Selection 4 (4a.2.12-15)

[4a.2.12] Cēterum bēluās marīnīs vel magnitūdine vel noxā parēs ēducat, et ex eō quantus sit aestimārī potest, quod ingentia animālia et pābulō sufficientī et ad vagandum locō continet. [4a.2.13] Balbillus virōrum optimus, perfectusque in omnī litterārum genere rārissimē, auctor est, cum ipse praefectus obtinēret Aegyptum, Hēracleōticō ōstiō Nīlī, quod est maximum ex <septem>, spectāculō sibi fuisse delphīnōrum ā marī occurrentium et cocodrillorum ā flūmine adversum agmen agentium velut prō partibus proelium. cocodrillōs ab animālibus placidīs morsūque innoxiīs vīctōs. [4a.2.14] hīs superior pars corporis dūra et impenetrābilis est etiam maiōrum animālium dentibus, at īnferior mollis ac tenera. hanc delphīnī spīnīs, quās dorsō ēminentēs gerunt, submersī vulnerābant, et in adversum ēnīsī dīvidēbant. rescissīs hōc modō plūribus, cēterī velut aciē versā refūgērunt, fugāx animal audācī, audācissimum timidō! [4a.2.15] nec illōs Tentyrītae generis aut sanguinis proprietāte superant, sed contemptū et temeritāte. ultrō enim īnsequuntur fugientēsque iniectō trahunt laqueō. plērīque pereunt, quibus minus praesēns animus ad persequendum fuit.

Selection 4 (4a.2.12–15): A fight between crocodiles and dolphins in the Nile Delta.

This is taken from the now fragmentary book in which Seneca provides a description of the wonders of the Nile (Book 4a). Seneca had spent some of his youth in Egypt and had written a (lost) work about Egypt. In NQ 3, he stressed that the Nile is unique among terrestrial waters and reserved this book to write about it. One should understand NQ 4a as, in many ways, a continuation of the investigation into terrestrial waters that Seneca began in NQ 3. If the Nile’s size, unknown source, and beneficial flooding were not enough to make it seem unique, it also has creatures of immense size. Seneca finds ways to touch upon the character these animals which might relate to humankind: crocodiles are full of bravado when facing small fry, but cowardly when challenged, while dolphins show creativity and guile in their attacks.

Suggested Reading: Chapter 3 of Williams 2012 points out connections between Books 3 and 4a; Chapter 4 of Merrills 2017 offers a philosophical reading of the Nile that touches upon connections with Lucretius; Mollea 2019 finds the preface of this book in dialogue with the Epistulae Morales.

[4a.2.12] The Nile is a massive river, and there are huge and marvelous animals in it.

educat: “rears,” “fosters,” > educo -are. Supply the Nile as the subject.

marinis: supply beluis, dative after pares (“comparable to”)

magnitudine ... noxa: ablative of specification (AG 418).

ex eo: “from the following”; anticipatory, with quod answering eo. Seneca often employs demonstratives pronouns to introduce a subsequent clause. The Latin could be re-ordered, potest aestimari quantus (Nilus) sit ex eo, quod ...

quantus sit: indirect question, “how great (the Nile) is,” “its size” (AG 574)

ad vagandum loco: “with space to wander about,” ad + gerund for purpose (AG 506)

[4a.2.13] A story about a battle between crocodiles and dolphins.

Balbillus virorum optimus: “Balbillus, best of men,” “the excellent Balbillus.” Tiberius Claudius Balbillus was prefect of Egypt in 55 CE. The compliment is a favorite of Seneca’s, and he addresses Lucilius and other people he respects in this way (Lucili virorum optime, Balbillus’ exceptional erudition and his eye-witness experience of the event makes him worth naming as a source. That blend of learning and observation makes for a good natural scientist in Seneca’s estimation and is often behind Seneca’s own conclusions in the NQ.

litterarum: “literature, learning, scholarship” (LS littera II.B.9)

praefectus: “as a prefect.” Prefects were Roman administrators stationed in provincial territories. Seneca is probably engaging in some wordplay with perfectus earlier. The very learned man deserves to be prefect.

Heracleotico ostio: “the Heracleotic mouth” of the Nile, ablative of place where (AG 421). This was the westernmost mouth of the Nile and is also called the Canopic. See this map for details.

ex <septem>: the supplement by Diels helps the sense—there were seven channels of the Nile Delta.

spectaculo sibi fuisse: double dative construction—the battle (proelium) “served as a show put on for him” (AG 382); take as indirect statement with auctor est setting up the construction with the infinitive. Such a “spectacle” would evoke the Roman arena, where nautical shows were common and beast fights delighted the crowd.

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Cristiana Franco writes about animal spectacles of this sort: “Fights might also occur between animals: for example, bulls chained to lions or bears, or bears unleashed against wild donkeys. The most unexpected combinations were sought after for producing the most violent outburst of ferocity. When the beasts refused to fight, or tried to flee, specialized personnel provided incitement with prods and whips, waving cloth or straw dummies, or running through revolving doors. If none of these methods succeeded, the audience might be greatly disappointed, and the spectacle considered a bomb” (2018: 292). For a description of Seneca’s reaction to such a spectaculum, see Ep. 7.

delphinorum ... occurrentium // cocodrillorum ... agentium: these genitives define the spectaculum.

occurrentium: “rushing to meet,” “attacking” (LS occurro A.I.2).

adversum agmen agentium: “forming an opposing marching line.” agmen implies the crocodiles were traveling roughly single file, rather than advancing as a horizontal battle line (which would be an acies, not an agmen).

