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date: 25 April 2024

the self in Latin literaturefree

the self in Latin literaturefree

  • Thomas Habinek

Although the Latin language has no single term equivalent to the English expression “the self,” Latin literature has been understood by scholars to rely upon and engage with various concepts of selfhood or personal identity. Inquiry into the Roman self or selves is a relatively recent phenomenon, with antecedents in social scientists’ longstanding concern with culturally specific models of identity.1 Despite such precedents, classical scholars have generally focused more on the possible resemblance of the Roman self to modern Euro-American concepts than on analyzing Roman notions of individual identity on their own terms.

Perhaps the best-represented type of self in Latin literature is a rhetorical self, that is, an identity projected to the public by means of speaking, writing, and other types of social performance. Elite Romans would have received training in personal image construction as part of their literary and rhetorical education, which was explicitly concerned with the practice of and selection among various possible projections of character.2 Individuals as diverse as Cicero, Horace, Seneca the Younger, Pliny the Younger, and Aulus Gellius were effective at conveying rhetorical identities to their contemporaries and successors—so much so that it can be futile to try to detect an authentic person or set of actions behind the image.3 Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that an autobiographical self or “persona” can only ever be a discursive production.4 In the cases of Cicero and Seneca, constructed selves attained a degree of political and cultural authority rivaling that derived from aristocratic pedigree or military achievement and became the target of emulation or critique by subsequent generations.5 The association of selfhood or personality with performance of a social role spoke to a deep strain of theatricality or ritual delegation in Roman culture. Even aristocratic identity relied on a reanimation of prototypes, as exemplified by funeral rites in which survivors impersonated long-dead ancestors through gesture, gait, and the wearing of masks.6 This understanding of selfhood as an externally projected identity available for imitation or reanimation by others permeates the great works of classical Latin literature, for example in Virgil’s treatment of Augustus as possible reanimation of Aeneas, in Livy’s accounts of the characteristic behavior of multiple generations of the same household, or in various writers’ reflections on the career of Seneca the Younger as exemplifying an alternative path to glory.7 The ease with which anonymous ancient writers interpolated new passages into old texts or impersonated predecessors is perhaps one consequence of the relative openness of authorial selves.8 Even in late antiquity, when the rhetorical self is regarded by some scholars as having retreated in the face of an emerging emphasis on interiority and authenticity, writers and political figures continued to fashion self-images based on their relationship to authorizing predecessors.9

In contrast to the culturally dominant understanding of the self as outward projection, some Roman writers, influenced by the Greek philosophical tradition, began to regard the self as distinct from and even opposed to public identity.10 This inner self took different forms in different philosophical schools, with Plato and his successors speaking of a composite self composed of oft-conflicting elements, such as mind, spirit, and body, and Hellenistic philosophers instead developing a more integrated or holistic understanding of the self. In all such accounts, the philosophical self draws closer to a modern Euro-American emphasis on autonomy, authenticity, and reflexivity than does its rhetorical rival. The Stoic treatises of Seneca the Younger, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius have received particular attention in this regard, largely because they describe processes of self-scrutiny aimed at freeing the individual subject from externally imposed social constraints.11 Yet there is something paradoxical about scholarly focus on the self in Stoic writings, since for the Stoics wisdom, or sagehood, consists of immersion in the dynamic processes of an all-encompassing nature. The object of care in the meditative writings of the Roman Stoics and their early Christian counterparts is less a self than a set of actions (including thoughts and judgements) that either do or do not align with the order of the universe. Whether concerned with selves or not, different models of human psychology are clearly at play in different literary texts, from the part-based approach adopted by Plutarch in his biographies, to the more holistic understanding of character that informs Seneca’s tragedies.12 It has even been argued that differing philosophical approaches to the self would lead to variant interpretations of prominent episodes of internal conflict such as Medea’s decision to kill her children (Sen. Med. 892–977) or Aeneas’s initial reluctance to execute the suppliant Turnus (Verg. Aen. 12.930–952).13

In addition to a rhetorical self and multiple philosophical selves, Latin literature provides fertile ground for the study of an interpellated self, that is, a self as summoned or hailed by various discourses and practices over which it has little control.14 Thus Roman comedy, best illustrated by the state-sponsored plays of Plautus, assumes a commonality of interest among members of an audience that was widely diverse in status, ethnic origin, and political commitment. Slave and free, Roman and immigrant are addressed as if sharing the same psychic needs and enjoying the same pleasures.15 Not much later, both the epic poet Ennius and the historian/encyclopedist Cato the Elder describe literature as providing a preview of the intensive scrutiny Roman readers will receive from their peers.16 In book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, although speaking from within a mythical, timeless Underworld, Aeneas’s father Anchises directly addresses each and every member of his audience as (singular) “Roman”—this despite the fact that one of the key social and political issues of the day concerned the integration of non-Romans into Roman society.17 The use of literary texts in schools, theaters, and private recitations played an important role in “hailing” Roman subjects as male or female, free or slave, urbane or rustic. The higher one rose in the intellectual and social ranks, the greater the degree of submission expected to the cultural norms inculcated by a largely elite literary tradition.18

Such expectations appear to have been especially strong with respect to gender and sexuality, with the result that literature and literary education became an important arena for negotiating, promulgating, and at times enforcing shifting definitions of masculinity and femininity. Thus, seemingly neutral proclamations of the aesthetic principle of decorum by writers such as Horace, Seneca the Elder, and Quintilian can be understood as promoting the value of male over female persons or characteristics.19 Literary practice offered an alternative venue for masculine competition for glorious self-promotion, whether in the dignified recitations described by Pliny the Younger or the more flamboyant performances of traveling sophists.20 External codification of sexual behavior may explain the emergence of sexual conduct as a focus of internalized norms and self-scrutiny.21 A hierarchical sense of self, with persons assigned value based on birth, gender, affiliation, and so on, can be seen as the antitype against which a modern, more egalitarian self defined itself.22 To what extent such a schematic opposition does justice to the complexity of either ancient or modern beliefs and practices remains an open question. If nothing else, ancient models of self, almost across the board, take for granted the embedding of the individual within a larger network of social and material relations. A completely self-fashioned identity was regarded as neither realistic nor desirable.

An influential means of access to the modern self has been provided by psychoanalysis, which studies the unconscious forces that shape and constrain the conscious thoughts and actions of seemingly free and autonomous individuals. When applied to ancient texts, such an approach offers a useful corrective to accounts of the self that rely solely on a surface reading of sources, especially for information about the emotional life of author or audience. Although attempts to psychoanalyze individual authors based on their writings have been limited and unpersuasive,23 scholars have made headway in reading Latin texts for the symptoms they display of unresolved conflicts and repressed desires, from unrequited longing for the dead to oedipal rage against the father.24

A characteristic of psychoanalysis is recognition that a self (whether ancient, modern, or postmodern) comes to awareness through the social medium of language. In this respect it has more in common with approaches that emphasize the self in relation with others than with those that hypothesize a pre-existent, objective self or presume a universal longing for autonomy. Psychoanalysis also challenges modern readers to reflect on their own investment in studying and reconstructing a Roman self or selves.

