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The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca by…
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The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca

by Emily Wilson

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This literary biography of the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca would probably be of greatest value to someone who has read (or even better, has read and is familiar with) one or more of Seneca's works. Even without that, I found the book a helpful introduction to Seneca's life, though the close readings of his works, always placed in the context of his life, were sometimes slow going. Wilson balances an appreciation for Seneca's abilities and intelligence with an acknowledgment of his less pleasant qualities - egoism, constant image-crafting, and bland acceptance of the gross inequities of the Roman Empire. The epilogue is immensely useful, briefly charting Seneca's cultural and intellectual impact since his death, down to his place in the current Stoic revival.

I belong to a current political tradition that holds one cannot think seriously about ethics without contemplating its relationship to privilege and the social distribution of power and opportunity. Seneca doesn't measure up well against that highly anachronistic standard: he served as tutor and advisor to Nero, was implicated in some of his crimes, and accumulated grotesque wealth from his high office held at the emperor's pleasure. And yet, Wilson points out, at the moments when Seneca depicted himself practicing restraint and moderation, he was living an immensely privileged existence, dependent on dozens of slaves to prepare and serve him 'simple food' while he contemplated his virtue. Wilson presents Seneca as constantly critiquing himself; it is less clear whether this was sincere on the Roman's part, or just another way of buffing his literary persona. The combination of obliviousness to modern concerns about social justice, and obsessive concern about personal freedom and image crafting, make Seneca much less appealling as a model for how to live than his near-contemporaries Musonius Rufus and Epictetus. ( )
  bezoar44 | Jul 23, 2016 |
I almost never read biographies; they're just not a genre I care for all that much. I decided to read this one because I've enjoyed reading some of Seneca's own writings; I read Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero in 2014 and wanted to read another writer's take on Seneca; and I'm doing a book challenge that calls for a biography. So I was pleasantly surprised that I really liked this book.

As its title says, Dying Every Day focuses only on one period in Seneca's life. Wilson writes about the entirety of Seneca's life. And since there are lots of gaps in what we know about his life, even the best-documented bits, she writes about other things, giving a context for Seneca's life. So I learned a bit about childhood in a wealthy Roman family, about Seneca's family members, about the role of rhetoric in Roman life, etc. Wilson analyzes Seneca's writings, pairing a philosophical work with a tragedy, and trying to correlate them with what was going on in his life at the time (dating most of his writings is a challenge). The epilogue connects Seneca to the present day, tracing the influence of his writings through the centuries after his death, both in drama and philosophy. (I admit being most interested in the connection with The Hunger Games!) Wilson is tackling a complicated subject—there's philosophy, literary criticism, and history in all this—but I thought her writing style was readable, not dull and academic. Recommended, assuming you'd be interested in this topic in the first place. ( )
  Silvernfire | Feb 21, 2016 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0199926646, Hardcover)

By any measure, Seneca (?4-65AD) is one of the most important figures in both Roman literature and ancient philosophy. He was the most popular writer of his day, and his writings are voluminous and diverse, ranging from satire to philosophical "consolations" against grief, from metaphysical theory to moral and political discussions of virtue and anger. He was also the author of disturbing, violent tragedies, which present monstrous characters in a world gone wrong. But Seneca was also deeply engaged with the turbulent political events of his time. Exiled by the emperor Claudius for supposed involvement in a sex scandal, he was eventually brought back to Rome to become tutor and, later, speech-writer and advisor to Nero. He was an important eyewitness to one of the most interesting periods of Roman history, living under the rule of five of the most famous--and infamous--emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero), through the Great Fire of Rome (64AD), and at a time of expansion and consolidation of Roman imperial power throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as various foreign and internal conflicts. Suspected of plotting against Nero, Seneca was condemned and ultimately took his own life in what became one of the most iconic suicides in Western history.

The life and works of Seneca pose a number of fascinating challenges. How can we reconcile his bloody, passionate tragedies with his prose works advocating a life of Stoic tranquility? Furthermore, how are we to reconcile Seneca the Stoic philosopher, the man of principle, who advocated a life of calm and simplicity, with Seneca the man of the moment, who amassed a vast personal fortune in the service of an emperor seen by many, at the time and afterwards, as an insane tyrant? In this vivid biography, Emily Wilson presents Seneca as a man under enormous pressure, struggling for compromise in a world of absolutism. The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca thus offers us, in fascinating ways, the portrait of a man with all the fissures and cracks formed by the clash of the ideal and the real: the gulf between political hopes and fears, and philosophical ideals; the gap between what we want to be, and what we are.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:53 -0400)

"The life and works of Seneca pose a number of fascinating challenges. For one thing, how can we reconcile the bloody, passionate tragedies, with the prose works advocating a life of Stoic tranquility? An even more challenging question is, how are we to reconcile Seneca the Stoic philosopher, the man of principle, who advocated a life of calm and simplicity, with Seneca the man of the moment, who amassed a vast personal fortune in the service of an emperor seen by many, at the time and afterwards, as an insane tyrant? In this biography, Emily Wilson will present Seneca as a man under enormous pressure, struggling for compromise in a world of absolutism. His work and his life both show, in fascinating ways, the fissures and cracks created by the clash of the ideal and the real: the gulf between political hopes and fears, and philosophical ideals; the gap between what we want to be, and what we are. The book will assume no prior knowledge either of ancient Roman society, Stoicism, Seneca's life or work, but will weave these features together into a lively narrative, while presenting new insights into an author whose reputation is currently experiencing a revival within the academy"--… (more)

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