Seneca’s invective against the sexual misconduct in the Roman Empire as part of his decline narrative is a neglected parallel to Rom 1:26-27. Its resonances, however, give more support to Ben Witherington’s comment about specifically situating Romans 1 within the context of Seneca’s castigation of the lechery in Rome. Moreover, the parallels with Epistle 95 reinforce an excessive lust view of Rom 1:26-27.
In her monograph on sexual slander, Jennifer Wright Knust argues: “When Christians employed charges of sexual licentiousness to define themselves over and against others, they relied upon a long-standing discursive strategy that would have been familiar to everyone.”1 Timothy Brookins similarly concludes that Paul was a man of many worlds who evoked familiar associations and employed generally acceptable premises as his rhetorical situation demanded.2 Likewise, James Dunn argues that in Romans 1 Paul uses the language of popular philosophers to broaden his appeal of the Jewish rejection of homosexuality.3 While a number of other scholars such as Dunn have noted how Rom 1:18-32 is replete with resonances of moral philosophers in general,4 Ben Witherington has referred more specifically to the passage’s parallels with Stoicism, especially with the works of Seneca. Witherington writes:
No less famous a Stoic than Seneca, who was an advisor and mentor to Nero at the very time Paul wrote Romans, and Seneca’s influence … was surely not minimal in Rome. Thus it may indeed have been part of Paul’s rhetorical strategy to offer up critiques of pagan culture that had some contact with the popular philosophy extant in Rome in that day.5
Despite these references by scholars, one of the most significant Stoic parallels to Paul’s decline narrative in Romans 1 has been largely overlooked,6 namely, Seneca’s invective in Epistle 95.7 In this letter, Seneca recounts the descent of humanity to explain to his Roman audience that divine reason is the single hope for moral transformation in a society marked by foolishness, violence, perversion, and greed.8 According to the Stoic, only Lady Philosophy’s revelation of hidden truths to God’s genuine worshippers can offset the empire’s widespread theological ignorance and moral topsy-turvy. As will be seen below, Seneca illustrates this deep-seated depravity by depicting the sexual debauchery in Rome,9 which causes him to call down divine judgment upon women for performing unnatural sex acts and to denounce men for their pederastic deeds.10
In this note, I will survey the relevant passages in Epistle 95 to suggest the resonances support Witherington’s comment of specifically situating Romans 1 within the context of Seneca’s castigation of the “unspeakable”11 acts of Romans,12 as well as the possible ramifications of doing so. Before moving on, it should be underscored that I do not mean to argue that these stock denouncements stand as the only possible feature in the background of Rom 1:26-27. Rather, I only intend to suggest it is one facet of the backdrop.13 Furthermore, for the sake of brevity, I will avoid rehashing much of the exegesis of Romans 1 detailed in commentaries, articles, and essays. Moreover, I do not intend to imply dependency of one author upon the other.14 Finally, when I use value-laden words such as “perverse,” “appalling,” “unnatural,” and “inconceivable,” they are meant to reflect the attitudes of the Jewish and Greco-Roman authors—not my own.
