Corsica, A.D. 41/9. (Seneca, On Consolation 16. L)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Stoic philosopher, politician, and tutor to the young Nero, spent eight years (A.D. 41-9) in Corsica, exiled because the empress Messallina had accused him of adultery with Julia Livilla, Caligula’s sister. During this period he wrote the long essay To Helvia on Consolation, from which this extract is taken, to comfort his mother, Helvia. He urges her to limit her grief on grounds that excessive grieving would be like a woman, and she is better than that.

Do not use the excuse that you are a women, who has the right to weep immoderately, but not without limit; and if our ancestors gave widows by law up to ten months for mourning, it was in reaction to the tenacity of women’s grief. They did not forbid mourning; they limited it; for to suffer for the rest of one’s life for the loss of a loved one is as inhuman as showing no grief at all. The best compromise between devotion and reason is to feel the grief and to suppress it. Do not look at certain women whose period of bereavement ends only with their own death (you know some who lost their children and put on mourning and never took it off). From you, life, harder from the very beginning, requires more. A woman who never had women’s defects cannot now plead womanhood as an excuse.

You-unlike so many-never succumbed to immorality, the worst evil of the century; jewels and pearls did not bend you; you never thought wealth was the greatest gift to the human race; the bad example of lesser women-dangerous even for the virtuous-did not lead you to stray from the old-fashioned, strict upbringing you received at home. You never were ashamed of your fertility, as though the number of children you had mocked your age. You never tried to hide you pregnancy as though it were indecent, like other women who seek to please only with their beauty. Nor did you ever extinguish the hope of children already conceived whom you were carrying. You never polluted yourself with make-up, and you never wore a dress that covered about as much on as it did off. Your only ornament, the kind of beauty that time does not tarnish, is the great honour of modesty. 

So you cannot use your sex to justify your sorrow when with your virtue you have transcended it. Keep as far away from women’s tears as from their faults. But not even women will let you nurse your wound till it eats you up. Once you have got over the first wave of sorrow, they will invite you to pick yourself up, at least if you look at the examples of women who deserve to be ranked with great men. Fortune took all but two of Cornelia’s twelve children. If you count the numbers, she lost ten; if you consider the value, she lost the Gracchi.[1] But when those around her wept and cursed her fate, she forbade them to blame Fortune, which had given her the Gracchi as her sons. The man who said in public “You would speak ill of my mother, who brought me into the world?” should have had her as his mother. How much prouder the remark of the mother: for the son what counted what the birth of the Gracchi, for the mother their death as well.

Rutilia followed her son Cotta[2] into exile and was so attached to him that she preferred exile to separation and would not return until he did. But when, after he returned and his career was flourishing, he died, she bore the loss with no less courage than that she had needed to follow him, and no one saw her crying after the funeral. She showed strength of spirit towards her son in exile, and wisdom when she lost him. For nothing could deter her from her maternal devotion, and nothing could detain her is useless and foolish sorrow. 

I want you to be one of those women. You have always emulated their life; you will do well to follow their example in suppressing your grief.


1. For Cornelia, see nos. 51, 223.

2. Gaius Aurelius Cotta, the orator, was exiled from Rome but returned with Sulla (the dictator) and became consul in 75 B.C.