Chapter 25. Seneca, Petronius, and Lucan: Neronian Victims

Of three major representatives of “Menippean” satire, Varro, Seneca, and Petronius, two met their deaths at the hand of Nero, as did Lucan, another prominent poet. In addition, it is possible that Persius was poisoned by Nero; he died of stomach sickness, always suspect in the imperial age. He was friendly with the Nero opposition party among the Stoics; some have thought that the portrait of Midas (1.119–121) was aimed at Nero. [1] Though these are not exiled or executed poets in the grand tradition, they are still case studies of poets practicing the studium fatale.


One does not immediately think of Seneca as a satirist; he is known primarily as a philosopher, tragic dramatist, and politician. [2] However, his Apocolocyntosis, the “Pumpkinification” of the emperor Claudius, puts him directly in the tradition of Menippean satire in its mixture of prose and verse; the Menippean genre also provides a link to Seneca as philosopher, for Menippus wrote from a philosophical, Cynic perspective. [3]
Though the Pumpkinification may seem a shallow, if amusing and skillful, lampoon, and very safe satire in its mockery of a dead, [4] limping, lisping, pedantic, somewhat pathetic, and eminently satirizable emperor, [5] it was yet “an implicit satire on the whole idea of apotheosis.” [6] For our purposes, we note that it is a drama of exclusion—the hero is given trial by the gods for membership in heaven, and is driven from their company as unworthy (after an influential speech by the divine Augustus). Claudius is cast out of heaven, passes by earth, and is tried again in Hades, where he is humiliated to the level of slave, and a slave moreover owned by a Greek freedman. Such themes as exclusion of the lame Thersites pharmakos, and peripety from king to slave, are familiar and striking. This is purely in the Hipponactian tradition (continued by Ovid and Phaedrus) of attacking your satirical target by assimilating him to the pharmakos.
Seneca was both exiled and executed (by Claudius and Nero, respectively); and a third emperor Gaius Caligula, jealous of his oratorical skill, had once condemned him to death. (“Seneca … who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and many others as well, came near being destroyed, though he had neither done any wrong nor had the appearance of doing so, but merely because he pleaded a case well in the senate while the emperor was present.”) [7] So the Pumpkinification is in reality retaliatory; Claudius excluded the philosopher, so he excludes the dead emperor from postmortem bliss—as it were, denies him hero cult. Actually, Claudius’ notorious wife, Messalina, was apparently the moving force in the exile, [8] though it took place under the emperor’s authority. Technically, the senate gave Seneca his sentence, the death penalty, and Claudius softened it to exile. [9] But Seneca blamed the emperor: “He was thought to hate Claudius because of the pain of the injustice done him.” [10] The orator was accused of having an adulterous affair with Julia Livilla, the sister of Gaius Caligula, and was exiled to Corsica. [11] There he wrote the two books of consolation, reflecting more or less obliquely on his plight, and epigrams describing the misery of his exile, thus adding to our long tradition of exile poetry in the classical tradition. [12] Lines from an epigram on Corsica are typical:
Non panis, non haustus aquae, non ultimus ignis:
hic sola haec duo sunt, exsul et exsilium.
Here there is no bread, no drawing of water, no final fire:
here there are only two things, the exiled man and exile.
Seneca Epigram 3
The exiled man is a living corpse. [13] The intensity of the philosopher’s hatred of exile is remarkable, especially considering his earlier Stoic writings on the subject. “I may become an exile,” he had written earlier. “I will act like a native of the place where I am sent.” [14] Ferguson points this out in a decidedly unsympathetic treatment of the philosopher. [15] Ferguson may be underestimating the depressive impact of exile; Cicero, earlier, had been nearly suicidal in exile. [16] Euripides wrote, “What is the loss of a country? A great ill? The greatest; and no words can do it justice.” [17]
Seneca stayed in Corsica for some eight years, until Claudius’ newer wife, Agrippina, had him recalled, and he was made tutor to Agrippina’s son, the young Nero. A period of great political influence for Seneca followed, especially when Nero, still too young to fully take the reins of government, acceded to the throne in AD 54, and Seneca acted as imperial advisor. But eventually Nero began to rule more independently, began his famous series of murders, and listened to unscrupulous advisors who disparaged the philosopher. When Seneca’s ally and protector, Burrus, the prefect of the praetorian guard, died in 62, the philosopher saw that his power had evaporated. Donating his property to Nero, he retired to read and write philosophy (Tacitus Annals 14.49). Tension between Nero and Seneca was partly artistic; Nero’s bad counselors reported to the emperor that Seneca made fun of the emperor’s singing (Tacitus Annals 14.49).
