Lecture 1: Freedom and dignity
January 8 , 2013
R1: 19. You need not think that none but great men have had the strength to burst the bonds of
human servitude; you need not believe that this cannot be done except by a Cato, – Cato, who
with his hand dragged forth the spirit which he had not succeeded in freeing by the sword. Nay,
men of the meanest lot in life have by a mighty impulse escaped to safety, and when they were
not allowed to die at their own convenience, or to suit themselves in their choice of the
instruments of death, they have snatched up whatever was lying ready to hand, and by sheer
strength have turned objects which were by nature harmless into weapons of their own. 20. For
example, 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! 21. Yes, indeed; it was not a very elegant or
becoming way to die; but what is more foolish than to be over-nice about dying? What a brave
fellow! He surely deserved to be allowed to choose his fate! How bravely he would have wielded
a sword! With what courage he would have hurled himself into the depths of the sea, or down a
precipice! Cut off from resources on every hand, he yet found a way to furnish himself with
death, and with a weapon for death. Hence you can understand that nothing but the will need
postpone death. Let each man judge the deed of this most zealous fellow as he likes, provided we
agree on this point, – that the foulest death is preferable to the fairest slavery.
Seneca the Younger, Epistles or Moral Letters to Lucilius 70. 19-21
Translated by Richard M. Gummere, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Massachussetts and
London, England (1920), Volume 2, pages 66-69.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (born between 4 BC and AD 1, died AD 65) was a poet and philosopher, as
well as tutor and advisor to the Emperor Nero. Among his many surviving works are a series of
‘Moral letters’ written to a young friend named Lucilius, in which Seneca adapts traditional
Roman morality by reinterpreting it in the context of the Greek philosophy of the Stoic school.
Seneca alludes at the start of this abstract to Marcius Porcius Cato (or ‘Cato the Younger’).
- Cato the Younger (95-46 BC ) earned undying fame for his resistance to the dictatorship
of Julius Caesar.
- When the ‘republican’ or ‘constitutionalist’ forces were finally defeated by Caesar
Cato committed suicide rather than submit and ask for a pardon,
i) Becomes a political martyr and a symbol of Roman commitment to traditional
aristocratic freedom and resistance to despotism.
ii) He attempted to commit suicide in the time-honoured way, striking himself with a
dagger, but his hand happened to have been injured, and the blow was insufficiently
powerful. Physician offered to sew his belly up again Cato instead thrust his own
hand into the wound and yanked out his intestines. =A glorious end, but a messy one
German who killed himself in the = a prisoner of war,
- sentenced ad bestias (‘to the beasts’) for fighting against the Roman people.
i) The translation ‘wild-beast gladiator’ is a little misleading.
ii) Men such as these = venator (‘hunter’) or bestiarius (‘beast-fighter’), and the hunters,
unlike the gladiators, did not fight with a sword (gladius).
- The beasts they would fight vary from timid deer to bears and wild oxen; those who
were intended to die would, at most, have just enough in the way of weapons to make
their survival short and frantic, for the amusement of the crowd.
- Prisoners of war = criminals, and other criminals might be sentenced to death in this way
- As they were deemed enemies of society their grim deaths were not generally thought
to be anything other than deserved.
i) Romans of all social classes (~ 50000 ppl) watching such punishment and
execution expressed collectively the horror they felt at the crimes of the
The Romans were more uninhibited about their bodies than most modern western
societies, and, for example, would kiss each other on the mouth in public, regardless of
biological sex, if they were friends and of the same social rank.
- They were also, in certain circumstances, completely accustomed to public nudity, as at
the baths or the gymnasium.
- They were, however, more anxious about certain bodily functions, not least excretion.
- The German is constantly guarded precisely so that he can neither escape nor cheat the
Roman people of his public execution through suicide.
i) The one exception is when he needs to void himself.
ii) Left alone in a small bathroom in the prison where he choked himself to death on
one of the sponges provided for cleaning the body after defecation.
These sponges might be applied by hand, but for additional good hygiene they
were often affixed to short sticks.
Seneca’ even the most despised of human beings is capable of the fundamental commitment
to freedom that can inspire him to escape humiliation through death,
His terrible tale suggests that there is almost always