Seekers after God
Frederic William Farrar

Part 1 out of 5





"Ce nuage frange de rayons qui toucbe presqu' a l'immortelle aurore
des verites chretiennes."--PONTMAOTIN.


On the banks of the Baetis--the modern Guadalquiver,--and under the
woods that crown the southern slopes of the Sierra Morena, lies the
beautiful and famous city of Cordova. It had been selected by Marcellus
as the site of a Roman colony; and so many Romans and Spaniards of high
rank chose it for their residence, that it obtained from Augustus the
honourable surname of the "Patrician Colony." Spain, during this period
of the Empire, exercised no small influence upon the literature and
politics of Rome. No less than three great Emperors--Trajan, Hadrian,
and Theodosius,--were natives of Spain. Columella, the writer on
agriculture, was born at Cadiz; Quintilian, the great writer on the
education of an orator, was born at Calahorra; the poet Martial was a
native of Bilbilis; but Cordova could boast the yet higher honour of
having given birth to the Senecas, an honour which won for it the
epithet of "The Eloquent." A ruin is shown to modern travellers which
is popularly called the House of Seneca, and the fact is at least a
proof that the city still retains some memory of its illustrious sons.

Marcus Annaeus Seneca, the father of the philosopher, was by rank a
Roman knight. What causes had led him or his family to settle in Spain
we do not know, and the names Annaeus and Seneca are alike obscure. It
has been vaguely conjectured that both names may involve an allusion to
the longevity of some of the founders of the family, for Annaeus seems
to be connected with _annus_, a year, and Seneca with _senex_, an old
man. The common English composite plant ragwort is called _senecio_ from
the white and feathery pappus or appendage of its seeds; and similarly,
Isidore says that the first Seneca was so named because "he was born
with white hair."

Although the father of Seneca was of knightly rank, his family had never
risen to any eminence; it belonged to the class of _nouveaux riches_,
and we do not know whether it was of Roman or of Spanish descent. But
his mother Helvia--an uncommon name, which, by a curious coincidence,
belonged also to the mother of Cicero--was a Spanish lady; and it was
from her that Seneca, as well as his famous nephew, the poet Lucan,
doubtless derived many of the traits which mark their intellect and
their character. There was in the Spaniard a richness and splendour of
imagination, an intensity and warmth, a touch of "phantasy and flame,"
which we find in these two men of genius, and which was wholly wanting
to the Roman temperament.

Of Cordova itself, except in a single epigram, Seneca makes no mention;
but this epigram suffices to show that he must have been familiar with
its stirring and memorable traditions. The elder Seneca must have been
living at Cordova during all the troublous years of civil war, when his
native city caused equal offence to Pompey and to Caesar. Doubtless,
too, he would have had stories to tell of the noble Sertorius, and of
the tame fawn which gained for him the credit of divine assistance; and
contemporary reminiscences of that day of desperate disaster when
Caesar, indignant that Cordova should have embraced the cause of the
sons of Pompey, avenged himself by a massacre of 22,000 of the citizens.
From his mother Helvia, Seneca must often have heard about the fierce
and gallant struggle in which her country had resisted the iron yoke of
Rome. Many a time as a boy must he have been told how long and how
heroically Saguntum had withstood the assaults and baffled the triumph
of Hannibal; how bravely Viriathus had fought, and how shamefully he
fell; and how at length the unequal contest, which reduced Spain to the
condition of a province, was closed, when the heroic defenders of
Numantia, rather than yield to Scipio, reduced their city to a heap of
bloodstained ruins.

But, whatever may have been the extent to which Seneca was influenced by
the Spanish blood which flowed in his veins, and the Spanish legends on
which his youth was fed, it was not in Spain that his lot was cast. When
he was yet an infant in arms his father, with all his family, emigrated
from Cordova to Rome. What may have been the special reason for this
important step we do not know; possibly, like the father of Horace, the
elder Seneca may have sought a better education for his sons than could
be provided by even so celebrated a provincial town as Cordova;
possibly--for he belonged to a somewhat pushing family--he may have
desired to gain fresh wealth and honour in the imperial city.

Thither we must follow him; and, as it is our object not only to depict
a character but also to sketch the characteristics of a very memorable
age in the world's history, we must try to get a glimpse of the family
in the midst of which our young philosopher grew up, of the kind of
education which he received, and of the influences which were likely to
tell upon him during his childish and youthful years. Only by such means
shall we be able to judge of him aright. And it is worth while to try
and gain a right conception of the man, not only because he was very
eminent as a poet, an author, and a politician, not only because he
fills a very prominent place in the pages of the great historian, who
has drawn so immortal a picture of Rome under the Emperors; not only
because in him we can best study the inevitable signs which mark, even
in the works of men of genius, a degraded people and a decaying
literature; but because he was, as the title of this volume designates
him, a "SEEKER AFTER GOD." Whatever may have been the dark and
questionable actions of his life--and in this narrative we shall
endeavor to furnish a plain and unvarnished picture of the manner in
which he lived,--it is certain that, as a philosopher and as a moralist,
he furnishes us with the grandest and most eloquent series of truths to
which, unilluminated by Christianity, the thoughts of man have ever
attained. The purest and most exalted philosophic sect of antiquity was
"the sect of the Stoics;" and Stoicism never found a literary exponent
more ardent, more eloquent, or more enlightened than Lucius Annaeus
Seneca. So nearly, in fact, does he seem to have arrived at the truths
of Christianity, that to many it seemed a matter for marvel that he
could have known them without having heard them from inspired lips. He
is constantly cited with approbation by some of the most eminent
Christian fathers. Tertullian, Lactantius, even St. Augustine himself,
quote his words with marked admiration, and St. Jerome appeals to him as
"_our_ Seneca." The Council of Trent go further still, and quote him as
though he were an acknowledged father of the Church. For many centuries
there were some who accepted as genuine the spurious letters supposed to
have been interchanged between Seneca and St. Paul, in which Seneca is
made to express a wish to hold among the Pagans the same beneficial
position which St. Paul held in the Christian world. The possibility of
such an intercourse, the nature and extent of such supposed obligations,
will come under our consideration hereafter. All that I here desire to
say is, that in considering the life of Seneca we are not only dealing
with a life which was rich in memorable incidents, and which was cast
into an age upon which Christianity dawned as a new light in the
darkness, but also the life of one who climbed the loftiest peaks of the
moral philosophy of Paganism, and who in many respects may be regarded
as the Coryphaeus of what has been sometimes called a Natural Religion.

It is not my purpose to turn aside from the narrative in order to
indulge in moral reflections, because such reflections will come with
tenfold force if they are naturally suggested to the reader's mind by
the circumstances of the biography. But from first to last it will be
abundantly obvious to every thoughtful mind that alike the morality and
the philosophy of Paganism, as contrasted with the splendour of revealed
truth and the holiness of Christian life, are but as moonlight is to
sunlight. The Stoical philosophy may be compared to a torch which flings
a faint gleam here and there in the dusky recesses of a mighty cavern;
Christianity to the sun pouring into the inmost depths of the same
cavern its sevenfold illumination. The torch had a value and brightness
of its own, but compared with the dawning of that new glory it appears
to be dim and ineffectual, even though its brightness was a real
brightness, and had been drawn from the same etherial source.



The exact date of Seneca's birth is uncertain, but it took place in all
probability about seven years before the commencement of the Christian
era. It will give to his life a touch of deep and solemn interest if we
remember that, during all those guilty and stormy scenes amid which his
earlier destiny was cast, there lived and taught in Palestine the Son of
God, the Saviour of the world.

The problems which for many years tormented his mind were beginning to
find their solution, amid far other scenes, by men whose creed and
condition he despised. While Seneca was being guarded by his attendant
slave through the crowded and dangerous streets of Rome on his way to
school, St. Peter and St. John were fisher-lads by the shores of
Gennesareth; while Seneca was ardently assimilating the doctrine of the
stoic Attalus, St. Paul, with no less fervancy of soul, sat learning at
the feet of Gamaliel; and long before Seneca had made his way, through
paths dizzy and dubious, to the zenith of his fame, unknown to him that
Saviour had been crucified through whose only merits he and we can ever
attain to our final rest.

Seneca was about two years old when he was carried to Rome in his
nurse's arms. Like many other men who have succeeded in attaining
eminence, he suffered much from ill-health in his early years. He tells
us of one serious illness from which he slowly recovered under the
affectionate and tender nursing of his mother's sister. All his life
long he was subject to attacks of asthma, which, after suffering every
form of disease, he says that he considers to be the worst. At one time
his personal sufferings weighed so heavily on his spirits that nothing
save a regard for his father's wishes prevented him from suicide: and
later in life he was only withheld from seeking the deliverance of death
by the tender affection of his wife Paulina. He might have used with
little alteration the words of Pope, that his various studies but served
to help him

"Through _this long disease, my life_."

The recovery from this tedious illness is the only allusion which Seneca
has made to the circumstances of his childhood. The ancient writers,
even the ancient poets, but rarely refer, even in the most cursory
manner, to their early years. The cause of this reticence offers a
curious problem for our inquiry, but the fact is indisputable. Whereas
there is scarcely a single modern poet who has not lingered with
undisguised feelings of happiness over the gentle memories of his
childhood, not one of the ancient poets has systematically touched upon
the theme at all. From Lydgate down to Tennyson, it would be easy to
quote from our English poets a continuous line of lyric songs on the
subject of boyish years. How to the young child the fir-trees seemed to
touch the sky, how his heart leaped up at the sight of the rainbow, how
he sat at his mother's feet and pricked into paper the tissued flowers
of her dress, how he chased the bright butterfly, or in his tenderness
feared to brush even the dust from off its wings, how he learnt sweet
lessons and said innocent prayers at his father's knee; trifles like
these, yet trifles which may have been rendered noble and beautiful by a
loving imagination, have been narrated over and over again in the songs
of our poets. The lovely lines of Henry Vaughan might be taken as a type
of thousands more:--

"Happy those early days, when I
Shined in my Angel infancy.
Before I understood this place
Appointed for my second race,
Or taught my soul to fancy aught
But a white celestial thought;

* * * * *

"Before I taught my tongue to wound
My conscience with a sinful sound
Or had the black art to dispense
A several sin to every sense;
But felt through all this fleshy dress,
Bright shoots of everlastingness."

The memory of every student of English poetry will furnish countless
parallels to thoughts like these. How is it that no similar poem could
be quoted from the whole range of ancient literature? How is it that to
the Greek and Roman poets that morning of life, which should have been
so filled with "natural blessedness," seems to have been a blank? How is
it that writers so voluminous, so domestic, so affectionate as Cicero,
Virgil, and Horace do not make so much as a single allusion to the
existence of their own mothers?

To answer this question fully would be to write an entire essay on the
difference between ancient and modern life, and would carry me far away
from my immediate subject.[1] But I may say generally, that the
explanation rests in the fact that in all probability childhood among
the ancients was a disregarded, and in most cases a far less happy,
period than it is with us. The birth of a child in the house of a Greek
or a Roman was not necessarily a subject for rejoicing. If the father,
when the child was first shown to him, stooped down and took it in his
arms, it was received as a member of the family; if he left it unnoticed
then it was doomed to death, and was exposed in some lonely or barren
place to the mercy of the wild beasts, or of the first passer by. And
even if a child escaped this fate, yet for the first seven or eight
years of life he was kept in the gynaeceum, or women's apartments, and
rarely or never saw his father's face. No halo of romance or poetry was
shed over those early years. Until the child was full grown the absolute
power of life or death rested in his father's hands; he had no freedom,
and met with little notice. For individual life the ancients had a very
slight regard; there was nothing autobiographic or introspective in
their temperament. With them public life, the life of the State, was
everything; domestic life, the life of the individual, occupied but a
small share of their consideration. All the innocent pleasures of
infancy, the joys of the hearth, the charm of the domestic circle, the
flow and sparkle of childish gaity, were by them but little appreciated.
The years before manhood were years of prospect, and in most cases they
offered but little to make them worth the retrospect. It is a mark of
the more modern character which stamps the writings of Seneca, as
compared with earlier authors, that he addresses his mother in terms of
the deepest affection, and cannot speak of his darling little son except
in a voice that seems to break with tears.

[Footnote 1: See, however, the same question treated from a somewhat
different point of view by M. Nisard, in his charming _Etudes sur les
Poetes de la Decadence_, ii. 17, _sqq_.]

