L. Annaeus Seneca, De Consolatione ad Helviam 19.4-7

Antonine woman Draped portrait statue, Cyrene, 130 CE

The woman whose modesty and courage is celebrated in this passage lived under the Julio-Claudian emperors, but she is closer in spirit to the aristocratic matronae of the Republican period who adhered to the traditional mores of their class. Seneca the Younger speaks highly of her in a philosophical letter to his mother (42 CE), written to console her from his exile in Corsica where he had been ordered by the emperor Claudius (see WRW 68-71). She is Seneca's esteemed aunt whose name has not been preserved nor has her precise status within the family of the wealthy Annaei. Seneca describes his mother Helvia as an only child (unica; ad Helviam18.9), but refers to his aunt as her sister (soror) and to her husband as his maternal uncle (avunculus is a mother's brother or a mother's sister's husband). Given the complex upper-class family relationships that arose in Rome during the last century BCE because of divorce, death, and adoptions, Helvia's status as an only child with siblings may be accurate. His aunt or uncle may have been a child of a previous marriage, in which case she would have been Helvia's half-sister or sister-in-law (soror was also used of a cousin). Seneca's aunt accompanied her husband, C. Galerius, to his post as Prefect of the senatorial Roman province of Egypt and remained with him during his term of service (16 to 31 CE) — a custom of wives that was vigorously debated in the Senate in 21 CE (see Tacitus, Annals 3.33-4). Seneca witnessed his aunt's heroism when their ship was wrecked in a storm on their return journey (31 CE), leaving her a widow. She was a surrogate mother at critical moments in his life: carrying him as a child when they migrated from the family home in Corduba (Hispania) to Rome; nursing him as an adult through a life-threatening illness; promoting his campaign for quaestorship after their return from Egypt (ad Helviam19.2). Still attached to the family of the Annaei in 42 CE, she presumably remained unmarried (univira is the term for a woman with one husband). Respecting her pudicitia, Seneca praises her not by name but as an unicum sanctitatis exemplum.

(4)Sed si prudentiam perfectissimae feminae novi, non patietur te nihil profuturo maerore consumi et exemplum tibi suum, cuius ego etiam spectator fui, narrabit. Carissimum virum amiserat, avunculum nostrum, link cui virgo nupserat, in ipsa quidem navigatione; tulit tamen eodem tempore et luctum et metum evictisque tempestatibus corpus eius naufraga evexit.

(5)O quam multarum egregia opera in obscuro iacent! Si huic illa simplex admirandis virtutibus contigisset antiquitas, quanto ingeniorum certamine celebraretur uxor quae oblita inbecillitatis, oblita metuendi etiam firmissimis maris, caput suum periculis pro sepultura obiecit et, dum cogitat de viri funere, nihil de suo timuit! Nobilitatur carminibus link omnium quae se pro coniuge vicariam dedit: hoc amplius est, discrimine vitae sepulcrum viro quaerere; maior est amor qui pari periculo minus redimit.

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(6) Post hoc nemo miretur quod per sedecim annos quibus Aegyptum maritus eius optinuit numquam in publico conspecta est, neminem provincialem domum suam admisit, nihil a viro petit, nihil a se peti passa est. Itaque loquax et in contumelias praefectorum ingeniosa provincia, in qua etiam qui vitaverunt culpam non effugerunt infamiam, velut unicum sanctitatis exemplum suspexit et, quod illi difficillimum est cui etiam periculosi sales placent, omnem verborum licentiam continuit et hodie similem illi, quamvis numquam speret, semper optat. Multum erat, si per sedecim annos illam provincia probasset: plus est quod ignoravit.

(7)Haec non ideo refero ut laudes eius exequar, quas circumscribere est tam parce transcurrere, sed ut intellegas magni animi esse feminam quam non ambitio, non avaritia, comites omnis potentiae et pestes, vicerunt, non metus mortis iam exarmata nave naufragium suum spectantem deterruit quominus exanimi viro haerens non quaereret quemadmodum inde exiret sed quemadmodum efferret.


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