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IS NOTHING GENTLER THAN WILD BEASTS? SENECA, PHAEDRA 558.

Hippolytus' declamation on the progress of human depravity brings him from the invention of weapons to the climactic horror of stepmothers (553-8), after which he turns to the vices of women in general and Medea in particular (559-64):(1)

555
   turn scelera dempto fine per cunctas domos
   iere, nullum caruit exemplo nefas:
   a fratre frater, dextera gnati parens
   cecidit, maritus coniugis ferro iacet
   perimuntque fetus impiae matres suos;
   taceo nouercas: mitius nil est feris.


560
   Sed dux malorum femina: haec scelerum artifex
   obsedit animos, huius incestae stupris
   fumant tot urbes, bella tot gentes gerunt
   et uersa ab imo regna tot populos premunt.
   sileantur aliae: sola coniunx Aegei,
   Medea, reddet feminas dirum genus.


There are two problems in this passage, and both centre on the second half of 558, mitius nil est feris. The meaning of the words is obscure at best, and the transition from what precedes to what follows is also very difficult, no matter how we understand them. G. O. Hutchinson has argued for a lacuna after 558, since sed introduces no sort of contrast with the preceding words,(2) while both the editor and the anonymous referee contemplate excision of all or part of the line.(3) Either or both of these suggestions is likely to be right. The coincidence of two separate problems in one place is a sign that they are likely to be related, and in this case both could be removed by marking a lacuna after line 558 and bracketing either the second half of the line or all of it, as a lame attempt to fill the gap. However, on the principle that minor surgery should be attempted before resorting to amputation and prosthetic substitution, I will offer a solution to the first problem only, while admitting that it leaves the connection unsatisfactory.

The difficulties of mitius nil est feris are best outlined by quoting the incompatible interpretations of the three most recent commentaries. M. Coffey and R. G. Mayer (Cambridge, 1990) consider the text corrupt:

mitius ... feris: this clause, which must offer a comment related specifically to stepmothers, has long caused difficulty since its most obvious sense is that `there is nothing gentler than wild beasts'. The context however requires `the very beasts are altogether gentler (than stepmothers)'. S. might have written either melius ingenium est feris (cf. Ov. Am. 2.10.26 turpe erit, ingenium mitius esse feris), or nulla non melior fera est (= H.O. 236). The desired sense is not to be found in the transmitted text, nor have emendations which stick closely to the paradosis proved satisfactory. The clause may therefore be severely corrupt.

I would add that `there is nothing gentler than wild beasts' would be nonsense in any context. After such devastating remarks about the paradosis, it comes as a bit of surprise to turn back to the text and find neither obelus nor apparatus, despite the `measure of editorial independence' (from Zwierlein) professed in the preface.

In referring to `emendations which stick closely to the paradosis', Coffey and Mayer seem to allude to Scaliger, who tentatively suggested mitior mens est feris,(4) and F. Leo (Berlin, 1878-9), who emended to taceo noueream: mitior nil est feris and adduced a parallel from Euripides for the adverbial use of nil: [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Alc. 309-10). Neither corruption seems particularly likely, and Leo's conjecture has a more serious problem: it is incompatible with the context (such as it is). The following lines--assuming for the moment, with Leo, that nothing has been lost or inserted--show that mitius nil est feris must refer not to Phaedra alone, nor to stepmothers in general, but to all of the human criminals on Hippolytus' list.(5) In accordance with this interpretation, Zwierlein, who considers the paradosis sound, takes nil as the subject of the sentence:(6)

Nihil fa[Beta]t hier ebenso all zuvor genannten Menschen zusammen (`nihil in humano genere' paraphrasiert deshalb Carlsson) wie in 353 (nihil immune est) alle aufgezahlten Tiere. Dem taceo novercas an unserer Stelle entspricht dort vincit saevas cura novercas (357).

This does not convince. In the parallel passage, the negative takes up a preceding omnes, which makes the shift from the plural beasts to the generalizing neuter singular more explicit and far less ambiguous: uindicat omnes/natura sibi, nihil immune est (352-3). Our passage provides no such hint, and I do not see how any reader or member of the audience (if there was an audience) could be expected to realize that nil means nihil in humano genere, or even that it is the subject: nil horum might just suffice, but nil alone will not.

Finally, A. J. Boyle (Liverpool, 1987) also finds the paradosis satisfactory, but sticks with Leo's interpretation of nil, glossing the phrase as follows:

mitius nil estferis: the subject of est is nouerca treated as neuter. Nil is adverbial accusative of extent (see 119n.). Feris is ablative of comparison (see 143n.). Lit. `she is a thing to no extent more gentle than wild beasts'.

That is a lot of explaining for four little words, and the switch from the feminine plural before the colon to the collective neuter singular after it is very harsh, particularly as the subject of est is only implied and there is another neuter singular loitering in the vicinity looking like a subject, and taken as such by Zwierlein, though it is an adverbial accusative. It is also unclear whether Boyle's implied singular nouerca is Phaedra or a generic wicked stepmother. If the former, his interpretation is open to the same objection as Leo's conjecture. If the latter, why the awkward change of gender?

