The Rediscovery of Tragic Myth: Senecan tragedy in fourteenth century Europe

'The Rediscovery of Tragic Myth: Senecan tragedy in fourteenth century Europe' is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) for joint chief-investigators Dr K.O. Chong-Gossard (Classics, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies) and Professor Bernard Muir (Professor Fellow, English and Theatre Studies, School of Culture and Communication). It investigates the medieval Latin Commentaries by Nicolas Trevet on the ancient Roman tragedies of Seneca.

ancient tapestry
Seneca's Hercules Furens.

Classical tragedy, which incorporates the myths of the Graeco-Roman world in its fabric, was virtually unknown from late antiquity until the high middle ages. This project aims to examine the re-emergence of interest in the tragedies of Seneca (first century CE) in the early fourteenth century when commentaries by Nicholas Trevet, and illustrated manuscripts depicting the stories in them, allowed a new readership access to these complex ancient works.

Recent advances in digitisation technology and scholarship enable this project to be undertaken by an innovative team that combines classics and medieval studies. The project will establish a model for research into the history of the book, the image, and text.

In the first phase of the project, Turner and Chong-Gossard are producing English translations of Trevet's extensive commentaries on four of Seneca's plays (Medea, Phaedra, Thyestes, and Hercules Furens) and are preparing to make these available online before translating the other six commentaries.

At classics conferences, Chong-Gossard has presented research that compares Trevet's line-by-line evaluation of key Senecan scenes with twentieth- and twenty-first-century interpretations of those same scenes. An evaluation of Trevet’s different interpretation of Seneca's plays is instructive, not because he is wrong, but because his commentary is a window into how the play was read at a specific point in time, in the very first commentary on the plays to survive to us.

Muir and Turner's work on the manuscript tradition of Trevet's text has focused on three manuscripts from the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris: BnF lat. 8032, BnF lat. 8033, and BnF lat. 8034, all of which date to the fifteenth century and preserve the text of Seneca's plays with Trevet's commentary. Interestingly, these manuscripts also preserve a commentary which appears to have been added after Trevet's day.

Trevet, working around 1314, had as his source a manuscript of Seneca from the so-called A tradition. Yet another tradition of Seneca's plays, represented by a single eleventh-century manuscript known as E, also existed and even preserved parts of Seneca's plays not found in the A tradition. The fifteenth-century manuscripts of Trevet housed in Paris contain portions of commentary that match the tradition of Seneca (including the missing scenes), and were not written by Trevet, but circulated along with his work as the primary commentary on Seneca in the late Middle Ages. Muir and Turner have named these sections the 'E-recension' and are working on producing an edition of them for the commentary on Hercules Furens.

The intended output of the project includes a substantial monograph and several articles in peer-reviewed quality journals. The Classics program at the University of Melbourne also hopes to host the annual Pacific Rim Latin Literature Seminar in the winter of 2022, on the theme of 'Tragedy'.

Project details


2019-2021 – Australian Research Council Discover Project

Project team

Chief investigators
Dr James ('K.O.') Chong-Gossard (University of Melbourne, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies)
Professor Bernard Muir (University of Melbourne, School of Culture and Communications)

Research Associate
Dr Andrew J. Turner (University of Melbourne, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies)