Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.08.07

G.D. Williams (ed.), Seneca: De otio, De brevitate vitae. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xiii, 271.  ISBN 0-521-58223-7.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by James Ker, Harvard University (
Word count: 2242 words

There is growing interest in the works of Seneca as a site of imperial Roman culture, but the challenge for Senecan scholarship is to be as inclusive as possible in catering to readers' different levels and different inclinations (e.g. literary, cultural, historical, philosophical). This holds particularly for such works as the so-called "dialogues" De otio and De brevitate vitae, which oscillate violently between images of everyday Roman life and the idealized philosophical life that Seneca presses upon his addressees. Lamentably, recent English translations of these works are available only in separate anthologies. For readers of these texts in Latin the only recent commentaries are in Italian and French: the last one in English was that of J.D. Duff on De brev. in 1915.1

Gareth W(illiams)'s contribution to the Cambridge green-and-yellow series is a welcome resource that, with some qualifications given below, does a good job of opening up these texts to readers, from advanced Latin students to specialists. W. draws upon the valuable work on Senecan prose done in recent decades in France and Italy and adds to a small but growing set of resources in English.2 His subtle analysis of language and argument is never simply an exercise in lexicography or doxography (though it covers such areas incredibly well): his overriding concern is with elucidating the means by which Seneca, through an idealistic and essentially impractical message, nevertheless stimulates the imperial Roman reader to cultivate "an inner world of the personal" (24).

I. Introduction

Although he begins the Introduction (1-34) with a concise biography of Seneca and explains how scholars have approached the problem of dating the two present works, W. asserts that "their philosophical importance is too easily compromised or obscured when biographical considerations are allowed to (over-)influence their dating and interpretation" (2), and he focuses on a topic that depends less on chronology, namely the various aspects of the Dialogi that characterize their "therapeutic" function. This includes careful definition of the dialogus, which he explains is not a "dialogue", nor a "diatribe", but sermocinatio, a form of prosopopoeia influenced in part by Seneca's declamatory background (3-4). W. situates Seneca's therapeutic writing within both the practical and universalist strains of Roman Stoicism and within a social climate of imperial Rome in which notions of national identity were replaced by an increase in individualism, cosmopolitanism, and the quest for other sources of "spiritual comfort" (8).

Introducing the two present works (11-25), W. questions the traditional reasons for dating the fragmentary De otio to the time of Seneca's withdrawal from Nero in 62 CE, but leaves no doubt about the work's rhetorical form, which leads the reader from a local political perspective to the "cosmic consciousness" and "view from above" associated with the maior res publica, where otium provides optimal conditions for public "action". The work remains ambiguous both in the modality of its message (an actual or a potential escape route from public life?) and its motive ("self-serving" defense for Seneca or "disinterested enquiry"?, 11-12). Approaching De brev. (which he dates more confidently, between 49 and 55), W. deals with similar questions and emphasizes a resemblance to De otio in the rhetorical goal of shifting the reader's perspective away from Roman society toward a "countersociety of philosophers" (23-24).

In his brief survey of Senecan language and style (25-32), which nicely updates and complements that of Summers,3 W. does not confine himself to cataloguing the ways in which Seneca "reflects (and shapes)" (26) the fashion of the early empire. His discussion of shiftiness (e.g. in narrative register) and rhetorical innovation ("unprecedented metaphor or image", a stretching of the reader's horizons in "progressive cycles", etc.) seeks to illustrate the multiple ways in which Seneca, avoiding the technical language of philosophy, employs a more popular yet still highly "mannered" language to "test" and "re-engage" the reader. Giving valuable attention to a readership beyond the addressee, W. shows how Seneca's interlocutor often functions as a "textual surrogate" for other readers (27).

The Introduction, seeking to cover so much in a small space, needs to be supplemented in several ways. Instructors assigning this book should note that W.'s explicitly problematizing approach from the outset of the Introduction (e.g. "I. Author and date: initial problems") leaves little time for a basic overview of Seneca as a writer. Thus, there is no mention of the fact that Seneca wrote tragedies, or that he wrote three consolations -- his first and most clearly datable cluster of writings -- although the Consolatio ad Helviam is suddenly invoked on p. 10 to elucidate an aspect of De otio. To some extent, this applies even to the works dealt with, De otio and De brev.: parts of the opening discussion (e.g. on whether De otio ends with the end of the extant fragment, 16-18) cannot be followed easily without an intimate knowledge of the texts, and the student new to these works is advised first to read them in translation, and to read a survey of Senecan writing such as that given by Conte.

