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  • Christopher V. Trinacty (a1) and C. Michael Sampson (a2)


Seneca recognizes the power of poetry. In his prose works, he discusses how poetry adds punch to moral sententiae, and he peppers his letters and dialogues with lines from Virgil, Ovid, and others. Seneca is there typically concerned with ethical matters and so seldom has much to say about poetics specifically. But, in a fragment preserved by Gellius (12.2.2-13), he faults Ennius as old-fashioned, and elsewhere writes that it is best to be alive and writing now (i.e. the first century CE) because of the many great works of literature one can draw upon: ‘one discovers words already prepared, which, when positioned differently, create a new form.’ The predilection for novelty is not blind to tradition, though poetry is a resource that requires careful handling: poets compose lines worthy of philosophers (Ep. 8.8, Nat., but sometimes their words can be dangerous, arousing our passions (Ep. 115.12), our fears (Dial. 6.19.4), or even propagating misinformation (Dial. 7.26.6).



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1. See Ep. 58.1-6, Quint. I.O. 8.3.31.

2. Ep. 79.6: praeterea condicio optima est ultimi; parata uerba inuenit, quae aliter instructa nouam faciem habent. This letter and Ep. 84 provide the best overview of Seneca's method of composition and indicate his positive assessments of issues such as aemulatio, imitatio, and, broadly speaking, contaminatio.

3. See the competing interpretations of individual poetic passages offered by philologus, grammaticus, and philosophus, respectively (Ep. 108.24-37).

4. At Ep. 115.14 he provides a bouquet of tragic lines dealing with greed, and the audience's reaction to one of these speeches. Mazzoli (1970) provides the best overview of Seneca's discussion of poetry in his prose works.

5. Ep. 100.11: ad profectum omnia tendunt, ad bonam mentem, non quaeritur plausus (‘Everything aims at progress and a good mind, applause is not sought’). Ep. 108.7-9 discusses how poetry may lead to applause (plaudit, 108.9), but without the proper understanding of the underlying philosophical message.

6. See Gunderson in this volume for more on the effects of repetition on this passage.

7. Seneca tellingly mentions Phoebus (Phoebo) in the center of the decree, and features language (e.g. profugus, nocens, notus) that binds the oracle into the play's message.

8. Euripides’ play has Andromache respond in trimeters (Eur. Tr. 740-79). A better parallel is her lament in aeolics in Andromache, when another son is being taken away by yet another Greek antagonist (Eur. And. 501-44).

9. So also ensis is preferred to gladius, and compounds in -fer abound.

10. Tyrrell (1895), 6. The question of performance is still open; cf. Heil (2013), Kugelmeier (2007), and Harrison (2000) for a survey of opinions. Hine (2000), 42, puts it nicely: ‘In the debate about staging neither side can deliver a knock-out blow to the other.’

11. See Zanobi (2014) for the influence of pantomime. Kohn (2013), 141, points out that ‘dramaturgy is not an isolated element of Senecan drama but rather a key ingredient, contributing to the themes of the individual plays’.

12. So Goldberg (1995), 276: ‘We might productively argue that rhetoric—in particular declamation—was a positive influence on Roman tragedy because it asserted the primacy of language over spectacle.’ See Horace, Ep. 2.1.194-207 for the grandeur of late Republican tragedy. Seneca critically responds to Horace's Ars as well; cf. Trinacty (2014), 11-13, 193-214 passim.

13. See Bloomer (1997), 110-53, for more on the social make-up of the performance of declamations as depicted by Seneca the Elder.

14. Canter (1925) still offers the most thorough catalogue of rhetorical features from adfictio to word-order.

15. Harrison (2015) and Filippi (2015) stress the active reception of Republican tragedy in this period.

16. Seneca responds to Horace's injunction about poetic subject-matter (publica materies, AP 131) when discussing his own authorial position at Ep. 79.6. Seneca's view, much like Horace's own, is that the later author should not feel an ‘anxiety of influence’ provided he render such material with his own original blend of ars and ingenium.

17. See Star (2015), 246-56, for a recent consideration of the way Seneca's tragedies relate to Stoicism.

18. See Schiesaro (2003), McElduff and Fitch (2002), and Staley (2010) respectively on these issues.

19. Note the previous chorus’ own claim about fate (Sen. Oed. 882-91), Jocasta's appeal, nemo fit fato nocens (‘no one is guilty because of fate’, 1019), and the words of Oedipus, fata superaui impia (‘I have surpassed my wicked fate’, 1046). See Boyle (2012), ad 980-97, and Sklenár (2007/8) for more on the final choral ode.

20. Wilson (2010), 428, comments on a similar passion-restraint scene in the Agamemnon: ‘Seneca has employed a device that externalizes into a dialogue the internal conflict within the queen's soul. It is a Roman dramatic convention that brings what is inside and normally invisible to the audience out into public view…for Seneca what needed to be revealed was not physical but psychological.’

21. Phaedra's knowledge (scio, sciens) runs parallel to that of the ‘full-knowing reader’ (Pucci [1998]) who knows the sources invoked by these allusions. Medea becomes a haunting paradigm for the play; see McAuley (2012). Boyle (1987), ad loc., remarks on these intertexts.

