Scholia Reviews ns 15 (2006) 2.

John G. Fitch (ed.) Seneca. Volume VIII Tragedies I: Hercules, Trojan Women, Phoenician Women, Medea, Phaedra. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. viii + 551. ISBN 0-674-99602-X. UK£14.50; US$21.50.

John G. Fitch (ed.) Seneca. Volume IX Tragedies II: Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules on Oeta, Octavia. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2004. Pp.viii + 654. ISBN 0-674-99610-0. UK£14.50; US$21.50.

Betine van Zyl Smit
University of the Western Cape

These two volumes replace the two volumes of Seneca's tragedies edited and translated by Miller almost ninety years ago for the Loeb Classical Library.[[1]] During the last forty years the tragedies of Seneca have enjoyed a great deal of scholarly attention. The fruits of this are clearly to be seen in Fitch's work. Gone is Miller's underlying assumption that Seneca's dramas are to be viewed primarily as a pale and awkward imitation of really worthwhile tragedies, the surviving works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Gone too are the comparative analyses which set the Greek drama (if there was one), judged most closely to resemble the structure of the Senecan, against the Latin one in an episode-by-episode and choral-interlude-by-choral-interlude breakdown. This fresh overview of the total Senecan tragic corpus is most welcome, especially as the Loeb series provides non-Classicists with their closest approach to the original Greek and Latin texts by way of the translations, but also in the introductions and notes.

Fitch has a long record of scholarship in Senecan drama[[2]]and has in these two volumes provided not only new English translations of the tragedies but also a revised and reliable text for Latin scholars. A general introduction (pp. 1-33) at the start of the first volume provides clear pointers to Fitch's approach. In fact, the opening sentence announces that Seneca will be appreciated in terms of his own style and aesthetics: 'Senecan drama is a drama of the word. Its speeches are eloquent, forceful, delighting in the language and in the poetic medium. Their fluency reflects the rhetorical training which Seneca received, and which had become established as the standard form of higher education at Rome in the second half of the first century B.C. -- so much so that all Roman writers from Ovid on reflect its influence in varied ways.' (p. 1) The positive assessment of the style of the tragedies is maintained throughout the first subsection of the introduction, entitled 'Rhetoric'. Fitch notes general features such as the predilection for lists, the Roman colouring and awareness of the geopolitical extent of the empire, the delight in epigrams and sententiae. He has some useful observations and examples of Senecan features taken up by Shakespeare and other Elizabethan dramatists.

In the section 'The Self and the World' Fitch describes Seneca's focus on individuals and their psychology, and the revelation of character through soliloquy. He sees a common thread of Senecan protagonists' insecurity about themselves and their position resulting in 'desperate assertions of selfhood' in order to control others and even the natural world in plays where the gods seem to have lost their sway.

Under 'Date', Fitch provides a brief synopsis of Seneca's career and then situates the plays within that framework while taking account of internal evidence like characteristics of style and metre. However, it is clear that there can, with present knowledge, be no finality on the question of the dates and order of composition of the dramas.

Far more important for the appreciation of Seneca's work is the section 'The Dramatic Tradition'. Here Fitch outlines the evolution of the genre from fifth-century Athens to Seneca's Rome. He credits Tarrant with launching the wave of correction of the skewed perspective of most pre-1978 work on Senecan drama. Most scholars simply did not take into account that almost all earlier Latin tragedy had been lost. Rather unimaginatively they judged Seneca as if his models could only have been those that were still available in the twentieth century. Fitch thus makes it very clear that Seneca worked in a different tradition, of course stemming from Greek tragedy, but with its own features. Fitch's introduction to Oedipus encapsulates his approach particularly well: 'Seneca's play is recognizably based on Sophocles' Oedipus the King (whether at first hand or through intermediaries), but also diverges from it in large measure. Stern critics would see these divergences as signs of degeneration from the standards of a renowned ancestor. But it will be more fruitful to inquire what the significance of these divergences might be, granting Seneca an artist's right to shape something new out of inherited material.' (Vol. II, p. 5).

Fitch pays particular attention to dramatic technique and aspects such as the composition and role of the chorus. He highlights the differences with the Attic chorus. He cautiously supports the view that Seneca intended his plays for performance and in his commentary throughout it is clear that he envisages the tragedies as to be staged rather than recited. A strange omission from the bibliography is Zwierlein's Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas[[3]] that does offer plenty of food for thought on the question.

