Seneca Reader, A
Selections from Prose and Tragedy
By James Ker
Innovator in the literature of philosophical advising and reshaper of myth in tragedy, at turns inspiring and disturbing: This is Seneca the Younger. A mosaic of readings from four main genres with select follow-up passages showcases Seneca as therapeutic consoler, mirror to the prince, tragedian of the passions, and moral epistolographer—a thinker whose literary voice sounds against the volatility of his times. Seneca spins the republican Cicero’s stylistic legacy and Augustan literature’s gold into the distinctive silver of the first century CE: concise in encapsulating ideas, inventive in borrowing the vocabulary of everyday life, and with a propensity for using vivid images to depict emotional experience. This is a style the historian Tacitus deemed “fitted to the ears of his age.”
- Introduction to Seneca’s life, death, philosophy, style, and literary influence
- 568 lines of unadapted Latin text selected from eight works of Seneca: Consolatio ad Helviam 1.1–4, 2.1–5, 3.1–2, 17.3–18.3, 20.1–2; Epistulae Morales 85.40; Consolatio ad Polybium 13.3–4 • De Clementia (book 1) 1.1–6, 9.1–12, 10.1–3; Apocolocyntosis 10.1–3; De Ira 1.2.1–3 • Medea 1–18, 40–50, 155–76, 301–8, 361–79, 537–50, 670–93, 849–69, 904–15, 926–36, 1008–13, 1018–27 • Epistulae Morales 2.1–6, 40.1, 49.1–3, 55.1–5 and 8–11; De Amicitia fragment 59.5–6 Vottero
- Notes at the back and complete vocabulary
- Timeline, appendix on meter and rhythm
- One map and six photos
James Ker is an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Deaths of Seneca (Oxford 2009) and articles on Greek and Roman literature and culture. The Seneca Reader originated in his desire to introduce students to Seneca’s unique literary style and to his wide-ranging works in both prose and poetry.
Comments and Reviews
This articulate and helpful book offers four Senecan “scenarios” for students to get a taste of Seneca’s Latin style, philosophical thought, and poetic power. The benefit of offering snippets of the Consolatio ad Helviam, de Clementia, Medea, and Epistulae Morales is that one appreciates the generic gymnastics that Seneca was capable of, and one gets a view of the various personae he assumed as a writer. The selections offer moments in which Seneca (or characters) advise others on how to overcome adversity and, generally, live according to Stoic ideals. Ker is an amiable guide to the intricacies of Seneca’s Latin and the commentary elucidates quite well the questions intermediate Latin students will have about these texts. Most importantly, Ker answers the question of why one should choose to read Seneca at all, especially in a second/third year Latin course (when we most desire the students to stick around for more Latin!): namely, that his innovative works show that his finger was firmly on the pulse of the exciting literary, philosophical, and cultural developments of the 1st c. CE, and this collection offers us the opportunity to “eavesdrop” (p. lii) on this important thinker and creative author.
The work begins with an ample introduction covering not only what one would expect (Seneca’s life and death, a section on his family entitled “Meet the Senecas”), but also effective summaries of the various genres Seneca explored, and concrete examples of some of the peculiarities of Seneca’s style such as anaphoric repetition, “three favorite syntactic constructions,” and “three words to watch.” The introduction also includes an up-to-date bibliography and strong sections on Seneca’s reception, Stoicism, and the pattern of “misfortune, grief, and the power of the mind” that the excerpts explore. In addition, each scenario has a short introduction with additional germane information about Seneca in exile (introducing the Consolatio ad Helviam), Seneca and Nero (de Clementia), his tragic style (Medea), and significant features of his epistolography (Epistulae Morales).
