In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Seneca the Elder

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biography
  • Texts and Commentaries
  • Translations
  • Collection of Papers
  • Bibliographies
  • The Various Declaimers
  • Themes
  • Literary Aspects
  • Literary Criticism
  • Intertextuality
  • The Praefationes
  • Decline of Eloquence
  • Datation
  • Politics and the Cultural Background
  • Seneca the Elder and the Declamatory Educational System
  • Style, Grammar, Terminology
  • Textual Tradition and Criticism
  • The Historiae
  • Reception

Classics Seneca the Elder
Stefan Feddern
  • LAST REVIEWED: 09 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0191


Though Seneca the Elder (c. 50 BCEc. 40 CE) is a person almost unknown to us, his extant work, the Oratorum et rhetorum sententiae divisiones colores (excerpts of the two kinds of declamation, controversiae and suasoriae), is exceedingly rich in information about the early imperial declamation and about the literary culture of that period in general. While his historiographical work, the Historiae, has not survived (apart from a few fragments), his declamation excerpts document not only the declamation as such; they also offer us an insight into the whole process of declamation and the declamation schools. This insight is highly important for the history of declamation because it is the first one we possess, despite the fact that declamation itself is a phenomenon that originated in Greece and has a centuries-long tradition. It is important also for the history of rhetoric and for Roman education and culture in general because declamation formed an integral part of the curriculum of higher education. In its original state, Seneca the Elder’s declamatory work consisted of ten books of excerpts from controversiae (fictitious court cases), and there may have been perhaps at least a second book of excerpts from suasoriae (fictitious speeches of advice to historical or mythical personages). It is not known whether each book was introduced by a preface addressed to his sons, but it is likely that more prefaces existed than we have today. Unfortunately, only parts of the original work survive. In the process of transmission, probably in Late Antiquity, excerpts were drafted of Seneca the Elder’s declamatory work. These excerpts are shortened versions of the excerpts from the controversiae (not from the suasoriae), and they contain some prefaces that otherwise would have been lost. What we possess today is the sum of both of the traditions: the controversiae books 1, 2, 7, 9, and 10 and one book of suasoriae in the form that Seneca the Elder gave to them (the mentioned books of controversiae additionally exist in the form of the excerpts made in Late Antiquity). The controversiae books 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 have survived only in the shortened form that they received in Late Antiquity. Finally, we possess the prefaces to books 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, and 10 of the controversiae.

General Overviews

Only a few modern overviews are available. After a long gap, in which Koerber 1864, a German-language dissertation, was the only general overview of Seneca the Elder, interest in his work grew, evidenced by two English-language monographs, Sussman 1978 and Fairweather 1981. These studies are cited by nearly every scholar who deals with any aspect of the Senecan declamations. They are supplemented by Berti 2007, an Italian-language monograph that pays special attention to the literary aspects of declamation, and Migliario 2007, which focuses on the historical and political aspects of the Senecan declamations.

  • Berti, Emanuele. 2007. Scholasticorum studia: Seneca il Vecchio e la cultura retorica e letteraria della prima età imperiale. Pisa, Italy: Giardini.

    The most recent overview of the work of the Elder Seneca. A very useful synthesis because it discusses thoroughly the main questions and takes account of nearly all the former research. In the first part of the book (pp. 43–247), the rhetorical aspects of the Senecan declamations are treated and, in the second part (pp. 249–358), the literary aspects.

  • Fairweather, Janet. 1981. Seneca the Elder. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511659164

    Together with Sussman 1978, an important basic work that analyzes the main aspects of the controversiae and suasoriae. It sets Seneca the Elder against the background of his time and discusses many technical matters of declamation.

  • Koerber, Joseph. 1864. Über den Rhetor Seneca und die römische Rhetorik seiner Zeit. PhD diss., Univ. of Marburg.

    An older German-language overview that cannot compete with the modern ones, but it is still useful for consultation regarding certain points, for example, concerning the collage character of the Senecan declamations (pp. 18–19).

  • León Alonso, Pilar. 1982. Seneca el Viejo: Vida y obra. Seville, Spain: Univ. of Seville.

    A Spanish-language monograph that does not take into account systematically earlier research and has not received the same reception as Sussman 1978 and Fairweather 1981. The reader has to be critical with the interpretations because the author does not distinguish strictly between Seneca the Elder and the various declaimers.

  • Migliario, Elvira. 2007. Retorica e storia: Una lettura delle Suasoriae di Seneca Padre. Bari, Italy: Edipuglia.

    An Italian-language monograph about the suasoriae that analyzes various aspects of the work. It is rich in prosopographical and historical material. Migliario sees differences between the generation that was born between 50 and 45 BCE and the generation that was born in the last decades of the first century BCE or later.

  • Sussman, Lewis A. 1978. The elder Seneca. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    DOI: 10.1163/9789004327689

    Together with Fairweather 1981, an important work of reference. Sussman analyzes the main aspects of the controversiae and suasoriae and devotes a chapter to the Historiae and one to the Nachleben of Seneca the Elder.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.