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Seneca - the Tyrant Maker

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Seneca, who was a stoic philosopher, has often been seen as a "tyrant-trainer" due to being the educator and adviser of Nero, an infamous tyrannical Roman emperor. In this essay I will analyse Seneca's beliefs and advice given to Nero and his role in shaping Nero to become the emperor that he was. I argue that even though Seneca's intention whilst mentoring Nero was not to create an oppressive ruler, he was ultimately a tyrant-trainer because of his negligence in educating and guiding Nero.

The first area of concern is whether Nero had tyrannical beliefs and acted on them, therefore, making him a tyrant, and to what extent his actions were influenced by Seneca. A tyrant, described by Seneca is person who "acts savagely for their pleasure" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 11.4), "wield[s] power by slaughter and pillage" and has "no trust in the loyalty of friends" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 13.3). Nero fit this description on all accounts, as seen by how he ordered the murders of Adrippina, Octavia and Poppaea (Kamm, The Romans: an introduction p.63) for no apparent reason other than his mistrust for Adrippina and displeasure for Octavia and Poppaea. He also ordered on the calumniation and murder of the Christians after The Great Fire of Rome (Kamm, The Romans: An introduction p.64), who many believed were just scapegoats to aid Nero in eradicating any suspicions of his involvement. Even so, I concede that it must be taken into account the timeline for which Nero commanded these acts of tyranny, and how much of it was under the advisement of Seneca. Nero ascended to the throne in AD 54 (Kamm, The Romans: An introduction p. 61) and, under the advisement of Seneca and Burrus, his first five years of ruling were considered favourable. (Barlow 2017, Introduction p. 3). "On Mercy" was written to Nero in December AD 55 (Reinhardt, Seneca Dialogues and Essays p. 13), after the murder of Britannicus in early AD 55. Based on the time of events, we can deduce that Seneca must have been somewhat aware of the changes in behaviour and beliefs that Nero was facing during these early years of his ruling. Hence, tried to reign him in by writing On Mercy, in hopes that Nero would see the error of his ways and not descend down the path of tyranny. This however, proved ineffective.

The second focal point of this essay is the advice Seneca gave to Nero at the time, which allowed for "tyranny". Seneca defined Mercy as a virtue that "is appealed to by those who deserve punishment, and it is also revered by the guiltless" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 2.2). He went on to say that "no virtue is more humane than mercy" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 3.2). At first glance, it seems that Seneca was advising Nero on the salience of mercy, with the implication that mercy should be wielded with the utmost care as the use of it is a blessing to all. The irony in this is that mercy is a virtue that ultimately has no value unless wielded by the powerful, for there is no point in giving mercy unless you have someone at your mercy. Seneca also said that "mercy is most fitting to be found in a king or emperor" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 3.3). This again proves my point that mercy is a virtue of the monarch. He compares the role of an emperor to that of a god (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 5.7). It is common knowledge that with great power comes great responsibility. However, this comparison of power to Nero, the young and inexperienced emperor, who was most probably accustomed to getting his way because of his status, did little to deter Nero from abusing his unrestricted power.

This is not to say that Seneca's teachings were completely inapt. On the contrary, Seneca uses the analogy between the total control the mind has over the body and that of the emperor and his people (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 3.5), to illustrate that the act of Nero having mercy on his people is just as valuable as having mercy on himself, with the purpose invoking empathy for him and his people. Seneca also clarifies the difference in virtues and beliefs of a merciful king and a cruel tyrant (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 13.4). Nevertheless, he did not have the will nor the courage to criticise Nero on his wrongdoings and behaviours. Not only did he not reprimand Nero on the murder of Britannicus, there was no acknowledgment whatsoever that Nero was at fault. In fact, Nero was reflected as the epitome of virtuous, that of "guiltlessness" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 1.5) and being a "great and lasting blessing" to the Roman people (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 1.5). This distorted image of Nero begs the question of whether it was Seneca's cowardice that hindered him from properly advising Nero or if it was merely a sign of ignorance. The hypocrisy of Seneca turning blind eye to Nero's actions is evidently apparent in the advice given that "to pardon everyone is as much a cruelty as to pardon no one" (Seneca, On Mercy ex. 2.1). This impunity granted by Seneca only exacerbated the situation, which left Nero susceptible to the detrimental influences of Marcus Salvius Otho (Kamm, The Romans: an introduction p.63), leading to a downward spiral from then on.

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