A couple years ago, I read On the Shortness of Life, a letter by the Stoic philosopher Seneca the Younger1.

While the gist of Seneca’s writing was clear, many references he made were lost on me and I found the whole thing to be quite dry. What I didn’t realize at the time is that if I had the context of a Roman in 49 A.D., Seneca’s writing would be more dynamic and his arguments would be more compelling.

I recently read through On the Shortness of Life again. Coincidentally, I happened to be listening to the excellent History of Rome podcast in the weeks leading up to my re-read. Seneca seemed more captivating somehow, and I realized why after reading a few sentences toward the end of his letter. Seneca wrote:

“So, when you see a man repeatedly wearing the robe of office, or one whose name is often spoken in the Forum, do not envy him: these things are won at the cost of life. In order that one year may be dated from their names, they will waste all their own years.”

A lightbulb went off in my head! From the History of Rome podcast, I knew that the Roman Republic used to reference years by the names of the two consuls2 who served in office each year. In that last sentence, Seneca cleverly connected his arguments to a custom familiar to all Romans. This was lost on me at first, but having more context about Roman life gave me the information I needed to use these references to anchor Seneca’s points.

If I were to rewrite this today for a modern audience, it could be:

“In order that buildings may feature their names, they will waste all their own years.”

The argument is the same, but the context shapes how we relate the argument to the world around us.

Context helps us relate information to things we already know, strengthening our understanding and memory. While I stumbled into the History of Rome podcast and Seneca, I plan to intentionally read multiple contemporary works, listen to podcasts, and watch documentaries that provide a broader context on whatever I’m learning.

  1. Seneca was born in 5 B.C. and died in 65 A.D. He’s a fascinating individual who amassed a huge fortune and tutored the Roman Emperor Nero, who, in a strange twist, ultimately forced Seneca to take his own life. 

  2. A consul was the highest Roman public office during the Roman Republic, and two consuls served jointly for one-year terms.