Classically Inclined

September 12, 2018

Sources for Seneca on love and desire

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 10:56 pm
Tags: , ,

This is the first of a series of blog posts intended to support teachers and students studying the Love and Relationships topic as part of the OCR A-level in Classical Civilization. I expect it will be updated with more sources as the blog posts progress! 

As far as Plato on love and relationships is concerned, it’s fairly straightforward to know what to read – at the very least, you have a good look at the Symposium, and that will cover quite a lot of ground. It’s a lot more difficult to know what to read as far as Seneca is concerned – he has one of the broadest and best-preserved collections of texts from the ancient world, rivaled only by Cicero in terms of the breadth of the genres that he covers. He also doesn’t have a single text devoted to love and relationships in the way that Plato does, meaning that there has to be quite a bit of selective reading done to find helpful material.

The one massive loss to this particular question is Seneca’s De Matrimonio, or On Marriage – we only have it through quotations made in an extremely polemical text by Saint Jerome, where he uses it to argue in favour of celibacy rather than marriage. (I’ve written about the textual transmission of the De Matrimonio here if you want to find out more.) While there are a small group of fragments that we think we can identify as properly Senecan, they aren’t easily accessible (yet!), and their fragmentary nature makes it difficult to understand precisely what argument Seneca’s making in the text. They do, however, provide us with a useful set of ideas to work with in parallel with Seneca’s other writing. You can find translations of the fragments in this post.

Alongside the fragments, here’s a list of some other useful passages you should know about:

On Benefits 1.1.10 and 4.33.2 – notes that we should enter marriage even though we cannot guarantee perfect outcomes.

On Benefits 2.18.1 – alludes to advice exploring the duties that spouses have to each other.

On Benefits 3.16.2-4 – expresses disgust at the rising frequency of divorce.

On Constancy 7.4 – “if a man sleeps lies with his wife as if she were someone else’s, he will be an adulterer, although she will not be an adulteress.”

Moral Epistles 9 – on the Stoic sage and self-sufficiency; explores the sage’s attitude to relationships with others in general. 9.17 in particular notes the sage’s interest in starting a family.

Moral Epistles 95.37 – example of a man who knows keeping a concubine is an insult to his wife, but does it anyway.

Moral Epistles 104.1-5 – Seneca talks about his relationship with his wife Paulina.

Moral Epistles 122.7-8 – includes men who exchange their clothing with women and submit to other men in a list of things which are against nature, along with men who build warm baths in the sea.

Moral Epistles 114.4 – a portrait of Maecenas as a husband behaving irrationally because of desire for his wife (who is criticised in the same letter).

On Providence 3.10 – another poison pen portrait of Maecenas and his relationship with his wife.

On Anger 3.36.3-4 – Seneca describes his wife’s understanding of his nightly meditation routine.

On Clemency 1.9.1-12 – an extended narrative of an incident in the relationship between Augustus and Livia which demonstrates a laudable marital dynamic.

On Consolation to Helvia 17.4 – Seneca contradicts his father’s position on whether Helvia, Seneca’s mother, should study philosophy.

Natural Questions 1.16 – gives a disapproving account of the sexual habits of Hostius Quadra, who slept with both men and women whilst surrounded by mirrors.

Phaedra – a full-length tragedy which focuses around uncontrolled incestuous desire; however, there are complications to be aware of when reading the tragedies as evidence for Seneca’s thought (blog post on this to come!).


Tacitus, Annals 15.63.64 – Seneca’s forced political suicide, including the role his wife played.

Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 4.33 and Plutarch On common conceptions against the Stoics 1072E – on why the Stoics saying erōs isn’t irrational is a bit odd.

Musonius Rufus, discourse 4, ‘Should daughters receive the same education as sons?’ – useful background for the Stoics’ belief that both men and women had the same capacity for virtue.



  1. Seneca’s tragedies should also be considered a useful source. Consider Phaedra’s attempts to seduce Hypolytus, Medea’s reaction to Jason abandoning her and choosing to marry Creusa, Clytemnestra taking Aegisthus as lover when Agamemnon is at war with Troy, Atreus questioning who is the father of his sons after his wife’s affair with his brother Thyestes …

    Comment by Max Bini — September 13, 2018 @ 1:29 am | Reply

    • I think there is a place for using the tragedies, but the problem is that you have to know what you think about the relationship between Seneca’s philosophy and Seneca’s drama – if you take the position that the two mirror each other perfectly, that’s fine, but the scholarly consensus has questioned that view. I’m going to write a post which explores the benefits and risks of bringing in the tragic material as part of this series, specifically focusing on love and desire.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 13, 2018 @ 10:57 am | Reply

      • Looking forward to this. I am a huge fan of Greek tragedy but sadly have not, as yet, compared Seneca’s reception and what it tells us.

        Comment by cg1952 — September 13, 2018 @ 12:16 pm | Reply

      • I do consider the tragedies as written in the 40’s up to about 55 and the philosophy as mainly written after that (except for De Ira and the consolations) and I know that is disputable but still the tragedies do seem to have common perspectives on the abuse of desire, adultery and incest – adultery and two innocent victims are themes that come up in all of the tragedies (often both together but sometimes just one of these themes) – this is not a coincidence, it relates directly to Seneca’s exile. Even if you choose to avoid speculation on dates, the shared themes speak for themselves and show an author who sees desire as able to twist even the most rational seeming individuals to commit vile deeds. The question “Why did the author write this work?” is always worthwhile and especially pertinent when discussing the work of a philosopher. I find Seneca to be a prime example of a writer who is equally literate and philosophical – for Seneca there is no distinction between what is said well and what is well thought (as his criticisms of Maceanas show). I could say the same for many others; Plato, Sophocles, Virgil, Ovid, Nietzsche …

        Comment by Max Bini — September 13, 2018 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  2. On Constancy 7.4 – I find that really interesting.

    Why is this? Is it because the wife is inconsequential and the man has to be held to higher values or is it a flag that the culture was less misogynistic than thought?

    Comment by cg1952 — September 13, 2018 @ 10:19 am | Reply

    • Neither of the above! It’s because of the uncontrolled passion that the husband experiences in desiring his wife; she is not at fault, because she has the right kind of inner disposition, but by approaching his wife with irrational passion, the husband possesses the wrong kind of inner disposition and so commits the same vice an adulterer would. I’m going to write a bit more about rationality and irrationality and how they fit into this picture as part of the series, so watch this space.

      Comment by lizgloyn — September 13, 2018 @ 11:00 am | Reply

      • Brilliant – thanks for that.

        I like to miss the point 😉

        Tbh as someone who has the screaming abdabs at the hint of philosophy I find the above and your response strangely understandable and interesting.

        Comment by cg1952 — September 13, 2018 @ 12:14 pm | Reply

  3. […] mentioned in my post about sources for Seneca on love and desire that our best chance of understanding Seneca’s views on marriage is the now fragmentary De […]

    Pingback by Seneca’s De Matrimonio – The Fragments | Classically Inclined — September 19, 2018 @ 12:22 pm | Reply

  4. hello! thank you very much for all of this, it has helped my class and I very, very much.

    Comment by Enya Scholes, — May 24, 2019 @ 10:48 am | Reply

    • Thank you so much for letting me know – you’re all very welcome!

      Comment by lizgloyn — May 24, 2019 @ 11:31 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: