Scholarship and Technical Disciplines Scholarship and Grammatical Studies in the Augustan Age

The greatest grammarian of the time was Verrius Flaccus, whose works on grammar and scholarship are all lost. His Fasti were used extensively by Ovid. His name is principally linked to the De Verborum Significatu, a glossary of rare words. It does not survive, but a partial abridgement does by Festus, which was in turn abridged by Paul the Deacon.

The Technical Disciplines in the Age of Augustus and the Julio-Claudians Architecture is represented by Vitruvius Pollio, who published De Architectura in 10 books between 27 and 23 BC. For Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of the providential order of nature. Thus, the architect needs a rich and varied education, especially in philosophy. Medicine is represented by Celsus, who wrote a vast encyclopedia on the six arts – agriculture, military, medicine, oratory, philsophy, and law. He tries to maintain a position between rationalism and empiricism, and is a very elegant writer. Agriculture is represented by Columella. De Re Rustica came out in two editions, we have one book on trees from the first, and the whole of the second edition. The tenth book is in hexameters and attempts to fill a gap on gardens in the Georgics. Columella is a much more exacting writer than Varro and Cato, and he criticizes the lack of schooling in agriculture. He writes with the big latifundia in mind, although he criticizes it frequently. Geography is represented by Agrippa and Pomponius Mela. Marcus Agrippa drew up a gigantic map of the whole world, with commentary, which was set up in the Campus Martius after his death. Pomponius Mela lived under Claudius and left a Chorographia in three books, which describes the world starting at the straits of Gibralter and going counter-clockwise. He is mostly interested in ethnography.

Culture and Spectacle: The Literature of the Early Empire

The End of Patronage

The second generation under Augustus had been little touched by the civil wars, and so felt less grateful towards him. The death of Maecenas created a gap between political powers and the intellectual elite that would only occassionally be bridged. Tiberius did nothing about this, except inspire nasty senatorial histories. Even the learned Claudius did nothing. Nero tried to reestablish patronage, and there was a brief upswing in literature. Nero was especially interested in performance and established a poetry competition. His histrionic spirit and drive towards hellenisation sparked a backlash in the conservative senatorial tradition. The Flavians continued public competitions, but pulled back from Nero’s Greek leanings. Vespasian in particular renewed rhetorical training for the ruling class.

Literature and Theater

Pantomime was introduced under Augustus and rapidly became popular. It was a theatrical representation with an intense dramatic action. One actor sang to musical accompaniment, another masked actor mimed the events. We have no music or libretti, but Seneca and Juvenal give evidence for its extreme popularity. The only thing that rivaled it were Circus games, which became increasingly spectacular. This love of spectacle is reflected in much of the poetry from this time

Seneca the Elder and Declamation

Public declamation was spreading also. Seneca the Elder gives a good picture of the rhetorical activity of his day. Seneca was born in Spain around 50 BC, and died before 41 AD. His work testifies to the loss of public and judicial oratory under the regime. Rhetoric sinks to pointless excercises, declamationes, which center on themes and subjects that are chosen for their unusual or odd character. Declamation has now become a public spectacle. Seneca illustrates two types of exercises most in vogue, the controversia, which was of a judicial nature, and the suasoria, which was of the deliberative or political type and aimed to guide the action of a famous mythical or historical person. But the orator’s aim is not so much to persuade but to astonish the audience, and therefore the language can be quite contrived and colorful. Very Asianism.

Recitation or Literature as Spectacle

Another form of cultural entertainment is the recitatio, the recitation of literary passages to an invited audience. Many authors, such as Juvenal, Persius, and Tacitus, viewed this as corrupting literature. Literature becomes more spectacular, more theatrical, intended to get as much response from the audience as possible. This is seen in the tragedies of Seneca and the Thebaid of Statius.

Overall, the “Silver Age” is characterized by an invasion of rhetorical devices, but also a reaction against classicism. Exotic forms are preferred, and society can no longer find satisfactory expression in the classical forms of art.


Born about 4 BC in Spain. Went through the usual education, and began a political career in 31 AD. Caligula was jealous of his fame and wanted to execute him, and Claudius had him exiled for being involved with Julia Livilla, Caligula’s sister. Agrippina got him recalled in 49 and made a tutor for Nero, and guided him when he became emperor. He gradually lost influence and comitted suicide in 65, as described by Tacitus. We have a series of treatises, or dialogues, on ethical and psychological questions, the works De Beneficiis and De Clementia, twenty books of Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, the Naturales Quaestiones, and nine cothurnatae tragedies. The Ludus de Morte Claudii (Apocolocyntosis) is generally regarded as authentic too.

The Dialogi and Stoic Wisdom

Very few Senecan works can be dated, so it is difficult to trace his development. The individual works of the Dialogi are independent treatises on particular aspects of stoic ethics Seneca’s stoicism is of a moderate sort that eschews dogmatic conclusions. The three books of De Ira are a study of the origins of human passions and the ways of checking and mastering them. De Vita Beata addresses the problem of happiness and the role wealth plays in creating it. It may have been written in response to charges that Seneca didn’t practice what he preached. Seneca justifies that even if the essence of happiness lies in virtue, wealth can still help if it works in the pursuit of virtue. Seneca shows a detachment from earthly contigencies in De Constantia Sapientis, De Otio, and De Tranquillitate Animi. Seneca seeks a middle path between the extremes of contemplative leisure, and the engagement proper to a Roman citizen. In generally, the withdrawn life seems to be better if a choice has to be made. De Brevitate Vitae deals with the problem of time and the brevity of life, which is due to our inability to grasp its essence. De Providentia deals with the contradiction with providence, which the Stoics say governs human affairs, but which often seems to reward the wicked and punish the good.

