Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History

  Compton, Todd M. 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman and Indo-European Myth and History. Hellenic Studies Series 11. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

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.


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

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).


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.



[ 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.