Wednesday, November 16, 2016


George W. M. Harrison (ed.), Brill's Companion to Roman Tragedy. Brill's Companions in classical studies. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015. Pp. xxi, 450. ISBN 9789004231597. $181.00. ISBN 9789004284784. ebook.

Reviewed by Chiara Battistella, Università di Udine (

Version at BMCR home site


The papers collected in the volume under review focus on tragedy and, more specifically, on Roman tragedy, which is analysed from different angles and using various approaches. The volume appears to be much more than a companion, in that it succeeds in offering several fresh and thought-provoking insights into this big topic. It comes divided into four parts (plus an afterword) discussing aspects of chronology and evolution of the genre (tragedy under the Republic and Empire), interchange with other genres that inhabit the space of Roman literature and Seneca's afterlife and reception (for the titles in full length see the preview of the volume above). Occasionally and, to some extent, inevitably there is some content overlap between chapters belonging to different sections. Needless to say, Seneca's tragic corpus occupies a prominent place in the book, being the only preserved example of non-fragmentary Roman tragedy. Therefore, in his foreword, the editor duly refers to the recent Brill's Companion to Seneca (Leiden/Boston 2014) as a complementary volume.

Four papers are brought together under the first section ('Republic'), in which the remaining fragments of Republican tragedy that have come down to us are tackled from a double viewpoint including both philological issues and literary interpretation. Manuwald deals with the problem of the sources that have preserved tragic fragments (lexicographers, grammarians, authors) and lucidly shows how context is and remains key to establishing, ordering and interpreting fragments of early Roman tragedy. Luckily, modern readers and scholars will benefit in the upcoming years from a new edition of all tragic fragments (TrRF), which is in progress and will replace the existing ones (Manuwald has already edited Ennius' fragments in vol. 2). Manuwald's paper devotes special attention to tragic quotations in Cicero, discussing aspects of attribution and offering a few case studies on how to determine the start and endpoint of a quotation. Roman tragedy being a derivative product, Greek tragedy is often considered as the necessary yardstick to organise fragments content-wise. However, Manuwald warns that this cannot be a safe criterion: unavoidably editorial choices often reflect a degree of subjectivity. I suggest Manuwald's chapter be read in tandem with that by Schierl, who also deals with Cicero (the editor could perhaps have put them close to each other to create a more consistent Ciceronian sub-section and thereby avoid some repetitions in the two papers). In my view, Schierl offers an excellent discussion of Cicero's citation habits showing how he contributed to the canonising processes of tragic plays in the late Republic. In particular, she sets out to analyse some lines from Pacuvius' Niptra quoted by Cicero in Tusc. Disp. 2 and centred on the theme of pain and its ethical and philosophical implications. Pacuvius' fragment specifically refers to Odysseus' lament, which he handles better, according to Cicero, than his counterpart in Sophocles (in a tragedy unknown to us). Schierl argues that Cicero ends up investing the verses he extracts from Pacuvius' play and embeds in the Tusculanae Disputationes with a new (and tendentious) meaning aiming to build out of Odysseus' lament an exemplum virtutis. She also points to Cicero's rhetorical strategies to achieve his goal and convincingly contends that his manipulation of the topic of heroic pain also serves to draw the following dichotomies: Greek vs Roman, lament vs endurance. Erasmo, in discussing the scene of Hippolytus' death in Seneca's Phaedra, demonstrates how early Roman tragedy plays a crucial role in spotting intertextual moments. He suggests the description of the bull in Seneca be read against Accius' description of the ship Argo in his Medea sive Argonautae, in which it is presented as a monster of the sea. The paper also offers further thoughts on the complexity of the intertextual phenomenon in Seneca, who usually works with multiple models, and on the aspect of the fictional reality of the play. In my view, this paper would have fitted better in a different section of the book, as it mainly engages with Senecan rather than Republican tragedy. Cowan's paper rounds off the first part, thrashing out the Romanness of Republican tragedy. Greek tragedy, after being rendered a sort of Weltliteratur, was also aggressively appropriated by the Romans. As one would expect, language and translation had a fundamental impact on this, especially if one considers the double possibility of producing domesticating or foreignizing translations. Cowan illustrates a few passages from early Roman tragedy as cases in point to show the linguistic and cultural negotiation going on between the source and the target language. Fragment 89 R3 of Pacuvius' Chryses, in which the character Chryses is posited as a metaphor for dual identity (Greek vs barbarian, that is Latin), is given a very good discussion. The paper makes also good points on the tension between alterity and identity concerning the representation and definition of scenic space.

