Fear and Dying Every Day: A Very, Very Short Book Review

I have been toying for some time of initiating an occasional series of “Very, Very Short Book Reviews,” with the idea of recommending some books with Ancient Dan-type subject matter, but with connections to current events. Headlines the past two days have pushed me to launch.

One of most respected thinkers of his time and easily categorized among the “best people,” he became a chief advisor to the most powerful man in the world. But the inner circle of that man—who rose to his position of rule against all expectation— was a world of unpredictable chaos and eventually Fear.1 Immersed in the ruler’s world of egotism, amoral acts (even regarding his own family), questionable leadership decisions, and demands for unquestioned loyalty, the advisor found himself anchored there by his stoic sense of duty to help guide the errant ship of state as near to a safe channel as possible. He once wrote an anonymous piece satirizing the foibles of undue power and glory.2 In later writings he seems to present his struggle of loyalty, duty, and compromise in the guise of philosophical observations to a friend who served in the same corrupt administration.

However modern and contemporary the above scenario may seem, the philosopher/thinker was Seneca the Younger, tutor and advisor to the Emperor Nero in the mid-first century AD. Whatever one may think of current politicos and their lieutenants, or whatever the judgement of history on Seneca and his relationship with Nero, his situation remains thought-provoking and surprisingly relevant.

Seneca’s story is brilliantly told and analyzed by James Romm, Professor of Classics at Bard College (which school also, not insignificantly, gave us Steely Dan and Chevy Chase). My choice to read Romm’s book began with an interest in Seneca as a potential player in Nero’s relations with the earliest Christian church in Rome (he is the first Emperor known to have persecuted them, and traditionally the executor of Peter and Paul). I soon found Seneca’s collusion and conflict in the halls of power far more interesting and timely than I had imagined.

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My copy of Dying Every Day and Seneca’s anonymous work, The Apocolocyntosis, or The “Gourdification” of Claudius (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Read it and learn that ancient history is significant today and everyday.

James Romm, Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014); 290 pages, ISBN: 978-0-307-59687-1; buy at Amazon

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1 A reference to the new book; Bob Woodward, Fear (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).
2 For the parallel, see the anonymous OpEd piece in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/05/opinion/trump-white-house-anonymous-resistance.html