Some 1,977 years ago today, the Roman Emperor Caligula was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard, ending his own reign of murder and madness after just four years. Though Seneca would go on to serve his own mad and murderous emperor, he was no fan of Caligula and Caligula was no fan of Seneca. There is a story from Dio Cassius that Caligula once set his mind to having Seneca executed, but a fan of Seneca’s assured the emperor that Seneca was already ill and old and likely to die anyway (thus his illness saved his life).
But it’s a story that Seneca tells about Caligula’s cruelty and of Stoic bravery in the face of it that we should remember today. As Seneca explains in his essay, On Anger, a young man had somehow offended the sensibilities of the emperor and so Caligula had him thrown in jail. The boy’s father, hoping to plead his son’s case, spoke to the emperor about it. His intervention had the opposite effect, for Caligula had his son executed the very same day. More perversely, he then invited the father to dinner—to torture him, to toy with him, who knows. Seneca writes:
“Pastor came with a countenance which betrayed no ill will. Caesar pledged him in a glass of wine, and set a man to watch him. The wretched creature went through his part, feeling as though he were drinking his son’s blood: the emperor sent him some perfume and a garland, and gave orders to watch whether he used them: he did so. On the very day on which he had buried, nay, on which he had not even buried his son, he sat down as one of a hundred guests, and, old and gouty as he was, drank to an extent which would have been hardly decent on a child’s birthday; he shed no tear the while; he did not permit his grief to betray itself by the slightest sign; he dined just as though his entreaties had gained his son’s life.”
Why did the man do this? Was it pure Stoic self-discipline? Had he simply mastered his grief and did not want to give the deranged emperor the pleasure of breaking him? Perhaps, and indeed we might hope so. But there was a deeper heroism and bravery to it than that, as Seneca writes:
“You ask me why he did so? He had another son.”
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