Academic journal article Helios

Exemplary Grief: Gender and Virtue in Seneca's Consolations to Women

Academic journal article Helios

Exemplary Grief: Gender and Virtue in Seneca's Consolations to Women

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Seneca addressed two consolations to women: the Consolatio ad Marciam, addressed to a mother whose adult son has died, and the Consolatio ad Helviam, to Seneca's own mother to console her for his exile. (1) In exhorting his addressees to emulate bereaved parents who had become exemplars of virtuous mourning, Seneca makes a point of offering behavioral models whose gender matches theirs. (2) Seneca's female illustrations of virtus (ethical virtue), intended to encourage Marcia and Helvia to display their own virtus, challenge the usual constructions of both exemplarity and gender, each of which relies on simple contrast: a person can act in either a masculine or a feminine way, with history offering both positive examples of behavior to imitate and negative models to avoid. (3) Since virtus was strongly identified by etymology and anecdote as a masculine quality and was associated with martial and civic endeavors, we would expect positive exemplars to be mostly or entirely men; but in fact, a number of women appear as exemplars of virtue in Seneca and his predecessors, notably Livy. Now, the complex issue of whether, and how, a Roman woman who exhibits virtus is rendered "manly" has received valuable scholarly attention of late. In this article, however, I turn my attention to a way of handling exemplary virtue, particularly that exercised by women, which is distinctively Senecan. In his Ad Marciam and Ad Helviam, Seneca strongly emphasizes the role that a text and its author play in creating a public of readers, as well as a public evaluation of virtue, whether exhibited by a man or woman. This new "public eye" of the text enables Seneca to circumscribe different limits for what endeavors are public and publicly valued and thus what constitute exemplary acts. The revision of virtus that ensues is particularly clear in the Ad Helviam and Ad Marciam in that they highlight female exemplars. In these works which, despite their female addressees and their Stoic slant, nonetheless aim at upholding traditional Roman behavioral ideals, Seneca rejects one set of rhetorical and cultural expectations while reinforcing another. He denies the notion that women are naturally suited to model lack of self-control and other bad behavior, but he gives tacit support to the notion that virtuous Romans do not upset the social order, whether by grieving extravagantly or by challenging their proper biological and social roles.

This balancing act can be seen in Seneca's depictions of manly valor exhibited by women, depictions that show female virtus to either complement masculine virtue or correct masculine vice. Despite the apparent "manliness" of Seneca's exemplary women, their virtus is reactive and reproductive, as it relies on and supports traditionally defined gender roles. (4) In this respect, the female exemplars conform to Parker's study of how Roman exemplum literature reaffirms the social status quo by depicting women who "in times of crisis become increasingly masculine" in order to reassert the masculine values on which the household and community are based. (5) In this article, I demonstrate first the challenges to the portrayal of positive female exemplars that the cultural associations of virtus and mourning present, and then how Seneca circumvents these difficulties and profits from including female exemplars. Finally, I show how the performances of virtue recounted in these works are transformed by the mediation of the text, which both effaces gender differences and reasserts them.

2. Gender Roles in Consolatory Rhetoric and Philosophy

Roman authors routinely used a rhetoric of gender to define acceptable masculine behavior in bereavement. (6) Consolations warn their recipients not to mourn like women, and rebuke them if signs of feminine "softness" have already been detected. (7) Cicero admonishes a bereaved father:

  Etenim si nulla fuit umquam [si] liberis amissis tam imbecillo mulier
  animo quae non aliquando lugendi modum fecerit, certe nos, quod est
  dies adlatura, id consilio ante adferre debemus neque exspectare
  temporis medicinam, quam repraesentare ratione possimus. … 
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