Saturday, March 26, 2011


Robert A. Kaster, Martha C. Nussbaum (trans.), Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Anger, Mercy, Revenge. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xxvi, 247. ISBN 9780226748412. $45.00.

Reviewed by Jennifer E. Thomas, Oberlin College (

Version at BMCR home site


Anger, Mercy, Revenge is the second installment of Chicago's new series that will ultimately release all of the younger Seneca's literary output in eight volumes. The first was Harry Morrison Hine's Natural Questions; the third, slated to appear in April 2011 according to the press website, will be On Benefits from Miriam Griffin and Brad Inwood. The present edition contains translations of De Ira and De Clementia by Robert Kaster and Apocolocyntosis by Martha Nussbaum.1 It appears to be aimed at a general academic audience; scholars of Senecan drama, philosophers, and humanists focused on later periods will most appreciate the copious and detailed notes, although graduate and advanced undergraduate students will also find it useful. The notes assume a basic familiarity with antiquity and provide detailed information on philosophical background and more obscure references. This book will serve diverse audiences as a useful and attractive introduction to three texts that offer important insight not only into Stoic philosophy, but also Roman politics and culture.

Anger, Mercy, Revenge begins with a general introduction "Seneca and His World," written by the series editors Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch, and Martha Nussbaum, which also appears in Natural Questions. The three translations follow, each with a separate introduction and notes (endnotes for Kaster's, footnotes for "Pumpkinification"). The translations for both "On Anger" and "On Clemency" include the ancient chapter and sentence numbers; "Pumpkinification" marks only chapter divisions. A brief index of names concludes the book.

The volume introduction provides background information on Seneca and his literary output. The information and ideas in it are largely traditional. After a brief biography, Stoicism is discussed, both generally and with respect to Seneca's personal form. Then Seneca's philosophical writings and the Natural Questions are treated; separate sections deal with the tragedies and their reception before the essay ends with a short statement on the series' aims and a brief bibliography. As often in discussions of Seneca's biography, the essay's acceptance of the traditional portrait of Nero leaves the editors at pains to defend their author from charges of collaboration and hypocrisy. This produces some inconsistencies in their depiction of history: First, regarding the Pisonian conspiracy and subsequent executions, we are told that "Seneca himself was probably innocent" (ix), but Nero seized the excuse to get rid of him. A few pages later, however, it is stated that "several prominent Stoics – including Seneca and his nephew, Lucan – joined republican movements aimed at overthrowing Nero, and lost their lives for their efforts, by politically ordered suicide" (xiv). Both statements cannot be true; and since the goal of the conspiracy was to replace Nero with either Piso or Seneca as emperor, it is misleading to label it a 'republican movement.' This is having one's cake and eating it, too: Seneca is anachronistically endowed with acceptable political ideas, takes part in a noble fight for freedom, and yet still gets to be framed and murdered by a tyrant. Too bad that neither the ancient sources nor modern historians see it that way.2

Kaster brings his expertise on Roman emotions and cognitive theory to the introductions and notes for "On Anger" and "On Clemency."3 The introduction to "On Anger" breaks the essay down into "Theory" and "Therapy" and neatly sums up both. A few further pages offer information on "The Therapist and His Audience." I was particularly struck by his vivid, concise, and lifelike sketch of Seneca's readers (12). The introduction to "On Clemency" again breaks down its essay, this time into "The Virtue" and "The Prince." Although some parallels to "On Anger" are given, this treatise is for the most part read as a panegyrical speech, with Cicero's Caesarian speeches and Pliny's Panegyric offered as parallels. Consequently, the discussion focuses almost exclusively on Nero as audience; mentions of other readers are sporadic, brief, and largely concerned with formal jurisdiction (e.g. 144). Although Griffin's discussion in Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford, 1976) is cited, her ideas are rarely presented, and Leach's "The Implied Reader and the Political Argument in Seneca's Apocolocyntosis and de Clementia" (orig. 1989, now in Oxford Readings in Seneca, 2008) is completely absent from Kaster's bibliography. Treating a philosophical essay as a panegyrical speech is a rather limiting presentation; for readers less familiar with ancient history or literary genre, it might also be a confusing one. Nussbaum's introduction to "Pumpkinification" offers a condensed version of her "Stoic Laughter: A Reading of Seneca's Apocolocyntosis" in Seneca and the Self (Cambridge, 2009), but with more background on context and genre.

The translations themselves strike that difficult balance between fidelity to the original and natural English idiom. Kaster catches the sparkling quality of Senecan prose with English that is lively and variable; his "On Anger" must be one of the only English texts to use both the words "cynosure" and "flip-flops." The notes provide the necessary background information on ancient history and philosophy. For example, "Anger" 2.36.2 discusses the animus as perceivable only "when it makes its way through bones and flesh and so many other obstacles" (61); Kaster explains, "The mind 'work[s] its way through' the body's tissues because the Stoics took the mind to be composed of fine, gaseous matter (Greek pneuma), centered in the chest (cf. 1.3.7n) and extending through the body in a way not unlike the nervous system as we know it. It was compared to a tree's branches and trunk (Calcidius 220 = LS 53G7) or to an octopus and its tentacles (Aëtius 4.21.2 = LS 53H2)" (119 n. 24). Latinless readers will not be confused, philosophically minded readers will appreciate the citations, and classicists will find in the notes the discussion and arguments they may want to clarify the original. In areas of textual confusion, both Kaster and Nussbaum make responsible decisions and clarify their processes in notes.

