Classically Inclined

November 27, 2018

What does a good marriage look like?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:17 pm
Tags: , ,

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.

Seneca believes it’s possible to love another human being without giving in to irrationality; he also thinks that women have the same capacity for virtue as men, which means they are not automatically inferior to their husbands. This is worth pointing out as it wasn’t necessarily a shared belief in the ancient world; by contrast, Aristotle argues in his Politics that the husband should have what he calls ‘constitutional rule’ over his wife, since men are more fit for command because of their more mature intellect (1259b). Given the premises that Seneca is starting from, what does he think a good marriage looks like?

The first important thing to remember is that Seneca doesn’t think there are any hard and fast rules here – marriage is an indifferent, a thing that in and of itself does not affect our ability to be virtuous. Similarly, a spouse in the abstract is also an indifferent – but while there are no such thing as abstract spouses, there are people who we might be married to. The combination of individuals in a marriage will determine whether or not it is a positive or negative influence on the virtue of Stoic disciples.

One point Seneca is very strong on is that relationships between spouses should not be ruled by affectus or irrational passion; the relationship should be grounded in reason, although since individual circumstances vary so greatly it’s impossible to produce a handbook of suitable guidance. What should be at the heart of the relationship, though, is that sense that reason is important. This comes back to Stoic ideas about eros and the idea that it is generated through attraction to someone else’s potential for reason: if you’ve fallen in love with someone because of their inherent potential for virtue, then you are going to use the relationship as an opportunity for them to develop that potential. This means that the non-wise become wise because of the mutual relationship between spouses, as the wise person educates their spouse or two disciples support each other along the intellectual journey. A marriage based on virtue and reason thus produces more virtue and reason.

The really important thing about the Stoic belief in the equality of the sexes here is that this means that the wise person in the marriage doesn’t have to be the husband. It could be the wife who is wise, or who is further advanced along her intellectual journey towards virtue. This opens up the possibility of a wife guiding her husband towards virtue as well as vice versa.

A further important factor about Seneca’s expectations of married life is that he strongly disapproves of the sexual double standard, as we see from On Marriage V 28:

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 became allowed became worthless.

Seneca is not impressed with men who encourage women into adultery and then expect their own wives to remain faithful – they’ve lost the moral high ground. If a relationship has at its foundation this kind of confused belief, that it’s alright for one group of people to behave in a certain way and not alright for another group of people to behave similarly, then that’s a warning signal of a marriage based on irrationality.


October 16, 2018

Can you be a Stoic and be in love?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 8:47 pm
Tags: , ,

We’ve established how the Stoics thought emotions worked, and the problems they saw with the irrational passions. So where does love fit into all of this? Did the Stoics think that you should try and get rid of love?

This is where we get into the question of what precise words the Stoics use to talk about these kinds of emotions. Love, amor, does not fit into either the passions or the eupatheiai, so seems to be a bit betwixt and between. However, when the Roman Stoics talk about amor, they are not talking about the kind of romantic love you might find in the elegaic poets (or indeed in Sappho), but what the Greek Stoics called erōs. Our Greek sources are very clear that the Stoics did not think erōs was irrational, although the reasons they gave for this may not always have made a great deal of sense. They defined erōs as a wish to create a friendship with another person based on that person’s moral and physical attractiveness – so not inherently heterosexual, or indeed inherently sexual at all. The key element in erōs is that it is aroused by the promise of virtue (which is good for all of us proficientes, as otherwise we’d be stuck). The early Stoics also seem to have been very comfortable with same-sex erōs, provided of course that it came from a mutual appreciation of each other’s virtue.

By the time we get to Seneca, what was originally a quite queer position had been framed in terms of the heterosexual marriage relationship; Seneca talks, for instance, of married couples experiencing amor as a positive thing which draws on this idea of an affection grounded in appreciation for each other’s potential for virtue. However, another important word begins to appear, which is affectus. We get a bit of what this means in De Matrimonio V 26:

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 (amor) was indeed honourable, but its extent was shameful. Indeed, it makes no difference how honourable the reason is from which someone goes mad.

It’s the affectus which comes under fire here, and it’s the affectus that is the irrational drive or passion, drawing the couple into silly over-the-top romantic behaviour. The amor itself was originally quite rational and under control, but it has somehow lost its footing and spiraled into these kind of excessively sentimental antics.

What V26 tells us is that Seneca is quite happy with relationships which are based on a Stoic amor/erōs that takes as its foundation the beloved’s potential for virtue, but that he deplores those relationships where amor has turned to affectus, because reason (and a sense of perspective) has been lost. We come back again to the idea of the indifferents – love in and of itself is neither good nor bad; it’s how you use it that matters. In the case of affectus, where being in love becomes more important than the pursuit of virtue, things have gone pretty badly wrong – but that doesn’t mean that relationships based in grounded, rational amor can’t exist.

