Seneca the Elder

Lucius, or Marcus, Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Elder or (less correctly) Seneca the Rhetorician (/ˈsɛnɪkə/; 54 BC – c. 39 AD), was a Roman writer, born of a wealthy equestrian family of Corduba, Hispania. He wrote a collection of reminiscences about the Roman schools of rhetoric, six books of which are extant in a more or less complete state and five others in epitome only. His principal work, a history of Roman affairs from the beginning of the Civil Wars until the last years of his life, is, sadly, almost entirely lost to us. Seneca lived through the reigns of three significant emperors; Augustus (ruled 27 BC – 14 AD), Tiberius (ruled 14 AD – 37 AD) and Caligula (ruled 37 AD – 41 AD). He was the father of Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus, best known as a Proconsul of Achaia; his second son was the dramatist and Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (Lucius), who was tutor of Nero, and his third son, Marcus Annaeus Mela, became the father of the poet Lucan.

Seneca the Elder
Bornc.54 BC
Diedc.39 AD (aged c.92)
ResidenceCorduba and Rome
GenreRhetoric, Silver Age of Latin, History
Notable worksOratorum et Rhetorum Sententiae Divisiones Colores; Historiae ab Initio Bellorum Civilium
ChildrenLucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus

Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger

Marcus Annaeus Mela


Seneca the Elder is the first of the gens Annaea of whom there is definite knowledge.[1] His praenomen is uncertain. In the renaissance his name and his works became confused with his son Lucius Annaeus Seneca.[2] In the early 16th century Raphael of Volterra saw that there must be two different men. He noted that two of the elder Seneca's grandsons were called Marcus and since there was a Roman custom for boys to be given the name of their grandfather, Raphael adopted the name of Marcus for the elder Seneca.[2] Until the 20th century this was used as the standard praenomen. However it is now accepted that this naming custom was not rigid, and since in the manuscripts he is referred to as Lucius, many scholars now prefer this praenomen since it would also help explain why their works became so confused.[2]

The elder Seneca was born in Spain at a date sufficiently early that he might, theoretically, have heard the voice of Cicero, had he been living in Italy as a boy. Instead, he was confined by wartime conditions 'within the walls' of his 'own colony'[3], and it was presumably there that he received his first schooling from a praeceptor who had more than two hundred pupils. [4]As soon as the journey became safe after the Civil Wars,[5] he travelled to Rome and during lengthy stays there attended assiduously the public declamations by teachers of rhetoric, and sometimes professional orators too, which provided training, in those days, for young men preparing to pursue careers in advocacy and public administration. But there is no evidence that the elder Seneca ever pursued such a career. Rather the testimony of the younger Seneca in a fragment from his De Vita Patris, suggests that his father remained all his life a private gentleman, declining to seek fame from his writing of a History of Rome 'From the beginning of the Civil Wars', on which he was still engaged at the time of his death under the regime of Caligula. It emerges from some of the elder Seneca's own words [6] that he regarded as honourable political careers such as his elder two sons had entered upon, and thought the study of rhetoric, as a preparation for them, correspondingly honourable; yet he was fully aware of the dangers inherent in such careers, 'in which the very objectives sought after are to be feared'[7], and was supportive also towards his youngest son, Mela, when he opted not to follow his brothers in their pursuit of public honours but, instead, to remain content with his inherited equestrian status.

The Declamatory Anthology

It was on the basis of his experiences in the schools and auditoria of the declaimers of Augustan and Tiberian Rome that the elder Seneca wrote, in his old age, the work on which his fame rests today, the Oratorum et Rhetorum Sententiae Divisiones Colores. This work, originally comprising ten books on the subject of Controversiae (fictitious lawsuits) together with at least one additional book on Suasoriae (fictitious speeches of persuasion), was written ostensibly at the request of his sons and ostensibly from memory. It is not a collection of his own declamations, or of complete fair copies of those delivered by any other declaimer but instead it presents representative extracts and analyses of the declamatory art of a considerable number of the rhetorical celebrities of his younger days. It certainly does not have the character of a theoretical treatise. The elder Seneca's own input is confined to pen-portraits of the famous declaimers whom he cites, plus analytical and critical comments about details of their work and anecdotes remembered from the literary chatter of long ago.

The declaimers of Augustan and Tiberian Rome professed admiration for Cicero, but their preferred oratorical style was not very Ciceronian and nor was the theoretical basis of their educational method. 'Declamation' of the sort that they practised, was, according to the elder Seneca, a new art, born after his own birth. So far as Rome was concerned, we must believe him. If its characteristic concentration on the bizarre kind of imaginary lawsuits known as controversiae had earlier precedent in the schools somewhere in the Greek-speaking world - as is likely, in view of the remoteness of the subject-matter and legal suppositions of these declamatory themes from the realities of Roman law-courts - Seneca the Elder seems to have been totally unaware of it. He was, however, aware of the activity of a number of Greek rhetoricians, teaching in Rome alongside those who taught their art in Latin.

