BMCR 2006.11.28

The Mirror of the Self. Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire

, The mirror of the self : sexuality, self-knowledge, and the gaze in the early Roman Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. viii, 325 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0226038351 $45.00.

Table of Contents

Classics has seen in recent years a new interest in such topics as the emotions, the body, the self, and the the senses, above all vision.1 Shadi Bartsch’s (hereafter ‘B.’) new book is a Protean work, even within this already colourful field, dealing with the “unlikely ménage à trois” (p. 1) of vision, sexuality, and self-knowledge. Far from being curious or précieux, however, it is a truly intriguing, eye-opening study, arguing that “the interrelation of these three fields of discourse … has much to show us about how the ancients understood what it meant to be a person” (p. 1).

After stating her main point and summarizing the upcoming chapters in a neat introduction, B. starts exploring this interrelation in a chapter titled “The Mirror of Philosophy,” dealing with the archetypal association between vision and (self-)knowledge. She emphasizes the fact that ancient texts stress the actual gaze, rather than an abstract, Cartesian ‘eye of the mind,’ as a tool of philosophical self-improvement.2 Looking into a mirror (whether physical or metaphorical) could—in several ways—help to avert or resist forms of akrasia (lapses in self-control), by creating a momentary dislocation of self-identity.

B. examines ancient treatments of the mirror, both as a cultural artefact and as a powerful, ambivalent symbol, referring either to a life of philosophical self-examination or to an ‘effeminate’ lifestyle, devoted to luxury, illusion and (sexual) indulgence. Epistemologically, the mirrored image could serve as a metaphor for correct representation as well as for the deceptive reflection of reality.

Within the earnest, philosophical tradition of the mirror, B. explores two important currents. In the first, predominant tradition (said to go back to Socrates), the mirror serves as a replacement for a “judging other,” reflecting the appraisals of the community and inducing the individual to conform to its expectations. In the second tradition, featured especially in Plato’s philosophy (B. analyzes the Alcibiades I in depth), it figures as a metaphor for our ability to see the divine in ourselves by seeing the divine in a beloved other.

B. begins her second chapter (“The Eye of the Lover”) by briefly discussing ancient optical theory, broadly divided into five schools, intromission (where seeing results from of a stream of particles given off by the object, penetrating the eye) and extramission (suggesting a material effluence from the eye making contact with the object seen) being the most important currents. The tactile quality all schools ascribed to seeing, often phrased in terms of penetration or touching, naturally provided ancient authors with ample possibilities for sexually colored wordplay. B. warns us, however, against seeing this as mere Spielerei : in ancient thought, she argues, the eyes were seen, quite literally, as both the most powerful of our senses and as the most vulnerable of our bodily inroads.

With this cultural paradigm in mind, B. returns to Plato’s views on the sublimated erotic power of the gaze, connecting the Roman rejection of this conception with their fear of “ocular penetration” (referring to the notion of intromission), regarded as a violation of the integrity of bodily boundaries. Apart from examples from Achilles Tatius and Plutarch, B. especially discusses Lucretius’ violent imagery and gloomy depiction of sexuality, perceived as a delusional power, rooted in vision. Apart from Epicurus’ views on this subject, B. adduces the generally “pathophobic” character of the Romans—a better term than “homophobic”—as a reason for Lucretius’ (and his contemporaries’) aversion toward Plato’s erotic idealism.

In the final section of this chapter, B. analyzes two texts often discussed together for being both surprisingly similar and dramatically different.3 The first is Ovid’s treatment of the myth of Narcissus, in which Tiresias warns Narcissus that coming to know himself will mean his death, clearly a parodic play on the Socratic injunction to “know thyself,” connected with the mirror tradition. Narcissus’ gaze, in Ovid’s narrative, is circular, and for that reason fruitless: his visual self-absorption evades a judging ‘social mirror,’ and does not lead to a Platonic sublimation either. Instead, two mirror traditions collide here: the mirror of self-examination clashes with the mirror of illusion and deceit, subject with object, the Platonic erastes with his eromenos.

The second text is the story of Hostius Quadra, recounted in Seneca’s Naturales Quaestiones. After dealing with the philosophical contemplation of meteorological phenomena, S. relates Hostius’ most unphilosophical relishing at his own sexual debauchery, reflected in magnifying mirrors. Hostius’ situation notably contrasts with that of Narcissus: an old pervert gloating at his own distorted reflection vis-à-vis an innocent boy dying by acknowledging his authentic reflection in a pool. What connects them, however, is the fact that Hostius’ gaze at his own reflection does not bring him deepened philosophical self-awareness either, leading only to carnal self-gratification and self-absorption.

