BMCR 2020.07.43

Mord(s)bilder – Aufzählungen von Gewalt bei Seneca und Lucan

Maria Backhaus, Mord(s)bilder - Aufzählungen von Gewalt bei Seneca und Lucan. Millennium-Studien zu Kultur und Geschichte des ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr., Band 76. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. ix, 329 p.. ISBN 9783110635973 €109,95.


Backhaus’ book – originally submitted as a dissertation at the Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen in 2017 and slightly edited for publication – on enumerations of violent acts in Seneca and Lucan undoubtedly has the merit of offering a convincing and clear explanation for the use of lists in Seneca’s de Ira and Lucan’s Pharsalia. Yet there are some serious shortcomings, in particular in the area of philological craftsmanship.

After a brief introduction, Backhaus in her chapter 2 analyzes Quintilian’s understanding of enumerations. In Quintilian’s eyes, she explains, enumerations aim at the readers’ imagination, since their emotions amplify the impact of the arguments within a given text.

Chapter 3 discusses ancient views on the reception of fictitious scenes of violence. According to Backhaus, ancient critics were aware of the delicate balance between aesthetic and moral judgements. Antiquity knew that the question whether the audience was fascinated or horrified by an event also depended on an author’s presentation and narrative even outside historiographical works. Ancient authors were expected to strive for clarity and intelligibility without distracting or even boring the reader by including too many details if those details aimed at arousing emotions excessively. Enumerations were limited by these conditions in literature as well.

Backhaus demonstrates in her fourth chapter how the tendency to narrate exempla in Roman history combines with Seneca’s efforts to confront his readers with cases in which the protagonists show a certain behavior, with the intention of inducing his readers to reflect upon those cases and think about what they themselves would do in a similar situation. In order to describe pain, as Backhaus shows, Seneca prefers to compose lists that include many details that are densely packed into as few lines as possible. To achieve as much clarity as possible, Seneca often reduces his examples to the simple kernel of the story. In so doing, he is helped by the fact that the Romans frequently were already familiar with exemplary stories when only the name of the protagonist was mentioned. There was no need to further elaborate on the story of Cincinnatus and its meaning, for example. Lucan is not given much of a share in this chapter.

At the center of Backhaus’ book are chapters 5 and 6 on enumerations of deadly violence in Seneca’s de Ira(5) and Lucan’s Pharsalia (6). With his lists of cases and examples of deadly violence Seneca, in Backhaus’ opinion, wants to convince his readers that ira is a negative emotion. Seneca therefore not only argues logically or in abstract terms, but wants to appeal to the emotions of his readers. Details stimulate fantasy. The impact of the cases which Seneca narrates is increased by a flexible use of accumulation, repetition and variation, even hyperbole and humor. Lucan on the other hand uses his scenes of violence to have the lacerated corpses parallel the downfall of the republic. His description of atrocities transcends the imaginable and in Backhaus’ opinion asks the reader to reflect on the question how such cruelty can be translated into human language at all. At the same time, Lucan manages to let history interact with epic poetry, and thus immerses his reader’s mind more deeply in his narrative, relying on the interplay between poetry and history. Lucan lets his readers ponder the questions who exactly acts, observes, or narrates, and who may deliver a fair judgement in the end.

The last chapter conveniently summarizes the results of Backhaus’ study. Unfortunately, an index locorum is missing, which makes working with the book difficult at times. Had she relied on such an index, she could have avoided quoting passages more than once.[1] The index rerum is a bit brief. Quintilian, e.g., is omitted (pp. 327-329). Missing from the bibliography’s short section on editions, translations, and commentaries are quite a few books that one would have expected to find there: the works of Diodorus and Vergil for example, and also in particular Ramondetti 1996 and Barrière 2016.[2] The latter book shows how dangerous it is not to pay attention to important commentaries, since Backhaus’ discussion on pp. 178f. has its parallels in Barrière on pp. 75f. Also, one also would have expected Otto 2009 to have been included in her discussion (esp. on pp. 61f.).[3]

While I agree with the gist of Backhaus’ argument, she does not avail herself of the opportunity to situate her book within the scholarship on catalogues in ancient literature beyond Seneca and Lucan. Nor does she convincingly justify the dichotomy she proposes between lists in poetry and prose (p. 13). Her only argument is the claim that catalogues exist in poetry and that as such this element of epic poetry cannot exist in any form in prose. Starting with Visser 1997,[4] there has been a long series of efforts to explain the existence and use of lists in Greek and Latin literature. Let it suffice to name just Hirschberger 2004 and Ziogas 2013.[5] On catalogues in prose and their relation to those in poetic texts one could consult, e.g., Reitz 2006 and Schindler 2018.[6]

In general, Backhaus exhibits a highly selective and sometimes even negligent way of dealing with secondary literature. For example, when she talks about Quintilian’s roots in the rhetorica ad Herennium, she never quotes any scholarship on the question (p. 9). The connection between Plato’s rep. 4.439e-440a and Augustine’s Confessions 10.35.55 is well known and much discussed in regard to these passages.[7] Central works of scholarship on (the Roman and also) Livy’s style of using exempla (pp. 96f.) also go unmentioned. Even if it is common knowledge among experts today that exempla were important for Livy and widely used, one should include some signposts for the uninitiated.[8] The same is true when Backhaus talks about passages from Vergil (see p. 144 and in particular p. 280): The metapoetic aspect of the doors of the temple at Cumae that was built by Daedalus in Aeneid 6 has been recognized by previous scholarship in contrast to what her footnote 136 on page 280 implies.[9]

Backhaus translates ira with Vergeltungsdrang. I would say that the meaning of this German word does not encompass the entire range of meaning of the Latin. Her argument for her translation is given on p. 126 and does not refer to the corresponding lemmata in the Thesaurus linguae Latinae nor any of the other scholarly dictionaries. She also does not pay attention to Wildberger’s reasons to translate ira with Wut in her fairly recent translation of Seneca’s de Ira (Stuttgart 2007). Baier, for example, seconds Wildberger in his review of that book.[10] Vergeltungsdrang to me is an expression that is too weak and too narrow for the Latin word. To argue about Seneca’s use of this important term just from the viewpoint of Valerius Maximus and two works of secondary literature is not enough evidence when dealing with a topic that has been so widely discussed. I would also like to draw the reader’s attention to Fantham 2003 and Stöppelkamp 2011.[11]

The book is well produced. The question, however, where and when to transliterate the original Greek has not been answered consistently in the book (cf., e.g., pp. 11, 12, 19, 21, 158). Only a few typographical and stylistical errors remain.[12]

Backhaus’ translations are in general accurate, reliable, and readable. Sometimes, however, they seem to have preserved traces of a first draft. To use the colloquial aufpeppen for excitanda misses Quintilian’s style. A “phrase” like = plausibel ist as a summary of an already translated sentence (p. 37) should not be part of a final translation. To limit lucubrare to the rather technical expression nachtaktiv sein does not seem to include the notion of working hard (at night, 195). The opposition between er and ich on page 205 that Backhaus accentuates by using italics is not particularly emphasized in the original Latin. Instead, non seems to be the decisive marker of the difference in Seneca’s passage. There is no need to render elidunt on page 291 in the passive voice.


[1] Sen. epist. 24.6 on p. 98 and 119 is an example.

[2] P. Ramondetti: Struttura di Seneca. De ira II-III: Una proposta d’interpretazione. Bologna 1996. F. Barrière: Lucain. La guerre civile. Chant II. Paris 2016.

[3] N. Otto: Enargeia. Untersuchung zur Charakteristik alexandrinischer Dichtung. Stuttgart 2009.

[4] E. Visser: Homers Katalog der Schiffe. Stuttgart 1997, repr. Berlin 2012.

[5] M. Hirschberger: Gynaikōn Katalogos und Megalai Ēhoiai: ein Kommentar zu den Fragmenten zweier hesiodeischer Epen. München 2004, and I. Ziogas: Ovid and Hesiod: The Metamorphosis of the Catalogue of Women. Cambridge 2013.

[6] C. Reitz: Katalog, in: H. Cancik et al.: Der Neue Pauly. First published online in 2006. C. Schindler: Macht und Übermacht der Tradition. Dichterkataloge in der lateinischen Literatur von Ovid bis Sidonius, in: S. Finkmann et al. (edd.): Antike Erzähl- und Deutungsmuster. Zwischen Exemplarität und Transformation. München 2018, 335-358: 336ff.

[7] Cf., e.g., J. Brachtendorf: Augustins “Confessiones”. Darmstadt 2005, 225f.

[8] One could think of J. D. Chaplin: Livy’s Exemplary History. Oxford 2000. Livy’s strategies concerning his readers have been dealt with by P. G. Walsh inter alios (Livy. His Historical Aims and Methods. Cambridge 1970).

[9] Literature on this topic is legion. Cf., e.g., K. Galinsky: Aeneas at Cumae, in: Vergilius 55, 2009, 69-87: 84. Also cf. A. Kirichenko: Virgil’s Augustan Temples, in: JRS 103, 2013, 65-87: 76 and N. Horsfall: Virgil, Aeneid 6. A Commentary. Volume 2: Commentary and Appendices. Berlin 2013, 99f. In addition, I think that Backhaus misunderstood Michael Putnam’s opinion (Vergil’s Epic Designs. Ekphrasis in the Aeneid. New Haven 1998, 76) on Aen. 6.34. Cf. also already, e.g., V. Pöschl: Die Tempeltüren des Dädalus in der Aeneis (VI 14-33), in: WJA NF 1, 1975, 119-123: 122.

[10] T. Baier: Review of: Seneca. de ira. Über die Wut. Übersetzt und herausgegeben von J. Wildberger. Stuttgart 2007, in: Gymnasium 116, 2009, 65f.

[11] E. Fantham: The angry poet and the angry gods: problems of theodicy in Lucan’s epic of defeat, in: S. Braund, G. W. Most (edd.): Ancient Anger. Perspectives from Homer to Galen. Cambridge 2003, 229-249. K. Stöppelkamp: Affekt im Wandel. Antike Darstellung von Liebe und Zorn am Beispiel Medeas. Diss. Groningen 2011, chapter 2.2.3.

[12] Cf. on p. 6: “bereitstelllen” and on the same page n. 25 “Zorningen”, pp. 38, 129, 144: “1:1”, p. 170: repetitive use of “zeigen”, p. 175: awkward formatting of the page, p. 230: “Beteilung” and p. 251: “ist weniger krass”). Verses 181f. on p. 279 are taken from the second book of Lucan’s Pharsalia.