“The fact that in New York a discussion on classical Rome can fill a room is very heartening to me,” said James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English at Columbia University, at the New York Public Library on 42nd street Tuesday night. In front of a full house, Shapiro interviewed James Romm, James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College, about his new book, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero. Seneca was a first century CE Roman stoic philosopher, playwright, and statesman (discussed in this previous “Classics in the Wild” post). Originally Nero’s childhood tutor, Seneca eventually became his speechwriter and a prominent statesman, only to have Nero eventually force him to commit suicide. Shapiro and Romm discussed Seneca’s amorphous character: Was he a Machiavelli of the ancient world or inspiring moral philosopher? Apparently, it depended on whom you asked. Cassius Dio, a second century CE Roman historian and consul, preserves all the worst slanders of Seneca, while Tacitus, a first century CE Roman historian (famous for his Annals) paints him in a more favorable light.
In his attempt to understand Seneca, Romm emphasized that he was working for a maniacal despot, Nero. How could any self-respecting moral philosopher work for such a man? “I think Nero thought he could have it both ways,” Romm said. “That, or he was the best of compartmentalizers,” quipped Shapiro. Even so, Seneca did try to leave Nero's administration twice. Nero, however, wouldn’t allow him to do so. And Romm noted Seneca’s “astounding silence” regarding Nero in his work; he mentions him only 2-3 times.