Lecture 19: Seneca Thyestes.

Lecture 19, Tuesday November 19th 2019


Double herm of Seneca and Socrates (3rd c. CE) in the Antikensammlung Berlin. In this picture, the view is of Seneca. The identifications are based on inscriptions: Seneca in Latin, and Socrates in Greek. Image: Wikimedia.

Seneca the younger (4 BCE — 65 CE)

  • L. Annaeus Seneca born in Spain at Corduba; of equestrian wealth
  • his father was Seneca the elder (c. 55 BCE – c. 40 CE), Latin rhetorical theorist and historian; Seneca’s the younger’s nephew, Lucan (39 – 65 CE), wrote an epic poem, the Bellum Civile (“Civil War”) on the conflict of Julius Caesar and the senate
  • as a young man he studied philosophy with the Stoic Attalus of Pergamum (Ep. 108.3) and Papirius Fabianus (Ep. 100.12), a rhetorical theorist who was close to a Stoic-Pythagorean school with ascetic tendencies + interest in natural science
  • c. 26 CE: Seneca is thought to have spent some time in Egypt while his aunt’s husband (Gaius Galerius) was prefect there (16 – 31 CE); he returned to Rome in 31 CE, having survived a shipwreck in which his uncle died
  • 31 CE: Seneca began career in law courts + politics (Ep. 49.2); his aunt helped him attain the quaestorship (Dialogue 12.19.2)
  • the emperor Caligula (37 – 41 CE) hated Seneca personally (Dio Cassius 59.19.7) and hated his oratorical style (Suet. Gaius. 53.2: “Caligula hated a polished and elegant style that he used to say that Seneca, who was very popular then, composed ‘mere school exercises’ and that he was ‘sand without lime'”)

founded by Zeno of Citium (4th/3rd c. BCE)

  • what is god?:
    • ratio/λόγος = reason: Diog. Laert. 44B
    • intelligent designing divine fire 🔥: Aetius 46A
  • do the gods care about mankind?:
    • YES!!: Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods (2.3): “the gods care about the fortunes of mankind.”
  • what is the universe made of?:
    • plenum (“fullness”), facilitated by pneuma (“tensility”): “The Stoics think that the universe is a plenum. Like Aristotle, they reject the existence of empty space or void.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  • what is the goal of life?:
    • living in agreement with nature (Arius Didymus 63A, 63B)
  • should we fear death?:
    • NO: Seneca, Ep. 45: death is non-existence so we have already experienced it (in pre-birth) and haven’t suffered. So don’t worry about it!

Stoicism has entered the modern popular consciousness. Left: Seneca’s ‘On the Shortness of Life’ (De Brevitate Vitae) in the Penguin Books “Great Ideas” series. Right: The Daily Stoic Journal by Ryan Holiday + Stephen Hanselman of dailystoic.com.

Seneca and the Politics of Empire…

Dio Cassius (59.19.7-8): Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was superior in wisdom to all the Romans of his day and to many others as well, came near being destroyed, though he had neither done any wrong nor had the appearance of doing so, but merely because he pleaded a case well in the senate while the emperor was present. [8] Caligula ordered him to be put to death, but afterwards let him off because he believed the statement of one of his female lovers, to the effect that Seneca had consumption in an advanced stage and would die soon.

  • 41 CE: under the emperor Claudius (41 – 54 CE), Seneca was exiled to Corsica for alleged adultery with Julia Livilla, a sister of Caligula; the charge against him was made by Claudius’ wife, Messalina (Dio Cassius 60.8.4-5)

Dio Cassius (60.8.4-5): The acts I have named, now, were the acts of Claudius himself, and they were praised by everybody; but certain other things were done at this time of quite a different nature by his freedmen and by his wife Messalina[5] Messalina became enraged at her niece Julia Livilla because she neither paid her honour nor flattered her; and she was also jealous because  the girl was extremely beautiful and was often alone with Claudius. Accordingly, she secured her banishment by trumping up various charges against her, including that of adultery (for which Seneca was also exiled), and not long afterward even arranged her death.

