May 18, 2014

‘Court of Nero’ traces fascinating demise of a great moral philosopher

“Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” by James Romm (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95)

“Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” by James Romm (Alfred A. Knopf, 320 pages, $27.95)

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.

By now, Lord Acton’s maxim smacks of cliche, until you run up against a despot as dissolute and depraved as Nero, the ancient Roman emperor who murdered at least five of his family members, who gutted the Senate of its talent, and who may have started the fire in which much of Rome burned to the ground in 64 A.D. – the fire that he reputedly fiddled through (actually, played his lyre) as the flames flickered skyward.

What makes Nero’s situation even more mesmerizing – and notorious – is that he had a Stoic philosopher, Seneca, at his beck and call, his adviser from the time he was a boy emperor waiting in the wings of Rome’s halls of power until he demanded Seneca’s suicide years later. Clearly, the philosopher’s talk of reason and virtue didn’t take.

But that could be because Seneca excelled more at preaching, “Do what I say, not what I do,” than at living out his own principles. His philosophy looked good on paper (it still does in many ways), but wilted in the face of the profit and power that inevitably tempt insiders to an empire, however mad and murderous and megalomaniacal it might be.

The relationship of these unlikely bedfellows beats at the heart of “Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero,” a splendid and incisive historical page-turner. In it, James Romm, the James Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College and author of several books on ancient Greek and Macedonian history and on imperial Rome, crafts a tale of intrigue, deception and intractable captivity to the political machine.

This is how history should be written: vivid storytelling springing to life at a master’s touch.

Indeed, in Romm’s hands, Nero lives up to his salacious billing, coming across as bloodthirsty, ruthless and paranoid. And Seneca, caught in an invidious web of his own making, tries to profit from his proximity to the throne, even as he abandons his Stoic indifference to wealth and status. (He rises to consul, the highest position in the Senate, for example, and shockingly colludes with Nero on the murder of his mother.)

Seneca makes the story. And as Romm rightly levels his gaze on him, especially on how his bountiful writings hardly ever hint at his personal motivations, we learn that what lured him, what enthralled him, what mastered his emotions, remains a mystery.

We do have clarity on one point, however: Rather than seeing Seneca’s life as tragic – forced to fall on his sword (figuratively speaking) at age 69 – we should view it as tortured and paradoxical. On the one hand, he had the rare chance to instill his ethical teachings in a still impressionable young mind. On the other, he willingly participated in the palace’s darkest crimes, seeking refuge in philosophy only as a last-ditch effort to save himself. Whether he was woefully un-self-aware or simply an unlucky opportunist, depends on your – not his – point of view.

Since Plato, the ideal of the philosopher king has held an allure for those enamored of politics. Perhaps Seneca thought his moment had arrived. But his alliance with Nero’s corrupt regime hardly fit any Stoic standard of virtue.

There’s little doubt that Seneca grew rich and fat and famous as Nero’s right-hand man, the very antithesis of Epictetus, the slave turned sage, and later, Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor of introspection – two Stoics of a different stripe who earnestly tried to apply their teachings to their own lives and, in the process, inspired countless others to do the same.

To his credit, Seneca attempted to slip out of his commitments to demagoguery, but Nero conveniently failed to notice – until he at last read retreat as treason. Thus, something always managed to draw Seneca back into the killer’s circle, no matter how tenuous or insubstantial, no matter how reflective of Nero’s narcissism. For in his twisted world, Nero held no place for conscience or rigorous rational inquiry, only excess and self-indulgence.

So, with his hands blood-stained and his philosophy flouted, Seneca may have welcomed suicide as an escape from hypocrisy. Although his turned out to be a bizarrely complicated death – part blood-letting, part hemlock-drinking, part brow-beating his wife to join him. Behold the high price of failure.

Seneca’s early influence on the young ruler – banning capital punishment, reducing taxes – swiftly faded as Nero grew into a state of violent self-delusion, striking out at his would-be successors and at all who had secured his ascent.

It may be tempting to read Romm’s work as a cautionary tale, but Seneca’s reign at Nero’s court stands as a unique example of the impotence of philosophy in the political arena. History boasts no shortage of absolutely corrupt leaders. But no one else had a prolifically gifted moral philosopher on hand to guide him. (Unless you count Alexander the Great and Aristotle, though neither was corrupt.)

In the end, 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.

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