Let us add another curious consideration. The growth of the personal
character, the reminiscences of a life advancing into perfect
consciousness, are largely moulded by the gradual recognition of moral
laws, by the sense of mystery evolved in the inevitable struggle between
duty and pleasure,--between the desire to do right and the temptation to
do wrong. But among the ancients the conception of morality was so
wholly different from ours, their notions of moral obligation were, in
the immense majority of cases, so much less stringent and so much less
important, they had so faint a disapproval for sins which we condemn,
and so weak an indignation against vices which we abhor, that in their
early years we can hardly suppose them to have often fathomed those
"abysmal deeps of personality," the recognition of which is a necessary
element of marked individual growth.

We have, therefore, no materials for forming any vivid picture of
Seneca's childhood; but, from what we gather about the circumstances and
the character of his family, we should suppose that he was exceptionally
fortunate. The Senecas were wealthy; they held a good position in
society; they were a family of cultivated taste, of literary pursuits,
of high character, and of amiable dispositions. Their wealth raised them
above the necessity of those mean cares and degrading shifts to eke out
a scanty livelihood which mark the career of other literary men who were
their contemporaries. Their rank and culture secured them the intimacy
of all who were best worth knowing in Roman circles; and the general
dignity and morality which marked their lives would free them from all
likelihood of being thrown into close intercourse with the numerous
class of luxurious epicureans, whose unblushing and unbounded vice gave
an infamous notority to the capital of the world.

Of Marcus Annaeus Seneca, the father of our philosopher, we know few
personal particulars, except that he was a professional rhetorician, who
drew up for the use of his sons and pupils a number of oratorical
exercises, which have come down to us under the names of _Suasoriae_ and
_Controversiae_. They are a series of declamatory arguments on both
sides, respecting a number of historical or purely imaginary subjects;
and it would be impossible to conceive any reading more utterly
unprofitable. But the elder Seneca was steeped to the lips in an
artificial rhetoric; and these highly elaborated arguments, invented in
order to sharpen the faculties for purposes of declamation and debate,
were probably due partly to his note-book and partly to his memory. His
memory was so prodigious that after hearing two thousand words he could
repeat them again in the same order. Few of those who have possessed
such extraordinary powers of memory have been men of first-rate talent,
and the elder Seneca was no exception. But if his memory did not improve
his original genius, it must at any rate have made him a very agreeable
member of society, and have furnished him with an abundant store of
personal and political anecdotes. In short, Marcus Seneca was a
well-to-do, intelligent man of the world, with plenty of common sense,
with a turn for public speaking, with a profound dislike and contempt
for anything which he considered philosophical or fantastic, and with a
keen eye to the main advantage.

His wife Helvia, if we may trust the panegyric of her son, was on the
other hand a far less commonplace character. But for her husband's
dislike to learning and philosophy she would have become a proficient in
both, and in a short period of study she had made a considerable
advance. Yet her intellect was less remarkable than the nobility and
sweetness of her mind; other mothers loved their sons because their own
ambition was gratified by their honours, and their feminine wants
supplied by their riches; but Helvia loved her sons for their own sakes,
treated them with liberal generosity, but refused to reap any personal
benefit from their wealth, managed their patrimonies with disinterested
zeal, and spent her own money to bear the expenses of their political
career. She rose superior to the foibles and vices of her time.
Immodesty, the plague-spot of her age, had never infected her pure life.
Gems and pearls had little charms for her. She was never ashamed of her
children, as though their presence betrayed her own advancing age. "You
never stained your face," says her son, when writing to console her in
his exile, "with walnut-juice or rouge; you never delighted in dresses
indelicately low; your single ornament was a loveliness which no age
could destroy; your special glory was a conspicuous chastity." We may
well say with Mr. Tennyson--

"Happy he
With such a mother! faith in womankind
Beats with his blood, and trust in all things high
Comes easy to him, and, though he trip and fall,
He shall not blind his soul with clay."

Nor was his mother Helvia the only high-minded lady in whose society
the boyhood of Seneca was spent. Her sister, whose name is unknown, that
aunt who had so tenderly protected the delicate boy, and nursed him
through the sickness of his infancy, seems to have inspired him with an
affection of unusual warmth. He tells us how, when her husband was
Prefect of Egypt, so far was she from acting as was usual with the wives
of provincial governors, that she was as much respected and beloved as
they were for the most part execrated and shunned. So serious was the
evil caused by these ladies, so intolerable was their cruel rapacity,
that it had been seriously debated in the Senate whether they should
ever be allowed to accompany their husbands. Not so with Helvia's
sister. She was never seen in public; she allowed no provincial to visit
her house; she begged no favour for herself, and suffered none to be
begged from her. The province not only praised her, but, what was still
more to her credit, barely knew anything about her, and longed in vain
for another lady who should imitate her virtue and self-control. Egypt
was the headquarters for biting and loquacious calumny, yet even Egypt
never breathed a word against the sanctity of her life. And when during
their homeward voyage her husband died, in spite of danger and tempest
and the deeply-rooted superstition which considered it perilous to sail
with a corpse on board, not even the imminent peril of shipwreck could
drive her to separate herself from her husband's body until she had
provided for its safe and honorable sepulchre. These are the traits of a
good and heroic woman; and that she reciprocated the regard which makes
her nephew so emphatic in her praise may be conjectured from the fact
that, when he made his _debut_ as a candidate for the honours of the
State, she emerged from her habitual seclusion, laid aside for a time
her matronly reserve, and, in order to assist him in his canvass, faced
for his sake the rustic impertinence and ambitious turbulence of the
crowds who thronged the Forum and the streets of Rome.

Two brothers, very different from each other in their habits and
character, completed the family circle, Marcus Annaeus Novatus and
Lucius Annaeus Mela, of whom the former was older the latter younger,
than their more famous brother.

Marcus Annaeus Novatus is known to history under the name of Junius
Gallio, which he took when adopted by the orator of that name, who was a
friend of his father. He is none other than the Gallio of the Acts, the
Proconsul of Achaia, whose name has passed current among Christians as a
proverb of complacent indifference.[2]

[Footnote 2: Acts xxv. 19.]

The scene, however, in which Scripture gives us a glimpse of him has
been much misunderstood, and to talk of him as "careless Gallio," or to
apply the expression that "he cared for none of these things," to
indifference in religious matters, is entirely to misapply the spirit of
the narrative. What really happened was this. The Jews, indignant at the
success of Paul's preaching, dragged him before the tribunal of Gallio,
and accused him of introducing illegal modes of worship. When the
Apostle was about to defend himself, Gallio contemptuously cut him short
by saying to the Jews, "If in truth there were in question any act of
injustice or wicked misconduct, I should naturally have tolerated your
complaint. But if this is some verbal inquiry about mere technical
matters of your law, look after it yourselves. I do not choose to be a
judge of such matters." With these words he drove them from his
judgment-seat with exactly the same fine Roman contempt for the Jews and
their religious affairs as was subsequently expressed by Festus to the
sceptical Agrippa, and as had been expressed previously by Pontius
Pilate[3] to the tumultous Pharisees. Exulting at this discomfiture of
the hated Jews and apparently siding with Paul, the Greeks then went in
a body, seized Sosthenes, the leader of the Jewish synagogue, and beat
him in full view of the Proconsul seated on his tribunal. This was the
event at which Gallio looked on with such imperturbable disdain. What
could it possibly matter to him, the great Proconsul, whether the Greeks
beat a poor wretch of a Jew or not? So long as they did not make a riot,
or give him any further trouble about the matter, they might beat
Sosthenes or any number of Jews black and blue if it pleased them, for
all he was likely to care.

[Footnote 3: Matt. xxvii. 24, "See ye to it." Cf. Acts xiv. 15, "Look ye
to it." Toleration existed in the Roman Empire, and the magistrates
often interfered to protect the Jews from massacre; but they absolutely
and persistently refused to trouble themselves with any attempt to
understand their doctrines or enter into their disputes. The tradition
that Gallio sent some of St. Paul's writings to his brother Seneca is
utterly absurd; and indeed at this time (A.D. 54), St. Paul had written
nothing except the two Epistles to the Thessalonians. (See Conybeare and
Howson, _St. Paul_, vol. i. Ch. xii.; Aubertin, _Seneque et St. Paul_.)]

What a vivid glimpse do we here obtain, from the graphic picture of an
eye-witness, of the daily life in an ancient provincial forum; how
completely do we seem to catch sight for a moment of that habitual
expression of contempt which curled the thin lips of a Roman aristocrat
in the presence of subject nations, and especially of Jews! If Seneca
had come across any of the Alexandrian Jews in his Egyptian travels, the
only impression left on his mind was that expressed by Tacitus, Juvenal,
and Suetonius, who never mention the Jews without execration. In a
passage, quoted by St. Augustine (_De Civit. Dei_, iv. 11) from his lost
book on Superstitions, Seneca speaks of the multitude of their
proselytes, and calls them "_gens sceleratissima_," a "_most criminal
race_." It has been often conjectured--it has even been seriously
believed--that Seneca had personal intercourse with St. Paul and learnt
from him some lessons of Christianity. The scene on which we have just
been gazing will show us the utter unlikelihood of such a supposition.
Probably the nearest opportunity which ever occurred to bring the
Christian Apostle into intellectual contact with the Roman philosopher
was this occasion, when St. Paul was dragged as a prisoner into the
presence of Seneca's elder brother. The utter contempt and indifference
with which he was treated, the manner in which he was summarily cut
short before he could even open his lips in his own defence, will give
us a just estimate of the manner in which Seneca would have been likely
to regard St. Paul. It is highly improbable that Gallio ever retained
the slightest impression or memory of so every-day a circumstance as
this, by which alone he is known to the world. It is possible that he
had not even heard the mere name of Paul, and that, if he ever thought
of him at all, it was only as a miserable, ragged, fanatical Jew, of dim
eyes and diminutive stature, who had once wished to inflict upon him a
harangue, and who had once come for a few moments "betwixt the wind and
his nobility." He would indeed have been unutterably amazed if anyone
had whispered to him that well nigh the sole circumstance which would
entitle him to be remembered by posterity, and the sole event of his
life by which he would be at all generally known, was that momentary and
accidental relation to his despised prisoner.

But Novatus--or, to give him his adopted name, Gallio--presented to his
brother Seneca, and to the rest of the world, a very different aspect
from that under which we are wont to think of him. By them he was
regarded as an illustrious declaimer, in an age when declamation was the
most valued of all accomplishments. It was true that there was a sort of
"tinkle," a certain falsetto tone in his style, which offended men of
robust and severe taste; but this meretricious resonance of style was a
matter of envy and admiration when affectation was the rage, and when
the times were too enervated and too corrupt for the manly conciseness
and concentrated force of an eloquence dictated by liberty and by
passion. He seems to have acquired both among his friends and among
strangers the epithet of "dulcis," "the charming or fascinating Gallio:"
"This is more," says the poet Statius, "than to have given Seneca to the
world, and to have begotten the sweet Gallio." Seneca's portrait of him
is singularly faultless. He says that no one was so gentle to any one as
Gallio was to every one; that his charm of manner won over even the
people whom mere chance threw in his way, and that such was the force of
his natural goodness that no one suspected his behaviour, as though it
were due to art or simulation. Speaking of flattery, in his fourth book
of Natural Questions, he says to his friend Lucilius, "I used to say to
you that my brother Gallio _(whom every one loves a little, even people
who cannot love him more)_ was wholly _ignorant_ of other vices, but
even _detested_ this. You might try him in any direction. You began to
praise his intellect--an intellect of the highest and worthiest kind,...
and he walked away! You began to praise his moderation, he instantly cut
short your first words. You began to express admiration for his
blandness and natural suavity of manner,... yet even here he resisted
your compliments; and if you were led to exclaim that you had found a
man who could not be overcome by those insidious attacks which every one
else admits, and hoped that he would at least tolerate _this_ compliment
because of its truth, even on this ground he would resist your flattery;
not as though you had been awkward, or as though he suspected that you
were jesting with him, or had some secret end in view, but simply
because he had a horror of every form of adulation." We can easily
imagine that Gallio was Seneca's favorite brother, and we are not
surprised to find that the philosopher dedicates to him his three books
on Anger, and his charming little treatise "On a Happy Life."

