Lucius Annaeus Seneca, intellectual, statesman, dramaturge and philosopher, traveled to Rome to study rhetoric and philosophy. From an early age he was attracted to the Stoic philosophy and lived an ascetic lifestyle, drinking only water and abstaining from meat, until his father put a rein on his overly frugal habits. Following the footsteps of dad he studied law and quickly gained fame as an accomplished orator. A victim of political jealousy, he was exiled to Corsica for eight years before Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius I, called him back to tutor her son Nero after her husband’s death.
In the first years of Nero’s rule, Seneca and the prefect Burrus were the true ones in command and they governed wisely. When Nero married his wife had Burrus killed. When Seneca tried to resign from his position he was charged with conspiracy and ordered to kill himself. Seneca was wealthy and ambitious but in the end acted like a true stoic, and obeyed. His second wife, from a noble family, tried to die at his side but survived. The following are some quotes that reflect his philosophy.
- As was his language so was his life.
- Be silent as to services you have rendered, but speak of favors you have received.
- Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.
- Fate rules the affairs of mankind with no recognizable order.
- He will live ill who does not know how to die well.
Seneca wrote ten Tragedies (one lost) including Agamamnon, adapted from Aeschylus; Oedipus, adapted from Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex"; and Phaedra, adapted from "Hippolytus" by Euripides. His works were popular during the Renaissance, but more for their historic value.
The only survivng author of the period (not counting one unknown author) is Seneca, born in Cordoba, Spain 35 AD, son of Seneca the Elder, a prosperous rhetorician. There have been questions as to the authenticity of his work, maybe Seneca the Elder authored some. Here we will assume, as most do, that he is the author of all ten plays attributed to him.
They are adaptations of the Greek Tragedies but with many more characters so he could have more points of view on something that happened. This is in keeping with Stoic philosphy to see things as other would see them to get the whole picture. However, where the Greeks never showed violence onstage Seneca went into visual detail.
His tragedies include long soliliquies, moralistic rhetoric and supernatural beings. They are not an easy read. Notwithstanding he remains a strong figure of Stoic philosophy and was one of the few writers of his day accepted by the Catholic Church. His works were lost during the barbarian invasions and discovered around the 15th century.
In spite of the bizzare nature of Seneca's plays, they were hugely popular with writers of the Renaissance, in particular the during the Elisabethan period in England. Scholars suggest it may be out of nostlagia, as the only survivng specimin of a past they were just discovering.
Roman tragedy during the Roman Empire
The tragedies of ancient Greece were performed in outdoor amphitheatres where it was a civic duty to attend. During the Roman Empire the tragedies were adapted into Latin, language of the elite, and read aloud in salons with no acting involved.