Dying Every Day
James Romm’s previous book, Ghost on the Throne, did an admirable job summarizing an almost impossibly complex and sprawling story: the breakdown of the Classical world after the passing of Alexander the Great. Dying Every Day may be seen as a contrasting, systolic movement, narrowly focused on the career of Seneca at the court of Nero. It is not a biography or general history of the period but an essay that tries to identify which of the “two Senecas” handed down to us in the literature is a closer approximation of the man. Was he a time-serving hypocrite and enabler of Nero’s despotism, or a philosopher aware of his own falling short of Stoic ideals who nevertheless did the best he could in a bad and ultimately fatal situation, a true hostage to fortune?
There’s no way of answering such a question now, but for what it’s worth Romm takes a sympathetic approach and tends toward the latter reading. It’s easy, perhaps inevitable, to become compromised living under an absolute dictator. Not coincidentally, this makes the historian’s job even harder, as the members of a dictator’s court have roles to play that require concealing , by various subterfuges, their real thoughts and feelings. It seems likely that Seneca had no idea how bad Nero was going to turn out, and when he did it was too late to do anything about it or even to save himself. In retrospect he probably realized that the only way to win was not to play the game.