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Between a rock and a hard place


Aristocrat. Senator. Consul. Philosopher. Playwright. Man of Principles...and Advisor to Emperor Nero. What could go wrong?


Seneca's philosophical insights bear witness to his experiences in Rome. He was a witness to the atrocities and injustices of Caligula, and soon after became a victim of palace jealousies in the court of Claudius and his wife Messalina.


Messalina eager to rid herself of political rivals targeted the surviving sisters of Caligula  who had a closer bloodline to Augustus, Rome's beloved first Emperor. Livilla became Messalina's first target.

  • Livilla was accused of adultery with Seneca. She was exiled to a barren and desolate island where she soon died. Seneca was more fortunate, escaping death and being exiled to Corsica, where he continued to write and philosophize.

  • Agrippina was not so easy to get rid of, as she had a son, Domitius. He was the last of an honoured bloodline (from Germanicus and Augustus). He was revered among the Roman populace and would continue to be a political threat to Messalina and her son, Brittanicus. 

But fortune had more in store for Seneca. He was recalled from exile by Agrippina to tutor her son in the ways of rhetoric. She sought to limit Seneca's tutoring to speech, inflection, and argument. She wanted none of his philosophizing on ethics and virtue to influence her son.


Shouldn't be a bad gig, right? Except that Agrippina - a real piece of work - might just be one of history's greatest villains. 

Bronze Statue of Seneca the Younger, Rom

Recommended Reading

Dying Every Day:

Seneca at the Court of Nero

by James Romm

Just how manipulative and dangerous was the Imperial Court?

  • Agrippina's greatest desire was to have her son become the next emperor, instead of Claudius' son Brittanicus.

  • Claudius would adopt Agrippina's son, Domitius, (now referred to as Nero) and betroth his daughter (Octavia) to him.

    • To avoid charges of incest, Claudius had Octavia adopted by another (as she was now Nero's brother).

  • When Claudius died, Agrippina would become the power behind Nero's ascension to Emperor.

    • She was also suspected in the poisoning of Claudius.

  • Agrippina sought to be the sole influence on Nero and removed - by poisoning - other political rivals within the imperial court.

  • Eventually, her power grab began to dwindle (with Seneca encouraging Nero to act on his own). 

  • To retain her hold on power, Agrippina threatened to support Britannicus and use the Praetorian Guard to replace Nero.

  • Nero, wary of the threat, had Brittanicus poisoned, sending a message to Agrippina and her constant meddling.

  • Much later, fearing Agrippina was plotting against him, Nero had her (his mother) killed.

  • Nero desiring a new wife, had Octavia framed for infidelity and exiled. Days later she was murdered, her head returned to the palace for his new wife Poppaea.

The Problem for Seneca

Seneca was caught between Agrippina (his patron) who sought unrestrained power for herself and her young son and his own desire to impart a positive influence on the young Nero. Seneca's intent to serve Rome and Nero honourably is evidenced in the inauguration speech he wrote for Nero. It promised to restore the dignity of the Senate and its constitutional powers. It also promised to end the abuses of power witnessed under Caligula and Augustus. The speech was very well received and bode well for the future of Nero's administration.

As Seneca fought to restrict Agrippina's influence on Nero, he also had to deal with Nero who was young and poorly suited for the role he was thrust into. It would become Seneca's burden to try and restrain the vices of the young emperor, while promoting virtue and principled governance. The responsibility weighed heavily on Seneca, as Nero feared no repercussions for any of his illicit behaviours and lawlessness. In killing Britannicus, Nero was also successful in curtailing the willingness of Seneca and Burrus (Commander of the Praetorian Guard) to intercede. 

Seneca did his best to positively influence Nero and carried on many affairs of state on his behalf. As his influence on Nero diminished over the years, he sought to buy his way out of service, but was unable to do so. He was trapped. He feared for his family and he feared for Rome under a tyrant without any moral compass/influence. In the end, Seneca lost his ability to positively influence Nero. He was eventually implicated in a plot to kill Nero and was ordered to commit suicide. Many other Romans were rounded up, tortured and executed in the persecutions that followed.

Some critics of Seneca impugn his reputation as a stoic because of his connection to Nero. Nonsense!

Seneca authored a substantial library of stoic literature during his life, that reflected a virtuous course of action for many of the issues he experienced. Below are a few already referenced in this exploration of Stoicism.

  • On the Shortness of Life

  • On Anger

  • Of a Happy Life

  • Letters from a Stoic

  • Consolation Letters


With his dramatic plays, he also had an opportunity to critique and satirize life in the imperial court. Lessons for all. 

Seneca did what most good stoics do. 

  • He accepted his role and acted in good faith, knowing full well that fate could intervene to disrupt the expected outcome

  • His intentions were just. He did his best...given the circumstances. Unfortunately, Nero was an immature and impetuous young man indulging in his basest instincts simply because he could: "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely".

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