This paper considers a set of passages from classical Latin literature of the first century BC and first century AD that indicate awareness of the particular transformations undergone by a human body during the process of open-air cremation. Evidence for the extent of cremation throughout the Roman West is reviewed, as are indications that mourners frequently remained near the pyre throughout the lengthy transformation of the corpse into bone-remnants and ash. In addition, archaeological, ethnographic, and forensic evidence documenting the step-by-step changes undergone by the burning body is introduced. Against this backdrop, numerous passages from authors such as Horace, Vergil, Propertius, Tibullus, Ovid, Seneca, Lucan, Statius, and Suetonius take on new significance. Although authors occasionally cite crematory details as such, they more frequently make use of such details in non-crematory contexts in order to achieve a variety of literary and aesthetic goals, including economy of description, reflection on the circulation of substance, and clarification of the process of ekpyrosis , or cosmic conflagration. For these writers considered as a group cremation serves as an indicator of both the abject nature of the human condition and of its potential sublimity. The calculated displacement of key aspects of the crematory process onto non-crematory events and practices mirrors and extends the liminality associated with crematory rites.
The attention Seneca attracted in his lifetime and succeeding generations not only preserves information about his biography: it also merits interpretation as a cultural phenomenon on its own terms. This paper argues that the life of Seneca achieved exemplary status because it enabled Romans to think through issues critical to the preservation of social order. As a new man who rose to power as the republican noble families were dying out, Seneca posed the question of imperial succession in an acute form. As a member of an imperial elite that was increasingly inclusive in its recruitment strategies, Seneca validated reliance on education and key cultural competencies as markers of elite status and legitimacy. His renown articulates a shift in emphasis within Roman culture from gloria-the old republican ideal based on zero-sum competition for honor-to claritas, or claritudo-distinction for special achievement or characteristics that grants entrée to a collective elite. The specific cultural competencies demonstrated by Seneca and noted by those who spread his renown alert us to practices the Romans especially valued, namely theatricality, the use of writing to display a persona, the mastery of general discourse, and the interpretation of politics in ethical terms. As an exemplum Seneca could be-and was-the target of both praise and blame. The story of his close relationship with Nero and subsequent tragic death placed him among the sacrificial victims Romans seemed to regard as legitimizing a social order based on domination by a well-defined elite. In addition to various of Seneca's writings, this essay considers in particular the Tacitean narrative of his relationship with Nero, Quintilian's analysis of his achievement and influence, and his depiction in Octavia.