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Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

By James Romm

Knopf

290 pages, $27.95

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

As I read the publisher’s blurb for “ ‘Dying Every Day,’ a portrait of Seneca’s moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess…”, I thought for a moment that the ancient Roman stoic philosopher had been transported to present-day Washington, D.C.

The latter is a place where one’s virtue can diminish – die every day – to the siren-calls of special interests who want to help you govern.

Of course vice is an old story. Seneca, you’ll remember, was a well-known writer and philosopher in ancient Rome who, after being banished, made a comeback as tutor to 12-year-old Nero, Rome’s future emperor.

This would have been nobody’s “dream job.” Think of it: the cast of characters included Nero’s mother, Julia Agrippina the Younger, great-granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus, and sister of the Emperor Caligula.

James Romm, professor of classics at Bard College, and author of a number of books on the ancient world, stitches this tapestry of evil together with a practiced hand. He “…weaves together the life and written words, the moral struggles, political intrigue and bloody vengeance that enmeshed Seneca the Younger in the twisted imperial family and the perverse, paranoid regime of Emperor Nero, despot and madman.”

Seneca was able to control Nero for a while, even improving life for the populace with reduced taxes, banning capital punishment and pardoning prisoners arrested for sedition. But this idyll didn’t last. Nero’s mother, Agrippina, a whiz with poisons, bottled her first two husbands away before marrying her uncle, Claudius, and entering into an incestuous relationship with her son. Nero didn’t get a lot of good example at home.

The book’s chapter headings give a clue to this immoral universe: Suicide (I), Regicide, Fratricide, Matricide, Maritocide (the killing of a spouse), Holocaust, Suicide (II) and Euthanasia.

What’s this antique turmoil to do with us? Well, if Seneca hadn’t been such a prolific writer, waxing on about virtue while leading a life of intrigue: not much. Professor Romm makes clear how hard it is for a person of principle, holder of a rigorous ethical creed, to defy “… danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death.”

The problem with a 2,000-year-old character analysis of Seneca is that there is conflicting, insufficient evidence available to come to a hard conclusion.

There is reason, Romm writes, to suggest that Seneca was “a man who cherished sobriety, reason and moral virtue,” who found himself at the vortex of Roman politics and did his best to temper the whims of a deranged despot, while “continuing to publish the ethical treatises that were his true calling.”

Romm also indicates that one can look at Seneca another way: “A clever manipulator of undistinguished origin connived his way into the center of Roman power … He exploited his vast influence to enrich himself … conspiring in, or even instigating, the palace’s darkest crimes …”

In the end, Romm seems to have sided with Seneca’s iniquity, noting a Roman proverb at the beginning of the book: Amici vitia si feras, facias tua. That is, “If you put up with the crimes of a friend, you make them your own.”

Ah, well. If your Latin is a little rusty, you can waive the right of consecutive translation and get a modern update. Watch Kevin Spacey play Vice President Frank Underwood in the TV favorite about today’s Washington, “House of Cards.” It begins to rival Nero’s Rome.

Michael D. Langan worked in Washington for two decades. He was chief of staff to Congressman John J. LaFalce. Later he served in the Labor Department in the Office of Labor Management Standards.