A few miles outside Rome, along the still-smooth stone-paved Appian Way, is a tall brick tomb that is rumored to belong to Seneca. Unfortunately, no one is certain if this rumor has any truth to it. There is no sign that marks the tomb. There is no clear archeological proof that the bones or ashes of the famous Stoic ever laid underneath it. What the tomb looked like in ancient times is uncertain as well, for no one bothered over the intervening two thousand years to paint, sketch, or describe Seneca’s grave, even as time slowly wore it away.
The same is true of the many ornate and enormous monuments which line the roads to Rome. Despite the many thousands of sesterces spent to build them, despite how large their owners loomed in life, today they are but curiosities, best used as sources of much needed shade for bike-riding tourists.
This would have been a surprise to many people at the time, possibly even to Seneca himself, despite the philosophical work he did to prepare himself for death. It’s almost always a surprise to powerful and important people, who fancy their reputations as immortal. In Samuel Johnson’s A Journey To The Western Islands of Scotland, he writes of a series of enormous tombs that dot Iona, known today as “the cemetery of the Scottish Kings.” As he says,
“By whom the subterraneous vaults are now peopled is now unknown. The graves are very numerous and some of them undoubtedly contain the remains of men who did not expect to be so forgotten.”
The same is true for Seneca--sure we remember him here in these emails, but the vast majority of the world has never even heard of him--and it will also be true for each one of us. This is why the Stoics warn against the temptation and the ego of chasing fame, living or posthumous. Because it inevitably fades away. No matter how much money we accumulate or acclaim we receive. No matter how beautiful our tomb. We will all soon be forgotten.
So let that humble us today while we are still alive, let that curb selfish or toxic ambition, let that help us choose between doing the wrong thing to get ahead and the quiet thing we know is right in our heart.
Let that inform what we do today.