Friday, October 03, 2014


The Word Virginitas Applied to Married Women

Pseudo-Seneca, Octavia 282-287, tr. John G. Fitch, Seneca: Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes. [Seneca,] Hercules on Oeta, Octavia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), p. 541:
Mighty Juno
is her brother's appointed, established spouse:
then why is the sister and marriage partner
of Augustus driven from her father's palace?
What help to her is her unstained goodness,
her deified father,
her maidenhood, her chastity?
The Latin:
fratris thalamos sortita tenet
maxima Iuno;
soror Augusti sociata toris
cur a patria pellitur aula?
sancta quid illi prodest pietas
divusque pater?
quid virginitas castusque pudor?
Nero married Octavia in 53, and the dramatic date of the play is 62. The word virginitas seems odd applied to a woman married for so long. Nero accused her of being sterile (Tacitus, Annals 14.60.1: sterilem dictitans), which implies that the attempt to conceive was made. Fitch, p. 564, n. 32 (on Octavia, line 537), tries to argue around this:
According to the historian Tacitus, the justification given by Nero for his divorce of Octavia was her alleged sterility. But the play strongly hints that Octavia had refused sexual relations with Nero (e.g. line 287).
Similarly Rolando Ferri, Octavia: A Play Attributed to Seneca (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 208:
as if Octavia's failure to produce an heir were in fact her own decision, as a result of her refusal to discharge her conjugal obligations.
Lewis & Short define virginitas simply as "maidenhood, virginity"; the Oxford Latin Dictionary gives three definitions:
  1. The condition of being a girl of marriageable age
  2. The condition of being a virgo intacta, virginity
  3. The condition of being a woman sworn to a celibate life
Neither dictionary cites this line from the Octavia.

After killing her children, Medea claims that her virginity has been restored (Seneca, Medea 984: rapta virginitas redit).

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