Poor Judgment and a Poor Poet: Seneca vs. Cicero

Quintilian, (on Seneca) 10.1

“You might wish that he had spoken with his own skill, but using someone else’s judgement.”

Velles eum suo ingenio dixisse, alieno iudicio

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.2

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.

Gilbert Highet, The Classical Tradition (18):

With the beginning of the Renaissance, the amazing strength and flexibility of Cicero’s style was recognized once more. It was copied by writers of Latin prose on almost every subject. For centuries the diplomacy of the European chanceries was carried on not only in the language, but in the precise vocabulary, and word order, and cadences of Cicero’s speeches. There was a long and fierce dispute between scholars who held that Cicero was an unchallengeable ‘authority’ and that no modern writer could use Latin words or constructions not found in his works, and those, more liberal, who pointed out that Latin was still a living language which modern authors could expand and alter to their own needs. Since this was a dispute about the use of the Latin language, it does not come within the scope of our book. But it was closely connected with another dispute which does.

Many writers in the vernacular languages felt that the ‘big bow-wow’ style of speaking and writing was bogus. All style is artificial, no doubt; but they held that prose should at least give the appearance of being natural. They therefore turned away from Cicero and most of the devices he had developed, and, as models for modem prose, picked Seneca and Tacitus. Some of them went farther back, to Demosthenes and Plato. The aim of them all was to be personal, to avoid formalism. On the models of Seneca’s moral essays and Tacitus’ histories — and, to a much smaller extent, Demosthenes’ plainer speeches and Plato’s quieter dialogues — they created the prose of most modem essays and character-sketches, the prose in which some great modem sermons have been written.

Fronto to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (“On Speeches”, Ambr. 382)

“…I am going to add in some potentially inapt and unfair comments, for I plan to remind you of the experience of having me as a teacher…

Still, it would be better for you to neglect these things than to nurture them poorly. For when it comes to that confused in the combined type, grafted in part on Cato’s pine-nuts and Seneca’s soft and febrile plums, well I think it should be pulled up by the roots—no, to use a Plautine line, uprooted below the roots!

I am not ignorant that Seneca is a person fully stuffed and overflowing with ideas, but to be honest I see his sentences as trotting around, announcing their course with a full gallop, but stopping to fight nowhere and never striking the sublime. Like Laberius, he plays at wit-darts, or really just assembling sounds, rather than composing words worth repeating.

Do you believe that you would uncover graver sentiments on the same ideas in your Annaeus than in Sergius*? Ah, Sergius’ words don’t have the same rhythm or the same speed as Seneca’s, I admit. The sounds don’t sing the same, I won’t deny it.

But what if the same meal is offered to two people and the first picks up the olives on the table with his fingers, brings them to his mouth, puts them between his teeth to chew them in the right and proper way, while the other throws them up high and catches them with his mouth open and then shows them off once caught with his lips like a juggler? Really, children at school would applaud at what was done and the guest would be entertained, but one will have eaten lunch properly while the other did tricks with his lips.

So you say that some things are expressed cleverly and some with weight. But sometimes little silver coins are found in the sewer. Should we take over the job of cleaning the sewers too?”

…pauca subnectam fortasse inepta iniqua, nam rursus faxo magistrum me experiare….

Neglegas tamen vero potius censeo quam prave excolas. Confusam eam ego eloquentiam, catachannae ritu partim pineis nucibus Catonis partim Senecae mollibus et febriculosis prunulis insitam, subvertendam censeo radicitus, immo vero, Plautino ut utar verbo, exradicitus. Neque ignoro copiosum sententiis et redundantem hominem esse: verum sententias eius tolutares video nusquam quadripedo concitas cursu ten<d>ere, nusquam pugnare, nusquam maiestatem studere; ut Laberius dictabolaria, immo dicteria, potius eum quam dicta confingere.

Itane existimas graviores sententias et eadem de re apud Annaeum istum reperturum te quam apud Sergium? Sed non modulatas aeque: fateor;  neque ita| cordaces: ita est; neque ita tinnulas: non nego. Quid vero, si prandium utrique adponatur, adpositas oleas alter digitis prendat, ad os adferat, ut manducandi ius fasque est ita dentibus subiciat, alter autem oleas suas in altum iaciat, ore aperto excipiat, ut calculos praestigiator, primoribus labris ostentet? Ea re profecto pueri laudent, convivae delectentur; sed alter pudice pranderit, alter labellis gesticulatus erit.

At enim sunt quaedam in libris eius scite dicta, graviter quoque nonnulla. Etiam laminae interdum argentiolae cloacis inveniuntur; eane re cloacas purgandas redimemus?

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution (p. 146):

The Second Philippic, though technically perfect, is not a political oration, for it was never delivered: it is an exercise in petty rancour and impudent defamation like the invectives against Piso. The other speeches against Antonius, however, may be counted for vigour, passion and intensity, among the most splendid of all the orations. But oratory can be a menace to posterity as well as to its author or its audience. There was another side – not Antonius only, but the neutrals. Cicero was not the only consular who professed to be defending the highest good of the Roman People. The survival of the Philippics imperils historical judgment and wrecks historical perspective.

Longinus, On the Sublime, 1

“Cicero also departs from Demosthenes in the size of his constructions. For Demosthenes impresses more in his chunks of sublimity, while Cicero does it more generally. Our orator most clearly burns thanks to his violence, speed, and strength, and he leaves a path of destruction like a lightning strike or a thunderbolt.

Cicero, I think, is more like a large wildfire, consuming everything and laying waste around him. He has a strong fire, always burning, and it is allotted evenly from one place to another, rekindled by steady refueling. You [Romans] may be able to judge these matters better, but the real power of Demosthenes’ sublimity and tension arises in his terrifying and earnest emotions where it is necessary that he surprises his audience; diffusion is when you need to overwhelm [the audience] at length. The latter is most harmonious for general topics, going on at length, description and performance pieces, as well as for history, scientific writing, and many other kinds.”

καὶ ὁ Κικέρων τοῦ Δημοσθένους ἐν τοῖς μεγέθεσι παραλλάττει. ὁ μὲν γὰρ ἐν ὕψει τὸ πλέον ἀποτόμῳ, ὁ δὲ Κικέρων ἐν χύσει· καὶ ὁ μὲν ἡμέτερος διὰ τὸ μετὰ βίας ἕκαστα ἔτι δὲ τάχους ῥώμης δεινότητος οἷον καίειν τε ἅμα καὶ διαρπάζειν σκηπρῷ τινι παρεικάζοιτ᾿ ἂν ἢ κεραυνῷ· ὁ δὲ Κικέρων ὡς ἀμφιλαφής τις ἐμπρησμὸς οἶμαι πάντη νέμεται καὶ ἀνειλεῖται, πολὺ ἔχων καὶ ἐπίμονον ἀεὶ τὸ καῖον καὶ διακληρονομούμενον ἄλλοτ᾿ ἀλλοίως ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ κατὰ διαδοχὰς ἀνατρεφόμενον. ἀλλὰ ταῦτα μὲν ὑμεῖς ἂν ἄμεινον ἐπικρίνοιτε, καιρὸς δὲ τοῦ Δημοσθενικοῦ μὲν ὕψους καὶ ὑπερτεταμένου ἔν τε ταῖς δεινώσεσι καὶ τοῖς σφοδροῖς πάθεσι καὶ ἔνθα δεῖ τον ἀκροατὴν τὸ σύνολον ἐκπλῆξαι, τῆς δὲ χύσεως ὅπου χρὴ καταντλῆσαι· τοπηγορίαις τε γὰρ καὶ ἐπιλόγοις κατὰ τὸ πλέον καὶ παρεκβάσεσι καὶ τοῖς φραστικοῖς ἅπασι καὶ ἐπιδεικτικοῖς, ἱστορίαις τε καὶ φυσιολογίαις, καὶ οὐκ ὀλίγοις ἄλλοις μέρεσιν ἁρμόδιος.

