Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.02.27

Rolando Ferri, Octavia: A Play Attributed to Seneca. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, vol. 41.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. x, 471.  ISBN 0-521-82326-9.  £70.00.  

Reviewed by George W.M. Harrison (
Word count: 1743 words

L.Y. Whitman published a commentary to the Octavia in 1978, slender yet the only commentary in English on the play. The difference in size between her study and the book under review is a testimony to how much has been learned about the Octavia in the intervening twenty-five years and also an indicator of how much the reputation of the author and play has risen in scholarly circles. Sutton, and especially Kragelund, have done work of outstanding merit, now joined by Manuwald (2001), who also published a collection of essays on early Roman historical drama in 2000. Symbolae Osloensis devoted most of its 2002 issue to the Octavia, and Prudentia has just published its own special issue (2003) on the subject. A Duckworth companion is due out soon. Although Ferri could not consider precise points addressed in these two special volumes, the views of the various contributors are well enough known from other publications that he was able to incorporate them in the present work.

The text is essentially that of the 1991 Oxford Classical Text by Zwierlein. The Octavia has been preserved in much better shape than many others so there is less for an editor to weigh than in other plays, as a reading of his section on transmission (75-82) shows. He sides with Zwierlein and most others in assigning lines 201-21 to Octavia where Whitman would give them to the chorus. He is very chary of conjectures of Renaissance and later editors, and follows the manuscript in lines between 295-305 for which transposed order of verses has been suspected. Assignation of lines to individual speakers does not present the difficulty it does in some other plays.

This over-all stability of the text allows Ferri to spend most of his time and effort on explanation and interpretation. The commentary (pages 119-405) is detailed. All of the appropriate parallel passages are duly noted, and often an explanation is given why or how the text is enriched by the reminiscence. Entry of a new character on stage or the beginning of sections in the play are noted with introductory remarks, but there are no lemmata or other indications in the commentary to indicate scene or act divisions. It is assumed that the reader knows basic mythology, or can easily access other sources, and so mythological characters and plots of plays on mythological subjects are generally not given. The commentary centres mainly on echoes, reminiscences, and discussions of how other playwrights handled a particular image or trope in the text, or what a particular word meant to another author. Ferri's purview is not just to prior literature and dramatic literature; notes can as often explain how a particular historical detail struck Tacitus, or how a particular expression was evocative in a different way at a later time. It is thus regrettable that the index of discussed passages at the end of the book is not more exhaustive. Greek precursors are as likely to be discussed as Latin ones. The amount of erudition combined with sensitivity in this section is impressive. The more one knows of Latin literature and Greek tragedy the more benefit will be had from this book.

The non-specialist in Roman drama or in the Octavia will find the seven sections of the introduction (1-82) essential. Ferri carefully sets out the evidence and scholarly opinions, and where there are debates he does not support one particular viewpoint without making it clear to the reader. The genre of the Octavia (1-3) gives the basics of what constituted a historical drama, or fabula praetext(at)a, in the shortest possible compass, perhaps too short. The issue of genre has become an area of active debate among specialists in the last few years; Ferri is doubtless wise not to engage in the intricacies. The Historical Background (3-5) lists the three main historical sources (Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio) for the divorce and death of Octavia in the briefest summary. Ferri points out the fallacy in the plot: if Octavia were truly infertile, Roman law and popular opinion would not have placed any obstacles to the divorce. He sees, as has nearly every other scholar, dynastic politics driving a decision to eliminate Octavia, for which the divorce is a necessary prelude. This places an entirely different construction on the play. The bias of the historical sources against Nero is noted; it should also have been added that all of the sources are after the Octavia and so if there is any borrowing it is by the historians (for which a credible case has been made for Tacitus).

The Date of the Play (5-30) is the section in which Ferri has made his greatest original contribution. Senecan authorship, once universally assumed, is dismissed appropriately in three sentences. Much more complex is a possible date in the reign of Galba, either at his triumph (so Kragelund) or at the Plebeian Games (Wiseman) in AD 68. The arguments for a date so soon after the death of Nero are repeated in detail. Ferri is not satisfied for two reasons: 1. the play seems to be based on written accounts and so must be later than Pliny and Fabius, both of whose works belong to the middle years of Vespasian, and 2. literary reminiscences from, especially, Statius would require the date of composition to be even later. Here, I must admit an interest. I think that Ferri is absolutely correct to place the play after the reign of Vespasian. I have recently argued for AD 83/84 while the date Ferri seems to prefer would be around AD 90. Ferri's instinct that later is better is, I think, correct and the reasons he gives for the play making Domitian the new Nero are as cogent in response to the public relations fiasco of his attempt to divorce Domitia as they are after the first serious assassination attempt (1 Jan 89). Ferri's scholarship will make it hard to maintain an early date of composition.