The opening scenario revolves around Seneca’s exile in Corsica, consisting of his Consolatio ad Helviam, as well as two supplementary passages that expand on Seneca’s view of exile. The commentary works hard throughout to explain grammatical and syntactical oddities, with cross-references to Bennett’s New Latin Grammar for particularly sticky moments. Ker has anticipated many of the problems students will have and goes the extra mile to explain features such as figurative language (e.g. the running metaphor in the Consolatio that Seneca’s work is a form of quasi-medical care), prose rhythm and Seneca’s penchant for clausulae, as well as historical details. The second scenario includes sections from the opening book of de Clementia, a humorous moment of the Apocolocyntosis, and everyone’s favorite sketch of anger from de Ira, in which Ker gets to gloss passages such as aperire iugulum (“to have his throat opened”) and membra diffindere (“to have his limbs divided”). The use of supplementary passages to shed further light on the primary text under consideration is one of my favorite aspects of this collection, and will grant students a more comprehensive knowledge of Seneca’s arsenal of works. The only scenario lacking supplementary passages is the Medea, although Ker does discuss a similar “passion-restraint” scene of the Phaedra in his introduction to this section. The Medea requires an appendix on meter as well as a map pointing out sites mentioned in the play; both are handled with aplomb. The final scenario consists of medley of passages from the Epistulae Morales that ruminate on the questions of friendship, travel, and living according to one’s philosophical ideals. A final follow-up to these letters is a fragment from Seneca’s de Amicitia on how to keep an absent friend in mind. The selection as a whole displays the breadth of Seneca’s writings, and the commentary offers sure aid to the student approaching the material for the first time.
The primary objection I can see to using this volume as opposed to other Seneca commentaries aimed at this level of student is that there are very few “complete” works included here (only one letter is unedited). From a pedagogical standpoint, this may be problematic for those teachers/students who want to be able to hang their hat on having translated a whole play or a whole dialogue, whereas this collection provides a more kaleidoscopic view of Seneca’s output. For Senecan tragedy, there are editions of the Medea and Phaedra aimed at students of this level, while Williams’ commentary on de Otio and de Brevitate Vitae, and Usher’s collection of letters and selections from the Dialogi gives more complete examples of Seneca’s prose genius.[] However, if one wants a challenging and rewarding compilation of Seneca’s prose and poetry for intermediate Latin students, this volume should head your list.
[] H. M. Hine, Seneca: Medea (Aris & Phillips, 2000); G. and S. Lawall and G. Kunkel, The Phaedra of Seneca (Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2nd ed., 2007); G. D. Williams, Seneca: De Otio, De Brevitate Vitae (Cambridge University Press, 2003); M. D. Usher, A Student’s Seneca: Ten Letters and Selections from the De Providentia and De Vita Beata (University of Oklahoma Press, 2006).
— Christopher Trinacty
Teachers of intermediate Latin have plenty of Readers1 to choose from. Readers presenting selections from the works of Cicero and Caesar are common. James Ker's A Seneca Reader is uncommon, timely, and excellent.
The main body of the introduction succinctly covers Seneca's biography and milieu ("Meet the Senecas", "Seneca's life", "Seneca's death"), his oeuvre and qualities as a writer ("Writings") and his philosophical orientation ("Misfortune, grief and the power of the mind", "The Stoics", "Techniques of philosophical training"). The style of presentation is lively and easily accessible to an undergraduate reader. Although the introduction is sensibly not aimed at a scholarly audience, its breadth signals the volume's intent to take the full measure of Seneca the teacher, the philosopher, and the poet. Herein lies Ker's challenge. How can one thin, introductory text reconcile the disparate capabilities and talents of this prolific, controversial, and influential writer? At first glance, the book's structure may seem to evade entirely the question of unity and reconciliation. The four "Scenarios" each present a different facet of Seneca. As the back cover advertizes, the "therapeutic consoler" gives way in turn to the "mirror to the prince", the "tragedian of the passions", and finally the "moral epistolographer". Protean multiplicity, rather than essential similarity, gets the initial emphasis. Seneca's voice "sounds against the volatility of his age". But Ker, sensitive to the difficulty the intermediate student is likely to have understanding the totality of Seneca, draws various threads through his selections in order to highlight their commonality. They are arranged, first of all, in roughly chronological order (excepting the Medea), following Seneca through his first exile on Corsica, his subsequent rise to prominence in Nero's court, and finally his uneasy retirement. Each selection features advice given and sometimes rejected. This advice "concerns how to overcome moral predicaments and centers upon the capacity of the mind (animus) to give us everything we need for happiness" (xiv). This connection is not as intuitive as it sounds. Scenarios 1, 2, and 4 (the prose works selections) share, with some variations, an advisory or didactic mode of expression. Scenario 3 (selections from the Medea), on the other hand, is not obviously didactic, so its relation to Seneca's philosophical works must be elucidated by the commentator or the reader. This elucidation uncovers some fascinating and subtle commonalities and offers the reader who has never encountered Seneca before a fuller, more nuanced picture of this writer's multifarious talent.
