Traders’ Fortunes

SENECA AND CORNELIUS SENECIO

In the late summer of ad 64, Seneca informed Lucilius of the death of Cornelius Senecio, struck down overnight by a completely unexpected heart attack. Cornelius Senecio was close to Seneca and knew Lucilius slightly. Having risen from lowly beginnings to become a brilliant member of the equestrian order, he had been on the verge of acquiring true wealth (divitiis imminebat): ‘he who was venturing investments by land and sea,[1] who had also taken contracts for tax-farming and left no source of profit untried.’[2] He died at the very moment when his business affairs were prospering and money was flowing into his coffers. It appears plausible that he had been engaging in maritime trading, the fenus nauticum, and financial activities, before expanding his interests to tax-farming, which no man could have aspired to who was not already on a sound financial footing. He had had to choose ways of acquiring wealth; and he had no doubt asked himself the question posed by Seneca in the letter (119) quoted in Chapter 1 (n. 104): ‘On what stretch of water shall I embark for the purposes of trade? What state revenues shall I handle? What goods shall I bring in?’ (trans. E. Minchin)

With Senecio as his starting point, Seneca speaks of the fragility of life, then broadens his subject, and a few lines further on gives another example, this one abstract: ‘What madness it is to plot out far-reaching hopes! To say: I will buy and build, loan and call in interest, win public office . . . ’ (trans. R. Gummere, adapted).[3] In this new example, Seneca is no longer thinking of Senecio’s business affairs, of trade, or of tax-farming. What now comes naturally to his mind is what is happening in his own circle and what he himself has done.[4] The description is of another mode of activity, a different way of being rich and acquiring further wealth: there has to be an initial inheritance, which one can improve on and increase; one’s land holdings can be extended; one builds or buys tenement blocks; and profits are uncompromisingly drawn from money lent. This is the difference between rem augere and rem quaerere, improving one’s fortune or establishing it. If a man aspired to the magistracy at any level, it was best to be in the first category.

On the morning before his death, Senecio had, as was his wont, visited Seneca. He was one of those who paid the daily morning call on the senator, either as one of his clients or, if such a word seems inappropriate for a member of the equestrian order, because his relationship with him was, like theirs, imbued with gratitude and deference.[5] Seneca had obviously given him a helping hand at the outset of his career, partly by lending him money; and it was no doubt Seneca’s support that had enabled him to become an eques. At the very highest level, with one of the greatest and wealthiest personages in the Empire, on the one hand, and a splendidissimus eques romanus, on the other, the duo Seneca-Cornelius Senecio can stand as a model of relations between the political elite and businessmen-cum-traders.

  • [1] Notice how close this is to Trimalchio’s statement (Sat. XXXIX. 8): et in mari et in terramultum possideo.
  • [2] Ep. 101, 1-4 (trans. E. Minchin, modified). Cf. Demougin (1992: 466-7); Veyne (1993:986-7; 2001: p. xxxi; 2005: 146); Andreau (1999a: 280-1). Though in the main I share the viewsstated in this last article, I cannot accept the author’s parallels between Crassus and Senecio:Crassus did not rise from lowly beginnings (ex tenui principio), indeed quite the opposite; andCicero judged his ways of achieving wealth as criminal, which was far from the case with Senecio.
  • [3] O quanta dementia estspes longa inchoantium: emam, aedificabo, credam, exigam, honoresgeram...
  • [4] Seneca’s fortune, when he detailed it to Nero, from whom he was requesting permission toretire, consisted of gardens, suburban villas, vast lands, and interest-bearing capital investedeverywhere (Tacitus, Ann. XIV. 53: hortos exstruit et per haec suburbana incedit, et tantisagrorum spatiis, tam lato faenore exuberat).
  • [5] Saller (1982: 129); Veyne (1993: 987, n 1).
 
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