Seneca and the Moon: The Cultural Importance of our Satellite

  • Francesca Romana Berno
Conference paper


Scientists answered the famous Leopardian questions [“Tell me, silent Moon, what are you doing in the sky, silent Moon?”] since ancient times. Among them, Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.c.) answered: the presence of the Moon in the sky makes us good (by making the corn grow, etc.). Just like the whole Universe, it is a part of the world that is the best of possible ones. And so, the movements of the Moon are regulated as a perfect machine.

Therefore, the eclipses are not predictions of disasters — despite a superstition that is still alive nowadays. Moreover, the Moon is perfect, like all planets, and so it provides a wonderful, charming sight. But we look at it only when something strange happens, so Seneca says we are quite wrong. He suggests to study the Moon every day, when it is performing its duty in order to help us feeling good. It is useless watching it when there is something wrong about it. These events do not change our way of life.

From this point of view, the Asian shepherd of Leopardi’s poem would agree with Seneca: The contemplation of the sky is a sublime way to become relaxed and quiet. But no scientist would answer his question, because it concerns the aim of this planet, not the thing itself. In this case, also in 21st century, we need Seneca’s philosophy, or faith in God, or, like Leopardi, illusion.


Natural Question Cultural Importance Ancient Science Ancient Writer Roman Republic 
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  1. See also ancient Greek, where there is selene “Moon” from selas, “brighting light”. See P. Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de le langue grecque, 3–4, Paris 19842, s. v. selene, selas.Google Scholar
  2. See A. Emout and A. Meillet, Dictionnaire etymologique de le langue latine, Paris 19854, s. v. mensis; Der grosse Duden, 7. Herkunftsworterbuch der deutschen Sprache, Mannheim 1963, s. v. Mond.Google Scholar
  3. See G. Bignami, La super-bufala lunare, “Il Sole 24 Ore” 19.3.2000, p. 30.Google Scholar
  4. According to all ancient writers, the most powerful witches were able to go to the Moon, and even make it come down on the Earth (see e.g., the passages quoted in Thesaurus Linguae Latinae VII(2), 1832, 70–1833, 10, s. v. luna; L. Baldini Moscadi, art. luna in Enciclopedia oraziana II, Firenze 1997; S. Lunais, Recherches sur la lune, I. Les auteurs latins, Leiden 1979, pp. 225–231; C. Santini, art. luna in Enciclopedia Virgiliana III, Roma 1987). Seneca talks about this power only in the tragedies, where the mythical subject justifies such images (see Phaedra 420–421; Medea 673–674).Google Scholar
  5. For other ‘illusions’ see the 20th century tales of Luigi Pirandello (Ciàula Discovers the Moon) and Italo Calvino (The Cosmicomicals). See O. Longo, Facce delta Luna, antiehe e nuove, in AA. VV., Mitologie letterarie tra antico e moderno, Verona 1994, pp. 193–199.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Francesca Romana Berno
    • 1
  1. 1.Dipartimento Dell’AntichitaUniversity of PadovaPadovaItaly

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