BMCR 2003.02.30

Seneca. Hercules, Trojan Women, Phoenician Women, Medea, Phaedra. Loeb Classical Library

, , Hercules ; Trojan women ; Phoenician women ; Medea ; Phaedra. Loeb classical library ; 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. vii, 551 pages ; 17 cm.. ISBN 067499602X $21.50.

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[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2003.03.27.]]

Note: this is the first of two volumes of Seneca’s tragedies. The second volume is due out in 2003. This new Loeb edition contains a different group of plays than does the 1917 edition.

The volume under review, done by an expert and for the most part expertly executed, is another fine addition to the continuously updated Loeb series. Few other texts in the series needed a facelift as much as Seneca’s tragedies, especially given the remarkable revival Seneca has experienced in the past four decades. F(itch)’s new Loeb replaces F. J. Miller’s 1917 edition, many times reprinted but long outdated in both its introduction and translation, and the current version stands as a witness to the immense body of work that has been accumulating over the past half-century. With a thorough introduction, updated bibliography,1 individual introductions and bibliographies prefixed to each play, and a vigorous, contemporary translation, F.’s Loeb is likely to last as long as Miller’s did. After the appearance of the second volume, we will at last have a complete, reliable, and reasonably priced translation of all of Seneca’s works that will be valuable for non-specialists and students alike.

In 1878 Friedrich Leo wrote that he would willingly give up all of Seneca’s tragedies in return for Ovid’s lost Medea. His two-volume edition came to represent the canonical version of the Germans’ disdain for Seneca and was the text upon which Miller’s Loeb was based. We have come a long way from 19th century Germany, and a comparison of Miller’s introduction with the current one will serve to show why a new edition was needed. Miller’s introductory material is all of six pages and smacks of Leo’s age (x): “It has become quite the fashion among literary critics who include Seneca within their range of observation to pass very harsh judgment upon these tragedies…[b]ut in answer to the critic of Seneca’s rhetorical faults…these were the faults of his age.”

It need not be repeated, but often is: we are riding upon the great crest of Seneca’s resurgence, and F., involved in the greater part of this revival, succinctly consolidates the mass of material into an introduction consisting of thirty lucid, wide-ranging pages on topics such as “Rhetoric,” “The Self and the World,” “Date,” “Dramatic Tradition” (including sections on sources, dramatic technique, chorus and performance), “Stoicism and Tragedy,” and “Text and Translation.” Gone is negative opinion of rhetoric; a glance at the first few pages will reveal that Seneca’s (1) “speeches are eloquent, forceful, delighting in language and in the poetic medium…he is a master at pace and diction; a master at contrasting long, flowing sentences with brief pithy ones…”. One can speak of the (2) “intoxicating richness” of his tragedies. The long catalogues of geographic places are (3) “imaginative” and reflections of the “geopolitical expansiveness of the Roman empire.”

Such preemptive apologies for our author, due, apparently, to that nagging hangover of insecurity left over from the 19th century, lead us to believe that taste is all context, and that no poet deserves to be criticized even if his own contemporaries see fit to ignore him. When authors are in vogue, they can do no wrong. Although Seneca has come into his own in the 21st century, we ought to remember that Quintilian (10.1.98) remained contemptuously silent regarding Seneca’s tragedies while he praised those of Varius and Ovid. For all that, however, F.’s introduction does an excellent job — one of the best in my view — in placing the author and his work in context and in construing an appreciation of the art and poetry of his age, whatever that may be.

As a Loeb, the volume will stand and fall primarily on the merits of its translation, and F. executes his task with precision and often with elegance. The result is just what a Loeb reader wants: a solid, conservative, and readable rendering that neither strays too far from the text nor sacrifices much of Seneca’s rhetorical style. There are thankfully few infelicities,2 and F.’s translation is the more reliable foil to the only other complete translation of Seneca’s tragedies easily available, that edited by D. R. Slavitt (also a translator for many), which should be approached with caution because of the liberties the translators take with the texts.3 F. translates Seneca’s trimeters into prose but usually retains at least a shadow of the energy and sound found in the original (note the strong iambic feel of the first clause):

(HF 1005ff.)

dextra precantem rapuit et circa furens
bis ter rotatum misit; ast illi caput
sonuit, cerebro tecta disperso madent.

“He caught the pleading child up in his hand, whirled him around twice, three times, and flung him; his head smashed, and spattered brains wetted the walls.”

(Phaed. 915ff.)