Under 'Stoicism and Tragedy' the notion, propagated and explained in a considerable body of scholarly work,[[4]] that Seneca intended the dramas to promote Stoicism, is roundly rejected: 'A Stoic tragedy would be a contradiction in terms.' (p. 25) I agree with Fitch's contention that at most certain passages could be interpreted as reflecting a Stoic world view, but total exclusion of the substantial literature devoted to the Stoic interpretation results in a partial view of the development of literary criticism of the tragedies.

The last section of the introduction deals with 'Text and Translation'. Fitch presents a newly edited text, but his reasons for preferring a particular reading have been published separately.[[5]] In order not to overburden the footnotes most explanatory material is collected in the index at the end of Volume II (pp. 609-54). The index also serves as a glossary of names. The translation aims to stay 'close to the wording of the original' (p. 29) with Seneca's iambic trimeters rendered as prose, while other metres are translated line for line 'chiefly in order to respect the lyric character of the choral odes' (p. 29). The introduction is followed by a bibliography listing general works on the tragedies. Further bibliographies are provided separately for each of the plays.

Before the text and translation of each tragedy, an introduction provides the background to the action of the drama, a summary of the piece, Fitch's literary analysis of it, a discussion on sources and, in some cases additional sections that are relevant to a particular play, for instance authorship for Octavia and Hercules Oetaeus. In spite of their concise nature, (they vary in length from five to fourteen pages), these introductions contain much useful information while the bibliographies provide guides for scholars seeking further details.

Most people who make use of the Loeb series probably do so to read the English translations. It is thus important that they should read well and also give an accurate version of the original. It seems that Fitch in his attempt to fulfil the second obligation has sometimes produced rather stilted English. I cite some instances:

Sed quid ruinas urbis eversae gemis, Vivax senectus? (Tro. 41-2)

Fitch translates: 'But why, lingering old age, lament the downfall of a city that is overthrown?'

It is difficult to appreciate this as acceptable English, although admittedly Fitch has kept to the goals he set for himself. He has stayed 'close to the wording of the original' and has preserved 'Seneca's characteristic conciseness of phrasing' and resisted 'the temptation to expand or explain rather than translate' (Vol. I, p. 29). I compared this translation with those of Miller ('But why lamentest thou the downfall of a city overthrown, old age that clingest too long to life?') and of Watling[[6]] (But why should I, / An aged lingering relic, now lament/ Over the ruins of a fallen city?')

The words are part of the prologue, spoken by Hecuba facing the smoking ruins of Troy. It is apparent that the fatal flaw of both Loeb translators has been their care to maintain the apostrophe of senectus, no matter that it has resulted in peculiar English. Watling, simply by the small act of interpreting senectus as referring to Hecuba and rendering her words as self apostrophe has produced far more elegant and comprehensible English.

The translation of vivax as 'lingering' is also unsatisfactory and does not convey the meaning that Seneca intended, namely that Hecuba has lived too long, that the remainder of her life will be affliction and suffering. By paraphrasing vivax as 'that clingest too long to life', Miller captured something of this meaning, while Watling, also succeeded by using the phrase 'an aged lingering relic' in apposition to the personal pronoun 'I'.

Translation requires interpretation and by adopting the self-imposed restrictions noted above, Fitch has surely complicated the task of giving the equivalent of the dense Latin text in English. Nevertheless, by sometimes relaxing his own rules, he achieves the feat of conveying all the drama of the situation. I think his translation of the messenger speech in Troades (1056 ff.) provides a good example and compares well to others readily available:

O dura fata, saeva miseranda horrida! quod tam ferum, tam triste bis quinis scelus Mars vidit annis? Quid prius referens gemam, Tuosne potius, an tuos luctus, anus?

Fitch: O cruel deaths, harsh and pitiable and horrible! What crime as grim and savage has Mars beheld in these twice five years? What shall I first tell with tears: your griefs [to Andromache] or yours, old woman?

Miller: O cruel fate, harsh, pitiable, horrible! What crime so savage, so grievous, has Mars seen in ten long years? Which first shall I tell amidst my lamentations, thy woes, Andromache, or thine, thou aged woman?