W. is also silent on recent theories about the social significance of Senecan writing, such as Foucault's argument about an intensified "care of the self" in early imperial Rome, in which Senecan therapeutic writing famously served as a paradigm case,4 and, surprisingly, the recent arguments on Seneca's ideological strategies made by Edwards, Habinek, Roller, Rudich, and others.5 This silence shapes the view of Seneca's role that W. conveys: Hadot's relatively depoliticized notions of a "view from above" and "cosmic consciousness" stand as W.'s main reference points; he asserts that the "evocative Roman significance" of terms like patria, domus, and urbs is "inevitably lost in their translation to the cosmos" (11). This assertion is surely controversial: the reader would benefit from knowing that others have argued that such translations do not de-Romanize the subject of philosophy but rather frame it within the politics of Roman identity.

The reader is also left unaware of some recent studies in English (precious, because so few) that include nuanced accounts of the therapeutic techniques of Senecan rhetoric, exemplarity, and genre.6 As a consequence, anachronistic and misleading labels such as "preacher" and "sermon-like" are allowed to persist (e.g. 27-28).

II. Text

The Introduction concludes with a useful summary of the manuscript tradition and indicates the handful of instances in which W.'s text differs from Reynolds' OCT (32-34). The text itself is printed without apparatus, but in the commentary W. frequently provides information on alternate readings and clearly defends his own changes (often a return to the MSS reading). I found all of W.'s readings persuasive; all or most deserve to be followed in future editions.7

III. Commentary

The commentary addresses most types of question that are likely to arise for readers, from assistance with difficult or complex language (keyed to OLD, Gildersleeve and Lodge, and Lausberg) to rich background on the philosophical, historical, and literary aspects of the text. Although no full structural outlines are provided, for each chapter W. provides a short summary of Seneca's argument and approach (though his titles often seem imposed rather than derived from the text, e.g. De brev. 19 "The view from above"; 20 "The view from below"). The sentence-by-sentence and word-by-word comments are very frequent and very full (including comparison passages and secondary references), but given the poetic density of Senecan prose this is definitely a good thing.

A useful example of W.'s inclusive method is his commentary on De otio 4.2 (81-85), where Seneca sketches the life of otium with a catalogue of different topics of philosophical inquiry presented as an asyndetic string of questions:

ut quaeramus, quid sit uirtus, una pluresne sint, natura an ars bonos uiros faciat; unum sit hoc quod maria terrasque . . . complectitur . . . . haec qui contemplatur, quid deo praestat? ne tanta eius opera sine teste sint.

In addition to explaining such details as the syntax of "-ne" and "bonos", "ars" as an antithesis to "natura", the plural forms "maria terrasque", and Seneca's inversion of the idea that gods are witnesses to human behavior, W. provides a full account of the philosophical theory behind the classification of questions (ethics, physics, etc.) and the history of each quaestio in its own right, together with comparison passages from Seneca and from earlier philosophy (where possible, helpfully keyed to Long and Sedley). He also notes the religious overtones of "contemplatur" ("possibly hinting at the cosmos as a templum", with references to Cic., 85), and throughout the commentary provides additional background on contemplation, such as the fact that it was Posidonius who first included contemplation in Stoic formulations of the telos (72). Ultimately, however, W.'s concern is with the rhetorical effect of the section in the work as a whole, noting that it "has introduced the multiple disjunctive question as a stylistic device for stimulating contemplatio" on the part of the reader, and that Seneca will proceed to use the same device more elaborately in the following chapter to "[train] the basic investigative instinct in the discipline of intellectual analysis" (85-86).

The breadth of W.'s approach is also evident in his comments on Seneca's treatment of time. Giving lucid background for De brev. 10, with its tripartite division of time into past, present, and future and its alternating depictions of present time as "durative" and "infinitely brief" (innovatively traced to Posidonius as a likely direct source, 177, 182-83), W. also shows how Seneca has recourse to an Epicurean argument (e.g. the value of possessing the past) for the rhetorical purpose of scoring "maximum advantage" over his opponents (178).8 And when W. points out gaps in Senecan reasoning, for instance on the wastefulness of devoting time to others, this is less to fault Seneca than to show that he employs "brazenly provocative" arguments to shock the reader into adopting a different perspective (130-31). Through W.'s notes we also learn how Seneca shapes language to characterize time, whether through structure (e.g. on De brev. 1.1 "haec tam uelociter, tam rapide dati nobis tempora": the anaphoric repetition "redoubles time's swift progress", 119), through innovations in vocabulary and metaphor (e.g. De brev. 1.3 "ire" and 10.6 "fluit", both new of time in prose), or through intertextual reference to such authors as Horace, Lucretius, Ovid, Sallust, and Virgil (e.g. "Horatian imagery, theme, and diction" at De brev. 8.5).

While it is not possible to illustrate all the virtues of W.'s commentary, it is enough to say that its users will find it increasingly difficult to separate questions of content from questions of form (and again, with Seneca this is a good thing). When Seneca gradually shifts subjects in De otio 5.1-3 from "unusquisque" to "quidam", "populos", then "nos", this is not simply variatio: for W., this is Seneca "forging a common human identity" through ever wider linguistic reference (89). When Seneca outlines the goal of intellectual inquiry at De otio 5.5, W. notes, in one of several enticing observations on word-play, that "the end of the clause . . . grows entirely out of what precedes it . . . again stressing the continuity of the educative process" i.e., ut . . . aliQUId ipSo mUndo inueNIAT ANTIQUIUS (92). And when Seneca rehearses the three "quasi-tragic dramas" (29) of Cicero, Augustus, and Livius Drusus at De brev. 4-6, W. emphasizes Seneca's shaping of the historical material, from possible fabrication of sources (Augustus' letter, 138; Cicero's letter, 147) to parodies of the literary style of his subjects (Augustus' Res gestae, 141; Ciceronian complex sentences, 145).

There are a few formal aspects of Seneca's texts that W. leaves unexplored. Given that he frequently assists the reader by referring to topoi and genres at play in Seneca's writing (e.g. satire, schetliastic, laudes philosophiae), it is a surprise to find that the "tragic" element W. notes in Seneca's use of paradox and exempla (e.g. 29, 97, 99, 248) is never fully defined. If tragic elements in Senecan prose are taken seriously, as I think they should be, it might help to point the reader to the tragedies, which are surely relevant to Seneca's dramatic interventions upon the personae of his addressees, and to recent work in English on the tragedies, which is increasingly making useful reference to the prose works.9

Another slight weakness is the uneven coverage of Seneca's prose rhythm, a distinctive and significant element of his writing. Although there are occasional acknowledgements of favorite clausulae (double cretic and cretic + spondee, briefly mentioned in the Introduction, 31-32), other rhythmic patterns at significant moments in the text go unmentioned, such as the climactic (Catullan?) hendecasyllable in Xerxes' lament at De brev. 17.2 "(nemo ex tanta) iuuentute superfuturus esset", or the final colon of De brev., "ad faces et cereos ducenda sunt", which gives the work a stylized trochaic closure.10

The book has well-prepared indices (general; Latin words; Greek words), and its format and production are excellent. I did find the convention for abbreviating the titles of Senecan prose works, though consistently applied, to be itself inconsistent. For example, De constantia sapientis becomes "C.S." but De tranquillitate animi becomes "Tr.", which invites confusion with the same author's Troades.

W. deserves much praise for this fresh contribution to Senecan studies, and for creating a new option for those in search of a guide to imperial Roman literature, culture, and philosophy. Tacitus remarked that Seneca's voice was well adapted to the ears of his age (Ann. 13.3). W.'s commentary, better than any other presently available, allows modern readers to hear that voice.


