Western and Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures | 06 December 2017

Back to Catalogue

Lot no.


Seneca the younger, Epistulae ad Lucilium, and Pseudo-Seneca

Sold for £28000

Est: £30000–50000

Seneca the younger, Epistulae ad Lucilium, and Pseudo-Seneca, Epistulae Senecae ad Paulum et Pauli ad Senecam, along with a copy of Seneca’s epitaph , in Latin, decorated manuscript on parchment [Italy (most probably the south, perhaps Sicily), second half of the thirteenth century]

66 leaves (plus a more modern endleaf at front and back, and including 2 blank leaves at end), textually complete, but perhaps wanting a leaf at front (if similar to Naples, Bibl. Nacionale, lat. 25 , then containing an extract from Jerome’s De Viris Illustribus on Seneca; and apparently in this state since late Middle Ages) collation: i-vi8, vi10, vii8, some catchwords, double column of 31 lines in a thin and precise early gothic bookhand showing apparent influence from both Italian and perhaps French forms (see below), long descenders below lowest line crossed with rapid series of ornamental penflicks, capitals infilled in red, red rubrics, 2- and 3-line simple initials (some quite rustic in style, and many with red penwork), some spaces left for initials but not filled in, linefillers formed of red circles, two large simple initials (the first slightly rubbed, the second with florid fluttering penwork in red and green, some ‘clover’ notation marks in margins, occasional contemporary and later medieval marginalia (many correcting the text), some small areas with cockling or folds causing loss to ink and these occasionally overwritten, small section of border of first leaf once missing and later skilfully restored with medieval parchment, slight cockling, small spots and stains, scuffing only to one area of first leaf, slightly trimmed with losses to catchwords and marginalia in places, else good and solid condition, 212 by 145mm.; in medieval binding of thick and somewhat coarse wooden boards, dark leather spine, 3 chisel cuts in each board for clasps (those now wanting), more modern pastedowns and endleaves (these perhaps added during a modern freshening of the binding)

This is a fine early medieval codex of a Classical work, with some importance for the history of that text in medieval Italy, and perhaps from the most elusive of Italian scribal centres: Sicily


1. Most probably written and decorated in the second half of the thirteenth century in a scriptorium in southern Italy, perhaps in Sicily. Until recently the book was owned by an old Sicilian landowning family, and its script is entirely consistent with an origin there, having a tall, delicate and upright aspect more in keeping with French scripts than northern and central Italian ones. Close comparisons can be made to a copy to of De Arte Venandi cum Avibus , made in Sicily or southern Italy for Manfred, son of Frederick II, king of Sicily, c . 1240-58 (now Vatican, Pal. Lat. 1071; reproduced in Sicily: Culture and Conquest , 2016, fig. 211, as well as in full online facsimile), Georgius Zothorus Zaparus Fendulus, Liber Astrologiae , made in Sicily or Salerno in the second quarter of the thirteenth century (BnF., Latin 7330, reproduced in Avril, Gousset and Rabel, Manuscrits Enluminés d’Origine Italienne , 1984, no. 189) and Godefridus Viterbiensis, Pantheon , made in the first quarter of the thirteenth century in the south of Italy (ibid., no. 188).
After the arrival of the Normans in the late eleventh century, Sicily maintained stalwart independence from mainland Europe on political, economic and cultural grounds. Latin script and book decoration was overwhelmingly based on that of Norman or northern French models (see the twelfth-century tri-lingual Psalter in Greek, Latin and Arabic, now British Library, Harley 5786; ibid., fig. 190, and A.G. Watson, Catalogue of Dated and Dateable Manuscripts , 1979, no. 838, pl. 84). After the death of the last Norman ruler without male heir in 1194, rule passed to the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and non-Italian cultural influences continued. Western monastic centres flourished at Lipari (near Messina) and Catania (Sant’Agata) from the last years of the eleventh century, Palermo (San Giovanni degli Eremiti) from c . 1136, and Monreale from the 1170s or 1180s, and presumably built large libraries on a par with those in Normandy, but with the resources of ancient such as Montecassino on their doorstep. However, as so few manuscripts from the region survive, little is known at present with precision, and they are usually ascribed only tentatively to Sicilian centres while also allowing for an origin on the adjacent mainland, in sites such as Naples. Thus, all newly discovered codices potentially from the region are of fundamental importance to future research.

2. The present codex was in an ecclesiastical library by the late Middle Ages, where it was given the peculiar ex libris marks, perhaps reading ‘Fe sey’, at the head of the current first and last leaves.


