- Seneca. Tragedies II: Oedipus. Agamemnon. Thyestes. Hercules on Oeta. Octavia, and: Self-Representation and Illusion in Senecan Tragedy
'Latin literature,' observed T.S. Eliot in a famous essay, 'provides poets for several tastes, but there is no taste for Seneca.' That was an opinion with a following in 1927, when 'Seneca in Elizabethan Translation' first appeared to introduce an omnibus edition of His Tenne Tragedies, but no longer. Classicists have learned a lot in the generations since, and the increase in knowledge has done wonders for Seneca's reputation. The change is apparent in the two works under review here, which represent in the first instance the new scholarly consensus and in the second, what is probably the direction of that scholarship's future.
The Loeb volume first. The Loeb Classical Library has been undergoing a quiet revolution in recent years, as this famously useful series expands to include new volumes and sponsors major revisions of some important old ones. Though its basic scheme of Latin (or Greek) texts with facing translations remains unchanged, editions are now being commissioned from major scholars, with the expectation that their texts and translations, accompanied by substantive introductions, notes, and indexes, will provide the broadest possible range of users with reliable, authoritative guides both to the ancient authors themselves and to the modern understanding of them. This second volume of the new Loeb tragedies (the first volume, also by John Fitch, appeared in 2002) is very much in the new style and admirably suited to the new standard. Fitch has long been a major player in Senecan studies, and the vast range of his experience is here put at the service of all comers. They will be very glad of it. The translations are deft, [End Page 226] accurate, and extremely readable, while the introductions to each play are significant essays in their own right. Bibliographies are well and fairly compiled, so that even their privileging of work in English seems unexceptionable. Classicists working with Seneca will want to have this edition at hand, while readers with little or no Latin will also soon discover that this is the edition of Seneca to use. Those with interests in Renaissance literature will be especially pleased by Fitch's meticulous noting of significant Senecan echoes in English drama.
Volume 2 of the tragedies has special importance because it contains two plays preserved in the corpus, Hercules on Oeta and Octavia, that are now widely acknowledged as being post-Senecan and have for various reasons (their dubious pedigrees being just one) largely slipped between the scholarly cracks. Each poses unique challenges to scholarship but also claims unique attractions. Octavia is our one surviving example of a tragedy on a Roman subject, a so-called fabula praetexta, the subject in this case being the elimination of Nero's first wife, while the deep indebtedness of Hercules on Oeta to other plays in the Senecan corpus makes it a major witness to the otherwise unattested reception of Seneca's plays in the generation after his death. Fitch's guidance is invaluable for introducing this puzzling and problematic material and for encouraging its further study.
Even non-classicists, however, should probably also pay some attention to what is happening on the Latin side of these Loeb pages. Fitch, as professional reviews have already noticed, is an editor with knowledge and opinions of his own about how the text of Seneca should be constituted and how its verses should be arranged. His editorial decisions are well grounded, but it must be said that some have raised eyebrows among the experts. Classicists will be glad for the notes detailing his editorial interventions and may well want to consult his recent publications on textual matters. General readers will doubtless be less concerned with such things, but those tempted to compare translations should at the least be aware that Fitch...