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Jonson's Copy of Seneca Robert C. Evans Ben Jonson has been called "one of the most Senecan of English writers in style and often in temper,"l and his numerous allusions to Seneca's writings certainly confirm this claim. The standard edition of Jonson's works records scores of echoes from passages in Seneca.2 The English poet had obviously read and appreciated many writings by the Roman moralist in a wide variety of genres, including plays, epistles, and essays. In fact, even the motto Jonson usually inscribed in copies of books he owned—"tanquam explorator"—derives from an epistle by Seneca.3 Thus the very motives that guided Jonson's reading were informed by Senecan example. We know that Jonson had access to Seneca's dramatic works in a comprehensive anthology devoted to classical Latin poets, and he probably also read Seneca's works in other collections presently lost or unknown.4 Surprisingly, however, his ownership of a volume devoted exclusively to Seneca's writings is not reported in any of the standard descriptions of his library. As it happens, such a volume does exist. Presently housed at the Glasgow University Library, it is a 1599 edition of Seneca's philosophical writings. It bears all the standard indications of Jonson's ownership, including his distinctive marginalia. His motto appears in its typical location on the title page, as does a recognizable version of his signature.5 The existence of this book confirms what was already obvious—that Seneca exercised a powerful fascination for Jonson and provided a strong stimulus to the poet's own thinking and writing. Jonson's marginal markings, which run throughout the book, indicate that he responded with considerable interest to a wide variety ROBERT C. EVANS, Associate Professor of English at Auburn University in Montgomery, is author of Ben Jonson and the Poetics of Patronage and Jonson, Lipsius, and the Politics of Renaissance Stoicism (forthcoming) as well as of numerous articles on Jonson and other Renaissance figures. 257 258Comparative Drama of Seneca's thoughts and works. His marks suggest the sorts of ethical and political principles as well as the kinds of psychological insights and generalizations that made Seneca an important influence on Jonson's own thinking. The book offers valuable new evidence of the poet's enthusiastic response to a writer who was one of the chief exemplars of what has been called "the Roman frame of mind."6 A summary of the philosopher 's life may help clarify his significance for Jonson. Seneca was born in Cordova, Spain, around 4 B.C., during the reign of Augustus. While he was still a young boy, his wealthy, well established family moved to Rome. His father was a respected rhetor; his mother was a forceful personality in her own right. Physically delicate as a youth, Seneca focused on his studies, developing a strong interest in rhetoric and an even stronger passion for philosophy. He visited Egypt as a young man, and then with the help of family connections he obtained a number of public offices during the reign of Tiberius. His literary and oratorical skills soon brought him renown, although they also earned him the jealousy of the emperor Caligula. During the early reign of Claudius, Seneca was important at court; then the emperor's wife accused him (unjustly, it seems) of an illicit affair with one of her rivals. Although condemned to death, Seneca instead was banished; he spent his next eight years exiled in Corsica. In 49 A.D., however, he was summoned by Agrippina, Claudius's new wife, who made him tutor to her son Nero. She also obtained other offices for him, and in general his wealth grew as his fortunes flourished. When Nero succeeded to the throne, Seneca (along with Burrus, prefect of the imperial guard) helped steer the young emperor along the path of good government for the first five years of his reign. Thereafter Seneca's influence began to decline as Nero began to assume—and abuse—independent power. Following Burrus's death, Seneca began a kind of unofficial retirement , and his relations with Nero were now exceedingly strained. Accused of conspiracy and sedition in the year...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 257-292
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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