Marcus Fronto, To Marcus Antoninus? 

“Cato attacks with words brutally, Gracchus overwhelms. Tully attacks fully. When in the courtroom, Cato seethes with rage, Cicero is victorious, Gracchus sets of a riot, and Calvus picks a fight,”

Contionatur autem Cato infeste, Gracchus turbulente, Tullius copiose. Iam in iudiciis saevit idem Cato, triumphat Cicero, tumultuatur Gracchus, Calvus rixatur.

Tacitus, Dialogus de Oratoribus 21

“We may grant to Caesar that he achieved less in the way of eloquence than his divine genius would have demanded, largely due to the greatness of his thoughts and occupations. Similarly, we may leave Brutus to his philosophical inquiries. For, in the realm of rhetoric, even his admirers would admit that he was not equal to his own reputation. That is, perhaps, unless there is someone who would read Caesar’s On Behalf of Decius the Samnite or Brutus’ On Behalf of King Deiotarus and other works of the same dull mildness; this reader must also admire the poems of these same men. For indeed, they wrote poems and even deposited them in libraries; though they were no better poets than Cicero, they were more fortunate, because fewer people know about their poetic endeavors.”

concedamus sane C. Caesari, ut propter magnitudinem cogitationum et occupationes rerum minus in eloquentia effecerit, quam divinum eius ingenium postulabat, tam hercule quam Brutum philosophiae suae relinquamus; nam in orationibus minorem esse [6] fama sua etiam admiratores eius fatentur: nisi forte quisquam aut Caesaris pro Decio Samnite aut Bruti pro Deiotaro rege ceterosque eiusdem lentitudinis ac teporis libros legit, nisi qui et carmina eorundem miratur. fecerunt enim et carmina et in bibliothecas rettulerunt, non melius quam Cicero, sed [7] felicius, quia illos fecisse pauciores sciunt.

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 12.2

“It is so tedious to quote Seneca’s words. still, I won’t overlook the jokes of that incompetent and improper man.”

Sed iam verborum Senecae piget; haec tamen inepti et insubidi hominis ioca non praeteribo

Macrobius, Saturnalia (II.2.3.1-4) 

“I am surprised that you all have been quiet about Cicero’s jokes which prove him as eloquent as in everything else he said. If it seems right, I am prepared—like the guardian of a temple about to announce the oracles of a god—to repeat the Ciceronian jests I remember.

When everyone appeared ready to listen to him, he began: “When Marcus Cicero dined with Damasippus and his host offered him a rather middling wine and said “Drink this forty-year old Falernian,” Cicero replied “It carries its age well.” At another time when he saw his own son-in-law Lentulus, a man of short stature, girded up with a long sword, he asked “Who has attached my son-in-law to a sword?” Nor did he keep a similar bite from his brother Quintus Cicero. For, when visiting the province Quintus that was administering, he saw his brother’s portrait armed with a circular shield sculpted with much greater size near the chest in the manner of pictures (his brother was also a bit on the shorter side), he said “Half of my brother is bigger than the whole!”

Sed miror omnes vos ioca tacuisse Ciceronis, in quibus facundissimus, ut in omnibus, fuit: et, si videtur, ut aedituus responsa numinis sui praedicat ita ego quae memoria suggesserit refero dicta Ciceronis. Tum omnibus ad audiendum erectis ille sic incipit: 2 M. Cicero, cum apud Damasippum coenaret et ille mediocri vino posito diceret: Bibite Falernum hoc, annorum quadraginta est: Bene, inquit, aetatem fert. 3 Idem cum Lentulum generum suum, exiguae naturae hominem, longo gladio adcinctum vidisset: Quis, inquit, generum meum ad gladium alligavit? 4 Nec Q. Ciceroni fratri circa similem mordacitatem pepercit. Nam cum in ea provincia quam ille rexerat vidisset clypeatam imaginem eius ingentibus lineamentis usque ad pectus ex more pictam (erat autem Quintus ipse staturae parvae), ait: Frater meus dimidius maior est quam totus.

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