Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.07.42

Emily R. Wilson (trans.), Seneca. Six Tragedies. Oxford World's Classics.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xxxvi, 240.  ISBN 9780192807069.  $13.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christopher Trinacty, Oberlin College (

Seneca was the first classical poet whose complete dramatic works were translated into English (in 1581).1 While his subsequent reputation as a dramatist and poet has been uneven to say the least, recent years have seen a renewed interest in Seneca’s tragedies. Unfortunately, the most recent mass-market paperback English translation of multiple tragedies geared to the general reader was published in 1966.2 Wilson’s welcome collection offers an affordable and vibrant selection of Seneca’s dramas, and will be useful for students and professors yearning to read them in idiomatic English. Wilson approaches her translations with an eye to creating, “a lively version which will also allow Seneca something of his own weird voice, and invite new readers to have their own responses to these strange, dark plays” (xxviii). Her choice of six tragedies (all the authentic Senecan works except Agamemnon and the incomplete Phoenissae) gives the reader a thorough initiation into the themes and topics that are quintessentially Senecan.3

Wilson’s introduction situates Senecan tragedy in its historical, philosophical, and literary contexts and provides a judicious overview of the cultural forces that influence these plays. Wilson illuminates the divergent sides of various critical debates about Seneca’s tragedies (e.g. the role of Stoicism, the question of performance), and concludes with a sampling of the reception of Seneca’s tragedies up to the current day in which, “many of Seneca’s central themes seem particularly urgent and relevant” (xxvi). The introduction propels the reader forward to the translations themselves with confidence that s/he has the relevant background information to properly assess the macabre and baroque world of Senecan tragedy. A select bibliography, timeline (from 44 BCE to Seneca’s death in 65 CE), and useful mythological family trees follow the introduction.4

The translations themselves eschew the typical iambic pentameter for a more fluid iambic rhythm that varies from five to seven feet, and attempts to correspond line-for-line with Zwierlein’s Oxford Classical Text of Seneca’s tragedies. Choral odes, with the exception of Wilson’s Sapphic rendition of Medea 579-606 (a Sapphic passage), are rendered in a multiplicity of diverse rhythms to signal their distinctiveness from the iambic dialogue. In reading, however, this distinction is often easy to miss, and I would have preferred to see the Choral odes given some additional emphasis (even setting them off with an additional space would have helped). Wilson has not inserted stage directions, “on the grounds that to do so would be to pre-empt judgment on questions of staging” (xxviii). While I sympathize with this decision, for an author who is as fond of asides and apostrophe as Seneca, I worry that some readers may have a hard time figuring out what exactly is going on at certain moments such as Phd. 580-600, and when Medea kills each of her children. Seasoned readers of Seneca will not be troubled, however, and may find the lack of stage directions liberating and be encouraged to read these works in the manner of a continuous narrative poem instead of unusual plays.5 I found myself often marveling at the poetic texture of Seneca’s descriptions, which continuously recall the Augustan poets and highlight Seneca’s erudition and poetic ability.6

Before each play, Wilson provides a snapshot of the mythic background and, for certain plays, a short teaser of the action to come. The translations themselves are clear and readable, often achieving a notable momentum during the scenes in which one desires such narrative locomotion (e.g. scenes of stichomythia, the messenger speeches of Thyestes and Phaedra). Wilson has a firm grasp of the need for variatio in her translation style, but remains true to Seneca’s text while granting it a contemporary flair. Her tone can be colloquial and one may be struck when Pyrrhus complains to Agamemnon, “You are so full of yourself. When things go well / you get all high and mighty...” (O tumide, rerum dum secundarum status / extollit animos, Tro. 301-2). However, such a translation suits Pyrrhus’s youthful brashness, even as it downplays the hissing sibilance of the original Latin. This plain-spoken style can grant an evocative immediacy to the text as when the Chorus of the Hercules Furens, musing upon death, asks, “How do you feel, when light is gone, and grieving, / each of you realizes for yourself / that the whole world is pressing on your head?” (858-60).7 Wilson can also reach the heights of Senecan bombast when necessary (e.g. Hippolytus’ complaint of Phaedra’s incestuous passion, Phd. 672-97), and Seneca’s learned mythological and geographical references are well-handled, either through the explanatory notes in the back or additional literary context.8 Wilson finds novel ways of portraying the gruesome elements of vengeance, as when Atreus laments that his plot against Thyestes was insufficient (1051-5):

THYESTES: ...sceleris est aliquis modus!
ATREUS: Sceleri modus debetur ubi facias scelus,
non ubi reponas. hoc quoque exiguum est mihi:
ex vulnere ipso sanguinem calidum in tua
defundere ora debui, ut viventium
biberes cruorem...

