Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 2.

Susanna Braund (ed.), Seneca: De Clementia. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv + 456, incl. 10 black- and-white figures. ISBN 978-0-19- 924036-4. UK£75.00.

Miriam Griffin,
Emeritus Fellow in Ancient History, Somerville College, Oxford

This handsome volume, the fruit of twenty years’ intermittent labour, is, in the words of the author (p. 88), ‘the first major modern philological edition of De Clementia in English’. The edition includes an introduction that supplies basic information about the essay’s author, Seneca, its historical context, the key concepts it employs, its structure, its later history and influence, and the scholarly treatments to which it has been subjected to date. The text follows, equipped with facing translation and a basic, but by no means complete apparatus. This is eminently justified, given the recent voluminous and exhaustive study of the text and its transmission by Ermanno Malaspina.[[1]] Braund had long been at work when this magisterial treatment appeared, a fact which has helped her on occasion to have her own view, though she does not lay claim to substantial independent work in establishing the text (p. 87). More than half of the volume is devoted to the commentary, which is clearly the author’s main focus of interest. Here too she had the work of Malaspina behind her, but his commentary is heavily balanced towards textual matters. She has derived much help from the commentary by P. Faider, completed by C. Favez,[[2]] and indeed from Calvin’s commentary of 1532.[[3]] Her own emphasis in commenting on Seneca’s work is literary, and the parallels cited from Seneca’s tragedies and from Lucan are particularly telling, especially as she is careful to quote and explain the parallels, not just produce indiscriminate lists.

The readers envisaged by the author are ‘scholars and advanced students who want to understand this important text’ (p. 91). And an important text it is; in fact, one of the most important texts preserved from antiquity, even in the incomplete form in which it survives. Not only does De Clementia provide the missing link between Cicero’s eulogistic advice to an autocrat in the Pro Marcello and Pliny’s Panegyricus, which then became the model for subsequent imperial panegyrics, but it is the earliest surviving example of a ‘Mirror for Princes’, a genre so important to Renaissance monarchical theory. The first Senecan text, along with De Beneficiis, to become available again in western Europe (the archetype of all surviving manuscripts, the codex Nazarianus, dates from the ninth century), De Clementia was extremely popular from he twelfth century on. In the sixteenth century, Montaigne used it for meditation, and in the next century, Corneille’s Cinna and Busenello’s libretto for Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea were, at least indirectly, in its debt. Had we the complete treatise that Seneca wrote or intended to write, according to his outline at 1.3.1, we would be able to see a Roman philosopher being highly original in technical philosophical mode and treating in Latin an entirely Roman concept, for clementia has no one equivalent in Greek.

Braund’s intention to help her readers understand De Clementia is both timely and eminently successful. Timely, because, aside from a good translation (with some notes) by Cooper and Procopé,[[4]] and, for continental readers, the long overdue replacement of Préchac’s erratic Budé[[5]] edition by Chaumartin,[[6]] there has been little produced recently that could be used for teaching, given that Malaspina’s great edition is too daunting for all but experts. Successful, in that Braund’s sensitivity to readers’ needs is apparent on every page. Thus the discussion of texts and editions is left until the end of the introduction, by which time the reader has been gently prepared for close study of the work by an up-to-date account of its historical, literary, and philosophical features. If the introduction rarely takes issue with the scholarly views it summarizes (the reader would not know from p. 17 that the date of Seneca’s consulship is disputed as between 55 and 56, or from p. 63 that the notion that the Apocolocyntosis represents Claudius as a usurper by reason of his lack of Julian blood has been challenged more than once, for example, by P. T. Eden[[7]]), that seems to be the consequence of politeness, for Braund is always courteous to other scholars to the point of obscuring their disagreements. Thus she relegates to a footnote (p. 33, n. 109), the fact that clementia, being a virtue, was not discredited by its association with Caesar, as maintained by Dowling;[[8]] instead, Caesar’s behaviour towards other citizens (for which he himself did not use the word clementia)could be sidelined as species clementiae. However, on the question of the incompleteness of the treatise, Braund is admirably forthright (pp. 45-47). In general, the reader is given a serviceable overview of the issues most relevant to comprehending Seneca’s work, as well as bibliography for pursuing these issues further (a rare omission is Brunt’s rebuttal[[9]] of Fears, which needs mention on p. 368).

Though work on the text is not her primary aim, as stated above, Braund shows admirable common sense, for example, in eliminating the gloss illis hoc tribuentes at 1.14.2, which Malaspina[[1]] accepts.

