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Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama

This is the first monograph in English devoted to the most important of Seneca’s tragedies, Thyestes, which has had a notable influence
on Western drama from Shakespeare to Antonin Artaud. Thyestes
emerges as the mastertext of ‘Silver’ Latin poetry, and as an original
reflection on the nature of theatre comparable to Euripides’ Bacchae.
The book analyses the complex structure of the play, its main themes,
the relationship between Seneca’s vibrant style and his obsession with
dark issues of revenge and regression. Substantial discussion of other
plays – especially Trojan Women, Oedipus and Medea – permits a
comprehensive re-evaluation of Seneca’s poetics and its pivotal role in
post-Virgilian literature. Topics explored include the relationship between Seneca’s plays and his theory of the emotions, the connection
between poetic inspiration and the underworld, and Seneca’s treatment of time, which, in a perspective informed by psychoanalysis, is
seen as a central preoccupation of Senecan tragedy.
a l e s s a n d ro s c h i e s a ro is Professor of Latin Language and
Literature at King’s College in the University of London, having
previously taught at Princeton University and the University of
Wisconsin–Madison. He has published widely on Latin literature,
including Simulacrum et imago (1990) and co-editing, with Phillip
Mitsis and Jenny Strauss Clay, Mega nepios: il destinatario nell’epos
didascalico (1993) and, with Thomas Habinek, The Roman Cultural
Revolution (1997).

Thyestes and the Dynamics of Senecan Drama


First published in print format 2003 - isbn-13 978-0-511-06125-7 eBook (NetLibrary) - isbn-10 0-511-06125-0 eBook (NetLibrary) - isbn-13 978-0-521-81801-8 hardback -  hardback isbn-10 0-521-81801-X Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of s for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book. Madrid. New York www.cambridge. and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is. no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Information on this title: www. São Paulo Cambridge University Press The Edinburgh Building. Singapore. Melbourne. New © Alessandro Schiesaro 2003 This book is in copyright. or will remain. Cambridge  . United Kingdom Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press. Cape Town. accurate or appropriate.   Cambridge. .cambridge. Subject to statutory exception and to the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements.

per mia madre e in memoria di mio padre .

Freud.Flectere si nequeo superos. Acheronta movebo. S. The Interpretation of Dreams .

Contents Acknowledgements Note on translations page ix xi Introduction 1 1 Poetry. ritual and poetry The logic of crime Perfection. sed uter De clementia 139 151 5 Fata se vertunt retro 177 6 The poetics of passions 221 Intertextuality and its discontents Passions and hermeneutics: the audience Allegories of spectatorship The challenge of epos Epilogue 221 228 235 243 252 Bibliography Index of passages cited General index 256 269 281 vii . passions and knowledge 8 2 Staging Thyestes 26 The poetics of furor Tantalus’ tongue Framing Thyestes Tragedy. terminable and interminable 3 A craftier Tereus 70 Thracium nefas Crime. of a kind 4 26 36 45 61 70 85 98 117 Atreus rex 139 Non quis.


Reflections of Nero (London. It was begun in the idyllic surroundings of the Classics Department at Princeton.Acknowledgements This book has been. help at crucial junctures has come from John Henderson and Victoria Rimell. scene 8. My thanks to them all. material that has previously appeared in Vergilius 38 (1992). alas. no. Th´eaˆ tre Complet (Collection Biblioth`eque de la Pl´eiade. Adrienne Mayor and Daniel Mendelsohn. 1990). My colleagues Carlotta Dionisotti. both personal and institutional. Michael Sharp has been a very supportive – and patient – editor. not far from East Pyne. The book incorporates. in a revised form. Gill and S. but especially by the stimulating friendship of Josh Ober. ix . Seneca e il suo tempo (Rome. at the beginning of the Introduction is reproduced by permission of the publisher from Emmanuel Jacquart (ed.). In London. Parroni (ed.). Braund (eds. Ingo Gildenhard. 1996). 2000).). Materiali e Discussioni 39 (1997). Masters (eds. C. The quotation from Eug`ene Ionesco. The Passions in Roman Thought and Literature (Cambridge. that of Glen Bowersock. The anonymous readers for Cambridge University Press have offered much appreciated criticism and advice. where it was fostered by much material support. and. 1994). Sadly. Elsner and J. Don Fowler can only be thanked in memoriam for all he has done for this book and its author. J.). Roland Mayer and Michael Silk have been a great source of learning and friendship. 372) (Gallimard. and the help I received on several occasions from excellent research assistants. Paris. P. I also remember with gratitude the brilliant students of my graduate seminars. La cantatrice chauve. Froma Zeitlin and Richard Martin. very long in the making and has also accumulated a large number of debts.

H. Citations from Seneca’s tragedies are from Zwierlein’s OCT edition (1986).x Acknowledgements The quotation from W. when not available there. New York. Other translations are my own. from the editions listed in the Note on translations. Abbreviations of classical works correspond to those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary and. Translations of some authors are taken. by kind permission. in the Oxford Latin Dictionary. London and Random House Inc. Auden. ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’ (1939) on page 117 is reproduced from Collected Poems by permission of Faber and Faber Ltd. ..

Translation. Kenney. Lucan: Civil War. J. Cambridge. With an Introduction. Cambridge. A Literary Introduction with Text. MA: Harvard University Press. Warminster. w. b a b b i t t . Copyright  University Press. Cambridge. Braund (Oxford World’s Classics) (1992). 1917/1920. by H. i/ii: m o r a l e s s ay s. i i : ag a m e m n o n . translated by h . p l ato : vo l s .Note on translations The following published translations have been used in this work: a e s c h y lu s : vo l . The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. MA: Harvard University Press. 2000. 1927. translated with introduction and notes by S. H. e u m e n i d e s . Loeb Classical Library Volumes 237/276. s m y t h . Elaine: Seneca’s Troades.b e a re r s . Reprinted by permission of Princeton mentary. translated by A. D. Loeb Classical Library Volume 197. MA: Harvard University Press. M. g u m m e re . The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Melville (Oxford World’s Classics) (1998). edited by E. s e n e c a : vo l s . MA: Harvard University Press. The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Cambridge. translated by f r a n k c . f r ag m e n ts . Fantham. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. Cambridge. v / vi : e p i s t l e s. translated by pau l s h o rey . Translation and Commentary. The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. m . Loeb Classical Library Volumes 214/254. s e n e c a : vo l s . Published by Aris & Phillips. 1926. viii: xi . 1936/1937. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. Loeb Classical Library Volume 146. Seneca: Medea. and Comc 1982 by PUP. translated by r. Ovid: Metamorphoses. Text. Loeb Classical Library Volume 76. v/vi: t h e re p u b l i c. MA: Harvard University Press. p lu ta rc h : vo l . Hine. The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. translated by j o h n w. s e n e c a : vo l . b a s o re . i : m o r a l i a . 1928/1932. l i b at i o n .

edited and translated by j o h n g . . f i tc h. 1991. Virgil: Aeneid .xii Note on translations t r ag e d i e s. translated by David West (Penguin Classics). MA: Harvard University Press. Loeb Classical Library Volume 62. The Loeb Classical Library ® is a registered trademark of the President and Fellows of Harvard College. 2002 (for Hercules furens). Published by Penguin Books Ltd. Cambridge. Harmondsworth.

a reflection which on the one hand appears to sum up almost a century of Latin literature and on the other codifies ‘Silver’ poetics at its expressive (and. Inspiration. sacrifice. engaging fashion the archetypical connection between tragedy and violence. See Bergren (1983) 79. mired in the tension between order and chaos. vol. self-reflexivity was not invented in the sixties: the scholiast to Il. Among critical works specifically devoted to Thyestes Picone (1984) is especially important. The sheer dramatic force of this tragedy – Seneca’s best1 – springs from casting Atreus’ horrific violence as the creative drive behind poetic fiction. to which my work is much indebted. Atreus dominates the stage as a gifted poet. i ) is also often useful. in a way. 3. La cantatrice chauve) Thyestes embodies a tragic conflict. (E. In English.126–7 already remarked that as she weaves a cloth portraying the contexts between Greeks and Trojans Helen is ‘a worthy archetype of [the poet’s] own poetic art’. In this play we witness in its most engaging form a sustained reflection on the power and limits of poetry. for us. Thyestes foregrounds the complexities inherent in creating poetry as well as in reading or watching it. Guastella (2001) deals at length with Thyestes in the context of a wide-ranging analysis of revenge as a tragic theme in Seneca and his successors. Mantovanelli (1984) offers a stimulating reading of several aspects of the play.2 and force the audience to reflect on whether enjoyment of this type of poetry is not also a form of collusion with it. concur. but metadramatically analysed and questioned. Ionesco. with whom I occasionally. passion and reason. if independently.Introduction Mme Martin: Quelle est la morale? Le Pompier: C’est a` vous de la trouver. and an even more tragic contradiction. enthousiasmos and craft. power. between a desire to speak and the need to remain silent. theoretical) peak. Or. role-playing. Thyestes stands out among the other plays by Seneca precisely because it mobilizes in novel. deception and recognition are not only staged. 1 . Like sex. there is much of value in Littlewood (1997). Giancotti (1988–89. between the desire to watch and the repulsiveness of what is on display. 1 2 It has attracted Richard Tarrant’s remarkable commentary (Tarrant (1985)).

qua poetic word. The complex framework of the prologue also renders the balance of moral responsibilities in the play difficult to determine and at every point pressures the audience to distinguish good from evil.2 The Passions in Play As the prologue shows. since its prologue stages a conflict between the Fury’s order to unleash the tragedy and Tantalus’ desire to repress it. 1. with Coarelli (1983) 207–25.3 although Freudian and post-Freudian theories of literature have shaped my approach to both literature in general and this tragedy in particular. to the gods below. whose presence is controlled but not denied. . Thyestes invites from the very beginning an engagement with concepts masterfully explored by Freud. 3 4 Such as. alluring and disconcerting alike. the mundus. Varro ap. As the Fury succeeds. are always lurking beneath the surface of the text. death and poetry. nor is he mad. He operates according to different logical protocols. Segal’s (1986) monograph on Phaedra. the words of the tragedy emerge as the product of a violent creative urge rooted in the underworld of the Furies and their passions: Thyestes. often contradictory.18 ( = fr. I do not propose to offer a systematic psychoanalytic reading of Thyestes. can voice realities which would otherwise tend to be repressed. and the act of creation embodied in that word is inevitably an act of rebellion against logic and order. signals. The underworld and its passions. regulated but not destroyed. populis Ditis ad superos datur). Varro informs us. Macrob. 573: iter . . permitted a ritualized and strictly controlled contact with the realm below: ianua patet. for instance. illusion from reality. or Janan’s (1994) on Catullus. ‘the door is open’. the poetic word. The conflict between different forms of logic and different attitudes to the passions can be most readily observed in the opposition between the rationality of Thyestes and the chorus vis-`a-vis the idiosyncratic unpredictability of Atreus. just as in the most sacred part of the Roman forum a small opening. ‘for the people of Dis a way is given to those living on earth’ (Oed. Sat. too. . closer to those of the unconscious than those normally adopted in waking life. is a harrowing exploration of the kinship between prophecy. and hypocrisy from sincerity in the midst of conflicting. I argue. deorum tristium atque inferum quasi ianua patet. Therein lies.16. like the sixth book of Lucan’s Bellum Civile. a great part of his irresistible appeal. 66 Salvadore): mundus cum patet. The primary aim of this book is to subject Seneca to the same kind of sustained literary analysis as is now taken for granted for other major Latin authors.4 In Seneca’s poetry. Atreus is not irrational.

I single out. as he is disgraced. Yet I will stress their 5 I refer especially to the works by Matte Blanco and Orlando listed in the bibliography. have attracted considerable interest from literary theorists. Thyestes could (and may even aspire to) invite the audience (an admittedly vague term) to identify with the emotional suffering of the eponymous hero. Among the modes of representation which have a particular impact on the interpretation of the play. we inevitably pay tribute to his inventiveness as we revel in the aesthetic rewards of the tragedy and tacitly admit the possibility that powerful poetry may well be at odds with moral propriety. to appropriate. We do not have to posit a radically modern notion of consciousness to accept that Thyestes challenges the Stoic prescription that poetry should have an educational value. Ancient tragedy does not exist. and approach a character such as Atreus. one-sided literalness. who is unable to overcome the past and to set clear boundaries between himself and his brother-doppelganger. to be sure. resides precisely in its ability to fragment the audience’s identification. the technique of framing. In turn. We side with the creator of fear and horror. even. these insights help us understand the role and function of Seneca’s intertextuality. Atreus will be able to punish his brother precisely because he is able to trust his instincts and to manipulate words in unpredictable and duplicitous ways. and each play elicits from the audience a preferred set of emotional identifications. But the specific dramatic construction of Seneca’s Thyestes radically modifies this expectation: its elaborate metadramatic structure offers a detailed knowledge of the Fury’s and especially of Atreus’ machinations and makes us party to the superior level of knowledge the latter enjoys over his brother. will be no match. and suffer with him as his children are slaughtered. Frames. we plot with Atreus. betrayed and horribly punished. distinctly ‘feminine’ characteristics as they suit him: Thyestes’ ‘logic’. not with his victim: on the whole we do not fear with Thyestes. especially in chapter two. even if the hallmark of any successful work of art. as indeed of other key first-century authors such as Ovid and Lucan. and deservedly so. as Freud was the first to admit.Introduction 3 Freud’s theories about time and temporality and the post-Freudian focus on the unconscious as an alternative set of logical protocols5 offer valuable guidance as we approach a play that is marked by temporal discontinuities and leaps of logic. a pervasive and intense feature of his writing. of course. We would fear with him as his brother’s deception unfolds. Specifically. . in a vacuum. since Atreus is endowed with all the characteristics of a successful creator of poetry.

Thyestes nevertheless remains an incestuous adulterer. Despite the fact that he has come to laudable conclusions about the relative merits of power and powerlessness. the truth which seeps out in the confrontation between the two brothers makes the moderate political outlook of Thyestes and the chorus. his exile. in the eerily ordered procedure he follows in slaughtering his nephews. the audience is engulfed in the emotional violence of the tragedy. The harrowing emotional background of the play can be glimpsed. By the time these contents emerge fully in Atreus’ extraordinary mise en sc`ene. In turn. we must of course investigate the nature of the repressed emotional truth that we are invited to experience alongside Atreus. Atreus’ revenge is not primarily motivated by issues of power. The deep-seated causes of Atreus’ anger and violence are Thyestes’ incestuous relationship with Aerope and the consequent uncertainty about the true paternity of Agamemnon and Menelaus. look very dubious indeed. . rather. These frames offer the audience an ordered and apparently reassuring context which acts to lower their intellectual defences and to pave the way for the emergence of violent. however. In Thyestes. in Atreus’ brief but uncontradicted references to Thyestes’ past behaviour. even if eliminating his nephews strengthens the dynastic position of his own offspring. as can be observed. Thyestes’ expulsion from his father’s kingdom. the same interplay of order and violence constitutes a defining feature of Atreus’ personality throughout.4 The Passions in Play unusually emphatic role in the emotional dynamics outlined above. and Atreus’ subsequent willingness to welcome him back as a partner in power. By privileging a political reading of the play and heeding Thyestes’ reflections on the nature and limits of power. the very theatricality of the play acts as a frame by positing a distance between the audience and the events on the stage. Indeed. repressed contents. Once we accept that the very structure of Thyestes maps out a profound conflict. this general. As Freud himself recognized. The political subplot of the play is to a significant extent an enabling device for the emergence of darker instincts and issues which could not immediately command centre stage. This search is more awkward if we focus predominantly on Atreus’ cruelty or we privilege the political dimension of the conflict foregrounded by the chorus and by Thyestes – that is. external frame is supplemented by a very specific and elaborate set of internal frames which articulate different layers of dramatic action. the chorus actually distracts our attention from the primal emotions which motivate Atreus and inevitably cast Thyestes in a less flattering light. I will argue. a truth simultaneously hidden and revealed by the play. their insistence that passions can be tamed and conflicts amicably resolved.

The temptation to read Atreus as a larger-than-life Nero – a trend that might have started very soon after the play was written6 – is still strong. Nisbet (1990)). then we can understand why Thyestes is still considered the best of Seneca’s tragedies. but tames its deeper emotional power. but metrical data point to a late date for Thyestes (Fitch (1981). or – for that matter – as a manifesto for moral resistance to that decadence. Atreus’ anger at the incestuous betrayal and his horror at the thought that the children are not his own are emotions readily shared by (at least) a Roman audience. As the pre-eminent literary work of (probably) the fifties. castis nunc fidem reddi toris). obviously. power and incest. A predominantly political reading of the play opens up the possibility of a moralistic reading. Both assumptions. (this) tragedy reflects the social situation in which it was produced. or that Nero was in fact the cruel and rather quirky tyrant who sang while Rome burned. . If. for instance. and why its emotional impact is comparable to that of other great masterpieces of theatrical literature. 6 7 Calder (1983) neatly shows that the character of Nero in the pseudo-Senecan tragedy Octavia follows in Atreus’ footsteps. Calder ((1976) 28–30. see Tarrant (1976) 5–6. Indeed. Thyestes can rightfully aspire to a hallowed position in the canon. and his revenge fulfils a profound if repressed truth – that in a similar situation they too would want to exact a similarly gruesome retribution. their father. successful tragedies focus on basic emotions and impulses of the human condition (a concept which retains full heuristic value even as we modulate it in a historical perspective). now I believe that I can trust again the purity of my marriage-bed’ (1098–9: liberos nasci mihi | nunc credo. in fact. There are no certainties about the dating of the tragedies. All this would be predicated.7 this tragedy is inevitably linked in our historical perception with the image of the emperor. The association may well be inevitable. even if not explicitly. and by their deeds they show to Atreus that he is. cf. could most probably help our understanding of the play. but we should resist the temptation to see the tragedy as a document of sorts for the decadence of Neronian Rome. as Freud famously argues about Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. as he finally realizes with joy: ‘now I am convinced that my children are my own. For a more sceptical position on the dating of Ag. on several dubious assumptions: that.Introduction 5 Atreus’ anxiety about his paternity helps to explain why he plans and executes his revenge in such a way as to ascertain in the process his sons’ instinctive allegiance: in the end they do not inform their uncle of the impending slaughter. if proved. As a play which goes to the heart of the connection between poetry. (1983) 184) argues that Agamemnon is likely to follow Thyestes.

it is much better to focus on Thyestes as a reflection on power. Augustus. Centuries later. (1984). creativity. and specifically of the ‘myth of Nero’. the review by Lef`evre (1968). actual or potential – see Walker (1969). conclusive 8 9 10 11 The relative importance is debated. it is because we know little about the circulation of the plays (the longstanding quarrel about their performability having all but displaced such a crucial issue). See Elsner and Masters (1994) for discussions of Neronian culture. private theatres. on the one hand. Sutton (1986). and Thyestes’ less than compelling gestures towards restraint and morality are met with defeat (compare the very different ending of Titus). A tragedy such as Thyestes must also have been a considerable challenge for its self-professed Stoic author: Atreus’ elaborate revenge plot is crowned with success. (iii) full staging. rather like operas in concerto-form – see Fantham (1982) 34–49. but no costumes and no stage setting. to relinquish the desire to reunite the whole Senecan corpus under the reassuring. In practice. perversion and desire which need not be explained in terms of a specific political background. paid good money for Varius’ Thyestes. 70 n. . or in the secrecy of Seneca’s home as the Pisonian conspiracy took shape. which relies on both the Thyestes and its Ovidian model. Calder (1976). from a variety of methodological points of view. Thus we would probably do well. As long as we lack for Seneca’s Thyestes the details we possess about the circumstances in which Varius’ Thyestes and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus were represented.11 Atreus’ winning combination of wit and violence would have looked very different if staged in front of Nero not long after Britannicus was conveniently dispatched. But if I refrain from casting Thyestes in the dubiously honorific role of prime witness for a reconstruction of ‘Neronian Rome’. on the other. see p. whether or not they were actually staged. purely for recitation.6 The Passions in Play it is perfectly plausible that a play such as Thyestes could have political overtones. to dispense with a political reading (especially a` clef ). I have little doubt that the tragedies. it is plausible that they were performed in small. as advocated most extensively by Zwierlein (1966) – cf. Other theories: (i) Lesedrama.9 and thus we are ill at ease when it comes to evaluating the relationship between the text and its possible audience: the emperor?10 dissident aristocrats? family members? nobody at all? (Conversely. Marshall (2000). which was staged after the victory at Actium and hinted at a connection between Atreus and Antony. (ii) ‘recital’ with several voices. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Calder (1976–77). were written as performable theatre plays. Herington (1982). in the Hellenistic tradition. and.8 will offer a coded but perceptible critique of contemporary royal power. 1. for instance. we do not know to what extent the archetypical sadist Nero transmitted to us by generations of awed and scandalized critics is a product of historical accuracy or the crystallization of anthropological horrors in an appealing – if repulsive – set of rhetorical topoi).

In chapter two I disengage the metadramatic aspects of the prologue and reflect on the methodological implications of this self-reflexive aspect of the play. highly charged. and (most explicitly) their privileging of intertextual connections. I have framed the treatment of Thyestes with more general reflections on the nature of tragic poetry gleaned both from other Senecan tragedies and from his prosework. We must give up the illusion of a ‘Seneca morale’. and the chorus’s detachment from events and its incapacity to understand and affect them significantly. Chapters three and four are devoted to the analysis of the main characters. who structures his literary production along the constant axis of philosophic doctrine. My goal was not to superimpose on the play a normative explanation that would forcedly orient interpretation. in chapters one and six I argue from within Seneca’s own corpus for the legitimacy of an ‘open’ reading of Thyestes.Introduction 7 sign of Stoic orthodoxy. Its exploration of passion. The play pushes to breaking-point a debate about the role and function of the poetic word which lies at the heart of works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Thus. as are its preferred forms of expression – self-reflexive. but. and welcome in its stead the nuanced image of an author who is at times enigmatic. its lumping together of the personal and the political amplifies a line of thought which is central to post-Virgilian literature. on the contrary. Thyestes can safely be considered the mastertext of ‘Silver’ poetics. Thyestes’ contradictory and ineffectual penchant for moralization. hatred and horror is more concentrated and sustained than in Lucan or Statius. In chapter five I expand my analysis to a number of other plays in order to come to terms with two interconnected and fundamental aspects of Thyestes and other tragedies: their obsessive dealings with the past at the level of subject matter. Atreus. bordering on the illogical. Thyestes and the chorus. Yet precisely because it should discourage a specifically ‘Neronian’ reading. or even only of Stoicizing morality. . There I privilege what I consider to be the aspects of their textual existence that impact most extensively on the play as a whole: Atreus’ role as master of ceremonies in the sacrificial slaughter of his nephews and his unchallenged epistemic prowess. often contradictory and always challenging. to claim that the tragedies’ own self-reflexive statements on the nature of poetry afford readers considerable latitude in their own exegetical explorations. I hope that this book will also shed some light on that peculiar poetics and its main representatives.

De divinatione 1. Thus he succeeds in evoking the ghosts of the dead: ‘ “I am heard. on account of Oedipus’ threats.80) i At the core of Seneca’s Oedipus stands Creon’s stunning narrative of his search for a truth that has so far escaped his fellow-citizens. that the sacerdos (548). even that cunning antonomastic observer. summons the shades with a deeper. with frenzied lips. 4. 530–1). begins his portentous rites. a wood dark with ilex-trees near the well-watered vale of Dirce’s fount’ (est procul ab urbe lucus ilicibus niger | Dircaea circa vallis inriguae loca. Overcoming a deep reluctance to speak.chapter 1 Poetry. soon referred to as a vates (552). the setting for his account is grim and terrifying. Oedipus 573) negat enim sine furore Democritus quemquam poetam magnum esse posse. far from the city. and. intones a magic song: ‘he unfolds a magic song. Suitably enough. passions and knowledge iterque populis Ditis ad superos datur (Seneca. “I have uttered prevailing words. The prophet. who is possessed by divine powers.” says the priest. and looking at the ground. he chants a charm which appeases or stirs the evanescent ghosts’ (561–3: carmenque magicum volvit et rabido minax | decantat ore quidquid aut placat leves | aut cogit umbras). the king of Thebes. 641–90 and its interpretation see ch. whose wilderness is the usual environment for magical contacts with the divine. stunned voice’ (567–8: canitque rursus ac terram intuens | graviore manes voce et attonita citat). Creon retells his experience in all its gory detail (509–658). remote and obscure: ‘there is. then ‘sings again. quod idem dicit Plato (Cicero.1 It is in this extraordinary location. blind Chaos 1 For a comparable setting in Thy. 8 .

to stage anything like . gives her name to tragedies by Aeschylus and Sophocles. They build the walls of Thebes by playing on the lyre (Hes. Seditio. 182 Merkelbach and West). 576) shakes the grove. if Nero is reported to have sung that very role (Suet. Then other ghosts appear: Zethus. There follow (592–4) ‘Grief ’ (Luctus). Timores. which is necessarily linked with a mythic plot. All these characters are Theban. on Thebes as a privileged locus of tragedy see Zeitlin (1990). Carm.484–5 Luctus. See also the metaliterary cort`ege of Fama at Met. On the importance of the concept of vates in Lucan see O’Higgins (1988) and Masters (1992). who through his song. unlike Manto (595–6).469).273–81. | ‘rata verba fudi: rumpitur caecum chaos | iterque populis Ditis ad superos datur’ ). that is. fr.Poetry.59–61 (Credulitas. Niobe. rata verba. horridus Morbi tremor. and all the forms that eternal darkness creates and hides’ (590–2: tum torva Erinys sonuit et caecus Furor | Horrorque et una quidquid aeternae creant | celantque tenebrae). 11. apart from the crowd. 3. ad Aen. Laetitia. and for the people of Dis a way is given to those living on earth” ’ (571–3: ‘audior’ vates ait. crystallized in the multifaceted use of the words vates and carmen. On carmen see Sharrock (1994) 63–4. but once very famous. 12. 96–8 and 690–6 (see Fitch (1987) 150 and 300). Agave with the Bacchants. Aen.3 Last. and blind Fury and Horror.260–5) figure in Euripides’ lost. Met. 626). 3. 548). The prophet’s invocation has horrific consequences: ‘trembling’ (horror. 4. whose inspiration vivifies the characters of tragedy.1. and a triumphal procession of infernal creatures abandons its chthonic dens: ‘then grim Erinys sounded. and in Pacuvius’ Pentheus (for which we have only Servius’ argument. Laius shows his face. Susurri). Niobe. and in Pacuvius’ tragedy by the same name (1–20a Ribbeck2 ).3 is also relevant (see the use of sacerdos at Oed . and speaking ‘in a rabid voice’ (ore rabido. passions and knowledge 9 is burst open.2 The prophet is not disturbed by this. finds here a contextual motivation. Agave and Pentheus appear in Euripides’ and Accius’ Bacchae. 6. The intersection of meanings between vates and sacerdos in passages such as Hor. nor would it be possible for this particular self-reflexive narrative. through carefully chosen words endowed with active power. Pestis and Dolor close off the tragedy in Jocasta’s final invocation at 1059–60. Pavor. On vates see Newman (1967). Terror and Insania escort Tisiphone back on earth as instruments of Juno’s rage. is analogous to the poet. ‘Old Age’ (Senectus). Error. The subject was popular for plays and mimes well into imperial times. At Ovid.1. a classic paper. recalling Virg. This scene powerfully enacts what poetry and poets do. The term vates does not appear to refer directly to dramatic poets. Nero 21). and Pentheus.4 The vates. with Zumwalt (1977) and Feeney (1991) 247–9. A different list of personifications appears in Her. a catalogue of tragic figures. F.2–3 or Prop. ‘Disease’ (Morbus). ‘Fear’ (Metus) and ‘Pestilence’ (Pestis). Tantalus’ daughter and Amphion’s wife. 4. can bring to life the underworld’s demonic creatures. The regenerative powers of the vates and the poet intersect in the parade of tragic characters described at 611–18: both the vates5 and the poet can access a domain open 2 3 4 5 Violenta fata. Antiopa (177–227 Nauck2 ). the earth splits open (582–6). The traditional connection between the magic and prophetic power of poets and seers. Amphion. Zethus and Amphion (whose mother Odysseus meets in the underworld: Od . Macies. reveals the cause and nature of the plague.

and Oedipus paralysed by fear. we saw Thebes being slowly destroyed by the plague. His first chance to discover the truth is in fact vitiated by a residual trust in reason.10 The Passions in Play only to a non-rational.211–13). 15). In the scene beginning at 6 7 a properly named poeta. after the Delphic oracle predicted the monstrous deeds he has in fact already accomplished. hoc stare certo pressius fortem gradu: haud est virile terga Fortunae dare. I dread every thing. When you dread some great calamity. now at Athens’. with unfaltering foot. in Sophocles). quod posse fieri non putes metuas tamen: cuncta expavesco meque non credo mihi. brave. soothes. inflames. the tragic poet is equated with a magus who ‘with inanities wrings my heart. I believe. you must fear also events which you think cannot happen. and I do not trust even myself. famously. is regal: to contain adversity and. It is this that spurs Oedipus to engage in his painful search for truth through a tortuous path. and sets me down now at Thebes. fills it with false terrors like a magician. . the more to stand firm. By stressing the ‘irrational’ passions at work in the tragedies I do not want to deny the importance of the rational elements of artistry and craftsmanship which play an extremely prominent part in these texts. Jocasta’s exhortation at 82–6 confirms that we are to consider Oedipus’ emotions excessive. quoque sit dubius magis status et cadentis imperi moles labet. horrific form of Dionysiac inspiration. the more dubious your station and the more the greatness of power wavers. 2. but Oedipus is completely engulfed by passions.1. if not altogether unjustified: regium hoc ipsum reor: adversa capere. On the contrary. it is precisely thanks to the elaborate forms of its ‘mannerist’ rhetoric that ‘irrational’ and disruptive contents find their expression: ‘the figure is the perpetual tribute paid – and how willingly it is paid – by the language of the conscious ego to the unconscious’ (Orlando (1978) 169). passim. It is not a man’s part to turn the back to Fortune. This very thing. Further observations below. This overwhelming fear is the real motor of the tragedy (not so. as he declares at 25–7: cum magna horreas. We are told that he fears ‘unspeakable things’ (infanda timeo. ch. 3. yet his reaction is portrayed as excessive: such a situation should be confronted with reasoned poise. In Horace’s Letter to Augustus (Epist.7 ii When the play opened.6 and both testify to the limits of a rigid faith in rational forms of explanation.

Further details concerning the relationship between the various characters should be taken into account. but the king replies that he can easily handle the task. passions and knowledge 11 line 202. . who is then able to interrogate Laius. Oedipus opens the 8 The standard treatment of mise en abyme is still D¨allenbach (1977). the very search that motivates the tragedy from its inception. like the Fury. 626) with which he had been summoned by the vates (rabido . His refusal to provoke scelera is a refusal to produce the words that recreate that scelus in the play. and this makes reflection perceptible. these three characters all embody a desperate search for truth. . Oedipus’ trust in his rational faculties outlasts even Creon’s second and much more explicit description of a magical rite. With different degrees of power and knowledge. makes denial’ (766–7: sed animus contra innocens | sibique melius quam deis notus negat). When Creon and Oedipus meet. Creon’s revelation is similarly marked as a forced confession of truths which he claims are best left unsaid. conscious of innocence and known to itself better than to the gods. The stichomythic dialogue (509–29) leading up to Creon’s long speech (530–658) is best read alongside a similar exchange between the Fury and Tantalus in the prologue of Thyestes. the vates and Laius are structurally linked. As is fitting in a mise en abyme. . where Tantalus tries to resist the Fury’s order to bring to earth the ‘crimes’ (scelera) that actually constitute the play. Creon brings the intricate and convoluted vaticinium of the Pythia (211. In Oedipus. must persuade him with force. . . since this is precisely his prerogative: ‘to read riddles to Oedipus alone is given’ (216: ambigua soli noscere Oedipodae datur). It is significant that Laius speaks with the same ‘rabid voice’ (ore rabido. as Oedipus. I want now to consider this compelling scene which lies at the structural and emotional centre of the play. In the face of this new and powerful challenge he will have to delegate his responsibilities more than once. and Oedipus. and will confess to the impotence of his vaunted rational skills.8 the inset scene is a microcosm of the larger framework. Oedipus. 561–2). | . ore. boasts that he knows himself better than the gods do: ‘and yet my soul. Creon begs for the right to be silent. 213–14). who turns to the priest. The real breakthrough in learning the truth occurs only because of the elaborate magic rite organized by Tiresias and Manto and reported to Oedipus by Creon. the king asks his brother-in-law to reveal the results of his consultation with the inhabitants of the underworld. Just as the words of Tantalus come into existence only because violence quashes his intransigence. while trying to deny the impact of what he has just heard.Poetry. Oedipus consults Creon.

populis Ditis ad superos datur).9 The uncontrolled fear that pushes Seneca’s Oedipus to search for explanations (unlike his Sophoclean counterpart)10 eventually leads him to discover in the song of Laius the truth he was afraid to know. In spite of Manto’s accurate report. . but he took reasonable and obvious steps towards solving the enigma. Manto describes every phase of a sacrifice to Tiresias. Passion leads to poetry. which requires Manto’s description. and poetry is the revelation of truths carefully hidden from the upper world of reason and power. but also the sources of a deeper knowledge. 768) in his search for truth. pp. again. As the vates literally finds a way for the creatures of Acheron to come back to earth (573: iter . As Tiresias explains.11 As he gouges out his eyes Oedipus becomes a second Tiresias. See the string of adjectives at 551–5: funesto (551). the cunning thinker and observer.12 The Passions in Play play with his investigation. He failed to understand the oracle himself. the usual signs cannot ‘express the name’ of the culprit (390–4).) The analysis of signs through the eyes. squalente (554). so Laius allows a terrible and suppressed truth to be voiced and heard. Oedipus. Cf. the man who boasts his ability to interpret ‘traces’ (vestigium. who was nonetheless called vates (230) and acted near the fons Castalia. is doomed to failure. the new Muse of this poetry. who tries to understand why the plague is destroying Thebes. Knowledge can be found in a poetry which is profoundly passionate in its origins and inevitably chthonic in its appearance. In parallel fashion. emphasizes the problematic status of vision more than an eye-witness account would have done. the text did not emphasize at that point the ‘poetic’ character of the prophetess’s song. nox (977). thereby implicitly recognizing the blind seer’s superior cognitive power (971). ‘darkness’. mortifera (555). The search for truth thus becomes a search for poetry. and the answer to his questions will come only from tragedy. In the scene starting at line 303. At the end of the play. lugubris (553). that great emphasis is placed on the medium of analysis: Tiresias’ blindness. Vision had already proved to be an unreliable source of knowledge. See ‘night’. Tiresias admits finally that the truth cannot be found in this way. tenebrae (999). Bartezzaghi (1988). 226–7. . however. Poetry evokes Erinys.13 9 10 12 13 This relationship is foregrounded by the fact that Oedipus had failed to draw useful conclusions from Manto’s prophecy at 233–8. ultimately destroys the instrument and symbol of his reason. 11 On alia temptanda est via see below. and alia temptanda est via (392). (It is worth noting. one which Oedipus’ proud rationality had failed to grasp. because at that stage he was still proudly relying on his rational abilities. the ultimate rational pursuit which recalls Oedipus’ pride in his rational faculties.12 a power deeply rooted in the chthonic realm of blood and passions. It is a knowledge which exists and acts in lieu of reason and against it. .

that is. But it can also produce a sense of enclosure bordering on anguish. My intention in this chapter. is not to analyse the passions which animate the characters themselves – Medea’s and Phaedra’s destructive love. which I have already put to work in my reading of the central rhesis in Oedipus is that. Seneca’s metapoetic concerns are clearly on a par with those that animate works such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses or Lucan’s Bellum Civile. See pp. The basic assumption of my enquiry. the actions of certain characters embody a reflection of the text on itself and offer important insights into its poetics. 14 15 For an analysis of the role played by metapoetic elements in Ovid see Rosati (1983) and Hinds (1987). and thus problematize the relationship between passions and aesthetic pleasure. however. In this respect. poetry appears increasingly unable to resist the compulsion to mirror in its own body the processes of composition and the narrative mechanisms that make it possible. we should at least be ready to dispose of any rash assumptions of hierarchy. as if they could be considered a theoretical. considerable strategic advantages over approaching the tragedies armed prevalently or exclusively with references to Seneca’s prose works. can be shown to oscillate between points of view. Senecan tragedy is a highly metadramatic form of theatre. and to see the connection going both ways. dense universe of the tragedies. Succumbing to this temptation can produce the pleasing. passions and knowledge 13 iii Seneca’s tragedies offer repeated and complex descriptions of the passions in action and of the effects of passions on both agents and victims. after all. Rather. There is no reason to believe that the explicit statements of the prose works should have a higher claim to ‘truth’ than the tragedies. at several critical junctures. . Such a line of enquiry forces the critic to confront similar dangers. however. for instance. 20–1 later in this chapter. for Lucan see Masters (1992). if slightly dizzying. or Thyestes’ own quivering determination to resist passion. For such a mistake. endlessly complicating the modalities of reference. effect of the mirror reflecting its image onto another mirror. and thus be used to muffle the potential disruptiveness of the tragedies. systematic explanation of the convoluted.Poetry. too. and to display self-repressive tendencies. Atreus’ thirst for revenge. On Senecan tragedy Boyle (1997) 193–207 is especially good. The prose works.14 After Virgil. It does offer. I aim to examine the way in which these characters establish a connection between passions and poetic creation. Narcissus dies. one highly self-conscious in its reflection on the nature and modes of its existence.15 If we are to link the tragedies to the prose works.

as well as from Hamon (1977).20 is a structuring criterion which massively influences the audience reaction to the play. I will therefore consider to be ‘metadramatic’ the elements in the play that are explicitly concerned with the structural arrangement and the internal 16 17 18 19 Important insights on metadrama. and the dramatic illusion with it. framing by itself need not be metadramatic. Prince (1977). around the borders between fiction and reality’.19 Yet it would be difficult to play down the structural elements which. some elements should be clearly established. the ‘theatre-in-the-theatre – a phenomenon which is as structurally constrained as it is historically circumscribed’. As a working definition. can be found in Hornby (1986). which is not limited to ‘forays across or . Although his notion of metatheatre does not directly bear on my argument. As the equivalent in theatrical terms to ‘metanarrative’. which I will refine as I proceed. but is based on the assumption that plays are ‘also about’ plays. make the audience aware of the constructedness of the performance by distinguishing between different dramatic levels.16 ‘Metadrama’ and ‘metatheatre’. Even in Thyestes the fictional illusion is never directly challenged and broken. and both terms should thus be retained in order to account for two different aspects of Senecan tragedy. There are no proper ‘metatheatrical’ elements in Senecan tragedy. and. Barchiesi (1981) 147–74. Abel (1963). I will argue. I have benefited mostly from Schmeling (1982). See Schmeling (1982) 5 for a list of various phenomena. I adopt a distinction suggested by Schmeling (1982) 10. therefore. and further bibliography. reflects on itself and its functioning. the tragedy hosts no formalized. See Slater (1985).17 ‘Metadrama’. on the other hand. through a variety of devices. although I will often refer to Atreus’ ‘performance’. Framing. It is useful. 20 See below. . as I will suggest. ‘metadrama’ can usefully indicate moments when the play. no Plautine slave ready to step aside and address the audience outside the boundaries of fictionality.14 The Passions in Play While I cannot review in detail here the extensive critical debate on metadrama. encompass a variety of phenomena. Calderwood ((1971) 4–7) has useful remarks on the notion of metadrama that I will employ. Shakespearean play-within-the-play. no techniques that fracture the ‘fourth wall’. pp. Hutcheon (1984) and Stam (1992). . to retain Abel’s original term ‘metatheatre’ in order to designate only that most elaborate and (from a structural point of view) least ambiguous of ‘meta’-phenomena. and especially M. embraces more varied and often less intrusive ‘peripheral forms’18 which bear important semiotic implications. Although framing and metadrama are likely allies. 45–61. Abel (1963) – who coined the term – is essential reading. A pivotal role in such a complex structure is played by the recessing frames which encompass distinct sections of the tragedy. . all to a certain extent ‘metadramatic’. terms which play a prominent role in the modern theorization of the theatrical experience.

tragedy is a form of expression which has by now lost the relative – ritual and political – immediacy which it enjoyed in its original Greek setting. if nothing else because of the extensive metanarrative inclinations of that most successful modern literary genre.21 A final caveat. with Woodman (1992) and Bartsch (1994). In Seneca’s Rome. to borrow Dupont’s phrase. Imperial Rome is in many ways the quintessential ‘theatre of power’. Endowed with a knowledge of events that is far superior to that of their fellow-characters (it is they. especially as they focus on the ‘authorial’ role of certain characters. implicitly but clearly. the novel. For example. where power is constantly enacted and represented. writing tragedy inevitably appears to be a problematic.22 Whether or not we accept the suggestion that the novel has always harboured from the very beginning the ‘seeds’ of a ‘narcissistic’ reading. passions and knowledge 15 organization of the drama. Atreus and his metadramatic colleagues double up as authors-on-stage and constantly remind us of the non-realistic nature of the staged events. even if those references do not trespass the boundaries set up by the scenic space. . In other ways. metadramatic or ‘narcissistic’ texts is reasonably familiar. It is no coincidence that metadrama plays such a vital role in tragedies which can only be products of an intensely self-conscious literary project. who steer the plot in the desired direction). Hardly less important is the use of metanarrative structures in contemporary cinema. 23 Hutcheon (1984) 23. the actor is king – and the king is an actor. Yet it is precisely our familiarity with these ideas that risks impairing our 21 22 See Dupont (1985). and where. in the early stages of Roman literature. Seneca’s Rome is also one big theatrical stage. with ample bibliography. after all. Atreus and other Senecan characters who also wear the robe of inspired creator transcend their role as characters in the play and go on to assume.Poetry. and even. When Seneca writes his tragedies. it could be argued. regressive operation: the metadramatic layers detectable in many Senecan plays testify to the harrowing complexity of that project. although neither the prologue nor act 2 breaks the barrier of scenic illusion. some of the functions that other forms of poetry assign to internal narrators. For twenty-first-century readers (and critics) the concept of self-reflexive.23 we must acknowledge that metanarrative devices abound even in novels which have nothing in common with the most explicit products of nouveau roman. If power is necessarily predicated on a careful orchestration of symbols. The topic is well treated by Stam (1992). of course. I will regard as metadramatic those parts of Thyestes which are extensively concerned with the preparation and the mise en sc`ene of Atreus’ revenge.

among other factors. There are several candidates for this metadramatic role: Juno in Hercules furens. and can thus offer implicit insight into the poetics of the play. . Atreus. that they should be taken as public confessions of 24 25 26 27 It would be interesting to combine Auerbach’s (1959) treatment of realism with an analysis of metanarrative structures. that of Oedipus. despite the fact that some elements of ‘reality’ (itself a tricky term) can indeed find their non-realistic representation there. if any. a major question of literary history.25 A distinction should. obviously. See Calder (1976–77).27 I want to focus again. iv It is a mark of self-reflexivity in Seneca’s tragedies that the character who controls the dramatic action and displays superior knowledge and power on stage can often be seen as embodying the playwright. Medea. be observed between ‘realism’ and ‘reality’. I will return to the whole question sketched here several times in the course of this book. What forms of realism. whose metafictional elements are prominently displayed. This does not mean. Senecan drama is emphatically alien to realistic forms of representation. First. an excellent discussion. In the case of Senecan tragedy it would be misguided simply to see ‘narcissistic’ tendencies set against aspirations to realism. starring Nero as Oedipus or Agrippina as Phaedra. metanarration is actively opposed to realism: the reader is constantly reminded of the fictional status of the representation. However. a brief detour. Therefore an understanding of metanarrative in the tragedies must necessarily be attuned both to the specific issues raised by Seneca’s writing and to the inclinations of Latin literature at that time. I will deal in ch.24 Whereas Greek tragedy flirts constantly with the temptation – or illusion – of portraying reality. Senecan tragedy is seemingly oblivious to its allure. This is particularly true in the case of a text of enormous density such as Petronius’ Satyricon. of course. we can detect in ancient literature is. significant epistemological issues are involved here. 3 with how Atreus fits into this group of female characters. however. more often than not the attempts to read some of the plays as trag´edies a` clef . A passage from Medea offers an interesting introduction to the way in which certain parts of Seneca’s tragedies can tell us a great deal about how the author represents his own function. on a less typical and more complicated case.16 The Passions in Play understanding of its ancient counterpart. look reductive and unconvincing. of course. In modern fiction.26 What the tragedies tell us about Seneca’s Rome is more interesting and less obvious.

unnerved . . 40) for her revenge and. ‘undaring. In the prologue Medea seeks to transform the storm of her emotions (mens intus agitat. or that. and thus already close to embodying a quasi-authorial function. In doing this she is the prime mover of the play. iners. . . enervis . 47) into a revenge-plot. . passions and knowledge 17 the historical author. later.’ – echoes Euripides. and her careful realization of her plans – all constitute the decision to create and represent a tragedy. her selection of the most appropriate means to do so. weak ( . Medea is similar to other characters who occupy a central position in Senecan plays: Juno in Hercules furens or Atreus in Thyestes. unskilled. Medea 807–8: ‘let no one consider me impotent (). they should have a higher claim to authenticity and univocity than anything else in the tragedy: they merely represent important moments for the text to reflect on itself and its poetics. qua metadramatic. Atreus’ first line on stage – 176: ignave.Poetry.. Medea’s decision to find a ‘way’ (viam. Indeed. In this respect.

see p. Med.29 In search of inspiration for her actions Medea invokes divine powers ‘with an ominous voice’. 183–4. The connection may be flagged by via at 244 (profare. . 131–2. now. thalamis horridae quondam meis quales stetistis . atram cruentis manibus amplexae facem.    at Med. grasping black torches in bloodstained hands. see below. . your hair defiled with dishevelled serpents. voce non fausta (12). On the prologue to Hercules furens see below. while she prays that the Furies approach with their dirty hair and black torches. The invocation30 to her idiosyncratic Muses follows the regular form of kl¯esis (13–17): nunc. with a clear indication of the 28 29 30 The connection is particularly interesting in the light of the metaliterary resonances of line 176 itself. 81. A connection with Accius may also be discernible. come to help me. 24. 257 and Eur. goddesses who avenge wickedness. where Atreus and Medea discuss various options of revenge. she echoes the poet’s invocations for divine inspiration and concludes her proem. pp.) or spiritless ( )’. come to help me. 376. crinem solutis squalidae serpentibus. 376–80. pp. . adeste. dirum qua caput mactem via). nunc adeste sceleris ultrices deae. Note also the possible connection between Thy. some thirty lines later. Now. as grim as you were when you stood outside my wedding chamber. Now.28 All appear on stage debating their vengeful plots out loud and giving voice to the torments of creation. cf. n. See Petrone (1984) 13–14 and Nussbaum (1994) 445.

Atreus vows that his revenge must not be approved by anyone in future. Not only in the sense captured by Wilamowitz’s dictum that she must have read Euripides’ tragedy about herself. 52–3). Juno’s and Atreus’ thirst for revenge. In a similar fashion. that substantiates Medea’s metadramatic character. fiam). too trivial the deeds I have rehearsed. Fear will lead to poetry. anime. and poetry will produce fear. my heart deep within is planning – wounds. Let my grief rise to more deadly strength. To a limited extent. Oedipus embodies the functions of the playwright. calamities at which heaven and earth alike shall tremble. now that I am a mother. and also the one that spotlights most forcefully what begins to appear as the circular nature of these processes. unheard-of. will drive her actions. and the plot with them (45–52): effera ignota horrida. The tragedy we are watching fulfils this wish. but nor must it be passed over in silence: age.18 The Passions in Play forces she intends to rely on. as do Medea. gravior exurgat dolor: maiora iam me scelera post partus decent. creeping from limb to limb. these things I did in girlhood. accingere ira teque in exitium para furore toto. alongside Medea’s. But he must delegate these functions to 31 Wilamowitz (1919) iii. which harks back to 171: NUT. she goads herself by saying ‘let your repudiation be told as equal to your wedding’ (paria narrentur tua | repudia thalamis. Wild deeds.31 but also because she explicitly hopes for literary recognition of her deeds. Medea – ME. horrible. tremenda caelo pariter ac terris mala mens intus agitat: vulnera et caedem et vagum funus per artus – levia memoravi nimis: haec virgo feci. fac quod nulla posteritas probet. of being part of a literary universe.162. Medea claims. His quest for truth is the raison d’ˆetre of the tragedy and its catalyst. Ira and furor. and prepare for deadly deeds with the full force of madness. Ah. . slaughter. greater crimes become me. Directly after the invocation to her ‘Muses’ which we have just read. | sed nulla taceat (192–3). Medea seems to be aware of the essentially literary nature of her pursuit. Gird yourself with wrath. death. It is precisely her awareness of being ‘a Medea’ (910: Medea nunc sum. Juno or Atreus. The mise en abyme (of sorts) from Oedipus is the one that delves deepest into the reconstruction of creative processes. But the metadramatic resonance of Oedipus is also different in important respects from that of other plays.

In the end.Poetry. He does not enjoy the privileged. since passion is shown to contain the seeds of truth and lead to its full discovery. at the same time. quickly abandons his role as the omniscient author-on-stage and reveals his nature as an impotent spectator. poetry and truth will come from a real ‘prophet’. The enormous force of Oedipus’ dramatic consistency is predicated precisely on his double status as author and spectator. not only for the enthusiastic author who creates it. he embodies the dangers associated as much with yielding to. and a careful analysis of ‘traces’ (vestigia). but one which he cannot control and which will eventually turn against him. the futility of denying that passions have a valid claim to truth. for him to accept that he himself is the culprit. presumably because his persistent trust in reason makes him unwilling to yield fully to the forces of inspiration and poetry. passion and truth. and identifies a clear winner. Oedipus’ staunch defence of his rational methods of pursuing truth and his consequent denial that passions can give answers to his doubts relate directly to his continued grip on power even in the face of overwhelming adversity. relying on the deceptive evidence that Merope is in fact married to Polybus. For us. in fact. as with resisting passions. His reaction to Laius’ revelation is to suspect that the vates and Creon are plotting to seize the throne (669–70). he instigates a drama. His tragedy dramatizes the relationship between poetry. repeatedly threatened by events outside his control. Thus his plight dramatizes one of the hermeneutic possibilities offered to spectators. He sets in motion the search for poetry. which will turn him into a desperate victim – a guilty one. but also for the audience which receives it. . At this point. Poetry is a passion. This tragedy represents the dangers of Oedipus’ passions. while remaining unchallenged masters of their plans. and. who continues to believe in reason and refuses to see the truth which the chthonic force of poetry laid out in no uncertain terms. Medea and Atreus act within the plots they have constructed. passions and knowledge 19 other characters. It will take a whole new act of the play. omniscient point of view of the author as they do. We are now able to appreciate a fundamental difference in the way that Oedipus fulfils his responsibilities as protagonist and prime mover of the tragedy in comparison to Medea or Atreus. ever the cunning investigator. on the other hand. Their authorial function is always foregrounded and never challenged. Oedipus immediately rejects the truth offered to him. Stirred by passion. it is really only Oedipus. Oedipus. This delay between Laius’ revelation and Oedipus’ refusal to accept it intensifies the tragic irony that permeates the play. a vates.

varies widely. advertises elsewhere the virtues of stylistic restraint and moderation. is still widespread. in a sense. By entertaining the hypothesis that passions might generate tragic poetry we are forced to face a set of familiar questions about the relationship between the tragedies and the rest of Seneca’s corpus. between those who tend to see in the tragedies and the prose work a similar ideological bent. or even the desire to establish a solidarity of intents between the two domains. no reader of Medea or Phaedra can avoid wondering how works of such extraordinary. just as passion – for Aerope and for power – had motivated Thyestes’ initial attack on Atreus. it could be argued that we should read each tragedy as a separate and selfstanding unit. The emphasis. But. In an interesting.20 The Passions in Play v The contrast between passion and reason. My main topic in this preliminary chapter remains a more specific one: how passions can be described as the driving force not just behind the actions of several characters but also behind the very existence of the tragedies as we read them. of course. irrelevant. As we will see in chapter two. to do so would take away much of the fun. After all. Yet one could reasonably claim that those questions are. The critical debate on the relationship between philosophy and tragedy in Seneca revolves around a predictably limited range of options. makes it impossible to advance a model of diachronic evolution and compels us to read the corpus as an unnaturally static organism. and not just that of the tragedies. with all its lines of tension prominently and seductively displayed. and those more inclined to read in the tragedies a denunciation. if somewhat . For instance. is often named as the crucial tension animating these tragedies. even tropical luxuriance could have been penned by the same author who fiercely (if anything too fiercely). in a sense. since passion underlies the Fury’s determination to put in motion Atreus’ revenge. of the prose works’ restrained optimism. Or that the attempt to relate the tragedies at any cost to Senecan philosophy is a petitio principii: we ask how the tragedies can be compatible with the author’s philosophy because we have already decided that they should be since they were written by the same person. It is fair to say that the presumption of a connection. However. which I have chosen to foreground. if not a complete subversion. this genetic force operates at more than one level. I should point out again that I will not focus primarily on the usual issues concerning the articulation of passions in the plays. and especially how this genetic function is represented in the tragedies. The fluid state of Senecan chronology in general.

