You are here

Beyond Ornamentation: Seneca, Vergil's Aeneid, and the Interlocutor

Sophia R Elzie

Agnes Scott College

The surviving text of Seneca’s De Otio opens with a discussion between the speaker and the interlocutor, one of the most common devices in Senecan philosophy (Lavery). Seneca also incorporates one of his other favorite devices, poetic quotation, into the interlocutor’s speech (Dueck). The quote he uses is from the Aeneid, canitiem galea premimus “we press down gray hair with a helmet” (Aen.IX.612, qtd. in Ot.1.4). Although Seneca often quotes from other authors, this quotation defies the categories established by previous scholars, who propose ten different classifications and under whose criteria this quote would be classified as “decorative” (Dueck). The quotation’s unique function is to provide a structural framework for discussing the phases of life, a framework which Seneca repurposes in order to present his prescribed labor for different parts of life as less severe than that represented by interlocutor’s quote from Vergil. Seneca’s refutation of the interlocutor presents a philosophy more accessible to the ordinary Roman, a philosophy he develops over the course of the De Otio.

The quotation selected by Seneca is unusual first and foremost because it is not removed from its original context as part of a speech on the phases of life by Numanus Remulus (Aen.IX.605-613), but is instead transplanted directly into the interlocutor’s discussion of the division of labor throughout life. Remulus as a speaker is problematic, as he is a Rutulian tribesman acting in direct opposition to the Trojans who will found Rome. The context of most quotations has no bearing on their use in philosophical dialogue by later authors (Williams), but Seneca defies this convention in the De Otio. The quote’s new context in the interlocutor’s speech, its original context in the Aeneid, and Seneca’s response to the interlocutor are all important when piecing together the effect it has on this segment of Seneca’s argument.

The quotation and its context are tied to the structure of the dialogue in this section, in which Seneca presents three different opinions concerning work throughout life: Remulus’, Seneca’s imagined stoic interlocutor, and Seneca’s own. This allows the author to delineate clearly how his Stoicism differs from the beliefs presented by the interlocutor. The other characters’ speeches present a harsh view, requiring hard physical labor up to or even beyond death (Aen.IX.610; Ot.1.4). In his response, Seneca presents an infinitely more reasonable sequence of action throughout life, with men occupying themselves with less intense tasks as they age (Ot.21-2). In contrast with the other speeches which attempt to characterize Stoicism as harsh and difficult to adhere to, Seneca’s version of the doctrine holds more universal appeal.

Close readings of both the quotation’s original context in the Aeneid and its context in the De Otio illustrate how this example of poetic quotation in Seneca differs from previously suggested categories, supporting his argument in the dialogue by using the anti-Roman sentiments of the quote’s original speaker to Seneca’s advantage as he works to disprove the interlocutor. While it is tempting to designate Seneca’s contextually significant quote from Vergil an inconsequential anomaly, to do so ignores the role the quotation plays in influencing the content and structure of Seneca and the interlocutor’s discussion of the phases of life.

Session/Panel Title

Allusion and Intertext

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy