Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 4.

A. J. Boyle (ed.), Seneca, Octavia: Attributed to Seneca. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xc + 340. ISBN UK£70.00.

Mairead MacAuley
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa

How do you read a political-historical drama, when you don’t know when or by whom it was written and, moreover, when no other examples of its kind survive? Can one read it as a play at all, without being waylaid by lengthy specialist debates on date and authorship? Anthony Boyle clearly thinks so, in this, his latest book on a Roman drama, the so-called Pseudo-Senecan Octavia.

Reading the Octavia has always been an exercise in unanswered questions, and this inassimilable strangeness may have contributed to the tendency, until recently, to denigrate it on grounds of merit. Its profile has risen of late, however, with a plethora of recent publications.[[1]] Here Boyle jumps into the fray with a text, English translation and commentary, with which he intends to update and/or supplement the editions/commentaries of Zwierlein (Oxford 1991), Whitman (Oxford 1978), Conte (Milan 2004), Ferri (Cambridge 2003) and others. Boyle is a prodigious scholar of Senecan tragedy and a major contributor to scholarship on Senecan tragedy. Yet it is perhaps his lucid and undergraduate- friendly commentaries with verse translations -- of Phaedra and Troades -- that are his calling card, introducing in accessible detail the literary, linguistic and historical complexities of these dramas. The edition of the Octavia, at 340 pages (of which 207 are commentary), is less concise than the others, a fulsomeness required no doubt by the uncertain, intriguing and downright frustrating features of this particular play. Yet, like his Troades, which seeks to complement rather than supplant the Princeton commentary of Fantham (1982), Boyle’s Octavia positions itself as distinct from Roland Ferri’s extensive edition (471 pages with no translation), which presumes prior knowledge of Classical drama, history and literature, aiming instead to open the play to a larger readership both within Classics and without. With this in mind, this reviewer will -- in general -- refrain from detailed philological points, but rather address the book’s fulfillment of its declared aim.

Boyle’s introduction is a solid, coherent overview of the play, its context and literary and stylistic features. Unsurprisingly, questions of authorship and date have dogged criticism of the play, with speculation ranging from composition by Seneca himself, during Nero’s reign, to as late as the 15th century. This debate, though important, is dealt with swiftly by Boyle (pp. xiii-xc), who dismisses Senecan authorship and outlines briefly the more plausible cases for and against Galban, Vespasianic and mid-late Flavian composition respectively. Against recent arguments made by Ferri and Harrison for the Domitianic era, he votes for the reign of Vespasian, citing that period’s revival of the theatre and its invocation of Claudius as ideological model. Nor does he dwell on recent hypotheses for the identity of the Octavia’s author, such as Curiatius Maternus. While some might prefer a fuller discussion of the argument against Seneca as author, or, for example, of Boyle’s reasons for rejecting Ferri’s well-documented claim for the late Flavian period, the avoidance of potentially off- putting minutiae, none of which can amount to conclusive evidence anyway, seems sensible in a book aimed at a non- specialist audience (although for those interested, the scholarship is well indicated in the footnotes). Boyle spends more time on the Neronian setting of the play and his historical précis of Nero’s reign, followed by a short but wide-ranging discussion of imperial theatricality and the development of Roman drama (especially its political aspects), are excellent initiations into these topics (pp. xvii-xxxix). He reiterates his trademark analysis of late Julio-Claudian and Flavian Rome as a ‘palimpsestic world,’ an idea dismissed by some as mystifyingly hyperbolic,[[2]] but the concept is nevertheless of use (though a little confusingly expressed for students here) in accounting for the complex imbrication of past and present, of court politics and public spectacle, during the reigns of both Nero and the Flavians; perhaps even more apt, though, for configuring the layered intertextuality of the Octavia itself, recycling as it does myth and recent history, Greek tragedy and praetexta, Senecan tragedy and philosophy, theatrical reality and realist theatre.

In arguing for the performability of the play (pp. xl- xlii), Boyle also diverges from Ferri (oddly, not cited in the footnote on p. xl) and others, maintaining, as he has done consistently for Senecan tragedy, that the argument restricting performance to recitatio hoists itself with its own petard, since a recitation of the full play would surely have required two or more voices ‘playing parts.’ Ferri argues against formal production for the Octavia partly because the play’s numerous scene changes and multiple actors flout dramatic conventions -- though of course performance in a private house need not be restricted by such requirements anyway. The difference between recitation with two or more voices before an audience and ‘full’ production seems less one of performance v. non-performance and more a matter of subtly different performance modes; at any rate, we must surely take into account a wider spectrum of audience experience than the extreme poles of either ‘full’ public production or private recitative. The contemporary practice of recitatio clearly influenced both Seneca’s plays and the Octavia, parts of which clearly lend themselves as excerpts for recitation; but at the same time, Boyle argues, the theatrical and dramatic aspects of these dramas contradict the idea that this was their sole purpose. Moreover, Ferri’s argument for recitation based on the excessive ‘literariness’ of the Octavia, i.e. that its intricate literary allusiveness would be lost on the audience of a stage production, seems to me at best highly subjective: how can we judge what might constitute ‘over-literariness’ for a Roman audience?

