How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life

How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life


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Timeless wisdom on death and dying from the celebrated Stoic philosopher Seneca

"It takes an entire lifetime to learn how to die," wrote the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC–65 AD). He counseled readers to "study death always," and took his own advice, returning to the subject again and again in all his writings, yet he never treated it in a complete work. How to Die gathers in one volume, for the first time, Seneca's remarkable meditations on death and dying. Edited and translated by James S. Romm, How to Die reveals a provocative thinker and dazzling writer who speaks with a startling frankness about the need to accept death or even, under certain conditions, to seek it out.

Seneca believed that life is only a journey toward death and that one must rehearse for death throughout life. Here, he tells us how to practice for death, how to die well, and how to understand the role of a good death in a good life. He stresses the universality of death, its importance as life's final rite of passage, and its ability to liberate us from pain, slavery, or political oppression.

Featuring beautifully rendered new translations, How to Die also includes an enlightening introduction, notes, the original Latin texts, and an epilogue presenting Tacitus's description of Seneca's grim suicide.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691175577
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/27/2018
Series: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 194,294
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

James S. Romm is the author of Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero and Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire (both Knopf). He has written essays and reviews for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Review of Books, and the New Yorker website, among other publications. He is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College and lives in Barrytown, New York.

Read an Excerpt



Seneca's greatest prose work, the Moral Epistles, is a collection of letters addressed to a close friend, Lucilius, who like Seneca was in his 60s at the time the Epistles were composed (AD 63–65). Death and dying are a prominent theme in these letters and several deal almost entirely with that theme, including letters 30, 70, 77, 93, and 101, all represented in this volume either in whole (as signaled by the inclusion of their salutations and sign-offs) or in large part.

The letters usually take as their point of departure an event in Seneca's daily life, such as a visit to an ill friend, or (as in the case of the excerpt below) an idea Seneca had encountered in his reading. Though they take the form of an intimate correspondence, the Epistles were primarily written for publication, and the "you" addressed in them is sometimes Lucilius but at other times the Roman public, or even humanity generally.

Epicurus says, "Rehearse for death," or, if this conveys the meaning better to us, "it's a great thing to learn how to die." Perhaps you think it useless to learn something that must only be used once; but this is the very reason why we ought to rehearse. We must study always the thing we cannot tell from experience whether we know. "Rehearse for death"; the man who tells us this bids us rehearse for freedom. Those who have learned how to die have unlearned how to be slaves. It is a power above, and beyond, all other powers. What matter to them the prison-house, the guards, the locks? They have a doorway of freedom. There's only one chain that holds us in bondage, the love of life. If it can't be cast off, let it be thus diminished that, if at some point circumstance demands it, nothing will stop or deter us from making ourselves ready to do at once what needs to be done. (Epistle 26.8–10)

In the letter excerpted below, Seneca coaches Lucilius as to how he should advise an unnamed friend who has withdrawn from public life into quieter pursuits.

If [your friend] had been born in Parthia, he would be holding a bow in his hands right from infancy; if in Germany, he would brandish a spear as soon as he reached boyhood; if he had lived in the time of our ancestors, he would have learned to ride in the cavalry and to strike down his foe in hand-to-hand combat. Each nation has its own training to coax and command its members. Which one, then, must your friend practice? The one that has good effect against all weapons and against every kind of enemy: contempt of death.

No one doubts that death has something terrible about it, such that our minds, which Nature endowed with a love of itself, are disturbed by it. Otherwise there would be no need to make ourselves ready and hone ourselves for that which we might enter by a certain voluntary impulse, just as we all are motivated by self-preservation. No one learns to lie down contentedly in a bed of roses, if the need arises, but rather we steel ourselves for this: to not betray a confidence under torture, or to stand on guard, though wounded, through the night, if the need arises, without even leaning on an upright spear, since sleep has a way of sneaking up on those who lean against some support....

But what if a great yearning for longer life holds you in its grip? You must believe that none of the things that depart from your sight, and that are subsumed into the universe from which they sprang (and will soon spring again), is used up; these things pause, but do not die, just as death, which we fear and shun, interrupts but does not strip away our life. The day will come again which will return us into the light. Many would reject that day, were it not that it returns us without our memories.

But I will instruct you carefully in the way that all things that seem to die are in fact only transformed; thus the one who will return to the world should leave it with equanimity. Just look at how the circuit of the universe returns upon itself. You will see that nothing in this cosmos is extinguished, but everything falls and rises by turns. The summer departs, but the year will bring another; winter falls away, but its own months will restore it. Night blocks the sun, but in an instant daylight will drive that night away. Whatever movement of the constellations has passed, repeats; one part of the sky is always rising, another part sinking below the horizon.

Let me at last come to an end, but I will add this one thought: neither infants, nor children, nor those whose minds are afflicted, are afraid of death; it would be repellent, if our reason did not offer us the same contentment to which they are led by their folly. Farewell. (Epistle 36.7–12)

Seneca suffered his whole life from respiratory illness, probably including tuberculosis, and from asthma. His discomfort was such that, in young adulthood, he contemplated suicide, according to his own report. He must have experienced attacks like the one described below throughout his life, but they took on added significance as he grew older, especially given that the name doctors gave to them (according to Seneca) was meditatio mortis, "rehearsal for death."

