Who: James Romm is a professor of classics at Bard College, with a specialty in ancient Greek and Roman history. His latest book, Dying Every Day examines the relationship between Roman emperor Nero and his adviser Seneca the Younger. These two men would be remembered by historians for very different legacies. Nero’s brutal 14-year reign was punctuated by the “Great Fire of Rome“, which burned down most of his Empire’s capital city. Seneca’s philosophical writings influenced Western thought long after his death. But his legacy was also compromised by a binding service to Nero, whom Seneca was recruited to tutor by the emperor’s mother Agrippina the Younger. The relationship echoed that of Greek philosopher Aristotle’s tutelage of Alexander the Great — whose conquests and legacy Romm examined in his 2011 book, Ghost on the Throne. Moreover, his earlier writings about the Hellenistic world drew filmmaker Oliver Stone to consult Romm during research for his 2004 film, Alexander. Camera In The Sun spoke with Romm for an April 2014 interview about Nero and Seneca, their portrayal on screen and stage, and his take on how television miniseries like I, Claudius and Rome have portrayed the Roman Empire and the Republic it replaced.
What is the significance of your title, Dying Every Day?
It’s a phrase from Seneca. He writes it twice in the course of his life — once early, and once late — to describe the progress of human life dying every day. From the moment we’re born, we’re on a journey toward the grave. We talk about old people as dying, or sick people as dying. But in fact, we’re all dying. So that’s a very grim and maybe nihilistic viewpoint. But it was very much in line with Seneca’s worldview, and his personality. He looked at the dark side a lot of the time. He was interested in suicide. He was interested in apocalypse. He was interested in death of all kinds. It characterizes his philosophy, but also his life story. Because he was dying the whole time he was under Nero’s power. He had to give up all of his most cherished ideals, and then found he couldn’t get away, even when he wanted to. So he was living a kind of death.
He was really the first philosopher in antiquity to write in very personal terms about his own struggles and his own moral dilemmas. Socrates never wrote anything, and Plato and Aristotle were both writing in abstract terms, or using Socrates as a mouthpiece. And then further figures, early stoics and epicureans, were writing more or less abstractly about moral problems. But Seneca really personalized it, and wrote in the first person a lot of the time — himself a test case for a lot of his moral precepts.
He was appointed as Nero’s tutor when Nero was only 12, when his mother Agrippina was grooming him to be the next Princeps. Nero didn’t have a father, didn’t have any adult male figure in his life, so he needed guidance. Rome needed to see that he was being well-trained and well-educated, so his mother appointed the best teacher she could think of, which was Seneca — a man who had already written widely, who had gained a reputation as a great literary figure, a great philosopher… and who happened to be in exile. So he could be recalled and put forever into Agrippina’s debt.
We don’t know how often they met, or where, or what their personal interactions were like. All we know is that Agrippina was not keen on having her son taught philosophy. She thought it was a waste of time. She wanted Nero taught rhetoric, oratory, the kind of things he would need as a ruler. Seneca does talk in his letters that he wrote at the end of his life about certain kinds of students, and how to educate them. And there’s some thought that he was referring obliquely to Nero. But it’s really hard to know.
Seneca was put in the position where he would have to make Nero angry in order to enforce any kind of moral order on the regime. Nero didn’t like to be talked down to. He didn’t like to be parented. But he needed a lot of restraint. So Seneca chose early on not to use a heavy hand. Do damage control, rather than confront the Princeps openly. Of course as time went on, he had less and less influence, and his restraints were broken through one by one. You know, I start the book with a Roman proverb: “If you tolerate the crimes of a friend, you make them your own.” Which is basically the situation Seneca was in. He had to stand by and watch as murders were committed, and lots of estates were plundered, and so on, and didn’t really raise his voice in opposition. He was even the beneficiary, because he received a lot of wealth from those plundered estates of murdered enemies.
The Great Fire of Rome was in the summer of 64. It started in the Circus Maximus, the chariot track, and spread to 5 of the 7 hills. So about 2/3rds of the city was destroyed, and huge numbers of people died, or were made homeless. The devastation was enormous. The loss to Rome treasury was enormous. Nero had to start ransacking the estates of rich people, and shaking down temples for their artwork and such, in order to raise money. Seneca never writes about the fire in all of his many literary works. Never mentions it. Just another example of the kind of silences that are just gaping wide in his work. He couldn’t address it without angering Nero, so he didn’t.
It seems that in 62 — two years after the murder of Agrippina, but shortly after the death of Seneca’s closest ally at court, Burrus — Seneca first proposed buying his way out of politics. So giving Nero all of his estates, in exchange for being allowed to leave. But that request was refused. Then he tried again a couple of years later in 64, after the Great Fire of Rome, and after the ransacking of the great temples that caused him such great distress. Then his own death came in 65. He was close to getting out, but it’s like they say with the mafia — it’s when you think you’re out, they suck you back in.
Seneca did finally have to commit suicide. But at least he had a more noble end than Agrippina. They all more or less came to the same end. Nero had a deep-seeded terror of Agrippina, and resentment of all she had done to manipulate him. So when the chance came to get rid of her, even though she had not provoked him in any way and had sat peaceably on the sidelines for a couple of years, he still just couldn’t abide her being on the scene. It’s one of those cases where someone just can’t get the resentment out of their system until they act.
How does Nero’s rule compare with that of his uncle, Caligula?
