloom, Nor think vain lies,’ he cried, ‘can ease my doom. _Better by far laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air, Slave to the meanest hind that begs his bread, Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead_.'”

But this falsehood of extremes was one of the sad outcomes of the popular Paganism. Either, like the natural savage, they dreaded death with an intensity of terror; or, when their crimes and sorrows had made life unsupportable, they slank to it as a refuge, with a cowardice which vaunted itself as courage.

V. And it was an age of cruelty. The shows of gladiators, the sanguinary combats of wild beasts, the not unfrequent spectacle of savage tortures and capital punishments, the occasional sight of innocent martyrs burning to death in their shirts of pitchy fire, must have hardened and imbruted the public sensibility. The immense prevalence of slavery tended still more inevitably to the general corruption. “Lust,” as usual, was “hard by hate.” One hears with perfect amazement of the number of slaves in the wealthy houses. A thousand slaves was no extravagant number, and the vast majority of them were idle, uneducated and corrupt. Treated as little better than animals, they lost much of the dignity of men. Their masters possessed over them the power of life and death, and it is shocking to read of the cruelty with which they were often treated. An accidental murmur, a cough, a sneeze, was punished with rods. Mute, motionless, fasting, the slaves had to stand by while their masters supped; A brutal and stupid barbarity often turned a house into the shambles of an executioner, sounding with scourges, chains, and yells.[20] One evening the Emperor Augustus was supping at the house of Vedius Pollio, when one of the slaves, who was carrying a crystal goblet, slipped down, and broke it. Transported with rage Vedius at once ordered the slave to be seized, and plunged into the fish-pond as food to the lampreys. The boy escaped from the hands of his fellow-slaves, and fled to Caesar’s feet to implore, not that his life should be spared–a pardon which he neither expected nor hoped–but that he might die by a mode of death less horrible than being devoured by fishes. Common as it was to torment slaves, and to put them to death, Augustus, to his honor be it spoken, was horrified by the cruelty of Vedius, and commanded both that the slave should be set free, that every crystal vase in the house of Vedius should be broken in his presence and that the fish pond should be filled up. Even women inflicted upon their female slaves punishments of the most cruel atrocity for faults of the most venial character. A brooch wrongly placed, a tress of hair ill-arranged, and the enraged matron orders her slave to be lashed and crucified. If her milder husband interferes, she not only justifies the cruelty, but asks in amazement: “What! is a slave so much of a human being?” No wonder that there was a proverb, “As many slaves, so many foes.” No wonder that many masters lived in perpetual fear, and that “the tyrant’s devilish plea, necessity,” might be urged in favor of that odious law which enacted that, if a master was murdered by an unknown hand, the whole body of his slaves should suffer death,–a law which more than once was carried into effect under the reigns of the Emperors. Slavery, as we see in the case of Sparta and many other nations, always involves its own retribution. The class of free peasant proprietors gradually disappears. Long before this time Tib. Gracchus, in coming home from Sardinia, had observed that there was scarcely a single freeman to be seen in the fields. The slaves were infinitely more numerous than their owners. Hence arose the constant dread of servile insurrections; the constant hatred of a slave population to which any conspirator revolutionist might successfully appeal; and the constant insecurity of life, which must have struck terror into many hearts.

[Footnote 20: Juv. _Sat_. i. 219–222.]

Such is but a faint and broad outline of some of the features of Seneca’s age; and we shall be unjust if we do not admit that much at least of the life he lived, and nearly all the sentiments he uttered, gain much in grandeur and purity from the contrast they offer to the common life of–

“That people victor once, now vile and base, Deservedly made vassal, who, once just, Frugal, and mild, and temperate, conquered well, But govern ill the nations under yoke, Peeling their provinces, exhausted all By lust and rapine; first ambitious grown Of triumph, that insulting vanity;
Then cruel, by their sports to blood inured Of fighting beasts, and men to beasts exposed, Luxurious by their wealth, and greedier still, And from the daily scene effeminate.
What wise and valient men would seek to free These thus degenerate, by themselves enslaved; Or could of inward slaves make outward free?” MILTON, _Paradise Regained_, iv. 132-145.



The personal notices of Seneca’s life up to the period of his manhood are slight and fragmentary. From an incidental expression we conjecture that he visited his aunt in Egypt when her husband was Prefect of that country, and that he shared with her the dangers of shipwreck when her husband had died on board ship during the homeward voyage. Possibly the visit may have excited in his mind that deep interest and curiosity about the phenomena of the Nile which appear so strongly in several passages of his _Natural Questions_; and, indeed nothing is more likely than that he suggested to Nero the earliest recorded expedition to discover the source of the mysterious river. No other allusion to his travels occur in his writings, but we may infer that from very early days he had felt an interest for physical inquiry, since while still a youth he had written a book on earthquakes; which has not come down to us.

Deterred by his father from the pursuit of philosophy, he entered on the duties of a profession. He became an advocate, and distinguished himself by his genius and eloquence in pleading causes. Entering on a political career, he became a successful candidate for the quaestorship, which was an important step towards the highest offices of the state. During this period of his life he married a lady whose name has not been preserved to us, and to whom we have only one allusion, which is a curious one. As in our own history it has been sometimes the fashion for ladies of rank to have dwarves and negroes among their attendants, so it seems to have been the senseless and revolting custom of the Roman ladies of this time to keep idiots among the number of their servants. The first wife of Seneca had followed this fashion, and Seneca in his fiftieth letter to his friend Lucilius[21] makes the following interesting allusion to the fact. “You know,” he says, “that my wife’s idiot girl Harpaste has remained in my house as a burdensome legacy. For personally I feel the profoundest dislike to monstrosities of that kind. If ever I want to amuse myself with an idiot, I have not far to look for one. I laugh at myself. This idiot girl has suddenly become blind. Now, incredible as the story seems, it is really true that she is unconscious of her blindness, and consequently begs her attendant to go elsewhere, because the house is dark. But you may be sure that this, at which we laugh in her, happens to us all; no one understands that he is avaricious or covetous. The blind seek for a guide; _we_ wander about without a guide.”

[Footnote 21: It will be observed that the main biographical facts about the life of Seneca are to be gleaned from his letters to Lucilius, who was his constant friend from youth to old age, and to whom he has dedicated his Natural Questions. Lucilius was a procurator of Sicily, a man of cultivated taste and high principle. He was the author of a poem on Aetna, which in the opinion of many competent judges is the poem which has come down to us, and has been attributed to Varus, Virgil, and others. It has been admirably edited by Mr. Munro. (See _Nat. Quaest._, iv. _ad init. Ep_. lxxix.) He also wrote a poem on the fountain Arethusa. _(Nat. Quaest_. iii, 26.)]

This passage will furnish us with an excellent example of Seneca’s invariable method of improving every occasion and circumstance into an opportunity for a philosophic harangue.

By this wife, who died shortly before Seneca’s banishment to Corsica, he had two sons, one of whom expired in the arms and amid the kisses of Helvia less than a month before Seneca’s departure for Corsica. To the other, whose name was Marcus, he makes the following pleasant allusion. After urging his mother Helvia to find consolation in the devotion of his brothers Gallio and Mela, he adds, “From these turn your eyes also on your grandsons–to Marcus, that most charming little boy, in sight of whom no melancholy can last long. No misfortune in the breast of any one can have been so great or so recent as not to be soothed by his caresses. Whose tears would not his mirth repress? whose mind would not his prattling loose from the pressure of anxiety? whom will not that joyous manner of his incline to jesting? whose attention, even though he be fixed in thought, will not be attracted and absorbed by that childlike garrulity of which no one can grow tired? God grant that he may survive me: may all the cruelty of destiny be weared out on me!”

Whether the prayer of Seneca was granted we do not know; but, as we do not again hear of Marcus, it is probable that he died before his father, and that the line of Seneca, like that of so many great men, became extinct in the second generation.

It was probably during this period that Seneca laid the foundations of that enormous fortune which excited the hatred and ridicule of his opponents. There is every reason to believe that this fortune was honourably gained. As both his father and mother were wealthy, he had doubtless inherited an ample competency; this was increased by the lucrative profession of a successful advocate, and was finally swollen by the princely donations of his pupil Nero. It is not improbable that Seneca, like Cicero, and like all the wealthy men of their day, increased his property by lending money upon interest. No disgrace attached to such a course; and as there is no proof for the charges of Dio Cassius on this head, we may pass them over with silent contempt. Dio gravely informs us that Seneca excited an insurrection in Britain, by suddenly calling in the enormous sum of 40,000,000 sesterces; but this is in all probability the calumny of a professed enemy. We shall refer again to Seneca’s wealth; but we may here admit that it was undoubtedly ungraceful and incongruous in a philosopher who was perpetually dwelling on the praises of poverty, and that even in his own age it attracted unfavourable notice, as we may see from the epithet _Proedives_, “the over-wealthy,” which is applied to him alike by a satiric poet and by a grave historian. Seneca was perfectly well aware that this objection could be urged against him, and it must be admitted that the grounds on which he defends himself in his treatise _On a Happy Life_ are not very conclusive or satisfactory.

