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The Dark Mirror of Julia: Visuality, Prostitution, and the Principate in Seneca’s De beneficiis

Mary McNulty

University of Washington

          In De beneficiis 6.32, Seneca recalls the banishment of Julia the Elder in 2 BCE and claims that she engaged in prostitution.  Moreover, he locates her adultery in the political center of Rome: in the forum and on the speaker’s platform.  Previous scholarship of this passage has tended to overlook the major concerns that preoccupy Seneca in his prose writing that Shadi Bartsch (2006) has observed such as the development of self-knowledge through the use of an appropriate mirror.  Catherine Edwards (1993) has observed that Julia and Augustus are the mirror images of each other in this passage.  I aim to press this claim, and, drawing principally on Bartsch’s work, argue that Seneca casts Julia as a dark mirror in this passage in order to investigate the dangers in the development of self-knowledge within a political system that had appropriated the ethical, communal gaze of the elite.

            First, I will discuss the context of the passage within De beneficiis that demonstrates Seneca’s concerns with the themes of self-knowledge and self-delusion within systems of absolute power.  With this context in mind, I will then examine how Seneca’s narration emphasizes the mirroring of Julia and Augustus and the implications for the Principate.  The setting of her activities at night underlines the inauthenticity of Julia’s daytime persona as model wife and daughter, aligning with Seneca’s propensity in his prose work to reveal the personae of those in the imperial court as mask-like and false (Bartsch 2006).  Seneca claims that the location of Julia’s adultery was in the forum, on the speaker’s platform, and that she turned to prostitution at the statue of Marsyas.  Following Edwards’ (1993) and Syme’s (1939) observation that the statue of Marsyas was associated with libertas in the Roman imagination and that Julia represents the perversion of libertas under the Principate, I will argue that the accusation of prostitution at this specific location allows Seneca to underline the dangers involved in acquiring self-knowledge during the Neronian Principate.  I follow Adams (1983) who notes that quaestuaria is a synonym for meretrix, and I suggest that Seneca does intend to make the accusation and that his choice of word for prostitute allows him to emphasize the greed involved in her actions. 

            Finally, I will examine Seneca’s critique of Augustus’ reaction to discovering Julia’s crimes, and I will argue that Seneca demonstrates the self-deception inherent in the position of princeps and the Principate itself.  When Augustus is shown the mirror of the Principate through Julia’s behavior, he reacts with uncontrollable anger (parum potens irae), which flags the princeps’ inability to acquire self-knowledge.  Seneca’s narration of Julia’s banishment allows him to investigate the issues of visuality and its relationship to self-knowledge that he was grappling with during the Neronian Principate.

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Philosophy in a Roman Context

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