Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.07.09

Marica Frank, Seneca's Phoenissae: Introduction and Commentary. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. Pp. xvii + 268. $71.50. ISBN 90-4-09776-7.

Reviewed by Elaine Fantham, Princeton University.

The Senecan dramatic text called Phoenissae by the Codex Etruscus and Thebais by the A family of Mss. consists of 665 lines of iambic trimeter, articulated neither by choral odes nor by distinct act divisions, except for the change of both scene and speakers at 362/3. After this transfer from Oedipus and Antigone on their way to Cithaeron to Jocasta again with Antigone in Thebes, two short scenes (320-62 and 363-442) can be marked off from the extended dialogues between father and daughter (1-319) and mother and sons (443-665). The Oedipus/Antigone dialogue on suicide is moved on dramatically by the advent of a messenger from Thebes asking Oedipus' intervention because Polyneices is at the walls with the army of the Argive alliance, but to no effect: Oedipus refuses to mediate. In contrast Jocasta, when alerted by a messenger that both Argive and Theban armies are drawn up for battle, rushes out to intercede. Her progress to the battlefield (427-34) and the standoff of the armies -- all but the opposing brothers (434b-42) is reported by the watching messenger in an extraordinary running commentary rightly described by R.J. Tarrant (HSCP 82 (1978) 229) as narrative rather than dramatic. At 443 we are with Jocasta and her dreadful sons on the battlefield as she struggles in vain to dissuade Polyneices from attack, and Eteocles from excluding his brother from his share of power. Nothing binds together the two actions except their preoccupation with the common theme of the brothers' threat to Thebes and to themselves. In each scene one of their parents responds to this crisis: the one self-absorbed and predetermined by past nefas (passim from 7 to 300) to renew nefas in himself and those he created, the other with selfless piety (380-1 and passim) towards both country and children.

What is this text, or was it intended to become? Marica Frank has provided a judicious and substantial introduction and a good philological, textual, and dramatic commentary, based on her St Andrews University dissertation for the Senecan Harry Hine.

The introduction covers 1) the title: (she rightly hesitates to attribute Phoenissae or Thebais to Seneca himself) 2) The Nature and Structure of the Phoen., (1-15) 3) Seneca and the Theban Legend (16-27) 4) Philosophy, Rhetoric, and Politics in Phoen., (29-39) 5) Staging (37-42), 6) Chronology and 7) (briefly) The Text. Since I very largely agree with both Frank's approach and her conclusions I shall concentrate on 2), 3) and 5), reserving her textual choices for discussion with selected aspects of the commentary. The structure and nature of the play. Frank has read virtually all discussions1 from Leo's Observationes Criticae to Opelt in Seneca's Tragodien, ed. Lefevre, 1972, and Tarrant in HSCP 82 (1978) cited above) and adds her own contribution to the elements of theme, language and imagery constituting parallelism of design between the two major scenes. Each parent (as Frank shows, the dramatis personae in Phoen. are almost exclusively identified by such kinship terms, only Oedipus being named2) has a speech of over a hundred lines (80-181, 480-585), followed by a slightly shorter speech (216-87: 599-643). We might note that in each case the last section (273-87, 625-43) anticipates the consequences, foreseen by Oedipus, and faced by Jocasta, of the brothers' conflict.

Frank invokes the Eumenides as precedent for a "peripatetic" chorus of Theban women which would sing its first ode (detached from the action itself) at 319/20, be conceived as present during 320-62, then sing a second ode of foreboding.3 "The chorus together with the Nuntius and Antigone would set off for Thebes" (what does this mean? they cannot be thought to change location while they sing). It would make sense to assume they left for Thebes with Antigone at 359-60 (p10), but this would have to precede the second ode (Seneca can telescope dramatic time to produce instant entries, e.g. Tro. 352-3, and Med. 844-5, so we need not be concerned to cover the dramatic time of their journey); the chorus would sing again at 442 and 664. This fourth ode, however could not end the play, and Frank's discussion moves logically to the play's state of completion. She rightly disputes Tarrant's hypothesis that the play is complete, but argues primarily in terms of the unresolved action. Her decision in favour of a missing final act "dealing with the expected battle and the three deaths" (p12) is reinforced by the similarities between Seneca's sequence from 443 and Euripides' Phoenissae. Both the under-exploitation of Eteocles (who speaks only between 652-64) and the dropped thread of Oedipus' involvement suggest a final act narrative resembling that of Euripides' second messenger, reporting the taunts and treacherous combat of both brothers (1356-1424) their dying words to Jocasta and her death (1437-60). But to whom would he report? The scene of Seneca's "act four" is the battlefield itself, which the participants cannot leave: the action would have to leave them, moving away to the chorus, before the messenger reported the triple pathos to Oedipus, the only participant (apart from Antigone) still surviving.