Nussbaum's "Pumpkinification" makes lovely English sense of an often-difficult work. Nussbaum sticks to the text and uses notes to clarify it rather than wandering away to produce some clever but non-Senecan English. Her translation also maintains the force of the Seneca's flashy, brief style. Where previous translators have chosen to emphasize the volume of Claudius' anger in quanto potest murmure (6), Nussbaum's "the loudest mutter he could manage" (221) captures what was surely Seneca's point here, Claudius' incoherent noise. Similarly, her phrase "a dolt from the blue" (222) is an ingenious way to capture Seneca's pun on thunderbolts, μωροῦ πληγήν (7, the standard phrase is θεοῦ πληγήν). While other translations frequently lack the punch of the original, Nussbaum on the whole meets Seneca's vitality and force blow-for-blow.

In places, however, her interpretation intrudes a bit into the translation, and she rather out-punches Seneca. For instance, in section 1, she renders quod ... in buccam venerit as "I'll say whatever the fuck I please." In a footnote she explains the literal meaning of the phrase and defends her translation: "the word for mouth is quite vulgar, just about as vulgar as (in 2009) the translation is – by which I mean very common in colloquial usage, but unacceptable in literary or journalistic usage" (215 n2). This seems like an extreme leap to me, especially since other instances of the phrase (e.g. Cicero, Ad Att. 1.12, 7.10) indicate not an act of boldness, but a lack of premeditation or careful thought. Given, however, that Nussbaum reads this satire as defiantly resisting constraints on free speech (206) and emphasizes the didactic role of disgust (211-212), the f-bomb, as my family still calls it, might seem an intuitive extension of her interpretation, but, I think, it is natural neither to the phrase itself nor to other readings, especially since Nussbaum's recently published analysis is not (or at least not yet) the industry standard. As stated in the series' introduction, "the translations are intended to provide a basis for interpretive work rather than to convey personal interpretations" (xxvi); in this case, I think the choice has been made for us. I am also willing to concede, however, that I may just be behind the times.

The oddest inaccuracy in the volume is the assertion in the introduction to "Pumpkinification" that Claudius' public shows "includ[ed] one bizarre piece of theatre in which he personally wrestled with a killer whale that had become trapped in the harbor of Ostia" (201). Although no citation is given, the story comes from Pliny, NH 9.5.14-15. While he does report that an orca was trapped during the harbor construction, the passage indicates that Claudius did not engage in hand-to-fin combat with this dangerous predator, but rather presided while soldiers in boats threw spears at the orca, which sank one of the boats involved. Not such a 'bizarre' display after all.4

One last pedantic grumble: scholarship is frequently cited throughout the introduction and notes to all three works, but the bibliography for "On Anger" and "On Clemency" is placed between the translation of "On Clemency" and its endnotes. While I see the attraction of a combined list of references for both of Kaster's contributions, it did not occur to me while reading "On Anger" that the references were buried in the middle of "On Clemency," and I found the list later by accident. I would suggest that subsequent printings at least include a line in the Table of Contents directing readers to this resource.

I hope my griping has not given an unduly negative impression of this handsome volume. I would readily recommend this book to a colleague in philosophy or another branch of the humanities, although I believe it would be over the head of most undergraduates. It is unfortunate that the inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and oddities discussed above mar an otherwise admirable effort to bring Seneca to a wider audience.

Corrigenda: "Creon plays a similar role in the Agamemnon" should read "in the Oedipus" (xxi). Quotations from the tragedies after xxiii have line numbers cited, but not those on xxi do not. Titles in the "Selected Reading" for "On Anger" are not italicized (13). A quotation that begins on 225 has no concluding quotation marks on 226. The index entry for "Britannicus" should refer to viii, not ix.


1.   Personally, I found the title Anger, Mercy, Revenge a bit opaque; I didn't realize Apocolocyntosis was included until I opened the book for the first time, and the three nouns on the cover are not used as titles for the individual pieces included.
2.   Tacitus, Annales 15.48-74; according to 52.3, popular opinion suggested that the consul Vestinus Atticus was excluded from the conspiracy because of republican sentiments (ne ad libertatem oreretur). A selection of modern scholars on the motivations of the conspirators: Syme, Tacitus, vol 2. (Oxford, 1958), 548; Griffin, Nero: The End of the Dynasty (New Haven, 1984), 193; and Rudich, Political Dissidence Under Nero (London, 1993), 83.
3.   See Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford, 2005). 2007-04-10.
4.   Not that it wouldn't have been impressive. Maritime venationes held as part of naumachia spectacles typically featured land animals; see Coleman, "Launching into History: Aquatic Displays in the Early Empire," JRS 83 (1993): 48-74. Suetonius reports that during the Secular Games Claudius presented praetorians on horseback led by their prefect in a panther/leopard hunt (Cl. 21).

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