With admirable lucidity and concision Ker situates Seneca's views on mental invulnerability, fortune, and grief in relation to the central doctrines of the earlier Stoics. The Stoic's approach to hardship should be timely for today's students and teachers alike. One quibble: Ker casually characterizes the Stoics as holding that "[t]he world's events are all predetermined" (xxxviii) instead of signaling the lack of scholarly consensus on this interpretation. Were all or only some of the Stoics predeterminists? Do we know that Seneca was not a determinist? Admittedly, it would be churlish to fault this Reader for briskly surveying Seneca's philosophical terrain while omitting a thorny interpretive controversy in Stoic physics in order to save space.
Ker judiciously discusses Seneca's style (xl-xlvi), admitting the long-standing prejudice of Quintilian and others against Senecan brevity, sententiousness, and parataxis, but characterizing these qualities as distinctions rather than faults. Most usefully for the intermediate undergraduate reader, he discusses not only stylistic tendencies (e.g. "Brevity", "Comparison") but also specific recurring structures ("Anticipatory hoc or illud"), syntactic constructions ("Relative clauses with subjunctive"), and important "words to watch" ("Quoque"). The emphasis is less on the difference between Senecan and Ciceronian Latin, and more on those characteristics of Seneca's prose most likely to capture the attention or test the Latinity of undergraduate students. The excellent treatment of Seneca's immediate impact and subsequent reception (xlvii-lii) is more erudite than is usual in a Reader of this scope. Some brief remarks on each of the Reader's four scenarios and the commentary follow.
Scenario 1: Seneca in Exile
Seneca's analogy between moral and physical health, especially the importance of submitting bravely to a painful cure (ita tu nunc debes fortiter praebere te curationi 3.1), seems Platonic (cf. Gorgias 477e7 - 479e9), although in Plato painful punishment is expected to cure a wrong committed. For Seneca, pain inoculates against future pain. Ker juxtaposes selections from the Consolatio ad Helviam, where Seneca's life in exile is presented in the best light (cf. especially 20.1-2) with an excerpt from the Consolatio ad Polybium (13.3-4), where Seneca clings to hope of recall as solace for his suffering (magnum miseriarum mearum solacium 13.3). Does this suggest that Seneca's argument about the consolation of philosophy in the former work (cf. 17.3-5) is based more on rhetorical expediency than deeply held belief? That is, might he be trying to convince his mother of something he does not believe himself?
Scenario 2: Seneca and Nero
The style of the three passages selected in this scenario is strikingly different. The De Clementia is patient and plodding, carefully modeling decency while studiously avoiding any suggestion of error on Nero's part. The Apocolocyntosis naturally takes a less reverent attitude towards Claudius, and the style is quicker and livelier. The paragraph from the De Ira illustrates the unrestrained power of Seneca's prose at its most inspired and forceful. Notice that iuvat inspicere (De Clementia 1.1) echoes Lucretius 2.1-2 ([s]uave ... spectare) and serves to separate Nero's "good conscience" (bonam conscientiam) from the discordant and reckless multitude, as the Epicurean's ataraxia sets him above the stormy sea of life. For Seneca's attitude toward Epicurus, cf. Epist. 2.5 (p. 22 in the Reader).
Scenario 3: The Drama of Revenge
If the selections in Scenario 2 descend from the fawning advice of the De Clementia to the satire of the Apocolocyntosis and to the grave and forceful eloquence of the De Ira, Scenario 3 plunges the reader into the abyss of fierce, unremitting passions. This sudden change of mood will challenge the nascent Latinist who has not encountered Senecan drama before. Yet Ker has deftly prepared the ground in a number of ways, some overt, some subtle. The introduction opens with Tacitus' observation that Seneca's rhetorical style was "pleasing and fitted to the ears of his age" (Annales 13.3.1), a statement that could also be adduced to explain why Seneca's tragedies are often darker and more grotesque than his Greek models. This was, after all, an age whose overwhelming thirst for gruesome spectacle sometimes obscured the boundaries of art and experience. Indeed, Ker finds "an element of the theatrical" (xxv) even in the scene of Seneca's own death and notes its powerful effect on contemporary "audiences". In the same way, Seneca's "new tragic vision" appeals to "post-Augustan sensibilities" (xxxii). The "bleaker vision of the tragedies" is one "in which chaotic moral and political forces prevail" (xli). A careful reader of the first two scenarios will discern that the Medea dramatizes, as Ker puts it, "the same grief, anger, and hostility that Seneca in the other three scenarios is so concerned to banish" (xxx). Medea's willful perversity offers the strongest possible contrast to the behavior modeled for Nero in the De Clementia.
On the other hand, Medea is not just a negative example. Her "unyielding focus on virtue" was admired by Epictetus (Discourses, 2.17.19; cf. p. 74). Medea both defies and perversely validates Stoic doctrine. It is fascinating to follow the stream of Stoic thought through the selections of the play presented in Ker's Reader. Medea argues for the "invincibility" of virtue (numquam potest non esse virtuti locus 161; cf. p. 80) and confidently declares her self-sufficiency (Medea superest … 165), emphasizing the power of the mind against misfortune (Fortuna opes auferre, animum non potest 176). She later casts wealth as an indifferent (contemnere animus regias, ut scis, opes / potest soletque 540-41). Of course, Medea's virtue and mental energy are aimed like a laser beam at exacting criminal revenge. Ker also makes the more general point that "Medea's ambition to live up to her identity … may be understood as a misunderstanding … of the Stoic moral ideal of consistency" (74-75). These particular selections from this particular tragedy effectively complement the philosophical works with both contrast and similarity.
Scenario 4: Letters to a Friend
Here there are a few suggestive parallels with Scenario 3. First, the idea that the soul might be sick (aegri animi, Epist. 2.1) is also suggested by Medea (si vivis, anime 41). Second, in Epist. 55.1, Seneca admits that being carried in a litter is unnatural (contra naturam), so one might contrast Seneca's frailty with Medea's repeated claims of self-sufficiency. Third, Medea comes to mind again when Seneca praises constancy (Epist. 55.5).
The general approach of the commentary reflects that of the whole volume: it is balanced, judicious, and sufficiently informative for the intermediate Latinist. Between the notes ("Commentary") and the glossary ("Vocabulary"), even relatively inexperienced readers should find all the assistance they need. Basic constructions (e.g. "ad + acc. gerundive expressing purpose" 31) and case usages (e.g. "abl. of comparison" 32) are frequently reviewed, but parallel passages from ancient literature are rarely given very much space (with some exceptions, e.g. the note on Medea 301). The grammatical advice is appropriate and sound, although it is occasionally indecisive: e.g. "planta: an ambiguous term; it probably denotes a 'plant' being transplanted, though it is not inconceivable that it refers to a 'sole of the foot'" (30). Some instructors may crave univocal guidance from an intermediate Reader, but philological honesty in small doses is often salutary even for the beginning student.
Some teachers of intermediate or advanced undergraduates will prefer to read in full a single work in the Senecan corpus. They will point to discontinuities and abrupt transitions necessitated by Ker's holistic approach. Selections sometimes break off in mid-sentence or offer only the smallest taste of a given text. The vivid and arresting excerpt from the De Ira (1.2.1-3; pp. 12-13), for instance, is only seventeen lines long. Other commentaries are available for teachers of this bent.2 Nonetheless, the advantage of this Reader is that the intermediate student can follow the course of Seneca's eventful life through its many moods and guises and experience both the bold, abrupt concision of his prose and the vehement, forceful idiom of his tragedy.
p. 2: in the second sentence of Consolatio ad Helviam 2.4, tu quidem clearly anticipates nulli tamen in the original text, but this latter clause is curiously omitted, leaving the reader waiting for an adversative that never comes. p. 8: the third sentence of De Clementia 1.5 gives the perfect of nanciscor as nancta est (cf. also p. 22, Epist. 2.5 nanctus sum), but the entry in the Vocabulary reads nanciscor, -i, nactus sum, giving the alternate form of the perfect. It would be convenient for the student if the text and glossary were reconciled on this point. p. 28: in the caption on Fig. 3, "So-called" should be "so-called". p. 89: in the comment on Medea 683, "rigent" should be "rigens".
1. Throughout we capitalize "Reader" (an instructional edition with an introduction, Latin text, commentary, and vocabulary) to differentiate it from a student or instructor decoding the book. Many such Readers have been published or republished by Bristol Classical Press, covering all of the books of the Commentarii De Bello Gallico, for instance. Keitel and Crawford's recent commentary on the Pro Caelio (Focus, 2004) falls into this category, as does Knapp and Vaughn's Finis Rei Publicae (Focus, 2003), which combines excerpts from Caesar, Cicero et al. with commentary, vocabulary, and grammar review.
2. M. D. Usher's A Student's Seneca (Focus, 2006) offers ten complete letters. G. D. Williams's Green and Yellow commentary on the De Otio and the De Brevitate Vitae (Cambridge, 2003) offers both essays in unabbreviated form.
Daniel T. Barber and William O. Stephens
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.09.38
BC LATIN READERS: SIT BONA LIBRORUM COPIA
Teachers and professors who are seeking more flexibility when designing upper division courses will be pleased to know that additional titles in Bolchazy-Carducci's ongoing BC Latin Reader series are now available. This growing collection of compact, affordable paperbacks is intended to broaden the selection of material available for students with high intermediate and advancing reading proficiency in Latin. These readers are especially appropriate for undergraduates who have completed the first two years of language courses and are ready to progress further in their study of authentic Latin literature. High school teachers who are eager to break out of the confines of the Advanced Placement syllabus will also appreciate the versatility that the BC Latin Reader series provides. Each libellus provides a concise but thorough scholarly introduction to an author, genre, or theme by providing approximately 500-600 lines of authentic and unmodified Latin text (about 25 pages), an annotated commentary, helpful appendices, and a full Latin-to English vocabulary. Presently, nine books in this series have been published, with ten more forthcoming.
The most recent addition to the series is A Seneca Reader: Selections from Prose and Tragedy, written by James Ker, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Following the standard format of the BC Latin Reader series, Ker builds the scaffolding for this little book and provides a historical context for the eight Latin passages. He presents the student with a brief but engaging introduction to the Stoic philosopher, speechwriter, and dramatist and to his life and times from his birth in Spain, to his career in the treacherous imperial courts of Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, and finally to his forced suicide. Ker then provides a summary of the unique characteristics of Seneca's Silver Age style, structure, and syntax, and he points out some specific word usage that might prove confusing, in addition to providing a list of suggested readings for further study.
The 568 lines of authentic, unadapted Latin in A Seneca Reader have been carefully selected by the author to illustrate four distinct biographical scenarios which coincide with the genre in which they are written: "therapeutic consoler" (Consolatio ad Helviam, Consolatio ad Polybium); "mirror to the prince" (De Clementia, Apocolocyntosi, De Ira); "tragedian of the passions" (Medea) and "moral epistolographer" (Epistulae Morales and De Amicitia). Ker therefore suggests that teachers who plan to read the entire book with their students proceed in the chronological order in which the passages are presented. As befits a college text and consistent with other books in the BC Latin Reader series, the commentary and notes are located in the back rather than on facing pages. Additional contextual helps (a timeline, maps, and a guide to Latin meter and rhythm) are located in the appendices, followed by a full glossary.
At this point, however, you are probably thinking that a single volume from the BC Latin Series would never provide a sufficient amount of reading and translation material for a complete one semester college course, and you would indeed be correct. The series was intentionally designed to provide maximum flexibility to professors and teachers when customizing their curriculum and that is reflected in the compactness of each libellus as well as in the price. Each reader lists for $19 and you can find them for less than that, new, on sites like Amazon. Instructors can mix and match authors and themes to suit their curriculum or use the readers in conjunction with other sources. For example, students reading Senecan tragedy might begin the course by spending two or three weeks reading and discussing the material in the Ker book before moving on to reading entire tragedies from the Oxford Classical Text. Another class surveying Roman drama might combine the selections from A Seneca Reader with the corresponding BC Readers introducing Plautus and Terence. There really are a myriad of possibilities.
"The Clearing House"
Classical Outlook Summer 2011 Vol. 88, No. 4
Seneca the Younger was a major writer of the classical era, and understanding his work understands literature that much better. A Seneca Reader: Selections from Prose and Tragedy delves into Seneca's work, granting him a brief biography, going over choice writings of his text, mapping important vocabulary, and much more to better understand the Latin language and command a better mastery of those important historical language. A Seneca Reader is a must for any student of Latin language and history.
— James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review