The boyhood of Seneca fell in the last years of the Emperor Augustus, when, in spite of the general decorum and amiability of their ruler, people began to see clearly that nothing was left of liberty except the name. His youth and early manhood were spent during those three-and-twenty years of the reign of Tiberius, that reign of terror, during which the Roman world was reduced to a frightful silence and torpor as of death;[22] and, although he was not thrown into personal collision with that “brutal monster,” he not unfrequently alludes to him, and to the dangerous power and headlong ruin of his wicked minister Sejanus. Up to this time he had not experienced in his own person those crimes and horrors which fall to the lot of men who are brought into close contact with tyrants. This first happened to him in the reign of Caius Caesar, of whom we are enabled, from the writings of Seneca alone, to draw a full-length portrait.

[Footnote 22: Milton, _Paradise Regained_, iv. 128. For a picture of Tiberius as he appeared in his old age at Capreae, “hated of all and hating,” see Id. 90-97.]

Caius Caesar was the son of Germanicus and the elder Agrippina. Germanicus was the bravest and most successful general, and one of the wisest and most virtuous men, of his day. His wife Agrippina, in her fidelity, her chastity, her charity, her nobility of mind, was the very model of a Roman matron of the highest and purest stamp. Strange that the son of such parents should have been one of the vilest, cruelest, and foulest of the human race. So, however, it was; and it is a remarkable fact that scarcely one of the six children of this marriage displayed the virtues of their father and mother, while two of them, Caius Caesar and the younger Agrippina, lived to earn an exceptional infamy by their baseness and their crimes. Possibly this unhappy result may have been partly due to the sad circumstances of their early education. Their father, Germanicus, who by his virtue and his successes had excited the suspicious jealousy of his uncle Tiberius, was by his distinct connivance, if not by his actual suggestion, atrociously poisoned in Syria. Agrippina, after being subjected to countless cruel insults, was banished in the extremest poverty to the island of Pandataria. Two of the elder brothers, Nero and Drusus Germanicus, were proclaimed public enemies: Nero was banished to the island Pontia, and there put to death; Drusus was kept a close prisoner in a secret prison of the palace. Caius, the youngest, who is better known by the name Caligula, was summoned by Tiberius to his wicked retirement at Capreae, and there only saved his life by the most abject flattery and the most adroit submission.

Capreae is a little island of surpassing loveliness, forming one extremity of the Bay of Naples. Its soil is rich, its sea bright and limpid, its breezes cool and healthful. Isolated by its position, it is yet within easy reach of Rome. At that time, before Vesuvius had rekindled those wasteful fires which first shook down, and then deluged under lava and scoriae, the little cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii, the scene which it commanded was even more pre-eminently beautiful than now. Vineyards and olive-groves clothed the sides of that matchless bay, down to the very line where the bright blue waters seem to kiss with their ripples the many-coloured pebbles of the beach. Over all, with its sides dotted with picturesque villas and happy villages, towered the giant cone of the volcano which for centuries had appeared to be extinct, and which was clothed up to the very crater with luxurious vegetation. Such was the delicious home which Tiberius disgraced for ever by the seclusion of his old age. Here he abandoned himself to every refinement of wickedness, and from hence, being by common consent the most miserable of men, he wrote to the Senate that memorable letter in which he confesses his daily and unutterable misery under the stings of a guilty conscience, which neither solitude nor power enabled him to escape.

Never did a fairer scene undergo a worse degradation; and here, in one or other of the twelve villas which Tiberius had built, and among the azure grottoes which he caused to be constructed, the youthful Caius[23] grew up to manhood. It would have been a terrible school even for a noble nature; for a nature corrupt and bloodthirsty like that of Caius it was complete and total ruin. But, though he was so obsequious to the Emperor as to originate the jest that never had there been a worse master and never a more cringing slave,–though he suppressed every sign of indignation at the horrid deaths of his mother and his brothers,–though he assiduously reflected the looks, and carefully echoed the very words, of his patron,–yet not even by the deep dissimulation which such a position required did he succeed in concealing from the penetrating eye of Tiberius the true ferocity of his character. Not being the acknowledged heir to the kingdom,–for Tiberius Gemellus, the youthful grandson of Tiberius, was living, and Caius was by birth only his grand-nephew,–he became a tool for the machinations of Marco the praetorian praefect and his wife Ennia. One of his chief friends was the cruel Herod Agrippa,[24] who put to death St. James and imprisoned St. Peter, and whose tragical fate is recorded in the 12th chap. of the Acts. On one occasion, when Caius had been abusing the dictator Sulla, Tiberius scornfully remarked that he would have all Sulla’s vices and none of his virtues; and on another, after a quarrel between Caius and his cousin, the Emperor embraced with tears his young grandson, and said to the frowning Caius, with one of those strange flashes of prevision of which we sometimes read in history. “Why are you so eager? Some day you will kill this boy, and some one else will murder you.” There were some who believed that Tiberius deliberately cherished the intention of allowing Caius to succeed him, in order that the Roman world might relent towards his own memory under the tyranny of a worse monster than himself. Even the Romans, who looked up to the family of Germanicus with extraordinary affection, seem early to have lost all hopes about Caius. They looked for little improvement under the government of a vicious boy, “ignorant of all things, or nurtured only in the worst,” who would be likely to reflect the influence of Macro, and present the spectacle of a worse Tiberius under a worse Sejanus.

