Seneca, having been accused of treason by his own student, the Emperor Nero, was forced to commit suicide. A doctor and friend has cut open Seneca's veins in warm water to speed the flow of blood. A scribe attempts to record the last words of the philosopher: "VIR[TUS]" (virtue). The virtue referred to is stoic composure, which Seneca worthily demonstrated while he died. The somewhat monument-like feeling of the painting harks back to the model that Rubens used: an ancient statue of an African fisherman that was known in the 17th century as the "Dying Seneca", which the artist combined with a portrait bust from his own collection, the "pseudo-Seneca".