Wednesday, November 18, 2015


Shadi Bartsch, Alessandro Schiesaro (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Seneca. Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. x, 361. ISBN 9781107694217. $32.99 (pb).

Reviewed by François Prost, Université Paris Sorbonne (

Version at BMCR home site


Seneca's work has been the object of renewed interest in recent decades. Shortly after the publication of the Brill's Companion (2014) comes the Cambridge Companion to Seneca, very different from its twin and a welcome addition to the well-known series.

After a rich Introduction by editors Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro, the book numbers 23 chapters distributed in four sections (plus, of course, bibliography and index).

Chap. 1 "Seneca Multiplex: the Phases (and Phrases) of Seneca's Life and Works", by Susanna Braund, "serves as a second introduction to the companion as a whole" (p.4). It delineates the phases of Seneca's life and output, starting with his death and working backward from there: indeed, the conflicting readings of Seneca's death, which were supposed to offer "an image of his life" (Tacitus), lead to the investigation of a "Seneca multiplex", a fragmented figure open to multi-layered readings of his personality and achievements.

Chap. 2 to 7 constitute the bulk of Part 1 and offer a comprehensive overview of Seneca's oeuvre through an original mix of generic and thematic perspectives. In chap. 2 ("Senecan Tragedy") Christopher Trinacty insists both on the possibility of their performance, and on their tight connection with the philosophical issues at stake and the literary and rhetorical devices at work in the other parts of Seneca's corpus.

In chap. 3 "Absent Presence in Seneca's Epistles: Philosophy and Friendship", Catharine Edwards examines the complex interaction between sender and receiver in the Letters to Lucilius from the converging points of view of the theory and ontology of epistolary writing, of the underlying relation of friendship (with noteworthy parallels in Cicero's De amicitia), and of the Stoic framework of moral progress. Seneca's letters emerge as a medium for conversation between author, addressee, and other readers, as well as between past philosophers and writers, contemporary thinkers, and future generations.

Dialogue is precisely the topic at hand in Matthew Roller's essay (chap. 4 "The Dialogue in Seneca's Dialogues (and Other Moral Essays)") on the so-called "Dialogi" along with De Clementia, De Beneficiis, and Naturales Quaestiones. Roller engages Bakhtin's concept of "dialogism" in order to highlight the generic unity of this corpus, which illustrates one of the many possibilities of ancient literary dialogue; even the Letters to Lucilius appear to rely on quite similar principles.

In chap. 5, "Seneca on Monarchy and the Political Life: De Clementia, De Tranquillitate Animi, De Otio", Malcolm Schofield studies Seneca's political thought from two different vantage points: on the one hand, what amounts to a clear theory of kingship in De Clementia; on the other hand, the issue of the choice of lives (i.e. otium vs. negotium) in De Tranquillitate Animi and De Otio. In both cases, due attention is paid to Seneca's complex engagement with Stoic theory in his promotion of mercy and conception of public service.

Chap. 6, "Exploring Appearances: Seneca's Scientific Works", by Francesca Romana Berno, concentrates on the Naturales Quaestiones as unique extant testimony for Seneca's interest in physics. Seneca's desire to eradicate superstition and terror arising at the sight of extraordinary and mysterious phenomena motivates his inquiry into the workings of Nature in a way not that different from Lucretius' therapeutic strategy. Scientific discussion also leads to moral exhortation against the vices that are stimulated by men's improper handling of Nature's bounty. F.R. Berno also comments on the literary aspects of the Naturales Quaestiones and its connections with other Senecan texts.

Finally, in chap. 7 ("Seneca's Apocolocyntosis: Censors in the Afterworld"), Kirk Freudenburg investigates the complex nature of the Apocolocyntosis, starting with multiple readings of its title (which could imitate Claudius' stuttering). The text enters into a properly Roman tradition of satire through a thorough comparison with Lucilius' comic divine Concilium: Claudius' wrongdoings, especially as a Censor, are thus paralleled with the vices of Lucilius' target, and in both cases, the author acts as supreme Censor (as opposed to the Senate's complacency in lavishing funeral honours on the deceased).

Thus Part 1 offers a rich overview of the corpus, while its hybridized nature (both generic and thematic) encourages cross-readings: e.g., the idea of dialogism, central to Roller's essay, is also perceptible in Trinacty's (p.31, on the "diverse voices" on stage), in Edward's (p.47, on the letter as "counterpart to conversation"), and in Berno's (p.90–91, on the interlocutor's interventions, in the third or second person); whereas the "view from above" is considered in Naturales Quaestiones (Berno, p.88) and mentioned in relation to the Apocolocyntosis (Freudenburg, p.96 n.17).

Chap. 8 to 13, which form Part II, address the interrelation between Senecan texts and their contexts, whether historical or artistic and intellectual. James Ker in chap. 8 ("Seneca and Augustan Culture") investigates the interplay of distantiation and emulation—through example, intertextual allusion, and quotation—in Seneca's readings of Augustan culture, through which Seneca imposes himself as a contemporary and flawless Maecenas. Victoria Rimell in chap. 9 ("Seneca and Neronian Rome: In the Mirror of Time") questions Seneca's adherence to the Zeitgeist from the point of view of the manipulation of time(s), in particular through the mirroring and conflicting couple formed by the aging, then old, philosopher-adviser and the young fashion-forward emperor who figured himself as the ever-shining deity of a new Golden Age.

