Friday, August 23, 2019


Francesca Romana Berno (ed.), L. Annaeus Seneca. De constantia sapientis: La fermezza del saggio. Studi latini, 92. Napoli: Paolo Loffredo, 2018. Pp. 260. ISBN 9788899306854. €20,50 (pb).

Reviewed by Tommaso Gazzarri, Union College (

Version at BMCR home site

Berno's new commentary on Seneca's De constantia sapientis is a remarkable scholarly achievement and a much-awaited contribution to the field of Senecan studies. In fact, Ker's fine and recent translation1 contains only a very succinct apparatus of notes, while the other main commentaries of Grimal (1953)2 and Viansino (1988)3 are several decades old. Berno follows the text of Reynolds's 1977 edition,4 and the volume comprises an introduction, translation, and extensive apparatus of notes, completed by an index locorum and an index rerum. The bibliographical selection is particularly rich, with contributions from all the main languages of the field. The introduction and commentary present the reader with fundamental propaedeutic material to the study of the Senecan dialogue and furnish a clear overview of the main scholarly contributions to date. In addition, Berno proposes new and original scholarly findings, which range from literary critique to textual analysis.

The finest part of Berno's commentary is probably the reconstruction of a tight-knit array of juridical notions that function as a structural component of the dialogue, and which, in previous scholarship, were limited to the traditional distinction between iniuria and contumelia. More specifically, Berno not only insists on the fundamentally Stoic origin of the conceptual partition adikia/hybris, but she also outlines the more Roman aspects of Seneca's juridical expertise. In so doing, Berno convincingly argues in favor of Seneca's systematic attempt to harmonize traditional Stoic tenets with more Roman and technical lore. Admittedly, Grimal (1953) 18-23 had already hinted at this specific angle of analysis and, more recently, Scott-Smith (2014) 125-126 has further developed it.5 However, Berno's commentary stands out for its abundance of textual evidence, which ranges from the Twelve Tables to Justinian, and allows for new and deeper interpretational approaches to Seneca's text. For instance, the examples at Const. 10.3 and 13.1 notoriously reference the lack of iniuria in case one is insulted by a lunatic or by a child, but Berno insists on the juridical relevance of these two scenarios and brings to the fore their belonging to well-documented Roman jurisprudence (Iust. Dig. 47.10.5. pr.).

Berno's commentary breaks new ground also with the analysis of the intertextual relations between the dialogue and Cicero's De inventione, in particular Inv. 1.100-105, which corresponds to the discussion of the loci de indignatione: the traditional elements of derision that every good student of rhetoric should master in order to belittle his adversary and win the argument. Berno convincingly shows that Seneca knew very well this particular section of Cicero's work. What is more, he also intentionally repurposed specific content from the De Inventione in order to show both the addressee and the reader the necessity for becoming able to overcome the indignation that is naturally elicited by targeted insults. What Cicero presents as a collection of very specific tools of the trade, Seneca repurposes into a ground for moral training.

The philological analysis of the major textual issues adheres, for the most part, to Reynolds's edition, and Berno does not break any new ground, except for a brilliant conjecture at Const. 2.1, which Berno had already proposed in a previous contribution. 6 Instead of the manuscripts' reading victores omnium terrarum ('conquerors [i.e. and Ulysses and Hercules] of all lands') or Lipsius' correction to terrorum ('conquerors of all fears,'), Berno argues for the superiority of Acidalius' conjecture ferarum ('conquerors of all wild beasts'). Berno's revamping of this old emendation, so far neglected by modern commentators, has the advantage of furnishing a much more coherent transition to the following paragraph where Cato, the historical ideal counterpart of the two mythological characters, is described as somebody who non cum feris manus contulit ('did not grapple with wild animals'). The correction of terrarrum to ferarum undoubtedly makes the transition between the two paragraphs much more agreeable and logically sound.

Berno also proposes a new hypothesis for the date of composition based on Const. 7.4, where Seneca imputes moral responsibility to a poisoning attempt, in spite of its outcome not having been fatal. Since this episode would unequivocally allude to Agrippina's attempt to eliminate Claudius (initially unsuccessful due to Claudius vomiting and evacuating), Seneca could not have afforded to even indirectly suggest that Nero's mother was in fact guilty of homicide. Thence Berno's proposal to situate the composition of the dialogue before Claudius' assassination, i.e. around the year 49 CE.

Berno's translation is elegant and purposely avoids the cloying 19th century, archaizing mannerisms that often bedevil Italian translations. Furthermore, Berno renders — I would imagine purposely — all terms that possess a more technical pitch always in the same way: a move that adds coherence to the translation, but also contributes to a certain textual plainness. The book is nicely produced, with virtually no mistakes or typos.

In conclusion, Berno's commentary will prove useful for both students and professional scholars. It is a work which provides a complete overview of the dialogue's main issues up to the present, but also ventures a rigorous philological analysis, and offers new, brilliant interpretative proposals. I believe this work will become the landmark commentary on Seneca's De Constantia Sapientis for years to come.


1.   Ker, James. On the Constancy of the Wise Person. In L. Annaeus Seneca, Hardship and Happiness, translated by E. Fantham et al.. Chicago, 2014.
2.   Grimal, Pierre. Sénèque, De Constantia Sapientis. Paris, 1953.
3.   Viansino, Giovanni. Seneca, Dialoghi vol. I, a cura di G. Viansino. Milan, 1988.
4.   Reynolds, Leighton D. L. Annaeai Senecae Dialogorum libri duodecim rec. L. D. Reynolds. Oxford, 1977.
5.   Scott-Smith R. "De Constantia Sapientis." In Brill's Companion to Seneca, edited by G. Damschen and A. Heil. Leiden-Boston, 2014, 121-126
6.   Berno, Francesca Romana. "Ulisse ed Ercole victores omnium terrorum? Nota testuale a Sen. const. 2.1." RhM 159, 2016, 409-415.

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