By pitting ‘tragedies’ and ‘prose works’ against each other he forces very different texts into two seemingly homogeneous and compact categories.32 One of the fundamental shortcomings of Dingel’s ‘Romantic’ approach lies in the sweeping generalization on which it is based. As I mentioned briefly above. Juno. since they indirectly represent poetry as arising from a deeply passionate realm which has no room for reason. in part because of their diverse generic affiliations. Atreus and. Oedipus reveal the passions of furor. In his prose writings Seneca confronts this very issue and tries to resolve in several different ways the obvious tension between an ‘enthusiastic’ view of poetry and his teaching on the dangers of passions.33 Even there. . vi Having briefly attempted to establish the premise that Senecan poetry and Senecan prose should be considered equally relevant in the attempt to understand the principles of the author’s poetics. I would now like to turn to the explicit remarks regarding the nature of poetry and poetic inspiration which Seneca offers at several points in his essays.Poetry. styles and tendencies. Surely no one would deny the consistency which characterizes the tragedies as a whole. In the process of representing the evolution of their plots. Medea. and that they give voice to the author’s truer and deeper feelings. 33 Interesting observations in Moretti (1995) and Too (1994). and may at best offer a general suggestion – almost a metaphor – of that relationship. But any interpretation of the relationship between the prose works and the tragedies which downplays the specific characteristics of each individual work is unsatisfactory. And a similar assessment can probably be made about the prose works. ira and metus as the sources which will inspire and animate their endeavours. to a certain extent. passions and knowledge 21 dogmatic. it would certainly be rewarding to highlight in Seneca’s prose the inner tensions it is often unable to repress. These passages seem to amount to a very strong case for the genetic connection between passions and poetry. the well-known contradiction between the theoretical dictates of stylistic immediacy and the actual richness and rhetorical complexity of the style is a strong enough indication that significant conflicts may be lurking not too deep beneath the surface. monograph Joachim Dingel has argued that the tragedies stand as a collective rejection of the Stoic philosophical principles advocated in Seneca’s prose works. for instance. In the pages that 32 Dingel (1974). in matters both stylistic and psychological. which display a broader range of modes.

ultimately Democritean and Platonic. see Tigerstedt (1970).10. with the aim of reconstructing some aspects of Seneca’s theory of tragedy and tragic passions. 2. I am swept to loftier heights by an utterance that is no longer my own (oblitus tum legis pressiorisque iudicii sublimius feror et ore iam non meo). which Seneca translates at De tranquillitate animi 17.64.14): Then again. But. Seneca replies that this need not be interpreted as the sign of a continuing sickness. In the first chapter of the dialogue. I address especially these attempts at resolution and connect them with the metadramatic features that I have already discussed. and stirs the mind from its very depths and heals its sorrow just as it does certain ills of the body. . is probably Cic. the locus classicus for the Senecan theory of the enthused poet (17. with Finkelberg (1998) 19–20. 1. Even a certain degree of ‘drunkenness’ (ebrietas) can be welcome (17. but because it frees the mind from bondage to cares and emancipates it and gives it new life and makes it bolder in all that it attempts.35 The enthused poet who transgresses his human limitations to reach out to the sublime nature of creation is mentioned several times by Seneca. The most explicit Latin statement for this notion of poetic enthusiasm. ‘the sane mind (compos sui) knocks in vain at the door of poetry’. and the inventor of wine is not called the Releaser (Liber) on account of the licence it gives to the tongue. not drowning ourselves in drink. for further indications. The connection between poetry and furor (in the sense of enthousiasmos) dates back to Democritus and Plato. so in wine there is a wholesome moderation. for it washes away troubles. and Pease’s commentary ad loc. forgetful then of my rule and of my more restrained judgement. and with higher aspirations it desires higher expression. when my mind has been uplifted by the greatness of its thoughts (cogitationum magnitudine).5) and moderation of efforts (temperamentum. yet succumbing to it. but as the natural oscillation of a body not yet accustomed to its new health. as in freedom. This leads rapidly to the conclusion of the dialogue. 17.194. it becomes ambitious of words. and De tranquillitate animi offers a particularly interesting set of reflections.7) are a necessary counterbalance for even the most temperate of souls. it is Seneca himself who admits that a moderate amount of relaxation (remissio.34 According to the Phaedrus (245a).22 The Passions in Play follow. De or.10–11): 34 35 Indeed enthousiasmos appears to be the invention of philosophers. and language issues forth to match the dignity of the theme. 17. By the end of the book. Serenus voices his misgivings (1.8): At times we ought to reach the point even of intoxication. see also Tusc.

and adapt themselves to the emotions of the speaker with lively change of face and mind – just like the emasculated Phrygian priests (Phrygii . would be unfit to represent (Cleanthes puts it precisely in these terms in the fragment I alluded to above. song and rhythm. it must forsake the common track and be driven to frenzy and champ the bit and run away with its rider and rush to a height that it would have feared to climb by itself. thanks to metre. is the only means which can adequately express ‘divine greatness’ (    ).’ or with Plato that ‘the sane mind knocks in vain at the door of poetry. But the true hearer is ravished and stirred by the beauty of the subject matter. See below. The explicitly irrational overtones that mark the vocabulary of inspiration in this passage and make it so similar to its poetic counterparts are quite surprising in the light of the Stoic strictures against passions. and has soared far aloft fired by divine inspiration. On the issue in general see Michel (1969).36 The idea that   – magnitudo animi. n. See Ps. Although Seneca is not engaged here in an explicit declaration of poetics. ‘greatness of soul’ – is inextricably connected with    – magnitudo ingenii. too.486. non verborum inanium sonitus). The enthusiasm of the poet or the philosopher is what enables him to apprehend     which prose. not by the jingle of empty words (rapit illos instigatque rerum pulchritudo. i.Poetry. then alone it chants a strain too lofty for mortal lips (aliquid cecinit grandius ore mortali). it is impossible for it to reach any sublime (sublime) and difficult height.7: A certain number are stirred by high-sounding phrases. . It is even more important that these passages confirm quite explicitly that yielding to passions constitutes also a superior form of knowledge. See Mazzoli (1970) 47. shares the idea that ‘the beauty of things’ generates enthusiasm. ‘elevation of thought’37 – and that the latter finds expression in the ‘sublime’ () is rooted in Cleanthes’ theory that poetry. Subl. 38 SVF 1.3. the lofty utterance that rises above the attempts of others (grande aliquid et super ceteros) is impossible unless the mind is excited (mota).-Longinus. . semiviri) who are wont to be roused by the sound of the flute and go mad (furentes) to order. When it has scorned the vulgar and the commonplace. and is addressing rather the issue of philosophical reflection. a rational and controlled form of expression. 38).’ or with Aristotle that ‘no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness’: be that as it may. . 7.38 Seneca. 127–32.39 36 37 39 I will return more extensively later to the importance of the sublime in the poetics of Thyestes. as he declares in rather extreme terms in Letters to Lucilius 108. pp. passions and knowledge 23 For whether we believe with the Greek poet that ‘sometimes it is a pleasure also to rave.e.11) suggests that the same state of enthusiastic lack of control lies behind artistic creation and philosophical excitement. So long as it is left to itself. the presence of the Platonic quotation and the term cecinit (17.

. 17.3.11. Seneca is here embracing Peripatetic elements. Furor is recognized here explicitly as an error of the poets who abandon moral themes and educational messages. Seneca compares it with the terrible fictional underworld created by poets: 40 43 Mazzoli (1970) 55–6. At De brevitate vitae 16.42 Their inspiration is potentially dangerous precisely because it transcends.24 The Passions in Play While.4. more complex problems arise if we try to apply this theory to poetry in general. or. who can say many true things but also many false things resembling truth (Theog. 27–8). This problem is enhanced by other Senecan passages which show a considerable degree of ambivalence towards poetry. But the vocabulary of Letter 108. In his wideranging analysis of the issue. Like Hesiod’s Muses. ‘with a voice greater than human’ (grandius ore mortali). does not suggest moderation and control.4. Giancarlo Mazzoli has argued that. namely the notion that a controlled and moderate excitement can in fact lead to ‘cheerfulness’ ( ! ). at De ira 2. ‘like an oracle’ (more oraculi).10. this explanation holds true for poetry as a whole.35. with their powerful representations of negative examples. it becomes more difficult to apply it to poetry in general. with its references to the ‘Phrygian eunuchs’ (Phrygii semiviri).43 the limits of human rationality: this can lead to the possibility of speaking. And even if this explanation can be considered satisfactory in the specific case of philosophical enthusiasm.5. See De brevitate vitae 2.41 As other passages make eloquently clear. When he describes the soul of the irate man. again. the poets are ambiguous and ultimately unreliable sources who should be constantly checked for accuracy and moral worthiness. 1. following Posidonius’ strictures against Chrysippus’ theory of ‘apathy’ ( ). 1. 42 See Ben. are a different matter altogether. 41 See De vita beata 26.2.5 Seneca attacks the frenzy (furor) of the poets that nurtures the errors of men by offering lascivious images of the behaviour of gods.6.44 great philosophical truths. Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus would plausibly fall into this category. poets are not bound by the respect for truth or morality. since poetry is not bound to the exclusive representation of philosophical examples (paradeigmata).40 According to Mazzoli. in this particular context. the orgiastic frenzy of the converted is justified by their sources of inspiration and their goals. 44 See Tranq. I emphasize. but Seneca’s tragedies. of depicting falsehoods in appealing terms and deceiving mankind. on the contrary. the chthonic aspect of poetry and the ambivalent nature of the poet because these are the elements that resonate most dramatically in the tragedies.7.

as are the hellish monsters of the poet’s brain. that no judgement-seats are there. Its morality and educational potential are linked to its contents: poetry can instruct. and how it could be deemed compatible with the Stoic requirement that poetry have an educational function. as it clearly is in Thyestes. no prison. as he points out in Consolatio ad Marciam 19. that makes it exceedingly difficult to evaluate the nature and purpose of poetry. Erinys and the Furies are just fictions. but it is not confined to great moral truths. It has a positive function when it celebrates the beauty of ‘divine greatness’ (    ). again.4. in the disruptive world of passions. as are those most hideous shapes that issue forth from hell to stir up wars and scatter discord among the peoples and tear peace all to shreds. which is rooted. a play dominated by the ambiguously attractive figure of Atreus. passions and knowledge 25 As is the aspect of an enemy or wild beasts wet with the blood of slaughter or bent upon slaughter. Poets create fictional representations devoid of truth and use them to stir human souls with empty terrors: the close connection established here between ‘play’ (lusus) and terror is particularly striking. Seneca says. All these things are the fancies of the poets. as do so many tragedies? How do these examples. . Poetry springs from the same form of enthusiastic furor as that which generates the inspired sublimity of the philosopher. to be sure. all girt about with snakes and breathing fire. . in Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus. the whole apparatus of punishment in the underworld is a product of poetic craftmanship: Reflect that there are no ills to be suffered after death. that no darkness is in store for the dead. no blazing streams of fire. who have harrowed us with groundless terrors (luserunt ista poetae et vanis nos agitavere terroribus). nor culprits. . that the reports that make the Lower World terrible to us are mere tales. but can also deceive and mislead. But what happens when it generates examples of vices. as such let us picture anger . as. and exploit its capacity to strike the mind for objectionable purposes. no river of Lethe. to examine the effects that the tragic text might have on the audience. and in fact. affect the audience? These are the main questions that will accompany this exploration of Thyestes. nor in that freedom so unfettered are there a second time any tyrants.Poetry. presented through the powerful means of poetic expression. a play. after engaging at length with appealing portraits of evil and less than compelling attempts at moral rectitude. I will leave to the very end of this book.

while ostensibly bearing on his fate as a mythic character. one where. Tantalus not only wonders at the unexpected turn his punishment is taking. which create and further the dramatic action. worse than ever-gaping hunger? The Thyestes begins by staging the process of its own construction. also look in anguish at the unfolding of the tragic action. he is punished by being forced to punish others? Similarly. on the one hand. the subsequent fight between the Fury and Tantalus’ shadow embodies a creative conflict between passive forces. Who dragged him from the depths of the underworld and forced him onto this stage? What is this novel situation that is worse than hell. where I snatch at food ever-fleeing from my hungry lips? What god shows Tantalus again the homes he saw to his ruin? Has something worse been invented than parching thirst in the middle of water. but also questions the very existence – the theatrical essence – of the drama that is bringing him on the scene. as if he watches himself from the outside becoming a character of a dramatic text. which try to resist the drama’s violence. conflictual understanding of the text. Violence is encoded already in the 26 . This initial self-reflexive gesture is one of the strategies that complicate the audience’s perception and suggest with increasing intensity a fractured. and active forces. paradoxically. on the other. Agamemnon 12) Quis inferorum sede ab infausta extrahit avido fugaces ore captantem cibos? quis male deorum Tantalo visas domos ostendit iterum? peius inventum est siti arente in undis aliquid et peius fame hiante semper? Who drags me forth from the accursed abode of the dead.chapter 2 Staging Thyestes the poetics of furor libet reverti (Seneca. His questions.

3. Iterum is the keyword here. see Leo (1878–79) 149–55. The enraged Juno who delivers the entire prologue of Hercules furens is in many respects parallel to the Fury: both superhuman characters provide the impetus which sets in motion the dramatic action. as he readily acknowledges: ‘I should be the one to suffer punishment. Juno’s words and attitude establish a close connection with the role of Juno in Aeneid 7. his anguish is clear in the repeated questions in lines 1–5. it should be noted. inevitable victory. forms an essential backdrop to the prologue of Thyestes. a text which. His moral opposition to the Fury’s demand is heightened by this admission. there would be no Thyestes at all. terrible scelera on earth. He is a guilty man. Iterum is often a metaliterary mark. with Conte (1985) 38). Those scelera are the tragedy itself. which I quoted above. 86–7: me pati poenas decet | non esse poenam). 193. Textual markers are uniformly pointed: this prefatory debate might be read as a symbolic enactment of the birth of the play and an open (although far from neutral) window onto the forces that preside over its creation. The Fury wants Tantalus. p. appears only in this Senecan prologue. n. a conflict represented in Thyestes by the Fury and Tantalus’ shadow respectively.Staging Thyestes 27 prologue’s dialogic form. fracture and conflict impose themselves as dominating forces from the very first lines. as we will see shortly. Tantalus is appalled at the request to come back to earth. See later. I will now argue. Dialogue. Division. not to inflict it’ (Thy. 44. Fast. Tantalus has a dramatic consistency which is not altered by the Fury’s final. and both correspond in function to the creative momentum which underlies each tragedy as a whole. This structural difference deprives the prologue in Hercules furens of the dialectical contrast between silence and speech – one which. Haupt suggested early on that at Ov. . who resists in vain. for further observations on this topic and its thematic relevance. which opposes two parties with different opportunities and levels of power to reinforce words with deeds.2 Tantalus questions the senseless 1 2 Hine (1981) offers a persuasive analysis of the prologue and its thematic links to the rest of the play. Yet the two scenes differ significantly: Juno’s speech is not a dialogue and does not stage a conflict between a sinful creative impulse and a moral resistance to the creation of nefas. The verb soleo has similar functions.471–2 the adverb signals Ovid’s allusion to Catullus’ Ariadne (Haupt (1875–76) 71. since Thyestes is precisely the tale of a compelling and memorable scelus. Indeed. to arouse new. is central to Thyestes. Moreover. if Tantalus’ firm appeal to moderation had succeeded.1 and we can better evaluate the implications of this form of expression if we compare this prologue with that of Hercules furens. when Tantalus’ evoked shadow addresses his yet unknown counterpart.

if for no other reason than its etymological reference to writing. The vehement language which describes his intentions 3 4 The prologue of Agamemnon is centred as well on the topic of return and reiteration. His attempts to impart moral guidance and avoid errors would befit a sage. however. Thyestes’ exclamation at line 12 – libet reverti – means precisely that he would rather return to the underworld than assist in the terrible revenge which is about to happen. would have been written before Thy. For a more sceptical position on the dating of Ag.422. especially since they both claim to prefer the underworld to the devastation awaiting them on earth. His resistance. what could (and should) best be left unsaid. 7.173. It is tempting to charge transcribor (13) with metadramatic resonances. n. that according to Fitch’s metrical study (Fitch (1981)). the very scelera that make up the whole of Thyestes. prior to Fitch (1981). After much remonstration he finally assumes a firm and fierce stance (90–5). Tantalus does try to resist. Why do you terrify me with the sight of your lash. the Fury reminds him that his scelus would not be original: ‘let the banquet be spread – you will come as a guest to a feast of crime well known to you’ (62–3: epulae instruantur – non novi sceleris tibi | conviva venies). and fiercely threaten me with your twisted snakes? Why do you rouse pains of hunger deep in my innards? My heart burns with fiery thirst. 7). But what is personally and morally unacceptable is precisely what this tragedy and its poetics are made of: re-enactment. Thus the Fury effectively inspires this poetry: from the very beginning of the play. Ag. there is no escaping the daunting connection between poetry and scelera. 5. and the novel ‘invention’ (see inventum. Tantalus’ words attest to the impossibility of his moral stance and of his didactic purpose.750. as the Fury tortures him on stage (96–100): quid ora terres verbere et tortos ferox minaris angues? quid famem infixam intimis agitas medullis? flagrat incensum siti cor et perustis flamma visceribus micat. and are in fact a direct consequence of them (on the dating of both plays see p. he simply will not obey: ‘here I will stand.28 The Passions in Play drama of re-enactment. Met. see Tarrant (1976) 5–6. obsessive return of. and Thy. in mythical time the actions of Ag. 5. in Seneca’s literary production cannot be certain.. and return to. does not last long. See Tarrant (1985) 89 and Jacobi (1988) 153. perhaps even a Stoic sage. Ov. sequor. While the relative chronology of Ag. The whole issue is reassessed in Nisbet (1990).3 The tragedy firmly rejects the moral option of silence. come after those narrated in Thy. The verb is seldom used in poetry. . The question that Tantalus utters here for the first time is also the key question of the play as a whole: why again?4 The Fury inspires scelera. The ghost of Thyestes in the prologue effectively recalls Tantalus’ shadow. however. Ibis 187. see Virg. It should be noted. and prevent the evil deed’ (95: stabo et arcebo scelus). 7. line 4). Aen. Indeed. repetition. and in my burnt-out vitals a flame is darting – I follow you.

9 At the same time..Staging Thyestes 29 (moneo. 6. on which below. his true nature being germane. Trin. however. fingit premendo) alludes to the taming of horses.5 (illa fortiter stabit et quidquid evenerit feret). the burning power which moves poets to create. and the parallel with Thyestes’ sequor at 489 seems decisive.6 Naturam sequi – ‘following Nature’ – is the paramount principle of a truly Stoic life: Tantalus does after all respect this intimation. n.7 The Fury’s power is the power of unavoidable destiny. for instance. a passage with interesting points of connection with the whole scene at hand. 6. The original suggestion. stabo. such as Phoen. penitusque in viscera lapsum | serpentis furiale malum totamque pererrat. See Calder (1984). ibo et armis obvium opponam caput. 4. where he claims that the principle always to be followed is deum sequere. 96 (cf.1103 and Phaed . rather unsurprisingly. Ben. Edwards (1960). Cf. p. Fast.605.2. but modern texts retain it (see Hine (1981) 267–8 for a defence of Bentley’s decision). Tarrant (1985) 103.77–80 the language (excussisse. | petat ante matrem (Phoen. On the ‘warmth’ of inspiration see Ov. see M. his doomed resistance to the Fury’s instigation recalls the similar reaction that seers display when the god violently overpowers them and forces them to speak – compare the violence of Apollo on the Sybil at Aeneid 6. agitante calescimus illo: | impetus hic sacrae semina mentis habet and especially Ov. 178. see Aen. There are other instances of half-lines in the Senecan corpus. these images are bound up with the vocabulary of poetic enthusiasm. arcebo)5 is suddenly and irrevocably reversed in the bitterly ironic repetition of a Stoic-sounding sententia: sequor is what the sage should say when facing destiny. 5.4). Seneca’s use of sequor in De vita beata 15. For the association of . and cruelly deprives both of their comforting metaphorical value. 6. fatigat. First. to that of the Fury. Tantalus’ pained questions at 96–9 synthesize a number of associations that Thyestes will repeatedly explore. W.5–6: est deus in nobis. The Fury is the Muse of scelus. ‘follow god!’ An emphasis on sequi occasionally lends Aeneas a Stoicizing connotation. the whipping motion suggested by 101.1.41–4. 7. which could also be suggested by the use of verbere at Thy.6 (with Schiesaro (1996)). and her victory is the victory of poetry (of this particular brand of poiein) against the repressive silence advocated in vain by Tantalus. n. where a merciless Atreus 5 6 7 8 9 10 Compare the behaviour of virtus in De vita beata 15. Its relevance for the characterization of Tantalus is crucial. in explicit connection with Bacchic inspiration: utque suum Bacche non sentit saucia vulnus.77–80 and 100–1. | altior humano spiritus ille malo est.8 Secondly. | stabo inter arma. At Aen. See also Plaut. 319. 18.4: (vir bonus) ad ultimum usque vitae diem stabit paratus et in hac statione morietur. For the metaphoric associations of ardere and related images see Fantham (1972) 10–11 and 87–8. the fact that the sapiens remains unperturbed in the face of natural disasters: stabit super illam voraginem intrepidus (Q Nat. 6). Sequor was athetized by many editors. and Jocasta’s attempt to stop the massacre at Thebes: ibo. | sic ubi mota calent viridi mea pectora thyrso. is probably Virgilian. petere qui fratrem volet. and Zwierlein (1986) 298. see below. | dum stupet Idaeis exululata modis. The standard association of fire and eros connotes the Fury’s order as an irresistible. sinful desire redolent of erotic passion. starting with Bentley.373–5 (Allecto and Latinus): his ubi nequiquam dictis experta Latinum | contra stare videt. domans.10 In this respect the passage anticipates a central moment later in the play. since it is better to follow willingly than be dragged. the particular choice of images makes the languages of erotic desire and creative impulse intersect. Tr. 1–2.32. Tro. 407–9).

impleri iuvat maiore monstro. far from being tortured by the Furies.12 Friedrich Leo first pointed out a connection between the prologue of Thyestes and the dialogue between Iris and Lyssa in Euripides’ Hercules furens (822–74).30 The Passions in Play strives to find inspiration for his new creation – the plot of his revenge and of the rest of the tragedy (250–4):11 dira Furiarum cohors discorsque Erinys veniat et geminas faces Megaera quatiens: non satis magno meum ardet furore pectus. HF 843–54). albeit unsuccessfully (Eur. belonging to three authors whose presence looms large in Seneca’s tragic world: Euripides. appeals to them for the impulse to act creatively. shaking her twin torches. to produce in effect a dramatic text which he will perform and inflict upon Thyestes. but Iris replies scornfully to Lyssa’s noble attempt at changing her mind: ‘Zeus’ wife did not send you here to display wisdom’ (857:   . Ovid and Virgil. Like Tantalus’ shade.13 The actual verbal coincidences are faint. In this same prologue Seneca offers intimations about the literary background in which we should situate these declarations of poetics. No physical torture ensues. Three texts in particular stand out. Let the fearful band of Furies come. This furor cannot be resisted. Both passages implicitly depict the Fury’s impulse as a sinful desire which finds its final realization in poetry. Atreus. reason and fas. but the overall structure of the dialogue is close to Seneca’s scene in important details. the frenzy burning in my breast is not great enough. Lyssa does try to resist Iris’ commands. At the beginning of the second part of the play. and Megaera. some greater horror must fill me. the discord-sowing Erinys. the two infernal characters appear on stage to lay the curse of madness on Heracles. and the play enacts the sinister force of a victory against morality.

not Euripides. According to La Penna. and might thus belong to the prologue. mediated through Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. 1. quem clausum pectore habebat (Ocyrhoe). . 11 12 13 calor and prophetic inspiration. On this passage see p. and argues that Sophocles.’     ’   ). 46 below. Calder ((1983) 185–6) compares the scene with the dialogue between Hephaestus and Kratos at the beginning of Aeschylus’ Prometheus (1–87). inc.641 incaluitque cannot be ruled out. Leo (1912) 201–2. 2. see Ov. cautiously suggested by La Penna (1979) 136. A connection with Accius’ Atreus. n. lviii and lix Ribbeck2 must refer to Tantalus. is Seneca’s primary model. Met.

See later. which illustrates in great detail the events that will soon follow (and is thus similar to the anticipatory function of the Senecan prologue). since he first enters the house. Itys and Procne. see pp. 133–8. 178–80.14 In Thyestes Tantalus seems to perform both actions. Maius in relevant contexts can often also encode a statement of poetics. dignus adventu tuo splendescat ignis – Thracium fiat nefas maiore numero. pp. The Fury’s intertextual competence is one of the ways in which she acquires a metadramatic status: her references to other poetic texts reflect the genesis of the play and its modes of signification. where Lyssa specifically points out that Heracles will not be aware that he is killing his own children. a significant detail in view of the Bacchic overtones of Thyestes.1 and Aen.15 Seneca’s Fury herself offers at least one other strong signal of intertextual self-awareness in her first. any repetition of nefas 14 15 16 17 The chorus notes the Bacchic connotation of her actions in the house:     (897). as in Virg. On the thematic importance of maius and related concepts see pp.Staging Thyestes 31 As she prepares to yield. 54–7): ornetur altum columen et lauro fores laetae virescant. and go well beyond the dramatic level acted on the stage. just as the Iliad is ‘greater’ than the Odyssey). 4. 179–80. The agonistic stance expressed in maiore numero acknowledges the new dimension that this dramatic repetition of nefas will assume. Through allusive amplification (maiore numero)16 the Fury inaugurates here a map of intertextual connections which will prove crucial for the whole play: the Thracian nefas par excellence is the bloody story of Tereus. most effective speech (Thy. What she effectively proposes and realizes is a self-conscious mise en abyme of Ovid’s and Sophocles’ story which will span the remainder of the play. At the end of her speech. A further element of contact between this scene and Seneca’s play can be detected at HF 865–6. Decorate the lofty column and let the doors be green with festive laurel. a fire worthy of your arrival must shine brightly – then let the Thracian crime be done. 7. . Lyssa sends Iris back to Olympus and enters the house where she will wreak destruction (872–3). see below.17 The Fury underlines her truly metadramatic function by showing her knowledge of mythical and literary history. The succession of these actions is somewhat problematic. 130–1. and by explicitly alerting us to the allusive resonances of the play.44 (where the ‘Iliadic’ part of the poem is ‘greater’ than the first part. As we will see shortly. pp. especially as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. but multiplied. and then is sent back to the underworld by the Fury. Lyssa invokes the sun as witness of her resistance and unwillingness to accomplish the monstrous deed demanded by Iris (858–73). Ecl.

Shake them all out. tibi nomina mille.32 The Passions in Play is necessarily worse than its model – more obsessive. See Timpanaro (1981) 127–8. Make their young men long for weapons. addressing the audience directly and giving precise indications about the play that has just begun. sequor.286–322). Juno summons Allecto and commands her to bring discordia and destruction into the Latin field (7. There is no traumatic conflict in this dialogue. more painful. Enraged by the apparent triumph of the Trojans.335–40). n. for a thorough analysis of the connections between Juno in Hercules furens – where the goddess acts again as the primum mobile of furor – and in the Aeneid . is the opening scene of Aeneid 7. 2) on several of these passages. dissice compositam pacem. n. where Luxuria and Inopia. concute insano ferum pectus tumultu. First throw your house utterly into confusion.19 The sequence of events in Virgil’s poem is more intricate. You can take brothers who love each other and set them at each other’s throats. 83–6): ante perturba domum inferque tecum proelia et ferri malum regibus amorem. i intro nunciam. who have finally landed in Italy (7. ut munus fungaris tuom. sed finem fore quem dicam nescio. Shatter this peace they have agreed between them and sow the seeds of recrimination and war. mille nocendi artes. sere crimina belli. | LU. however. Adest. You have a thousand names and a thousand ways of causing hurt. the repetition will encourage the exploration of a more intense and emotionally loaded language of recursive patterns and of elaborate internal echoes. Tarrant (1985) has useful notes (listed at p. You can turn a house against itself in hatred and fill it with whips and funeral torches. Your heart is teeming with them. 22). and bring in strife along with you. set in motion the action of the comedy: LU. arma velit poscatque simul rapiatque iuventus. 18 19 In spite of some notable differences (Calder (1983) 196. which is quickly resolved by Inopia’s only slightly puzzled obedience. bring passion for the sword. mother and daughter. | IN. thus igniting the war against Aeneas and his people: tu potes unanimos armare in proelia fratres atque odiis versare domos. The model is pointed out by Monteleone (1980) 77.18 The most evident intertext for the prologue of Thyestes. it is also worth noting the possible connection (Leo (1912) 202) with the prologue (1–3) of Plautus’ Trinummus. gnata. seize them! The Fury’s orders to Tantalus strongly echo Juno’s words (Thy. but the fundamental pattern is very similar. more ‘guilty’. sequere hac me. fecundum concute pectus. tu verbera tectis funereasque inferre faces. Luxuria embarks on an extended and explicitly metadramatic monologue. em illae sunt aedes. the bane for rulers. At the level of poetics. demand them. Alone on the stage. 85. . and with wild upheaval strike the savage breast.

the Fury points out to a bewildered and reluctant Tantalus how his presence has affected the house of the Pelopides (Thy. The Fury’s words resonate with Juno’s final admonition to Allecto (Aen.Staging Thyestes 33 The vivid expression concute pectus as well as the insistence on domus as the target (Aen. Terrae gravantur at Thyestes 107 elaborates on Virgil’s description of the forces of evil once again oppressing the earth (Aen. 7.336 and Thy. and in the Fury’s mouth it is appropriate to preserve especially this sense of ultimate destruction. Into this cave bursts Acheron and here a vast whirlpool opens its pestilential jaws.21 actum est22 abunde. and here the loathsome Fury disappeared. n. But the very form actum est is often used to describe a situation which has deteriorated beyond repair. This use of ago (which is absent in the Virgilian model) can be considered a technical theatrical term. 103–7):20 sentit introitus tuos domus et nefando tota contactu horruit.568–71): hic specus horrendum et saevi spiracula Ditis monstrantur. 178–80. quae fors prima dedit sanguis novus imbuit arma. invisum numen.v. 7. Here they point to a fearful cave which is a vent for the breath of Dis. she relieves earth and sky of their painful burden. terras caelumque levabat. . 138. Furthermore the results of Juno’s and the Fury’s destructive orders are alike. pugnatur comminus armis. On the possible Bacchic overtones of this image see below. Your house feels your entering and has recoiled in horror from your unutterable contagion. 60. already your step falls heavily on the saddened earth. pp. see OLD s. ruptoque ingens Acheronte vorago pestiferas aperit fauces. the cruel god of the underworld. p. at Juno’s request.552–4): terrorum et fraudis abunde est: stant belli causae. lightening heaven and earth by her absence. 25 and 43. Enough! More than enough! Go to the caves of the underworld and your familiar river.337 and 84) link the two texts. 83) and the use of inferre (7. 20 21 22 Lines 103–7 foreground the issue of the temporal structure set out in the prologue: see below. There is enough terror and lying. The causes of war are established. gradere ad infernos specus amnemque notum. They are fighting at close quarters and fresh blood is staining whatever weapons chance first puts into their hands. iam tuum maestae pedem terrae gravantur. 5. When Allecto. ch. returns to Acheron. 7. quis condita Erinys.

The metaphoric taedae with which Allecto excites Turnus after his initial refusal (‘with these words she threw a burning torch at the warrior and it lodged deep in his heart. with Tantalus’ high-minded. where Atreus deliberates the best way to obtain his revenge.385–90): quin etiam in silvas simulato numine Bacchi maius adorta nefas maioremque orsa furorem evolat et natam frondosis montibus abdit. ‘Euhoe. hoping to cheat the Trojans out of the marriage or delay the lighting of the torches. Here we should contrast Turnus’ self-assured. . euhoe Bacche fremens. smoking with black light’ – sic effata facem iuveni coniecit et atro | lumine fumantis fixit sub pectore taedas. 7. solum te virgine dignum vociferans Not content with this. echoes Allecto’s fateful visit to Turnus at Aeneid 7. quo thalamum eripiat Teucris taedasque moretur. the impact of this founding scene extends further. pretending that she was possessed by Bacchus. .’ The diffracted allusion to this passage is to be found in the ‘second prologue’ of Thyestes. In act 2 Atreus is under the inspiring spell of furor and ira introduced into his house by Tantalus and the Fury: structurally.406–74. and rose to greater impieties and greater madness by hiding her daughter in the leafy woods. sets up an association between Atreus and the world of Bacchic frenzy: this 23 Seidensticker (1985) identifies in the maius-motif the binding element of this play. Another significant point of contact between the two texts can be established. Atreus’ words at Thyestes 252–4 – ‘the frenzy burning in my breast is not great enough. supported by structural as well as lexical arguments. beyond the direct association between the Fury’s and Allecto’s acts of pollution. Allecto had successfully stirred Amata to action (7. impleri iuvat | maiore monstro) – are redolent of Amata’s maius nefas and maior furor at 7. even overtly mocking reaction to Allecto.34 The Passions in Play In Seneca’s prologue. this position coincides with that of Aeneid 7. Bacchus!’ she screamed. at any rate.386. appearing to him in the shape of old Chalybe. Before approaching Turnus. ‘Only you are worthy of the virgin . some greater horror must fill me’ (non satis magno meum | ardet furore pectus.456–7) become the all too real fires employed by the Fury to bend Tantalus’ well-intentioned reluctance at Thyestes 98–9. and indeed a fundamental characteristic of Senecan drama in general. explicitly moral concerns. . she flew into the forests. for instance. however.23 The connection between the two scenes. is the hallmark of Atreus’ monologue throughout. The second part of the dialogue between the Fury and Tantalus. Maius.

The Fury has learnt her lesson and now acts on her own initiative.24 By pointing directly at Aeneid 7 and acknowledging Virgil’s archetypal role as a poet of furor. 7. Hardie (1993) 23.44). 7. is clear. will strive to emulate. too. ordo. Seneca establishes an important continuity with the second half of the Aeneid. acts of her own accord. Luc.25 The thematic connection. 7. Juno’s very words to Allecto – ‘you can take brothers who love each other and set them at each other’s throats’ (7. as a painful. indeed. 1. On Seneca and Virgil see especially Putnam (1995) 246–85. his ‘higher order of things’ (maior rerum .26 Yet it is precisely this tale of horrors which is Virgil’s ‘greater work’ (maius opus. Seneca thus situates his tragedy in a tradition of Juno-inspired poems (and actions) whose authoritative model he traces back to Virgil: these poems are characterized by the violent subversion of an ordered world structure guaranteed by Jupiter. the same issue that Tantalus had raised in his opening speech: why again? He also defines his own writing as repetition.317.313. Virg. 7. as we will see. The merging of Trojans and Latins at the end of the poem retrospectively casts their conflict as a civil war. Aen. Quint (1993) 79.386) which Atreus. on a crucial issue of poetics.27 By alluding to Virgil. The second half of the Aeneid impresses on the reader a set of ethical dilemmas which the first. The theme had obvious. Whereas in Aeneid 7 Allecto is instructed by Juno.45). and the absence of a divine figure prevents a further displacement of moral responsibility on the gods.1. Epod. 12. as opposed to the epic under the sign of Jupiter. . see Hor.335) – leave us in no doubt that the new battles in store for the Trojans will be of a different kind from those told in the first six books. symbolically enshrined in the conflict opposing Romulus to Remus.95. A useful survey can be found in Frings (1992). crucially. the Fury. reach even further back.Staging Thyestes 35 is a relationship whose importance. On the model of epic inspired by Juno. Seneca reconstructs a meaningful sequence of literary history and invokes a powerful model for his own nefarious endeavours. for all the suffering it described.28 But Thyestes differs from the Aeneid in another relevant detail. obsessive resonances in the culture of the first century. irresistible return to horrors which have already been sung. female) forces of ‘irrational’ passions and desires. Seneca now shows that the fratricidal origins of Roman history. or. 3. did not present 24 25 26 27 28 See ch. . too. Seneca implicitly reflects. goes well beyond the scope of this specific instance. in the tragedy her counterpart. These Virgilian echoes also show how Thyestes condenses the horrors of civil strife in the polarized contrast between two brothers. see now Hershkowitz (1998) 95–124. . the maius nefas of Amata (7. as we have seen. passim. and allied with the chthonic (and.

the latter six books are more troubling because they represent new and ‘unnecessary’ amplifications of the plot. more or less hypocritical) and pits them against a subversive passion which generally gains the upper hand. The spiral of violence and poetry about violence. and to expand it considerably with a detailed account of a quasi-fratricidal strife is all the more disturbing. . 10.29 ) At the beginning of book 7 a ‘happy ending’ is within reach. to sing of nefas is in a sense to perpetrate it. ta n ta lu s ’ to n g u e libet loqui pigetque (Seneca. (The final books of the poem are also much more extensively engaged in the detailed description of killing – one thinks particularly of the large battles in 10 and 11 – and thus confront the reader with the same questions about the aesthetic appeal of violent representation which are inevitable for Seneca’s and Lucan’s audience. In this respect it is important to stress the continuity of first-century literature vis-`a-vis its Virgilian model. offers no escape. From an ethical point of view. Thyestes repeatedly presents ethical instances (which are more or less convincing. esp. All the moral implications of these poetic strategies are active in Seneca’s text. hence Virgil’s (and Juno’s) decision to start the poem all over again. It is around ethics and its enemies that the play enacts the struggle between repression and subversion. motives. Poetic innovation and moral responsibility run hand in hand. which – as a whole – stands as a challenge to the repressive decorum of silence. Seneca is as guilty as Virgil. because they reproduce the physical horrors of war which the Trojan exiles hoped to have left behind.36 The Passions in Play so poignantly. Yet this is precisely what Virgil had done. since he chooses to retell a story whose devastating contents he knows well: once again. 30 A point very effectively made by Masters (1992). Phaedra 637) The presence of a perceptible metadramatic level in the prologue of Thyestes implies a complex of voices. as it were. it seems.30 Seneca raises the stakes of his moral conflict by giving voice at the beginning of the play to an alternative which the Aeneid had only implied: Tantalus does proclaim his intention to steer away from the Fury and her orders. contrasting forces and cross-references 29 See Narducci (1979) 80–9. then. and Seneca attempts in turn to displace moral responsibility by invoking such a mighty predecessor. but his ultimate defeat only amplifies the horror of nefas. with a second proem. and above all because they give voice to the unsurpassed evil of civil war.

The central action of the play – Atreus’ revenge – will have to be perceived by the audience within the alienating frame provided by the prologue. The Fury and Tantalus establish in a tense dialogue the connection between their deeds and the tragic text they will bring to life. didactic reading. for different reasons which I will consider further on. From this point onwards the audience will be continuously forced to negotiate the conflicting aspects of that representation – pleasure and pain. with its discordant attempts at establishing responsibility and causal connections. since the prologue.Staging Thyestes 37 which must undermine a moral. In experiencing the play as a whole. see Lef`evre (1985). . and a new proposal. The metadramatic dimension acts as a bent mirror. The real dramatic and emotional crisis of the tragedy lies not so much in the tension between Thyestes and Atreus – both of whom. The audience is made to realize that the aesthetic pleasure afforded by the play is coextensive with that nefas. 163–76. a character described in De ira or some sort of Stoic proficiens. pp. is guaranteed by the unrelenting evil of the characters who perform it. See below. for instance.31 Constrained by the supposedly clear-cut choice between a Stoic proficiens with suspect credentials and a blood-thirsty. The play’s very existence. moral horror and.32 are unlikely ethical prototypes – as in the ethically troubling connotations of the very act of representation that is foregrounded by the prologue. Atreus and Thyestes. 139–51. the audience might have reasons to doubt the poignancy of the play and its emotional impact. monstrous tyrant. such as the Fury and Atreus. We can walk out there and then. in offering a tangible embodiment of the power of poetry and its source of inspiration. complicates and blurs our perception. I will consider below (pp. we cannot forget what the prologue implies for the rest of the tragedy: an intrinsic complicity between tragic nefas and its representation is imposed on the audience in the revelation of the Fury’s ‘backstage’ deliberations. which multiplies and distorts. But if we keep watching (or reading). at a certain level. an implicit acceptance of that very horror. The Fury intensifies 31 32 For information on previous treatments of the play along these lines.) to what extent the chorus is left unscathed by the cognitive turmoil that is forced on the audience in the prologue and can thus be seen as a reliable incarnation of a superior moral stance. we forfeit our claim to na¨ıve innocence. Only if we neglect the structural importance of the prologue is it possible to locate the ‘essence’ of the play in the contrast between two ethical types. whose actions may bear comparison with. has established that connection before their very eyes. the prologue tells us.

In the war between morals and immorality that she is at the same time describing and waging. mixtus in Bacchum cruor | spectante te potetur (65–6: ‘let blood mixed with wine be drunk before your eyes’) articulate in a careful sequence the fundamentals of her plot. stuprum will become levissimum (‘a trivial crime’. detestabilis umbra. let a blind fury incite their souls. mentes caecus instiget furor. she assures. nec sit irarum modus pudorve. finally. nefas (28). Forward. 23–9): perge. the specific form the pollution will take.38 The Passions in Play the tragic plot by conquering Tantalus’ resistance and instigating him to pollute the house of his descendants (Thy. and make the long trail of sin reach their children’s children. 46). Fiat nefas (56). Make them vie in every kind of crime and draw the sword on either side. of course. the Fury effectively organizes the staging of the drama. The Fury insistently declares her intention to subvert the moral order of events. let there be no limit to shame in their anger. make the rage of parents last. will in fact overturn all prohibitions: ‘let there be nothing which wrath deems forbidden’ (39: nihil sit ira quod vetitum putet). and drive your sinful house with fury. epulae instruantur (62: ‘let the banquet be spread’) and. to give space (and voice) to what is normally repressed and silenced. The language of subversion defines her speech at several critical junctures. rabies (28) and. certetur omni scelere et alterna vice stringatur ensis. et penates impios furiis age. rabies parentum duret et longum nefas eat in nepotes. In a series of instructions spanning lines 52 to 67. but multiplied’ (Thracium fiat nefas | maiore numero). What she is plotting is indeed a nefas. Nefas will hold sway in . which will rejoice over previously powerful leaders of people: Libido victrix (‘Lust triumphant’. she cautions that no repulsion for novel crimes will be tolerated: ‘give no one time to hate a past crime – let a new one unceasingly arise’ (29–30: nec vacet cuiquam vetus | odisse crimen: semper oriatur novum). The hierarchy of crimes will also be overturned: in the house of the Pelopidai. In a similar vein. 47). Her conclusion is sweeping and unequivocal: ‘let fraternal sanctity and faith and every right be trampled under foot’ (47–8: et fas et fides | iusque omne pereat). Ira will know no bounds. there will be one clear winner. as she reiterates at line 56: ‘let the Thracian crime be done. and the audience which is supposed to be watching the performance. She begins by voicing her desire that the two restraining qualities of modus (26) and pudor (29) give way to furor (27). cursed shade.

and prevent the evil deed. fas and nefas referred to days in which certain kinds of utterances were allowed or forbidden. ne metue cladis fortiter fari asperas.30). Later on. Nefas. do not defile your hands with execrable slaughter. represented. foregrounds in its very semantic structure a conflict between ‘talk’ and ‘silence’ which is central to my interpretation of the play. Here will I stand. do not stain your altars with a madman’s crime. ‘addico’ (De lingua Latina 6. famulatus gravis. She insists on a subversion of values which can best be described as a denial of accepted norms and values: fas will be replaced by nefas. loquax (92) will be punished for trying to advocate the values of fas. cf. Phaed . even though my tongue be condemned to severe punishment and tortured for speaking. spoken. His lingua . and resist the attack of nefas. It is worth lingering on the formulations that the Fury adopts in describing her project.47–8. | cur me ad nefandi nuntium casus vocas? | TH. . which no longer have any place in a world dominated by the Fury. nec hoc tacebo: moneo. for instance. stabo et arcebo scelus. Tantalus’ desire to preserve fas. Scelus and nefas are used in largely overlapping fashion by Seneca (in spite of. 991–3: NUNT. however. Both of these terms encode an important linguistic aspect: originally. is equally couched in linguistic terms (89–95): ducam in horrendum nefas avus nepotes? magne divorum parens nosterque (quamvis pudeat). in both its linguistic and moral dimensions. Paradoxa 25). Tantalus feels that his own ability to announce the moral injunctions he wants to deliver is painfully restrained by the Fury’s torture. o sors acerba et dura.33 By ordering fiat nefas. . the distinction suggested by Cic. ingenti licet taxata poena lingua crucietur loquax. according to which the dies nefasti are those in which the praetor cannot utter (nefas fari) the official formulae ‘do’. Ov. The dialectic of free speech and repression articulated in these intricate lines is revealing. their grandfather. .Staging Thyestes 39 a completely subverted. topsy-turvy world. lead my grandsons into horrible crime? O great lord of gods. and my father too (though this fact may cause you shame). Fast. 1. I warn you. from which fas has been utterly banished. the Fury is precipitating the speaking of ‘unspeakable’ crimes which will exist for us precisely because they will be written. ‘dico’. the play will pointedly pit Atreus’ resourceful wordiness against Thyestes’ 33 34 As Varro explains in his definition. A significant instance of this contrast is found in the exchange between the messenger and Theseus at Sen. In the subverted world foreseen by the Fury’s forceful advocation of nefas over fas. ne sacra manus violate caede neve furiali malo aspergite aras. I will not withhold even this.34 Shall I.

Lucan. The mention of his ‘impertinent tongue’ recalls a salient aspect of his mythological record. Willink (1983) 32. he is later consistently identified as the paramount example of ‘supremely audacious verbal hybris’. The prologue of Euripides’ Orestes refers explicitly to Tantalus’ ‘intemperance’ ().37 The prologue of Thyestes provokes an uneasy reflection on the very nature of theatrical experience. had once been a victim of his own excessive verbosity.35 Tantalus. cf. . Groping in vain for an explanation of his despair as the tragedy reaches its d´enouement. see Baldo (1989) and Feeney (1992).40 The Passions in Play inability to recognize that the words he hears are shifty signifiers in a scheme that is too elaborate for him to understand. what complaints? What words will suffice me?’ (1036–7: quas miser voces dabo | questusque quos? quae verba sufficient mihi?). tears.7. consists in verbalizing a moral restraint: the cruel thwarting of his attempt in the midst of painful torments graphically exposes how. a topical declaration of inadequacy (see Tarrant (1985) 189). gestures: ‘grief loves accustomed tears. Edwards (1993) 99. full of Tyrian purple. Critics have connected the contrast between ‘voice’ and ‘silence’ in authors such as Ovid with the issue of free speech in the Principate. | libet et Tyrio saturas ostro | rumpere vestes. largely through Euripides’ influence. But Thyestes’ words are motivated well beyond their topicality.2. moans. ululare libet). miserable people have an ominous desire to weep. | libet infaustos mittere questus. 3.38 but its intricate and ambivalent intersection of silence and speech has much in common with another first-century literary work. for instance. . see C. Lucan’s Bellum Civile. It is useful to keep in mind as a background the Romans’ tormented attitude towards actors and their ethical status. in a Fury-dominated world. who is fraught with doubts and worries about the 35 36 37 38 The messenger confesses his difficulty in reporting Atreus’ crime at 684: quis queat digne eloqui?. the fact that he had been punished by the gods for revealing their secrets to human beings. Ovid. once Atreus’ crime has been unveiled in all its magnitude. and the whole chapter for discussion of the actors’ ambivalent role in society. . words again seem to fail him: ‘what cries in my misery shall I utter. Soon afterwards. Just before the climactic moment of the battle at Pharsalus. calls him a taciti vulgator (Am. and.51) endowed with a garrula . Tantalus’ hybris. I feel like tearing apart my clothes. | flendi miseris dira cupido est. Willink (1986) 79–80. paradoxically. I feel like uttering ill-omened laments. I feel like shrieking’ (952–6: maeror lacrimas amat assuetas. there is only room for advocating nefas. on the other hand.44). he privileges non-verbal forms of communication. lingua (Am.36 In Seneca’s Thyestes. Even at his most tragic Thyestes is not nearly as articulate as his rhetorically proficient brother. for voicing and acting the language of pollution and crime. 2.

of how much is licensed in civil war.446–9 and especially 10. nullaque tantorum discat me vate malorum. It might be added that a direct. Having chosen to sing of Pharsalia and the evils of civil war. Feeney ((1991) 277. but they will be silenced even more swiftly than Tantalus’ compunctions are laid to rest in the prologue. shun this part of battle and leave it to darkness. Unlike an epic poet. 119) rightly refers to Virg. The prologue of Thyestes explodes the contradiction which Lucan so acutely faces. as we have seen. Roma. I shall not tell.793 as explicit declarations of this purpose.40 But in Thyestes there is no narrator who can negotiate the conflicting demands of his project. Better that these tears and protests go unheard: whatever you did in this battle. quam multum bellis liceat civilibus. | non equidem nec te. Rome. tacebo).552–6):39 hanc fuge. Tantalus. The comparison between his current and past predicaments highlights very clearly the violent subversion of rules which 39 40 41 Narducci (1979) 33. tacebo. but for reasons antithetical to those which warranted his penalty in the well-ordered divine cosmos of Greek myth: there he had been punished for revealing divine secrets. in the play. 9. silebo) could be traced in Luc. . The stage for the play is bare. aetas. Mind of mine. a potius pereant lacrimae pereantque querellae: quidquid in hac acie gessisti. Roma. 7. . and which pervades the very structure of his poem. entrusts a pained reflection to the narrator’s voice (7. and from my words let no age learn of horrors so immense. yet it is still important to notice how little opposition nefas receives. for voicing a nefas. is punished a second time. . Aen.791–3 (tuaque optima facta. mens. phonic echo of 10.41 and the proem to Thyestes carries Lucan’s logic one step further as it radically denies the act of resisting the poisonous advance of nefas.Staging Thyestes 41 very nature of his task. a lesson of moral restraint. We will see a number of instances in which delay or resistance are at work. for similar examples of ‘phonic’ allusion see Conte and Barchiesi (1989). Feeney (1991) 277. Lucan atones for his guilty projects by repeatedly delaying the narrative process. n. O’Higgins (1988) 215–16. here he is punished for trying to voice a fas. | . The outcome of the match is predictable. here or elsewhere.556 (quidquid in hac acie gessisti. iuvenis memorande. postponing (or even silencing) the revelations of truths that are as historically inevitable as they are morally shocking. and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ must confront each other in isolation. partem belli tenebrisque relinque. A point which is brilliantly stressed by Henderson (1987) and Masters (1992). the dramatist Seneca is not statutorily supposed to sing the great (positive) deeds of the past.

will not. In his later works Orlando draws extensively on the ground-breaking work of Ignacio Matte Blanco.42 The Passions in Play follows the gods’ fall from a position of control in the universe and their substitution by the Fury’s infernal power. Tantalus has not been able to understand that the world has changed. testify to the theory’s wide applicability 42 43 44 45 Orlando (1978) 19 and 137–8.43 Francesco Orlando has over the past thirty years developed a coherent theory of literature that is rooted in Freud’s reflections on the linguistic characteristics of Witz. he tries to give his hybris a moral purpose by putting it to the service of morals. Orlando (1993). By exploring extensively the linguistic analogies of Witz and poetry. Three Freudian Studies’. At the same time. is once again forced to heed his mythical propensity for verbal hybris. Orlando (1971). see Orlando (1993) passim. who provides an exhaustive formulation of the ‘logic of the unconscious’.46 as well as of a number of philosophical texts from the Enlightenment. 46 Orlando (1979). that. which is also realized in linguistic terms. reason. this reference buttresses the equation of silence and inaction on the one hand. and word and action on the other. Tantalus. Orlando (1971).44 Orlando has argued that literature exploits the ‘formal return of the repressed’ which creates pleasure by a number of expressive devices – precisely as Witz does – and at the same time conveys. and an avoidance of scelus. but he is quickly and violently disappointed. be tolerated. (1973). more recently. which would deny nefas any means of expression. which cannot. Indeed it invites consideration of the basic structure of the play in the light of the assumption that literature might indeed be ‘a return of the repressed made available to a community of men but rendered harmless by sublimation and fiction’. in an institutionally acceptable form.42 In a series of powerful monographs now grouped under the general title ‘Literature. Orlando’s own masterful readings of Racine’s Ph`edre45 and Moli`ere’s Misanthrope. and the repressed. and especially Matte Blanco (1975). . himself a victim of repetition. See also. contents which would be subject to partial or total social censorship. Tantalus’ own past error and present behaviour underscore the essential nature of the confrontation between himself and the Fury as a contrast between a repressive silence. The prologue’s articulation of a dialectic between repression and its removal scaffolds the creative struggle represented in the play. in the world of nefas (of Libido victrix). fas is inevitably suffocated: his restraint would effectively amount to the suppression of the nefas embodied by the Fury’s poetic performance. (1979) and (1982): the first two volumes are available in English as Orlando (1978). both of which are indebted to the peculiar logical forms of the unconscious.

and the conflict between Tantalus and the Fury is also a friction between the words of tragedy and the silence preserved by their avoidance. In a very important sense Thyestes can be read as an experiment in the nature and limits of tragic (poetic) language and an answer to the problem of the relationship between poetry and reality. . demands a similar overturning of the decorum of silence and is coextensive with it. 52–3) are obsessed with the hope that their actions will not be passed over in silence. anime. the rhetorical complexity of these texts can be readily considered to be one of the ways in which repressed contents are camouflaged. as the double aspect of scelus and nefas itself powerfully suggests. | sed nulla taceat: ‘up. Not only are words actions. the standard. poetry reverses the repressive instance that ne-fas would encode. Yet it is clear that certain literary texts seem to embody more strongly than others the idea that they represent a return of the repressed. but none forget!’. after all. literature seemed bent on extolling virtues rather than on giving any space to offensive conduct. let alone actions. furthermore. my soul. however. which subverts normative codes of conduct. Their rebellion. damnatio memoriae awaited the enemies of the state whose very names. 192–3) and Medea (paria narrentur tua | repudia thalamis: ‘let the story they tell of your divorce be like the one they tell of your marriage’. Language is one of these spheres. The antagonisms raging in the play invest a number of different spheres of human nature and activity.Staging Thyestes 43 and impressive heuristic potential. If we extrapolate the conflict between (repressive) silence and words already encoded in the word ne-fas. It is not by chance that ‘evil’ Senecan characters such as Atreus (age. we can better visualize the reversal brought about by voicing deeds and words (fas) which had been deemed worthy of censure and perhaps oblivion. In the case of Senecan tragedy both assumptions would prima facie withstand examination: in the case of Thyestes. and that is precisely why he wants to ensure that they will be spoken and talked about for ever. The prologue thus represents poetry as the medium through which scelera and nefas can be expressed. for instance. the analysis of the prologue that I have proposed highlights a persuasive thematization of the return of the repressed which warrants further investigation. fac quod nulla posteritas probet. expected reaction to nefas. At the political level. and against which the moral restraint personifed by Tantalus’ shadow remains fatally impotent. For a long time. Silence was. but the words of poetry represent a decisive victory against the repressive morality of silence. were consigned to eternal oblivion by a stroke of the pen. do what no coming age shall approve. In giving voice to nefas. Atreus will do unspeakable things.

and ensconced in the hands and hearts of men he fears no passing of the years. together with the collusion established between poetic word and scelus. for any action represented in the play must not only be interpreted and judged per se: the very form of its representation also carries upsetting ethical connotations.1.) whether Seneca’s tragedies. quae ipsis nimia et maesta fuerant. But he is now read. in pectora receptus vetustatem nullam timet. The text constantly challenges its audience to assess the ethical status of Atreus and his actions.5 and 15. the presentation of Atreus’ actions as an intrinsic victory over repression. too. It will fall to Tacitus to subvert this basic rule and to claim for his historical prose. even if they have been left unrecorded by others. He identifies in Diodorus 1. ne pari taedio lecturos adficerent verentur: nobis pleraque digna cognitu obvenere. quamquam ab aliis incelebrata.1. Cremutius Cordus].7. 6. but also questions the ethics of the author’s choice to represent them. but these cut throats – even their crimes. dum copia fatiscunt aut.47 And I am not unaware that many writers omit to discuss the dangers and punishments of many men. gives scelus an emotional appeal which defies the feeble attempts at moral correctness that are ostensibly advocated in other parts of the play. Thus the possibilities of emotional identification offered to the audience are multiplied and result in a potentially endless set of conflicts. floret. as we have seen. which does not shrink from mentioning negative behaviour if necessary. he lives. any attempt made by the audience to identify their emotions with any given character is distorted by the play’s intricate metadramatic structure.44 The Passions in Play Seneca himself refers explicitly to the difference in treatment (Consolatio ad Marciam 1. many things came to my notice which I consider worthy of record. in manus hominum. The audience must constantly assess the plausibility of Atreus’ complaints and the explanation 47 The issue is discussed by Luce (1991) 2912–13. by which alone they deserved to be remembered – will soon be heard of no more. . 228ff. tacebuntur. The most important case in point is Atreus himself.4): legitur [sc.1 the only other instance of history acting as a deterrent in ancient historiography. Also. or because they are afraid to afflict their readers with experiences which they have themselves found excessive and sad: as far as I am concerned. At a more radical level. quibus solis memoriam meruerunt. I will explore below (pp. the hitherto little-explored function of a deterrent (Ann. either because they flag at the quantity. to which I am indebted. at illorum carnificum cito scelera quoque. might be considered a deterrent against morally repulsive behaviour.5): neque sum ignarus a plerisque scriptoribus omissa multorum pericula et poenas.

performers and spectators. The prologue functions as a vital metadramatic frame for the drama as a whole. the audience might sometimes sympathize with Tantalus’ advocacy of silence and simply wish that the tragedy did not exist at all.49 namely whether we should read the tragedies as negative illustrations of values and ideas advocated in Seneca’s prose works. ensuring that dramatic and metadramatic dimensions are always co-evident. precipitated: ‘let blood mixed with wine be drunk before your eyes’ (65–6: mixtus in Bacchum cruor | spectante te potetur).Staging Thyestes 45 he offers for his actions. . The very architecture of the play promotes a multiplication and diffraction of meanings that makes summary comparison with other texts necessarily absurd. if unwillingly. will be forced to watch the monstrous banquet he has unavoidably. and Tantalus. by Thyestes. The tragic action will unfold before their eyes. It also casts in a different light a dilemma which I have already touched on. the satelles and the chorus. What the prologue impresses upon us is first and foremost the lacerating power of the poetic word. however faintly. is radically to complicate a straightforward opposition between the oppressing force of Atreus’ violence and the moral values defended. framing thyestes libet videre (Seneca. Thyestes 903) i The prologue sets up a pattern of representation which is essential to the structural organization of the tragedy as a whole. 48 49 This is the most explosive aspect of the ‘return of the formal repression’ which Orlando posits as one of the forms in which the repressed returns: certain densely figurative parts of the work offer a direct aesthetic pleasure. See above. as I have tried to show. The function of this polymorphic prologue. and at the same time deliberate whether they can enjoy the aesthetic emotions offered by Seneca’s poetry without colluding ipso facto in its powerful violation of fas. The Fury and Tantalus cease to act. The prologue introduces a dynamic which subjects otherwise clear-cut values to multiple transformations and interactions.48 Conversely. pp. too. but they are not meant to disappear. which imposes on its creator and its public a set of moral implications that cannot necessarily be bound into a reassuring unity. The conflict between the Fury and Tantalus draws a line between active and passive forces. 2ff.

