Revenge, they say, is a dish best served cold. And few understood that better than the Roman philosopher Seneca – whose intricate dance of power with the emperor Nero, his onetime pupil run amok, and Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s controlling, manipulative mother, would prove his undoing.
Though Seneca has been cold since the year 65, he comes back with a vengeance in James Romm’s “Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” (Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95), an absorbing study of moral compromise that has disturbing echoes for a time in which leaders are often more concerned with polls than with the public.
It’s a distinct tale from Romm’s last forays into the classical world, “Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire” and “The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander,” which The New York Times Book Review called “thrilling.”
“It’s a very different kind of story than Alexander,” says Romm, the James H. Ottaway Jr. professor of classics at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. “There’s no military campaign, no battles, no action.
“At the same time, there’s great psychological drama. I’ve always been interested in Seneca and the disconnect between his words and his deeds. And yes, we see it all the time in politicians not measuring up to the ideal of what we want them to be.”
The psychological drama Romm refers to in this tale of blood and bloodlines is multilayered and begins with the peculiar, precarious perch that was the power of the Julio-Claudian emperors known as the Caesars, of which Nero was the last. (The title would continue to be used by subsequent emperors).
The early Caesars may each have been princeps, or “first man” – the executive office loosely established by Augustus, the superb administrator who was the grand-nephew of Julius Caesar and founder of the dynasty – but, Romm says, they had no constitutional authority in a republic with a Senate. Rather they derived their power from the Praetorian Guard that served as protectors and henchmen and the army – which had to be maintained, an expensive proposition.
In such a fragile environment, the stronger the princeps’ blood ties to Augustus, the more solid his position. This was no easy thing among the Julio-Claudian men, as some were assassinated outright while others died under mysterious circumstances. So the family was essentially matrilineal, with descent – and the possibility of an imperial inheritance – from the mother’s side.
Enter Agrippina the Younger, a woman who one day really must be played by Angelina Jolie.
Great-granddaughter of Augustus, daughter of the late, lamented Roman hero Germanicus and sister of the nut-job emperor Caligula, Agrippina was a beautiful, willful survivor with dynastic ambitions for Nero, her only child. To that end, she seized the opportunity to marry her uncle, Claudius, who had succeeded Caligula; demoted his children, Britannicus and Octavia, in classic wicked-stepmother fashion; and hired Seneca to tutor the preteen Nero.
Though a Stoic philosopher who extolled reason, virtue and moderation in his fluid writings, Seneca demonstrated a taste for wealth, power and the good life in his actions. The appetite for power would play itself out not only as Seneca and Agrippina vied to control Nero, who succeeded Claudius at 16, but as Agrippina and Nero tussled for imperial supremacy. At first, Agrippina was able to exert her influence by marrying Nero off to Octavia. (Later she would try to play the long-suffering Octavia and the unfortunate Britannicus off against Nero.) But once Nero grew older and began making his own choices, sexual and otherwise, he became a truly lethal figure.
“I don’t know if Nero had good qualities to begin with or if the Romans idealized them onto him,” Romm says. “I think he was a bad seed to begin with, with a taste for the dark side and delusions of artistry. The image of him fiddling while Rome burned was probably a myth and rumor that stuck, because it conveyed something of his personality.”
The round robin of three was a game only one could win. Fed up with his mother’s political and romantic manipulations, Nero decided to get rid of her. In a scene worthy of Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia” – or at least Seneca’s own versions of “Medea” and “Phaedra” – Agrippina, whose sex enabled her to be a kingmaker but never a king, faced down her assassins by telling them to stab her in the place that had been the seat of her power and her destruction – the womb.
Romm doubts that Seneca had a hand in any of Nero’s murders, including Agrippina’s. But there’s no doubt that Seneca was part of the matricidal cover-up – only to find in the end that the wheel does indeed come full circle. When Seneca failed to report an attempt on Nero’s life, his number was up. He slit his veins (as did his wife, Paulina), drank hemlock in the fashion of Socrates, slipped into a hot bath and finally expired.
We’ll never really know, Romm says, whether Seneca was really a moralist trying to stem the tide of a villainous age or a manipulator done in by his own ethical compromises. Maybe he was just a complex man who realized too late that you can’t have it both ways.
“Dying Every Day” ends before Nero’s own death. He forced his secretary, Epaphroditos, to do the deed in the year 68 after Rome turned on him. Subsequent Roman emperors like Trajan and Marcus Aurelius would reign not by birthright but by Alexandrian ability – although that would not put an end to the intrigue.
Romm next turns his attention to a place and time that is a distant mirror of ancient Rome – Renaissance Florence and the house of Lorenzo de’ Medici. In the meantime, he has given us a book that ironically underscores one of the tenets of the movement that would be the empire’s unmaking, Christianity:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it.”