Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.09.04

A.J. Boyle (ed.), Seneca Troades. Leeds: Francis Cairns, 1994. Pp. 250. ISBN 090520588X (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew Leigh, University of Exeter.

Seven years on from his 1987 ARCA commentary on the Phaedra, A.J. Boyle (henceforth B.) has returned to Senecan tragedy and produced a text, translation and commentary of the Troades. B.'s preface rightly acknowledges the "distinguished edition" of the Troades of Elaine Fantham. While B. does not seek to rival Fantham in depth of scholarship, he emphasises the greater accessibility of his own work: a verse translation that can serve for students of classics in translation, a considerably lower price. For Latinists, meanwhile, B. includes a selective critical apparatus (pp. 124-8) and appendices on metre and on variants from the Oxford text of Zwierlein (pp. 235-9). The work also differs from Fantham in one critical respect: B's emphasis on the performability of Senecan drama.

The first thing to say is that B. and his editors have indubitably identified a hole in the market. There exist a number of editions of Senecan dramas aimed at undergraduate Latinists, but too many are marred by a limited intellectual approach or an ill-disguised distaste for the author. Even as exemplary a study as Tarrant's Thyestes is rendered inaccessible to a large part of B.'s target audience by its want of a translation. Whether B.'s work is truly suitable for all or even part of that audience is another matter -- certain sections of this work are of considerably greater value than the rest.

The 101 pages of commentary on the text (pp. 133-234) are by far the most successful part of this work. B.'s English is relatively sober, his notes consistently aimed at answering the questions students raise. This is as true of his elucidation of points of grammar as it is of his explanation of geographical references and proper names. B. also identifies and discusses important themes and ideas: the problem of the two Senecas, the metatheatrical emphasis on viewing and spectacle, the symbolism of the tragic wedding (though a reference to Seaford, JHS 1987 would help). A number of notes are particularly helpful and go beyond what is found in Fantham: 298f. on human sacrifice at Rome; 329 on the tyrant's refusal to kill an opponent; 613f. on Ulysses as a comic slave; 892f. on the function of plague in Roman political rhetoric. The following observations might be added:

n. 46, how does Boyle know that "the archetype of both E and A (which has seva) clearly read scaeva"?; n. 49f., for Luc. BC 128f. read 2.128f.; n. 96-7: Iterum luctus redeant veteres. / Solitum flendi vincite morem. B. notes the allusion to previous theatrical treatments in Hecuba's instruction that the old laments should return but has nothing on the language of literary competition in "vincite" (cf. Hor. Ep. 1.4.3, Sen. Ep. 79.7) or in "solitum" (cf. Sen. Thy. 267-86 with Tarrant at 272-7, Stat. Theb. 10.829); n. 126, the vague reference to "a similar phrase ... in earlier Roman tragedy" should be more specific, i.e. Ribbeck TRF ex incertis incertorum fabulis 69; n. 134 B.'s failure to parallel bis capte senex with Verg. Aen. 9.599 and 635 bis capti Phryges is particularly striking in the light of his general concern for the repetition of trauma; n. 148 has nothing on "non videre" as a topos of consolation, for which see F. ad loc. and cf. Cic. Phil. 2.12 and 12.19f.; n. 293f. -- why no reference to the fame of Achilles and Plut. Alex. 15?; n. 357f., cuius ingenti mihi / mercede constant ora, and n. 360f., dant fata Danais quo solent pretio viam: / mactanda virgo est, are a brutal response to, for instance, Verg. Aen. 10.49 and 113, and compare interestingly to the mercantile metaphors and attitude to fate at Luc. BC 1.33-8; n. 373, F. ad loc. "Seneca has singled out the first and last moments in this sequence from death to cremation" cf. B. ad loc. "A vignette of the first and last stages of cremation and burial"; n. 407, for quaeris quo iaceas post obitum loco? cf. Luc. BC 4.393f., Felix qui potuit mundi nutante ruina / quo iaceat iam scire loco; n. 427 ought to note the paradoxial language of standing and falling in nondum ruentis Ilii fatum stetit; while n. 461, certa progenies, observes that this distinguishes the legitimate Astyanax from the bastard Pyrrhus, n. 464, nimiumque patri similis, might make more of the reversal of Cat. 61.214 sit suo similis patri, or of the echo of Procne's greeting of her sacrificial victim Itys at Ov. Met. 6.621f., a! quam / es similis patri; n. 613f. likening Ulysses to a comic slave should cite Plaut. Bacch. 925ff., Pseud. 1063f., 1243f. for comic slaves likened to Ulysses; n. 1157ff. the death-leap of Polyxena is rather reminiscent of Evadne at Eur. Suppl. 1014ff., while the internal audience recorded by the messenger at 1123ff. is paralleled at Eur. Suppl. 1074f. in the representation of Iphis as having seen the foul deed.