It so happened that Porcius Latro, a great friend from the elder Seneca's Corduban childhood, became one of Rome's leading rhetoricians in the Augustan era. Together they had studied at the rhetorical school of one Marullus.[8] In his friend's view Latro's only serious rival for supremacy among Rome's declaimers was the orator Iunius Gallio, another close family connection of the Senecas. Latro cultivated the sort of 'fiery and agitated style' that Seneca particularly admired.[9] He was characterized by his friend as a man of both gravity and charm, pre-emininently worthy of the eloquence he possessed. But the end of Seneca's tribute to him [10] illustrates how both men inhabited a literary world far distant from Cicero's, one in which delight in neat contrasts and paradoxes had become all-consuming: 'no one' wrote Seneca of Latro, 'was more in command of his intellect: no one was more indulgent towards it'.

Not all the rhetoricians cited by Seneca were identical to Latro in their tastes. In the prefaces to the books of Controversiae Seneca took pains to identify their distinguishing characteristics and was by no means entirely dismissive of those who fell short of his Latronian ideal. At one point he refers to a primum tetradeum, meaning the four most distinguished declaimers he had known. One should note the inclusion, in this distinguished group, alongside Latro, Gallio and Albucius Silus, of Arellius Fuscus, about whose style he expresses serious reservations in his second preface, for its unevenness and, in particular, with regard to the descriptive passages (explicationes)[11] characteristic of it, which he considered 'brilliant, but laboured and involved, with a decorative finish too contrived, and word-positioning too effeminate, to be tolerable for a mind preparing itself for such holy and courageous teachings.'[12] But there was no denying the distinction of the school of Arellius Fuscus, whose pupils included the future philosophical writer Fabianus [13] and the future poet Ovidius Naso,[14] so it is understandable why, even in the judgement of a severe critic, he had to be ranked so highly. Albucius, too was influential, the author of a textbook which Quintilian was to cite several times.[15] The elder Seneca's declamatory anthology in fact presents a far-reaching critical investigation of the rhetorical substrata underlying the mannerist 'Silver Age' literature in which, after Ovid, the younger Seneca's sententious philosophical disquisitions and dramatic art and, in the next generation, Lucan's fiery and agitated epic poetry stand out as among the most striking examples.

Out of the ten books of Controversiae, in which extracts from declamatory treatments of seventy-four judicial themes were presented, only books 1,2, 7, 9,10 are extant more or less in their entirety, with the names of individual rhetoricians and Seneca's critical comments included. Such information as we have about the remaining books is supplied by an epitome made in the 4th or 5th century for school use, which was to leave its mark on later European literature by supplying some of the stories included in the anecdote-collection called Gesta Romanorum

Each book was introduced by a preface in which the anthologist adopted an approach which he himself compared to that adopted by organizers of gladiatorial shows [16] Each preface presents pen-portraits of the famous exponents of the declamatory art either individually, or in pairs, before finally, in the tenth preface, Seneca offers his readers a group-presentation of declaimers previously overlooked.

After the prefaces came surveys of the treatment of particular controversia-themes by noted declaimers of the past. These surveys, in line with the title of the anthology, standardly contain three main sections, the first presenting sententiae the 'ways of thinking'[17] adopted by the various declaimers about their set themes, while the second section is devoted to divisiones , outlines of their argumentation, and the third to colores, the specious interpretations which they gave to the actions of their imaginary defendants, with a view to excusing or vilifying them.

The books of Controversiae were supplemented by at least one devoted to Suasoriae (exercises in deliberative oratory), in which historical or mythological characters are imagined as deliberating on their options at crucial junctures in the career. In his extant book of Suasoriae, Seneca presents sententiae by the declaimers cited, followed by their divisiones, but no colores, as these have no place in deliberation, belonging exclusively to judicial rhetoric.

The elder Seneca's claim to the authorship of this declamatory anthology, generally ascribed to his son during the Middle Ages, was vindicated by the Renaissance humanists Raffaello Maffei and Justus Lipsius.


