Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.03.25

H.M. Hine (trans.), Seneca: Medea, with an Introduction, Text, Translation and Commentary.   Warminster:  Aris & Phillips, 2000.  Pp. 218.  ISBN 0-85668-691-3.  ISBN 0-85668-692-1.  

Reviewed by John G. Fitch, Department of Greek & Roman Studies, University of Victoria (
Word count: 1619 words

Like other editions in the Aris & Phillips series of dramatic texts, this edition is aimed "primarily at students, both those who will read the play in Latin, and those who will read it in translation" (p. v). Accordingly the Latin text is faced by a fairly close translation, and the commentary is keyed to the translation, not the Latin. This format, of course, triggers a familiar weighing of pro's and con's. Pro, it opens sophisticated discussion of the play to those with little or no Latin--academics in other fields, I suggest, as well as students. Con, it could encourage a false sense that the essence of a Latin text is accessible without the bother of learning Latin.

It must be said that Hine manages the format with great skill, and that this edition in itself constitutes a strong argument on the "pro" side. In 218 pages, and at a reasonable price at least in paperback, it distils much of what is best in current Senecan scholarship. H.'s notes and discussions, though never jejune, are well within the grasp of non-specialists and students; yet this reviewer, who has been reading the Medea for three decades, found something of interest on almost every page.

I begin with the translation, since it will determine the impressions of non-Latinists, and of struggling Latin students. Its style is clear, direct, vigorous--attractive qualities--though it never disguises the fact that it is a translation. H. has a gift for choosing the right phrase or word for the Latin and the context: "Let the story they tell of your divorce be like/ the one they tell of your marriage" (after Ahl) for 52f. paria narrentur tua/ repudia thalamis; "be gentle with my gift" for 142 muneri parcat meo. He is alive to details others have missed, e.g. the paradox of 618 indocto magistro, "an untutored master," and the violence of 105 corripe, "seize" (not "take to your arms," Miller). Dolor and furor are rendered consistently (as "anguish and "madness" respectively), in order to register the thematic force of their frequent repetition (see comm. on 49 and 139). For pietas and its cognates H. necessarily allows himself more freedom ("impiously" at 134 is not one of his best choices), but he notes the leitmotif represented by these terms at 261 comm.

An occasional weakness of the translation is a tendency to slip into the verbose and/or prosaic, e.g. "Blind is the fire spurred on by anger:/ it has no wish to be controlled, will not tolerate the bridle" (592f.): here the first line reflects the conciseness of the original, but the second line takes 12 words to render five, and so loses force. Similar prosaic expansions are "he owned little, yet was wealthy" for parvo dives 333, and "Give your wife's property back as she flees" for redde fugienti sua 489. I raise the point because, for those who rely chiefly on the translation, such renderings do not convey Seneca's stylish terseness in individual phrases--and Seneca is nothing if not stylish.1

The Latin text is based on Zwierlein's OCT,2 but H. sometimes prefers his own judgment, usually returning to the transmitted reading (23 optet, 307 vias, 747 volvet plus retention of 746-47, 886 ut iussus, 905 et). In each of these five instances H. is right in my view. Indeed he might justifiably have gone further in this direction, since there are some seven other places where a strong case can be made for the paradosis. An example is 842 face lucifera, where the adjective alludes to Hecate's title phosphoros (Eur. Helen 569, Ar. Thesm. 858, Lys. 443, fr. 608; cf. daidophoros Bacch. fr. 1.B.1): for flashing torchlight, accompanied by dogs' barking, as indicating Hecate's assent to an invocation, cf. A.R. 3.1215f., cited ad loc. by Farnaby. At places where the MSS diverge, too, I should have thought it worthwhile to revisit the issues. There are good arguments, for example, in favour of E's agnosco at 923, and at 248 the balance of arguments is in favour of A's dextrae (preferred over E's dextra even by Leo, despite his usual predilection for E). At 843 I am surprised that H. does not mention Watt's strong conjecture parata (for EA peracta), whether in agreement or disagreement.

The commentary is the heart of such an edition, and this one is well judged to suit the needs of its users. Individual notes are quite full, but always display a sense of what is pertinent and what would be extraneous; for those wanting to pursue questions further, there are frequent references to relevant sources of information (most of them recent). An admirable feature of this commentary is that it consistently registers an awareness of the dramatic situation. H. achieves this in part by providing brief running summaries of the action and dialogue, and in part by relating individual notes regularly to the context.

H. is particularly alert to the complexity of meaning in Seneca's text. He recognises, for instance (in welcome contrast to some earlier British attitudes) that words can carry multiple meanings, e.g. in the notes pertaining to 40 viscera, 61 femina, 819 serpens, 910 crevit ingenium malis, 1022 sic. He notes etymological play on Greek names, e.g. on haima "blood" in 590 tabuit Haemus (this from John Henderson) and on "the knower" in 652 Idmon ...nosset. He might, perhaps, have said more about the interplays of sound and sense to which Henderson and Ahl have drawn attention, e.g. the partial anagram carosque cruores (810) which Ahl renders with beloved/blood, caring/carnage. Appreciation of Seneca's complexity depends largely on perceiving interrelationships that are not spelled out but implied by juxtaposition. Here H.'s guidance is vital since contemporary readers may not be versed in reading this way. H. notes, for example, how the Chorus' invocation of gods in support of Jason's marriage to Creusa (56ff.)is undercut by the fact that Medea has just appealed to the same gods as an abandoned wife. There is a particularly challenging juxtaposition in the second choral ode, which first talks of the sailing of the Argo as transgressive, and then (in terms better suited to the Roman Empire than the mythical age) speaks of voyaging as a commonplace activity in a world opened to access.3 H. locates both views in the context of ancient thinking about the advance of "civilisation," but wisely leaves any attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction to the reader.

Another feature of the text that might be missed by a reader not versed in Seneca's style is the constant variation in Medea's own mood and tone. True, she often speaks "at the top of her voice" (to adapt Eliot's phrase), but even here there are differences between the unfocussed anger of Act 1, the purposive planning at the end of Act 3, and the accomplished witchcraft of the incantation-scene. But there is also love, pathos, irony, and the emotional conflict of the "monologue of self-division" as Gill called it. H. traces these changes carefully and perceptively. Alas, the running summary for 531-67 has been omitted--"alas" because this is the crucial turning-point at which Medea accepts finally that Jason cannot be won back (in contrast to Euripides' Medea, who has no interest in winning him back). Her immediate response to this realisation is the vehement prayer of 531-37.

Since the incantation-scene is the great set-piece of this play, in metre as well as content, H.'s decision to say nothing interpretive about metre here is surely a mistake, which undervalues an important aspect of Seneca's artistry. Seneca steadily increases the tempo, shortening the length of the verse lines step by step from the opening trochaic tetrameters to the "concentrated excitement of the short staccato lines" (Costa) in 849-78. Anyone teaching from H.'s edition should supplement it by pointing out this metrical virtuosity; a ready resource is available in the notes on pp. 136-37 of Costa's edition.

In the relatively full introduction (43 pages) H. discusses the author's career, the history of the tragic genre, the play's relationship to its literary antecedents, characterisation, moral and philosophical readings, the literary texture of Senecan drama, and the question of staging. Again this material is well managed. I have to register my view that to offer students controversial philosophical readings runs the danger of misleading them. Admittedly H. scrupulously notes the difficulties of such readings; in particular he justifiably critiques (p.29) Nussbaum's skewed Stoic reading of the play as demonstrating "the unity of the soul". Yet as early as p.2 H. is summarising some central ideas of the philosophica on goodness, happiness, emotions and the cosmos, "ideas that potentially relate to the play." First impressions are formative, and students will cling to these interpretive planks like drowning men to flotsam. The impression given throughout is that morality or philosophy hold the keys, however elusive, to understanding the plays. The fact that Seneca qua philosopher never mentions his tragedies, and feigns to have only a distant acquaintance with Greek tragedy, suggests to me a more rigorous separation in his mind between his philosophical and dramatic activity than is implied in H.'s discussion.

I shall keep my well-thumbed copy of Costa's edition (1973), not least for its references to earlier scholarship and for its quotations from postclassical literature. H.'s edition, however, reflects the many advances made in Senecan scholarship and criticism over the past quarter-century. I read it with a growing realisation that Seneca's dramas have emerged from the long period of recuperation, and are now appreciated in their own right, in their complexity and strangeness. They are among the poetic texts of Latin literature that speak most directly and powerfully to contemporary readers. H.'s edition, couched in contemporary terms and reflecting contemporary scholarship, will help them to do so.


1.   The accuracy of this translation can be relied on, but I should have thought a closer rendering preferable and more effective at 169 paenituit, 344 gemerent, 375 seris, 611 emensus, 741 opaci, 746 sedeat, 763 truces, 916 igitur. Virgo is consistently rendered "girl," which seems inappropriate for Diana (87) or Charybdis (350) or in contexts where virginity is an issue. At 10 "opposite" renders the variant adversa; the aversa of the text is well rendered by Ahl, "realms faced away from life above." At 35 the sense of litora is better conveyed in the comm. than in the translation. At 73 and 76 nurus means simply "young women" (see my HF p.129). At 628 avis is surely a poetic singular for plural, like torrens in 627. At 827 did Medea really "receive" gifts from the incinerated Phaethon?
2.   I noticed an intriguing error in H.'s text at 21, where incerti has been misprinted ignoti under the influence of ignotas directly above in 20.
3.   There are some weaknesses in H.'s treatment of this ode. Seneca does not figure Medea here as "the instrument of a wider purpose" (p. 147), for the ode speaks of a quasi-historical process, not of purpose. Still less does this ode "speak of the gods being offended by the voyage of the Argo" (p. 31), for it nowhere mentions gods. Further, Seneca makes a clear distinction between the leges (320, 365) which humans impose on the natural world, and the spontaneously arising foedera (335, 606) of the natural world itself--what Lucretius called the foedera naturai.: H. elides this distinction by translating both words as "laws." By the way, am I alone in thinking that 337 iussitque pati verbera pontum is phrased so as to evoke Xerxes' command to his troops to lash the Hellespont--a notorious act of hubris? And, apropos of nothing at all, I should be surprised if lines 199-200 had no reference to Claudius' reputation for hearing only one side of a case, cf. Apocol. 12 discere causas/ una tantum parte audita with Eden ad loc.

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