BMCR 2008.06.10

Lucio Anneo Seneca. Tragedie. I. Ercole, Le Troiane, Le Fenicie, Medea, Fedra. Testi e commenti, 22

, , Tragedie. Testi e commenti ; 22, 24, 27. Pisa/Roma: F. Serra, 2007-2012. volumes 1-3 ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9788862270168. €95.00 (pb).

1 Responses

The study of Senecan tragedy has benefited greatly from the work of Giancarlo Giardina. In 1966, his edition of Seneca’s tragedies was one of the first that considered the importance of the A group of manuscripts, and, while some criticized the final product, his text was superior in many ways to the editions in use at the time.1 Zwierlein’s Oxford Classical Text, published in 1986, improved upon Giardina’s (especially in the clarity of his apparatus criticus), and his accompanying Kommentar expertly explained the editorial decisions he made. Indeed the last 25 years have been very fruitful for the study of Senecan tragedy as a whole, and commentaries on the individual plays have helped the reader to appreciate Seneca’s work within its literary, historical, and philosophical contexts.2 In addition, these commentaries, as well as the recent Budé, edited by Chaumartin, and the new Loeb, edited by Fitch, have contributed to our knowledge of Seneca’s text and have clarified disputed readings and textual problems.3 Giardina’s new edition offers a bold text, bursting with emendations, and polished with his expert knowledge of the textual tradition of Seneca’s tragedies. His aim is to produce a challenging text, one that raises questions about traditional readings and interpretations of Seneca’s plays. As he states, at the conclusion of his introduction, “Non vuole questa edizione dare un testo standard o canonico, ma segnare una tappa del progressivo avvicinamento a un testo soddisfacente della importante opera drammaturgica di Seneca” (p. 64). The book consists of a detailed introduction about the manuscript tradition, a description of the critical criteria followed, a list of conjectures (and sample cases with the rationale for the changes), bibliography, sigla for the codices, and the texts of the five tragedies.4

The introduction jumps right into the manuscript tradition, and Giardina lays out the two primary branches of the codices (E and A). Giardina details fine points of distinction between the two branches that he feels are necessary for the production of his text. He begins by showing that the manuscripts that make up the A branch (PTCS) are not uniform and that sometimes PT agree with the E branch, listing five pages of examples (pp. 13-18). This seems unnecessary to me, and these examples are not uniformly noted in his apparatus criticus (a glance at the Phoenissae examples reveals that of the 13 examples, 7 were not noted in the apparatus). He continues to show the relative merits of P and T and discusses the interpolation that is rife in the A branch of manuscripts (p.20). Giardina evaluates the importance of R (a fifth century palimpsest), analyzing the readings it has in common with the E and A branches, and finds that the common archetype of E and A must be later than the unknown source of R (pp. 20-4). He emphasizes that there are many shared errors in the E and A branches, and that their archetype had suffered damage at an early date. Because of this, he will offer “un contributo ricco di nuove e originali soluzioni testuali, proponendo in apparato o anche, abbastanza spesso, recependo nel testo, le mie congetture” (p. 26). And he means it, too.

The introduction now turns to individual cases of interpolation in the E branch, providing three examples ( H.F. 767, 799, Oed. 45). Giardina points out that the incorrect readings were caused by similar words nearby that influenced the scribe’s reading (e.g. squalent at H.F. 767 was caused by squalidus at 765). Giardina then lists examples of this type of error, with the accepted reading or his conjecture (pp. 31-4), before another list illustrates the interpolation of the A manuscripts (pp. 35-8). These informative lists serve forcefully to show the reader the different types of errors in the manuscript tradition and to offer empirical evidence for the need for a strong editor. Giardina draws our attention to mechanical errors involving the transposition of letters or groups of letters and provides more examples of Influenzfehler (of the type squalent/squalidus). He concludes the first part of his introduction with further consideration of manuscripts (MFN, KQe) that are rarely of independent value but sometimes provide original conjectures. In general the lists of errors found in this initial section of the introduction raise questions about the reliability of the various manuscripts, even casting doubt on the relatively sound reputation of E.

At this point, Giardina reviews the critical reception of his 1966 edition and offers a detailed rebuttal of Tarrant’s comments in his Agamemnon, and Fitch’s appendix in his commentary on Hercules Furens (pp. 45-7). This provides the stepping-stone for the elucidation of his critical methodology for this text and the format of its apparatus criticus. Giardina simplifies his apparatus from his previous edition, giving the variant readings of E and A (broken down to the variant readings of PTCS, if necessary). Next Giardina turns to the discussion of the emendations in his text and admits that this text is characterized by an abundance of emendations by both previous scholars and himself. This is Giardina’s most daring development, and the greatest difference between his text and other recent editions. Giardina’s emendations are widespread and, as he admits, many are speculative, “Non tutte le mie proposte inserite a testo pretendono di essere definitive: ma quelle che non appariranno tali al pubblico dei filologi potranno tuttavia valere come congetture diagnostiche (in senso maasiano)” (p. 52). Maas, however, might have been put off by the sheer number of conjectures that Giardina advances, although they certainly do stimulate thought about the reliability of the transmitted text.5 Giardina compiles a list of some of the abundant conjectures he has made (pp. 52-5), but this is not comprehensive, and one may wonder why it is necessary if the same information is given in the apparatus (usually with parallel quotations). Giardina gives examples of his conjectures and the rationale behind them. He tends to standardize Seneca’s language: creating more idiomatic phrases (possibly not the best criterion— do we read poetry for idioms or simplified language?), correcting geographical issues (pp. 56-7), eliminating mechanical corruptions, and rectifying passages that seem to him in need of emendation (although very often the manuscripts universally agree on the transmitted reading). Of course, this final type of conjecture is the most audacious and needs the most explanation. Giardina devotes four pages (pp. 59-63) to the explication of ten examples. Unfortunately, I did not find these universally convincing. Here are a few of the examples, two that I find problematic and two that I support:

At H.F. 272 the manuscripts read ac saeva iusta sceptra confringit manu which Giardina changes to read ac saeva iusta monstra confringit manu. His rationale is that Hercules is known as a slayer of monsters and that the phrase saeva monstra is more colloquial and used later in the play (cf. 778 monstra saeva). But, at this moment, Amphitryon is concentrating on the whereabouts of his son and the fact that the tyrant Lycus holds Thebes. The word sceptra is used of Lycus’ power often in this play (342, 399), and note how Megara first identifies him (as he appears on-stage): aliena dextra sceptra concutiens Lycus (331). I believe Seneca is foreshadowing Lycus’ demise and that the emendation to monstra sacrifices Hercules’ reputation as tyrant-slayer for the more mundane monster-slayer which has already been covered by Amphitryon earlier in his speech (215-48).

At Phaed. 918-9 the manuscripts read o vita fallax, abditos sensus geris / animisque pulcram turpibus faciem insuis as Theseus bemoans the alleged discrepancy between Hippolytus’ austere appearance and his lust for Phaedra (Phaedra has just hinted that Hippolytus tried to rape her). Giardina emends these lines to Natura fallax, abditos sensus tegis / animisque pulcram turpibus faciem induis. The change from o vita to Natura is bold, especially in this play in which so much hinges around the different characters’ concepts of natura.6 While Giardina parallels his reading with examples from Cicero and the author of the Octavia,7 I believe the internal characterization of Theseus is impaired by such a change, as Theseus’ exclamation when he hears about Hippolytus’ death centers on Natura : O nimium potens, / quanto parentes sanguinis vinclo tenes, / Natura: quam te colimus inviti quoque! (1114-6). In addition, the Chorus sings, O magna parens, Natura, deum (959). There are more examples of the use of Natura in this play, but I feel the use of Natura in a claim of deception and deceit does not fit its personification in this tragedy.

At Phaed. 1275, the manuscripts read patefacite acerbam caede funesta domum but Giardina wishes to change acerbam to aspersam. Giardina does a fine job defending this conjecture (p. 63) and shows how acerbam is difficult with an ablative of cause. This emendation also helps the poetic quality of the description, and I believe could have been what Seneca originally wrote.

At Med. 142, Zwierlein’s OCT reads memorque nostri muneri parcat meo. While the A and E branches offer different readings of muneri (ἀ, muneris (ἐ, the general idea of the passage is that the “gift” is Jason’s life, and the nostri may be singular (referring only to Medea) or plural (including her children). Giardina emends the line to read memorque nostri foederis parcat mihi and gives multiple examples of this use of foedus as a “patto d’amore”. I find this persuasive because of Medea’s use of elegiac imagery as she vacillates between love and hatred at this point of the play.

Giardina recognizes that this edition is not for everyone, and that conservative textual critics may find some of his emendations revolutionary. He advances such readings in order to provoke the reader to question the text and his or her view of Senecan tragedy. As such, he succeeds and I found myself pausing at each emendation (emendations average about 2 per page!), and trying to figure out (a) how Giardina arrived at this emendation, and (b) if it helped “to produce a text as close as possible to the original” (Maas’ first “basic notion” of textual criticism). The results were mixed and, in the remainder of this review I offer a smattering of observations about select emendations, which I feel are detrimental to our reading of Seneca’s tragedies.

Giardina believes that repeated words (within the line or separated by a small number of lines) are a prime opportunity for scribal error and often emends one of the two. Unfortunately, I believe he takes this too far, at times blurring an emphasis that I believe Seneca desired (e.g. the excessive greed of the Greek forces in the Troades : forms of avidus at Tr. 18 and 22; avidi at Tr. 399 and avidum, 400). Also, this mindset can damage a potential authorial poetic implication. At Troades 774, Andromache laments that Astyanax will not be able to cut down the Greeks, nor drag Pyrrhus ( non Graia caedes terga, non Pyrrhum trahes). Giardina, however, emends trahes to premes because of the use of tractabis in the following line, but this misses the point — Astyanax would want to “drag” Pyrrhus in a fitting revenge for his father’s treatment at the hands of Achilles. Seneca’s rhetorical point often hinges on words being repeated with shades of different meanings and wholesale changes of this parallelism can obscure his powerful declamatory style. At H.F. 405, Giardina emends the phrase bella delectat cruor to tela delectat cruor because bello was used at 402 and belli is used at 407. However this ruins a fine chiastic reversion of Lycus’ rhetorical question at 402: cruento cecidit in bello pater?. The interwoven word-order of bello and bella, cruento and cruor gives additional resonance to the final sententia. Medea addresses herself at Med. 397-8: Si quaeris odio, misera, quem statuas modum, / imitare amorem. Giardina emends imitare to moderare and while other passages of Seneca do emphasize the need to “moderate” one’s emotions (given as parallels in the apparatus), that is certainly not the point of Medea’s speech as she compares the deeds done on Jason’s behalf to the limits of her revenge. Note the Chorus’ later description of Medea (866-9): frenare non scit iras / Medea, non amores; / nunc ira amorque causam / iunxere: quid sequetur? It is the excess of both love and hate that defines Medea’s actions and that Seneca repeatedly stresses in this play.

In conclusion, I would not recommend this edition for readers coming to Seneca for the first time and in the market for a reliable text of his tragedies. It will be of use for Senecan scholars who are interested in observing the ways that Giardina emends the tragedies and puzzling out the justification for such readings.


1.Courtney’s review [ CR 18 (1968) 173-77] concludes, “I should have liked to be able to pass a favourable verdict on it, but it simply is not good enough and needs a complete revision.” More generously, Tarrant (1976) Agamemnon. Cambridge: 94 claims, “For all its shortcomings, Giardina’s is the best complete edition now available.”

2.Commentaries now exist for each play, even the fragmentary Phoenissae, and some plays have the honor of multiple commentaries in English ( Medea, Phaedra, Troades).

3.Chaumartin, F.R. (1996) Sénèque: Tragédies. Paris; Fitch, John G. (2002, 2004) Seneca: Tragedies. 2 volumes. Cambridge, MA.

4.There is no Codicum stemma, which is a shame considering the amount of time he spends discussing the manuscript tradition.

5.Maas, Paul (1958) Textual Criticism. Oxford: 53 gives the following about diagnostic conjectures, “To determine the value of conjecture as a means of investigation it is unimportant whether conjectures made for this purpose, that is ‘diagnostic’ conjectures, succeed in carrying conviction in detail, or whether they merely represent, as against the tradition, the ‘lesser evil’, or whether they are completely wide of the mark. It is a matter for the nicety of the editor’s discrimination to decide which of such conjectures deserve mention in the apparatus criticus.”

6.For more on this, cf. Boyle, A.J. (1985) “In Nature’s Bonds: a Study of Seneca’s Phaedra“, ANRW II.32.2: 1284-1347.

7. Giardina often cites parallels from a variety of sources to support his emendations, but they are rarely convincing standing alone. Very often this is the only explanation for emendations in the apparatus. A similar observation was made by Nau in his review of Giardina’s Propertius, BMCR 2006.05.02.