History of Literature



Lucius Annaeus Seneca


Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Roman philosopher and statesman [4 BC–AD 65]
byname Seneca The Younger
born c. 4 bc, Corduba, Spain
died ad 65, Rome

Roman philosopher, statesman, orator, and tragedian. He was Rome’s leading intellectual figure in the mid-1st century ad and was virtual ruler with his friends of the Roman world between 54 and 62 during the first phase of the emperor Nero’s reign.

Early life and family
Seneca was the second son of a wealthy family. The father, Lucius Annaeus Seneca (Seneca the Elder), had been famous in Rome as a teacher of rhetoric; the mother, Helvia, was of excellent character and education; the older brother was Gallio, met by St. Paul in Achaea in ad 52; the younger brother was the father of the poet Lucan. An aunt took Lucius as a boy to Rome; there he was trained as an orator and educated in philosophy in the school of the Sextii, which blended Stoicism with an ascetic neo-Pythagoreanism. Seneca’s health suffered, and he went to recuperate in Egypt, where his aunt was the wife of the prefect, Gaius Galerius. Returning to Rome about the year 31, he began a career in politics and law. Soon he fell foul of the emperor Caligula, who was deterred from killing him only by the argument that his life was sure to be short.

In 41 the emperor Claudius banished Seneca to Corsica on a charge of adultery with the princess Julia Livilla, the Emperor’s niece. In that uncongenial milieu he studied natural science and philosophy and wrote the three treatises entitled Consolationes. The influence of Agrippina, the Emperor’s wife, had him recalled to Rome in 49. He became praetor in ad 50, married Pompeia Paulina, a wealthy woman, built up a powerful group of friends, including the new prefect of the guard, Sextus Afranius Burrus, and became tutor to the future emperor Nero.

The murder of Claudius in 54 pushed Seneca and Burrus to the top. Their friends held the great army commands on the German and Parthian frontiers. Nero’s first public speech, drafted by Seneca, promised liberty for the Senate and an end to the influence of freedmen and women. Agrippina, Nero’s mother, was resolved that her influence should continue, and there were other powerful enemies. But Seneca and Burrus, although provincials from Spain and Gaul, understood the problems of the Roman world. They introduced fiscal and judicial reforms and fostered a more humane attitude toward slaves. Their nominee Corbulo defeated the Parthians; in Britain a more enlightened administration followed the quashing of Boudicca’s rebellion. But as Tacitus, the historian (c. 56–117), says, “Nothing in human affairs is more unstable and precarious than power unsupported by its own strength.” Seneca and Burrus were a tyrant’s favourites. In 59 they had to condone—or to contrive—the murder of Agrippina. When Burrus died in 62 Seneca knew that he could not go on. He received permission to retire, and in his remaining years he wrote some of his best philosophical works. In 65, Seneca’s enemies denounced him as having been a party to the conspiracy of Piso. Ordered to commit suicide, he met death with fortitude and composure.

Philosophical works and tragedies.
The Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii (The Pumpkinification of the Divine Claudius) stands apart from the rest of Seneca’s surviving works. A political skit, witty and unscrupulous, its theme is the deification—or “pumpkinification”—of Claudius. The rest divide into philosophical works and the tragedies. The former expound an eclectic version of “Middle” Stoicism, adapted for the Roman market by Panaetius of Rhodes (2nd century bc), and developed by his compatriot Poseidonius in the 1st century bc. Poseidonius lies behind the books on natural science, Naturales quaestiones, where lofty generalities on the investigation of nature are offset by a jejune exposition of the facts. Of the Consolationes, Ad Marciam consoles a lady on the loss of a son; Ad Helviam matrem, Seneca’s mother on his exile; Ad Polybium, the powerful freedman Polybius on the loss of a son but with a sycophantic plea for recall from Corsica. The De ira deals at length with the passion of anger, its consequences, and control. The De clementia, an exhortatory address to Nero, commends mercy as the sovereign quality for a Roman emperor. De tranquillitate animi, De constantia sapientis, De vita beata, and De otio consider various aspects of the life and qualities of the Stoic wise man. De beneficiis is a diffuse treatment of benefits as seen by giver and recipient. De brevitate vitae demonstrates that our human span is long enough if time is properly employed—which it seldom is. Best written and most compelling are the Epistulae morales, addressed to Lucilius. Those 124 brilliant essays treat a range of moral problems not easily reduced to a single formula.

