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Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

SENECA, LUCIUS ANNAEUS

(b. Córdoba, Spain, ca. 4 b.c.–a.d. l;d. near Rome, April A.D. 65)

physical science.

Seneca came from a distinguished provincial family of Italian origin; his father, for whom he was named, wrote on history and rhetoric. The younger Seneca was educated at Rome and then for a time devoted himself to philosophy, particularly to the teaching of the eclectic Sextians and the Stoics. Ethics was his main concern; but his interests extended to physics, for in his youth he produced a book, now lost, on earthquakes. In accordance with his father’s wishes he entered politics, beginning his senatorial career soon after A.D. 31 with the post of quaestor. During the next ten years he became established as one of Rome’s leading orators and writers and won influential friends within the imperial family. In A.D. 41 he was implicated in a court intrigue and banished to Corsica, a grave setback to his career; but eight years later his fortunes were restored when Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius, recalled him and appointed him tutor to her son Nero. In A.D. 54 Nero, then aged sixteen, became emperor; and for the next eight years he governed with the assistance of Seneca and Sextus Afranius Burrus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Toward the end of this period of generally sound government Nero turned to different, less scrupulous advisers, so that when Burrus died in A.D. 62, Seneca withdrew from the court, his influence with Nero at an end. Three years later he was accused of involvement in the abortive Pisonian conspiracy against Nero. The evidence against him was weak. but Nero ordered him to commit suicide.

Writing and philosophy occupied Seneca’s leisure throughout his life. The tragedies and ethical works have always been his best-known writings, but also extant is one of his scientific books, Naturales quaestiones, written around A.D. 62. It is typical of Roman scientific writing, a popularizing work largely derived from Greek sources. Seneca shows the eclectic’s independence in choosing between rival theories, but he has no original ideas to contribute. He writes of the need for further careful investigation of natural phenomena but did not conduct any fresh research, although casual observation did provide him with some valuable new information.

The extant part of the Naturales quaestiones, which has survived incomplete, deals with meteorological phenomena, rivers, earthquakes, meteors, and comets, topics that all belonged to “meteorology” in the ancient sense. Apart from Aristotle’s Meteorologica it is the longest extant ancient work on the subject; hence it is the main source for the history of Greek meteorology after Aristotle, since it draws heavily on Greek sources and mentions the theories of many individuals whose works are lost. Admittedly Seneca had little interest in the historical development of the subject; knowing few of his predecessors’ works at first hand, he sometimes misunderstood or oversimplified their ideas and did not always sharply distinguish his own interpretations and cómoments. Furthermore, his characteristically terse and brilliant prose lacked the clarity and precision of expression needed for scientific writing. Yet despite these limitations the work greatly enlarges our knowledge of Greek meteorology after Aristotle.

The Naturales quaestiones owes more to the meteorolocial works of Posidonius than to any other single source, although the loss of these works prevents the extent of the debt from being known in detail. Posidonius had followed Aristotle closely, although he placed Aristotelian theories in the context of his own world system, a modification of the Stoic one. The main features of seneca’s world view were probably Posidonian. He thought that the stars and planets are nourished by vapors given off from the earth. An innate energy possessed by air, and the Aristotelian exhalations, account for most events in the atmosphere. (Aristotle had attributed most meteorological phenomena to the activity of moist and dry “exhalations” emitted from the earth’s surface, roughly equivalent to water vapor and radiated heat.) To explain earthquakes and rivers, Seneca assumed that the earth is like a living creature, permeated by channels for water and air analogous to veins and arteries. But he disagreed with Posidonius and Aristotle about the nature of comets, effectively criticizing their theory that these are a variety of meteor and using his own observations of the comets that appeared in A.D. 54 and 60 to support the view that they are heavenly bodies like planets, with regular orbits. Based on good evidence and well argued, this part of the Naturales quaestiones is in sharp contrast with the rest, which, like most Greek meteorology, abounds in untested speculation and analogy.

Certain broader issues also interested Seneca. As a Stoic he rejected Epicurean physics, particularly the atomic theory of matter, and the denial that the world was created and ordered by a rational God. Like most Stoics he accepted the principles of astrology and divination, and attempted to answer some of the skeptical arguments against them. The problem of relating science to moral life was of especial importance to him, for almost a third of the Naturales quaestiones is about ethical and theological subjects: Seneca thought that through the rational investigation of the universe, men may learn what their attitude toward the material world should be and may reach a true awareness of God’s nature, free from all superstition.

After the immediate popularity enjoyed by all Seneca’s writings, the scientific works were little read in the ancient world and never became established textbooks. The Naturales quaestiones survived the Middle Ages, contributing to the rediscovery of ancient science in Western Europe during the twelfth century, and was still read as a scientific work during the Renaissance. Today it gives an instructive picture of the state of Roman science in the first century A.D., and of the history of Greek meteorology, has considerable literary interest, and illuminates our knowledge of Seneca himself.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

I. Original Works. Modern eds. of the Naturales quaestiones are by A. Gercke (Leipzig 1907; repr. Stuttgart, 1970); P. Oltramare, with French trans. and notes (Paris, 1929; repr. 1961); and T. H. Corcoran, with English trans., 2 vols. (London—Cambridge, Mass., 1971–1972). For recent eds. of other works, see Motto’s bibliography (cited below).

II. Secondary Literature. Bibliographies are by W. Schaub, of works since 1900 relating to the Naturales quaestiones, in the 1970 repr. of Gercke’s ed., pp. xivii-ixi; and by A.L. Motto, or works on all of Seneca’s prose since 1940, in Classical World, 54 (1960–1961), 13–18, 37–48, 70–71, 111–112; 64 (1970–1971) 141–158, 177–186, 191. A few of the works are O. Gilbert, Die meteorologischen Theorien des griechischen Altertums (Leipzig, 1907; repr. Hildesheim, 1976); R. Waltz, Vie de S´nèque (Paris, 1909); and G. Stahl, “Die Naturales quaestiones Senecas. Ein Beitrag zum Spiritualisierungsprozess der rümischen Stoa,” in Hermes92 (1964), 425–454. The following articles in Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encycloädie der classischen Alterumswissenschaft refer to Seneca; W. Gundel, “Kometen,” XI, 1143–1193; W. Capelle,” Erdbebenforschung,” supp. IV, 344–374; and ’Meteorologie,” supp. VI, 315–358: A. Rehm. “Nilschwelle,” XVII, pt. 1, 571–590; and R. Böker and H. Gundel, “Windle,” 2nd ser., VIIIa, pt. 2, 2211–2387.

H. M. Hine

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Seneca, Lucius Annaeus

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus (ad 4–65) Roman Stoic philosopher, b. Spain. Based on Greek models, Seneca's nine tragedies, such as Phaedra, Medea, and Oedipus, had a lasting impact on European literature. His other works include 12 books of Moral Essays and many philosophical letters.

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"Seneca, Lucius Annaeus." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved May 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/seneca-lucius-annaeus