However. his perspective remains an imposing. . spectacular actions. As he lurks in the background throughout. The satelles. The satelles’ initial reaction to Atreus’ plans in the second act is precisely one of resistance. an impotent. advocates the restrained morality which Tantalus had unsuccessfully embraced. . at 250–4.133–5: ‘What shall we do? Let us that have our tongues | Plot some device of further misery | To make us wondered at in time to come. Functionally. iners. enervis . Atreus plans to perpetrate a nefas (193) of unrivalled atrocity. . accepts Atreus’ point of view and tries to expose the weak points of his plot rather than insist on the need for restraint. | . Tantalus. unavenged’).’ . the intimate connection between the unfolding of the plot and Atreus’ responsibility is foregrounded.1. | inulte. on the contrary. as we will see shortly. indolent. indeed for a new scelus (203). and tries to counter Atreus’ machinations with an invitation to desist from the proposed scelus. once he has performed his primary task. one which can therefore aspire to immortal fame. . 50 See Aaron in Titus Andronicus 3. if latent. horrified prisoner. ‘undaring. Just as the contrast between Tantalus and the Fury pits one of the principal moving forces of the tragedy against the potentially most effective obstacle to it. then. further dramatic confrontations in the play mirror the same antithesis. if Atreus yielded to the satelles’ invitation. Once again. to never being silenced (192–3). after a brief altercation with the satelles show that Atreus is again a victim of the same furor of poetic creation as is symbolically represented by the prologue.46 The Passions in Play power and powerlessness. nerveless. when Tantalus is forced to submit to the Fury’s irresistible force of inspiration. the satelles and Tantalus are paired together in their vain attempt to stop Atreus and the Fury respectively. counterpart to our own troubled experience as spectators of Thyestes. As in the prologue. there simply would be no tragedy at all. becomes a spectator himself.50 The remarks that follow. and braces himself for new. This contrast generates in the text a series of oppositions that are subordinate to and dependent on the basic polarization of silence and tragedy instigated by the Fury and equally liable to be construed as a conflict between repression and its removal. he ultimately changes his initial attitude. Atreus complains about his inactivity (176–8: ignave. it is rewarding to read it also as a meditation on the implications of poetry and its effects on both author and audience. The conflicting drives personified by the Fury and Tantalus in the prologue infect the play as a whole. The equivalence between nefas as an action and a poetic representation of that action is made emphatic in Atreus’ self-presentation at 176–204.

to stop the ruinous pattern of events instigated by their antagonists. Thyestes. the Fury. are embodied by consummate deceivers. Thyestes’ and the satelles’ moralizing attempts are 51 52 Note also that Tantalus’ exhortation in the two following lines (489–90: respiciet deus | bene cogitata. ‘I follow’ (100). those whose furor in carrying out the proposed nefas is coextensive with the removal of the repression that lifts the play from silence into existence.Staging Thyestes 47 The same pattern is repeated in the dialogue between Tantalus and his father. pp. Thyestes does indeed try to resist Atreus’ enticements. The whole tragedy thus hinges on the antithesis of two sets of functionally similar characters: on the one hand. This contrast is reinforced. on the other. non duco. Atreus and Tantalus. the satelles and Thyestes. Here. 48–9. ‘I would like to go. pigris membra sed genibus labant. much as Tantalus had done in the prologue. The two groups possess different degrees of textual knowledge and stand in different positions vis-`a-vis the metadramatic aspect of the play. whose superficial determination had begun to vacillate while he was talking to his son. but my limbs waver on my shaky knees’) and Tantalus’ insistence that he follow the prescribed series of events (440: evince quidquid obstat et mentem impedit. by the fact that the two groups represent authors and victims of deception. In this way he signals his final transformation from victim to accomplice. . but his sudden and rhetorically startling surrender to Atreus’ argument is not comparable either to Tantalus’ suffering while he is tortured or to the undeniably weak position of the satelles: Thyestes. Tantalus’ shadow. not lead’). perge non dubio gradu) echoes a similar command on the Fury’s part: perge. at 404–90. in fact.51 Finally. Yet this one thing your father does declare: I follow you. with different degrees of determination and credibility. against whom Tantalus’.52 The moving forces of the tragedy. On Tantalus see below. The second group is made up of characters who in one way or another want to uphold that repression. those who try. furor. nefas and furor-inspired poetry. The first group includes all the forces that work towards the tragedy’s resolution. ‘let us on. Thyestes incarnates a role which by now we have learnt to recognize as ineffective and morally dubious. unum genitor hoc testor tamen: | ego vos sequor. and as the satelles had perfunctorily attempted to do in the first act. pointedly echo Tantalus’ shadow’s ultimate confession of defeat: sequor. Thyestes’ final words (488–9: eatur. in the first meeting between the two brothers. acquires in this central scene of the play the new role of a moving force. the contrast between father and son focuses on Thyestes’ reluctance to further the dramatic plot (436: placet ire. detestabilis | umbra (24–5). ‘overcome whatever opposes and thwarts your will’). as we will see. too.

Tantalus would parallel Hermes in Euripides’ Ion. the playwright with bloody hands. since it dramatizes the fundamental dichotomy between furthering and suppressing the dramatic plot. we must also be prepared to recognize that Atreus. honesty and deception. incapacitated spectator of the events that he has been forced to precipitate. I should make a closer examination of the structural relationship between the various scenes and the different levels of the tragedy that I have outlined. stands out in the play as the incarnation of a victory against the constraints of moral repression. whose presence will have to be felt. not only in the prologue. The prologue sets up a conflict which pervades the whole play. ratio and furor. partly because they are predicated on an incomplete. A further set of oppositions is also implied: between nefas and fas. Tantalus is throughout the play an unseen. a triumph which is inevitably connected with the force and pleasure of poetry. leading the audience to suspend judgement on the utterances and actions of the characters. a prologue character (. Indeed.48 The Passions in Play completely ineffectual. in the rest of the play. flawed knowledge and assessment of the events. if spectante te at line 66 is to be taken literally. As a hidden spectator of the events that will unfold. At the same time. and the satelles and Thyestes on the other. The conflict between Atreus and Tantalus on the one hand. reflects the contrast between the Fury and Tantalus’ shadow in the prologue. The systematic correspondences among the characters of the play map the opposition between repression and its removal that was emphasized in the prologue and reiterate and expand the basic conflict between poetic expression and morally justified silence. The play unfolds at different levels. though not seen. The first is represented by the prologue and the indication of the apparently limitless agency of the Fury. but throughout the play. Before turning in the following chapters to analyse the main characters of the play and their epistemological horizons.

see. 178–80.54 Seneca’s te spectante retains the defining features of Ion 53 54 See Halleran (1985) 102. Seneca’s Tantalus does leave once and for all when he has polluted the house. . other tragedians (Soph. 51–3. Eur.53 Although hiding-scenes at the end of a prologue are to be found in several authors. 5.g. 52–4). however. In Seneca’s probably Euripidean model Tantalus remained to see the banquet (Lesky (1922–23) 533). or do the two contrasting orders follow each other in a compressed temporal sequence? I discuss the issue in ch. This issue is closely connected with the interpretation of the Fury’s seemingly contrasting orders at 66 and 105–6 (gradere ad infernos specus | amnemque notum): does the Fury change her mind in the course of the prologue and relent on her initial order that Tantalus watch the ensuing actions (so Tarrant (1985) 98). 77–85.! ) who hides away (probably behind a panel shaped as a bush) as soon as he notices Ion arriving on the scene at the end of the prologue (78–80). and never reappears.. Old and New Comedy (after Leo (1908) 68. El. e. pp. Hec. Fraenkel (1962) 22–6 and Handley (1965) 171–2). according to Steidle (1943–44) and Hine (1981). Hipp. Aeschylus (Taplin (1977) 334–5).

spectatorship and representation). where the .Staging Thyestes 49 (a play. deeply concerned with the issues of viewing. incidentally.

This second part of the play opens with a monologue by Atreus. Tantalus (404–90) T A 4 L 5 U Atreus alone (491–507) Thyestes. 4) the possible political implications of the dialogue between Atreus and the satelles. 52–4 offers another interesting point of comparison: the ghost of Polydorus disappears as his mother. (623–788) IV chorus (789–884) Atreus alone (885–919) Atreus. we can place Atreus’ deliberations on how to fulfil his wish for revenge. which parallels Tantalus’ opening speech. Atreus (508–45) III chorus (546–622) chorus.! is a divine character who remains on the scene to watch the events but does not reappear later in the play. satelles (176–335) II chorus (336–403) N 3 Thyestes. Hec. an opening monologue which 55 56 Eur. It might be useful to sum up these distinctions as follows: First level Second level Third level (a) Prologue (b) Play (c) Atreus’ play 1 Fury. as we have seen. At the third level. Tantalus (1–121) [T 2 A I chorus (122–75) Atreus. arrives on the scene. Troades. finally. or. agnoscis) S] Atreus. Thyestes (1005–1112) ii An analysis of the second level of dramatic action in Thyestes reveals a close structural similarity to the prologue. whose plotting is insistently associated. . having dreamt. Hecuba. Seneca favours the use of an expository monologue at the beginning of several plays (Hercules furens.55 At a further. mess.56 The specific metadramatic implications of this part of the play are particularly evident in the characterization of Atreus. since the dialogue between Atreus and his satelles parallels that between the Fury and Tantalus’ shadow. included level. Medea). we watch Atreus turn into an actor of the play he has devised. as in this case and in Oedipus. his own author-like plotting. he claims. I will discuss later (ch. Thyestes (920–1004. with the creative activity of a poet. and Thyestes being taken in by the elaborate performance of his brother. of his own presence.

His nefas. although their initial words pick up at half-line:58 in both cases it is a solitary speech. dira Furiarum cohors discorsque Erinys veniat et geminas faces Megaera quatiens: non satis magno meum ardet furore pectus. timetis (265–6: ‘let it be done. 57 58 59 The beginnings of Phoenissae (a dialogue throughout) and of Phaedra (a monody followed by two scenes) privilege other options. Away. the discord-sowing Erinys. s a. as the prologue did. Atreus’ nefas is the core action of the whole tragedy. you take fright’). As Tarrant ((1976) 157) notes. Just as the Fury did. . which has pride of place. and point out its author’) fully exploits the potential of words to ensnare and betray. especially the angry man’s inclination towards the sublime. if ever you have had a place in our house. While the pairing of nefas and poetry was already clearly established in the prologue. Does no sense of Piety move you? at. Piety. heavily punctuated by questions. Pietas. Let the fearful band of Furies come. 268 with De ira 1. While my emphasis here is different. the frenzy burning in my breast is not great enough. si modo in nostra domo umquam fuisti. many features of Atreus’ behaviour closely resemble Seneca’s description of an iratus (cf. Atreus vows to take his revenge on Thyestes by producing a nefas of great novelty – quid novi rabidus struis?. As Tarrant ((1985) 128–9) rightly points out.10. The scene opens. and Megaera.50 The Passions in Play then turns into a dialogue for the rest of the first act:57 Atreus’ first appearance is thus overtly characterized as a programmatic gesture. Atreus’ declaration of poetics adds significant details to our understanding of exactly what kind of poetic activity the text is referring to. In addition to Tarrant see Anliker (1960) 23–9. di. impleri iuvat maiore monstro. a deceitful ploy whose author (quid sit quod horres ede et auctorem indica. the well-devised and well-acted scheme to which Thyestes is doomed to succumb. o gods. Thy. as we will see. On Atreus as an iratus see the important article by Staley (1981). nulla te pietas movet? at. by pitting Atreus against the satelles in a debate on what should be the presiding force of creation (248–54):59 sa. excede. shaking her twin torches. some greater horror must fill me. asks the worried satelles (254: ‘what strange design are you plotting in your rage?’) – and unsurpassed audacity: fiat hoc. At lines 23 and 203 respectively. his perspective should certainly be kept in mind. There is no need to suppose that the Fury and the satelles should arrive on stage with their respective counterparts. let a nefas be done at which. fiat nefas | quod. says the chorus at line 639: ‘tell what it is that makes you shudder.2). is an eloquent poetic artefact. Seneca’s ‘predilection for the introductory monologue is “Euripidean” ’.

sed rapior61 at. di. fateor. I do confess it. In two later. you take fright’). closely related passages Atreus insists he is being dominated by the sweeping force of inspiration. and in my burnt-out vitals a flame is darting. but I am. Why do you terrify me with the sight of your lash. names her as his Muse.25. perilous territories.Staging Thyestes 51 As the Fury invoked the precedent of Procne and Philomela. I am dragged away. Rapior provides a description of Atreus’ state of mind that is paralleled in a densely programmatic Horatian ode. tumultus pectora attonitus60 quatit penitusque volvit. and fiercely threaten me with your twisted snakes? Why do you rouse pains of hunger deep in my innards? My heart burns with fiery thirst. echoing in maiore monstro (254) the Fury’s maiore numero (57). where the poet explicitly connects the force of Bacchus’ inspiration with his transportation into uncharted. but multiplied’ (Thracium fiat nefas | maiore numero): fiat hoc. fiat nefas | quod. enthusiastic poetics that Atreus embodies on 60 61 62 Its Greek equivalent ". First he confesses his emotional distress (260–2): at. I do not know where to. A mindless tumult shakes and churns my breast deep inside. rapior et quo nescio. o gods. The tortures inflicted by the Fury on Tantalus’ shadow become the self-conscious ardour of the new poet. timetis (265–6: ‘let a nefas be done at which. here Atreus.62 As we will see shortly. 3. it is precisely this type of Bacchic. His conclusion clearly recalls the Fury’s intimation at line 56 – ‘let the Thracian crime be done. the metaphoric fire of inspiration or the unsettling force of poetic enthusiasm (96–9): quid ora terres verbere et tortos ferox minaris angues? quid famem infixam intimis agitas medullis? flagrat incensum siti cor et perustis flamma visceribus micat.

| nescio.15. The structure of lines 261–2 recalls the famous Catullan distich (85) about the epistemological quandary caused by erotic passion: odi et amo.10: si tantus amor scribendi te rapit. ut plena deo. See also Sat. . pp. I will return later to the Dionysiac aspects of Atreus’ character.580 attonitae Baccho . On this passage see Pasquali (1920) 14 and 549–50 (with bibl. matres and Hor. lines 17–18: nil parvum aut humili modo. quare id faciam. Carm. sed fieri sentio et excrucior. see Mendelsohn (1992) 111. 133–8. . | nil mortale loquar. Attonitus is first found in poetry in Virgil. . Quo me.9 vino . and Ovid’s Medea (fr. Cf. 2. 813–14). 2 Ribbeck2 ): feror huc illuc. . and La Penna (1971). On Seneca’s abundant and nuanced use of the adjective in the tragedies see Pasiani (1967). 3. Bacche.1. 7. . but an Ennian model is possible. . vates (with Livy’s description of revellers at Bacchanalia at 39.19. For Bacchic overtones see Aen. attoniti). " #  also has distinct Dionysiac overtones. .14 attonitus . rapis tui | plenum? quae nemora aut quos agor in specus | velox mente nova? (lines 1–3). fortasse requiris.

such that each of them could perform it. On Atreus’ ‘sublimity’ see the next chapter.52 The Passions in Play the stage of Thyestes. my case is like yours. animum Daulis inspira parens sororque. and worthy of Atreus. and that we. 154–64. even if he had not used a number of key terms which Seneca elsewhere applies explicitly 63 64 65 I will analyse the character of the satelles below. should consider to be the driving force of the play. Haste.) The Odrysian house once saw an unspeakable banquet – this is a monstrous crime. These features – in particular the programmatic combination of novelty and awareness of the tradition65 – would be enough to lend Atreus’ declaration of intents a distinct literary colour. my soul. My mind swells with something greater. Inspire my soul. Atreus caps his own poetic prologue by describing in further detail the grandiose nefas he is plotting. the spectators.63 and by invoking his own special Muses. 127. occupa (dignum est Thyeste facinus et dignum Atreo. nescioquid animus maius et solito amplius supraque fines moris humani tumet instatque pigris manibus – haud quid sit scio. but it has been done before.64 And.6. I grant. So let it be. but it is some great thing. help and urge on my hand. hoc. take hold of it. The nature of the poetic creation which Atreus envisages is evidently very close to the one imposed by the Fury on Tantalus. o Daulian mother and sister. just as the Fury had demanded: Thracium fiat nefas | maiore numero (56–7). and beyond the bounds of human custom. who does little more than feed his master the next line. His deeds will have to be sublime. at. quod uterque faciat): vidit infandas domus Odrysia mensas – fateor. ita sit. p. Compare especially Letters to Lucilius 79. (It is a crime worthy of Thyestes. let my grievance find something worse than this. causa est similis: assiste et manum impelle nostram. above all. sed grande quiddam est. and it urges on my sluggish hands – I do not know what it is. as the satelles is reduced to a completely impotent sparring partner. anime. Subsequently. they will have to outdare all precedents. in which Seneca discusses the relationship between invention and tradition with regard to a poem on Aetna which Lucilius might be tempted to compose. Procne and Philomela (267–77): at. literally exceeding human boundaries – supraque fines moris humani (268). as the satelles unwillingly points out by asking quid novi rabidus struis? (254). They will be original. immane est scelus. sed occupatum: maius hoc aliquid dolor inveniat. . larger than normal. pp.

14): ‘then again. smashes the barriers of both rationality and decorum. Aen. Above.68 It is worth quoting again the last few lines of the dialogue (17. and language issues forth to match the dignity of the theme.Staging Thyestes 53 to poetic creation. as we have seen in chapter one.48–51. where. I agree with Mazzoli ((1970) 52.67 Seneca offers the most overt endorsement of the Democritean and Platonic theory of poetic enthusiasm. as an irrational force.66 The most important of such parallels is undoubtedly with De tranquillitate animi 17. it becomes ambitious of words. and with higher aspirations it desires higher expression.2. and further references to De ira 2. and praises the emotional excitement that leads to sublime poetry. 94) that this passage is connected with the description of the Sybil at Virg.10–11). n. it is impossible for it to reach any sublime (sublime) and difficult height. Atreus emphasizes in a similar fashion the connection between the ‘irrational’ force of poetic inspiration – one that literally ‘snatches away’ – and a grandiose. when my mind has been uplifted by the greatness of its thoughts. the lofty utterance that rises above the attempts of others is impossible unless the mind is excited (mota mens). it must forsake the common track and be driven to frenzy (efferatur) and champ the bit and run away (rapiat) with its rider and rush to a height that it would have feared to climb by itself.35. 22–3. n. Poetry. I am swept to loftier heights by an utterance that is no longer my own’ (rursus ubi se animum cogitationum magnitudine levavit. pp. 68 Mazzoli (1970) 50–9. and overrides any hesitation enforced by timor (Tranq. forgetful then of my rule and of my more restrained judgement.26. sublime form of poetry which deserves the highest praise. though he places a different emphasis on Atreus as ‘doppio negativo del vates’ (59). and has soared far aloft fired by divine inspiration. 1. 39. 6. Indeed. poetic enthousiasmos can transform man into a semi-divine entity. . Picone’s book offers a fascinating reading of Thyestes. ambitiosus in verba est altiusque ut spirare ita eloqui 66 67 69 This comparison is developed in full by Picone (1984) 56–61.69 It is especially worth noting that the last sentence of the passage appears radically to subvert the hierarchical principle on which Stoic ethics is predicated. When it has scorned the vulgar and the commonplace.6. a vates whose utterances have a higher claim to truth. Ep. See Picone (1984) 59. De vita beata 2. then alone it chants a strain too lofty (grandius) for mortal lips. or with Aristotle that ‘no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness’ – be that as it may.2. or with Plato that ‘the sane mind knocks in vain at the door of poetry’. by relegating the rector to a subordinate position. 108. important elements of which are closely paralleled by Atreus: For whether we believe with the Greek poet that ‘sometimes it is a pleasure also to rave’. So long as it is left to itself. 9.

73 we are still bound to recognize that his poetic success is intrinsically twinned with his thirst for revenge: he devises his seductive and successful plot precisely as a means to exact retribution from his brother. oblitus tum legis pressiorisque iudicii sublimius feror et ore iam non meo). perceptibly if indirectly suggested in the prologue. The principles he advocates – originality. it is very difficult to arrive at such an unambiguous assessment of the moral implications of poetry. a negative mirror for the moral conscience of the Stoic author. passim. we are now effectively invited to consider him a magnum ingenium as well as a sublime poet. Perhaps we might argue that the text frames Atreus’ poetry as ‘bad’ by exposing its association with unethical deeds. passim. . Nothing in Thyestes suggests the notion that Atreus should be imagined as a negative model of the poet. however. 3. constitute an essential dynamic of Thyestes as a whole: act 2 confirms more explicitly what the audience already had cause to suspect at the very beginning of the play. Ch. and by trying to restrain the potentially disruptive effects of the sublime. Picone’s thesis (1984) 59. 73 Ch. it is now clear that the metadramatic implications of the Fury’s actions. haunted groves. In the case of Atreus.70 Such an interpretation. As for Atreus. 70 72 71 See ch. and that we should therefore be able to distinguish between his abstract principles of poetics and his wholly unprincipled conduct. pp. knowledge of the tradition. any comforting solution seems to be denied by the context itself. I have already tried to show71 that even if we confine analysis to the theoretical prose works. however. I would suggest that metadramatic passages such as Oedipus 509–65872 emphasize the feeling of ambivalence and awe surrounding the process of poetic creation. one who attains greatness by overstepping the boundaries of timor and mores through a superior form of enthousiasmos. 1. and indeed set inspiration and creation in a twilight zone of horrific. even if we set aside for the moment a more nuanced evaluation of Atreus’ motives and behaviour. is rooted in the assumption that Seneca’s prose works try to justify the un-Stoic aspects of the Democritean-Platonic theory of poetic inspiration by subordinating them to a morally praiseworthy goal. On the basis of these connections. It would still be possible to suppose that Atreus’ poetic activity is represented here as an anti-model of the ‘true’ poet. But. 8–10.54 The Passions in Play gestit et ad dignitatem rerum exit oratio. 1. desire to reach the highest peaks of creation – are nowhere accompanied by a critique of the notion of good or successful poetry.

Staging Thyestes 55 However. we should feel fully justified in reading the connection between Atreus and the sublime poet described in De tranquillitate animi as thoroughly consistent. praestetur fides (507). pp. In the dialogue between Atreus and the satelles. . moral and expressive limits. yet it must’ (504–5: cum sperat ira sanguinem. pragmatic attitude. and is predicated on the inherently ambiguous notion of poetry as a transgression of psychological. trangressive force. So has the sense of impotent despair with which he surrenders himself to the overwhelming force of the Fury. 75 On lines 497–505 see below. if. nescit tegi – | tamen tegatur). All sublime.75 The ensuing performance will be based. The beast (his brother) has been captured. act 2 replicates in a more obvious way a set of ideas already clearly established in the prologue. if short-lived. is inevitably implicated in transgressive actions. 154–61. since it abandons self-composure in a heady atmosphere of semi-prophetic creation.74 The victory achieved by the Fury in the prologue has been decisive. since they mean both ‘let me be true to our promise’ (ironically). and comments smugly on the favourable turn that events have taken. one which concretizes the emotive alliance between poetry and nefas. pp. This scene marks the transition between the second and third levels of the plot: it opens with Tantalus and Thyestes approaching the royal palace unaware of what has 74 See below. whose ethical considerations will be summarily dismissed by Atreus’ swift. the contrast between poetry and repression so forcefully voiced by Tantalus and the Fury seems even more skewed in favour of the latter’s violent. Atreus is but one example of sublime poetry. and ‘let me put on a display of fides’. unsurprisingly. on deception: Atreus’ last words before addressing his brother. The satelles is an ineffective dialectical adversary. All that is required now is to keep up the fiction. As it repeats itself for the second time. to start acting as planned. even Tantalus’ credible. it cannot be concealed. grandiose poetry is nefas. iii Atreus reappears on stage as the crafty author and director of his own tragic play in a brief aside in act 3: he is in front of the royal palace as Thyestes and his children approach. The emphasis on deception is explicit: ‘when rage scents blood. in so far as it upholds the equation between poetry and the lifting of repression. and its effects are felt throughout the drama over which she grimly presides. are revealing. attempt at resistance has disappeared. 99–100. as I have suggested.

where the revenge finally takes place. 1. and. he nonetheless hesitates to be drawn onto the stage that 76 77 The verb $ is often used to mark the arrival of supernatural entities on the stage at the very beginning of a play. Tro. The dialogue between Thyestes and Tantalus is structured along the lines of the two dialogues that precede it. Although he cannot fully understand the dangers awaiting him. Frames and levels of spectatorship multiply. Thyestes approaches his city and the royal palace as a confused spectator of the performance laid on for him by his brother (407: cerno). It is in this third and innermost level of the tragedy. 1. We might compare it. can be found in the prologue of Sophocles’ Electra. and Dionysus arrives in Thebes as Euripides’ Bacchae begins. Bacch.76 The most interesting parallel. But the performance has begun even before he appears on the stage: it falls to Thyestes and his son – ignorant actors – to begin the dramatization of the plot that Atreus has carefully orchestrated. Eur. In the first few lines of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus the blind Oedipus wonders where he has finally got to. who. that Atreus doubles up. as we soon realize. as an actor in the play he has himself plotted. 6. There Orestes reaches Mycenae accompanied by the old pedagogue. The closing lines of this scene – Thyestes’ tormented sequor (489) – again mark with explicit verbal echoes the connection with the prologue. or Odysseus’ landing on Lemnos in Sophocles’ Philoctetes. like Thyestes. namely that between the Fury and Tantalus in the prologue and the debate between Atreus and the satelles in act 2. inevitably complicate our own act of viewing. we must imagine that Atreus is watching the first act of his new play. who. to Orestes’ arrival at Argos at the beginning of Aeschylus’ Choephoroe. deep stained with murder’. both directly or indirectly charged with inceptive functions. Ch.77 Indeed. see. it gives space to Atreus’ aside (491–507). for example. Thyestes’ arrival in the vicinity of Argos clearly represents a fresh beginning. first talks about the satisfaction of his old desire to return (8–10): ‘and look! before us. and it ends on the two brothers meeting in what is for Atreus a masterful display of intrigue (508–45). Ion 5. and there the grim palace of Pelops’ line. for instance. a great deal of prominence is assigned in this scene to the issue of viewing and understanding. passim. .56 The Passions in Play been plotted within (404–90). at our very feet you see Mycenae of the golden hoard. 1. not unlike a cunning Plautine slave. Hec. however. they have been duped into coming here by Atreus. As the vigilant Fury presides over the actions she has initiated. as we will see. is watching the proceedings very closely.

and in so doing calls attention to the very different levels of awareness and understanding that accompany Thyestes’ and Atreus’ viewing. when you look at a gift. The repetition of cerno in the third line of his speech (493) echoes the presence of the same verbal form in the fourth line of Thyestes’ own opening remark (407). As he first sees Thyestes at line 491. when his exhortation – oculis . are pregnant with tragic irony. Far from being disturbed at the sight of Thyestes. of the seductive illusion of spectating. He is aware of the distance between appearance and reality. he enjoys both his current pitiable state. however. there is no reason why the shining splendour of power should mislead my eyes with its false radiance. though ultimately he is unable to draw the right conclusions from these premonitions (414–16): clarus hic regni nitor fulgore non est quod oculos falso auferat: cum quod datur spectabis. rooted in the complete control of the situation. like much in the ensuing dialogue with his son. and therefore call our attention to the different fictional levels operating in the scene. we are almost invited to suspect that Atreus has listened to his brother and is now exploiting his . It is the pleasure of poets. he will fall prey to an even worse fate. and his words. This time. et dantem aspice. Atreus’ manipulation of the emotional connotations of viewing is clear at line 525. We know full well that Thyestes’ intimations of impending doom are justified. is expressed in words that shortly afterwards will be echoed by Atreus with completely different implications: as praestetur fides (507) echoes praestatur fides (469) in the same metrical position. there is irony in the tyrant’s words. but is also the pleasure of spectators who have been privileged with an inside knowledge of the play’s creative mechanisms. . .Staging Thyestes 57 Atreus has prepared. For instance. and the exclamation with which he greets his brother at line 508 – fratrem iuvat videre (‘it is sweet to see my brother’) – underlines the fact that Atreus’ viewing is geared towards a full emotional satisfaction. Thyestes’ praise of quies at line 469. check who is giving it. Several other details in the scene emphasize how different the characters’ level of cognition can be. and the anticipation of the fact that if Thyestes renounces his present misery and accepts to share the throne. The spectators’ point of view is aligned with the privileged viewing position of Atreus (and also of the Fury and Tantalus’ ghost). nostris parce (‘spare my eyes’) – craftily exploits the duplicity of his perspective. too. which he himself is ultimately unwilling to transform into actions. Atreus is certain that he has succeeded in his ploy: his viewing is endowed with full awareness and understanding.

in an attempt to fill the void with competing narratives. by sharing with them events which Thyestes will ignore until a later stage (1052–68). Haste on with assured step’ (respiciet deus | bene cogitata.78 but in fact we are led to assume shortly afterwards that Atreus – who would certainly not object to being called a god – has been watching this scene all along. The structure of the final act of Thyestes is symmetrical to that of act 3.79 This double narration of the pivotal scene of the tragedy effectively thematizes the reiteration of nefas. it is tempting to invoke that particular concept in order to account for the multiplication of an object which still denies us direct access and can only be perceived at a certain remove.58 The Passions in Play own words to express very different contents. too. but its absence is reflected in multiple mirrorings. which interposes Atreus’ monologue between two scenes en abyme. 87ff. pp. a topic on which I will shortly focus: the key action of the plot is never performed on the stage (as tragic conventions prescribe). Yet Thyestes precisely suggests that this paratactical arrangement might be more the product of a specific epistemic and aesthetic Weltanschauung than an index of artistic weakness. Each different level of narration no longer encases a subsequent one. 152–4. however. Ch. This new element reinforces the density of the play’s structure. would be the exception that proves the rule. I will discuss Seneca’s fractured treatment of time in ch. Thyestes. It has often been said that Senecan tragedy suffers from an excess of parataxis. iv In the fourth act of the tragedy a messenger relates to the chorus and the audience a series of actions which they cannot witness directly and. it is the ‘staged’ dialogue between the two brothers which occupies the intermediate position: the 78 80 79 I will discuss other aspects of this speech later.80 But here. aligns them with Atreus’ true intentions and behaviour. A similar ironic twist can be detected in Tantalus’ final words at 489–90: ‘a god will regard with favour what has been well devised. pp. 5. perge non dubio gradu). Not only is there no intimation in the play of the gods’ moral agency. 4. with its largely organic plot. In act 5. an inability to privilege an organic plot vis-`a-vis the centripetal tendency to align somewhat detached scenes. . each bearing different emotional connotations. but instead the same action can be watched more than once from different perspectives corresponding to different audiences. and each involving a different audience and hence different reactions.

| sublimi feriam sidera vertice (Carm. p.1. and confirms his awareness of the 81 82 83 84 The second and third scenes are separated in the tragedy by two choruses (546–622. | nisi sic doleres (1096–8: ‘now I praise my handiwork. . while Atreus. Thy.81 At the beginning of act 5 (885–919) Atreus celebrates his triumph shortly before revealing to his brother the gory details of the massacre. I discuss these important internal links again in ch. See below.Staging Thyestes 59 beginning and end of the act are reserved instead for what I termed the second level. I will hit the stars with my exalted head’). These opening lines clearly recall the end of Horace’s first ode: quodsi me lyricis vatibus inseres. now is the true palm won.83 I move on a level with the stars. above all others. where they are mischievously shot through mock-Stoic images of the serene security of the sage such as.35–6: ‘but if you include me among lyric bards. which all contribute to alter the spectator’s point of view. . | nunc parta vera est palma. has chosen the rewards of poetry. for example. more than enough’)82 marks the close connection between the two sections. a long speech by the messenger (623–788) and Atreus’ monologue at 885–919. now my father’s throne. as Atreus congratulates himself at the sight of his brother’s desperation. Georgics 3. 789–884).84 The allusion to such well-known programmatic passages again highlights the fact that Atreus sees his actions as artistic achievements comparable to those of famous poets even as he plans the final step of his revenge – revealing to Thyestes the full import of the nefas. and sits aloft. | Safe out of fortune’s shot.10–20 (palma figures in both passages). I would have wasted my crime. perdideram scelus. These lines are a plausible model for Tamora’s cries of joy at Titus Andronicus 2. In this last section of the tragedy Atreus insists with renewed emphasis on the visual dimension of his actions. nunc solium patris. abunde est. . 1. 116. p.1–4: ‘Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top. curru (410). a more tenuous reference to the same poem surfaces again. 5. Now I hold the glory of the realm. Atreus’ ‘Priamel’ should be read in conjunction with Thyestes’ own reference to the same Horatian ode in his proemial speech at 404–20: the palma (410) he enjoyed most was that of racing paterno . touch with proud head the lofty heavens. At line 889 a verbatim repetition from his ‘prologic’ speech (279: bene est. following Horace’s own predilection. | Advanced above pale envy’s threatening reach’. 365–8. 179.1. and. Later. nunc decora regni teneo. if you weren’t suffering this much’) echoes the contrast between true and Olympic celebration which Horace’s ode develops at lines 3–6 after Virgil. both of which emphasize the exceptional grandiosity of the nefas he has perpetrated (885–8): aequalis astris gradior et cunctos super altum superbo vertice attingens polum. as nunc meas laudo manus. ‘it is well. | Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning flash.

87 As Atreus steps back and watches the performance that he has staged. 87 Ch. what words his first grief pours forth’ (903–5: libet videre. Stoic theory devotes a considerable amount of attention to the plight of spectators.86 As we have seen in chapter one. will be the spectator of a pained spectator: ‘it is a pleasure to note. pp. how his complexion changes. Aen. | quos det colores. but hugely more satisfactory than the one he had been treated to at Thyestes’ arrival. Atreus is able to visualize the scene that will later unfold on stage: tota iam ante oculos meos | imago caedis errat (281–2: ‘already before my eyes flits the whole picture of the slaughter’). In a further indication of structural affinity. videat pater (895: ‘but it is enough if the father alone sees it’). torn between a critical analysis of the actions they are watching. . The next scene. having just embarked upon his plan. pp. See Virg. will afford him the pleasures of spectatorship.443 with Harrison (1991) 186. We observe Thyestes’ emotional monologue with him and. 85 86 A particularly perverse desire. .60 The Passions in Play centrality of spectatorship. Before the anagnorisis marks the tragedy’s sudden return to its second level of action. to a certain extent. and the ever-present risk of being too deeply affected by them. as Thyestes slowly and painfully discovers the truth. 6.85 The pleasure will reside primarily in the slow unfolding of Thyestes’ reactions in front of his brother: ‘I do not want to see him miserable. Atreus can enjoy a spectacle similar to. but his becoming so’ (907: miserum videre nolo. when he sees his children’s heads. in which Atreus is still acting the self-assigned role of the loving brother until the anagnorisis shatters the fiction of this second level of the representation. capita natorum intuens . The first indication of this awareness surfaces when. 1. . 14–15. 10. 235–43. sed dum fit miser). Ch. The daedalean structure of the play once again multiplies the levels of spectatorship and thematizes it. who derives direct satisfaction from witnessing the spectacle: libet videre. capita natorum intuens. ‘so that they all may see the avenging banquet’). verba quae primus dolor | effundat). Atreus will watch Thyestes watching. he impersonates just such an affected. Atreus prescribes for Thyestes what the Fury had initially intimated to Tantalus’ ghost: mixtum suorum sanguinem genitor bibat (917: ‘his sons’ mingled blood let the father drink’) echoes mixtus in Bacchum cruor | spectante te potetur (65–6: ‘let blood mixed with wine be drunk before your eyes’). or at least Thyestes should: quod sat est. (903). undetached spectator. Now Atreus wants to make sure that all concerned have a clear picture of the nefas: the gods should be kept back so that they can see what has happened (894–5: ut ultricem dapem | omnes viderent.

(Seneca.88 Anagnorisis reveals again89 a state of things which should have never been forgotten: Thyestes is tragically forced to recognize Atreus’ true nature only because he has failed to heed his own confused but true premonitions. While the audience sides with Atreus’ superior form of understanding. Letters to Lucilius 80) i The tortuous relationships between different levels of dramatic action in Thyestes heighten the audience’s perception of the play as an artificial literary product. hesitantly voiced when he arrived on stage. The deceiving power of poetry. is such that it can make people forget even what they already sense and ought to understand. I will discuss at the end of this book whether we are entitled to read in this multiplication of levels a cautionary tale – that by watching the poet’s cunning behaviour we can learn to mistrust his ploys – or whether his deceitfulness inevitably forestalls any such resistance on our part. self-contained entity. 248. and for us. it appears. Anagnorisis plays a pivotal role in the shift between these different levels of the tragedy. it is also aware of a further vantage point which is denied even to Atreus. Thyestes is relapsing into the doubtful. and its metadramatic structure prominently foregrounds the process of artistic creation. t r ag e d y. We see Atreus plotting his revenge and carrying it out while completely fooling his brother with a charade of friendliness. since they have been watching the events of the play alongside two closer spectators – the Fury and Tantalus’ ghost. live. sceptical mood that had coloured his dialogue with Tantalus. t e r m i n a b l e a n d i n t e r m i n a b l e humanae vitae mimus . p. but once again he seems unable (or unwilling) to excavate his doubts: for Atreus. as the play’s ingredients are slowly and meticulously cooked up. 5. metadrama carves up a schism between the readers’ 88 Ch. The interplay of different levels of tragic action foregrounds the power of Atreus’ deceit. faces a work in progress. But in the present context anagnorisis also points up the play’s dramatic structure and exposes to Thyestes his irredeemable epistemic inferiority. his words are hopelessly entrapped in a tragic irony which is only intensified by Atreus’ double entendres in the ensuing dialogue. By shattering the illusion of fictionality. The audience. rather than being confronted with a finished. 6. . . 89 See a more extended discussion of this topic in ch.Staging Thyestes 61 through him. .

and yet eo ipso effectively annihilated in the apparently unstoppable fugue of frames. the frames are hardly able to control. a distance between the events represented on the stage and the audience’s perception of them. at a remove.90 By turning the fictional. in the prologue are portrayed as the direct result of a violent sequence which. thus reducing the possibility of a unified response on the audience’s part. however. to conclude that this critical gap is what ensures the ‘philosophical’ and moral viability of plays which revolve to a disturbing extent around anger. a performance provoked – as in this particular instance – by revenge. evidently. They are watching a tragedy. theatrical nature of the play into such an upfront thematic concern. violence. It is a revenge plot based on deception and lies. how that dissemblance operates. It would be too optimistic. metadrama lures the audience to reflect on what exactly they are watching and how it is constructed. Thyestes occupies a distinctive place in Seneca’s tragic corpus and bears comparison with the other mastertext which develops similar reflections. This ‘paradox’ accents the readers’ active rather than passive involvement in the process of decoding and understanding. The compact boundaries of the dramatic action are highlighted. from the very beginning. multiple framing. the audience’s awareness of his motivations shatters his image of ‘uncaused 90 92 91 See pp. On the contrary. framing ensures the multiplication of points of view and the production of competing accounts of and reactions to the events. ‘frames are always framed’. inevitably produces a more general disturbing effect.62 The Passions in Play involvement in the artistic creation and their awareness of its fictional status. Or.91 I have argued that metadrama inevitably introduces a critical dimension. by the regressive desire for retribution which spans generations and involves human as well as superhuman agents. referring to the modern novel. Euripides’ Bacchae.92 The violent actions encased in Atreus’ inner play and. apparently propelled only by his own thirst for revenge. As the next frame portrays Atreus struggling to devise an original plan. Hutcheon (1984) 7. . As I have already pointed out. with Derrida (quoted by Goldhill (1991) 259). and the audience is granted a privileged epistemic viewpoint by being shown. nefas and horror. But framing. the frames encompassing different levels of action in a play such as Thyestes may well be seen to complicate further the effects of the performance precisely because they raise the audience’s threshold of awareness. By complicating the structure of the play and directing the audience’s attention towards its inner mechanisms. 133–8. and especially repetitive.

which also shows the traditional tragic forms. frames have a crucial role in the play’s signifying strategies.94 Framing imposes comparison between the various dramatic techniques at work in different levels of the play. A role of frames aptly stressed by Caws (1985) 21. saturated by ‘too many options crowding in from the past’. 51 and 57). frames separate. too. ordering devices and rather turn out to be no more than flimsy fences easily trespassed by uncontrollable forces. we noted. Finally. is constantly pushed back without any guarantee that it might find an ultimate resting point. framing introduces a comparison between the various aspects of each character as he enters a new frame: which Thyestes is more credible – the worried exile who hesitates to follow Tantalus’ enthusiastic recommendations or the gullible. . become the signposts – and the harbingers – of the trouncing of order. By privileging what they encase95 and – almost literally – setting each scene against a well-defined backdrop. as we will see. in spite of all the indications attesting to our privileged point of view? It is precisely through this mechanism of regress ad infinitum – thematized in the play by three inset levels of dramatic action – that frames lose their potential as controlling. ever more elusive. and also between the characters who share analogous functions in those different levels: the Fury. Orestes. a very perceptive discussion of the role of framing in Theocritus. so the starting point of violence and nefas. frames give those comparisons a sharper profile. But this epistemic superiority is also bound to provoke further worries: as frames appear inevitably enframed.Staging Thyestes 63 cause’. the satelles and Thyestes himself resist in vain. Goldhill (1991) 236. all press ahead with the development of the plot which Tantalus’ ghost. and that critical ingenuity is required in order to extract further meaning from this ‘interplay of difference’. Framing introduces into the tragedy a structuring device which appears to ensure the orderly succession of embedded levels of action. multiplied in a sequence of horrors. Frames. Seneca privileges in his plays detached scenes which do not necessarily follow each other with compelling coherence and urgency. as it reaches a breaking-point. How can we safely exclude the possibility that there has been a prologue behind the prologue? Who sent the Fury? Does someone know more than we do.93 In yet another sense. 93 94 95 The interplay of frames recalls in some ways Euripides’ ‘most Euripidean’ play. and at the same time ensure that we juxtapose and compare the actions they encase. Yet we are soon led to realize that the markers provided by frames guarantee that each successive level of action is perceived as dialectically juxtaposed to the previous one. power-greedy man who blithely accepts his brother’s pleas? Here. 262 and passim. Atreus and Tantalus junior. See Zeitlin’s (1980) brilliant analysis (quotations from pp.

strictly speaking. as 96 On this topic see ch. They dissect different parts of the play. ante litteram. an instance of ‘playwithin-the-play’. all too directly. 6. Before reaching the third and final scene of this third level of action. see pp. this could be seen as a very bold and experimental example. ii As I turn now to a specific aspect of the critical detachment inherent in Thyestes. the two brothers meet (508–45). My starting point is the distinction between different levels of action which I summarized earlier in the chapter.96 Frames define boundaries and thus mark separation and even detachment. one in which the boundaries of fiction and reality are more fluid. the climactic confrontation in which the horrific reprisal is declared (920–1004). 97 On which. this third level of the tragedy is composed of a compact sequence of scenes. which reverts to a higher level of the tragic structure. and yet there are strong enough signs that this part of the play has a specific. As I observed earlier. (In fact. . well-outlined structure. the tragedy sets aside the orderly succession of different levels observed so far and turns to a lengthy and elaborate messenger’s speech. or. on the contrary. they highlight the inevitable collision of dramatic levels and the relentless conflicts that plague successive generations. but precipitate comparison and contrast. This is not. After Atreus’ monologue at 491–507. The first scene devised by Atreus. It begins in the second act with the exile’s arrival to his land. my argument becomes more speculative. and on its position in the history of tragic forms. Thyestes’ arrival. is a clear marker of dramatic beginning. inert sequence of tableaux. thus sealing the fate of Thyestes’ children.97 The three scenes which occupy the innermost frame of Thyestes constitute a miniature tragedy. his ultimate goal of revenge. a deepest level. in Atreus’ words. 169–70. but they hardly arrange an orderly. Through a succession of frames.64 The Passions in Play Yet. The emotional centre of the play is devoted to the studied deception: the blindfolded Thyestes offers his children as ‘pledge of his faith’ (520: obsides fidei). and the dialogue between himself and Tantalus (404–90). I propose to analyse how certain features of the play invite a critical reflection on the particular form of tragedy that Seneca is writing. frames underline the most profoundly dramatic aspects of the play. far from laying bare the ‘rhetorical’ nature of Senecan tragedy.) It is certainly a performance through which Atreus achieves. where Atreus acts out a plot of his own devising and successfully punishes his brother. of the play-within-theplay form. Thyestes isolates an inner core.

Staging Thyestes


‘destined victims’ (545: destinatas victimas). In the final encounter between
the two brothers Atreus revels in its image of oblivion, and even more in
Thyestes’ reaction to the final revelation. This structure is not very different,
for instance, from that of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, which hinges on Odysseus’
deception. In Thyestes, this ‘beginning, middle and end’ structure is encased
within a prologue and an epilogue, which problematizes the premises and
consequences of the included play. The five acts of Thyestes operate as a
framing device which embraces the three-act inner tragedy, organized by
Atreus and to a noticeable extent modelled on Greek standards. It is as
if Seneca’s ‘posteriority’ is thematized here by an encompassing structure
which becomes a showcase for, and a commentary on, a type of tragedy
that no longer exists and is no longer viable.98

Of the three levels of tragic action that I have described, only the third and
innermost level of the tragedy finds a coherent closure on stage: Atreus’
revenge is plotted, carried out and revealed in the three ‘acts’ that I have
analysed. But the two other levels of the tragedy – the first one, in which
the preliminary decisions about the nefas were taken, and the second, in
which Atreus mulls over his plan and later reveals it to Thyestes – remain
undoubtedly open and portend no shortage of future evils. In this case the
‘interplay of differences’ marks a contrast between Atreus’ teleological plot
and the unending potential for tragedy embedded in his family’s curse. In
this way Thyestes affords its audience both the reassuring satisfaction of
closure and the tormenting promise of renewed terrors. Nothing could be
more final than the cannibalistic banquet, a funeral of sorts,99 and nothing
more open-ended than the final words exchanged by the brothers, a curse
fulfilled in subsequent stages of the mythical narrative, which the audience
can already begin to fathom (and, indeed, remember): TH. vindices aderunt
dei; | his puniendum vota te tradunt mea. | AT. te puniendum liberis trado tuis
(‘TH. The gods will be my avengers; my prayers deliver you to them for
punishment. AT. For punishment, I deliver you to your children’, 1110–12).
Ultimately, even at the apex of his success, Atreus, too, cannot achieve


The five-act structure differentiates Seneca’s plays from their Greek models, though not the comic
ones; see Tarrant (1978) 218–19, esp. 219 and n. 40 and Hunter (1985) 35–42. On act division in
Senecan drama see Anliker (1960) 49–93. Antecedents can indeed be found in Greek comedy,
certainly in Menander’s Dyscolos and possibly in four more of his plays (Aspis, Epitrepontes, Samia
and Sicyonios). See Horace’s Ars P. 189–90, with Brink (1971) 248–50.
See Fowler (1989) 85 = (2000) 249.


The Passions in Play

complete satisfaction, because his desire is so boundless that it could never,
by definition, be completely fulfilled. The micro-dramas which make up
the play try in vain to order and set boundaries onto a flow of emotional
cravings which ultimately reject all constraints.100
This contrast between closure and lack of closure, entrenched in the very
core of the plot, might be read as a reflection on the nature of tragic action
and the forms that it can take on stage. The ‘inner plot’, a self-contained
unity, does achieve a clear-cut conclusion in the horrendous anagnorisis
at line 1004. By dropping his mask as an actor and returning to the role
of author, Atreus denudes the foundations of his closed tragedy. At the
same time, he indicates his dissatisfaction with that form: there is, in fact,
no real possibility of tragic closure. Closure, as achieved on stage by the
banquet, can only be a momentary illusion, predicated on deceiving an
unguarded spectator like Thyestes. We will observe later that this is one of
the many ways in which Thyestes is portrayed as a tragic hero of old, deaf
to the cunning devices and linguistic creativity of his brother, and therefore
inevitably bound to be defeated.101 For the audience, which has been alerted
to the metadramatic organization of the play, as for Atreus, closure remains
an elusive option which the open-ended finale shatters without recourse.
There is no guarantee that the evils visited upon the House of Argos by
Tantalus’ reappearance have really ended. True, the Fury did say that she had
seen enough (105), but her intimation that Tantalus watch Thyestes while
he drinks his children’s blood (102), coupled with the absence of closure at
the end of the play, mean that Tantalus and his curse ominously overshadow
the play’s final moments. Here, too, we can observe the discomforting effect
of open frames, of frames which fail to fulfil their task and thus highlight
the absence of a reassuring resting point. Similarly, Atreus cannot claim
that he has achieved a conclusion. He has succeeded in taking revenge, and
he has without question won this round of confrontation with his brother.
But his very last words, which in a way do signal closure by capping the
second level of tragic action he had set in motion at 176–204, are in fact
totally open-ended. The frame is now complete, but its closure is more
formal than substantial.
Greek tragedy, too, is deeply sensitive to the signifying potential of closure and openness, and often hints within the play, or even towards its
conclusion, at future developments of the family plots, thus announcing
new stages of literary invention. It is only in the Oresteia, however, that
we can find something approaching the open-endedness of Thyestes. At

See later, p. 94.


I develop this line of analysis in ch. 3.

Staging Thyestes


the end of Agamemnon (1662–73), for instance, the repartee between the
coriphaeus and Aegisthus, centred on predictions of violent retribution,
offers a relevant parallel to the last few lines of Seneca’s play.102 The conclusion of Choephoroe, though projecting an open window onto Orestes’
future, is less explicit in its heralding of specific events, and the curtain falls
on Eumenides with a convincing finality. In Sophocles it is only Oedipus
at Colonus that closes with the announcement of a sequel, as Antigone
pleads with Theseus to be sent back to Thebes, where the fight between
her brothers is imminent.103
Against the background of Greek tragedy, we can better appreciate the
novelty of Thyestes’ reflection on closure, yet it would be misguided to posit a
radical opposition between a tightly closed Greek model and Seneca’s openended finale. While it is important to recognize that the ending of Thyestes
is indeed unusual in its degree of openness, it is preferable to couch the
discussion in terms of different balances between elements of closure and
openness which characterize different tragic experiences. Sophocles intersperses his main narrative with inset stories which lack a definite ending and
repeatedly announce future developments, but the main plot does normally
achieve its telos, which thus appears to be challenged by the divergences of
the inset narratives.104 Instead, Seneca opposes the openness of his main
plot to the ‘included closure’105 of Atreus’ mise en abyme. The Sophoclean
dialectical model is also present, of course, in Virgil. The unending debate
between openness and closure in the Aeneid, the constant struggle between
Jupiter’s teleology and Juno’s passion for delays, digressions and alternative
plots is extended within the text, while the poem’s end offers (ostensibly) a
‘Jovian’, closural ending.106 Seneca turns this model inside-out, upturning



‘Aeg. But to think that these men should let their wanton tongues thus blossom into speech against
me and cast about such gibes, putting their fortune to the test! To reject wise counsel and insult
their master! Chorus It would not be like men of Argos to cringe before a knave. Aeg. Ha! I’ll visit
you with vengeance yet in days to come. Chorus Not if fate shall guide Orestes to return home.
Aeg. Of myself I know that exiles feed on hope. Chorus Keep on, grow fat, polluting justice, since
you can. Aeg. Know that you will make atonement for your insolent folly. Chorus Brag in your
bravery like a cock beside a hen. Clyt. Care not for their idle yelpings. I and you will be masters of
this house and order it aright’ (trans. Smyth).
‘Ant. . . . Then send us back to Thebes, if yet we may heal this mortal feud and stay the self-wrought
doom that drives our brothers to their tomb. Theseus I will do that . . .’ (1769–76). Note, however,
that the chorus has the last word: ‘and now cease your laments. Everything has been ordered
appropriately’ (1779).
On Sophocles: Knox (1964); Roberts (1989); Kraus (1991). On Aristophanes: Bowie (1993). See also
Foley (1985).
A term I borrow from Fowler (1997a) 18 = (2000) 302.
See Hershkowitz (1998) 68–124; Quint (1993) 50–96. On epic, not only Virgilian, closure: Hardie


The Passions in Play

the balance of the two principles. He reflects on epic’s ambivalent desire
for closure as much as epic reflects upon tragedy’s, and calls into question
both genres’ hope (or illusion) of actually achieving a definite closure.
The lack of closure at the end of Thyestes is compatible with the fact that
the play carefully eschews a conclusive moral statement. Thyestes’ appeal
to an absolute moral order is immediately quashed by Atreus’ mocking
disillusionment, and even the chorus, as we will see, is denied (literally) the
last word.107 Openness is the vehicle which finally expresses the absence
of absolute points of reference, of divine guarantees of order and morality
to which characters and audience alike can turn in search of an authoritative take on events. Here, again, Seneca seems to have gone one step
further in the deconstructive approach displayed by the Aeneid; it is no
longer a question of opposing Jupiter’s teleology to Juno’s openness, since
we are not even sure that a divine figure can effectively embody superior
principles.108 Significantly, as Atreus questions Thyestes’ gesturing towards
divine sanctions (both moral and narrative), he is ultimately interrogating
the very nature of his victory. He succeeds in undermining Thyestes, but he
is nonetheless confessing that closure must be temporary and illusory for
himself as well: he might not care in this moment of triumph, but we know
that he will indeed care later. His mythical saga is emphatically not over.
We understand now how important it is that the tragedy’s conclusion
forcefully recalls and returns to its beginning. The very structure of the final
exchange between Atreus and Thyestes mirrors the one between Tantalus
and the Fury. The parallelism again reinforces the sense of openness repeatedly suggested in the play: indeed, it is almost as if the tragedy closed
(momentarily) with a new prologue, a preview of coming attractions. We
will see that this deconstruction of beginnings and endings carries with
it a sense, among other things, that finality is elusive and that repetition
inevitably prevails. At the beginning of Agamemnon it will be Thyestes who
returns to earth as a ghost and sets in motion a new plot of revenge.109
Atreus’ ability to bring his own masterplot to a definite close is a function
of his power in the tragedy. His intellectual and material resources are
definitely superior to those of Thyestes and allow him to execute his plot to
the letter. He is impotent, however, to control the tragedy’s final openness,
the promise of future evils which will tip the scale against him and his
descendants. As a playwright, and as a tyrant,110 Atreus’ power is shown to

Ch. 4, pp. 175–6.
109 See p. 203.
On this final reference to the gods see p. 152.
Note that the language of poetic achievement evoked at 885–8 (above, p. 59) neatly doubles up as
a reference to the ruler’s katasterismos.