Of the 10 “Senecan” tragedies, Octavia is certainly, and Hercules Oetaeus is probably, spurious. The others handle familiar Greek tragic themes, with some originality of detail. Attempts to arrange them as a schematic treatment of Stoic “vices” seem too subtle. Intended for playreadings rather than public presentation, the pitch is a high monotone, emphasizing the lurid and the supernatural. There are impressive set speeches and choral passages, but the characters are static, and they rant. The principal representatives of classical tragedy known to the Renaissance world, these plays had a great influence, notably in England. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, and Cyril Tourneur’s Revengers Tragaedie, with their ghosts, witches, cruel tyrants, and dominant theme of vengeance, are the progeny of Seneca’s tragedies.

Stature and influence.
Hostile propaganda pursued Seneca’s memory. Quintilian, the 1st-century ad rhetorician, criticized his educational influence; Tacitus was ambivalent on Seneca’s place in history. But his views on monarchy and its duties contributed to the humane and liberal temper of the age of the Antonines (Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus; ad 138–192). Meanwhile, the spread of Stoicism kept his philosophy alive: new horizons opened when it was found to have Christian affinities. There was a belief that he knew St. Paul and a spurious collection of letters to substantiate it. Studied by Augustine and Jerome, Seneca’s works consoled Boethius in prison. His thought was a component of the Latin culture of the Middle Ages, often filtered through anthologies. Known to Dante, Chaucer, and Petrarch, his moral treatises were edited by Erasmus; the first complete English translation appeared in 1614. In the 16th to 18th century Senecan prose, in content and style, served the vernacular literatures as a model for essays, sermons, and moralizing. Calvin, Montaigne, and Rousseau are instances. As the first of “Spanish” thinkers, his influence in Spain was always powerful. Nineteenth-century specialization brought him under fire from philosophers, scientists, historians, and students of literature. But later scholarly work and the interest aroused by the bimillenary commemorations of his death in Spain in 1965 suggested that a Senecan revival might be under way. In his 40 surviving books the thoughts of a versatile but unoriginal mind are expressed and amplified by the resources of an individual style.

Donald Reynolds Dudley



The death of Seneca
Luca Giordano


Type of work: Drama
Author: Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.-A.D. 65)
Type of Plot: Tragedy of revenge
Time of plot: The Heroic Age
Locale: Greece
First presented: с A.D. 60


Thyestes, wooden on the stage, is nevertheless a closet drama of horrific intensity. Remarkable for its scenes of terror, such as the banquet at which the father partakes of his own children, the Senecan tragedy was a landmark in dramatic history, influencing in particular many Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge plays.


Principal Characters

Atreus (a' tri- as), the oldest son of Pelops and the rightful ruler of Argos, who is the protagonist in the most fiendish revenge play in the history of the theater,
Thyestes (thi-es'tez), Atreus' brother, who seduces his wife and steals the golden ram, the symbol of power in the kingdom. Having been defeated and banished by Atreus, Thyestes accepts with forebodings his brother's invitation to return to Argos. There he is fed the bodies of his sons at a banquet. Learning the truth, his greatest regret is his inability to get similar vengeance on Atreus.
Tantalus (tan'ts-las), a son of Thyestes.
Thyestes' Two Other Sons. They are murdered by their uncle, who roasts their bodies for their father's banquet.
Agamemnon (a'ga-mem'non) and Menelaus (тё'пэ-la'as), sons of Atreus.
Megaera (тэ-ga'ra), one of the Furies.
The Ghost of Tantalus, the former king of Argos, who is summoned back to witness the fury of his descendants.
Pelops (pe'lops), the father of Atreus and Thyestes and the son of Tantalus, who is sacrificed by his father to the gods.


