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This paper examines the relationship between bodily autonomy and conceptualizations of gender in the philosophical and tragic corpora of Seneca the Younger. First considering selected passages from a handful of Senecan prose works (e.g. De Constantia Sapientis, De Ira, Epistulae Morales 51 and 95), it detects rhetoric that consistently perpetuates a deeply binaric and hierarchical conceptualization of male and female bodies. In this scheme, Seneca (stereo)typically associates male bodies with stability, imperviousness to injury, and impenetrability, while frequenting inscribing female bodies as particularly susceptible to injury, infirmity, and permeability. The latter connotations are profoundly evident in Seneca’s characterization of all women as pati natae, or “born to suffer” (Epistula 95.21), a phrase that simultaneously evokes liability to physical pain, a lack of bodily autonomy, and penetrability. Indeed, alternate possible translations include “born to be submissive” and “born to be penetrated”, revealing the sexual subordination of women which Seneca regards as natural, as well as women’s supposedly inherent vulnerability to the assaults of injury and disease.

The binaric conceptualization of male and female bodies that is evident in Senecan philosophical prose also colors the representation of male and female characters in Senecan tragedies. Operating within this dichotomous framework, however, Seneca’s tragedies reveal possibilities for gender fluidity associated with deviations from his conceptualizations of embodiment and power relations (Segal 1983). As Littlewood (1997) observes in his analysis of gender roles and characterization in Seneca’s Thyestes, “Gender is a matter of role-playing, and it is possible for a woman to be virile as it is…common for a man to be effeminate.” (72) According to the gendered framework established in Seneca prose, male-bodied figures in Senecan tragedy can, through the loss of bodily autonomy and/or through bodily instability, become effectively feminized, while female-bodied figures can assume a masculinized characterization when they gain control over their own bodies and/or the bodies off others. Such emasculating inversions are evident in Seneca’s representations of the physical distress and impotence that Thyestes experiences near the end of the eponymous play (e.g. vv. 938-969), and in the madness that deprives Hercules of bodily control and mental awareness in Hercules Furens (e.g. vv. 1082-1099). At the same time, Hercules’ bout of madness situates the goddess Juno in a masculinized role via her ability to infiltrate Hercules’ mind and wield power over his bodily states (cf. vv. 75-82). Similarly, Seneca’s Medea destabilizes its titular character’s gender identity in part through imagery that underscores her capacities to violate the bodies of others (e.g. vv. 910-915).

While scholars such as Littlewood (1997) and Graver (1998) have analyzed constructions of gender in particular works such as Thyestes or the Epistulae Morales, this paper will investigate a broader selection of both Senecan prose and poetry and identify productive ways of connecting their gendered representations of embodiment. In this way, this paper will offer a new lens through which to consider the complex relationship between Seneca’s tragic corpus and his philosophical prose.