B.’s interpretation of both stories markedly differs from that of Peter Toohey, in his Melancholy, Love and Time. Whereas B. argues that they represent a kind of short circuit in self-development, Toohey sees them as instances of a succesful “reformulation of self,” “produced through alienation and inversion of norm.”4 Having reread both interpretations in succession, I think B.’s argument comes across as the better founded, although Leitao’s comment that Seneca’s description betrays an ambiguous fascination with Hostius’ behavior is convincing as well.5

B.’s third chapter deals with different “scopic paradigms,” examining the ambiguities and cultural assumptions surrounding the Roman gaze, by linking the sexual and ethical concepts outlined in ch. 1 with the public role of the gaze. This role consisted in providing visual, exemplary models and in continually shaping civic and personal identity, which explains why spectacular displays and exemplary acts often produced defining and powerfully resounding moments in Roman politics. Founding the legitimacy of their power on exemplary behavior, Roman aristocrats naturally bound themselves to a continuous, quasi-theatrical production of the values they proclaimed.6 Even the dead, the imagines of their ancestors, were thought to cast an assessing gaze on their conduct, although the imago vitae of any virtuous man, or even powerful literary or mental images, could fulfill a similar psychological function. Finally, imago could mean a mirrored reflection, exhorting the ideal statesman to community-sanctioned conduct, thereby providing a ‘mirror’ for his fellow citizens in turn.

This account of interactions between vision and ethics brings B. to a discussion of the classic distinction between “shame cultures,” stressing the public and visual aspects of morality, and “guilt cultures,” relying more on internal convictions. Informed by recent scholarship, B. argues that such notions represent models marking differences along a spectrum rather than distinct categories, and interestingly demonstrates the Romans’ meta-ethical awareness of the connection between ethical behavior and being seen.

In the following section, B. deals with the “penetrating gaze,” examining the iconography of images or artefacts intended to turn away the evil eye. B. explains the phallic symbolism usually involved in this as a kind of “homeopathic reasoning”: “against something that penetrates, use something else that penetrates” (p. 147).7

Subsequently, B. brings together the paradigms of aristocratic self-display and penetrative viewing, to deal with the intriguing question how public self-display “could damage and effeminize some males but leave their elite brethren unscathed” (p. 152).B. examines as paradigmatic examples the orator and the actor, pointing especially to a set of morally charged oppositions explaining the status gap between them: mimicking vs. acting autonomously, working for money vs. exerting oneself for the public good, stirring voluptas vs. inciting virtus, etc. Such binaries, again, heavily rely on the Roman emphasis on activism and hierarchy. However ingrained this “ideology of the gaze” was, Roman orators acknowledged the uncanny similarity between the actor’s position and their own and were well aware of the weak spot in their discursive armor.8 An aristocrat, after all, could still harm himself, by falling prey to his own visual hunger for corrupting pleasures or by disgracing himself in the public eye.

Not just actors but philosophers as well often suffered from imputations of being debauched homosexuals, hiding under a cloak of wisdom. To account for this bias, which was apparently based on a rather inflated association between Greek wisdom and “Greek practices,” B. points not just to the Romans’ general pathophobia (dealt with earlier) but also to the particularly strong depreciation of the body in Roman Stoicism. This position was far removed from traditional Roman thought, in which the inviolability of the citizen’s body from “invasion” was sacrosanct. In early imperial Stoic thought, however, consciousness of the body’s frailty becomes an important element of self-realisation, and emphasis is shifted towards mental impenetrability. With traditional senatorial safeguards swept away, philosophy, rather than political rights and prerogatives, now sustained liberty. Paradoxically, an unflinching readiness to submit to bodily violation was now thought to engender freedom from “real” violation. While this is a compelling train of thought, I find it somewhat difficult to accept the conclusion B. affixes to it, offered as an explanation for the aforementioned imputations, that “their passive attitude about the boundaries of their own bodies renders them … models of unmanly penetration” (p. 181).

At the beginning of her fourth chapter (“The Self on Display”), B. examines Seneca’s speculum principis in De Clementia, crossing the traditions of the “mirror of vanity” and the “mirror of self-improvement” (as in Ovid!), since the “mirror” Seneca is holding towards Nero, reflecting his almost boundless power, is meant to stir voluptas in him rather than exhort him to self-development (with the implicit suggestion that the emperor should show restraint in exercising his might?). In other texts as well, Seneca seems to depart from the tradition of the mirror as a tool for self-improvement, arguing that the mirrored gaze remains without any moral effect if the onlooker does not feel any prior intention towards self-betterment.

Instead, B. argues that much of Seneca’s philosophical inquiry is driven by the quest to invent a new type of philosophical mirror, as traditional republican forms of aristocratic self-display and social control had been replaced by an imperial monopoly on self-display and the gazing censorship. Although “spiritual exercises” (in P. Hadot’s words) involving self-witnessing and self-exhortation predated Roman stoicism, Senecan meditatio significantly differed from both philosophical precedents and traditional republican practices of ” persona management”. Most importantly, it insists on a constant internalized gaze and an individual cultivation of universal virtues, independent of society’s examples and judgments, thought of as corrupted by imperial power politics and general moral decay.

In the following section, B. discusses the possibility, still unconsidered, of the gaze’s pernicious potential to produce an anxious and inauthentic self. Although “role-playing”, in Roman Stoicism, was a metaphor for being consistent with oneself, rather than for chameleon-like deceit, “the philosopher’s theater” (as the chapter is titled) offered a real risk of overacting and even faking equanimity, leading to self-betrayal rather than self-control. B’s attention to the continuing tension between internalized self-control and a witnessing society at this point (explicit at p. 213) in my view refines Toohey’s (2004) thesis of a psychological “turn inward” during the first and second centuries CE.

Continuing on this conflict between philosophically ideal and politically necessary behavior, B. analyzes shifting meanings of the concept of persona. Traditionally, this notion referred to a Roman citizen’s performing his social or political roles, not conceived as different from the “real person,” but as part and parcel of it; even Cicero’s original four personae theory does not significantly depart from this. In Seneca’s work, however, marked as it is by the unequal power dynamics of imperial politics, the term receives a connotation of inauthenticity, mingling meanings of persona as “mask” and as “public character” and blurring distinctions between the Stoic proficiens and the deceitful actor, between silent protest and ostentatious servility.

In her fifth and final chapter (“Models of Personhood”), B. deals further with the new “dialogic” self in Seneca’s work, moving away from Republican, collectivist morality towards a personalist ethics based on internal self-witnessing. This alteration is comparable to the transition from C. Gill’s “objective-participant model,” dominant in Greek antiquity, towards a “subjective individualist” thought, conceived by Gill as typical of post-Cartesian thought.9 Further, B. convincingly argues that Frankfurt’s theory of personality as consisting of an interplay between first-order desires and secondary volitions (the ability “to want what one wants to want”), which is rejected by Gill when examining Greek texts, fits rather well with Seneca’s views on selfhood.

As an illustration of her views, B. explores how Seneca’s philosophy of self-observation is echoed throughout his Medea. To begin with, Medea’s own evaluation of her deeds, horrific to the community but satisfying to herself, is entirely self-generated (although it implicitly requires Jason’s witnessing). From Medea’s point of view, the murder of her children is an endpoint of a process of “becoming herself,” conceived in a similar way as Stoic self-development. Further, her recurrent self-exhortation and self-reproval parodically rehearse many themes, concepts, and techniques that figure in Seneca’s philosophical writing. This paradoxical situation, philosophical practices being successfully pursued with very unphilosophical consequences, illustrates the dangers of ethical solipsism, implicit in Seneca’s philosophical approach, and raises troubling questions about the possibility of a purely “subjective individualist” ethics—perhaps accounting for Seneca’s ambiguous fascination with Hostius Quadra?—unresolved in Senecan ethics.

Apart from the few minor flaws and points of discussion mentioned in my text and notes, The Mirror of the Self is a dazzling book with a broad field of vision, offering important new insights into Roman cultural psychology. Something I especially liked is the way in which B., throughout the book, connects the assumptions of ancient optical theory with conspicuous elements in philosophical or literary texts, providing an excellent treatment of what Norbert Elias (borrowing a concept from Hans Neumann) called Gesunkenes Kulturgut. B. commands the field of classics in its entirety, moving from an expert summary of ancient optical theory to a careful analysis of Lucretian poetry, elucidating philosophical subtleties and inserting notes of textual criticism along the way. Her fluent and carefully argued exposition, however, eases this compelling erudition (the book has 29 pages of references). B. contributes significant new insights to scholarly discussions in all fields and raises important questions for research to come.


