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The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  129 ratings  ·  19 reviews
By any measure, Seneca (?4-65AD) is one of the most important figures in both Roman literature and ancient philosophy. He was the most popular writer of his day, and his writings are voluminous and diverse, ranging from satire to philosophical "consolations" against grief, from metaphysical theory to moral and political discussions of virtue and anger. He was also the auth ...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published October 21st 2014 by Oxford University Press (first published 2014)
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3.87  · 
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 ·  129 ratings  ·  19 reviews

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Jan 31, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
a wise man spends his whole life learning how to die...
~ Seneca

Emily Wilson's Seneca: A Life is a well written biography of the Stoic philosopher. Even though the content is more a collation of various sources and quoted from many literary references, this book does take us back to the times of the philosopher Seneca and emperor Nero.

The writings and teachings of Seneca has stood the test of the time, and today, after more than 2000 years, are still relevant and so very much applicable. Despite
Nov 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
The more biographies I read, the more I realise that Great men are remembered not for the truth, but for the image that they created. From Michelangelo, with his embellished autobiography, to Napoleon with the falsified battle reports and propaganda paintings, Seneca is no different.

All of his works are carefully constructed, acting as public performance to display his Roman morals. For example, his letter to his mother, which he wrote during his exile to Corsica, outlines the traditional modes
Grady McCallie
Jul 10, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: ethics
This literary biography of the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca would probably be of greatest value to someone who has read (or even better, has read and is familiar with) one or more of Seneca's works. Even without that, I found the book a helpful introduction to Seneca's life, though the close readings of his works, always placed in the context of his life, were sometimes slow going. Wilson balances an appreciation for Seneca's abilities and intelligence with an acknowledgment of his less pleasa ...more
Feb 02, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, stoicism
I almost never read biographies; they're just not a genre I care for all that much. I decided to read this one because I've enjoyed reading some of Seneca's own writings; I read Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero in 2014 and wanted to read another writer's take on Seneca; and I'm doing a book challenge that calls for a biography. So I was pleasantly surprised that I really liked this book.

As its title says, Dying Every Day focuses only on one period in Seneca's life. Wilson writes abou
Feb 22, 2015 rated it really liked it
The Greatest Empire is an excellent biographical account of Seneca, the Roman philosopher and advisor to Nero. It draws on known facts and makes good use of Seneca's writings to flesh out the gaps, notably his essays and his plays.

I've reviewed other books about Seneca and Roman stoics recently, so I want to spend a little time here focusing on a few issues rather than taking on Wilson's book as a whole. If you are interested in Rome, the emperor's, or stoicism, by all means read it yourself. Th
Sep 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
"So I don't live one way and talk another," says the wise man; "I talk one way and you hear another. You don't even ask what my words mean."

Seneca was tutor to the young Nero and, when Nero became emperor, wrote his speeches for many years. His famous philosophical writings are seen as a great source of wisdom in the Stoic tradition, but they have a jarring quality which his contemporaries summed up in one word that remains valid: "hypocrite." The reality is that much of his supposedly disintere
Vincent Li
Jul 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
One of the better biographies of an ancient roman I've read. The book feels more substantial and scholarly than more popular biographies such as Everitt's Cicero. I prefered Wilson's strategy of filling in gaps through hints in Seneca's literary work than general historical approach that Everitt takes. For example, Everitt discusses Cicero's childhood by drawing inferences from the typical Roman childhood, Wilson focuses on Seneca's writing on his own childhood (he portrays himself as self-made, ...more
B. Rule
May 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a strikingly perceptive literary biography of Seneca. Wilson does great work giving close readings of Seneca to show the internal tensions between his philosophical program and his role as advisor to Nero, as well as his efforts to maintain a philosophical poise despite his clearly passionate and ambitious nature, which often finds him seeking the approbation of others, the comforts of wealth, and experiencing deep grief upon the loss of his friends. What really elevates this work is the ...more
The American Conservative
"The Greatest Empire is one of the most engaging, thoughtful intellectual biographies I have read in some time, and Wilson is at her best when discussing Seneca’s ability to navigate the Roman court while preserving a degree of philosophical autonomy from the very real barbarism of politics. Much of her analysis relies on a critical exegesis of Seneca’s writing, which appears deceptively simple on its face but often turns out to be subtle and playful. If scholars have not suspected the link betw ...more
Jonathon Day
An excellent overview of a fascinating character within philosophy.

I started this book as an ardent admirer of Seneca and his stoicism. This book does an excellent job of outlining the life of the man behind the words. A man who compromised, lied and usurped his principles in the service of the emperor Nero. This, and his vast wealth, has lead many later writers to dismiss him as a hypocrite who's words bear no relation to his actions.

Wilson acknowledges these views and is unsentimental in her d
Really loved the epilogue about Seneca’s relevance in today’s world, and especially loved the mini dissection of his life’s influence on The Hunger Games - I would love to read more books and essays on young adult (and all literature) taking tales from history and turning it into dystopia or science fiction, if anyone has good recommendations!
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it
loved it
Mar 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wished it had more quotes and descriptions of his work, but otherwise a very readable account of his life, critics, admirers. Covered what to take away from his work and how his philosophy influenced others, which seemed thorough and convincing.
Italo Italophiles
Oct 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Greatest Empire is a biography of the philosopher, writer, politician Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was born in Cordoba, Spain circa 4 B.C. and who died, by his own hand under political pressure, in 66 A.D.

I should state right away that the "Greatest Empire" referred to in the title is not the Roman Empire, under which Seneca lived. Seneca, a master of wordplay, believed that if one could conquer oneself, control one's own impulses, then one had conquered the greatest empire possible. To be Em
Michael Baranowski
Sep 27, 2015 rated it it was ok
I got this book a while ago, and it took me forever to finish. This has nothing to do with Emily Wilson's writing or analysis, both of which seem first-rate to me. The problem is that Seneca is my least-favorite Stoic, and someone who I generally feel was a huge hypocrite and a fairly unscrupulous person. It's unfortunate that he's the author of some of the best Stoic writing.
Margaret Sankey
Dec 09, 2016 rated it liked it
Wilson focuses on Seneca's rise to power from landowner's son in provincial Spain to the speechwriter, tutor and confidante of Nero at the heart of the Roman empire, always navigating between the yearning for power and fame and the "greatest empire" of stoicism: rule over one's emotions and desires.
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Emily Wilson is a Professor in the Department of Classical Studies and Chair of the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory. She has a BA from Oxford in Classics, an M. Phil., also from Oxford, in English Literature (1500-1660), and a Ph.D. from Yale in Classics and Comparative Literature. Her first book was Mocked with Death: Tragic overliving from Sophocles to Milton (Johns Hopkins ...more
“Consumerism provides no psychological satisfaction, because there is no limit to our desires for things that we never needed in the first place.” 4 likes
“The Stoics categorized the bad kinds of emotion into four general types: pleasure, pain, desire, and fear. Excessive emotions of these types are, they thought, the most important reason why people may fail to achieve appropriate spiritual tranquility.” 2 likes
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