Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.39

A. J. Boyle (ed.), Octavia: Attributed to Seneca. (With introduction, translation, and commentary).   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xc, 340.  ISBN 9780199287840.  $130.00.  

Reviewed by George W.M. Harrison, Université Concordia, Montréal (
Word count: 1573 words

To start by admitting an interest: this book invites comparison with Ferri's 2003 Cambridge 1 commentary and Boyle by his own admission (preface) disagrees with Ferri on 'innumerable issues both large and small'. Ferri's commentary is much fuller because it is aimed at scholars, while Boyle addresses a much wider audience. Boyle's commentary aims to make the play accessible to the advanced undergraduate or graduate student while the translation presents the play to the general public. The differences, however, are mainly ones of substance and not solely the result of scope. Additionally, Boyle was able to take full advantage of the 2000 edition with commentary by Barbera2 which had just appeared as Ferri was completing his manuscript. My instinct, as in my interpretative guide to the Octavia ,3 is to side with Ferri against Boyle in most instances, but this does not in the least diminish my regard for and appreciation of Boyle. In the end, final proof in all areas of genial disagreement is impossible, and I have profited greatly in my own work from our correspondence, as I have also from Ferri. But more relevant and important is to see how Boyle's appreciation of the Octavia has developed from his 2006 book, Roman Tragedy (reviewed BMCR 2007.01.39) where he devoted most of his attention to a review of scholarship rather than enunciating his own views.

The introduction treats the background issues at much greater length than was possible for Ferri. As to authorship and date, Boyle (xvi) makes no guess as to the identity of the author and prefers the early years of Vespasian, tying it to the re-opening of theatres in his reign. Certain features argue strongly against any earlier composition, and the prominence of Britannicus would have been uncomfortable during the reign of Domitian, since Britannicus had been a close friend of Titus, Domitian's older brother. A section on 'The Neronian Principate' delves into the theatrical character of Nero as a backdrop to the play. This leads seamlessly to 'Imperial Theatricality' and discussion of the 'Roman Theatre from its Republican beginnings' to (more interestingly) Boyle's view of its transformations during the Empire. The two important trends Boyle sees are plays coming to be written by men of substance and the 'depoliticisation' of all forms of drama, against which writers and performers constantly rebelled. He would place the Octavia squarely in tug-of-war between emperors wanting performance to be entertainment with pro-imperial moral propaganda and the inevitable artistic reaction against restraints of any kind. This ends with the question of performance (xl-xlii): Boyle obviously considers it performable because his translation was performed. He assumes that the play was intended to be performed, even if it cannot be known whether it was ever put on stage. Boyle is more sanguine that parts of the play, particularly the lyric passages, had open or semi-open public performance, for which there was a vogue in the last quarter of the first century CE.

There follows a long section on the fabula praetexta. The subject has received much more detailed treatment from Manuwald4 and Kragelund5; Boyle's remarks are a sensible condensation of a subject over which there is general agreement. Given his remarks on the Roman Theatre, there is an emphasis on the highly political context of the production of historical drama, as well as overtly politicised content. This is the legacy of the sub-genre of which the Octavia is the only surviving example. The next section examines the three surviving ancient accounts of 'The Divorce and Death of Octavia'. For this reader, the most riveting part of the introduction is that on 'The Play' itself. In terms of structure, genre, and allusion, Boyle gives the evidence for a complex inter-relationship of acts and scenes worked out in detail. He sees the play occurring in six acts (not seven) over three days, basing act divisions on separation by choral odes; the assignation of 201-21 to the nutrix, as opposed to the entering chorus, is key to his division as well as those who agree with Boyle. Six acts over three days allows for a balance and symmetry of parallel and inverse relationships. In the sub-section on 'Politics, Perception, and History' Boyle writes sensibly that no character is entirely sympathetic, all are somehow prisoners of the play's main personalities and trapped by the historical circumstances. This helps keep the play from becoming a cardboard representation, and is aided by what Boyle sees as an 'implosion of stereotypes', particularly in the case of the chorus, but even in the poet's restraint in not making Nero a proto-typical tyrant, and Seneca the soul of reason. There are two final sections, one on the Octavia and Renaissance Drama and one on metre. The former is a subject worthy of a book itself and of importance because Renaissance revivals, adaptations, and reworkings on stage, both as plays and opera, belong very much to the turbulent politics of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.

