Recently I encountered a passage from a book The Mask of Socrates by Paul Zanker

There were passionately cultivated Romans who sought in such statues conversation partners, who used them, as Seneca says, as incitamenta animi (Ep. 64.9–10).

The passage from Seneca Ep. containing the phrase incitamenta animi does not strictly mention any "conversation" with the statues, but just mentions they can be used for incitamenta animi:

Why should I not keep statues of great men to kindle my enthusiasm, and celebrate their birthdays? (translation: Richard Mott Gummere)

probably I read too literally that passage? Or there was a practice of actually speaking to statues by some in Ancient Rome? But if not, how exactly those use the statues for inspiration or to "kindle their enthusiasm"? was that in a general sense like images or nice view -- or they used to have more "intimate" connection with them?

  • There were statues that romans used to talk to people, as they left messages to the public. Is this a possible confusion in the translation?
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 12:02
  • 6
    Sounds like the philosopher equivalent of "rubber duck debugging"
    – SPavel
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 13:23
  • @OldPadawan, there is no confusion I can detect. I'm not sure of what you refer, if that The talking statues of rome, that's another thing from the middle ages, while this question deals with ancient Romans.
    – d_e
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:35
  • @d_e: thanks for clarifying. To me though, the talking statues are just a possible extension of an old tradition. But I might be wrong.
    – OldPadawan
    Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:44
  • 1
    @SPavel: Every sports fan - or, for that matter, horror movie fan - who's ever yelled at the TV readily understands. As for inspiration: the meta cognition obtained by clearly organizing, and then enunciating, one's thoughts on a topic is obtained whether the audience is animate or inanimate. Commented Dec 3, 2023 at 15:48

1 Answer 1


The rest of 64.9 reads:

quidni ego illos honoris causa semper appellem?

Why should I not continually greet them with respect and honour?

It's this line, not the previous one, to which Zanker is referring, but Gummere's translation hides a bit of what's going on.

Appellare, the verb at the end, means "to greet, to address, to beseech, to call, etc." The direct object is illos, and honoris causa is (functionally) a prepositional phrase meaning "for the sake of honor." "Why should I not always call on them for the sake of honor"?

Of course, I think Zanker is reaching a tad bit by calling them "conversational partners," but it's clear that they do inspire Seneca. It's not unreasonable to think that Seneca is imagining them in a dialogic role, perhaps thinking in the way that they may think in order to provide an alternative to the way he thinks.

In that way, it's not too dissimilar to something like WWJD.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.