Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium
15th-century illuminated manuscript, Laurentian Library
Publication date
c. 65 AD
Publication placeAncient Rome
TextEpistulae Morales ad Lucilium at Wikisource

The Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Latin for "Moral Letters to Lucilius"), also known as the Moral Epistles and Letters from a Stoic, is a letter collection of 124 letters that Seneca the Younger wrote at the end of his life, during his retirement, after he had worked for the Emperor Nero for more than ten years. They are addressed to Lucilius Junior, the then procurator of Sicily, who is known only through Seneca's writings. Regardless of how Seneca and Lucilius actually corresponded, it is clear that Seneca crafted the letters with a broad readership in mind.

The letters often begin with an observation on daily life, and then proceed to an issue or principle abstracted from that observation. The result is like a diary, or handbook of philosophical meditations. The letters focus on many traditional themes of Stoic philosophy such as the contempt of death, the stout-heartedness of the sage, and virtue as the supreme good.


Scholars generally agree that the letters are arranged in the order in which Seneca wrote them.[1] The 124 letters are arranged in twenty manuscript volumes, but the collection is not complete.[2] Aulus Gellius (mid-2nd century) quotes an extract from the "twenty-second book", so some letters are missing.[3] However since the fire of Lyon mentioned in letter 91 took place less than a year before Seneca's death (in spring 65) the number of missing letters is not thought to be very many.[3]

Collectively the letters constitute Seneca's longest work.[3] Although addressed to Lucilius, the letters take the form of open letters,[4] and are clearly written with a wider readership in mind,[5] in the epistolary genre well-known in Seneca's time.[6] Seneca refers to Cicero's letters to Atticus and the letters of Epicurus, and he was probably familiar with the letters of Plato and the epistles of Horace.[7] However, despite the careful literary crafting, there is no obvious reason to doubt that they are real letters.[1] Seneca often says that he is writing in response to a letter from Lucilius, although there is unlikely to have been a strict back-and-forth exchange of letters.[8] Even if both writers had access to the imperial mail service, a letter from central Italy to Sicily would have taken four to eight days to travel.[8] In many instances Seneca probably composed letters as a new subject occurred to him.[8] The letters tend to become longer over time, interspersed with some short ones,[2] and the later letters focus increasingly on theoretical questions.[9][10]


The Letters were written in the last two or three years of Seneca's life.[11] In letter 8, Seneca alludes to his retirement from public life, which is thought (by reference to Tacitus Annals xiv. 52–56) to have been around spring of the year 62.[12] Letter 18 was written in December, in the run-up to the Saturnalia. Letter 23 refers to a cold spring, presumably in 63 AD.[12] Letter 67 refers to the end of a cold spring and is thought (to allow forty-three intervening letters) to have been written the following year.[12] Letter 91 refers to the great fire of Lugdunum (Lyon) that took place in the late summer of 64.[12] Letter 122 refers to the shrinking daylight hours of autumn.[13] Other chronologies are possible – in particular if letters 23 and 67 refer to the same spring, that can reduce the timescale by a full year.[12]


Incipit page of the first printed edition of the Epistles in the "Tuscan" i.e. Italian version (1494).

The letters all start with the phrase "Seneca Lucilio suo salutem" ("Seneca greets his Lucilius") and end with the word "Vale" ("Farewell"). In these letters, Seneca gives Lucilius advice on how to become a more devoted Stoic. Some of the letters include "On Noise" and "Asthma". Others include letters on "the influence of the masses" and "how to deal with one's slaves" (Letter 47). Although they deal with Seneca's personal style of Stoic philosophy, they also give valuable insights into daily life in ancient Rome.

The letters tend to open with an observation of a quotidian incident, which is then abstracted to a far wider exploration of an issue or principle.[14] In letter 7, for instance, Seneca reports a chance visit to an arena gladiatorial combat, fought to the death; he then questions the morality and ethics of such a spectacle, in what is the first extant record of a pre-Christian writer expressing moral qualms on the matter.[14]

Seneca frequently quotes Latin poets, especially Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, and Lucretius.[15] Seneca also quotes Publilius Syrus, such as during the eighth letter, "On the Philosopher's Seclusion".[16]


Seneca's letters focus on the inner life and the joy that comes from wisdom.[17] He emphasizes the Stoic theme that virtue is the only true good and vice the only true evil.[9] He repeatedly refers to the brevity of life and the fleeting passage of time.[1]

Underlying a large number of the letters is a concern with death on the one hand (a central topic of Stoic philosophy, and one embodied in Seneca's observation that we are "dying every day") and suicide on the other, a key consideration given Seneca's deteriorating political position and the Emperor's common use of forced suicide as a method of covert execution.[14]

Early letters often conclude with a maxim to meditate on, although this strategy is over by the thirtieth letter.[10] Such maxims are typically drawn from Epicurus, but Seneca regards this as a beginner's technique.[18] In letter 33 he stresses that the student must begin to make well-reasoned judgements independently.[18]

