Lucius Annaeus Seneca, often referred to as Seneca the Younger, was born around 3 B.C. in Corduba (what is now the town of Cordoba), in Spain, to a privileged family. His father was a well-regarded teacher of rhetoric in Rome. As a result, Seneca received a first-rate education, studying in Rome in the school of the Sextii and developing a reputation at a young age as a skilled orator and rhetorician.
His rise to fame was swift. He became a well-known presence in the world of law, while gaining further fame as a writer of tragedies. In 39 AD, however, he fell out of favor with the Emperor Caligula, thus commencing a downward spiral in his reputation. The Emperor Claudius accused him of committing adultery with Julia Livilla, Claudius’ niece, and exiled him to Corsica in 41 AD. Nonetheless, Seneca remained active, scribing three treatises, called Consolationes, while in exile. In 49 AD, Claudius’ wife Agrippina recommended he be invited back to Rome, and a year later he married Pompeia Paulina, a well-connected figure on the Roman scene, and became praetor.
With his newly regained standing, Seneca befriended the prefect of the guard and became tutor to the young Nero. When Nero became Emperor, Seneca was unofficially appointed as chief minister. During this time, Seneca continued to write, and he is largely credited with the reasoned and measured policies of the first half of Nero’s reign. As time wore on, however, Nero’s stability wavered, and friends of his were gradually able to persuade the emperor that Seneca was in fact an enemy. Disgraced, Seneca retired from public life in 62 AD and wrote the Letters to Lucilius. This, however, was not sufficient for Seneca’s enemies, and in 65 AD he was accused of conspiring to overthrow Nero. The Emperor requested that Seneca commit suicide. Seneca complied.
Seneca wrote numerous essays, many of which are still read today, and at least nine plays: Thyestes, Hercules Furens, Hercules Oetaeus, Oedipus, Medea, Agamemnon, Troades, Phoenissae, and Phaedra. Whether these plays were actually performed in front of audiences in Seneca’s day, however, is debatable. Many scholars contend that the plays were meant not for performance but for recitation, and the plays’ block-like structures and long monologues attest to this. Adapted largely from Greek sources – mostly the works of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus – Seneca’s plays proved hugely influential to Renaissance playwrights, especially those of England.
His prose, for its part, is renowned for its eloquent logic and reasoned, often compassionate, discourse. De Ira, for example, examines the consequences of anger and ways in which rage may be controlled; De Clementia posits the claim that mercy is the greatest quality a monarch can exhibit. Seneca associated himself with the school of Stoicism, and his writing profoundly influenced the essayists and philosophical writers of centuries to come – Montaigne, Erasmus, Rousseau, Calvin, among others.