I.B. Tauris (2017) p/b 195pp £12.99 (ISBN 9781848858909)
This book is simply entitled ‘Seneca’ with no subtitle to indicate which area of Senecan study is addressed. But its purpose becomes clear when it is seen as a contribution to the publisher’s ‘Understanding Classics’ series, which has set itself ‘to introduce the outstanding authors of antiquity to a wider audience of appreciative modern readers’. After considering their subjects’ historical and literary contexts, the individual contributors to the series move on to record and discuss ‘their reception in later European literature, art, music and culture’.
Accordingly, the introduction and first two chapters of this book by Christopher Star, Associate Professor of Classics at Middlebury College, Vermont, set out Seneca’s biographical details and analyse his writings both philosophic and dramatic (i.e. the tragedies), before moving on to the final and longest chapter, ‘Reception’.
Inevitably earlier chapters draw attention to the contradictions, already noted by Seneca’s contemporaries, between his profession of stoic simplicity and detachment and the accumulation of substantial wealth and involvement in the central affairs of state as Nero’s tutor and adviser. S.’s approach is balanced and non-partisan, noting ‘the paradoxes and conflicts inherent in the study of Seneca.’
Under ‘Reception’ he offers a fascinating and detailed account of Seneca’s legacy stretching from his own time to the present day. His sub-divisions such as ‘Early Christian Writers’, ‘English Drama’ (by far the longest) and ‘Seventeenth Century Art and Opera’ show the breadth of Seneca’s influence and of S.’s scholarship. The various declines and revivals of interest in Seneca are also charted.
This is by no means a mere list of citations of Seneca over the ages, but a careful and thorough study of the way that various writers, sometimes with direct acknowledgement, have developed his themes. For example, S. notes that the line in his Agamemnon ‘that a criminal’s safety can only come from committing more crimes (per scelera semper sceleribus tutum est iter 115) is referenced by Shakespeare twice in Macbeth,’ and is directly quoted in John Marston’s 1604 comedy The Malcontent.
He especially emphasizes Seneca’s development and darkening of the theme of revenge, already found in Greek tragedy, giving rise to the tensions in Seneca between stoic control of the emotions and the compelling and devouring force of revenge, one of the strongest of the emotions. He discusses this at length in relation to Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and later in the book observes that some have found echoes of Seneca’s thoughts on violence and revenge in some modern films, including Quentin Tarantino’s two film cycle, ‘Kill Bill’.
Some of the influences detected over the centuries are perhaps less direct than others, but the case for Seneca as a significant and continuing contributor to Western culture, and indeed, private reflection and behaviour, is overwhelming and is effectively demonstrated in this well-produced volume, with its comprehensive bibliography and helpful notes and index.