Language and style

French edition, 1887

The language and style of the letters is quite varied, and this reflects the fact that they are a mixture of private conversation and literary fiction. As an example, there is a mix of different vocabulary, incorporating technical terms (in fields such as medicine, law and navigation) as well as colloquial terms and philosophical ones.[19] Seneca also uses a range of devices for particular effects, such as ironic parataxis, hypotactic periods, direct speech interventions and rhetorical techniques such as alliterations, chiasmus, polyptoton, paradoxes, antitheses, oxymoron, etymological figures and so forth. In addition there are neologisms and hapax legomena.[19]

Later history


The oldest manuscripts of the letters date from the ninth-century.[20] For a long time the letters did not circulate together; instead they appear as two distinct groups: Letters 1 to 88 and Letters 89 to 124.[20]

Early manuscripts for the first group of the letters, 1 to 88, are:[21]

For the second group of the letters, 89 to 124, there is only a limited selection of early manuscripts. The best manuscripts are:[21]

In 1913 Achille Beltrami announced the discovery of the earliest manuscript which combined both groups. Codex Quirinianus (or Brixiensis), Q, is a 9th or 10th century manuscript from the Biblioteca Queriniana, Brescia containing letters 1–120.12.[22][23]

The letters began to be widely circulated together from the twelfth-century onwards,[24] and around four hundred manuscripts of Seneca's letters are known.[25]

Printed editions

The letters were first printed at Naples in 1475.[26] They were printed in an edition with most of the Seneca's other works, and with works by the elder Seneca.[26] The letters were then published separately, also in 1475, at Paris, Rome, and Strasbourg.[26] Erasmus produced a much superior edition in 1529.[24]

Legacy and influence

Michel de Montaigne was influenced by his reading of Seneca's letters,[27] and he modelled his Essays on them.[24] The letters were a principal source for Justus Lipsius for the development of his Neostoicism towards the end of the 16th century.[24]

English translations


There have been several full translations of the 124 letters ever since Thomas Lodge included a translation in his complete works of 1614.


There have been many selected and abridged translations of Seneca's letters. Recent editions include:


The tag Vita sine litteris mors ('Life without learning [is] death') is adapted from Epistle 82 (originally Otium sine litteris mors, 'Leisure without learning [is] death') and is the motto of Derby School and Derby Grammar School in England, Adelphi University, New York, and Manning's High School, Jamaica.

The work is also the source for the phrase non scholae sed vitae: "We do not learn for school, but for life".



  1. ^ a b c Setaioli 2013, p. 193
  2. ^ a b Setaioli 2013, p. 198
  3. ^ a b c Graver & Long 2015, p. 6
  4. ^ Setaioli 2013, p. 194
  5. ^ Graver & Long 2015, p. 4
  6. ^ Setaioli 2013, p. 196
  7. ^ Setaioli 2013, p. 195
  8. ^ a b c Fantham 2010, p. xxi
  9. ^ a b Setaioli 2013, p. 192
  10. ^ a b Graver & Long 2015, p. 5
  11. ^ Graver & Long 2015, p. 1.
  12. ^ a b c d e Setaioli 2013, pp. 191–192
  13. ^ Fantham 2010, p. xxii
  14. ^ a b c Romm, James (14 March 2014). "Rome's House of Cards". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  15. ^ Graver & Long 2015, pp. 8–9
  16. ^ Moral letters to Lucilius, Letter 8
  17. ^ Graver & Long 2015, p. 13
  18. ^ a b Graver & Long 2015, p. 11
  19. ^ a b Berno, Francesca Romana. "Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium". Academia.edu. Retrieved 27 June 2014.
  20. ^ a b Graver & Long 2015, p. 20
  21. ^ a b Gummere, Richard. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium. Vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library. p. xiii.
  22. ^ a b von Albrecht, Michael (1997). A History of Roman Literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius. Vol. 2. Brill. p. 1193. ISBN 9004107118.
  23. ^ Reynolds, L. D. (1965). The medieval tradition of Seneca's Letters. Oxford University Press. p. 13.
  24. ^ a b c d Graver & Long 2015, p. 21
  25. ^ Reynolds, L. D. (1965). The medieval tradition of Seneca's Letters. Oxford University Press. p. 15.
  26. ^ a b c Gummere, Richard. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium. Vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library. p. xiv.
  27. ^ Clark, Carol E. (1968). "Seneca's Letters to Lucilius as a source of some of Montaigne's imagery". Bibliothèque d'Humanisme et Renaissance. 30, 2 (2): 249–266. JSTOR 41430068.
  28. ^ The introduction (page xxxv) says the book contains a "selection of 80 letters," but there are 87 letters. The missing letters are: 13, 17, 20, 22–3, 25, 29, 30, 32, 42–3, 45, 50, 52, 58, 66, 69, 71, 74, 81, 85, 89, 92–4, 96, 98, 100, 102, 105–6, 109, 111, 113, 117, 119–20.
  29. ^ a b c Fantham 2010, p. xxviii