Tuesday, September 18, 2012


James Ker, A Seneca Reader: Selections from Prose and Tragedy. BC Latin readers. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2011. Pp. lvi, 166. ISBN 9780865167582. $19.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Daniel T. Barber and William O. Stephens, Creighton University (danielbarber@creighton.edu; stoic@creighton.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


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 Apocolocyntosisand 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.

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