Absolute Power and the Unsustainability of Tyranny: Seneca's Depiction of Nero's Power in "De Clementia"




Granirer, Jon (he/him)

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This research project examines ancient discourses concerning the limits of authoritarianism. In circa 55 CE, Seneca, a Roman philosopher and a senior advisor to the emperor Nero, published the treatise De Clementia, in which he advises the young emperor to rule with clemency and moderation. Despite the rich body of academia which examines this treatise, there is a lack of in-depth scholarship that looks beyond the treatise itself by analyzing De Clementia's wider importance to the study of Roman government. In this research project, I argue that Seneca’s political advice contained in De Clementia presents Nero's possession of absolute power as contingent upon his ability to fulfil his obligations to the Roman elite. Further, this reading provides an accurate account of the political dynamics between Nero's regime and Rome's aristbocracy that has not been examined sufficiently by previous analyses of this treatise. After providing a brief history of clemency in Roman society, I discuss how Seneca portrays Nero's possession of absolute power as contingent upon his ability to fulfil his obligations as emperor. Next, I lay out the obligations with which Seneca tasks Nero with. Then, I discuss the consequences which, according to Seneca, Nero will face if he fails to uphold his obligations. Finally, I set Seneca's advice to Nero alongside instances in Roman history in which emperors who forget their obligations become the targets of plots and revolts in a manner that mirrors Seneca's presentation of the limits of the emperor's power.



Kingship Treatise, Roman Empire, Roman Principate, On Clemency, Nero, Seneca, Roman Politics