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Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero Hardcover – Deckle Edge

by James Romm (Author)

From acclaimed classical historian, author of Ghost on the Throne (“Gripping . . . the narrative verve of a born writer and the erudition of a scholar” —Daniel  Mendelsohn) and editor of The Landmark Arrian:The Campaign of Alexander (“Thrilling” —The New York Times Book Review), 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.

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Was Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger an exemplar of Stoic virtue who, pulled into politics in the service of Emperor Nero, did his best to modulate the young despot’s cruelty? Or was he a shrewd manipulator whose ethical treatises were just a cynical attempt to restore a reputation sullied by his complicity in Nero’s cruel and decadent court? Tacitus, who wrote a lot about Seneca, seems to have had trouble making up his mind. Romm suggests that we might bring together these conflicting portraits by understanding Seneca as a serious thinker who suffered from passivity and obsequiousness, and had the misfortune to live at a time when intellectual activity had become particularly dangerous. Seneca’s elegant humanistic vision (which would influence, among other things, Roman Catholic church doctrine), therefore, was not fraudulent, but aspirational, and somewhat tragic: ideals articulated by a flawed man who was all too aware of his inability to live up to them. Vividly describing the intensity of political life in the Nero years, and paying particular attention to the Roman fascination with suicide, Romm’s narrative is gripping, erudite, and occasionally quite grim. –Brendan Driscoll

Review

Praise for James Romm’s
DYING EVERY DAY
“Romm adeptly expounds the puzzle of Seneca’s life.”
The New Yorker

“James Romm stitches this tapestry of evil together with a practiced hand.”
-Michael D. Langan, Buffalo News
 
“A splendid and incisive historical page-turner… This is how history should be written: vivid storytelling springing to life at a master’s touch… Romm’s narrative proves so compelling precisely because he concentrates on character, combining erudite scholarship with a novelist’s flair for telling detail. The result becomes an exception to the rule: When exercised with wisdom, dexterity and fervor, literary power shines as incorruptible.”
-Arlice Davenport, Wichita Eagle

“Thoroughly engaging and fascinating…A high-stakes drama, laced with murders, madness, and despotism…The highlight of the spring season.”

-Anne La Farge, Hudson Valley News

“Romm’s compulsively readable account of imperial intrigues (incest, murder, suicide) brings contradictory visions of Seneca into three-dimensional focus.”

Chronogram

“Romm’s approach combines the commonly known with the fascinating, but more obscure. He makes a sustained point of showing Seneca as neither black nor white, neither totally deserving of his fate, nor so noble that all charges should drip off his well-oiled back. He shows different sides to the emperors as well and puts the women of the Caesars into their well-deserved positions of prominence…The fact that Romm presents the Stoic philosopher in this novel complex light and that he shows sides of the more famous that aren’t common knowledge leaves me feeling [like] I got an awful lot out of reading it.  Have I mentioned, I really, really liked this book?”

-N. S. Gill, About.com 

“Historians from Seneca’s contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier?  Romm doesn’t claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.”

-Julia Jenkins, Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)

“Extensively researched.  A book that will be welcomed by both scholars and those with a more casual interest in history. In addition and most important to our time is the detailed study of power politics and the inevitable consequences of weakness and corruption allowing power to be concentrated into few hands… An engrossing account of a time when rational thought was set aside in favor of passion and when good men cowed in the face of tyranny and did nothing to stem it.”

-Jeremy McGuire, New York Journal of Books

“A compelling, and terrifying, vision of a bloodthirsty, ruthlessly ambitious emperor and his court.”

-Jenny Yabroff, Biographile

About the Author

James Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. His books on the ancient world include Ghost on the Throne, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient ThoughtHerodotus and, as editor, The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Seneca and Nero had been together for ten years now. Nero had grown up, and Seneca had grown old. The princeps had found new allies, among them another former tutor, a Greek freedman named Anicetus (“Invincible”). Nero had elevated this man to admiral of the Misenum fleet, a naval force he was grooming to be his own corps d’élite— the Praetorians being more devoted to his mother. Other freedmen, slaves, and foreigners had begun to rise at court, men whose complete dependence and subservience gratified Nero. The voices that whispered against Seneca and Burrus had grown in number and stridency, and Nero had shown more willingness to listen.

It was to Anicetus, not to Seneca or Burrus, that Nero turned as he approached the great crisis of his reign, in the summer of 59. By that time, the young man’s love for Poppaea had brought him to a pitch of dire resolve. He had decided on a crime that the future will believe with difficulty, and ages to come, with reluctance, as the play Octavia forecast—correctly. He had decided to kill his mother.

It was what he had wanted to do years before but was prevented by Seneca and Burrus. Now, abetted by Anicetus, Nero found the courage to act. Perhaps Poppaea goaded him on, as Tacitus claims, by insisting she could never be his wife as long as Agrippina lived. But Nero needed no
Lady Macbeth to harangue him into crime. He had already killed his adoptive brother on his own initiative; his mother posed a greater threat and caused him greater psychic torment.

Did Seneca take part in Nero’s matricidal plan? Tacitus wondered but didn’t know. Dio made Seneca chief instigator, though like much of his testimony on Seneca, this seems little more than slander. The question of collaboration is indeed hard to resolve. A princeps could not have easily hid such a plot from a high- ranked counselor, but perhaps Seneca no longer ranked very high. If Nero kept him in the dark, declining to consult his old ally against Agrippina, then relations between teacher and pupil had truly gone downhill. If Seneca was consulted, he may have seen he could not prevent Nero from acting but could at least help him succeed. Under that scenario, he may have consented to murder if it could be done cunningly, so as to look like an accident.

Cunning was indeed what was needed, for a daughter of Germanicus could not be attacked either with blades or legal writs. Poison too was out of the question; Agrippina, having long suspected Nero’s intentions, had taken precautions, perhaps even fortifying herself with antidotes. A technologically savvy method was called for, and Nero was a great lover of technology. One day he saw in the theater, according to Dio, a collapsible boat that fell apart when a lever was worked, simulating a shipwreck. The idea took root in his obsessed mind. With a move as clean and remote as the proverbial push of a button, Nero could crush his mother, or drown her, or both, far out in the water and away from the public’s eyes. He delegated the mission to Anicetus.

Constructing the trick ship in secret was no simple task. Anicetus no doubt recruited his best shipwrights at Misenum and also trained loyal sailors who would crew on the fateful voyage. Meanwhile Nero set about making up with his mother. The two had become estranged of late—
some breakup had followed their overly intimate union— but Nero hastened to repair the breach. He had to regain Agrippina’s trust enough to get her on that boat.

Writing in jocular tones, admitting to having lost his temper, Nero cajoled his mother into joining him at Baiae, the sumptuous resort surrounded by lakes and a quiet bay, for the celebration of that year’s Quinquatria, a rite of Minerva held at the spring equinox.

Both Nero and his mother had villas at Baiae, as did many of the Roman elite. The place was famous for high living, loose morals, and easy pleasures, a den of vice that good men should shun, in the eyes of Seneca— though he did sometimes go there. In his disdain, Seneca painted a vivid picture: “Why do we need to see drunken men wandering the beach and boaters on riotous pleasure cruises, and the lakes resounding with songs of musicians? . . . Do you think Cato would ever have lived there, to count the adulteresses as they sail past, the many kinds of boats painted with vivid colors, the roses bobbing everywhere on the lake’s surface?” No was of course his answer, though he perhaps made the high season at Baiae sound more appealing than he meant to.

Boating was the great thing at Baiae. Because most of the villas stood along a curving shore, or across a small bay at Puteoli, partiers could get from house to house by boat, putting in at small private docks. In her grander days, Agrippina had plied these waters in a state warship rowed by picked sailors. Just down the coast from her villa, an estate called Bauli, was the naval station at Misenum, where such ships and crews stood ready. Now, though, it was a different boat that arrived from Misenum for her use, a luxury yacht fi tted out with regal ornaments, manned by a special crew— many of them Anicetus’ trained assassins.

Nero had this boat moored at a Baiae villa, where he had arranged a grand dinner party in Agrippina’s honor. He presented the boat to his mother after dinner as a gift. It was only one of the many filial gestures he made that night, in an effort to overcome her distrust. Agrippina had
her guard up, for she had long suspected her son might seek her life. But the splendidly arrayed ship appealed to her vanity, and Nero’s kisses, as he put her on board, seemed sincere.

It was a cloudless, windless night, “with a calm that seemed sent by the gods to reveal the crime,” as Tacitus says in one of his most memorable sentences. The ship slipped along through shallow water, on its coasting voyage from Baiae to Bauli. Agrippina reclined with a friend, Acerronia, on a special couch on the vessel’s rear deck. The two women talked warmly of the evening’s entertainment and of the fond attentions of Nero. Nearby stood another of Agrippina’s entourage, her procurator—manager of her estates— Crepereius Gallus.

Without warning, a section of roofi ng above these three collapsed, slamming onto Gallus with the full force of its lead- reinforced weight. The man was immediately crushed to death.

Had Agrippina not been reclining on her couch, or had Acerronia not been sitting lower still as she bent over her friend’s feet, both would have died with Gallus. But the couch saved them. Its back and arms extended high enough to block the force of the falling lead. The two women got
out from under the lethal weight and emerged into a frantic scene.

Anicetus’ agents among the crew were trying to complete their mission. They had expected the ship to break apart and pitch Agrippina into the sea, but this had failed to happen. Confused and seemingly lacking a backup plan, they rushed about on the boat’s splintered deck. Some had
the idea of capsizing the craft by putting all their weight on one side. But other crewmen who were not part of the plot, perhaps surmising what their comrades were up to, countered them by running to the opposite side. Shouts echoed across the bay’s still surface, barely heard, if at all, by those on shore.

As the boat gradually tipped, Agrippina and Acerronia slid into the water. Acerronia, perhaps failing to see the design behind the calamity, called out that she was Agrippina and asked for rescue. Her cries drew a hail of blows from oars and other naval gear, as nearby assassins saw a chance to finish their job. Acerronia was clubbed to death in the water, while Agrippina, who had kept a prudent silence, took only a hit on the shoulder. Glimpsing the lanterns of some fishing smacks nearby, she swam off unnoticed. Indefatigable to the last, she had escaped Nero’s deathtrap.

Safely returned to Bauli, Agrippina reflected on her position. Nero clearly meant to kill her but had gone to extreme lengths to keep the crime secret. Her high stature as daughter of Germanicus, and her son’s timidity, had prevented an open attack, and these might now be enough to save her. She sent a messenger to Nero to inform him of the night’s events, pretending it had all been a freak accident. If she could feign trust in her son, prevent him from striking a second blow, she could somehow rally support and strengthen her position. Already crowds of well- wishers, festival- goers who had heard about the collapse of the ship, were gathered outside her villa. She had a fighting chance, if she could only survive this night.

Meanwhile at Baiae, Nero, accompanied by Anicetus, had fretted for hours awaiting word of the plot’s outcome. The news that it had failed sent him into a tailspin. He knew that his mother would now spot his intentions. Wounded but not killed, Agrippina would become more dangerous
than ever. She might march on his villa that very night with a band of armed slaves, or make her way back to Rome to denounce him before the Senate. Nero was determined that his mother must die before the next day dawned, but he had no idea how to proceed. In despair, he sent for his two senior counselors to be roused from their chambers— Seneca and Burrus.

None of Seneca’s meditations on morality, Virtue, Reason, an…

 

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