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.

March 29, 2019

What’s nature got to do with it? The Stoics and secundum naturam

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:05 am
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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.

A central element of Stoic theory to remember when thinking about love and relationships and Seneca is the importance of acting in accordance with nature, or secundum naturam in Latin. Since the Stoics believed that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that the universe has been created by a providential deity who is the equivalent to perfect reason, this means that nature itself is closely aligned to reason. By looking at nature, we can learn important lessons about what behaviours are in accordance with nature, and thus rational.

For love and relationships, there are two very important implications of this theory. First, getting married and having a family is in accordance with nature, because that’s what we see creatures in the wild doing. Seneca gestures towards this in Letter 9.17:

As long as [the wise man] may order his own affairs by his own judgement, he is content in himself, and marries a wife; he is content in himself, and brings up children; he is content in himself, and yet would not live, if he were to live without a human being. No personal benefit brings him to friendship, but a natural stimulus; for as the enjoyment of other things is innate to us, so it is with friendship.

So long as having a family does not interfere with the sage’s pursuit of wisdom, then having a spouse and children is acceptable, and indeed a preferred indifferent. It is natural to want friends, and natural to want to be part of a family; thus the drive to find someone to have such a family with is also natural, and thus compatible with pursuing virtue (provided there are no opposing factors, such as falling in love with someone of dubious morals).

The second implication concerns the distinction between sexual desire and lust. Sexual desire, the desire to procreate, is considered natural – after all, it is abundantly visible in animals. What is not considered natural is when sexual desire ceases being a healthy natural urge and instead becomes an obsessive, irrational passion – that is, when desire turns into the passion of lust. This is an important distinction, and needs to be remembered when Seneca condemns lustful behaviour – it isn’t the fundamental instinct that he disapproves of, but the way that it has become twisted out of its natural path and into irrationality.

March 20, 2019

Letter 104: an insight into Seneca’s marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:06 am
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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.

I mentioned that places where Seneca talks about his own marriage can give us some insight into what he thinks about relationships. In this post, I’m going to take a close look at the start of Moral Epistle 104, which talks about this in some detail. Seneca has just arrived at his villa in Nomentum for the sake of his health; he has left his wife, here named as Pompeia Paulina, in Rome. While John Henderson reads this passage in light of the rest of the letter’s comments about the uselessness of travel, and sees Seneca actually running away from Paulina here, I think that we can draw out some significant strands of Seneca’s thought about marriage and relationships more broadly.

I said this to my Paulina, who tells me to pay attention to my health. For since I know that her spirit depends on mine, I begin to care for myself as I do to her. And although old age has rendered me braver for many things, I am losing this benefit of age; for it comes into my mind that in this old man there is also a youth who is spared. And since I do not ask her to love me more bravely, she asks that I love myself more carefully. For honest emotions must be allowed; sometimes, even if misfortunes press down, our breath must be recalled and held in the mouth itself, even if with torment, in honor of those who are ours, since the good man must live not as long as he wishes but as long as he should: he who does not think enough of his wife or his friend to linger longer in life, he who will persist in dying, is spoiled. The mind should also give itself this comment, when the advantage of its own people requires it; not only if it wishes, but even if it has begun, to die, it should pause and adapt itself to those dear to it. It is a sign of a great mind to return to live for someone else’s sake, which great men have often done; but I also judge this a sign of the greatest humanity, to take care of one’s old age (whose greatest delight is a more careless oversight of itself and a braver use of life) more carefully if you know that is sweet, useful and desirable for your own. What’s more, this business has to no small degree joy and profit in it: for what is more pleasing than to be so dear to your wife that you become dearer to yourself because of it? And so my Paulina is able to consider not only her own concern for me, but also my own.

One feature that jumps out of this passage is the reciprocity between Seneca and Paulina – because she cares about his well-being, he finds himself caring more about himself as a result. This is a cyclical reinforcement of care; caring begets more caring. The marital relationship creates a kind of intimacy and closeness which lets real care develop. The underlying principle here is that it is a sage’s job to remember that she does not just live for herself, but for others too – hence Seneca’s scorn about those who decide to die without bearing the impact on those around them in mind. (Remember that this is the world of Roman political suicide, and a world with a very different level of medical knowledge – suicide was sometimes a virtuous choice, although only under circumstances where choosing life was no longer the rational decision.)

The focus of this passage is this interconnectedness between each human being and ‘their own people’, or ‘people dear to them’ – the Latin is simply sui or suorum, which we translate literally as ‘their people’ but suggests everyone to whom a person is bound by ties of affection, obligation and biology. Paulina, as Seneca’s wife, is definitely one of these for him, but the way he thinks about relating to her becomes an example for how we think about all of our relationships. The idea that we are bound to consider the well-being and benefit of those we love as well as our own interests suggests we need to think of taking care of ourselves as an act of love and service for other people, not simply something we do for our own sake. The implications of understanding ourselves as part of a wider network of human society, not simply disconnected individuals, is at the core of how Seneca and the Stoics frame understanding our relationships with others.

Finally, I want to dwell on the shared sense of identity that Seneca suggests exists between himself and Paulina. She understands not only what she worries for, but also what he worries for; there’s a shared sense of understanding that exists between them. A sceptical reader might comment that Paulina is acting as Seneca’s handmaiden here, positioned simply as a supporting actor in her husband’s pursuit of virtue, and there are merits in that reading. However, look a little closer. Paulina is not simply facilitating her husband’s journey, she is shaping it. Seneca listens to her and changes his behaviour as a result. This suggests that he is taking her seriously as a moral actor in her own right, and indicates the way that marriage can serve as a location for the development of virtue.

August 6, 2014

New publication: My family tree goes back to the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 2:57 pm
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As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, at the minute I am elbow-deep in assessing the revisions needed for chapter six of the book manuscript. I have just realised that I haven’t officially announced that a version of that chapter is already out in publication, as of a few months ago!

“My family tree goes back to the Romans: Seneca’s approach to the family in the Epistulae Morales” appears in Seneca Philosophus, a volume that came out of a conference in Paris about Seneca as a philosopher which I was unable to attend because – cheerful irony of ironies – it took place on the weekend of PhD graduation, so I kind of needed to be on another continent. However, I wrote to the conference organiser because I wanted sight of the paper she’d given, explaining what my interest was – and, lo and behold, she asked whether my book would be finished in time for consultation for the conference volume. As that was totally out of the range of possibility, I said so and sent her my Epistulae Morales chapter in PDF form instead. She then invited me to contribute it to the conference volume as it would make a good addition to the range of pieces talking about the letter collection.

Given that I had no idea how long it would take me to get the PhD into a book manuscript shape, I jumped at the chance to get some of my research out, and in a volume that contains some of the most significant scholars currently writing on Seneca, no less. So it’s out there, and in a book! Which is very exciting.

Of course, this now leaves me in a slightly perplexing place with what is now chapter six of the book manuscript. There are several discussions that didn’t make it into the Family Tree chapter, not least because of reasons of length, and because the argument that chapter makes had to stand alone rather than finish off the dissertation as a whole. I got some very good feedback on the Family Tree chapter as a stand-alone piece that I’m incorporating into the revised chapter six, but I’m also realising just how much I need to do in order to make sure that it does what I need it to do in terms of the overall book’s direction. It says a lot about the progress I’ve made over the last few years that I’m seeing so many different things I want to change and improve compared to the first time that I revised it – the only downside is that I’ve got a lot of work ahead of me. Never mind – the chapter is out there, if anyone wants to read it and get a head-start on the book!

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