Seneca the Younger, Apocolocyntosis

LCL 15: 456-457

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INTRODUCTION

reign?) He would have written it quickly after Claudius’ death because the impact of such political and satirical tracts is short-lived. This comical satire of Claudius’ deification surely amused, but also bewildered, those who had heard Claudius’ panegyric, read out by the new emperor Nero but widely known to have been written by Seneca, the boy-emperor’s tutor (Tac. Ann. 13.3). His panegyric was a public and civic document and had to conform to elements that promoted the continuity and safety of the state. In the Apoc., however, which was a personal pamphlet, Seneca could resort to sarcasm and low humor.

Though a well-versed, if derivative, Stoic philosopher, Seneca showed little control over his animosity in savaging the dead emperor. In his defense, he had compelling reasons for his actions. Claudius had earlier exiled him to Corsica (41–49), probably on false charges of adultery with the royals, and while there he had bent over backward to flatter Claudius in his Consolatio ad Polybium (12.3–14.2), in the hopes that the emperor would commute his sentence. Claudius would not and left Seneca groveling on Corsica.

Agrippina the Younger (15–59), great-granddaughter of Augustus, after her marriage (her third) to Claudius (49), persuaded him to allow Seneca to return to Rome, where she made him tutor to her young son Nero (37–68; r. 54–68). Nero was the son of Agrippina and Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus; Claudius did have a son of his own, Brittanicus (41–55), with his third wife (married in 38) Messalina (ca. 20–48). Though defended by some revisionist historians, Messalina probably did sneak out of the palace and Claudius’ bed at night and function hard and long as an entertainer in a brothel, where she once is said to have

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INTRODUCTION

pleased as many as twenty-five customers in a competition with a paid prostitute (surely a slight exaggeration by Pliny NH 10.83). Claudius had Messalina executed (48) and then married Agrippina, acts of equal valor. Somehow Agrippina persuaded Claudius to set aside his own son Brittanicus and adopt Nero as his heir. When Claudius conveniently died of poison in 54, Nero became emperor, and within a few months Brittanicus too was advantageously carried off by poison just short of his fourteenth birthday. Agrippina herself lived only until 59, when Nero had her beaten to death. The Julio-Claudian line was quickly dying out.

The audience of the Apoc. had heard Nero’s panegyric of Claudius written by Seneca, and now heard Seneca’s satire of Claudius and his powerful imperial freedmen, who had first exiled him, and after his return, had treated him with a high degree of insolence. With these enemies destroyed, Seneca dares to make fun of them. The immediate winner in this royal struggle in 54 was Agrippina, and Seneca surely understood her methods and aims: she would be co-regent of the Roman Empire, but with more power than her son. In his satire on the deification of Claudius, Seneca is careful to avoid any hint of implication of Agrippina in her husband’s arrogant treatment of him or in his lawlessness in murdering many of his own citizens: after all, for five years she was his closest advisor. There is no direct criticism of her, but the structure of the situation on the Palatine is, to say the least, awkward. She poisoned Claudius and then had him deified; she was wife of the emperor and now wife of a deity (at least for public consumption). Her imperial control was increasing; she was more skilled in imperial matters than her seventeen-year-old

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.seneca_younger-apocolocyntosis.2020