(c. 55-c.117)

from The Annals: The Death of Seneca


Cornelius Tacitus, born in northern Italy or southern Gaul, was a Roman political leader and historian who chronicled Roman history of the 1st century A.D.. He was educated in rhetoric in Rome for a career in law and apparently served in several positions of leadership, including quaestor, praetor, and consul. In the year 112 or 113, he held the position of proconsul, or local governor, in the Roman province of Asia. Tacitus spent the last years of his life working on his histories.

Tacitus wrote two major historical works, the Histories (104–109), arranged into 14 books, and the Annals (c. 115–117), comprised of 16 books. These compositions, of which fewer than half survive today, together provide a history of Rome from the years 14 to 96 A.D..

In the fifteenth book of the Annals, Tacitus relates the suicide of the Stoic statesman Seneca the Younger [q.v.], whose writings on suicide are also included in this volume. According to this account, Seneca was implicated in a conspiracy instigated by the plebeian Piso against the emperor Nero. Earlier in his life, Seneca had been Nero’s tutor, and later, together with Burrus, became a trusted advisor to Nero. It is said that much of the decency and moderation of the first five years of Nero’s rule may be attributed to the guidance of Seneca and Burrus. However, Nero grew envious of Seneca’s fortune and attempted to have him poisoned. After the attempt failed, Nero accused Seneca of involvement in the conspiracy and gave the imperial order that Seneca commit suicide. In Tacitus’ account, Seneca voluntarily complied with the order. He also consented to his wife Paulina’s determination to die with him, and they opened their veins together. After a prolonged period of suffering, poison was administered and eventually caused Seneca to die; Paulina’s attempt at suicide was prevented at Nero’s command once she herself was already unconscious.

Tacitus’ account conveys Seneca’s expectation that his suicide, despite the fact that it was unjustly ordered by Nero, will be viewed as an act of courage, to be rewarded with fame and glory, though less so than Paulina’s suicide. He says to her: “we will leave behind us an example of equal constancy; but the glory will be all your own.” Seneca’s death is often regarded as a model of Stoic suicide.

Tacitus,  The Annals, Book XV, 60-64, ed. E. H. Blakeney, tr. Arthur Murphy, New York: E. P. Dutton; London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1908, Vol. 1, pp. 498-502.


The next exploit of Nero was the death of Seneca Against that eminent man no proof of guilt appeared; but the emperor thirsted for his blood, and what poison had not accomplished, he was determined to finish by the sword.  Natalis was the only person who had mentioned his name. The chief head of his accusation was, “That he himself had been sent on a visit to Seneca, then confined by illness, with instructions to mention to him, that Piso often called at his house, but never could gain admittance, though it was the interest of both to live on terms of mutual friendship.” To this Seneca made answer, “That private interviews could be of no service to either; but still his happiness was grafted on the safety of Piso.” Granius Silvanus, a tribune of the prætorian guards, was dispatched to Seneca, with directions to let him know what was alleged against him, and to inquire whether he admitted the conversation stated by Natalis, with the answers given by himself. Seneca, by design or accident, was that very day on his return from Campania.  He stopped at a villa of his own about four miles from Rome. Towards the close of day the tribune arrived, and beset the house with a band of soldiers.  Seneca was at supper with his wife Pompeia Paulina, and two of his friends, when Silvanus entered the room, and reported the orders of the emperor.

Seneca did not hesitate to acknowledge that Natalis had been at his house, with a complaint that Piso’s visits were not received. His apology, he said, imported no more than want of health, the love of ease, and the necessity of attending to a weak and crazy constitution. “That he should prefer the interest of a private citizen to his own safety, was too absurd to be believed.  He had no motives to induce him to pay such a compliment to any man; adulation was no part of his character. This is a truth well known to Nero himself: he can tell you that, on various occasions, he found in Seneca a man, who spoke his mind with freedom, and disdained the arts of servile flattery.” Silvanus returned to Rome.  He found the prince in company with Poppæa and Tigellinus, who, as often as cruelty was in agitation, formed the cabinet council.  In their presence the messenger reported his answer. Nero asked, “Does Seneca prepare to end his days by a voluntary death?” “He showed,” said the tribune, “no symptom of fear, no token of sorrow, no dejected passion: his words and looks bespoke a mind serene, erect, and firm.” “Return,” said Nero, “and tell him he must resolve to die.” Silvanus, according to the account of Fabius Rusticus, chose to go back by a different road.  He went through a private way to Fenius Rufus, to advise with that officer, whether he should execute the emperor’s orders.  Rufus told him that he must obey. Such was the degenerate spirit of the times. A general panic took possession of every mind. This very Silvanus was one of the conspirators, and yet was base enough to be an instrument of the cruelty which he had combined to revenge. He had, however, the decency to avoid the shock of seeing Seneca, and of delivering in person the fatal message. He sent a centurion to perform that office for him.