Dear Lucilius,

Ill health had granted me a long reprieve; then it came on me suddenly. "What sort of illness?" you ask. It's an apt question, since there's none that I haven't experienced. But one alone is, you might say, my allotment. I don't know what its Greek name is, but it could be fittingly called suspirium. It comes on with sudden and brief force, like a tornado; it's nearly over within an hour (for who could die for a long time?). Every physical discomfort and danger passes through me; there's nothing I find more aggravating. And how could I not? This is not illness — that's something else entirely — but loss of life and soul. Therefore the doctors call it "rehearsal for death," and sometimes the spirit accomplishes what it often has attempted.

Do you suppose I'm cheerful as I write these things, because I've escaped? I think it would be ridiculous to delight in this outcome as though it were a form of good health — just as ridiculous as to proclaim victory when one's court case has been postponed. Yet, even in the midst of suffocation, I did not cease taking comfort from brave and happy thoughts. "What's this?" I say to myself. "Does death make trial of me so frequently? Let it: I've done likewise to death, for a long time." When was that, you ask? Before I was born: for death is nonexistence. I know what that's like. It will be the same after me as it was before me. If death holds any torment, then that torment must also have existed before we came forth into the light, but, back then, we felt nothing troubling. I ask you, wouldn't you call it a very foolish thing if someone judges that a lamp is worse off after it's snuffed out than before it has been lighted? We too are snuffed out and lighted. In the time in between, we have sense and experience; before and after is true peace. We go wrong in this, Lucilius, if I'm not mistaken: we think that death comes after, whereas in fact it comes both before and after. Whatever existed before us was death. What does it matter whether you cease to be, or never begin? The outcome of either is just this, that you don't exist.

I kept telling myself these encouragements, and others of the same kind — silently, for there wasn't space for words. Then little by little the suspirium, which had already turned into a kind of panting, gave me longer respites and slowed down. But it hung on, and even though it has ceased, I do not yet have natural, easy breathing; I feel a certain break in its rhythm, a delay between breaths....

Take this on faith from me: I won't tremble, at the last moments; I'm prepared. I don't think at all about the entire day ahead. Praise and emulate that man who does not disdain to die, though it's pleasant to live; what virtue is there in leaving by being thrown out? Yet here too is a virtue: I'm being thrown out, but let me take my leave nonetheless. The wise man is never thrown out, for to be thrown out is to be expelled from a place that you leave unwillingly; the wise man does nothing unwillingly; he flees from necessity, since he desires that which it will force upon him. Farewell. (Epistle 54)

Nothing can be of such great benefit to you, in your quest for moderation in all things, than to frequently contemplate the brevity of one's life span, and its uncertainty. Whatever you undertake, cast your eyes on death. (Epistle 114.27)



By the time Seneca began his magnum opus, the Moral Epistles, in AD 63, he had been writing ethical treatises for more than a quarter of a century. His earliest surviving works, from the early 40s AD, are consolations, designed to offer comfort to friends or relations (including his own mother) who were mourning the death or absence of a loved one. In the Consolation to Marcia from which the passage below and several others in this volume are taken, Seneca addresses a mother grieving for the loss of a teenaged son.

Consider that the dead are afflicted by no ills, and that those things that render the underworld a source of terror are mere fables. No shadows loom over the dead, nor prisons, nor rivers blazing with fire, nor the waters of oblivion; there are no trials, no defendants, no tyrants reigning a second time in that place of unchained freedom. The poets have devised these things for sport, and have troubled our minds with empty terrors. Death is the undoing of all our sorrows, an end beyond which our ills cannot go; it returns us to that peace in which we reposed before we were born. If someone pities the dead, let him also pity those not yet born. (To Marcia 19.4)

In his essay On Serenity of Mind, Seneca makes the case that fear of death not only makes dying more difficult but diminishes the nobility and moral integrity of all of life. In the second passage below he uses Julius Canus, a man otherwise barely known to us, to illustrate the "greatness of mind" found in those unafraid of death.

What's to be feared in returning to where you came from? He lives badly who does not know how to die well. Thus we must, first and foremost, reduce the price we set on life, and count our breath among the things we think cheap. As Cicero says, gladiators who seek by every means to preserve their life, we detest, but we favor those who wear their disregard of it like a badge. Know that the same outcome awaits us all, but dying fearfully, often, is itself a cause of death. Dame Fortune, who makes us her sport, says: "Why should I keep you alive, you lowly, cowering creature? You'll be more wounded and slashed if you don't learn how to offer your throat willingly. But you'll live longer, and die more easily, if you accept the sword-stroke bravely, without pulling back your neck or holding up your hands." He who fears death will never do anything to help the living. But he who knows that this was decreed the moment he was conceived will live by principle and at the same time will ensure, using the same power of mind, that nothing of what happens to him comes as a surprise. (On Serenity of Mind 11.4)