The second part ('Empire') gathers together another four papers specifically dealing with Senecan tragedy. Kohn focuses on the problem of the circulation and publication of dramatic texts at Rome. In particular, he draws attention to recitationes as being a step within the process of editing texts, during which critical feedback may have been given to authors. According to Plin. Ep. 7.17.3, recitals would not have been the ideally ultimate venue for a drama, which may oppose the view of those who construe Seneca's plays as Rezitationsdramen. Kohn, who is an expert in the field (cf. his book The Dramaturgy of Senecan Drama, Ann Arbor 2013), offers an interesting and balanced insight into the old debate whether Seneca's tragedies were meant for performance or recitation. Konstan's paper tackles rhetorical strategies in the first 705 verses of the Hercules Oetaeus, which are key to understanding the main character's personality (the chapter is in fact shaped as a study of character, which, as the author himself acknowledges, is much indebted to Lucia Degiovanni's commentary on HO 1-705). Harrison analyses the figure of Hecuba in Seneca's Troades (or rather Troas, as he points out, following Stroh), linking it up to the city of Troy, for which she becomes a metaphor. The fall of Troy looks like a theme well explored by early Roman tragic poets in some preserved fragments. The gist of Harrison's paper is that Troy comes to represent an actual character in the play, as suggested by the strikingly horizontal posture shared by both the city and its queen (cf. 550 Troiam iacentem and Hecuba's fainting scene at 949-51). Despite thorough discussion, the structure of this chapter appears slightly desultory, which may cause the reader to lose the thread. Davis' paper brings in the issue of politics and contemporaneity in Roman tragedy, focusing on Accius' Atreus and Seneca's Thyestes and showing how the motifs of paternity and power (in its tyrannical perversion) are key to both plays. Although these two plays lack a precise date, Davis gives evidence that a process of Romanization of Greek myth is at work in both of them. The threat of tyranny characterising the 130s BCE (around the time of Tiberius Gracchus' tribunate, if Aulus Gellius is correct in assigning Accius' play to those years) turned into reality in the first century CE and thus became a theme lying at the heart of both poetry and prose, as Davis demonstrates by bringing into play a few passages from Seneca's De Ira.