  • Seneca stayed in exile till 49 CE (after death of Messalina), when he was recalled under the influence of Agrippina (the younger, Claudius’ niece and now wife; Seneca would later be accused of being her lover — Tac. Ann. 13.42.5, Dio Cassius 61.10.1), made praetor, made tutor of the future emperor Nero (12yo)Tac. Ann. 12.8
  • Seneca drew up a program of ‘clemency’ (clementia) for the young emperor (Tac. Ann. 13.11); Seneca’s On Clemency (De Clementia) tried to make Nero embrace this philosophical program
  • Seneca augmented his already large fortune during this period via a combination of business savvy and gifts from emperor, attracting envy and hatred (Tac. Ann. 13.42; 14.52)

Suetonius (Life of Nero 7): When Nero was twelve years old he was adopted by Claudius and consigned to the training of Seneca, who was then already a senator. They say that on the following night Seneca dreamed that he was teaching Caligula, and Nero soon proved the dream prophetic by revealing the cruelty of his disposition at the earliest possible opportunity.

Tacitus (Annales 13.11): There followed, in fact, a display of leniency towards Plautius Lateranus [see Tac. Ann. 11.36], demoted from his rank as senator for adultery with Messalina, but now restored to the senate by the emperor Nero, who pledged himself to clemency (clementia) in a series of speeches, which Seneca, either to attest the exalted qualities of his teaching or to advertise his ingenuity, kept presenting to the public by the lips of the sovereign.

Seneca (De Clementia 1.1): I have determined to write a book upon clemency, Nero Caesar, in order that I may as it were serve as a mirror to you, and let you see yourself arriving at the greatest of all pleasures. For although the true enjoyment of good deeds consists in the performance of them, and virtues have no adequate reward beyond themselves, still it is worth your while to consider and investigate a good conscience from every point of view, and afterwards to cast your eyes upon this enormous mass of mankind — quarrelsome, factious, and passionate as they are…

Losing control of Nero…

  • Seneca and the praetorian commander Afranius Burrus controlled the behaviour of Nero and his mother Agrippina in the early part of the Nero’s reign, beginning in 54 CE (Tac. Ann. 13.2)
  • Seneca was suffect consul (for 6 months) in 56 or 55 CE (Griffin 1976: 73-74)

Tacitus (Annales 13.2): “The tendency, in fact, was towards murder, had not Afranius Burrus and Seneca intervened.”

Seneca’s works

A. J. Boyle (2017: xvii): “The prose works are infused to a greater or lesser extent with Stoic ideas concerning fate, god, virtue, wisdom, reason, endurance, self-sufficiency, and true friendship, and are filled with condemnation of the world of wealth and power (to which Seneca belonged) and contempt for the fear of death. Central to their conception of the world is the Stoic belief in divine reason/ratio as ‘the governing principle of the rational, living and providentially ordained universe,’ in which ‘only the Stoic sage (sapiens)…can achieve virtue…and live the truly happy life.’ (Williams 2003: 4) They cover a considerable period of time — from the 30s CE to Seneca’s death. Among the earliest to be written was the Consolatio ad Marciam, composed under Caligula (37-41 CE); among the lasat were Naturales Quaestiones and Epistulae Morales, written during the years of Seneca’s ‘retirement’ (62-5 CE).”

  • tragedies (verse): 10 plays are attributed to Seneca, 8 of which are considered genuine: Hercules, Trojan Women, Phoenician Women, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes. The 2 which are (probably) not by Seneca: Hercules Oetaeus (twice as long as most Senecan plays); Octavia (Seneca appears in it as a character + events after his death are described)
  • the chronology of Seneca’s tragedies is not known for certain, but based on style Thyestes is considered to be one of the last (Boyle 2017: xix)

Were Seneca’s plays performed on stage?

A. J. Boyle (2017: xl): “It is not known and may never be known whether Seneca’s plays were performed on stage or otherwise during their author’s life. But it is certainly the case that they were and are performable: they have been and are performed.”