After Seneca’s retirement, Nero tried, and failed, to kill him by poison, but later implicated him, evidently unjustly, in the Pisonian conspiracy. [18] The philosopher was sentenced to death, and committed suicide at Nero’s order.
In Tacitus’ long description of Seneca’s death, parallels with Socrates’ death are plentiful. Seneca rebukes the tears of his followers; he impassively carries out the sentence, committing suicide almost willingly; he even takes hemlock when his bleeding cuts (in arms, ankles, and knees) prove ineffectual (though his lack of blood circulation blocks the poison from taking effect). [19] He finally has to suffocate in a vapor bath. At all times during the suicide he discourses eloquently and stoically, and he even dictates an extensive text (probably on the soul, Miriam Griffin surmises) after opening his veins. He offers a libation, to Jupiter Liberator (evidently a reference to the liberation of the soul in death) and exhorts his friends to live by his philosophical teachings. [20] Thus Socrates’—and Aesop’s—death continued to live on, replicated in different settings. Seneca’s death, in turn, was later copied by Thrasea. [21]


Petronius Arbiter’s death was less philosophical, but no less distinctive. After having become an intimate of Nero, an arbiter of his decadence and luxury (“to the blasé emperor nothing was smart or elegant unless Petronius had given it his approval”), [22] he incurred the jealousy of another imperial favorite, Tigellinus (because he was “a more expert hedonist,” scientia voluptatum potiorem) and received a trumped-up death sentence from the emperor not long after the Pisonian conspiracy. Like Seneca, he quickly cut his veins, but bandaged and opened them in a long, drawn-out death, during which he dined and discoursed with friends and listened to recitations of “light lyrics and frivolous poems,” [23] not Platonic dialogues on the soul. As a final will and testament to Nero, he chronicled all the emperor’s sexual indiscretions and sent the document to the tyrant: a long catalogue of sexual blame, directed against a king, in the Aesopic and Socratic tradition of just accusation at the point of death.
Thus our two Menippean satirists were executed unjustly by stark political force, and died, in their contrasting styles, quite “willingly,” once the death sentence had been given.
As we have seen in the cases of Hipponax and Aristophanes, often satirists are themselves fascinated by the pharmakos, even as they are themselves assimilated to its pattern. [24] So it is notable that the standard evidence on the scapegoat in Marseilles is Petronius fr. 1. It is likely that the narrator of the Satyricon is assimilated to the pharmakos at Marseilles, after he has committed some crime, perhaps temple robbery (133.3, lines 7–8). There may have been a plague and a public expulsion. [25]
Bremmer notes that Petronius is the only Latin writer to use the word pharmacus. [26] We also find the following in the Satyricon: “Some of the people who were walking in the colonnades threw stones at Eumolpus as he recited. But he recognized this tribute to his genius, covered his head, and fled out of the temple. I was afraid that he would also call me a poet” (Ex is, qui in porticibus spatiabantur, lapides in Eumolpum recitantem miserunt. At ille, qui plausum ingenii sui nouerat, operuit caput extraque templum profugit. Timui ego, ne me poetam uocaret, 90). Lurking behind this comic scene is the theme of the stoning of a poet. Eumolpus is also thrown out of the baths for reciting poetry, so we have the archaic Indo-European theme of poetic expulsion, in comic form (90.1; 92.6).