In chap. 10 ("Style and Form in Seneca's Writings"), Gareth Williams highlights the potent contribution of what A. Traina called Seneca's "stilo drammatico" to the production of sense, particularly in relation to the theorization and staging of interiority, both as (self-)possession and refuge. Style is also the concern of Mireille Armisen-Marchetti in chap. 11 ("Seneca's Images and Metaphors"), but from the complementary point of view of Seneca's metaphors, images and metonymies. Armisen-Marchetti identifies a significant divergence between the prose works—in which such tropes help the addressee and readers see the invisible or abstract—and the tragedies, where tropes are rare due to an intense concentration on theatrical mimesis. In chap. 12 ("Theater and Theatricality in Seneca's World"), Cedric Littlewood focuses on three themes: the Stoic persona theory and the use of personas in Ad Marciam; the staging and performing of political power under Nero's rule and in the literary counterpart of Thyestes; and finally the "metadrama" at work in Troades and its critical handling of myth.

In chap. 13 ("Seneca's emotions"), David Konstan offers an overview of Seneca's conception of emotions within the framework of Stoic theory, with due attention to idiosyncrasies motivated by a shift of focus from the sage's perfect reasoning to the everyday dispositions of the powerful men who made up Seneca's audience.

Here too, many themes connect one chapter with another, both within Part II and throughout the volume: e.g. the Octavia/Livia comparison (on grief) in Ad Marciam is studied by Littlewood (p.163) from the point of view of the personae, as it is by Ker (p.114–8) dealing with dynastic memory; the analogy between Lucretius and Seneca recurs in Berno's chapter and in Littlewood's treatment of Troades, as well as in Part III, both in Asmis's chapter and and above all in the contrasted view by Schiesaro, p. 246–51. The Naturales Quaestiones, Berno's subject matter in Part I, is also examined by Williams (p.147–8: changefulness of stylistic and tonal registers), Armisen-Marchetti (p.157: similes as part of a scientific method), and Konstan (p.181: on fear).

More contacts are noticeable among the five thematic essays on "Senecan Tensions" that make up Part III. Metaphor, addressed by Armisen-Marchetti in general terms, intervenes in Bartsch's typology of metaphors of the formation of the proficient self in chap. 14 ("Senecan Selves"), with particular attention to the bivalence of self-control in the face of suffering. Metaphor also appears in Seal's nuanced survey of Seneca's prose writings as "philosophical exercises" in light of the Stoic reading of Socrates' commitment to knowledge as necessary for happiness (chap. 16, "Theory and Practice in Seneca's Life and Writings"); e.g. p.217–8, on the metaphor at work in moral guidance to initiate a line of argument.

Concerning emotions (on which, see Konstan in Part II), David Wray in chap.15 ("Seneca's shame"), which culminates with a case study in the Phaedra, pinpoints the ambivalent nature of shame with a double-faced manifestation, as experienced by the progressing non-sage, who thus confesses an awareness of his own imperfection, and by the fully rational sage, in whom it is a species of virtue.

Chap. 17 and 18 are closely related. Elizabeth Asmis (chap. 17 "Seneca's Originality") tackles the question of Seneca's originality as a "philosophical healer" in an essay that includes consideration of his orthodoxy, most notably on the topics of the structure of the mind, and of the passions. Alessandro Schiesaro (chap. 18 "Seneca and Epicurus: The Allure of the Other") addresses the problematic issue of his relation to Epicurus and Epicureanism. Both chapters provide, alongside Senecan evidence, a very useful survey of the scholarship, as well as a wealth of thought-provoking insights on the topics at hand: on Seneca's emphasis on wanting (uoluntas) (Asmis); on his double-edged attitude to Epicurus' sententiae, and on Epicurean and Senecan views on causation and on the sublime (Schiesaro).

Finally, Part IV is concerned with Seneca's Nachleben: Aldo Setaioli (chap. 19) scans the evidence for Seneca's afterlife from the ancient world in the various genres of the Senecan corpus; Chiara Torre's essay on the Christian Tradition (chap. 20) concentrates on Arnobius, Jerome, Lactantius and Martin of Braga, and reaches the conclusion that Seneca "occupies a crucial position, linking the Latin auctoritas of Cicero and Varro with Christian doctrine" (p.276). Roland Mayer's essay on Medieval and Renaissance cultures (chap. 21) combines intricate philology and cultural history to produce remarkable insights (e.g., p.286, on the psychological reasons for the choice by Lipsius of Seneca's style as a model in a time of civil and religious strife, and on Lipsius' influence on Montaigne). So too Peter Stacey (chap. 22) on political thought from the Middle Ages to the early modern period (with particular attention to De Beneficiis, De Clementia and De Ira). Francesco Citti (chap. 23), who closes the volume with a fine review of Seneca's presence in the Moderns—as a philosopher, a dramatist and a character in visual arts and literature—provides many a welcome suggestion for further reading.

The volume was edited with great care. Material errors are few. The only noteworthy ones that I spotted are: in the index, some missing references, especially to texts mentioned by A. Setaioli (Laus Pisonis, p.260; Consolatio ad Liviam, p.262; Panegyrici Latini, p.258; Rutilius Namatianus, p.262; Macrobius, p. 258 and 263); in the general bibliography, on top of the list of Hine's many works, the author's name is missing; in Torre's piece, the cross-references, p.267, n.4 and 5, are incorrect; in Stacey's, p.290, n.3, the reference to Berno is a mistake for Torre.

The one thing I find regrettable is the lack of a detailed index locorum: in the general index, for example, the entry "Epistles" indiscriminately lists virtually all pages of the Companion; the fragmentary works sometimes are listed in an entry of their own, but sometimes appear (without title distinction) only under their editor's name, "Vottero".

These of course are mere trifles. The Cambridge Companion to Seneca is a remarkable achievement, which has much to offer to advanced students and confirmed scholars looking for useful syntheses and suggestive, in-depth interpretations of the many aspects of this dazzling corpus.

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