Sick of Seneca: Gellius, Attic Nights 12.2

  1. That Annaeus Seneca, when judging Ennius and Cicero, was possessed of light and silly judgment.

“Some think of Seneca as a worthless writer, whose books it is not even worth the effort to touch, because his speech seems vulgar and played-out, while his matter and thoughts are characterized either by a bungling and empty force or a light and rather juridical affectation. His learning, however, is common and plebeian, and has neither the grace nor the dignity of the ancient writers. Though others may not deny that he has too little of elegance in his words, they affirm that he is not lacking a knowledge and understanding of the things which he discusses, in addition to a not unpleasing severity in censuring moral lapses. It is not necessary for me to make a judgment or criticism of his talent or writing as a whole; but I would like to consider the nature of the judgment which he made on Cicero, Ennius, and Vergil. In the twenty-second book of his moral epistles, which he wrote to Lucullus, he says that Ennius wrote these ridiculous verses about that ancient man Cethegus:

He was called by the people once,

who lived about that time,

the special flower of the people, and the marrow of Persuasion.

Then he writes about these same verses, ‘I wonder at the fact that the most eloquent and devoted fans of Ennius have praised this claptrap as fine poetry. Cicero, to be sure, mentions these among Ennius’ best lines.’ He then adds about Cicero himself, ‘I am not surprised that there was a man who could write verses like this since there was also a man who would praise them; but perhaps Cicero, that famous orator, was pleading his own case by praising these, in order to make his own awful verses appear good.’ After this, Seneca adds most foolishly, ‘Even in Cicero’s prose you can find some things, from which it is clear that he did not waste his time when he read Ennius.’ Then he includes an example of the sort of thing which he reprehends in Cicero as being  ‘Ennian,’ which he wrote in his book de re publica: ‘Menelaus the Laconian was graced with a sweet-talking charm,’ and in another passage, ‘he cultivates brevity of speech in his oratory.’ Then that clown Seneca has the audacity to make apology for Cicero’s errors by writing, ‘It was not the fault of Cicero himself, but of his times; it was inevitable that one would speak thus, when that sort of thing was commonly read.’ Then he suggests that Cicero included these bits to avoid the charge that his speech was too ornate and polished.

In the same place, he says this of Vergil: ‘Even our own Vergil has, for the same reason, placed certain ugly and unwonted verses which go somewhat beyond the limit, so that his Ennian audience could recognize a little bit of antiquity in his new poem.’

But now I’m sick of Seneca’s words. Nevertheless, I won’t omit to mention these little jokes of that stupid and witless man: ‘There are some verses of Ennius of such great sense that they could, though written among those that smell like goats, could nevertheless please a perfumed audience.’ When he is criticizing the verses about Cethegus which I quoted above, he says, ‘Whoever loves this kind of verse would probably also like the couches of Sotericus.’

Seneca certainly seems worthy for the perusal of adulescents when he compares the dignity and taste of the best ancient poetry to the couches of Sotericus as though they had no grace and were long ago forgotten and condemned. But listen as I remember a few things which Seneca actually said well, such as that which he said about a miser who wanted more money: ‘What does it matter how much money you have? There is always much more which you do not have!’ Was this well-said? Certainly. But good sayings don’t benefit the young as much as bad sayings harm them, and this is especially true when the inferior ones are so much greater in number, and if they are not about some small and simple affair, but a doubtful one which requires serious judgment.”

II Quod Annaeus Seneca iudicans de Q. Ennio deque M. Tullio leui futtilique iudicio fuit.

[1] De Annaeo Seneca partim existimant ut de scriptore minime utili, cuius libros adtingere nullum pretium operae sit, quod oratio eius uulgaria uideatur et protrita, res atque sententiae aut inepto inanique impetu sint aut leui et causidicali argutia, eruditio autem uernacula et plebeia nihilque ex ueterum scriptis habens neque gratiae neque dignitatis. Alii uero elegantiae quidem in uerbis parum esse non infitias eunt, sed et rerum, quas dicat, scientiam doctrinamque ei non deesse dicunt et in uitiis morum obiurgandis seueritatem grauitatemque non inuenustam. [2] Mihi de omni eius ingenio deque omni scripto iudicium censuramque facere non necessum est; sed quod de M. Cicerone et Q. Ennio et P. Vergilio iudicauit, ea res cuimodi sit, ad considerandum ponemus. [3] In libro enim uicesimo secundo epistularum moralium, quas ad Lucilium conposuit, deridiculos uersus Q. Ennium de Cetego antiquo uiro fecisse hos dicit:

is dictust ollis popularibus olim, qui tum uiuebant homines atque aeuum agitabant, flos delibatus populi Suada medulla.

[4] Ac deinde scribit de isdem uersibus uerba haec: ‘Admiror eloquentissimos uiros et deditos Ennio pro optimis ridicula laudasse. Cicero certe inter bonos eius uersus et hos refert.’ [5] Atque id etiam de Cicerone dicit: ‘Non miror’ inquit ‘fuisse, qui hos uersus scriberet, cum fuerit, qui laudaret; nisi forte Cicero summus orator agebat causam suam et uolebat suos uersus uideri bonos.’ [6] Postea hoc etiam addidit insulsissime: ‘Aput ipsum quoque’ inquit ‘Ciceronem inuenies etiam in prosa oratione quaedam, ex quibus intellegas illum non perdidisse operam, quod Ennium legit.’ [7] Ponit deinde, quae apud Ciceronem reprehendat quasi Enniana, quod ita scripserit in libris de republica: ‘ut Menelao Laconi quaedam fuit suauiloquens iucunditas’, et quod alio in loco dixerit: ‘breuiloquentiam in dicendo colat.’ [8] Atque ibi homo nugator Ciceronis errores deprecatur et ‘non fuit’ inquit ‘Ciceronis hoc uitium, sed temporis; necesse erat haec dici, cum illa legerentur.’ [9] Deinde adscribit Ciceronem haec ipsa interposuisse ad effugiendam infamiam nimis lasciuae orationis et nitidae. [10] De Vergilio quoque eodem in loco uerba haec ponit: ‘Vergilius quoque noster non ex alia causa duros quosdam uersus et enormes et aliquid supra mensuram trahentis interposuit, quam ut Ennianus populus adgnosceret in nouo carmine aliquid antiquitatis.’ [11] Sed iam uerborum Senecae piget; haec tamen inepti et insubidi hominis ioca non praeteribo: ‘Quidam sunt’ inquit ‘tam magni sensus Q. Ennii, ut, licet scripti sint inter hircosos, possint tamen inter unguentatos placere’; et, cum reprehendisset uersus, quos supra de Cetego posuimus: ‘qui huiuscemodi’ inquit ‘uersus amant, liqueat tibi eosdem admirari et Soterici lectos.’ [12] Dignus sane Seneca uideatur lectione ac studio adulescentium, qui honorem coloremque ueteris orationis Soterici lectis compararit quasi minimae scilicet gratiae et relictis iam contemptisque. [13] Audias tamen commemorari ac referri pauca quaedam, quae idem ipse Seneca bene dixerit, quale est illud, quod in hominem auarum et auidum et pecuniae sitientem dixit: ‘Quid enim refert, quantum habeas? multo illud plus est, quod non habes.’ [14] Benene hoc? sane bene; sed adulescentium indolem non tam iuuant, quae bene dicta sunt, quam inficiunt, quae pessime, multoque tanto magis, si et plura sunt, quae deteriora sunt, et quaedam in his non pro ἐνθυμήματι aliquo rei paruae ac simplicis, sed in re ancipiti pro consilio dicuntur.

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