Ubi vultus ille et ficta maiestas viri
atque habitus horrens, prisca et antiqua appetens
morumque senium triste et affectus graves?
o vita fallax, abditos sensus geris
animisque pulchram turpibus faciem induis!
pudor impudentem celat, audacem quies,
pietas nefandum; vera fallaces probant
simulantque molles dura. silvarum incola
ille efferatus castus intactus rudis,
mihi te reservas? a meo primum toro
et scelere tanto placuit ordiri virum?

“So much for the man’s feigned solemnity of expression, his rough appearance, aping old-fashioned ways, his grave character like an elder’s, his serious disposition! O deceitful life, harbouring secret thoughts and putting a fair face on an ugly spirit! Shame masks shamelessness, placidity masks boldness, rectitude masks villainy; liars praise truthfulness, and the self-indulgent pretend to strictness. As that wild backwoodsman, chaste, untouched, inexperienced, were you saving yourself for me? Did you decide to inaugurate your manhood with my bed, with such a crime?”

The lyric meters are rendered line for line with stress-based lines to represent different meters (the four-stress line is most common), and hence the choruses are more artfully done (see particularly 764):

(Phaed. 761ff.)

anceps forma bonum mortalibus,
exigui donum breve temporis,
ut velox celeri pede laberis!
Languescunt folio lilia pallado
et gratae capiti deficiunt rosae;
non sic prata novo vere decentia
aestatis calidae despoliat vapor…

“Beauty — a doubtful boon for mortals,
a brief and short-lived gift,
how fleeting, how swiftly passing!
Lilies with their pale petals wither
and roses fade that garland the head;
meadows lovely in the early spring
are despoiled by the heat of scorching summer…”

F.’s text is his own, newly edited and one which in his words (28) “steers a middle course between the boldness of Otto Zwierlein’s Oxford Classical Text and the conservatism of Giardina and other editors.” He retains many original readings Leo and Zwierlein questioned and proposes for these five plays sixteen new emendations and numerous transpositions. Unfortunately, F.’s article, “Transpositions and Emendations in Seneca’s Tragedies,” announced in the bibliography to appear in 2002 (Phoenix vol. 56), will not be published until April 2003. Thus it is difficult to evaluate the reasons behind certain decisions F. made regarding the text, some of which are not immediately obvious (e.g., HF 634 impar for hostis). That said, onto a few details:

1) If E transmits the authentic text at Phaed. 642 and A is interpolated, F.’s errat is superior to the transmitted ferit, though something like serpit or repsit may be paleographically more plausible. 2) Phoen. 177 F. conjectures haesit for haeret, which is likely to be right. 3) At Phoen. 112, F.’s funebram accendam struem (ascendam A; escendam E) is elegant, has at least one parallel (Curt. 8.4.11 listed OLD s.v. strues 1), and solves the logical inconsistency (why would Oedipus climb up the pyre after already having said in the previous line, “in altos ipse me immittam rogos?”); but Oedipus’ state of mind is not conducive to consistency, and two lines earlier he has already put the cart before the horse: flammas potius et vastum aggerem / compone. 4) F.’s emendation at HF 1312 is highly unlikely and is based on a similar emendation at HF 1028, both of which disregard the reasonably common idiom of induere se /pectus meaning “impale oneself/one’s chest” and not “thrust,” which is its more common meaning but which takes a different grammatical structure (see Oed. 341; Caes. BG 7.73.4; OLD s.v. induo 5b; TLL s.v. induo III IA); hence the transmitted text can stand. 5) At Tro. 578 morte, unanimously transmitted in the list of Ulysses’ threats against Andromache (verberibus igni morte cruciatu), has been doubted since Leo, who proposed omnique; F. emends it unhappily to cruce, presumably influenced by the same passage that Fantham cites in defense of the transmitted text (Cic. Verr. 2.1.9 “cum cives Romanos morte cruciatu cruce adfecerit”).4 6) Most puzzling is why F. felt the need to emend the preposition at Tro. 664-5: “pergam et e summo aggere / sepulchra traham;” in the majority of cases where total destruction is implied (top down or bottom up) ex and ab are interchangable (cf. Med. 981 “vertite ex imo domum;” Phaed. 563 “versa ab imo regna;” cf. Verg. A. 2.290, 2.625, etc.) and ex here is probably used on analogy of phrases such as “e superna rupe” (Oed. 95) or “vertice e summo” (Ag. 569; cf. Oed. 476 etc.).

One final grumble: F. insists on sticking to the conclusions he reached in his statistical and stylistic analysis of Seneca’s anapests.5 The transmitted colometry of Seneca’s anapests is certainly problematic, and both Zwierlein and F. have questioned the transmitted text even where the two manuscript families are in unison. F.’s study is important and deserves consideration, but he carries his conclusions too far. The result of such a rigid application of so-called rules is an unsatisfactory colometry, and it recalls the 1867 edition of Richter and Peiper, who squeezed, by hook or by crook, Seneca’s lyrical and dialogical passages into strophes.6 Since the weaknesses of his methodology have been sufficiently proven elsewhere,7 and since the colometry carries little overall importance for the value of this edition, a single example will be given so that the reader will know what to expect.

The passage in question is Andromache’s monody at Tro. 705-35, transmitted unanimously as dimeters by E and A, save for the end where E transmits a closing monometer and A a final trimeter. It must be said at the outset that this passage has no hiatus or brevis in longo; nor are the metrical patterns at odds with the statistics given by F. (only one double spondee in the second metron at 721). In short, there is no reason to doubt the authenticity of the transmission unless it is a priori. Thus, Fantham follows the reading of E without alteration. Zwierlein marks a trimeter at 707 (dividing it into dim. + mon.) and places a clausula at 711, yielding a scheme as follows:

Huc e latebris procede tuis (705)
flebile matris furtum miserae,
Hic est, hic est terror Ulixe
mille carinis.
Submitte manus dominique pedes
supplice dextra stratus adora
nec turpe puta quidquid miseros (710)
Fortuna iubet.
pone ex animo reges atavos
magnique senis iura per omnis
incluta terras, excidat Hector
gere captivum, positoque genu… (715)

There are a number of reasons to agree with Zwierlein’s division of the text, not the least of which is that he achieves the balance of the imperatives at the beginning of the line at 708, (710), 711, and 715. F., however, following his conclusions of his study to the letter, provides a text that is unorthodox (to say no more):

Huc e latebris procede tuis, (705)
flebile matris furtum miserae.
Hic est, hic est terror, Ulixe,
mille carinis.
Summitte manus,
dominique pedes
supplice dextra stratus adora,
nec turpe puta (710)
quidquid miseros Fortuna iubet.
pone ex animo reges atavos
magnique senis
iura per omnes inclita terras,
excidat Hector, gere captivum
positoque genu — (715)

Is it really possible that Seneca would have written three consecutive monometers at 708ff.? Does this not break up a dimeter with an arguable sense-correspondence (manus-pedes)? Dimeters are favored in early Roman tragedy (see for example, Accius, Philoctetes 520-36 Klotz), and Zwierlein has conclusively proven that an opening monometer is mistaken.8 Yet, F.’s rigorous application of his rules regarding 3m units (where a syntactical unit fills three metra) yields just this form (dim. + mon.; mon.; mon. + dim.). F.’s explanation of the differences between this section of the monody, which contains many monometers, and the later part, which he prints mostly as dimeters, is hardly adequate to explain why Seneca would conceive of writing down his anapests in this fashion in the first place (Anapests 75), “frequent monometers match the pathos of her address to Astyanax (708ff.), but give way to consecutive dimeters (723ff.) in a more ‘objective’ passage expounding the exemplum of Hercules’ clemency.” There is little reason to believe that an actor or reciter could not have expressed the same pathos even if Seneca’s colometry did not provide a road map to follow.

The problem of colometry aside, this volume and its companion due out later this year will make fine additions to the shelves of scholars and will hopefully appear on the desks of eager students. Seneca deserves to be read and appreciated, and F.’s efforts will undoubtedly make our author more accessible and popular.


1. I would add only Zwierlein’s Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas (Meisenheim am Glan 1966).

2. A few examples: HF 830, Natus Eurystheus properante partu, F. expands to “Eurystheus, first-born in haste”; Tro. 46 “ferocious fellow” for ferox is a bit too weak; Tro. 94 furibunda is better taken with manus; 180 “eased the tomb’s weight,” is odd for tumulum levat.

3. For example, Slavitt introduces the chorus of the Thyestes “some…wearing togas, others dressed in modern dinner clothes…;” and in his Phoenician Women he inserts Seneca as an emcee to explain the fragmentary nature of the play.

4. Elaine Fantham, Seneca’s Troades (Princeton 1982).

5. John G. Fitch, Seneca’s Anapaests: Metre, Colometry, Text and Artistry in the Anapaests of Seneca’s Tragedies (Atlanta 1987).

6. The oddities of the 1867 edition were rectified in the 1902 edition, after the death of Peiper, to whom most of those oddities were owed. This sort of methodological nonsense was the fashion of its time (see Wilamowitz, Erinnerungen 96).

7. See primarily Zwierlein’s review of F.’s edition of Hercules Furens at Gnomon 60 (1988) 333-42; for F.’s study on Seneca’s anapests, see his review at Gnomon 62 (1990) 692-6.

8. Zwierlein (op. cit. n. 6 [1988]) 340-1.