22. Thomas (1988), ad loc., calls this section ‘the very heart of the poem’.

23. Note how Seneca uses this language when describing Crete (uasti Creta dominatrix freti, 85), the sea-monster (dominator, 1039) and Phaedra's own desire for punishment (me me, profundi saeue dominator freti, / inuade… ‘Destroy me! Me! Savage god of the sea…,' 1159f.). Doing so actively unites these sections of the play and highlights how the Virgilian intertext is redefined and particularized within the context of Seneca's tragedy.

24. In addition, the formulation cedit in uanum labor may recall Manilius 4.435, which posits the poet's predicament in trying to create poetry out of a difficult subject matter.

25. For more on the Stoic underpinnings of such sympatheia, see Rosenmeyer (1989), 107f.

26. See Mastronarde (1970), 312: ‘Groups of words with their associated moods and imagery recur with shifts of meaning which reinforce and illuminate other uses of the same word, mood, or image. Some interconnections are fairly definite, but the independent life assumed by individual words in their interplay may add vague and ominous suggestiveness to a seemingly straightforward passage.’

27. Wilkinson (1963), 216, suggests the name ‘silver line’ for golden lines with chiastic arrangement of nouns and adjectives, as here.

28. The doubling of sensit here may imply that the gods involved (Mars and Vulcan) both loved the same goddess, Venus. The verb colo is similarly ubiquitous in Phaedra, appearing in a number of contexts with a multiplicity of implications.

29. See Ep. 66.39: ‘quid est ergo ratio?’ naturae imitatio. ‘quod est summum hominis bonum?’ ex naturae uoluntate se gerere (‘“What, then, is reason?”—the imitation of Nature. “What is the greatest good for man?”—to conduct oneself according to the will of nature’). Stoic language helps to clarify Phaedra's and Hippolytus’ competing ideas about nature and reason (cf. Pha. 567).

30. The language of potency abounds in the play: Cupid is called impotens again (276), and his fires potens (330), but potens is rich and diverse. Phaedra personally imagines relief from her passion—such as Daedalus provided for Pasiphaë—in such terms (121), scolds Hippolytus for addressing her by the powerful (potens) title mater (609), and is emphatically not in control of herself (699). Potency could prevent suffering, but is also, in its connection to Cupid—and the affection for kin installed by nature (1114)—bound up with disaster.

31. Coffey and Mayer (1990), ad 187-94, note the gender dynamics of her argument.

32. See Calder (1975); Stroh (2008), 212f., discusses a modern staging of the chorus in Troades.

33. Mazzoli (2014), 573.

34. Translation taken from Ker and Winston (2012), 180.

35. See Ker and Winston (2012) and Slaney (2016), 72-77, for more information and bibliography on Heywood's translations.

36. Such additions correspond to Seneca's own aemulatio of his source material, as Pincombe (2012), 540, postulates, ‘[Heywood] does show himself to be greedily aware of the emulative spirit which motivates him in the additional scene he added at the very end of the play, which acts as an extraordinary reversal of the final scene of Seneca's original.’

37. E.g. breuior uoluptas (597); omne sub regno grauiore regnum est (612).

38. See Tarrant (1985), ad loc., on the ‘thoroughly Roman and imperial’ frame of reference.

39. See Thy. 562: arma ciuilis…belli. Germane intertexts with Virgil's Ecl. 1.6 (Thy. 561f.) and Horace Carm. 2.1.17f. (Thy. 574f.) emphasize that the civil war of Mycenae can be seen through the lens of Roman civil war poetry. This hope for order can be seen to disintegrate at the conclusion of the choral song when its final adonius (turbine uersat, 622) is echoed in the messenger's first words (623) with a distinct change of meaning, cf. Tarrant (1985), ad loc.

40. Following Boethius’ observation, quid tragoediarum clamor aliud deflet nisi indiscreto ictu fortunam felicia regna uertentem? (‘What else is the business of tragedies than to weep at fortune overturning happy rules with her arbitrary blow’, Boeth. C. 2.2.39f.), the fickleness of Fortune was one of the primary tragic themes picked up from Seneca by writers of the trecento and quattrocento as well as his early translators: see Grund (2011), vii-xx.

41. Both odes similarly focus on Fortune at their conclusions.

42. Horace's own recognition of the power of the gods was due to a meteorological event much like the eclipse that affects Mycenae. In addition, the following ode of Horace is a hymn to Fortuna —would a reader who acknowledges the intertext to 1.34 think about the larger Horatian book?

43. Kohn (2013) offers dramaturgical possibilities for the plays. Note British playwright Caryl Churchill's enjoyment of translating Seneca's Thyestes for the stage (1995), vii: ‘I began to feel he was far blunter, faster and subtler than I'd thought, and I began for my own pleasure to puzzle out what was there.’

44. His dismissal features language that resembles this choral song from his superbo uertice (886, cf. superbum 612) to the attainment of his summa uotorum (888, cf. summis 598).

45. Tarrant (1985), ad loc. Comparanda for the metatheatrical possibility can be found at Oed. 1003: uultus Oedipodam hic decet (Oedipus commenting on his newly-blinded face/mask); Pha. 1168f.: tales intuor uultus tuos / talesque feci? (Phaedra seeing the damaged face/mask of Hippolytus); Ep. 80.7f.

46. Would the revelation of the children's heads (capita natorum, 903) actually be accomplished using their masks in performance?

47. Mayer (1987), 25.

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