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Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero…

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (2014)

by James Romm, James Romm

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This is an interesting and well-written book, but it can be somewhat tough going if your Roman history is rusty. I learned a lot about Nero over the last couple of days, but I probably would have gotten more out of it if I remembered more of my high school Western Civ class.

It did make me want to reread Colleen McCullough's Rome series (even though I realize that McCullough's books are set a good 150 years before this book). And when I finished Dying Every Day (that is, I remind you, the title of the book, not a description of my week), I fired up Caesar III for the first time in a decade.

Having said all that, my big quibble with the book is that Seneca remains elusive even though he is the ostensible subject of the book; I found that I understood Nero a lot better than I understood Seneca when I finished. I can't blame this entirely on the author; I'm sure part of it is that I came to the book with virtually zero knowledge of Seneca, and part of it is that there are almost certainly more sources for Nero's life than for Seneca's. But the central figure in this history remains nebulous throughout, and when you're already operating without a lot of knowledge, that's a pretty big handicap for a book to overcome.

Still, if you're interested in this period of Roman history, you'll probably enjoy this book. It just probably shouldn't be the first book you pick up. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
He lived 2,000 years ago. Sources about his life were scant. He was a philosopher writer and tutor and counselor of Emperor Nero. Was it his fault that Nero was a terrible Emperor? The author provides cogent answers to this and other questions. Nero's reign started well with an address to the Senate promising reforms (which was ghost-written by Seneca since Nero was only 16). Nero seemed to start his slide downwards according to the author when he poisoned his half-brother Britannicus. The author suggests in light of Seneca's powerful role at the time he would have known and perhaps participated in the assassination. Nero seemed to reach his height of evil when he had his own mother assassinated. Again, the author says Burrus and Seneca, his two senior counselors, went along with the act. Some years later the author says Seneca tried to re-sign from his role and give his entire wealth to Nero but Nero would not allow him to leave. When Lucan, Seneca's nephew, participates in a plot to kill Nero, Seneca is accused of being a participant in the plot. Nero invites Seneca to commit suicide which he does. The author manages to sift through ancient historians and Seneca's own writings to re-create the life of a writer/philosopher who had the misfortune of advising an Emperor who turned into a monster. ( )
1 vote jerry-book | Jan 26, 2016 |
"Nero fiddled while Rome burned..." You probably have this phrase running around in your head, even though you mostly have no idea who Nero was. It's even less likely you know who Seneca was.

James Romm's "Dying Every Day" is an accessible and intriguing biography of Seneca, the man behind the throne during the reign of Nero. Seneca is a study in contradictions: a Stoic philosopher, author of any number of letters, philosophical tracts and plays extolling the virtues of a simple, virtuous life, he was at the same time Nero's "consigliere", complicit in any number of foul deeds and deeply entrenched in the corrupt court of Nero. Intrigue, Poison and outright murder of political rivals was common. He was also present in the courts of Caligula and Claudius. The parallels to Thomas Cromwell as portrayed in Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" are striking.

I found the book deeply interesting and educational, and an easy read for a history book. The title comes from one of Seneca's letters, "Consolation to Marcia", in which he expounds the Stoic philosophy that to be born is to begin dying, and that death is always with us. "We are all of us dying every day". But equally well might this apply to Seneca's slow spiritual death, essentially trapped in his role as Nero's right hand.

For years Seneca served first as Nero's tutor during his early years, then as his primary counselor once Nero became emperor. There's a great Greek word for this, from the book - Seneca was called a tyrannodidaskalos - "tyrant-teacher".

I learned any number odd facts from the book. Seneca's brother Gallio was proconsul of a territory in Greece where the apostle Paul was preaching, and after a disturbance Paul was brought before Gallio (who like Pilate "washed his hands" of the matter). (Paul was a Roman citizen by the way). Eventually Paul invoked his right as a citizen to an appeal before the emperor and was shipped to Rome. While there's no documentation of a meeting it's entirely likely Paul met the emperor, and there is evidence (somewhat sketchy) that Paul became friends with Seneca.

Seneca also became fabulously wealthy during his life (likely through questionable use of his office), and lent a great deal of money to tribal leaders in Roman Britain. The uprising of the tribes led by the woman warrior Boudicca can be traced to Seneca calling in his loans.

The book chronicles the twists and turns of life at court - the intrigues, the murders, and the shifting alliances that allowed one to stay alive when a wrong word would get you killed by the emperor or a rival. Along side that it covers Seneca's writings and how they influence or were influenced by events. The book is well worth the read, but in the end I wasn't entirely satisfied. Much of the book seems speculation (phrases like "he must have..." or "likely" crop up a lot) and I don't feel I really got to the heart of the contradiction in Seneca's character - but the historical facts are so spare, perhaps that has to wait for a work of fiction. There's great material for a historical fiction novel in there.... ( )
  viking2917 | May 30, 2015 |
12/7/2014 11:48 AM nytimes top 100 - Seneca in Nero's court. Highly recommended.
  ntgntg | Dec 7, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307596877, Hardcover)

From acclaimed classical historian, author of Ghost on the Throne (“Gripping . . . the narrative verve of a born writer and the erudition of a scholar” —Daniel  Mendelsohn) and editor of The Landmark Arrian:The Campaign of Alexander (“Thrilling” —The New York Times Book Review), a  high-stakes drama full of murder, madness, tyranny, perversion, with the sweep of history on the grand scale.

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

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

Romm writes that Seneca watched over Nero as teacher, moral guide, and surrogate father, and, at seventeen, when Nero abruptly ascended to become emperor of Rome, Seneca, a man never avid for political power became, with Nero, the ruler of the Roman Empire. We see how Seneca was able to control his young student, how, under Seneca’s influence, Nero ruled with intelligence and moderation, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes, gave slaves the right to file complaints against their owners, pardoned prisoners arrested for sedition. But with time, as Nero grew vain and disillusioned, Seneca was unable to hold sway over the emperor, and between Nero’s mother, Agrippina—thought to have poisoned her second husband, and her third, who was her uncle (Claudius), and rumored to have entered into an incestuous relationship with her son—and Nero’s father, described by Suetonius as a murderer and cheat charged with treason, adultery, and incest, how long could the young Nero have been contained?
Dying Every Day is a portrait of Seneca’s moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess. In his treatises, Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed, exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death. As Nero’s adviser, Seneca was presented with a more complex set of choices, as the only man capable of summoning the better aspect of Nero’s nature, yet, remaining at Nero’s side and colluding in the evil regime he created.

Dying Every Day is the first book to tell the compelling and nightmarish story of the philosopher-poet who was almost a king, tied to a tyrant—as Seneca, the paragon of reason, watched his student spiral into madness and whose descent saw five family murders, the Fire of Rome, and a savage purge that destroyed the supreme minds of the Senate’s golden age.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:51 -0400)

Explores the moral struggles, political intrigues and violent vendettas that enmeshed Seneca, the ancient Roman writer and philosopher, in the brutal daily lives of the imperial family and the regime of his student, Nero.

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