Let us not be hard on him. Exile and wretchedness are stern trials, and it is difficult for him to brave a martyr’s misery who has no conception of a martyr’s crown. To a man who, like Seneca, aimed at being not only a philosopher, but also a man of the world—who in this very treatise criticises the Stoics for their ignorance of life—there would not have seemed to be even the shadow of disgrace in a private effusion of insincere flattery intended to win the remission of a deplorable banishment. Or, if we condemn Seneca, let us remember that Christians, no less than philosophers, have attained a higher eminence only to exemplify a more disastrous fall. The flatteries of Seneca to Claudius are not more fulsome, and are infinitely less disgraceful, than those which fawning bishops exuded on his counterpart, King James. And if the Roman Stoic can gain nothing from a comparison with the yet more egregious moral failure of the greatest of Christian thinkers—–Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban’s—let us not forget that a Savonarola and a Cranmer recanted under torment, and that the anguish of exile drew even from the starry and imperial spirit of Dante Alighieri words and sentiments for which in his noblest moments he might have blushed.
SENECA’S RECALL FROM EXILE.
Of the last five years of Seneca’s weary exile no trace has been preserved to us. What were his alternations of hope and fear, of devotion to philosophy and of hankering after the world which he had lost, we cannot tell. Any hopes which he may have entertained respecting the intervention of Polybius in his favour must have been utterly quenched when he heard that the freedman, though formerly powerful with Messalina, had forfeited his own life in consequence of her machinations. But the closing period of his days in Corsica must have brought him thrilling news, which would save him from falling into absolute despair.
For the career of Messalina was drawing rapidly to a close. The life of this beautiful princess, short as it was, for she died at a very early age, was enough to make her name a proverb of everlasting infamy. For a time she appeared irresistible. Her personal fascination had won for her an unlimited sway over the facile mind of Claudius, and she had either won over by her intrigues, or terrified by her pitiless severity, the noblest of the Romans and the most powerful of the freedmen. But we see in her fate, as we see on every page of history, that vice ever carries with it the germ of its own ruin, and that a retribution, which is all the more inevitable from being often slow, awaits every violation of the moral law.
There is something almost incredible in the penal infatuation which brought about her fall. During the absence of her husband at Ostia, she wedded in open day with C. Silius, the most beautiful and the most promising of the young Roman nobles. She had apparently persuaded Claudius that this was merely a mock-marriage, intended to avert some ominous auguries which threatened to destroy “the husband of Messalina;” but, whatever Claudius may have imagined, all the rest of the world knew the marriage to be real, and regarded it not only as a vile enormity, but also as a direct attempt to bring about a usurpation of the imperial power.