Watling: A cruel fate! A lamentable, vile And wicked fate! When did the eye of Mars, In all these ten years past, behold a crime So horrible, so barbarous? Whose loss Must I first weep, with what I have to tell -- Yours, aged mother? Or yours?

Fantham[[7]]: O harsh fates, cruel, pitiable and dreadful! What crime so brutal or grim has Mars looked upon in twice five years? What shall I recall first in my groaning sorrow -- your loss, or rather yours, old queen?

It is notable that Watling's translation dating from almost forty years ago seems the most contemporary. It would probably be the easiest version to stage. Fitch has decided not to modernize such archaisms as 'twice five years' and uses a highly literary word such as 'behold' to translate vidit. (Even Miller is content with a simple 'see'.) Arguably it is deceptive to render the artificial and highly rhetorical Latin of the tragedies into relatively clear-cut English. Some would prefer the more baroque English version of Fitch.

Some parts of the lyrics are rendered very successfully, in spite of the limitation of line for line translation:

Flagrant genae rubentes, pallor fugat ruborem. nullum vagante forma servat diu colorem. huc fert pedes et illuc, ut tigris orba natis cursu furente lustrat Gangeticum nemus. (Med. 857-65)

Her cheeks are red and inflamed, then the red is displaced by pallor; she keeps no colour for long, her appearance ever shifting. She paces to and fro, as a tigress robbed of her children roams in a raging onrush the Ganges' wooded banks.

By relying more on interpretation and less on a literal rendering of the Latin, for example, pallor fugat ruborem as 'the red is displaced by pallor' rather than Miller's 'pallor puts red to flight', and translating the line huc fert pedes et illuc pithily as 'she paces to and fro' rather than Miller's 'hither and thither she wanders' Fitch has achieved a good English equivalent of the Chorus' description of the distraught Medea.

The quibbles about certain parts and points of Fitch's translation aside, in general the availability of new English versions of all the Senecan tragedies is to be welcomed. They will provide a good introduction to all those desirous of getting to know the work of the Roman playwright.

An aspect of the Latin text that may cause confusion as the reason for it is explained nowhere, neither in footnotes, nor in the introduction, is Fitch's maintenance of Zwierlein's OCT line numbers in spite of his altered colometry of the anapaestic sections. This results in more than five lines sometimes coming between the customary five-line intervals indicated by Arabic numbers on the left of the text, for example Thy. 830-35, where the two extra lines could puzzle a reader.[[8]]

The two volumes (approximately 1200 pages) under review represent a great scholarly undertaking. Professor Fitch is to be congratulated on making these influential dramas more accessible to readers of the twenty-first century.


[[1]] Frank Justus Miller (ed. & tr.), Seneca: Seneca's Tragedies. 2 Vols. (Cambridge, Mass. and London 1917).

[[2]] For instance the monographs Character in Senecan Tragedy (Cornell University Dissertation 1974), Seneca's Hercules Furens: A Critical Text with Introduction and Commentary (Ithaca and London 1987), and a number of articles in journals.

[[3]] Otto Zwierlein, Die Rezitationsdramen Senecas (Meisenheim-am-Glan 1966).

[[4]] For instance, B. M. Marti 'Seneca's Tragedies: A new interpretation' TAPhA 76 (1945) 216-45, and the work of N. T. Pratt such as 'The Stoic Base of Senecan Drama', TAPhA 79 (1948) 1-11, and Seneca's Drama (Chapel Hill 1983).

[[5]] In 'Transpositions and Emendations in Seneca's Tragedies' in Phoenix (2002)56.3-4: 'Textual notes on .Hercules Oetaeus and on Seneca's Agamemnon and Thyestes in CQ 54.1(2004) 240-54 and in Annaena Tragica. Notes on the text of Seneca's Tragedies (Leiden 2004).

[[6]] E. F. Watling Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia (Harmondsworth 1966).

[[7]] E. Fantham Seneca Troades (Princeton 1982).

[[8]] I noticed some typographical errors that should be corrected in case of a reprint: Vol.I, p.9 'in these play' and 'reddress'; p. 42 'beserk'. Fitch presents a sensitive and illuminating analysis of Octavia (Vol. II pp. 500-14). Perhaps one small change would make the distinction between Seneca the tragedian and Seneca the character in the play immediately clear, viz if the dramatis persona would throughout be identified as 'Seneca', as is done only once, on p. 507.