[Footnote 23: We shall call him Caius, because it is as little correct to write of him by the _sobriquet_ Caligula as it would be habitually to write of our kings Edward or John as Longshanks or Lackland. The name Caligula means “a little shoe,” and was the pet name given to him by the soldiers of his father, in whose camp he was born.]

[Footnote 24: Josephus adds some curious and interesting particulars to the story of this Herod and his death which are not mentioned in the narrative of St. Luke (_Antiq_. xix. 7, 8. Jahn, _Hebr. Commonwealth_, sec. cxxvi.)]

At last health and strength failed Tiberius, but not his habitual dissimulation. He retained the same unbending soul, and by his fixed countenance and measured language, sometimes by an artificial affability, he tried to conceal his approaching end. After many restless changes, he finally settled down in a villa at Misenum which had once belonged to the luxurious Lucullus. There the real state of his health was discovered. Charicles, a distinguished physician, who had been paying him a friendly visit on kissing his hand to bid farewell, managed to ascertain the state of his pulse. Suspecting that this was the case Tiberius, concealing his displeasure, ordered a banquet to be spread, as though in honour of his friend’s departure, and stayed longer than usual at table. A similar story is told of Louis XIV. who, noticing from the whispers of his courtiers that they believed him to be dying, ate an unusually large dinner on the very day of his death, and sarcastically observed, “Il me semble que pour un homme qui va mourir je ne mange pas mal.” But, in spite of the precautions of Tiberius, Charicles informed Macro that the Emperor could not last beyond two days.

A scene of secret intrigue at once began. The court broke up into knots and cliques. Hasty messengers were sent to the provinces and their armies, until at last, on the 16th of March, it was believed that Tiberius had breathed his last. Just as on the death of Louis XV. a sudden noise was heard as of thunder, the sound of courtiers rushing along the corridors to congratulate Louis XVI. in the famous words, “Le roi est mort, vive le roi,” so a crowd instantly thronged round Caius with their congratulations, as he went out of the palace to assume his imperial authority. Suddenly a message reached him that Tiberius had recovered voice and sight. Seneca says, that feeling his last hour to be near, he had taken off his ring, and, holding it in his shut left hand, had long lain motionless; then calling his servants, since no one answered his call, he rose from his couch, and, his strength failing him, after a few tottering steps fell prostrate on the ground.

The news produced the same consternation as that which was produced among the conspirators at Adonijah’s banquet, when they heard of the measures taken by the dying David. There was a panic-stricken dispersion, and every one pretended to be grieved, or ignorant of what was going on. Caius, in stupified silence, expected death instead of empire. Macro alone did not lose his presence of mind. With the utmost intrepidity, he gave orders that the old man should be suffocated by heaping over him a mass of clothes, and that every one should then leave the chamber. Such was the miserable and unpitied end of the Emperor Tiberius, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. Such was the death, and so miserable had been the life, of the man to whom the Tempter had already given “the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them,” when he tried to tempt with them the Son of God. That this man should have been the chief Emperor of the earth at a time when its true King was living as a peasant in his village home at Nazareth, is a fact suggestive of many and of solemn thoughts.



The poet Gray, in describing the deserted deathbed of our own great Edward III., says:–

“Low on his funeral couch he lies! No pitying heart, no eye afford
A tear to grace his obsequies!

* * * * *

“The swarm that in the noontide beam were born? Gone to salute the rising Morn.
Fair laughs the Morn, and soft the zephyr blows, While proudly riding o’er the azure realm, In gallant trim the gilded vessel goes; Youth on the prow and Pleasure at the helm; Regardless of the sweeping Whirlwind’s sway, That, hushed in grim repose, expects his evening prey.”

