The Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Latin for “Moral Letters to Lucilius”), also known as the Moral Epistles, is a collection of 124 letters which were written by Seneca the Younger at the end of his life, during his retirement, and written after he had worked for the Emperor Nero for fifteen years.
They are addressed to Lucilius, the then procurator of Sicily, although he is known only through Seneca’s writings. Whether or not Seneca and Lucilius actually corresponded, scholars are largely of the opinion that Seneca created the work as a form of fiction.
These letters all start with the phrase “Seneca Lucilio suo salutem” (“Seneca greets his Lucilius”) and end with the word “Vale” (“Farewell”). In these letters, Seneca gives Lucilius advice on how to become a more devoted Stoic. Some of the letters include “On Noise” and “Asthma”.
Others include letters on “the influence of the masses” and “how to deal with one’s slaves”. Although they deal with Seneca’s eclectic form of Stoic philosophy, they also give us valuable insights into daily life in ancient Rome.
There is a general tendency throughout the letters to open proceedings with an observation of a specific (and usually rather minor) incident, which then digresses to a far wider exploration of an issue or principle that is abstracted from it. In one letter, for instance, Seneca begins by discussing a chance visit to an arena where a gladiatorial combat to the death is being held; Seneca then questions the morality and ethics of such a spectacle, in what is the first record (to our current knowledge) of a pre-Christian writer bringing up such a debate on that particular matter.
Underlying a large number of the letters is a concern with death on the one hand (a central topic of Stoic philosophy, and one embodied in Seneca’s observation that we are “dying every day”) and suicide on the other, a particularly key consideration given Seneca’s deteriorating political position and the common use of forced suicide as a method of elimination and marginalisation of figures increasingly deemed to be oppositional to the Emperor’s power and rule.
Seneca also frequently quotes Publilius Syrus during the Epistles, such as during the eighth moral letter, “On the Philosopher’s Seclusion”.
Language and style
The language and style of the letters is quite varied, and this reflects the fact that they are a mixture of private conversation and literary fiction. As an example, there is a mix of different vocabulary, incorporating technical terms (in fields such as medicine, law and navigation) as well as colloquial terms and philosophical ones.
Seneca also uses a range of devices for particular effects, such as ironic parataxis, hypotactic periods, direct speech interventions and rhetorical techniques such as alliterations, chiasmus, polyptoton, paradoxes, antitheses, oxymoron, etymological figures and so forth. In addition there are neologisms and hapax legomena.
The tag Vita sine litteris mors (‘Life without learning [is] death’) is adapted from Epistle 82 (originally Otium sine litteris mors, ‘Leisure without learning [is] death’) and is the motto of Derby School and Derby Grammar School in England, Adelphi University, New York, and Manning’s High School, Jamaica.
The work is also the source for the phrase non scholae sed vitae: “We do not learn for school, but for life”.
Legacy and influence
Amongst many others, Montaigne was influenced by his reading of Seneca’s letters.
There have been several full translations of the 124 letters ever since Thomas Lodge included a translation in his complete works of 1614.
- Thomas Lodge (1614). The workes of Lucius Annæus Seneca, both morrall and naturall. London: William Stansby
- Thomas Morell (1786). The Epistles of Lucius Annæus Seneca. 2 vols. London: W. Woodfall
- Richard M. Gummere (1917, 1920, 1925). Seneca: Ad Lucilium epistulae morales. 3 vols. Loeb Classical Library
- Margaret Graver, A. A. Long (2015). Letters on Ethics: To Lucilius. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 022652843X
There have been many selected and abridged translations of Seneca’s letters. Recent editions include:
- Robin Campbell (1969). Letters from a Stoic. Penguin. ISBN 0140442103 (40 letters)
- Elaine Fantham (2010). Selected Letters. Oxford World’s Classics. ISBN 0199533210 (88 letters)