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November 23, 2017

Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History – Part IV: Seneca and Stoicism


This is Part 4 of 4 in the “Understanding The Annals: Tacitus and the Ancient Structure of History” miniseries on JosephKaminski.org. The question at hand here is “Explain the role that Stoic ideas, Stoicism, and Stoic philosophers play in the Annals.” You can click here for the archive page of this series; and if you liked this series – take a look at 2016’s “Catherine the Great” archives and 2015’s “The Endless Flow of Society“!

The depiction of Seneca throughout the pages describing Nero’s reign and legacy contains an abundant amount of influence towards and from the ideology of stoicism. According to ‘Stoicism and Roman Example: Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England’ by J.H.M. Salmon, “some of the best-known passages” [1] within The Annals would be concerning the rise of Seneca’s influence in terms of “restraining” Nero and the unfolding events that happened afterwards.

Seneca the Younger

The stoicism prompt seems to revolve around Seneca, who worked as a tutor and eventually an advisor towards for the “artist” Nero; and it seems that, throughout the majority of Book XV (15), Tacitus portrays him as a rather infamous figure. It doesn’t seem as if Tacitus himself felt strongly for the stoic philosopher, seeing him as a celebrated philosopher who found his way to power through political connections with Nero up until his retirement and, eventually, his forced suicide.

These later books on Nero depict a pseudo-biography of the Stoic philosopher, having him play a role within the political chaos that ensued during the era as a highly-thought-of (at least by Nero) advisor. It is portrayed that Nero cared much for the philosopher and political influence, as stated by “for the emperor the sweetest”. [2] His life would be sacrificed, no matter how innocent he may or may not have been, nonetheless. “The model of his life” was important to him, as he left it his friends towards the end of his days; and he swore that if they kept [it] in mind, they would gain a reputation for good character as their reward for” [3] loyalty; and then, he was gone. His death perhaps serving as a complicated metaphor for his own school of philosophical thought of accepting what is to come.

From personal knowledge of philosophy, stoicism is essentially a way of thinking that pushes for tolerance and patience in life. In a way, it’s a way of living that promotes taking problems and suffering without complaining. It teaches self-control and how to handle one’s own emotions in order to create a way of thinking that isn’t crippled by poor judgement. Ethics are key. It seems as if Tacitus sees writing The Annals as a moral duty; and as described before, it appears as if the history was required to exist after what had happened. With such a moral duty, it isn’t one’s job to give in to the pressure of a big task such as creating The Annals.

There could be a connection between stoicism and the overlying theme of power. With power comes responsibility, and throughout the reigns of Tacitus, Claudius, and Nero, we certainly see responsibility forsaken and exchanged for corruption. Morals and ethics are both needed in a Republic-styled government that Tacitus would refer to as the ‘proper’ method of governing; and the liberties and freedoms that people ‘expect’ from a government were ripped away in the events that unfolded after the death of Augustus.

Overall, The Annals by Tacitus serves a fantastic purpose when it comes to understanding not only the history of Ancient Rome, but also as a historiography of how the Roman people understood and accepted their places within an imperialistic, corrupted, and authoritative society. It accounts for the havoc that plagued the Empire in a time of great political corruption and chaos.

[1] Salmon, J. H. M. "Stoicism and Roman Example: Seneca and Tacitus in Jacobean England." Journal of the History of Ideas 50, no. 2 (1989): 199. Accessed July 21, 2017. doi:10.2307/2709732. Published by the University of Pennsylvania Press

[2] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pages 369 [3] Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pages 370

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