Classically Inclined

August 10, 2011

Seneca’s De Matrimonio, or On Marriage – a discussion of the text

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 12:32 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

A Note: This blog post was written before the publication of my book on the ethics of Seneca and the family. If you are interested in reading more about the De Matrimonio, there’s tons more of this stuff in chapter three. LG, 23rd August 2018.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been getting quite a few hits as a result of a search for the terms “Seneca on marriage”, “Seneca De Matrimonio” and variants thereof. The problem is that those hits get directed to this post I wrote about turning a thesis chapter into a talk, which mentions the De Matrimonio briefly, but doesn’t really give much of a background into Useful Things about it. So I thought I’d write a proper post explaining a bit more about the text, and giving some useful bibliography. I know I would have appreciated such a thing when I was trying to find out more about the De Matrimonio in my M.Phil. year, when all the books I could find referred to it in passing in a footnote and never actually explained what on earth it was.

There’s a good reason for this, and that’s because we don’t actually have a proper surviving text. Our only ancient evidence that Seneca wrote a text titled De Matrimonio comes from Saint Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, which is mainly concerned with Jerome’s attempts to prove his opponent Jovinian wrong about the relative merits of virginity and marriage. Jerome is strongly pro-virginity as the appropriate Christian life choice, and writes to oppose a tract of Jovinian’s in which he has expressed the opposite opinion. (Apparently Jerome’s vitriol against marriage came as a bit of a surprise to his married friends, and his letters include a very lengthy apology to the Roman senator Pammachius.) Jerome marshalled a band of worthy writers to support his case, both sacred and pagan – unfortunately, he was not, shall we say, particularly scrupulous about how he deployed his quotations and whether he correctly represented the intent of the original authors. I think his reading of Dido as “a woman of chastity devoted to just the one husband” was my favourite gem. This is our first problem with using Jerome as a source for Seneca – we can’t be completely sure which fragments are direct quotes from Seneca, which passages are paraphrases of Seneca, and which parts Jerome made up himself or took from another source.

It is pretty clear that, despite Jerome’s attempts to make him a spokesman for celibacy, Seneca’s text was actually pro-marriage in tone. The masterwork on the text was written in 1915 by Bickel, who wrote a magisterially thick treatise (in early 20th century Latin, which I had to slog through, which is another story) in which he identified which fragments he believed were echt Seneca, and also wrote a very long commentary on various other aspects of the text. There’s one bit that’s all about the influence of Buddhism on one particular passage which seems to have nothing to do with Buddhism at all, which did and still does baffle me, but that’s by the by.

Bickel’s method of identifying fragments was, shall we say, problematic. For instance, Bickel’s fragment 6 isolates just two words, amor formae, from a much longer passage as genuinely Senecan. The text is also extremely difficult to use; Bickel chose not to print the fragments individually, but instead printed the entire relevant section from the Adversus Jovinanum, with the fragments printed so that the letters were widely spaced and stood out from the non-Senecan text. He also came up with a theory about what order Jerome read the text in and how he placed his references, and thus reconstructed the entire order and content of the De Matrimonio. Alas, such confidence in assumptions about scholarly practice doesn’t stand up to modern standards of scholarly proof.

Bickel’s choice of fragments was reproduced by Vottero in his volume of general Senecan fragments, which brought together all the snippets of various lost works for the first time. Following this edition, some new work started to be produced on the De Matrimonio that tried to go beyond simply identifying fragments as Senecan or non-Senecan, chiefly Torre’s thematic analysis of the fragments. She noticed the difficulty of escaping from Bickel’s magisterial orbit when writing about the fragments and bravely tried to get out of it herself. However, after identifying central themes on marriage in the surviving prose works, her main concern when she came to the fragments was to separate real from false – just on thematic rather than philological grounds.

Delarue decided to blow all of this out of the water by questioning the whole underlying Victorian philological approach that had shaped the corpus of fragments, unexamined since Bickel first put it into practice. He did, however, admit that there was some real Seneca in there somewhere, but used much more critical methods for assessing what it might be. He mainly weeded out things like the amor formae passage, and some exempla which he rightly points out Jerome could have got from anywhere. He hypothesised that the De Matrimonio was originally addressed to a woman from an aristocratic family, but stressed that this was a personal opinion and one that he was basing on very circumstantial evidence.