Lucan, on the other hand, was an actual conspirator, “almost the ringleader” [27] in the Pisonian conspiracy. But his motivations for joining the plot were artistic, not political, curiously enough. He had started his political career with a eulogy of Nero; [28] he was later recalled from Athens by the emperor and became one of his intimates. But artistic jealousy divided the poet and his poet-emperor. The envious Nero left a reading by Lucan, calling a meeting of the senate on the spur of the moment “with no other motive than to throw cold water on the performance.” From then on Lucan “did not refrain from words and hostility to the prince, which are still notorious.” [29] Tacitus (Annals 15.49) confirms this antagonism, though he speaks in more general terms: “The wrongs perpetrated against him inflamed Lucan, because Nero, vain in his competitiveness, continually repressed the fame of his [Lucan’s] poems, and had kept him from publicizing them.” [30] Though Lucan is known primarily as an epic poet, he was also a satirist, for at this juncture “he also tongue-lashed [gravissime proscidit] not only the emperor, but also his most powerful friends in a scurrilous poem [famoso carmine].” [31] The unsuccessful assassination plot followed; thus the weapon of satire was followed by the plan for using actual weapons.
The conspiracy was discovered and conspirators started implicating each other. Lucan was arrested, and sentenced to death. [32] He died, as had Seneca and Petronius, by bleeding to death. As he felt his strength leaving him, he remembered a wounded soldier in his Civil War who had died in the same way, and he recited the passage as he slowly faded into unconsciousness.
Nero, oddly enough, was also a satirist. His poetic vocation helped stoke the Pisonian conspiracy, bringing two men into it, Lucan and Afranius Quintianus, this last a notoriously dissolute character “who had been insulted by Nero in an offensive poem [probroso carmine], and desired revenge.” [33] Nero also wrote a satire, “The OneEyed Man,” directed against Claudius Pollio. [34] When Galba and the Spanish provinces rebelled against Nero, he responded by ridiculing the revolt’s leaders “in verses set to wanton music [iocularia … carmina lasciveque modulata]” (Suetonius Nero 42).
Nero was executed as a bad political leader, but J. P. Sullivan argues that one of the primary reasons that Nero became such a bad political leader was because he spent so much time in artistic pursuits. [35] His devotion to his own poetry almost amounted to an obsession. [36] His conflict with Lucan shows that his poetic ambitions helped bring about Lucan’s assassination plot. And the emphasis Nero put on his poetry and singing shows that his executions of Seneca, Petronius, and Lucan might easily have been caused in part by poetic jealousy. “The trepidation and anxiety with which he took part in the contests, his keen rivalry of his opponents and his awe of the judges, can hardly be credited … he used to show respect to them [his rivals] and try to gain their favour, while he slandered them behind their backs, sometimes assailed them with abuse when he met them, and even bribed those who were especially proficient.” [37] It is an Alexandrian intrigue of rival poets given nightmarish dimensions by the fact that one of the rival poets possesses unlimited power, and is also losing his grip on reality.
On the other hand, Nero’s response to lampoons directed at him was comparatively mild. However, he did exile an actor, Datus, for satirical allusion; a Cynic philosopher, Isidorus, who had satirized him (Suetonius Nero 29); another philosopher, L. Annaeus Cornutus, who had criticized Nero’s literary ambitions (Dio 62.29.2); and a poet, Antistius Sosianus, who had written “offensive poems” (carminibus probrosis) about the emperor (evidently, the original sentence was capital) (Tacitus Annals 16.14; 21). Antistius won his return to Rome by informing on a fellow exile. In addition, Fabricius Veiento, a minor writer who had published an offensive satire on senators and priests, was also exiled. [38]
When the military rebellion had spread and Nero’s support even at Rome had evaporated, he began to prepare for death. At this point, he delivered one of his most famous sayings: Qualis artifex pereo! (What an artist the world is losing!). [39] Soon, to avoid a threatened torturous execution, he committed suicide. So one more satirist, albeit an extraordinarily powerful, mediocre (at least according to Tacitus Annals 14.14), and mentally unbalanced satirist, met his death.