The Fall of Men and the Lust of Women in Epistle 95
As mentioned above, Seneca explains in Epistle 95 that—due to the soul-rust manifested in society—philosophy alone can provide people with perfect wisdom and help them attain the happy life (beatam vitam). Stoic principles by themselves will not suffice. Seneca laments that this is because his shameful generation stands over against the good old days when wickedness had not reached its current peak nor “scattered itself so far” (95.13-14).15 But then came the time when men forsook ancient wisdom (antiqua sapientia) and began to “seek pleasure from every source” (95.33).16 They forgot what is honorable, so that now—Seneca gripes—everything goes and nothing is base. Men started seeking food not to remove their appetite but “to whet their gluttony.” Consequently, the pains of indigestion replaced the pangs of hunger (95.15-16); and rather than digesting in their bellies, the food rotted there, so that repulsive belches and disgusting fumes testified to “yesterday’s debauch” (95.25). But with this increase of pleasure came the increase of disease (95.15-18).17
Consequently, men’s overindulgence and sicknesses spread to their female counterparts. Women began to challenge their men in their carousing: draining down just as much liquor and vomiting forth just as much wine (95.21). The height of the women’s depravity, however, was found in their unnatural sexual activity,18 as they also began to match men in their excessive erotic passions.19 According to Seneca, females were meant to “feel love passively”; they were born to be penetrated.20 He bemoans, however, that now women invent “the most impossible varieties of unchastity,” so that with respect to sex “in the company of men they play the part of men” (95.21). Or more precisely put, “having devised so deviant a type of shamelessness, these women enter men” (Adeo perversum commentae genus inpudicitiae viros ineunt).21
Seneca does not go into detail regarding the mechanics of how exactly the females penetrate the males. According to Giuseppe Scarpat and Maria Bellincioni, the Stoic is referring to the use of an artificial penis (ὄλισβος, penis coriaceus).22 Such conduct was not unheard of. In the words of Lucian, some women would “strap to themselves cunningly contrived instruments of lechery … mysterious monstrosities devoid of seed” [MacLeod,
Seneca’s phrasing suggests that the Romans innovated new permutations and combinations for these devices. On the other side of the interaction, his comment may refer to men who delighted in—to borrow words from Plutarch—being “covered and mounted like cattle.”28 For instance, elsewhere the Stoic wags his finger at Hostius Quadra for participating in warped ingenuities of which even a brothel would be ashamed. According to Seneca, the man exulted in the most deplorable acts imaginable to a Roman: penetration by a male and by a female—at the same time. Seneca portrays the wretch as boasting that he “submits”29 to both a man and a woman while he violates another man with his unoccupied member. Even in the act, the profligate brags about how every part of his body is occupied and abused (stupris occupata).30 As with Hostius Quadra, the notion of women penetrating such men in Epistle 95 “well lends itself as an example of conduct that not only ‘abandons’ the natural order, but is even contrary to it, and therefore serves as an example of extreme perversity.”31
In Ep. 95.21, Seneca cannot bear imagining the aberrant acts anymore and blurts: “may the gods and goddesses damn them” (di illas deaeque male perdant!).32 The Stoic finds solace, however, in the poetic justice that—in rivaling male indulgences—the women have also “rivaled the ills to which men are heirs.” He concludes:
Beneficium sexus sui vitiis perdiderunt et, quia feminam exuerant,
damnatae sunt morbis virilibus.
Because of their vices, women have ceased to deserve the privileges of their sex; they have put off their womanly nature and are therefore condemned to suffer the diseases of men (95.21).
In other words, because women started penetrating like men, now they are appropriately punished like men.
Seneca does not limit his condemnation of sexual deviancy to females however.33 In addition to women penetrating men, he also aims his fire at men involved in pederasty.34 Although the Stoic cannot stomach getting into the inglorious details, he censures the practice of parading troops of unlucky young boys (puerorum infelicium) and male prostitutes (exoletorum) before the debased dinner guests.35 His disgust makes him want to avoid even mentioning the shameful molestation the slaves must endure after the dinner is over (95.24). The denouncement here coheres with what he writes in Ep. 47.7, where he expresses revulsion over a slave who was expected to receive it like a boy at parties but in the bedroom to penetrate his master like a man (in cubiculo vir, in convivio puer).
