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From acclaimed classical historian author of Ghost on the Throne “Gripping the narrative verve of a born writer and the erudition of a scholar” —Daniel  Mendelsohn and editor of The Landmark ArrianThe Campaign of Alexander “Thrilling” — The New York Times Book Review a  high stakes drama full of murder madness tyranny perversion with the sweep of history on the grand scale At the center the tumultuous life of Seneca ancient Rome’s preeminent writer and philosopher beginning with banishment in his fifties and subseuent appointment as tutor to twelve year old Nero future emperor of Rome Controlling them both Nero’s mother Julia Agrippina the Younger Roman empress great granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus sister of the Emperor Caligula niece and fourth wife of Emperor Claudius             James Romm seamlessly weaves together the life and written words the moral struggles political intrigue and bloody vengeance that enmeshed Seneca the Younger in the twisted imperial family and the perverse paranoid regime of Emperor Nero despot and madman Romm writes that Seneca watched over Nero as teacher moral guide and surrogate father and at seventeen when Nero abruptly ascended to become emperor of Rome Seneca a man never avid for political power became with Nero the ruler of the Roman Empire We see how Seneca was able to control his young student how under Seneca’s influence Nero ruled with intelligence and moderation banned capital punishment reduced taxes gave slaves the right to file complaints against their owners pardoned prisoners arrested for sedition But with time as Nero grew vain and disillusioned Seneca was unable to hold sway over the emperor and between Nero’s mother Agrippina—thought to have poisoned her second husband and her third who was her uncle Claudius and rud to have entered into an incestuous relationship with her son—and Nero’s father described by Suetonius as a murderer and cheat charged with treason adultery and incest how long could the young Nero have been contained?             Dying Every Day is a portrait of Seneca’s moral struggle in the midst of madness and excess In his treatises Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or embrace a noble death As Nero’s adviser Seneca was presented with a complex set of choices as the only man capable of summoning the better aspect of Nero’s nature yet remaining at Nero’s side and colluding in the evil regime he created Dying Every Day is the first book to tell the compelling and nightmarish story of the philosopher poet who was almost a king tied to a tyrant—as Seneca the paragon of reason watched his student spiral into madness and whose descent saw five family murders the Fire of Rome and a savage purge that destroyed the supreme minds of the Senate’s golden age


10 thoughts on “Dying Every Day

  1. says:

    A caustic reader of this darkly entertaining biography might call it Lying Every Day To call Seneca a man of contradictions is kind He is the preeminent example in antiuity of someone who wanted to have his philosophical cake and eat it too – preaching the ascetic virtues of Stoicism and abnegation while living a luxurious life as a Roman multimillionaire His essays harp on the dignity of death and the heroic freedom of suicide while his day job as Nero's court philosopher reuired him to connive at political murder including Nero's assassination of his own murderous mother One ancient historian blames Seneca's usurious greed for triggering the rebellion of Boudicca warrior ueen of ancient Britain resulting in the deaths of 80000 Roman soldiers and just as many British Buckets of blood Yet at the end he couldn't bleed himself He tried hemlock in a stagey imitation of Socrates and finally suffocated himself in a steam bath He seems to have died convinced that he was what he pretended to be


  2. says:

    The basic thesis is this Seneca’s philosophical convictions were sincere but he believed them to be ideals to be aimed at over an entire life rather than achieved His relationship with Nero was similar to Aristotle’s with Alexander the Great designed to moderate the young prince and teach him virtues Or so Seneca justified it to himself Once in power he found his position a trap Since Nero made much political capital out of Seneca’s moral stature it meant that Seneca could never resign his role or it would be seen as a repudiation; confirmation of the tyrant’s vices More ominously Seneca’s elevation also saw the elevation of family members all of whom could expect to pay the price should the philosopher take the moral pathBasically the book is a study of the corrosive effect autocracy has on even the most decent of people Not that Seneca necessarily fit into that category Even accepting this thesis Seneca fails to meet his own high standards uite a lot Lending money at high rates of interest and then using his knowledge of court politics to recall it from men he knew could not afford it? Amassing a fortune of half a billion sesterces largely off benefices taken from Nero’s victims? And he was certainly willing to use his moral authority to advance his own career Several of his moral treatises were designed to win over an emperor or prove his political worth And since his writings never make mention of his political career it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s being rather hypocriticalIndeed the whole book is filled with an awareness of Seneca’s ambiguity The man while ostensibly baring his very soul through his letters including some charmingly embarrassing anecdotes was a master at concealing his thoughts; at compartmentalizing his life What he said and what he did often doesn’t line up Indeed if you’re looking for a single example of moral behavior in his political career you’ve got a lot of special pleading to do The best historians can come up with are the things he didn’t do Or rather the things Nero didn’t do until after his fall from grace and eventual death No performing in Rome no divorcing his popular wife And how much are we to praise Seneca for enacting this restraint if indeed he did when the list of things he did do with Seneca’s help or at least knowledge includes the murder of his brother and mother Seneca’s life seems entirely devoid of moral stands which makes his efforts to be both philosopher and councilor rather pointless Even at the end when he has literally nothing left to lose Seneca chose the path of submissionI do find some of the observations on Nero’s autocracy somewhat facile Doesn’t it seem a little suspicious that every death in Nero’s circle and beyond is attributed to poison? Romm admits upfront that this is unprovable slander that even the authors themselves could not have known for certain yet he’s willing to have his cake and eat it too when it pleases him When you record the accusations of poison and comment on how much it would benefit Nero ignoring the ill health and old age of those concerned it’s hard to say that certain games aren’t being played It seems that the easiest way to rescue Seneca is to damn Nero Nero’s every excess is condemned in the highest possible terms to give Seneca a chance to wring his hands nervously in despair It all seems a bit muchStill as an explanation of character motivations it’s very good Indeed it almost feels a shame that this wasn’t a novel The scenes we do not see sound so much compelling than the few scraps we’re given by Tacitus and Dio The whole story seems like a tragedy of epic proportions The story of a good man with personal ambitions but many good intentions who finds himself making too many compromises and unable to escape the moral uagmire his life has become