Owing to the importance of Latin literature and Roman philosophy in the history of Western thought, concepts of selfhood inferred from the ancient texts have had a long afterlife. Indeed, much of the impetus for the study of selfhood at Rome has come from outside the field of classics, via work by scholars who have situated later versions of selfhood in relation to the classical past. Thus Stephen Greenblatt’s study of the calculated self-presentation of key figures in early modern English cultural history, such as Thomas More, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe, prompted a new recognition of the Roman rhetorical self,25 while Charles Taylor’s influential treatise on the sources of the modern self and Michel Foucault’s late investigation of self-care played a similar role in the rediscovery of the Roman philosophical self,26 and Althusser’s reflections on the power of traditional institutions prompted interest in the multiple interpellated selves of classical Rome.27

Yet this recognition of the diverse ways in which antiquity provides sources for modern selves has not led to a broader reconsideration of Roman models of identity independent of their possible anticipation of modern concepts. We still lack a comprehensive study that would historicize the discourse of the self that has been identified in Latin literature by relating it to other evidence concerning identity (archaeological, religious, legal, etc.) and to interaction with non-elite agents and perspectives. In this sense, Latin literature can provide at best partial access to the variety of selves or self-concepts available to ancient peoples. This limitation also makes it difficult to determine the relationship between the self as depicted in pagan classical literature and the emergent self of early Christianity. Are differences due to a radical re-evaluation of the place of the individual in the cosmos, or perhaps just evidence of the assertion, via a newly available discourse, of views long held by previously voiceless sectors of the population? Are the continuities identified by some scholars, especially between Roman Stoicism and Christian monasticism,28 evidence of a shared ideology, or an outcome of shared social position?

A final line of inquiry, loosely understood as cognitive or biological in approach, may offer the prospect of a more inclusive understanding of selfhood in antiquity. Although discussions of the biological basis of selfhood and self-concepts can lead to a kind of organistic reductivism in which neural cells and only neural cells are held responsible for thoughts, motivations, and decisions, a more sophisticated materialism, positing (like the Stoics) the physicality of the entire universe and thus of interactions between the inside and the outside of a particular human body, provides a framework for correlating what the psychologist Richard Hallam has called “ecocentric” and “autocentric” perspectives on the self.29 If thought or consciousness can be understood as a kind of feedback loop linking brain, body, and environment, as various cognitive scientists have argued,30 then the contrast between the self as autonomous agent and the self as product of external institutions may be less a matter of accurate scholarship or historical periodization than a question of perspective—with the reasons for adopting one perspective over another still open to analysis, critique, and historical reckoning. Such an approach to the self as embodied and situated has already begun to have some impact on criticism of Latin literature, especially in studies that consider literature, both prose and poetry, as a practice linking authors and audiences within a broader social and cosmic order.31


  • Bartsch, Shadi. The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Bartsch, Shadi, and David Wray, eds. Seneca and the Self. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality, vol. 3 Care of the Self. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1988.
  • Freudenburg, Kirk. “Horatius Anceps: Persona and Self-Revelation in Satire and Song.” In A Companion to Horace. Edited by Gregson Davis, 271–290. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010.
  • Gill, Christopher. The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Gleason, Maud. Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Gunderson, Erik. Declamation, Paternity, and Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Hallam, Richard S. Virtual Selves, Real Persons: A Dialogue across Disciplines. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Martin, Luther H., Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton. Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
  • Reydams-Schils, Gretchen. The Roman Stoics: Self, Responsibility, and Affection. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Siegel, Jerrold. The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.


  • 1. See the survey of earlier scholarship discussed in Hazel R. Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, “Culture and the Self,” Psychological Review 98 (1991): 224–253, especially essays by Durkheim and Mauss originally published in 1912 and 1938 respectively.

  • 2. For example, Quint. Inst. 9.2.

  • 3. John Dugan, Making a New Man: Ciceronian Self-fashioning in the Rhetorical Works (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Kirk Freudenburg, “Horatius Anceps: Persona and Self-Revelation in Satire and Song,” in A Companion to Horace, ed. Gregson Davis (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2010), 271–290; E. W. Leach, “The Politics of Self-Presentation: Pliny’s Letters and Roman Portrait Sculpture,” Classical Antiquity 9 (1990): 14–39; and Wytse Hette Keulen, Gellius the Satirist: Roman Cultural Authority in the Attic Nights (Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2009).

  • 4. Freudenburg, “Horatius Anceps.”

