PHILOSOPHY & SCIENCE: SENECA & PLINY THE ELDER
Two near contemporaries who influenced later European thought as much, or more, than their own era. Seneca's moral philosophy was more accessible than Aristotle's, and Pliny's encyclopaedia, as it seemed, of all knowledge intimidated new researchers for a millennium or more.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC - AD 65) was the tutor, and victim, of Nero and the first patron of Martial. The second son of Seneca “the Elder”, he was born in Corduba in Spain, of a brilliant family. He was brought to Rome at an early age and was influenced by the Stoics, whose philosophy ran counter to that of the Epicureans in that its keynote was “duty” rather than “pleasure”, and it allowed for the existence of an overall spiritual intelligence.
Stoa (roofed colonnade) in Athens, late third century BC, a place of meeting. To the right a philosopher addresses his disciples. The Stoics, founded by Zeno (c. 333 - 262 BC), were so called because members met in a stoa. (From Helen and Richard Leacroft, The Buildings of Ancient Greece, Brockhampton Press 1966)
In his philosophical writings, of which twelve dialogues and 124 Epistles to his friend Lucilius survive, Seneca comes across as a moral philosopher whose aim was to live correctly through exercise of reason. Naturales Quaestiones (Scientific Investigations) is an examination of natural phenomena from the point of view of a Stoic philosopher.
Statue of Melpomene, muse of tragedy, with tragic mask. (VRoma: Vatican Museum, Rome: Lisanne Marshall)
We also have ten of Seneca’s verse tragedies: solid, lyrical, and bleak in their tragic vision which allows no escape from evil or defence against the brutality of fate. From his example, Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists took the five-act structure and also the cast of secondary characters who serve to keep the action moving, to report on events off stage, and to elicit private thoughts (especially those of the heroine through a female confidante). The violent and gruesome Thyestes is the archetypal revenge tragedy.
PLINY THE ELDER
The universe according to Ptolemy, second-century AD astronomer and geographer, perpetuating the theory of Aristotle (384 - 324 BC) that the earth was at the centre of the universe. Pliny’s writings reflect the sphericist view of the earth propounded by Eratosthenes (c. 276 - c. 196 BC). (From Picture Reference Ancient Greeks, Brockhampton Press 1974)
It was natural phenomena with which Gaius Plinius Secundus (AD 23 - 79), Pliny the Elder, was concerned throughout his life. He was born at Como of a wealthy family, practised law in Rome, and saw military service through several postings. Between the accession of Vespasian in AD 70 and his untimely death nine years later he held several senior government posts, and also wrote thirty books of Roman history and the thirty-seven books of his Natural History.
Pliny’s capacity for research was phenomenal. In book 20 of his Natural History, on “medicines derived from plants”, he lists 1606 drugs and cites the works of 52 writers as sources. Environmental garden murals from a Primaporte courtyard of 30-20 BC. (VRoma: Fiesole Museum: Barbara McManus)
Natural History, his only surviving work, covers many subjects, including physics, geography, ethnology, physiology, zoology, botany, medicine, and metallurgy, with frequent digressions into anything else which interested him at the time. He drew his material from many written sources - when he was not actually reading something himself or writing, he had someone read aloud to him - as well as from his own observations.
He always carried a notebook, as he did on the expedition from the naval station at Misenum, of which he was then in command, to investigate from closer at hand the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. He went ashore on the beach, taking notes all the time, and was either asphyxiated by the fumes or buried under falling rocks.
Seneca’s pretensions as a practising philosopher are questionable: he condoned various dynastic murders, was banished for eight years under suspicion of having an affair with one of Caligula’s sisters, and, on his return, while undoubtedly but temporarily curbing the worst excesses of his pupil Nero, grew rich in the process. He also wrote a lampoon on the dead Claudius, entitled Apocolocyntosis, which means “metamorphosis into a pumpkin” [a play on apotheosis - metamorphosis into a god, which had apparently actually happened to Claudius after his death!]