The Stoic philosophy developed in Athens around 301 BC. Zeno was a philosophy teacher and rather than teach indoors he preferred to teach at the ‘Stoa Poikile’ which translates to ‘the painted porch’ and this is where the Stoic name originates from. Zeno’s ideas were expanded on by his student Chrysippus, who was a direct influence on Seneca, and it was Chrysippus who essentially laid out the tenants for the first wave of Stoics known as early Stoa. This period was followed by another era of Greek Stoicism known as middle Stoa before the philosophy was imported by the Romans with the most famous disciples in the late Stoa period being Seneca and the great Marcus Aurelius.
Senecas’ life was not only limited to writing and philosophy; he was also a eminent statesman whose influence on Nero in the early years of his reign was crucial to the success of that part of his authority as Emperor.
Seneca was the son of the well known rhetorician Seneca the Elder and it is thought he was born in Cordoba, Spain, around 4 BC. He moved to Rome at a young age and his education included literature, oratory and philosophy.
Throughout his life he suffered with poor health and it is thought he lived with his aunt, who nursed him, in Egypt in the period between AD 20 and 31. He and his aunt moved to Rome in AD 31 so that he could begin his career in politics. Although he quickly earned a reputation as an advocator his career did not proceed with any momentum as Emperor Gaius was not particularly impressed by him. The following Emperor, Caligula, was even less enamoured by Seneca and almost had him killed but spared his life as he believed Seneca’s ill health would do the job for him sooner rather than later.
He outlived Caligula only to be exiled to Corsica by the new Emperor, Claudius. Whilst in Corsica he furthered his studies in Stoic thought and wrote ‘Consolations’. Claudius’ wife, Messalina, had been instrumental in his decision to exile Seneca and when she died Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina, requested the return of Seneca to Rome so that he could tutor her son, Nero.
Claudius died in AD 54 and Agrippina used her considerable influence to install Nero, who was only 15 years old, as the new Emperor. Seneca thus became one of the most influential figures in Rome and in Nero’s early years, which are considered to be some of the most stable of the era, Seneca wrote speeches for Nero and also helped to temper the excesses that would later go on to consume the young Emperor.
As Nero got older he became more independent and paranoid and considered Seneca surplus to requirements so in AD 62 he retired from politics to concentrate on philosophical pursuits.
He hadn’t heard the last of Nero, however. In AD 65 he was implicated in a plot to kill the Emperor and committed suicide under Nero’s orders, which was customary at the time.