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Dying Every Day

Seneca at the Court of Nero


James S. Romm (View Bio)
Hardcover: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Dying Every Day

This book follows the strange journey of Seneca the Younger, ancient Rome’s pre-eminent writer and moral philosopher, as he becomes enmeshed in a twisted imperial family and a perverse, paranoid ruling regime.  A high-minded Stoic who believed in the sovereignty of Reason and the redeeming power of Virtue, Seneca was forced to watch helplessly as his worst nightmares came true.  The young emperor Nero, to whom Seneca had been appointed tutor and mentor, began to unravel soon after assuming the throne, developing an obsessive fear of his powerful mother, Agrippina, and a delusional sense of artistic greatness.  Rome’s stability came to depend on whether Seneca, the only steady hand steering the ship of state, could maintain his hold over Nero and not become, like Agrippina, the target of a madman’s hate.

            Dying Every Day is also the story of a good man’s moral struggle.  In his treatises Seneca preached a rigorous ethical creed, exalting heroes who defied danger to do what was right or who embraced a noble death.  But his career as Nero’s top advisor presented him with a more complex set of choices.  He was the only man capable of summoning the better angels of Nero’s nature; yet, remaining at Nero’s side required him to collude in an evil regime.  In the end he chose to stay on, and paid a terrible price: His hands became dirtied with a deed that repelled all Rome, the fiendish, and badly bungled, murder of Nero’s mother, Agrippina.

            James Romm shows how a philosophic creed failed as a guide to action—failed not only Seneca but his entire generation, the senators who in youth had endured the madness of Caligula only to suffer the madness of Nero in old age.  The Stoicism Seneca preached might have inspired political reform, even revolt, but instead became a cult of submission and suicide.  The emperor’s victims, including in the end Seneca himself, embraced their own martyrdom and opened their own veins.   The book’s title quotes words that Seneca used to define the human condition: To be born is to begin dying, for death stalks us everywhere.  But Seneca’s own life, and those of his fellow senators, gave a new and darker meaning to the phrase.  To be trapped in a nightmarish autocracy, unable to fight back or even withdraw from the fray, was like a slow death of the spirit, measured out in daily self-abasements and moral compromises.

            Dying Every Day is the first-ever attempt to weave together all these elements of Seneca’s story, mixing fast-paced and often bloody action with personal contemplation.  Its narrative drive comes from the crimes and disasters that marked Nero’s twelve-year downhill slide, a speedy descent that saw five family murders, the revolt of Boudicca in England, the Fire of Rome, and, in the final chapter, a savage purge that destroyed all of Rome’s best and brightest. But the book also slows its pace to explore Seneca’s written works, the tragedies and moral treatises in which he commented, though only obliquely, on the decline he was witnessing.  Quotes from these works, in original translations, convey the inner agony of a philosopher who found himself shackled to a madman, while also illustrating the literary gambits by which Seneca fought to preserve his life and rescue his sinking reputation.

"Romm gives us a fresh and emphatic exploration… a robust framework for his quest about the truth of Seneca…. He does not judge Seneca with hindsight, but inhabits his life as it plays out. There are subtle and sympathetic observations…. But when there is analysis, it brings real clarity. Indeed there are moments of brilliance. The philosophical torment of the later years and the drama of Seneca’s tripartite death once Nero turned against him are dealt with masterfully…. Romm reminds us that we need to care about Seneca—he is a touchstone for the modern world." — Bettany Hughes, The New York Times Book Review

"A splendid and incisive historical page-turner. James Romm crafts a tale of intrigue, deception and intractable captivity to the political machine. This is how history should be written: vivid storytelling springing to life at a master’s touch. Indeed, in Romm’s hands, Nero lives up to his salacious billing, coming across as bloodthirsty, ruthless, and paranoid. And Seneca, caught in an invidious web of his own making, tries to profit from his proximity to the throne, even as he abandons his Stoic indifference to wealth and status. It may be tempting to read Romm’s work as a cautionary tale, but Seneca’s reign at Nero’s court stands as a unique example of the impotence of philosophy in the political arena…. In the end, Romm’s narrative proves so compelling precisely because he concentrates on character, combining erudite scholarship with a novelist’s flair for telling detail. The result becomes an exception to the rule: When exercised with wisdom, dexterity and fervor, literary power shines as incorruptible." — Arlice Davenport, The Wichita Eagle

"Mr. Romm’s sustained reading of Seneca’s works in their historical context breathes welcome (Roman) life into them. This is no mean accomplishment…. Mr. Romm is a fluent writer, and Dying Every Day is a fast-paced read…. An ancient historian by training who left his mark on classical studies early on with his The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought, Mr. Romm is also an admired author." — Christopher B. Krebs, The Wall Street Journal

"Romm admits that his mission to make a convincing single personality out of the courtier and the philosophe may be impossible, but his attempt to keep in sight at all times both the writer and the courtier, 'despite their non-acknowledgment of each other', yields an interesting and sympathetic Seneca, whose good intentions–and high profile–led to his entrapment in Nero's self-serving net…. The titles of Romm's chapters emphasize Nero's successive crimes–fratricide, regicide, matricide, maritocide, mass murder–and highlight what it was with which Seneca had to be complicit. The doubleness of Seneca's idealism and failure is caught in the title. Seneca himself wrote that 'cotidie morimur'–'we die every day.' The obvious literal sense is that every day brings us closer to death; the phrase is also a reference to the Stoic self-preparation for death, the daily meditatio mortis which is supposed to ensure that you are constantly ready for death: 'Death does not enter a great soul so much as return to it.' But dying every day is also the way Romm portrays Seneca's frame of mind under Nero: the concept plays double duty as political truth and philosophical ideal." — Shadi Bartsch, London Review of Books

"Romm adeptly expounds the puzzle of the philosopher's life: Seneca, revered for centuries as a pristine moral voice, was despised by many contemporaries as a hypocritical, profiteering lackey. He was Nero's tutor, got rich serving in the Emperor's degraded regime, and may have hoped to be emperor himself. In Nero's purge of the aristocracy, he stood by, then killed himself when death seemed inevitable. Stoicism has a power that outlasted Seneca and Nero; but where, Romm asks, is the line between peace and perversity, complacency and complicity?" — The New Yorker

"Written in a comfortable and decidedly non-academic style, Dying Every Day is extensively researched and, will be welcomed by both scholars and those with a more casual interest in history. In addition and most important to our time is the detailed study of power politics and the inevitable consequences of weakness and corruption allowing power to be concentrated into few hands…. This is a well-researched and engrossing account of a time when rational thought was set aside in favor of passion and when good men cowed in the face of tyranny and did nothing to stem it…. As a popular historical work, Dying Every Day is highly recommended for anyone wishing to know how power is acquired, used, abused and to what ends. The names and the institutions have changed. Not much else has." — Jeremy McGuire, The New York Journal of Books

"Thoroughly engaging and fascinating.... A high-stakes drama, laced with murders, madness, and despotism... The highlight of the spring season." — Anne La Farge, Hudson Valley News

"There were many sides to the great Roman philosopher and writer Seneca. Romm explores his contrasting, even conflicting, skills in surviving at the dangerous court of Nero.… The task of determining Seneca’s true nature is daunting, but the wide body of information available to Romm enables him to give us tantalizing but ambiguous clues to the man’s mind. Like any good philosopher, he only shows us the questions and leaves readers to figure out the answers." — Kirkus Reviews

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