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  • Roman Historical Drama: The Octavia in Antiquity and Beyond by Patrick Kragelund
  • George W. M. Harrison
Patrick Kragelund. Roman Historical Drama: The Octavia in Antiquity and Beyond. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xv, 475. $160.00. ISBN 978-0-19-871829-1.

The title of this book perfectly reflects the contents: the first half (3–126) is a general exploration of Roman historical drama, and the second half then looks in detail at the Octavia (129–360). The section on Nachleben (“The Afterlife,” 363–419) is necessarily restricted to the Octavia as the sole surviving exemplar of the genre, but it makes the case for its importance to the rise of vernacular European tragedy and to the beginnings of opera. The views of Kragelund on [End Page 292] praetex(ta)ta are well known: the eighteen items of his work on the subject in his bibliography barely scratch the surface of a long and influential career.

Kragelund is in line with G. Manuwald (Roman Republican Theatre [Cambridge 2011]) and others in his dismissal of a schizophrenia between a performed and military-religiously engaged republican historical drama and an imperial one, recited and politically critical, yet curiously disengaged (13–45). Three plays are separated out for special attention: the Brutus and Decius of Accius (46–57) and the deeply self-referential play written, produced, and directed by Balbus while governor in Betica (58–68). Not all readers will be convinced by the distinction Kragelund draws between the earlier writers of historical drama, such as Naevius, and Accius, the last (and greatest) writer of the genre, who is seen to have merged the strands of dramas based on early Rome and ones concerned with contemporary politics. His Brutus, for example, was set at the beginning of the Republic but was commissioned by an heir of the tyrannicide, who had personal political motives for the commission. It can as easily be argued that one eye was always on the political advantages of a choice of subject irrespective of whether the other eye focused on a recent or legendary event.

Nine concise chapters on the Octavia deal with the main issues of the play. Kragelund’s writing is, as always, terse and clear. “Genre continuity” (129–43) and “Time and Place” (144–71) are compelling for arguing for a three-day and twelve-scene structure based on Hellenistic tragedy, an argument continued in “Plot and Historical Background” (172–89). This view should become canonical as against the two-day structure advocated by A. J. Boyle (ed., Octavia, Attributed to Seneca [Oxford 2008]) and by R. Ferri (ed., Octavia: A Play Attributed to Seneca [Cambridge 2003]). Kragelund is correct that the talisman for Octavia, explicitly and implicitly, is Electra (“Octavia and the People,” 190–212): the stylishly Attic Octavia rubs in interesting ways with the very Roman pro-Octavia chorus (206–12). The conversation between Seneca in the Octavia and Seneca’s own plays (refreshingly more interesting to Kragelund than the well-mined links to De clementia) highlights the distance between Seneca and Nero as a Hellenistic despot (“Seneca and Nero,” 213–36). The next two chapters (“The Ghost, the Divorce, and the Wedding”; “What Poppaea Saw,” 237–57, 258–73) grapple with the appearance of Agrippina in a dream and Poppaea’s distressed appearance in the next scene, the morning of her wedding. Kragelund’s views are supported by his knowledge of the fragments of a poem in Greek on the apotheosis of Poppaea, the composition of which would have been close to, but before, the play. After a short chapter on the final scenes (and Kragelund is correct to note that Senecan drama, as also the Octavia, was built—like most of Shakespeare—on scenes and not acts), he concludes with “The Time of Writing” (297–360). The chapter is more about collecting and taking a fresh look at the evidence than arguing a particular point of view. Kragelund’s use of numismatic, funerary, and epigraphic evidence, especially, shows him in his best light.

What I have always admired about Kragelund is that his equally respected skills as an art historian/museum curator and philologist have allowed him to bring...


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