The last lines of this passage would alone have been applicable to Caius Caesar. There was nothing fair or gay even about the beginning of his reign. From first to last it was a reign of fury and madness, and lust and blood. There was an hereditary taint of insanity in this family, which was developed by their being placed on the dizzy pinnacle of imperial despotism, and which usually took the form of monstrous and abnormal crime. If we would seek a parallel for Caius Caesar, we must look for it in the history of Christian VII. of Denmark, and Paul of Russia. In all three we find the same ghastly pallor, the same sleeplessness which compelled them to rise, and pace their rooms at night, the same incessant suspicion; the same inordinate thirst for cruelty and torture. He took a very early opportunity to disembarrass himself of his benefactors, Macro and Ennia, and of his rival, the young Tiberius. The rest of his reign was a series of brutal extravagances. We have lost the portion of those matchless Annals of Tacitus which contained the reign of Caius, but more than enough to revolt and horrify is preserved in the scattered notices of Seneca, and in the narratives of Suetonius in Latin and Dio Cassius in Greek.

His madness showed itself sometimes in gluttonous extravagance, as when he ordered a supper which cost more than 8,000_l_; sometimes in a _bizarre_ and disgraceful mode of dress, as when he appeared in public in women’s stockings, embroidered with gold and pearls; sometimes in a personality and insolence of demeanor towards every rank and class in Rome, which made him ask a senator to supper, and ply him with drunken toasts, on the very evening on which he had condemned his son to death; sometimes in sheer raving blasphemy, as when he expressed his furious indignation against Jupiter for presuming to thunder while he was supping, or looking at the pantomimes; but most of all in a ferocity which makes Seneca apply to him the name of “Bellua,” or “wild monster,” and say that he seems to have been produced “for the disgrace and destruction of the human race.”

We will quote from the pages of Seneca but one single passage to justify his remark “that he was most greedy for human blood, which he ordered to stream in his very presence with such eagerness as though he were going to drink it up with his lips.” He says that in one day he scourged and tortured men of consular and quaestorial parentage, knights and senators, not by way of examination, but out of pure caprice and rage; he seriously meditated the butchery of the entire senate; he expressed a wish that the Roman people had but a single neck, that he might strike it off at one blow; he silenced the screams or reproaches of his victims sometimes by thrusting a sponge in their mouths, sometimes by having their mouths gagged with their own torn robes, sometimes by ordering their tongues to be cut out before they were thrown to the wild beasts. On one occasion, rising from a banquet, he called for his slippers, which were kept by the slaves while the guests reclined on the purple couches, and so impatient was he for the sight of death, that, walking up and down his covered portico by lamplight with ladies and senators, he then and there ordered some of his wretched victims to be beheaded in his sight.

It is a singular proof of the unutterable dread and detestation inspired by some of these Caesars, that their mere countenance is said to have inspired anguish. Tacitus, in the life of his father-in-law Agricola, mentions the shuddering recollection of the red face of Domitian, as it looked on at the games. Seneca speaks in one place of wretches doomed to undergo stones, sword, fire, and _Caius_; in another he says that he had tortured the noblest Romans with everything which could possibly cause the intensest agony,–with cords, plates, rack, fire, and, as though it were the worst torture of all, with his look! What that look was, we learn from Seneca himself, “His face was ghastly pale, with a look of insanity; his fierce, dull eyes were half-hidden under a wrinkled brow; his ill-shaped head was partly bald, partly covered with dyed-hair; his neck covered with bristles, his legs thin, and his feet mis-shapen.” Woe to the nation that lies under the heel of a brutal despotism; treble woe to the nation that can tolerate a despot so brutal as this! Yet this was the nation in the midst of which Seneca lived, and this was the despot under whom his early manhood was spent.

“But what more oft in nations grown corrupt, And by their vices brought to servitude, Than to love bondage more than liberty, Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty?”

