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  • "A little throat cutting in the meantime": Seneca's Violent Imagery
  • Amy Olberding

One of Seneca's foremost concerns is proffering a distinctively therapeutic version of Stoicism that takes as its principal charge the alleviation of anxiety about death. Indeed, while Seneca treats in his work a number of psychic afflictions, such as anger and desire, death registers as a singular preoccupation and Seneca appears to conceive reconciliation to mortality a foundational cure before which many other maladies give way. My aim is not to rehearse the elements of Seneca's proposed cure but to assay the images of death in Seneca's writings and consider what contribution they make to Seneca's therapy. While Seneca limns familiar Stoic principles regarding death, he also frequently turns his attention to particularly violent deaths and when he does, he is rarely content to offer a summary account of the event and instead colors his descriptions with raw existential details. For example, Seneca often proposes Cato as a moral exemplar. Cato, the famous Roman republican, ended his life by stabbing himself and, when his compatriots bound his injury to save his life, tore open his wound with his bare hands. In lauding Cato, Seneca is rarely content merely to cite the election of suicide rather than a life under tyranny, the reason Cato died, and frequently highlights the means of Cato's death and his hands ripping open the wound in particular.1 My aim is to discover what to make of such details. Given that Seneca's contemporaries, his immediate audience, were well versed in the varieties of violence, what might compel Seneca to offer them here? More generally, of what aid is it to the learner who struggles to accept mortality to consider the variety of horrifying ways in which a body may be mortally wounded? Seneca's writings provide too many examples of violent death to capture here, [End Page 130] so I offer but a short selection of characteristic passages. The first two appear in Seneca's letter on suicide (70.20–23) and the second two appear in "On Anger."2

In his remarks on suicide, Seneca observes that "there was lately in a training-school for wild-beast gladiators a German, who was making ready for the morning exhibition; he withdrew in order to relieve himself, the only thing which he was allowed to do in secret and without the presence of a guard. While so engaged, he seized the stick of wood, tipped with a sponge, which was devoted to the vilest uses, and stuffed it, just as it was, down his throat; thus he blocked up his windpipe, and choked the breath from his body. That was truly to insult death!"

A second gladiator Seneca lauds met a similarly grim end: "Lately a gladiator, who had been sent forth to the morning exhibition, was being conveyed in a cart along with the other prisoners, nodding as if he were heavy with sleep, he let his head fall over so far that it was caught in the spokes; then he kept his body in position long enough to break his neck by the revolution of the wheel. So he made his escape by means of the very wagon which was carrying him to his punishment."

In "On Anger," Seneca describes two men, each of whom has angered his monarch to disastrous result. In the first, Cambyses' advisor has delicately counseled the king against drunkenness. In response, Cambyses calls for his bow, claiming:

"I shall proceed to prove to you that my eyes and my hands perform their duty in spite of wine." Thereupon taking larger cups he drank more recklessly than ever, and when at length he was heavy and besotted with wine, he ordered the son of his critic to proceed beyond the threshold and stand there with his left hand lifted above his head. Then he drew his bow and shot the youth through the very heart—he had mentioned this as his mark—and cutting open the breast of the victim he showed the arrow-head sticking in the heart itself, and then turning toward the father he inquired whether he had a...


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pp. 130-144
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