Seneca, Suasoria 1

Translated by by W.A. Edward (Cambridge, 1928). Click on the L symbols to go to the Latin text of each chapter.   

"Alexander considers whether he should sail the Ocean"

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[1] L   . . . In nature everything that has magnitude has limits too : there is nothing boundless except Ocean. It is commonly said that there lie fertile lands in the Ocean, that beyond the Ocean again other shores, another world arises, and there is no end to created things, but ever a new world begins where the old seems to end. It is easy to invent such tales since one cannot sail the Ocean. Let Alexander be content with having conquered that portion of the world where the sun is content to shine. Within the limits of these lands Hercules won his place in heaven. There lies the motionless sea, a lifeless bulk of nature, as it were, which here has its appointed end. There are strange and frightful shapes, great monsters in the Ocean also, which that deep abyss rears. The light is mingled in dense gloom: the dark makes a curtain for the day; in ponderous bulk fast-rooted lie the waters ; of stars there are none or they are unknown. Such, Alexander, is the constitution of nature. Beyond everything is the Ocean, beyond the Ocean nothing.


Stop, your own world calls you back. All that the sun shines on we have conquered. No aim is so important that for it I would endanger Alexander's safety.


That day has come, Alexander, that long-desired day, on which your toil should cease: the bounds of your kingdom are the bounds of the world.


It is time that Alexander should stop where the world ends and the sun ceases to shine. I have conquered the known : now I desire the unknown. What tribes were so savage as not to adore Alexander on bended knee? What mountains so dreadful that his victorious soldiers have not trod their ridges? We have halted beyond the trophies of Father Bacchus. In search for a new world we lose the old. Boundless and unexplored by man is the sea: it girdles the whole earth: it guards the lands: it is a waste of waters untroubled by the oar: now its shores are unquiet under the raging billow,  they are desolate when the billow withdraws: a horror of darkness weighs on its waters, and, I know not how, what nature has denied to human eyes eternal night overwhelms.


Loathsome and huge are the monsters : deep and immovable the abyss. The case is plain: there is nothing more to conquer: retrace your steps.


The lands too have their own boundary, and the universe itself ends somewhere: everything is finite: you must set a limit to your greatness since fortune sets none. Self-control in success is the mark of a great heart. Fate bounds your victorious march with the bounds of the world. Your empire is closed by the ocean. Your grandeur has far transcended the majesty of nature. To the world Alexander is great: to Alexander the world is narrow. But even the greatest things are finite. The spacious sky moves within its own paths, the restless seas observe their boundaries. Whatever has reached its zenith can increase no farther. We know nothing greater than Alexander: we know nothing beyond Ocean.


In our quest of the seas to whom are we to give over the dry lands? A world unknown is my goal, the conquered world I abandon.


Another point. Do you think that if the eye cannot pierce the darkness that broods on all these waters the ship can cleave its waves? This is not India, nor its dreadful hosts of savage peoples. Imagine the awful monsters in the sea, observe the storms and billows with which it rages, the waves it drives to the shore: such is the warring of its winds : such the mad rage of the sea when stirred from its lowest depths: there is no anchorage at hand, no safety: all is unknown: far within its depths all that is monstrous and imperfect in nature has found a refuge. Not even those who fled from Alexander sought those seas. The Ocean that nature has poured round the world is something sacred.

Those who defined the courses of the stars, and reduced to fixed law the annual alternations of winter and summer, to whom no part of the world is unknown, nevertheless have no sure knowledge of the Ocean. They know not whether it surrounds the earth like a girdle, or forms a circle by itself, and surges out into these navigable bays, which are as it were the breathing vents of its immensity. They doubt whether it has fire or air behind it fed by its exhalations. What do you mean, fellow-soldiers? Will you allow the conqueror of the human race, the great Alexander, to embark on that element whose nature is still unknown? Remember, Alexander, you are leaving your mother in a world that is only conquered, not pacified.