1.   Translation of De otio in John M. Cooper and J.F. Procopé, eds. Seneca. Moral and political essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995). Translations of De brev. in C.D.N Costa, Seneca: Dialogues and letters (New York: Penguin, 1997); Moses Hadas, The Stoic philosophy of Seneca: Essays and letters (New York: Norton, 1968 [1958]). Commentaries: Alfonso Traina, ed. Lucio Anneo Seneca. La brevità della vita. Introduzione, traduzione, e note (Milan, 1993); Giovanni Viansino, ed. Lucio Anneo Seneca. I dialogi, 2 vols. (Milan, 1990); Pierre Grimal, ed. L. Annaei Senecae De breuitate uitae (Paris, 1959); J.D. Duff, L. Annaei Senecae Dialogorum libri x, xi, xii (Cambridge, 1915).
2.   For useful bibliographic surveys, see Antonella Borgo, "Recenti studi senecani", Bollettino di studi latini 31 (2001) 600-617; "Per una rassegna senecana (1988-1998)", Bollettino di studi latini 29 (1999) 159-86. In English, there is a green-and-yellow of Apocolocyntosis (P.T. Eden, ed. Seneca, Apocolocyntosis, Cambridge, 1984) and another in progress of Epistulae morales.
3.   Walter S. Summers, Select letters of Seneca (London, 1960) xv-xcv.
4.   Michel Foucault, The care of the self, vol. 3 of The history of sexuality (New York, 1988) 39-68; "Technologies of the self", in L. H. Martin et al., eds. Technologies of the self. A seminar with Michel Foucault (Amherst, 1988) 16-49. Critiques include Pierre Hadot, "Reflections on the idea of the 'Cultivation of the self'", in Philosophy as a way of life. Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault, trans. Michael Chase (Oxford, 1995) 206-13.
5.   Catharine Edwards, "Self-scrutiny and self-transformation in Seneca's Letters", G & R 44 (1997) 23-38; Thomas N. Habinek, "An aristocracy of virtue", in The politics of Latin literature. Writing, identity, and empire in ancient Rome (Princeton, 1998) 137-50; "Seneca's renown: Gloria, claritudo, and the replication of the Roman elite", CA 19 (2000) 264-303; Matthew B. Roller, Constructing autocracy. Aristocrats and emperors in Julio-Claudian Rome (Princeton, 2001) 64-126; Vasily Rudich, Dissidence and literature under Nero. The price of rhetoricization (New York, 1997) 17-106.
6.   E.g. Michael von Albrecht, Masters of Roman Prose from Cato to Apuleius: Interpretive studies, trans. Neil Adkin (Leeds, 1989 [1971]) 112-24; Jo-Ann Shelton, "Persuasion and paradigm in Seneca's Consolatio ad Marciam 1-6", C & M 46 (1995) 157-188; Marcus Wilson, "The subjugation of grief in Seneca's Epistles," in The passions in Roman thought and literature, eds. S. Braund and C. Gill (New York, 1997) 48-67.
7.   E.g., returning to the MSS reading: De otio 5.7: "cui" for Reynolds' "Qui" (a marked improvement, in which the antecedent of "cui" is now "temporis" in the preceding sentence); De brev. 12.4: "modulationis inertissimae" for all other editors' "ineptissimae" (with a brilliant defense that adds to our understanding of the whole passage). Emendation: De otio 2.2: "ad alios acutissimo animo" for the corrupt MSS "ad alios actus animos".
8.   It would have been useful to mention the more general approaches that have been taken to explaining this emphasis on the past in De brev. in contrast with the (apparent) relative focus on the present in Epistulae morales, e.g. A. Bertini Malgarini, "Seneca e il tempo nel De brevitate vitae e nelle Epistulae ad Lucilium", Annali dell'istituto italiano per gli studi storici (1983/1984) 75-92.
9.   E.g. Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, Senecan tragedy and Stoic cosmology (Berkeley, 1989); Jo-Ann Shelton, "The spectacle of death in Seneca's Troades", in George Harrison, ed. Seneca in Performance (London, 2000); and the work of Alessandro Schiesaro.
10.   An additional example of unevenness: at De brev. 19.2 W. explains the alternative forms "uirtutium" and "cupiditatium" by appeal to homoeoteleuton with preceding "artium", when in fact this could perhaps have been better explained as producing cretic + spondee and double cretic clausulae for their two respective cola leading up to the final double cretic clausula which W. does note: "amor uirtutium atque usus, cupiditatium obliuio, . . . alta rerum quies".

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