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Autophagy in Seneca’s Oeuvre

Ursula M. Poole


This paper will address the recurrent symbol of autophagy—that is, consuming one’s own flesh—throughout Seneca’s corpus. I argue that this symbol, which is consistently associated with acts of cupiditasand libido, acts as a metaphor for the impact of these stoic vices on the soul, as delineated more explicitly in his philosophical works. Though critics have discussed the stoic elements of Senecan drama (Pratt 1983; Tarrant 1985; Davis 2003; Schiesaro 2003; Bartsch et al. 2009) as well as the relationship between cannibalism and stoic philosophy in Seneca (e.g., Hook 2005; Poole 2013), to my knowledge, there has been no previous scholarship on the subject of self-consumption in his texts.

In order to advance this argument, I gird my thesis in a review of Seneca’s treatment of lust in his philosophical treatises. I then use three examples from disparate genres within his oeuvreas case studies to show how the symbol of autophagy operates as described above.

First, I turn to the Thyestes. In the climactic cena Thyestea, wherein Atreus serves his brother a stew of his sons’ flesh, Thyestes is said to consume his own body parts (suos artus edat, 278; artusque mandit ore funesto suos, 779). But as he digests his own children, they also literally become a part of him, “both alien and fearfully his own” (Segal 1983). In this sense, he proleptically eats his own flesh. As an ancient audience would have known from the established mythic tradition on which the play was based, Thyestes was banished from his brother’s kingdom for his lustful transgressions. Atreus’ act of revenge, then, is in response to the crime of cupiditas—and the punishment that symbolically suits the misdeed is cast as an act of self-cannibalism.

Secondly, I consider the Hostius Quadra episode in Seneca’s Natural Questions. Hostius Quadra is an inveterate libertine whose sexual perversions Seneca goes to some length in describing. Not only does Hostius himself describe his engagement in these licentious activities before a magnifying mirror as “feasting” on the illusion of his own reflection (mendacio pascar,, but Seneca claims that he was so base that he should have met with the fate of being consumed by his own mouth (ore suo lancinandum 1.16.3).

Finally, I address Seneca’s the Apocolocyntosis, which satirizes the emperor Claudius by transforming him, the title implies, into a gourd (metaphorically or perhaps literally in one of the lacunae by which the text is marred). Seneca’s ribald mockery invokes Claudius’ gluttony, womanizing, and penchant for gambling. Claudius’ figural transformation into a comestible coupled with his eating a gourd that causes him indigestion paints a similar picture of self-consumption.

By way of final conclusions, I discuss how in his use of autophagic imagery Seneca deploys a maneuver from the ancient rhetorical playbook: enargeia, or conjuring an image before one’s eyes. Seneca exploits the grotesquerieof this symbol for rhetorical, and ultimately didactic, purposes.

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Neronian Literature

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