Pastor's Impassivity: A Parodic Exemplum
at De Ira 2.33

Amanda Wilcox

University of Minnesota, Twin Cities

At De Ira 2.33, Seneca writes, "Often it is so far from advantageous to repay an injury that it is not even useful to acknowledge it (Saepe adeo iniuriam vindicare non expedit ut ne fateri quidem expediat)." He illustrates this truism with an exemplum of a father, a Roman knight named Pastor, who impassively endured the execution of his son by the emperor Gaius Caligula. In this paper, I show that this anecdote presents a parodic version of a standard historical exemplum virtutis of the nobly bereaved father. I argue that Seneca's account of Pastor calls attention to a distortion of traditional Roman virtue (virtus), and further, that this anecdote implies criticism of the principate, because Seneca suggests that the distortion of aristocratic virtue is a result of autocratic rule.

I closely compare Seneca's account of Pastor at De Ira 2.33 with a traditional example of a father whose behavior under duress reveals his virtue. The father who displays virtue by remaining unmoved at the death of his son is a stock figure in the catalog of Roman exempla. Book five, chapter ten of Valerius Maximus' Notable Deeds and Sayings, entitled "On parents who bore the loss of their children bravely (forti animo)," includes the stories of three Roman exemplars. Any of these would serve as a striking comparandum for Seneca's account of Pastor in De Ira, but for convenience, I limit my comparison of Pastor to Horatius Pulvillus, an early Republican pontifex who received word of his son's death while he was dedicating Jupiter's temple on the Capitoline.

Pulvillus removed his garland, but then continued with his task, his expression revealing nothing. Likewise Pastor remains impassive at the event of his son's death, and this impassivity makes him worthy of inclusion in De Ira as an exemplar. However, the setting, the audience, and  Pastor's motivation for behaving in an exemplary manner differ crucially from those elements in Pulvillus' tale. Pulvillus is engaged in a momentous public, civic, and religious occasion at the moment of his misfortune; Pastor is at a dinner party given by his son's executioner, Caligula. The Roman people sees and approves Pulvillus' impassivity; the emperor and his claque scrutinize Pastor for tell-tale signs of emotion. Pulvillus demonstrates virtue for its own sake; Pastor does so for the sake of prudence.

Seneca's De Ira, which was composed by 52 AD, precedes the "theatrical paradigm" (Bartsch 1994) that characterized Nero's court. Nevertheless, it fits in squarely with a longstanding emphasis on spectacle in Roman culture, manifested in the moral sphere by concern for externally evaluated and publicly celebrated virtus (Habinek 1998). I contend that Seneca's use of a traditional moral, didactic device, the exemplum virtutis, shows how the replacement of the public eye as arbiter of virtue by the private gaze of the emperor results not only in a parodic skewing of the generic form of the exemplum, but also warps the moral values that exempla were intended to illustrate, celebrate, and teach.

Topic code: LN

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