BMCR 2015.06.36

Seneca: Medea

, Seneca: Medea. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. cl, 481. ISBN 9780199602087. $199.00.


A.J. Boyle, who has played such a central role over decades in the renaissance in post-Augustan Latin, has produced another volume on a Senecan tragedy that will immediately become standard. In this large volume, he employs a broadly traditional commentary format to show inter alia how and why Seneca’s Medea deserves to be read and, indeed, staged. Among the “silver” works that have earned attention (if not always respect) across the centuries, this play stands out for many reasons, largely centred upon the powerful predicament of Medea and her “madness” in killing her own sons. This is a big book because there is a great deal to say. It falls into three main parts. First, a meaty introduction of some 150 pages is almost a book in itself. Secondly, there is a text and translation, all the more valuable in view of the play’s significance for non-Latinists: some critical apparatus is appended, together with a clear statement of differences from the OCT (36 in all). Finally, some 300 pages of commentary, plus bibliography and very useful indices. Readers familiar with Boyle’s Octavia (Oxford 2008) and Oedipus (Oxford 2011) will recognize the format (note also his Troades (Leeds 1994)). Here at the outset, Boyle states his purpose with commendable clarity, “to elucidate the text dramatically as well as philologically, and to locate the play firmly in its contemporary historical and cultural context and in the ensuing literary and theatrical tradition” (p. viii). And that is very much what he does.

The substantial introduction covers a lot of ground. A handy summary of Seneca’s life and works nicely brings out the tendency of theatre to reach and even dominate every aspect of the Neronian regime, in particular. This is the “theatricalised world” (p. xxiii) of a court environment in which distant polarities have amalgamated, so that truth is untruth, fiction is reality and the world is indeed a stage – a political nightmare in which theatrical creativity and performance can be everything (further, p. cvii). Boyle aptly observes that, in such a world, the themes of Seneca’s tragedies were also the stuff of his very life (p. xxv). An overview of Roman theatre ensues, Republican and imperial, featuring valuable remarks on similarity and difference with and from Athenian theatre (inevitably, Euripides is never far away) as well as offering intriguing glimpses of elite engagement with theatre long before Nero. That flows into a sparky treatment of an old issue, namely whether Seneca and others wrote their tragedies for theatrical performance (p.xli). While we simply do not know whether Seneca’s plays were performed in his lifetime (still less whether he intended that), there is surely something odd and counter-intuitive in the claim that they were not (or could not have been): there were theatres aplenty in need of plays to perform, and this was drama. Boyle makes the telling point that they were certainly performed often enough later. We may do best to presume that in his lifetime Seneca’s works were performed in a range of ways from time to time and context to context, including recitals and full-blown theatre (a shaky distinction in any case, as Boyle observes: p. xliii). Such considerations soon lead, through treatment of the “rhetoricity” of Senecan drama, to discussion of its remarkable onstage violence (p. xlix) and thence to Seneca on anger (p. liv). Exploring anger across Medea and the De Ira, Boyle draws attention to the absence of wives’ anger in the latter, whereas it was exemplified so strikingly and so much on stage in the play (p. lx).

The introduction forges on with “the myth before Seneca” (p. lxi), where we find a plurality of myths, as usual in mythology. This accurate overview probably suffices for a book on Seneca’s play that is already large, but one might have had more on the Italian and Adriatic claims to Medea (e.g. M. Falcone, Aevum 85 (2011): 81-98, on Medea and the Marsi). Here too Boyle rightly flags the fact that Medea is Colchian, but makes nothing of the significance of her ethnicity, despite some promising remarks on her homeland in the commentary (e.g. on lines 42-3). The same neglect characterizes scholarship on Euripides’ play too, but it must be important – for example – that classical writers (including Seneca here: Medea 211-16, 483-7 with Boyle ad locc) commonly elide Colchians with the Scythians, who were still more famous for their grisly tendencies to mutilation and butchery (cf. D. Braund, Georgia in Antiquity, Oxford 1994, esp. ch.1). However, the great virtue of this part of the introduction is its cumulative demonstration of the sheer ubiquity and importance of Medea in Roman culture before Seneca, as exemplified by Cicero’s famous passing mention of her at De imperio Cn.Pompeii, 22, where she is set beside another major figure of the Black Sea region, Mithridates Eupator himself, also resourceful even in flight.

And so, finally, we come to Seneca’s play with a strong sense of its Roman cultural context. At this point, Boyle offers his vision of the play itself (p. lxxix) as probing and problematizing human society within a world framed by gods, with Medea transformed centre-stage. Roman imperialism is evoked (esp. p. lxxxix), as also are the issues of selfhood and madness that swirl around this Medea and other characters in the play besides (p. xc). This section closes with a vigorous assertion of the metatheatre of the play, especially in Medea’s conscious creation of her own legend by killing her sons and soaring away from Corinth on the chariot of the Sun (pp. cvii-cxviii). The introduction concludes with a long essay on the reception of the play (pp. cxix-cxli), remarks on metre and a brief explication of the translation to come. To have this excellent translation as well as the Latin text is invaluable, and not only for the Latin-less reader. In a similar spirit of accessibility, one might have avoided the colossal Roman numerals used to paginate the introduction. The commentary itself is rich in learned detail, not least with regard to other Senecan works, on which it is very good indeed. Such learning is expected of commentaries, but here we also have a less commonplace and more important concern with the appreciation of the play itself, in part and in whole. As in the introduction, Boyle never fails to convey not only the intellectual interest of Medea, but also his enthusiasm for the sheer pleasure of it, however coloured by the grimness of its action and the disturbing assemblage of its themes.

It should by now be clear that this book is a very substantial achievement, and one which will certainly inspire. Inevitably, there will be points of disagreement for many, and perhaps complaints about omissions. For myself, I would have liked to see more attention paid not only to broad strands of contemporary culture (which are handled very well), but also to specifics within the big picture of Roman imperialism in the play, upon which Boyle only touches. Surely a play on Colchian Medea in the mid-first century A. D. should be connected with contemporary events around Roman imperial involvement in the region. Under Claudius we have Roman military intervention in the northern Black Sea (the so-called Bosporan War), to which Tacitus gives so much space in the Annals and which brought the remarkable Mithridates VIII into Roman high society. And under Nero, from c. A. D. 64 the annexation of the Pontic kingdom of Polemo II turned Colchis itself into Roman provincial territory. Of course, it remains entirely obscure how these events may have impacted upon the creation or contemporary appreciation of Medea, especially since we cannot date the play closely. However, the particularities of Roman imperialism in the region demand consideration. When, for example, a Roman cohort was shipwrecked and massacred by Taurians of the Crimea under Claudius ( Annals 12.17), did not Seneca and other educated Romans recall Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians ? Certainly, Seneca might refer in passing to inhospitable Taurians at Phaedra 168, while Boyle rightly draws attention to the key theme of inhospitality in all its forms that pervades Medea and also characterizes the whole Black Sea region, in general and in the play from Medea’s opening speech onwards. And what of the remarkable imperial women, such as Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea? In this theatricalised world, and despite their positions, were they not also Medeas, if only potentially ? Meanwhile, should we not reflect rather more, too, on Nero’s concern with the Sun and, for example, the chariot of the Sun (?) that was depicted on the awning over the theatre in which he received Tiridates of Armenia, his greatest political show (Dio 63. 5. 2, without serpents, to be sure)? However, for all that, Boyle is very aware of the potential importance to the play of such contemporary concerns (and vice versa), as his agenda for the book makes explicit from the first (above). And he articulates very well much of the mood of the imperial court of Seneca’s day, not least in the detailed commentary.

Accordingly, while there is even more that might have been done, we must recognize and applaud all that has been achieved in this excellent book.