In this paper, I examine Tacitus’ portrayal of the death of Seneca through the lens of satire in order to better understand Tacitus’ deployment of pointed humor and exitus literature in the Annales. The depiction of Seneca in the Annales has long excited comment from such scholars as Alexander, Henry and Walker, and Syme. The ambiguities in Tacitus’ portrayal of Seneca, especially in his death scene, while often discussed, have been misinterpreted due to the affinity of scholars for Seneca and a desire to see Tacitus present him favorably. Recent scholarship (e.g., Ker 2009) continues to read Tacitus’ Seneca positively and at face value. Much better on Tacitus’ Seneca is Dyson (1970) who reads the Seneca of the Annales as a negative figure, properly castigated by Tacitus by comparison to other force dsuicides of the Neronian books. I differ from Dyson in that I examine Tacitus’ Seneca not only as a satirical counter-example to such figures as Thrasea Paetus, Petronius, Lucan, and Epicharis, but also as one who is emblematic of the Neronian preference for illusion over reality. While Nero had become Senecan (14.55-56), Seneca has become Neronian.
At several points during Seneca’s death scene, Tacitus cues the reader to the satirical reading. Tacitus silences Seneca’s final (and loquacious) speech by refusing to reproduce it in any way (15.63.3). Seneca’s overlyself-conscious attempt to enact Socrates’ death by hemlock (15.64.3) is ridiculous not only in the poison’s pointed failure, but in the very possession of the hemlock in the first place! Tacitus also highlights the aspects of illusion inherent in this scene as Seneca gives a lecture to those present, as if to an imaginary general audience (velutin commune) (15.63.1). Further, as Seneca is moved to his fatal hotbath, he makes reference to the spilled bath-water as a libation of Jupiter the Liberator (15.64.4), a statement made later by the much more decorous Thrasea Paetus (16.35.1), recalling Seneca’s self-conscious illusionism. Most tellingly, Seneca bequeaths to his friends the one and best thing he has (unum et pulcherrimum): the imago of his life. Tacitus has shown through Seneca’s involvement with Neronian power-politics and murder (14.11.3) that Seneca’s true imago, as distinct from his philosopher-persona, is that of the professional courtier and guilty collaborator.
Through a satirical reading of Seneca’s death, the reader can better understand other suicides in the wake of the Pisonian conspiracy. Petronius, Nero’s fellow profligate, redeems his life through his death (16.18-19). Thrasea Paetus dies correctly, in proper imitation of Cato and as a noble exemplum to his son, a future victim of Domitian (16.35). Most forcefully, Seneca’s assumed Stoicism is out doneby Epicharis’ heroically Senecan suicide (15.57). Seneca, much of whose literature focused on how and when to seek an end to one’s own life, is so caught up in staging his own death correctly that not only a Roman senator, but a satiric novelist and a slave die more stoically. Seneca’s theatricality is echoed in the death of his nephew Lucan, who dramatically recalls portions of his own poetry dealing similar imagines of death (15.70.4). Again, the reader can see the preference of literature and illusion over reality in the court of Nero. Through the satirical presentation of Seneca’s death, Tacitus depicts Seneca, not as a Neronian outsider (cf. Ker 2009), but as the ultimate product of Neronian illusionism, who dies farcically choosing to believe in his self-styled image rather than acknowledge the ambiguous realities of his life.