In Nero’s Rome, the Disgraced Took to the Bathtub

Look on the bright side, I thought, watching Eric Cantor, the defeated House majority leader, as he slunk from view like a hurt pup.

In Nero’s Rome, you’d be opening your veins. There would be no hope whatsoever of a comeback and unless you wrote a nice goodbye note, your wife might be dispatched to the barren Pontine Islands.

Barbarians would eat your children and strangers would live in your house.

“Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” by the classicist James Romm should have come with an instruction manual. Every few pages, another glum person trudges off to his tub holding a knife.

Nero was 12 when his mother, Agrippina, hired the Stoic philosopher Seneca to be his tutor.

The high-minded ethicist, who wrote plays and poems, had great hopes for the curious and attractive youngster with the bangs.

Romm, a classics professor at Bard College, New York, makes their strange relationship the focus of his colorful account of life in Rome in the first century A.D.

Chapter headings suck us in: Suicide, Regicide, Fratricide, Maritocide, Holocaust, Suicide. Since Nero, as he got older and fatter, had something to do with all these regrettable developments, it is hard not to conclude that Seneca failed to instill much gravitas in his pupil.

Agrippina’s ambitions for herself and her son proved more alluring than the preachy admonitions of the resident sage. She had recently married her uncle, the emperor Claudius (remember the stuttering lurch from the popular TV series “I Claudius”?), who had a son of his own, Britannicus.

Poison Mushroom

The prevalence of incest and poison complicated family life back then. Soon Claudius ate a mushroom most likely ordered up by Agrippina; not even a year had passed before Nero arranged to have his younger step-brother drink some poisoned wine.

Emperor at last. He was 17.

Probably starting to worry about his student’s propensities and his own safety, Seneca composed a flattering treatise, “De Clementia” (On Mercy) in which Nero appears as a magnanimous prince determined to wisely use the powers bequeathed by the gods. Like many Romans who remembered the horrifying Caligula, Seneca seemed willing to give Nero a free pass for eliminating his step-brother, in the hopes that murder would not define his reign.

The city relaxed as Nero lowered taxes (really), banned capital punishment and promoted free speech.

Blaze Aftermath

All the while, he was not, however, engaged in Socratic dialogue with his teacher. At night, he went wilding with his buddies; during the day, he took singing lessons, though he did not fiddle while Rome burned a few years later. His instrument was the lyre.

Whether Nero actually set the blaze is a question historians like Tacitus could not resolve. But he did enjoy the aftermath -- killing Christian scapegoats and building himself a 300-room Golden House. The entrance featured a statue of Nero, 100 feet high (30 meters).

Trying to explain how Nero became a happy psychopath, Romm alludes to Plato’s story about the Ring of Gyges, which made its wearer invisible. He could commit any number of crimes and not get caught. A moral man would resist temptation, Plato argued. Nero could not. Protected by his crown, Nero proceeded to do as he pleased. Rome’s senators, with a few exceptions, cowered at the sight of him.

By 59 A.D., he was really sick of his mother, who objected to a slave girl he fancied more than her or his wife, Octavia, who was also his step-sister.

Sinking Boat

Her extravagantly conceived murder has the elements of a comic operetta by Jacques Offenbach. Nero had a designer build a fabulously ornate boat that split apart as she was being rowed to a lovely party. A fit 43-year-old, Agrippina swam to shore and dried herself off at a villa only to be cut down within hours by assassins.

That left poor Octavia, a classy, quiet woman, who was falsely accused of adultery and dispatched to a particularly grim Pontine island. There, she too was murdered.

Nero had become, in the words of Romm, “Seneca’s worst nightmare.” Forced attendance at Nero’s recitals, which could last for hours, made him really eager for retirement.

He wished for “otium,” which means “political non-participation.” (Isn’t it time to enforce otium in Washington for losers? Imagine Ericius Cantorus sitting in a cave in Virginia, chewing a Soyjoy and quietly contemplating the precepts of Stoicism).

Seneca’s Bathtub

Sadly for Seneca, his requests to leave Rome were denied: Nero found him a useful PR tool until one day it was time for the dispirited philosopher to take the walk to the bathtub.

Accused of associating with a group of failed assassins, Seneca was ordered to kill himself, which he did after dinner in A.D. 65. His veins were old and death came slowly.

Three years later, Nero ineptly committed suicide. Possibly worried his love handles would deflect a knife aimed at a vital organ, he pierced his carotid artery with the help of a retainer.

“Dying Every Day” takes its title from a letter Seneca wrote to a mother grieving for her son: “We are dying every day, all of us.” It could have been written now.

“Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero” is published by Knopf at $20.93. What the publisher says:

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor for art at Bloomberg News. All opinions are her own.)