Of the third brother, L. Annaeus Mela, we have fewer notices; but, from
what we know, we should conjecture that his character no less than his
reputation was inferior to that of his brothers; yet he seems to have
been the favorite of his father, who distinctly asserts that his
intellect was capable of every excellence, and superior to that of his
brothers.[4] This, however, may have been because Mela, "longing only to
long for nothing," was content with his father's rank, and devoted
himself wholly to the study of eloquence. Instead of entering into
public life, he deliberately withdrew himself from all civil duties, and
devoted himself to tranquility and ease. Apparently he preferred to be a
farmer-general (_publicanus_) and not a consul. His chief fame rests in
the fact that he was father of Lucan, the poet of the decadence or
declining literature of Rome. The only anecdote about him which has come
down to us is one that sets his avarice in a very unfavourable light.
When his famous son, the unhappy poet, had forfeited his life, as well
as covered himself with infamy by denouncing his own mother Attila in
the conspiracy of Piso, Mela, instead of being overwhelmed with shame
and agony, immediately began to collect with indecent avidity his son's
debts, as though to show Nero that he felt no great sorrow for his
bereavement. But this was not enough for Nero's malice; he told Mela
that he must follow his son, and Mela was forced to obey the order,
and to die.

[Footnote 4: M. Ann. Senec. _Controv_. ii. _Praef_.]

Doubtless Helvia, if she survived her sons and grandsons, must have
bitterly rued the day when, with her husband and her young children, she
left the quiet retreat of a life in Cordova. Each of the three boys grew
up to a man of genius, and each of them grew up to stain his memory with
deeds that had been better left undone, and to die violent deaths by
their own hands or by a tyrant's will. Mela died as we have seen; his
son Lucan and his brother Seneca were driven to death by the cruel
orders of Nero. Gallio, after stooping to panic-stricken supplications
for his preservation, died ultimately by suicide. It was a shameful and
miserable end for them all, but it was due partly to their own errors,
partly to the hard necessity of the degraded times in which they lived.



For a reason which I have already indicated--I mean the habitual
reticence of the ancient writers respecting the period of their
boyhood--it is not easy to form a very vivid conception of the kind of
education given to a Roman boy of good family up to the age of fifteen,
when he laid aside the golden amulet and embroidered toga to assume a
more independent mode of life.

A few facts, however, we can gather from the scattered allusions of the
poets Horace, Juvenal, Martial, and Persius. From these we learn that
the schoolmasters were for the most part underpaid and despised,[5]
while at the same time an erudition alike minute and useless was rigidly
demanded of them. We learn also that they were exceedingly severe in the
infliction of corporeal punishment; Orbilius, the schoolmaster of
Horace, appears to have been a perfect Dr. Busby, and the poet Martial
records with indignation the barbarities of chastisement which he daily

[Footnote 5: For the miseries of the literary class, and especially of
schoolmasters, see Juv, _Sat_. vii.]

The things taught were chiefly arithmetic, grammar--both Greek and
Latin--reading, and repetition of the chief Latin poets. There was also
a good deal of recitation and of theme-writing on all kinds of trite
historical subjects. The arithmetic seems to have been mainly of a very
simple and severely practical kind, especially the computation of
interest and compound interest; and the philology generally, both
grammar and criticism, was singularly narrow, uninteresting, and
useless. Of what conceivable advantage can it have been to any human
being to know the name of the mother of Hecuba, of the nurse of
Anchises, of the stepmother of Anchemolus, the number of years Acestes
lived, and how many casks of wine the Sicilians gave to the Phrygians?
Yet these were the dispicable _minutiae_ which every schoolmaster was
then expected to have at his fingers' ends, and every boy-scholar to
learn at the point of the ferule--trash which was only fit to be
unlearned the moment it was known.

For this kind of verbal criticism and fantastic archaeology Seneca, who
had probably gone through it all, expresses a profound and very rational
contempt. In a rather amusing passage[6] he contrasts the kind of use
which would be made of a Virgil lesson by a philosopher and a
grammarian. Coming to the lines,

"Each happiest day for mortals speeds the first,
Then crowds disease behind and age accurst,"

the philosopher will point out why and in what sense the early days of
life are the best days, and how rapidly the evil days succeed them, and
consequently how infinitely important it is to use well the golden dawn
of our being. But the verbal critic will content himself with the
remark that Virgil always uses _fugio_ of the flight of time, and
always joins "old age" with "disease," and consequently that these are
tags to be remembered, and plagiarized hereafter in the pupils'
"_original_ composition." Similarly, if the book in hand be Cicero's
treatise "On the Commonwealth," instead of entering into great political
questions, our grammarian will note that one of the Roman kings had no
father (to speak of), and another no mother; that dictators used
formerly to be called "masters of the people;" that Romulus perished
during an eclipse; that the old form of _reipsa_ was _reapse_, and of
_se ipse_ was _sepse_; that the starting point in the circus which is
now called _creta_, or "chalk," used to be called _caix_, or _carcer_;
that in the time of Ennuis _opera_ meant not only "work," but also
"assistance," and so on, and so on. Is this true education? or rather,
should our great aim ever be to translate noble precepts into daily
action? "Teach me," he says, "to despise pleasure and glory;
_afterwards_ you shall teach me to disentangle difficulties, to
distinguish ambiguities, to see through obscurities; _now_ teach me what
is necessary." Considering the condition of much which in modern times
passes under the name of "education," we may possibly find that the
hints of Seneca are not yet wholly obsolete.

[Footnote 6: Ep. cviii.]

What kind of schoolmaster taught the little Seneca when under the care
of the slave who was called _pedagogus_, or a "boy-leader" (whence our
word _pedagogue_), he daily went with his brothers to school through the
streets of Rome, we do not know. He may have been a severe Orbilius, or
he may have been one of those noble-minded tutors whose ideal
portraiture is drawn in such beautiful colours by the learned and
amiable Quintilian. Seneca has not alluded to any one who taught him
during his early days. The only schoolfellow whom he mentions by name
in his voluminous writings is a certain Claranus, a deformed boy, whom,
after leaving school, Seneca never met again until they were both old
men, but of whom he speaks with great admiration. In spite of his
hump-back, Claranus appeared even beautiful in the eyes of those who
knew him well, because his virtue and good sense left a stronger
impression than his deformity, and "his body was adorned by the beauty
of his soul."

It was not until mere school-lessons were finished that a boy began
seriously to enter upon the studies of eloquence and philosophy, which
therefore furnish some analogy to what we should call "a university
education." Gallio and Mela, Seneca's elder and younger brothers,
devoted themselves heart and soul to the theory and practice of
eloquence; Seneca made the rarer and the wiser choice in giving his
entire enthusiasm to the study of philosophy.

I say the wiser choice, because eloquence is not a thing for which one
can give a receipt as one might give a receipt for making
_eau-de-Cologne_. Eloquence is the noble, the harmonious, the passionate
expression of truths profoundly realized, or of emotions intensely felt.
It is a flame which cannot be kindled by artificial means. _Rhetoric_
may be taught if any one thinks it worth learning; but _eloquence_ is a
gift as innate as the genius from which it springs. "_Cujus vita fulgur,
ejus verba tonitrua_"--"if a man's life be lightning, his words will be
thunders." But the kind of oratory to be obtained by a constant practice
of declamation such as that which occupied the schools of the Rhetors
will be a very artificial lightning and a very imitated thunder--not the
artillery of heaven, but the Chinese fire and rolled bladders of the
stage. Nothing could be more false, more hollow, more pernicious than
the perpetual attempt to drill numerous classes of youths into a
reproduction of the mere manner of the ancient orators. An age of
unlimited declamation, an age of incessant talk, is a hotbed in which
real depth and nobility of feeling runs miserably to seed. Style is
never worse than it is in ages which employ themselves in teaching
little else. Such teaching produces an emptiness of thought concealed
under a plethora of words. This age of countless oratorical masters was
emphatically the period of decadence and decay. There is a hollow ring
about it, a falsetto tone in its voice; a fatiguing literary grimace in
the manner of its authors. Even its writers of genius were injured and
corrupted by the prevailing mode. They can say nothing simply; they are
always in contortions. Their very indignation and bitterness of heart,
genuine as it is, assumes a theatrical form of expression.[7] They
abound in unrealities: their whole manner is defaced with would-be
cleaverness, with antitheses, epigrams, paradoxes, forced expressions,
figures and tricks of speech, straining after originality and profundity
when they are merely repeating very commonplace remarks. What else could
one expect in an age of salaried declaimers, educated in a false
atmosphere of superficial talk, for ever haranguing and perorating about
great passions which they had never felt, and great deeds which they
would have been the last to imitate? After perpetually immolating the
Tarquins and the Pisistratids in inflated grandiloquence, they would go
to lick the dust off a tyrant's shoes. How could eloquence survive when
the magnanimity and freedom which inspired it were dead, and when the
men and books which professed to teach it were filled with despicable
directions about the exact position in which the orator was to use his
hands, and as to whether it was a good thing or not for him to slap his
forehead and disarrange his hair?

[Footnote 7:
"Juvenal, eleve dans les cris de l'ecole
Poussa jusqu'a l'exces sa mordante hyperbole."--

The philosophic teaching which even from boyhood exercised a powerful
fascination on the eager soul of Seneca was at least something better
than this; and more than one of his philosophic teachers succeeded in
winning his warm affection, and in moulding the principles and habits of
his life. Two of them he mentions with special regard, namely Sotion the
Pythagorean, and Attalus the Stoic. He also heard the lectures of the
fluent and musical Fabianus Papirius, but seems to have owed less to him
than to his other teachers.

Sotion had embraced the views of Pythagoras respecting the
transmigration of souls, a doctrine which made the eating of animal food
little better than cannibalism or parricide. But, even if any of his
followers rejected this view, Sotion would still maintain that the
eating of animals, if not an impiety, was at least a cruelty and a
waste. "What hardship does my advice inflict on you?" he used to ask. "I
do but deprive you of the food of vultures and lions." The ardent
boy--for at this time he could not have been more than seventeen years
old--was so convinced by these considerations that he became a
vegetarian. At first the abstinence from meat was painful, but after a
year he tells us (and many vegetarians will confirm his experience) it
was not only easy but delightful; and he used to believe, though he
would not assert it as a fact, that it made his intellect more keen and
active. He only ceased to be a vegetarian in obedience to the
remonstrance of his unphilosophical father, who would have easily
tolerated what he regarded as a mere vagary had it not involved the
danger of giving rise to a calumny. For about this time Tiberius
banished from Rome all the followers of strange and foreign religions;
and, as fasting was one of the rites practiced in some of them, Seneca's
father thought that perhaps his son might incur, by abstaining from
meat, the horrible suspicion of being a Christian or a Jew!

Another Pythagorean philosopher whom he admired and whom he quotes was
Sextius, from whom he learnt the admirable practice of daily
self-examination:--"When the day was over, and he betook himself to his
nightly rest, he used to ask himself, What evil have you cured to day?
What vice have you resisted? In what particular have you improved?" "I
too adopt this custom," says Seneca, in his book on Anger, "and I daily
plead my cause before myself, when the light has been taken away, and my
wife, who is now aware of my habit, has become silent; I carefully
consider in my heart the entire day, and take a deliberate estimate of
my deeds and words."

It was however the Stoic Attalus who seems to have had the main share in
the instruction of Seneca; and _his_ teaching did not involve any
practical results which the elder Seneca considered objectionable. He
tells us how he used to haunt the school of the eloquent philosopher,
being the first to enter and the last to leave it. "When I heard him
declaiming," he says, "against vice, and error, and the ills of life, I
often felt compassion for the human race, and believed my teacher to be
exalted above the ordinary stature of mankind. In Stoic fashion he used
to call himself a king; but to me his sovereignty seemed more than
royal, seeing that it was in his power to pass his judgments on kings
themselves. When he began to set forth the praises of poverty, and to
show how heavy and superfluous was the burden of all that exceeded the
ordinary wants of life, I often longed to leave school a poor man. When
he began to reprehend our pleasures, to praise a chaste body, a moderate
table, and a mind pure not from all unlawful but even from all
superfluous pleasures, it was my delight to set strict limits to all
voracity and gluttony. And these precepts, my Lucilius, have left some
permanent results; for I embraced them with impetuous eagerness, and
afterwards, when I entered upon a political career, I retained a few of
my good beginnings. In consequence of them, I have all my life long
renounced eating oysters and mushrooms, which do not satisfy hunger but
only sharpen appetite; for this reason I habitually abstain from
perfumes, because the sweetest perfume for the body is none at all: for
this reason I do without wines and baths. Other habits which I once
abandoned have come back to me, but in such a way that I merely
substitute moderation for abstinence, which perhaps is a still more
difficult task; since there are some things which it is easier for the
mind to cut away altogether than to enjoy in moderation. Attalus used to
recommend a hard couch in which the body could not sink; and, even in my
old age, I use one of such a kind that it leaves no impress of the
sleeper. I have told you these anecdotes to prove to you what eager
impulses our little scholars would have to all that is good, if any one
were to exhort them and urge them on. But the harm springs partly from
the fault of preceptors, who teach us how to _argue_, not how to _live_;
and partly from the fault of pupils, who bring to their teacher a
purpose of training their intellect and not their souls. Thus it is
that philosophy has been degraded into mere philology."