Perhaps the most unfamiliar aspect of the Octavia to the newcomer is its origins in historical drama, the fabula praetexta, of which it is hailed as the one surviving example. Boyle’s section on this uniquely Roman form is detailed and informative, leading into a discussion of the generic features of Octavia itself. Boyle emphasizes the difficulty in evaluating a play without date or comparable examples -- for instance, it is unclear whether the Octavia’s fusion of tragedy and praetexta is a feature of praetextae in general, or an innovation of this author. Undeterred by such known unknowns, Boyle defends the play’s value beyond its generic or historical interest, and indeed, one of the most useful sections of his introduction is devoted to efficient literary and stylistic analysis. He charts the play’s intricate structure (arguing for a six-act division, again contra Ferri), pointing out a dramatic symmetry built around Octavia’s three appearances, at the beginning, middle and end. Doubling or cyclicity of structure (for example, two chorus, two prologues, etc) is reflected at the level of plot, character and motif: Octavia mirrors Poppaea, Nero’s crime against his wife repeats that against his mother, the images of Act 1 are echoed in the final act, and so on. Boyle makes a good case for viewing the persistent fragmentation, discontinuity and rapid changes of scenes less as a sign of substandard dramaturgy than an effective means of generating tension, ‘a sense of evolving crisis’ (p. lxi). He notes possible innovations in the playwright’s use of interior spaces, generating a ‘powerfully claustrophobic atmosphere’ of palace intrigue, and in the use of the chorus of Roman citizens as participants in the action (they attack Nero’s palace). The strange ‘tableau’ style of the play’s scenes -- displaying at most two characters at a time -- is linked back to other visual rituals of Roman culture, such as the triumph; indeed, the final scene of Octavia led as prisoner seems to invert or even parody the Roman triumphal and wedding processions. The play’s ‘multi-allusivity’ drawing on other genres such as Greek tragedy and epic, and its pervasive use of irony, is also given space, and is complemented by a suggestive discussion, later, of the influence of Senecan drama and the Octavia on Renaissance tragedy. Boyle’s section entitled ‘Politics, Perception and History’ offers a most effective breakdown of the Octavia’s many-layered political meanings: as a response to and reading of Seneca tragedy, dispensing with the mythic plots to unveil its political subtexts; as an apologia for Seneca and a criticism of him; as an exposition on the obscure causality of historical events, doomed ever to repeat. Even the Octavia’s most straightforward politics, its vehement condemnation of Nero, Boyle shows to be complex: the emperor is presented as tyrant of Atrean proportions, but with nuance; though monstrous, like Augustus, he is also a shrewd wielder of power (lending further weight to Calder’s description of the Octavia as ‘our earliest commentary on Thyestes’).[[3]] Brief, precise notes on meter and his translation conclude the introduction.

The text of Octavia, transmitted with Seneca’s tragedies in one branch only, is far more stable than those plays, leaving less work for an editor -- or room to innovate. Boyle’s text is, like Ferri’s, mainly that of Zwierlein, although he differs from him in 41 places, indicating variants in a selective apparatus criticus (pp. 78f.). Boyle’s verse translation is generally excellent and constitutes a crucial selling point of this edition over Ferri’s (whose commentary does not even translate especially difficult lines). I find Boyle’s translation in many places easier to read than Fitch’s Loeb version, and frequently more powerful, generally complementing rather than clouding the impact of the original language. His commentary is more detailed than those on Troades and Phaedra, but like them is pleasingly clear and user-oriented, with particular emphasis on historical details, literary motifs and points of interest and the clarification of grammatical issues. Though many of Boyle’s notes are aimed at a general reader and usefully do not presume mythological, literary or historical expertise, he also offers substantial nuggets of interest for the specialist reader, and is littered with scholarly references to Senecan tragedy, other Latin and Greek texts and to more complex stylistic and metrical features. In general Boyle’s commentary straddles very successfully its prospective dual readership of expert and non-expert, as all commentaries probably should.

Boyle has produced a fine introduction and critical aid to the Octavia, which is essential reading for anyone interested in Roman drama and will surely help generate the widespread attention this fascinating play deserves.


[[1]] To name a few: M. Wilson (ed.), The Tragedy of Nero’s Wife: Studies in the Octavia Praetexta (Prudentia special edition, 2003); P. Kragelund, 'History, Sex and Scenography in the Octavia', Symbolae Osloenses 80.1 (2005), 68-114; J. A. Smith, ‘Flavian Drama: Looking back with the Octavia’, in A. J. Boyle and W. J. Dominik (edd.), Flavian Rome: Culture, Image, Text (Leiden 2003) 391-403; T. P. Wiseman, ‘Octavia and the Phantom Genre’, AHB 19.1- 2 (2005) 59-69.

[[2]] See, for example, Matthew Leigh’s BMCR review of Troades (1995):

[[3]] W. M. Calder, 'Secreti loquimur: An Interpretation of Seneca's Thyestes,' in A. J. Boyle, (ed.), Seneca Tragicus: Ramus Essays on Senecan Drama (Berwick, Victoria 1983), cited on p. lxvii.