Philosophy and Power

The Naturales Quaestiones deal with various atmospheric and celestial phenomena, and is an immense labor of compilation. Posidonius seems to have been a major source. The De Beneficiis treats nature and the various types of beneficence. It analyzes beneficence as a cohesive element in social relations, and appeals to philanthropy and liberality. De Clementia is dedicated to the young Nero and sketches an ideal political program based on fairness and moderation. For Seneca, the problem was to have a  good sovereign. Clemency is the virtue that should shape the sovereigns dealings with his subjects. Seneca seemed to be aiming for a Platonic ideal of rule by philosophers. He cherished the idea of a balanced, harmonius rule by a restrained sovereing and a secure Senate, with everyone trained in philosophy.

The Day to Day Practice of Philosophy: The Epistulae Ad Lucilium

There are two drives in Seneca’s philosophy – one towards civic engagement and one towards meditative otium. But in his late writings he is mainly concerned with the individual conscience. The letters to Lucilius deal with this most of all, and date to after 62. It isn’t clear if they were all real letters, or if some were added later. Philosophical letters date back to Plato and Epicurus, but Seneca introduced them into Latin. He works hard to distinguish it from the letters of Cicero. His letters are an instrument of moral growth, a diary of the road to wisdom. Seneca emphasizes that the letter form allows for an intimacy that a treatise lacks. It is close to ordinary life. The letters allow different stages to be articulated, and allows Seneca to conform to different stages in the process of education. Letters are also very suitable for Seneca’s philosophy, which is not systematic but deal with particular aspects or themes in ethics. They show affinities with Horatian satire and center on the principles around which the sage shapes his life. They have the tone of one who is himself still seeking wisdom. Seneca proposes an ideal life directed towards concentration, meditationm, and reflections on the weaknesses and vices both of oneself and others. It is still profoundly aristocratic and Seneca has disdain for the common mass in the circus. For the Stoic sage, inner freedom is the ultimate objective, along with meditation on death which he looks on with serenity.

“Dramatic Style”

Seneca rejects the Ciceronian hypotaxis in favor of a paratactic structure, which aims at reproducing the spoken language and breaks up the series of thoughts into pointed sententiae. The prose has its roots in Asiatic rhetoric,. nad has lots of parallelism, antitheses, repetitions, and moves in staccato phrases. This pointed style is used by Seneca to probe the secrets of the human soul, alternating the quiet tones of meditation with the resonant tones of preaching.

The Tragedies

We know virtually nothing about when they were written or how they were performed. They are the only extant Latin tragedies and all come from Greek models. They are also important as witnesses to the revival of Latin tragic drama under the Julio-Claudians. The intellectual Senatorial elite seems to have turned to tragedy as the form most suitable to opposing tyranny. All the tragedians we know about were important public figures.

Seneca’s tragedies lack notices and many have believed they were chiefly for reading. The elaborate stage effects and bloodiness in places seem to support that thesis, since many were beyond the capacity of the Roman theater. The various tragic stories are figured as conflicts of contrasting forces, especially within the human soul. Philosophical themes and morals occur frequently, and the tragedies are to a certain extent expressions of Stoic doctrine. This should not be pressed, since a fundamental part of tragedy is the imability of logos to restrain passions and check evil. This occurs against a backdrop of horror, a struggle of malign forces.

Evil is manifested especially as the tyrant. For almost all the tragedies we have the Greek original for comparison. Seneca contaminates, restructures, and rationalizes them. The poetic language has its roots in Augustan poetry, especially Ovid, and borrows a type of strict iambic from Augustan tragedy. The heavy pathos common to Latin drama is still there, as the sententious phrase. Dialogue strives for Asiatic brevity. The dramatic tension is heightened by long digressions (ekphraseis) which are excessive even compared to epic. They belong to the tendency of Seneca’s play to have isolated scenes outside the dramatic dynamic. There is also the Octavia, a tragedy on the death of Nero’s first wife. It is the only praetexta tragedy extant, although it is not by Seneca. It is stylistically close, and probably comes from the early Flavian period.

The Apocolocyntosis

The Ludus de Morte Claudii, better known as the Apocolocyntosis after Dio Cassius, which seems to imply a pumpkinhead. Because of the different titles, it has sometimes not been attributed to Seneca, but currently it is strongly believed to be authentic. The work narrates Claudius’s death and ascent to heaven, where the gods reject him and condemn him to the underworld. There he becomes a slave of Caligular and a freedman. Scorn for the dead emperor is offset with praise for Nero. It belongs to the genre of Menippean satire, and has some things in common with the dialogues of Lucian. It alternates prose and different kinds of verse and quotes freely and farcically, and mocks more fashionable genres like epic and tragedy.






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