In another lively passage, Seneca brings vividly before us a picture of
the various scholars assembled in a school of the philosophers. After
observing that philosophy exercises some influence even over those who
do not go deeply in it, just as people sitting in a shop of perfumes
carry away with them some of the odour, he adds, "Do we not, however,
know some who have been among the audience of a philosopher for many
years, and have been even entirely uncoloured by his teaching? Of course
I do, even most persistent and continuous hearers; whom I do not call
pupils, but mere passing auditors of philosophers. Some come to hear,
not to learn, just as we are brought into a theatre for pleasure's sake,
to delight our ears with language, or with the voice, or with plays. You
will observe a large portion of the audience to whom the philosopher's
school is a mere haunt of their leisure. Their object is not to lay
aside any vices there, or to accept any law in accordance with which
they may conform their life, but that they may enjoy a mere tickling of
their ears. Some, however, even come with tablets in their hands, to
catch up not _things_ but _words_. Some with eager countenances and
spirits are kindled by magnificent utterances, and these are charmed by
the beauty of the thoughts, not by the sound of empty words; but the
impression is not lasting. Few only have attained the power of carrying
home with them the frame of mind into which they had been elevated."

It was to this small latter class that Seneca belonged. He became a
Stoic from very early years. The Stoic philosophers, undoubtedly the
noblest and purest of ancient sects, received their name from the fact
that their founder Zeno had lectured in the Painted Porch or Stoa
Paecile of Athens. The influence of these austere and eloquent masters,
teaching high lessons of morality and continence, and inspiring their
young audience with the glow of their own enthusiasm for virtue, must
have been invaluable in that effete and drunken age. Their doctrines
were pushed to yet more extravagant lengths by the Cynics, who were so
called from a Greek word meaning "dog," from what appeared to the
ancients to be the dog-like brutality of their manners. Juvenal
scornfully remarks, that the Stoics only differed from the Cynics "by a
tunic," which the Stoics wore and the Cynics discarded. Seneca never
indeed adopted the practices of Cynicism, but he often speaks admiringly
of the arch-Cynic Diogenes, and repeatedly refers to the Cynic
Demetrius, as a man deserving of the very highest esteem. "I take with
me everywhere," writes he to Lucilius, "that best of men, Demetrius;
and, leaving those who wear purple robes, I talk with him who is half
naked. Why should I not admire him? I have seen that he has no want. Any
one may despise all things, but no one _can_ possess all things. The
shortest road to riches lies through contempt of riches. But our
Demetrius lives not as though he _despised_ all things, but as though he
simply suffered others to possess them."

These habits and sentiments throw considerable light on Seneca's
character. They show that even from his earliest days he was capable of
adopting self-denial as a principle, and that to his latest days he
retained many private habits of a simple and honourable character, even
when the exigencies of public life had compelled him to modify others.
Although he abandoned an unusual abstinence out of respect for his
father, we have positive evidence that he resumed in his old age the
spare practices which in his enthusiastic youth he had caught from the
lessons of high-minded teachers. These facts are surely sufficient to
refute at any rate those gross charges against the private character of
Seneca, venomously retailed by a jealous Greekling like Dio Cassius,
which do not rest on a tittle of evidence, and seem to be due to a mere
spirit of envy and calumny. I shall not again allude to these scandals
because I utterly disbelieve them. A man who in his "History" could, as
Dio Cassius has done, put into the mouth of a Roman senator such insane
falsehoods as he has pretended that Fufius Calenus uttered in full
senate against Cicero, was evidently actuated by a spirit which
disentitles his statements to my credence. Seneca was an inconsistent
philosopher both in theory and in practice; he fell beyond all question
into serious errors, which deeply compromise his character; but, so far
from being a dissipated or luxurious man, there is every reason to
believe that in the very midst of wealth and splendour, and all the
temptations which they involve, he retained alike the simplicity of his
habits and the rectitude of his mind. Whatever may have been the almost
fabulous value of his five hundred tables of cedar and ivory, they were
rarely spread with any more sumptuous entertainment than water,
vegetables, and fruit. Whatever may have been the amusements common
among his wealthy and noble contemporaries, we know that he found his
highest enjoyment in the innocent pleasures of his garden, and took some
of his exercise by running races there with a little slave.



We have gleaned from Seneca's own writings what facts we could
respecting his early education. But in the life of every man there are
influences of a far more real and penetrating character than those which
come through the medium of schools or teachers. The spirit of the age;
the general tone of thought, the prevalent habits of social intercourse,
the political tendencies which were moulding the destiny of the
nation,--these must have told, more insensibly indeed but more
powerfully, on the mind of Seneca than even the lectures of Sotion and
of Attalus. And, if we have had reason to fear that there was much which
was hollow in the fashionable education, we shall see that the general
aspect of the society by which our young philosopher was surrounded from
the cradle was yet more injurious and deplorable.

The darkness is deepest just before the dawn, and never did a grosser
darkness or a thicker mist of moral pestilence brood over the surface of
Pagan society than at the period when the Sun of Righteousness arose
with healing in His wings. There have been many ages when the dense
gloom of a heartless immorality seemed to settle down with unusual
weight; there have been many places where, under the gaslight of an
artificial system, vice has seemed to acquire an unusual audacity; but
never probably was there any age or any place where the worst forms of
wickedness were practiced with a more unblushing effrontery than in the
city of Rome under the government of the Caesars. A deeply-seated
corruption seemed to have fastened upon the very vitals of the national
existence. It is surely a lesson of deep moral significance that just as
they became most polished in their luxury they became most vile in their
manner of life. Horace had already bewailed that "the age of our
fathers, worse than that of our grandsires, has produced us who are yet
baser, and who are doomed to give birth to a still more degraded
offspring." But fifty years later it seemed to Juvenal that in his times
the very final goal of iniquity had been attained, and he exclaims, in a
burst of despair, that "posterity will add _nothing_ to our immorality;
our descendents can but do and desire the same crimes as ourselves." He
who would see but for a moment and afar off to what the Gentile world
had sunk, at the very period when Christianity began to spread, may form
some faint and shuddering conception from the picture of it drawn in the
Epistle to the Romans.

We ought to realize this fact if we would judge of Seneca aright. Let us
then glance at the condition of the society in the midst of which he
lived. Happily we can but glance at it. The worst cannot be told. Crimes
may be spoken of; but things monstrous and inhuman should for ever be
concealed. We can but stand at the cavern's mouth, and cast a single ray
of light into its dark depths. Were we to enter, our lamp would be
quenched by the foul things which would cluster round it.

In the age of Augustus began that "long slow agony," that melancholy
process of a society gradually going to pieces under the dissolving
influence of its own vices which lasted almost without interruption till
nothing was left for Rome except the fire and sword of barbaric
invasions. She saw not only her glories but also her virtues "star by
star expire." The old heroism, the old beliefs, the old manliness and
simplicity, were dead and gone; they had been succeeded by prostration
and superstition by luxury and lust.

"There is the moral of all human tales,
'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past,
First freedom, and then glory; when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption,--barbarism at last:
And history, with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page; 'tis better written here
Where gorgeous tyranny hath thus amassed
All treasures, all delights, that eye or ear,
Heart, soul could seek, tongue ask."

The mere elements of society at Rome during this period were very
unpromising. It was a mixture of extremes. There was no middle class. At
the head of it was an emperor, often deified in his lifetime, and
separated from even the noblest of the senators by a distance of
immeasurable superiority. He, was, in the startling language of Gibbon,
at once "a priest, an atheist, and a god." [8] Surrounding his person and
forming his court were usually those of the nobility who were the most
absolutely degraded by their vices, their flatteries, or their abject
subservience. But even these men were not commonly the repositories of
political power. The people of the greatest influence were the freedmen
of the emperors--men who had been slaves, Egyptians and Bithynians who
had come to Rome with bored ears and with chalk on their naked feet to
show that they were for sale, or who had bawled "sea-urchins all alive"
in the Velabrum or the Saburra--who had acquired enormous wealth by
means often the most unscrupulous and the most degraded, and whose
insolence and baseness had kept pace with their rise to power. Such a
man was the Felix before whom St. Paul was tried, and such was his
brother Pallas,[9] whose golden statue might have been seen among the
household gods of the senator, afterwards the emperor, Vitellius.
Another of them might often have been observed parading the streets
between two consuls. Imagine an Edward II. endowed with absolute and
unquestioned powers of tyranny,--imagine some pestilent Piers Gaveston,
or Hugh de le Spenser exercising over nobles and people a hideous
despotism of the back stairs,--and you have some faint picture of the
government of Rome under some of the twelve Caesars. What the barber
Olivier le Diable was under Louis XI., what Mesdames du Barri and
Pompadour were under Louis XV., what the infamous Earl of Somerset was
under James I., what George Villiers became under Charles I., will
furnish us with a faint analogy of the far more exaggerated and
detestable position held by the freedman Glabrio under Domitian, by the
actor Tigellinus under Nero, by Pallus and Narcissus under Claudius, by
the obscure knight Sejanus under the iron tyranny of the
gloomy Tiberius.

[Footnote 8:
"To the sound
Of fifes and drums they danced, or in the shade
Sung Caesar great and terrible in war,
Immortal Caesar! 'Lo, a god! a god!
He cleaves the yielding skies!' Caesar meanwhile
Gathers the ocean pebbles, or the gnat
Enraged pursues; or at his lonely meal
Starves a wide province; tastes, dislikes, and flings
To dogs and sycophants. 'A god! a god!'
The flowery shades and shrines obscene return."
DYER, _Ruins of Rome_.]

[Footnote 9: The pride of this man was such that he never deigned to
speak a word in the presence of his own slaves, but only made known his
wishes by signs!--TACITUS.]

I. It was an age of the most enormous wealth existing side by side with
the most abject poverty. Around the splendid palaces wandered hundreds
of mendicants, who made of their mendicity a horrible trade, and even
went so far as to steal or mutilate infants in order to move compassion
by their hideous maladies. This class was increased by the exposure of
children, and by that overgrown accumulation of landed property which
drove the poor from their native fields. It was increased also by the
ambitious attempt of people whose means were moderate to imitate the
enormous display of the numerous millionaires. The great Roman conquests
in the East, the plunder of the ancient kingdoms of Antiochus, of
Attalus, of Mithridates, had caused a turbid stream of wealth to flow
into the sober current of Roman life. One reads with silent astonishment
of the sums expended by wealthy Romans on their magnificence or their
pleasures. And as commerce was considered derogatory to rank and
position, and was therefore pursued by men who had no character to lose,
these overgrown fortunes were often acquired by wretches of the meanest
stamp--by slaves brought from over the sea, who had to conceal the holes
bored in their ears;[10] or even by malefactors who had to obliterate,
by artificial means, the three letters[11] which had been branded by the
executioner on their foreheads. But many of the richest men in Rome, who
had not sprung from this convict origin, were fully as well deserving of
the same disgraceful stigma. Their houses were built, their coffers were
replenished, from the drained resources of exhausted provincials. Every
young man of active ambition or noble birth, whose resources had been
impoverished by debauchery and extravagance, had but to borrow fresh
sums in order to give magnificent gladiatorial shows, and then, if he
could once obtain an aedileship, and mount to the higher offices of the
State, he would in time become the procurator or proconsul of a
province, which he might pillage almost at his will. Enter the house of
a Felix or a Verres. Those splendid pillars of mottled green marble were
dug by the forced labour of Phrygians from the quarry of Synnada; that
embossed silver, those murrhine vases, those jeweled cups, those
masterpieces of antique sculpture, have all been torn from the homes or
the temples of Sicily or Greece. Countries were pilaged and nations
crushed that an Apicius might dissolve pearls[12] in the wine he drank,
or that Lollia Paulina might gleam in a second-best dress of emeralds
and pearls which had cost 40,000,000 sesterces, or more than

[Footnote 10: This was a common ancient practice; the very words
"thrall," "thralldom," are etymologically connected with the roots
"thrill," "trill," "drill," (Compare Exod. xxi. 6; Deut. xv. 17; Plut.
_Cic_. 26; and Juv. _Sat_. i. 104.)]

