Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero Hardcover – March 11, 2014
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Praise for James Romm’s
DYING EVERY DAY
“Romm adeptly expounds the puzzle of Seneca’s life.”
-The New Yorker
“James Romm stitches this tapestry of evil together with a practiced hand.”
-Michael D. Langan, Buffalo News
“A splendid and incisive historical page-turner... This is how history should be written: vivid storytelling springing to life at a master’s touch... Romm’s narrative proves so compelling precisely because he concentrates on character, combining erudite scholarship with a novelist’s flair for telling detail. The result becomes an exception to the rule: When exercised with wisdom, dexterity and fervor, literary power shines as incorruptible.”
-Arlice Davenport, Wichita Eagle
“Thoroughly engaging and fascinating...A high-stakes drama, laced with murders, madness, and despotism...The highlight of the spring season.”
-Anne La Farge, Hudson Valley News
“Romm's compulsively readable account of imperial intrigues (incest, murder, suicide) brings contradictory visions of Seneca into three-dimensional focus.”
“Romm's approach combines the commonly known with the fascinating, but more obscure. He makes a sustained point of showing Seneca as neither black nor white, neither totally deserving of his fate, nor so noble that all charges should drip off his well-oiled back. He shows different sides to the emperors as well and puts the women of the Caesars into their well-deserved positions of prominence…The fact that Romm presents the Stoic philosopher in this novel complex light and that he shows sides of the more famous that aren't common knowledge leaves me feeling [like] I got an awful lot out of reading it. Have I mentioned, I really, really liked this book?”
-N. S. Gill, About.com
“Historians from Seneca’s contemporaries through the present day have puzzled over his true character. Ascetic Stoic moralist or conniving courtier? Romm doesn't claim to settle the centuries-old mystery, but sheds light using ancient sources and occasional references to modern critics, joining his readers in marveling at a regime remembered by history for its shocking excesses.”
-Julia Jenkins, Shelf Awareness (Starred Review)
“Extensively researched. A book that will be welcomed by both scholars and those with a more casual interest in history. In addition and most important to our time is the detailed study of power politics and the inevitable consequences of weakness and corruption allowing power to be concentrated into few hands… An engrossing account of a time when rational thought was set aside in favor of passion and when good men cowed in the face of tyranny and did nothing to stem it.”
-Jeremy McGuire, New York Journal of Books
“A compelling, and terrifying, vision of a bloodthirsty, ruthlessly ambitious emperor and his court.”
-Jenny Yabroff, Biographile
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It's a reasonable history of the reign of Nero--which, by itself, would carry any narrative a very long way.
But Romm claims to be doing much more than writing another history of Nero's reign--he wants to use Seneca's own writings to explicate what he asserts is a "duality" about what little we can say about Seneca as a person. Was he a Stoic philosopher who wanted to guide the young emperor toward something resembling a "philosopher king" or was he another power-political player in the early empire who used his facility with words to advance his own cause?
Since there really isn't much to go on beside Tacitus and Dio Cassius--historians who wrote long after Nero/Seneca lived--about Seneca the man, Romm tries to use Seneca's own writing to resolve the dilemma. The problem for Romm, and it is nearly a fatal one for the book, is that almost no one knows when any of Seneca's work was written and Romm, tendentiously and with little basis beyond the neatness of lining up certain works with the few things anyone really knows about Seneca's life, makes huge claims about what Seneca may really have been up to.
So. The book is not a bad book though the writing can get a bit breathless and repetitive at times. The Neronian story, with supporting roles played by Claudius and Agrippina, is always worth another read. But Romm doesn't get anywhere near making a case for the "duality" of the "real" Seneca and the recourse to a spurious pairing of the biography of the man with the unknown chronology of the writing requires more patience from the reader than should be expected and a willingness to go along for a ride that doesn't in the end really go anywhere. Finally, given the paucity of information about Seneca, Romm takes quite too literally the depictions and evaluations of the ancient historical sources that need always to be interpreted with careful skepticism.
Read the book if you want to believe all the five star reviews. Don't read the book if you expect to walk away from it with any convincing new knowledge about Seneca the writer or Seneca the politician.
