Seneca was the first great Latin writer to spend his adult life in a totalitarian state. He had no personal memories of the Republic. The “Golden Age” of Augustus had ended during his adolescence. His Rome was the autocracy of Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, where political power superseded law, morality, and tradition. Seneca’s character was rooted in the austere, rural disciplines of the early Republic, but he lived mostly in a decadent, imperial capital. Beyond the familiar spectacles of gladiatorial butchery and official corruption, Seneca’s Rome saw a racehorse proclaimed senator, pimps serve as state counselors, and a mad emperor deify himself. Political succession consisted of assassination and military coup d’état. Public reformers who were not skilled opportunists were mostly killed or exiled. “If only the Roman people had a single neck,” lamented Caligula....


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