Seneca’s Thyestes

Themes: hunger and satiety, power and powerlessness, anger and revenge, tyranny, brotherly conflict, paranoia and suspicion, ancestral bloodguilt, fatherhood and paternity, perverse pietas.

  • Ghost of Tantalus: dead grandfather of Atreus + Thyestes. He had served his own son, Pelops, as a meal to the gods. For his crime he was punished with eternal hunger and eternal thirst — surrounded by a bounty of food and water, these things always recede from him when he tries to grasp them (Thy. 148-175).
  • Fury: female infernal spirit of vengeance and retribution. Compare the Fury Allecto in Vergil’s Aeneid (7.323ff.). Furies are often described as clothed in black, coiled with snakes. In Greek contexts they torment the sinful; in Vergil, Seneca, they are weaponized psychology.
  • Atreus: Grandson of Tantalus, son of Pelops, brother of Thyestes, father of Agamemnon and Menelaus. King of Argos. Thyestes had seduced his wife, Aerope, to whom she secretly gave the golden ram which allowed him to claim the throne (Thy. 220-243). After a sign from Jupiter(/Zeus: Euripides’ Electra 699-746, the reversal of the path of the sun) leads to the discovery of adultery, Thyestes is exiled.
  • Courtier (satelles = in Wilson, “servant”): representative of the member of court who must abide by a tyrant’s commands. To some extent reflective of Seneca’s own role in the court of Nero.
  • Thyestes: Brother of Atreus. Lured back from exile to Argos by Atreus’ promises of reconciliation (Thy. 295-304)
  • Tantalus Junior: older son of Thyestes.
  • Plisthenes: younger son of Thyestes (silent part). A third son is mentioned at line 731, but he is unnamed and also silent.
  • Messenger.
  • Chorus of Argives.

A Fury emerges from beneath the ground in a vase depicting a lost Euripidean tragedy, 340s BCE. Note how she is depicted as inversion, void. Discovered in Paestum, Italy. Image: British Museum.

ACT ONE (1-121): Ghost of Tantalus and the Fury with snake whip (see: 96-100)

1st CHORAL ODE (122-175) — THE ‘TANTALUS’ ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

144-176: the Chorus describes Tantalus’ crime (serving his son Pelops as a meal to the gods) and his punishment (‘tantalized‘ by eternal hunger and thirst).

ACT TWO (176-335): Atreus and the Courtier (satelles = in Wilson, “servant”).

Compare Tacitus’ (Ann. 14.53-56) dramatization of Seneca asking Nero if he can retired from public life. In the Octavia (435-592), a debate between “Seneca” and “Nero” is based on this scene of the Thyestes.

Lines 248-249:
SATELLES: nulla te pietas mouet?
ATREUS: excede, pietas
Courtier: “But are you not moved by morality [=PIETAS]?”
Atreus: “Away, morality!”

2nd CHORAL ODE (336-403) — THE KINGSHIP ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

ACT THREE (404-545): Fake reconciliation between Thyestes and Atreus. Does Thyestes want to be king or not?

3rd CHORAL ODE (546-622) — THE PIETAS ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

ACT FOUR (623-788): The messenger describes Atreus’ murder of Thyestes’ sons.

4th CHORAL ODE (789-884) — THE STAR ODE: Chorus of Argives sing.

ACT FIVE (885-919): Atreus rejoices.

THE DRINKING SONG (920-969): Thyestes’ solo song.

ACT FIVE cont. (970-1112): The crime is revealed.

Further reading:

  • A. J. Boyle (2017) Seneca. Thyestes. 
  • A. J. Boyle (2006) Roman Tragedy.

One thought on “Lecture 19: Seneca Thyestes.

  1. Pingback: Lecture 22: Post-Aug Empire: Claudius (41-54 CE), Nero’s Iconosphere (54-68 CE). | CL 102 — World of Rome —Spring 2018

Comments are closed.