Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca: 3 BCE – 65 C.E.) the Roman senator and philosopher, was exiled to Corsica from 41-49 AD by the emperor Claudius having been accused of adultery with Julia Livilla, one of the sisters of the former emperor Caligula. The accusation came from the emperor’s wife Messalina who was suspicious of Caligula’s sisters and felt they represented a threat.
Julia was also sent to exile, in her case to the Pontine Islands, having already accompanied her sister Agrippina there in a previous exile following an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow their brother, the emperor Caligula.
Legend has it that Seneca spent his exile in an isolated tower above the village of Luri in the Cap Corse. But this Torre di Seneca in fact dates from the 16th century and it seems likely that he stayed at Mariana or Aleria.
Seneca seems not to be have been very impressed. He describes his surroundings as rocky, unproductive and unhealthy and the people as the worse kind of vengeful, thieving, lying heathen.
In De Consolatione ad Helviam Matrem written during this exile Seneca consoles his mother and draws on Stoic philosophy. He tells his mother he does not feel grief, therefore she should not mourn his absence. He reassures her that his exile has not brought him feelings of disgrace. He comments on his mother’s strong character as a virtue that will allow her to bear his absence:
“I am joyous and cheerful, as if under the best of circumstances. And indeed, now they are the best, since my spirit, devoid of all other preoccupations, has room for its own activities and either delights in easier studies or rises up eager for the truth, to the consideration of its own nature as well as that of the universe”
In Corsica, Seneca also wrote De Consolatione ad Polybium. This addresses Polybius, who works for the emperor Claudius, following the death of his brother. Rather than personal condolences, Seneca offers a general essay on grief and bereavement without even mentioning Polybius’ deceased brother by name.
“As many tears as are left to me by my own fortune I do not refuse to shed lamenting yours. For I will manage to find in my eyes, exhausted as they are by my private crying, some that still may pour out, if this will do you any good.”
Seneca then makes a point of extravagantly flattering the emperor Claudius, seeking to draw empathy for himself. Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God has the emperor Claudius describe his feelings about Seneca on reading this consolation:
“There was a lot more about my wonderful loving-kindness and mercy and a passage putting into my mouth the most extravagant sentiments about the noblest way of bearing the loss of a brother. I was supposed to cite my grandfather Mark Antony’s grief for his brother Gaius, my uncle Tiberius’s grief for my father, Gaius Caesar’s grief for young Lucius, my own grief for my brother Germanicus, and then relate how valiantly we had each in turn borne these calamities. The only effect that this slime and honey had on me was to make me quite satisfied in my mind; that I had not wronged anyone by his banishment except perhaps the island of Corsica.”
Seneca was recalled from exile in c.48 C.E. by Julia’s sister Agrippina and became tutor to her son, the future Emperor Nero. When Claudius died in 54 C.E. Seneca became one of Nero’s most important advisers increasing his wealth and influence.
Although Seneca portrays himself as a Stoic philosopher, indifferent to wealth and fame, his actions did not live up to his professed ideals and his admiration of Claudius may not have been entirely sincere. Did his time in Corsica, so far from the good life in Rome, cause him to reflect and become more generous and constant? Hardly. He remained ready to switch sides and turn from flattery to ridicule when it suited him. Following the death of Claudius, Seneca wrote The Apocolocyntosis of the Divine Claudius, a vicious satire of the deification of the recently deceased emperor. Apocolocyntosis means to transform into a gourd ie: a cabbage-head or idiot. In Claudius the God, Robert Graves translates this as The Pumpkinification of Claudius giving a modern twist to the insult.
The satire is about Claudius’ attempts to be accepted as a god by the other gods in heaven. Seneca begins by flattering Nero and then mocks Claudius’ death:
“His last words heard on earth came after he’d let off a louder noise from his easiest channel of communication: ‘Oh my! I think I’ve shit myself’ For all I know, he did. He certainly shat on everything else.”
He then imagines a debate among the gods about Claudius’ qualifications to become a god. Just when it seems that Claudius might prevail, former emperor Augustus intervenes and opposes the motion. After accusing Claudius of murdering many of Augustus’ descendants he mocks his physical and speech impairments:
“Do you now want to make this man a god? Look at his body – the gods were angry when it came into the world. In short, let him say three words one after the other and he can drag me off as his slave. Who’s going to worship him as a god? Who’ll believe in him?”
Claudius is sent to Hades, where he is greeted by the spirits of those he had killed and is then sent before a tribunal to be tried for his numerous murders.
Seneca’s time in Corsica was the subject of a New York University doctoral thesis by Eli Edward Buriss published in 1922, available here
Torre di Seneca Luri, Haute Corse