Wednesday, January 9, 2019


John G. Fitch, Seneca: Oedipus. Agamemnon. Thyestes. Hercules on Oeta. Octavia. Loeb classical library, 78. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. 663. ISBN 9780674997189. $26.00.

Reviewed by Christopher V. Trinacty, Oberlin College (

Version at BMCR home site

This is the revised version of Fitch's Loeb that first appeared in 2004 and was favorably reviewed (see Ferri's review for BMCR 2005.01.26). The first editions of Fitch's two Loeb volumes on Senecan tragedy featured a strong general introduction, persuasive readings of the plays, a new text, enjoyable and accurate translations, and concise bibliography for each play. In my view, there was very little to revise, and the changes in this volume are minor indeed.1 It adds a total of nine pages to the first edition (primarily due to formatting changes), updates some of the bibliography, adopts American spellings of certain words (e.g. honor, not honour; harbor not harbour), and modifies certain translations for clarity. Fitch states, in the first volume, that he has revised these volumes because of the glut of new material on Senecan tragedy and, in addition: "I have updated the bibliographies and adjusted the Latin text at a few points. I have also taken the opportunity to further polish the translation throughout" and "to correct the attribution of several conjectures" (ix). But, in this newly revised volume, one does not find many modifications of the apparatus criticus or even many adjustments to the translation or analysis of the plays. Therefore, it at times seems like a missed opportunity, as it would have been extremely useful for Fitch to discuss and critique the scholarship of the last decade and to give his view of trends in the field. For instance, has the scholarship of recent years changed his views on performance, or the interactions between Stoicism and Senecan tragedy? It is difficult to determine where Fitch stands on these important matters.

Here is a sample of the sort of changes that have been made to the translation:

   Quis vos exagitat furor,
alternis dare sanguinem
et sceptrum scelere aggredi?
nescitis, cupidi arcium,
regnum quo iaceat loco.

   Regem non faciunt opes,
non vestis Tyriae color,
non frontis nota regia
non auro nitidae trabes. (Thy. 339-47)

What is this frenzy that drives you
to spill your blood by turns
and beset the sceptre with crime?
In your greed for strongholds, you mistake
the place where kingship lies.
A king is not made by wealth
nor the colour of Tyrian robes
nor the sign of royalty on his brow
nor roofbeams gleaming with gold. (first edition)

   What is this frenzy that drives you
to spill your blood by turns
and beset the scepter with crime?
Your greed for strongholds mistakes
the place where kingship lies.
A king is not made by wealth
nor the color of Tyrian robes
nor the sign of royalty on his brow
nor roof beams gleaming with gold. (revised edition)

Subtle, to say the least.

The bibliography for the individual plays of this volume has often been updated by only an item or two (e.g. Boyle's recent commentaries), but I would have liked to see further secondary sources (if you are putting together a revised edition, why not?). Here are some articles, journals, edited volumes, and monographs that have come out in the last ten years that deal with these particular plays (cut off at 2017 for the sake of publication time and focusing primarily on works in English as per the Loeb guidelines):

Ramus 46 (2017) devoted to the poetics of Senecan tragedy.
Maia 69 (2017) devoted to Senecan tragedy and the emotions.
Gloyn, L. (2017) The Ethics of the Family in Seneca (CUP).
Stöckinger, M., Winter, K. and A.T. Zanker, eds. (2017) Horace and Seneca: Interactions, Intertexts, Interpretations (DeGruyter).
The pieces by E. Bexley and M. Lowrie (on Oedipus and Thyestes, respectively) in P. Mitsis and I. Ziogas (eds.) Wordplay and Powerplay in Latin Poetry (DeGruyter).
Ginsberg, L.D. (2016) Staging Memory, Staging Strife: Empire and Civil War in the Octavia (OUP).
Pan. Rivista di Filologia Latina 5 (2016) devoted to Senecan tragedy more generally.
Slaney, H. (2016) The Senecan Aesthetic: A Performance History (OUP).
McAuley, M. (2016) Reproducing Rome: Motherhood in Virgil, Ovid, Seneca and Statius (OUP).
Frangoulidis, S., Harrison, S.J., and G. Manuwald, eds. (2016) Roman Drama and its Contexts (DeGruyter).
Mazzoli, G. (2016) Il chaos e le sue architetture: trenta studi su Seneca tragico (Palumbo).
Schiesaro, A. (2014) "Seneca's Agamemnon: the Entropy of Tragedy" Pallas 95: 179-91, but the whole issue is devoted to intersections between Seneca philosophus and Seneca tragicus.
Zanobi, A. (2014) Seneca's Tragedies and the Aesthetics of Pantomime (Bloomsbury Academic).
Winter, K. (2014) Artificia mali. Das Böse als Kunstwerk in Senecas Rachetragödien (Universitätsverlag Winter).
Allendorf, T. (2013) "The Poetics of Uncertainty in Senecan Drama," Materiali e discussion 71: 103-44.
Kohn, T.D. (2013) The Dramaturgy of Senecan Tragedy (University of Michigan Press).
Ker, J. (2012) The Deaths of Seneca (OUP).
Littlewood, C. (2011) "Allusion and Ambiguity in ps-Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus." Mouseion 11: 317-40.
Staley, G.A. (2009) Seneca and the Idea of Tragedy (OUP).
The trustworthy biographies of J. Romm (Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero; Knopf 2014) and E. Wilson (The Greatest Empire: A Life of Seneca; Oxford 2014) could also be worth mentioning.

Admittedly, it is not possible to fully take into consideration all of these sources in the brief introductions to the works and the texts/translations, but it would have been useful to see some changes to the introductions that better reflect the work done in the last decade and a half (I have detected almost no changes in these sections from the first edition to this one). The material offered in these introductions is strong, however, and I do not want to suggest that they do not generally do their job. Readers will be prepared to appreciate and understand the plays after the overview of the sources, themes, choruses, and structure.

In conclusion, Fitch's volume is reliable, with accomplished notes and a copious index to help first-time readers of Seneca, and scholars at all levels (from undergraduate students to professors) will benefit from this work.2 Most of the comments above fall squarely in the category of "minor quibbles" and I have no doubt that specialists and non-specialists will profit from these Loeb volumes in the decades to come.


1.   This begs the question why Harvard University Press sought revisions to these particular volumes, especially when so many still have to be revised from the previous century.
2.   What is problematic, although it probably is not the fault of Fitch, is that this volume does not correctly cross-reference the first volume. So, for instance, page 6 of the "Comments" to Oedipus features the following: "This is in keeping with the inward turn of Seneca's dramas and their concern with mental states (see vol. 1, p. 000)". This pagination error is repeated four times in that section and again at later moments of this volume.

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