Seneca the younger (or Lucius Annaeus Seneca, c. 4 BC.-65 AD.), was the second son of Seneca the elder, and grew up in Cordoba in Spain. At an early age he was living in Rome, where he squabbled with Caligula and in 41 AD. was banished to Corsica, where he spent his time studying philosophy and writing. Eight years later, Agrippina the younger, the wife of Emperor Claudius, recalled Seneca to Rome to serve her 12-year-old son (later Emperor Nero) as private tutor. He acted as advisor and intimate to Nero in his earliest years of his rule. He retired in 62 AD., but was subsequently implicated in the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate Nero, and ordered by the emperor to commit suicide. He opened several veins in order to bleed to death, but reportedly due to his age and diet this failed to work quickly, and after some hours he took poison, which again was not fatal. Finally, he was immersed in a hot bath to speed up the bleeding, and he suffocated in the steam. Tragically, he was probably innocent of involvement in the plot.
This volume opens with the writer’s epitaph inscription, beginning after a long title, “Cura labor meritum …”, and that is followed by the Epistulae Senecae ad Paulum et Pauli ad Senecam . From late Antiquity, it was believed that Seneca had corresponded with his contemporary St. Paul (c . 5-67 AD.) and eventually had been converted by him. Both Jerome and Augustine believed the letters to be Seneca’s, and only in recent centuries have they been exposed as a product of the fourth century. The misidentification is perhaps understandable, as Seneca advocated mercy and charity like no other pagan author, in a way which prefigured some of the teachings of Christianity. These are followed by Seneca’s authentic letters of moral advice to his friend Lucilius, the Epistulae ad Lucilium . They were written while in exile and frequently touch on the subject of a man’s downfall, the superficial nature of fame and power and the role of philosophy in helping him through this. In Late Antiquity these 124 letters survived in a single copy divided into two volumes, which apparently went their separate ways, and thus the earliest traditions contain either letters 1-88 (predominantly French tradition, as here) or letters 89-124 (predominantly German tradition). Reynolds has studied the manuscript tradition of the text up to the twelfth century, but no scholar has yet attempted to take this further (The Medieval Tradition of Seneca’s Letters , 1965).
The present manuscript has a place of some importance for the history of the text in Italy and forces us to challenge some pre-existing assumptions about the textual tradition. As Reynolds noted, with the exception of a single tenth-century manuscript from Brescia which had little effect on the medieval manuscript tradition, the earliest Italian witness to the text is a thirteenth-century copy from San Severino, Naples (Bibl. Nacionale, lat. 25; ibid., ch. 8, especially p. 108, and described in detail by F. Giancotti, Un Codice Napoletano delle Epistole Morale di Seneca , 1952). The present manuscript was copied at approximately the same time as the Naples one, and if the connection to Sicily can be sustained, then in a neighbouring centre. Yet the two share little beyond both containing the initial group of letters, and their differences are substantial enough to suggest that neither is connected with the other (note the reordering of letters here, in six rearranged blocks: 1-30, 38-52, 31-37, 53-57 & 59-65, 72-75 and 66-69, such reorganisations are common, but this version is otherwise unattested by Reynolds). The present manuscript would appear to represent the head of another Italian tradition that stands alongside but separate from the Neapolitan one.
If future research confirms its origin in a Sicilian centre, then it is worth noting that while medieval manuscripts from that region are of enormous rarity, those containing Classical texts are staggeringly so. The only others known to the present cataloguer post-date the present codex by two centuries. They are: (i) a fifteenth-century copy of a fragment of Aratus’ Phaenomena , in the Latin version of Cicero (whose title announces it to be copied from a manuscript in Sicily), olim Phillipps MS. 16231, and sold Sotheby’s, 10 June 1896, lot 16; (ii) a fifteenth-century Virgil, Aenied , sold by Hoepli, 3 June 1928, lot 62; and perhaps also (iii) a portable fifteenth-century Franciscan miscellany with short extracts from Aristotle and Cicero, which included notes describing the copying of some of its contents in Messina (but not those containing Classical material), sold Sotheby’s, 6 July 2006, lot 71.

Western and Oriental Manuscripts and Miniatures

Wednesday 06 December 2017, 2.00pm

Bloomsbury London
Bloomsbury House
24 Maddox Street


Saturday 2 December
11am - 4pm
Sunday 3 December
11am - 4pm
Monday 4 December
9.30am - 5.30pm
Tuesday 5 December
9.30am - 5.30pm
Day of Sale from 9.30am

Important Information

This website includes general reports of the condition of the property for various lots in this Sale. The absence of any condition or condition report does not mean, or imply, that the lot is free from any damage or restoration. If you require a condition report, please click on the Enquire about this lot button on the lot details page. We are not professional restorers and do not undertake conservation, and we strongly recommend that you consult such a professional of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed report. Whilst we undertake every reasonable effort to provide a comprehensive representation of every item, prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition. Any statement, whether written or verbal made by The Fine Art Auction Group (trading as Dreweatts, Dreweatts 1759 and Bloomsbury Auctions), its staff and agents, is a subjective, qualified opinion and is only provided on this basis. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.


Artist's Resale Rights (“Droit de Suite”)

Lots marked with a delta symbol (δ) are subject to the Artist's Resale Right Law.The buyer agrees to pay Bloomsbury Auctions an amount equal to the resale royalty and we will pay such amount to the artist's collecting agent. Resale royalty applies where the Hammer price is 1,000 Euros or more and the amount cannot be more than 12,500 Euros per lot. The amount is calculated as follows:

Royalty For the portion of the Hammer Price (in Euros)
4.00% up to 50,000
3.00% between 50,000.01 and 200,000
1.00% between 200,000.01 and 350,000
0.50% between 350,000.01 and 500,000
0.25% in excess of 500,000

Invoices will, as usual, be issued in Pounds Sterling. For the purposes of calculating the resale royalty the Pounds Sterling/ Euro rate of exchange will be the European Central Bank reference rate on the day of the sale.