Cestius used to say that in suasoriae as a class the tone must vary with the situation. Opinion in a free state should not be expressed in the same manner as at the courts of kings. Unpalatable counsel must not be given to these even for their good. Even kings differ in character. They all hate truth more or less. Alexander clearly was one of the haughtiest kings in history with a spirit too arrogant for a mortal. Finally to abandon other evidences the suasoria in itself makes clear his arrogance: the world is his own, yet he is not satisfied. On these grounds, Cestius used to say, all argument must be couched in a tone of the highest respect for the king, if one would avoid the fate of his teacher, Aristotle's cousin, whom Alexander slew for the ill-timed frankness of his wit. It was Alexander's wish to be considered a god, and, on one occasion when he was wounded, the philosopher said on seeing the blood flow that he was surprised that it was not "that limpid stream that flows in the veins of the blessed gods." Alexander took revenge for this sally with his spear. C. Cassius in a letter to Cicero makes a neat point which recalls this story. After many jests about the folly of young Cn. Pompeius (who gathered an army in Spain and was beaten at Munda) he concludes by saying : "We may have a laugh at his expense, but his reply, I fear, will be a sword-thrust" { ad Fam. 15.19'4 }. With all kings such wit is to be dreaded. [6] L   And so Cestius said that in the case of Alexander the arguments must both soothe and flatter: yet as the appearance must be one of reverence not of flattery we must exercise restraint: otherwise We may meet some such fate and as befell Athens, when its flattery of Antony was exposed and punished.  Antony wanted to be called Father Liber and gave orders that this title should be inscribed on his statues. He also imitated Bacchus in dress and retinue. The Athenians with their wives and children met him on his arrival, and greeted him as "Dionysus". All would have gone well if their Attic wit had stopped there, but they proceeded to offer him in marriage their goddess Minerva, and to entreat him to wed her. Antony said he would marry her, but exacted 1000 talents as dowry: whereupon one of the Greeks said : "Sire, Zeus had your mother, Semele, to wife without a dowry." This jest passed unpunished, but the betrothal cost the Athenians 1000 talents. During the exaction of the money a great number of lampoons were published, some were even delivered to Antony himself: such as the one which was written under his statue, for at the same time he had both Octavia and Cleopatra to wife, "Octavia and Athene to Antonius: 'Take your own property and begone.'" [7] L   In this connection a very witty thing was said by Dellius, whom Messala Corvinus calls the acrobat of the civil wars, because when he was on the point of deserting Dolabella  for Cassius he bargained for his own safety on condition of killing Dolabella: then deserted from Cassius to Antony, lastly abandoned Antony for Caesar. The same Dellius wrote those wanton letters to Cleopatra which are current. When the Athenians asked for time to collect the money, and asked in vain, Dellius said to Antony: "Since they have divorced you, tell them to pay it in three annual instalments." The pleasure of story-telling has taken me too far: so I shall return to my subject. [8] L   Cestius used to say that this suasoria must be expressed in terms of high compliment to Alexander. He arranged the argument thus: first he said, even if the Ocean could be navigated it should not be navigated: enough glory had been won: Alexander must consolidate the cone quests he had made on his march. He must have some regard for his soldiers worn out with his many victories: he should think of his mother: and he added several other reasons. Then he put this point, that the Ocean could not be navigated.

[9] L   Fabianus, the philosopher, put the same proposition first, namely that even if the Ocean could be, it ought not to be navigated: but he put a different reason first - a limit must be set to success. Here a he gave expression to this maxim: "Supreme good fortune stops of its own accord ". Then he commented generally on the fickleness of fortune, describing how nothing in the world is stable, all things are in a state of flux, rising and falling at random, lands are swallowed by the Ocean, seabeds become dry, mountains subside: finally he quoted examples of kings cast down from their high estate. Then he added, "Let the dry land come to an end sooner than your prosperity". [10] L   He treated the second proposition also in a different manner. This is how he put it : first he denied that there were any habitable lands either in the Ocean or beyond the Ocean. Then he said if there were, it was impossible to reach them: in this connection he described the difficulty of the voyage: the sea was uncharted, and could not be navigated because its nature was unknown. Finally granting that these lands could be reached, yet they were not worth the pains. He pointed out that they were abandoning what was certain for what was uncertain: the nations would revolt if once it was known that Alexander had passed beyond the limits of the world : here he mentioned Alexander's mother of whom he said : "Just think how she trembled when you were merely on the point of crossing the Granicus."

[11] L   Glyco's aphorism on this is famous: "This water is not Simoeis nor even Granicus: if Ocean had not been an evil thing, it would not be the limit of the world." Everybody wanted to imitate this. Plution said: "For this reason it is the greatest thing, because it comes after everything, and after it there is nothing". Artemon said: "We are considering if we ought to try the passage. We are not standing on the shores of the Hellespont nor even by the Pamphylian sea waiting eagerly for the ebb before its time: neither is this Euphrates nor Indus, but whether it is the end of the land, the boundary of nature, the oldest element, or the cradle of the gods, it is a water too holy for ships". Apaturius said : "Thence the ship without changing its course shall go to the rising place of the sun, and then to the unseen lands of its setting". Cestius thus described the scene : "The Ocean roars as if indignant at your leaving the dry lands [12] L   They thought that Dorio's paraphrase of Homer's lines describing how the blinded Cyclops hurled back the rock into the sea was in worse taste than anything ever written since taste began to deteriorate: "He tears up a mountain, and takes an island in his in hand and hurls it" { Od. 9.481 }. How such expressions, instead of being in bad taste, lose their extravagance  while retaining all their emphasis, could be understood, Maecenas said, from the pages of Vergil - "Mountain is torn from mountain", is an example of bombast. Vergil represents his hero as seizing "no small part of a mountain" { Aen. 10.128 }. He secures the effect of greatness without carelessly violating truth. It is turgid to say, "he takes an island in his hand and hurls it". Vergil describing the ships says merely, "One might think that the Cyclades were torn up and swimming on the sea" { Aen. 8.691-2 }. He does not say this actually happens, only that it seems to happen. The reader accepts the statement with indulgence, although it is impossible, because the apology precedes the expression.

[13] L   I found in this very suasoria an aphorism of Menestratus, no mean rhetorician in his day, which shows still worse taste. When he was describing the size of the monsters born in the Ocean he said:. . . . This expression makes us inclined to excuse Musa, who spoke of a wonder greater even than Charybdis and Scylla: "Charybdis where the sea itself is ship-wrecked", and not content with being extravagant once in one subject proceeded to say: "What can be safe there where the sea itself perishes? " Damas dramatically introduced a speech by the king's mother, when he was describing how without intermission one danger after another had arisen. Barbarus used this expression when he had introduced the Macedonian army excusing itself: . . . [14] L   Fuscus Arellius said : "I call you to witness that your own world ends before your soldiers fail". Latro while still seated spoke thus - he did not make apologies for the soldiers but said - "Lead and I follow: but who guarantees me an enemy, who guarantees me land, or daylight, or air? Give me somewhere to place my camp, to set my standards. I have abandoned my parents, I have abandoned my children, I ask for my discharge. Is it too soon to ask that on the edge of the Ocean?" [15] L   Latin rhetoricians in describing the Ocean have not been too vigorous : their descriptions have been either too vague or too detailed. None of them have been so spirited as Pedo, who says in "The voyage of Germanicus" : "Already they see day and sun left far behind, long exiled as they are from the well-known limits of the world, daring to go through gloom forbidden to the bounds of creation, and the farthest shores of the universe: and now they behold the Ocean, which has monsters beneath its sluggish waves, which bears on all sides savage sharks and dogs of the sea, seizing their ships and rising high in wrath. (The very crashing of its billows swells their fear.) Now they feel their ships settling on a shoal and their fleet abandoned by the swift winds, and believe that they are left at last by the careless fates to be mangled in a doom unhappy by the wild beasts of the sea. And one aloft on the high prow striving to pierce the dark mist with straining eye, when his strength availed not to discern anything amid the loss of the world, poured out his imprisoned soul in words like these: 'Whither are we borne? Day itself flees, and nature at the limit of her sway shrouds the abandoned world in eternal gloom. Do we mean to search for races that dwell beyond this under another sky, and for a world untouched by the blasts of the storm? The gods are calling us back, and forbid mortal eyes to know the end of things. Why are we violating alien seas and sacred waters with our oars and troubling the calm abodes of the gods?'" 

[16] L   Of the Greek rhetoricians none had greater success with this suasoria than Glyco : but he has as many instances of bad taste as of splendid diction. I shall give you the means of testing both. I wanted to try you without giving you my opinion and without separating what is in good taste from what is in bad - for you might rather have praised the extravagant things - but you may happen to do so all the same, even if I do discriminate. The following was finely said : . . . but as usual he ruined the expression by a superfluous and bombastic addition, for he added : . .. Critics hesitate whether to approve or condemn the following - I do not hesitate to give my verdict against it - "Farewell O world, Farewell O Sun: the Macedonians are rushing into chaos".

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