The Story

Megaera, one of the Furies, summoned the ghost of Tantalus to return from Hades to Argos, where Tantalus in life had been king, to watch revenge, hate, and havoc spread across that kingdom. Tantalus was hesitant because of the part he had played in the story of his royal house, but Megaera forced him to witness the fate of his descendants.
The grandsons of Tantalus, the sons of Pelops, whom Tantalus had sacrificed to the gods, were at war with one another. The oldest of Pelops' sons, Atreus, was the rightful ruler of Argos, but his brother, Thyestes, had seduced Atreus' wife and carried her away. With them they took the golden ram, the symbol of power held by the ruler of the kingdom. Civil war broke out, and Thyestes was defeated. After his defeat he was exiled by Atreus.
But exile was not sufficient punishment for Thyestes. The fierce hatred of Atreus, burning over his brother's crimes and his own misfortune in the loss of his wife, demanded greater revenge. A tyrant who believed that death was a comfort to his subjects, Atreus brooded over fierce and final vengeance upon his younger brother. He felt that no act of revenge could be a crime when committed against a man who had worked against him as his brother had. Moreover, he felt that he, as a king, could do as he wished; private virtues were not for rulers.
When an attendant suggested that Atreus put Thyestes to the sword, Atreus said that death was only an end. He wanted Thyestes to suffer even greater torture. The punishment Atreus finally hit upon was a scheme to feed Thyestes' own children to him at a banquet.
Atreus took the first step toward accomplishing his revenge. He sent his own sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, as emissaries of good will to Thyestes and asked the exile, through them, to return to a place of honor at his brother's side. Fearing that his sons, forewarned, might lack the discretion needed to act as friendly ambassadors, he did not tell them the part they were playing in his scheme of revenge.
Thyestes, trusting the king, returned to Argos with his three sons, including one named Tantalus, after his greatgrandfather of famous memory. But when he looked again at familiar landscapes, Thyestes felt a sense of foreboding. His footsteps faltered, and his sons noted his apparent unwillingness to return. The offer of peace and half the kingdom seemed to Thyestes unlike his brother's earlier hatred and fury. He felt that there had been too much hate and bloodshed between them for real peace. But his sons, silencing his doubts, led him on to the court of Atreus.
Atreus, overjoyed to see his brother and nephews in his power and apparently unmindful of the revenge plotted against them, concealed his hatred and welcomed them to the kingdom once again.
Atreus announced a great feast to celebrate his brother's homecoming. Then, taking the three sons of Thyestes aside, he led them to a grove behind the palace and there slew them with all the ceremony of a sacrifice to the gods. The first he stabbed in the neck, the second he decapitated, and the third he killed by a thrust through the body. The boys, knowing that appeals were useless, suffered death in silence. Atreus drew off their blood and prepared the carcasses like so much beef. The limbs he quartered and placed upon spits to roast; the bodies he hacked into small pieces and placed in pots to boil.
The fire seemed reluctant to burn as an accomplice to his deed, but Atreus stood by and acted as cook until the ghastly banquet was ready. As he cooked, the sky grew dark and an unnatural night settled across the face of the earth. The banquet prepared, Atreus felt that he was the equal of the gods themselves.
The feast began. After the banquet had progressed to the point that the guests were glutted by all they had eaten, Atreus prepared for Thyestes a drink of wine and blood drained from the bodies of Thyestes' sons.
All the while a premonition of evil hung like a cloud in the back of Thyestes' mind. Try as he would, he could not be gay and enjoy the feast, for vague terrors struck at his heart. When Atreus gave him the cup of blood and wine, he could not lift it to drink at first, and when he did try to drink the wine seemed to roll around the brim of the cup rather than pass through his lips. Filled with sudden fears, Thyestes demanded that Atreus produce his sons.
Atreus left and returned with the heads of the three sons on a platter. Thyestes, chilled with horror at the sight, asked where the bodies were. He feared that Atreus had refused them honorable burial and had left them for the dogs to eat. Atreus told Thyestes that he had eaten his own children. Then Thyestes realized why unnatural night had darkened the skies.
Still Atreus was not satisfied. He felt disappointed that he had not planned to force Thyestes to drink some of his children's blood while they were yet alive. The king bragged of what he had done and described how he himself had committed the murders and spitted the meat before the fires.
Atreus, enjoying his revenge, could never believe that the greatest weight upon Thyestes' mind was regret that he had not thought of such revenge and caused Atreus to eat of his own children.


