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Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

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Summary of: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero  

Romm writes that Seneca watched over Nero as teacher, moral guide, and surrogate father, and, at seventeen, when Nero abruptly ascended to become emperor of Rome, Seneca, a man never avid for political power became, with Nero, the ruler of the Roman Empire. We see how Seneca was able to control his young student, how, under Seneca’s influence, Nero ruled with intelligence and moderation, banned capital punishment, reduced taxes, gave slaves the right to file complaints against their owners, pardoned prisoners arrested for sedition. But with time, as Nero grew vain and disillusioned, Seneca was unable to hold sway over the emperor, and between Nero’s mother, Agrippina—thought to have poisoned her second husband, and her third, who was her uncle (Claudius), and rumored to have entered into an incestuous relationship with her son—and Nero’s father, described by Suetonius as a murderer and cheat charged with treason, adultery, and incest, how long could the young Nero have been contained?

Dying Every Day is a portrait of Seneca’s moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess. In his treatises, Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed, exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death. As Nero’s adviser, Seneca was presented with a more complex set of choices, as the only man capable of summoning the better aspect of Nero’s nature, yet, remaining at Nero’s side and colluding in the evil regime he created.

Dying Every Day is the first book to tell the compelling and nightmarish story of the philosopher-poet who was almost a king, tied to a tyrant—as Seneca, the paragon of reason, watched his student spiral into madness and whose descent saw five family murders, the Fire of Rome, and a savage purge that destroyed the supreme minds of the Senate’s golden age.

Author: James Romm

Review of: Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero

I was introduced to James Romm a few years ago with his book, “Ghost on the Throne” which chronicled the war between Alexander the Great’s successors for his empire.

Romm’s new book is just as brilliant although it has a much narrower focus: the relationship between the Stoic philosopher Seneca and the infamous Roman Emperor Nero. Romm focuses on these two as his main characters with all else that was going on in the empire in the background. Using Seneca’s own works and those of early Roman historians (Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Seutonius mostly) Romm paints Seneca as a complicated figure who is trying to live up to his Stoic morals, but usually falls short. Romm also shows how Seneca tried to rein Nero in as a young emperor and how their falling out led to Nero’s descent into excess and his ultimate fall from power.

At no point in this book did I feel that a story I already knew was being re-hashed. Romm keeps a lively pace and the last few chapters are some of the most exciting reading I’ve come across in a history book in recent years.

I also enjoyed the time devoted to Nero’s predecessor Claudius and his marriage to Agrippina, Nero’s mother. Agrippina is an important side character in this history as well, and she is fleshed out just as well as Seneca and Nero are.

I highly recommend this book for all fans of Roman history. Even if you think you’ve read about Nero’s fall this is an original window into Nero’s reign from the view of the man who did his best (debatable) to live a minimalist lifestyle as a Stoic philosopher while at the same time hold immense power and influence, if only through Nero.

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Rick Mac
Student and author of History. The study of History is the beginning of wisdom.

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