Julius Canus, an exceptionally great man ... got into a long dispute with Caligula. As he was leaving the room, Caligula, that second Phalaris, said: "Just so you don't take comfort from an absurd hope, I've ordered you to be led away for execution." "Thank you, best of rulers," Canus replied. I'm not sure what he was feeling; I can imagine several possibilities. Did he want to give insult by showing how great was the emperor's cruelty, that it made death seem a boon? Or was he reproaching the man's habitual insanity (for those whose children had been executed, or whose property had been taken away, used to give thanks in this way)? Or was he embracing the sentence joyfully, like a grant of freedom? Whatever the reason, his reply showed a greatness of mind. ... He was playing a board game when the centurion in charge of leading off the throngs of the condemned told him it was time to move. Hearing the call, Canus counted up the pieces and said to his partner: "See that you don't cheat and say you won, after my death." Then he turned to the centurion and said, "You're my witness; I was ahead by one." (On Serenity of Mind 14.4)

In later life, to judge by the Moral Epistles, Seneca witnessed the illnesses and deaths of many close contemporaries, and made careful note of how each man faced his final challenge. He then held up these examplars for the edification of his friend Lucilius and, through the publication of the Letters, the entire Roman world.

Dear Lucilius,

I went to see Aufidius Bassus, a very noble fellow, stricken and struggling with his advancing years. But already there is more to weigh him down than lift him up, for old age is leaning upon him with its huge weight, everywhere. The man's body, as you know, was ever weak and dessicated; he held or even patched it together (as I might more accurately say) for a long time, but suddenly it gave out. Just as, when a ship has got water in the hold, one crack or another can be stopped up, but once it has begun to come apart in many spots and to go under, there's no more help for the splitting vessel — just so, in an old man's body, weakness can be supported and propped up for a time. But when, just as in a rotting house, every join is coming apart, and a new crack opens up while you're patching the old, then it's time to look around for a way to leave.

But our friend Bassus stays sharp minded. Philosophy furnishes him with this: to be cheerful when death comes in view, to stay strong and happy no matter what one's bodily condition, and not to let go even when one is let go of. A great ship's captain continues the voyage even with a torn sail, and if he has to jettison cargo, he still keeps the remainder of the ship on course. This is what our friend Bassus does. He looks on his own end with the kind of attitude and expression that would seem too detached even if he were looking on someone else's. It's a great thing, Lucilius, and always to be studied: when that inescapable hour arrives, go out with a calm mind.

Other kinds of death are intermingled with hope. Illness lets up, fires are put out, ruin bypasses those whom it seemed about to sink; the sea spits out, safe and well, those whom it had just as violently swallowed down; the soldier retracts his sword from the very neck of the doomed man. But he whom old age leads toward death has nothing to hope for; for him alone, no reprieve is possible. No other way of dying is so gradual and so long lasting.

Our Bassus seemed to me to be laying out his own body for burial, and accompanying it to the grave; he lives like one surviving himself, and bears the grief over himself as a wise man should. For he talks freely about death and bears it so calmly that we are led to think that, if there's anything troubling or fearsome in this business, it's the fault of the dying man, not of death. There's nothing more worrisome in the act of dying than there is after death; it's just as insane to fear what you're not going to feel as to fear what you're not even going to experience. Or could anyone think that it will be felt — the very thing that will cause nothing at all to be felt?

"Therefore," Bassus declares, "death is as far beyond all other evils as it is beyond the fear of evils." I know such things are often said and often must be said, but they have never done me so much good, either when reading them or hearing people say that we must not fear things that don't hold any terrors. It's the man who speaks from death's own neighborhood that has the most authority in my eyes. I'll say plainly what I believe: I think that the man in the midst of death is braver than the one who skirts its edges. The approach of death lends even to the ignorant the resolve to face inevitabilities, like a gladiator who, though very skittish throughout his combat, offers his neck to his enemy and guides the sword toward himself if it strays off-target. But the death that is only nearby (though sure to arrive) does not grant that steady firmness of resolve, a rarer thing that can only be exhibited by a sage. I would gladly listen therefore to one who can, as it were, report on death, giving his opinion about it and showing what it's like as though having seen it close up. You would, I suppose, put more trust and give more weight to someone who had come back to life and told you, based on experience, that death holds no evils; but those who have stood in front of death, who have seen it coming and embraced it, can best tell you what sort of upset its approach brings with it.


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Table of Contents

Introduction ix

How to Die xxi

I Prepare Yourself 1

II Have No Fear 12

III Have No Regrets 34

IV Set Yourself Free 59

V Become a Part of the Whole 92

Epilogue: Practice What You Preach 117

Latin Texts 123

Notes 217

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"James Romm takes us up close to death with Seneca for his guide. Don't be afraid, be prepared—be very prepared."—Mary Beard, author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

"Beautifully translated by James Romm, Seneca speaks to us so directly about the fraught and difficult subject of death that we may find ourselves forgetting to breathe."—Francine Prose

"This well-chosen collection of Seneca's writings on death demonstrates James Romm's gift for making the people and ideas of antiquity vivid for general readers. The introduction is graceful, the translations are accurate and readable, the annotations are nicely judged, and the epilogue featuring Tacitus's account of Seneca's suicide is indispensable."—Robert A. Kaster, Princeton University

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