Absolute Power and Unsustainable Tyranny
Seneca’s Depiction of Nero’s Power in De Clementia
This article explores Roman political theory on the legitimacy and use of emperors’ absolute power. Circa 55 C.E., Seneca, a Stoic philosopher and senior advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero, authored the treatise De Clementia, in which he advised the young emperor to rule with clemency and moderation. Despite the rich body of scholarship that examines this treatise, there is an absence of academic analyses that situate De Clementia within the context of the governmental mechanics of Rome. In this article, I argue that Seneca’s treatise depicts Nero’s supreme authority as contingent upon his capacity to uphold his obligations as an emperor. Further, I contend that this interpretation provides a genuine account of the political relations between Nero’s regime and Rome’s political elite that have not been examined in detail by previous scholarship on De Clementia. Finally, I posit that this treatise reveals how those operating at the top of Rome’s political hierarchy understood the emperor’s possession of absolute power to be tenuous and therefore cultivated tactics to maintain the longevity of the reigning regime.
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