Lucius, or Marcus, Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Elder and Seneca the Rhetorician (/ˈsɛnɪkə/; 54 BC – c. 39 AD), was a Roman rhetorician and writer, born of a wealthy equestrian family of Cordoba, Hispania. Seneca lived through the reigns of three significant emperors; Augustus (ruled 27 BC – 14 AD), Tiberius (ruled 14 AD – 37 AD) and Caligula (ruled 37 AD – 41 AD). He was the father of Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus and the stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger (Lucius) who was tutor of Nero.


Seneca the Elder is the first of the gens Annaea of whom there is definite knowledge.[1] His praenomen is uncertain. In the renaissance his name and his works became confused with his son Lucius Annaeus Seneca.[2] In the early 16th century Raphael of Volterra saw that there must be two different men. He noted that two of the elder Seneca's grandsons were called Marcus and since there was a Roman custom for boys to be given the name of their grandfather, Raphael adopted the name of Marcus for the elder Seneca.[2] Until the 20th century this was used as the standard praenomen. However it is now accepted that this naming custom was not rigid, and since in the manuscripts he is referred to as Lucius, many scholars now prefer this praenomen since it would also help explain why their works became so confused.[2]

During a lengthy stay on two occasions at Rome, Seneca attended the lectures of famous orators and rhetoricians, to prepare for an official career as an advocate. His 'ideal' orator was Cicero, and Seneca disapproved of the florid tendencies of the oratory of his time. A passage in Controversiae expresses a critique of the Asiatic style of Arellius Fuscus, calling "his ornament too contrived, his word arrangement more effeminate than could be tolerated by a mind in training for such chaste and rigorous precepts" (2 pr. 1).[3] Yet Seneca's own writing for fictitious speakers and situations aims above all at a striking effect on the audience and is characterized by "mannerism", "exaggerated use of the colores" and "use of a brilliant, precious style, one that has recourse to all the artifices of Asianism, from the accumulation of the rhetorical figures to densely epigrammatic expression to care over the rhythm of the period."[4]

During the civil wars, his sympathies, like those of his native place, were probably with Pompey. By his wife Helvia of Corduba, he had three sons: the eldest was Lucius Annaeus Novatus - later known as Lucius Junius Gallio Annaeanus - who was a Roman politician and rhetorician; the middle was Seneca the Younger, the tutor of the Emperor Nero and a Stoic philosopher; and the youngest was Marcus Annaeus Mela, a philosopher and a procurator,[5] who was the father of the poet Lucan.

As he died before his son Seneca the Younger was banished by Claudius (41; Seneca, ad Helviam, ii. 4), and the latest references in his writings are to the period immediately after the death of Tiberius, he probably died about 38 AD.


At an advanced age, at the request of his sons, he prepared, it is said from memory, a collection of various school themes and their treatment by Greek and Roman orators. This collection, frequently called Declamations, he arranged in ten books of Controversiae (imaginary legal cases) in which seventy-four themes were discussed, the opinions of the rhetoricians upon each case being given from different points of view, then their division of the case into different single questions (divisio), and, finally, the devices for making black appear white and extenuating injustice (colores).

Each book was introduced by a preface, in which the characteristics of individual rhetoricians were discussed in a 'lively' manner. The work is incomplete, but the gaps can be to a certain extent 'filled up', with the aid of an epitome made in the 4th or 5th century for the use of schools. The romantic elements were utilized in the collection of anecdotes and tales called Gesta Romanorum. For Books I, II, VII, IX, and X we possess both the original and the epitome; for the remainder, we have to rely upon the epitome alone. Even with the aid of the latter, only seven of the prefaces are available.

The Controversiae were supplemented by the Suasoriae (exercises in hortatory or deliberative oratory), in which the question is discussed whether certain things 'should, or should not be done'. The whole forms the most important authority for the history of contemporary oratory.

Seneca was also the author of a lost historical work, containing the history of Rome from the beginning of the civil wars almost down to his own death, after which it was published by his son. Of this we learn something from the younger Seneca's De vita patris (H. Peter, Historicorum Romanorum fragmenta, 1883, pp. 292, 301), of which the beginning was discovered by Barthold Georg Niebuhr. The father's claim to the authorship of the rhetorical work, generally ascribed to the son during the Middle Ages, was vindicated by the Renaissance humanists Raffaello Maffei and Justus Lipsius.



  1. ^ Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, William Smith, Editor.
  2. ^ a b c Sussman, Lewis A. (1978). The Elder Seneca. Brill. p. 19. ISBN 9004057595. 
  3. ^ Elaine Fantham, in Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 1, 1989, p. 279
  4. ^ Gian Biagio Conte, Latin Literature: A History, trans. Sodolow, JHU Press, 1994, p. 405
  5. ^ Emily Wilson, The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca. Oxford University Press, 2014. p.117


Further reading

  • Bodel, John. (2010). Kangaroo Courts: Displaced Justice in the Roman Novel. In Spaces of Justice in the Roman World. Edited by Francesco de Angelis, 311-329. Boston: Brill.
  • Fairweather, Janet. (1981). Seneca the Elder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fantham, Elaine (1978). Imitation and Decline: Rhetorical Theory and Practice in the First Century after Christ. Classical Philology, 73(2), 102-116.
  • Griffin, Miriam. (1972). The Elder Seneca and Spain. Journal of Roman Studies 62:1–19.
  • Gunderson, Erik. (2003). Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Huelsenbeck, B. (2011). The Rhetorical Collection of the Elder Seneca: Textual Tradition and Traditional Text. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 106, 229-299.
  • Imber, Margaret. (2008). Life Without Father: Declamation and the Construction of Paternity in the Roman Empire. In Role Models in the Roman World: Identity and Assimilation. Edited by Sinclair Bell and Inge Lyse Hansen, 161-169. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • McGill, Scott. (2012). A Spectrum of Innocence: Denying Plagiarism in Seneca the Elder. In Plagiarism in Latin Literature. By Scott McGill, 146–177. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Richlin, Amy. (1997). Gender and Rhetoric: Producing Manhood in the Schools. In Roman Eloquence: Rhetoric in Society and Literature. Edited by William J. Dominik, 90-110. London: Routledge.
  • Roller, Matthew (1997). Color-Blindness: Cicero's Death, Declamation, and the Production of History. Classical Philology, 92(2), 109-130.

External links