“Ce nuage frange
de rayons qui toucbe presqu’ a l’immortelle
des verites chretiennes.”—PONTMAOTIN.
On the banks of the Baetis—the modern Guadalquiver,—and under the woods that crown the southern slopes of the Sierra Morena, lies the beautiful and famous city of Cordova. It had been selected by Marcellus as the site of a Roman colony; and so many Romans and Spaniards of high rank chose it for their residence, that it obtained from Augustus the honourable surname of the “Patrician Colony.” Spain, during this period of the Empire, exercised no small influence upon the literature and politics of Rome. No less than three great Emperors—Trajan, Hadrian, and Theodosius,—were natives of Spain. Columella, the writer on agriculture, was born at Cadiz; Quintilian, the great writer on the education of an orator, was born at Calahorra; the poet Martial was a native of Bilbilis; but Cordova could boast the yet higher honour of having given birth to the Senecas, an honour which won for it the epithet of “The Eloquent.” A ruin is shown to modern travellers which is popularly called the House of Seneca, and the fact is at least a proof that the city still retains some memory of its illustrious sons.
Marcus Annaeus Seneca, the father of the philosopher, was by rank a Roman knight. What causes had led him or his family to settle in Spain we do not know, and the names Annaeus and Seneca are alike obscure. It has been vaguely conjectured that both names may involve an allusion to the longevity of some of the founders of the family, for Annaeus seems to be connected with annus, a year, and Seneca with senex, an old man. The common English composite plant ragwort is called senecio from the white and feathery pappus or appendage of its seeds; and similarly, Isidore says that the first Seneca was so named because “he was born with white hair.”
Although the father of Seneca was of knightly rank, his family had never risen to any eminence; it belonged to the class of nouveaux riches, and we do not know whether it was of Roman or of Spanish descent. But his mother Helvia—an uncommon name, which, by a curious coincidence, belonged also to the mother of Cicero—was a Spanish lady; and it was from her that Seneca, as well as his famous nephew, the poet Lucan, doubtless derived many of the traits which mark their intellect and their character. There was in the Spaniard a richness and splendour of imagination, an intensity and warmth, a touch of “phantasy and flame,” which we find in these two men of genius, and which was wholly wanting to the Roman temperament.