The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, V: the imperfect imperial family

Octavian Augustus

Octavian Augustus, the adoptive son of Julius Caesar, was the first Roman emperor. The battle of Actium of 31 BCE, where he defeated the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, marked the end of the Hellenistic period and the rise of the new empire. While Octavian had hardly been a particularly ethical individual in his youth, as emperor he set up his family as a model of moral behavior, and — to his credit — oversaw a long period of Pax Romana, which is still today celebrated by that beautiful monument in Rome known as the Ara Pacis (the altar of peace).

But the imperial family was a human family, and thus obviously imperfect, sometimes more so, at other times less. Liz Gloyn, in the fifth chapter of her fascinating The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, takes a close look at how the Stoic philosopher portrayed the imperial families he was actually acquainted with, as well as those he head read about, reminding his readers that domestic happiness is elusive for anyone but the wise person. This was true especially for imperial families, since their obvious preoccupation with power set up a difficult tradeoff with what should have been their primary concern instead: virtue.

Octavian Augustus didn’t limit himself to build public monuments like the Ara Pacis to celebrate the new era, but promulgated laws to enforce a stricter view of morality, particularly when it came to the family. For instance, his Lex Iulia de maritandis ordinibus made procreation an explicit part of the definition of marriage, with penalties for people who did not marry or have children. In 2 BCE he declared himself Pater Patriae, father of the nation, putting forth an explicit analogy between the family and the state.

The reality, of course, was complicated. For one thing, the Julio-Claudians, the first imperial dynasty, was plagued by internal power struggles between the two branches, the Julians and the Claudians, and that struggle very clearly undermined the image of pietas (devotion to gods and country) that Augustus wished to project (that, and the fact that his own youthful “indiscretions” were not so easily forgotten).

For his part, Seneca had a vantage point that included a close look at the inner workings of Nero’s family, including both the complicated, shall we say, relationship between Nero and his mother Agrippina, as well as the latter’s unusual marriage to her uncle, Claudius.

Seneca uses different imperial families as either good or bad examples for his pedagogical purposes. For instance, in De Ira, he refers to an episode involving Augustus, presenting it as a case of restrain and justice. The story goes that the emperor was dining at the house of the patrician Vedius Pollio, when one of Pollio’s slaves broke a glass. The angry master cruelly fed the slave to lampreys. In response, Augustus ordered every glass in the household to be smashed, had the lamprey pit filled, and gave a stern lecture to his host.

But Seneca also uses the imperial family in a series of exempla mala (bad examples), a standard Stoic tool for moral teaching, just as important as the exempla (positive examples) that are scattered throughout Seneca’s writings. The crucial point, again, is that there is a tension between the pursuit of power in politics and being virtuous. Seneca, however, also very clearly states that the wise person should be engaged in affairs of the state, so this isn’t a counsel for political disengagement. Rather, it advances the idea that only a virtuous person can be a good politician. Where “good” means virtuous and good for the state, not just successful at obtaining and wielding power. If only modern politicians were paying attention…

We have seen how Seneca uses his letter of consolation ad Marciam to talk about the relationship between mother and son, but it also includes a pair constituted by an exemplum and an anti-exemplum, both drawn from the imperial family. Specifically, he contrasts the measured grief of Livia after the death of her son Drusus with the immoderate grief displayed by Octavia following the death of her son Marcellus. Liz drily notes that it may not have been by chance that Livia was a Claudian while Octavia was a Julian, thus revealing Seneca’s own political leanings.

A crucial point made by Gloyn is that the fusion of the two branches of the dynasty often meant that a member of one branch would publicly grieve for the death of a member from the other branch, while secretly being relieved that a potential obstacle to advancement had been removed. This sort of attitude is entirely incompatible with the Stoic concept of oikeiosis, the appropriation of other’s concerns as if they were our own, a concept that Seneca repeatedly makes use of whenever he writes about family relations.

One of the problematic examples used often by Seneca is the relationship between Augustus and his daughter Julia. Julia’s adultery conflicts directly with the carefully constructed image of the ideal family that the emperor wants to project, and the father-daughter conflict couldn’t be, again, further away from the ideal of oikeiosis. In Augustus’ case, political expediency has overcome familial affection for his daughter. Interestingly:

“Seneca deploys Stoicised doublespeak in his use [in De Clementia] of the honorific civic title to which Augustus was entitled. Naming Augustus divus invokes a heavy Stoic irony, since that ascription is followed by a list of things that make him suffer.” (p. 221)

An imperial figure that appears an unexpectedly large number of times (sixteen!) in Seneca’s writings is Gaius Caligula, for whom Seneca reserves a particular tone of disgust and outrage. The most obvious example is found in another letter of consolation, ad Polybium, where Seneca attacks Caligula’s reaction to the death of his sister Drusilla:

“When his sister Drusilla died, Gaius Caesar, that man who could no more grieve than rejoice as befits a princeps, fled from the sight and society of his citizens; he did not attend his sister’s funeral rites, he did not make funeral offerings to his sister, but in his Alban home he made light of the evils of that most bitter funeral with dice, gaming board and other pastimes of this kind. … May this example be far off from every Roman man, either to divert his grief with ill-timed games, or to provoke it with the foulness of dirt and neglect, or to amuse it with the sufferings of others, not a human comfort at all.” (XVII.4-6)

This is a splendid example of Seneca’s humanity. Far from counseling suppression of emotions and enduring life with a stiff upper lip, he condemns Gaius for his lack of appropriate feelings given the occasion, not to mention the despicable example that he, the alleged pater familias of the nation, is giving to the Roman people.

