Classically Inclined

September 15, 2020

How did Seneca’s ideas relate to the world he lived in?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:53 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’m often asked what Seneca’s contemporaries thought about his philosophical ideas. Sadly, we don’t have any ancient sources which explicitly discuss this, so we have to make some educated guesses.

We know that some of the ideas he expressed would have been strongly counter-cultural. Arguing that one should base amor, and presumably one’s choice of marital partner, on virtue and the potential for virtue would have been odd in a world where the usual priorities for a spouse were about financial wealth, beauty, physical health (for child-bearing), or political alliance. All of these were Stoic indifferents, but not so much for Seneca’s non-Stoic acquaintances.

The implicit gender equality in the idea that all humans have the same potential for virtue on the one hand sounds pretty radical, but on the other hand, the Stoics didn’t advocate for an overhaul of social structures. Instead, they argued that people should exhibit virtue in the positions that they found themselves, meaning women should exercise virtue in their current social roles. Seneca thus did not challenge the idea of marriage, and marriage as traditionally expressed in Roman society. It’s also worth remembering that Roman women were pretty visible in Seneca’s period. They had big roles as civic patrons funding charitable works, as priestesses in city cults (particularly outside Rome), and as semi-discreet players in political life – not just the empresses, but the wives of significant politicians as well. The idea that Roman women had intellectual competence and autonomy is one that Seneca’s peers were very familiar with, even if they had particular ideas about where those abilities should be exercised.

The Roman idea of companionate marriage was well-established by Seneca’s time, so his development of that framework to philosophical ends does not come out of nowhere. The orientation of some of the language related to marriage in order to place virtue at the centre of a couple’s relationship is radical, but part of Seneca’s overall strategy is placing Stoic thought and conventional ideology next to each other and letting the moral lessons emerge from the comparison. While his contemporaries might superficially think that he is saying something quite conventional, the underpinnings of his overall argument are very different, and he constantly plays on the tension between conventional Roman ideas and the Stoic perspective on an issue.

That said, the critique of the sexual double standard in relationships is unusually explicit in his writing – other Roman authors play around with it, and other authors do suggest that it is a bad thing, but Seneca’s objection stands out as being particularly pointed.

Another important way that Seneca’s model of relationships works is that it runs counter to traditional Roman family structures. In a traditional Roman family, power lay with the paterfamilias, the most senior male; hypothetically he had the power of life and death over everyone who was under his legal control, even if we have very few examples of that power ever being exercised. The authority of the paterfamilias created a lot of restraints around what men could legally do before they were emancipated, and women technically always needed some kind of guardian or tutor (although there were lots of practical ways around these restrictions). Nonetheless, the Roman family was deeply hierarchical in terms of its operation.

By contrast, the Stoic model is based on a position of equality. All people have equal potential for virtue; nobody has inherently more or less power in any relationship. The family structure offered by Stoicism offers a reciprocal arrangement which respects and supports all the family members’ pursuit of virtue. Again, Seneca quite subtly presents his different model, but it is radically different to the way that Roman society was structured.

What about Seneca’s relationship to Stoicism? Some people have argued that he isn’t Stoic at all, labelling him as an eclectic thinking. However, Stoicism is by definition a fluid philosophy. Unlike Epicureanism, which follows the doctrines of a founding thinker, the Stoics emphasise the importance of using your own reason to react to the circumstances in which you find yourself. Rather than being eclectic, Seneca is part of the tradition of innovation and reflection that categorises Stoicism more broadly, working with and developing core theories in his own way.

Since ideas about love and relationships aren’t central to what we have that survives of Seneca’s writing, we have to unpick how it relates both to Stoicism and to the broader world. However, what he does say on the subject is steeped in Stoic philosophy and seeks to show his contemporaries that there is a different way to do things.

September 7, 2020

Seneca and queer love

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 queer 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 queer 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.

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.

January 3, 2019

Learning from Seneca’s own marriage

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 6:31 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.

A major feature of Roman moral education was the use of exempla, from which we get our word ‘examples’. An exemplum was a biographical story which communicated some important moral lesson about what it meant to be a proper Roman – or, for Seneca’s purposes, an important Stoic truth. Seneca was very aware of the power of exempla, not least because of his father’s background in Roman controversiae and suasoriae, which relied heavily on the use of exempla as part of the fictitious cases that young men argued as part of their legal training. From the way that both Cassius Dio and Tacitus report his death, he seems to have deliberately framed his forced suicide in an effort to out-Socrates Socrates and make himself the go-to exemplum of a perfect philosophical death. (James Ker writes more about this in The Deaths of Seneca.)

Given that Seneca knows about the power of the exemplum, it’s not unreasonable to ask what he says about his own marriage and whether there are lessons here about what he thinks a good marriage should look like. One particularly moving passage comes from his description of his bedtime routine in On Anger 3.36.3-4:

I use this ability and every day I plead my case before myself. When the light has been taken away and my wife, my accomplice in my habit, becomes still, I examine my whole day, and I reflect upon my words and deeds; I hide nothing away from myself and pass nothing by. Why should I fear any of my mistakes, when I can say ‘take care that you don’t do this again; now I forgive you’?

As Seneca talks about his daily routine of scrutinising his conscience, he notes that his wife remains quiet so that he can concentrate on his process of reflection. She does this because she is familiar with her husband’s nightly ritual and respects it, presumably seeing in the value in it and supporting him in the process. Whether or not she is quiet because she is going through the same process, Seneca does not say; the word used, conscia, is usually translated to mean that she is aware of Seneca’s practice, but could also mean that she is a fellow participant in it.  The central point to draw from this vignette is that Seneca’s wife supports him in his pursuit of virtue. This links nicely back to the idea found in the fragments that the recognition of each other’s virtue and a shared journey towards reason is so important as the bedrock for marriage; what this passage of De Ira shows us is the way in which Seneca’s own relationship built on this critical principal.


November 27, 2018

What does a good marriage look like?

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:17 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.

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
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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 18, 2018

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

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:47 pm
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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. (more…)

September 12, 2018

Sources for Seneca on love and desire

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 10:56 pm
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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.

June 8, 2017

Book review!

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 10:15 am
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I am exceptionally excited that Seneca and the Ethics of the Family has had an extremely positive review from Brad Inwood on the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, which is the classics review platform of note. It is the sort of review that starts to get to grips with your actual ideas and offers some genuine thoughts about the big picture stuff, which is really the best sort of BMCR to get in my view. It’s also particularly because Brad Inwood is a really important voice in the field of Seneca studies who I hadn’t had any previous contact with – it’s great to find not only that he thinks the work has merit, but also that he’s happy to say that to the BMCR readership.

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