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Alliterative wordplay and the repetition of “m” sounds helps to define this enemy line and the following collocation pro partibus proelium adds further tongue-twisters to this line. Is Seneca having some fun with his battle language here (and parodying earlier epic poetry such as Ennius’ O Tite, tute, Tati, tibi tanta tyranne tulisti)?

pro partibus: “in defense of their factions,” or “for their sides.” During plays, chariot races, and gladiatorial shows, Roman spectators also had factions and vigorously expressed their support or displeasure.

cocodrillos ... victos: indirect speech; supply the infinitive esse.

morsu innoxiis: “harmless in respect to their bite,” in contrast to the crocodiles.

[4a.2.14] The dolphins used their fins to wound the soft underbellies of the crocodiles, thus putting these more agressive animals to flight.

his: the antecedent is cocodrillos.

hanc: direct object of vulnerabant, referring back to the inferior pars of the crocodile.

in adversum enisi: this describes the action of the dolphins pushing their fins against the soft underbellies of the crocodiles. In adversum, “forward,” was often used by Caesar to describe military encounters.

rescissis ... pluribus: ablative absolute (AG 419).

hoc modo: “in this way”

fugax animal audaci, audacissimum timido: i.e., animal audacissimum timido fugax (erat) audaci, “an animal (the crocodile), (which is) very brave against fearful prey (timido), was cowardly to (when facing) the brave (dolphin).” Seneca’s word order highlights the surprising word fugax, and creates an elegant antithesis, in chiastic order, with polyptoton. The singular animal stands for the entire species of crocodiles; earlier, Seneca had used the plural when discussing the groups of wounded vs. surviving crocodiles from the battle (rescissis … pluribus, ceteri).

[4a.2.15] How the people of Tentyra catch crocodiles.

illos: the crocodiles.

Tentyritae: nom. pl., "the inhabitants of Tentyra" (Dendera) in Upper Egypt (far from the delta). There is an impressive temple complex there dedicated to the goddess Hathor.

proprietate: “special property” or “particular virtue,” ablative of means followed by the defining genitives generis … sanguinis.

generis aut sanguinis: "of their race or blood." There is nothing special about this group of people that allows them to catch crocodiles. See OLD sanguis 9: "family, race, class, etc."

fugientes: the crocodiles are rounded up as they flee using a lasso (iniecto ... laqueo); this is very dangerous for those not paying close attention.

plerique: “many” of the inhabitants of Tentyra (rather than “most,” “the majority,” which is the more common meaning).

quibus minus ... fuit: “who have had less,” i.e., “those who have lost” their nerve (praesens animus). quibus is dative of possession (AG 373).

ad persequendum: ad + gerundive expressing purpose (AG 506).

bēlua –ae f.: beast, monster

marīnus –a –um: of the sea

noxa noxae f.: harm, injury

aestimō aestimāre aestimāvī aestimātus: to rate, value, esteem; consider

pābulum –ī n.: food, fuel, nourishment

sufficiō sufficere suffēcī suffectum: be sufficient for (+dat.), suffice

vagor (1) –ārī or vagō vagāre vagāvī: wander, move

Balbillus –ī m.: Tiberius Claudius Balbillus was a scholar and astronomer of the 1st C. CE., who was prefect of Egypt in 55 CE 4a.2.13

perfectus –a –um: complete, finished, perfect

praefectus praefectī m.: prefect, governor.

obtineō obtinēre obtinuī obtentus: achieve, gain, hold (a position/rank)

Aegyptos (–tus) –ī f.: Egypt

Hēraclēōticus –a –um: of or belonging to Heraclea (a city in Egypt), Heracleotic

ōstium ōsti(ī) n.: mouth, entrance, door

Nīlus –ī m.: Nile River

māximus –a –um: greatest; maxime: most, especially, very much

septem; septimus –a –um: 7; 7th

spectāculum spectāculī n.: sight, spectacle, show

delphīnus –ī m. (acc. delphīnās) or delphīn –īnis m.: dolphin

crocodīlus (crocodillus) –ī m.: crocodile

placidus –a –um: calm, quiet, free from

morsus morsūs m.: bite

innoxius –a –um: harmless, innocent

im–penetrābilis –e: not to be pierced, impenetrable 4a.2.14

maior māius: bigger

animālis –e: animate

dēns dentis m.: tooth

delphīnus –ī m. (acc. delphīnās) delphīn –īnis m.: dolphin

spīna –ae f.: spine, dorsal fin. 

dorsum –ī n.: the back

ēmineō –ēre –uī: to stand out

summergō –ere –mersī –mersus: to sink, submerge

vulnerō vulnerāre vulnerāvī vulnerātus: to wound

adversum –ī n.: the opposite direction

ēnītor ēnītī ēnīsus/ēnīxus sum: exert oneself, make an effort

rescindō –ere –scidī –scissus: tear open

refugiō –ere –fugere –fūgī: to flee back, run away

fugāx –ācis: cowardly

timidus –a– um: hesitant, cowardly, timid

Tentyrītes –ae: The city of Tentyra is in Upper Egypt (far from the delta), and there is a fabulous temple to Hathor there. This refers to the inhabitants of Tentyra 4a.2.15

proprietās –ātis f: property, peculiarity, quality. 

contemptus –ūs m.: petty, paltry, contemptible

temeritās temeritātis f.: rashness

ultrō: spontaneously, voluntarily

īnsequor īnsequī īnsecūtus sum: to follow after, pursue

iniciō –ere –iēcī –iectum: to throw, cast, hurl in

laqueus –ī m.: noose, snare

persequor persequī persecūtus sum: to follow persistently, chase after, prosecute

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