Equally important is the section Seneca and his dramatic precursors. Tarrant complained in 1978 at the established belief "that Seneca turned directly to the great tragedians of the fifth century for his material." He has reversed orthodoxy to the point where Frank is almost too anxious to minimize the influence of Soph. Oedipus Colonus (also O.T.) and Eur. Phoenissae. She rightly disclaims the notion that Seneca took any play(s) as his model, and cites specific parallels in introduction and commentary, acknowledging the influence of Euripides on the second section of Phoen. At the same time she concentrates on the divergences and adds (p24) that the "notable similarities between the two dramas ... need not imply a direct utilisation by Seneca of material contained in the Greek drama."

Neither Frank's scrupulous consideration of the evidence for Accius' Phoenissae, nor her sensible dismissal of hypotheses about unknown Augustan tragedies change the fact that the single closest version of the action to Seneca's Phoenissae is Euripides' play. There are only two important divergences; the location of Oedipus away from Thebes and the postponement of Jocasta's intercession until the moment of single combat. Frank has identified enough echoes of Greek tragic phrasing and situation to justify the statement that Seneca both borrowed characterisation and details from Euripides' Phoenissae and chose his own divergent scenario.

Staging. If it were not discounted as unfinished4 Phoen. would surely kill the persistent claim that Seneca wrote for the stage. Frank could have cited the extraordinary mobile scene of 427-44: she does note the lack of entrance cues (320 is perhaps the worst; it has no clear vocative5 and seems like a second, not an opening speech) and of theatrical consciousness; however this implies "ineptitude" (p41)6 only if Seneca had the possibility of staging in mind, and Frank herself offers a better assessment: "it is likely that Seneca expected his plays to be known in their entirety only through written copies, although extracts... might be presented on stage or at a recitation."

The requirements of a dissertation, which must prove itself to experts by thorough investigation even of questions long settled, tend to clash with the needs of readers. Frank's commentary ranges widely and lucidly over most aspects, textual, ethical, literary, dramatic: but does not, for example, draw attention to any of the 27 present and future verb forms with shortened final -o which she cites (p44) as evidence for the late chronology of Phoen. (e.g. quaero 6, video 10 and 44 [where she does note the rare proceleusmatic], ibo 12, etc.). There is, however, fine linguistic comment and careful correction of some problematic misinterpretations.

I would note particularly her arguments that Oedipus does not at 355-6 curse his sons, (p173, cf. intro.19); 335-6 are merely the climax of the wild imperatives he has addressed to them at 334-45 and returns to in 358.7 She is also surely right on the reference of te in 652 and speaker allocations of 653, 654 and 661. It is Jocasta whom Eteocles dismisses to join the exiles (the words mean something more than "you are exiled") so that the act ends with him in self-imposed isolation, and without any direct address to his brother. This distinguishes Seneca's coldly laconic monster from the more hotheaded Eteocles of Eur. Phoenissae, who at least addresses Polyneices to order him gone.8

Lastly, comment on some of Frank's ten textual divergences from Zwierlein's auctoritas: one passage where I believe her own conjecture has restored Seneca's text 551 vestraque hoc vidit soror. Utraque cannot stand, since Ismene does not exist for this play, and vester, as Frank shows, has just been used to effect at 542-3 sceleris ... vestri; she is also probably right in retaining quae at 5569 and Thebano at 648. Let me take issue with three other initiatives; at 100, 444 and 456.

