Text and Transmission of Hercules Furens

By Kyle Gervais

The Latin text in this edition closely follows that in the edition by John G. Fitch (Seneca’s Hercules Furens: A Critical Text with Introduction and Commentary, Cornell University Press, 1987). We have included brief discussions of several textual issues throughout the notes. Every ancient text has many places where the correct version of a word, phrase, or line is uncertain. This arose inevitably from the process of copying a text over and over to produce new handwritten manuscripts before mechanical printing was introduced to Europe in the fifteenth century. As anyone who has tried to copy something by hand quickly discovers, errors are unavoidable. No ancient Latin text survives in its original copy, or even in a copy very close to the original. A few works, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, survive in copies from late antiquity (still several centuries and many copies removed from the original). For most texts, the earliest copy is significantly later.

The oldest surviving copy of Seneca’s tragedies was written in Italy in the late eleventh century: the so-called “Etruscus” manuscript, abbreviated simply as E (the manuscript’s full “shelfmark” – a description of where the physical copy can be found – is as follows: Florence, Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, plut. 37.13). Happily, many manuscripts have begun to be digitized and made freely available online, and this includes E. You can find the opening lines of Hercules Furens by clicking on “Carta: 1v” at this link. The script (style of handwriting) in the manuscript is called “Caroline minuscule.” Once you get used to it, you’ll find that it doesn’t look that much different than the font you are currently reading: that’s because we derive most of our modern fonts from this medieval script.

The Etruscus represents one of two “branches” of the medieval transmission of Seneca’s tragedies. It is the source of several important fourteenth-century copies. In our notes we occasionally refer you to a passage in one of these copies, the so-called F manuscript (shelfmark: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 11855). You can see a black-and-white scan of the manuscript online at this link. The script in this manuscript is one of several types of “Gothic” scripts, and you’ll probably find it a bit harder to read: that’s because we no longer regularly use fonts derived from these scripts.

The other branch of the medieval transmission derives from a twelfth-century manuscript, called A, which no longer survives. But we know it to be the ultimate source of almost every later medieval copy of Seneca’s tragedies; we occasionally refer to one of these copies, the thirteenth-century P manuscript (shelfmark: Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, lat. 8260, online at this link). The “A family” of manuscripts contains a text often very different from the “E family,” and editors of Seneca must frequently decide which of the two families contains a word, phrase, or line that likely represents Seneca’s original text. In some cases, editors conclude that both branches of the tradition have been corrupted by copying errors; editors must then attempt to reconstruct Seneca’s original as best they can, which sometimes means writing a new word or phrase not found in the manuscripts, known as a “conjecture.”

Students learning Latin of course will not engage in this sort of detailed textual investigation. Instead, you have to trust that the editor of your text has made the best decision about what reading to print in any given instance. But you can, even as you work on the many other challenges of Seneca’s Latin, occasionally remember that the very text you’re reading is often uncertain. For an example of this uncertainty, and of how editors go about choosing the best reading, look at our note on lines 590-1, where the E branch of the tradition (including manuscript F) has the word carmine but the A branch (including manuscript P) has the word cantibus.

Suggested Citation

Neil Bernstein and Kyle Gervais, Seneca: Hercules Furens. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2021. ISBN: 978-1-947822-16-0. https://dcc.dickinson.edu/seneca-hercules-furens/intro/preface