The relationship of this play to the recitation dramas of Curiatus Maternus is problematic, given the difference between the dramatic date of Tacitus' Dialogus de oratoribus, in which Maternus' Cato and Thyestes are mentioned, and the probable date of composition of Tacitus' essay; in between the two is the likely date of composition of the Octavia. After dismissing Maternus as author, Ferri has a brief flirtation with Annaeus Cornutus, freedman of Seneca and author of a surviving work in Greek on Stoic allegory. Cornutus was dead by AD 68, as was Annaeus Mela, brother of Seneca and another proposed candidate for author, as also Seneca's other brother, governor of Achaea mentioned in Acts of the Apostles. The way in which a play not by Seneca can be seen as part of an attempt to rehabilitate the flagging reputation of his dramas is fascinating and deserves more argumentation. The survival of a 'Senecan school' centred around the literary soirée of Polla Argentina, widow of Lucan, sponsor of Martial and Statius, is attractive, as is the hint, never overtly stated, that she might somehow have had a hand in backing the composition of the Octavia. This would remove the Octavia from the list of plays written by impotent senators to fill in their pointless days, a thought that often underlies criticism by those who deride the Octavia as an amateur theatrical by a litterateur.

The Senecan Corpus (31-54) is the appropriate place to have put Appendix A which lists imitations of Senecan tragedy. It treats with considerable skill language and style, relative position of adjectives and nouns, metre, and features of composition, in all of which the author is found to follow Senecan practice but to have simplified considerably. This makes it harder to maintain the Octavia as an apologia to Seneca. Of much more interest is Ferri's investigation of the relationship of the Octavia to the Hercules Oetaeus. Who imitates whom is the intriguing question. Zwierlein thought the HO was written after the Octavia but Ferri leans the other direction and, like Harrison in the Essays in Honor of Motto and Clark, is unconvinced that Senecan authorship for the HO should be discarded.

Formal production of the Octavia, which has few proponents, is ruled out for reasons adduced in Structure and Dramatic Technique (54-69). Ferri does consider features of performance but concludes they could equally be addressed in dramatic recitation. His greatest proofs are the amount and complexity of literary imitation and lack of visualisation. His view is that it would be impossible to appreciate all of the references in a staged production. The fragmentation of action does not make good theatre: the number of set and scene changes makes it impossible to put on stage. Door scenes were rarely staged in tragedy because of the conventions of the architectural back drop and so the number of in door scenes in the Octavia argue against performance, as does the erratic (by standards of other plays) appearance and disappearance of the chorus. Ferri's division of the play into seven acts with twenty-three scenes is possible only if it is accepted as non-performable. The action is divided by Ferri into three days, although a two day structure has found a recent defender in Smith (in Dominik and Boyle, Flavian Rome: Culture, Image, Text, 2003), which could not have been known to Ferri.

The Politics of the Octavia (70-75) like so much else in the book starts with Seneca. No one doubts that Seneca's de Clementia and Thyestes are core documents to the author of the Octavia. Their influence is pervasive. It is the explanation of their centrality in which scholars differ, and again Ferri sees an attempt to rescue the reputation and influence of Seneca. There are differences between the Octavia on the one side and Seneca's writings and the portrait which emerges of him in the historical sources on the other. Ferri also praises the refusal of the author of the play to turn Seneca into a Stoic philosopher/martyr. In this the playwright is clearly superior to the martyrologies of intellectuals that became popular from the reign of Trajan.

Both Whitman and Ferri wrote their theses on the Octavia, and both saw them through as books. Whitman's book in its day was important for preserving interest in and curiosity about this gem. It is now Ferri's day. This book compares well with the other volumes in the Cambridge series and will need to be consulted by anyone even contemplating serious work on the Octavia.

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