  3. says:

    This was good but I was surprised that I did not like it as much as Romm's earlier book Ghost on the Throne The topic here is fascinating and Romm writes with great vividness It's very easy to become immersed in the Neronian milieu through his writing and the human motives of most of the major players shine through However and surprisingly I found that the personality of Seneca himself was somewhat lost in the telling It could be due to lacunae in the primary sources but I often felt like Romm was stretching to interpret Seneca's thoughts and emotions This unfortunately sometimes gave the impression of padding the narrative a defect mirrored in the overuse of ticklers and teasers of events to come I stopped counting the number of times Romm said something like as we will soon see He needs to have faith in his own storytelling I don't need every portentous event foreshadowed; tell me when you get there In this regard the writing is poorer than in Romm's earlier book That said these are nits I'm picking in regard to a great read Romm deftly describes the relationships that led to the succession of Nero and steers away from some of the salacious gossip about the emperor while still giving enough shocking detail that his ultimate downfall seems almost inevitable The agonizing position of Seneca as court philosopher in a time of apocalyptic frivolity is mesmerizing and tragic The ending of the book does a neat job of summing up the relationship of power to Stoic philosophy in Rome over the century following Seneca's death and Romm writes history in a vibrant and engaging way that lesser authors must truly envy Definitely recommended


  4. says:

    A terrific dual biography of Seneca and Nero Seneca the Stoic and the statesman Nero the child minded monster Romm’s book is well researched and well written It’s a popular history but a smart one Seneca is the main attraction here and the complexities of his personality and his position are skillfully explored How is philosophy reconciled with political power or can it be? How do we judge ourselves when we fail our best ideals in stupendous fashion? When must we set hope aside and accept a terrible reality for what it is and what is our duty at that moment? Good stuff all of it I’ve put Romm’s other book Ghost on the Throne on my to read list


  5. says:

    This kind of history usually isn't my thing as a reader but I'd met the author and as a courtesy he sent it to me I was absolutely astonished If you think we have leaders who are out of control spoiled brats floated by a compliant senate it is nothing nothing compared with Rome with Nero at the helm Murder matricide siblicide infanticide and induced suicides than you can count; it's a wonder Rome could both have been great and then could have allowed this havoc spree that lasted as long as it did The hubris cruelty delusion and collusion combine to a truly incredible page turner Even though it's history actually because it is history I found it oddly potent as escapist reading And it put today's politics and violent horrors in some perspective; our species has always been scheming and violent and politics has always been well scheming and violent Actually we've made some progress My only reservation about the book is that I would have liked narrative detail as some of these events unfolded Add half a star because I appreciated the author sticking close enough to sources to tell us when the sources conflict over certain details letting it be OK that when we simply don't know rather than overstating the historical record


  6. says:

    I'm a big fan of James Romm professor of classical studies at Bard College I loved his book The Ghost on the Throne which tells the story of the minutes hours days and years following Alexander the Great's death I also really loved his small book on Herodotus But this one was a struggle Romm says as much himself in interviews about the book What does one make of the fact that the philosopher playwright ethicist scholar and stoic Seneca served the emperor Nero? Romm would like there to be some mitigating reason that Seneca served in order to exercise some restraint on the emperor but a Seneca was not very successful certainly not once Nero began to really spin out of control but than that b he was Nero's strategist speech writer apologist in the modern vernacular Nero's spin doctor and political fixer and then there's c the wealth Seneca amassed and his expensive lifestyle Maybe it's Seneca I'm giving the three stars to rather than the book It's all rather suinchy


  7. says:

    Absolutely excellent book on Seneca and his writings compared to his actions in the court of Nero I loved Ghost on the Throne and loved this book James Romm has become one of my favorite authors His work is uality


  8. says:

    I will start by agreeing with other reviews that found that they were surprised that they enjoyed this slightly less than Romm's last book Ghost on the Throne It's certainly just as well written and the topic is just as well visualized but the author's own struggle to come to a conclusion on the nature of Seneca infects the impact of the book as a wholeWhich really is ultimately everything I can say about it in microcosmRomm does such an excellent job of introducing the players in this grand and epic farce that the lack of closure and conclusion really robs the reader of a clear emotional resolutionDeftly describing Seneca's rise to power along with his student Nero; and deftly describing the challenges and hypocrisies of guiding and managing Nero during his rise and early rule; and then deftly painting a portrait of the possible thought processes that guided Seneca to his eventual suicide Deft is the name of the game here but not depthMany topics are touched on but there simply isn't enough digging to fully illustrate the various conflicts and contentions that are debated Granted the primary sources are either lacking in detail or lacking in objectivity but there are a host of materials from Seneca's own pen that could have been fully exploredBut this is not a philosophy primer nor is it a performance review of Seneca's adherence to his own philosophical treatise; this is an indictment of who Seneca might have been and an apologetic for who Seneca might have been Sometimes it tries to be both simultaneously and this is where it stumblesCriticisms aside this is an absolutely brilliant book Romm remains one of the best historical writers of our generation Capturing this level of nuance without overloading the reader is a near magical feat While I might have wanted conclusion to match with the presentation of possibilities the writing and the work that is on display here is absolutely stunningWell worth a read and well worth the lingering uestions that will plague you when you've finished


  9. says:

    Very readable reasonably sized biography of Seneca


  10. says:

    Dying Every Day a wonderful title by James Romm is a compact well researched and well written study of the Emperor Nero and his relationship to the philosopher Seneca who served as Nero's tutor and counselor The book focuses on Nero than on Seneca for various reasons chief among them that is known about Nero despite the fact that Seneca wrote a half million words of literary philosophy that reflected his personal Stoic valuesThe crises of this history then move from Nero's accession to his decision to kill his step brother his mother and others in the Julio Claudian clan who might try to take his throne from him Nero's use of his throne is better termed an abuse of his throne He was 17 when he assumed power and 32 when he lost it to a suicide that was as complicated and botched as the suicide he pressed upon Seneca a few years earlierThe issue Romm emphasizes with respect to Seneca is whether he was a hypocritical wealth and power seeker or a virtuous man caught in the toils of power forced to try to ameliorate Nero's excesses by virtue of his ever waning influence over himThe facts are that Seneca produced a great deal of lucid compelling Stoic writing while amassing fabulous wealth and enormous influence not something the normal Stoic would aspire to This has always been the criticism of Seneca even in his day Knowing what was said of him and that Nero mistrusted and resented him Seneca offered Nero all his riches if he could be permitted to leave his court and end his days in solitary peace Nero declined the offerUltimately Nero associated Seneca with a conspiracy against him however and commanded that Seneca do away with himself As in so many other instances Seneca's role in the conspiracy Piso's Conspiracy is not uite clear He was a cautious wary experienced man who may have wanted to stay clear of taking Nero on or who may have conceived of himself as the ultimate beneficiary of the conspiracy thereby becoming the next Roman princeps or emperorRomm relies heavily on the Annals of Tacitus which I'm reading concurrently in English fifty years after I translated Tacitus from the Latin Going straight to Tacitus is in some ways engaging than reading his work filtered through but amplified by RommThose who are fascinated with Rome and its emperors will find this a worthwhile book It doesn't have the panache of its title from front to back but it does put us in touch with the barbarism of one of the world's first great civilizationsThe uestion the classics often pose to us is how we compare with ancient manners and morals This is particularly true in the case of Stoicism which is an ascetic self denying philosophy that reuires an individual to live modestly but nobly at the same time Seneca's gift was phrasing the moral dimensions of Stoicism in tight epigrammatic style What he points to constantly are issues of self restraint detachment and what might be called integrity or honor Coupling this kind of philosopher with Nero generated conflicts Nero was a vapid Narcissist who didn't hesitate to poison torture or simply intimidate someone into committing suicide As he grew older I won't say matured he found Seneca's presence less useful and irritating Seneca understood the dynamic He had outlived his usefulness to the emperor worn out his welcomeHaving been party to some of Nero's excesses one might have expected some kind of remorse on Seneca's part some expression of guilt But he wouldn't do it and perhaps he couldn't for if he did Nero would have seen him dead sooner rather than later This leads me to a basic uestion who among recent and historical figures has really confronted his mistakes and taken himself to task for them? Robert McNamara comes to mind; he ended his life unable to find justification for the policies he advocated in Vietnam But there aren't many other rulers or advisors or philosophers who have summed things up negatively Today George Bush Dick Cheney and others maintain that their interrogation policies didn't include torture Nixon didn't repudiate Vietnam as McNamara did A few of Nixon's Watergate henchmen accepted their punishment without crying foul but not many I don't know whether Neville Chamberlain ever publicly addressed his misjudgment of Hitler this would be worth looking into It's not an easy thing to do say you were wrong but it's not an easy thing to rule and always be right or philosophize and always be right From Socrates we receive the word apology as in Socrates's Apology In fact this just means explanation or personal account of the facts And in fact Socrates's apologized by going on the offensive But at least he set a standard for not expecting much of men who judge other men He went to his trial expecting to be condemned perhaps even wanting to be condemned and he wasn't disappointed