Classically Inclined

June 27, 2011

Consolations and grief in the ancient world

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:15 am
Tags: , , , , ,

Given how much I’m blogging and tweeting about consolations in the ancient world, I thought I should give a quick run-down of what they actually are rather than expecting everyone to know. It’s actually quite a tricky question, because while people are happy to bandy about terms like ‘the genre of consolatio‘, our evidence for such a thing is remarkably poor. Now, speaking less technically, consolation has been around in the ancient world since as early as Homer – people comfort other people on misfortunes they have suffered, which is the basic definition of consolation. What’s interesting about the consolatio as a genre is that eventually it became a special sort of writing with its own rules and standard tropes. Crantor, a third century B.C. member of the Academy (the school which tried to follow Plato’s way of doing philosophy) is normally credited with being the first person to write a consolatio as we’d understand it – that is, a piece of writing addressed to someone suffering some specific misfortune designed to comfort them with philosophical arguments.

Originally, certain philosophical schools had certain specific consolatory arguments which they would deploy, but by the time we get to Cicero’s period, what seems to have happened is that all these arguments have been brought together into a library of potential consolatory arguments that an author might use in a consolatio. Cicero himself wrote a lost consolatio after the death of his daughter Tullia, and he also wrote many letters of consolation to others who were bereaved or in exile. Consolations were multi-purpose – Cicero tells us that it would be appropriate to write a consolatio for those suffering poverty, an inglorious life, exile, the destruction of their country, slavery, lameness or blindness (Tusculan Disputations 3.81).

Some of the arguments still make a sort of sense to us. For instance, one well-established double-pronged argument goes that on the one hand, if the person who has died stops existing after death, then they aren’t suffering any pain, and we should not feel sad for them; on the other hand, if they do continue existing after death, then they would not want us to be sad for them because our grief provides no benefit to them. Some of the other arguments are less convincing. Cicero receives a letter after Tullia’s death which tells him to take comfort in the fact that she has died before the Roman Republic fell – and then promptly goes on to recycle the same argument in a letter consoling someone else on the death of a child! (These are Letters To His Friends 4.5 and 5.16, if you’re interested.) The effectiveness of these arguments is never questioned by the writers of the consolations themselves, but we do have one quite revealing letter from Cicero in which he admits that all of the arguments he has so carefully written to others are now completely failing to relieve his own grief in his time of need (Letters To His Friends 4.6).

The reason I’m interested in all of this is because Seneca wrote three consolations: one to Marcia, one to Polybius and one to Helvia. The one to Marcia was written before his exile; Marcia had lost her son three years previously, and Seneca’s aim is to give her a good prod to jolt her out of her lengthy period of mourning. The consolatio to Polybius was written while Seneca was in exile, and ostensibly offers comfort to Polybius on the death of his brother. The slight problem is that Polybius was Claudius’ freedman in charge of letters and petitions to the emperor, and it’s quite clear that Seneca wants Polybius to convey some of the consolation to Claudius in the hope that it will get Seneca out of exile. (This is what the Stoic exile article is going to talk about.) Finally, the consolation to Helvia is a bit of an odd fish, because it’s written by Seneca, who is in exile, to comfort his mother about her sadness that he is in exile – completely turning the normal order of things on its head, as you’d expect him to be the one getting the consolatio. So the consolatory genre was clearly alive and well at Rome in Seneca’s time, and sufficiently well-respected that Seneca felt turning his talents to write three of them was worth his while. They also have sufficiently permeable boundaries for Seneca to do interesting things with them in terms of slipping between genres, particularly the two written while he was in exile, but that’s another topic for another post.

The slightly sad thing is that Seneca’s consolationes are the best surviving ones of this sort that we have. We do have, of course, a bundle of Cicero’s consolatory letters, all following the same rough template, but (to my knowledge) we don’t have anything comparable to the personalised individual consolations that Seneca writes. Unless something surfaces in the rubbish dumps in Egypt or the library at Herculaneum, we’ll never know how much Seneca kept to the tradition or made new innovations in his consolatory technique.

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