In sum, Seneca puts forth a calamitous exposé of Rome’s plight resulting from men’s rejection of wisdom. With their loss of self-control and embrace of luxury, wickedness increased and diseases scattered. To illustrate the depth of the predicament, the Stoic refers to females’ rejection of nature and males’ abandonment of wisdom so that at dinner parties men rape boys and women rival men’s lusts. Seneca calls down a divine curse on the females who contravene their womanly nature and therefore suffer men’s infirmities.36
The Fall of Men and the Lust of Women in Romans 1:26-27
As mentioned above, scholars have tended to neglect the parallels between Epistle 95 and Romans 1. But placing Seneca’s invective in Ep. 95.15-24 beside that of Paul’s in Rom 1:26-27 highlights several points of convergence and divergence. (1) For instance, both authors address women’s aberrant sex acts first and then men’s homoerotic activity, and (2) they do so as components of their larger arguments. Moreover, their larger arguments are surprisingly similar in that they critique the efficacy of their respective traditions’ principles and laws.37 Seneca refers to widespread perversion to illustrate why Stoic precepts were insufficient to rescue a person from deep-seated depravity, and Paul does so to argue that the Jewish Law is impotent for helping one attain God’s righteousness.38
(3) Next, both the Stoic and the apostle argue that the shameful sexual acts resulted when men abandoned the divine design.39 While Seneca attributes the deviant behavior as the outcome of forsaking divine wisdom for luxury and pleasure, Paul considers it as the consequence of men exchanging God’s truth for worthless idols. More specifically, Seneca points to the unnatural acts of their women as the repercussions of men going beyond nature, but the apostle attributes the females’ sexual perversion as a consequence of men worshiping creation.40 Whereas Seneca complains about how men’s sin spread to women so that women contravened nature by penetrating men, Paul pillories the men by saying that even their females “exchanged”41 the “natural act”42 for that which is παρὰ φύσιν.43 Therefore, the women—as Sanday and Headlam paraphrase—“behaved like monsters who had forgotten their sex.”44 Moreover, after their invectives against deviant women, both Seneca and Paul proceed to censure men for their homoerotic behavior. Whereas Seneca underscores the practice of pederasty, Paul more generally writes that men (like their females)45 abandoned the natural act with women and became inflamed for one another.46
(4) Nevertheless, both authors consider the perpetrators as having received their just deserts. For the Stoic, the resulting diseases contracted by the perverts demonstrates natural justice. In comparison, Paul claims that the deviants received in their own person the due penalty (τὴν ἀντιµισθίαν) of their sins. In contrast to Seneca’s notion of a medical malady such as gout in Epistle 95,47 however, Paul’s reference to the punishment in Romans 1 probably relates to the unnatural sex acts themselves as “die adäquate Vergeltung.”48 Therefore, while Seneca goes on to call down divine wrath because of the aberrant conduct, Paul considers the warped behavior the present effect of God’s wrath.49 As Ernst Käsemann puts it: “Sittliche Perversion ist nicht der Grund, sondern die Auswirkung des Gotteszorn.”50 That is to say, for the apostle, “being a sinner is the punishment of sin!” (To be fair, Seneca writes elsewhere: “The first and worst penalty for sin is to have committed sin.”)51 Over against Seneca in Epistle 95, then, Paul considers God as having already acted as judge and bailiff by placing these people into the custody of sexual passions.52
(5) Finally, since both Seneca and Paul are more interested in merely establishing the inversion of the natural sex roles for the sake of their overall arguments, neither provides much detail regarding the degrading behavior. The Stoic still does so more than the apostle. For example, in contrast to Seneca, Paul never names the gender of the deviant women’s sex-partners,53 nor does he give a concrete hint at the “circumstances under which their actions take place.”54 It may be that Paul’s discomfort with discussing female homoeroticism keeps him from spelling it out, or that he desires to stress the aberrant acts of men in the next verse.55 But even with his reference to “males with males” (ἄρσενες ἐν ἄρσεσιν) there,56 the apostle still resists specifying what particular form of male homoerotic sexual behavior he has in view.57
Despite points of divergence, the parallels in Seneca’s Epistle 95 reinforces Dunn’s claims that Paul may have constructed Rom 1:18-32 in a way that critiqued society by drawing upon the popular philosophy of his day and supports Witherington’s suggestion of specifically situating Paul’s discussion about unnatural sexual conduct within the context of Seneca’s denouncement of debaucheries in Rome.58 If this is the case, Paul’s castigation of the deviant behavior of women would follow along the lines of carnal activities to extremes like Seneca’s portrayal of women penetrating men in addition to other “unspeakable” heteroerotic, homoerotic, or autoerotic acts.59 So also, the sexual misbehavior as detailed in Seneca’s writings gives one reason to consider Paul’s references to “males with males” as invoking in the minds of his audience acts such as the horrific habit of using male prostitutes and molesting slave boys.60 While this would not rule out Paul’s general rejection of other homo- or hetero-erotic behavior forbidden by the Jewish Law and early Christian teaching, the parallels with Epistle 95 reinforce an excessive lust view of Rom 1:26-27 in particular.
Jennifer Wright Knust, Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2006) 17.
