Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.05.23

S. Byrne, E.P. Cueva, Veritatis Amicitiaeque Causa: Essays in Honor of Anna Lydia Motto and John R. Clark.   Bolchazy-Carducci, 1999.  Pp. xvi, 345.  ISBN 0-86516-454-1.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by James M. Pfundstein, Bowling Green State University
Word count: 1957 words

Martial's disclaimer "Sunt bona, sunt quaedam mediocria, sunt mala plura / quae legis hic: aliter non fit, Auite, liber" applies even more to a festschrift, perhaps, than a book of epigrams. But those to whom Motto and Clark's scholarly work has been important would do well to avail themselves of this well-produced and stimulating volume. Misprints are relatively rare ("corollaries" is misspelled on p. 98, "stichomythia" on p. 121, "Pliny" on p. 224, "benefited" on p. 288), and the content fairly represents the wide-ranging interests of the honorees (although an essay or two on 18th century satire would have been welcome).

After a selected bibliography of Motto and Clark's scholarship, the volume opens with Herbert Benario's précis of Augustus' career. This reaches the defensible though not unexceptionable conclusion that "Augustus was without doubt the foremost man, the princeps, of all Roman history up to his day," but it does so by accepting some of Augustus' most nakedly self-serving statements as inerrant Gospel (e.g. R.G. 34.3).

Co-editor Byrne argues that modern portrayals of Maecenas have been skewed by his unrelievedly harsh portrait in Seneca's works. Whether we accept Byrne's strongly defended position that Seneca's portrayal of Maecenas was a watershed in the latter's Nachleben, Byrne's suggestion that the fierce hostility Seneca directs toward the long-dead Maecenas may be veiled criticism of a contemporary figure (i.e. Petronius) is persuasive.

In his pungently titled "Pisspots and Pumpkins," John Scott Campbell, taking issue with the usual argument that "apocolocyntosis" means "foolification" (on the somewhat anachronistic grounds that cucurbita -- kolokunte; gourd -- means "fool; pumpkin-head"), argues, from evidence in the Elder Pliny and Petronius, that the cucurbita was used as a chamber-pot, and that the word can be transferred to the menial slave who empties them (a sort of low-grade Aquarius; Campbell cites Petronius 39.13). Campbell's suggestion is extremely well-considered, given that the satire actually represents Claudius' transformation from emperor to menial slave. The scatological element certainly hits the right tone: cf. Claudius' last words at Apoc. 4.3.

Co-editor Cueva proposes that the myth of Cupid and Psyche predates Apuleius, on the grounds of visual evidence, some of it dating as early as the 6th century BC. A good deal of this evidence is unfortunately irrelevant. Cueva shows that Apuleius refers to various myths which are depicted visually, e.g. the labors of Heracles, Pegasus etc. This is tantamount to saying that Apuleius makes mythological references, which is not in dispute and implies nothing about a pre-Apuleian version of the "Cupid and Psyche" narrative. Cueva does in the end provide visual evidence in support of his contention; but his argument would be still stronger if he accounted for (and, if possible, disproved) alternate explanations of these enigmatic images.

Linda W. Rutland Garrison presents an interesting argument that Tiberius' position, after his recall to Rome by Augustus, was not as secure as some have made out. Garrison discusses Tiberius' move, after returning from Rhodes, from the former house of Pompey and Antony to the urban gardens of Maecenas -- a change of residence that she convincingly interprets as a political signal to the emperor from his eventual successor.

Linda Jones Hall offers a complex and sometimes incoherent essay on the subject of "Latinitas in the Late Antique Greek East." She argues that the learning of Latin (and Greek) as a second language ultimately had the effect of redefining and sharpening local ethnic identities in the eastern Roman Empire. She even goes as far as to suggest, at the essay's close, that this sense of local identity represents "real societal forces ... at work which would lead to a final detachment of this area from the Roman Empire." Since this area was detached from the Empire by conquering Islam, the connection she states is not obvious and seems to deserve a little comment. More fundamentally, on her own showing, the indigenous languages (especially Syriac) rise in status only after the decline of Latinity. This would suggest that local ethnicities survived in spite of, not because of, Latin culture.

George W. Mallory Harrison presents a careful and convincing argument that two epigrams ("Crispe, mea vires" and "Ablatus mihi Crispus") are indeed Senecan, and refer to that husband of Agrippina who died so conveniently, allowing her to marry her doting uncle Claudius. Harrison persuasively suggests that the epigrams throw some light on the authorship of the Hercules Oetaeus, a question which has been much disputed since Leo cut the "H.O." out of the Senecan herd in 1878.

Alexander MacGregor's "Wine, Women and What?" offers an elucidation of a passage where Seneca discusses various persons' ability to will themselves to do various extraordinary things, including: "vino quidam, alii venere, quidam omni umore interdixere corporibus" [De Ira 2.12.4]. The italicized phrase generated some variants in the manuscripts; MacGregor seems badly to want to emend "umore" to "canore" (on no better grounds than the singsong phrase which MacGregor himself describes as a "modern cliché" and which intrudes itself, in various forms, eight times in the essay's first two pages, as if incantation were argument, or evidence). In the end, though, MacGregor concludes (from other references to the dangerously solvent power of wetness in Seneca's prose) that "umore" ought to be retained, although he insists to the last that "the conjecture canore has its merits," a sentiment open to doubt.

Mark Morford contributes a thoughtful essay placing Seneca's notion of citizenship squarely in the tradition established by Zeno, as a reconciling of received Hellenistic concepts with "the realities of Roman public life under a morally imperfect princeps" (a beautiful marriage of accuracy with understatement, that).

Hans-Friedrich Mueller's essay discusses the concept of cruelty in Seneca and Livy. Unfortunately his interesting discussion is hobbled by a misconception. He argues that cruelty in Livy is used "with some precision" to describe abuses of authority. This simply isn't the case. Cruelty is an abuse of power, as when Livy has Fabius insist (3.9.12): "Ne Aequi quidem ac Volsci ... crudeli superboque nobis bello institere." The Aequi and the Volsci had no authority over the Romans, but they did have the power (at least potentially) to wage a cruel war against them. All this accords closely both with Seneca's opinions (Ep. 42.4, cited by Mueller) and with the other examples from Livy that Mueller discusses.

J.D. Noonan interprets Euripides' Heracleidae in terms of generational conflict in fifth century Athens, so that the fading generation of heroes (to which Heracles, Copreus and Iolaus all belonged) is in some sense equated with the Marathonomachoi, and the epigonoi are identified with the men who fought the Peloponnesian War. The result is a persuasive, even compelling reading of an often dispraised tragedy.

Michelle V. Ronnick discusses the image of the plane trees in Seneca's twelfth epistle, linking it to earlier appearances of plane trees in philosophic literature (i.e. Plato's Phaedo and Cicero's De Oratore). I don't see that the shadow of those earlier trees falls on Seneca's text, as Ronnick claims. There is no very clear verbal reminiscence, and Seneca does not mention the earlier passages (whereas Cicero, for instance, does explicitly mention the Phaedo). It seems likelier that Seneca talks about plane trees because they are the sort of tree a nobilis would be likely to have planted about his villa. But Ronnick's reading of the plane trees in the narrower context of Seneca's letter is well-taken.

Jo-Ann Shelton analyzes reports of popular displeasure at the venationes that accompanied the opening of Pompey's theater in 55 BC. She concludes that these reports were exaggerated, if not falsified, by Pompey's political enemies, pre-eminently Cicero. But she is also, it seems, hunting bigger game here, reading the wild beast hunts as part of the system of distinctions with which the Romans oppressed other human beings and human beings in general oppress other animals. According to Shelton, the Roman crowd would not have been angry with Pompey for the fate of the elephants in Pompey's show (who first charged the stands and later seemed to beg for mercy, Pliny N.H. 8.20f). There were other times when the crowd did not display such sympathy (as Shelton demonstrates) and to do so would have been a kind of disloyalty to Rome, as the strange-looking animals that were slain in venationes represented the strange-looking peoples whom the Romans had conquered, and the venatio re-enacted this conquest, thus giving pleasure to the Roman crowd, through their consciousness of belonging to a "superior race." (The cautious reader will think this summary unjust to Shelton, but really it is not: see p. 245f, 249f.) This appears to me to misconceive fundamentally both the Romans' racial attitudes and the dynamics of violent spectacle.

W. Jeffrey Tatum, author of the recent superb biography of Clodius, takes a skeptical look at the long-held presumption that Roman paganism was a hollow shell of state rituals, just waiting to be displaced by Christianity. He handles his evidence carefully and judiciously, though there are some signs of hasty or careless writing (he refers once to "our Protestant inclinations," as if he expected all his readers to be Protestants). There are more questions than answers here, but, Tatum suggests, that is what the evidence merits.

In "Seneca and the Empire of Signs" Daniel R. White would have it that in De Providentia Seneca is engaging in political criticism of the Imperial system, indeed, the whole "classical ideology of power." White does not trouble to establish this assumption, taking it rather as a fact on which to found his discussion. But Seneca had exercised power within the Imperial system; he had written on the theory of Imperial power (De Clementia, passim). His attitude toward the Empire was not as clear-cut and hostile as White would have us believe. Nor is there any reason to intrude politics into the central thesis of De Prov. White insists that, for Seneca, "the persona of the emperor had entered the stage to stand in for god" (p. 297), an assertion which suggests a truly breathtaking ignorance of Stoicism. Indeed, references to Stoic thought are thin on the ground in this essay which undertakes to interpret Seneca's exercise in Stoic theodicy. White cites Plato and Cicero frequently; he cites Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida; he cites Bateson's exploded theory on the psychogenesis of schizophrenia, he cites Maxwell's Demon and Leo Szilard; he even cites Seneca (though as frequently he invokes Seneca's name to support his position without bothering to quote him, an annoying and disingenuous practice: e.g. p.297-298, 304, 305f, 309, 310f etc.), but he seems to be out of touch with the fundamental Stoic notion of what evil is, as opposed to what most people think it is. He will find it at De Prov. 6.1-5, a passage he never cites.

William E. Wycislo plausibly connects the precipitous decline in Seneca's reputation with the contemporary rise in Romanticism, with its worship of the passions. Wycislo's capable reading of De Ira shows how Seneca's Stoicism was doomed to clash with Romantic ideals. We needn't agree with Wycislo's (generally negative, it seems) assessment of Romanticism to acknowledge the skill with which his argument is constructed and the force of its conclusions. I would add only that Seneca's biography was also against him, in the eyes of the Romantics. If Romanticism honors one trait above all others it is sincerity, and Seneca was notoriously capable of deliberate insincerity. The man who licked Claudius' spittle while alive but mocked him ruthlessly when he was dead, the man who was believed to have written Nero's speech to the Senate justifying the murder of Agrippina is a man the Romantics could never have admired. He is neither sincere enough nor ruthless enough, neither heroic nor antiheroic enough to shoulder his way in to the Romantic pantheon.

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