It was one of the peculiarities of Caius Caesar that he hated the very existence of any excellence. He used to bully and insult the gods themselves, frowning even at the statues of Apollo and Jupiter of the Capitol. He thought of abolishing Homer, and order the works of Livy and Virgil to be removed from all libraries, because he could not bear that they should be praised. He ordered Julius Graecinus to be put to death for no other reason than this, “That he was a better man than it was expedient for a tyrant that any one should be;” for, as Pliny tells us, the Caesars deliberately preferred that their people should be vicious than that they should be virtuous. It was hardly likely that such a man should view with equanimity the rising splendour of Seneca’s reputation. Hitherto, the young man, who was thirty-five years old at the accession of Caius, had not written any of his philosophic works, but in all probability he had published his early, and no longer extant, treatises on earthquakes, on superstitions, and the books _On India_, and _On the Manners of Egypt_, which had been the fruit of his early travels. It is probable, too, that he had recited in public some of those tragedies which have come down to us under his name, and in the composition of which he was certainly concerned. All these works, and especially the applause won by the public reading of his poems, would have given him that high literary reputation which we know him to have earned. It was not, however, this reputation, but the brilliancy and eloquence of his orations at the bar which excited the jealous hatred of the Emperor. Caius piqued himself on the possession of eloquence; and, strange to say, there are isolated expressions of his which seem to show that, in lucid intervals, he was by no means devoid of intellectual acuteness. For instance, there is real humour and insight in the nicknames of “a golden sheep” which he gave to the rich and placid Silanus, and of “Ulysses in petticoats,” by which he designated his grandmother, the august Livia. The two epigrammetic criticisms which he passed upon the style of Seneca are not wholly devoid of truth; he called his works _Commissiones meras_, or mere displays.[25] In this expression he hit off, happily enough, the somewhat theatrical, the slightly pedantic and pedagogic and professorial character of Seneca’s diction, its rhetorical ornament and antitheses, and its deficiency in stern masculine simplicity and strength. In another remark he showed himself a still more felicitous critic. He called Seneca’s writings _Arenu sine Calce_, “sand without lime,” or, as we might say, “a rope of sand.” This epigram showed a real critical faculty. It exactly hits off Seneca’s short and disjointed sentences, consisting as they often do of detached antitheses. It accords with the amusing comparison of Malebranche, that Seneca’s composition, with its perpetual and futile recurrences, calls up to him the image of a dancer who ends where he begins.

[Footnote 25: Suet. _Calig._ liii.]

But Caius did not confine himself to clever and malignant criticism. On one occasion, when Seneca was pleading in his presence, he was so jealous and displeased at the brilliancy and power of the orator that he marked him out for immediate execution. Had Seneca died at this period he would probably have been little known, and he might have left few traces of his existence beyond a few tragedies of uncertain authenticity, and possibly a passing notice in the page of Dio or Tacitus. But destiny reserved him for a more splendid and more questionable career. One of Caius’s favourites whispered to the Emperor that it was useless to extinguish a waning lamp; that the health of the orator was so feeble that a natural death by the progress of his consumptive tendencies would, in a very short time, remove him out of the tyrant’s way.

Throughout the remainder of the few years during which the reign of Caius continued, Seneca, warned in time, withdrew himself into complete obscurity, employing his enforced leisure in that unbroken industry which stored his mind with such encyclopaedic wealth. “None of my days,” he says, in describing at a later period the way in which he spent his time, “is passed in complete ease. I claim even a part of the night for my studies. I do not _find leisure_ for sleep, but I _succumb_ to it, and I keep my eyes at their work even when they are wearied and drooping with watchfulness. I have retired, not only from men, but from affairs, and especially from my own. I am doing the work for posterity; I am writing out things which may prove of advantage to them. I am intrusting to writing healthful admonitions–compositions, as it were, of useful medicines.”

But the days of Caius drew rapidly to an end. His gross and unheard-of insults to Valerius Asiaticus and Cassius Chaereas brought on him condign vengeance. It is an additional proof, if proof were wanting, of the degradation of Imperial Rome, that the deed of retribution was due, not to the people whom he taxed; not to the soldiers, whole regiments of whom he had threatened to decimate; not to the knights, of whom scores had been put to death by his orders; not to the nobles, multitudes of whom had been treated by him with conspicuous infamy; not even to the Senate, which illustrious body he had on all occasions deliberately treated with contumely and hatred,–but to the private revenge of an insulted soldier. The weak thin voice of Cassius Chaereas, tribune of the praetorian cohort, had marked him out for the coarse and calumnious banter of the imperial buffoon; and he determined to avenge himself, and at the same time rid the world of a monster. He engaged several accomplices in the conspiracy, which was nearly frustrated by their want of resolution. For four whole days they hesitated, while day after day, Caius presided in person at the bloody games of the amphitheatre. On the fifth day (Jan. 24, A.D. 41), feeling unwell after one of his gluttonous suppers, he was indisposed to return to the shows, but at last rose to do so at the solicitation of his attendants. A vaulted corridor led from the palace to the circus, and in that corridor Caius met a body of noble Asiatic boys, who were to dance a Pyrrhic dance and sing a laudatory ode upon the stage. Caius wished them at once to practice a rehearsal in his presence, but their leader excused himself on the grounds of hoarseness. At this moment Chaereas asked him for the watchword of the night. He gave the watchword, “Jupiter.” “Receive him in his wrath!” exclaimed Chaereas, striking him on the throat, while almost at the same moment the blow of Sabinus cleft the tyrant’s jaw, and brought him to his knee. He crouched his limbs together to screen himself from further blows, screaming aloud, “I live! I live!” The bearers of his litter rushed to his assistance, and fought with their poles, but Caius fell pierced with thirty wounds; and, leaving the body weltering in its blood, the conspirators rushed out of the palace, and took measures to concert with the Senate a restoration of the old Republic. On the very night after the murder the consuls gave to Chaereas the long-forgotten watchword of “Liberty.” But this little gleam of hope proved delusive to the last degree. It was believed that the unquiet ghost of the murdered madman haunted the palace, and long before it had been laid to rest by the forms of decent sepulchre, a new emperor of the great Julian family was securely seated upon the throne.



