Lord Macaulay once said that Seneca the Younger was easily quotable, but reading him straight through would be like “dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.”
I agree! Thus I present some of the condensed wit and wisdom of Seneca, usually on Saturdays, but today — special! — on a Monday, Leap Day, in honor of changing the schedule in order to get back on track.
EPISTLE VII. On Crowds
But nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging at the games; for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one though the avenue of pleasure. What do you think I mean? I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, – because I have been among human beings. By chance I attended a mid-day exhibition, expecting some fun, wit, and relaxation, – an exhibition at which men’s eyes have respite from the slaughter of their fellow-men.
But it was quite the reverse. The previous combats were the essence of compassion; but now all the trifling is put aside and it is pure murder. (*) The men have no defensive armour. They are exposed to blows at all points, and no one ever strikes in vain.
Many persons prefer this programme to the usual pairs… Of course they do; there is no helmet or shield to deflect the weapon. What is the need of defensive armour or of skill? All these mean delaying death. In the morning they throw men to the lions and the bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators. …
You may retort: “But he was a highway robber; he killed a man!” And what of it? granted that, as a murderer, he deserved his punishment, what crime have you committed, poor fellow, that you should deserve to sit and see this show? …And when the games stop for the intermission, they announce: “A little throat-cutting in the meantime, so that there may still be something going on.
* Translator’s note: During the luncheon interval condemned criminals were often driven into the arena and compelled to fight, for the amusement of those spectators who remained throughout the day.
Seneca Epistles 1-65, Translation by Richard M. Gummere. Loeb Classical Library.
Photo credit: Gunnar Bach Pedersen, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.