WE have gleaned from Seneca's own writings what facts we could respecting his early education. But in the life of every man there are influences of a far more real and penetrating character than those which come through the medium of schools or teachers. The spirit of the age, the general tone of thought, the prevalent habits of social intercourse, the political tendencies which were moulding the destiny of the nation,—these must have told, more insensibly indeed but more powerfully, on the mind of Seneca than even the lectures of Sotion and of Attalus. And if we have had reason to fear that there was much which was hollow in the fashionable education, we shall see that the general aspect of the society by which our young philosopher was surrounded from the cradle was yet more injurious and deplorable.
The darkness is deepest just before the dawn, and never did a grosser darkness or a thicker mist of moral pestilence brood over the surface of Pagan society than at the period when the Sun of Righteousness arose with healing in His wings. There have been many ages when the dense gloom of a heartless immorality seemed to settle down with unusual weight; there have been many places where, under the gas-light of an artificial system, vice has seemed to acquire an unusual audacity; but never probably was there any age or any place where the worst forms of wickedness were practised with a more unblushing effrontery than in the city of Rome under the government of the Caesars. A deeply-seated corruption seemed to have fastened upon the very vitals of the national existence. It is surely a lesson of deep moral significance that just as they became most polished in their luxury they became most vile in their manner of life. He who would see but for a moment and afar off to what the Gentile world had sunk, at the very period when Christianity began to spread, may form some faint and shuddering conception from the picture of it drawn in the Epistle to the Romans.
In the age of Augustus began that " long slow agony," that melancholy process of a society gradually going to pieces under the dissolving influence of its own vices, which lasted almost without interruption till nothing was left for Rome except the fire and sword of barbaric invasion. She saw not only her glories but also her virtues " star by star expire." The old heroism, the old beliefs, the old manliness and simplicity, were dead and gone; they had been succeeded by prostration and superstition, by luxury and lust.
The mere elements of society at Rome during this period were very unpromising. It was a mixture of extremes. There was no middle class. At the head of it was an emperor, often deified in his lifetime, and separated from even the noblest of the senators by a distance of immeasurable superiority. He was, in the startling language of Gibbon, at once "a priest, an atheist, and a god." Surrounding his person and forming his court were usually those of the nobility who were the most absolutely degraded by their vices, their flatteries, or their abject subservience. But even these men were not commonly the repositories of political power. The people of the greatest influence were the freedmen of the emperors—men who had been slaves, Egyptians and Bithynians who had come to Rome with bored ears and with chalk on their naked feet to show that they were for sale, or who had bawled " sea-urchins all alive" in the Velabrum or the Saburra—who had acquired enormous wealth by means often the most unscrupulous and the most degraded, and whose insolence and baseness had kept pace with their rise to power. Such a man was the Felix before whom St. Paul was tried, and such was his brother Pallas, whose golden statue might have been seen among the household gods of the senator, afterwards the emperor, Vitellius.
It was an age of the most enormous wealth existing side by side with the most abject poverty. Around the splendid palaces wandered hundreds of mendicants, who made of their mendicity a horrible trade, and even went so far as to steal or mutilate infants in order to move compassion by their hideous maladies. This class was increased by the exposure of children, and by that overgrown accumulation of landed property which drove the poor from their native fields. It was increased also by the ambitious attempt of people whose means were moderate to imitate the enormous display of the numerous millionaires. The great Roman conquests in the East, the plunder of the ancient kingdoms of Antiochus, of Attalus, of Mithridates, had caused a turbid stream of wealth to flow into the sober current of Roman life. One reads with silent astonishment of the sums expended by wealthy Romans on their magnificence or their pleasures. And as commerce was considered derogatory to rank and position, and was therefore pursued by men who had no character to lose, these overgrown fortunes were often acquired by wretches of the meanest stamp—by slaves brought from over the sea. who had to conceal the holes bored in their ears (this was a common ancient practice ; the very words " thrall," " thraldom " are etymologically connected with the roots " thrill," " trill," "drill"); or even by malefactors, who had to obliterate, by artificial means, the three letters which had been branded by the executioner on their foreheads. But many of the richest men in Rome, who had not sprung from this convict origin, were fully as well deserving of the same disgraceful stigma. Their houses were built, their coffers were replenished, from the drained resources of exhausted provincials. Every young man of active ambition or noble birth, whose resources had been impoverished by debauchery and extravagance, had but to borrow fresh sums in order to give magnificent gladiatorial shows, and then, if he could once obtain an aedileship, and mount to the higher offices of the State, he would in time become the procurator or proconsul of a province, which he might pillage almost at his will. Enter the house of a Felix or a Verres. Those splendid pillars of mottled green marble were dug by the forced labour of Phrygians from the quarries of Synnada; that embossed silver, those murrhine vases, those jewelled cups, those masterpieces of antique sculpture, have all been torn from the homes or the temples of Sicily or Greece. Countries were pillaged and nations crushed that an Apicius might dissolve pearls in the wine he drank, or that Lollia Paulina might gleam in a dress of emeralds and pearls which had cost 40,000,000 sesterces, or more than £32,000.