Seneca was also the author of a lost historical work, containing the history of Rome from the beginning of the civil wars almost down to his own death, after which it was published by his son. About this magnum opus we learn something from the younger Seneca's De vita patris (H. Peter, Historicorum Romanorum fragmenta, 1883, 292, 301) and from a large fragment of the History itself which was cited by Lactantius in Institutiones Divinae 7.15.14. This fragment is prefatory in character and pessimistic in outlook, likening as it does the history of Rome to the Seven Ages of Man, and comparing the reversion of Rome to monarchical rule with the 'second infancy' of senility. Also extant is his account of the death of Tiberius, cited by Suetonius in Tiberius 73.[18]

In 2017 the papyrologist Valeria Piano published a detailed study of PHerc 1067, a charred papyrus-roll from Herculaneum first excavated probably in 1782, and partially unrolled in the early nineteenth century. In this study, published in Cronache Ercolanesi 47, pp 163–250, she asserts, on the basis of traces of lettering on its final subscriptio, that the text which the roll contained was by one L. Annaeus Seneca, and that in view of the clear preponderance in what can be read of the text's contents, of historical and political matter relating to the first decades of the Roman Empire, it is most likely to have originated in the elder Seneca's Histories. Slight traces of a book-title following the author's name in the subscriptio are also judged to be more compatible with ab initio b[ell]orum [civilium] than with the title of the rhetorical anthology. Unfortunately, the text of the scroll legible now is very far from capable of being read as a continuous narrative since, in the process of unrolling, several layers of tightly rolled papyrus tended to remain stuck together and peeled away from each other unevenly.

Editions of the declamatory anthology

  • Nicolas Lefèvre (Nicholas Faber) (Paris, 1587)
  • JF Gronovius (Leiden, 1649, Amsterdam, 1672)
  • Conrad Bursian (critical edition) (Leipzig, 1857)
  • Adolf Kiessling (Leipzig, 1872)
  • Hermann Johannes Müller (Prague, 1887)
  • Michael Winterbottom, (1974) Declamations, (Controversiae, Suasoriae. Fragments). 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library


  1. Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
  2. Sussman, Lewis A. (1978). The Elder Seneca. Brill. p. 19. ISBN 9004057595.
  3. Contr. 1 pr 11
  4. Contr 1. pr. 2
  5. Contr. 1 pr. 11
  6. Contr 2 pr. 3-4
  7. Latin: in quibus ipsa quae sperantur timenda sunt
  8. Contr. 1 pr. 22, 24
  9. Contr. 3 pr.7; 2.2.8
  10. Contr. i praef 13
  11. See Oxford Latin Dictionary sv. explicatio 4
  12. Contr 2 pr 1
  13. Contr. 2 pr. 1
  14. Contr. 2.8
  15. Quintilian 2.15.36; 3.3.4; 3.6.62. The elder Seneca's pen-portrait of him is lost, but Suetonius' de Rhetoribus 30 describes him vividly as a man who was a greater success as a declaimer than as an orator.
  16. Contr 1 pr. 24; 4 pr 1; Fairweather 29-30
  17. Oxford Latin Dictionary s.v. sententia 1, cf. 3 'an opinion expressed in the senate in response to an interrogatio/
  18. See M. Winterbottom, Loeb edition, Seneca the Elder Vol. 2, pp 614-7, for the text and English translation of both these fragments.


Further reading

  • Bodel, John. (2010). Kangaroo Courts: Displaced Justice in the Roman Novel. In Spaces of Justice in the Roman World. Edited by Francesco de Angelis, 311-329. Boston: Brill.
  • Fairweather, Janet. (1981). Seneca the Elder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fantham, Elaine (1978). Imitation and Decline: Rhetorical Theory and Practice in the First Century after Christ. Classical Philology, 73(2), 102-116.
  • Griffin, Miriam. (1972). The Elder Seneca and Spain. Journal of Roman Studies 62:1–19.
  • Gunderson, Erik. (2003). Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Huelsenbeck, B. (2011). The Rhetorical Collection of the Elder Seneca: Textual Tradition and Traditional Text. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 106, 229-299.
  • Imber, Margaret. (2008). Life Without Father: Declamation and the Construction of Paternity in the Roman Empire. In Role Models in the Roman World: Identity and Assimilation. Edited by Sinclair Bell and Inge Lyse Hansen, 161-169. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • McGill, Scott. (2012). A Spectrum of Innocence: Denying Plagiarism in Seneca the Elder. In Plagiarism in Latin Literature. By Scott McGill, 146–177. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richlin, Amy. (1997). Gender and Rhetoric: Producing Manhood in the Schools. In Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature. Edited by William J. Dominik, 90-110. London: Routledge.
  • Roller, Matthew (1997). Color-Blindness: Cicero's Death, Declamation, and the Production of History. Classical Philology, 92(2), 109-130.
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