The complexity lies in trying to understand who Seneca really was, or, to be more precise, to understand his ambivalence and ambiguity. Simply put, the philosopher high and lofty moral principles were simply at odds with many of his actions and with the support he gave and the role he played at the Court of Nero. Seneca essentially strived – and ultimately failed – to keep the Emperor from his worst excesses. However, he was also, as the author clearly shows one of the main moral cautions of the regime and he was, to a large extent, used and abused by his protégé, pupil and master.
It is this ambivalence, and Seneca’s ultimate failure which he paid with his life, which are striking, hard to explain and tragic. It is also this ambivalence and these gaps between the moral high ground that Seneca wanted to claim and his much less attractive actions that largely make him into an enigma and into a controversial character. He has been portrayed as both an accomplice of Nero and one of his victims and in fact he was both, as James Romm shows so skilfully.
James Romm also shows how Seneca managed to put himself into such a position. He was ambitious. He liked money and power, as the vast majority of Roman senators, and this tended to clash with his stoic principles. He also seems to have had a rather high opinion of himself and also managed to deceive himself, believing that he could effectively restrain and influence Nero and become the power behind the throne.
As the author also shows, Seneca was well aware of having compromised - and not lived up to - his high principles. He was also aware of having become the accomplice, the moral caution and even the virtual prisoner and hostage of his ex-pupil, an increasingly unstable, paranoid and murderous Emperor. It is this, and the fact that his beloved nephew Lucan was also increasingly a quasi-hostage at Nero’s court that explains this book’s title – “dying every day” - a quotation from one of Seneca’s works.
The book’s construction gives the impression of a slow descent to Hell and chaos, reinforcing the story told by the narrative. After “Suicide”, a theme dear to the Stoics, come “Regicide”, the poisoning of Emperor Claudius, and “Fractricide”, the murder of Britanicus by Nero, to prevent Aggripina from using him against her own son. At the very least, Seneca was aware of it and he did nothing to prevent it. This is followed by “Matricide”, Agrippina’s murder on the orders of her son, with the author showing rather well how formidable, unscrupulous and power-hungry the last surviving child of Germanicus was, and how dangerous she could be for Nero when he started to side line her. This was followed by “Maritocide”, Nero’s elimination of his wife Octavia, an act which further tarnished his reputation, and by “Holocaust”, the great fire of Rome during which about two-thirds of the city was destroyed. “Suicide”, the last but one chapter tells the story of the half-backed Piso conspiracy in which Seneca was compromised, although he did not take part directly, and its unsurprising failure. It is this compromising – his nephew Lucan was part of it and would pay it with his life – that lead to Seneca’s suicide. The last chapter (“Euthanasia”) tells the story of the end of Nero’s reign, as opposition mounts against him after three more years of excess and lead to his own suicide, and to a bitter but short civil war.
A masterful book which is fascinating, full of insights and paints rather well the suffocating atmosphere that one could breathe at Nero’s Court, and the barely concealed terror that courtiers must have felt at the mercy of an increasingly unbalanced Emperor. This one is easily worth five strong stars and a book that I strongly recommend for all “fans” of the Roman Principate.
Top international reviews
It's a good read but don't expect to come away that much wiser though the author paints a pretty devastating picture of Nero that's almost more interesting than Seneca.
Então, na verdade, a tradução pode melhorar: "estamos morrendo todos os dias"?
Exatamente, e na verdade esse é o título da biografia mencionada de Sêneca: Dying Every Day. No livro há também um ensaio sobre a velhice, por exemplo, como envelhecer graciosamente e lidar com isso se você tiver sorte suficiente para chegar até lá. Boa leitura!
There is a warning to readers and admirers of Seneca`s Stoic philosophy; his actions in life are the exact opposite of his teachings. Many readers may find it difficult, not to feel somewhat let down. I will always enjoy reading Seneca`s writing collection. But lets face it, Seneca did not practice what he preached.
Romm attempts to review, both sides of the Seneca riddle. Romm lets the reader decide, which side they will take. This book was short and fun to read.