Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
THE DEATH OF A PHILOSPHER
 SCARCELY a word passed between the two Tribunes as they
traversed the distance, some four miles or so, that lay
between the camp and Seneca's villa. Silvanus was
heartily ashamed of his errand, and Subrius, who
bitterly felt his own helplessness, could only pity
him, and would not say a word that might sound like a
reproach. Under these circumstances to be silent was
the only course. Arrived at the villa, Silvanus called
a Centurion, took him apart, and gave him his
"I shall not go in," he said to his companion. "It
would be past all bearing."
"You will not hinder my entering?" asked Subrius.
"Certainly not, if it pleases you to go."
Silvanus gave the necessary orders to the Centurion,
and the two were ushered by a slave into the apartment
where Seneca was sitting with his wife and his friends.
The Centurion stepped forward and saluted. "Lucius
Annacus Seneca," he said, "Cæsar, having come to the
conclusion that it is not to the interests of the State
that you should live any longer, graciously, of
clemency, permits you to choose for yourself the manner
of your death."
The unhappy wife of the doomed man uttered a loud
shriek, and fell back half fainting in her chair; his
two guests started up from their seats with pale and
terror-stricken faces. Seneca remained absolutely calm
"This," he said with a smile, "is not the usual fee
that a pupil pays to his teacher,
but it may not be the less acceptable, for that. Sir,"
he went on, turning with a courteous gesture to the
Tribune, "is our friend, if I may call him so, who has
just brought me this gift, under your command?"
"The gods forbid!" cried Subrius eagerly. "I had never
come on such an errand. Yet I knew that it was to be
executed. Forgive me if I intrude unseasonably."
"You need scarcely ask my pardon," replied the
philosopher. "Condemned men are seldom troubled by a
too great abundance of visitors and friends. How much
time do you allow me, friend?" he asked, turning to the
The man hesitated. "Would two hours suffice?" he asked.
"I would fain return to Cæsar before he sleeps."
"Jupiter forbid," said Seneca, "that I should keep
Cæsar from his needful rest! That would be ill-done of
his old tutor. And surely two hours will
 suffice to rid
an old man
of what little life remains to him. But the time is not
long, and I must not waste it. Let me see then what has
to be done. First, then, my will."
The Centurion interposed. "It is not permitted to any
one so circumstanced to change his will."
"Cæsar grants validity to the wills of those whom he
suffers thus to execute justice on themselves, but his
clemency must not be abused, possibly to his own
injury, or the injury of loyal persons."
"You mean that I might strike out a legacy that I had
left to Cæsar himself, or to Tigellinus. Nay, I was but
thinking to make my friends here a little present in
remembrance of to-day. And to you, sir," he added,
addressing the Centurion, "I would gladly have offered
some little token of my regard. The bringers of good
news should not miss their reward. But if it is
otherwise ordered, we must obey. After all, the best
thing that I have to leave to my friends is the picture
of my life. Is it permitted to me to spend the time
that remains in the company of my wife and friends? You
can easily make sure of my not escaping."
The Centurion intimated that there would be no
objection to this, saluted, and withdrew.
"You will stay with me, sir?" he said to Subrius;
 "though indeed it is presumption in a civilian to
pretend to show a soldier how to die. Nay," he added,
for the Prætorian, inexpressibly touched by the
cheerful composure with which the old man met his
fate, could hardly keep down his emotion, "Nay, but we
look to you, who have faced death so often, to help us
to be calm."
He turned to his two friends, who were weeping
unrestrainedly. "Surely I have been the dullest of
masters if I have not taught you better than this. By
all the gods! if you would not disgrace me, command
yourselves better. Philosophers forsooth! and the
moment your philosophy is wanted, it breaks down. Life
is brief, and death is sure. These are the very
commonplaces of wisdom, and yet one would think that
you had never heard them. And what is there that
surprises you? That an old man should die, and an old
man whom Nero hates? The only marvel is that I have
been suffered to live so long. He has murdered his
brother, his mother, his wife; it was only fitting that
he should murder his tutor. All that I taught him has
perished; it is time for the teacher to follow the way
of his precepts."
