There’s a funny story from the early days of the Roman Empire about the unfortunate end of a man named Hostius Quadra. Hostius was a wealthy man and, like wealthy men of his day, an enslaver. He had a reputation for being greedy and debauched, but what he really achieved notoriety and fame for was his love of mirrors. He was what in technical circles is known as a katoptronophiliac: he liked watching himself have sex.
But not any mirrors. According to Seneca, in his encyclopedia of the natural world, Hostius installed trick mirrors in his bedroom that made things appear larger than they actually were. These mirrors could change an image so that “a finger exceeded the size and thickness of an arm.” These he “arranged that when he was offering himself to a man he might see in a mirror all the movements of the stallion behind him and then take delight in the false size of his partner’s member.” Well then.
In what looks a lot like kink shaming, Seneca writes that Hostius was “vile,” and Augustus didn’t even think it was worthwhile avenging Hostius’s death after he was murdered by the enslaved workers in his home. This was, it’s worth noting, unusual. Usually if a worker murdered their householder they would expect to pay for that with their life. Augustus didn’t think Hostius was worth the trouble and Seneca infers Augustus thought he had received his just deserts.
Why? In a presentation at the Society of Classical Studies annual meeting earlier this month, Robert Santucci, a PhD candidate in Classical Studies at the University of Michigan, explained that “at the most basic level Seneca, like most conservative Ancient Roman men, has a problem with grown men taking the bottom position while having sex with other grown men.” The problem was not same-sex relationships per se, it’s assuming a sexual position that doesn’t match up with one’s social position. But that’s not even the real issue, Santucci said, “Seneca does tell us that Hostius has sex with people of all genders, but Seneca specifically emphasizes his enjoyment of the mirror enlargements of his partners’ penises. Indeed, this use of mirrors—not the sexual acts themselves—is the reason” Seneca targets him.
In popular culture individuals who like to watch themselves have sex are also sometimes depicted as narcissists. Think Patrick Bateman, in American Psycho, who solicits the company of two sex workers to watch himself in the mirrors. Bateman is so aroused by himself that his companions are incapable of even getting his attention. Psychologists categorize the interest as a species of “autosexuality” (the phenomenon of being attracted to oneself), that is distinct from narcissism. “By itself,” writes Dr. Leo Seltzer, “autoeroticism doesn’t indicate a personality disturbance,” it’s more like a preference or orientation. Having a mirror in your bedroom seems unremarkable. A lot depends, though, on how far along you are on the spectrum.
However exciting human beings might find sex in front of mirrors, dolphins outstrip us. Bottlenose dolphins, the intellectuals of the sea, can recognize themselves in mirrors. Mark Pendergast, the author of Mirror, Mirror: A History of the Human Love Affair with the Reflection cites a study that shows that dolphin “libido goes wild” when mirrors are introduced. Utilizing the work of dolphinologists Marino and Reiss, Pendergast reports that in one half-hour sex session two half-brother dolphins named Pan and Delphi attempted to penetrate each another 43 times. The key information, Marino and Reiss showed, was that the dolphins positioned themselves so they could watch, and discontinued their activities if they accidentally moved out of sight. Bateman looks tame by comparison.
The problem with Hostius, however, is a bit more complicated. It’s not just that Hostius is lazy, decadent, and spends his time at the baths picking out prospective sexual partners with whom to debase himself. Santucci told me, “It’s not just that he uses funhouse-style mirrors—otherwise we might imagine that many more people would come under fire for this kind of mirror use. It’s that Hostius boasts that his mirror use compensates for the lack of perspective that nature (natura) gave to humankind.”
This afront to nature didn’t jibe with Seneca’s Stoic view that the universe was rationally and perfectly organized. As Santucci argues in his dissertation and elsewhere, Hostius is attempting to remake nature and, in the process, turns his eyes into organs of consumption: “Seneca makes several references to Hostius’ “eating” of the mirror images with his eyes. (Fans of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman will be reminded of The Corinthian.)”
It’s also that his favorite pursuit is a perversion of what he should be doing with his time. As a philosopher, Seneca was all for introspection for looking at oneself and reflecting upon who you are and who you should be. At the end of each day, in fact, this was something Seneca would do. He would revisit his actions and reflect on ways to improve.
Hostius also spends a lot of time reflecting on himself… having sex. His sexual passivity is (ahem) mirrored by the fact that he is passively watching himself get penetrated. He is consuming the scene and, in a sense, consuming himself. You might say, as Peter Toohey has discussed in his book Melancholy, Love, and Time, that Hostius was the consummate self-reflector.
Except, for two reasons, he wasn’t. First, Hostius was, as Santucci shows, a sexual glutton. His feasting is—to Seneca—antithetical to human nature. Many Romans were gastronomic over-indulgers, and gluttony was, to ancient philosophers like Seneca, the gateway drug to all kinds of debauchery and overindulgence. Because you “eat first with your eyes” the more you feast with your eyes, the more precarious the situation.
There’s some scientific evidence to back up this idea. A 2004 study from the University of Illinois-Champaign showed that moviegoers offered M&Ms in ten colors ate 43 percent more than those offered a M&Ms mix in seven colors. A similar experiment involving jellybeans revealed that when different colors are mixed together, people eat 69 percent more. The more visually varied the culinary experience, the more you’ll consume as a result. Buffets are a minefield. Hostius found a way to raise the stakes. It’s what Santucci calls a kind of “gluttony of the eyes.”
To make matters worse, Hostius wasn’t even feasting on reality. The mirrors he used to decorate his home created misrepresentations. So, instead of engaging in self-reflection and living in accordance with nature, he used the distortive effects of the mirrors to ‘touch up’ his appearance. To Seneca he was spiraling into an illusionary world of sexual appetites.
This should probably make us feel a bit uncomfortable. After all, social-media filters are the very height of deceptive self-reflection. Filters, lighting, and curation present images of our bodies and our lives that aren’t real. We are faking it (or, as Hostius would say, “supplying what nature didn’t”) but as we do, we also consume other “touched up” images that feed our desire to look better, live better, and have more. I’m not shaming anyone for using filters or altering their appearance, but Seneca would. He would say that we are cultivating a feeling of insatiability in ourselves. And not even the good kind. It makes us enthusiastic consumers of things—food, sex, clothing, whatever—and that means worse philosophers.
So, if you think ancient Romans are prudish kink shamers, imagine how much they’d hate us. Perhaps we can take some consolation in knowing that we’d still look good next to dolphins.