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In ​De Tranquillitate Animi​ §9, Seneca uses the phrase ​servilium litterarum​ to critique individuals who amass large libraries to give the impression of learning. In his 1672 edition, Lipsius, citing ​viri aliquot docti​, argues that this phrase refers to the base level of literacy required for everyday tasks, and not to ​paideia​. However, in 1873, J.N. Madvig emended servilium​ to ​puerilium,​ stating that there was no such thing in antiquity as servile knowledge of literature (2.379; cf. Booth 1979). Latin editions of Seneca’s dialogues have since maintained the emendation (Gertz 1886; Reynolds 1977). But the debate surrounding it dates back at least as far as Lipsius, and serves as an example of ‘authenticity criticism’, in which a text’s authenticity is encoded within it, to be discovered by the critic. Thus Madvig assumes that the manuscript variants of Seneca’s text, which overwhelmingly use ​servilium (​ e.g. Codex A, 11th c.),​ ​are incorrect.

Scholarship on slave education in antiquity suggests that ​litterae​ were not entirely unservile (Starr 1991; Booth 1979). But two further issues result from Madvig’s emendation, which preclude its wholesale dismissal. Peirano (2012) has argued that authenticity is a cultural value, such that textual variants that are more aesthetically pleasing are deemed authentic (cf. Hunter 2002; Knox 1995). For Zetzel (2005), “New Philology” takes editorial choices and “literary heritage” into account for authenticity, whereas Cerquiglini (1989) argues for decentering the canonical text in favor of the inherent value of textual variants. Accordingly, Madvig’s emendation may be critiqued as an aesthetic choice. Second, Foucault’s “author-function” (1969) treats the author as a variable linking the text to discursive themes in a social context. Howley (2019) argues that Roman authorship is entwined with the use of slave labor, and Tarrant (2016) has discussed “eclectic” editions of classical texts that assume collaborative book production (cf. McGann 1983), in which the author is just one of many components. If authorship is one part of a collaborative process, Madvig’s role in the text’s lifespan cannot be ignored.

This paper therefore posits that Madvig’s emendation is inextricably tied to the discourse surrounding the “authentic” Senecan text. Madvig relied on his biases about slavery, a form of conjecture common in Italian Humanism (Kenney 1974), and mistook Seneca’s metaphorical use of ​servilis​ for literal. Yet the cultural-aesthetic impact of the emendation is crucial both to the text’s reception and to its transmission over time.