Sunday, March 27, 2011


Harry M. Hine (trans.), Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Natural Questions. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010. Pp. xxvii, 226. ISBN 9780226748382. $45.00.

Reviewed by Nigel Holmes, Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (

Version at BMCR home site


This new translation of the Naturales Quaestiones is the first part of a projected complete translation of Seneca, edited by Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch and Martha C. Nussbaum. For the Natural Questions at least, a new translation was badly needed. Corcoran's Loeb translation was outdated when it was published forty years ago;1 and our understanding of the text has advanced greatly since then. Hine, whose 1975 doctoral thesis was a commentary on the second book (published in 1981), has contributed more than anyone to this progress, with a series of publications culminating in his Teubner edition of 1996, which should be the starting point for any work on the Natural Questions, and which forms the basis for this translation.2 If only to know how Hine understood his own text, researchers will want to consult this work. For more general readers, here is a close translation of an edition that brings us nearer to Seneca's text than any previous edition. (Italian speakers were already well served, as Parroni's 2002 Mondadori edition, with translation and short commentary, takes account of the advances in Hine's edition, while being slightly less welcoming to conjectures.)

There are two introductions, a discussion of Seneca by the general editors (p. vii-xxvi, repeated in other books in the series), and a concise and helpful introduction to the Natural Questions by Hine. This covers questions such as the structure of the work (ignoring speculations that find blocks of books arranged by elements or by a division into celestial, atmospheric and terrestrial phenomena), its place in ancient scientific writing, and Seneca's methods and purpose. Noting that the subject matter of the books we have corresponds roughly with ancient meteorologia, Hine oddly remarks (p. 2) that Seneca 'also discusses meteors and comets, which, he argues, originate and persist in the atmosphere.' A few pages later (p. 7) we read that Seneca 'rejects the well-entrenched view … that they [comets] are temporary atmospheric phenomena, and argues that they are celestial bodies like planets.' If Seneca regarded comets as a 'meteorological' subject, it is to the extent that they were a part of the ancient meteorological literature. The introduction ends with the friendly provision of an analytical table of contents (p. 19-22), giving access to the structure and subjects of the individual books.

Notes on the translation are kept to a minimum, mostly giving basic information and references for the earlier writers cited by Seneca (for some reason there is no note on Posidonius at 4b.3.1) or mentioning other possibilities where the text is particularly uncertain. Except in book 1, there are few notes relating the phenomena discussed either to modern or to ancient views. The note on 7.17.3 (sidera quae clariora cum descendere sunt) at p. 206 n. 28 seems to me unhelpfully heliocentric: 'This refers to planets, whose distance from the earth varies as they and the earth orbit the sun.'

The most striking innovation of Hine's translation is a new sequence of the books. This may seem alarmingly reminiscent of Préchac's rearrangement and renumbering of the De Clementia;3 but it is both better justified and less inconvenient. The added difficulty of consultation is trivial: books one and two now follow book seven, rather than coming at the beginning, and the traditional book numbers are provided. There is nothing to regret in abandoning the traditional order (1-7), which is clearly a late invention, although preserved in printed editions, including Hine's. The archetype had the order 4b-7, 1-4a, which some regard as the true order. But on either side of the bipartite stemma there are traces of a different order in the numbering of the books, with some manuscripts calling the archetype sequence III-X. Since we know that the end of book 4a and the beginning of book 4b are missing, it is attractive to follow Hine and Codoñer Merino in seeing the correct order as 3-7, 1-2 and suppose that after the original manuscript lost this portion and divided into two parts, it was put back together in the wrong order. The preface to book 3 seems to suit the beginning of the work well and to be inappropriate for a much later book. The arguments that Hine put forward in his 1981 commentary have surprisingly often been ignored or misrepresented by those who favoured a different order;4 but lately they seem to have found more general acceptance.5 If the corrected order is right, as seems probable, the reader has the advantage of starting with the opening that Seneca gave the work.

The translation itself is very close and generally very clear, if dry, with occasional appearances of the kind of vocabulary traditionally found in translations from a dead language. Sometimes a different phrasing could have been clearer. For instance at 3.27.6, frustra titubantium fultura temptatur: omne enim firmamentum in lubrica figitur et lutosa humo is translated 'There are fruitless attempts to shore up unsteady buildings, for all the props are planted in slippery, muddy soil'. 'Fruitless' and to a lesser extent the conjunction 'for' are the language of translation; and the emphasis on frustra is strangely obscured. At 4a praef. 13 the translation seems vivid in the wrong way: words of flattery 'pass from one magistrate to another accompanied by lictors'. A simple 'along with the lictors' corresponds well enough to the Latin cum lictoribus and does not run the risk of conjuring up irrelevant images.

A few disagreements with the translation go beyond emphasis or style. 2.9.3 'A discus dropped from above onto a pool does not sink but bounces back up again': 'dropped' translates missus, which could be 'thrown', a more promising method for getting a discuss to bounce on water (Corcoran has 'hurled'). 2.26.6 ducentorum passuum shrinks to 'two hundred feet' (as it does in Corcoran's translation). 3 praef. 8 'You do not know when the sources of your elation will desert you': ubi is surely 'where' (as Corcoran translates) rather than 'when' (the OLD gives no parallel for temporal ubi in indirect questions and its treatment suggests that the word's meaning is narrower than English 'when'). At 3.18.7 ad popinam is translated 'in an eating-place'; in context popina is more probably a description of gluttonous luxury (cf. TLL X 1, 2693, 20-30). At 3.29.3 omnis futuri hominis ratio, Hine translates 'the entire rationality of a future human being'; but ratio perhaps means something more like 'scheme' (Parroni translates 'l'intero progetto'). At 6.1.6, 'I shall drive an enemy back from the wall', the rhetoric of the passage asks us to see an instrumental ablative in muro (Parroni translates 'Un nemico posso respingerlo con una cinta di mura').

These disagreements do not amount to much. In general, this is an accurate translation. It will be interesting to see what further volumes in the series have to offer.


1.   T. H. Corcoran, Seneca, Naturales Quaestiones, London and Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1971-2. See particularly M. Winterbottom, CR 26, 1976, 46-8.
2.   A few changes are listed on p. 17-18, mostly the choice of a particular supplement or conjecture where the edition had only indicated the corruption. The conjecture chosen at 2.38.2 for adfatum is missing.
3.   See E. Malaspina, L. Annaei Senecae De Clementia Libri Duo, Turin 2001, 62-4.
4.   An exception is N. Gross, Senecas Naturales Quaestiones: Komposition, naturphilosophische Aussagen und ihre Quellen, Stuttgart 1989, 307-20. His arguments against the order 3-7,1-2 seem unconvincing: i) that the account of Nero's Nile expedition at 6.8.3-5 should have mentioned the Nile in book 4a, if that came earlier (but if 4a came after 6, it is stranger that the report is simply ignored there); ii) that the beginning of book two implies a division of the work into blocks of books covering caelestia, sublimia and terrena, with the caelestia and terrena, including 3 and 4a, still to come (the relevant passages can more easily be understood as meaning that different discussions, whenever they occur, will come under one or other heading); that 3 praef. 4 means that Seneca was not at the beginning (it is not clear why not).
5.   See for instance: Parroni, xlvii-l; B. M. Gauly, Senecas Naturales Quaestiones, Naturphilosophie für die römische Kaiserzeit, Munich 2004, 53-67; B. Inwood, Reading Seneca, Oxford 2005, 161-2.

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