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.

January 10, 2013

Age asymmetric marriage in ancient Rome

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 9:09 am
Tags: , , ,

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have spotted, just before the new year, an unscientific poll I undertook about what the average age difference between partners was among my followers’ peer groups; I asked the same question on Facebook as well. I was curious whether my perception of differences in ages was accurate – I had thought that most of my friends were within a five year gap, but Geoff countered that he thought among our peer group the difference was narrower, more like two years. What better way to check than to ask the internet?

The responses were quite interesting, not least because some people offered their thoughts about why the age gap looked like it did. In general, my sense that gaps of two, three and four years were most common seemed to be borne out, although more people than I was expecting said they felt the average among their peer group was a year or two years. People identified outliers (fifteen or twenty years difference), but tended to label them as outside the norm, either within the peer group or usual social patterns. Most people who offered suggestions about why this might be thought that socialisation had a lot to do with it – people had met partners at university, or alternatively had met through their university friends’ wider networks which tended to be roughly age-equivalent, hence the prevalence of one and two year gaps.

So why was this on my mind? Because of the Roman Life Course class I am teaching today, looking at age asymmetrical marriage in the Roman world. I’ve asked students to look through one of Plutarch’s Lives and think about what features of the life course can be traced through it; the class this evening will focus on what we can pick out about their marital habits from the texts. I spent most of my Christmas and New Year working through the Lives in question myself, and tracing the marital histories of Antony, Cicero and Pompey. Pompey is the particularly interesting example; he married five times, prolific even in a society that structured itself to encourage remarriage wherever possible. His early marriages appear to be fairly age-equal as far as these things go – for instance, his second wife (Sulla’s stepdaughter) would have been about eighteen and he would have been about 24 when they married, which is a bit wider than we’d normally see now but not unheard of.

However, his fourth and fifth marriages show a really interesting shift in perception. His fourth wife was Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar; she was about 24 and he was about 47, so there was a 23 year difference. Plutarch comments on Pompey dedicating himself to his young wife and being distracted from the political life of the state, but the impression is that this age gap at this stage is not unusual and other men have found themselves in the same situation. However, it’s a different story with his fifth wife, Cornelia Metella – while he’s about 55 when they marry, she’s only 21, making a whopping 34 years difference. Plutarch snidely observes that she would have been a more appropriate wife for a son of Pompey than for Pompey himself, suggesting that this time he’s gone just that bit too far in crossing the age boundary. The Romans can cope with a wide age difference, but there are limits; Pompey’s case demonstrates roughly where the unseen boundaries of acceptability lie.

December 5, 2012

Defining the Roman family

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve been talking around the idea of the Roman family, and the idea is central to my work, but I’ve realised that I’ve never actually explained what the family is on this blog The Latin word for family is familia, but while the two words look more or less the same, familia represents a very different sort of concept – our idea of the nuclear family would have felt very foreign to the Romans. The Roman idea of familia had a primarily legal meaning, which encompassed only those blood relatives who are agnates, or related through the male line, and not cognates, or relatives through the female line. Marriage did not necessarily mean a close legal tie; if a woman married without manus, she remained in the legal control of her father and thus in his familia, not her husband’s. The consequence of this was that she would not legally be part of her children’s familia either.

Another way to define the familia was as those under the legal authority of the paterfamilias, the oldest and most senior male. This definition included the slaves belonging to a household as well as those biologically related to each other through the male line. In fact, familia can be used to refer to the slaves of a household on their own, not including any of the biological family members at all.


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. (more…)

April 28, 2011

Turning a thesis chapter into a talk – Seneca on marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:01 am
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

There is something ineffably frustrating about trying to turn a thesis chapter into a twenty minute conference-style presentation. You have a whole chapter that you have loving and thoughtfully structured so it leads the reader gently through your train of thought and argument at a leisurely but clearly-marked pace – and now you have to chop out the ‘best bits’, the strongest arguments, reframe your organisational material to provide enough background for the arguments you are going to present, and tearfully wave farewell to all the other sections you have lovingly laboured over. In fact, one colleague has told me that she’s only ever tried to do it once, and that was such an off-putting experience that she has sworn off ever doing it again.

I have only had to go through this process once before myself, when I presented a chunk of chapter one of my thesis at the Oikos-Familia conference in Sweden, and it was jolly hard then. (If you’re interested, you can read my abstract here.) That was especially tricky, because I had to explain quite a complicated chunk of Stoic philosophy to a non-philosophical audience for them to be able to understand my argument; that was quite a significant challenge for me as one of my central tenets about my work is that you shouldn’t have to be trained to the eyeballs in ancient philosophy to be able to access philosophical material in Seneca. It seemed to go alright, anyway.


Create a free website or blog at