The philosopher then turned to his wife Paulina. He
changed his tone to one of tenderness.
"Dearest," he said, as he clasped her in his arms, "we
must part. That is a sorrow which all husbands and
wives must face; and, after all, the tyrant has not
anticipated fate by many years. I will not ask you
to grieve for me; that would be against nature; but it
is also against nature to grieve without ceasing. The
years that have been given us have not, I trust, been
ill-spent; to recollect them is a solace of which no
one can rob you."
"Nay," cried Paulina, "I shall need no solace, for
there shall be no parting. Nero bids you die, but he
does not forbid me to die with you."
"Well said," answered Seneca. "That is worthy of my own
true wife. It was only right to show you that there
might yet be happiness in life for you, but if you
prefer the glory of death I must not hinder you. And
yet," he added with a smile, "of any one but you I
should be inclined to be jealous. You put me into the
shade. I have no choice between living and dying. I do
but prefer one death to another; but you prefer it to
To open the artery in one of the arms was reckoned the
easiest and least painful way of inflicting death.
Husband and wife held out their arms together, and the
former administered the stroke. For some reason it
failed of its effect. Possibly in the case of the wife
the old man's strength did not suffice to make the
wound sufficiently deep. Anyhow she survived. It was
to the interest of some of those who surrounded her
that she should live. Accordingly the Centurion who
was in waiting outside was informed of what had
happened, and despatched a mounted messenger to Nero
with an account of
 what had been done and a request for
instructions. The man returned in a very short time
with strict injunctions that the wife must not be
permitted to die. The wound was bound up, and she
survived, though as long as she lived the bloodless
pallor of her face showed how near she had been to
With Seneca himself the process of dying was long and
painful. He could not bleed to death, it seems, for,
what with the weakness of old age, and the excessive
spareness of his diet, there was but little blood in
his body. To no purpose did he sever the veins in his
legs. Painful convulsions followed, but death still
His fortitude remained unshaken. "If I cannot die," he
said to his friends, "at least let me make use of life.
Send me my secretaries."
The secretaries came, and he dictated to them, in a voice that was surprisingly firm
and distinct, his last thoughts about life and death.
Never had his eloquence been more clear and forcible.
He had just finished when a newcomer was announced.
This was the physician Annæus Statius, a long-tried and
faithful friend, who had been Seneca's medical
attendant for many years. The philosopher's
had sent for him as soon as he was aware of the errand
on which the soldiers had come.
"You are come in good time, Statius," said Seneca.
"Your art has so fortified me against death that when I
want to depart I cannot. Have you the draught ready?"
"Yes, it is ready," replied the physician. "I brought
the hemlock ready pounded, and Stilicho has mixed it."
He clapped his hands, and a slave brought in the cup.
"Ah!" said the old man with a smile, as he took and
drained it, "I am after all to have the crowning
honour of a philosopher's life, and die as Socrates
But even this was not to be. The poison, which would
have sent a fatal chill through a frame warm with
vigorous life, seemed powerless to affect one so cold
"How is this, my friend?" said Seneca after a while.
"My time is more than past, and our good friend the
Centurion will be wanting to finish the work himself.
What say you?"
"I half feared it," replied the physician. "There is no
life in you for the poison to lay hold of."
"What do you advise then?"
"A hot bath might hasten matters," replied the man of
science. The hot bath was tried, but the old man grew
cheerful and even playful.
"The feast is ended, and though some of the
 dishes have
been tasteless and ill-cooked, it has not been
ill-furnished on the whole. Now it is time for the
libation. To Jupiter!—not the 'Preserver'; that he is
for those only who seek to live,—let me rather say '
Liberator,' for he is indeed about to set me free." As
he spoke he scooped up some of the water in the hollow
of his hand, and threw it on the slaves that were in
attendance. A few minutes later he spoke again.
"There must be an end of this. Take me into the hot
chamber. That will finish it. Is it not so, Statius?"
he said, looking to the physician.
"Doubtless," replied Statius; "but it will be a
"Well," said the philosopher, "that is only to be
expected. For what says Cicero? 'The departure of the
soul from the body does not happen without pain.' "
A few minutes afterwards he had ceased to live.