The Greatest Empire is an excellent biographical account of Seneca, the Roman philosopher and advisor to Nero. It draws on known facts and makes good use of Seneca’s writings to flesh out the gaps, notably his essays and his plays.
I’ve reviewed other books about Seneca and Roman stoics recently, so I want to spend a little time here focusing on a few issues rather than taking on Wilson’s book as a whole. If you are interested in Rome, the emperor’s, or stoicism, by all means read it yourself. The best chapter is the epilogue, which traces Seneca’s influence over the subsequent 2,000 years.
The Greatest Empire refers to Seneca’s contention to that the inner life was much more important than external affairs. His life problems, of course, were that he ran afoul of the emperor Claudius and after compromising himself as Nero’s apologist, he received Nero’s order to commit suicide, an order he obeyed. Nonetheless he lived into his 60s, wrote widely and extensively, and became fabulously wealthy, all of which represents his quick wits, pliability, and intellectual energy.
The major question about Seneca is whether he was a hypocrite, dismissing worldly affairs in his writings while submerging himself in them in his personal comings and goings. At least, he was a compromised individual. More generously, one might say he was overwhelmed by imperial power and didn’t always have much choice about his fate, except in what he wrote. But something occurs to me when I compare the stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius with Seneca. Seneca’s writing is polished, clever, virtually a new style of writing Latin (he was a key figure in what is known as the Silver Age of Latin literature). Marcus Aurelius didn’t conceive of himself as a major literary or philosophical figure,but he wrote much more directly and honestly about his struggles.
This leads one to the question not so much of Seneca’s hypocrisy as his staginess, his coyness, his loftiness. There is a great, great deal of wisdom in his writing and it includes spectacular self-awareness and depth perception in terms of human nature in general. But as a reader, does one trust him, does one take him to heart, does one feel on some kind of a level with him?
In a way, all pronounced exercises in literary style must meet two tests: One test is transient and the results rise and fall with time. By that I mean tastes change. Going in and out of fashion is an unreliable measure of an author’s worth. More important is the issue of whether an author’s style emerges out of a desire to take a reader into his depths or is designed to delight and intrigue the reader at a distance. In a sense, this makes us judge a writer’s honesty, whether he is writing for show and admiration or in search of connection and communication. The Greatest Empire as a phrase conveys something of what I mean. It’s a ludicrous phrase, grand, pretentious, and somewhat empty.
One more point, however: it has to be conceded that as the ancient Greeks felt less in control of their fate, they became more inward-looking and, to use Seneca’s favorite word, indifferent to what was going on in the world around them. The same thing happened in Rome under the Caesars. There was a still a Senate,but it had no power. This rendered the nobility much less influential and certainly encouraged a philosophy of indifference such as Stoicism. So Seneca was compromised, twisted, and tormented by enormous political forces that no one–in fact, not even emperors–could bring to heel. In this context, what we have is not so much an issue of the validity of Seneca’s writing but a connection to his mortal personality, one we may not like. He was just a man, and no matter how showy he could be, he seems to have realized that.