Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.07.04

Michael S. Armstrong, "Hope the Deceiver": Pseudo-Seneca De Spe (Anth. Lat. 415 Riese). Spudasmata 70.   Hildesheim:  Georg Olms Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 242.  ISBN 3-487-10760-0.  DM 64.  

Reviewed by M. D. Usher, Willamette University, Salem, Oregon (

This book has no index, which is especially unfortunate for such a diligent piece of scholarship on such an interesting, yet neglected poem. Both the pseudo-Senecan epigram De Spe and Armstrong's thorough treatment of it deserve readers, though without an index, those looking for immediate points of entry will be frustrated. Readers may consult the line-by-line commentary on the poem that forms the bulk of the book, but here -- frustration again -- one must plow through overly fine-tuned discussions of grammar and textual issues, many of which unravel into unnecessary digressions. The book is also riddled with (to my mind) excessive quotation of untranslated French, Italian, and German. More perplexing still is the fact that A. provides no translations of the many Greek and Latin passages he cites as parallels and testimonia. Surely this poem will be of interest to Greekless medievalists, or Latinless students of English, though A.'s book will not be easy for them to use. The only translation we get is of the poem itself, the Latin of which is, hands down, the easiest of the lot. All these features are clearly vestiges of the book's origin as a University of Illinois dissertation, "insufficiently revised," as the author himself admits (p. 1).

In spite of these shortcomings, one will learn a good deal about Latin poetry from this work (which must be considered the definitive study of this poem in English), and A.'s wry philological wit and erudition go a long way to make the rough patches seem shorter. The fact that A. is a good stylist helps here as well.

Chapter 1 comprises Prolegomena divided into four sections dealing with A) the manuscript tradition, B) the question of authorship, C) the cult and concept of spes at Rome, and D) the poem's literary prototypes. Most readers will find the last two sections the most useful and informative, though the section on Spes at Rome (pp. 30-42) is so heavily dependent upon a dissertation by M. E. Clark and a study by P. G. Walsh (p. 30 n. 140) that one is advised to turn directly to those works for anything more than the summary offered by A. The Hope of De Spe, A. concludes from his survey, is not the positive, even propagandistic entity found in "the official religion, coinage, and public ceremony" (p. 42), but rather a pessimistic amalgam of ideas derived from Stoicism, elegiac love poetry, and sepulchral motifs. The Spes of the poem thus represents Hellenistic Tyche and is in fact linked with the capricious goddess Fortuna -- in De Spe and elsewhere (p. 40; cf. 45). However, even this otherwise helpful section does not come off without a hitch: given that A. firmly rejects Senecan authorship of the poem (pp. 2-3), it seems pointless to speculate, as A. does, that De Spe "may" have been written, like the Apocolocyntosis -- "assuming, of course, that the Apocolocyntosis is in fact the work of Seneca" p. 35 -- as an indirect attack on Claudius, who made something of a patron goddess out of Hope. As this is an argument A. does not even want to make, one is left to wonder why he includes it at all.

In the section on literary models (pp. 42-48), A. situates De Spe in the declamatory tradition, seeing the poem as a concatenation of commonplaces having to do with Fortune. Juvenal's Tenth Satire, Ovid's Epistulae Ex Ponto 4.3.29-50 and 1.6.27-46, and Tibullus 2.6.19-28 are cited as close parallels. These poems contain nearly all of the exempla drawn from myth, history, and daily life that we find in De Spe. (These are conveniently tallied in A.'s outline of the poem, pp. 59-60.) With Ovid and Tibullus especially De Spe shares many striking verbal, imagistic, and compositional features. Compared with their treatments, however, A. is quick to pronounce a negative verdict on the quality of De Spe. He describes the poem's depiction of Hope as conceptually "indeterminate and consequently less forceful than it might have been by a more competent poet," and speaks of the "ineptitude" of its author compared to "the somber brilliance" of Juvenal (p. 44). The basis for A.'s judgement here is his view that "the locus was a tool of argumentation; it attempts to make a point," and that the point of De Spe is unclear. Leaving aside the debatable view that indeterminacy necessarily makes anything "less forceful," one could easily make the case that the Latin commonplace was quite different in application and scope than the Aristotelian notion A. invokes. Molesta erat omnis argumentatio (Sen. Controv. 2.2.12) was not the byword of Ovid alone. On the contrary, like the sententia and the enthymeme (cf. Quint. 8.5.9), the commonplace was also a tool of ornamentation. Cicero speaks of the commonplace as a ornamental device to make the end of a speech brilliant once the audience has already been convinced by proofs (Inv. 2. 49). The author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium treats commonplaces as a form of amplificatio, the locus de fortuna being cited as especially useful for arousing pity in the audience (Rhet. Her. 2.30.47, 50). Might not the author of De Spe also be preaching, as it were, to the converted? Might not he be indulging in commonplaces for some other reason than for the sake of argument? In De Spe's favor one could point to Michael Roberts' The Jeweled Style: Poetry and Poetics in Late Antiquity (Cornell, 1989) where the pastiche aesthetic of later Latin poets is actually celebrated. A. is probably right to suspect (p. 47) that there is some truth in H. Bardon's description of the poem as a "véritable centon" (cited by A. p. 5). Indeed, it would have been interesting to have considered De Spe in these terms. As it is, A. judges the poem solely by his own lights, and does not do justice to the issue of audience expectation, which Aristotle himself viewed as the most important ingredient in determining the end and object of a rhetorical work (Rhet. I, 1358a).

In Chapter 2 we are offered the text of the poem, a full apparatus, and a translation, apparently the first into English. The translation is clear and accurate (though "hap" for fors in line 64 seems unnecessarily archaic). Lines 61 and 62 of the translation have been mistakenly inverted: Here A. seems to have become himself confused by the bewildering rearrangement of couplets by his predecessors Lucian Müller and Léon Herrmann (pp. 181-185). The poem itself, as the commentary in Chapter 3 brings out very well, is a bag full of rhetorical tricks. The commentary also contains fascinating and detailed information about, inter alia, gladiatorial hand gestures (pp. 121-24), crucifixion and decapitation (pp. 108-119), and farming, hunting, fishing, and fowling (pp. 185-194). A. is at his best here: thorough, meticulous, and judicious.

We can be thankful for having this book, which is part of a growing industry devoted to "minor" authors and lesser-known works (cf. Dickey on Kennedy BMCR 99.01.06). Given all the other obstacles one faces in marketing such works, it is incumbent upon modern interpreters and publishers to make their own books on such texts as accessible as possible. In rereading De Spe it struck me that the depiction of Hope in the poem is reminiscent of the presentation of Fortuna in the Carmina Burana. I could not remember whether A. noted this in his commentary, or if he considered the possibility of influence (as he does briefly, for example, with regard to De Spe and Juvenal's Tenth [p. 43 n. 178]). I for one wish there were an index in this book to look it up.

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