Seneca heard the message with calm composure. He called for his will, and being deprived of that right of a Roman citizen by the centurion, he turned to his friends. And “You see,” he said, “that I am not at liberty to requite your services with the last marks of my esteem. One thing, however, still remains. I leave you the example of my life, the best and most precious legacy now in my power. Cherish it in your memory, and you will gain at once the applause due to virtue, and the fame of a sincere and generous friendship.” All who were present melted into tears. He endeavored to assuage their sorrows; he offered his advice with mild persuasion; he used the tone of authority. “Where,” he said, “are the precepts of philosophy, and where the words of wisdom, which for years have taught us to meet the calamities of life with firmness and a well prepared spirit? Was the cruelty of Nero unknown to any of us?  He murdered his mother; he destroyed his brother; and, after those deeds of horror, what remains to fill the measure of his guilt but the death of his guardian and his tutor?”

Having delivered himself in these pathetic terms, he directed his attention to his wife. He clasped her in his arms, and in that fond embrace yielded for a while to the tenderness of his nature. Recovering his resolution, he entreated her to appease her grief, and bear in mind that his life was spent in a constant course of honour and of virtue. That consideration would serve to heal affliction, and sweeten all her sorrows. Paulina was still inconsolable. She was determined to die with her husband; she invoked the aid of the executioners, and begged to end her wretched being. Seneca saw that she was animated by the love of glory, and that generous principle he thought ought not to be restrained. The idea of leaving a beloved object exposed to the insults of the world, and the malice of her enemies, pierced him to the quick. “It has been my care,” he said, “to instruct you in that best philosophy, the art of mitigating the ills of life; but you prefer an honourable death. I will not envy you the vast renown that must attend your fall. Since you will have it so, we will die together. We will leave behind us an example of equal constancy; but the glory will be all your own.”

These words were no sooner uttered, than the veins of both their arms were opened. At Seneca’s time of life the blood was slow and languid. The decay of nature, and the impoverishing diet to which he had used himself, left him in a feeble condition. He ordered the vessels of his legs and joints to be punctured. After that operation, he began to labour with excruciating pains. Lest his sufferings should overpower the constancy of his wife, or the sight of her afflictions prove too much for his own sensibility, he persuaded her to retire into another room. His eloquence still continued to flow with its usual purity. He called for his secretaries, and dictated, while life was ebbing away, that farewell discourse, which has been published, and is in everybody’s hands. I will not injure his last words by giving the substance in another form.

Nero had conceived no antipathy to Paulina. If she perished with her husband, he began to dread the public execration. That he might not multiply the horrors of his present cruelty, he sent orders to exempt Paulina from the stroke of death. The slaves and freedmen, by the direction of the soldiers, bound up her arm, and stopped the effusion of blood. This, it is said, was done without her knowledge, as she lay in a state of languor. The fact, however, cannot be known with certainty. Vulgar malignity, which is ever ready to detract from exalted virtue, spread a report, that, as long as she had reason to think that the rage of Nero was implacable, she had the ambition to share the glory of her husband’s fate; but a milder prospect being unexpectedly presented, the charms of life gained admission to her heart, and triumphed over her constancy. She lived a few years longer, in fond regret, to the end of her days, revering the memory of her husband. The weakness of her whole frame, and the sickly languor of her countenance, plainly showed that she had been reduced to the last extremity.

Seneca lingered in pain. The approach of death was slow, and he wished for his dissolution.  atigued with pain, worn out and exhausted, he requested his friend, Statius Annaeus, whose fidelity and medical skill he had often experienced, to administer a draught of that swift-speeding poison, usually given at Athens to the criminals adjudged to death. He swallowed the potion, but without any immediate effect. His limbs were chilled: the vessels of his body were closed, and the ingredients, though keen and subtle, could not arrest the principles of life. He desired to be placed in a warm bath.  Being conveyed according to his desire, he sprinkled his slaves with the water, and “Thus,” he said, “I make libation to Jupiter the deliverer.” The vapour soon overpowered him, and he was committed to the flames. He had given directions for that purpose in his last will, made at a time when he was in the zenith of power, and even then looked forward to the close of his days.

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