Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.03.40

M. D. Usher (trans.), Letters of Seneca Selected, with Notes and Commentary.   Newburyport:  Focus Publishing, 2000.  Pp. 71.  ISBN 1-58510-024-2.  $12.95.  

Reviewed by R. Scott Smith, University of New Hampshire (
Word count: 1261 words

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.04.22.]]

This slender volume (71 pp.) is a collection of ten well-known letters from Seneca's Epistulae Morales designed to be used in the intermediate Latin classroom, specifically by third semester students who are being weaned off Wheelock. Usher (hereafter U.) has purposefully chosen a traditional, grammar-based approach, and despite some (rather serious) reservations I have about the book, students should walk away from their third semester with a greater appreciation of Seneca's thought and the issues of first-century Rome as well as a more thorough grounding in the Latin language.1

Instructors looking for innovation will be disappointed. The book is divided into three sections: 1) a six-page, cursory introduction to Seneca's life, philosophy and style; 2) Latin text of the letters from the Loeb (ed. R.M. Gummere), grouped loosely according to style and in ascending grammatical complexity: 60, 5, 43, 84, 56, 28, 44, 47, 62, and 18; and 3) abundant notes (41 pp.), mostly grammatical and keyed to Allen and Greenough's New Latin Grammar (hereafter A & G). There is no glossary; U. assumes a great deal of dictionary work on the part of the student.

All in all there is roughly the equivalent of 20 OCT pages of Latin here, "only as much material [U. has] been able to cover in one semester with students coming directly from Wheelock [x]." Some may find U.'s decision to include so little irksome, since in some cases a good group of students will be able to do more, and in others instructors may want some choice as to which letters they read. What letters he does include, however, are well-chosen and should evoke some interesting discussions in class, especially Seneca's famous letters from above the baths (56), on the treatment of slaves (47), and on the Saturnalia (18).

I certainly hope that the care both author and publisher put into this book will not persist in the rest of this series of intermediate texts. Indicative of the quality of this publication is the puff on the back, "Letters of the first in the new series, Focus Classical Commntaries [sic]". This inauspicious omen is followed by a second monstrum, an insert with one and one-half pages of corrigenda, many of which were meant to correct problems in the Latin text. Yet (mirabile visu!) I still found several errors lurking in the text.2

The inconsistent quality of the notes diminishes the value of the volume's major advantage, which is that letters are particularly suitable for the intermediate student--they are personal and self-contained such that the student has a sense of progress. Although U. often hits right on the mark and has done a nice job of referring to A & G at every conceivable opportunity, in too many cases the student is bound to be confused or misled. I provide a few examples so that instructors will know what they should look out for.

Often the lemmata are poorly chosen and do not correspond to the notes. The worst case of this in on pp. 36 and 37, which concerns Seneca's statement (5.5), "quemadmodum desiderare delicatas res luxuriae est, ita usitatas et non magno parabiles fugere dementiae." He provides the following two notes: 1) "desiderare delicatas: subject of est. 2) "dementiae: parallel to luxuriae; supply res." From the notes the student is bound to come to the conclusion that res is nominative singular and the genitives are dependent upon it. What is worse, U. misses to opportunity to discuss the genitive of the sphere (or possession or belonging), which is the key to understanding the sentence and which no student gets from an elementary textbook like Wheelock.

Furthermore, U. is often inexplicably unclear, inexact or prone to error. On p. 5 "moon" is not derived from, but is cognate with, menses. On p. 33 U. writes, " introduces a temporal clause..."; although one may translate the conjunction "when," the clause is nonetheless concessive. On p. 36, where U. writes, "indicium is predicate Indirect Statement...", indicium is predicate accusative. On p. 39 nobis is called a Dative of Advantage when it is clearly a dative with circumdo. On p. 42: (note to verti) "the subject accusative is unexpressed; supply mella...or vim"; the subject accusative is clearly expressed in the relative clause "quae...decerpserint." On p. 50 (note to bona fide): while "[in a state of] good faith" may be an archaic way of saying "truly" or "really" (cf. OED III. b. 12), it seems to me that this translation will be completely lost on the modern student. On p. 53 veneris is not future perfect indicative but perfect subjunctive (!) in an indirect question.

Many times U. offers alternative grammatical constructions, and to be sure there are cases when it is impossible to determine the syntax (e.g., "cum + subjunctive here is either causal or concessive. Either way..."). Nonetheless, he sometimes refuses to take a stand when the Latin is clearly one or the other. Instructive here is p. 67 (note to animo). U. writes, "here [animo] could be Dative of Agent with the Gerundive or the indirect object of impero." Animo here is patently the latter, as the following ut clause makes clear. U. misses one of the best opportunities to discuss an important lesson an intermediate Latin student coming from Wheelock needs, namely, that not all datives with the passive periphrastic act as agents, that the dative is retained with verbs that take the dative, and that a(b) + the ablative is often used to express the true agent if the author wishes to avoid the ambiguity U. seems to find.

Finally, instructors should note that some of the commentary is imposed sui gratia and is not helpful to the student. One wonders whether the intermediate student will get anything from the specific citations to the Prometheus myth when Prometheus is not mentioned, or even alluded to, in the letter (p. 38 s.v. providentia); or if an intermediate student will be inspired by the fact that the chiasm in Seneca's Latin "is probably original to Hecato's Greek" (p. 37 s.v. desieris); or if the student will even be able to cut through a comment such as (note to illas intrepide possideas), "a paradoxical sentiment remarkably like 'Sin boldly,' Martin Luther's confident expression of his sola fide doctrine." Even if a student understands the connection, that a Stoic like Seneca should not advocate the possession of riches just as a Christian like Martin Luther should not advocate sinning (and even this is not a true parallel, since riches in Stoicism are merely differentia, not to be wholly avoided), one has to question the inclusion of such a cryptic note in an intermediate text.

Although I think that on balance the text is satisfactory for the intermediate classroom, I feel compelled to emphasize the many problems found within so few pages. Some in the field lament that pedagogical materials (and electronic publications) often do not get the respect they deserve from hiring and tenure committees. But as long as so many elementary and intermediate texts continue to betray carelessness in execution, one cannot expect them to be considered 'scholarly'. The ideal intermediate text, just as a monograph on hiatus in Plato or the role of women in Euripides, should be the result of thoughtfulness and careful decisions in the first place, and even more careful editing before publication. In the end, one has to balance the benefits of using letters (which are many) with the unfortunate drawbacks of an error-prone book that shows signs haste.


1.   One should note the other texts of Seneca's letters that are widely available (and of vastly different quality). W. Summers' Select Letters of Seneca is best read by graduate students; C. D. N. Costa's 17 Letters of Seneca is overpriced at sixty dollars and has the disadvantage of having a facing English translation; the newly printed Seneca's Moral Epistles by A. L. Motto contains 40 letters with glossary, running vocabulary and notes, but is thirty-four dollars and may work better for an advanced class. [[2] P. 3 for Stoicorun read Stoicorum; p. 18 for protantibus read portantibus; p. 27 for succint read succinct; ibid. for similant read simulant; p. 28 for monimo read minimo; p. 29 for possesionem read possessionem; p. 30 for samper read semper; p. 35 for subtantive read substantive; p. 52 for ispo read ipso; p. 53 for omnen read omnem; p. 61 the lemma ridicula does not match the text (which has reicula, Muretus' emendation); and p. 64 for ianitories read ianitores.

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