Seneca Letters: A Selection

by Eliot Maunder (ed.), Bloomsbury 2016, Pb 128 pages, ISBN 978-1-47426-606-2 (£12.99).

This book is one of a series published by Bloomsbury for the OCR examinations board in A-level Latin for June 2018 and 2019. The edition may of course also be useful for those not doing these examinations but who wish to read some of Seneca’s Letters.

The Preface states that the book is ‘designed to guide any student who has mastered the basics of Latin grammar and wishes to read a selection of Seneca’s Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales in the original language’. And that purpose is indeed achieved, despite some problems for which Seneca himself is partly responsible. Because the fact is that Seneca was not the easiest of Latin authors, either in his language or in his philosophical ideas.

The Introduction (pages 1-30) is divided into sections that cover the historical context of Seneca’s life (and indeed of his death), an outline of his writings and of his philosophical ideas, and of his literary style. There is also a section headed Significant figures, which gives a short biography of key figures in Seneca’s writing from Cicero to Tacitus. There is a Glossary that contains Epicureanism (Stoicism had been well covered in the earlier parts of the Introduction), Equestrian, Patronage and Senator, and this is followed by a bibliography. The information given in Signficant figures and the Glossary avoids constant reference to such details in the Commentary Notes. The whole of the Introduction is very well written. It is very accurate and admirably succinct, and well suited to the needs of A-level students.

The actual Latin text is fairly brief, covering three Letters (LI, LIII and LVII) in eight pages. The font size is the same as that used in the Introduction, and it might have been better to use a larger font size. Maybe my eyes are not as good they used to be, but I certainly would have welcomed rather larger print for the Latin text. Also the lack of paragraphing results in large blocks of continuous text, which I suspect is daunting for A-level students. It would be better either to use the numbered sections as separate paragraphs, or at last to break up the text into coherent paragraphs containing one or more of the numbered sections. This would have lengthened the book slightly, but since there are 14 blank pages at the end this would not have been a problem. I noticed two errors in the texts: at LIII.2 line 5 (page 34) ‘illo’ should be ‘ille’ (it is correct in the Commentary Notes on page 56); and in LIII.12 line 4 ‘defetigat’ should be ‘defatigat’ (the spelling is correct in the Vocabulary on page 80).

The Commentary Notes are generally very helpful, though it would have been useful if the Letter being referred to appeared at the top of each page. It is always difficult to know what a commentary should contain, but these Commentary Notes are well pitched for A-level students. On occasions my feeling was that they might have been even fuller, but normally of course a teacher will supply additional comments. Even in this short selection of Seneca’s Letters there are some instances where his strained logic and condensed Latin style present some problems of interpretation. For instance, at LI.9 line 4 (page 32; the commentary is on page 49) the text reads ‘quo die illam [referring to ‘fortuna’] intellexero plus posse, nil poterit.’ The translation assumed by the commentator is presumably ‘on the day I realise that it [fortune] has more power, it will have none.’ The Commentary makes a brave attempt to interpret this as a paradoxical statement by Seneca, though I would have to admit that the paradox is lost on me. In the Loeb edition of the text Richard Mott Gummere translates this as ‘on the day when I know that I have the upper hand, her power will be naught’. This makes sense in the context and avoids the ‘paradox’, but it is difficult to explain in terms of Latin syntax. Walter Summers, incidentally, in his 1940 edition of Select Letters of Seneca does not comment at all on this passage. The text appears to be sound, so presumably Seneca knew what he meant, but style seems to have taken precedence over clarity.

The Vocabulary at the end of the book contains ‘all the words in the prescribed sections’, so it says in the Preface; and I could not find any word missing from it. But I cannot quite see why all the principal parts of every regular 1st conjugation verb have to be spelled out.

Seneca was a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he remains so today. There are plenty of reasons to dislike him, but that makes him an interesting subject for discussion and therefore a good choice for an A-level author. He did take part in the political maelstrom of the mid-1st century, he did write a vast amount of philosophical and other literary works, and his often difficult Latin well illustrates the literary tastes of the time. So for anyone interested in the world of Rome it is worth reading something of what he wrote – and this book is an excellent way to do it.

John Thorley

Former President of Euroclassica

OCR is an examinations board, an independent body which sets the public examinations (A levels) at school leaving age/university entrance level (18+).