Classically Inclined

September 18, 2018

Seneca’s De Matrimonio or ‘On Marriage’ – The Fragments

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:47 pm
Tags: , ,

I 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 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 Delarue identified as being most likely to be genuine Seneca. The fragments are numbered according to the edition of Vottero. A cautionary note – because these are fragments, they cannot be used as absolutely certain evidence for Seneca arguing a particular point on their own, but they can be used in the broader framework of Stoicism and Seneca’s other writing to construct a likely position.



Although his pupil Metrodorus had Leontion as a wife, Epicurus, the champion of pleasure, seldom says that the wise man should take part in marriage, because many troublesome things are mixed up with marriage, and just as riches, honours, the health of our bodies and other things which we call indifferents are neither good nor bad, but become either good or bad by use and by chance, as if placed in the middle, so too are wives placed on the border of good things and bad things; however, it is a serious matter for a wise man to be uncertain about whether he is about to marry a good or a bad woman.


Chrysippus absurdly advises the wise man to marry in order not to outrage Jove Gamelius and Genethlius. Of course, according to this logic, among the Latins a wife must not be married, because they do not have a Nuptial Jove. But if the names of the gods, as he thinks, are prejudicial to the lives of men, accordingly the man who willingly sits off ends Jove Stator.


Furthermore, Seneca reports that he knew a certain distinguished man who used to bind up his chest with his wife’s fascea when he was about to go into public, and could not be without her presence for a moment; man and wife used to drink no drink except one touched by the lips of the other, performing other no less foolish actions in the same manner, in which the thoughtless strength of burning affectus used to burst out: the beginning of this love was indeed honourable, but its extent was shameful. Indeed, it makes no difference how honourable the reason is from which someone goes mad.


Of course, all love for somebody else’s wife is disgraceful, as is too much love for one’s own. The wise man should love his wife with discernment, not with passion; he controls the impulse of pleasure and is not carried headlong into sexual intercourse. Nothing is more vile than to love a wife as if she were an adulteress.


The marriages of certain people adjoin adulteries and – what a shameful thing! – the same men who took away pudicitia taught it to those women. Consequently, satiety quickly broke down the marriages in the same way. As soon as fear vanished from the charm of desire, what used to be allowed became worthless.


Seneca says: for what may I say about poor men, a large number of whom are contracted in the name of husband to escape the laws which are imposed on the unmarried? How can a man who has been taken in marriage guide morals, teach chastity and hold the authority of a husband?


Moreover, on one occasion, when he [Socrates] had resisted countless insults from Xanthippe, who was pouring them down from a higher place, when he was soaked in filthy water, after wiping his head, he answered nothing more than’ ‘I knew that rain would follow that thunder’.


We read about certain women, divorced on the second day of the marriage, who married again at once: each husband should be rebuked, both he who was so quickly displeased and he who was pleased so quickly.


When Claudia, a Vestal Virgin, had come under suspicion of stuprum , and the statue of the Idean mother was stuck on the bank of the Tiber, it is said that in order to confirm her pudicitia she pulled the ship, which many thousands of men could not move, with her girdle. ‘Better, however’ – says the uncle of the poet Lucan – ‘when this was done, if this is what happened, that it had been an ornament of proven pudicitia instead of the defence of doubted pudicitia.’


The opinion of that most learned man is that pudicitia must be upheld above all – when it is lost, all virtue collapses. The guiding principle of womanly virtues is in this. This recommends a poor woman, it praises a rich woman, it rescues an ugly woman, it adorns a beautiful woman. The ancestors, whose blood it does not corrupt with a secret child, well deserve it; so do the children who need not feel ashamed of their mother or in doubt about their father; above all she herself well deserves it, whom it frees from affront of a stranger’s body. There is no greater misfortune of captivity than to be dragged by an aliena desire. The consulship gives glory to men, eloquence raises them into eternal fame, military glory and a triumph over a new nation sets them apart; there are many things which in and of themselves ennoble celebrated intellects; pudicitia is the virtue belonging to a woman. This made Lucretia equal to Brutus, and probably even gave her precedence over him, since Brutus learned that one could not be a slave from a woman. This made Cornelia equal to Gracchus, Porcia equal to the other Brutus. Tanaquil is better known than her husband: history has already hidden him away among the many names of kings, while this virtue, rare among women, fixed her more firmly than can be forgotten in the memory of every age.


If you entrust the whole household to her to manage, you must be at her service; if you have kept anything back for your supervision, she does not think she has your trust and is directed to hatred and abuse and she prepares poisons unless you consult her quickly. If you let in old women, goldsmiths, soothsayers and sellers of gems and silk clothes, there is a danger to pudicitia; if you forbid them, there is the insult of suspicion. Indeed, what good is a careful watch when an impudica wife cannot be guarded and a pudica wife ought not to be? For the necessity of chastity is a treacherous guard, and only the woman who could do wrong if she wished to should be called pudica.



Delarue, F. 2001. ‘Le Dossier du De matrimonio de Sénèque’, Revue des Études Latines 79: 163– 87.

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


  1. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Sources for Seneca on love and desire | Classically Inclined — September 18, 2018 @ 10:50 pm | Reply

  2. I would like to footnote this sentence from Seneca’s essay: “Valeria, sister of the Messalae, after her husband Servius had died, wanted to marry no one. Having been asked why she did this, she said that as far as she was concerned her husband Servius lived forever.” Would you be so kind as to advise me as to the proper form?

    Comment by hamiltonbeck — March 16, 2019 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

    • This comes from what Vottero identifies as fragment 49, so you should refer to it as Seneca, De Matrimonio V49. Please do note that I don’t think that this fragment comes from the De Matrimonio itself – there are plenty of other texts that could have provided this exemplum!

      Comment by lizgloyn — March 19, 2019 @ 9:14 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 )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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: