BMCR 2009.09.51

Per alta nemora. La poesia del mondo vegetale in Seneca tragico. Quaderni della “Rivista di cultura classica e medioevale”, 9

, Per alta nemora. La poesia del mondo vegetale in Seneca tragico. Quaderni della "Rivista di cultura classica e medioevale", 9. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2007. 156; CD-ROM. ISBN 978-88-6227-007-6. €32.00 (pb).

[The reviewer would like to apologise for the lateness of this review.]

For over thirty years, since her chapter on ‘L’ aesculus e la quercus in Virgilio’ in a volume to mark the bimillenium of the Georgics, Gigliola Maggiulli has produced a substantial body of work on the role of plants in Roman technical writing and poetry, climaxing with her 1995 book-length study of plants in the works of Virgil, to which this volume on the poetics of the plant-world in Senecan tragedy is an avowed sequel.1 Vegetation is a far less prominent feature, of course, in the bleak landscapes of Senecan tragedy than in either the woods and meadows of the Eclogues or the vineyards and pastures of the Georgics, perhaps even than in the rustic Latium of the Aeneid. As a result, the reader’s natural concern is that a monograph on the subject will be focused and specialized to the point of obscurity. Maggiulli’s discussions are indeed largely focused on relatively short passages within the tragedies, particularly the ecphrases of various groves, but also Medea’s magic herbs and the forest felled for Hercules’ pyre. However, Maggiulli’s rich—if eclectic and occasionally a little incoherent—mix of botany, intertextuality, visual and theatrical symbolism, stylistics, textual criticism, geography, history, and biography, not only provides a wealth of useful material but on the whole successfully broadens its scope to offer suggestive readings of the tragedies as a whole, and a wide range of their intertexts. Not all of Maggiulli’s diverse readings are convincing, nor do those which are always cohere into a unified interpretation, but this is a stimulating and enjoyable study which unquestionably serves to illuminate some very familiar texts from an unexpected angle.

After an introductory survey of tree-catalogues in Greek and Latin literature from Homer to Statius (albeit one whose application to what follows is not always entirely clear), the book is structured around six chapters, each focusing on a particular tragedy (including the contested Hercules Oetaeus, but not Troades, Agamemnon, or Phoenissae, though there is brief discussion of some passages from these plays in the appendix). Each chapter is largely self-contained, though there are numerous cross-references and some sense of cumulative argument, especially in the first three chapters on sinister groves in Oedipus, Hercules Furens, and Thyestes. The final chapter briefly sums up the main lines of the argument(s), as well as developing one of Maggiulli’s key propositions, that Seneca’s flora owe something to botanical and geographical reality (possibly derived from personal experience and autopsy) as well as to literary tradition. The appendix lists all the flora mentioned in the tragedies, giving each a probable botanical identification, a ‘habitat’ (rather archly, this refers to the tragic locale in which they appear), and a list of their occurrences in the tragedies, and also Seneca’s prose writings, followed by a brief discussion. A charming addition, the enclosed CD-ROM contains not, as one might expect, an electronic version of the monograph, but rather picture files of the different trees, shrubs, and flowers which most probably correspond to those mentioned in the tragedies. This certainly helps the reader visualize the different plants which can all-too-easily become arbitrary signifiers deracinated from their signifieds (I personally would struggle to identify a holm oak were I to walk into one), and is particularly pertinent to Maggiulli’s stress on the poetic and dramatic importance of the trees’ appearance in terms of colour, size, and foliage. There is sadly no index of either res or loci. The absence of the latter is felt less for the tragedies, each of which has its own chapter, than for the extensive range of intertexts; it would have been a useful resource to be able to find Maggiulli’s discussion of, say, yews in Ovid (60) without trawling through the whole book.

The first three chapters discuss, respectively, the grove which Creon (acting as messenger) describes as the setting for the necromancy of Laius in Oed., the vegetation of the Underworld described by Theseus in HF, and the grove in the palace in which (as narrated by an actual messenger for once) Atreus murders and casseroles his nephews in Thy.. Each is a variation on the locus horridus, that evil twin of the locus amoenus, and each possesses features which associate it with (or, in the case of HF, mark it as part of) the Underworld. Maggiulli combines close-reading of the text with wider-ranging analysis. The former is often sensitive and acute, though the heavy emphasis on alliteration and other sound-effects (particularly egregious examples on 37, 48 and especially 84) will not be to everyone’s taste, including the reviewer’s. Maggiulli deploys a wide-range of intertexts skilfully and imaginatively, though occasionally the connection with even such a privileged predecessor as Virgil can be a little tenuous. Other insights include those on dramaturgy (the use of a character, Creon, to deliver a messenger-speech; the importance of having a ghost appear in a grove), imagery (the symbolism of the quercus in Oed., representing passion, and specifically Oedipus and Jocasta, 41; the parallelism between cultivation and civilization, 72), and philosophy (Stoic views on the nature of divinity, 36).

It will already be clear that Maggiulli’s discussion is rich and eclectic, but that its thread—such as it is—can be difficult to follow. Into the mix, we can add textual criticism, botanical detail, and biographical speculation, of which the latter two are perhaps the most problematic. Maggiulli draws on both the explicit comments of technical writers (especially the Elder Pliny, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pseudo-Apuleius) and the associations generated by poetic intertexts to assess the connotations of the different trees and plants. In general, this is successful, but occasionally the limited number of intertexts and the very specific context in which particular plants are mentioned makes one wonder whether as much can be extrapolated from them as Maggiulli would wish. Since virtually all of Seneca’s plants have negative associations within the tragedies, there sometimes feels little difference between their already having such connotations and their otherwise positive color‘s being perverted by the context. This is perhaps a quibble, but Maggiulli’s resort to the biographical and literal can be more troubling. Her position is not taken for granted but fully argued for, albeit in retrospect, in the final chapter. One need not be totally committed to the death of the author to be uncomfortable with the probability or, failing that, the relevance of Seneca’s possible familiarity with the lucus Terentiae (37-8), that, as a Spaniard, he might have had personal experience of the toxicity of the yew (48), or had a sound medical knowledge through his association with the school of the Sestii. Likewise, unless I have misread her tone, it seems an oddly literal approach to the texts to wonder (more than once) how plants could grow in the Underworld where there is no light (ch. 3). However, these readings are part of one of Maggiulli’s central theses, most clearly stated in ch. 8 (‘Between iconography and autopsy’), that Seneca often, though not always, located his plants with regard not only to their poetic and dramatic significance but also to their geographical distribution and botanical features. As such, they must be judged and accepted or rejected along with this thesis, rather than dismissed as outmoded instances of the biographical fallacy.

The chapter on Phaedra is more immediately wide-ranging than its predecessors, drawing on the whole play rather than focusing on a single passage and panning out. It uses the connotations of the specific plants further to develop the familiar notions that ‘nature’ can simultaneously be conceived of in ascetic terms in Hippolytus’ discourse and in luxurious terms by that of Phaedra and the Nurse. Likewise, Maggiulli nuances Davis’ powerful reading in which Hippolytus, for all his claims to be aligned with nature, in fact tries to control it and as a result is destroyed by it.2 Maggiulli ingeniously notes that, whereas in Euripides it is the rocks which fatally wound Hippolytus, Seneca has the damage done by thorn-bushes, almost personified representations of a nature which thus takes its revenge on its enemy. The chapter on Medea is perhaps the most intriguing and successful of all, carefully charting the way in which her selection of herbs constitutes a geographical and historical survey, taking in the points of the compass and the growth of empire from the First Punic War to Corbulo’s Armenian campaign. The chapter on Hercules Oetaeus discusses the trees felled for the eponymous hero’s pyre, situating it in the epic tradition of impious forest-despoliation. Maggiulli argues tentatively for Senecan authorship, and makes some interesting points, particularly about the parallelism between Hercules and the oak.

There are a few misprints, though all are minor: αἔγειρος for αἴγειρος (14), νέκια for νέκυια (56), δῆμος ὀνεύρον for δῆμος ὀνείρων (58); for topohesia, read topothesia (68); for ispis, read ipsis (75); for famen, read famem (78); Damoetas’ warning about the snake in the grass is not from ‘ buc. 2, 92-93′, but ‘ buc. 3, 92-93′ (86); for lectifica, read letifica (89); for Aantidotarium, read antidotarium (94); for haluit, read aluit (99); Medea’s sister is Chalciope (in Italian, Calciope) not Calcidippe (100; presumably Chalcidippe, though the name is not attested); extrema not estrema (104); for ‘v. 210’, read ‘v. 711’ (107); for frenitu, read fremitu (111); for imitatur, read imitator (123 — correct on second occurrence); for esigui, read exigui (111).

A little more substantially, there is a curiously recurrent confusion about the quantity of murdered children in the tragedies. In Thyestes, Atreus kills his two nephews on (presumably) two altars, and there is no reference in the messenger’s speeches to either ‘tre are’ or ‘tre giovani vittime innocenti’ (72). In Troades, as elsewhere, Andromache has only one son, Astyanax, killed by the Greeks, so the confused reference to ‘la morte dei suoi due figli’ (134) must presumably derive from the messenger’s parallel description of Polyxena’s sacrifice.3

Many readers will no doubt be put off by the apparent obscurity of this book’s topic, but those who venture into its woods will find abundant material and an impressive range of approaches to familiar texts. If some fail to convince and some only finesse equally familiar interpretations, nevertheless many are illuminating and all stimulating.


1. ‘L’ aesculus e la quercus in Virgilio’ in Atti del Convegno virgiliano sul bimillenario delle Georgiche (Napoli 17-19 dicembre 1975). (Napoli: Ist. Univ. Orient., 1977), 421-9; Incipiant silvae cum primum surgere: mondo vegetale e nomenclatura della flora di Virgilio. (Roma, 1995).

2. P.J. Davis (who loses his first initial in a footnote but not the bibliography), ‘ Vindicat omnes natura sibi : A Reading of Seneca’s Phaedra‘, Ramus 12 (1983) = A.J. Boyle (ed.) Seneca Tragicus (Berwick) 114-27. One might add A.J. Boyle, ‘In Nature’s Bonds. A Study of Seneca’s Phaedra‘, ANRW II.32.2 (1985) 1284-347.

3. mactata uirgo est: missus e muris puer. | sed uterque letum mente generosa tulit. 1064-5.