I have quoted the most recent commentators at some length because each has contributed something to my proposed solution. I believe that Coffey and blayer are right in arguing that emendation is necessary, since the required sense cannot be extracted from the paradosis without violence. At the same time, Zwierlein is right to make the words apply to the whole list of human criminals, not just Phaedra, and Leo and Boyle in taking nil as an adverbial accusative. What we need is a conjecture that will produce a clear shift from the feminine plural to the neuter singular while preventing the reader from taking nil as the subject, since that would leave us with the nonsensical meaning quoted in my title.

In following the critical principle `start from the sense', translations are often useful. Here the required meaning is expressed most clearly and succinctly by Segal's version:(7)
   `As to stepmothers I am silent: they are a thing no gentler than beasts.'


This is an excellent rendering of just what Seneca must have written--if, that is, he wrote 558b at all:
   taceo nouercas: mitius nil sunt feris.


The singulars and plurals are now in the right places, just where they are in Segal's version, while the rules of Latin concord prevent the reader from taking nil as the subject (with Zwierlein), leaving an adverbial accusative as the only thing it can be (so Leo and Boyle). The shift from feminine plural to neuter singular is still very bold, but clearly signposted, as in Zwierlein's parallel passage. Corruption would have been inevitable, as with Juvenal's quota portio faecis Achaei?, `what proportion of the dregs (of Roman society) are Greeks?' (3.61), where nearly all manuscripts mistake the nominative plural for a genitive singular and `correct' the gender to Achaeae.(8) After mitius nil, plural sunt would have been equally vulnerable. The fact that `there is nothing gentler than wild beasts' is nonsense in any language has not deterred modern translators from glossing it with vernacular nonsense.(9) Why should a medieval scribe have been more fastidious when it came to copying such nonsense, or even (in at least one case) `correcting' mitius nil suntferis so as to produce it?

(1) My text is quoted from O. Zwierlein, L. Annaei Senecae Tragoediae (Oxford, 1986). There are no pertinent variants, and Zwierlein lists no conjectures. All references are ad loc. except as specified.

(2) G. O. Hutchinson, Latin Literature from Seneca to Juvenal (Oxford, 1993), p. 162 n. 27.

(3) As always, I am grateful to both for their comments. Both argue that taceo nouercas would make an unusually effective half-line, though Dr Heyworth prefers to delete all of 558 as an interpolation. The fact that the other four half-lines in Seneca (Pha. 605, Tro. 1103, Pho. 319, and Thy. 100) are followed by a change of speaker is another hint that something may be missing here. The referee also points out that mitius nil est feris could be sound, if the next (lost) line included something (e.g. humanum genus) for it to agree with.

(4) Quoted in Scriverius' edition (Leiden, 1621): `haec non capio. Si dicat mitior mens est feris, melius caperem. Aliquid tale poscit sententia. Scal.'

(5) The distinction is a bit artificial. Obviously, the final position of the stepmothers in the list--not to mention the praeteritio--makes them the most prominent class of criminals, while Phaedra is by far the most important member of that class in Hippolytus' eyes. Perhaps we should say then that the following words (sed dux malorumfemina) refer to all human criminals, especially stepmothers, and most especially Phaedra.

(6) Kritischer Kommentar zu den Tragodien Senecas (Abh. Akad. Mainz, Geistes- und Sozialwiss. Klasse, Einzelveroffentlichung 6; Stuttgart, 1986), p. 168. The interpretation of R. Giomini (Phaedra, Rome, 1955) is similar. Both provide references to other scholars who have argued along the same lines.

(7) C. Segal, Language and Desire in Seneca's `Phaedra' (Princeton, 1986), p. 90. The interpretation, which is roughly the same as Boyle's and not entirely different from Leo's, is no doubt much older, though I have not attempted to trace it further back. Segal's translation is identical to F. J. Miller's [Loeb.sup.2] (London and Cambridge, 1929), if we ignore--and it is not easy--the latter's irritatingly archaic style, which must have been hopelessly out of date the day it was published: `I say naught of stepmothers; they are no whit more merciful than beasts'.

(8) Those few scribes who preserved Achaei may be suspected of not knowing the gender of faex.

(9) L. Herrmann ([Bude.sup.4], Paris, 1968): `quant aux marfitres, je les passe sous silence. Les fauves ne sont rien moins que doux.' T. Thomann ([Artemis.sup.2], Zurich and Munich, 1978): `Ich rede nicht von Stiefmuttern: nicht Milderes gibt es als wilde Tiere.' F.-R. Chaumartin (Bude, Paris, 1996): `Je passe sous silence les maratres: il n'y a pas plus de douceur ici que parmi les fauves.' No doubt the facing-text format encourages literalism.

MICHAEL HENDRY

curculio@erols.com Arlington, Virginia
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Author:HENDRY, MICHAEL
Publication:The Classical Quarterly
Date:Jul 1, 1998
Words:1779
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