Another graphic example is found in De Ira, where Caligula is condemned in no uncertain terms by Seneca for his cruelty:

“Why do I examine ancient matters? Only recently on a single day Gaius Caesar fell upon Sextus Papinius, whose father had been consul, and Betilienus Bassus, his own quaestor and son of his procurator, and others, both senators and knights, with whips, and tortured them, not for interrogation’s sake but for his mood’s; then he was so impatient of putting off pleasure, which his cruelty used to demand in great amount without delay, that while walking with matrons and other senators in the open promenade of his mother’s gardens, which separates the portico from the river bank, by lamp-light, he beheaded certain of them.” (III.18-3-4)

This can also be read as a not so subtle critique of the general Roman figure of the pater familias, not just the imperial one. According to Roman law, the head of the household had literal power of life and death on anyone living under his roof. Not just slaves, but his wife and children as well. On occasion, such power was horribly abused, just in the manner in which Caligula is abusing his powers as head of state, and doing so, of all places, in the garden of her recently deceased mother, Agrippina.

“Gaius represents the complete failure of the imperial family to provide ethical support. Seneca highlights this breakdown by showcasing Gaius’ degradation and moral failings in contexts where he is aided and abetted by his family. He demonstrates what happens when a family becomes concerned with power rather than virtue — it has catastrophic consequences both for individual members and for the unfortunate state in which they reside.” (p. 231)

While Seneca is often — rightly — criticized for having abetted some of Nero’s abuses, particularly the latter’s murder of his mother, Liz’s analysis in this chapter makes very clear that Seneca rather courageously and not at all subtly attacked the official model of the imperial family from the point of view of Stoic ethics, finding it woefully deficient. He should get credit for this achievement as much as for his failings.

(next: rewriting the family)

4 thoughts on “The Ethics of the Family in Seneca, V: the imperfect imperial family

  1. maxbini

    “Liz drily notes that it may not have been by chance that Livia was a Claudian while Octavia was a Julian, thus revealing Seneca’s own political leanings.”

    When Seneca actually wrote the consolation to Marcia is crucial here – before or after his exile by Claudius. If before, then the striking Julian example is Gaius Caligula who Seneca describes as a monster, if after, then more likely showing Seneca attempting to appease Claudius and seek recall rather than siding with the Claudians against the Julians. Recall also Seneca’s depiction of Claudius in the Apocolocyntosis (Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius). Seneca owed his political career to the patronage of the Julians. The Claudian Tiberius banned philosophy and foreign cults in 19 (leading to the exile of many philosophers and Seneca’s likely move to Alexandria until 32) and the Claudian Claudius exiled him for the likely trumped up charge of adultery with Livilla.

    Seneca’s position on the Principate versus the Republic (which can be read tacitly as lurking behind the issue of the family versus cosmopolitanism) is complicated – he nowhere speaks out against the Principate but this seems more a matter of wishing to avoid civil war and his comments (similar to his father’s) on the decline of the Senate blame the Principate for the decline in honourable debate and the rise of sycophants. Think as well about all the maiestas trials brought on under the guise of insults to the Princeps (Sejanus-Tiberius, Macro-Caligula, Rufus-Claudius and Tigellinus-Nero) – which led to the decimation of the Julio-Claudian line as the Emperors killed off their family members to prevent possible usurpers of their personal rule.


  2. Massimo Post author


    very interesting points, and I hope Liz will be able to comment on them. Just one note for now: Seneca criticizes Caligula in several places, in writings spanning different decades of his life. It seems that — setting aside any personal or political consideration — he really considered him the quintessential example of an emperor gone bad.


  3. lizgloyn

    Thanks for this, Max. I think my immediate response is to kick back against your assumption that Seneca has to be on anyone’s ‘side’ – nobody is exempt from Stoic critique except the wise person, and none of the imperial family is that!

    There is a bit of Chinese Whispers going on here – I assume that Massimo is referring to my comment on pg. 144 that the comparison between the two women is heighted by the contrast in their Claudian and Julian identities, but I’m not sure this is enough for us to take a position on his own political affiliation. I’m actually adverse to trying to read these texts as ‘purely’ political in the first place. This goes back to a central part of what I’m trying to do with my book, which is show how the family is at the centre of Seneca’s Stoicism. There’s a huge lure to make this ‘all about the principate really’, both in Senecan philosophy and tragedy, and I think that can get in the way of seeing what precisely Seneca is pushing us to think about and understand about the operation of the world.

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