[Footnote 11: _Fur_, "thief." (See Martial, ii. 29.)]

[Footnote 12: "Dissolved pearls, Apicius' diet 'gainst the
epilepsy."--BEN JONSON.]

[Footnote 13: Pliny actually saw her thus arrayed. (Nat. Hist. ix. 35,

Each of these "gorgeous criminals" lived in the midst of an humble
crowd of flatterers, parasites, clients, dependents, and slaves. Among
the throng that at early morning jostled each other in the marble
_atrium_ were to be found a motley and hetrogeneous set of men. Slaves
of every age and nation--Germans, Egyptians, Gauls, Goths, Syrians,
Britons, Moors, pampered and consequential freedmen, impudent
confidential servants, greedy buffoons, who lived by making bad jokes at
other people's tables; Dacian gladiators, with whom fighting was a
trade; philosophers, whose chief claim to reputation was the length of
their beards; supple Greeklings of the Tartuffe species, ready to
flatter and lie with consummate skill, and spreading their vile
character like a pollution wherever they went: and among all these a
number of poor but honest clients, forced quietly to put up with a
thousand forms of contumely[14] and insult, and living in discontented
idleness on the _sportula_ or daily largesse which was administered by
the grudging liberality of their haughty patrons. The stout old Roman
burgher had well-nigh disappeared; the sturdy independence, the manly
self-reliance of an industrial population were all but unknown. The
insolent loungers who bawled in the Forum were often mere stepsons of
Italy, who had been dragged thither in chains,--the dregs of all
nations, which had flowed into Rome as into a common sewer,[15] bringing
with them no heritage except the specialty of their national vices.
Their two wants were bread and the shows of the circus; so long as the
_sportula_ of their patron, the occasional donative of an emperor, and
the ambition of political candidates supplied these wants, they lived in
contented abasement, anxious neither for liberty nor for power.

[Footnote 14: Few of the many sad pictures in the _Satires_ of Juvenal
are more pitiable than that of the wretched "Quirites" struggling at
their patrons' doors for the pittance which formed their daily dole.
(Sat i. 101.)]

[Footnote 15: See Juv. _Sat_. iii. 62. Scipio, on being interrupted by
the mob in the Forum, exclaimed,--"Silence, ye stepsons of Italy! What!
shall I fear these fellows now they are free, whom I myself have brought
in chains to Rome?" (See Cic. _De Orat_. ii. 61.)]

II. It was an age at once of atheism and superstition. Strange to say,
the two things usually go together. Just as Philippe Egalite, Duke of
Orleans, disbelieved in God, and yet tried to conjecture his fate from
the inspection of coffee-grounds at the bottom of a cup,--just as Louis
XI. shrank from no perjury and no crime, and yet retained a profound
reverence for a little leaden image which he carried in his cap,--so the
Romans under the Empire sneered at all the whole crowd of gods and
goddesses whom their fathers had worshipped, but gave an implicit
credence to sorcerers, astrologers, spirit-rappers, exorcists, and every
species of imposter and quack. The ceremonies of religion were performed
with ritualistic splendour, but all belief in religion was dead and
gone. "That there are such things as ghosts and subterranean realms not
even boys believe," says Juvenal, "except those who are still too young
to pay a farthing for a bath." [16] Nothing can exceed the cool
impertinence with which the poet Martial prefers the favour of Domitian
to that of the great Jupiter of the Capitol. Seneca, in his lost book
"Against Superstitions,"[17] openly sneered at the old mythological
legends of gods married and gods unmarried, and at the gods Panic and
Paleness, and at Cloacina, the goddess of sewers, and at other deities
whose cruelty and license would have been infamous even in mankind. And
yet the priests, and Salii, and Flamens, and Augurs continued to fulfil
their solemn functions, and the highest title of the Emperor himself was
that of _Pontifex Maximus_, or Chief Priest, which he claimed as the
recognized head of the national religion. "The common worship was
regarded," says Gibbon, "by the people as equally true, by the
philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally
useful." And this famous remark is little more than a translation from
Seneca, who, after exposing the futility of the popular beliefs, adds:
"And yet the wise man will observe them all, not as pleasing to the
gods, but as commanded by the laws. We shall so adore _all that ignoble
crowd of gods_ which long superstition has heaped together in a long
period of years, as to remember that their worship has more to do with
custom than with reality." "Because he was an illustrious senator of the
Roman people," observes St. Augustine, who has preserved for us this
fragment, "he worshipped what he blamed, he did what he refuted, he
adored that with which he found fault." Could anything be more hollow or
heartless than this? Is there anything which is more certain to sap the
very foundations of morality than the public maintenance of a creed
which has long ceased to command the assent, and even the respect of its
recognized defenders? Seneca, indeed, and a few enlightened
philosophers, might have taken refuge from the superstitions which they
abandoned in a truer and purer form of faith. "Accordingly," says
Lactantius, one of the Christian Fathers, "he has said many things like
ourselves concerning God." [18] He utters what Tertullian finely calls
"the testimony of A MIND NATURALLY CHRISTIAN." But, meanwhile, what
became of the common multitude? They too, like their superiors, learnt
to disbelieve or to question the power of the ancient deities; but, as
the mind absolutely requires _some_ religion on which to rest, they gave
their real devotion to all kinds of strange and foreign deities,--to
Isis and Osiris, and the dog Anubus, to Chaldaean magicians, to Jewish
exercisers, to Greek quacks, and to the wretched vagabond priests of
Cybele, who infested all the streets with their Oriental dances and
tinkling tambourines. The visitor to the ruins of Pompeii may still see
in her temple the statue of Isis, through whose open lips the gaping
worshippers heard the murmured answers they came to seek. No doubt they
believed as firmly that the image spoke, as our forefathers believed
that their miraculous Madonnas nodded and winked. But time has exposed
the cheat. By the ruined shrine the worshipper may now see the secret
steps by which the priest got to the back of the statue, and the pipe
entering the back of its head through which he whispered the answers of
the oracle.

[Footnote 16: JUV. _Sat_. ii. 149. Cf. Sen. _Ep_. xxiv. "Nemo tam puer
est at Cerberum timeat, et tenebras," &c.]

[Footnote 17: Fragm. xxxiv.]

[Footnote 18: Lactantius, _Divin. Inst_. i. 4.]

III. It was an age of boundless luxury,--an age in which women
recklessly vied with one another in the race of splendour and
extravagance, and in which men plunged headlong, without a single
scruple of conscience, and with every possible resource at their
command, into the pursuit of pleasure. There was no form of luxury,
there was no refinement of vice invented by any foreign nation, which
had not been eagerly adopted by the Roman patricians. "The softness of
Sybaris, the manners of Rhodes and Antioch, and of perfumed, drunken,
flower-crowned Miletus," were all to be found at Rome. There was no
more of the ancient Roman severity and dignity and self-respect. The
descendants of Aemilius and Gracchus--even generals and consuls and
praetors--mixed familiarly with the lowest _canaille_ of Rome in their
vilest and most squalid purlieus of shameless vice. They fought as
amateur gladiators in the arena. They drove as competing charioteers on
the race-course. They even condescended to appear as actors on the
stage. They devoted themselves with such frantic eagerness to the
excitement of gambling, that we read of their staking hundreds of pounds
on a single throw of the dice, when they could not even restore the
pawned tunics to their shivering slaves. Under the cold marble statues,
or amid the waxen likenesses of their famous stately ancestors, they
turned night into day with long and foolish orgies, and exhausted land
and sea with the demands of their gluttony. "Woe to that city," says an
ancient proverb, "in which a fish costs more than an ox;" and this
exactly describes the state of Rome. A banquet would sometimes cost the
price of an estate; shell-fish were brought from remote and unknown
shores, birds from Parthia and the banks of the Phasis; single dishes
were made of the brains of the peacocks and the tongues of nightingales
and flamingoes. Apicius, after squandering nearly a million of money in
the pleasures of the table, committed suicide, Seneca tells us, because
he found that he had only 80,000_l_. left. Cowley speaks of--

"Vitellius' table, which did hold
As many creatures as the ark of old."

"They eat," said Seneca, "and then they vomit; they vomit, and then
they eat." But even in this matter we cannot tell anything like the
worst facts about--

"Their sumptuous gluttonies and gorgeous feasts
On citron tables and Atlantic stone,
Their wines of Setia, Gales, and Falerne,
Chios, and Crete, and how they quaff in gold,
Crystal, and myrrhine cups, embossed with gems
And studs of pearl." [19]

Still less can we pretend to describe the unblushing and unutterable
degradation of this period as it is revealed to us by the poets and the
satirists. "All things," says Seneca, "are full of iniquity and vice;
more crime is committed than can be remedied by restraint. We struggle
in a huge contest of criminality: daily the passion for sin is greater,
the shame in committing it is less.... Wickedness is no longer committed
in secret: it flaunts before our eyes, and

"The citron board, the bowl embossed with gems,
... whatever is known
Of rarest acquisition; Tyrian garbs,
Neptunian Albion's high testaceous food,
And flavoured Chian wines, with incense fumed,
To slake patrician thirst: for these their rights
In the vile atreets they prostitute for sale,
Their ancient rights, their dignities, their laws,
Their native glorious freedom.

has been sent forth so openly into public sight, and has prevailed so
completely in the breast of all, that innocence is not _rare_, but

[Footnote 19: Compare the lines in Dyer's little-remembered _Ruins of

IV. And it was an age of deep sadness. That it should have been so is an
instructive and solemn lesson. In proportion to the luxury of the age
were its misery and its exhaustion. The mad pursuit of pleasure was the
death and degradation of all true happiness. Suicide--suicide out of
pure _ennui_ and discontent at a life overflowing with every possible
means of indulgence--was extraordinarily prevalent. The Stoic
philosophy, especially as we see it represented in the tragedies
attributed to Seneca, rang with the glorification of it. Men ran to
death because their mode of life had left them no other refuge. They
died because it seemed so tedious and so superfluous to be seeing and
doing and saying the same things over and over again; and because they
had exhausted the very possibility of the only pleasures of which they
had left themselves capable. The satirical epigram of Destouches,--

"Ci-git Jean Rosbif, ecuyer,
Qui se pendit pour se desennuyer,"

was literally and strictly true of many Romans during this epoch.
Marcellinus, a young and wealthy noble, starved himself, and then had
himself suffocated in a warm bath, merely because he was attacked with a
perfectly curable illness. The philosophy which alone professed itself
able to heal men's sorrows applauded the supposed courage of a voluntary
death, and it was of too abstract, too fantastic, and too purely
theoretical a character to furnish them with any real or lasting
consolations. No sentiment caused more surprise to the Roman world than
the famous one preserved in the fragment of Maecenas,--

"Debilem facito manu,
Debilem pede, coxa,
Tuber adstrue gibberum,
Lubricos quate dentes;
Vita dum superest bene est;
Hanc mihi vel acuta
Si sedeam cruce sustine;"

which may be paraphrased,--

"Numb my hands with palsy,
Rack my feet with gout,
Hunch my back and shoulder,
Let my teeth fall out;
Still, if _Life_ be granted,
I prefer the loss;
Save my life, and give me
Anguish on the cross."

Seneca, in his 101st Letter, calls this "a most disgraceful and most
contemptible wish;" but it may be paralleled out of Euripides, and still
more closely out of Homer. "Talk not," says the shade of Achilles to
Ulysses in the Odyssey,--

"'Talk not of reigning in this dolorous gloom,
Nor think vain lies,' he cried, 'can ease my doom.
_Better by far laboriously to bear
A weight of woes, and breathe the vital air,
Slave to the meanest hind that begs his bread,
Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead_.'"

But this falsehood of extremes was one of the sad outcomes of the
popular Paganism. Either, like the natural savage, they dreaded death
with an intensity of terror; or, when their crimes and sorrows had made
life unsupportable, they slank to it as a refuge, with a cowardice which
vaunted itself as courage.

