WHY WOULD A SMART GUY like Seneca (4 BC-AD 65) think an 18-year-old Roman emperor would read his essay about mercy?
Ten years later, the emperor—Nero—ordered him to commit suicide. Nero, apparently incorrectly, figured that Seneca was in on the plot to assassinate him.
By this time, Nero had already killed his own mother. It took him two tries. He killed his first wife, too. And he probably killed his second wife.
Nero was just getting warmed up for the persecution of Christians, which he started in AD 64, apparently after blaming them for the fire that burned a fair share of Rome.
In one of Seneca’s essays, Dialogues about Clemency (mercy), he told Nero, “The more you punish crime, the more crime you’ll have to punish.”
Death with a monkey in a sack
As an example, he made mention of a somewhat inhumane method of execution. You get a big leather bag. Make a person climb inside. Then toss in a monkey, a dog, a rooster, and a snake. Quickly tie the sack closed. Throw it in the Tiber River.
I’m not making this up. I am not that creative.
Seneca told Nero that Nero’s dad in a short stretch of five years executed more people that way than were executed that way since the beginning of time.
The execution was for people who killed their parents. Seneca argued that once you start punishing a crime, it gives people the idea to commit the crime.
He said if you didn’t have a law against killing parents, most people wouldn’t think to do that. But since Rome did have that law, a lot of Romans started thinking about doing it.
Many of them ended up at the bottom of the river, fighting with a monkey, a dog, a rooster, and a snake. They all lost.
You’d think ending up in a sack as part of a mammal/reptile cocktail would serve as a deterrent. But Seneca suggested it served more as a brainstorming tool: “Hey, l know how we can get our inheritance early.”
If you would like to read Seneca’s essay, here’s a link to Dialogues about Clemency. Go to chapter 23.
Happy reading. It can’t hurt to read an essay about mercy, I hope.