Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Planning next year's readalong opportunities - Greek philosophy and Roman plays

If only I had another idea as good as reading all the Greek plays in order.  But I do have ideas.

1. Roman plays.  Up to five Roman playwrights have survived: the comedians Plautus and Terence and the tragedian Seneca, along with two plays under his name that were likely written by others.  The Roman creative spirit is often deeply imitative of Greek literature, and is that ever the case here, with Seneca adapting Euripides and the comedians pilfering Menander and the other New Comedy playwrights.

Twenty plays by Plautus have survived, along with six by Terence (his complete works – he died young), eight by Seneca, and the two “Seneca” plays not by Seneca.  It is certainly possible that the famous Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, did not write any of them, but I will assume that he did.

I would not want to read through all of the Roman plays.  Twenty Plautus plays!  I had enough trouble writing two posts about his model Menander.  Some of that reading is best left to graduate students.  But if you are on the road to Shakespeare, some Roman comedy and especially some Seneca are essential.  Shakespeare never read the Greeks, but he read the Romans.

So next year I will revisit the Roman plays.  Say one writer per month; maybe three or four plays per author?  No obvious reason to read the exact same plays.  Shakespearists should try, at least, The Brothers Menaechmus (for The Comedy of Errors) and The Braggart Soldier (for Falstaff) by Plautus and a couple of the more famous Seneca plays – say Medea and Phaedra and Hercules Furens.  Euripideans will be fascinated, or horrified, by what Seneca does.  A fun idea not available with the Greeks: Seneca’s plays are available in Elizabethan translation.  I read one of them twenty years ago and hope to try a couple more.

Three writers, three months, a dozen plays at most.  Easy.  Please join in if you want to continue the history of theater.  In fact, please read them all and let me know what you find.  I’ll write all of this up again in early January.

2.  Greek philosophy.  I think I have figured out how this would work as a readalong.  Each month I, or we, will focus on a specific school or writer.  We will have one central, famous text, but of course there is endless reading available.  Something like this:

Presocratics – the aphorisms of Heraclitus, or the verse of Empedocles, or both

Sophists – Theaetetus by Plato

Socrates – the three “death of Socrates” texts, Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito, by Plato

Plato – The Republic

Aristotle – The Nicomachean Ethics

Epicureanism – The Nature of Things by Lucretius (I’m cheating, this is Roman)

Stoicism, Cynicism, etc.  – still thinking about these

I’ll use Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius as a gossipy, inaccurate guide to the subject.  The 2018 Oxford University Press edition of this 3rd century semi-classic is a wonder, newly translated, illustrated, and with a superb bibliography.

Philosophy, to me, is a branch of literature, a difficult for one for a number of reasons, one of which is that to most philosophers it something else, and perhaps I will learn to understand that idea as I read more, but until then. This will be a literary project.  There is so much Plato on that list because he was, in much of his writing, a great artist.

Again, I will write this up in more detail in January.

Please add any suggestions of your own, whether or not you are interested in reading along with this or that text.

I have a number of ideas for readalongs that are much better than these.  I will write about them tomorrow.,  Perhaps someone else will want them.

I still need to write up my notes on Longinus.  But this is easier to write.


  1. I'm up for a read of the Roman playwrights and the philosophy. I have read Plato, but struggled with "The Republic" , but as I was in my twenties and not having much time for reading, I found it "boring" , but 50 years on I have a different outlook on many things. I'll look forward to your new schedule. Thanks.

  2. "But if you are on the road to Shakespeare, some Roman comedy and especially some Seneca are essential. Shakespeare never read the Greeks, but he read the Romans."
    I'm so narcissistic I thought those lines were meant for me lol.

  3. I'm interested in joining in on reading a selection of Roman plays. My father taught theater history for years and left me a couple of his books (mostly big picture books with photos of what we think the theaters must have been like, based on ruins). We saw the facade of the Marcellus theater in Rome and ate in a restaurant built in some of the underground parts of a former theater.

  4. Yes, Clare, The Republic should look quite different, and will be difficult in different ways. I look forward to reading with you.

    Di, I did mean you, and other people like you. There are many. People interested in Shakespeare would get a lot out of reading his sources, more than the random reader, certainly. I have a theory that young Shakespeare thought of himself as in competition with the Romans, and had to outdo them (which he did).

    I will have to read up on what we know about Roman theater practice. I assume much had changed. The Seneca plays were likely never even performed. I should also get some sense of what is thought to have been lost, aside from Ovid's legendary Medea.

  5. I will try to be part of the Plato read-along, as I've already decided to have another go at him this coming year. Which is to say, I found our copy of his dialogues. I read the Republic five years ago or so, so we must have a copy of that. I read Aristotle's Ethics some years back but I don't think I'm up for another go. I find Aristotle's morals wanting and reading the Ethics just agitated me; I'm getting too old for that sort of thing. I'll wait and see about the Roman playwrights. I haven't read a word of their work. Tempus brevis, et cetera.

  6. Plato, good. That sounds like a good plan. I am hoping to read - well - some Platonic dialogues I have read before and some I haven't. Many of them are short little things.

    You've read some words of Terence. You have read "I am human; nothing that is human is alien to me" or some variant. That line is his.

  7. I just acquired last week from Oxford Press six new translations of plays by Senaca done by Emily Wilson, in a Kindle edition with a decent introduction. Hopefully I will read all these during your event

  8. Thanks for reminding me of the recent Seneca translation, by a celebrity translator no less.

  9. I think I might be classicsed out from the Greeks to participate wholeheartedly in any of these, but I'd probably dip into some. I really should try to actually read The Republic sometime, instead of whatever skimming I did for a college class - if nothing else, it would help me understand Iris Murdoch better. I imagine Seneca would be interesting - I know I read his Phaedra side-by-side with Euripides' Hippolytus in college but remember very little about it.

    One thing I've gotten the urge to do is reread Herodotus's Histories, but I can't guarantee my attention span would actually hold up to it.

  10. Both these projects sound interesting, although I'm especially intrigued by the Roman plays which are new to me. The "Shakespeare" bit grabs my attention. If timing works out, I may try to join in a bit for that project.

  11. Herodotus is a blast. Strange book. Herodotus invented anthropology as an afterthought while inventing history.

    I hope a number of people interested in Shakespeare join in. They will make discussion more interesting. The Roman plays really illuminate certain aspects of Elizabethan plays.