V. And it was an age of cruelty. The shows of gladiators, the sanguinary
combats of wild beasts, the not unfrequent spectacle of savage tortures
and capital punishments, the occasional sight of innocent martyrs
burning to death in their shirts of pitchy fire, must have hardened and
imbruted the public sensibility. The immense prevalence of slavery
tended still more inevitably to the general corruption. "Lust," as
usual, was "hard by hate." One hears with perfect amazement of the
number of slaves in the wealthy houses. A thousand slaves was no
extravagant number, and the vast majority of them were idle, uneducated
and corrupt. Treated as little better than animals, they lost much of
the dignity of men. Their masters possessed over them the power of life
and death, and it is shocking to read of the cruelty with which they
were often treated. An accidental murmur, a cough, a sneeze, was
punished with rods. Mute, motionless, fasting, the slaves had to stand
by while their masters supped; A brutal and stupid barbarity often
turned a house into the shambles of an executioner, sounding with
scourges, chains, and yells.[20] One evening the Emperor Augustus was
supping at the house of Vedius Pollio, when one of the slaves, who was
carrying a crystal goblet, slipped down, and broke it. Transported with
rage Vedius at once ordered the slave to be seized, and plunged into the
fish-pond as food to the lampreys. The boy escaped from the hands of his
fellow-slaves, and fled to Caesar's feet to implore, not that his life
should be spared--a pardon which he neither expected nor hoped--but that
he might die by a mode of death less horrible than being devoured by
fishes. Common as it was to torment slaves, and to put them to death,
Augustus, to his honor be it spoken, was horrified by the cruelty of
Vedius, and commanded both that the slave should be set free, that every
crystal vase in the house of Vedius should be broken in his presence and
that the fish pond should be filled up. Even women inflicted upon their
female slaves punishments of the most cruel atrocity for faults of the
most venial character. A brooch wrongly placed, a tress of hair
ill-arranged, and the enraged matron orders her slave to be lashed and
crucified. If her milder husband interferes, she not only justifies the
cruelty, but asks in amazement: "What! is a slave so much of a human
being?" No wonder that there was a proverb, "As many slaves, so many
foes." No wonder that many masters lived in perpetual fear, and that
"the tyrant's devilish plea, necessity," might be urged in favor of that
odious law which enacted that, if a master was murdered by an unknown
hand, the whole body of his slaves should suffer death,--a law which
more than once was carried into effect under the reigns of the Emperors.
Slavery, as we see in the case of Sparta and many other nations, always
involves its own retribution. The class of free peasant proprietors
gradually disappears. Long before this time Tib. Gracchus, in coming
home from Sardinia, had observed that there was scarcely a single
freeman to be seen in the fields. The slaves were infinitely more
numerous than their owners. Hence arose the constant dread of servile
insurrections; the constant hatred of a slave population to which any
conspirator revolutionist might successfully appeal; and the constant
insecurity of life, which must have struck terror into many hearts.

[Footnote 20: Juv. _Sat_. i. 219--222.]

Such is but a faint and broad outline of some of the features of
Seneca's age; and we shall be unjust if we do not admit that much at
least of the life he lived, and nearly all the sentiments he uttered,
gain much in grandeur and purity from the contrast they offer to the
common life of--

"That people victor once, now vile and base,
Deservedly made vassal, who, once just,
Frugal, and mild, and temperate, conquered well,
But govern ill the nations under yoke,
Peeling their provinces, exhausted all
By lust and rapine; first ambitious grown
Of triumph, that insulting vanity;
Then cruel, by their sports to blood inured
Of fighting beasts, and men to beasts exposed,
Luxurious by their wealth, and greedier still,
And from the daily scene effeminate.
What wise and valient men would seek to free
These thus degenerate, by themselves enslaved;
Or could of inward slaves make outward free?"
MILTON, _Paradise Regained_, iv. 132-145.



The personal notices of Seneca's life up to the period of his manhood
are slight and fragmentary. From an incidental expression we conjecture
that he visited his aunt in Egypt when her husband was Prefect of that
country, and that he shared with her the dangers of shipwreck when her
husband had died on board ship during the homeward voyage. Possibly the
visit may have excited in his mind that deep interest and curiosity
about the phenomena of the Nile which appear so strongly in several
passages of his _Natural Questions_; and, indeed nothing is more likely
than that he suggested to Nero the earliest recorded expedition to
discover the source of the mysterious river. No other allusion to his
travels occur in his writings, but we may infer that from very early
days he had felt an interest for physical inquiry, since while still a
youth he had written a book on earthquakes; which has not come down
to us.

Deterred by his father from the pursuit of philosophy, he entered on the
duties of a profession. He became an advocate, and distinguished himself
by his genius and eloquence in pleading causes. Entering on a political
career, he became a successful candidate for the quaestorship, which
was an important step towards the highest offices of the state. During
this period of his life he married a lady whose name has not been
preserved to us, and to whom we have only one allusion, which is a
curious one. As in our own history it has been sometimes the fashion for
ladies of rank to have dwarves and negroes among their attendants, so it
seems to have been the senseless and revolting custom of the Roman
ladies of this time to keep idiots among the number of their servants.
The first wife of Seneca had followed this fashion, and Seneca in his
fiftieth letter to his friend Lucilius[21] makes the following
interesting allusion to the fact. "You know," he says, "that my wife's
idiot girl Harpaste has remained in my house as a burdensome legacy. For
personally I feel the profoundest dislike to monstrosities of that kind.
If ever I want to amuse myself with an idiot, I have not far to look for
one. I laugh at myself. This idiot girl has suddenly become blind. Now,
incredible as the story seems, it is really true that she is unconscious
of her blindness, and consequently begs her attendant to go elsewhere,
because the house is dark. But you may be sure that this, at which we
laugh in her, happens to us all; no one understands that he is
avaricious or covetous. The blind seek for a guide; _we_ wander about
without a guide."

[Footnote 21: It will be observed that the main biographical facts about
the life of Seneca are to be gleaned from his letters to Lucilius, who
was his constant friend from youth to old age, and to whom he has
dedicated his Natural Questions. Lucilius was a procurator of Sicily, a
man of cultivated taste and high principle. He was the author of a poem
on Aetna, which in the opinion of many competent judges is the poem
which has come down to us, and has been attributed to Varus, Virgil, and
others. It has been admirably edited by Mr. Munro. (See _Nat. Quaest._,
iv. _ad init. Ep_. lxxix.) He also wrote a poem on the fountain
Arethusa. _(Nat. Quaest_. iii, 26.)]

This passage will furnish us with an excellent example of Seneca's
invariable method of improving every occasion and circumstance into an
opportunity for a philosophic harangue.

By this wife, who died shortly before Seneca's banishment to Corsica, he
had two sons, one of whom expired in the arms and amid the kisses of
Helvia less than a month before Seneca's departure for Corsica. To the
other, whose name was Marcus, he makes the following pleasant allusion.
After urging his mother Helvia to find consolation in the devotion of
his brothers Gallio and Mela, he adds, "From these turn your eyes also
on your grandsons--to Marcus, that most charming little boy, in sight of
whom no melancholy can last long. No misfortune in the breast of any one
can have been so great or so recent as not to be soothed by his
caresses. Whose tears would not his mirth repress? whose mind would not
his prattling loose from the pressure of anxiety? whom will not that
joyous manner of his incline to jesting? whose attention, even though he
be fixed in thought, will not be attracted and absorbed by that
childlike garrulity of which no one can grow tired? God grant that he
may survive me: may all the cruelty of destiny be weared out on me!"

Whether the prayer of Seneca was granted we do not know; but, as we do
not again hear of Marcus, it is probable that he died before his father,
and that the line of Seneca, like that of so many great men, became
extinct in the second generation.

It was probably during this period that Seneca laid the foundations of
that enormous fortune which excited the hatred and ridicule of his
opponents. There is every reason to believe that this fortune was
honourably gained. As both his father and mother were wealthy, he had
doubtless inherited an ample competency; this was increased by the
lucrative profession of a successful advocate, and was finally swollen
by the princely donations of his pupil Nero. It is not improbable that
Seneca, like Cicero, and like all the wealthy men of their day,
increased his property by lending money upon interest. No disgrace
attached to such a course; and as there is no proof for the charges of
Dio Cassius on this head, we may pass them over with silent contempt.
Dio gravely informs us that Seneca excited an insurrection in Britain,
by suddenly calling in the enormous sum of 40,000,000 sesterces; but
this is in all probability the calumny of a professed enemy. We shall
refer again to Seneca's wealth; but we may here admit that it was
undoubtedly ungraceful and incongruous in a philosopher who was
perpetually dwelling on the praises of poverty, and that even in his own
age it attracted unfavourable notice, as we may see from the epithet
_Proedives_, "the over-wealthy," which is applied to him alike by a
satiric poet and by a grave historian. Seneca was perfectly well aware
that this objection could be urged against him, and it must be admitted
that the grounds on which he defends himself in his treatise _On a Happy
Life_ are not very conclusive or satisfactory.

The boyhood of Seneca fell in the last years of the Emperor Augustus,
when, in spite of the general decorum and amiability of their ruler,
people began to see clearly that nothing was left of liberty except the
name. His youth and early manhood were spent during those
three-and-twenty years of the reign of Tiberius, that reign of terror,
during which the Roman world was reduced to a frightful silence and
torpor as of death;[22] and, although he was not thrown into personal
collision with that "brutal monster," he not unfrequently alludes to
him, and to the dangerous power and headlong ruin of his wicked minister
Sejanus. Up to this time he had not experienced in his own person those
crimes and horrors which fall to the lot of men who are brought into
close contact with tyrants. This first happened to him in the reign of
Caius Caesar, of whom we are enabled, from the writings of Seneca alone,
to draw a full-length portrait.

[Footnote 22: Milton, _Paradise Regained_, iv. 128. For a picture of
Tiberius as he appeared in his old age at Capreae, "hated of all and
hating," see Id. 90-97.]

Caius Caesar was the son of Germanicus and the elder Agrippina.
Germanicus was the bravest and most successful general, and one of the
wisest and most virtuous men, of his day. His wife Agrippina, in her
fidelity, her chastity, her charity, her nobility of mind, was the very
model of a Roman matron of the highest and purest stamp. Strange that
the son of such parents should have been one of the vilest, cruelest,
and foulest of the human race. So, however, it was; and it is a
remarkable fact that scarcely one of the six children of this marriage
displayed the virtues of their father and mother, while two of them,
Caius Caesar and the younger Agrippina, lived to earn an exceptional
infamy by their baseness and their crimes. Possibly this unhappy result
may have been partly due to the sad circumstances of their early
education. Their father, Germanicus, who by his virtue and his successes
had excited the suspicious jealousy of his uncle Tiberius, was by his
distinct connivance, if not by his actual suggestion, atrociously
poisoned in Syria. Agrippina, after being subjected to countless cruel
insults, was banished in the extremest poverty to the island of
Pandataria. Two of the elder brothers, Nero and Drusus Germanicus, were
proclaimed public enemies: Nero was banished to the island Pontia, and
there put to death; Drusus was kept a close prisoner in a secret prison
of the palace. Caius, the youngest, who is better known by the name
Caligula, was summoned by Tiberius to his wicked retirement at Capreae,
and there only saved his life by the most abject flattery and the most
adroit submission.

Capreae is a little island of surpassing loveliness, forming one
extremity of the Bay of Naples. Its soil is rich, its sea bright and
limpid, its breezes cool and healthful. Isolated by its position, it is
yet within easy reach of Rome. At that time, before Vesuvius had
rekindled those wasteful fires which first shook down, and then deluged
under lava and scoriae, the little cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii,
the scene which it commanded was even more pre-eminently beautiful than
now. Vineyards and olive-groves clothed the sides of that matchless bay,
down to the very line where the bright blue waters seem to kiss with
their ripples the many-coloured pebbles of the beach. Over all, with its
sides dotted with picturesque villas and happy villages, towered the
giant cone of the volcano which for centuries had appeared to be
extinct, and which was clothed up to the very crater with luxurious
vegetation. Such was the delicious home which Tiberius disgraced for
ever by the seclusion of his old age. Here he abandoned himself to every
refinement of wickedness, and from hence, being by common consent the
most miserable of men, he wrote to the Senate that memorable letter in
which he confesses his daily and unutterable misery under the stings of
a guilty conscience, which neither solitude nor power enabled him
to escape.

Never did a fairer scene undergo a worse degradation; and here, in one
or other of the twelve villas which Tiberius had built, and among the
azure grottoes which he caused to be constructed, the youthful Caius[23]
grew up to manhood. It would have been a terrible school even for a
noble nature; for a nature corrupt and bloodthirsty like that of Caius
it was complete and total ruin. But, though he was so obsequious to the
Emperor as to originate the jest that never had there been a worse
master and never a more cringing slave,--though he suppressed every sign
of indignation at the horrid deaths of his mother and his
brothers,--though he assiduously reflected the looks, and carefully
echoed the very words, of his patron,--yet not even by the deep
dissimulation which such a position required did he succeed in
concealing from the penetrating eye of Tiberius the true ferocity of his
character. Not being the acknowledged heir to the kingdom,--for Tiberius
Gemellus, the youthful grandson of Tiberius, was living, and Caius was
by birth only his grand-nephew,--he became a tool for the machinations
of Marco the praetorian praefect and his wife Ennia. One of his chief
friends was the cruel Herod Agrippa,[24] who put to death St. James and
imprisoned St. Peter, and whose tragical fate is recorded in the 12th
chap. of the Acts. On one occasion, when Caius had been abusing the
dictator Sulla, Tiberius scornfully remarked that he would have all
Sulla's vices and none of his virtues; and on another, after a quarrel
between Caius and his cousin, the Emperor embraced with tears his young
grandson, and said to the frowning Caius, with one of those strange
flashes of prevision of which we sometimes read in history. "Why are you
so eager? Some day you will kill this boy, and some one else will murder
you." There were some who believed that Tiberius deliberately cherished
the intention of allowing Caius to succeed him, in order that the Roman
world might relent towards his own memory under the tyranny of a worse
monster than himself. Even the Romans, who looked up to the family of
Germanicus with extraordinary affection, seem early to have lost all
hopes about Caius. They looked for little improvement under the
government of a vicious boy, "ignorant of all things, or nurtured only
in the worst," who would be likely to reflect the influence of Macro,
and present the spectacle of a worse Tiberius under a worse Sejanus.

[Footnote 23: We shall call him Caius, because it is as little correct
to write of him by the _sobriquet_ Caligula as it would be habitually to
write of our kings Edward or John as Longshanks or Lackland. The name
Caligula means "a little shoe," and was the pet name given to him by the
soldiers of his father, in whose camp he was born.]

[Footnote 24: Josephus adds some curious and interesting particulars to
the story of this Herod and his death which are not mentioned in the
narrative of St. Luke (_Antiq_. xix. 7, 8. Jahn, _Hebr. Commonwealth_,
sec. cxxvi.)]

At last health and strength failed Tiberius, but not his habitual
dissimulation. He retained the same unbending soul, and by his fixed
countenance and measured language, sometimes by an artificial
affability, he tried to conceal his approaching end. After many restless
changes, he finally settled down in a villa at Misenum which had once
belonged to the luxurious Lucullus. There the real state of his health
was discovered. Charicles, a distinguished physician, who had been
paying him a friendly visit on kissing his hand to bid farewell, managed
to ascertain the state of his pulse. Suspecting that this was the case
Tiberius, concealing his displeasure, ordered a banquet to be spread,
as though in honour of his friend's departure, and stayed longer than
usual at table. A similar story is told of Louis XIV. who, noticing from
the whispers of his courtiers that they believed him to be dying, ate an
unusually large dinner on the very day of his death, and sarcastically
observed, "Il me semble que pour un homme qui va mourir je ne mange pas
mal." But, in spite of the precautions of Tiberius, Charicles informed
Macro that the Emperor could not last beyond two days.

A scene of secret intrigue at once began. The court broke up into knots
and cliques. Hasty messengers were sent to the provinces and their
armies, until at last, on the 16th of March, it was believed that
Tiberius had breathed his last. Just as on the death of Louis XV. a
sudden noise was heard as of thunder, the sound of courtiers rushing
along the corridors to congratulate Louis XVI. in the famous words, "Le
roi est mort, vive le roi," so a crowd instantly thronged round Caius
with their congratulations, as he went out of the palace to assume his
imperial authority. Suddenly a message reached him that Tiberius had
recovered voice and sight. Seneca says, that feeling his last hour to be
near, he had taken off his ring, and, holding it in his shut left hand,
had long lain motionless; then calling his servants, since no one
answered his call, he rose from his couch, and, his strength failing
him, after a few tottering steps fell prostrate on the ground.

The news produced the same consternation as that which was produced
among the conspirators at Adonijah's banquet, when they heard of the
measures taken by the dying David. There was a panic-stricken
dispersion, and every one pretended to be grieved, or ignorant of what
was going on. Caius, in stupified silence, expected death instead of
empire. Macro alone did not lose his presence of mind. With the utmost
intrepidity, he gave orders that the old man should be suffocated by
heaping over him a mass of clothes, and that every one should then leave
the chamber. Such was the miserable and unpitied end of the Emperor
Tiberius, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. Such was the death, and
so miserable had been the life, of the man to whom the Tempter had
already given "the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them," when he
tried to tempt with them the Son of God. That this man should have been
the chief Emperor of the earth at a time when its true King was living
as a peasant in his village home at Nazareth, is a fact suggestive of
many and of solemn thoughts.



The poet Gray, in describing the deserted deathbed of our own great
Edward III., says:--

"Low on his funeral couch he lies!
No pitying heart, no eye afford
A tear to grace his obsequies!

* * * * *

"The swarm that in the noontide beam were born?
Gone to salute the rising Morn.
Fair laughs the Morn, and soft the zephyr blows,
While proudly riding o'er the azure realm,
In gallant trim the gilded vessel goes;
Youth on the prow and Pleasure at the helm;
Regardless of the sweeping Whirlwind's sway,
That, hushed in grim repose, expects his evening prey."

The last lines of this passage would alone have been applicable to Caius
Caesar. There was nothing fair or gay even about the beginning of his
reign. From first to last it was a reign of fury and madness, and lust
and blood. There was an hereditary taint of insanity in this family,
which was developed by their being placed on the dizzy pinnacle of
imperial despotism, and which usually took the form of monstrous and
abnormal crime. If we would seek a parallel for Caius Caesar, we must
look for it in the history of Christian VII. of Denmark, and Paul of
Russia. In all three we find the same ghastly pallor, the same
sleeplessness which compelled them to rise, and pace their rooms at
night, the same incessant suspicion; the same inordinate thirst for
cruelty and torture. He took a very early opportunity to disembarrass
himself of his benefactors, Macro and Ennia, and of his rival, the young
Tiberius. The rest of his reign was a series of brutal extravagances. We
have lost the portion of those matchless Annals of Tacitus which
contained the reign of Caius, but more than enough to revolt and horrify
is preserved in the scattered notices of Seneca, and in the narratives
of Suetonius in Latin and Dio Cassius in Greek.

His madness showed itself sometimes in gluttonous extravagance, as when
he ordered a supper which cost more than 8,000_l_; sometimes in a
_bizarre_ and disgraceful mode of dress, as when he appeared in public
in women's stockings, embroidered with gold and pearls; sometimes in a
personality and insolence of demeanor towards every rank and class in
Rome, which made him ask a senator to supper, and ply him with drunken
toasts, on the very evening on which he had condemned his son to death;
sometimes in sheer raving blasphemy, as when he expressed his furious
indignation against Jupiter for presuming to thunder while he was
supping, or looking at the pantomimes; but most of all in a ferocity
which makes Seneca apply to him the name of "Bellua," or "wild monster,"
and say that he seems to have been produced "for the disgrace and
destruction of the human race."

We will quote from the pages of Seneca but one single passage to justify
his remark "that he was most greedy for human blood, which he ordered
to stream in his very presence with such eagerness as though he were
going to drink it up with his lips." He says that in one day he scourged
and tortured men of consular and quaestorial parentage, knights and
senators, not by way of examination, but out of pure caprice and rage;
he seriously meditated the butchery of the entire senate; he expressed a
wish that the Roman people had but a single neck, that he might strike
it off at one blow; he silenced the screams or reproaches of his victims
sometimes by thrusting a sponge in their mouths, sometimes by having
their mouths gagged with their own torn robes, sometimes by ordering
their tongues to be cut out before they were thrown to the wild beasts.
On one occasion, rising from a banquet, he called for his slippers,
which were kept by the slaves while the guests reclined on the purple
couches, and so impatient was he for the sight of death, that, walking
up and down his covered portico by lamplight with ladies and senators,
he then and there ordered some of his wretched victims to be beheaded in
his sight.

It is a singular proof of the unutterable dread and detestation inspired
by some of these Caesars, that their mere countenance is said to have
inspired anguish. Tacitus, in the life of his father-in-law Agricola,
mentions the shuddering recollection of the red face of Domitian, as it
looked on at the games. Seneca speaks in one place of wretches doomed to
undergo stones, sword, fire, and _Caius_; in another he says that he had
tortured the noblest Romans with everything which could possibly cause
the intensest agony,--with cords, plates, rack, fire, and, as though it
were the worst torture of all, with his look! What that look was, we
learn from Seneca himself, "His face was ghastly pale, with a look of
insanity; his fierce, dull eyes were half-hidden under a wrinkled brow;
his ill-shaped head was partly bald, partly covered with dyed-hair; his
neck covered with bristles, his legs thin, and his feet mis-shapen." Woe
to the nation that lies under the heel of a brutal despotism; treble woe
to the nation that can tolerate a despot so brutal as this! Yet this was
the nation in the midst of which Seneca lived, and this was the despot
under whom his early manhood was spent.

"But what more oft in nations grown corrupt,
And by their vices brought to servitude,
Than to love bondage more than liberty,
Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty?"

It was one of the peculiarities of Caius Caesar that he hated the very
existence of any excellence. He used to bully and insult the gods
themselves, frowning even at the statues of Apollo and Jupiter of the
Capitol. He thought of abolishing Homer, and order the works of Livy and
Virgil to be removed from all libraries, because he could not bear that
they should be praised. He ordered Julius Graecinus to be put to death
for no other reason than this, "That he was a better man than it was
expedient for a tyrant that any one should be;" for, as Pliny tells us,
the Caesars deliberately preferred that their people should be vicious
than that they should be virtuous. It was hardly likely that such a man
should view with equanimity the rising splendour of Seneca's reputation.
Hitherto, the young man, who was thirty-five years old at the accession
of Caius, had not written any of his philosophic works, but in all
probability he had published his early, and no longer extant, treatises
on earthquakes, on superstitions, and the books _On India_, and _On the
Manners of Egypt_, which had been the fruit of his early travels. It is
probable, too, that he had recited in public some of those tragedies
which have come down to us under his name, and in the composition of
which he was certainly concerned. All these works, and especially the
applause won by the public reading of his poems, would have given him
that high literary reputation which we know him to have earned. It was
not, however, this reputation, but the brilliancy and eloquence of his
orations at the bar which excited the jealous hatred of the Emperor.
Caius piqued himself on the possession of eloquence; and, strange to
say, there are isolated expressions of his which seem to show that, in
lucid intervals, he was by no means devoid of intellectual acuteness.
For instance, there is real humour and insight in the nicknames of "a
golden sheep" which he gave to the rich and placid Silanus, and of
"Ulysses in petticoats," by which he designated his grandmother, the
august Livia. The two epigrammetic criticisms which he passed upon the
style of Seneca are not wholly devoid of truth; he called his works
_Commissiones meras_, or mere displays.[25] In this expression he hit
off, happily enough, the somewhat theatrical, the slightly pedantic and
pedagogic and professorial character of Seneca's diction, its rhetorical
ornament and antitheses, and its deficiency in stern masculine
simplicity and strength. In another remark he showed himself a still
more felicitous critic. He called Seneca's writings _Arenu sine Calce_,
"sand without lime," or, as we might say, "a rope of sand." This epigram
showed a real critical faculty. It exactly hits off Seneca's short and
disjointed sentences, consisting as they often do of detached
antitheses. It accords with the amusing comparison of Malebranche, that
Seneca's composition, with its perpetual and futile recurrences, calls
up to him the image of a dancer who ends where he begins.

[Footnote 25: Suet. _Calig._ liii.]

