Epistulae morales ad Lucilium

Epistulae morales ad Lucilium

Epistulae ad Lucilium in the tuscan vernacular. 1494
Author Seneca
Country Ancient Rome
Language Latin
Subject Ethics
Genre Philosophy
Publication date
c. 65 AD

The Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (Latin for moral letters to Lucilius) 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, or whether in fact Seneca created the work as a form of fiction, is not clear from the historical record.[1]


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.[2]

Seneca also frequently quotes Publilius Syrus during the Epistles, such as during the eighth moral letter, "On the Philosopher's Seclusion".[3]

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.[4]


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.[5]


  1. Romm, James. "Rome's House of Cards". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  2. Romm, James. "Rome's House of Cards". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  3. Moral letters to Lucilius, Letter 8
  4. Berno, Francesca Romana. "Epistulae morales ad Lucilium". Academia.edu. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  5. Clark, Carol E. (1968). "SENECA'S LETTERS TO LUCILIUS AS A SOURCE OF SOME OF MONTAIGNE'S IMAGERY". Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance. 30, 2: 249–266. Retrieved 27 June 2014.

External links

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