In the third part, six papers are gathered together under the unifying theme of genre, generic 'dialogue' and generic enrichment ('Interchange with Other Genres'), in which Roman tragedy (especially Senecan drama) is read against epic, elegy, historical drama, philosophy and comedy to account for its extraordinary polygeneric nature. Baertschi reviews the presence of epic elements and narratives strategies in Senecan drama, pointing to the complex intermingling of literary and dramatic factors. Her main case-studies are the messenger's speech in the Agamemnon and Theseus' description of the underworld topography in the Hercules furens. Messengers in Seneca lack proper dramatic reality, being endowed, instead, with an epic voice capable of evoking vivid imagery and arousing pathos. For all that she makes several very good points across her paper, there is quite a lot of redundancy in her arguments. As a marginal consideration, it would be interesting to apply the author's approach to plays that, content-wise, have less in common with epic, as the Medea, in which the messenger's role is taken over mainly by the nurse. Filippi's paper deals with the reception of republican Latin tragedy (despite its fragmentary status, as the author warns) in elegy, in particular Ovid, whose tragic aspirations are well known. In Ovid's hands tragedy too, like every other genre, undergoes eroticisation. Ginsberg tackles the presence of history in ancient drama (previously touched upon by Davis) focusing on fabula praetexta as a distinct genre, which, however, survives only in a handful of fragments. As a matter of fact, Ginsberg's discussion brings us back to Cowan's paper, in that he analyses praetexta as a domestic product centred on events from Roman history challenging Greek models (cf. Hor. AP 285-8). However, both form and content in the praetexta, at least for the majority of fragments that have come down to us (included the imperial praetexta Octavia), remain under the strong influence of Greek tragedy (cf. for example the motif of revenge). Ginsberg succeeds in showing how politics and theatre at Rome were deeply intertwined and how praetextae shared a similar color tragicus with mythological drama. Star and Aygon shift their focus onto the relation between tragedy and philosophy. As is well known, both Greek and Roman philosophers made great use of tragedy as a paradigm of human behaviour and psychology. Still somewhat puzzling, though, is the function philosophy might have fulfilled in tragedy, especially Stoicism in Seneca's plays. Star's rich paper serves also as an introduction to this much debated question, before turning to analysing Seneca's Thyestes in light of his philosophical writings. Readers familiar with Star's works will come across discussion of themes treated by the author elsewhere (above all, see The Empire of the Self: Self-Command and Political Speech in Seneca and Petronius, Baltimore 2012), such as the notions of self-command and self-address, which in Senecan drama end up being exploited un-Stoically by the main characters. Aygon analyses forms of stage entrance, devoting special attention to uncued entrances in Seneca's plays and focusing on the prologue to the Oedipus, in which Oedipus confronts Jocasta. Fear, being a key theme across the play, is to be interpreted in its relationship to fate from a Stoic perspective. Aygon has also interesting thoughts on the meaningful use of silence as a signal of Oedipus' admission of culpability in the scene immediately preceding the entrance of the senex Corinthius. Stoicism, however, remains in the background, thus somehow failing to meet the expectations raised in the title. Slater's paper engages with the issue of the relationship between comedy and tragedy at an early stage. These two genres must have been rather similar in style and language, so that it is almost impossible, without context, to tell whether a fragment may belong to tragedy or comedy (or comic parody of tragedy). Slater discusses some examples in which Plautus' comedy appears to appropriate tragic themes or patterns eminently to serve a parodic purpose: Charinus' monologue in the Mercator is a fitting case in point, which shows how a comic adulescens attempt to dress himself in the garb of the tragic hero. Madness scenes also toy with the motif of tragic madness. The astute slave in Plautine comedies, in particular, being often portrayed as the author's alter ego, is fond of drawing on tragedy. According to Slater, comic parody of mythological tragedy may have contributed to turning it into a rather distant and aesthetically loftier genre.

Those interested in reception will undoubtedly appreciate part four ('Seneca after Antiquity'), formed by three papers (Slaney, van Zyl Smit, Staley) revolving around the re-use of Senecan material in P.B. Shelley, Hugo Claus and T.S. Eliot. Although they are likely aimed at a more targeted audience, owing to their select content (especially van Zyl Smit's paper), they all produce, also to the benefit of non-specialist readers, an excellent discussion of the problematic and yet long-lasting influence of Seneca's plays upon poets and dramatists from the eighteenth century onwards.

Harrison's afterword, centred as it is on the visual possibilities for the theatre in the Roman Empire, despite its admittedly speculative angle, would have certainly profited from being equipped with images, sketches, or some kind of visual apparatus.

Overall, I noticed a certain lack of editorial care throughout the book (several typos, some omissions in the bibliography, translations not matching to the passage quoted in the original language). Nonetheless, this volume certainly represents a welcome addition to the studies of Roman tragedy: let me restate that it amply surpasses the (generally) informative character of companions in being rather a collection of high-quality essay-like papers.

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