But Caius did not confine himself to clever and malignant criticism. On
one occasion, when Seneca was pleading in his presence, he was so
jealous and displeased at the brilliancy and power of the orator that he
marked him out for immediate execution. Had Seneca died at this period
he would probably have been little known, and he might have left few
traces of his existence beyond a few tragedies of uncertain
authenticity, and possibly a passing notice in the page of Dio or
Tacitus. But destiny reserved him for a more splendid and more
questionable career. One of Caius's favourites whispered to the Emperor
that it was useless to extinguish a waning lamp; that the health of the
orator was so feeble that a natural death by the progress of his
consumptive tendencies would, in a very short time, remove him out of
the tyrant's way.

Throughout the remainder of the few years during which the reign of
Caius continued, Seneca, warned in time, withdrew himself into complete
obscurity, employing his enforced leisure in that unbroken industry
which stored his mind with such encyclopaedic wealth. "None of my days,"
he says, in describing at a later period the way in which he spent his
time, "is passed in complete ease. I claim even a part of the night for
my studies. I do not _find leisure_ for sleep, but I _succumb_ to it,
and I keep my eyes at their work even when they are wearied and drooping
with watchfulness. I have retired, not only from men, but from affairs,
and especially from my own. I am doing the work for posterity; I am
writing out things which may prove of advantage to them. I am
intrusting to writing healthful admonitions--compositions, as it were,
of useful medicines."

But the days of Caius drew rapidly to an end. His gross and unheard-of
insults to Valerius Asiaticus and Cassius Chaereas brought on him
condign vengeance. It is an additional proof, if proof were wanting, of
the degradation of Imperial Rome, that the deed of retribution was due,
not to the people whom he taxed; not to the soldiers, whole regiments of
whom he had threatened to decimate; not to the knights, of whom scores
had been put to death by his orders; not to the nobles, multitudes of
whom had been treated by him with conspicuous infamy; not even to the
Senate, which illustrious body he had on all occasions deliberately
treated with contumely and hatred,--but to the private revenge of an
insulted soldier. The weak thin voice of Cassius Chaereas, tribune of
the praetorian cohort, had marked him out for the coarse and calumnious
banter of the imperial buffoon; and he determined to avenge himself, and
at the same time rid the world of a monster. He engaged several
accomplices in the conspiracy, which was nearly frustrated by their want
of resolution. For four whole days they hesitated, while day after day,
Caius presided in person at the bloody games of the amphitheatre. On the
fifth day (Jan. 24, A.D. 41), feeling unwell after one of his gluttonous
suppers, he was indisposed to return to the shows, but at last rose to
do so at the solicitation of his attendants. A vaulted corridor led from
the palace to the circus, and in that corridor Caius met a body of noble
Asiatic boys, who were to dance a Pyrrhic dance and sing a laudatory ode
upon the stage. Caius wished them at once to practice a rehearsal in his
presence, but their leader excused himself on the grounds of
hoarseness. At this moment Chaereas asked him for the watchword of the
night. He gave the watchword, "Jupiter." "Receive him in his wrath!"
exclaimed Chaereas, striking him on the throat, while almost at the same
moment the blow of Sabinus cleft the tyrant's jaw, and brought him to
his knee. He crouched his limbs together to screen himself from further
blows, screaming aloud, "I live! I live!" The bearers of his litter
rushed to his assistance, and fought with their poles, but Caius fell
pierced with thirty wounds; and, leaving the body weltering in its
blood, the conspirators rushed out of the palace, and took measures to
concert with the Senate a restoration of the old Republic. On the very
night after the murder the consuls gave to Chaereas the long-forgotten
watchword of "Liberty." But this little gleam of hope proved delusive to
the last degree. It was believed that the unquiet ghost of the murdered
madman haunted the palace, and long before it had been laid to rest by
the forms of decent sepulchre, a new emperor of the great Julian family
was securely seated upon the throne.



While the senators were deliberating, the soldiers were acting. They
felt a true, though degraded, instinct that to restore the ancient forms
of democratic freedom would be alike impossible and useless, and with
them the only question lay between the rival claimants for the vacant
power. Strange to say that, among these claimants, no one seems ever to
have thought of mentioning the prince who became the actual successor.

There was living in the palace at this time a brother of the great
Germanicus, and consequently an uncle of the late emperor, whose name
was Claudius Caesar. Weakened both in mind and body by the continuous
maladies of an orphaned infancy, kept under the cruel tyranny of a
barbarous slave, the unhappy youth had lived in despised obscurity among
the members of a family who were utterly ashamed of him. His mother
Antonia called him a monstrosity, which Nature had begun but never
finished; and it became a proverbial expression with her, as is said to
have been the case with the mother of the great Wellington, to say of a
dull person, "that he was a greater fool than her son Claudius." His
grandmother Livia rarely deigned to address him except in the briefest
and bitterest terms. His sister Livilla execrated the mere notion of
his ever becoming emperor. Augustus, his grandfather by adoption, took
pains to keep him as much out of sight as possible, as a
wool-gathering[26] and discreditable member of the family, denied him
all public honours, and left him a most paltry legacy. Tiberius, when
looking out for a successor, deliberately passed him over as a man of
deficient intellect. Caius kept him as a butt for his own slaps and
blows, and for the low buffoonery of his meanest jesters. If the unhappy
Claudius came late for dinner, he would find every place occupied, and
peer about disconsolately amid insulting smiles. If, as was his usual
custom, he dropped asleep, after a meal, he was pelted with olives and
date-stones, or rough stockings were drawn over his hands that he might
be seen rubbing his face with them when he was suddenly awaked.

[Footnote 26: He calls him [Greek meteoros] which implies awkwardness
and constant absence of mind.]

This was the unhappy being who was now summoned to support the falling
weight of empire. While rummaging the palace for plunder, a common
soldier had spied a pair of feet protruding from under the curtains
which shaded the sides of an upper corridor. Seizing these feet, and
inquiring who owned them, he dragged out an uncouth, panic-stricken
mortal, who immediately prostrated himself at his knees and begged hard
for mercy. It was Claudius, who scared out of his wits by the tragedy
which he had just beheld, had thus tried to conceal himself until the
storm was passed. "Why, this is Germanicus!" [27] exclaimed the soldier,
"let's make him emperor." Half joking and half in earnest, they hoisted
him on their shoulders--for terror had deprived him of the use of his
legs--and hurried him off to the camp of the Praetorians. Miserable and
anxious he reached the camp, an object of compassion to the crowd of
passers-by, who believed that he was being hurried off to execution. But
the soldiers, who well knew their own interests, accepted him with
acclamations, the more so as, by a fatal precedent, he promised them a
largess of more than 80_l_. apiece. The supple Agrippa (the Herod of
Acts xii.), seeing how the wind lay, offered to plead his cause with the
Senate, and succeeded partly by arguments, partly by intimidation, and
partly by holding out the not unreasonable hopes of a great improvement
on the previous reign.

[Footnote 27: The full name of Claudius was Tiberius Claudius Drusus
Caesar Germanicus.]

For although Claudius had been accused of gambling and drunkenness, not
only were no _worse_ sins laid to his charge, but he had successfully
established some claim to being considered a learned man. Had fortune
blessed him till death with a private station, he might have been the
Lucien Bonaparte of his family--a studious prince, who preferred the
charms of literature to the turmoil of ambition. The anecdotes which
have been recorded of him show that he was something of an
archaeologist, and something of a philologian. The great historian Livy,
pitying the neglect with which the poor young man was treated, had
encouraged him in the study of history; and he had written memoirs of
his own time, memoirs of Augustus, and even a history of the civil wars
since the battle of Actium, which was so correct and so candid that his
family indignantly suppressed it as a fresh proof of his stupidity.

Such was the man who, at the age of fifty, became master of the
civilized world. He offers some singular points of resemblance to our
own "most mighty and dread sovereign," King James I. Both were learned,
and both were eminently unwise;[28] both of them were authors, and both
of them were pedants; both of them delegated their highest powers to
worthless favourites, and both of them enriched these favourites with
such foolish liberality that they remained poor themselves. Both of them
had been terrified into constitutional cowardice by their involuntary
presence at deeds of blood. Both of them, though of naturally good
dispositions, were misled by selfishness into acts of cruelty; and both
of them, though laborious in the discharge of duty, succeeded only in
rendering royalty ridiculous. King James kept Sir Walter Raleigh in
prison, and Claudius drove Seneca into exile. The parallel, so far as I
am aware, has never been noticed, but is susceptible of being drawn out
into the minutest particulars.

[Footnote 28: "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers," says our own poet.
Heraclitus had said the same thing more than two thousand years before
him, [Greek: polumaoiae ou didasho].]

One of his first acts was to recall his nieces, Julia and Agrippina,
from the exile into which their brother had driven them; and both these
princesses were destined to effect a powerful influence on the life of
our philosopher.

What part Seneca had taken during the few troubled days after the murder
of Caius we do not know. Had he taken a leading part--had he been one of
those who, like Chaereas, opposed the election of Claudius as being
merely the substitution of an imbecile for a lunatic,--or who, like
Sabinus, refused to survive the accession of another Caesar,--we should
perhaps have heard of it; and we must therefore assume either that he
was still absent from Rome in the retirement into which he had been
driven by the jealousy of Caius, or that he contented himself with
quietly watching the course of events. It will be observed that his
biography is not like that of Cicero, with whose life we are acquainted
in most trifling details; but that the curtain rises and falls on
isolated scenes, throwing into sudden brilliancy or into the deepest
shade long and important periods of his history. Nor are his letters and
other writings full of those political and personal allusions which
convert them into an autobiography. They are, without exception,
occupied exclusively with philosophical questions, or else they only
refer to such personal reminiscences as may best be converted into the
text for some Stoical paradox or moral declamation. It is, however,
certain from the sequel that Seneca must have seized the opportunity of
Caius's death to emerge from his politic obscurity, and to occupy a
conspicuous and brilliant position in the imperial court.

It would have been well for his own happiness and fame if he had adopted
the wiser and manlier course of acting up to the doctrines he professed.
A court at most periods is, as the poet says,

"A golden but a fatal circle,
Upon whose magic skirts a thousand devils
In crystal forms sit tempting Innocence,
And beckon early Virtue from its centre;"

but the court of a Caius, of a Claudius, or of a Nero, was indeed a
place wherein few of the wise could find a footing, and still fewer of
the good. And all that Seneca gained from his career of ambition was to
be suspected by the first of these Emperors, banished by the second, and
murdered by the third.

The first few acts of Claudius showed a sensible and kindly disposition;
but it soon became fatally obvious that the real powers of the
government would be wielded, not by the timid and absent-minded
Emperor, but by any one who for the time being could acquire an
ascendency over his well-intentioned but feeble disposition. Now, the
friends and confidents of Claudius had long been chosen from the ranks
of his freedmen. As under Louis XI. and Don Miguel, the barbers of these
monarchs were the real governors, so Claudius was but the minister
rather than the master of Narcissus his private secretary, of Polybius
his literary adviser, and of Pallas his accountant. A third person, with
whose name Scripture has made us familiar, was a freedman of Claudius.
This was Felix, the brother of Pallas, and that Procurator who, though
he had been the husband or the paramour of three queens, trembled before
the simple eloquence of a feeble and imprisoned Jew.[29] These men
became proverbial for their insolence and wealth; and once, when
Claudius was complaining of his own poverty, some one wittily replied,
"that he would have abundance if two of his freedmen would but admit him
into partnership with them."

[Footnote 29: Acts xix.]

But these men gained additional power from the countenance and intrigues
of the young and beautiful wife of Claudius, Valeria Messalina. In his
marriage, as in all else, Claudius had been pre-eminent in misfortune.
He lived in an age of which the most frightful sign of depravity was
that its women were, if possible, a shade worse than its men; and it was
the misery of Claudius, as it finally proved his ruin, to have been
united by marriage to the very worst among them all. Princesses like the
Berenice, and the Drusilla, and the Salome, and the Herodias of the
sacred historians were in this age a familiar spectacle; but none of
them were so wicked as two at least of Claudius's wives. He was
betrothed or married no less than five times. The lady first destined
for his bride had been repudiated because her parents had offended
Augustus; the next died on the very day intended for her nuptials. By
his first actual wife, Urgulania, whom he had married in early youth, he
had two children, Drusus and Claudia; Drusus was accidentally choked in
boyhood while trying to swallow a pear which had been thrown up into the
air. Very shortly after the birth of Claudia, discovering the


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