1. Studies on vision particularly abound during the last few years. Among other recent book-length studies, I may mention: Fredrick, David (ed.), The Roman gaze. Vision, power, and the body (Baltimore/London, The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002); Villard, Laurence (ed.), Couleurs et Vision dans l’ Antiquité Classique, (Rouen, 2002); Clarke, John R., Art in the lives of ordinary Romans. Visual representation and nonelite viewers in Italy, 100 B. C. – A. D. 315 (Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, University of California Press, 2003); Merker, Anne, La vision chez Platon et Aristote (Sankt Augustin, Academia Verlag, 2003); Zanker, Graham, Modes of Viewing in Hellenistic Poetry and Art (Madison,WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 2004); Maiatsky, Michail, Platon, penseur du visuel (Paris, Harmattan, 2005); Morales, Helen, Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius’ Leucippe and Clitophon (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005); Salzman-Mitchell, Patricia B., A web of fantasies. Gaze, image, and gender in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 2005); Smith, Riggs Alden, The Primacy of Vision in Virgil’s Aeneid (Austin, TX, University of Texas Press, 2005); Villard, Laurence (ed.), Études sur la vision dans l’ Antiquité classique, (Mont-Saint-Aignan, Publications des Universités de Rouen et du Havre, 2005).

2. Roman ethics, according to B., is unfamiliar with “a Romantic introspection into the hidden depths of the soul, or a Freudian uncovering of the unconscious desires of the id” (p. 25). I would suggest, however, that this form of introspection is neither Romantic nor Freudian in its origins, but was really an invention of Christianity (with its greater emphasis on the individual soul and the evil of sin in itself, rather than for its social repercussions). A brief treatment of early Christian views on the subject of the philosophical gaze thus would have been an interesting addition to the book, even though its focus is on “the early Roman empire.”

3. First noted by S. Citroni Marchetti, “Plinio il Vecchio e la tradizione del moralismo romano,” Biblioteca di Materiali e Discussioni per l’Analisi dei Testi Classici 9 (Pisa, Giardini, 1991), pp. 274-6.

4. Toohey, P., Melancholy, Love and Time: boundaries of the self in ancient literature, (Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press, 2004) pp. 264 and 269. B. apparently did not receive Toohey’s book in time to discuss his views in her book, but she critically reviewed it in Classical Review 55 (2005), pp. 498-9.

5. Leitao, D.D., “Senecan Catoptrics and the Passion of Hostius Quadra: Sen. Nat. 1,” Materiali e discussioni 41 (1998), pp. 127-60.

6. At this point, referring to Erving Goffman’s seminal study on The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life or to Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of “symbolic capital,” “distinction,” or “field” could have produced enlightening observations (cf. the introduction to C. Edwards’ The Politics of Immorality in Ancient Rome [Cambridge University Press, 1993] for a Bourdieusian approach to this topic). B. however, deliberately chooses only “to apply interpretive tools that seem more or less familiar to the ancient cultures that generated them” (p. 13). In my opinion, though, comparing ancient texts with certain modern sociological or psychological theories need not necessarily distort their meaning, but may present them in a different light. But, naturally, this is an element of discussion rather than of criticism, and, as B’s study proves, an excellent book on cultural psychology is quite possible without such theoretical cross-references.

7. For petite histoire : when I was in Herculaneum a few years ago, a local archaeologist told me that modern Italians, when seeing a hearse, often discreetly clasp at their crotch—the seat of life—to avert the evil consequences of being visually confronted with death; si non è vero, è ben trovato.

8. Maud Gleason, apparently inspired by P. Bourdieu’s work on habitus and distinction, remarks of the cultural reproduction of social superiority in Roman society that it “is a project that presents a double face to the world, representing itself as natural and inevitable to outsiders, but stressing to insiders the importance of nurture and the vulnerability of the entire project to lapses of taste and self-control” (“Elite Male Identity in the Roman Empire,” in D.S. Potter and D.J. Mattingly (eds.), Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire, [Ann Arbor, MI, University of Michigan Press, 1999], p. 67).

9. Cf. Riggsby’s discussion of Carrither’s distinction between ” personne -theories” and ” moi -theories,” and its application to Roman society: A.M. Riggsby, “Self and Community in the Younger Pliny,” Arethusa 31 (1998), pp. 77ff.