Seneca's Tragedies

One of the touchstones in the Department at Texas was ‘turbulence’, and since one can scarcely imagine more powerfully turbulent literary works than Seneca’s dramas, they were much in vogue there. My fascination with the strangeness, emotional power, complexity and poetic brilliance of these dramas has lasted for more than 40 years. As a result of the work and influence of Frederick Ahl and his students, we have a new appreciation of post-Augustan writers such as Seneca, Lucan and Statius.

After finishing my dissertation on characterization in Seneca, I started work on a line-by-line commentary on his play Hercules. Detailed commentaries of this sort are one of the particular traditions of classical scholarship. They involve delving deeply into all aspects of the work in question, such as dramaturgy, language, metre and textual issues. It often happens, too, that the intense study of a single work turns up results of wider significance. My close scrutiny of the verse texture of the Hercules led me to notice its difference from some other Senecan plays such as Agamemnon, and this in turn led to a hypothesis about the relative dating of the plays, which is now generally accepted, at least in the English-speaking world.

Another spin-off from my work on the Hercules was a hypothesis about the verse structure of Seneca’s anapaestic odes. This hypothesis upset certain preconceptions on the subject, and consequently it remains controversial, though it has never been refuted in detail, and still appears sound to me. It was published as Seneca’s Anapaests in 1987, the same year as the Hercules commentary appeared.

Shortly before retirement I was asked to prepare a new edition of the Senecan dramas for the Loeb Classical Library, to replace the out-of-date Latin text and archaic translation of the 1917 edition. This proved a very enjoyable project, especially as I was able to devote myself to it fully and without distractions. Volume 1 appeared in 2002, and Volume 2 in 2004; simultaneously I wrote a textual commentary (Annaeana Tragica, 2004), explain my thinking on various issues in the Latin text. In my (clearly biased) opinion, the Latin text of this Loeb edition is the best currently available of Seneca’s dramas, in part because it benefits from the great advances made by a previous editor, Otto Zwierlein, while avoiding his systemic errors. Though the remit for English translations in the Loeb series is to remain close to the Latin, I did aim to convey some of the force of Seneca’s dramatic language, and the lyric quality of his choral odes. (A sample of two of the choral passages may be found here.) I also illustrated his subsequent influence, by quoting in the footnotes passages from later literature that bear a particularly clear Senecan stamp.