Dying Every Day

Dying Every Day

Seneca at the Court of Nero

Book - 2014
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From acclaimed classical historian, author of Ghost on the Throne a high-stakes drama full of murder, madness, tyranny, perversion, with the sweep of history on the grand scale.

At the center, the tumultuous life of Seneca, ancient Rome's preeminent writer and philosopher, beginning with banishment in his fifties and subsequent appointment as tutor to twelve-year-old Nero, future emperor of Rome. Controlling them both, Nero's mother, Julia Agrippina the Younger, Roman empress, great-granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus, sister of the Emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of Emperor Claudius.

James Romm seamlessly weaves together the life and written words, the moral struggles, political intrigue, and bloody vengeance that enmeshed Seneca the Younger in the twisted imperial family and the perverse, paranoid regime of Emperor Nero, despot and madman.

Romm writes that Seneca watched over Nero as teacher, moral guide, and surrogate father, and, at seventeen, when Nero abruptly ascended to become emperor of Rome, Seneca, a man never avid for political power became, with Nero, the ruler of the Roman Empire. We see how Seneca was able to control his young student, how, under Seneca's influence, Nero ruled with intelligence and moderation, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes, gave slaves the right to file complaints against their owners, pardoned prisoners arrested for sedition. But with time, as Nero grew vain and disillusioned, Seneca was unable to hold sway over the emperor, and between Nero's mother, Agrippina--thought to have poisoned her second husband, and her third, who was her uncle (Claudius), and rumored to have entered into an incestuous relationship with her son--and Nero's father, described by Suetonius as a murderer and cheat charged with treason, adultery, and incest, how long could the young Nero have been contained?

Dying Every Day is a portrait of Seneca's moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess. In his treatises, Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed, exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death. As Nero's adviser, Seneca was presented with a more complex set of choices, as the only man capable of summoning the better aspect of Nero's nature, yet, remaining at Nero's side and colluding in the evil regime he created.

Dying Every Day is the first book to tell the compelling and nightmarish story of the philosopher-poet who was almost a king, tied to a tyrant--as Seneca, the paragon of reason, watched his student spiral into madness and whose descent saw five family murders, the Fire of Rome, and a savage purge that destroyed the supreme minds of the Senate's golden age.
Publisher: New York : Vintage Books, 2014
Edition: First Vintage Books edition
ISBN: 9780307743749
0307743748
Characteristics: xix, 290 pages : illustrations, maps, portraits ; 21 cm

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DWIGHT A GREEN
Mar 11, 2016

Seneca was born in 4 B.C. on the Iberian peninsula to the son of a accomplished rhetorician (Seneca the Elder). The young Seneca moved to Rome to study rhetoric and was introduced to Stoic philosophy. Entering politics he rose to the rank of Consul but ran afoul with Caligula. Banished to Corsica under Claudius (at the bidding of Claudius’ third wife Messalina), Seneca eventually returned to Rome to tutor the future emporer Nero, Claudius’ fourth wife’s (Agrippina’s) son. His writings include philosophical essays and letters along with chilling tragedies. Seneca became a close adviser to Nero on the emperor’s ascension to the throne. Nero spiraled out of control and Seneca was implicated in a plot to assassinate the emperor. Seneca committed suicide in 65 A.D. at Nero’s request.

How should we view Seneca? James Romm opens his book with divergent possibilities passed down through history: a Stoic philosopher, doing his best to minimize the actions of a deranged emperor, or maybe an opportunistic manipulator, enriching himself at others’ expense while hypocritically preaching virtue and ethics. Maybe a truer course in evaluating him lies somewhere between these two extremes, where “Seneca merely got more adept at weaving his opportunistic stratagems into the weft of his philosophic discourse.”

In focusing on Seneca’s careers and his writings in particular, the reader gets plenty of historical background on the author and Nero, but the book isn’t a biography of either man nor a complete history of Rome during this period. Romm stresses this point in advance. His focus is on reconciling the two sides of Seneca, a task he admits may be impossible. For someone that knows little or nothing about Seneca and wants to read his work, this book provides one way *how* to read him and what to look for in addition to the standard introductory summaries of his works. For anyone more familiar with the writer or the times, it would still provide a good overview on the arguments of how to view Seneca and his writings.

Romm explains how he arrives at many of his opinions given the many contradictory facts and opinions about Seneca. He doesn’t shy away from providing competing positions either…be sure to read the footnotes for some interesting places to dig deeper for various viewpoints. Romm may feel he has failed at unifying the two sides of Seneca, but he has succeeded in highlighting the human nature of Seneca and what that meant for both the courtier and the writer. Highly recommended.

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