The text and translation appear on facing pages, which is of great utility to the reader but makes it impractical for course adoption. The translation 'aims to convey to the Latinless reader as much as it is possible to convey in English and without violation of English idiom about the form and meaning of the Latin play (xc)'. It will be familiar to many already from its adoption in the North American premiere of the Octavia under the direction of Amanda Caraway of the Experimental Theater at San Diego State University in April 2006. An explanation for the dots in the margin on the translation side of the page might more profitably have been placed on the bottom of p. 2, rather than on p.lxxxix. The translation is line-by-line as far as common sense allows and is in ten-syllable blank verse, as Boyle's earlier translations of Seneca's Phaedra (1992) 6 and Troades (1994).7 His translation thus emphasises the lyric qualities of the play in a way which is absent from Fitch's Loeb8 and not part of the strategy of Harrison,9 which sees the play resonate more with opera and so less with Shakespeare. Boyle's translation has real poetry with its own beauty beyond the power inherent in the Latin text. At no point is the translation stilted, and some of the enjambment, particularly over even to odd numbered lines, shows his dedication to his craft, and real talent. Boyle attempts to parallel assonance and alliteration when practical. Monosyllabic line endings, fairly rare in the Latin text, are invariably translated with monosyllables in the English. Repeated words, such as 'poison' in the English are usually given the same position in the line at each occurrence.

The text is essentially that of the 1986 Zweirlein OCT to Seneca, a monument of scholarship with few rivals.10 The text of the Octavia, however, is the most stable of all of plays, no doubt due to the comparative rarity of its performance. The cruces are few and Boyle (82-83) cites the 39 instances where his readings diverge with those of Zweirlein and the six other instances where his assignment of speaker or transposition of lines is different from the OCT. When he does so Boyle usually adopts the readings of the A-family against E, rarely preferring the reading of Fitch in the volume he published in tandem with the Loeb.11 In addition to making clear where and how his text is different from the OCT, Boyle provides a 'Selective Critical Apparatus' for variant readings in some of the more contentious passages so as not to overwhelm the commentary.

The commentary is in Boyle's own words (88) 'exegetic, analytic and interpretative'. Verbal reminisces are given and scholarship is cited but in both instances he is more selective than Ferri. In his notes, where Ferri might bring a lot of information to bear on a word, clause or passage, Boyle chooses to discuss less in more detail. The commentary is not filled with technical terms that might overwhelm some users or require a glossary. On matters of interpretation, Boyle states his preferences and usually names the scholars with whom he is in agreement, most often Barbera. Alternate interpretations are not frequently addressed, and when he does so, Boyle is never curt or dismissive. Not surprisingly, Virgil, Ovid, and Seneca are most often cited for parallel passages. Lucan's historical epic must be in some way important for a historical play and so one might have expected more reminiscences. The same might also be said for Flavian epic, although questions of dating would affect the question of who is imitating whom.

It is the trap of most scholarship on the Octavia and on the Hercules Oetaeus to admit that these plays are not by Seneca and then treat them as if they were. Boyle is valiant but not immune. There is much in the Octavia and more in the Hercules Oetaeus that is a critique of Senecan norms for tragedy and so to treat these plays according to those norms is to do them a disservice, and to miss an important part of their raison d'être. Boyle's book deserves a place on shelves next to Ferri. Shoulder-to-shoulder they inform us so much more than either alone. From Ferri all of the nuance and subtlety of the play emerges, proving the author was an extremely gifted poet, and from Boyle we find that poetry comes to centre stage as well as the aching forfeit of a valuable human life.


1.   Rolando Ferri, Octavia: A Play Attributed to Seneca. Cambridge, 2003.
2.   E. Barbera, Lucio Anneo Seneca: Ottavia. Lecce, 2000.
3.   G.W.M. Harrison, An Interpretative Guide to the Octavia. In revisions.
4.   G. Manuwald, Fabulae praetextae. Spuren einer literarischen Gattung. Munich, 2001.
5.   P. Kragelund, "Historical Drama in Ancient Rome: Republican Fluorishing and Imperial Decline?", SO 76 (2002) 5-51, 88-102.
6.   A.J. Boyle, Phaedra. Liverpool, 1992.
7.   A.J. Boyle, Troades. Liverpool, 1994.
8.   J.G. Fitch, Seneca's Tragedies. Cambridge, Mass., 2002 and 2004.
9.   G.W.M. Harrison, Octavia: An ancient play for the modern stage. under consideration for performance.
10.   O. Zweirlein. L. Annaei Senecae Tragoediae. Oxford, 1986. Full argumentation for the readings he adopted are in his companion volume Kritischer Kommentar zu den Tragödien Senecas. Mainz, 1986.
11.   J.G. Fitch, Annaeana Tragica: Notes on the Text of Seneca's Tragedies. Leiden, 2004.

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