The translation is excellent. Not only are the avowed aims of clarity and consistency (p. 89) admirably achieved, but it is fluent, elegant, and lively. The reader is informed in the commentary why certain difficult choices are made. Thus at 1.3.3, quem tam supra se esse quam pro se sciunt is rendered ‘the one that everyone knows is both their leader and their supporter’ (p. 101), and the commentary explains that Seneca reverses the expected emphasis of the contrasting pair. (In fact, this inversion is a common phenomenon in Seneca (see Malaspina[[1]], p. 258, following Gertz) occurring also in Clem. 1.20.2 and elsewhere: perhaps it was intended to startle the reader.) Then, at 1.16.3, the literal translation of quibus tamen ignoscitur is given in the note that defends Braund’s imaginative ‘and who can blame them?’(p.331). The author thus makes it possible for a reader to come to a different decision. So at 1.9.2, the description of Cornelius Cinna as stolidus is rendered ‘of annoying disposition’, on the basis of Gellius NA 18.4. This reader thinks Malaspina[[1]], p. 301, is right to prefer the usual meaning of ‘stupid’ as in the case of another seditious young aristocrat, Libo Drusus, described by Seneca as tam stolidus quam nobilis’ in Ep. 70.10. Just as Tacitus’ account of the latter at Ann. 2.27- 30 shows he was a gullible fool, so Clem. 1.9.10 suggests the same of Cinna, while Gellius is avowedly giving the view of a corrector of ordinary usage, who in this case is certainly wrong (Holford- Strevens[[10]], p.63). Again, at 2.7.1 ego ut breviter tamquam in alieno iudicio dicam, Braund has had to deal with difficult questions of punctuation and interpretation, as regards both the phrase and the discussion that follows, where it is not clear how far Seneca’s signalled intervention is supposed to extend. Deciding that breviter goes with dicam, she departs from the usual solutions and makes Seneca speak much more briefly than is usually suggested, terminating his quotation at non donat. This must be right, for, as she says (p. 417), ‘Seneca needs to have presented the dispute before dismissing it’ in 2.7.4. Less convincing, however, is the radically new translation she offers of alieno iudicio, namely, ‘in someone else’s formulation’. For the omission of in to increase the alleged parallel with Quintilian’s assessment of Seneca himself at 10.1.30 does not alter the fact that the phrase in Quintilian must mean ‘someone else’s judgement’. In Clem. 2.7.1 in alieno iudicio can mean ‘in a case (or trial) that is not my own’, and Seneca could be imagining himself as a jurisconsult being asked to give an opinion by the iudex or party to a lawsuit: in Ben. 5.19.8 and Ep. 94.27 he remarks on the cut and dried nature of such responsa, whicht fits the brief authorial intervention here.

Helpful as the commentary is, the relative lack of interest in philosophical issues is particularly apparent in the less expansive treatment of the more technical Book II. Seneca’s philosophical points and the links he makes between the virtue of clemency and jurisdiction are bound to be the most difficult issues for a commentator, and there are corrections to be made in Braund’s notes which would improve a subsequent edition. On p. 361, we are told that security as a motive for punishment (1.22.1) is peculiarly Seneca, whereas it occurs in Plato’s Laws 5.735d-3 and 9.862d-863a and implicitly in the Protagoras 322a. Clemency is said to be ‘arbitrary’ (p. 39) without any indication that the view of Seneca and the Stoics is that it is rational and must show judgment and discrimination (2.5.2, 2.7.3,) as must any virtuous, or even appropriate, action. On p. 401 Seneca is said to be contradicting himself in 2.4.4 over the parity of moral flaws, but the variable danger here is not the moral risk of bad behaviour but the consequence of different wrong actions, themselves intrinsically equal in badness: see Cic. Parad. Stoic. 3.20. In Seneca’s discussion of the definitions of clementia at.2.3.1, una finitio shows clearly that only one definition has been given so far (not two, as on p. 391 fin.) in two formulations linked by vel, the second presumably more accurate than the first; moreover, Braund (p. 396), like Malaspina[[1]], ignores the implication of posset in the final crucial definition quae se flectit citra id quod merito constitui posset. Lipsius saw it clearly: potuisse merito fieri et non potuisse, utrum cum modo et sine culpa. Illud severitas fuisset; at hoc clementia. Seneca envisages a range of possible punishments, all legitimate, under cognitio, and advocates the milder end of the range.

Braund has done us all a great service in making Seneca’s treatise so much more accessible. For the student reader she provides ample grammatical help; for all readers, she illuminates Seneca’s great skill as a writer in great things and small. She dissects his ingenious use of the mirror image at 1.1 (p. 154) and the way in which his direct address to Alexander at the close of Book 1 balances that to Nero at the start (p. 368). And she both corrects Malaspina[[1]] and shows the significance of the image of the empire as a prison at 1.26.2 (p. 376) and of the adverb publice at 1.26.3 (p. 382). Many other acute comments could be adduced. Seneca and his readers have been well served.


[[1]] E. Malaspina, L. Annaei Senecae De clementia libri duo: prolegomeni, testo critico e commento (Alessandria 2001).

[[2]] P. Faider, C. Favez, and P. Van de Woestijine, Sénèque, De la Clémence (Bruges 1950).

[[3]] F. L. Battles and A. M. Hugo, Calvin’s Commentary on Seneca’s De Clementia (Leiden 1969).

[[4]] J. M. Cooper and J. F. Procopé, Seneca: Moral and Political Essays (Cambridge 1995).

[[5]] F. Préchac, Sénèque: De la clémence (Paris, 1921, 19252, reprinted frequently and as recently as 1990). See the review in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.05.12.

[[6]] F.-R. Chaumartin, Sénèque: De la clémence (Paris 2005).

[[7]] P. T. Eden, Seneca Apocolocyntosis (Cambridge 1984) 10.

[[8]] M. B. Dowling, Clemency and Cruelty in the Roman World (Ann Arbor 2006).

[[9]] P. A. Brunt, ‘From Epictetus to Arrian’, Athenaeum 55 (1977) 39-48, taking issue with J. Rufus Fears, ‘The Stoic View of the career and character of Alexander the Great’, Philologus 118 (1974) 113-30.

[[10]] L.A. Holford-Strevens, Aulus Gellius: An Antonine Scholar and his Achievement (Oxford 2003 [rev. ed.]).