Peter Paul Rubens - The Death of Seneca

by Alexandra Tuschka


A messenger of the emperor Nero appears at Seneca's house and asks him if he also knew about the Pisonian conspiracy - Seneca does not admit this, but is so unimpressed by the emperor's gestures of power, so without fear and anger, that Nero gives another order - Seneca is to take his own life. With stoic composure, Seneca accepts the order. He is just having dinner with his wife and some friends. His wife and already second wife, Pompeia Paulina, also wants to take her own life - a decision that Seneca considers heroic. Nero, however, who wants to avoid bad gossip, is able to prevent her death at the last moment.

Seneca, philosopher and politician of antiquity, was also a confidant and teacher of Nero. He tried to exert his influence on Nero throughout his life, but this did not always meet with his approval. The style of government of the emperor was increasingly perceived by the Senate as cruel and tyrannical, so that they planned an assassination attempt. When a freedman of the senator Flavius Sceanius began to suspect this conspiracy, he sold his observations to the emperor. In the course of questioning suspects, Seneca's name was also mentioned. The descriptions of the ancient scribe Tacitus, who observed the events quite closely, suggest that it may even have suited Nero to get Seneca out of the way.


For the philosopher himself, it is not the first confrontation with death, for Seneca had already been struggling to breathe since a young age and had been catchily preoccupied with dying. He belongs to the Stoics - his "stoic", even serene attitude towards death is well attested by his own letters. It is to take three attempts before he is finally allowed to die. First he cuts his wrists - but the blood flows too sluggishly through the old body, so that it does not quite want to succeed. Then he has a doctor friend hand him the cup of hemlock with poison, he climbs into a pool of hot water to speed up the flow of blood, and finally he has himself carried into a steam bath, and suffocates there. The method of making blood flow faster with warm water has been around since the Middle Ages and is called "bloodletting." At the time of his death, he is already 64 years old. A will was refused to him by Nero. 


Rubens painted this unusual pictorial motif in 1612, a few years after he had seen an ancient statue in the Villa Borghese in Rome in 1601, which at that time was mistakenly thought to be the "dying Seneca" (today the statue is considered to be the "African fisherman"). He made some drawings of this statue. Together with the bust "Pseudo-Seneca", which was in Rubens' own possession, he created this painting. Again, the name still comes from an original - now lapsed - identification of the head as Seneca.


Suicide as a delicate ethical subject is also considered in literature and art very differentiated: so there is the shameful suicide, as for example in Judas, but also - as in this case - a heroic suicide. Rubens shows here a mentally as well as physically upright death, which in truth did not take place so. Rather, Rubens combines here some historical facts with Christian iconography: the frontal top view, the inner glow of the body, the eyes turned towards heaven and the showing of the stigmata are elements we know well from other contexts. Especially the composition of a man of a three-quarter figure reminds us of the fixed pictorial motif of the "Man of Sorrows". Also, this representation reminds us of martyrs of Christianity.


The boy, who wants to write down the last words of Seneca in the lower left of the picture, indicates with the letters "vir" - the word "virtus / virtue". He is in the tradition of the disciples, who are often seen in pictures receiving the divine message. Alert and attentive to immediately write down everything that is given to them. The man behind with lance as well as the loincloth are motifs of the Passion of Christ, as is the blood being collected in a chalice.


Peter Paul Rubens - The Death of Seneca

Oil on wood, 1612/1613, 185 x 154.7 cm, Alte Pinakothek in Berlin