Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.11.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.11.31

Stefano Costa, "Quod olim fuerat": la rappresentazione del passato in Seneca prosatore. Spudasmata, Bd 152.   Hildesheim; Zürich; New York:  GeorgOlms Verlag, 2013.  Pp. xii, 386.  ISBN 9783487150437.  €58.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by R. Scott Smith, University of New Hampshire (

A revised version of his doctoral thesis at Milan (2011), Costa’s study will be greeted warmly by Senecan scholars. There is much to be learned in this richly footnoted volume, and even if the whole is less compelling than the parts, many of those individual parts will reward close attention. To clarify at the outset: this study is not a systematic exploration of how the past operates within Seneca’s philosophical outlook, or a synthetic analysis of his view of the past as history. Rather, it is a philological study of the literary aspects of several passages in which the past is depicted, especially when juxtaposed with the present. Thus, the title of the doctoral thesis (“Aspetti letterari della rappresentazione...”) is a more precise index of what this book contains: a series of passages analyzed on their own terms to determine “in what way” rather than “for what reason” (p. 310) Seneca portrays the past.

Costa’s book is framed as a response to the work of Maso,1 who on the basis of three passages (Ep. 97.1, Ben. 1.10.1, and NQ 5.15.2) argued that Seneca valorizes the present equally with the past. Because of the socio-political changes that took place in the transition from Republic to Empire, Maso contends, Seneca does not share the long-entrenched Roman notion of temporal decay or automatically equate antiquus with bonus. Instead, the past can be viewed from a critical perspective, and the present offers as much opportunity for virtue as the past. Costa, rightly critical of Maso’s narrow approach, offers a corrective by analyzing from literary and rhetorical perspectives a much larger pool of passages. Taking the texts chronologically—presumably for organizational convenience—Costa offers chapters on ad Marciam, ad Helviam, De Tranquillitate Animi (two), De Beneficiis, and Naturales Quaestiones, plus a pair of chapters devoted to groups of letters (treated in a strange order: see below) and one on nova exempla. Rather surprisingly, Costa omits De Clementia and De Brevitate Vitae. In the first case, Costa wishes to avoid the problem of the political transition from Republic to Empire required in any analysis of the past in that text. As for the latter, Costa argues, the past is treated theoretically and a true representation of the past is not to be found.

Costa’s overall point is to reassert that the past remains the primary paradigmatic force in Seneca’s moral guidance, and in this he is persuasive. Yet perhaps the greatest value of Costa’s analysis is that it reveals a complicated picture of Seneca’s views. I say “views” because it soon becomes evident that although Seneca generally fits within the typical framework of Roman moralists in his consistent praise of the past, his role as philosopher—one whose worldview has to be predicated to some extent on human progress—prohibits him from being a mere laudator temporis acti. The overall result is a sort of “push-and-pull”—Costa calls this “il dramma morale” of Stoicism (p. 309), though he never really confronts the philosophical issues, an unfortunate decision—between the progressive collective degeneration of human society and the remedies offered by philosophy.

A comparison of the first two chapters devoted to ad Marciam and ad Helviam, texts linked by their consolatory function, reveal contradictory tendencies. In the former, the past is not given any preference over the present. The exempla from the recent past (e.g., Livia, Cremutius Cordus) offer the same consolation as the more ancient variety (e.g., Lucretia, Aemilius Paullus). There is no perceptible break between the past and present. There is even optimism about the present.2 Indeed, by the end of the work, after transition from the human perspective to the celestial “view from above,” the distinction between past and present is rendered completely insignificant. Here, Costa’s failure to touch upon the stark Platonizing outlook in ad Marciam, which adds considerably to the positive outlook, is regrettable.

By contrast, the picture in ad Helviam is quite different. Here the past is the only repository for virtue. The present, completely corrupt, is incapable not only of providing positive examples but even of recognizing the merits of the past. Two exempla from the past and present, Curius Dentatus and Apicius, are juxtaposed to exemplify the now/then divide in terms of parsimonious living—located strictly in the past—and excess (pp. 32–34). Helvia (pp. 45–6) meanwhile is noted for simply having “avoided the vices of her time.” She and her sister, the only two contemporaries represented positively, are praised only because their virtues specifically conform to “old-fashioned” customs of the past. The only acceptable behavior is, Costa explains, one with an ancient precedent.

The next four chapters treat three texts that internally show the tug-of-war between the past and present. Chapters three and four are dedicated to the De Tranquillitate Animi, where Seneca dramatizes the struggle of his friend Serenus, who is trying to live a parsimonious life amidst a world of excess and luxury. The past, then, is represented as an ideal and the present as corrupt. Compared to the past, even the recent past (i.e., Cato the Younger’s age), the present offers a “dearth of good men” (bonorum egestas, Tranq. 7.5). Yet, in the same text Seneca offers a laudatio of Julius Canus, whose noble attitude facing death at the hands of Caligula, reveals “la convinzione di Seneca che anche in età degenerata possano trovare spazio uomini virtuosi” (67). Seneca’s exaltation of Canus, then, is prompted by a sense of optimism a degenerate world.

De Beneficiis offers few passages for study, but after a short discussion of 3.16 (pp. 85–88) Costa turns to 4.30–31, where Seneca defends his position that one should provide benefits even to unworthy descendants of great men—a unique perspective that seems to reveal Seneca’s aristocratic conservatism. Costa provides a lengthy but subtle analysis, showing how the virtues of the past can actually thrust themselves forward into the present: even unworthy descendants represent the virtues of the past. Here, the past’s paradigmatic function is again at play, but in a vivid and dramatic way that highlights both the degeneracy of the present and the power of the past to counteract it.

