Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.03

Margarethe Billerbeck (ed.), Seneca. Hercules Furens. Einleitung, Text, Übersetzung und Kommentar. Mnemosyne Supplement 187.   Leiden:  Brill, 1999.  Pp. xxix, 727.  ISBN 90-04-11245-6.  

Reviewed by John G. Fitch, Greek and Roman Studies, University of Victoria (
Word count: 1568 words

Two of Seneca's favourite epithets are vastus and ingens, and both fit this new commentary, whose proportions match those of the play's hero. The Hercules Furens received a commentary on its text-problems in Otto Zwierlein's Kritische Kommentar zu den Tragödien Senecas (1986), and a line-by-line commentary in my edition of 1987. What does B.'s work add to those resources?

The dust-jacket describes the commentary, with some understatement, as "detailed," and this is certainly its most notable characteristic. My commentary gave 69 pages to Act II: B. fills 105 pages (not to mention ten pages of translation). She gives copious notes on almost every aspect of the play, replete with references to ancient literature and to modern scholarship. This edition originated long ago as a 1981 D. Phil. dissertation from Oxford, and B.'s mentors clearly trained her thoroughly in research techniques. She is particularly diligent in tracking down arcane sources of information. If you wish to locate that 1888 Göttingen dissertation on personifications in Roman poetry and art, or that article on the frequency of propere in epic (especially Silius), B. will tell you where to look (respectively on 96-98 and 1242f.).

One wishes, however, that some of the excessive material characteristic of dissertations had been pruned away in the process of turning the dissertation into a book. Detail and comprehensiveness are welcome when they shed light on the text, but B.'s piling-up of material often seems a habit indulged for its own sake. At 451 Sen. makes a passing reference to Apollo's service as herdsman to Admetus. B. gives us ten lines, freighted with references, on the reasons for Apollo's servitude. Quid ad rem? These details belong in a mythical handbook, not here. At 74 et me prementem my three-line note says what is needed to understand the phrase; B. gives us a ten-line disquisition on the weightiness of gods. Similarly at 54 we receive a lesson in historical linguistics on the short -i- in potitur, though this scansion is the predominant one in poetry; at 70 the regular scansion of ferendo with a long final -o is sufficient to trigger a note on shortened final -o. Sometimes references are purely decorative, as at 743 where TLL and Béranger add nothing concerning the use of felix under discussion. All this clutter is counterproductive to the purpose of a commentary, which should surely be to illuminate the passage receiving comment, not to bury it.

Removal of some of this excess would have made space for comment on more relevant matters. Given B.'s interest in language, for example, one would have expected comment on the lexical register of words and phrases that are avoided or selectively used in poetry, e.g. agedum, aliquando, fore ut, nemo, parumper. Similarly one misses comment e.g. on the Greek loan-word syrma (475) and on the financial imagery of magno constitit (462).

In giving statistics on word usage, as she frequently does, B. adopts the unfortunate practice of combining the figures for ps.-Sen. with those for the genuine tragedies. At 358, for instance, we are told that ubinam occurs five times "in den Seneca-Tragödien," but a check of an index verborum shows that three of these five are in HO. (Contrast the note on 33 atque, where the figures, drawn from Zw., properly distinguish between Sen. and ps.-Sen.) In this and other respects the reader must exercise caution before relying on B.'s statements. At 1181f., for example, she claims to have discovered several classical instances of the present participle of pereo used as a substitute for the non-existent perfect participle, but when the contexts are checked, not one of the supposed instances carries conviction.

Text criticism, alas, is not B.'s strong suit. After more than two decades' work on the play she makes only one conjecture, a half-hearted suggestion of a lacuna before 1122. The only notable innovation of her text is to print panderant at 538, a conjecture which Zw. mooted but did not print -- prudently, since pand- as a perfect stem is unknown outside the grammarians, one of whom denies its existence (TLL This weakness is surprising, since in a hostile review of my edition in Phoenix 43 (1989) 79-84 B. nailed her colours to the mast of textual criticism. It is also unfortunate in what purports to be a major edition, since much work remains to be done on the text of HF: though Zw. and I have each given up our first thoughts at several places, we still differ on some 80 points of substance. At many of these points the challenge is to find a decisive criterion by which to choose between variants. (B. meets this challenge once , at 679, where she reports that the genitive singular of sinus occurs nowhere else in poetry, thus seriously weakening the case for the E reading). Elsewhere, however, there are strong arguments for or against a particular reading, which B. fails to recognize. I shall list just a handful of instances to establish the point.

54: in Baden's conjecture en retegit, the word en would draw attention to what Hercules HAS done, as opposed to what he is doing (ducit 59) or might do (potitur 54). Consequently the verb would need to be in the perfect tense, especially since, if en is read, the verb refers to the same action as patefacta est 55. (The tense of iacent 56, of course, shows the present results of that action.)

146-51: Zw.'s transposition of these lines after 136 is convincing in every respect. B., in rejecting the transposition, argues that the picture of the nightingale among her nestlings belongs associatively with the vignettes of young animals and their mothers in 141-45; but whether or not these animals belong to the grex of 140, the vignettes certainly take their cue from 139-40, so that the nightingale is out of place among them.

321: abit in the sense 'escaped, came off' (OLD s.v. 7a) matches the topic of escape from impassable places (317f.). Furthermore abit allows fretum to be governed by per, as plagas and harenas are. (For abire with per cf. Tro. 460.) The variant adit involves not only an awkward hyperbaton in which adit, though enclosed in the noun-phrase of harenas, governs the noun-phrase of fretum (Leo I 19), but also the unusual correlative use of que ... et: the combination of these two difficulties strains credulity. B.'s claim that the syntax favours adit is preposterous. (I notice that Zw. announced his conversion to abit in 1987.)

333: sense requires emendation of the transmitted ablative; Karsten's partitive genitive uberis ... soli of course goes with quidquid, not with omne as B. thinks.

776: B. still fails to grasp that sedere can mean 'sink, settle' (OLD s.v. 12); earlier she claimed that the perfect sedit is ruled out by the following present bibit, but one need look no further than 804f. to refute that claim.

948: the lion's mane-tossing belongs with the other symptoms of his present rage, not his future action.

1028: Müller's conjecture pectus en telo indue is ruled out by the fact that induo in usages of this sort is regularly reflexive, the object being either a reflexive pronoun or part of the speaker's own body (instances in OLD s.v. 5b). Sen. would hardly give Amphitryon a phrase suggesting self-address ("impale your breast") at the very moment when he begins to address Hercules.

1110: in attempting to squeeze sense out of E's medius, which will not yield it, B. omits even to consider A's melius.

Anapaests: B. follows Zw.'s colometry in almost every detail. This has not been a legitimate option since 1987, when my Seneca's Anapaests showed that metrical patterns in combination with sense-correspondence provide a more exact and reliable guide to colometry than sense-correspondence alone.

The Introduction, more moderate in size (70 pages) than the commentary, contains sections on the myth of Hercules' madness, on Sen.'s relationship to Euripides' play, on ancient philosophical views of Hercules, on modern interpretation of Sen.'s play, and on the transmission of the text. (An 18-page Anhang concerns B.'s 1992 discovery, in a previously known notebook of Gronovius now in Berlin, of his collation of the Etruscus.) B. cannot accept the view, now well established in the interpretation of Sen.'s play, that Hercules' madness arises naturally out of his modus vitae, his obsession with conquest and self-image. Why not? Because Juno decides in Act I to employ the Furies to bring about his madness (pp.32-35). This argument seems to me to overlook the pattern of "double motivation," i.e. of co-existence of divine and human causation, which is so widespread in Greek and Roman literature, and gives it so much of its resonance. Even after the mad-scene, this Hercules is willing to engulf all and sundry in his anger (ruat ira in omnes, 1167), and if necessary to pull down the firmament of heaven upon himself (1285-94). B. blithely defends this as a heroic impulse justified by the circumstances (ad 1167), but I for one cannot divorce it so readily from Sen.'s famous and terrible description of anger as omnium odio laborantem, sui maxime, si aliter nocere non possit, terras maria caelum ruere cupientem (Ira 2.35.5).

In sum, this edition is strong on learning, weak on judgement. There is certainly good material to be unearthed from it by commentators and other specialists, who will however need fortitude, motivation, and a prophylactic dose of scepticism.

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