Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.09.20 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.09.20

Gregor Damschen, Andreas Heil (ed.), Brill's Companion to Seneca: Philosopher and Dramatist. Brill's companions in classical studies.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2014.  Pp. xii, 883.  ISBN 9789004154612.  $222.00.  

Reviewed by Gregory A. Staley, University of Maryland (


This almost 900-page introduction to Seneca is a valuable resource even for scholars whose work focuses on Seneca, since it covers the full range of Seneca’s work in philosophy and poetry, a range so wide that no one person can master it. It consists of over fifty individual contributions by recognized scholars, the majority of whom are based in Europe. In its comprehensiveness, scholarly depth, and factual density it is very much a work in the Germanic tradition of Pauly-Wissowa, albeit entirely in English.

The editors announce at the beginning that their goal was to create a “well-ordered, concise presentation which places the philosophical works and the tragedies on an equal footing,” initially, at least, treating each separately and on its own terms. The unstated assumption seems to be that Seneca, who long suffered from the mistaken notion that he was two different people, now suffers from the opposite, as more recently scholars have sought to create a coherence between the poetry and philosophy of a sort which Seneca himself never provided. In the same way, Seneca was, like the Romans more generally, not taken seriously as a philosopher until the last fifty years; the structure of this volume recognizes that, even though there are undeniable if variously interpreted connections between Senecan poetry and prose, each component merits attention on its own. If the label “Handbook” were not now out of favor, the editors would, I think, have preferred it to “Companion” since they characterize each entry as a contribution “in the style of concise handbook articles.”

The book is divided into five sections of uneven length: Life and Legacy, Philosophy, Tragedy, Apocolocyntosis, Other Works, and Synthesis. The sections on philosophy and poetry have entries on each of Seneca’s works under those headings and entries on “topics,” such as “Death and Time or “Philosophy as Therapy” and “The Chorus: Seneca as a Lyric Poet” or “Philosophical Tragedy?”. Readers will find that this is a book better sampled than consumed; it is designed first of all to answer basic questions about specific works or issues rather than to construct an overarching thesis which seeks to make Seneca whole. As Thomas Habinek notes in his excellent introduction (“IMAGO SUAE VITAE: Seneca’s Life and Career”), Seneca’s “complexity, versatility, and contrariety all challenge much-cherished ideals of stable, autonomous selfhood,” and for that very reason have led to a series of attempts to construct a unified field theory of Senecan thought. This volume primarily gives us the “fields” of Seneca’s thought and only in small ways does it try to unify them. It is telling that the final section of the book, labeled “Synthesis,” contains only two contributions, one on Seneca’s language and style and another on connections between Seneca’s philosophy and his tragedy.

For a work so long and detailed a reviewer can offer only samples that are representative of the whole. I was impressed by the energy and clarity of the entries on individual works; a reader does not become overwhelmed by factual detail, but will be inspired by these scholarly summaries to turn to Seneca’s own words with a sense of context and an eye for what is distinctive. Gareth Williams’ entry on the Naturales Quaestiones, for example, although it is only ten pages long, places Seneca’s somewhat surprising foray into earthquakes and lightning into the context of Seneca’s final years, the Greek tradition of similar works, and Seneca’s broader vision of philosophical contemplation. Seneca leads our eyes from the earthly to the sublime, from sight to insight, and thus the work is as much about forms of perception as about forms of nature.

Roland Mayer’s chapter on Phaedra begins with the interesting point that a play about incest could not be exploited during the proclaimed morality of the Republic but could during the more “relaxed moral climate” of the early Principate. He summarizes the plot of the play and its possible sources, highlighting Seneca’s innovations, in contrast to an earlier scholarly tradition that read this play as a source for lost Greek prototypes. Brief sections follow on Seneca’s characterization of Phaedra and Hippolytus, on the possible philosophical readings of the play, and on language and style. I particularly admire the clarity and thoroughness with which each of the chapters in this companion summarizes the main traditions of scholarly interpretation and directs readers to their representatives; the bibliography recognizes that excellent and still valuable research on Seneca was done decades ago.

It is in the chapters on “topics” that the contributors explore issues that transcend individual works: action and emotion, philosophy as therapy, space and time in the dramas, Greek and Roman elements in the tragedies. Here I would have liked to see a greater effort devoted to synthesizing the different spheres of Seneca’s thought, since most of these topics have implications for both philosophy and poetry. Many would say, however, as some did in Seneca’s own time, that the inconsistences and contradictions of Seneca’s life and work cannot be smoothed nor explained away. Seneca admitted that we wear many masks in life, and assume many different roles. When in his death scene as described in Tacitus he bequeaths his imago to his friends, he is, as Habinek argues in his introduction to this volume, following an old Roman tradition in which a nobleman left his death mask as a model and inspiration to his descendants. In a sense, Seneca has left it to us to define the one identity behind his many masks, a task that he never quite accomplished himself. The merit of this volume is that it offers a splendid guide to the many masks under which Seneca lived; it leaves it to us, however, to define the unity behind them.

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