  • 5. Dugan, Making a New Man; Thomas Habinek, “Imago Suae Vitae: Seneca's Life and Career,” in Brill’s Companion to Seneca, ed. Gregor Damschen and Andreas Heil (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 3–32.

  • 6. Polyb. 6.53–54; and Harriet I. Flower, Ancestor masks and aristocratic power in Roman culture (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

  • 7. Thomas Habinek, “Seneca’s Renown: Gloria, Claritudo, and the Replication of the Roman Elite,” Classical Antiquity 19 (2000): 264–303.

  • 8. Irene Peirano, The Rhetoric of the Roman Fake: Latin Pseudepigrapha in Context (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

  • 9. E.g., Constantine in relation to political predecessors: Jonathan Bardill, Constantine: Divine Emperor of the Christian Golden Age (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); or Prudentius in relation to poetic exemplars: Marc Mastrangelo, The Roman Self in Late Antiquity: Prudentius and the Poetics of the Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

  • 10. The most comprehensive and balanced assessment is Christopher Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 408–461. Also relevant are Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); and Shadi Bartsch and David Wray, eds., Seneca and the Self (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  • 11. See in particular Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 3: Care of the Self, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1988); and Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988).

  • 12. Christopher Gill, “Did Chrysippus Understand Medea?,” Phronesis 28 (1983): 136–149; and Christopher Gill, The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 408–461.

  • 13. Gill, Structured Self; ibid.

  • 14. On interpellation, see the classic essay by Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in his Lenin and Philosophy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970).

  • 15. Kathleen McCarthy, Slaves, Masters and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000). But contrast Amy Richlin, Rome and the Mysterious Orient: Three Plays by Plautus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), who argues for differential communication with different groups within the audience.

  • 16. Thomas Habinek, The Politics of Latin Literature: Writing, Identity, and Empire in Ancient Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), especially chapter 2.

  • 17. Katharine Toll, “The Aeneid as an Epic of Italian National Identity,” Helios 18 (1991): 3–14; and Yasmin Syed, Vergil’s Aeneid and the Roman Self: Subject and Nation in Literary Discourse (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

  • 18. W. Martin Bloomer, The School of Rome: Latin Studies and the Origins of Liberal Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).

  • 19. Ellen Oliensis, “Canidia, Canicula, and the Decorum of Horace’s Epodes,” Arethusa 24 (1991): 107–138.

  • 20. Maud W. Gleason, Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  • 21. Shadi Bartsch, The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

  • 22. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989); and Jerrold E. Siegel, The Idea of the Self: Thought and Experience in Western Europe since the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

  • 23. Marc Rozelaar, Seneca: Eine Gesamtdarstellung (Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1976).

  • 24. On the continuing value of Freudian concepts and analysis see Ellen Oliensis, Freud’s Rome: Psychoanalysis and Latin poetry (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Studies more dependent on Lacan include Micaela Wakil Janan, The Politics of Desire: Propertius IV (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Paul Allen Miller, Subjecting Verses: Latin Erotic Elegy and the Emergence of the Real (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Erik Gunderson, Declamation, Paternity, and Roman Identity: Authority and the Rhetorical Self (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

  • 25. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

  • 26. Taylor, Sources of the Self; and Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 3.

  • 27. Althusser. “Ideology.”

  • 28. Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 3; for critique see A. A. Long, “Seneca on the Self: Why Now?,” in Bartsch and Wray, Seneca and the Self, 20–38.

  • 29. Richard S. Hallam, Virtual Selves, Real Persons: A Dialogue across Disciplines (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

  • 30. Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003); Gerald M. Edelman, Wider than the Sky: The Phenomenal Gift of Consciousness (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004); Michael Spivey, Continuity of Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Alva Noë, Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness (New York: Hill and Wang, 2009).

  • 31. Thomas Habinek, The World of Roman Song (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); and Enrica Sciarrino, Cato the Censor and the Beginnings of Latin Prose (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011).