Now, Delarue’s caution is right, because we can’t use the fragments to draw any conclusions about the overall content of the De Matrimonio, and also can’t assume that we have direct quotations and that Jerome hasn’t fiddled with them like he has with his other ancient sources. However, I think we can use the fragments as an opportunity for considering Seneca’s doctrinal position on marriage, provided we are cautious and begin from a slightly different starting point than any of the existing works have done so far. This is chapter three of the dissertation, and I’m going to stop there before I give the game away!

If you’ve read this far, and want to read more, here’s a brief bibliography of relevant works on the De Matrimonio that you might find interesting:

Bellandi, F. 2004. “Epicuro, Seneca e il matrimonio del sapiens: sul frammento 23 Vottero = 45 Haase del De matrimonio di Seneca.” Materiali e Discussion per L’analisi dei Testi Classici 53: 175-182.

Bickel, E. 1915. Diatribe in Senecae Philosopi Fragmenta. Vol. 1: Fragmenta de matrimonio. Leipzig: B. G. Teubner.

Delarue, F. 2001. “Le dossier du De matrimonio de Sénèque.” Revue des Etudes Latines 79: 163-187.

Deming, W. 1995. Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7. Society for New Testament

Hunter, D. G. 2007. Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity: The Jovinianist Controversy. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Lentano, M. ed. 1997. Contro il Matrimonio Ovvero Perché All’uomo Saggio Non Convenga Prender Moglie: Lucio Annaeo Seneca. Bari: Palomar.

Reydams-Schils, G. 2005. The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Torre, C. 2000. Il matrimonio del Sapiens: Ricerche sul de Matrimonio di Seneca. Genova: Pubblicazioni del Dipartimento di archeologia, filologia classica e loro tradizioni CXCI, Facolta di Lettere, Universita di Genova.

Vottero, D. 1998. Lucio Anneo Seneca: I Frammenti. Bologna: Patron.


  1. Isn’t this more of a discussion on the history of the study of the text?

    Comment by Danny Healy — February 4, 2012 @ 7:07 pm | Reply

    • Yes, but that’s all discussion of the text for classical sources can be – how have we got the text we’ve got in front of us? Where has it come from? How have we come to agree about what this looks like? For a text as fragmentary and contentious as the De Matrimonio, unpicking that web is the first thing you have to do before you can start thinking about the content of the text.

      Comment by lizgloyn — February 7, 2012 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  2. As we cannot trust Jerome, why even assume that Seneca did write a De Matrimonio? Is there any other evidence available?
    Similarly, I question Aulus Gellius’ references to other Senecan Epistles – namely a Book 22 beyond the existing 20.


    Comment by maxbini — April 23, 2012 @ 7:56 am | Reply

    • Thanks, Max – it’s an interesting question. But if Seneca did not write a De Matrimonio, or something that might have had that title (that is, a text on marriage), then I think this would be the only occasion when Jerome cites as evidence a text that does not exist. We know that he misquotes his sources, but we have no other evidence that he makes up their existence out of whole cloth. As to the type of text, there is a long tradition in Stoic philosophy of texts dealing with this sort of thing – Diogenes Laertius lists a Peri Gamou amongst the works of Persaeus and a Peri Humenaiou amongst those of Cleanthes, inter alia. So there’s no reason Seneca should not have written a De Matrimonio (or something with a similar title) as part of the Stoic tradition of writing on this subject, and there’s no reason for Jerome to have fabricated such a text.

      Comment by lizgloyn — April 24, 2012 @ 12:19 pm | Reply

  3. […] views on marriage is the now fragmentary De Matrimonio. I’ve written elsewhere about the reason that this text is only known in fragments, but I thought it might also be useful to post my translations of the fragments which Fernand […]

    Pingback by Seneca’s De Matrimonio or ‘On Marriage’ – The Fragments | Classically Inclined — September 19, 2018 @ 12:25 pm | Reply

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