‘Climb a volcano for me’, Seneca requests of his interlocutor in the opening of Ep. 79 (...ut in honorem meum Aetnam quoque ascendas). The ostensible purpose is scientific investigation: to determine whether the mountain is wasting away, the activity levels of its fires, and just how far from the crater one can find its unmelting snow. Seneca, however, has more in mind than just curiosities of natural science, as comments on the poetic zest for Aetna by Vergil, Ovid, Cornelius Severus, and now, Lucilius quickly reveal. Leaving to one side the fraught issues of Lucilius’ identity and the authorship of the extant Aetna poem (see Ellis  and Goodyear 1984), this paper argues that Seneca’s presentation of Aetna leads his readers on an ‘ascent’ that parallels the one he would have Lucilius undertake, and that this progression comments on Seneca’s literary corpus. From the ground up, Seneca deploys the topic of Aetna as (1) physical entity, (2) literary topos, (3) metaphor for poetic creation and filiation, and (4) objective correlative for the goal of a Stoic proficiens.
The first step of the progression consists of investigating the volcano’s physical characteristics (cf. Pliny NH 2.233.1; Sen. NQ 2.30.1). Volcanology quickly cedes to Aetna as a well-worn poetic topos. In the second step, Seneca plays the dual role of literary critic and poetic adviser to his protegée. Guessing that Lucilius is ‘salivating’ to join the ranks of poets who have recently treated the topic, Seneca urges Lucilius not to steer clear of Aetna, nor to imitate his predecessors by including an Aetna passage here or there, but instead, to devote an entire poem to Aetna. The vertical ascent is cast in terms of poetic aemulatio, and specifically, of escalatio—an attribute that subtends Seneca’s own tragic poetics (Seidensticker 1985, Schiesaro 1997). When Seneca explains how the volcano operates, he is simultaneously commenting on two contrastive views of poetic filiation: destructive and preservative-accretive. Seneca explains that the mountain could be diminishing because it is eaten away (devoretur cotidie) or else that its overall size is unchanged because of underground channels that constantly supply it with new fodder (in aliqua inferna valle conceptus exaestuat et aliis pascitur; Ep. 79.2). Seneca's observation in this letter that the mountain is merely the passageway through which heat emerges from the subterranean world accords with recent scholarship on the infernal elements of Senecan tragedy (Putnam 1995; Schiesaro 2003). Seneca’s preference for the preservative-accretive model is clear in his comment that treatments of Aetna have not exhausted the topic but have opened additional avenues for future poets (cf. Ep. 84.9-10, in which the ‘chorus’ of poets comprises more, and more varied, voices throughout the ages).
After asking Lucilius to physically climb Aetna, Seneca exhorts him to surpass models in his poetic aspiration (nemo ab altero potest vinci, nisi dum ascenditur). The final step in the ascent is located in the arena of moral improvement. While Aetna (qua volcano or qua poetic subject) is liable to fall or be consumed by flames, virtue is not subject to destruction (Ep. 79.10). Here, the hierarchy under which Seneca has been operating becomes fully visible. The sapiens will stand on sure footing at the apex, while the poet and the scientist are on shaky ground. New discoveries overturn previously held scientific ideas, and a poet must always be concerned that his or her work will be outdone.
The volcano, appropriately enough, looms over Ep.79. This paper demonstrates how Seneca condenses massive Aetna to compartmentalize, then expand in a synthetic way, several types of ‘ascent’: scientific discovery, poetic aemulatio, and moral progress. In doing so, Seneca also presents himself in the guise of natural philosopher, poet, and moral philosopher (Ker 2006). To that end, I conclude by suggesting how Aetna can help us to imagine the relationship between the disparate elements of Seneca’s polygeneric oeuvre.