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Seneca the Elder

Marcus Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Rhetorician (; 54 BC – c. 39 AD), was a Roman rhetorician and writer, born of a wealthy equestrian family of Cordoba, Hispania. Seneca lived through the reigns of three significant emperors; Augustus (ruled 27 BC – 14 AD), Tiberius (ruled 14 AD – 37 AD) and Caligula (ruled 37 AD – 41 AD). He was the father of the stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (Lucius) who was tutor of Nero.


  • Background 1
  • Works 2
  • Editions 3
  • Notes 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


Seneca the Elder is the first of the gens Annaea of whom there is definite knowledge.[1] His praenomen is uncertain, but in any case Marcus is an arbitrary conjecture of Raphael of Volterra. During a lengthy stay on two occasions at Rome, Seneca attended the lectures of famous orators and rhetoricians, to prepare for an official career as an advocate. His 'ideal' orator was Cicero, and Seneca disapproved of the florid tendencies of the oratory of his time. A passage in Controversiae expresses a critique of the Asiatic style of Arellius Fuscus, calling "his ornament too contrived, his word arrangement more effeminate than could be tolerated by a mind in training for such chaste and rigorous precepts" (2 pr. 1).[2] Yet Seneca's own writing for fictitious speakers and situations aims above all at a striking effect on the audience and is characterized by "mannerism", "exaggerated use of the colores" and "use of a brilliant, precious style, one that has recourse to all the artifices of Asianism, from the accumulation of the rhetorical figures to densely epigrammatic expression to care over the rhythm of the period."[3]

During the civil wars, his sympathies, like those of his native place, were probably with Pompey. By his wife Helvia of Corduba, he had three sons: the eldest was Lucius Annaeus Novatus - later known as Lucius Iunius Gallio Annaeanus - who was a Roman politician and rhetorician; the middle was Seneca the Younger, the tutor of the Emperor Nero and a Stoic philosopher; and the youngest was Marcus Annaeus Mela, a philosopher and a procurator,[4] who was the father of the poet Lucan.

As he died before his son Seneca the Younger was banished by Claudius (41; Seneca, ad Helviam, ii. 4), and the latest references in his writings are to the period immediately after the death of Tiberius, he probably died about AD 38.


At an advanced age, at the request of his sons, he prepared, it is said from memory, a collection of various school themes and their treatment by Greek and Roman orators. These he arranged in ten books of Controversiae (imaginary legal cases) in which seventy-four themes were discussed, the opinions of the rhetoricians upon each case being given from different points of view, then their division of the case into different single questions (divisio), and, finally, the devices for making black appear white and extenuating injustice (colores).

Each book was introduced by a preface, in which the characteristics of individual rhetoricians were discussed in a 'lively' manner. The work is incomplete, but the gaps can be to a certain extent 'filled up', with the aid of an epitome made in the 4th or 5th century for the use of schools. The romantic elements were utilized in the collection of anecdotes and tales called Gesta Romanorum. For Books I, II, VII, IX, and X we possess both the original and the epitome; for the remainder, we have to rely upon the epitome alone. Even with the aid of the latter, only seven of the prefaces are available.

The Controversiae were supplemented by the Suasoriae (exercises in hortatory or deliberative oratory), in which the question is discussed whether certain things 'should, or should not be done'. The whole forms the most important authority for the history of contemporary oratory.

Seneca was also the author of a lost historical work, containing the history of Middle Ages, was vindicated by the Renaissance humanists Raffaello Maffei and Justus Lipsius.



  1. ^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
  2. ^ Elaine Fantham, in Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 1, 1989, p. 279
  3. ^ Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, trans. Sodolow, JHU Press, 1994, p. 405
  4. ^ Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca. Oxford University Press, 2014. p.117



Further reading

  • Article by O. Rossbach in Pauly-Wissowa's Realencyklopädie, i. pt. 2 (1894)
  • Martin Schanz, Geschichte der römischen Litteratur, ii. 1 (1899)
  • The chapter on The Declaimers, in George Augustus Simcox, History of Latin Literature, i. (1883)
  • Teuffel-Schwabe, Hist. of Roman Literature (Eng. trans., 1900), p. 269

On Seneca's style, see:

  • August Ahlheim, De Senecae rhetoris usu dicendi (Giessen, 1886)
  • On the use of Seneca in the Gesta Romanorum, see Ludwig Friedländer, Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms (Eng. trans., iii. p. 16 and appendix in iv.).
  • Eduard Norden, Die antike Kunstprosa (1898), p. 300
  • On his influence upon his son the philosopher, E. Rolland, De l'influence de Sénéque le père et des rhéteurs sur Sénéque le philosophe (1906)
  • Max Sander, Der Sprachgebrauch des Rhetor Annaeus Seneca (Waren, 1877-1880)

External links

  • Quotations related to Seneca the Elder at Wikiquote
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