100 occidere est vetare cupientem mori first deleted by Leo, is not just an interruption of the thought between 99 in aequo est and 101 nec tamen in aequo est -- nor to be saved by transposition, since there is already a closural sententia at 102. It offends because elsewhere in such gnomic paradoxes ("who knows if life be death and death be life," to quote Gilbert Murray's Euripides) occidere is always literal: e.g. Ben. 2.5.3 misericordiae genus est cito occidere; Ep. 70.26 quanto honestius mori discunt homines quam occidere, Ep. 77.7 tam mali exempli est occidere dominum quam prohibere, N.Q. 4a 17 inter misericordiae opera haberetur occidi (or haberentur occisi): to present occidere as the metaphorical predicate "as bad as killing" would need preparation, as in 79 where vinci mori est is helped by victas in 78.

At 444, where unam contrasted with omnis has many parallels in Seneca, the adverb una may seem to find support in Aen. 8.689 una omnes ruere, (cf. Aen. 1.86 una Eurusque Notusque ruunt, 2.476-7, 7.710), but in tragedy Seneca uses una only twice, preceded by et to introduce the second of two items: Oed. 591 horrorque et una quicquid aeternae creant / celantque tenebrae. and Thy. 492 et ipsum et una generis invisi indolem: nor is there any parallel in his prose (where una is more common) for this configuration.

Finally donate matri pacem preserved in both E and A violates the metre. Frank has preferred Avantius' donate matrem pace over Gronovius' bold and brilliant donate matri bella. But a) nefas ... geritur rightly noted as unique by Frank, evokes the standard bellum geritur and bellum is revealed as the issue in 458. b) It is easy to explain how the unusual sense of the verb "make a present of/ renounce war for your mother" could be misunderstood and replaced with pacem, much harder to accept in Senecan tragedy a usage with acc. and abl. which is limited even in Senecan prose to the cliché civitate donatus.

But one is never far from some shrewd perception in Frank. on the same page she draws our attention to the formal and logical parallelism between 458 bellum tollite aut belli moram and 406 aut solve bellum mater, aut prima excipe. This kind of alertness to Senecan diction and his use of linguistic cross-reference is the mark of a responsive critic, and we hope Frank will return to further work on the complexity of Seneca's tragic texts.


  • [1] Given the poor international reporting of Italian publications she cannot be reproached with missing A. Barchiesi's helpful introduction to Phoenissae (Florence 1984).
  • [2] Oedipus is named in self reference at 89, and 313, and self-address at 178, also by Jocasta at 554. The purpose of avoiding all other names may be not only to stress their incestuous kinships, but to imply their subordination as his instruments or products. Frank has a useful comparative appendix showing the frequency of each kinship term in other plays; Phoen. doubles the number found in even in the full length Oedipus!
  • [3] One might object that the Eumenides by their nature must follow Orestes, and being supernatural can do so without time or trouble!
  • [4] Frank rightly accepts the technical arguments of Fitch (AJP 102, 1981) that Phoen. with its many shortened final -o's must be a late tragedy, if not the last, and dates it conjecturally to A.D. 62 after Seneca's retirement.
  • [5] Cf Leo Obs. Crit. 80, suggesting a lacuna before 320. Without rex or even te, exemplum in ingens regia stirpe editum is simply the object of invocant rogantque.
  • [6] At times Frank can be as harsh on Seneca as Roland Mayer in his Phaedra; compare p164 on the powerful half-line iubente te vel vivet: "His dramas...give evidence in other respects of having been composed with careless speed (e.g. clumsy versification, excessive use of stock descriptions, unoriginal and repetitive choral lyrics."
  • [7] I have now given up the sexual interpretation I proposed in Ramus 12 (1983) p65, in favour of Gronovius' understanding "provide the suicide weapon for your mother" (rejected by Frank p175, but cf. Eur. Pho. 1455-60).
  • [8] He addresses Polyneices without naming him between the first order to depart 593 and the last at 636.
  • [9] As Frank notes (and her note shows signs of wordprocessor confusion), in the absence of any comment from Zwierlein the reading in his text may be a typographical error rather than his choice.