BMCR 2023.05.26

Healing grief: a commentary on Seneca’s Consolatio ad Marciam

, Healing grief: a commentary on Seneca's Consolatio ad Marciam. CICERO: studies on Roman thought and its reception, 6. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2022. Pp. x, 365. ISBN 9783111007427

Open access


It is a good time to study Seneca’s Ad Marciam de consolatione (“Consolation to Marcia”, Marc.). Once handled chiefly as a source for a putative genre of ancient consolatio, Marc.—probably the earliest of Seneca’s extant prose writings—has been increasingly appreciated as a nuanced and persuasive work that reveals more continuity than difference with the style and content of his mature philosophical writings. At the same time, our understanding of ancient consolation, both as a social practice and literary form, has progressed beyond the collection of topical arguments and themes.[1] Fabio Tutrone’s commentary represents not only the most recent but also the most extensive engagement with the text to date.[2] The authors of this review confess to a particular interest in Tutrone’s book, as we are preparing a commentary on Marc. for Cambridge’s “Green and Yellow” series. We were pleased therefore to find that this is an erudite work that is bound to be a valuable reference for scholars interested in Seneca’s Marc.

The book has three major parts: an introduction; a Latin text; and the commentary, divided into six parts according to the conventionally recognized structure of Marc. There are indices rerum, nominum, and locorum. The brisk introduction has two parts. In the first, Tutrone reaffirms the probability of composition under Gaius, dismisses social or political motives for Marc. and, most significantly, sets out the principles of his approach. Tutrone sees Marc. as a thoroughgoing “Stoicization of the consolatio genre” (p. 15), indeed, as a work of broader Stoic moral instruction (esp. pp. 11–12, 14, 16). He accordingly argues that prominent non-Stoic elements—Roman exempla, consolatory commonplaces, rhetorical devices, engagement with other philosophical schools—function chiefly to support the adaptation of Stoic material to persuade Seneca’s addressee (esp. pp. 11, 15). In the second part of the introduction, Tutrone renounces source criticism in the sense of identifying specific authors (esp. Posidonius or Cicero) behind individual doctrines or passages in Marc. and briefly surveys the manuscript evidence for the text, noting fifteen changes between his own and Reynold’s text (p. 21). The Latin text that follows is Reynolds’ with those differences and some changes to punctuation. There is no apparatus criticus.

The defining feature of Tutrone’s commentary is his interpretation of Marc. in light of Stoic philosophy. Before discussing this aspect, we will briefly characterize the style and coverage of the commentary more generally. Tutrone’s notes are substantial, most being a paragraph to page in length, and he frequently develops them into miniature essays on the various topics, providing copious references to primary sources and modern scholarship.[3] These notes will be highly useful for readers interested in finding sources and parallels, although they can stray far from the text (e.g. the long note on natural disasters, pp. 281–4). What does Tutrone discuss? Many notes introduce Stoic concepts like oikeiosis, pre-emotions (προπάθειαι), and persona-theory (more below). Consolatory commonplaces are noted. Tutrone also remarks on Seneca’s metaphors, especially those drawn from aspects of elite Roman life such as law (p. 52), architecture (p. 88), and finance (p. 112). Readers will find copious discussion of historical figures mentioned in the text, from the familiar Cremutius Cordus, Marcia’s father (pp. 54–55), and Lucretia (pp. 154–155) to the less securely identified Areus (pp. 85–87), whom Seneca calls Augustus’ personal philosopher (Marc. 4.2). Tutrone devotes attention to the theme of aemulatio, Seneca’s creative rewriting of predecessors, especially Cicero, Lucretius, Vergil, and Ovid. Finally, he discusses the constitution of the text where it is doubtful. What does Tutrone omit? Readers seeking help with grammar and syntax will need to look elsewhere. Likewise, though readers will find the occasional reference to asyndeton or anaphora, Tutrone does not consistently identify the rhetorical figures so common in Seneca’s style. Nor do the lexical and syntactic aspects of Seneca’s writing receive much attention, except where individual words evoke larger metaphors, allude to philosophical themes, and so forth.

We come to Tutrone’s Stoic reading of the text. Perhaps the key problem for scholars of Marc. has been to reconcile its philosophical contents with the persuasive ends of the consolation and Seneca’s broader allegiance to Stoic thought. In the face of hints (some disputed) that Seneca has borrowed arguments from the Peripatetics, Platonists, Cyrenaics, and Epicureans—certain of these arguments being incompatible with basic Stoic doctrines—scholars have come to different conclusions. Some have argued that Seneca is content to sacrifice philosophical consistency for the sake of therapeutic efficacy.[4] This view is not wholly incompatible with supposing the primacy of Stoic thought, however: Karlhans Abel and C. E. Manning, for example, allowed that Seneca moves towards a Stoic conclusion in Marc. but exhibits an openness to non-Stoic arguments to support his therapy.[5] Tutrone builds on these approaches but differs in that he insists on construing all the features of Marc. in terms of Stoic doctrine and seeks to refute any possible charge of philosophical incoherence or eclecticism. He is not the first to mount this argument,[6] but his attempt to show that there is nothing in the work that cannot be reconciled with “Stoic orthodoxy” (p. 13)—a much-used phrase throughout—is by far the most strenuous effort to date.

For these reviewers, the effect of this thoroughgoingly Stoic reading was mixed. Recognizing that the notion of “Stoic orthodoxy” is itself problematical, Tutrone stresses Seneca’s independence in principle, but in practice his aim seems to be to show that Seneca’s arguments can in each instance be fitted to some version of Stoic doctrine as attested in the principal (Greek) sources. Tutrone’s efforts may persuade us that, if only we press hard enough, we can always find an appropriate Stoic ground for Seneca’s arguments. Yet the inflexible claim that Seneca is an “orthodox Stoic” often produces unsatisfactory readings. For example, Tutrone allows, with earlier scholars, that Seneca temporarily propounds the Peripatetic doctrine of μετριοπάθεια (moderation of the emotions).[7] His commitment to the Stoic reading leads him to “wonder whether Seneca has pushed his argument too far, with serious detriment to his Stoic orthodoxy” (82). But he tries to get out of the trap by arguing that Seneca is just “faithfully following the pedagogical method of Chrysippus,” which allows the consoler to use arguments in which he does not believe when first confronting a person’s grief (83). With this principle in hand, Tutrone can explain away apparent theoretical departures from Stoicism by pointing to the consoler’s sensitivity to the condition of the bereaved. But does this not, in practice, amount to a justification for taking consolation to be a philosophically eclectic mode of discourse, despite (or thanks to) Chrysippus’ doctrine? Does it not demonstrate that consolation has dynamic psychagogic demands that are in some way directive of the philosophical content?[8]

In multiplying Stoic parallels, Tutrone sometimes fails to address why we ought to read Stoic doctrines into what Seneca is saying at all—that is, the parallels amount to overreadings that obscure other, more salient dimensions of the text. Consider as a typical example the note on 1.5 magis iam ex consuetudine quam ex desiderio:

Insofar as it has lasted for three years (tertius iam praeterit annus), Marcia’s sorrow (dolor = λύπη) has turned into what the Stoics called a “proclivity” (εὐκαταφορία, εὐεμπτωσία), that is, into an established tendency to grief (ἐπιλυπία). At this stage of human emotional development, the limits of the natural feeling of longing (desiderium = πόθος, ἵμερος) – which the Stoics define as “the desire to see someone who is not yet present” (desiderium libido eius, qui nondum adsit, videndi, Cic. Tusc. 4.21 = SVF 3.398; cf. also SVF 3.394) – have been dangerously overstepped. Given its customary, ingrained nature (ex consuetudine), Marcia’s “erroneous judgement in the process of desire” (δόξαν ἐπιθυμίας, Stob. Ecl. 2.7.10e) – which is made evident by her willingness to use grief as an emotional surrogate of her son (in filii locum) – can also be compared to what the Stoics call a “sickness” (νόσημα). Certainly, it is an established habit (ἔθος), to borrow the terminology of Epictetus (Diss. 1.27.3–6). See the introduction to the present section for further details.

The Latin of §1.5 is untechnical, and Seneca gives us no reason to suppose that he has in mind particular Greek (and specifically Stoic) equivalents for words such as dolor, consuetudo, or desiderium. The last of these, for example, is simply the mot juste in Latin for the pain of bereavement and is hence very common in consolatory situations; the Stoic definition reported by Cicero cannot be directly mapped onto the present usage (cf. qui nondum adsit!), and Tutrone does not attempt to explain its relevance. Moreover, Seneca invokes neither Stoic “proclivities” nor “sicknesses” here, though he surely could have had he wished,[9] and the reference to a use of ἔθος in Epictetus adds little. Strikingly, Tutrone does not mention any appearances of consuetudo either elsewhere in Marc. (e.g. 7.4) or in others of Seneca’s philosophical works that might clarify what the term could connote here. What is typical of the commentary in this note is the flattening out of the polyvalent and often ambiguous character of Seneca’s language and thought in Marc. in favor of a relentlessly Stoicizing interpretation of the work based on comparanda from technical sources.

Tutrone does not, however, ignore Marcia’s gender, another important aspect of Marc. He emphasizes how Seneca highlights the issue by starting his therapy with the paired exempla of Livia and Octavia (pp. 64–65) and returns to it explicitly in the series of exemplary women whom Marcia prompts Seneca to discuss after a long list of exempla of famous male public officials who lost children but were able to continue performing their duties (p. 153). In addition, Tutrone explicates the tensions between the often-masculinizing language of Stoicism and Seneca’s obvious intention to use the school’s precepts to heal Marcia’s grief (e.g. p. 111). Tutrone tacks a reasonable middle course: on the one hand, Seneca affirms that women can achieve moral goodness, but on the other, he indicates that they have innate faults due to their sex.

It should be obvious that this is not a student commentary, but even so, Tutrone’s anticipated readership is unclear. The explication of basic Stoic terms and concepts coupled with detailed discussions of figures like Lucretia well known to classicists suggests philosophers who are not necessarily ancient in focus. Yet detailed observations of intertextual echoes, discussion of textual problems, and untransliterated Greek (e.g. ἔκφρασις, προσωποποιία) point rather to classicists. In any event, the scale and detail of the notes likely mean that this commentary will be consulted on points of interest, rather than read straight through. But the fact that the book is available as a free PDF from De Gruyter means that no one interested in ancient consolation, Seneca, or Stoic philosophy should hesitate whether to acquire a digital copy.

In conclusion, we would like to emphasize that, although we have reservations about where Tutrone has chosen to place the greatest emphasis in his notes, he has done readers interested in Marc. a great service with this informative commentary that provides among other things mountains of sources and parallels. The volume is carefully produced, and we found no typographical errors worth reporting. We have no doubt that Tutrone’s commentary will be among the first works on Marc. that scholars will consult in the future as they start their research, and we hope, further, that Tutrone’s effort will spur further scholarly engagement with one of Seneca’s most richly varied and compelling works.



[1] See e.g. J. H. D. Scourfield, “Towards a Genre of Consolation,” in Han Baltussen (ed.), Greek and Roman Consolations (Swansea, 2013).

[2] Earlier commentaries: Charles Favez, L. Annaei Senecae dialogorum liber VI Ad Marciam de consolatione (Paris, 1928), C. E. Manning, On Seneca’s Ad Marciam (Leiden, 1981); note also Constantine C. Grollios, Seneca’s Ad Marciam (Athens, 1956).

[3] Tutrone does not however refer readers to notes in scholarly commentaries on Seneca’s or any other ancient author’s works, nor to modern reference texts. On another note, Tutrone’s frequent direct quotations of modern scholars’ words conjoined with his predilection to stage-manage them within the syntax of his own writing can be disorienting; since the quoted words are often merely summary judgements, this practice appears to be nothing more than argumentation from authority on controversial topics.

[4] Favez and Grollios (above, n. 2), among others since.

[5] For Manning, above, n. 2; Abel, ch. 1, in Karlhans Abel, Bauformen in Senecas Dialogen (Heidelberg, 1967).

[6] The most substantial earlier effort is Melanie Stowell, Stoic Therapy of Grief: A Prolegomenon to Seneca’s Ad Marciam, De consolatione (Diss. Cornell, 1999). Tutrone does not cite Stowell, but she anticipates his work in important respects: for example, Stowell is the first to maintain the importance of Stoic pre-emotions (προπάθειαι) in Marc. (see her Ch. 2).

[7] But see now David Machek, “Did Seneca Accede to μετριοπάθεια in His Consolatory Texts?”, Ancient Philosophy 38 (2018), 383–407 (not cited by Tutrone).

[8] So Abel 1967 (n. 5), p. 25; see also ibid. p. 17. Tutrone praises Abel’s analysis at p. 15 but does not note any tension with his own reading (contrast Stowell 1999 (n. 6), p. 177).

[9] See e.g. Sen. Ep. 75.11–12, on morbi of the soul.