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The Complex Life and Character of Seneca: An Interview with James Romm


I was initially too nervous to read James Romm’s review of The Daily Stoic in the Wall Street Journal. I have trouble reading anything about me. Too uncomfortable to look, I sent James a quick email to tell him what an honor it is to have him review anything I’ve written—I was already a huge fan of his work. Back in 2014 I had been astonished by his book on Seneca, Dying Every Day, which I read during the very tumultuous period at American Apparel and grappled with a lot of what the book portrayed in real life. As I told James, his book hit me right in the solar plexus.

If you are not yet familiar with him and his work, James Romm is an author, reviewer, and the Professor of Classics at Bard College. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, the Daily Beast, and other venues. His most recent book is an all-new translation of Plutarch’s five Roman lives.

James was kind to answer our questions on the complex life and character of Seneca, why he had chosen him as a subject to pursue, favorite quotes as well as asking for his favorite Stoic exercises. Enjoy!


As one of the first modern biographers of Seneca, what drew you to Seneca and made you say, this is someone’s life I want to understand?

The moral complexity of Seneca’s life is truly astonishing. He rose to wealth and political influence because of his reputation as an ethical thinker (Nero’s mother appointed him to tutor her teenaged son, at a time when Nero needed a highly esteemed mentor in order to have a good chance at becoming emperor).  Then, he discovered he could not extricate himself from a regime that forced him to make horrible moral compromises.  What was his best course — stay in his position of power, and use it to do some small amount of good; risk his own life by opposing Nero; escape by means of suicide? He seems to have pondered all three options, finding none satisfactory.  I have been captivated for years by his nightmarish dilemma.


When we spoke with Jimmy Soni, he mentioned that he’d simply assumed many people had written biographies of Cato and went looking for them. It was only when he realized that essentially no one since Plutarch had that he set out to do his own. Why do you think such a complex and fascinating figure like Seneca hadn’t been explored well, except, of course, for his writings themselves?

That is indeed surprising.  I think it speaks to the problem of interpreting Seneca’s writings and correlating them with the known facts of his life.  Seneca left behind an enormous array of written works, as wide as any modern author: poetry and prose, comedy and tragedy, a long list of moral treatises.  None of it mentions the circumstances of Seneca’s own life at the time he wrote, and much of it can’t be reliably dated.  For Classicists, with our strong reliance on written, documentary evidence, that kind of opacity creates a huge problem.  Miriam Griffin, a British scholar who biographied Seneca in the 1970’s, chose to simply leave Seneca’s eight surviving plays out of her discussion — an astonishing omission.


What I loved about your book is that you looked, in part, at Seneca as an artist—he was a writer, a playwright. He was a creative person, one of the most famous in the world at his time. I had a discussion with some Stoics and one of the things I wanted to discuss was his ambitions as a writer. He really seemed to want to be great at it, to leave his mark. This wasn’t just some hobby. Would you agree with that? Does that contradict his philosophy at all?

Yes I’d agree he was ambitious for literary fame, and he knew he had an amazingly compelling verbal style.  We’re told by a Roman who grew up in the 60’s AD that Seneca’s works were all the rage among young people of that era, so he clearly attained a large following.  The same Roman however (Quintilian) regrets that Seneca never edited himself adequately or clarified his message.  His prose works make for hard reading today, compared with those of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, because of their complexities. He doesn’t give you a single, shining beacon to follow, so he’s the least popular Stoic today among those seeking inspiration.


Of course, the main charge against Seneca is that he was a hypocrite. Because of his wealth, because of his association with Nero. You seem to portray him less as a hypocrite and more as *complicated.* Do you think we miss something when we try to put historical figures in boxes like that?

I think it’s easy to judge a man like Seneca in hindsight, especially for those who’ve never lived under an autocracy.  One scholar dismisses him as an “immoral moralist,” but I think he deserves much more sympathy than that.  The choices he faced were impossible ones, really, and he did better at navigating them than many of us would.  In my preface I call him “human, all too human,” and that’s the line I tried to follow throughout the book.


Seneca produced many brilliant one liners. Is there one that stands out to you most? One that has stayed with you?

As you say, Seneca was a master of the epigram, and sometimes he seems to turn them out every other sentence.  My favorite passages are from the plays, where the poetry helps make the sentiments even more memorable.  In “Thyestes,” the chorus sings about true (i.e. Stoic) kingship, a state of inner self-reliance as opposed to political power.  “A king is he who desires nothing; a king is he who fears nothing; this kingship each man grants to himself,” they say.  It’s very lovely in Latin, and was beautifully set to music in a staged version put on at Barnard College some years ago.


Having studied Seneca and the Stoics, did the philosophy stick with you? Are there any exercises that have been valuable to you personally?

The Stoic practice known as “premeditatio malorum” seems to me a valuable and salutary one.  To try to picture the disasters of life — illnesses, accidents, deaths — before they happen, so as to be better prepared when they do, and more grateful for the times when they don’t.  Of course, one can paralyze oneself with anxiety if the exercise goes too far.  Like most spiritual practice, the key is in finding a balance.


What are you working on next?

I’ll be going back to Greek history and philosophy, my normal haunts.

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