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Pompey the Great and the Value of the Past in Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae

Jonathan Master

Emory University

Pompey the Great and the Value of the Past in Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae

In the De Brevitate Vitae, Seneca reflects on the lessons one might learn from Pompey the Great.  Seneca frequently finds occasion in his philosophical works to mention Pompey, and as is the case in Letter 95, his purpose is usually to reinterpret the character of the Republican general as vicious.  In this paper, I shift the focus from the lessons from Pompey’s life in particular to the lessons Seneca offers on the value of the past and the productive approach to history for any one seeking truly transformative wisdom. Through the historical discussion surrounding Pompey in the De Brev. Seneca shows his readers that their understanding of the importance and value of the past is wrong.  Seneca raises four criticisms of the historical study: 1.  It preserves destructive information (Brev. 13.7) 2.  It does not understand the scale of the universe and the power of fortune (Brev. 13.7) 3.  Its writers are often liars or credulous (Brev. 13.9) 4.  It does not improve the morals of its readers (Brev. 13.9).   By examination of three passages in the De Brev. I will show that Seneca does not just urge carefully filtering history but a complete reorientation of the Roman readers’ approach to the past.  Seneca urges his readers to learn from the past but they must establish the proper foundations for historical inquiry.

In this paper, I will first argue that the digression on Pompey does specific work within its context in the De Brev.  Seneca cites Pompey within a discussion of trivial historical facts (Brev. 13) that do not in any way make the people who know them wiser.  Thus, when Seneca digresses on Pompey’s viciousness within an anecdote on his first putting on games in which men fought elephants, we must keep in mind that Seneca is exploring not just the character of Pompey but the nature of historical study.  Knowing about the past is not always beneficial to its students.  The past contains facts and exempla which can do damage in the future if the wrong person learns them: Satius erat ista in obliuionem ire, ne quis postea potens disceret inuideretque rei minime humanae (Brev. 13.7). The discussion of Pompey thus becomes exemplary within Seneca’s argument for reorienting readers’ approach to the past.  Seneca is pushing readers further than reinterpreting Pompey’s character as vicious. He is urging a new approach to history in general. 

I will then suggest that the exemplum of Pompey is all the more significant because it comes within a series of reflections on making productive use of past time.  In the tenth chapter Seneca writes that vicious people cannot face their own pasts for fear of confronting their own errors.  But one’s own past is especially valuable because fortune no longer has control over it: hoc est enim in quod fortuna ius perdidit, quod in nullius arbitrium reduci potest (Brev. 10.2).  Later in the dialogue, Seneca says the sapiens also makes use of all times past: Soli omnium otiosi sunt qui sapientiae uacant, soli uiuunt; nec enim suam tantum aetatem bene tuentur: omne aeuum suo adiciunt; quidquid annorum ante illos actum est, illis adquisitum est (Brev. 14.1).  Thus Seneca enmeshes his discussion of historical trivia and Pompey within the context of a robust assertion of the value of the past.

I will conclude the paper by arguing that Seneca is not just questioning traditional Roman historiography that lionized men like Pompey but also Stoic history as practiced by 1st century BC Stoic polymath Posidionius.  It is often noted in Senecan scholarship that Seneca did not write history.  I argue that passages like these in the De Brevitate Vitae can explain why.    

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Time as an Organizing Principle

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