Critical Evaluation

Seneca's Thyestes is undoubtedly the most lurid, gruesome, and undramatic tragedy to survive from antiquity, and perhaps the most fiendish revenge play in the literature. It is spectacle rather than true drama. Whereas genuine tragedy arises from character conflicts or internal divisions within character, spectacle relies on sensational events carried out by characters who exist merely for the sake of the events and who have no actual existence of their own. This is certainly the case with every character in Thyestes. Each exists simply to emphasize the horror of Atreus' revenge on his brother Thyestes, where Thyestes is fed his own butchered sons at a hideous banquet.
Another important point of difference between true drama and spectacle is their use of language. The speech of authentic tragedy approximates, in a formal way, the devices of normal conversation to reveal passions. The language of spectacle, however, being florid and highly artificial, tends toward bombast. Spectacle operates by set pieces, rhetorical essays that develop simple ideas at great length, by tedious and lush descriptive passages, and by sententiae, or moralizing epigrams. Sencea used all three, and the result is that his characters speak in a highly unnatural way, instead of communicating they attitudinize.
This characteristic of Senecan drama had led many scholars to believe that Seneca wrote his plays for private recitation rather than public performance. In fact there is no reason for assuming that the plays were not produced. Spectacle, rhetorical overindulgence, and horrors were a part of public entertainment under the Roman Emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, who ruled during Seneca's maturity. We know that Seneca's tragedies were staged in the Elizabethan period, and that they had immense influence on the dramas of Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Webster, and others.
The subject of Thyestes derives from Greek legend, and is based upon an incident that occurred in the tragic family descended from Tantalus. Although Sophocles, Euripides, Ennius, Accius, and Varius had dramatized the story of Thyestes earlier, none of their plays has survived to provide a basis of comparison. Seneca's treatment of the myth has some interest in its own right, but it also serves to illuminate his own biography.
He handles the figure of Thyestes rather sympathetically, making him the victim of Atreus' lunatic lust for revenge. Seneca plays down the fact that Thyestes seduced Atreus' wife, stole his symbol of power, and caused a civil war. When Thyestes appears on stage, he assumes the role of the Stoic hero, determined to bear whatever fate has in store for him, and he frankly prefers the hardships of exile to the pomp of power that Atreus has treacherously extended to him. Exile has tempered his character. And here we remember that Seneca himself underwent eight years of exile on Corsica, after being accused of an intrigue with Claudius' niece Julia. The parallel is striking, but it extends even further. Like Thyestes, Seneca was recalled from exile with the promise of power. He was to tutor and guide Nero in the art of statesmanship. When Nero became Emperor in A.D. 54, Seneca was able to exercise some control over him for the first five years of his reign; but then Nero began acting on his own, and Seneca retired from public life. Thyestes is Seneca's personal testament on the instability of power and the helplessness of those who incur the wrath of an absolute and maniacal ruler. The only solution Seneca finds in this play is the same one he found in life—to bear one's misfortune with Stoic dignity. Eventually Nero ordered Seneca to commit suicide for an alleged conspiracy. And Seneca met his death bravely.
Through the murky rhetoric of Thyestes three important themes emerge: cannibalism, the nature of kingship, and the necessity of maintaining a Stoic endurance in the face of a murderous disintegrating cosmos. The appearance of Tantalus and Megaera the Fury at the beginning is not accidental. Tantalus served his son, Pelops, as food for the gods, and as part of his eternal torment he must not only witness the kin murders of his descendants, he must abet them. Presumably he inspires the idea of the cannibalistic revenge in Atreus' mind, but Atreus carries it out with gloating satisfaction. Atreus is an unrelieved monster, raging with paranoid pride.
Against him Seneca sets the idea of kingship founded on morality and restraint. The aphoristic conversation between Atreus and the attendant in act 2, scene 1, is a debate on whether kings should serve the people or the people should be utterly subservient to the king. In the first case morality is the main law, and in the second the will of the the tyrant. The point is made that morality creates a stable kingdom, but tyranny is supremely unstable. Later, the chorus says that true kingship lies in self-control, not in wealth, power, or pomp.
Unfortunately these observations make no impression whatever on Atreus, who is intent on proving his godlike power over human life, much like the Roman Emperors Seneca knew. In striving to become like a god in his pride, Atreus becomes loathsomely bestial. Seneca constantly generalizes from the concrete situation of Atreus and Thyestes to the universe. When kings are corrupt, society is corrupted, and the rot extends throughout the cosmos. Nature mirrors human conditions in Seneca: the fire hesitates to boil the children; an unnatural night falls upon the banquet. The play is full of hyperbole about the disintegrating universe, rendered in very purple poetry. Against this profusion of rhetoric stand the pithy epigrams, like a Stoical element trying to bear up tightly against the frenetic declamations. The Stoic attitude can never prevail in a world full of crime, but it can enable a man to endure great stress with courage. Seneca, in Thyestes, embodied the shame of Rome and his own valor in a style eminently suited to his subject.



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