Timothy A. Brookins, Corinthian Wisdom, Stoic Philosophy, and the Ancient Economy (
E.g., David Fredrickson, “Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27: Paul and the Philosophical Critique of Eros,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999) 197-222; Victor Paul Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul (2nd ed.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1986) 52-82; Richard B. Hays, “Relations Natural and Unnatural Robert: A Response to John Boswell’s Exegesis of Romans 1,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 14.1 (1986) 184-215; Robert Jewett, Romans (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007) 155-191; Charles H. Talbert, Romans (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002) 68; Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (
Ben Witherington iii, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) 70. See also Byrne, Romans, 72. Cf. Joseph R. Dodson and David E. Briones, eds., Paul and Seneca in Dialogue (APhR 2; Leiden: Brill, 2017).
On decline narratives, see Dale B. Martin, “Heterosexism and the Interpretation of Romans 1:18-32,” Biblical Interpretation 3.3 (1995) 332-355; and Kathy L. Gaca, “Paul’s Uncommon Declaration in Romans 1:18-32 and its Problematic Legacy for Pagan and Christian Relations,”
Thorsteinsson mentions it in passing. See Runar M. Thorsteinsson, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) 147.
For the dating, occasion, and genre of Seneca’s Epistles, see C.W. Marshall, “The Works of Seneca the Younger and Their Dates,” in Brill’s Companion to Seneca (ed. Gregor Damschen and Andreas Heil; Leiden: Brill, 2014) 33-44.
That the invectives against such debaucheries reflect real events and not simply rhetorical flourish, see Anthony Corbeill, “Dining Deviants in Roman Political Invective,” in Roman Sexualities (ed. Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner; Princeton,
For more on the convivial practices, see Philo, Contempl. 6.54. See also, Katherine M.D. Dunbabin, The Roman Banquet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 11-102; Bruce Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) 22. Cf. comissationes and κῶµος in Nicholas R. Fisher, “Roman Associations, Dinner Parties, and Clubs,” in Civilization of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece and Rome (2 vols.; ed. Michael Grant and Rachel Kitzinger; New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1988) 2:1199-1219; and Joseph R. Dodson, “Locked-Out Lovers: Wisdom of Solomon 1.16 in Light of the Paraclausithyron Motif,”
Florence Dupont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (trans. Christopher Woodall; Oxford: Blackwell, 1992) 269.
The prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20, for instance, stand in the background as well as other denouncements of homosexuality in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition. See E.P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Minneapolis,
Cf. Philo, Spec. 3.37. On “split loins, angry gods, and neglected dependents” as the result of the lechery, see Rabun Taylor, “Two Pathic Subcultures in Ancient Rome,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 7.3 (1997) 330.
For more on Seneca’s notion of humankind’s subversion of nature, see Maria Bellincioni, Lettere a Lucilio (vol. 15; Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 1979) 15:255-256.
On Seneca’s view on lust, see J. Edward Ellis, Paul and Ancient Views of Sexual Desire (
Holt N. Parker, “The Teratogenic Grid,” in Roman Sexualities (ed. Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner; Princeton,
Bernadette J. Brooten, Love Between Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 45; and Judith P. Hallett, “Female Homoeroticism and the Denial of Roman Reality in Latin Literature,” Yale Journal of Criticism 3.1 (1989) 179-197, here at 185. Emphasis mine.
Giuseppe Scarpat, “Il fico e le sue foglie nella tradizione classica e cristiana,” in Studi linguistici in onore di Vittore Pisani (2 vols.; Brescia: Paideia Editrice, 1969) 2:886 n. 22; and Bellincioni, Lettere a Lucilio, 257. See also Hans Licht, Sexual Life in Ancient Greece (London: The Abbey Library, 1932) 314-319. In addition to dildos and strap-ons, a woman could be said to penetrate others with an overly large clitoris. See Brooten, Love, 6, 50.