One of the most interesting discussions is on NQ (chapter 6), where there exists a tension between the progress of knowledge and the decline of human morals. On the one hand, in the doxological sections Seneca often criticizes the “old- fashioned” thinking and accentuates the importance of progress in scientific thought “to guarantee its continued evolution” (p. 112). On the other hand, Seneca insistently censures the degeneracy of his contemporary world (esp. Hostius Quadra at 1.16 and the castigatio luxuriae at 3.17–18), revealing a nostalgia for the past. Costa perceptively notes (p. 139) that the most nostalgic moments occur at crucial points in the text (e.g., end of books 3 and 7), where Seneca’s criticism of his contemporaries for disregarding philosophy is particularly vehement, and where, even for all their scientific errors, “erano stati proprio gli antichi ad aver mostrato queste capacità e volontà di penetrare i segreti della natura” (p. 137). The fight between vice, always evolving, and virtue, nearly forsaken, can only be won if we acted more like those spirited men of the past. Costa’s examination complements Gareth William’s recent Cosmic Viewpoint (2013), which examines a similar tug-of-war between the allure of vice and the rewards of contemplating nature.

The two epistolary “percorsi” are both rewarding and frustrating. The first, subtitled “Tracce di evoluzione della morale,” treats three letters, 90, 95, and 82. Only here does Costa attempt to trace development in Seneca’s views. Starting with Ep. 90, Costa analyzes Seneca’s polemic against Posidonius, in which Seneca denies that humans of the Golden Age had obtained sapientia, which is achieved only through the development and maturation of ars philosophiae. Costa then argues that this progressive view is corrected in Ep. 95, where antiquity is granted some crude form of sapientia, and the past’s paradigmatic function is to be placed side-by-side with the ars philosophiae. Costa finally turns to Ep. 82, where Seneca privileges exempla from the past over the sophisticated syllogisms and argumentation found in the modern ars philosophiae. Moral exempla are, simply put, more effective in changing behavior. Thus, Ep. 82 is the final step in Seneca’s evolution, and from this “one can reclaim the importance Seneca attributes to the past” (p. 199).

No one would contest that in Ep. 82 Seneca recognizes exempla as the most effective means to encourage people to live philosophically. Yet nowhere does Costa address the crucial methodological question: why take the letters in such an unorthodox order? A more natural interpretation is that Ep. 82 represents Seneca’s standard view, with Epp. 90 and 95 as instances of Seneca wrestling with this issue as he reads Posidonius and reflects on the role of parainetike in philosophy. That Ep. 95 is somehow “an intermediate step” on an evolutionary path to Ep. 82 seems completely unlikely.

A similar methodological issue emerges in the second “percorso” (a “Campanian Cycle”), where we first meet Cato the Elder in Ep. 87 and then work backwards to Scipio’s villa in 86, Vatia’s villa in Ep. 55, and finally Baiae in Ep. 51. Costa’s treatment of the individual letters is insightful (especially that of Ep. 87 3), but his attempt (p. 256) to discern an “allusion to a progressive decadence of Roman customs” in Seneca’s depiction of the Campanian landscape—based on the movement from the relative austerity of Scipio’s villa in Liternum, to the more luxurious villa-fortresses of Caesar and Pompey closer to Baiae, and then finally to the excesses of Baiae itself—seems especially forced.

The book ends with a fine overview of nova exempla, contemporary models of virtuous behavior. Costa persuasively argues that instead of serving as proof that the present offers equivalent scope for virtue, these are nearly always limited to people who show courage in the face of death and motivated by a desire for rhetorical variatio. Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of Seneca’s view is to be found in the exemplum Costa saves until the end of his book, Demetrius the Cynic (pp. 297–306). Demetrius serves both as exemplum and convicium, sent to the world (Ben. 7.8.2), ut ostenderet nec illum a nobis corrumpi nec nos ab illo corrigi posse. Demetrius, like Julius Canus in Tranq. , is a rare example of old-fashioned virtue belonging to another time, one that could understand him unlike the present.

The book contains thorough bibliography and an extensive index locorum, invaluable in a study that focuses on individual passages.

Costa’s study offers much food for thought, but it does not attempt much in the way of synthesis. Indeed, he suggests that seeking a clear and consistent view of the past in Seneca’s works would be futile since it simply does not exist. Ultimately Costa takes a “balanced view:” Seneca expresses nostalgia for the past as the main repository of virtue but also retains hope for the present world. If Seneca valorizes the present at all, it is because as a philosopher his mission would be meaningless without such optimism.


1.   S. Maso, Lo sguardo della verità. Cinque studi su Seneca (Padova 1999).
2.   Unhappily, Costa suggests (p. 20) that the optimism in the Ad Marciam reflects the promising new rule of Caligula. Elsewhere he succumbs to the biographical fallacy as well.
3.   Contra Allegri, who argues that Cato is “a universal exemplar,” Costa shows how the letter implies knowledge of Cato’s speech against the repeal of the Lex Oppia in 195 BC (see Livy 34). Although Cato disappears throughout the dialectical part of the letter, Costa rightly sees his reemergence at the end (not noted in Inwood’s outstanding Seneca Selected Philosophical Letters). In fact, Costa’s reluctance to say that Seneca knew Livy is overly conservative, for there are possible verbal reminiscences.

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