It is a matter of some regret that B.'s scholarly standards are not carried over from the commentary to his introduction. What with the wholesale reproduction of the sections on Life and Works and Literary Background from B.'s Phaedra and the absurd prose and empty posturing of the closing discussion of the Troades itself, it is tempting to apply to this contribution the terms which B. himself uses in order to describe the late Julio-Claudian world: "spectacular, histrionic and self-consuming".

B.'s introduction will be the principal deterrent to any university teacher contemplating use of this edition. It is simply as badly written a piece of prose as any this reviewer has encountered. Take for example this only slightly compressed version of p. 28:

Seneca's Troades is not merely palimpsestic; it images a palimpsestic world ... The palimpsestic world imaged is the world of the play. But it is not only the world of the play. Late Julio-Claudian Rome, especially -- but not only -- the Rome of the last Julio-Claudian emperor, Nero, was itself a palimpsestic world. ... It was a palimpsestic world on the verge of dissolution, and portrayed as such by the great writers of the period, Lucan, Petronius, Seneca, all of whom dissolved themselves through suicide before Nero's reign ended. It was a palimpsestic world on the verge of dissolution, in which the modalities of life had become perversely and irredeemably confused.
B. writes in his own idiolect. Those familiar with his previous work will not be surprised to encounter the mannered repetition of certain terms which appear to be his own patent -- "index" is used either as noun or verb on nine separate occasions, "efform" thrice.1 Yet the problem is not just one of taste: not even the constant, hypnotic chanting of the passage cited can lull the suspicion that this is intellectually rather insubstantial material. On a basic level, it is open to question whether B. really knows what a palimpsest is. More seriously, the author's obsession with the confusion of the "modalities of life" leads to some serious incoherence in his own thought. The same page of the Introduction can illustrate this:
According to the Roman historian Suetonius (Nero 10.1), Nero at the start of his reign proclaimed his intention to rule ex Augusti praescripto -- that is, in accordance with the prescription of the founder of the dynasty, the first emperor, Augustus; his professed aim was to realise Augustus' pre-text. Ironically he fulfilled this aim in ways he never comprehended. For what Nero succeeded in doing was to recycle the tyranny of his predecessors (including that of Augustus) together with the political, social, religious and legal forms of the Roman world emptied of their substance.
B.'s pre-text says it all. It is only by this feeble mistranslation that he can so torture the text of Suetonius that it conforms to the confusion of literature and life which he asserts.2 At the same time, B. recklessly throws in another confusion. It is an important phenomenon of imperial history that the reign of Augustus provided a normative model for later rulers to follow and to which they could represent themselves as returning in reaction to the lamentable deeds of their predecessors. For B. the 'historian' then to underline the irony of Nero's final repetition of sins attributed not just to the successors but also to Augustus himself is for him utterly to contradict the sense immanent in the passage of Suetonius which he uses as his prop. Moreover, the only reason to introduce this contradiction is in order to permit B. to place his own construction on Nero's reign, one which, of course, he has crudely borrowed from the repertoire of the tragic historians. On two levels, therefore, with his pre-text and his tragic reversal, it is B. who is confusing modalities and doing so in a very ugly way.

One could go on. It is quite clear from B.'s commentary that he is capable of writing the sort of clear and intelligent prose which permits the artistic and ideological complexities of the play to emerge. The show oratory of the introduction has the opposite effect.


  • [1] Where does he get this stuff from? Looking up "efform" in the OED, I discovered that the term, however obscure, did exist. It is used, for instance, in Beresford's 1805 Song of Sun 31, 'Stains on themselves they bring, tho' first efform'd of purest mold, by God.' 'Nuf said, I suppose.
  • [2] Cf. p. 31, "Inverting inherited types (especially Euripidean types) he presents a series of tired, self-critical warriors, endeavouring to break free of their pre-scripted roles".