While the senators were deliberating, the soldiers were acting. They felt a true, though degraded, instinct that to restore the ancient forms of democratic freedom would be alike impossible and useless, and with them the only question lay between the rival claimants for the vacant power. Strange to say that, among these claimants, no one seems ever to have thought of mentioning the prince who became the actual successor.

There was living in the palace at this time a brother of the great Germanicus, and consequently an uncle of the late emperor, whose name was Claudius Caesar. Weakened both in mind and body by the continuous maladies of an orphaned infancy, kept under the cruel tyranny of a barbarous slave, the unhappy youth had lived in despised obscurity among the members of a family who were utterly ashamed of him. His mother Antonia called him a monstrosity, which Nature had begun but never finished; and it became a proverbial expression with her, as is said to have been the case with the mother of the great Wellington, to say of a dull person, “that he was a greater fool than her son Claudius.” His grandmother Livia rarely deigned to address him except in the briefest and bitterest terms. His sister Livilla execrated the mere notion of his ever becoming emperor. Augustus, his grandfather by adoption, took pains to keep him as much out of sight as possible, as a wool-gathering[26] and discreditable member of the family, denied him all public honours, and left him a most paltry legacy. Tiberius, when looking out for a successor, deliberately passed him over as a man of deficient intellect. Caius kept him as a butt for his own slaps and blows, and for the low buffoonery of his meanest jesters. If the unhappy Claudius came late for dinner, he would find every place occupied, and peer about disconsolately amid insulting smiles. If, as was his usual custom, he dropped asleep, after a meal, he was pelted with olives and date-stones, or rough stockings were drawn over his hands that he might be seen rubbing his face with them when he was suddenly awaked.

[Footnote 26: He calls him [Greek meteoros] which implies awkwardness and constant absence of mind.]

This was the unhappy being who was now summoned to support the falling weight of empire. While rummaging the palace for plunder, a common soldier had spied a pair of feet protruding from under the curtains which shaded the sides of an upper corridor. Seizing these feet, and inquiring who owned them, he dragged out an uncouth, panic-stricken mortal, who immediately prostrated himself at his knees and begged hard for mercy. It was Claudius, who scared out of his wits by the tragedy which he had just beheld, had thus tried to conceal himself until the storm was passed. “Why, this is Germanicus!” [27] exclaimed the soldier, “let’s make him emperor.” Half joking and half in earnest, they hoisted him on their shoulders–for terror had deprived him of the use of his legs–and hurried him off to the camp of the Praetorians. Miserable and anxious he reached the camp, an object of compassion to the crowd of passers-by, who believed that he was being hurried off to execution. But the soldiers, who well knew their own interests, accepted him with acclamations, the more so as, by a fatal precedent, he promised them a largess of more than 80_l_. apiece. The supple Agrippa (the Herod of Acts xii.), seeing how the wind lay, offered to plead his cause with the Senate, and succeeded partly by arguments, partly by intimidation, and partly by holding out the not unreasonable hopes of a great improvement on the previous reign.

[Footnote 27: The full name of Claudius was Tiberius Claudius Drusus Caesar Germanicus.]

For although Claudius had been accused of gambling and drunkenness, not only were no _worse_ sins laid to his charge, but he had successfully established some claim to being considered a learned man. Had fortune blessed him till death with a private station, he might have been the Lucien Bonaparte of his family–a studious prince, who preferred the charms of literature to the turmoil of ambition. The anecdotes which have been recorded of him show that he was something of an archaeologist, and something of a philologian. The great historian Livy, pitying the neglect with which the poor young man was treated, had encouraged him in the study of history; and he had written memoirs of his own time, memoirs of Augustus, and even a history of the civil wars since the battle of Actium, which was so correct and so candid that his family indignantly suppressed it as a fresh proof of his stupidity.

