Seneca, Suasoria 4

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

"Alexander the Great deliberates whether he should enter Babylon, since an oracle had threatened him with danger if he did so"


Who is he who claims a knowledge of the future? Singular must be his lot in life, who is bidden by a god to prophesy : he must disdain that womb from which we come who do not know the future. He must boast some likeness to a god who proclaims a god's commands. It must be so: since he inspires fear in a king so powerful, ruler of so vast a world. Great must he be, and raised beyond the limits of a mortal lot, who has the power to strike terror into Alexander. He may set his sires amid the stars, and claim descent from heaven, the god must acknowledge his own seer. No narrow span of years can be his: his soul must be exempt from all decrees of fate, who proclaims the future's secret to the world. If these auguries are true, why then do we not devote all our days to the pursuit of this lore? Why do we not from our earliest years pierce into the heart of things , and visit the gods, since the path is clear; since the stars are an open book to us, and we may hold converse with divinities? If this is so, then why do we thus labour in the pursuit of an eloquence which is useless, why do we waste our strength in the practice of arms which are perilous? Surely genius will thrive best on this knowledge of the future. Can there be a better guarantee of its growth? [2] L   Those, who, as they assert, have probed to the secrets of fate, enquire into the days of our birth, and count the first hour of our life the index of all the years to come: they calculate the motions of the stars at that hour, the direction of their various paths, decide if the sun stood steadily adverse, or shone calmly upon us: if the moon was full, or its light only waxing, or if it hid its head in the gloom of night; whether Saturn welcomed us at birth to the life of a farmer, or Mars as warriors to a life of arms, or Mercury to the busy pursuit of wealth, whether with sweet smile Venus beckoned to us, or Jupiter raised us from low to high estate - all those gods thronging and crowding round one single head ! [3] L   The future is the burden of the message. To many these seers have foretold long life: and while they thought of no danger the day of doom overwhelmed them: to some they have announced that death was near, yet these have long survived to useless days : to others they have promised happy years, yet every form of misfortune fell swiftly on their head. Our life's destiny is unknown. Their predictions are but arbitrary fictions of the seers : no treasures from the mine of true knowledge. Shall there be then, Alexander, one spot in the whole world which has not beheld thee as victor? Is Babylon barred to him to whom the Ocean lay open?


In this suasoria I know that Fuscus treated only those questions I have reported above relating to the knowledge of the future. Because of the pleasure it gave us I cannot pass over the following quotation. Fuscus Arellius delivered a declamation about the woman who had three times given birth to a dead child and then said she had dreamed that she must bring forth in a grove. I should insult your intelligence if I set down at length the whole controversy with which I am aware you are well acquainted :. . . . When Fuscus was declaiming on the side of the grandfather who refused to recognise the child, he handled the stock argument against dreams and the existence of a divine providence. Then after declaring that he who represented the gods as attending upon women in childbirth, wronged their majesty, he quoted amid great applause the following line of Vergil :
  Is that forsooth a task for gods above?
  Are such the cares that irk their calm repose?   { Aen. 4.379-380 }

[5] L   A certain pupil (to spare his feelings I will not name him) was delivering this suasoria about Alexander in the presence of Fuscus and thought to quote the same line with equally good effect. So he said:
  Is that forsooth a task for gods above?
  Are such the cares that irk their calm repose?

Then says Fuscus to him : "If you had said this in the presence of Alexander, you would have learned that in Vergil there is also this line:
  He buried his sword as far as the hilt."   { Aen. 2.253 }  

Since you are always worrying me about Fuscus and asking the reason of his unique reputation for elegance of style, I shall inflict on you examples of the way in which Fuscus developed his subject. He was always delighted to deliver suasoriae, and rendered them oftener in Greek than in Latin. In his handling of this suasoria Hybreas said : "What a bulwark Babylon has found in this seer!"

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