[ back ] 1. See Dilke 1972, esp. p. 74; Herrmann 1963; the Stoic Cornutus censored the satires after Persius’ death. On Menippean satire, see below. On Lucan, see Suetonius The Life of Lucan; Tacitus Annals 15.49.
[ back ] 2. Some authors, faced with this contradiction, have tried to disassociate him from authorship of the Pumpkinification, see Duff 1936:91n19.
[ back ] 3. Menippus, cynic, who lived in the first half of the third century BC, originated the spoudogeloion style (cf. Strabo 16.2.29 [759]), in which serious, philosophical views were expressed in a thoroughgoing comic way. He influenced Lucian and Meleager of Gadara. See Diogenes Laertius 6.99–101; Lucian Menippus. The Stoics traced a philosophical lineage to Socrates through the Cynics (Zeno—Crates—Diogenes—Antisthenes—Socrates). Seneca was a close friend of Demetrius, a Cynic. For Menippean satire, see Helm 1931; Sullivan 1968:89–90; Coffey 1976:162; Relihan 1993.
[ back ] 4. Duff notes that the Apocolocyntosis is very different from the flattery Seneca had earlier offered Claudius, 1936:95.
[ back ] 5. It is possible that Nero suggested the satire to Seneca, Duff 1936:96.
[ back ] 6. Duff 1936:93.
[ back ] 7. Cassius Dio 59.19 (trans. Foster): ὁ δὲ δὴ Σενέκας … ὁ πάντας μὲν τοὺς καθ’ ἑαυτὸν Ῥωμαίους πολλοὺς δὲ καὶ ἄλλους σοφίᾳ ὑπεράρας, διεφθάρη παρ’ ὀλίγον μήτ’ ἀδικήσας τι μήτε δόξας, ὅτι δίκην τινὰ ἐν τῷ συνεδρίῳ παρόντος αὐτοῦ καλῶς εἶπε. Caligula orders his execution, but rescinds the decree when a woman tells him Seneca will soon die of consumpton. Cf. Griffin 1976:53.
[ back ] 8. According to Cassius Dio 60.8.5; cf. Griffin, who thinks Dio’s accusation is plausible (1974:9). Seneca was “the innocent victim” of Messalina.
[ back ] 9. To Polybius, On Consolation 13.2.
[ back ] 10. Tacitus Annals 12.8: infensus Claudio dolore iniuriae credebatur. Cf. Annals 13.42 (trans. Grant): “‘Seneca hates Claudius’ friends,’ said Suillius. ‘For under Claudius he was most deservedly exiled!’” (Senecam increpans infensum amicis Claudii, sub quo iustissimum exilium pertulisset). Cf. Seneca On Benefits 4.32.3; Ferguson 1972:8.
[ back ] 11. It seems unlikely that the charge was true, though “Seneca’s sexual life was suspect,” as Ferguson remarks (1972:8). Griffin presents evidence that the two consolations would be ludicrous if Seneca had been guilty (1976:60–61); both Ferguson and Griffin mention the frequency of the adultery charge as a device to get rid of political enemies.
[ back ] 12. For Seneca’s exilic epigrams, see Prato 1964; Herrmann 1955. They are not certainly authentic.
[ back ] 13. For Seneca’s exile as a death, see Claassen 1996:586–587.
[ back ] 14. Exul fiam; ibi me natum putabo, quo mittar. Moral Epistles 24.17, trans. in Ferguson 1972:8.
[ back ] 15. Ferguson 1972:8.
[ back ] 16. See above, ch. 22; cf. ch. 23 (Ovid’s misery in exile).
[ back ] 17. Phoenician Women 388f., quoted in Plutarch On Exile 2 (599E), trans. De Lacy, τί τὸ στέρεσθαι πατρίδος; ἦ κακὸν μέγα; / μέγιστον· ἔργῳ δ’ ἐστὶ μεῖζον ἢ λόγῳ. Cf. Gahan 1985; Grasmück 1978:138–140; Doblhofer 1987:173, for the exile as death theme in Seneca. Further on Seneca’s exile, Kamp 1934.
[ back ] 18. Tacitus Annals 14.49, 15.58–62. Seneca was a friend of Piso; whatever his knowledge of the conspiracy, he certainly was not a ringleader. The unsympathetic Ferguson argues that he was not involved (1972:11).
[ back ] 19. Tacitus, or Seneca, explicitly bows to Socrates: “Poison, such as was formerly used to execute State criminals at Athens,” trans. Grant, Annals 15.64: venenum quo damnati publico Atheniensium iudicio extinguerentur.
[ back ] 20. Tacitus Annals 15.63. See Griffin 1976, who treats most of these Socratic parallels. Seneca had frequently celebrated Socrates’ death, see Griffin 1976:373n2.
[ back ] 21. See Tacitus Annals 16.34–35; cf. Griffin 1974:29.
[ back ] 22. Tacitus Annals 16.18 (trans. Grant): dum nihil amoenum et molle adfluentia putat, nisi quod ei Petronius adprobavisset.
[ back ] 23. Tacitus Annals 16.19 (trans. Grant): levia carmina et facilis versus. For Petronius’ death, cf. Rankin 1971:2.
[ back ] 24. See above, ch. 4 (Hipponax).
[ back ] 25. For a reconstruction of the novel’s beginning and discussion of fr. 1, see Sullivan 1968:40–41.
[ back ] 26. Satyricon 107; Bremmer 1983b:300n8.
[ back ] 27. Suetonius Life of Lucan: paene signifer.
[ back ] 28. Suetonius Life of Lucan.
[ back ] 29. Suetonius Life of Lucan (trans. Rolfe): Revocatus Athenis a Nerone cohortique amicorum additus atque etiam quaestura honoratus, non tamen permansit in gratia: si quidem aegre ferens, recitante subito ac nulla nisi refrigerandi sui causa indicto senatu recessisset, neque verbis adversus principem neque factis excitantibus post haec temperavit. Suetonius retells a scurrilous anecdote in which the defecating Lucan mocks a line of Nero’s poetry (ibid.).
[ back ] 30. My trans. Lucanum propriae causae accendebant, quod famam carminum eius premebat Nero prohibueratque ostentare, vanus adsimulatione.
[ back ] 31. Suetonius Life of Lucan (trans. Rolfe): Sed et famoso carmine cum ipsum, tum potentissimos amicorum gravissime proscidit.
[ back ] 32. Tacitus adds that he informed on his mother before death (Annals 15.64), but this seems a vindictive embellishment.
[ back ] 33. Tacitus Annals 15.49 (trans. Grant): a Nerone probroso carmine diffamatus contumeliam ultum ibat.
[ back ] 34. Suetonius Domitian 1; cf. Duff 1936:96.
[ back ] 35. Sullivan 1985:23.
[ back ] 36. For Nero and his poetry, see Suetonius Nero 12, 20–25, 41, 52, 53; Tacitus Annals 13.3; 14.16; 15.33–35, 39 (Nero sings as Rome burns); 16.4–5.
[ back ] 37. Suetonius Nero 23 (trans. Rolfe): Quam autem trepide anxieque certaverit, quanta adversariorum aemulatione, quo metu iudicum, vix credi potest. Adversarios … observare, captare, infamare secreto, nonnumquam ex occursu maledictis incessere ac, si qui arte praecellerent, conrumpere etiam solebat.
[ back ] 38. See Sullivan 1985:34–35. On all of these, see Sullivan 1985:154, who follows Suetonius in portraying Nero as relatively unrepressive.
[ back ] 39. Suetonius Nero 49, trans. Rolfe.