An honorable and noble death

An account by Tacitus of Seneca’s final hours:

[15.62] Seneca, quite unmoved, asked for tablets on which to inscribe his will, and, on the centurion’s refusal, turned to his friends, protesting that as he was forbidden to requite them, he bequeathed to them the only, but still the noblest possession yet remaining to him, the pattern of his life, which, if they remembered, they would win a name for moral worth and steadfast friendship.

At the same time he called them back from their tears to manly resolution, now with friendly talk, and now with the sterner language of rebuke.

“Where,” he asked again and again, “are your maxims of philosophy, or the preparation of so many years’ study against evils to come? Who knew not Nero’s cruelty? After a mother’s and a brother’s murder, nothing remains but to add the destruction of a guardian and a tutor.” [Seneca was Nero’s tutor and a positive influence on the young emperor in the first years of Nero’s reign. Nero was named emperor when he was just 17 years old.]

[15.63] Having spoken these and like words, meant, so to say, for all, he embraced his wife; then softening awhile from the stern resolution of the hour, he begged and implored her to spare herself the burden of perpetual sorrow, and, in the contemplation of a life virtuously spent, to endure a husband’s loss with honourable consolations.

She declared, in answer, that she too had decided to die, and claimed for herself the blow of the executioner.

There upon Seneca, not to thwart her noble ambition, from an affection too which would not leave behind him for insult one whom he dearly loved, replied: “I have shown you ways of smoothing life; you prefer the glory of dying. I will not grudge you such a noble example. Let the fortitude of so courageous an end be alike in both of us, but let there be more in your decease to win fame.”

Then by one and the same stroke they sundered with a dagger the arteries of their arms. Seneca, as his aged frame, attenuated by frugal diet, allowed the blood to escape but slowly, severed also the veins of his legs and knees.

Worn out by cruel anguish, afraid too that his sufferings might break his wife’s spirit, and that, as he looked on her tortures, he might himself sink into irresolution, he persuaded her to retire into another chamber.

Even at the last moment his eloquence failed him not; he summoned his secretaries, and dictated much to them, which, as it has been published for all readers in his own words, I forbear to paraphrase.

Death of Seneca by 16th century Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst

NOTE: Seneca was 70 years old at death, a ripe old age by Roman standards.

Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, intended to commit suicide with Seneca, but Nero forced and sentenced her to live.

I know… you just read above that Paulina cut her arms along with Seneca and was bleeding out. But see where Seneca sends her out of the room? Tacitus tells us that on instructions from Nero, slaves grabbed her, bandaged her arms and stopped the bleeding. Soldiers took her away.

Paulina lived a few more years–weak, pallid, her arms showing the terrible scars of her attempt to join Seneca in death.

Nero also ordered Seneca’s brother Gallius to commit suicide. As Roman proconsul in Corinth, Gallius met the Apostle Paul, a meeting described in the New Testament. Another brother, Mela,  and his son, the poet Lucan, also died in the emperor’s purges.

Paul  was in Rome about the time Nero ordered Seneca to kill himself.  By this time an old lion, Paul had his own date with Nero’s executioner. We don’t know exactly when Paul died nor the method of execution, but he probably died in prison in the mid-60s AD.

By 68 AD, thirteen years into his reign, Nero had managed to piss-off just about everyone in Rome. He couldn’t care less what anyone outside of the Greek and Roman world of show business thought of him. Nero considered himself  the empire’s most talented performer and greatest artist — he’d rather have been a rock star than emperor.

Condemned by the Senate to be flogged to death, Nero fled. He didn’t get far. With soldiers closing in, Nero had his loyal servant help him commit suicide. He was 31.

Rumor has it Nero’s last words were Qualis artifex pereo – what an artist the world loses in me!

There’s a great novel by Thomas Holt, A Song for Nero, that presumes Nero’s loyal body double dies in his place.  Nero then slips away to live a “normal” first-century Roman life as a vagabond musician and petty thief. It’s a lot of fun, and I recommend it.

I’ve written more about Seneca, check it out!


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