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Friday, May 15, 2015

4 B.C. to 65 A.D.: Seneca learns to cope with asthma

I wasn't expecting this, although as I started reading the works of Seneca the Younger a tingle rushed up my spine: he was describing exactly how I felt when I was suffered from asthma.   It was one of those "Wow! moments, as though I had a special connection with this guy who lived more than 2,000 years before me.

He said:
"My own advice to you -- and not only in the present illness but in your life as well -- is this: refuse to let the thought of death bother you: nothing is grim when we have escaped that fear."
In fact, even before I read Seneca, I wrote an article called "The Seven Benefits of Asthma," and "Seven Ways Asthma Benefited My Life."  It was neat to learn that someone who suffered from asthma so many years before me came to some of the same conclusions that I did: that suffering from a disease can actually be a blessing.

Seneca the Younger was another fellow asthmatic who walked the Earth while Jesus did.  Seneca is by far my favorite historical asthmatic, mainly due to his vivid descriptions of what it was like living with this disease 2,000 years ago when treatment for it was basically a crapshoot.

He was born in Greece but was a Roman at heart.  He lived from 4. B.C. to 65 A.D. and, like Pliney the Elder, he chose to use "difficulty of breathing" rather than the Greek term asthma.  He was a vivid -- very vivid -- writer through much of his life, and he wrote about his asthma because his asthma pretty much set the course of his life -- much like myself.

Seneca (4 B.C. to 65 A.D.)
Robin Campbell, in his 1969 book, "Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae morales ad Lucilium," wrote that Seneca was born in Cordoba and lived while Jesus walked the Earth.  He suffered from "severely ill health, particularly asthma," throughout his life."

Mark Jackson, in his book, "Asthma: The Biography," explained that Seneca spent several years in the drier climate of Egypt during his childhood. He also suffered from chronic catarrh, which is a description in many older books to describe the symptoms inflammation of tissues lining the respiratory tract (mainly the nose) resulting in increased secretions. We now call it hay fever, nasal allergies, or rhinitis.
He paid careful attention to his diet, and was a teetotaler. He was likewise a Stoic, in that he believed there was no life after death, and his time in this life was all that he had. He studied law, and later became a Senator.

Campbell further explained that in 37 A.D when Caligula succeeded Tiberius as Roman Emperor, Seneca had worked his way to leading speaker of the Senate, and the emperor was so jealous of him that he called for Seneca to be executed. Yet Seneca was rescued by a woman close to the throne who said Seneca was "suffering from tuberculosis and it would not be long before he died."

It's difficult to know whether Seneca had tuberculosis or asthma, although many historians believe he had neither: they think he had cardiac asthma, which is heart failure.

Seneca was expelled from Rome for eight years for committing adultery. 

Later, in 49 A.D. Seneca was recalled to Rome and became tutor to a boy named Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who later became the emperor Nero.  This was about the same time Alexander the Great was being tutored by Aristotle.

Ironically, Nero had an older brother named Brittanicus who many think had an allergy to horses, which made him unable to do many of the things necessary of a king, making him inferior to his younger brother.  So, when Claudius died in 54 A.D., Nero succeeded Brittanicus to the throne.  Some suspected Seneca as the killer, although there was never any proof of this found.

One would think that with an instructor with allergies and asthma, and a brother with the same maladies, that Nero would have had empathy for his brother.  Yet this was not the case, as it's believed Nero had Brittanicus poisoned to death.

Seneca is mentioned in the writings of Pliney the Elder, and it wasn't until the last three years of his life that Seneca dedicated to philosophy and writing full time.  In 65 A.D. a plot to kill the emperor Nero was uncovered and this resulted in the deaths of many close to the king. 

Seneca was asked to commit suicide, and he did.  It ended up for Seneca being a long and painful death by suffocation from fumes and bleeding.  Tomorrow I will delve into the interesting thoughts of Seneca regarding life with asthma.

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