Pseudo-Lucian, Am. 28. Cf. Marilyn B. Skinner, “Quod Multo Fit Aliter in Graecia,” in Roman Sexualities (ed. Judith P. Hallett and Marilyn B. Skinner; Princeton,
Martial, Epigrams 7.67. See Swancutt, “Stoics,” 55-56; and idem., “The Disease of Effemination: The Charge of Effeminacy and the Verdict of God (Romans 1:18-2:16),” in New Testament Masculinities (SBLSemS 45; ed. Stephen D. Moore and Janice Capel Anderson; Atlanta,
See Dover, Homosexuality, R243 and R223; Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, “Excavating Women’s Homoeroticism in Ancient Greece,” in Among Women (ed. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Lisa Auanger; Austin,
E.g., Seneca the Elder, Cont. 1.2.23; Juvenal, Sat. 6.300-315; Herodas, Mimes 6.18-100; Aristophanes, Lys. 110. Cf. Mark D. Smith, “Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27,” in
Plutarch Amat. 751E. On the pathicus and the cinaedus, see Parker, “Grid,” 57; Amy Richlin, “Not Before Homosexuality,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.4 (1993) 523-573; Taylor, “Pathic,” 319-371; Swancutt, “The Disease of Effemination,” 193-234; and Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from Greeks to Freud (Cambridge,
“Si prestava ottimamente come esempio di condotta che non solo ‘abbandona’ l’ordine naturale, ma addirittura sta e contrario, e dunque serve da esempio di estrema perversitas,” Bellincioni, Lettere a Lucilio, 257.
On pederasty, see Smith, “Bisexuality,” 223-256; Scroggs, Homosexuality, 29-65; Herman C. Waetjen, “Same-Sex Sexual Relations in Antiquity and Sexuality and Sexual Identity in Contemporary American Society,” in Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality (ed. Robert L. Brawley; Louisville,
Cf. Philo, Contempl. 5.52 and Plato, Leg. 836C-E. See also, Alan Booth, “The Age for Reclining and Its Attendant Perils,” in Dining in a Classical Context (ed. William J. Slater; Ann Arbor,
This is not to deny that Christianity and Stoicism would still be seen as rival traditions, see C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: The Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (London, Yale University Press, 2016) 1-262.
Of course, Paul’s elucidation of humanity’s sin here is part of a rhetorical trap set for his interlocutor in Rom 2:1-3:20. For a recent, convincing treatment on the rhetorical trap here, see Jonathan A. Linebaugh, God, Grace, and Righteousness in Wisdom of Solomon and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (
On Paul’s allusions to the creation account, see Preston Sprinkle, “Paul and Homosexual Behavior: A Critical Evaluation of the Excessive-Lust Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27,”
On τὴν φυσικὴν χρῆσιν, see Fredrickson, “Natural and Unnatural Use,” 197-222; Brooten, Love, 244-245; Robert A.J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001) 387-92; and Klaus Wengst, “Paulus und die Homosexualität: Überlegungen zu Röm 1:26f,” Zeitschrift für evangelische Ethik 31.1 (1987) 72-81.
For more on the definition of παρὰ φύσιν, see C.E.B. Cranfield, Romans (
William Sanday and Arthur C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (
See Jamie A. Banister, “ὁµοίως and the Use of Parallelism in Romans 1:26-27,”
For Paul, there is a connection between men turning from the creator to worship creation and their turning from their attraction of females to that of other males, see Simon J. Gathercole, “Sin in God’s Economy: Agencies in Romans 1 and 7,” in Divine and Human Agency in Paul and His Cultural Environment (ed. John M.G. Barclay and Simon J. Gathercole; London: T&T Clark, 2008) 158-172.
See Bellincioni, Lettere a Lucilio, 257. Cf. Philo’s “disease of effemination” in Philo, Spec. Leg. 3.37. Cf. Leander E. Keck, Romans (
See Robert Jewett, “The Social Context and Implications of Homoerotic References in Romans 1:24-27,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the ‘Plain Sense’ of Scripture (ed. David L. Balch; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 213.
Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (trans. Kirsi Stjerna; Minneapolis,
As to whether the reference in Rom 1:26 should be restricted to lesbian intercourse, see Banister, “ὁµοίως,” 569-590; James E. Miller, “The Practices of Romans 1:26: Homosexual or Heterosexual,” NovT 37.1 (1995) 1-11; Brooten, Love, 264-266; and Sprinkle, “Homosexual Behavior,” 519-539. Cf. Bernadette J. Brooten, “Patristic Interpretations of Romans 1:26,” in Studia Patristica 16 (1985) 287-291.