Such was the man who, at the age of fifty, became master of the civilized world. He offers some singular points of resemblance to our own “most mighty and dread sovereign,” King James I. Both were learned, and both were eminently unwise;[28] both of them were authors, and both of them were pedants; both of them delegated their highest powers to worthless favourites, and both of them enriched these favourites with such foolish liberality that they remained poor themselves. Both of them had been terrified into constitutional cowardice by their involuntary presence at deeds of blood. Both of them, though of naturally good dispositions, were misled by selfishness into acts of cruelty; and both of them, though laborious in the discharge of duty, succeeded only in rendering royalty ridiculous. King James kept Sir Walter Raleigh in prison, and Claudius drove Seneca into exile. The parallel, so far as I am aware, has never been noticed, but is susceptible of being drawn out into the minutest particulars.

[Footnote 28: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers,” says our own poet. Heraclitus had said the same thing more than two thousand years before him, [Greek: polumaoiae ou didasho].]

One of his first acts was to recall his nieces, Julia and Agrippina, from the exile into which their brother had driven them; and both these princesses were destined to effect a powerful influence on the life of our philosopher.

What part Seneca had taken during the few troubled days after the murder of Caius we do not know. Had he taken a leading part–had he been one of those who, like Chaereas, opposed the election of Claudius as being merely the substitution of an imbecile for a lunatic,–or who, like Sabinus, refused to survive the accession of another Caesar,–we should perhaps have heard of it; and we must therefore assume either that he was still absent from Rome in the retirement into which he had been driven by the jealousy of Caius, or that he contented himself with quietly watching the course of events. It will be observed that his biography is not like that of Cicero, with whose life we are acquainted in most trifling details; but that the curtain rises and falls on isolated scenes, throwing into sudden brilliancy or into the deepest shade long and important periods of his history. Nor are his letters and other writings full of those political and personal allusions which convert them into an autobiography. They are, without exception, occupied exclusively with philosophical questions, or else they only refer to such personal reminiscences as may best be converted into the text for some Stoical paradox or moral declamation. It is, however, certain from the sequel that Seneca must have seized the opportunity of Caius’s death to emerge from his politic obscurity, and to occupy a conspicuous and brilliant position in the imperial court.

It would have been well for his own happiness and fame if he had adopted the wiser and manlier course of acting up to the doctrines he professed. A court at most periods is, as the poet says,

“A golden but a fatal circle,
Upon whose magic skirts a thousand devils In crystal forms sit tempting Innocence, And beckon early Virtue from its centre;”

but the court of a Caius, of a Claudius, or of a Nero, was indeed a place wherein few of the wise could find a footing, and still fewer of the good. And all that Seneca gained from his career of ambition was to be suspected by the first of these Emperors, banished by the second, and murdered by the third.

The first few acts of Claudius showed a sensible and kindly disposition; but it soon became fatally obvious that the real powers of the government would be wielded, not by the timid and absent-minded Emperor, but by any one who for the time being could acquire an ascendency over his well-intentioned but feeble disposition. Now, the friends and confidents of Claudius had long been chosen from the ranks of his freedmen. As under Louis XI. and Don Miguel, the barbers of these monarchs were the real governors, so Claudius was but the minister rather than the master of Narcissus his private secretary, of Polybius his literary adviser, and of Pallas his accountant. A third person, with whose name Scripture has made us familiar, was a freedman of Claudius. This was Felix, the brother of Pallas, and that Procurator who, though he had been the husband or the paramour of three queens, trembled before the simple eloquence of a feeble and imprisoned Jew.[29] These men became proverbial for their insolence and wealth; and once, when Claudius was complaining of his own poverty, some one wittily replied, “that he would have abundance if two of his freedmen would but admit him into partnership with them.”

[Footnote 29: Acts xix.]

But these men gained additional power from the countenance and intrigues of the young and beautiful wife of Claudius, Valeria Messalina. In his marriage, as in all else, Claudius had been pre-eminent in misfortune. He lived in an age of which the most frightful sign of depravity was that its women were, if possible, a shade worse than its men; and it was the misery of Claudius, as it finally proved his ruin, to have been united by marriage to the very worst among them all. Princesses like the Berenice, and the Drusilla, and the Salome, and the Herodias of the sacred historians were in this age a familiar spectacle; but none of them were so wicked as two at least of Claudius’s wives. He was betrothed or married no less than five times. The lady first destined for his bride had been repudiated because her parents had offended Augustus; the next died on the very day intended for her nuptials. By his first actual wife, Urgulania, whom he had married in early youth, he had two children, Drusus and Claudia; Drusus was accidentally choked in boyhood while trying to swallow a pear which had been thrown up into the air. Very shortly after the birth of Claudia, discovering the