The two together were a pretty powerful case that Principate was broken. The system of hereditary dynasty in a family like the Julio-Claudians, which was deeply inbred and troubled by various kinds of insanity — that the system just wasn’t working. The year after Nero’s death, when various members of other families are competing to be the next emperor, you already have the argument put forward that an older man who has no children would be the ideal choice. Because he won’t be able to pass the Empire on to his son. Later, under the Antonines — what many consider the best dynasty, which included Marcus Aurelius — the system that emperors should be elected or selected by being adopted, rather than power being handed on to a natural son, starts to take hold. This is the conflict you see in Gladiator, where the next leader is selected on the basis of his character and his ability, and the natural son resents that and wants to take power back.
Seneca’s writings are filled with moral outrage at the behavior of Caligula and some of Tiberius. Of course, he upholds Augustus as the great golden boy who could do no wrong. So Augustus had set this impossibly high standard for virtuous leadership, and nobody after him came close, until more than a century later. So, you had all these emperors with a feeling of having let down the Roman people.
What’s your take on Nero and Seneca’s depictions on screen and stage?
The most famous portrayal of Nero in film is by Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis [with Nicholas Hannen as Seneca]. It’s a great sword & sandle epic from back in 1951 about the triumph of Christianity. Because the movement was happening at the same time as Nero, and Peter Ustinov plays him as a kind of aging fop. But along the way it has very funny scenes involving Nero, who seems to be in his mid-40s in that movie — much older than the real Nero was, and much more of a comic character. Kind of paunchy, and much more harmless than the real Nero. So that’s the image I had in my mind, as well as the image that all of us have of “fiddling while Rome burns”. You know, the classic caricature of Nero, which also makes him sort of harmless, and deluded, and a whimsical figure. It was a surprise to me just how lethal he was, and how much Rome suffered from his paranoia and his insecurities. He ended up looking more like the figure of Commodus in Gladiator. A very dangerous and angry figure.
Seneca’s story hasn’t been put on stage in a long time. It does exist in a Roman play called Octavia, and I quote extensively from that play in my book. It’s a verse tragedy, but it’s historical in its plot, and uses Seneca and Nero as characters. That play was then the basis of Handel’s opera Agrippina, and Monte Verdi’s The Coronation of Poppea, and Racine’s Britannicus. So a lot of 17th, 18th Century works that were operatic or tragic were built out of this same story. Usually Seneca is a minor character. He’s not usually the focus. The focus is either Nero or his mother. So I’m turning things a slightly different way by taking Seneca as my focal point.
What Nero-era characters should people know more about?
Agrippina is certainly a principle one. Nero’s mother does figure into the I, Claudius story, just at the end. But if you follow her story, she is as formidable a figure as any of the emperors. She lived through three reigns: One of her brother, one of her husband, and one of her son. And in each case, she exercised more power than any woman before her –and very nearly the power equal to that of the emperor in the final phase. But ultimately, she could not keep on Nero’s good side, and relations between them broke down. But she was as fascinating and as compelling a figure as any of the men in the Julio-Claudian line.
There’s also Petronius, who is a fascinating figure that I didn’t have time to do justice to in my book. But he is a major character in Quo Vadis. And of course there is Fellini Satyricon, which is based on Petronius’ novel Satyricon. He was a gay hedonist who loved the high life, and loved the debauchery of Nero’s court. But also kept an ironic distance from it all, and wrote this amazing work of near-realistic fiction. I mean, this most realistic novel that we have from the ancient world about the adventures of a scamp by the name of Encolpius, who wanders through a landscape very much like that of Nero’s Rome. He’s a figure who adds more intelligence and more literary talent than anyone else, except Seneca and Lucan. And like them, he became one of Nero’s victims. But of a totally different temperament than those two. He was a devil-may-care libertine.
What did you think of Claudius’ portrayal in I Claudius, and the idea of restoring the Republic?
Claudius got a very good rap from Robert Graves, and from the BBC. I don’t think he was nearly as benign, or as innocent as he was portrayed in [I, Claudius]. He comes off as kind of a lovable bumpkin who tried to stay out of politics, but eventually got sucked in. I think in the end he was a power player, just like all the Julio-Claudians were. He did probably want the Principate, and maybe conspired with the Praetorians to get it.
[Romans] romanticized the Republic as a kind of golden age of the past. But that’s not to say that they thought it could be restored. Lucan, in his poem The Civil War, was writing about the fall of the Republic as a great historical tragedy. Yet when he took part in the anti-Nero conspiracy, he was in favor of having a new emperor. So it was just too late to go back. That was actually one of the great flaws of Gladiator. They put that goal as Marcus Aurelius’ goal, which it really could never have been. Otherwise, there was a lot of fidelity to history in that movie.
When Nero was forced off the throne, and committed suicide, there was no successor to take his place. He’d killed all of the other possible heirs. So Rome was at an impasse, and had to go through a four-way civil war to establish the next dynasty. The wheels really did come off. But it was too late for the Republic to be restored. People were too used to the Principate, and having a figurehead, a chief executive. They couldn’t go back. Even the conspirators who tried to kill Nero in 65, when there was widespread popular support for having him killed, they just wanted to put another emperor in his place. They didn’t have any thought of restoring the Republic.
What’s your take on the historical accuracy of HBO’s Rome?
They did a great job with the personalities of the principle historical actors, like Marc Antony, and Julius Caesar, and Cato the Younger, and Cicero. I think they had great incite into the way that people talk and interact when they’re at that level of power. I also think they did nice things with the two soldiers — Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus — the mentality and personality of people who have devoted their lives to the army, killed countless numbers of Gauls and Spaniards, lived by violence for most of their adult lives, and the difficulties of their trying to reintegrate into a civilian world. That was very well done, I thought.