Seneca the Elder

(c. 50—39 bc)

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Writer on declamation, was born of an equestrian family at Corduba in Spain c.50 bc. Of his life we know little; he was certainly in Rome both as a young man and after his marriage, and his knowledge of the contemporary schools of rhetoric implies that he spent much time in the capital. His family wealth was increased by his marriage to Helvia, a fellow countrywoman, by whom he had three sons, Annaeus Novatus (Gallio), Seneca the Younger, and Annaeus Mela, the father of Lucan. He died c.ad 40.

His history of Rome ‘from the start of the civil wars almost up to the day of his death’ is lost. The partly preserved Aphorisms, Distinctions, and Colours of Orators and Rhetors, written for his sons in his old age, originally comprised ten books devoted to contrōversiae, each with a preface, and at least two devoted to suāsōriae (see declamation). As the cumbersome title suggests, the material is grouped under three rubrics. For each theme, striking and epigrammatic extracts from various speakers are followed by the author's analysis of the heads of their arguments and by remarks on their colours or lines of approach to the case. Extracts from Greek declaimers are often placed at the end, and the whole is spiced with comments and anecdotes of Seneca's own.

Seneca's sons were primarily interested in epigram, and his book is biased towards smart sayings. The accumulated sententiae, vividly illustrative of an important aspect of Silver Age Latin, tend to cloy. Relief is provided by the excellent prefaces, which sketch with graphic detail the characters of the major declaimers on whom Seneca, relying (it seems) only on a phenomenal memory, primarily drew. Elsewhere Seneca's own stories and digressions give priceless information on declamatory practice and on the literary scene of the early empire. His literary criticism is conservative and somewhat mechanical, and he is out of sympathy with a good deal of what he preserves for us (see literary criticism in antiquity, 8).

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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