THYESTES: The crime at least is balanced.
ATREUS: Balance the books of crime when you commit it,
not when you pay it back. Even this is too little for me.
I should have poured hot blood into your mouth
direct from their wounds, to make you drink them alive.

Compare Watling’s translation:

THYESTES: Is sin illimitable?
ATREUS: There are bounds
To limit wilful sin; but sin’s requital
Acknowledges no limits. I have done
Too little yet. I should have drained their blood
Warm from their wounds into your open mouth;
You should have drunk it from their living bodies.

Wilson adds the colloquial metaphor of “balancing the books” to render the idea that mere recompense is insufficient for acts of revenge, but I particularly like her translation of the final two lines as “to make you drink them alive”, a paradoxical and grisly vision. Watling’s translation seems frigid and archaic in comparison, and this is the primary difference one finds repeatedly between these two translations. Because Wilson is less interested in the staging of these tragedies than other translators, if staging is a consideration, I would recommend different translations for the Thyestes and Oedipus, but as a survey of Seneca’s tragic output, Wilson’s translations are unparalleled.9

This edition of Seneca’s tragedies is fresh, affordable, and teachable, and I hope it will make Senecan tragedy more accessible for those wanting to teach it in courses on Latin literature, drama, or myth. Wilson has discovered a proper idiom for Seneca’s tragedies, one that not only is suitable for the grandeur of his rhetorical catalogues, but can also deliver his sententiae with the cunning and thrust they deserve. The text is relatively free from errors and is clearly presented.10

Table of Contents

Introduction vii
Note on the Text and Translation xxvii
Select Bibliography xxix
Chronology xxxiii
Mythological Family Trees xxxiv


Explanatory Notes 213


1.   Newton, T. (ed.) Seneca: His Tenne Tragedies, London, 1581.
2.   Watling, E.F. (trans.) Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia, London, Penguin Books, 1966.
3.   R.J. Tarrant believes that Seneca may have intended the Phoenissae to be a literary experiment, “an essay in a distinct subgenre of tragedy”; cf. “Senecan Drama and Its Antecedents,” HSCP 82 (1978) 230.
4.   The mythological family trees will be especially useful for students for whom Seneca’s mythological erudition may hamper their appreciation of the plays. I especially enjoyed how Wilson marks the connections between figures with m. = marriage and i. = illegitimate relationship, and one finds in the House of Helios that “a bull i. Pasiphae” produces the Minotaur (could it have been a legitimate relationship?).
5.   A strategy which led to D. J. Mastronarde’s insightful piece on Seneca’s Oedipus: “Seneca’s Oedipus: The Drama in the Word,” TAPA 101 (1970) 291-315. T.S. Eliot notes, “If Seneca is to be compared, he should rather be compared for versification, descriptive and narrative power, and taste, with the earlier Roman poets (sc. not other dramatists)”; cf. “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation” in Selected Essays, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1950: 58. It is notable that translators such as Ted Hughes have had a similar reaction to Seneca’s tragic style, as he comments on the Oedipus, “it’s really a piece of epic, broken between 3 or 4 voices, with short passages of very formal dialogue” (letter to Leonard Baskin, dated March 2, 1968).
6.   Wilson discusses Seneca’s intertextual prowess in her introduction (xxii-xxiv), a subject that continues to offer fertile ground for exploration. I tackled some ramifications for such intertextuality in my “Seneca’s Heroides: Elegy in Seneca’s Medea,” CJ 103.1 (2007) 63-78.
7.   Some informal moments, however, can be ineffective such as Oedipus’ cry, “Do you think being king is fun?” (6), and Helen’s request to Polyxena: “Take off your dirty clothes, put on a party dress, forget you are a captive” (883-4).
8.   For instance, when Medea performs her incantation, she remarks on the power of her magical fire, “Mulciber gave / flames hidden in delicate sulphur, / and I got from my cousin Phaethon / the thunder of living flame” (Med. 824-7), Wilson provides endnotes on Mulciber and Phaethon pitched to the general reader.
9.   Churchill, C. Thyestes, London, Nick Hearn Books, 1995. Ahl, F. Two Faces of Oedipus, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2008. For a judicious review of Ahl’s work, cf. BMCR 2008.07.43.
10.   At Phd.736, Wilson believes the Chorus refers to Phaedra’s flight, whereas most commentators believe that Hippolytus is the subject of fugit. Such a misidentification muddles the message of this Choral ode. There are syntactical issues at Thy.53: “use them to fill up all house of Tantalus” [sic], Med. 279 “did not do them” should be “I did not do them”, and H.F. 241 “Do I need mention mores?” should be “Do I need mention more?”.

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