Classically Inclined

September 7, 2020

Seneca, homosexuality and homoerotics

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:49 pm
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This is one of a series of posts designed to support students and teachers looking at the Love and Relationships unit of the OCR Classical Civilization A-level. You can find all the posts in the series by clicking on the OCR Seneca hashtag.

In order to understand Seneca’s position on homosexual relationships, we need to go back to the Greek Stoics, who defined erōs as the desire to create a relationship with someone else based on their moral and physical attractiveness. In the Greek world, this usually manifested in same-sex erōs; men identifying virtue in other men and forming erōs-based relationships as a result is the usual context for talking about this in Greek Stoic texts. However, over the centuries between the original Stoics and Seneca, the frame changes; what was originally a pretty homoerotic concept becomes thoroughly domesticated. Amor (the Latin for erōs) becomes what happens inside a heterosexual relationship, particularly the relatsionship between a married couple, as the example of the husband and wife overcome with affectus showed us.

So what does Seneca think of same-sex relationships? We have a bit of a challenge here, as he doesn’t actually say very much – it’s not a big priority for him compared to other ethical matters. The passage that is usually mentioned here is Moral Letters 122.7, which appears very explicit:

Do those who change their clothes with women not seem to you to live against nature? Do they not live contrary to nature who strive so that boyish youth shines out at the wrong time? What can be crueller or more miserable? Will he never be a man, so that he can endure a man for a long while? And although his gender should have snatched him from insult, will not even his age deliver him?

On the surface, this is an appeal to the importance of living in accordance with nature or secundum naturam – Seneca asks whether this kind of behaviour is precisely that, living against nature, and thus something that should be avoided. Similarly, there are appeals here to the nature of being a man which should have protected such a man from this fate, which again seems to draw on the idea of the lessons that nature gives us. But when we read on in the letter to 122.8, this is what we find:

Do these people not live contrary to nature who long for a rose in the winter and who force the lily, a spring flower, with the application of hot water and with the adjusted change of heat? Do they not live contrary to nature who plant orchards on the tops of towers? What about those men whose trees nod their heads on roofs and gables, with roots rising from the place where crowns reach for? Do they not live contrary to nature who build the foundations of bathhouses in the sea and don’t think that they are swimming pleasurably unless heated pools are struck with the wave and storm?

The wider context of Moral Letter 122, then, is about the dangers of ignoring the natural flow of time, ignoring the fact that we are meant to mature, and attempting to artificially hold on to youth – this is attempting to reverse the natural flow of things, just like trying to grow flowers in artificial weather.

The overall direction of the argument, then, is not about same-sex desire in and of tiself, but a particular manifestation of same-sex desire which seeks to artificially prolong youth to look attractive. All of the tropes here play into contemporary Roman stereotypes about homosexuality, in particular the cinaedus and pathicus, effeminate men who enjoyed being penetrated, and who were seen as staying in the role of a ‘youth’ longer than they should; these concepts were very much in line with the Greek model of pederasty, which saw the eromenos as a youth who would transcend the role as he matured. The cinaedus in particular is the subject of much aggressive satire in Juvenal and other Roman writers, so it would be very easy to get the impression that the Romans completely disapprove of homosexual relationships.

However, there’s more going on than that. Homosexual activities had a tacit acceptance in elite Roman circles, so long as they were not attached to particularly effeminate behaviours. Don’t forget that in 130 AD, the emperor Hadrian was so upset at the accidental death of his lover Antinous that he ordered him deified. The penetration of enslaved or low status free men doesn’t come in for comment, and the penetration of young free men is sort of acceptable within certain limits – Julius Caesar is meant to have taken the passive role in an affair with King Nicomedes of Bithynia, and the rumours around this didn’t do him any harm in the long term. In Seneca’s own time, Petronius’ Latin novel The Satyricon features a homosexual love triangle as its protagonists – the romantic entanglements certainty complicate their affairs, but their sexual preferences are not really an issue. So while a single line from Moral Letter 122 conforms with some general social prejudices against a particularly reviled stereotype, there’s not enough there to be sure of what Seneca’s actual position on same-sex relationships per se is; he is far more concerned about behaviour ‘against nature’ which involve extravagant and expensive displays than he is about same-sex desire.

A second example of Seneca’s views about same-sex desire comes from Seneca’s Natural Questions 1.16.1, reporting the antics of Hostius Quadra:

There was a man called Hostius Quadra, whose obscenity was even the subject of a stage performance. The divine Augustus considered this rich and greedy man, a slave to his millions, unworthy of vengeance when he was murdered by his slaves, and almost pronounced he seemed to have been killed lawfully. He was not depraved only with one sex, but was as greedy for men as for women, and made mirrors of the kind I mentioned above which reflect much bigger images, in which fingers exceed the length and width of arms. He arranged these in such a way that when he himself was enduring a man, he could see behind him all the movements of his stallion and enjoy the false length of his own member as if it were true.

Again, the theme of going against nature is upmost in Seneca’s commentary here. The critique of Hostius focuses on his misuse of mirrors and his excessive sexual desire – not the choice of sexual partner.

Working out Seneca’s views on same-sex relationships, then, has to be carefully untangled from a complicated web of widely shared social prejudices and Stoic concerns. Unfortunately, there’s far too little there on same-sex relationships specifically for us to be able to say with confidence what position he would have taken on them.

Edited on 29th September 2020, with thanks to Sophie Ngan.

1 Comment »

  1. Seneca does have a lot of criticism for effeminate men, e.g. Maceanas in letter 114 and the constant attempts to keep Nero from acting and performing on the stage. This has more to do with the equating of virtue and virtus – manliness, than it does with homosexuality. When Seneca praises women (his mother Helvia and Marcia in the consolations) it is often for showing manly virtues. One would assume that Seneca would have wanted to correct the perception that all philosophers were homosexuals based upon the influence of Plato.

    Comment by Max Bini — September 8, 2020 @ 3:58 am | Reply


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