Staging Thyestes


be almost absolute, but temporally limited. His victory, complete as it might
seem, is hardly an instance of imperium sine fine: the end of Thyestes proves
the inevitability of a next instalment. Thyestes, by triggering the illusion of
teleology in its inset play, is the only one of Seneca’s tragedies to develop a
significant metadramatic reflection on this issue, and in a sense it provides
a theoretical explanation for the uncertain closures which we find in other
plays. If the ability to close off narrative is indeed a sign of power, then
the lack of closure which characterizes Thyestes and other Senecan tragedies
must be seen as an indicator of the fact that power structures and roles are
inherently fluid, and that the stable certainties of Stoic fate are ultimately
predicated on the unstable and unforeseable workings of Fortuna.
The constrast between the internal closure and the openness staged by
frames can also offer some insight into the relative artistic appeal of these two
methods of structuring a text. Atreus’ plot converges on the intense pleasure
of anagnorisis, which implies for him the ultimate success of his plot, and
for the audience is the most intense point of the whole play, the moment
of revelation. The play’s final postponement of closure, however, defers
fulfilment and pleasure, pointing towards an as yet unseen tragedy. These
are two different principles of aesthetic pleasure, and Atreus ultimately
proves his mastery in both; in this, too, he shows a multiple personality
consistent, as we will see, with his ‘Dionysiac’ nature.111
Although Atreus fashions himself (and, to a great extent, actually is) controlling, he is in turn controlled by the Fury and the overarching authority
of the author. It is Seneca’s decision, ultimately, to deny his play an organic
and convincing closure, and to let it end with the ominous announcement
of future nefas. In writing the tragedy Seneca has already defied the intimation of closure that came to him in the form of literary tradition, has
reopened in a self-conscious, painful fashion a tragic discourse whose vitality had by his time already been questioned. At the end of the play it falls
once again to the authorial voice, masked by the silent Fury, to declare the
issue forever open.

Ch. 3, passim. Atreus also appears to be flouting gender boundaries, as discussed in ch. 3. Narrative
closure and openness (or, better, different degrees of closural definition) are susceptible to a genderoriented interpretation. See Fowler (1997b) 10 = (2000) 293, who relates closure and openness to
‘logo-’ and ‘phallocentricity’, building on Cixous (1986) 88, (1991) 49–50 and Gallop (1982).

of these? . as appears now to be the case (Baker (1939) 119–39.chapter 3 A craftier Tereus t h r a c i u m n e fa s t i t. he not only evokes the Ovidian model. (Shakespeare. that mean is cut from thee. n. Seneca’s recognition of Ovid’s Tereus as the foremost archetype of narrative violence will be heeded centuries later by Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus. endorsed by Bate (1995) 29.1) i Explicitly invoked by the Fury in the prologue and by Atreus in his inspired monologue. . but should not detract from the importance of Thyestes. The emphasis on the Ovidian model is justified. How now. And in a tedious sampler sew’d her mind.1 As Marcus first catches sight of Lavinia’s violated body. The strong metatheatrical component of Titus is arguably inspired by Seneca rather than Ovid. why she but lost her tongue. neither narrative spares its readers the goriest details. lovely niece. girl.38–43): Fair Philomel.4.412–674) is crucially important. 70 . Tricomi (1974). ’tis Ovid’s Metamorphoses . Miola (1983) 42–75. . but reiterates the agonistic comparison with Ovid inaugurated by Seneca’s maiore numero (2. and routinely criticized for its grotesque excesses of violence and goriness. 2). Both stories culminate in the revengeful slaughter of children who are then cooked and served to their ignorant fathers in perverse banquets. much favoured by an earlier generation of critics. b oy. Bate (1995) 90–2. James (1997) 42–84. a play steeped in classical sources (Seneca and Ovid). Titus Andronicus 4. Grandsire. 1 On Titus’ classical background see Waith (1957). what means this? Some book there is that she desires to see. the allusive pattern which links significant moments of Thyestes to the Ovidian tale of Tereus and Procne (Met. But. Lavinia? Marcus. 6. . Which is it. .

Thracium fiat nefas is the founding gesture of a tragedy which will come to light under the ominous auspices of its astonishingly violent precedent. and not just its climactic resolution.A craftier Tereus 71 A craftier Tereus. 117. Thematic parallelism offers an ostensibly adequate explanation for the intertextual relationship. 31). Indeed this opening announcement instructs any comparison of the two texts to take into account the whole span of Ovid’s episode. famously. almost an internal ‘heading’. Procne and Philomela begins in Ovid with the words Threicius Tereus (6. whether one might want to explain this pervasive phenomenon as a generic (‘Silver’?) stylistic affinity or a more pointed signifying strategy. Jacobi ((1988) 153) argues against a direct connection between Seneca and Accius. Maior can also carry metaliterary overtones. The issue of the relationship between Seneca and Ovid has received considerable attention (recently from Jacobi (1988)). And he hath cut those pretty fingers off.2 On a more general level. thanks to the powerful inspiration of Ovid’s Thracium nefas. On the possible connections with Accius’ Tereus. as. see Fr¨ankel (1945) 377–81. not only with Sophocles’ prototypical (and lost) Tereus. hast thou met. it is hardly surprising to find the Metamorphoses registering in the intertextual background to Senecan tragedy. just as the horrors of Thyestes emerge from the silence that Tantalus’ ghost had advocated in vain.6 This strategy of excess announced at the outset is clearly a very important aspect of the way in which Thyestes will negotiate its relationship with the Ovidian model. The whole episode of Tereus. a relationship which is further encouraged by the connection that the Metamorphoses establish.424). As we have seen.44–5 (see above. cousin. but also with Accius’ Atreus. This atmosphere and its implications will be discussed by Ingo Gildenhard and Andrew Zissos in their forthcoming monograph on Ovid’s Metamorphoses. in Virg. 7. one of Seneca’s most influential models. but a satisfactory critical analysis is still missing. That could have better sew’d than Philomel. But even more significant is the presence of such a clear programmatic intention at the core of a section of the play with strong metadramatic resonances. in turn. p. Aen. and in general. advocating a new ‘Thracian nefas’5 with even more victims.3 Plotting. . even if the Fury stresses (if the text is 2 3 4 5 6 The most significant points of contact between Accius’ Atreus and Ovid in this episode are registered by B¨omer (1969–82) ii. is not the only aspect of these texts that bears comparison. and I will in fact postpone this issue for the time being. however. the Fury acknowledges the hellish atmosphere of the Tereus story4 and places her own endeavours under the aegis of Tereus’ nefas. Lavinia overcomes the silence to which mutilation has doomed her by pointing her family to the relevant section of the Metamorphoses.

one which is produced ‘by the disorder of relations and the confusion of identity represented as incest. sent from th’infernal kingdom . | I am Revenge. The story of Tereus and Procne. Complots of mischief. ambition – in self-consciously metatheatrical fashion. Atreus] lift his hand?’ (58–9: nondum Thyestes liberos deflet suos | ecquando tollet?).265) as she writes and delivers a fake letter which will precipitate the death of Titus’ sons. 102. treason. the plot of Thyestes alerts us to its powerful implications for a reflection on poetry. cannibalism or civil war’. rapes and massacres.2.10 His lover and accomplice Tamora is equally aware that she is setting in motion ‘the complot of this timeless tragedy’ (2. yet done in order to excite pity’ (Bate (1995) 247).2. its power and its dangers.7 and is fuelled by the dark forces of violence and vengefulness. to be sure. revenge. is not just a celebrated tale of violence. 5. ‘Lamentable to hear about. revenge and moral ambiguity which displays significant analogies with the plot of Thyestes. Later in the play she tries to deceive Titus by staging a nightmarish pantomime (‘I must ply my theme’.80) in which she acts as ‘Revenge’ (‘I am not Tamora: | She is thy enemy and I thy friend. abominable deeds. . 240)8 will lead Atreus to pour his nephews’ blood into his brother’s cup. as several characters deploy their passions – lust.’. In the background of Thyestes stands the incestuous relationship between Thyestes and his sister-in-law Aerope.63–6): For I must talk of murders. Kilgour (1990) 33.72 The Passions in Play sound) that the finale will indeed form a privileged point of contact: ‘not yet does Thyestes cry for his sons – and when will he [sc.3. This concern for perturbed family connections (dubius sanguis. where it is actually amplified and extended. to find a cannibalistic resolution to the fratricidal strife that for a Roman audience inevitably recalls the horrors of civil war.10–16)’ (Bate (1995) 125). p. Acts of black night. . This set of associations is recognized in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. persuasive tongue (Exodus. . More importantly. ‘An Elizabethan audience would have known that the biblical Aaron had an eloquent. 4.1. Ruthful to hear yet piteously performed. The arch-villain Aaron is a master of words – as his name suggests9 – who engineers the larger part of the plot and is fully conscious of his metatheatrical role (5. villainies. By positing at the outset such a strong correlation with the Procne episode. 5.28–30) and her own children are cast in the 7 9 10 8 See below. the myth of Philomela can be considered the ur-myth about the origin of a certain type of poetry.

| And worse than Procne I will be revenged’ (5.473–4). and there pale. ‘For worse than Philomel you used my daughter. once metamorphosed into a cow (Met. as she makes explicit by pointing out the relevant sections of the Metamorphoses. Overcome by his desire for Philomela. remote and hidden away among dark ancient trees.469). 11 Cunning being a trait ‘most associated with the feminine domain’: Zeitlin (1996) 349.194–5).11 Words play an important role already in the first part of the story of Tereus. 358.A craftier Tereus 73 roles of ‘Rape’ and ‘Murder’. Beguiling words become once again Tereus’ preferred weapon. Only once in this first part of the tragedy does language function transparently. She is a novel Philomela. Significantly. when he falsely reports to his wife that Philomela is dead and misleads her with a moving description of commenta funera (6. much like Io had done. .2.565).204). but in truth merely encodes his lust into acceptable (speakable) forms: facundum faciebat amor (‘love made him eloquent’. vi superat frustra clamato saepe parente. trembling. magnis super omnia divis. ubi sit germana. Titus himself. and proceeds to stage his own version of the Thyestean banquet: ‘I’ll play the cook’ (5. but she then proceeds to write down the names of the villains with a staff on a ‘sandy plot’ (4. Most strikingly. It is thanks to this elaborate and deceitful speech that Tereus is able to overcome his father-in-law’s disapproval and depart with Philomela (6. and now they leave the weary ship and land on their own shore. The voyage now is done. Both writing and poetry are born under the same sign – that of a violated woman who cunningly devises alternative means to tell her story. this happens when Tereus. alone with his prey.519–26): iamque iter effectum iamque in sua litora fessis puppibus exierant.649–50). saepe sorore sua. Shakespeare’s Lavinia collapses the two Ovidian archetypes of female ability to overcome censorship and repression through a mediated form of quasi-artistic expression. Tereus showers her with emotional language which is supposedly conveying Procne’s desire for her sister to come to visit her.2. unveils to her the true nature of his unlawful and unholy desire (6. cum rex Pandione natam in stabula alta trahit silvis obscura vetustis atque ibi pallentem trepidamque et cuncta timentem et iam cum lacrimis. as he prepares to take his own revenge. Met. 1. and then the king drags off Pandion’s daughter up to a cabin in the woods.1. rogantem includit fassusque nefas et virginem et unam.69). 6. invokes the Ovidian mastertext.

he locked her. This bright sky shall hear. .574: os mutum facti caret indice). and Procne’s plotting of a terrible revenge against her husband. This time words do tell the truth. nefas). Philomela has no way to express her feelings verbally. I’ll shed my shame and shout what you have done. et si deus ullus in illo est. inplebo silvas et conscia saxa movebo. calling to her sister. and this truth is the central crime of the scene. audiet haec aether. a poet’s virtue.576–9): 12 Ingenium being.12 The novel indicium sceleris will thus be a craftily textured cloth (6. Tereus consistently embodies the connection between nefas and words. my voice shall fill the woods and move the rocks to pity. and any god that dwells on high!’ Her wish is brutally crushed by the mutilation that Tereus inflicts on her as she tries to speak. The violent removal of Philomela’s tongue shatters her illusion that words. I’ll walk among the crowds: or. in populos veniam. but she can resort as an alternative to ingenium and sollertia (6. if clear and explicit.74 The Passions in Play fearing everything. The second ‘act’ of Ovid’s narrative is taken up with Philomela’s cunning attempt to reveal the hidden truth. 5. si copia detur. once the restraining factors represented mainly by the presence of Pandion have been overcome. and when.556). see OLD s. Her mouth lacks a means of expression (6. menacing shadows that haunt infernal or semiinfernal landscapes – one is reminded of the locus horridus in Oedipus and Thyestes – with Philomela’s vain invocation of a divine order represented by the aether’s listening to her (6. to heaven above. redolent of the obscure. luctantem loqui (6. si silvis clausa tenebor. . .575). of course. The privileged relationship between words and nefas is also apparent ex negativo in the brief section where Philomela vows to report the whole truth about Tereus’ crimes. She will set aside her modesty and speak up (6. weeping and asking where her sister was.v. It is interesting to contrast the dark setting in which Tereus reveals his passion to her (6. and revealed his own black heart and ravished her. calling and calling to her father. a virgin.524: fassus . if I’m held locked in the woods. Indeed. It is in this context that words – spoken or otherwise conveyed – again play a crucial role. even more. If I’ve the chance. he is finally free to remove the mask of repression and voice his desire. both when he exploits them in order to conceal his desires.548). can still have a role in the world of nefas. all alone. calling.544–8): ipsa pudore proiecto tua facta loquar.

S. can be preferred. however. for instance. I would also be inclined to argue that what Segal considers to be the unsatisfactory ‘pseudosolution’ of the final metamorphosis is in fact a compromise between an attempt to somehow condemn the cruelty of the tale and the need to preserve the story’s confused moral balance. by slyly overcoming the barrier of silence and inaction. yet words function in the same way. powerful enough to unleash Procne’s avenging furor (6. too. has found what T. indicium sceleris.581–6). on a clumsy native loom she wove a clever fabric. It is precisely this consistency in the way words operate that makes them ambivalent and double-edged. Charles Segal has chosen to insist rather on Procne’s ability to keep her reactions at bay when she deciphers her sister’s messages. This is certainly an important aspect of the narrative. entrusted it to a woman and by signs asked her to take it to the queen. To the strength of Tereus’ actions Philomela opposes the silent reproach of her embroidered messages. Philomela’s web strengthens the equation of poetic word and return of the repressed which I have highlighted in Thyestes. though horribly mutilated. however.15 Even in the latter case. The outcome is indeed a carmen13 (6. however. when it was complete. of course. which touches more on the issue of the reader’s response to the (poetic) message. Scheid and Svenbro (1996). Bergren (1983) 71–5. . the ultimate balance of good and evil is difficult to ascertain. As far as emotional and cognitive dimensions are concerned. Philomela’s muted words actualize the double meaning of textus as both ‘cloth’ and ‘text’ and evoke the metaphorical association between ‘weaving’ and ‘plotting’:14 her message thus overcomes the repressive force of violence described in the earlier part of the story. Other emphases. and manage to reveal the fate she has suffered. In a perceptive article (Segal (1994)). The limitations imposed upon Philomela are those of violence and confinement. Words are inherently disruptive because they can subvert moral principles just as easily as nefarious ones. The structural function of Philomela’s ‘words’ is not dissimilar to that of Tereus’ normal verbal utterances.A craftier Tereus 75 stamina barbarica suspendit callida tela purpureasque notas filis intexuit albis. I touch here upon an issue of crucial importance in the ideological texture of Metamorphoses. which her sister can read in the fabric in spite of the constraints and the repressive violence to which its author has been subjected: Philomela.582). this episode underlines the liberating potential of the poetic word. Eliot will call her ‘inviolable voice’ (The Waste Land 101). The impressive might of her words is emphasized by their positioning in a 13 14 15 Ovid does not reveal explicitly whether the carmen is composed of images or letters (see B¨omer (1969–86) i i. Certainly Philomela’s encrypted ‘words’ overcome Tereus’ immoral orders. There. are unmistakable. The connotations of carmen. and. perfectaque tradidit uni. utque ferat dominae. gestu rogat. His dissemblance breaches the decorum of silence that he should be respecting and displaces his feelings. working words in red on a white ground to tell the tale of wickedness.158).

| . that is. and stirring her Bacchic furor. reading this scene of reading. Tamora’s son. which rouse emotions and stir up violence. by speaking unspeakable words. monet Sithoniis non levis Euhius. which work against repression. the violent narrative of the second half of the Aeneid – Philomela is structurally analogous to Juno and the Fury. her whole soul filled with visions of revenge’. as they suspect in Procne’s muted rage the intimation of further unspeakable violence to come. Procne reacts with apparently restrained emotion. For us.7–11 (at 10): ac ne quis modici transiliat munera Liberi. | cum fas atque nefas exiguo fine libidinum | discernunt avidi. If Procne’s reaction is reminiscent of Virgil’s Amata – the Bacchic woman who sets in motion. The Dionysiac connotation is reinforced by the Horatian model for fasque nefasque at Met. per manes vehor’ (the last line is based on Sen. Struck by the unusual message that she has received. Philomela’s words testify once again to the close connection between words.585. Philomela is endowed with the same inceptive function assumed by the Fury in the prologue to Thyestes. per amnes igneos amens sequar (Phaedra vowing to pursue Hippolytus)). . . nurus immediately following at Met.76 The Passions in Play linear sequence which connects crime to punishment: Philomela’s ‘writing’ becomes an indispensable instrument of revenge. whose decision and responsibility it is to stir Amata to action. Thus. . I am thus inclined to disagree with Segal’s rather optimistic conclusion that ‘as the web of words that calls attention to its textual origins. the words and cries that her dolor would have normally elicited must be stifled in the presence of a violent. Yet this revenge is highly problematic. this is yet another confirmation of the psychological impact of words. as he accepts Aaron’s invitation to ‘revel in Lavinia’s treasury’ (131)): ‘Sit fas aut nefas. Once again. 1180: per Styga. . confusing right and wrong. one that will come not from words but from deeds.16 The words used to describe Procne’s reaction on reading the woven carmen – fasque nefasque | confusura ruit poenaeque in imagine tota est (‘she stormed ahead. Carm.18. Phaed .18 Philomela is functioning here as a quasi-divine mover of events. 6. Procne’s perverse revenge problematizes the reader’s ability to side emotionally with either the victims or the villains.17 By revealing to her sister the nefas she has endured. .133–5 (Demetrius. and nefas. . however. | Per Stygia. a charm to calm these fits. 6.588. . at the human level. 16 17 18 A point well stressed by Segal (1994). Since they are the cause of Procne’s avenging murder.1. Note the reference to Sithoniae .585–6) – apply equally well to the readers’ confusion. Procne’s conscious and voluntary gagging of her emotions is geared towards a delayed yet fuller satisfaction. repressive force. | . because Procne’s actions will reduce the moral chasm between herself and Tereus to dangerously narrow proportions. See Titus Andronicus 2. In this case. till I find the stream | To cool this heat. 6. 1. it [the weaving] objectifies the crime and in that way enables the reader to take the full measure of its horror’ (Segal (1994) 266).

in particular of Procne’s avenging plans.611–32. and displays through a number of revealing allusions a detailed knowledge of Tereus’ story. by Ovid himself at Ars amatoria 3. instruments. just as easily as it can unleash the powers of hell. Thyestes lays great emphasis on the force of poetic language. and the violent dialectic between repression and its removal which words precipitate.A craftier Tereus 77 It is important to stress that female characters embody this force of (written) poetic creation associated with a removal of repression. Met. and its potential to grant voice and power to the silenced weaving of women. Procne. on the other hand. 517) – a doomed proposition which ironically ignores Procne’s much more effective injunction to the contrary: ‘non est lacrimis hoc’ inquit ‘agendum’ (Ov. represents both the bond between words and nefas. highlights his complex gender connotations – claims for himself. He betrays his lack of awareness when he proclaims that lacrimis agendum est (‘it is time for tears to push forward my case’. agents. 3.611) and Juno’s authoritative precedent ‘non lacrimis hoc 19 20 On women as ‘catalysts. We face here an instance of the ‘Bacchic’ paradigm that endows women and goddesses with a subversive creative power such as that of Juno in the Aeneid. Thyestes. See Joplin (1984). you’ll manage to deceive if you really want to’.20 It is a voice whose profoundly disturbing energy is never lost sight of: it can denounce crimes. verba dabis (‘even if as many guardians watch you as Argos had eyes. destroyers’ see Zeitlin (1996) 347.19 who challenges and sabotages at every turn Jupiter’s fixed. an insightful reading of the Tereus and Procne episode from a feminist standpoint. too. fails to ‘remember’ Tereus’ plight and is thus unprepared to counter his brother’s plan. teleological prescriptions. The prologue. Atreus’ cunning use of words – appealing. mendacious and ultimately victorious – is consistently matched against Thyestes’ inability to look beyond their literal surface. 6. But we also face a subversive transformation of the traditional prescription of female silence and tameness into an exuberant. This disruptive power is one that Atreus – a ‘Bacchic’ character whose self-identification with a female character. Other parts of the play. | quot fuerant Argo lumina. Readings of the Procne story that are informed by a feminist perspective have focused especially on the ‘voice of the shuttle’. and call for revenge. as explicitly recommended. On the theme of violence in Ovid see Galinsky (1975) 132–40. See also the recent essay by Richlin (1992). Atreus has read his Ovid. active and pernicious loquacity. as we have seen. spoilers. hence his final demise. indeed. insist on this connection.617–18). adsit modo certa voluntas. Thy. women will always be able to deceive – dare verba – husbands and custodians: tot licet observent. . Even under strict control. blockers.

Seneca competes with his model at a metanarrative level as well. Like the Muses. further blurring the distinction. in Ovid’s narrative. already problematic in Ovid. which. deeply moral or astonishingly cruel. Both texts show that the words of poetry can reveal unexpected extremes of violence. ii After highlighting. or even predominantly. concerns and reflections which carry perceptible metaliterary overtones. now said Iuno daughter of Saturn’). It is useful to look at analogies and important differences between the two episodes. I would like to focus on a comparative analysis of the two plots. then Seneca’s play testifies that the message has not been lost.156: ‘no time for tears.78 The Passions in Play tempus’ ait Saturnia Iuno (Virg. If Tereus’ and Procne’s final metamorphosis guarantees that their violence will forever be encoded in the bloody stains of their feathers. but can also sing convincing lies. since his rewriting will necessarily exemplify a new. on these sections. The strength of Philomela’s web is indeed the strength of Thyestes as a whole. 12. Aen. women. those of Tereus and Procne. Atreus’ desire to surpass all previous horrors powerfully reflects the play’s agonistic relationship with its literary ancestor. and will necessarily result from yet another brutal breach of the decorum of silence. See Tarrant (1985) 130. Ovid plots his story on a large narrative stretch which encompasses a series of episodes that are all closely linked to each other 21 22 Bergren (1983) is excellent on the specific connection between Muses. literary and ethical limitations.22 By remembering and repeating well-known criminal deeds. by introducing for the first time a set of concepts central to the rest of this book. truth and language. Atreus’ highly figurative and rhetorically powerful form of expression embodies the poet’s own craftmanship. who – traditionally – can sing the truth. is granted to the notion that the play presents itself as a way to overcome ideological.21 poets can bend words to express any feeling and any emotion. Seneca is already raising the moral stakes of his own writing. and that there is no limit to the creativity of human wickedness. whether true or false. On the one hand. New prominence. between good and evil. will greatly assist an understanding of some key features of Seneca’s play. especially outside the comparison between the two banquet scenes: if we focus a comparison exclusively. . too. bloodier advance in the literary depiction of horrors. we may end up playing down the extent to which the two texts clash in their articulation of the plot.

the narrator’s voice explicitly insists on the contrast between reality and appearance which only Philomela’s cunning stratagem will reveal to Procne. Philomela attacks .571: signa deus bis sex acto lustraverat anno. his villainy won praise. goes as far as claiming that those children will in fact ensure his own loyalty: ‘as pledge of my faith. pro superi.469–74): facundum faciebat amor. on the other hand. and. Ye Gods above. In Pandion’s trusting of his daughter to Tereus. quotiensque rogabat ulterius iusto. in an astounding feat of self-deception. the first part of the Tereus episode foregrounds the same themes of deceit and betrayed trust that play an equally important role in Thyestes. chooses to stage only the last part of the confrontation between the two brothers. Procne wished it so. is able to conceal his lust under the veil of soothing words (6. Love made him eloquent. To begin with. Thyestes. as if she’d ordered tears. Pandion reminds his son-in-law of his obligations (498). why. The second segment of the story told by Ovid – Philomela’s rape – does not find a direct counterpart in Seneca’s play. chronologically distinct (Met. tamquam mandasset et illas. explanation of the events Seneca portrayed. almost coded references. centred upon Procne’s revenge and leading up to the banquet and the final metamorphosis. we recognize what Thyestes himself will do: both men maintain that fides will guarantee the safety of their offspring. and Thyestes.A craftier Tereus 79 and are all equally indispensable for a coherent understanding of the finale. Procnen ita velle ferebat. that part of the mythical plot which is not directly staged but is alluded to and offers a very interesting. It is very much present. if at times he pressed his pleas too far. quantum mortalia pectora caecae noctis habent! ipso sceleris molimine Tereus creditur esse pius laudemque a crimine sumit. if incomplete. Tereus. addidit et lacrimas. In Ovid’s poem. madly in love with his wife’s sister. ‘through all the twelve bright signs of heaven the sun had journeyed’). and voices the causes of Atreus’ furor in a limited number of carefully worded. His story is neatly divided into two main sections. he even wept. in the background to Thyestes. the first one leading to Philomela’s rape and mutilation. Yet the programmatic reference to the Thracian nefas which defines the Fury’s creative intention invites further comparisons between the two plots. brother. the second. 6. however. frater). 520–1: obsides fidei accipe | hos innocentes. take these innocent boys’ (Thy. how black the night that blinds our human hearts! The pains he took for sin appeared to prove his loyalty.

fraude turbavit domum My wife he took away with his debauchery. 6. 222–4): coniugem stupro abstulit regnumque furto: specimen antiquum imperi fraude est adeptus. 6.537–8): omnia turbasti: paelex ego facta sororis. 123 and nn. for ripping apart the family (Met. The allusion to Ovid is clarified in the crucial scene of Thyestes where Atreus reveals his plans to the counsellor. and Procne ought to be my enemy! The charge is not dissimilar to Atreus’ invective against his brother as he is planning his revenge (Thy. hostis mihi debita poena. All the intertextual pointers concur in establishing a connection between Atreus and Procne. The beginning of Atreus’ monologue condenses in a question the experiences and emotions which Ovid had divided between Philomela and Procne. you are busy with idle complaints – is this Atreus in a rage? we recognize Procne’s impatient exhortation to action after Tereus’ crime has been revealed (Met. Even in this deceptively clearcut case it is interesting to look for specific insights on how Seneca has systematically reworked his model. after a brother’s treacheries. blaming him for the violence she has endured. on which see below. In Atreus’ words to himself (178–80) post tot scelera. you’re a husband twice. tu geminus coniunx. .611–13): 23 Both are compared to a tigress. and breaking every law. I’m made a concubine. he stole my kingdom. 6. This background is necessary in order to understand fully the rigorous selection of relevant aspects of the plot which Seneca operates vis-`a-vis his model. at Ov. the ancient token of our dynasty he gained by fraud. post fratris dolos fasque omne ruptum questibus vanis agis iratus Atreus? after so many crimes. You have confused everything.80 The Passions in Play Tereus. by fraud unsettled our house. my sister’s rival. 111–12. Met.23 As he sets out to repeat the horrors witnessed by Tereus’ family in the even more audacious form willed by the Fury. Atreus follows in Procne’s footsteps while planning the nefas and carrying it out. p. 707–14.636–7 and Thy.

I’ll do. 17. It is through allusion that Atreus’ protestations about his own rights acquire the special emotional value warranted by Philomela’s innocence. ‘or what may be mightier than the sword. which echoes in a metanarrative vein Propertius 2.635: ‘loyalty for a husband like Tereus is a crime’).26 Thyestes’ trust in the traditionally male qualities of steadfastness and earnestness which he advertises especially in act 3 will prove to be no match. she cried. when it comes to Thyestes. etiamnunc parum est. And a similar overtone could readily be detected in line 220.34. which may also recall Accius’ Procne planning her revenge – atque id ego semper sic mecum agito et comparo | quo pacto magnam molem minuam (634–5Ribbeck2 = 446–7 Dangel). in its apparent oxymoron. In order to pursue his revenge. Zeitlin (1996) 360.212): nescio quid certe mens mea maius agit.586: ‘her whole soul is filled with visions of revenge’) prefigures Seneca’s tota iam ante oculos meos | imago caedis errat (‘already before my eyes flits the whole picture of his slaughter’. but it is some great thing’. Thy.A craftier Tereus 81 ‘non est lacrimis hoc’ inquit ‘agendum.618–19: ‘some mighty deed I’ll dare. sed ferro. n. who. See Ovid’s Medea (Her. quod vincere ferrum possit. 257 (on which see above. n. 28): SAT. in the portion of the plot that is elaborated by Seneca. again. 6. On the possible connection between the Dionysiac atmosphere of Accius’ Tereus and Thyestes see p. guile. the very notion of fas becomes blurred beyond recognition. 12. 220) recalls. | sed grande quiddam est (‘I do not know what it is. quid ignis? AT.66 (nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade): Bessone (1997) 32–41. 133. 6. is a new avenging Procne. is still unsure’) – as he announces his plan: haud quid sit scio. 137 below (on 446–7 Dangel). 282–4. It is Atreus. Fas est in illo quidquid in fratre est nefas (‘whatever is wrong to do to a brother is right to do to him’. Atreus displays qualities traditionally associated with women in Greek and Roman culture: ‘secrecy. parum est. p. though what that deed shall be. but also represents himself as a female victim – a battered Philomela. 269–70). 281–2).25 And both Atreus and Procne are able to imagine in detail the final outcome of their revenge: poenaeque in imagine tota est (Met. but for the sword’. . where Atreus replies to the shocked counsellor that. ferrum? AT. Thy. entrapment’.’ This intertextual strategy sheds some light on the multifaceted character of Atreus.’24 ‘This is not time for tears. sed siquid habes. who recalls Procne’s words – magnum quodcumque paravi: | quid sit adhuc dubito (Met. SAT. Thy. the moral justification that Procne uses to absolve herself as she contemplates the punishment she has in mind for her husband: scelus est pietas in coniuge Tereo (Met. 6. 24 25 26 See also the exchange between the satelles and Atreus at Thy.

Also the more shaded connection between Atreus and Philomela resurfaces in the cruel joy with which Atreus appears to accomplish what for the girl had remained an unfulfilled desire. To Tereus’ responsibility Ovid opposes a monstrous revenge with intractable moral implications. condition. Seneca inherits the key issue of the ethical responsibility of the main characters (Tereus and Procne). neither does Procne personify a fully endorsable moral option. Atreus and Procne show their affinities once again: quidquid e natis tuis | superest habes. The Tereus episode foregrounds the notion that victims will turn into executioners. vice versa. From the Metamorphoses. to the tragedy as well. . 1096–8). quem poscis’ (Met. an issue which the final metamorphosis pointedly refuses to resolve by sealing the fate of both spouses in a new. The pointed and systematic connection between the Metamorphoses and Thyestes reinforces precisely this precarious and destabilizing morality. 6. you have. justification which monstrous suffering guarantees to both Procne and Philomela. | nisi sic doleres (‘Now I praise my handiwork. quodcumque non superest habes (‘whatever is left of your sons. A synopsis of the two plots offers one final insight. | nunc parta vera est palma. of course. At the end of the tale Tereus. the link between Atreus and Procne invites the reader to credit Atreus with the same objective. the violent and cunning villain. whatever is not left. Philomela and Procne’s revenge against Tereus is increasingly horrific. the association between Thyestes and Tereus reflects upon this apparently blameless victim the inhuman traits which make Tereus’ redemption impossible even in the context of his extreme punishment.659–60: ‘she never wanted more her tongue to express her joy in words that matched her happiness’) – he can oppose eloquent cries of joy: nunc meas laudo manus. I would have wasted my crime. now is the true palm won.655: ‘it’s inside you. if partial. Secondly. The impact of the final banquet on the overall ethical connotation of the Ovidian characters applies.82 The Passions in Play In the final revelation of their plot. and. For one thing. and further discourages the temptation to oppose bluntly his supposedly all-negative ethos to the supposedly positive ethos of his brother Thyestes. but eternal. To Philomela’s muted satisfaction – nec tempore maluit ullo | posse loqui et meritis testari gaudia dictis (6. The analogy established in the text between Atreus and his Ovidian models lends him a psychological chiaroscuro. If Tereus’ tyrannical cruelty is neither lessened nor justified by the terrible punishment his wife prepares for him. Thy. if you weren’t suffering this much’. | perdideram scelus. 1030–1) recalls ‘intus habes. the son you’re looking for’). in reverse. you have’. in fact.

but surpassed. rather than. and as a fundamental model that must not only be equalled. see now also Ciappi (1998). Philomela and their successors unequivocally confirms this sinister intimation. Yet at this point it is fruitful to take into account a more basic and specific implication suggested by this intertextual connection. Ovid himself. The importance of this choice is heightened. Thus the recognition of the fact that Tereus and Procne are tragic characters only throws into sharper relief the fact that Thyestes invokes an epic text as its authorizing Muse. in a series of generic statements. of course. . which in turn alludes to tragic 27 An extensive analysis of the tradition is offered by Cazzaniga (1950). to begin with. The Fury had already made clear from the very beginning. Procne. as he alludes in his play both to an epic poem. since they only concentrate on analogies and differences of plot and on thematic implications. This intertextual model introduces in Thyestes. 25–6). that Seneca insistently refers. that the vicissitudes of revenge and counter-revenge would continue: certetur omni scelere et alterna vice | stringatur ensis (‘Make them vie in every kind of crime and draw the sword on either side’. The story of Tereus. to the tragedy of Accius. the Fury and Atreus do not simply refer to a generic plot for the Procne story. so that simple labels such as ‘epic’ (or indeed ‘tragic’) cease to be encompassing or definitive: the Metamorphoses provide numerous and dazzlingly complex instances of generic cross-fertilization and manipulation. As I have already mentioned in passing. but explicitly invoke the specific instantiation of that mythical story-matter accomplished by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. looks to Sophocles and Accius as his models and is engaged in the same exercise of transgeneric appropriation that we witness in Thyestes – only the direction is different. a lesson of reciprocity and continuity that is pointedly reinforced by other features of the play. iii The two lines along which I have chosen to carry out a comparison between the Procne episode and Thyestes neglect a number of basic characteristics of the Ovidian story. The story of Tereus was certainly a productive tragic theme at least from Sophocles onwards. Generic affiliations become all the more pertinent when Ovid himself steps into the picture. metaliterary implications. for instance. by the prominent position of the Fury’s initial arousal of the Thracium nefas in a prologue fraught with programmatic. too.27 yet it is to his epic predecessor.A craftier Tereus 83 is thoroughly defeated. It is reasonable to assume that Seneca capitalizes on that complexity.

she coherently invokes epic models. indirectly. and in particular with the hypothesis that the presence of epic might encourage in the audience the form of critical spectatorship which Bertolt Brecht . to a hiatus in the continuous tradition of tragic writing. But the shadow of history. he has also presented epic as the expression of nefas. I will deal more again with the issue of epic elements in Senecan tragedy. This might very well be the most far-reaching implication of Seneca’s choice. thus creating an intricate web of allusive relationships which resembles the stemma of a heavily contaminated textual tradition. doomed voice of history gone sour. as the corrupted. But. An epic Fury. is not going to provide a sound moral counterpoint to the towering horrors of tragedy. Seneca imitates Ovid not only in the subject matter and expressive options of his work. It is not easy for History directly to enter the hallowed halls of mythical tragedy. once we can rely on a more substantial dossier. Euripides’ Lyssa. although she is herself closely connected in turn with a tragic precedent. can reveal itself. Here again Senecan tragedy highlights its posteriority. thus reclaiming from the start his freedom to experiment. again. Yet again. Sophocles and Accius. a language and a time other than that of Classical Athens. By giving pride of place to the Fury of Aeneid 7 and to Ovid’s Procne he has not only demonstrated the shifting boundaries of generic affiliations. if anything maiore numero. its position outside the mainstream of tragic writing. say. with its pains and burdens. to extrapolate the methodological and structural aspects of the phenomenon jeopardizes a full appreciation of its core element: why does the tragedy of Thyestes begin with an explicit and programmatic evocation of epic? The Fury herself provides an interesting point of comparison. It is almost as if tragedy could not refer back directly to tragedy. it is not just any filter that is interposed between Seneca and. we are warned.84 The Passions in Play models. It is specifically the filter of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and peculiar aspects of Virgil’s Aeneid – the epic of violence and horrida bella rather more than the celebration of heroic virtues and beliefs. in the peculiar selection of epic themes to which we are treated in the prologue. Epic. At the end of this book. especially of a tragedy written in a land. The Fury who dominates the prologue is a direct descendant of the Virgilian Fury responsible for bringing the second half of the Aeneid into existence. which thrive on multiple references. but also in his intricate intertextual protocols. Epic is in fact nothing less than the explicit justification invoked by the Fury: after Virgil’s civil war and stories such as Ovid’s Procne. only further violence and horror are conceivable. and to those tragedies directly. but should necessarily rely on an epic filter and thus testify to the impossibility of an immediate connection.

Accius 220–2 Ribbeck2 = 51–3 Dangel: concoquit | partem vapore flammae. Burkert (1983) 105. all these aspects are revealed together:29 in the climactic moment of his nefas. where he appears in the messenger’s detailed narrative. Atreus shines through in all his idiosyncratic depravity. Behind and below the public quarters. Atreus is also high priest of his own rites. Petrone (1984). on its imagery. Rather. r i t ua l a n d p o e t ry ‘I’ll play the cook’ (Shakespeare. On this scene see esp. pp. Titus Andronicus 5. civilized sacrificial practice’ (Seaford (1984) 152). 1096–7 (where the children of Thyestes are called sphagas). For child-murder in Dionysiac rituals see Dodds (1960) xix and n. though occasionally attested (Suet.28 For the moment I emphasize the suggestion that ‘epic’ acquires early on in Thyestes a function which does not seem to encourage such a reflection on drama. will do little to soothe our sense of surprise and anxiety as we contemplate the polluting force of infernal epic.32 already present to a certain extent in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon33 and Accius’ Atreus. Tarrant (1985) 180. Dodds (1960) xvii. See Ag.A craftier Tereus 85 considers the defining characteristic of ‘epic’ theatre – a detached reflection on the actions performed on stage which would certainly befit a tragic form that is rich with philosophical intimations. 3.57. secessu). . Human sacrifice is considered un-Roman (Livy 22. See Euripides’ Cyclops for the association of cannibalism and sacrifice: there ‘the horror of cannibalism is intensified by the careful. veribus in foco | lacerta tribuit. often excessive revenges. Huet (1994). Dupont (1995) 193–6. The sacrificial overtones of the description are revealed by the use of focus. Other instances. the royal palace ‘splits up’ (649: discedit) into many rooms. . In act 4. even a god himself. fulfilment and uncleanness. with Zeitlin (1965). Picone (1984) 94–7. 6. of endless horrors and cruel. see Dangel (1995) 281–2. a spectator and an actor.34 that Atreus achieves the paradoxical combination of ‘holy and horrible. sacrament and pollution’ which is at the heart of the Dionysiac experience.2) A playwright. as he undertakes what looks like a Dionysiac sparagmos30 with due respect for all the procedures of a proper Roman sacrifice.: Burkert (1983) 104–6. On sacrifice in Rome see Scheid (1988). 15). epic appears from the very beginning of Thyestes as the voice of destruction and violence. Only barren trees survive in this 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 Ch.6). with further references. Aug. . standing alone in the recesses of his palace.31 It is in this murder-as-sacrifice. from other plays.35 The location for Atreus’ sacrifice is out of this world. until it reaches an arcana regio (‘a secret spot’) located ‘in its innermost recess’ (650: in imo . 246ff. c r i m e .

670–1). dark. and they make the upper chambers of the palace freeze with terror (677: attonita)38 as they wander at night amidst the cries of the gods of death (668: feralis deos). Several analogies connect this grove to the one where Laius is evoked from the dead in Oedipus. p. n. and the metapoetic dimension of that scene 36 37 38 39 On locus horridus and Seneca’s role in the development of the motive see Schiesaro (1985).3. A reference to this type of description is to be found in Letters to Lucilius 41. and where memories of the past roam unchecked as a constant source of fear. Even the light of day cannot restrain the horrors of the grove: ‘terror is not yet allayed by day. because Seneca takes pains to emphasize how far we find ourselves from the public rooms of the house. 127. Spoils of war regularly celebrate the rulers’ achievements.37 Differences. and has a distinct Bacchic connotation: above. and ‘creatures more monstrous than men have known’ (673: maiora notis monstra) dwell in the grove.36 a natural enclosure in the bowels of a man-made building. a letter which will be discussed below. 51. p. indeed a place where nature. here to seek help when their affairs are in distress or doubt’ (657–8: hinc auspicari regna Tantalidae solent. with Orlando’s seminal treatment (1993) 17). and the horror of the underworld reigns even at midday’ (677–8: nec dies sedat metum: | nox propria luco est. . the grove is a night unto itself. hostile power. In this deep. however. the broken wheels – a pictorial documentation of the ruling house’s tormented past. the mental realm of phantasy is described as a ‘nature reserve’ where useless and even harmful entities are allowed to grow unchecked (Introductory Lectures on PsychoAnalysis. Attonitus can be used in connection with poetic inspiration. with further bibliography. in all its dark. and Seneca is here alluding pointedly to Latinus’ regia in Aeneid 7. Everything in there is hidden. ‘the crowd of the long-since dead come out of their ancient tombs and walk around’). It would be difficult to conceive of a locus more evocative of the fundamental characteristics of the unconscious. relics of the past line up like memories in the recesses of the mind. 60. Smolenaars (1998). abound.39 Remarkably. An old crowd freed from ancient graves (671–2: errat antiquis vetus | emissa bustis turba. it is in this place of passion. those where celebratory displays are to be expected. In Freud’s celebrated simile.372. Freud (1915–17) = SE xvi . et superstitio inferum | in luce media regnat). | hinc petere lassis rebus ac dubiis opem).86 The Passions in Play locus horridus. violence and memory that knowledge elects to hide: ‘from here the sons of Tantalus are used to enter on their reign. private domain. Oenomaus’ chariot. This space is filled with the ‘gifts’ (659: dona) which played crucial roles in the family’s history – the trumpets. and frightening even to mention: quidquid audire est metus | illic videtur (‘whatever is dreadful even to hear of. survives in spite of the elaborate superstructures that encircle and delimit its sway. there is seen’.

The Freudian ‘symbolic geography of sex’ is transparent. Thy. The text’s insistence on the hostile. secluded place’ (650: in imo . it is in these hellish. prediction and memory. and Lucan’s Erictho turns to a corpse in her search for knowledge. the whole palace sways as the earth quakes. Just as Tiresias evokes Laius’ truth from the underworld. in comedy. On Dreams (Freud (1901) = SE v .158–60). The adytum where the sacrifice takes place is located deep inside the house. On cooks in comedy see Dohm (1964). as an activity with metadramatic connotations. poetry and death. But several details in the description point to a specific significance of the locus horridus. secessu). On this passage. ‘in a deep.348. a likely catalyst for metadramatic engagement. who performs arcane rituals and utters a sinister carmen: ipse funesta prece | letale carmen ore violento canit (691–2: ‘he himself with a sinister prayer chants the death-song with a violent voice’) recalls carmenque magicum volvit et rabido minax | decantat ore (Oed. and the messenger remarks on the startling metamorphosis of wine into blood as Atreus performs his ritual libation (700–1). nemus). and seems to waver’) can be compared both with the onset of horror at Tiresias’ words (Oed. past and present.A craftier Tereus 87 is aptly matched in Thyestes by the ceremonial aspect of the sacrifice. a magician-poet like Tiresias. deadly abodes that Atreus conducts his painful negotiations between passion and knowledge. uncertain in which direction to fling its weight.41 Significantly. . he chants a charm’). it is very significant in 40 41 43 See Hornby (1986) 49–66. the trembling of the grove at Atreus’ magic intonations (Thy. . p. is here also a vates.684). on the metadramatic implications they hold in Plautus see Gowers (1993) 50–108. occurs on both occasions. S. pp. See The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud (1900) = SE v . Cooking is often characterized. with frenzied lips. 103–4). .43 More importantly. too.94. a ‘cavern’ (681: specus) covered by ‘an ancient grove’ (651: vetustum . ‘the grove begins to tremble. see above. 42 See ch. . Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (‘Dora’) (Freud (1905) = SE v i i. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Freud (1916–17) = SE xv . 691). for the sacrifice must be performed in an uncanny underworldly location if it is to display fully its connection with the forces of nefas. 696–9: lucus tremescit. and with the effects of Tantalus’ pollution in the prologue of Thyestes. . sacerdos of his rites (Thy. tota succusso solo | nutavit aula. 355). 38. 11ff. 1. overshadowed by dark vegetation. Freud.42 Subversion of nature. 576). dubia quo pondus daret | ac fluctuanti similis. and.40 Atreus. The Fury observes that waters start to flow backwards (107–8). 99). dark nature of the place is not a symptom of rhetorical excess. A further metadramatic aspect of Atreus’ behaviour can be gleaned in the details of how he cooks the boys’ entrails (765–7). 561–2: ‘over and over he unfolds a magic song. yet another passage with strong metapoetic implications: sentit introitus tuos | domus et nefando tota contactu horruit (‘your house feels your entering and has recoiled in horror from your unutterable contagion’.

he would like to believe. evil and fatal force’ (Marienstras (1985) 45). the confusion of generations feared by Phaedra’s nurse: ‘are you preparing to mix the father’s wedding-bed with the son’s. and culminating in Atreus’ extispicium. even incestuous. . the pit in Shakespeare also comes to symbolize (metadramatically) the classical underworld and its hellish sources of inspiration.44 The whole structure of the play.3. They told me. here. Atreus’ crucial concern regards the true paternity of his children. A locus of ‘instinctual. 3. 31): coacta fatis gnata fert utero gravi | me patre dignum (33–4). . Though women all above: But to the girdle do the Gods inherit.46 Its central feature is an ‘abhorred pit’ (98) with a strong Senecan colouring (2. and to welcome in your impious womb a mixed-up progeny?’ (Phaed. see Tricomi (1974) 18. ‘A barren detested vale . 44 45 46 47 48 The womb of Thyestes’ incestuous daughter is also a receptacle of nefas (Ag. who stages the worst horrors of Titus Andronicus in a dark forest.88 The Passions in Play the context of the tragedy’s plot. Thus Atreus’ descent to the womb-like arcana . and an inspection of their entrails. moving from one level of the action to a deeper.3. forlorn and lean’ (2. . that of his adulterous. Tricomi (1974) 18 n. .98–104):47 And when they show’d me this abhorred pit. which.6. By a sort of metonymy. with Leonard (1999). dramatizes this descent into the secrets of conception. . wife. as many urchins. It is in her womb that the original nefas has taken place. A thousand fiends. .92–3). Ten thousand swelling toads. See Irigaray’s analysis ((1985) 243–364) of the cave in Plato’s Republic as a womb-like ‘source of all representations’ (Robin (1993) 111). Would make such fearful and confused cries. Willbern (1978) offers a psychoanalytic interpretation of the pit in Titus. As any mortal body hearing it Should straight fall mad. 650) beneath the royal palace becomes a fitting symbolic exploration of Aerope’s entrails. 171–2: miscere thalamos patris et gnati apparas | uteroque prolem capere confusam impio?). The ‘pit’ evokes King Lear’s obsessed description of female genitals (King Lear 4. sanguis conceivably resides. The careful investigation of the boys’ entrails (755–8) is a mise en abyme of the only (impossible) ‘inspection’ which could actually assuage Atreus’ doubts. or else die suddenly. at dead time of the night. a thousand hissing snakes. where the truth about his dubius . .123–8):48 Down from the waist they are Centaurs. inner one. regio (‘secret spot’. deep in the womb-like recesses of the palace. can be ascertained by the observation of Thyestes’ reaction to the death of his own offspring.45 This symbolism is much developed by Shakespeare.

she overcomes her maternal function and perversely forces on Tereus an impossible birth (Met.A craftier Tereus 89 Beneath is all the fiend’s: there’s hell. Atreus’ arcana . then raised its foliage.’ The whole forest shrank down. terra se retro dedit gemuitque penitus: sive temptari abditum Acheron profundum mente non aequa tulit. . ‘I have uttered prevailing words. The story of Procne and Philomela also indicated a strong connection between poetic inspiration and womanhood.’ subsedit omnis silva et erexit comas. sive ipsa tellus. Stench. Poetry comes to light through a painful birthing process which gives shape to the passions residing in the underworld. Philomela turns her fury into the cunning plot which takes her husband in. and a monstrous one since dead creatures are brought to the light (572–81):49 ‘rata verba fudi: rumpitur caecum chaos iterque populis Ditis ad superos datur. and is thus associated with the fear-inspiring secrets of the female body. duxere rimas robora et totum nemus concussit horror. as we have seen. A raped and silenced Philomela had found in her thirst for revenge the strength and ingenuity for ‘writing up’ Tereus’ crimes. finds a close parallel in the lucus ilicibus niger (530) at the very heart of Oedipus. But Seneca’s gendered landscape of the unconscious implies ramifications which go well beyond Shakespeare’s important. 6. ut daret functis viam. scalding. and for the people of Dis a way is given to those living on earth. regio. but the emergence of the hellish creatures from the depth of the earth is described as a painful birth. Not only do we find a forest which is permanently kept in the dark. fie. There is the sulphurous pit – burning. if somewhat transparent. pah. As she kills Itys. or three-headed Cerberus furious with rage shook his heavy chains. imagery. consumption. There’s darkness. . earth withdrew and groaned deep inside: whether Acheron did not tolerate an assault against its hidden depths. the oaks were split and the whole grove shook with horror. blind Chaos is burst open. compage rupta sonuit.663–5): 49 Note that the sacerdos begins his rites by excavating the ground: tum effossa tellus (550). aut ira furens triceps catenas Cerberus movit graves. or the earth itself broke down its barriers in a thunder to give way to the dead. . fie. fie! Pah. There the imagery is even more heavily loaded with sexual connotations.

90 The Passions in Play et modo. if he could. as a sacerdos. In both cases. After Atreus entered there in a frenzy. which characterize the sacrifice. of ira and ordo. flet modo seque vocat bustum miserabile nati. The messenger himself seems to marvel at Atreus’ deliberate observance of ritual. the altars are decorated – who has adequate words for this? Behind their backs he forces the noble hands of the youths. non sacer Bacchi liquor tangensque salsa victimam culter mola. regulated language. Medea – another avenger acting as a playwright – will put it with epigrammatic clarity: parta ultio est: | peperi (Med . which is reported after the physical setting of the scene has been engagingly described (Thy. 25–6: vengeance is born: I have given birth). too. and their unhappy heads he secures with a purple band. reserato pectore diras egerere inde dapes inmersaque viscera gestit. As a playwright. will be forced to a perverse ‘delivery’ as he vomits his own children. si posset. servatur omnis ordo. the entrails immersed into his own. dragging his brother’s children. which 50 Author’s translation. Gladly.51 But Atreus.50 Thyestes. Atreus reveals once more his deeply metadramatic role. nor the holy liquor of Bacchus. the sacred rituality of the priest in communication with the divine. ornantur arae – quis queat digne eloqui? post terga iuvenum nobiles revocat manus et maesta vitta capita purpurea ligat. he once again plays both instigator and executor. In the merging of frenzy and control. Nor is incense missing. acting as the main purveyor and creator of poetic plots and explicitly acknowledging his identification with Procne and Philomela. non tura desunt. 51 Littlewood (1997) 77. also inevitably erodes the boundaries of his masculinity. Nefas and its poetry are described as they emerge from the feminized entrails of the earth. he would want to open his breast and eject that terrible feast. and the knife. 682–90): quo postquam furens intravit Atreus liberos fratris trahens. ne tantum nefas non rite fiat. the frenzied poet able to express divine enthousiasmos in refined. he fuses inspiration and techne¯ in the heady cocktail which provokes awed pleasure. . he carefully devised and executed a complex plot. and now he cries and calls himself his son’s miserable tomb.

by way of a noticeable departure from its Euripidean 52 53 54 55 Dirum casts Thyestes in the role of a cursed victim. for example.8.45. ‘it does not matter.653.53 The messenger. | cecidi ad aras. secunda deinde quem caede immolet). immolatio and litatio.A craftier Tereus 91 touches the victim with salted meal. The scene we are invited to imagine is eerily compelling: here is the wild tyrant dominated by furor. I slaughtered them in front of the altar. Sil. I appeased the sacred fires. 5.55 Hercules furens provides an eloquent example. Although by far the most explicit. The sacrifice is divided into its customary phases. Traina (1981) neatly sums up the case for understanding mactet sibi rather than sibi | dubitat. rite. whom he should slaughter second’ (713–14: quem prius mactet sibi | dubitat. Every detail is preserved. All the most important aspects of the ritual are mentioned in the narrative: the altar is decorated (684). finally alone with his designated victims. No part of the procedure must be skipped (695: nulla pars sacri perit). offering their death as a vow’ (1057–9: ferro vulnera impresso dedi. the victim’s head is bound with a vitta (686). On this and other perverted sacrifices in Seneca see especially Petrone (1984) 40–3 and Dupont (1995) 189–204. order must triumph (689: servatur omnis ordo). . ordinare is indeed a source of delight (715–16: nec interest – sed dubitat et saevum scelus | iuvat ordinare. and has pleasure in ordering his savage crime’). who chooses to perform his vengeance with carefully chosen sacrificial gestures. with no one in sight.54 The nefas must be performed. Thyestes is not the only Senecan tragedy to represent murder in the guise of sacrifice. and a paraphrase such as ‘how I might offer sacrifice in such a way as to torment Thyestes most’ aptly conveys the implications of the line.52 Although the meaning of macto in this particular context must be closer to ‘afflict’ than to ‘sacrifice’. caede votiva focos | placavi). Atreus himself seems to be aware of the fact that he has been performing a real sacrifice when he later describes his actions to Thyestes: ‘with deep-driven sword I wounded them. the technical use of the verb cannot surely be too far away. comme il faut. fussing about minutiae. dirum qua caput mactem via). These words resonate alongside Atreus’ question to the satelles in act 2: ‘tell by what means I may bring ruin on his wicked head’ (244: profare. too. lest such a crime take place in breach of ritual. but still he hesitates. praefatio. the expression mactare (caput) is indeed used in sacrificial contexts – see. of all things. as is salsa mola (688). wine and incense are used (687). See Putnam (1995) 275. to be followed later by the epulum. resorts to specific sacrificial language: ‘he wonders whom he should first sacrifice to himself. Livy 21.

The conflicting points of view in this tragedy. ‘now I shall make offerings for my victory to my father and the gods.58 Thyestes makes no overt attempt at reparation. in different ways. In Euripides especially. is conspicuously absent from Thyestes. Euripidean sacrifices ostensibly attempt to heal the wound they inflict: the poet ultimately reconstructs and reaffirms tradition through the cathartic power of sacrifice. The analogy. Similarly. which cruelly degenerates into the killing of Hercules’ own wife and children (Her. has distinctly sacrificial overtones. 1039). . giving sacrifice the same structural importance it enjoyed in Euripides. I remarked in chapter two that framing the potentially self-enclosed structure of a ‘traditional’ play that is redolent of Greek forms affords a reflection on the viability of that particular type of tragedy. for the extraordinary disruption signalled by Atreus’ perverted sacrifice. Oedipus displays sacrifice in two central scenes. such as the slaying of Pentheus or of Heracles’ children. emotionally if not ideologically.92 The Passions in Play model. Hippolytus’ death in Phaedra. Theseus slowly and painfully reconstructs his son’s corpse in a fashion reminiscent of similar rituals after sacrificial slaughters. In Troades the Greeks present the deaths of Astyanax and Polyxena as a required sacrificial offering to the dead Achilles: the youths’ blood is needed to placate his rage and allow safe sailing from Troy. F. 898–9: nunc sacra patri victor et superis feram | caesisque meritas victimis aras colam. too. marks a larger social and religious crisis. Hercules’ frenzied slaughter takes place in the context of a sacrifice he is offering to the gods. and honour their altars as they deserve with sacrificed victims’). but they are not directly connected with murder (291–402 and 530–658). once tragedy had severed its connection with its traditional Greek roots. Amphitryon connects sacrifice and murder by explicitly addressing his son with these charged words: nondum litasti. however.57 as. does Seneca’s exploitation of this particular motif. Sacrifice occupies a central role in Greek tragedy. complete the sacrifice’. but depriving it 56 57 Valuable observations in Petrone (1984) 31–4. nate: consumma sacrum (‘you have not yet made full offering. problematize the equivalence between sacrifice and murder. Zeitlin (1965). the actions of the Greeks. The prominence of sacrifice in Thyestes thus seems to correspond to yet another aspect of Seneca’s intertextual and metaliterary strategy. Such belated pietas. with the Trojans actively questioning.56 The pervasiveness of sacrificial motives in Senecan drama invites the audience to reflect on a religious problematic which might well have been thought of as anachronistic and misplaced. stops here. symbolic or otherwise. son. incidentally. perverted human sacrifice. when the body of the slain animal is rearranged in its proper order. 58 Foley (1985).

On the verge of accepting Turnus’ supplication. Aeneas is struck by the sight of Pallas’ baldric. betrays the awareness that this particular escape from nefas. . .A craftier Tereus 93 of any constructive. wearing the spoils stripped from the body of those I loved? By this wound which I now give. he cried: ‘Are you to escape me now. Pallas immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit. Aeneas’ sacrificial murder of Turnus restores the violated order. Thyestes offers a similar scenario. forward-looking value. His sacrificial 59 60 A similarly deflating attitude can be discerned in Euripides’ Cyclops. it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. The end of Aeneid 12 seems to have found in Seneca a reader devoted to the point of obsession. 61 Hardie (1993) 21. 179). and far from final.’ Seneca amplifies the sacrificial protocol latent in this scene (though Aeneas’ immolat is telling enough) and makes it register at the forefront of his account.61 the breakdown of the foedus which Aeneas and Latinus had finally reached (Aen. oculis postquam saevi monimenta doloris exuviasque hausit. 12. but only by means of equally transgressive violence: the reparation is far from satisfactory. in the action that effectively brings the plot to a close. furiis accensus et ira terribilis: ‘tune hinc spoliis indute meorum eripiare mihi? Pallas te hoc vulnere. who confronts that scene and its disturbing implications time and again in his tragedies. the end of the poem is powerfully evoked in the climactic scene of Thyestes. suffice it to say that the comparison is instructive. then. this reminder of his own wild grief.59 The Roman model for the association between sacrifice and murder is the final scene of Virgil’s Aeneid.60 The comparison with the Aeneid yields important insights. if not to a closure. omne ruptum (‘breaking every law’. There is (fortunately) no need to rehearse here the vast body of criticism on the final scene of the Aeneid. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood. At the conclusion of the poem we face ‘an almost too neatly schematic dramatization of Ren´e Girard’s theory of the “sacrificial crisis” ’. In its basic outline. Just as Aeneid 7 had been prominent in the inaugural movements of the tragedy. burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath. is gone for ever. where Ulysses’ companions are slaughtered with ritual accuracy.945–9): ille.161–215). too. and buries his sword in the neck of his enemy (12. Seaford (1984) 151–3 and 180–1. Thyestes has caused the violent disruption of order which Atreus concisely portrays in the statement fas . As Putnam (1995) 246 rightly remarks.’ [Aeneas] feasted his eyes on the sight of this spoil. .

it actually restores a status quo ante which might have been thought of as irrevocably lost. he overruns the boundaries which keep distinct facts and actions separate and follows a form of logic which is akin to the logic of the unconscious: analogies overcome differences and precipitate the identification of disparate actions. His sacrificial killing is a direct response to Thyestes’ violation of fas in the seduction of his brother’s wife. in Atreus’ words.517–20 and 11.94 The Passions in Play killing of Thyestes’ children fulfils the need for reparation and restoration. 10. but it is one of the greatest achievements of postFreudian thought to have realized that this strange logic. given free rein in the workings of the unconscious but normally kept at bay during conscious activity. It is interesting in this connection to look at an observation that Freud makes in Psychopathic Characters on the Stage:64 In general.62 This intertext thus emphasizes once again Atreus’ deep conviction that he has been wronged and is seeking a justifiable retribution. 62 63 64 Note that Aeneas had already ordered a human sacrifice immediately after Pallas’ death: Virg. but written 1905 or 1906) = SE v i i. Atreus’ retribution is especially apt in the light of the firmly held belief that incest and cannibalism are homologous acts.63 Thus Thyestes’ intercourse with his sister-in-law Aerope must be expiated with a similarly perverse and unnatural action: he will be forced to eat his own children.305–10 at 310). Atreus displays in all its upsetting force the working of his peculiar form of logic. Atreus identifies behind these two very different gestures a common element which becomes central to his thinking and on which he bases his course of action. As he implicitly identifies cannibalism and incest. eating one’s own children is a similar form of unacceptable ‘ingestion’. is actually an ineliminable component of the mind. so much so that. On the connection between sex and eating see Kilgour (1990). his explanation for the killing of Turnus is unequivocal: Pallas must be avenged. Psychopathic Characters on the Stage (Freud (1942. Resp.81–2. it may perhaps be said that the neurotic instability of the public and the dramatist’s skill in avoiding resistances and offering fore-pleasures can alone determine the limits set upon the employment of abnormal characters on the stage. The sacrifice would thus seem to heal the wound that Thyestes inflicted and restore the order that he upset. Incest ‘pollutes’ the body with the seed of a close relation. Whatever our assessment of Aeneas’ behaviour. This form of generalizing thought was originally considered typical of schizophrenia. 571c–d with Parker (1983) 98 and 326 and Burkert (1983) 104. Like Plato’s tyrant. . where symmetry replaces the rigid conventions of Aristotelian thought. Aen. Pl.

Medea. are surely ‘real’ in that they are subtracted from the stage manipulation we witness. hierarchy. What we call ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ are generalizations that might well stand in relative contrast to each other. of course. there can hardly be a well-defined sense of closure and ending to human revenge. only to resume its regular route the following day. extraordinary as they may be. and fits in with the play’s insistence on the notion that horror is 65 66 Burkert (1983) 105 and n. Atreus’ choice obeys a homeopathic principle that is perfectly understandable within the norms of sacrifice. We do not have to be closet cannibals to be taken in by Atreus’ extraordinary flights of logic. which are part and parcel. left out of the play’s direct dramatic focus. asymmetry. These events. characterized by the general absence of ethical certainties. where it was credited with a fundamental cosmogonic function. too.65 According to part of the earlier tradition. because after all they. Just as there is no absolute limit to ethical disruption. In Thyestes the disruption of bonds is rooted in the alternae vices of reality. He does not appeal so much to our ‘neurotic instability’ as to the ineliminable part of our thinking which chafes at the ‘unnatural’ imposition of criteria such as non-contradiction. for instance. but he also introduces an element which is consistent with his characterization in this play.A craftier Tereus 95 and rephrase it in the light of the observations above. By killing Thyestes’ sons instead of their father. the sun does indeed show its disgust at the murder and abruptly disappears in the middle of the day. but offer very little in the way of absolute certainty. it lacks the prominence it had received in earlier texts. we might well wonder whether the reality he is trying to control and alter is any more acceptable or ‘normal’ than his striking revenge against it. In this play. are part of nature. Atreus follows a sacrificial protocol. of his being a poet. then killing Thyestes’ sons repeats and returns the same wound. for all the emphasis that the reversal of the sun attracts in Thyestes. See Girard (1972) 24 on the issue in general. Atreus’ ‘abnormality’ does appeal to the public precisely because it displays a form of logic and behaviour which does away with the restrictions of ‘adult’ Aristotelian logic. can only upset the order of nature for so long. and only alluded to in more or less detail. . Interestingly enough.66 If the personal wound that most directly aggrieves him is the doubt cast by Thyestes’ relationship with Aerope over the paternity of Agamemnon and Menelaus. Atreus’ deeds. 13. chooses to kill her own offspring rather than Jason himself. too. Atreus’ murder caused the sun to change its path once and for all. While we are asked to focus only on the ‘perversion’ of Atreus’ deeds.


The Passions in Play

self-perpetuating.67 Epicurus famously maintained that pain is either very
intense, but brief, or long, but then bearable. Thyestes seems to show that
evil can be both extraordinarily intense and potentially endless. Sparing
Thyestes not only spares Atreus’ double, but ensures the continuation of
their duel in the family saga, ensures that revenge can be exacted not just
once, but many times over. Thyestes’ invocation to the gods, to a principle
of absolute justice that would also entail a final moment of judgement, is
rejected in favour of a new phase of human action. Leaving the conflict
open, of course, exposes Atreus himself to possible future retribution, and
his lot will not be spared. Closure cannot possibly appeal to the tyrant who
had chided his counsellor for the simplistic suggestion that Thyestes be
quickly dispatched (246–8). Nothing is in fact more alien to Atreus than
his feigned willingness to forgive and forget: ‘let all our anger pass away.
From this day, let ties of blood and love be honoured, and accursed hatred
disappear from our hearts’.68 An unequivocal rejection of finality resurfaces
towards the end of the play, when Atreus contrasts process and result: ‘I do
not want to see him miserable, but his becoming so’ (907: miserum videre
nolo, sed dum fit miser). Killing Thyestes’ children will also guarantee the
additional pleasure of watching him watch their death, or at least their
corpses: ‘it is a pleasure to note, when he sees his children’s heads, how his
complexion changes, what words his first grief pours forth’ (903–5: libet
videre, capita natorum intuens, | quos det colores, verba quae primus dolor |
effundat . . . ). Atreus has already built repetition into the structure of his
revenge, killing the children himself a first time, and then forcing Thyestes
to kill them, as it were, all over again; and the text reinforces this repetition
by allowing the audience to hear twice, at least in part, the narrative of the
murder, first from the messenger in act 4, and then, more succinctly, from
Atreus himself in act 5 (1057–65).
However, Atreus’ obsession with the repetition of revenge, his refusal of
closure, will also prove to be his undoing. In the final line of the tragedy he
gloats that Thyestes’ punishment is not a hope for the future but a fact already accomplished (1112: te puniendum liberis trado tuis – ‘for punishment,

In this respect Atreus is the victim of his own logic; see above, pp. 117ff.
509–11: quidquid irarum fuit | transierit; ex hoc sanguis ac pietas die | colantur, animis odia damnata
excidant. This statement is yet another one of Atreus’ double entendres: he surely means it when
he says sanguis colatur, but not in the way the sentence seems to convey. His own ‘respect’ for (his
own) blood, together with the worry about the dubius sanguis that Thyestes has caused, is precisely
the source of his ira. Another possible ironic connotation is detected by Tarrant ((1985) 164): ‘[t]he
sacral overtones of colatur (‘be worshiped’) may also carry ironic force, since Atreus will in fact
turn his bloodshed into a ritual act’. Tarrant also notes that sanguis recalls sperat ira sanguinem at
line 504.

A craftier Tereus


I deliver you to your children’ – picks up premor . . . natis – ‘I am weighed
upon by my sons’ of 1051), but he also foreshadows the reversal of fortunes
that his offspring will endure. Indeed te puniendum liberis trado tuis could
be applied to Atreus himself, since Thyestes’ revenge will be accomplished
with the killing of Agamemnon. This following phase of the family history shows the force of repetition: once again incest (between Thyestes and
Pelopia) will lead to murder.69
The sacrificial proceedings of act 4 encapsulate the core motives of the
play and its main character, as well as, arguably, the reason for its power and
appeal. Atreus had already displayed in act 2 the strength of his Dionysiac
inspiration and had shown in act 3 how cunningly and masterfully he could
perform in order to achieve his goals. Here we finally realize that his project
goes beyond the specific objective of revenge. His ambition is effectively to
create a new world order (hence the ritual importance of ordo) in which the
traditional gods lose their power, accepted political philosophy is shown to
be useless and void, and even the traditional categories of order and frenzy
can be deconstructed and redefined. Atreus’ sacrifice is the most Dionysiac
of rituals: the slaughter and cooking of victims. It is a ritual which uncannily
represents both the establishment of civilization and a throwback to barbarity. Atreus does not necessarily portray Nero on stage, nor indeed should
his behaviour inevitably be collated with the anedoctal evidence of extravagant cruelty which peppers Suetonius’ Lives. The ritualization of violence
encoded in the murder-as-sacrifice shows that Atreus is the incarnation of
imperial power at a much more radical and discomforting level.70 Almost
from its inception that power had played an elaborate and risky game by
suggesting, increasingly, the religious dimension of the emperor. First as a
sacerdos, then as a divus, the emperor of Rome had (even in the West) relied
more on the accretion of power and mystique than a careful exploitation
of religious symbols would allow. Atreus shows the game for what it is –
he is god to himself, and god to his subjects. His power makes him so.
Dionysus, too, had become under Augustus an attractive symbol of power
and regeneration, not to mention a useful figure for summoning the awed
memory of Alexander. This, too, is a symbol which Atreus transforms into
reality. In Bacchae the cunning god had shown the inevitable limitations


On this connection see, in general, Irwin (1975). For the mythical plot see Hyg. Fab. 87 and 88;
the latter offers a complicated and largely unparalleled version of the plot which, uniquely, offers a
complete closure: Pelopia commits suicide; Aegisthus kills Atreus; Aegisthus in regnum avitum redit
with his father Thyestes.
The ritualization of violence in Titus Andronicus has more specific political ramifications; Bate (1995)


The Passions in Play

of an earthly power based on the limited intellectual and imaginative resources of a Pentheus. In Thyestes Atreus shows that a ruler can appropriate
the animal, wild strength of Dionysiac inspiration and use it for his own
purposes in a seductively creative form. We are reminded of the revolution
which Lucan had encapsulated in unsurpassable, if wholly unappreciative,
terms at the very outset of his Bellum Civile (1.2): ius . . . datum sceleri –
‘legality conferred on crime’. Thyestes makes us wonder whether ius and
scelus can be so neatly distinguished and set against each other.
t h e lo g i c o f c r i m e
Videturne summa inprobitate usus non sine summa esse ratione? (Cicero, De
natura deorum 3.69)

Atreus’ extraordinary power explicates itself on several levels. His dramatic,
larger-than-life personality has many different sides, from wild aggression
to comic penchant for punning; throughout, he is obsessed with ever bigger
pursuits, transcending, by his own admission, the ‘boundaries of mankind’
(267–8) and aspiring to reach or even surpass the power of the gods. It is
the gods, indeed, who constitute Atreus’ ultimate point of comparison –
his power over men is not open to discussion, and his doubts concern only
how, not whether, he will defeat his brother. His nefas, he believes, will be
such that even the gods will have to take notice and flee in horror (265–6;
888). His nefas, he finally gloats, has lifted him to the stars (885–6: aequalis
astris gradior). In this exhilarating declaration of success Atreus combines
the nefas of gigantomachy71 and the proud claims of a cultural hero such
as Lucretius’ Epicurus, whose intellectual victory managed to expand the
boundaries of human knowledge and ‘exalt us mortals as high as heaven’
(De rerum natura 1.79: nos exaequat victoria caelo).
As we have already seen repeatedly, it is unhelpful to import into the
complex texture of the tragedy a system of moral categories that has been
developed out of context, as the specifics of Atreus’ case are bound to be
bulldozed in the discussion of general principles.72 It is far more important


Interestingly enough, the motif is explicitly mentioned by Thyestes at 1084 among the guilty excesses
that Jupiter has quashed in the past. Any such divine retribution of Atreus’ nefas is conspicuously
absent from Seneca’s play. A cursory anticipation is also in the chorus’s words at 806.
An important analysis of Atreus is offered by Knoche (1941), who stresses his irrational and violent
features, his ‘spirit of anti-nature’, the irredeemable madness rooted in his evilness, and connects
them to Seneca’s own experience under Caligula’s reign of terror. The date of publication of the
article, of course, is not irrelevant. See also Lef`evre (1985).

A craftier Tereus


to understand the means by which Atreus overpowers Thyestes and in the
process becomes the emotional fulcrum of the play. Atreus’ engrossing energy derives from his superior intellectual ability to manipulate the vigour
of his passions. His most powerful weapons are, firstly, the method he
brings to his ‘madness’: the epigraph of this section quotes Cotta’s use of
Atreus (and Medea), in De natura deorum 3.68–9, as evidence that ratio is
not a generous gift of the gods, because it can be turned to negative uses:
videturne summa inprobitate usus non sine summa esse ratione? (‘does he not
appear to have acted with the highest degree of criminality and at the same
time the highest degree of rationality?’). Secondly, Atreus is able to use
language creatively (and passionately) as a weapon to overcome Thyestes’
fatally narrow literalness. Thirdly, he displays an instinctive comprehension
of human nature, and an ability to foresee and manipulate his opponent’s
reaction. Atreus is not a madman, of course. But he shows that there is
much beyond Thyestes’ unbending logic and referential use of language –
that the passions associated with primal instincts and desires open up different forms of logic and expression. These may abandon the reassuring
certainties of non-contradiction, but prove invaluable in the execution of
Atreus’ plot.
In the chthonic bowels of the palace Atreus chooses to ‘enquire the fates’
(Thy. 757: fata inspicit) by looking at the entrails of his victims. The result
pleases him (759: hostiae placuere). We have already been offered an image
of Atreus as a hunter of traces. In act 3, as he is finally ready to meet his
brother, Atreus is certain that his plot is close to completion. Thyestes, in
accepting to come back to Argos, has fallen into the trap: the prey, Atreus
gloats, is firmly bound in the nets he has prepared (491: plagis tenetur clausa
dispositis fera). The hunting imagery is extended in the image that Atreus
offers of himself immediately thereafter (496–505):
vix tempero animo, vix dolor frenos capit.
sic, cum feras vestigat et longo sagax
loro tenetur Umber ac presso vias
scrutatur ore, dum procul lento suem
odore sentit, paret et tacito locum
rostro pererrat; praeda cum propior fuit,
cervice tota pugnat et gemitu vocat
dominum morantem seque retinenti eripit:
cum sperat ira sanguinem, nescit tegi –
tamen tegatur.
I can scarcely contain my heart; hardly can my grief tolerate restraint. Thus a keen
Umbrian dog, when he is kept on a long leash in pursuit of wild animals, and with
lowered muzzle sniffs the traces, while through its lasting scent he perceives the


The Passions in Play

boar afar, he obeys and with silent tongue explores the place; but when the prey is
closer, he fights with all his head, and moans and begs the master holding him and
breaks away from his restraint: when his rage scents blood it cannot be concealed;
yet it must.

This extended simile has often prompted reservations in critics who
either fault its epic tone, dissonant in a dramatic context, or criticize its descriptive excesses.73 It would be rash, however, to underestimate the importance of this detailed passage only because similar descriptions are offered
by Ennius,74 Virgil and Ovid. Indeed, a comparison with those influential models highlights once again the specific function of these lines in the
context of the play, and offers a vivid and explicit representation of a crucial aspect of Atreus’ character: his passion for, and success in, attaining
knowledge and using it for his purposes.
The Umbrian-dog simile effectively depicts Atreus’ intents and his
heuristic methods. The dog possesses an instinctual drive which can be
compared to Atreus’ own furor and ira, but this is displayed only after a
diligent enquiry has enabled it to discover the prey, and should remain
subordinated to a strategy of dissimulation which can guarantee the successful outcome of the hunt (504–5: . . . nescit tegi; | tamen tegatur). In this
respect Seneca’s accurate choice of words to describe the search (vestigat,
sagax, scrutatur, sentit) begs comparison not with generic hunting scenes,
but, more specifically, with Lucretius’ simile in book 1 of De rerum natura
namque canes ut montivagae persaepe ferarum
naribus inveniunt intectas fronde quietes,
cum semel institerunt vestigia certa viai,
sic alid ex alio per te tute ipse videre
talibus in rebus poteris caecasque latebras
insinuare omnis et verum protrahere inde.
for as dogs, thanks to their nose, often find the resting place of a mountain prey,
covered with leaves, once they have trodden on certain traces, thus in such matters
you will be able to see by yourself one thing after another, and to penetrate all the
secret recesses and extract from them the truth.

For a reasoned defence and an analysis of possible models see Tarrant (1985) 162.
The use of sagax is a direct – if limited – point of contact with Ennius, 332–4 Skutsch (340–2
Vahlen): – veluti, [si] quando vinclis venatica velox | apta dolet si forte <feras> ex nare sagaci | sensit,
voce sua nictit ululatque ibi acute. Cf. Hom. Il. 22.188–93: ‘but swift Achilles, relentlessly pressing
on, kept on after Hektor. And as when a dog startles a fawn in the mountains and chases it out of
its lair, through hollows and glades, and even if the fawn takes to cover and crouches in a thicket,
the dog tracks it () and runs it down – even so Hektor could not get away from the
swift-footed Peleion.’ See also Varius, De morte, fr. 4 Courtney, though the context may have been
more ominous (Courtney (1993) 274).

Atreus is uniquely able to combine the forceful determination of his willpower – an arcane.77 Whatever is wrong to do to a brother is right to do to him. for the important presence of venatic metaphors in Euripides’ Bacchae. prerational inner strength – with the seemingly endless resourcefulness of his intellectual gifts. This simile sets the stage for the more intriguing notion that the sacrifice that Atreus performs is also an extispicium. for a survey. the fundamental object of venatic enquiry75 and expands the description of the dog’s careful exploration (pererrat. in the context of his ability to deceive Thyestes in the rest of the play. since neither Virgil nor Ovid devotes comparable attention to this aspect of the search. is best appreciated in the context of this investigation. see later. conveys some of the force of montivagae). Atreus states his concern about the paternity of his children early in the play (220–4):76 fas est in illo quidquid in fratre est nefas. The characterization of Atreus as an expert hunter and decoder of vestigia. He is not only determined to take as cruel a revenge as possible on Thyestes for forcing him out of power – and his furor will help him to do precisely that – but also concerned with a rational (if obsessive) doubt which demands to be assuaged. as the simile suggests.A craftier Tereus 101 Verbal correspondences are significant even if it is not necessary to postulate a direct correlation: Seneca speaks appropriately of vestigia. by careful investigation. 135. Comparison with the models strengthens the point. namely whether his children are actually his own or the illegitimate offspring of Thyestes’ adulterous relationship with Aerope. which stresses the accuracy and scope of the search. What crime has he left untouched. I would argue. Turbare domum suitably recalls Aeschylus’   . they focus more on the final outcome of the hunt. p. The two details together open an interesting vista on a very important aspect of the plot which only occasionally surfaces in the text. a procedure meant to yield important information. In later versions of the play the presence of the illegitimate sons becomes a central motif. with Lana (1958–59) 318. see Rossi (1989). fraude turbavit domum. and not only. but at all times stays firmly at the back of Atreus’ mind. quid enim reliquit crimine intactum aut ubi sceleri pepercit? coniugem stupro abstulit regnumque furto: specimen antiquum imperi fraude est adeptus. See Accius 205 Ribbeck2 = Dangel 33: qui non sat habuit coniugem inlexe in stuprum. or when has he ever recoiled from a sin? My wife he took away with his 75 76 77 On the so called ‘venatic paradigm’ see Ginzburg (1992) and Cave (1988) 250–4. in principle.

225). .  (Supp.

imperi quassa est fides.78 Accius’ Atreus had expressed the problem lucidly (206–8 Ribbeck2 = 34–6 Dangel): quod re in summa summum esse arbitror periclum matres conquinari regias. fully aware. In the end. however.102 The Passions in Play debauchery. an expression that condenses a crucial concern of Roman culture. Let Agamemnon be aware of my plot and carry it through. my offspring uncertain – nothing is certain save my brother’s enmity’ (239–41: corrupta coniunx. my house is polluted. At the end of the play Atreus declares himself satisfied 78 79 The term is used by Ulpian.1. the lineage mixed up. 3. prolis incertae fides ex hoc petatur scelere: si bella abnuunt et gerere nolunt odia.11. their paternity.79 This I believe to be the greatest danger in matters of high state: when royal mothers are polluted. | domus aegra. and let Menelaus stand by his brother. dubius sanguis est et certi nihil | nisi frater hostis). contaminari stirpem. The revenge-plot aimed at punishing Thyestes thus doubles also as a trial which will try to ascertain the children’s real lineage and soothe Atreus’ torment about his dubius sanguis. he stole my kingdom. he is their father. He intends to make them accomplices in his revenge plot against Thyestes: a sign of hesitation on their part would reveal that Thyestes. si patruum vocant. is in fact their father (Thy. . too. 325–30): consili Agamemnon mei sciens minister fiat et fratri sciens Menelaus adsit. his (positive) certainties shattered: ‘my wife seduced. by fraud unsettled our house. For Seneca’s Atreus. On dubius sanguis see especially Guastella (1988) 68–72. Let this crime test how true are my uncertain offspring: if they refuse to fight and don’t want to wage the war of hate. the ‘greatest fault’ vis-`a-vis this ‘greatest danger’ would be the absence or lateness of a suitable reaction. Atreus will abandon the plan to make his children aware of his intentions out of fear that they might unwillingly reveal what he is plotting (331–3). the family is defiled. the ancient token of our dynasty he gained by fraud. Because of the stuprum. At the conclusion of act 2 Atreus shares with the satelles the plan he has devised in order to test Agamemnon’s and Menelaus’ loyalty and. pater est. by implication. Atreus’ house has been contaminated. not Atreus. dig. admisceri genus. if they call him ‘uncle’. that of turbatio sanguinis. the solidity of my power is shattered.2.

A trace can be detected in lines 329–30. when Atreus chooses to interpret the death of his nephews as the ‘rebirth’ of his own children: since Thyestes’ pain at the death of his children proves unequivocally that they really were his (a point which of course had never been in question). securus vacat iam fratris epulis. This kind of short-circuiting identification returns in a different form at the end of the play. symmetrically. ac dubiis). But he handles the organs and enquires the fates. But there is also a different aspect worth noticing here: Atreus’ adherence to logical rules of enquiry. the veins still breathe and the fluttering heart still beats. is always tempered by his reliance on a form of symmetrical. The connection between the horrific appearance of these abodes and the certainty of the answers that the Pelopidai are able to obtain there is further strengthened by a reference to the Styx. certa) in times of crisis and uncertainty (658: lassis rebus . The vocabulary of enquiry employed here is again reminiscent of the Umbrian-dog simile: note. he is their father’). . Torn from the still living breast the vitals quiver. for instance. The darkness of the secret rooms of the royal palace inspires fear and awe (650–6). yet this is precisely the place where the Pelopidai usually seek ‘safe answers’ (680: responsa . . ‘irrational’ logic. with their paradoxical statement that si patruum vocant | pater est (‘if they call him “uncle”. postquam hostiae placuere. as if the vaticinium he has performed on the corpses of his victims had actually yielded solid results. The physical setting of the vaticinium is extremely important. When with the victims he has satisfied himself. at ille fibras tractat ac fata inspicit et adhuc calentes viscerum venas notat. an archetypal locus horridus. and notes the markings of the still warm veins. Note also the . it would follow that Atreus’ children were not the fruit of Aerope’s adulterous liaison with her brother-in-law. then.A craftier Tereus 103 that his children are really his (1098). as highlighted by the Umbrian-dog simile. which is also the source of undoubted fides even for the gods (666–7). . The diagnostic examination of the victims’ entrails will resolve Atreus’ concerns over the dubius sanguis (perhaps of the dubiae res of 658) of his progeny (755–60): erepta vivis exta pectoribus tremunt spirantque venae corque adhuc pavidum salit. he is now free to prepare his brother’s banquet. the repetition of different verbal forms that imply Atreus’ search with technical precision. .

but because of. quoted above. nisi sic doleres. liberos nasci mihi nunc credo. definitely yours.104 The Passions in Play pregnant meaning of placuere and of securus. And. The very act that guarantees his revenge over Thyestes (the chief goal of his actions) is also the means by which he can lay his other concerns to rest. I would have wasted my crime. now is the true palm won. and that his children are really his. natos parenti – at. fateor. certos. t h. His empirical enquiry is successful not in spite of. if you weren’t suffering this much. This had been your plan. . I am pleased to say. quid liberi meruere? at. its deep association with the instinctual aspects of his personality: the furor that inspired his actions thus far is now also explicitly presented as a viable source of rational understanding. nunc parta vera est palma. castis nunc fidem reddi toris. Shortly afterwards Atreus answers Thyestes’ moralizing appeal to the gods with the retort that the true reason for his despair is in fact quite different (1106–10): fuerat hic animus tibi instruere similes inscio fratri cibos et adiuvante liberos matre aggredi similique leto sternere – hoc unum obstitit: tuos putasti. et. Just one thing stopped you: you thought they were yours. What was the children’s sin? at. quod me iuvat. t h. t h. Now I am convinced that my children are my own. They were yours. Sons to the father – at. quod fuerant tui. Sure. and with the help of their mother attack the children and kill them in identical fashion. 82): nunc meas laudo manus. At the end of the tragedy Atreus revels in his triumph (1096–9. p. to prepare the same banquet for their unwitting father. now I believe that I can trust again the purity of my marriage-bed. Atreus notes first that Thyestes’ grief at the revelation of his children’s gruesome death ensures that he is in fact their father (1100–2): t h. which I take to designate that Atreus is finally sure that his suspicions were unfounded. Now I praise my handiwork. perdideram scelus.

hesitant. yet he is still unable fully to grasp their significance. Throughout his anguished canticum (920–69). Thyestes’ chief mistake lies in his inability to understand that fear can be a reliable form of knowledge. ii Atreus’ passions are consistently intertwined with a deep understanding of human psychology. Both Atreus and Medea. Atreus believes that his fresh realization of paternity. my ravished virginity is restored!’ (Med . Atreus characterizes his victory as a triumph of foreknowledge and anticipation: Thyestes would have tried to catch him unprepared (1107: inscio). as well as Thyestes’ grief. finding a suitable home in the guts of Atreus’ palace. . But while he must have suspected that this was the case (or. were his own offspring. rapta virginitas redit). and more effective. especially his psychological insight. but his own scientia has been faster. in general. has acted on his apprehension and searched for the truth. Atreus is now confident that the children he has killed are undoubtedly Thyestes’ own (1102: certos). appears fractured. and. with a marked intellectual superiority. Atreus. by envisaging their destructive revenge as a means to reshape past events. can to a certain extent undo the past: liberos nasci mihi | nunc credo. he would have made the first move to punish Atreus). too. display a form of logic which is rooted in the world of unconstrained and boundless desire. Moreover. accordingly.A craftier Tereus 105 The assumption underpinning Atreus’ reasoning appears to be that Thyestes’ despair at the death of his children would have been more moderate if he had been certain that Agamemnon and Menelaus. his fiendish ability to manipulate language in ways which far transcend Thyestes’ literal-minded approach. castis nunc fidem reddi toris (1098–9). Thyestes comes tantalizingly close to expressing his subconscious fears and thoughts (his language. Thyestes has been prevented from mounting a successful revenge plan because of his unconfirmed opinion (1110: putasti) that Agamemnon and Menelaus could be his children. that Thyestes’ suspicion that Agamemnon and Menelaus could also have been his offspring has been proven false. obscure). and finally his superior awareness and understanding of a literary tradition which can provide useful protocols for his behaviour. symmetrically. 984: rediere regna. however. the following sequence of events has made it clear to both Atreus and Thyestes that Agamemnon and Menelaus are undoubtedly Atreus’ children. and. Atreus claims. An analysis of several passages will highlight exactly how Atreus displays his intellectual power. At the end of her tragedy Medea reaches a similar conclusion: ‘restored is my kingdom.

Atreus is quick to dismiss the satelles’ argument with a statement similarly couched in sententious terms: ‘You are wrong: a sense of wrongs grows day by day. though by not spelling out any specific detail he continues to dissimulate to a degree (513–14): sed fateor. Wicked hope is credulous. credula est spes improba. . s a. his ancient rage for power. s a . but the impression that Atreus actually understands the 80 81 Thyestes himself will admit in due course that Atreus had been right all along. to keep bearing it is hard’ (306–7: erras: malorum sensus accrescit die. s a . As Tantalus himself points out. hinc vetus regni furor. fateor. This ability for psychological insight is initially revealed in Atreus’ discussion with the counsellor. It is easy to bear misfortune. who doubts that Thyestes – fearful as he is of a possible revenge – will accept Atreus’ invitation (294–5): s a .81 a commonplace psychological reason why Thyestes is unlikely to accept his brother’s invitation (302–5): at. at. bent it cannot be – but it can be broken’ (Thy. illinc egestas tristis ac durus labor quamvis rigentem tot malis subigent virum. By now time has made his troubles light. Shortly thereafter the counsellor offers. The whole sequence of events bears out Atreus’ initial claim that he understands full well the workings of Thyestes’ mind: ‘I know the untamable spirit of the man. on the other. 157. Thyestes’ doubts are pathetically overdue: ‘it is too late to guard when in the midst of danger’ (487: serum est cavendi tempus in mediis malis). miserable poverty and harsh toil will tame the man.106 The Passions in Play Atreus lures Thyestes back to Argos because he correctly assumes that Thyestes will not be able to resist the seductive prospect of a return home. | leve est miserias ferre. iam tempus illi fecit aerumnas leves.80 The dialogue between Thyestes and Tantalus in which the former elaborates at length his hesitation as they approach the city can only bolster the audience’s impression that Atreus always knew better. Who will give him confidence in peace? Whom will he trust so much? at. perferre est grave). Atreu. quis fidem pacis dabit? cui tanta credet? at. admisi omnia | quae credidisti. 199–200: novi ego ingenium viri | indocile: flecti non potest – frangi potest). The following sequence of events leaves no doubt as to who is right and wrong in this exchange. On sententiae see p. On the one side. in the dogmatic form of a sententia (one of his favourite forms of expression). however much hardened by so many disasters.

moment of hesitation. since he is a defeatist who yields to the force of events. what upheavals do you imagine for yourself. away with terror. fugiat trepidi comes exilii tristis egestas away with grief.A craftier Tereus 107 whole situation better than anybody else is also confirmed at a later stage by an unexpected source – Thyestes himself. a harsh tempest is upon the sailors. as he is suddenly overcome by an ominous and inexplicable sensation of fear (957–64): mittit luctus signa futuri mens ante sui praesaga mali: instat nautis fera tempestas. While Atreus successfully combines passion and rational knowledge. once again. My mind gives warning of imminent grief. vel sine causa vel sero times. whatever it is. Here. In the canticum immediately prior to the final anagnorisis Thyestes expresses his joy at the end of his long suffering (922–4): fugiat maeror fugiatque pavor. presaging evil for itself. exploiting a thorough understanding of the former as a reliable basis for the latter. In his exchange with Tantalus he does have doubts and fears which the play will realize. cum sine vento tranquilla tument. Thyestes owes his demise largely to his mistrust of (subconscious) feelings as cognitive tools. you worry about it either without reason. the companion of hunted exiles. he . What distresses. Towards the end of the same section. demens? credula praesta pectora fratri: iam. away with bitter want. Once he reaches Argos Thyestes has a final. however. Thyestes’ mood shifts considerably. when the calm sea swells without wind. you fool? Let your heart trust your brother: by now. quos tibi luctus quosve tumultus fingis. quidquid id est. or too late. The literal repetition of Atreus’ own words at line 303 indirectly reveals that Atreus’ evaluation of his brother’s feelings had been right all the time. Thyestes proves himself an inadequate reader of signs. albeit belated and ineffectual. signs that he detects but fails to exploit. and that the superficially wise satelles had actually failed to understand an important aspect of Thyestes’ personality. Credula at line 962 echoes credula at line 295 and confirms that Atreus was right to assume that Thyestes would not shun his invitation.

You ask me the cause of my fear. Lines 446–70 are devoted to a long rhetorical parade.108 The Passions in Play suspects that Atreus is plotting his revenge. I do not know where to. too’). in which Thyestes proclaims his preference 82 See p. yet Thyestes experiences a similar inner tension. He falls prey to Tantalus’ well intentioned. and marches towards his destiny. largely dependent on well-known topoi. ‘when you look at a gift. pigris membris sed genibus labant. yet I do. but he is ultimately unable to rely on the cognitive force of metus. and insists on turning back: ‘but now I am returned to my fears. 60 on attonitus). if not incredulity. I am dragged away. but myself I do not know it. I see nothing I should fear. sed rapior. alioque quam quo nitor abductus feror. and I feel I am dragged away from where I strive to go. placet ire. if somewhat superficial. et dantem aspice. Once alerted to the implications of this internal allusion. but I am. but my limbs waver on my shaky knees. I do confess it. check who is giving it. however. we will be even more inclined to receive Thyestes’ ensuing speech with scepticism. Thyestes confronts here the same opposition between rational understanding and emotional foreboding that we have encountered before. did follow his emotions and was thus able to devise a plan whose success is now increasingly likely. rapior et quo nescio. The very setting of the scene – Thyestes is already in Argos – taints his proclamation with irony. Nonetheless Thyestes insists on his desire to avoid meeting Atreus (434–7): causam timoris ipse quam ignoro exigis. since his wise words on the potentially deceptive appearance of things are not based on previously ignored details (416: cum quod datur spectabis. A mindless tumult shakes and churns my breast deep inside. Thyestes closely follows the words Atreus had used to describe the state of manic excitement which pre-empted his masterful creation of the revenge-plot (260–2):82 fateor. tumultus pectora attonitus quatit penitusque volvit. pleas. . I would like to go. Atreus. my mind falters and wishes to take my body back’ (418–20: nunc contra in metus | revolvor: animus haeret ac retro cupit | corpus referre). nihil timendum video. sed timeo tamen. 51 (with n. but does not listen to his emotions and thus faces a complete defeat.

mature crops will grow in the Ionian sea and dark night will give light to earth. one expects. an insight offered not by rational consideration but by pure emotion. and wind with sea will join in a trusty pact. when Thyestes rapidly retreats from his proclaimed determination not to accept the power that Atreus offers him (540: respuere certum est regna consilium mihi.A craftier Tereus 109 for a quiet life removed from the superficial attractions of power. when Thyestes reluctantly embraces Tantalus’ point of view that it is now too late for fear. The effect is similar to the one achieved at 539–43. 166ff. and the greedy waves of the Sicilian strait will be still. alongside the highly elaborate rhetorical tone of the adynaton. ‘to refuse the throne is my fixed intent’) and quickly yields to his invitation (542: accipio. sooner water with fire. . Once again this intimation. cum morte vita. the epistemological status of Thyestes’ considerations renders them unreliable and even ironic. 84 See below. should convey an unshakeable conviction (476–82): amat Thyesten frater? aetherias prius perfundet Arctos pontus et Siculi rapax consistet aestus unda et Ionio seges matura pelago surget et lucem dabit nox atra terris. This speech is often considered to be paradigmatic of the positive ethical values that are potentially offered by the tragedy as a whole. cum mari ventus fidem foedusque iungent. 150ff. His brother loves Thyestes? Sooner the sea will bathe the heavenly Bears. pp. for clearly he does not practise what he is in the process of preaching. In fact. and definitely more complex. who cannot believe their novel good fortune (938–41): 83 See below. Thyestes concludes his impassioned tirade with an adynaton which.84 The second time that Thyestes confronts a reliable insight on the true state of events. ‘I do accept’). which in itself is perfectly justified and expressed in such strong terms. followed by a reproach of the usual attitudes of the wretched. is inexplicably discarded just a few lines later. ethical frame that the play elaborately constructs. he behaves in exactly the same way. His canticum opens with an explicit rejection of pavor (922). life with death. and that they should proceed to meet Atreus.83 Even if we discount for the moment the larger. ante cum flammis aquae. pp. Thyestes’ brusque and inconsistent decision looks even more dissonant and inconsequential.

964. To Atreus’ mocking question – natos ecquid agnoscis tuos? (‘do you recognize your sons?’. 967) and is thus incapable or unwilling to trust them. This moment comes in the emotional and expressive centre of the tragedy. on the basis of its previous experience. triumphant proof of this ability. this is the day which will make my sceptre firm and bind tightly the bonds of our assured peace . Only when he can no longer forestall the tragic fate of his children does Thyestes seem capable of borrowing Atreus’ smart. hic esse natos crede in amplexu patris My brother. ironic use of language. those who have suffered find it hard to rejoice. 1005) – Thyestes replies .110 The Passions in Play proprium hoc miseros sequitur vitium. . Atreus’ words after the canticum offer final. Dolor swiftly follows (942–4): quid me revocas festumque vetas celebrare diem. when they could have offered him a means of escape. as he mocks his brother with elaborate lies about his good intentions (970–2. numquam rebus credere laetis: redeat felix fortuna licet. only to find his words received by an audience which. consensu pari celebremus: hic est. . let us celebrate this festive day with mutual accord. His misdirected rationalism has only assisted Atreus’ ploys and demonstrated once more his uncanny ability to manipulate knowledge successfully in order to achieve his goals. 976): festum diem. quid flere iubes.. Be sure that your sons are here in the bosom of their father. nulla surgens dolor ex causa? Why do you restrain me and forbid my celebrating this festive day? why do you force me to cry. sceptra qui firmet mea solidamque pacis alliget certae fidem.. Credere carries obvious ironic overtones that extend to the whole sententious tone of the phrase: once again Thyestes talks like a wise man. . This failing is typical of luckless people. cannot possibly believe them. germane. at least the first time. they never put trust in their happiness: even when their good fortune returns. tamen afflictos gaudere piget. o grief springing up without a cause? Thyestes repeatedly fails to understand the underlying causes of his feelings (434. when Atreus unveils (in more senses than one) the severed heads of his victims before their horrified father.

1006). | ego destinatas victimas superis dabo) the reader is aware of the gory implications of his words. and this awareness creates a complicity central to the emotional balance of the play. a momentary insight. resistant to any verbal rationalization. I will offer to the gods the destined victims’ (544–5: imposita capiti vincla venerando gere. iii A canny master of ideas. . 86 See Meltzer (1988). Thyestes is able to compete with his brother’s epistemological and emotional self-assurance. It is. In this extraordinary moment of primal pain Thyestes faces the raw truth of the feelings he had previously mistrusted: Atreus could not possibly have changed for the better. Once again this feature finds a pertinent parallel in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. In the logic of anagnorisis. we soon realize. past certainties return to reclaim their importance. can reveal the truth in its vilest upsetting contours. After his epigrammatic repartee Thyestes can only invoke divine retribution.86 When Atreus promises: ‘wear the crown set on your reverend head. But the ironic overtones of Atreus’ double entendres are nowhere more pronounced than in his final meeting with Thyestes. that one moment of piercing pain. Atreus’ manipulative use of language is responsible for the often unsettling curious mixture of horror and wit which characterizes this tragedy. and hopelessly belated at that. only a fleeting moment of truth. Atreus is also an exceptional crafter of language. where the truth shines through and is at last acknowledged even by a reluctant Thyestes. where Aaron’s ‘satanic drollery’ conceals his savage intentions in the reassuring metaphors of elevated poetic language (a mirroring of Shakespeare’s own writing process). This is. a valuable discussion which focuses especially on act 5. His power is expressed also through a careful exploitation of double entendres which fly over Thyestes’ head: the contrast between Thyestes’ literalmindedness and Atreus’ sophisticated dissemblance is another aspect of the epistemological battle between the two brothers. a solution which sounds hollow and ineffectual given Atreus’ own appropriation of a divine role. Yet even this momentary ability to stare truth in the face confirms that only emotional awareness can afford such an epiphany. to face reality without the painstaking veneer of pious intentions and illusions. In his retort.A craftier Tereus 111 without missing a beat: agnosco fratrem (‘I do recognize my brother’. appropriately enough. when the latter is at last dimly conscious that terrible deeds 85 Bate (1995) 11.85 Some instances of this phenomenon are particularly noteworthy.

I will 87 On Ovid see Doblhofer (1960) and Schawaller (1987). At Thyestes’ request to give him back his children. I am not asking for something to keep. reddam. it is foolish of Thyestes not to realize that words may not quite mean what they seem to mean. redde quod cernas statim uri. Give me back what you will see burned at once. whatever is not left. quidquid e natis tuis superest habes. . are an intrinsic part of Atreus’ primacy over Thyestes. Atreus points out Thyestes’ self-defeating inconsistency: non poterat capi. which is already developed in Ovid and will become central in Tacitus. | nisi capere vellet (‘he could not be caught. who also has interesting remarks (92–8) on Seneca. sed perditurus. cataclysmic and ‘monstrous’ deeds. at least as soon as Atreus offers an interpretation of his brother’s behaviour in typically epigrammatic form: to the satelles’ objection that Thyestes is not likely to be taken in by the plot which he is brewing. His response to Thyestes’ subsequent request is no different (1027–31): t h.112 The Passions in Play have been perpetrated. I will give them back. you have. In a cosmos in which even the sun will be forced to alter its course. you have. Riddles. Give back my sons to me! at. t h. and it soon establishes itself as a keyword which precipitates many of the central themes of the play. and no day will grab them away from you. In this respect Seneca is fully involved in a reflection on the limits of irony. the ominous connotations of the word are revealed in the same scene. at. puns and double entendres. were he not bent on catching’. 288–9). at. on Tacitus see especially Plass (1988). nihil te genitor habiturus rogo. quodcumque non superest habes. As a father. Whatever is left of your sons. Capio is used many times by both brothers. but to lose. t h. redde iam gnatos mihi! at. et tibi illos nullus eripiet dies. far from being mere verbal accessories.87 The different levels of linguistic awareness displayed by Thyestes and Atreus can be closely charted in a series of utterances centred on the use of the verb capio and its compounds. as Atreus elaborates on various aspects of his plan and assumes that Thyestes’ sons will easily be taken in by the illusion of a return home: ‘if too stubbornly Thyestes spurns my prayers. They also convey the deeper conviction that taking things at face value is a desperately inadequate strategy when confronting unpredictable. Atreus responds with a riddle (997–8): t h.

is ominously ambiguous.A craftier Tereus 113 move his sons with my entreaties: they are inexperienced. and in so doing he problematizes the contrast between ‘tyrant’ and ‘king’ which had been proposed in the second act. 159). weighed down by grave misfortunes. T H. 1040). you have waited for them a long time.88 At 520–1 Thyestes entrusts his children to Atreus – obsides fidei accipe | hos innocentes. Take this cup. 1021–2). frater (‘as pledge of my faith. And it is finally Thyestes who highlights the dramatic echoes of capio in his last (and involuntary) pun on the word: hoc est quod avidus capere non potuit pater (‘this much the father. The tyrant can disguise his threats. even more sinister are Thyestes’ words in his highly rhetorical praise of a modest life: ‘oh.89 Ironic twists on capio come to symbolize Thyestes’ intellectual inadequacy and weak resolve. T H. On metaphors of incorporation see Kilgour (1990) and now especially Rimell (2002). and easy to trick’ (299–302: si nimis durus preces | spernet Thyestes. too. an heirloom. poculum infuso cape | gentile Baccho. . take these with joy. 167). which are echoed – again – in the anagnorisis scene: AT. how good it is not to be an obstacle to anyone. since it could suggest ‘a drink consisting of your gens. 982–4). rather. Your brother causes no delay’. liberos eius rudes | malisque fessos gravibus et faciles capi | prece commovebo). iv Atreus’ use of ‘obscure’ forms of communication as he plots the mise en sc`ene of act 3 is part of his dissembling character. capere securas dapes | humi iacentem!). could not devour’. capio fraternae dapis | donum (‘AT. take these innocent boys’) – who will return them with precisely the same word: iam accipe hos potius libens | diu expetitos: nulla per fratrem est mora (‘now. he tries no more to touch’. brother. filled with wine. Indeed Tantalus displays a self-defeating masochism which the chorus captures with epigrammatic brevity: falli libuit (‘gladly has he been baffled’. who is unable to reach the food and drink laid in front of him time and again: deceptus totiens tangere neglegit (‘deceived so often. We might apply to him the chorus’s remark on Tantalus in the underworld. I take this gift of my brother’s feast’. with wine poured upon it’ (Tarrant (1985) 227). for all his greed. to eat food without care while lying on the ground!’ (449–51: o quantum bonum est | obstare nulli. but was tragically capable of receiving the flesh of his own children. and plausibly act as a good king – tyranny and dissimulation are closely connected in Greek and Roman 88 89 Note that gentile. Thyestes was unable to understand what lay in store for him. Atreus rightly identifies dissimulation as an instrumentum regni.

however. but Augustus’ own dissimulation allows an essentially monarchical power to be smuggled in as a slightly edited version of the Republican constitution. but – fatally – he does not act on this intimation. Dissimulation and deception are principles of artistic creation at least since Hesiod. and it is interesting to note that the product of Atreus’ dissimulation is the mise en sc`ene of act 3. Thyestes covers up his own worries. or.90 In Roman political discourse dissimulation is a defect traditionally associated with Tiberius. Odysseus    . is a bad dissimulator. dissimulation is a totalizing form of communication and behaviour. that a form of dissimulation characterizes imperial power from the outset. In Thyestes everybody dissimulates: the satelles disguises his fear. in sum. but especially the tyrant. | And will o’erreach them in their own devices – | A pair of cursed hellhounds and their dam’ (5. on the other hand. This is why Atreus is afraid that his children may not be able to dissimulate (315). Like Hesiod’s Muses. Atreus cloaks his thirst for revenge. . Power and dissimulation are already linked as anthropological themes. but between effective and ineffective dissimulation. is a weapon of power and against power. well before Accetto will write. In Shakespeare’s tragedy Titus must also resort to dissimulation – he feigns madness – in order to accomplish his revenge: ‘I knew them all. Thyestes. Atreus an excellent one. because ‘the discourse of dissimulation must dissimulate’. As Torquato Accetto will brilliantly point out centuries later in Della dissimulazione onesta. technically speaking. The intellectually superior Atreus is fully aware of Thyestes’ deception.142–4). See Giua (1975). a difficult ‘text’. before them. and must be judged according to internal criteria of efficacy and expediency. for instance Peisistratos and Brutus. thanks of course to Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ pathological portraits. Baar (1990) 146–50 (and 51–7).91 It should not be forgotten. who dressed up as a poor beggar in order to regain his throne and his wife.2. that ‘everything beautiful is nothing but gentle dissimulation’. famously. witness the many stories in which a king seizes power by acting as a harmless fool. tyrants 90 91 On Brutus see Bettini (1987). and also because the only way to reply to those who dissimulate is by dissimulating in turn. Dissimulation. though they supposed me mad. Dissimulation is deeply connected with theatrical fiction. Zecchini (1986). and it inevitably raises an epistemological as well as a political problem. Thyestes. The potential ambiguity of dissimulation makes the king. and goes on to triumph over him. The distinction is not between those who dissimulate and those who do not. suspects that his brother is dissimulating. Brutus’ dissimulation marks the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the Republic.114 The Passions in Play thought.

Already Odysseus. 3. comes dangerously close to the Cretan paradox. or rather the appearance of sincerity. In his Panegyricus Pliny will state that sincerity. in the emotionally charged meeting with his brother.95 The important point is that while Atreus is following a masterplot which guarantees him useful material for his revenge. the single most important source of inspiration which he invokes in his very first appearance on the stage. 77.’ 94 This is an oversight that Atreus would certainly have avoided. Thus. as we have seen. Oraculo Manual y Arte de Prudencia. Thyestes confesses his ignorance of that model.2). we can only suspect that he is simply ignoring Procne’s more resolute words in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: ‘non est lacrimis hoc’ inquit ‘agendum.A craftier Tereus 115 and poets deceive or reveal the truth on a whim.1 and 3. that lacrimis agendum est (517). when we hear Thyestes declare. We should perhaps remember Ps. Note that similar concerns emerge already in Republican times. 14. 52. fear’ (Subl. In his canticum at the beginning of act 5 Thyestes begins to be dimly aware of the tragedy awaiting revelation: ‘my mind gives warning of imminent grief.-Longinus’ observation that ‘in fact one finds low emotions distinct from the sublime. and fails to foresee the fatal danger that awaits him. is very much exposed to the deconstructive force of dissimulation. in fact. The discourse of power. No less ironic is the effect resulting from Thyestes’ inept appropriation of Virgil.11. but it is not simply a matter of academic competence. 94 See p. para. as the fractiousness of political life destroys deep-seated beliefs in the certainty of the meaning of key political terms: vera vocabula rerum amisimus.93 (Modern literary theory would indeed agree that the ‘reality effect’ intensifies the fictional status of a narrative. with Canfora (1991)). and this knowledge of precedents and models will give him a decisive advantage at crucial junctures. grief.192).) v As an authorial figure. Atreus is fully aware of the intertextual inspiration of his actions. presaging evil for itself ’ (957–8: mittit luctus signa futuri | mens ante sui praesaga mali). like the discourse of poetry. as Catilina points out (Sall. A constantly dissimulating tyrant is inevitably a bad dissimulator (as Tiberius is.92 Centuries later Baltasar Graci´an will argue that after all sincerity itself is a lie. Atreus explicitly displays his knowledge of the Ovidian story of Procne and Tereus. according to Accetto). can be obtained by emulating those forms of spontaneous expression that it would take too long to falsify. Virgil’s Mezentius had been able to realize even before the procession arrived that the corpse carried back to the camp was 92 93 95 See Pan. 13. as he lies while maintaining that he is ‘speaking truthfully’ (Od . Cat. whose contorted logic reveals a very interesting cognitive quandary. . 8.4. like pity.

For authors see Cic. Atreus is similar to Mezentius.20 concludes the second book of the Odes. Aen. 2. Phorm. | bene est. will have a chance to reactivate the audience’s memory of these models by picking up the keyword palma almost at the very end of the play: nunc meas laudo manus. of Atreus (885) signals a similar moment of completion (cf. 96 97 98 99 The instance is analysed by Tarrant (1985) 225. 125–6 (on the lion simile). p. Hor. I will hit the stars with my exalted head’ (quodsi me lyricis vatibus inseres. 2. evidently. perdideram scelus. pp. Thyestes either did not know or did not share. Note that. addressed to Maecenas: ‘but if you include me among lyric bards. 37. Atreus. it has been warranted by the astute manipulation of reality on which his revenge has been predicated all along. As we have seen. to be sure.3–6) and the proem to the third book of Virgil’s Georgics (3. shares his awareness of Virgil’s and Horace’s line of thought. see below. have I in my father’s chariot won the palm’ (409–10: celebrata iuveni stadia. by contrasting his vera palma with Thyestes’ pointless evocation of past sporting achievements. 888–9: summa votorum attigi.1.1–4 (non usitata nec tenui ferar | penna biformis per liquidum aethera | vates.). A parallel could also be drawn between the imagery of 885–6 (aequalis astris gradior et cunctos super | altum superbo vertice attingens polum) and that of Hor. .96 A similar instance of Thyestes’ insensitivity to literary models can be found in another elaborate intertextual connection which I have already touched upon. abunde est. these lines echo two important programmatic passages. 2. and aequalis astris .20.35–6. . lifted to fame. Carm. per quae nobilis | palmam paterno non semel curru tuli). 69.116 The Passions in Play that of his son Lausus: agnovit longe gemitum praesaga mali mens (‘Mezentius had a presentiment of evil. Phil. . His palma. 706 and Ter. as he declares at the end of the poem. The almost verbatim repetition highlights the sharp contrast between Thyestes and Mezentius. has nothing to do with Thyestes’ racing exploits. Ch. as he sees ‘the racecourse thronged with youth. | nisi sic doleres (1096–8). too. iam sat est etiam mihi). where more than once. the former unable to decode the ominous signs that surround him just as the latter swiftly jumps to the right conclusion. | sublimi feriam sidera vertice).36. neque in terris morabor | longius .99 Atreus.1. by his ability to produce a spectacle (Thyestes pained by harrowing grief ) which constitutes his own literary masterpiece.98 In his first ode Horace had singled out racing victories as the first item in a long list of lesser pursuits which he shuns for the glory of poetry. 1. Trin. . which.97 Finally back in Argos. Actors may have fought to conquer a palma already in Plautus’ time. 1. Amph. see Plaut.843). He heard the wailing in the distance and knew the truth’. 10. Horace’s first ode (Carm. 16–17 with Duckworth (1952) 78. Poen. 1. | nunc parta vera est palma. Thyestes recalls with barely restrained emotion his youthful victories in the races. .10–20). significantly. Carm. 59.

Atreus embodies in the play the limitless energy that Tantalus had tried in vain to keep in check in the prologue to Thyestes. Positing a stark contrast between an unreasonable tyrant and a (potentially) ‘good king’ would be equally unreliable. but also gives it an unquestionable aesthetic attractiveness. funny. When he laughed. his deadly lack of literary competence. Atreus cannot be reduced to a furious monster. Thyestes discourages. The destruction of any boundary to nefas and decorum is thus inextricably linked to his creative power. o f a k i n d Perfection. the just king and the tyrant are different points in a continuum. articulate. And when he cried the little children died in the streets. as Cicero claims. there is very little 100 See above. S. points out. Acting like a tyrant can be a momentary madness or a lifelong pattern. if for no other reason than that tyrant and rex iustus are not ontologically opposite types. per f e c t i o n . . and thus to side against Thyestes’ unattractive literalness. Atreus further boosts his privileged relationship with the audience. And was greatly interested in armies and fleets. because it not only makes room for nefas. Auden. simply irresistible. (W. and we. and the struggle is never won once and for all. since it depends on a more or less successful control over passions. but one is not ‘born’ a tyrant. ch. passim. we have seen. Atreus the poet is cunning. As Cicero.A craftier Tereus 117 By displaying his intimate. the audience. 2. which is invited to share Atreus’ literary awareness. for instance. Thyestes to a Stoic sapiens more or less close to possessing a bona mens. was what he was after. clear-cut definitions of characters and (even more) their hasty promotion to ethical types. tragic violence and tragi-comic irony – and through his ability to exceed the expected and the acceptable. And the poetry he invented was easy to understand. active knowledge of the literary tradition. Epitaph on a Tyrant) i Through a powerful combination of qualities – passion and reason. A tyrannus can always be lurking behind the comforting image of the rex. of a kind. respectable senators burst with laughter.100 Atreus’ power is doubly lethal. He knew human folly like the back of his hand. and. must admit that one cannot exist without the other.

because in the former remain ‘stronger and more numerous’ (571b) the ‘illicit’. repressed by laws and better instincts can be totally extirpated or lessened and weakened’ (571b). indeed ‘terrible’ and ‘savage’ (572b) desires common to all men. .118 The Passions in Play distance between the two: ‘when the king begins to act unjustly . . slumbers. . but ‘in some individuals . gentle and dominant part.101 The mastertext of this juxtaposition between king and tyrant is to be found in Plato’s Republic.102 The tyrannical man comes about through a degeneration of the democratic man. but the beastly and savage (. he himself is a tyrant. the rational ( ). These desires (571c–d): are awakened in sleep when the rest of the soul. . the worst type. and the closest one to the best’.

67): ‘Plato. This passage. One may turn to Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Caesars. gambols and. where Freud analyses the relationship between (day)-dreams. Rulers (especially tyrants) are all-powerful since their superhuman power makes them more similar to terrifying animals such as lions and leopards than to mere mortals. falls short of no extreme of folly ( ) and shamelessness (  ).65. It is ready for any foul deed of blood. creates tyrants. on the contrary. On the excesses of Greek tyrants see Catenacci (1996). in more or less mediated or terrifying ways. if implicitly. especially 142–70 on erotic ones. thought that the best men are those who only dream what other men do in their waking life’. 65–94.103 posits a connection between psychology and politics which will be at work more or less explicitly in most of the Hellenistic and Roman reflection on ‘the good king’. and definitely in Seneca’s own De clementia. First of all in a 1914 addition to The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud (1900) = SE i v. repelling sleep. . Rep. the tyrant is he who never controls or represses his instincts but gives them immediate and complete satisfaction.104 The literature of Imperial Rome focuses insistently on this conceptual knot. The remark is echoed almost verbatim in Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Freud (1916–17) = SE xv . and. it abstains from no food. a fascinating 101 103 104 102 See Lanza (1977) esp. or. We know from a great wealth of anthropological and literary material that all rulers. god or brute. are characterized as men who regularly break or trespass all sorts of boundaries. to put it another way. or with anyone else. replete with food and wine. Cic. whose wider significance will not escape Sigmund Freud. man.143–53).146). It does not shrink from attempting to lie with a mother in fancy. There is no mention of Plato in Creative Writers and Day-Dreaming (Der Dichter und das Phantasieren (1907): SE i x. It is a well-known limitation of this and other Freudian writings on art that they focus more on the subject matter than the signifying practices shared by art and the unconscious. we might well say. in a word. You are aware that in such case there is nothing it will not venture to undertake as being released from all sense of shame ( ) and all reason ( ). The sleep of reason. 1. endeavours to sally forth and satisfy its own instincts. fantasy and poetic creation and effectively. appropriates for psychoanalysis Plato’s seminal observation.      ) part.

and because poetry incites the audience to privilege the parts of the soul which are best kept under control (605c–607a). 577b and 579b–c with Zeitlin (1996) 371 and n. Poetry leads people astray for at least two reasons: because poets tend to imitate in their work the worse instincts of the soul. is simply an attempt to persuade Nero that it is in his moral and practical interest to acknowledge those limits which no outside force is any longer capable of imposing. attractive and repulsive. The whole of De clementia. that of the rex-tyrannus. linked as he is to irrational and uncontrollable forces.A craftier Tereus 119 document about the perception of power in the first century. resembles a woman: Resp. reined in. because it is the individual ruler’s psychology. because it escapes the control of reason. the violation of rational and ethical norms. especially as he can be at the same time terrifying and magnificent. Poetry has no citizenship in a well-regulated polis. But another side is not entirely forgotten. is inspired by supernatural sources whose epistemological status is frequently debated in Augustan poetry. . then a dispassionate reflection on the tyrant’s potential emotional appeal as a literary character is in order. Poetry is equivalent to loosening inhibition. to yielding to alogon. to understand how the contemporary imagination lived with the presence. bettered. the most important work for understanding Seneca’s and some of his contemporaries’ political vision. The notion that poetic inspiration is connected with divine elements and contains something inexplicable is prePlatonic (Democritus). In book 10 Plato deals for the second and last time with the issue of poetry and its dangers. and accomplishes what moral self-repression or external laws keep out of the reach of normal people is rich in theoretical implications. Politics must needs turn into psychology. If in the tyrant there is at work a form of extreme violence akin to the violence of unrepressed desires. Note in this context Zeitlin’s remarks on the gender assumptions which underlie Plato’s rejection of poetry as a dangerous ‘female’ mimesis (1996) 367–74 (on the connection between women and mimesis Zeitlin (1996) 375–416 is crucial). high on the Palatine. Plato’s intuition that the tyrant is a man who gives free rein in his life to alogon. Indeed the tyrant. but it is Plato’s specific contribution to regard this inspiration as irrational. not the better ones (603c–605c). even Bacchic (533e–534e). which in political terms is embodied by the ‘tyrannical character’. those which get free rein in dreams unless proper rational control is exercised. of rulers increasingly free from meaningful checks and balances. which must be controlled. a ‘theatrical’ man who is a slave of his passions.105 Poetry often arrives in dreams. The rich tradition of the inspiring dream codifies in Greek and Roman literature the positive side of the relationship between poetry and dreams. 56. namely the awareness that an excess of poetic irrationality can be 105 See Murray (1996) 7–9.

Pisones. but they should not overturn the foundations of human nature and society. ‘But painters and poets have always enjoyed a full right to dare whatever they fancied. but they could not defy the basic rules of atomic aggregation which forbid the union of different species. ut nec pes nec caput uni reddatur formae. Light-hearted and full of grotesque imagery as these lines may sound.120 The Passions in Play compared to the disturbed and unreliable dreams of a sick man. their seriousness is not to be underestimated. recall a very important section of De rerum natura book 5 (lines 878–924). and Brink ad loc. or snakes should mate with birds. this is a licence which we poets request and concede in turn. et hanc veniam petimusque damusque vicissim. especially if we consider that the Horatian examples of adynata. Consider the opening of Horace’s Ars poetica (6–9a): credite. but not to the extent that savage animals should lie down with domestic ones. The ‘licence’ (licentia) which Horace grants to poets106 is an enlightened absolutism of sorts: there is a lot they are free to do. non ut serpentes avibus geminentur. species) are shaped in it as in the dreams of feverish people. Pisones. vanae fingentur species. one might propose that the poet’s violation of this censorship is homologous to the tyrant’s transgression of behavioural norms. The poet. the book will be very similar to this picture. or lambs with tigers. 106 Cf. Horace contrasts the folly of this limitless imagination with the reliable rules of good judgement (9b-13): ‘pictoribus atque poetis quidlibet audendi semper fuit aequa potestas’ scimus. feelings and images which reason would rather keep under control and even silence are expressed and communicated. There Lucretius argues that the first living creatures created by Mother Earth must surely have been imperfect. sed non ut placidis coeant immitia. of impossible conjunctions. . tigribus agni. even ‘monstrous’ to our mind. that poetry is the sphere of human activity where the kinds of thoughts. . at both a contextual and theoretical level. velut aegri somnia.’ True. isti tabulae fore librum persimilem cuius. Mayor (1879). Let me briefly restate the crux of my argument: it is possible to argue. so that neither head nor foot can be assigned to a single shape. Believe me. if idle fancies (vanae . Furthermore. .

according to Isidorus. . creators and innovators of reality. The parallelism that I posit does not exhaust the exegetical dividends afforded by comparing the political and the poetic. between poeta and rex iustus. Indeed. See Jocelyn (1995). I would like to argue that there exists between the tyrant and the enthusiastic vates a latent solidarity based on a basic homology. with his ability to create a compelling mise en sc`ene. Orig. and the tyrant can dress up as a poet in order to fulfil his goals.109 Atreus’ power is explicitly connected. Grg.7. We should adopt in this case as well an articulation of the concept that is parallel to the one suggested above between rex iustus and tyrant. suggested among others the interesting etymology of vates ‘a vi mentis’): the term vates ‘made the poet a being with more than ordinary powers’ (Newman (1967) 100). is like the tyrant.3. One might recall the debate between Socrates and Polus on whether rhetors have real power in the polis. Bartsch (1994) 36–62. Poets and tyrants are similar. first of all. irony. of creation and destruction. auctores.A craftier Tereus 121 that is. The poet is like the tyrant. an identification. dissimulation. because just like him he ignores the boundaries set by logos and nomos. and an object of power in the political domain: hence the powerful tensions and contradictions we find in the relationship between poets and rulers in the Rome of Augustus and Nero (and beyond). and. of course. on the one hand. They both are ‘authors’. His weapons are exactly the same: creativity. Not all poets. A similarity that famously becomes. the former two champions of moderation and self-restraint. the latter closer to sublime forces of Bacchic enthousiasmos or Apollinean inspiration. the theoretical argument developed so far can be put to further use once we formulate a final corollary. in the tragedy.108 A vates will invariably be a subject of power in his sphere of activity. they can kill whoever they want to. because ‘like tyrants. 8. deprive anyone of his property and expel him from their cities as they think fit’ (Pl. an articulation which Augustan and post-Augustan poetry and poetics encapsulate in the related but distinct concepts of poeta and vates. According to Polus they do.107 We could therefore complete the theoretical proposition by positing an analogy. One feature appears to underline the new meaning of the word after Virgil (and Varro. and not all the time. who. 466c). In first-century literature the tyrant is attractive because of the similarities between those who exercise political power and the power of the poets. masters of life and death. . in the case of Nero. . because they both claim for themselves the right to act supra . 107 108 109 For a full picture of the emergence and development of the concept of vates in the first century see Newman (1967). fines moris humani (268). ii The tyrant’s attractiveness is rooted in the characteristics he shares with the vates. on the other. between vates and tyrant.

122 The Passions in Play double entendres. One way to gauge the potential effect of Atreus on the audience is to look at the reactions of the characters who watch him within the play. so does cruel Atreus scan the heads destined to his cruel rage. knowledge of the literary tradition. logic and deeds is reflected in his strong impact on the audience. and keeps her hunger waiting). Atreus’ superiority over Thyestes in words. stage and act his revenge. Atreus is first compared to a tigress in his uncertainty over the order of the sacrifice (707–14): ieiuna silvis qualis in Gangeticis inter iuvencos tigris erravit duos. The messenger provides the most articulate analysis of the reactions that Atreus inspires. eager for both prey. his ruthless determination to plot. illo reflectit et famem dubiam tenet). as the chorus enquires about the fate of Thyestes’ younger child. . and wonders whom he should first sacrifice to himself. but also in the elaborate similes he uses in his gripping portrait of the king. from the docility of the counsellor in act 2 to the messenger’s horror as he recalls the sacrificial slaughter in act 4. 110 For the notion of ‘aesthetic allegiance’ see Orlando (1971) passim. uncertain where she should bite first (to the one she turns her jaws. If nothing else. there can be no doubt where our aesthetic allegiances lie:110 with Atreus’ energetic poiesis. Shortly afterwards. non aliter Atreus saevit atque ira tumet. the messenger engages in a new comparison of a similar type (732–41): silva iubatus qualis Armenia leo in caede multa victor armento incubat (cruore rictus madidus et pulsa fame non ponit iras: hinc et hinc tauros premens vitulis minatur dente iam lasso inpiger). and conveys them not only in his moral judgement. quem prius mactet sibi dubitat. utriusque praedae cupida quo primum ferat incerta morsus (flectit hoc rictus suos. In both cases we face the impotent awe of human beings confronted with behaviour that goes well beyond their normal horizon of expectations. whom he should slaughter second. secunda deinde quem caede immolet. his mastery of words and puns. As in the jungles by the Ganges a hungry tigress wavers between two calves. then turns to the other. sic dirus Atreus capita devota impiae speculatur irae.

It is especially interesting to note that Procne is compared to a Gangetica tigris112 just as she sets out to murder her son. . 15. | . infesta manu exegit ultra corpus. oblitus in quem fureret. Dionysus was. tigris.113 there is much to be gained by expanding the possible implications of Seneca’s departure from 111 112 113 Note the change in gender from a male to a female animal between the two similes. and while yet another Ovidian line might have suggested the choice of a different animal. forgetting whom he is attacking. 457–8. The tradition is present in Rome as well. tireless even as his jaws are tired) – not otherwise Atreus raves and swells with anger and holding the knife drenched with double slaughter.44 (Dodds (1960) xvii with n. with deadly hand he drives it through the body. a sexually ambivalent god. namely the animal’s indulgence in violence well beyond the practical impulse to kill its prey.111 It is not simply hunger that drives the lion. Met. the detail of the beast’s hesitation when confronted with two victims further echoes Perseus’ own uncertainty at Metamorphoses 5. 6). however. as articulated in sacrifice. but even after he has quelled his hunger he rages on: now here. but which does introduce a key element of his characterization. Gangetica. described as having feminine traits. especially from the fifth century onwards. See p. to compare with Sen. As we have already noticed. Neither passage. 458: tigris . above. notoriously.164–9. Note also the traditional association of Dionysus with a lion that goes back to the Homeric Hymns 7. the tigress image highlighting the combination of rational and bestial. but an instinctual passion for violence which is partly pursued for its own sake. Oed. 6. and present in Sen.86: Armeniae tigres iracundique leones. ac pueri statim pectore receptus ensis in tergo exstitit. who refers to Met. on which passage see the preceding note. lies down amidst the herd (his jaws reek with gore. 735 and 737. and the sword enters the boy’s breast and stands out upon his back. . he threatens the calves. While the first simile focuses on Atreus’ procedural doubt. . 57 Ribbeck2 (from the Lycurgus). 80. 424–6. . see Dodds (1960) 133–4. The immediate antecedent of both similes can be found (unsurprisingly) in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Oed . The detail may be significant in the light of the Dionysiac aspects of Atreus’ personality which I discuss below. and transactions among.A craftier Tereus 123 ferrumque gemina caede perfusum tenens. the second develops at length an aspect of the lion’s behaviour emphasized in previous texts. According to Tarrant (1985) 195. mentions lions. a notion which should not immediately and inevitably translate into a moral judgement. Detienne (1979) 20–52. Both similes concentrate on Atreus’ animal-like behaviour. gods and animals. As in the Armenian woods a maned lion. . . victorious after much slaughter. see Naev. Note the insistence on ira at Thy. Atreus’ bestial nature plays an important role when the tragedy comes to terms with the relative positioning of.636–7: veluti Gangetica . now there attacking the bulls. . men.

2. Lucan insists on the lion’s ira (a traditional detail). driving the weapon deeper. an attractive. 3. By comparing Atreus to a lion Seneca does more than reiterate Atreus’ beastly violence: he invites reflection on important thematic and metaliterary affiliations. Chronology notwithstanding. . 5. Carm. it is probably best to turn first to Lucan’s Caesar.1. mox. he has a !  ). crouches in hesitation till he has concentrated all his anger. tum torta levis si lancea Mauri haereat aut latum subeant venabula pectus. are repeatedly compared to a lion. if fearful. and Virgil elicits from his Homeric model a consistent series of connotations. In this respect Caesar follows in a distinguished line of (anti)heroes whose most immediate and influential model can be traced to two important Virgilian characters.115 In Aeneid 9 114 115 See Sen. Lucan’s Caesar. of course. 4. 1. who suggested that Varius might have introduced a variation of the legend in which Thyestes’ anger played a more significant part. Turnus and Mezentius. next he goads himself with fiercely lashing tail. Odysseus’ victory is compared to the behaviour of a lion. who is characterized as a lion in the first.23–6 and 17. Among the possible explanations that Nisbet and Hubbard advance. see Od . They. totam dum colligit iram. a somewhat difficult notion given Atreus’ traditional association with revenge.15 with Nisbet-Hubbard (1970) 211. with Moulton (1977) 139 and 123 (with further references).540–2. The most relevant Homeric similes are to be found in Il. Just so in torrid Libya’s barren fields the lion.16. per ferrum tanti securus volneris exit. consistently proves to be a character whose unrestrainable proclivity to nefas and violence constitutes the emotional and narrative focus of the poem. from his massive jaws deep he roars – then if a lance. Il. 17. his mane is bristling.1: iracundia leones adiuvat. extended simile which the Bellum Civile devotes to its main character (204–12): inde moras solvit belli tumidumque per amnem signa tulit propere: sicut squalentibus arvis aestiferae Libyes viso leo comminus hoste subsedit dubius.124 The Passions in Play his model. mixture of defiance and ruthlessness. hurled by a swift Moor. which insist on the lion’s anticipated joy at the carnage. Then he broke the barriers of war and through the swollen river quickly took his standards. Hor. on seeing his enemy at hand.16. it is worth reporting that of Vollmer (on Stat. Silv. 12.114 but also stresses the beast’s almost heroic defiance in the face of the enemy.292–300 is also interesting for Sarpedon’s somewhat excessive behaviour (like a lion. ubi se saevae stimulavit verbere caudae erexitque iubam et vasto grave murmur hiatu infremuit.126–30). too. It is important to note that the passage refers to Thyestes’ ira.57). epic grandeur and impious heroism. or hunting-spears pierce and stick in his broad chest. Also. De ira.335–9 ( = 17.61–7 foregrounds the abundant blood in which the animal revels. ignoring such a terrible wound he rushes onward.

crowding him like a pack of huntsmen with levelled spears pressing hard on a savage lion. the lion is afraid and gives ground. Just as a lion in the fields round Carthage.454–6. lavit improba taeter ora cruor – sic ruit in densos alacer Mezentius hostis. . at territus ille. uncertain but unhurried. and though he would dearly love to. haud aliter retro dubius vestigia Turnus improperata refert et mens exaestuat ira. 10. asper. who does not move into battle till he has received a great wound in his chest from the hunters. briefer description is to be found in Aen. On these and other animal similes applied to Turnus see Traina (1990) 327. but he is still dangerous. and opens his gory jaws to roar – just so did the violent passion rise in Turnus. Even when wounded.4–9): Poenorum qualis in arvis saucius ille gravi venantum vulnere pectus tum demum movet arma leo. the lion will rejoice in the forthcoming slaughter and continue to display its determination (12. acerba tuens. retro redit et neque terga ira dare aut virtus patitur.792–8):116 ceu saevum turba leonem cum telis premit infensis. shaking out the thick mane on his neck. nec tendere contra ille quidem hoc cupiens potis est per tela virosque. . fearlessly he snaps off the shaft left in his body by the ruffian that threw it. . si forte fugacem conspexit capream aut surgentem in cornua cervum. his anger and his courage forbid him to turn tail. . It is precisely the pleasure gained from the anticipated slaughter that Virgil highlights in the simile devoted to Mezentius later in book 10 (723–9): impastus stabula alta leo ceu saepe peragrans (suadet enim vesana fames). its bloodthirstiness and grandiosity. he cannot charge through the wall of steel and the press of men – just so did Turnus give ground. This description focuses on the strength and defiance of the animal. and his mind was boiling with rage. still glaring at his attackers. with further bibliography. and then revels in it. gaudet hians immane comasque arrexit et haeret visceribus super incumbens. gaudetque comantis excutiens cervice toros fixumque latronis impavidus frangit telum et fremit ore cruento: haud secus accenso gliscit violentia Turno.A craftier Tereus 125 Turnus is described as a lion standing unperturbed in front of his enemies (9. 116 A similar.

. on similar charges directed against a tyrannical Mark Antony see Leigh (1996). the cannibal of the two. but it is important to remember his initial words: ‘Is it the gods who put this ardour into our minds.119 onto Thyestes. a strategy at which Atreus excels. in a sense. Here again Seneca’s strategy is rich and sophisticated. an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido?’ ). 565d-566a.126 The Passions in Play Just as a ravening lion scouring the deep lairs of wild beasts. attains grandiosity by heeding his passion (his furor) well beyond the normal bounds of human behaviour. 113ff. . This can be seen. shows that the more overt layer of moral condemnation offered by the poem’s structuring ideology can be at odds with the inner tensions and deeper emotions evoked by the text. or does every man’s irresistible desire become his god?’ (183–4: ‘dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt. Again. who 117 118 119 This conclusion is not weakened by the fact that the lion simile is first encountered in connection with Nisus (9. as the pinnacle of dissimulation. Atreus shows how flimsy the divide between man and animal can be (hence the lion similes and the cannibalism). yet he cunningly manages to involve his brother in this peculiarly tyrannical nefas while ostensibly refraining from it himself. On the Greeks’ view of cannibalism see Detienne (1979) 53–67.120 On the other. for all purposes. he opens his great jaws in delight. sometimes specifically as a form of punishment. like Mezentius or Caesar. or sees a stag’s antlers rising. driven mad by the pangs of hunger. however. but shows furthermore that even among men unforeseen turns of events can result in a blurring of ethical categories. 120 On dissimulation see pp. as he eats his children Thyestes is also perversely repeating the crime that led to his punishment. nefas (Thy.117 The analogy with man-eating lions and tigers indirectly highlights Atreus’ involvement with cannibalism. like Mezentius. 144. see Parker (1983) 98. who would thus join the series of tyrants (especially Eastern ones) who did not shrink from eating human flesh. | Euryale. An analogy can also be drawn between cannibalism and incest. however. See below. The association with wild beasts and the elaborate cooking scene reported by the messenger all conjure up the image of a cannibalistic Atreus. . that one cannot rely too much on ‘intrinsic’ differences between ethical types. Atreus. 94. Resp. Atreus is. Thus. if he sights a frightened she-goat. p. . Turnus. Again a feature of Plato’s tyrant. on one level. 326 and above. p. Atreus. By comparing Atreus to a lion Seneca thus places him in a genealogy of characters who display a powerful passion for nefas and inspire the awed attention of the audience. 285). indeed the praecipuum . Heroic in his evil.339–41). . Atreus’ (and Seneca’s) masterstroke consists in shifting the blame. who is the ‘real’ animal. Nisus is hardly a Mezentius-like character.118 In this case. it proves a central tenet of Atreus’ philosophy. both forms of ‘unnatural’ appropriation of a body. his mane bristles and he battens on the flesh with foul gore washing his pitiless mouth – just so did Mezentius charge hot-haste into the thick of the enemy .

of course. 1. This identification of naturalness and aesthetic appeal paves the way for a full artistic exploitation of the psychagogic and aesthetic potential of negative characters. certainly. a deep grotto (41. of such a distinctly Senecan feature as the locus horridus.6: non sine timore aspici): its decor lies in fact in this very quality.121 Atreus is not artistically appealing in spite of his cruel. Oedipus. It is equally important to frame the lion simile in the context of an explicit reflection on literature proposed by Seneca in Letters to Lucilius 41. who actually eats the flesh of his children? If Atreus is a god. of course. .122 There is little to be 121 In general see Schiesaro (1985). and aims instead at offering powerful. ‘plays god’ with Thyestes (thus also blurring the boundaries between gods and men). Atreus can thus be seen to embody a form of artistic and behavioural sublimity which transcends humanity and attracts the audience beyond and even against the purview of their ethical beliefs. This letter elaborates a defence of the sublime aesthetic appeal of terrifying images. and. . but precisely because his nature. !  ( ) always prevails over what is merely persuasive and pleasant. dealt with the notion of sublimity in a particularly influential fashion. as we see in the messenger’s simile. as the phenomenon could be defined – but. such as a dark grove. the example reinforces the intimation that one should live according to one’s nature: a tamed.3) or a lion which is speciosus ex horrido and cannot be watched without intense fear (41. What is sublime can in fact overcome the distinction between ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’. not long before Seneca composed his tragedies (or perhaps even at the same time). 122 Subl. negative nature. uncontrollable emotions: For grandeur (" #$) has the effect of transporting its audience rather than persuading it. with further bibliography. The fact is that persuasion is generally something we can resist. . ) which. Letter 41 does not answer in full the moral issues raised by such a vocal defence of ‘beauty arising from fear’ – speciosum ex horrido.A craftier Tereus 127 plots the banquet. This incisive analysis of the effects of sublimity is developed in the tract On the Sublime (* +.6). the latter cannot be absolved of his actions simply because he did not know what he was doing and because a superior power put him in harm’s way. would be able to disabuse Thyestes of any such ill-conceived notion of innocence. interestingly. or at least.4. and anything amazing and astonishing (% &' . or Thyestes. whereas these other effects exert an irresistible power and force (     )    ) and overcome every hearer. is not in the least bridled or tamed. dressed up lion would be a pitiful spectacle (41.

of course. Atreus develops a coherent and articulate poetics.124 If the messenger’s simile between Atreus and a lion thus acquires an intriguing metadramatic overtone. and to refer to it in the present attempt to ground in specific forms of behaviour and expression Atreus’ nature as a ‘sublime’ character endowed with ‘a consummate excellence of language’ (1. ‘nothing contributes more to greatness of expression than authentic emotion at the right moment.-Longinus lists first ‘the power of great thoughts’ (8. Among the ‘natural’ (8.128 The Passions in Play gained in exploiting On the Sublime as a ‘source’ for Seneca’s conception of tragedy.123 But it is surely fruitful to turn to this work in search of a contemporary analysis of the sublime.3:    &'    ).1: !  !   &  ! ( ). and second ‘strong and inspired emotion’ (8.4: #!    !      &   &. as if some frenzy or divine inspiration animated the words (8. and not just because its elusive chronology would make such a strategy risky. is made all the more pertinent by Atreus’ distinctive metadramatic role: as a poet on stage. The comparison with On the Sublime. obsessed with the plotting and mise en sc`ene of his own play. one which centres on the unrestrained power of poetry over its creator and its audience alike. Ps.) sources of sublimity.1: - . a deeper connection can also be established between Atreus’ artistic project as a whole and the intrinsic nature of sublime poetry as articulated in On the Sublime. at best. Indeed.1: !  "   /)  ).

I recall here my observations about     in chapter one.  . filling them. especially in connection with Cleanthes’ aspirations to a form of poetic expression that could aptly convey ‘divine greatness’ (. ). with the divine breath of Phoebus (8.4:  )(0 )’. as it were. ‘the echo of a great soul’ (9.2:      ). in sum. The sublime is.

He explicitly declares his intention to scare off a very special sector of his audience.125 There I tried to show that any attempt to rein in the potentially disruptive force of poetic enthousiasmos and reconcile it safely with the Stoics’ stated goal of a morally instructive poetry is intrinsically doomed to failure. 23. ch. Cf. grandiose and. 125 SVF 1.-Longinus. Mazzoli (1970) 47. cf. See above. as Traina (1987) 123 argues.).6).486. 1. 1. distinctly  ) (10. the finished product. See above. with his 123 124 On the sublime in Seneca valuable general indications are offered by Michel (1969). as it were. but also the creative stages that bring it to life. p.9). Atreus can now offer a case study of a ‘sublime’ poet in action. to borrow from Ps.4. the gods themselves. Atreus’ passion is intense. 15. . one who allows us to glimpse not only. I am not sure that the connection is invalid just because in his prose Seneca would not admit that he is trying to move his readers to ekstasis (Subl.

10.2). and is thereby made pregnant (&   ) by the supernatural power and is at once inspired to prophecy. 13. but none forget’.-Longinus offers. fiat nefas | quod. fac quod nulla posteritas probet. Thy.A craftier Tereus 129 extraordinary nefas126 – not to mention the fact that the direct and indirect witnesses of his sacrifice (the messenger.2:   and 0) as he constantly concerns himself with the judgement of posterity: ‘If I write this. but he also insists on competing with them. prophecy and poetic creativity.127 An element of the intense emotions that Atreus is capable of stirring is undoubtedly connected with the very violence of his own passions. as though they were separate elements external to her. do what no coming age shall approve. the chorus. colour. freezes and burns. just as (so the story runs) the Pythia at Delphi sits on her tripod near a cleft in a ground which (so they say) breathes out a divine vapour. sight.-Longinus connects sublimity with a specific attitude entertained by the poet about his past and his future. Thyestes at 920–69 (before the revelation). According to Ps. from the genius of the old [writers] a kind of effluence (  ) from those holy mouths flows into the souls of their imitators’ (13. Atreus entertains precisely the same concern and has a trenchant answer ready: age. raves and reasons (after all. especially of those that catalyze different emotions at once: ‘Are you not astonished at the way she summons up all together – mind and body. Not only is he fully aware of the pertinent models for his own endeavour. my soul. To achieve these heights of inspiration and poetry he must go 126 127 265–6: fiat hoc. Thyestes himself ) react to his actions with unrestrained terror.2). but a complex of emotions’ (Subl. . Atreus’ programme of poetic imitation is indeed predicated on   and 0 vis-`a-vis his models. anime.3).-Longinus’ striking image this inspiration drawn from past models ‘impregnates’ the poet just as the divine wind penetrates the Pythia: ‘many [poets] are possessed by a spirit not their own. The messenger at 634–8. as if she wanted to display not one single emotion. the chorus at 744. timetis. she is terrified or even on the point of death). The poet who aspires to sublimity is characterized by his deeply agonistic relationship with his models. tongue. and explicitly turns to them for inspiration (Subl. a compelling analysis of the impact of unrestrained passions. di. 192–3). how might posterity judge it?’ (14. Likewise. 789–884.3). which he should imitate and emulate (13. As vates. hearing. Ps. | sed nulla taceat (‘up. and feels contradictory sensations. the sublime poet operates at the critical juncture between overwhelming inspiration. on trying to surpass their evil with an increasingly original nefas of his own. Ps. in connection with Sappho’s fragment 31 Voigt.

  4 ). The maius-motif 129 pervades his reflections in act 2. maius et solito amplius (‘something greater. with what is ‘more’ and ‘bigger’. | sed rapior (Thy. . 260–2). constantly obsessed with excess. the exchange between Jocasta and Eteocles in Euripides’ Phoenissae. and that the search for ! . 267). to him nullum [sc. His never-ending search for maius is consistent with the ideology of tyranny. A distraught Jocasta is firm in her belief that to the wise man what is adequate is always enough (554: & ( 1  21 3 "  . . facinus] est satis (‘no crime is enough’. pain forces him to devise a revenge bigger (maius. and be pervaded by an irresistible outside force precisely as Atreus does: tumultus pectora attonitus quatit | penitusque voluit. The tyrant constantly hungers to escape limitations. again) than the one meted out to Tereus (272–5). to ignore sufficiency and moderation. larger than normal’. his animus pushes him to accomplish nescioquid . and is but one aspect of his sublime nature.128 Atreus’ obsession with maius nefas is directly connected with his agonistic attitude towards tradition. 256).130 The Passions in Play beyond the closed boundaries of his masculine self. always in search of higher pursuits and stronger emotions. A relevant statement on the subject can be found in one of the most interesting literary debates ‘on tyranny’. rapior et quo nescio.

But Eteocles had already made it clear that striving after ‘more’ is a given which does not require (nor indeed allow) any explanation: ‘it is not manly (  ) to lose more and settle for less’. ! . literally ‘more’) is the pursuit of a mere name (553).  (‘advantage’. being happy with  5   (‘less’) when it is possible to have ‘more’.

 (509–10). The search for ! .

n. can never cease. maius. 51ff. Phantasia. Atreus overwhelms the counsellor thanks also to the elaborate accumulation of details which reinforce the vividness of his plot. In his speech in act 2. for instance. occurs when ‘moved by 128 130 129 See p. pp. Ps. See Mastronarde (1994) 303 on the discussion in Plato’s Gorgias and Republic about the tyrant as ‘the supreme example of the  .2). Among the former. 31. the ability to gather a number of details and present them as a compelling whole (Subl.-Longinus explains. 16. See above.130 On the Sublime does not confine its analysis to the psychological tension underlying the poetics of sublimity. . Phantasia. is a principle that Atreus-the-author would readily embrace. but takes into account a number of particularly representative techniques of expression that are related to it. A sublime style reveals itself both in specific arrangements of the subject matter and in a series of rhetorical tropes. 12. too. it is the prime motivator and ultimate goal of the 6   – of the ethics and aesthetics of tyranny. particular consideration should be devoted to 5'.

which is presupposed by these lines.’. .

a stylistic device which raises the emotional pitch of the sentence and. Ignavus.4. nerveless. . The reader of On the Sublime need perhaps go no further than the first few lines of Atreus’ initial monologue (176–80) in search of distinctive features of the sublime: ignave. ingesta orbitas | in ora patris). and. Its Greek counterpart.137). The Auctor ad Herennium (4. post fratris dolos fasque omne ruptum questibus vanis agis iratus Atreus? Undaring. and is suited to concision’ (hoc genus [sc. Atreus is fully aware of the effectiveness of this process even as he is still in the planning phase of his revenge. his lost children heaped up before their father’s face’ (Thy. after so many crimes. See also Quint. what in important matters I consider a king’s worst reproach. for further references. Self-apostrophe occurs at 192 (age. just like interrogations and selfinterrogations. and Billerbeck (1988) 123. 178.-Longinus explicitly indicates.1–2: ‘the impassioned rapidity of question and answer and the technique of making an objection to oneself make the passage. with Brink ad loc. 2. and the self-directed question and answer represent the momentary quality of emotion. not only more sublime. argos. dissolutum] et acrimoniam habet in se et vehementissimum est et ad brevitatem adcommodatum). and Billerbeck (1988) 122–3. 18. 281–3: tota iam ante oculos meos | imago caedis errat.132 The three adjectives that Atreus uses at line 176 to describe his behaviour so far are all found in rhetorical and literary contexts. The strength of his inspiration and the vividness of his project are such that a full picture of the imminent slaughter is already available to him: ‘already before my eyes flits the whole picture of the slaughter. and place them before the eyes of your audience’ (15. but more convincing. Subl. 9.’ On the technique see Canter (1925) 140ff.41) provides an apt description of the device’s effects: ‘this figure (asyndeton) has animation and very great force. slow style.67. esp. as we glean from Horace’s Epistles.1).A craftier Tereus 131 passionate emotion.133 can be used of an indolent. the whole structure of this period – an extended self-addressed question – falls within the technai of the sublime listed by Ps. by virtue of its figurative form. which are another device frequently employed by Atreus. similar to the type of compositio which Quintilian will define as tarda et supina (‘slow and languid’.54 and Calboli (1993) 370–2.3. 9.1. Epist. unavenged. indolent. after a brother’s treacheries. iners. plays a significant 131 132 133 On asyndeton in Senecan tragedy: Canter (1925) 169ff.-Longinus. n. For emotion carries us away more readily when it seems to be generated by the moment rather than deliberately assumed by the speaker. you seem to see the things of which you speak. and breaking every law. enervis et (quod maximum probrum tyranno rebus in summis reor) inulte. anime). post tot scelera. is one of the hallmarks of the sublime. as Ps. you are busy with idle complaints – is this Atreus in a rage? This period is strongly marked by asyndeton.131 Significantly.

where the anaphora of iterum and the polyptoton maior/maius clearly contribute to the stylistic strength Cicero wants to exemplify. Horace will call versus . relates enervis to mollis. More generally. Bramble (1974) 35–8 (esp. Enervis (‘feeble’) belongs to the vast repertoire of anatomic and physiological metaphors we find in Latin literary terminology.2. Tantalus’ description of his father as Thyestes enters the stage for the first time in act 3 (Thy. The ensuing dialogue repeatedly contrasts the huge difference between Atreus’ determined enthousiasmos and his brother’s uncertainty (tinged with hypocrisy) as he extols the virtues of measure.142). But as soon as Demosthenes begins to speak. vehemens.132 The Passions in Play role in Ps. 3. with further bibliography. . . 36. De or. for instance.123) as boring as the carmen iners with which. 2. ‘lifeless lines’.4. sumat] vis. Atreus will promptly overcome his initial weakness. There follows a quotation of Accius’ Atreus 198–201 Ribbeck2 = Dangel 29–32 (quoted below. Dial. . imminens quadam incitatione gravitatis). intense. ‘unmanly’ (9. 142). a rival has inexplicably wooed his beloved Phyllis (Ecl.5.-Longinus’ comparison between Hyperides and Demosthenes (Subl. however. abundance. and is mired in doubt. vehement. they leave the audience at peace. are without grandeur: ‘inert ( () in the heart of a sober man’. vocis genus . on which see Gudeman (1914) 318–19. p.    ). . and go on to embody a stylistic and behavioural model grounded in energy. all his unapproachable force ( ) and power ( ). Nobody is afraid when he reads Hyperides. 3. contentum. 445). 18. numerous as they are. eager with a sort of impressive urgency’ (aliud [sc.38).135 134 135 Enervis also occurs in Tac.134 Note. Calpurnius’ Lycidas will complain. 421–2): pigro (quid hoc est?) genitor incessu stupet vultumque versat seque in incerto tenet. 4. inertes (Ars P. 34.59–60). he gathers to himself the faculties of true genius in their highest form – the intensity of lofty speech (#. Cicero. ‘weak’ (Tusc. exile and modest living vis-`a-vis the false wealth of power. and one he recommends himself to the speaker who wants to convey vis with words. keeps turning his face. . vital emotion. speed where it matters. Quintilian relates it to effeminatus. speed and determination. variety. n. My father (what is it?) moves with slow step as if in a daze.219 ‘energy (must take) another kind of tone. It is a model which Cicero already recognized in Accius’ Atreus. 3).4): Yet Hyperides’ beauties. lines virtute carentia (Epist.

he occupies the entire scenic space. If Dionysus – Euripides’ Dionysus above all – is the god of theatre. between the illusional power of the poetic word and the harsh impact of the reality principle realized in his all-too-real revenge.136 What surfaces from a synoptic analysis of all these tightly interconnected aspects is not simply Atreus’ extraordinary complexity nor even his ability to unify the tensions between drama and metadrama. endowed with many of the same alluring ambiguities and irresistible attractions. director and spectator. His knowledge of the literary tradition establishes beyond any doubt his metadramatic credentials. all-encompassing. 6. ecstatic. . whose revenge takes place in the frenzy of trieterica Bacchi. as he deceives and entraps his enemy. Atreus also shares in the violent revenge that can be 136 137 Boyle (1983b) 212. As author. but also prove invaluable in the battle against less articulate opponents such as Thyestes and Pentheus. Atreus can be considered his (super)human counterpart. he lays claim to the audience’s sympathy for the wrongs he has suffered while also eliciting their horror at the intensity of his revenge. Ciappi (1998) 439. embodies the sublime in its ultimate. which places the story in a Thrace converted to the cult of Dionysus. He enjoys the prerogatives of masculine political power. Atreus. all-powerful. The setting may well go back to Sophocles. Met. As ‘gods’ of theatrical mimesis both Atreus and the protagonist of Bacchae act as playwrights on the stage and control the unfolding of the dramatic action. Dangel (1995) 346–7. As the protagonist of the play. Ovid follows Accius’ less usual version of the myth.137 Appropriating the wounded persona of the betrayed queen.587. Both Atreus and Dionysus import into the tragedy comic elements which not only enrich their expressive repertoire. As both victim and executioner. Dionysiac incarnation.A craftier Tereus 133 iii In his polymorphous manifestations Atreus tramples the boundaries between different realms. On the connections between the sacrifice of Thyestes and the Dionysiac dimension of the Procne story see Burkert (1983) 181–2. Atreus’ Dionysiac overtones are established early in the play as an effect of the intertextual connection with Ovid’s Procne. but he does not hesitate to rely on his feminine inner self as he yields to passions and allows himself to be carried away by inspiration. Ov. he parades an unrivalled capacity to use language creatively and metaphorically to ensnare his victims. The analogy extends to fundamental aspects of Atreus’ persona. just as his insistence on the sacrificial nature of the slaughter that he performs seems to secure his divine status as a man who behaves like a wild animal and shines like a god. with all its possible functions and points of view.

  -!    . Dionysus’ double entendres exploit the same linguistic ambiguity that will serve Atreus so well in his successful attempt to tease and deceive his brother. Finally.139 In the second episode of Bacchae.141 Puns and double entendres bring home this fundamental opposition and its paradoxical resolution. but Atreus certainly is when he specifies that the most hideous aspect of his revenge be carried out by him. Thyestes may not be aware of what he is doing. we are reminded. Like Agave. Bacchae. like the Euripidean archetype of Dionysiac tragedy. and overpowering all others. knowledge and emotions. like Dionysus. Atreus. of a novel ceremony in honour of a novel god. and the ‘wise’ are ultimately devoid of sense. 656). 138 139 140 141 Lines 267–78. overturned and destroyed. in particular.138 he transcends the normal limits of human action and partakes of the irrational excess of the god of furor. on which see above. One of the recurrent themes of Bacchae is precisely that those who appear to be ‘foolish’ (Dionysus and his followers) are actually ‘wise’. plays a crucial metadramatic role.140 The god. when Atreus confesses to the unexplained and overwhelming power of the inspiration that has taken him over. who is even more controversial than his Greek counterpart. appearing as the consummate manipulator of words. 1281–2 (KA. manipulation and disguise which other characters are unequipped to understand. It may be worth pointing out the comparable structure of the exchange between Cadmus and Agave at Bacch. p. Thyestes is effectively blinded (wine fuddles his mind) and forced to become (at least symbolically) the killer of his own offspring. Pentheus is baffled by this different form of communication and is consistently taken in by it. is a sophos (Bacch. is (among other things) a tragedy of revenge and of familial bonds ignored. We realize now that the ‘comic’ elements play a very significant role in the articulation of the play’s meaning. because they strike at the core of what sophia really is. Atreus himself. Similarly.134 The Passions in Play understood only in the context of such wild rites. and by which they are inevitably trapped. the crime committed by Atreus is similarly coloured by the religious overtones of a rite. 130. Thyestes. Much of Atreus’ and Dionysus’ power resides in their ability to introduce into the tragic text a dimension of skilled irony. Dionysus-Bacchus himself. whose knowledge far exceeds that of uninspired mortals such as the king of Thebes.

(. | AG. 7 . . .) with Thy. 1005–6: AT. natos ecquid agnoscis tuos? | TH. agnosco fratrem.
Segal (1982) 230 aptly labels him an ‘authoritarian literalist’.
See for instance the god’s remark on Pentheus’ significant name at Bacch. 508. Pentheus, however,
does recognize Dionysus’ linguistic prowess: 8  % 7 )(   -       (491).
See 479–80.
The topic is particularly prominent in the first episode; see especially 196, with 269, 326, 332,

A craftier Tereus


While the comparison between Thyestes and Bacchae is especially significant at a symbolic and functional level, some further thematic affinities
are worth mentioning. Hunting imagery plays an important role in both
plays. Agave and her fellow Bacchants literally ‘hunt down’ Pentheus until
he is ripped limb from limb (731–3, 977, 1189–91). The outcome of Atreus’
hunting will be no less devastating for being almost entirely psychological:
the traps he has deployed against Thyestes will indeed yield the desired,
bloody result: ‘the beast is caught in the nets I placed; I see both him and,
joined together with him, the offspring of the hated race I see’ (Thy. 491–3:
plagis tenetur clausa dispositis fera: | et ipsum et una generis invisi indolem |
iunctam parenti cerno) parallels Dionysus’ reference to Pentheus at Bacchae
848, ‘the man is falling within the cast of the net’ (/6 & )  
 ).142 While in Seneca Thyestes’ definition as a fera is without direct consequences, in Euripides the Bacchants attack Pentheus because they
mistakenly believe that he is a lion (989–91). The lion, however, is one of
the animals traditionally associated with Dionysus143 and indeed, when he
is captured by Pentheus’ soldiers, he is presented as a wild beast (436: ).
Dionysus thus ‘shifts’ this animal quality onto Pentheus, using him as a
scapegoat, a process which is parallel to the one whereby Atreus, the really
‘feral’ cannibal, ultimately casts Thyestes in the role of a bestial man-eater.
Also, the belated anagnorisis of Thyestes can be compared with Pentheus’
equally ineffectual anagnorisis in Bacchae. There the king finally acknowledges his past errors (1120–1), and realizes that his end is close (1113), but
to no avail: the divine force of Dionysus should have been recognized and
obeyed earlier, just as Thyestes’ ultimate understanding of Atreus’ character
and intentions – agnosco fratrem – only underscores his previous intellectual failure. Agave’s recognition of her own deeds, too, is tragically belated
The knowing smile of Dionysus is an apt emblem for Atreus, too, as
he contemplates from a superior vantage point the extent of his success.
Equating himself with the gods, Atreus becomes a veritable god of tragedy,
the presiding icon of the metadramatic manipulation staged in Thyestes. As
Dionysus precipitates Pentheus’ death in a sort of ‘play within the play’144
which he himself has authored, so does Atreus plot and enact his revenge
over Thyestes.
Common to all aspects of Atreus’ superiority over Thyestes is his ability
to play at the same time from different scores, to undermine Thyestes’

On hunting and nets see also 231, 451, 1021 and passim.
Bacch. 1019, with Dodds (1960) 205 and xviii.
Foley (1980) 109. I am indebted to Foley for many insights on Bacchae.


The Passions in Play

certainties, and to assuage his latent fears by switching unpredictably
between codes which would normally be considered mutually exclusive. Alongside Thyestes’ utterly tragic, and fatally doomed, monodimensionality,145 Atreus displays a huge range of behaviour, which is ultimately
the key to outmanoeuvring his brother.
At times Atreus takes issue with the boundaries of generic affiliation,
and infiltrates into the tragedy a distinctly comic tone.146 We have already
insisted upon Atreus’ double role as author and actor. Although Atreus,
needless to say, is not another Plautine servus currens,147 as he directly addresses the audience in impassioned asides148 he comes very close to the
conspiratorial attitude that several Plautine protagonists assume vis-`a-vis
their public.149 The crossing of boundaries thus accomplished is at least
twofold, since what is at stake is not only the generic categorization of the
play, but also the social status of the protagonist – a king who abandons all
sense of propriety and whose behaviour on stage recalls, of all things, that
of cunning, comic slaves. Pace Cicero, who decreed that ‘comic elements in
tragedy, and tragic in comedy, are inappropriate’, 150 comic elements can become striking signifying strategies in tragedy, highlighting with their ironic
contrappunto the fatal ignorance of certain characters, and creating opportunities for emotional release which bond the audience with the characters
who control irony (a strategy famously not lost on Shakespeare).
A similar manipulation of genre-specific codes underlies the final scene of
the play. Setting the tragedy’s d´enouement at a banquet precipitates a generic
short-circuit, which further destabilizes the audience’s expectations.151
Banquets and food play a prominent role in comedy, and the text’s attention to Thyestes’ bodily functions (his untragic burping, 911)152 activates the




I borrow the term from Foley (1980) 122.
On ‘comic’ and ‘tragic’ see Silk (2000) 52–97; on Euripides and the ‘comic’ see briefly Silk (2000) 51;
Seidensticker (1978); Gredley (1996); and Taplin (1996). Specifically on Bacchae, and the ‘liminality
of genre’ of Dionysus in the play, see Segal (1982) 254–6.
Ulixes’ language in Tro. 613–14 is indeed reminiscent of clever comic slaves; see Boyle (1994) 190.
Such servi could in turn evoke lofty mythological models for their enterprises; see Plaut. Bacch.
925; Pseud. 1063, 1244 with Fraenkel (1960) 9–12.
On asides see Tarrant (1978) 237, who points out that they seem to belong to fourth-century tragedy
as much as to comic theatre. On the importance of asides in the latter see Duckworth (1952) 109–14.
In turn, clever slaves in Plautus are eager to appropriate tragic or epic models for their exploits. See
again Chrysalus’ canticum at Bacch. 925–78, modelled on Iliou persis, but with likely borrowings
from tragic language; Fraenkel (1960) 57–63, with Norden (1927) 370. See also Pseud. 1063, 1243–4
(all prepared by 524, 584).
De optimo genere oratorum 1.
A deipnon concludes Plautus’ Stichus (739–72), as well as Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Acharnians and
Birds. See Duckworth (1952) 380.
Meltzer (1988) 315 with Dover (1968) 70. On burping in Plautus see Pseud. 1295, 1301. See also
Manilius 5.462 ructantemque patrem natos (referring to Thyestes), with Aesch. Ag. 1598–601.

A craftier Tereus


comic intertext. At the same time, of course, we are bound to perceive the
banquet as the inevitable last step in the elaborate sacrifical ritual which had
structured Atreus’ killing of Thyestes’ children.153 The sudden appearance
of a drunken Thyestes on the stage catalyzes the tragic irony of the drama’s
final moments, as it displays a character desperately unaware of the looming disaster. Moreover, the comedy implicit in this presentation ultimately
denies Thyestes the compassion that such a character could otherwise elicit.
The generic boundary-crossing promoted by Atreus is yet another tool in
his unequal fight against Thyestes, because he has been able to manipulate the literary code, once again, to his exclusive advantage. He has taken
up the ethos of a comic hero, better to deceive his brother, and has organized a banquet which takes the normal comic obsession with food and
warps it into its most gruesome and painful opposite. Thyestes, unable as
usual to comprehend his brother’s ingenuity, is completely deceived, and
his belated, rather weak intimations of uneasiness are drowned out by the
loud incongruity of the scene. By evoking a comic intertext which Thyestes
has failed to suspect, Atreus effectively invites the audience to relinquish
empathy for Thyestes, and to replace these tragic emotions with a sense
of physical disgust and moral detachment which strips Thyestes of any
remaining sense of dignity.
Equally interesting in this context is Atreus’ apparently friendly request
that his brother change the exile’s shabby attire for robes worthy of his newly
regained royal status: ‘take off your foul garments, spare my eyes, and put
on ornaments equal to mine’ (524–6: squalidam vestem exue, | oculisque
nostris parce, et ornatus cape | pares meis).154 Changing clothes, a frequent
event in comedy,155 only ends in disaster for Senecan tragic characters,
especially when they trade upwards.156 Agamemnon relinquishes his military garments and accepts Clytemnestra’s robe just before he is murdered
(Ag. 881–4).157 In Troades, Helen treacherously persuades Polyxena to dress
for her wedding while she is actually being driven to her death (883–5).158 In
Thyestes we can observe the same interplay of irony and doom, as the final
touches to Thyestes’ new outfit pave the way for one of Atreus’ most chilling
double entendres: ‘wear the crown set on your reverend head; I will offer to
the gods the destined victims’ (544–5: imposita capiti vincla venerando gere; |

On the sequence sacrifice–extispicium–banquet Tarrant (1985) 198 compares Ov. Met. 15.130–9.
The importance of this aspect has been pointed out by Erika Thorgerson in an unpublished seminar
paper (Princeton, 1994).
On the metadramatic implications of robing see Segal (1982) 223.
See Tro. 883, Ag. 881–3, with Tarrant (1985) 165.
158 See Fantham (1982) 341.
See Tarrant (1976) 339.


The Passions in Play

ego destinatas victimas superis dabo). There can be little doubt that the
text orients the audience towards an ironic evaluation of these details,
if only because of the explicit caveats offered by the chorus in the ode
preceding this scene, which Thyestes is conspicuously failing to heed:
‘a king is not made by riches, nor by the colour of a Tyrian garment,
nor by the royal mark of honour on his head’, regem non faciunt opes, |
non vestis Tyriae color, | non frontis nota regia (344–6). In act 5, as a drunken
Thyestes is suddenly overcome by anguish, his royal garments now dishevelled, the possibility that the audience may share his emotions is further
reduced (909–10, 947). Bacchae, too, offers a striking example of this fatal
connection: when, at line 842, Pentheus unwittingly agrees to dress as a
woman, he not only elicits an ironic reaction of which he is utterly unaware, but also takes a decisive step towards his own demise.
Atreus shares with Dionysus the superior power that derives from their
being in control of the dramatic strategies enacted on stage. Unlike Thyestes
and Pentheus, they control events because they devised the plot and set it
in motion; they are not only passive actors, but also crafty authors.159 In
the manipulation and transgression of boundaries that shape human society
and literary expression, Bacchae and Thyestes reveal both the artificiality and
the strength of those delimitations.160 Both plays force their audiences into
a complex negotiation of conflictual emotions, offering them the vision of
an exhilarating freedom and at the same time of the horrific extremes that
freedom could provoke.161


Foley (1980).
A tentative connection could be established between Thy. 103–4 (sentit introitus tuos | domus et
nefando tota contactu horruit) and the earthquake that shakes Pentheus’ palace at Bacch. 586–92.
The contexts are clearly different, yet the notion that the royal palace metaphorically shatters when
(Bacchic) furor enters could perhaps be related.
A tension poignantly captured in Bacch. 861, where Dionysus is called   , 4  1
94  .

1). most often appears to be the necessary but hardly selfdetermined complement to his brother. pp. has been successfully gauged and pre-analysed by Atreus. at times even to understand. Atreus conjures up an image of his brother that virtually mirrors himself – an image that the chorus finds plausible. the irresistible progress of the revenge. The unquenchable enmity between the two brothers only casts their blood-bond into sharper relief.1 The counsellor voices his feeble resistance as Atreus’ plot is already marching along briskly.v. too.chapter 4 Atreus rex non quis.v. After all. practical as well as psychological. and because we can only glimpse the nature and depth of their relationship. et dignum Atreo (Seneca. and can also be used in the fully negative sense of ‘accomplice in crime’ (with gen.: OLD s. even in its basic meaning of ‘escort’ or ‘attendant’ does often carry a rather negative connotation (OLD s. Indeed. sed uter dignum est Thyeste facinus. virtually non-existent autonomy of satellites locked in a gravitational field that they cannot control. he is lured into a carefully organized trap. the chorus is feeble and unable to affect. 164–76. Thyestes 271) i Despite its title. 139 . Thyestes is of course a play about Atreus. whose fundamental role in articulating the plot is matched by his consistently overpowering presence on stage. both Atreus 1 2 Note that the word. The designation of Atreus’ counsellor as satelles is metaphorically most fitting: other characters revolve around the largerthan-life royal protagonist with the limited. for all his aspirations. This elusive yet powerful bond adds significantly to the disturbing appeal of the play: because they know each other so deeply. and his every reaction. 2).2 And Thyestes. For more details on the chorus’s attitude see below.

nerveless. after a brother’s treacheries. the roles of the brothers could have been interchangeable. a process that should come as no surprise after what we have repeatedly observed about the complex structure of the tragedy. As it consistently tries to sustain the contrast between them. but not on an essential moral difference. notwithstanding Atreus’ display of cruelty. post tot scelera. is the suggestion that. iners. if anything. that – had it been his turn – Thyestes’ revenge could have been every bit as gory as the one that Atreus happens to be plotting. dolos and fas ruptum that are foregrounded. Even more importantly. The more we delve into the details of Seneca’s characterization. Seneca offers a far from univocal image of Thyestes: he is a character whose loudly proclaimed moral aspirations fail to assert themselves with the required degree of conviction. Atreus is clearly not trying to justify his behaviour. nuanced and often intrinsically contradictory personalities of both brothers. Far from setting a supposedly . enervis et (quod maximum probrum tyranno rebus in summis reor) inulte. the play devotes remarkable attention to the potential deconstruction of this opposition. what matters at this point is that after the prologue’s announcing of the triumph of furor and nefas in the house of the Pelopidai. quoted above. post fratris dolos fasque omne ruptum questibus vanis agis iratus Atreus? Undaring. p.140 The Passions in Play and Thyestes are never polar opposites. unavenged. The fact that an obviously partisan source voices these accusations does not detract from their impact. the more we are able to appreciate the complex. nowhere in the rest of the play are these accusations rebuked: they stand unchallenged. in a sense. you are busy with idle complaints – is this Atreus in a rage? I will try to show later what these scelera actually are. that – finally – their different roles in the tragedy are predicated on a specific series of actions and counteractions. representing two well-defined sides of an ethical debate. he is complaining about his tardiness and lack of resolve. indolent. it is Thyestes’ scelera. and the ethical implications of that structure. and. and certainly more disruptive in the linear development of the play. what in important matters I consider a king’s worst reproach. The audience is immediately informed of Thyestes’ crime by Atreus at the beginning of his speech in act 2 (176–80. and breaking every law. a character on whose conduct past and present the play casts heavy shadows of doubt and uncertainty. I will insist on this last aspect first. But even more pervasive. 131): ignave. after so many crimes.

See now esp. or is being devised by Thyestes is crucial to understanding Atreus’ psychology (314–16): istud quod vocas saevum asperum. 1192–3. ne quiescentem petat. .Atreus rex 141 ‘moral’ Thyestes against his monstrous brother. aut perdet aut peribit: in medio est scelus positum occupanti Therefore. petatur ultro. nisi vincis. For possible reconstructions of Ennius’ Thyestes and bibliography on earlier treatments of the myth see Jocelyn (1967) 412–19. El. the crime is there. Eur. agique dure credis et nimium impie. the play underlines the circular. He had seduced Atreus’ wife. repetitive nature of the conflict between brothers – and of the play which portrays it. let him be attacked first. such that my brother would have wished it to be his own – you don’t avenge crimes if you don’t surpass them. Ag. ready for him who will seize it first. tale quod frater meus suum esse mallet – scelera non ulcisceris. 3 4 The motif is well developed in Greek tragedy: Aesch. before he grows in strength and readiness. Aerope. fortasse et illic agitur. 699–728. cruentum. the tragedy constantly insists. frs. The awareness that a similar crime – exceptional as it appears – could have been devised. even the potential equivalence. He will either kill me or die. and possibly polluted his brother’s family line. through Atreus’ viewpoint. lest he attack me while I am at peace. 466–9 Nauck2 .3 Atreus. Lana (1958–59). Kerrigan (1996). between the two men. I must dare some atrocious. Lef`evre (1976) 22–7. at the beginning of the play.4 In fact Atreus is constantly worried at the thought that his brother might strike first with comparable cruelty (201–4): proinde antequam se firmat aut vires parat. and he repeatedly hints at the fact that he suspects Thyestes of preparing a revenge as cruel as the one he has in mind (193–6): aliquod audendum est nefas atrox. By insisting on the notion of revenge. On earlier treatment of the mythical plot see Marchesi (1908). is determined to take revenge for such crimes. The complex family history of the Pelopidai gave a certain prominence to Thyestes’ crimes. on the moral affinity. Lesky (1922–23). What we are about to see is merely another round in an endless cycle of Aeschylean revenge and counter-revenge. bloody crime.

Tarrant (1985) 120. qui illius acerbum cor contundam et comprimam Once again Thyestes comes to attack Atreus.7 Thyestes returns of his own accord in order to take revenge on his brother: iterum Thyestes Atreum adtractatum advenit iterum iam adgreditur me et quietum exsuscitat: maior mihi moles. From a verse by Varius we can glean a similar scenario:8 iam fero infandissima. Lana (1958–59) 316–17. On this passage and its connection with Seneca’s Thyestes see Marchesi (1908) 86. 5 6 7 8 Jocelyn (1967) 414. yet it is clear that two traditions concerning his return to Mycenae coexisted:5 according to Accius. Note that Quintilian introduces Varius’ lines as an example of audacious conduct spurred by indignatio rather than malitia (3. perhaps is being done there too. abunde est: hic placet poenae modus tantisper. at least for now. and think is being done ruthlessly. While Seneca ostensibly espouses an alternative version of the mythical plot and makes Thyestes’ return contingent on Atreus’ deceitful invitation. who is neither the ‘quiet’. Ag. see Jocelyn (1967) 414. Cipriani (1978). Such a reassured awareness of the interchangeability of their roles and their reactions seems to justify Atreus’ self-description as (so far) innocens (279–81): bene est. De Rosalia (1981) 225–6. Bigger is the danger.6 who is here following Aeschylus. once again he approaches to rouse me from my calm. regardless of right or wrong. His Atreus emerges as an unusually nuanced and composite character. Fr. On the reconstruction of Varius’ play see Lef`evre (1976) and Leigh (1996). now I am forced to commit them. bigger the evil I must stir up to crush and crunch his cruel heart.45). Where is he? Why does Atreus maintain his innocence for so long? It is not easy to determine to what extent previous Roman tragedies dwelt upon Thyestes’ own faults.8. Dangel (1995) 277. iam facere cogor. I like this way of punishing him. now I suffer unspeakable evils. he transforms Accius’ (and presumably Varius’) version into a powerful subplot which substantially affects our perception of the events. 1 Ribbeck2 . plentifully so. 198–201 Ribbeck2 = 29–32 Dangel. n. .142 The Passions in Play What you call cruel and harsh. maius miscendum est malum. ubinam est? tam diu cur innocens servatur Atreus? This is good. 1587–8. 1.

See 254 (maiore monstro). among other factors. and he is fittingly punished by drinking his children’s blood. 27. and that he is taking revenge for heinous crimes. but also in the insistent maius-motif 10 which lies at the core of Atreus’ programmatic statements11 and had already been introduced by the Fury in the prologue (Thracium fiat nefas | maiore numero). 267 (nescioquid . A term introduced by Seidensticker (1985).13 ) An equally upsetting sense of shifting boundaries casts its shadow over the actions of Thyestes. let them want it’. Lines 56–7. .12 The allusive gesture paradoxically highlights Seneca’s departure from Accius: this time the Fury is responsible for inspiring Atreus’ plans. see Matte Blanco (1988) 103–5 and passim. Atreus could end up as a quiet victim. (In his own philosophical writings. We cannot read Atreus as a larger-than-life monster without paying at least some attention to his claims that his cruelty was provoked. and does not recognize the independent will of others: quod nolunt velint (‘what they don’t want. See above. Or. far from being dismissed. but he is himself filled up by the external force of divine inspiration (253–4: impleri iuvat | maiore monstro). more precisely: the intertextual memory of Thyestes’ criminal actions and intentions forces us to wonder whether Atreus’ relentless obsessions are not after all justified. or bi-logic. On projective identification. on the programmatic importance of iterum. Seneca observes that slaves should be treated decently because. Thyestes’ crime ‘polluted’ Atreus’ blood. a sudden and unexpected turn of events can easily turn free men into slaves. p. The alluring force of the play resides precisely here: Atreus reasons according to a symmetrical logic akin to the epistemic protocols of the unconscious when he identifies his brother with himself. a concept originally developed by Melanie Klein.Atreus rex 143 potentially passive target of Accius nor an irrational or deranged iratus. is a concept formulated by Matte Blanco (1975) and (1988). Note that Atreus himself cannot escape the deflagration of the boundaries of the self which he advocates: he ‘fills up’ Thyestes with the body of his children (890–1: implebo patrem | funere suorum). maius) and 274–5 (maius hoc aliquid dolor | inveniat). There are no predetermined roles or certainties allotted. 212). Atreus’ depiction of his motives is essential to our understanding of the play. Depending on unpredictable events. but his intimations. Letters to Lucilius 47. are actually corroborated by the chorus.10. viciously wronged and subsequently destroyed by his evil brother. which are no longer exclusively (or even primarily) contingent on Thyestes’ own intentions. or as a man whose justified awareness of the injuries 9 10 11 12 13 ‘Symmetrical’ logic. The implications of Seneca’s strategy are lit up by the fact that Accius’ fragment is emphatically recalled not only at Thyestes 202 (quiescentem). . .9 Indeed Atreus sees the outside world as a projection of his own self – he is above anyone else: cunctos super (885).

he turns his suspicions into a mocking reproach to his brother. the chorus makes any attempt at rebuking it. While Atreus is perfectly aware of the moral implications of his plans. and. 145–6. and is then communicated to Thyestes himself at the very end of the play (1104–10): scio quid queraris: scelere praerepto doles. | nisi vincis (195–6). to prepare the same banquet for their unwitting father. | hoc ipse faciet). he also knows that the revenge he has plotted will taint Thyestes even more than himself: ‘what is the crowning outrage in this crime he himself will do’ (285–6: quod est in isto scelere praecipuum nefas. nec quod nefandas hauseris angit dapes: quod non pararis! fuerat hic animus tibi instruere similes inscio fratri cibos et adiuvante liberos matre aggredi similique leto sternere – hoc unum obstitit: tuos putasti. given the opportunity. ‘his sons’ mingled blood let the father drink.14 In the second part of the tragedy. of his new scelera. pp. This satisfying thought is first voiced in the monologue in which Atreus contemplates the completion of his scheme (917–18: mixtum suorum sanguinem genitor bibat: | meum bibisset. Thyestes’ inexcusable contamination thus increases the immorality of his character. I know what you complain of: you are sorry that this crime has been pre-empted. .144 The Passions in Play he has endured pushes him towards a revenge which must necessarily be exaggerated and perverse. preferring instead to expand on the monstrosity of Atreus’ deeds. once again. 14 15 Atreus states explicitly that the revenge is to be disproportionate to the crime: scelera non ulcisceris. This declaration echoes with perfect symmetry Atreus’ remarks in his initial monologue. This had been your plan. nor do you grieve that you have swallowed unspeakable foods: just that you have not prepared them yourself for me. it should be noticed that neither Thyestes nor.15 Atreus’ observation is not groundless: the explicit ritual overtones of the actual murder connect the central episode of the tragedy to a well-known mythical background. and with the help of their mother attack the children and kill them in identical fashion. would have done exactly the same. Just one thing stopped you: you thought they were yours. See later in this chapter. he would have drunk mine’). once Atreus’ plans have been meticulously and successfully realized. who. for instance.

Thyestes immediately. alternis dare sanguinem et sceptrum scelere aggredi? What rage drives you to shed by turns each other’s blood. we must finally add Thyestes himself. at the reconciliation of the two brothers. but specify no author. the chorus’s question at 638–40 is revealing: animos gravius incertos tenes. In a renewed outburst of optimism the chorus rejoices again.1–2). Speak out quickly. the chorus is not necessarily bound to side with Thyestes from the beginning. then the chorus). To the growing number of characters who are ready to believe in the moral equivalence of Atreus and Thyestes (first Atreus. I am not asking who it is. that is. could have accomplished against his brother. Its tormented question at line 640 opens a dramatic vista. sides with Atreus’ contention that the monstrous banquet will make him as guilty as the brother who has devised it. appropriates the very word with which the chorus had indicated his potential responsibility: uter. quid sit quod horres ede et auctorem indica: non quaero quis sit. . once more. if unknowingly. but grants that Atreus had substantial reasons for his rift with Thyestes: his ira was indeed provoked by ‘great causes’ (552). Thyestes admits 16 Statius will make this hallmark of fratricidal strife the opening statement of the Thebaid: fraternas acies alternaque regna profanis | decertata odiis (Theb. The messenger’s first words announce that a terrible nefas (624) has been perpetrated. after discovering what he has done to his children. sed uter.Atreus rex 145 The chorus appears to lend credibility to Atreus’ words as it voices its conviction that both brothers are to be blamed for the endless succession of evils in the family. Tell what it is that makes you shudder. and that they are only taking turns (340: alternis)16 in their folly (339–41): quis vos exagitat furor. You keep our minds in doubt too painfully. 1. but which of the two. Now. who. Much as it occupies the moral high ground. The culmination of this attitude (perhaps the only point on which the chorus is not severely out of step with reality) comes as a reaction to the messenger’s distraught appearance on the stage. the meal over. effare ocius. and point out its author. at 546–76. on what could have happened: what Thyestes himself. to seize the throne through crime? But further interventions of the chorus on the same topic do not raise comparable doubts.

Seneca implicitly builds on a view of civil strife which has trouble establishing a reliable hierarchy of responsibility. we would do well to keep in mind that the tragedy offers very little in the way of solid and incontrovertible 17 Ov. Avenge the day which has been lost. See also (as Hardie does) Sil. But the comparison is not innocent either. throw your flames. not an ontological opposition. No amount of implicit or explicit accusations levelled against Thyestes’ past behaviour. causa. 14. By equating himself with Jason. Jason’s faults play a well-defined and explicit role. and Lucan’s civil war is mired in the confusion which inevitably arises as like fights against like. incomparable with the hushed references to Thyestes’ previous crimes which surface at crucial points in Thyestes (and.568–72. with Hardie (1993) 24–5. Met. if not. against us your bolt can make no error’ (535–7: quisquis e nobis cadet | nocens peribit. utriusque mala sit. ne dubites diu. who will remark explicitly on the interchangeability of Scipio and Hannibal. ‘we should both of us long since have stood alongside Tantalus’). iaculare flammas. banish light from the sky and fill it with your thunder. to a well-defined sense of right and wrong. can make up for the extraordinary emotional impact that Atreus’ machinations must have on the audience. lumen ereptum polo fulminibus exple. are usually played down by critics). As we turn to the analysis of the brothers’ characterization. let mine be evil. but their moral outlook is also similar: it is difficult to point to hard and fast hierarchies. for this reason. after all. mala sit mea. misplaced. Atreus and Thyestes are waging their own civil war.402–5. however. 9. These words echo Medea’s invocation to Jupiter in Seneca’s eponymous tragedy: whether his thunderbolt strikes herself or Jason.17 The irrationality of the civil war goes hand in hand with the intolerance of distinctions. Thyestes finally acknowledges that his brother’s suspicions against him were not. non potest in nos tuum | errare fulmen). Let the cause of both of us – do not wait in doubt – be equally evil. They are brothers. In foregrounding relative differences of behaviour. and he personally invokes Jupiter’s punishment on both of them (1085–8): vindica amissum diem. Ovid had already rewritten the confrontation between Aeneas and Turnus in relativistic terms. it will always punish a crime: ‘whichever of us falls will perish guilty. si minus.146 The Passions in Play he should be punished along with Atreus (1011–12: stare circa Tantalum | uterque iam debuimus. boundaries and clear-cut oppositions which mark the logic of the unconscious. In Medea. .

13.18 has chosen to recognize in Thyestes a Stoic sage.21 Such readings of Thyestes strive to preserve a measure of coherence between Seneca’s tragedies and his prose works. Thyestes can only muster ambiguous gestures towards Stoicizing wisdom. A long-standing tradition. those who ‘have shed the most serious diseases and inclinations of the mind. would provide an example of dramatic discontinuity. Marti (1945b) offers a similar interpretation of Lucan’s Pompey (see Marti (1945a) for the thesis that Seneca’s tragedies represent a coherent programme of Stoic instruction to Nero. Gigon (1938) 182. his conviction faltering. a man who is seriously trying to live his life according to high moral principles and refuses to hate even after enduring the worst of revenges. possunt enim in eadem relabi). a man whose behaviour would correspond to the ‘second type’ described in Letters to Lucilius 75. Atreus’ disturbing claims that Thyestes is guilty. See Lef`evre (1985).19 just as the contrast between those charges and Thyestes’ overall characterization should in the end be attributed to the imperfect amalgamation of multiple sources. ii The potential equivalence repeatedly suggested in the text between the character. such as some of the chorus’s statements. His manner is tentative. The audience’s moral endorsement of Thyestes as a victim. Thyestes’ statements at 512–14 are interpreted by Gigon ((1938) 182) in reference to a general consciousness that human beings are all guilty. Against Atreus’ resplendent violence. but in such a way that they do not yet have guaranteed possession of their freedom from danger: they can still relapse’ (et maxima animi mala et adfectus deposuerunt. . and that even the most explicit indications. problematized by the language of doubling and interchangeability – as well as by the sustained connection between Atreus and poetic pleasure – is made even more difficult by the portrayal of Thyestes’ actual behaviour in the tragedy.Atreus rex 147 moral assessment. Lef`evre has more recently interpreted Thyestes as a proficiens who still hesitates on the right road. sed ita ut non sit illis securitatis suae certa possessio. however. motives and intentions of the two brothers is matched by an image of Thyestes which no amount of goodwill can restore to bona fide Stoic credibility. his sublimity of words and thoughts.20 Along similar lines. which in modern times can be traced back to a 1938 article by Olof Gigon. are unsteadied by context. E. developed at 221–4 and answered by Thyestes at 512–14. Yet almost without fail they 18 19 20 21 Gigon (1938). with each play illustrating a Stoic idea in dramatic form).

and how the complex interplay of different points of view affects our impression of Thyestes’ character. back at Argos after a long and painful exile. since his prototypical role – that of the ‘good king’. its loose connection with the dramatic events at large. would also be bound to determine the public’s reactions: approval and disgust.22 Thus. belie its philosophical credentials and lend its vaguely stoicizing feelings a lack of conviction which deprives the audience of a solid point of emotional identification against Atreus. and. What is more. doubts. . Stoic sages. are criticized even as they are apparently endorsed. his unclear resolve. The ‘moral’ aspirations of Thyestes and the chorus. notoriously. if feeble. quite literally. the Stoic sage – is weakened by his uncertainties and ambiguities.148 The Passions in Play stumble on a crucial methodological issue. greatest and best of goods to a wretched exile. Thyestes begins. with a false step. a stretch of native soil and the ancestral gods (if gods do exist after all) . . Even more fundamentally. for instance. his sudden contradictions. if we allow the participle to contradict Stoic 22 Tarrant (1985) 149. both ethical and aesthetic. should avoid hopes and fears alike. of course. and the emphatic presence of optata at the very beginning of the speech can hardly be regarded as innocent. would unify the moral and artistic dimensions of the plays. which in turn would ensure the viability of a didactic reading of the tragedies: the representation of unmitigated evil could then be seen to act as a deterrent. . . The longed-for homes of my fatherland and the wealth of Argolis I see at last. the sudden quiet between the brothers). Thyestes is similarly denied his own authoritative voice. such an essentialist reading of Thyestes (or indeed of any other Senecan play) is rooted in the attempt to preserve a diametrical opposition between ‘good’ (perhaps even ‘Stoic’) and ‘bad’ characters. inasmuch as they try to extrapolate from the fabric of the play a unified image of Thyestes without paying enough attention to how his words and his actions are actually presented in the plot. his potential function as the positive emotional pole of the tragedy is undermined by the moral parallelism that is voiced by Atreus and validated by the chorus with its persistent. His appearance on the stage. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ qualities. tractum soli natalis et patrios deos (si sunt tamen di) cerno . . is marked by a strong sense of joy and relief (404–7): optata patriae tecta et Argolicas opes miserisque summum ac maximum exulibus bonum. The chorus’s excessive readiness to believe the unbelievable (such as. however.

I do confess it: I have done everything you believed me to have done. and his desire to leave Argos (412–20) are overshadowed by the suspicion that he is appropriating the rhetorical stance of a Stoic sage without real conviction. tortured by the Fury. this . this one thing I declare: I do not not lead you. unum genitor hoc testor tamen: ego vos sequor. Atreus’ initial aside (491–507) is likely to reinforce in the audience the notion that he enjoys a superior awareness of events. Thyestes yields to his son with a contorted disclaimer (487–9): serum est cavendi tempus in mediis malis. where Tantalus’ ghost. non duco. The tragic-sounding acceptance of what appears to be an inevitable destiny is totally disproportionate to the situation. Tantalus was tortured and in fact had no means to escape from an overwhelming supernatural entity. pessimam causam meam hodierna pietas fecit. we cannot accept Thyestes’ impassioned lines at face value: his orthodox strictures against power. est prorsus nocens quicumque visus tam bono fratri est nocens. As your father. though. The brotherly feelings you display today make my case as bad as possible. Atreu. Recalling Thyestes’ impassioned demonstration to Tantalus that Atreus could only be lying and trying to deceive him (423–8. The man who has appeared guilty to so good a brother is guilty indeed. I follow. 434–9). Atreus. and stresses again the fictionality that will dominate the whole scene: his final words – praestetur fides (507) – raise the curtain on a new play. sed fateor. I could excuse all I have done if you were not like this. nisi talis fores. admisi omnia quae credidisti. Thyestes has been engaged in a dialectic exchange with his son which would easily leave room for retreating. But I confess it. Thyestes’ reaction to Atreus’ deceptively friendly welcome strikes an odd note (512–16): diluere possem cuncta.Atreus rex 149 orthodoxy. we are confronted with a puzzling succession of emotional states. fateor. finally submits to her with that very word: sequor (100). Sequor at line 489 recalls the conclusion of the prologue. The analogy highlights the difference. It is too late to take caution when one is deep in troubles. After a dialogue which sets his desire to avoid Argos against Tantalus’ insistence that he go ahead. When we look at Thyestes’ reactions to his brother’s proposal in act 3. let us go. Equally troubling is the conclusion of his exchange with Tantalus. eatur.

at. whatever is yours I believe to be mine too. After two longer interventions. or because he has after all accepted Tantalus’ arguments. .150 The Passions in Play unrequested admission of guilt. t h. Thyestes’ spontaneous offer of his children as obsides seems to underline his decision. whether this is going to hasten a tragic ending which he dimly foresees. though couched in somewhat ambiguous terms (note especially visus in line 516). as sudden. . meam relinquam. expertus est quicumque quam facile effluant. at. If you do not accept your share. comes as a surprise. fratrem potiri gloria ingenti vetas? t h. . sed iura et arma servient mecum tibi. . This kingdom can take the two of us. and it is all the more surprising to see precisely how he turns his initial refusal into an acceptance of Atreus’ fake offer. at. t h. frater.23 It is true that in the tragedies Seneca often portrays decisions precisely in this light. . recipit hoc regnum duos. at. already voiced at 489 (sequor). at. tua iam peracta gloria est. allow me to hide in the crowd. Accipio is used by Thyestes with ominous connotations at 520–1 (obsides fidei accipe | hos innocentes. abrupt deviations from a path 23 Thyestes’ specific acceptance of the regni nomen sounds particularly ironic in the light of his earlier strictures: falsis magna nominibus placent (446). liceat in media mihi latere turba. to accepting the substance of his brother’s offer. quis influentis dona fortunae abnuit? t h. accipio: regni nomen impositi feram. Do you want to prevent your brother from achieving such great glory? t h. I will relinquish mine. I will take the name of king which is thrust upon me. at. Brother. . or as an unexpected confirmation of Atreus’ own charges against his brother. the brothers engage in a stychomythic exchange (533–43): t h. by Atreus at 1021–2 (iam accipe hos potius libens | diu expetitos). Whoever knows from experience how easily they can flow away. Who can turn down the gifts flowing in from good Fortune? t h. to follow the flow of events with no further hesitation. tuum. Your glory has already been accomplished. at. t h. meum esse credo quidquid est. t h. tragic Thyestes who enters this uneven dialogue with Atreus. It is in any event a serious. but laws and armies and I too will obey you. nisi tuam partem accipis. restat mea: respuere certum est regna consilium mihi. . Note here Thyestes’ sudden reversal: it takes him all of one line to shift from a determination to shy away from the throne. at. mine has yet to be: it is my firm determination to turn down the kingdom. frater). I accept it. t h.

a logic cherished and reviled in equal measure. de clementia quod nolunt velint (Seneca. 7.25 By collapsing two roles which normal religious practice obviously kept apart. Bacch. by chance. when she stresses the importance of following virtue (69–71). Thyestes 212) Atreus is at the same time the sacerdos and the addressee of the sacrifice. 944–5 (but note how forcefully Clytemnestra argues for her request before Agamemnon yields). ontologically identical and only momentarily. this extreme abruptness underlines the fundamental inconsistency of Thyestes’ character. Thus a god is always the recipient of the sacrifice. but quickly changes her mind at the sight of Jason (76–7). rather. Sacrifice traditionally articulates a welldefined hierarchy between gods. cast in a subordinate role. On Atreus as a god see Hine (1981) 266. men and animals.24 the audience. as he makes clear that he is offering the victims to himself. only heightens the sense of ridicule. and Pentheus in Eur. This is not the point. 24 25 One may compare Medea’s behaviour in Ovid’s Met. The play is unable to counter the force of this logic and its primal appeal. are bound to be surprised at this transition. . The whole structure of the dialogue accentuates Thyestes’ unreliability and inevitably affects the substance of what he has been saying so far: his lofty Stoic sententiae are ensnared in the grotesque demise of their spokesman’s ¯ reputation. What we should keep in mind. is that Thyestes is no moral testing stone. faltering and charmless adulterer. relying on their privileged knowledge of the implications of Atreus’ offer. 845–6: in both cases the change of mind has tragic consequences. Ag. cut and dried maxims supposed to be of use in determining one’s everyday conduct. an animal its object. More poignant is the parallel with Agamemnon in Aesch.Atreus rex 151 which had hitherto been carefully followed. The very nature of phonai. and that Atreus’ violence finds in the play no immediately convincing alternative. Even more upsetting is how far Atreus’ point of view can influence the chorus’s and the audience’s perception of his adversary: in Atreus’ perversely symmetrical logic. The poignancy of Thyestes is precisely that it leaves us to contemplate the contrast between a ruthless but aesthetically and emotionally appealing murderer and a hypocritical. A sceptical evaluation of Thyestes’ character should not necessarily entail an automatic endorsement of Atreus. a man the performer. More than the acceptance per se. Thyestes is his criminal doppelganger. Atreus signals a more general subversion of rules.

vindices aderunt dei. man can raise himself to the stars. is the upper gods. In his opening speech he voices scepticism about their existence: tractum soli natalis et patrios deos | (si sunt tamen di) cerno (406–7). Atreus constantly refers to the level of human interaction. The gods will be my avengers. but brought to earth.312: flectere si nequeo superos. I deliver you to your children’ (TH. | his puniendum vota te tradunt mea. who is asked to avenge Atreus’ crime. The standard criteria for divinity are wrecked: each man is his own god provided that he can muster sufficient . while Atreus effectively disposes of them. Thyestes reacts with utter despair: ‘the gods have fled away’ (1021: fugere superi). I shall move hell’ (7. te puniendum liberis trado tuis). Later. Even more so. of course: Acheron is not simply exploited. For punishment. and replaces them with himself. Either way the foundations of religious and political order are fatally challenged. and provides the background for Atreus’ repartee at 1102–3. It is to them that the scorning dismissal of line 888 – ‘I release the gods: I have attained the utmost of my prayers’ (dimitto superos: summa votorum attigi) – is referred. Gods are dragged down from the sky. a firm discursive belief ) in their existence and importance. and it is they who are said to have fled at line 1021. others (Thyestes’ children) tragically fulfil the role of animal victims. the superi. my prayers deliver you to them for punishment. and his selffashioning as a god is in fact consistent with the notion that gods do not have any impact on human activities. when Atreus has revealed his actions. Thyestes embarks on an impassioned prayer to the summus caeli rector (‘exalted ruler of the sky’). Atreus’ appropriation of a divine persona exacerbates the gods’ problematic status in the play and the world it pictures. Thyestes and the chorus display a firm belief (at least. | AT. Atreus fulfils Juno’s programmatic and metaliterary statement in the Aeneid: ‘if I cannot prevail upon the gods above. The tragedy ends by reaffirming Atreus’ and Thyestes’ opposing views about the role of gods and men in shaping events (1110–12): ‘TH. Thyestes’ own statements about the gods are often contradictory. The rhetorical elaboration of ¯ can only sound hollow after the inconclusiveness of the previous the klesis statements. and the concurrent promotion of violent characters connected with the underworld. in turn. Acheronta movebo). AT. clearly. But suddenly. when he responds to Thyestes’ emphatic ‘I call on the gods who guard the innocent’ ( piorum praesides testor deos) with a chilling reference to his past misconduct: ‘why not the marriage-gods?’ (quid? coniugales?). at line 1077. In this particular removal of upper deities. His main target. or.152 The Passions in Play As a man becomes god.

but see Calder (1976–77). if we accept these equations we are bound to steer our reading of the play in one specific direction. qui . of course. 1.29 Atreus could be Nero. a victim. non occidere constituat. a Seneca-like counsellor. see Suet. Tib. we will inevitably tend to cast the chorus in the ambitious role of the external moral adjudicator who comments philosophically on the follies of human power. .1). 32. Even if we accept that Thyestes’ blatant inconsistencies hardly make him a convincing hero. that boundless power is concentrated in new and novel gods. On the importance of sacrifice in the articulation of Roman imperial cult see Price (1980). Thyestes teases the audience in this direction.28 In a world where human actions have effectively appropriated divine power. The issue is made more. the chorus. with Barton (1994) 53. complicated by the fact that the play offers the superficially attractive possibility of a reading a` clef . the hapless satelles. because he impersonates the ultimately cruel and irrational tyrant – Suetonius’ unadorned words project here their powerful shadow. most notably the second chorus on kingship and the satelles’ or Thyestes’ sententious statements. especially the incongruous mention of Quirites at 396. . the Victim of the tyrant’s cruelty. It is interesting to recall a passage from De clementia in which the characterization of the princeps as sacerdos and the imagery of murder-as-sacrifice are combined. See above. sed immolare?’ (nam sacrificantem placuerat adoriri) (‘ “shall he not pay the penalty who . an explosive combination in the context of Imperial Rome’s structuring ideology.Atreus rex 153 power. a play whose political implications have often been at the heart of interpreters’ concerns. however. Direct references to contemporary events in the plays are advocated by Lef`evre (1985) and (1990). Such a radical redefinition of the relationship between human and divine is central to the conceptualization of power in Thyestes. Cinna. Clearly. p.30 None of these lofty 26 27 28 29 30 The very etymology and concept of princeps (‘he who takes the first portion’) may be traced back to sacrificial ritual. Scheid (1988) 273. . not less. Note. . specifically on the Ara pacis and its interpretation in this context Zanker (1988) 118 and passim. thanks to a number of anachronistic references to Roman reality. The main difficulty with such a reading is that it works only by taking messages out of context.3.9. The triumph on stage of a king-priest-god is. Thyestes. a righteous but powerless senatus. though noticeably less successful. This ambivalent affirmation of divinity in a godless world communicates one of the most chilling messages of the play. . Augustus debates whether he should punish L. . Under Augustus the princeps26 had acquired a distinctive characterization as a sacerdos. then he must be wrong. who attempted to murder him: ‘ergo non dabit poenas.27 prominently involved ex officio in a number of sacrificial rituals even as his divine attributes increase dramatically. 44 and Cal. see Picone (1976).4). contemptor (Nero 56. is determining not to murder but to immolate me?” (for the plan was to attack him while offering sacrifice)’. . he was not the only emperor criticized in this way. 16. that in spite of Suetonius’ attractive definition of Nero as religionum . If Atreus is (like) Nero.

or. and. it is less easy to dismiss the whole of the play as a nightmare: perhaps it is as ‘real’ as the solid political tracts it brings into the fray. indeed. when and to whom they say it. of the chorus in many other instances. reiterates and expands the complex interaction between layers of dramatic plots and substantiates the connection between Atreus’ mastery of his vengeance plot and the creative force of poetry.154 The Passions in Play propositions. Tame and submissive the satelles might be. just like the chorus. and perhaps the Realpolitik it advocates in both theory and practice is not just a frenzied fiction. but what is particularly upsetting in the scenes that I want to analyse in this context is that they engage extensively with the reality outside the play.32 The first point to note is the disproportionate stage presence given to each of the two characters. The scene opens with a long monologue by Atreus (176–204). as we have already noticed. as in the case of Tantalus in the opening scene of the play. The dialogue between Atreus and his satelles. nor does he try to stop him. as we will see shortly. but this inequality is not a mere reflection of this hierarchy: in principle nothing prevents the satelles from playing a much more prominent role. p. The politics of Thyestes. his question raises a (minor) possible objection which Atreus has already anticipated and dismissed. . who fails to acknowledge the satelles’ presence. his complete subordination can only affect the ideas he voices. 2. but it would be wrong to deny him a distinct personality. 46. and the chorus a safe-haven of restraint and reason. Atreus may be a monster. I will argue. however. and their meaning shifts considerably once they are assessed within the complex dynamics of the play. Here the satelles avoids both assured statements and emotional outbursts. Once ‘reality’ is drawn into the world of Thyestes. as Knoche ((1941) 70) does by suggesting that he simply embodies another aspect of Atreus’ irrationality. The questioning mode often conveys the emotional and cognitive weakness of a character.31 It is now important to consider more systematically the role played by the satelles in that dialogue. exists in a vacuum. He does not pass any general moral comment on the plans that his master is devising. are located not so much in what the characters say as in how. with other texts and with actual political positions. but chooses to couch his first intervention in the respectful and hesitant mode of a question. The latter’s opening words come in the form of a question at 204–5: ‘doesn’t public disapproval deter you?’ (fama te populi nihil | adversa terret?). since he has already stated that a negative reputation is precisely what he strives for: 31 32 See ch. and especially the protocols of political behaviour to which both he and Atreus refer. conversely. This is hardly surprising given the respective roles they play.

sententiae are exploited in order to highlight. eloquent and passionate oratory. | sed nulla taceat). could have staged direct and violent resistance against a tyrant. ‘let the king want what is right. let him spew forth his hateful soul’ (245: ferro peremptus spiritum inimicum expuat). and thus fails to turn the dialogue into a loftier debate about absolute good and evil. Atreus’ answer to this first question – a pragmatic apology for the need of sheer force in the exercise of power – prompts the satelles to explain his own political philosophy more assertively. by way of contrast.Atreus rex 155 ‘Up. Note also La Penna’s important suggestion (133–4) that Accius’ Atreus. which 33 See La Penna (1979) 138. Compared to Atreus’ articulate. Even his belated praise of honestum (213). The satelles’ exhortation comes in the apparently confident form of a sententia (213: rex velit honesta: nemo non eadem volet. From this point onwards (we are not yet at the middle of the scene) the satelles – forgoing any attempt to keep the moral high ground – is effectively an accomplice in the elaboration of Atreus’ revenge plot. . Just as Thyestes turns in the space of two lines from a determined refusal to accept Atreus’ invitation (540) to a thinly qualified assent (542–3). fac quod nulla posteritas probet. no one will want anything else’). the moral inconsistency and potential hypocrisy of those who utter them. my soul. do what no coming age shall approve. As in the dialogue between Thyestes and Atreus. ego poenam volo.33 His renewed mention of Pietas after his initial acquiescence can only be understood as a reference to the way in which Atreus will carry out his vengeance: having endorsed the idea of murdering Thyestes (245). pietas and fides (216) is subordinated to the question of how to retain power and popularity. Note that at this point the satelles does not suggest an alternative to Atreus’ exclusive focus on the best means to preserve power: the satelles – even at his most eloquent – makes no attempt to raise the discussion to a higher plane of abstract moral principles. anime. in fact. sanctitas. but even so the clumsiness of the litotes betrays the weakness of the statement. This scaling down of the role of Pietas. the satelles’ staccato statements sound like perfunctory attempts to remind his master of a hardly compelling point of view. in practice he accepts Atreus’ agenda in full. but none forget’ (192–3: age. the satelles mentions Pietas when Atreus confesses that a simple killing is not enough (246: de fine poenae loqueris. I desire punishment itself ’). and thus poises himself for inevitable defeat. the satelles moves from the firm principle stated at line 219 – nefas nocere vel malo fratri puta (‘count it wrong to harm even a wicked brother’) – to the astonishing exhortation with which he responds to Atreus’ lengthy remarks: ‘slain by the sword. ‘you speak of the punishment’s completion.

But caught by what wiles will he be led to set foot in our traps? He sees enemies everywhere. . . the satelles’ moral stance has now been completely invalidated. . He could not be caught if he didn’t himself want to catch . by asking several questions on points of detail. laqueos). . s a. and emphasizes the weakness of that first appeal. moreover. Fire. for instance. From hesitation to tacit agreement to active. The rapid exchange at 255–8. Ethical and intellectual weaknesses are thus joined together.156 The Passions in Play is consistent with the disappearance of sanctitas and fides. quonam ergo telo tantus utetur dolor? at. nisi capere vellet. who immediately erases any remaining difference between himself and his master: the trap devised for Thyestes is now ‘ours’ (287: nostros . Now the satelles can only question the details of Atreus’ plot. s a . at. Still too little. ferrum? at. then? at. quid ignis? at. After Atreus’ plot has been sketched out. the satelles devotes his questions to analysing Thyestes’ possible reactions (286–9 and 294–5): s a . parum est. What weapon. suggesting better alternatives or pointing out dangerous loopholes in the planning. etiamnunc parum est. sed quibus captus dolis nostros dabit perductus in laqueos pedem? inimica credit cuncta. reflects back on the initial reference to it at line 217. underlines the closeness of the two men’s cooperation and the satelles’ active advisory role: at. the satelles.. shows his complete acquiescence in the revenge plot. then. quis fidem pacis dabit? cui tanta credet? at. his desire to avoid possible mistakes. and none is enough. I will not overlook any crime. Too little. Atreus’ impassioned speech at 267–86 has an amazing effect on his advisor. non poterat capi. nullum relinquam facinus et nullum est satis. if rather useless. s a.. Nothing confined within the limits of ordinary anger. s a . nil quod doloris capiat assueti modum. and his total dependence on Atreus’ sharper intuitions. will such grief use? Once again. . credula est spes improba. The sword? at. s a . at. s a. s a. . In the final part of the scene. participation. s a.

but forcing them to want even what they do not want: quod nolunt velint (212). namely. . In the closing lines of the scene. In this context the satelles’ usual inquisitive mode foregrounds his subordination to Atreus as far as a proper understanding of psychological reactions is concerned. at.34 This distinction between timor and fides must be read in conjunction with the previous discussion on the role of fear in the exercise of power (205–10). It is now Atreus’ turn to utter sententious statements – non poterat capi. Wicked hope is credulous.Atreus rex 157 s a. conceal my plans’). at the master’s injunction to keep their deliberations secret (333: nostra tu coepta occule. By now time has alleviated his troubles. Atreus’ statements. and bases his judgement. Power consists in replacing psychological and moral truth with factual superiority. that timor will guarantee the satelles’ silence. perferre est grave. Who will give him confidence in peace? Whom will he trust so much? at. iam tempus illi fecit aerumnas leves. You are wrong: a sense of wrongs grows day by day. s a. once again. Similarly. | nisi capere vellet (288–9) and credula est spes improba (295) – but these seem to be predicated more on solid practical experience than on the rather cold moralistic tone of the satelles’ own pronouncements at the beginning of the scene. erras: malorum sensus accrescit die. the satelles replies that ‘he needs no warning’: ‘no need to admonish me. on actual experience: ‘the art of silence is taught by life’s many ills’ (318: tacere multis discitur vitae malis). but rather loyalty’ (334–5: haud sum monendus: ista nostro in pectore | fides timorque. both fear and loyalty shall shut them in my heart. This contrast between the satelles’ generic. moreover. sed magis claudet fides). will prove reliable and true in the rest of the play. ‘as for you. which forces a reliable consent: the satelles’ final words provide direct proof of the fact that fides can indeed be attained not by 34 Calder ((1976–77) 9) suggests that a pause before fides would convey very effectively the truth. leve est miserias ferre. to keep on bearing it is hard. It is easy to bear misfortune. at. it is Atreus who carefully considers the reliability of his own sons as possible accomplices in the execution of the plot. experienced beliefs is highlighted in the exchange at 305–7: s a . there Atreus had boldly rejected the satelles’ apology of sincere popular favour for the tyrant by pointing out that truly unfettered power consists not so much in convincing one’s subjects. textbook sententiae and Atreus’ authoritative.

After the choral ode. These . the nurse represents the paradigm of ratio and moderation as opposed to Phaedra’s insane passion. and before addressing Hippolytus she invokes divine protection for her deeds (406–30). the degree of the shift is remarkable. Not unlike the satelles. thus acquiring substantial stage-presence. harsh as he is. Let me sound out his sad and intractable heart. either against himself or others. fiery rhetoric which the satelles repeatedly fails to achieve. this structural similarity foregrounds the satelles’ own weakness. In Phaedra the first dialogue between the queen and her nurse occurs in the same structural position as the dialogue in Thyestes.158 The Passions in Play proposing honesta. namely in the first act. era. There. the nurse shifts her position in the course of the dialogue. My mistress. the nurse takes the stage again to describe Phaedra’s awful state of mind and physical distress (360–86). In his transition from dissent to complicity the satelles can be unflatteringly compared with Phaedra’s nutrix. disregard fame: fame is not partial to truth. First of all the nurse starts changing her mind only when faced with Phaedra’s resolve to commit suicide. The satelles swiftly became Atreus’ accomplice without any direct menace. if so unruly is the frenzy that seizes your mind. si tam protervus incubat menti furor. but she is much more active and articulate than the satelles: not only does she speak more extensively. meus iste labor est aggredi iuvenem ferum mentemque saevam flectere immitis viri. peius merenti melior et peior bono. but again explains her choice on affective grounds. but better to those who deserve worse and worse to the good. again. Leave this difficult task to me – to approach this fierce youth and bend his cruel mind. and her words indicate that her softening to Phaedra’s wishes is a direct result of her motherly affection for the woman: ‘and so should my old age allow you to rush headlong to your death? Stop your frenzied impulse’ (262–3: sic te senectus nostra praecipiti sinat | perire leto? siste furibundum impetum). and her words convey the sense that Hippolytus is being unduly harsh to Phaedra (267–73): solamen annis unicum fessis. contemne famam: fama vix vero favet. Secondly. I now focus again briefly on the overall structure of the dialogue. At the end of the dialogue the nurse does agree to sound out Hippolytus on Phaedra’s behalf. however. temptemus animum tristem et intractabilem. but she is also capable of putting forth an insistent. but by creating a system whereby superior power cannot be resisted. only comfort to my tired old age.

hoc quod dicebam clementia efficit. eosdem reddit inimicos metus. but he who seeks the glory of true favour will wish heart rather than voice to sing his praise. With their laconic. Whom fear compels to praise. at qui favoris gloriam veri petit. quia timetur. many of the satelles’ words have a rather textbookish ring to them. At 207–10 the satelles tries to impress upon his master the inherent dangers of a power based on fear: quos cogit metus laudare. but the satelles’ use of the verb ‘to terrify’ (terret) is strikingly incongruous after Atreus’ bold and self-confident opening monologue at 176–204. dum metuant. as seems probable. quibus se commisit. cura iuris. utitur: ‘Oderint. uterque licet non minus armis valletur. securus aspicit. nec illas ipsas manus. sed alter arma habet.’ 35 On all the passages from De clementia see now Malaspina’s rich commentary (Malaspina (2001)).3–4: interim. them. Compare De clementia 1. often formulaic tone. quibus in munimentum pacis utitur.35 The satelles’ very first statement concerns fama: fama te populi nihil | adversa terret? (204–5). qui multos praecipites dedit. too.15. fear makes into enemies.12. alter. fides (215–17). he insists on four closely connected topics: the ruler’s necessity to acquire a good fama (204–5). and especially to his final. Given this background. Principes multa debent etiam famae dare (‘princes are bound to give much heed even to report’) was the advice Seneca had offered Nero in De clementia (1. quia invisus est. sanctitas. It would be pointless to evaluate the satelles’ words without considering that they reflect – if. but this intertextual relationship should not be explained away. animo magis quam voce laudari volet. Before the satelles disavows any attempt to influence Atreus. ut magno timore magna odia compescat. and in fact they reflect widespread Hellenistic and Roman ideas on how a prototypical ‘good king’ should behave. (4) contrariis in contraria agitur: nam cum invisus sit. pietas. the ambivalent effects of metus (207–10). . Thyestes was written later than De clementia – what Seneca elsewhere considered to be the right prescription for a ruler’s considerate behaviour. ut magnum inter regem tyrannumque discrimen sit. it is not surprising that they are often close to Seneca’s own words in De clementia.Atreus rex 159 moments of hesitation and deferral stand in sharp contrast to the satelles’ rapid shift from a moral high ground to the level of Atreus’ plotting. timeri vult. wholehearted subscription to his master’s criminal plans in the name of timor rather than fides (335). the ruler’s duty to pursue honesta (213) and the necessity to uphold pudor.5). et illo execrabili versu.

pietatem integritatemque cum fide ac modestia resurgere et vitia diuturno abusa regno dare tandem felici ac puro saeculo locum. | instabile regnum est). but the one uses the arms which he has to fortify good-will. pudicitia. chastity. dignitas florent . rationem redditurus sim.8: ‘who would dare to devise any danger for such a man? Who would not wish to shield him.4: nunc profecto consentire decebat ad aequum bonumque expulsa alieni cupidine.1. that piety and uprightness along with honour and temperance should rise again. for instance. it is mercy that makes the distinction between a king and a tyrant as great as it is. as I was saying. sub quo iustitia. should conspire for righteousness and goodness.19. Conflicting causes force him to conflicting courses: for since he is hated because he is feared. tamquam legibus. thrusting out covetousness from which springs every evil of the heart. where the satelles sums up the essential qualities of a stable kingdom: ‘where there is no shame. 1. Indeed this is one of the notions that Seneca literally puts in Nero’s mouth in the reported speech which opens De clementia: ‘I so hold guard over myself as though I were about to render an account to those laws which I have summoned from decay and darkness into the light of day’ (sic me custodio. he takes as a motto that accursed verse which has driven many to their fall: ‘Let them hate. and that vice. if he could. security and honour flourish?’ (quis huic audeat struere aliquod periculum? quis ab hoc non. no honour.1. even from the chance of ill – him beneath whose sway justice. peace. he wishes to be feared because he is hated. ex qua omne animi malum oritur. and yet the very hands to which he has entrusted himself he cannot view without concern. Compare also 2. having misused its long reign. Atreus’ behaviour is all the more remarkable. though both are equally fenced about with arms. the other to curb great hatred by great fear. The disproportion in the quantity and quality . if only they fear.160 The Passions in Play Meanwhile. fortunam quoque avertere velit.4). Several passages in De clementia deal with these concepts. and to the all-important Hellenistic notion that the good ruler should constantly consider himself subjected to the rule of the Law.’ The debate reaches its climax at 215–17. ?). Finally. quas ex situ ac tenebris in lucem evocavi. Now assuredly it were fitting that men. pax. at 1. faith – there sovereignty is unstable’ (ubi non est pudor | nec cura iuris sanctitas pietas fides. and not knowing what frenzy is engendered when hatred grows too great. cura iuris refers at the same time to respect for judicial procedure. . . Against this careful mix of respectable Stoic concepts. righteousness. no care for right. securitas. and similar lists of positive qualities can be found. si possit. should at length give place to an age of happiness and purity.

20. | non nisi potenti falsa. and on the assumption that external power could force the latter but not control the former. Atreus replies that the tyrant can force thoughts as well as deeds: ‘the greatest advantage of royal power is this. This was. Atreus quickly points out that he is not interested in a reward which even a humble subject could attain: laus vera et humili saepe contingit viro. he elicits an applause. Atreus is here applying a 36 Contrastingly. 1. There is a sense of proud and almost joyful subversion of the satelles’ credibility in Atreus’ words which makes his behaviour look more convincing and consistent by comparison. as if they simply represented the furious outpouring of a demonic character. and thus disqualifiable as irrational. leaving aside irrelevant considerations about morality. The contrast between inessential and essential components of power is foregrounded in the very first words that Atreus and the satelles exchange: at the latter’s enquiry about fama | . divine power or the search for popular favour. when the satelles replies that true praise only reaches those who covet favoris gloriam veri (209). adversa (204–5). but rather on a keen perception – grounded in experience – of the realities of human interaction. The satelles’ question is predicated on the contrast between words and deeds. in De ira 1. quod nolunt velint (211–12). | quod facta domini cogitur populus sui | tam ferre quam laudare). and every strategy should be evaluated according to this perspective.4 Seneca expands on the immanitas of such a dictum. . that the people are compelled as well to bear as to praise their master’s deeds’ (205–7: maximum hoc regni bonum est. Similarly. of course. and a repenting Atreus would not have been credible. what the public expected of him. the famous motto oderint dum metuant can stir up an applause precisely because it fits the speaker so well: ‘When Atreus speaks in this manner. because his words are worthy of his character’ (Atreo dicente plausus excitantur. . Atreus’ philosophy of power consists in the exclusive focus on praxis. that an obedient population might still retain the psychological freedom to bestow on its ruler a negative fama.Atreus rex 161 of words he can muster vis-`a-vis the satelles is part of a dramatic truth which the presumed moral superiority of the satelles can hardly efface. . As Cicero remarks in De officiis.28. Atreus replies by focusing on facta (206).36 But just as it would be dramatically inappropriate to overestimate the satelles’ moral high ground. Atreus displays a coherent vision of power which is not simply based on ira. the exercise of power should not be predicated on anything but the most effective ways to preserve and further it. it would also be wrong to dismiss Atreus without scrutinizing his words more closely.97). est enim digna persona oratio.

162 The Passions in Play logic which Seneca had tried to turn to very different ends in De clementia. Thyestes provides in fact a dramatic confirmation of Atreus’ insight when in the following act he yields to his son’s persuasive advice and enters the city unwillingly: ‘my mind falters and wishes to take my body back. The satelles did not have to turn into . In his assertive defence of the tyrannical ethos. populus occurret frequens). and his deeds cohere with his policy statements. and a great deal more demanding. which parallels his search for private vengeance. his subjects will be forced to forget their own wishes and conform to his. His words are forceful. impressive. he curtly dismisses the notion that he should look for consent and approval: like Tantalus’ shadow. Atreus is more than a predictable stereotype of a tragic tyrant. Thyestes portrays himself as a ruler who supposedly enjoys the people’s favour and expects a warm welcome on his return home: ‘Argos will come to meet me. Later in the play.5. The contrast between the two characters is illuminating. that his superior will can bend an initially uncooperative mind. Atreus bases his decision to spurn the reward of genuine praise on precisely the same sense of distinction and uniqueness. moveo nolentem gradum). and the defeat they encounter – to be hardly worth serious consideration. Always an innovator. once again not because of the practical results of the confrontation – the unsurprising fact that Atreus has his way and carries out his revenge plan undisturbed – but because Seneca chooses to represent the opposition to Atreus’ plans and thoughts in an extremely ambivalent and unappealing form. The satelles (and. and Thyestes’ words are left without any visible sign of fulfilment. thus encouraging us to suppose that Atreus’ cynical lack of illusions is more realistic than his brother’s faith in popular favour. as far as he is later concerned. Thyestes) can only voice a perfunctory array of well-meaning but ineffectual commonplaces. but only the ruler can decide to refrain from revenge and spare a life (1. original. Atreus also injects into his political philosophy a sense of bold novelty. Atreus aspires to complete control over his people’s reactions. my steps are unwilling’ (419–20: animus haeret ac retro cupit | corpus referre. which the tragedy itself reveals – by the way they are uttered. it is also significantly different.4). where he repeatedly points out that the most authentic sign of distinction for a ruler lies in his ability to choose not to do something that any one of his subjects could also do: anybody can kill in revenge. and is aware that force can turn dissent into consent. Like the Fury of the prologue. While the motto quod nolunt velint is a reminder of the famous oderint dum metuant. Yet the play does not provide any indication that this actually occurs. a great crowd will come’ (411: occurret Argos.

willingly or not. whether this ‘sanity’ can muster enough credibility to be counted as a realistic alternative. as a moral commentary which can be taken at face-value. Tarrant remarks ((1985) 45) that ‘the breadth of its [the chorus’s] perspective and the dignity of its ultimate response give the play its only moments of moral sanity’. Thyestes himself. and Castagna (1996). is. for the actual realization of Atreus’ revenge. The fact that he is not essential. it is arguable. much of what the chorus observes in various moments of the tragic action can be connected with Stoic concepts as they are explained and advocated by other sources. in fact. and what degree of credibility they are able to instil in the audience. a losing and a winning one.38 True. Although it may be superficially appealing to identify Seneca himself in the satelles. is yet another character on the stage. of almost willing submission to Atreus’ vision. in the rest of the play.37 Indeed it is tempting to control the disruptive force of the play by locating a reliable moral message in the chorus’s lofty interventions. That may well be true. however. completely enmeshed in the vicissitudes of the play. if not in theory. further characterizes his acquiescence as an act of moral weakness. but the play does not give any indication that this might happen. Tarrant (1985) 137. and. and portrays instead the satelles’ parabolic descent from resistance to complicity. It is in fact a dramatized contrast between two different conceptions of power. the debate between Atreus and his minion is more than a reflection of a specific incident in the history of Roman political life. The chorus may well appear to be a more reliable candidate for moral guidance than the satelles or. but must 37 38 39 Among recent work on Senecan choruses in general see Tarrant (1978) 221–8. however. . in the palace) is how they deal with each other. It matters little which one holds the higher moral stature on paper: what really matters (on the stage. Mazzoli (1986–87). for that matter. is truly in keeping with the reality of Roman imperial rule. for all its idiosyncratic behaviour. and because the chorus. Of course Atreus held him hostage and could have easily punished any resistance. both because its comments fit in the linear sequence of events and often explicitly refer to very recent developments. a fit complement for a Caligula or Nero in the role of Atreus. The dialogue juxtaposes a truth and a fiction: the fiction of half-hearted resistance versus the matter-of-fact truth of what power really is and how it functions.Atreus rex 163 an Antigone to make his lofty thoughts more believable. Davis (1993). In this respect Atreus embodies a view of power which in practice. The chorus’s actions and reactions cannot be evaluated in the abstract. Hiltbrunner (1985) 989–91 offers an annotated bibliography.39 The chorus. or at least by arguing that the chorus enjoys a relatively detached position apart from the moral turmoil experienced by the main characters.

that a worse grandson succeed his grandfather. vices (133)41 which have so far besieged it (132–5): advertat placidum numen et arceat. the snow-covered peaks of Taygetus. ends in a brief digression on the alternating forces of winter and summer. which provoke and dissolve the snow (127–9). as the chorus deals with Tantalus’ past and thus invites a close comparison with the prologue. In this passage Seneca goes well beyond the traditional si = siquidem in prayers and conveys hesitation and scepticism. Isthmi si quis amat regna Corinthii. In these lines the chorus displays not only scepticism on the existence of a divine protection for Argos in particular. . voice in the conflict of contrasting points of view staged in the play. but also doubts about the possibility of knowing even very basic facts such as the existence of protecting gods. 77–8: quas non arces scelus alternum | dedit in praeceps?.164 The Passions in Play be evaluated dialectically. 44: sanguine alterno ((1976) 179). Let divine power look to us peacefully and forbid that crimes in alternate sequence return. . The chorus first appears on stage after the metadramatic prologue. . Lines 122–6 list several locations close to Argos. and delivers an impassioned appeal for an end to the chain of horrors which has so far besieged the Pelopidai. and the sea divided. or a greater crime please the new generations. . its twin harbours. . 40 41 Tarrant (1985) 106. if any loves the kingdom of Corinthian Isthmus. si quis Taygeti conspicuas nives . If any of the gods loves Achean Argos and Pisa famous for its chariots. alternae scelerum ne redeant vices nec succedat avo deterior nepos et maior placeat culpa minoribus. if any loves the far-seen snows of Taygetus . with Tarrant’s remarks ((1976) 182) on Greek parallels and his note on Ag. and the description of the last one. as another. . This cognitive inadequacy acquires a further dimension in the following lines. often dissonant. et portus geminos et mare dissidens. Against this background of natural alternation – by definition constant and unstoppable – the chorus voices the desire that no new misdeeds plague the royal household. See Ag. and specifically that there be a conclusion to the alternae . The very beginning of the ode is characterized by a vein of hesitation and uncertainty40 which is evident in the repetition of hypothetical statements (122–6): Argos de superis si quis Achaicum Pisaeasque domos curribus inclitas. .

82–3). but is rather perceived in this context as involuntary. Inextricably linked to the prologue. as a form of predictive ability which would bestow on the chorus a claim to higher knowledge. Deception is the element stressed most in this part of the song. however. 167). that repetition constitutes the play’s moral and dramatic dynamic: a number of specific verbal parallels underlines the stridency of this contrast. this insistence on deception reflects also on the chorus’s own tendency to be deceived. its inability to grasp events effectively.44 especially deceptus totiens (‘so often deceived’. 2 and ch. Tarrant ((1985) 110) notes the occurrence of this theme in the first part of the play. Contrary to the chorus’s opinion that Tantalus has been subjected to the most appropriate form of retribution (150–1: nec dapibus feris | decerni potuit poena decentior. line 135 recalls one of the Fury’s most striking mottos: Thracium fiat nefas | maiore numero (56–7). but in fact they ostensibly prefigure the monstrous deeds that the tragedy will once again evoke. 28–9: rabies parentum duret et longum nefas | eat in nepotes. rather. a relentless pattern of return. . Similarly. aptly describe Thyestes’ own behaviour at a later stage and reinforce the structural parallelism which links the two characters throughout the play. But precisely because of the context. the prologue has already shown that a worse torture has in fact been devised for him (70–1. 89–90: ducam in horrendum nefas | avus nepotes? (Tarrant (1985) 108 on 133–5). just like Tantalus’ shadow or the satelles. both referring to Tantalus. with a strong sense of closure. the apparently eternal situation of Tantalus in the underworld. it is doomed to failure. and therefore tragically ironic. and possibly in a temporal sequence which is parallel rather than subsequent to those events. Indeed. and. since the immediate context suggests.43 The chorus sides here with forces which have tried to prevent the unfolding of dramatic events. See 25: alterna vice. The chorus describes Myrtilus’ and Tantalus’ crimes while hoping that they will never be repeated (138: peccatum satis est). passim. the first choral song looks forward to future developments in the plot. 159) and falli libuit (‘gladly has been baffled’. 5.42 But from a dramatic point of view these hopes are unequivocally voiced after the prologue has already shown that they can no longer be nurtured. thus hinting at its importance in the subsequent unfolding of the plot. the final image of the ode describes.Atreus rex 165 The chorus speaks here without any knowledge of the prologue’s events. Even the richly detailed description of Tantalus’ punishment is consistent with the chorus’s display of inadequate knowledge – or sheer wishful thinking. the following emphatic statement: peccatum satis est (138) sounds particularly ironic. where he is 42 43 44 See ch. This prefiguration of events is not presented. ‘nor could a more fitting punishment have been decreed for such barbarous food’).

the chorus and Thyestes are paired as victims of deception. nulla vis maior pietate vera est: iurgia externis inimica durant. Sept. the absence of precise indications of who exactly its members are45 acquires particular relevance. the chorus is seen reacting to events with a fear inspired by its perception of the disasters to come. 1. see Tarrant (1985) 106.166 The Passions in Play forced to drink dirty shallow water after all the enticing goods presented to him have disappeared (174–5). the opening words are even more loaded with tragic irony (546–51): credat hoc quisquam? ferus ille et acer nec potens mentis truculentus Atreus fratris aspectu stupefactus haesit. It is worth noting that in both of the parodoi that Tarrant ((1985) 106) compares with this ode. On the notion. Again. Credat hoc quisquam? The opening of the third choral ode once again foregrounds the issue of knowledge and belief. its calls for restraint. It enhances the chorus’s shadowy appearance. since Tantalus has already been summoned to earth and forced to provoke a new turn in the terrible series of the catastrophes suffered by the Pelopidai. are neutralized by the weakness of its interpretative tools. 87–170 and Soph. namely between the meeting of the brothers and the appearance on scene of the messenger. with Picone (1976) 64. quos amor verus tenuit. Aesch. Subsequent choral odes strengthen these intimations of tragic irony and doomed inefficacy.46 suspended in the netherworld between powerful dramatic actions. OT 158–215. tenebit. There are useful remarks on the chorus’s personality also in Rozelaar (1976) 561–63 and a nuanced discussion in Davis (1993) 39–63. centres on the chorus’s inability to see beyond the deceptive surface of Atreus’ actions: once again. and the chorus’s reiterated expressions of fear remain a mute and ineffective counterbalancing element. and does not offer to the public a secluded island of moral certainty amidst the turmoil of the tragedy. 45 46 Tarrant (1976) 180 on the ‘impersonal quality’ of Senecan choruses. however. and further reduce the plausibility of retrieving a deeper and truer meaning of the play from the chorus’s words. its rarified. of the chorus as a ‘collective character’ see Grimal (1975) 265. n. Because of the chorus’s tragic inability to understand the situation unfolding on the stage. Since the ode directly follows one of Atreus’ most ominous double entendres (545: ego destinatas victimas superis dabo). the prologue has shown that closure and conclusion are far from guaranteed. with Leo (1897) 510–13. Zwierlein ((1966) 74–6) sees in this ‘impersonal quality’ yet another sign that the plays were not performable. . The first song makes it clear that the chorus has no higher claim to the truth. almost inactive existence. Its utterances of hope. This second interlude between actions.

The second stanza displays again a sceptical inclination: ‘this sudden lull out of so great uproar. not unlike the first one. that the audience enjoys a superior degree of knowledge. No power is stronger than true fraternal love. Ant. however. and joining their hands leads men. This insistence on the veracity of brotherly love is particularly striking since the chorus completely misrepresents the conflict between appearance and reality in the dealings between them: far from being moved by Thyestes’ appearance. obsessed description of the dangers now apparently past.Atreus rex 167 Will anyone believe this? Atreus. for instance.47 and the messenger will shortly provide ample evidence of such a metabole. After the dialogue of act 3 it is clear. apparently positive situation. what god has wrought?’ (560–1: otium tanto subitum e tumultu | quis deus fecit?) – a question which has a rather obvious answer for the audience – lends itself to irony. OT 1086–109. even if the chorus would lend it a concessive force. makes it difficult for us to identify with the chorus’s feeling. Trach. Tarrant rightly compares this song to several Sophoclean choruses which express hope immediately before a catastrophe. it is in fact Atreus who is able to deceive him with a false aspectus. hope and fear must strike the audience as a tragically pointless stance.¯ Note. As it suddenly shifts its thoughts backwards. the peculiar status of the chorus’s remarks. Thus the chorus’s belated mixture of belief. which connects it to Atreus and differentiates it from Thyestes and the chorus. the ensuing lines indulge in a detailed. that cruel. I would suggest. the chorus itself falls prey to the irresistible attraction of painful reiteration. 693–717. 633–62. stopped still at sight of his brother. out of control. contains a number of potentially contradictory or at least puzzling statements. In the first stanza. harsh man. This choral ode. Appropriately. The enormous disparity in levels of knowledge. angry strife with strangers lasts. it is remarkable that the actions that the chorus attributes to Pietas – the love which supposedly re-links Atreus’ and Thyestes’ hands – are themselves violent and cast an ominous light on the success of the reconciliation: ‘Love stays the steel. even against their will. bloodsoaked. 1115–54. The wound of the recent bellum civile (562) cannot be forgotten even in this apparent lull. Negantes squarely emphasizes the brothers’ unwillingness (once again mutual) to yield to peace. and not of the new. to Peace’ (558–9: opprimit ferrum manibusque iunctis | ducit ad pacem Pietas negantes). and the chorus perceptively lingers on the expectation of war rather than on actual fights. but those whom true love has bonded together will continue to bond. for instance. . which have not 47 Aj.

but it is important to recognize that this moment of authenticity and credibility comes precisely when the chorus abandons its analysis of what it perceives to be the present reality (which it is utterly inadequate to comprehend) and privileges instead the self-evident emotional reality of fear. ‘worse than war is the very fear of war’) represents one of the few immediately authentic and believable statements uttered by the chorus.168 The Passions in Play occurred so far. repeating and re-enacting is stronger than the peace supposedly at hand. mitius stagno pelagus recumbit. iam tacet stridor litui strepentis: alta pax urbi revocata laetae est. and between fear and solace. and now one can count the fish under water. now lie open even to a small pleasure-boat. quae navis timuit secare hinc et hinc fusis speciosa velis. only four depict the sea finally at rest. largely holds true for the following stanza. feared the sea. alta. Of course. it is with a hypothetical si rather than a temporal cum (588–95): si suae ventis cecidere vires. shaken by a huge storm. the bulk of it is occupied with a vivid account of the tempest which precedes the calm. which contains an elaborate simile referring to natural forces. now the deep trumpet-blare is silent. The force of remembering. now the sword’s dire threats have ceased. right where a moment ago the Cyclades. This lack of balance between past and present. that the fear of war is worse than war itself (572: peior est bello timor ipse belli. In other words: when the chorus finally yields to the same force which has already subjugated the shadow of Tantalus and Thyestes. iam silet murmur grave classicorum. If the winds’ strength has failed. strata ludenti patuere cumbae. the sea sinks back calmer than a pool. deep peace has been restored to the happy city. The concluding remark. now the shrill of the clarion’s blast is quiet. Out of nineteen lines which form the simile. the deep waters which even a ship adorned with fully spread sails on both sides had feared to cleave. it does mean rather more than the chorus is aware of. . Even as this positive side is finally introduced. et vacat mersos numerare pisces hic ubi ingenti modo sub procella Cyclades pontum timuere motae. at line 588. since timor is still very much a present factor. preceded by a positive statement on the newly acquired peace (573–6): iam minae saevi cecidere ferri.

between the lines rather than explicitly. pain and pleasure. and remember that they.Atreus rex 169 None of the positive statements stands without an immediate balance in the opposite direction provided by a return to the negative past. are subject to divine punishment (596–622). Indeed. brevior voluptas). more in the implications suggested by its structure than in the often less than compelling lexical choices. The elaborate discussion of divine retribution at 607–14. to be sure. but it is worth comparing Soph. each in turn. The messenger’s arrival on the scene provides powerful confirmation of the cyclical and yet largely unpredictable nature of events which the chorus had endorsed in the second 48 A topical image. accomplished by quae at line 590 and hic ubi at line 594. revolving nature. with tragic irony rather than full awareness. | hunc dies vidit fugiens iacentem. yet. and on the basis of this false assumption it expands with utter seriousness on the larger moral framework governing human actions: fortune is mutable. The statements which hold true do so. For the chorus. him the setting sun has seen laid low’).48 The real significance of this section of the ode lies. By its very tortuous. This is yet another instance of the chorus’s propensity to indulge more in the recollection of past fears than in the enjoyment of the present. will be far from destroyed at the end of the tragedy. The discrepancy between the chorus’s actual grip on events and its prominent presence in the play is never more evident than in its dialogue with the messenger immediately after the third ode. then. especially 674–5:  ’  . too. and this is consistent with the general interpretation of the chorus’s attitude that I have outlined so far: the chorus does say several useful and perceptive things. Atreus. in a very different sense to that envisaged by the chorus itself. just as calm succeeds tempest. 669–76. give place – more quickly. and the chronological framework invites us to read this as a reflection – among other things – on tragic time. ‘whom the rising sun has seen high in pride. however. of course. powerful men should beware of sudden reversals. but almost invariably malgr´e soi. it underscores the real lack of definitive closure which is inherent in the simile and is then made explicit in the gnomic statement of 596–7: ‘no lot endures long. and many are simply reversed. for instance. the storm followed by a period of calm is an apt analogy for Atreus’ conversion. the ultimate superbus. tempests come back over and over again. pleasure’ (nulla sors longa est: dolor ac voluptas | invicem cedunt. Aj. culminates in the certainty that superbi will be punished (613–14: quem dies vidit veniens superbum.

.    |  . in the context of Ajax’s misleading acceptance of the status quo.

with what countenance did the youth bear his death?’. and the messenger’s first line (623: quis me per auras turbo praecipitem vehet | . since it interrogates the messenger and reacts to his narrative as it unfolds. anguished by fear and despair. the chorus is directly involved in the tragic action. the only reaction we hear. for all that. ‘what whirlwind will drag me headlong through the air?’) is pointedly linked to the chorus’s last utterance (621–2: res deus nostras celeri citatas | turbine versat.170 The Passions in Play part of the ode. 730–1). in the fourth and final song the chorus acquires a more powerful and convincing dramatic status. It is only at line 743 – when almost all of Atreus’ crimes have been exposed – that the chorus gives voice to its own emotions. Subsequently. an scelus sceleri ingerit? (‘what did he then do after the double murder? Did he spare one boy. Atreus’ crimes have been told in detail. does he first attack with the steel?’. 745–6) and quid ultra potuit? obiecit feris | lanianda forsan corpora atque igne arcuit? (‘what more did he manage to do? Did he perhaps throw the bodies for wild beasts to tear apart. or did he heap crime on crime?’. and the exchange with the . quid deinde gemina caede perfunctus facit? | puerone parcit. but also clumsy and unfocused in its reactions. . with an exclamation whose stylistic banality underlines the inadequacy of the response: o saevum scelus! (‘oh. After insisting that the messenger deliver his news quickly (626. In fact even these emotional outcries are emphatically delayed. or refuse them fire?’. Yet this active role is matched by the superficiality of the chorus’s reactions. not just unable to modify events (something which it is not expected to do). For the chorus this is already the end of the play. 719). . quo tulit vultu necem? (‘with what spirit. ?. In the scene that follows. 747–8) sound an almost ironic note because of the predictability of the answers they will receive. 633. all the questions are formulated along the same syntactical pattern. savage crime!’). These interventions do nothing to alter the assumption that the chorus is tragically ignorant and superficial. it is still questions – barely more coloured with emotion – which we hear from the chorus: an ultra maius aut atrocius | natura recipit? (‘does nature admit anything greater or more atrocious?’. predictable and formulaic in its expressions of horror. until after the better part of the rhesis. the chorus resumes its dialogic function by asking a series of questions on points of detail. 690). quo iuvenis animo. Shocked by the sudden disappearance of the sun. and the questions are. ‘god shakes our affairs in a swift whirlwind’). 638–40) and being informed of Atreus’ deeds. quem tamen ferro occupat? (‘whom. 716). and all – with the partial exception of the third – display little emotional involvement: quis manum ferro admovet? (‘who lays his hand on the sword?’.

are preliminary reactions – but with a more forceful set of emotions. tuos rapis aspectus? Father of lands and heavens. in a sense. Yet again. namely a reaction to the rhesis. It is at this point. cuius ad ortus noctis opacae decus omne fugit. that the chorus finally seems to come into its own as far as both emotion and cognition are concerned: it knows all there is to know and has a chance to react not simply with hope or fear – both. Thus it is under the usual light of detachment and bewilderment that the chorus enters on stage once more. the sudden disappearance of the sun. its first words are uttered as questions (789–93): quo terrarum superumque parens. The ode limits its focus to the very last fact the messenger had told. and the chorus’s final appearance ultimately leaves in its trail more questions than answers. therefore. The chorus is laconic and inexpressive when it hears the messenger’s chilling narrative. quo vertis iter medioque diem perdis Olympo? cur. at whose rising every star of the dark night flees away. oh where do you turn your orbit and destroy the day in the middle of its path? Why. evidently fail to stir new emotions. to begin with. which could after all reflect a desire to learn as many details as possible before attempting a deliberate response. where. This ode. the chorus wonders at length about a consequence which the messenger had already briefly but definitively explained at 783–5. Seneca’s handling of the ode highlights precisely opposite implications.Atreus rex 171 messenger has been a true anagnorisis: now the chorus knows how wrong it had been in its optimistic assumptions about Atreus’ conversion. and. is emphatically not what it could be expected to be. Phoebus. This novel event startles the chorus and leads it to new worries and new doubts: rather than concentrating on a set of events which had just been narrated in detail and whose causes are by now clear. do you snatch away your sight? Tantalus’ attitude had been similar (1–4): quis inferorum sede ab infausta extrahit avido fugaces ore captantem cibos? quis male deorum Tantalo visas domos ostendit iterum? Who drags me forth from the accursed abode of the dead. where I snatch at food ever-fleeing from my hungry lips? What god shows Tantalus again the homes he saw to his ruin? . again. Phoebe. which is described as a divine reaction of disgust at Atreus’ crimes. Even its questions.

ne fatali cuncta ruina quassata labent iterumque deos hominesque premat deforme chaos . Go ahead. no more sunrises?’ (solitae mundi periere vices? | nihil occasus. leads the chorus to surmise that far more wide-ranging consequences have to be feared. lest all things fall down shattered by fated ruin.172 The Passions in Play The Fury. Thus the chorus is ready to consider the disappearance of the sun as a fatal blow to the regular alternation of cosmic rhythm. . on the other hand. the bewilderment of the farmer) to a much loftier catalogue of possible mythical explanations. and Atreus is not worried. | dies recessit: perge dum caelum vacat). while the sky is empty!’ (891–2: ne quid obstaret pudor. all centred around the fight between Zeus and the Giants – the archetypal exemplum of subversive violence directed against a superior power. knew from the beginning that the sun might well disappear: ‘Look! Titan himself is in doubt whether to order the day to follow on. utinam nox sit! trepidant. but pleased. . in turn. trepidant pectora magno percussa metu. The emotional tone of these lines switches from the familiar examples mentioned before (the sound of the bucina. Once again the contrasting camps of characters are opposed to each other by (among other things) a different level of knowledge and a different capacity to react effectively to events: in this case. and a sense of permanent damage prevails: ‘have the usual movements of the world come to an end? will there be no more sunsets. This. But whatever this may be. nihil ortus erit? (813–14)). 821) – the chorus returns to doubt and fear (827–32): sed quidquid id est. moreover. that the earth is shrouded in darkness: ‘so that shame should not impede me. . and once again shapeless chaos weigh upon gods and men. and with his reins to force it towards its destruction’ (120–1: en ipse Titan dubitat an iubeat sequi | cogatque habenis ire periturum diem). the contrast is sharpened by the otherwise dramatically inexplicable fact that the chorus goes on wondering why the sun disappeared even after it has been told. the day has retreated. After a graphic description of the novel meeting between a bewildered Aurora and the sun – insueto novus hospitio (‘startled at such unwonted welcoming’. tremble shaken by great fear. The surprising way in which the chorus frames its intervention after the rhesis makes the hypotheses that it formulates as it tries to understand the causa (803) of such a novel event even more puzzling (803–14). if only it were night! Our hearts tremble. and the next two stanzas alternate between the certainty of an unbearable catastrophe and the suspicion that the world has indeed come to an end.

timor: vitae est avidus quisquis non vult mundo secum pereunte mori. the subjunctive is followed by a long string of future indicatives (starting with dabit at line 837) which culminate in the final ruin of the Chariot at line 874 (ruet). premeret quos everso cardine mundus? in nos aetas ultima venit? o nos dura sorte creatos. is it ours which has been deemed worthy to be overwhelmed by the sky. whether we have lost the sun or banished it! Away with lamenting. Roberts. for further references. seu perdidimus solem miseri. In pointed contrast to the chorus’s insistence on closure. Both tone and contents send strong signals of closure.Atreus rex 173 ¯ as But doubt and fear quickly turn into the certainty of a final ekpyrosis. and. In these thirty-seven lines – over a third of the total ode – the detailed insistence on a series of specific astronomical disasters lends support to the chorus’s belief that the end of the universe is imminent. | his puniendum vota te tradunt mea. go away. the banquet unfolds all over again as Atreus. Of many generations. Use of the 49 50 Note that even as the chorus is ready to admit that a final end has arrived. the play ends with the promise of future retributions: TH. te puniendum liberis trado tuis (‘TH. | AT. instead of taking the sudden darkness as an indication of divine disgust. I deliver you to your children’. AT. yet it is precisely the lack of closure that is highlighted in the rest of the play. but the next two hundred lines will in fact repeat from a different narrative point of view the final part of the events that the rhesis had announced: in dramatic terms. 1110–12). sive expulimus! abeant questus. and in fact this is the chorus’s last appearance on stage (there is no exodos. exploits it to further the completion of his plans. begotten with cruel lot. that is. but is finally acknowledged in the drastic tone of a gnome (875–84):50 nos e tanto visi populo digni. The gods will be my avengers. Fear: he who does not want to die when the world is dying with him is too greedy for life.49 This belief is yet again stated in more doubtful terms at first (875–81). vindices aderunt dei. . discede. my prayers deliver you to them for punishment. it is still in doubt as to why exactly that happens. its axis upturned? Has the last day come in our time? Alas for us. For punishment. Not only have the mundi vices not been permanently altered and the world has not come to an end. Dunn and Fowler (1997) 276. A gnomic closure is common in Greek tragedy: Kremer (1971) 117–21. as we will see shortly).

the second ode does not cast the chorus in a different light. vengeance is the only prospect on which both characters agree. cannot really be considered self-standing interludes (embolima). Thus the chorus’s weakness appears functionally similar to the satelles’ unexcited and quickly dismissed attempt to restrain Atreus. they attempt to establish a connection with reality. however. together with the symmetry between Thyestes’ and Atreus’ final lines. . and the play chooses to continue. More pointedly. As it elaborates an ideal model of ‘royalty’ just after the audience has witnessed the depth of Atreus’ deception. joy and fear. the end of a cosmic cycle and the return to chaos. which sees in it ‘the play’s closest approach to a positive statement of values’ whose ‘beauty .’ Pace Zwierlein (1966) 76–80. and those of Thyestes in particular. and silence. that since the Fury’s and Atreus’ drive to repetition had already been fulfilled.52 Successfully or not. . Atreus and Thyestes can be judged. that an end be put to the domino-effect of nefas. Once again we see that the chorus’s sustained tone is undermined by failure to really grasp what is happening. the choral ode emerges as a triumph of wishful thinking over reality. because Seneca’s choral odes in general. A more optimistic interpretation.174 The Passions in Play future tense. rather than emotional autarkeia.53 Atreus and his satelles have painstakingly 51 52 53 Tarrant (1985) 138. this at least be matched by a final repetition of a different nature (note iterum at 831 and 833). None of these wishes comes true: the world goes on. and even to repeat the nefas it sings. remains deeply satisfying’51 is possible only if we agree to see in a positive light the chorus’s detachment from the surrounding events. On ‘contrastivit`a’ as a fundamental feature of Senecan choruses see the important remarks by Mazzoli (1986–87). and that the vices of their enmity still have a long way to go: whether gods or humans will enforce it. . worry and hope. ensures that no final word has been spoken. Atreus and Thyestes brace themselves for future reprisals. conspicuously fails to represent the last word and again makes the chorus look misguided in its moral loftiness and basic lack of understanding. see Davis (1993) 172: ‘[Odes 2 and 3] establish a philosophic standard by which the play’s central characters. and consequently display. or to Thyestes’ own ambivalence in the choice between a properly ‘Stoic’ behaviour and the reality of his wishes and fears. the description of the conflagration of the universe. In this final song the chorus had sided with Tantalus and the satelles in its wish that no further progress be made. Although it has often been thought to embody the tragedy’s ‘real’ message. This would be an awkward line to pursue. coherent as it is with Stoic belief.

but are retained by Zwierlein and Tarrant.57 Were it not for his ‘ambition’ (350: ambitio) he would be an almost perfect embodiment of the qualities extolled in the ode. and Menelaus’ and Agamemnon’s involvement in the ploy. 321). It is Atreus. 54 55 57 The contrast with the preceding scene is even greater if lines 336–8 are retained (tandem regia nobilis. the song does more than reinforce the feeling that interpretation is fraught with ambiguities. Thus. In particular. as Atreus and the satelles consider Thyestes’ reactions to the invitation to return home. 56 See above. In fact the very last exchange between the two characters on stage elaborates on the importance of keeping their secrets well hidden. The chorus’s reaction to and understanding of events is perhaps the most important aspect of its characterization. we must infer. they are deleted by Richter (1902) (followed by Sutton (1986) 40–1) because they are inconsistent with the preceding scene and anticipate 546–51. . the notion that ‘real’ power can invariably turn language to its own advantage. who truly despises the fickleness of popular favour and the external signs of royal status. | antiqui genus Inachi. its constant mood of doubt and uncertainty. and there can be no further doubt that the Fury’s goals will be attained. after all.54 A further unsettling implication emerges from a detailed comparison of the standards advocated by the chorus and the behaviour of Atreus and Thyestes. unreliable as this may be shown to be. from anybody else (334–5). it also involuntarily sanctions. even from Atreus’ own sons (332–3). its tendency to misinterpret. Lines 344–7 and 353–7. dolus (318). the final part of the dialogue focuses on deception and secrecy. 141ff. in one of the most eloquent parts of the tragedy. The chorus’s lack of defining traits. fallere (320. and. which is unlikely given that the plan has just been hatched. by opening itself to a paradoxical interpretation which is clearly at odds with the chorus’s presumable ‘authorial intention’.Atreus rex 175 mapped the future course of actions.55 In its eloquent rehearsal of traditional Stoic topoi the chorus predictably aligns itself with Thyestes’ own moralizing. This explanation presupposes that the chorus already knows that Atreus plans to pretend to welcome back Thyestes. pp. 316). I am indebted here to Davis (1993) 176–8. In this context many keywords already present in the first ode return to the forefront: fraus (312. Calder (1989) suggests that they are spoken by the chorus as it comes back on stage – probably at 330 – and utters its real beliefs (from 339) only after Atreus and the satelles have left.56 But on closer inspection the chorus’s autarchic view of power is paradoxically more in tune with Atreus’ than Thyestes’ behaviour. | fratrum composuit minas). and that even the most hallowed of Stoic precepts are not safe from tendentious exploitations a` la Atreus. The chorus appears to be still hoping for a future which is no longer attainable.

that its recipes for a better life appear in the end to be more of an exercise in abstract morality than a compelling indication of viable options. its faith in the gods’ presence and providence. ataraxic life. 68. The chorus’s feelings and thoughts are only voiced between events. See p. It is small wonder. Not even in structural terms does the chorus enjoy a privileged platform. the certainty of retribution – are all fatefully undermined. Thus the solutions it offers on a variety of levels – the ‘true’ nature of power or the preference for a retired. whether or not these have been directly witnessed or even correctly understood. 58 The only exceptions are represented by the certainly un-Senecan Octavia. Leo (1897) 512.58 thus depriving it of any opportunity to deliver a final evaluation of the events. then. . It is interesting to note that Senecan plays never give the chorus the last word.176 The Passions in Play the feebleness of its emotional responses – all these factors conspire to subtract a great deal of dramatic and moral appeal from its noble-sounding and apparently inspired ethical considerations. and the dubious Hercules Oetaeus.

Unfortunately. Accordingly. if not yet to a conclusion. I would first like to explore a set of related topics which play an important role not just in Thyestes but in several other Senecan tragedies. Seneca has irretrievably adulterated the pure forms of tragedy. the coherent succession of scenes in an undisturbed temporal continuum – these are all rules to which Seneca finds surprising (and. by abandoning the conventions of Attic drama. implicit or explicit. at least to a point where we can take a comprehensive view of the main issues that I have analysed in previous chapters. Medea and Oedipus. like many other aspects of his dramatic technique. Before doing so. There seems to exist a broad consensus. The notion that many of his plays offer detached tableaux 1 The classic treatment of this topic is Tarrant (1978). the rigid delimitation of the time allotted to the tragic action.chapter 5 Fata se vertunt retro fata se vertunt retro (Seneca. in order to situate my final analysis of Thyestes within a broader context. I think. highly effective) alternatives. Troades. in this chapter I will largely move away from Thyestes and offer a thematic reading focusing mostly on other plays: Hercules furens. It is well established that Seneca breaks away from many fifth-century conventions:1 the unity of time and space. Agamemnon 758) i The time has almost come to bring the reading of Thyestes. this is often taken as further evidence for the theory that. so that his treatment of time. 177 . testifies to a decadence in the evolution of tragedy. I propose to look first at certain peculiarities of Seneca’s treatment of dramatic time. Agamemnon. In the next chapter I will extend the argument developed here. that many of the plays’ temporal structures display markedly idiosyncratic features.

however. this is not the only problem raised by such a conciliatory explanation. in fact. who explained it as being a result of Seneca’s imperfect adaptation of his Euripidean model. after Tantalus has in fact already entered the house and polluted it. she dismisses the ghost and sends him back to the underworld: ‘go to the caves of the underworld and your familiar river’ (105–6: gradere ad infernos specus | amnemque notum). as he is overcome by the Fury’s excruciating tortures (96–101). unconventional. the Fury orders him to remain on earth and to watch the doomed banquet which will eventually conclude the tragedy: ‘go. On this point see Shelton (1975) 258–9. fill up your fasting. the Fury vividly describes the consequences of his pollution.2 Shortly thereafter. n.660). 4. I have found foods which even you would want to flee – stop. who stabs herself with the words sic. let blood mixed with wine be drunk before your eyes. See Tarrant (1985) 103 for a discussion of Calder’s suggestion (1984) that the repetition marks the strokes of whip which the Fury inflicts upon Tantalus. Verbal repetitions convey her excitement6 (101–4): 2 3 4 5 6 See pp. sic iuvat ire sub umbras. See Picone (1984) 28.5 Difficult as it is to imagine the Fury suddenly surrendering to Tantalus’ complaints. I will take my cue from some peculiar treatments of dramatic time to investigate their semiotic and thematic significance: what does it mean for Seneca to subvert linear chronology. Between these two seemingly contradictory orders3 stands Tantalus’ short-lived and ultimately ineffectual rebellion (68–83a.178 The Passions in Play rather than an organic plot is predicated precisely on the sometimes loose. and what role does time play in the configuration of Seneca’s tragic thought and tragic writing? ii At the end of her harsh exhortation to Tantalus in the prologue. 86b-101). Steidle (1943–44) 257 and Picone (1984) 28. often puzzling temporal connections established between acts. Lesky ((1922–23) 533–7) puts the discrepancy down to Seneca’s departure from his Euripidean model: in Euripides’ Thyestes. In the lines that follow Tantalus’ unwilling agreement. where are you rushing headlong?’ (65–7: ieiunia exple. mixtus in Bacchum cruor | spectante te potetur. and conclude the prologue. and is uttered by the Fury alone on stage. The inconsistency was first noticed by Lesky ((1922–23) 533). only afterwards will he be allowed to leave. 45ff. See Anliker (1960) 27–8. 48. The suggestion would probably have come from Virgil’s Dido (Aen. Hine ((1981) 268) believes that the Fury’s order at 105–6 is ironic. It has been suggested4 that at 105–6 the Fury is relenting precisely because of Tantalus’ emphatic reaction: first he must wreak havoc in the house of the Pelopidai (83: ante perturba domum). inveni dapes | quas ipse fugeres – siste. the ghost would have remained inside the house for the duration of the whole play. quo praeceps ruis?). It is incumbent upon us to read these disjunctions and discrepancies as markers of meaning. .

lines 103–4 are a careful. after selecting the best form of revenge against his brother. Both the Fury and Atreus start by striving to find a revenge of unprecedented cruelty. ‘let the Thracian crime be done. Seneca. abunde est. While actum est abunde reinforces the Fury’s affiliation to her Virgilian model. 1457. sentit introitus tuos domus et nefando tota contactu horruit. In act 2. thus effectively depriving it of much of its value. 1035.7 it also establishes a meaningful point of reference within the play. iam tuum maestae pedem terrae gravantur. Moreover. iam sat est etiam mihi). and in turn. Atreus expresses his contentment in much the same words (279–80): bene est. impleri iuvat | maiore monstro (‘the frenzy burning in my breast is not great enough. let them thirst after each other’s blood. who has Atreus use the expression a third and final time at line 889 (bene est. 1019. This. thus let them be dragged. Her. and the Fury’s wish that the Thracian nefas be repeated on a larger scale (56–7: Thracium fiat nefas | maiore numero.552 terrorum et fraudis abunde est is uttered by Juno in direct response to Allecto. already your step falls heavy on the saddened earth. but multiplied’) is mirrored at the same relative point in Atreus’ own speech: non satis magno meum | ardet furore pectus. gradere ad infernos specus amnemque notum. just before the latter’s dismissal (559: cede locis). multiplies its model.Fata se vertunt retro 179 hunc. abunde est: hic placet poenae modus tantisper. 7. hunc furorem divide in totam domum. more than enough.552. Enough! More than enough! Go to the caves of the underworld and your familiar river. a point which could well be supported by Calder’s suggestion noted above (n. sic ferantur et suum infensi invicem sitiant cruorem. It is at this point that the Fury is finally satisfied (105–7): actum est abunde. I like this way of punishing him – for the moment. See Braden (1985) 45 for the suggestion that bene habet. . On the Virgilian construction see Fordyce (1977) 160. It would indeed be tempting to see the Fury and Atreus as game-directors extraordinaires. and has recoiled in horror from your unutterable contagion. as enemies. Ag. The parallelism between these two scenes goes beyond the repetition of abunde. 998 (cf. 6). sic. some greater horror must fill me’. It is worth noting that abunde est appears in the Aeneid only at 7. 901 with Tarrant (1976) 343 and references to comedy. explicit reworking of two lines in Ovid’s Philomela 7 8 At Aen. 1472) might be connected with the language of gladiatorial games. 252–4). Her. O. F. peractum est at Oed. Your house feels your entering. Med.8 This is good. this rage distribute throughout the house! Thus.

where it is Thyestes’ turn to anticipate the unfolding of the events. When the chorus opens the following ode in a tone of surprised anguish (789–91). who welcomes the realization of an ‘uncertain prophecy’ (Ag. . she crowns her crescendo by pointing out that even the sun is uncertain whether it should force the day to continue in its appointed course: ‘Look! Titan himself is in doubt whether to order the day to follow. we find a direct reference to the same story: animum Daulis inspira parens | sororque (‘inspire my soul. n. see Tarrant (1985) 106). the icon of the nefas which has been accomplished. supplanted in its role by a star-like Atreus (885–6). An alternative solution to the correlations and discrepancies mentioned above would be to interpret the Fury’s overarching awareness of the events which will later unfold on the stage as a manifestation of prophetic foreknowledge. These verbal and structural parallels. this appears to be the most economical solution. The sun. The premature.11 This image clearly prefigures the withdrawal of the sun from its regular course12 and becomes. Indeed.180 The Passions in Play episode:9 ut sensit tetigisse domum Philomela nefandam. 275–6). 38: sortis incertae fides) as the king returns home 9 10 11 12 13 Met. and the whole of act 4 must be taking place in at least partial darkness (the messenger’s words at 623–5 would thus have a somewhat paradoxical flavour). they are not witnessing the disappearance of the sun afresh.601–2. Tarrant ((1985) 103) provides a detailed analysis of the analogies and differences between Seneca’s and Ovid’s lines. | horruit infelix totoque expalluit ore. I return to this point at the end of the chapter. as both brothers remark (891–2 and 990–1).14 This is certainly the case in the prologue to Agamemnon. highlight the fact that Atreus is closely following in his own speech the same sequence of thoughts and actions as was displayed by the Fury in the prologue. unnatural setting of the sun as a mark of horror at Atreus’ deeds is mentioned by the messenger (776). and sister. therefore. later in the tragedy. is still hidden when he meets Thyestes.10 and in the corresponding position in Atreus’ speech. too’. before he in turn exclaims bene est. The use of the participle in se periturum indicates the ‘inevitability of the action’ (Tarrant (1976) 178. o Daulian mother. but rather commenting on it. We must assume that the sun sets while Atreus carries out the infanticide. and with his reins to force it towards its destruction’ (120–1: en ipse Titan dubitat an iubeat sequi | cogatque habenis ire periturum diem). and as nature forgets her habits. Atreus (892) and Thyestes (990). the chorus (789). As the Fury’s description of the extraordinary outcome of Tantalus’ intervention acquires a cosmic dimension. since it implies no particular idiosyncrasy on Seneca’s part. 14 Picone (1984) 32.13 It is possible to argue that this elaborate parallelism denotes the Fury’s ability to predict in great detail the events she has herself caused. 57. abunde est. A comparison between the two prologues shows the prophetic nature of Thyestes’ words. See Hine (1981) for the opinion that similar repetitions are standard narrative devices. 6.

Both the careful arrangement of verbal tenses. now shall this house swim in blood other than mine’ (43–4: adest – daturus coniugi iugulum suae. This. Moreover the Fury’s orders – notwithstanding the play’s later attempts to establish an almost regular internal chronology – do jar the audience’s perception of temporal flow. and the final notation that Thyestes’ sojourn on earth is delaying dawn (53–6: sed cur repente noctis aestivae vices | hiberna longa spatia producunt mora. (1978) 17–20.15 The whole action of the tragedy – Atreus’ plotting his revenge. . The solution to this puzzle probably lies in accepting that the Fury’s orders are intrinsically 15 Shelton (1975). I hasten to add.Fata se vertunt retro 181 to be murdered: ‘now he is near at hand – to give his throat into his wife’s power. Both solutions involve substantial difficulties.16 The fact remains that repetition and parallelism play a key role in the structure of the play. Atreus will acknowledge that he can anticipate the whole sequence of his revenge in his mind: tota iam ante oculos meos | imago caedis errat (‘already before my eyes flits the whole picture of the slaughter’. Thy. The ‘prophecy’ theory falters on the discrepancy between the two orders given to Tantalus by the Fury. 16 Lesky (1922–23). make it difficult to assume that the clock actually turns back at the beginning of act 2. Thyestes’ video (46) should therefore be considered a variation on Atreus’ boasting that he can picture in his mind the whole imago caedis. the double murder. first that he stay to watch the banquet. the fact that the prologue is taking place just before dawn. At the opposite end of the spectrum of possibilities. Now. then that he return to his usual abodes. One can see the appeal of the claim that Seneca. On the other hand. as usual. ‘but why suddenly is the summer night prolonged to winter’s span? or what holds the setting stars still in the sky? We are delaying Phoebus: give back the day now to the universe’) exclude the possibility that the prologue is temporally coextensive with the rest of the play. just messed up his note cards while attempting to juggle one too many models at a time. the banquet – would be encompassed in the prologue. | aut quid cadentes detinet stellas polo? | Phoebum moramur: redde iam mundo diem. she watches all the phases of the plot as they rapidly unfold in front of her eyes before they are shared with the audience. Shelton has suggested that the Fury actually observes in a compressed period of time all the events which the tragedy will gradually present to the audience. while several references in the rest of the play make it clear that we are in the middle of the day. | iam iam natabit sanguine alterno domus). would be perfectly in keeping with Juno’s metadramatic aspects: as befits the ‘author’ of the story. 281–2).

to alert the careful spectator to the fact that in an important sense we are moving backwards. either willingly 17 18 It is difficult to confine the significance of this treatment of dramatic time to the text’s desire to emphasize human responsibility. Seneca marks repetition as an essential component of tragic actions and of our theatrical understanding of them. The movement from full daylight to the uncertain shades of dawn marks. See above. represented by the prologue. There is enough evidence in other Senecan plays. Actions. all-encompassing knowledge which we can only dimly fathom from our limited perspective. and a deeper elision of the possibility of neatly defining innocence and guilt. pregnant dimension: the second layer of the plot is not only structurally embedded in the first. as the play ostensibly observes the regular conventions of the passing of time. are always already determined by a divine masterplot. but which in a very significant (if not strictly literal) way should be traced back to a point in time in parallel with the prologue itself. . for the humans. therefore. In other words. forwardlooking temporal flow. The audience is involved from the very beginning in the Fury’s scheming. a point well made by Shelton (1975) 263–7. as we will see shortly.17 but inscribes it in a much larger and uncontrolled context of divine foreknowledge and planning. Enough clues emerge. a clear step forward in a temporal continuum. The confidence that actions unfold over an unwavering temporal continuum (and. according to a well-defined causal chain) is shattered even by this limited disruption to the expectation of a regular. At the beginning of the second act of Thyestes the audience is presented with events which seem to follow on directly from the action of the prologue. if our (human) perception of events cannot dispense with the usual notions of succession and regularity. but is to a certain degree temporally coextensive with it. there is a level at which gods (and the playwright) devise the unfolding of actions with a synoptic. One of the most significant outcomes of this dramatic technique consists in a further blurring between the responsibilities of the characters on the stage and the audience. in a sense. a consideration which does not eliminate human responsibility (far from it). however. to argue that Seneca is deliberately questioning a strictly mimetic notion of linear dramatic time. By disturbing the audience’s perception of time. returning to a point in time that we have already witnessed once: the framing structure analysed in chapter two18 acquires a new. Act 2 does in fact repeat the structure of the prologue. pp. and subsequently treated. 45ff.182 The Passions in Play contradictory. The inconsistency between the Fury’s two orders is a telling indication of the fact that we should expect an idiosyncratic treatment of time.

the only goddess (or god. The prologue to Hercules furens is dominated by Juno. tear him apart with your own hands. I will return to this particular aspect in the next chapter. because Hercules will have to inflict on himself the revenge desired by the goddess. acrior mentem excoquat quam qui caminis ignis Aetnaeis furit. manibus ipsa dilacera tuis: quid tanta mandas odia? Onward. finally. an accomplice to the nefas on the stage. It is. after lamenting the fact that no ordeal. for that matter) ever to enter the realm of Seneca’s tragedy. onward! Crush this overreacher! Grapple with him. and his own furor will destroy him. On the issue in general see Pfister’s perceptive remarks (1977) 246ff. 2. no matter how extraordinary. Why delegate such hatred? There follows a long invocation to the Eumenides (86–8) which leads a few lines later to a direct description of their inceptive function (100–6): incipite. The symmetrical quality of the language is an important indicator of the plotting strategy that Juno has in mind. explicitly addresses the force of her inspiration in order to discover. concutite pectus. ira.Fata se vertunt retro 183 or malgr´e soi. an apt instrument of revenge (75–7): perge. The revengeful inspiration that the goddess seeks for herself she will pass on to her unaware victim. These are particularly clear as Juno. 377–9 for important remarks on fifth-century tragedy.20 only a few authors had explored the possibilities of a non-linear arrangement of time. congredere. is not isolated in the Senecan corpus. however.21 The case of Thyestes. poenas petite violatae Stygis. my anger. Such a disruption of the conventions of tragic time is unparalleled in ancient drama19 and represents a form of self-conscious expression which finds appropriate parallels in only a limited number of modern texts. to a detailed account of events already foreseen and foretold. esp. The audience could (should) leave. it can no longer claim innocence. can worry Hercules or stop him (30–6). Juno’s furor will derange Hercules. famulae Ditis. . perge et magna meditantem opprime. and a character rich with metadramatic resonances. By continuing to watch. but see Taplin (1977) 49 with n.. 276ff.22 19 20 21 22 See Taplin (1977) 290–4. Little is known about later developments. ardentem citae concutite pinum et agmen horrendum anguibus Megaera ducat atque luctifica manu vastam rogo flagrante corripiat trabem. in effect. hoc agite. Before twentieth-century ‘epic’ theatre started to exploit discrepancies in the treatment of dramatic time in order to draw an audience’s attention to the fictional nature of their experience.

parum est reverti. But another structural element forcefully connects the two plays and more directly interests us here. To your work: avenge the desecration of the underworld! Rouse your hearts. I agree with Calder (1970) that recitation increases. all the events that the play will slowly unfold before the audience. he notices. the need for clarification in such passages. crime and punishment. See Braden (1985) 48. fearsome with snakes. like Bacchus: he will forge a path by destruction. A very provocative instance of this occurs early in Juno’s speech. . while she speaks. At lines 66ff. The prologue to Hercules furens describes various actions in the present and past tenses. and snatch a huge beam from a blazing pyre in her baleful hand. would be less interested in preserving a strictly realistic arrangement of time. the goddess is worried that Hercules will bring his attack against the sky. and he will want to rule in an empty sky’). driven by a desire to dominate the entire universe: nec in astra lenta veniet ut Bacchus via: | iter ruina quaeret et vacuo volet | regnare mundo (66–8: ‘and he will not reach the stars by a gradual approach. At 47–52 Juno testifies to some of Hercules’ achievements: effregit ecce limen inferni Iovis et opima victi regis ad superos refert. foedus umbrarum perit: 23 24 The rapid succession of the two moments in which Juno foreshadows Hercules’ attack (67: iter ruina quaeret) and actually sees it happen (74: quaerit ad superos viam) provides a pertinent instance of what has been dubbed ‘temporal compression’ (Zwierlein (1966) 29). in her divine epistemological omnipotence. which the rest of the play will represent anew. brandish the blazing pine torch violently. while a text written for recitation rather than performance. 351–2) are offered by Zwierlein as evidence that the tragedies were not performed. the arrival of characters on the scene is always carefully arranged in such a way that a reasonable amount of time elapses between the decision to summon them and their appearance. rather than reduces. while pauses on the stage could easily be filled by different means. cause and effect. since the author broke away from the conventions of a realistic treatment of time. In the course of a few lines.23 Moreover. he argues.24 The most provocative instance of the phenomenon concerns the return of Hercules from the underworld. scorch your minds with fiercer fire than that raging in Etna’s furnaces. Juno seems able to conflate. handmaids of Dis. This and similar passages (see Tro. as Juno indulges in the description of previous Herculean deeds. Juno’s role in this prologue is in many respects similar to the Fury’s and Atreus’ exhortation in the first two scenes of Thyestes. and such ‘compressions’ could be easily glossed over in the audience’s imagination. Yet Hercules does so only as a consequence of the madness the goddess has inflicted on him. Juno ‘sees’. the future challenge has already taken place: at line 74 the future quaeret turns unexpectedly into the present quaerit: quaerit ad superos viam. Let Megaera lead your troop.184 The Passions in Play Begin. at line 64 Juno states that Hercules deserves to be punished because she is afraid that he will attack Olympus. In Greek tragedy.

where it is quite appropriate to suspect that Juno is simply foreshadowing future events thanks to a more comprehensive form of knowledge. The hero has already left Erebus dragging Cerberus with him. and he will not proceed upwards until line 520. he has broken through the gates of nether Jove. by the emphatic repetition of vidi. again. 170 (vidi ipse. We are heard! It is the sound of Hercules’ step. 207. See. since she takes care to insist. With my own eyes I watched him. vidi). there is a strong suggestion that the prologue covers all the events up to Hercules’ bout of madness (which in the play will begin at 926). and brings spoils of triumph over that conquered king back to the upper world. Aen. when Amphytrion exclaims (520–3): cur subito labant agitata motu templa? cur mugit solum? infernus imo sonuit e fundo fragor. F. In Seneca’s tragedies see Her. self-defeating ordeal. In her opening speech Juno provides a detailed analysis of the psychological processes which will lead Hercules to his final.Fata se vertunt retro 185 vidi ipsa. after he had shattered the gloom of the underworld and subdued Dis.26 Here.499–501. 254–7. Her. audimur! est est sonitus Herculei gradus. Tro. Wagenvoort (1933) 177. where he harks back to the span of time covered by the second choral ode27 and informs Amphitryon that Hercules had 25 26 27 Shelton ((1978) 20–1) suggests that the same treatment of dramatic time applies to yet another instance. 656 with Tarrant (1976) 294. as he showed off to his father spoils won from that father’s brother. See Hansen (1934) 40. O. that she has already seen Hercules’ return. The choral ode that begins immediately after this remark seems to occupy the time needed by Hercules to complete his ascent: at the beginning of act 3 his initial words are consistent with the notion that he has just reemerged from the underworld. The anaphora of vidi is usually referred to events (often of a cruel nature) actually witnessed by the speaker.25 Why is the shrine rocking and shaking with sudden movement? Why is the earth rumbling? A thunderous noise comes from the depths. vidi nocte discussa inferum et Dite domito spolia iactantem patri fraterna. This is a case. and that at the beginning of act 2 we turn back to a moment in time when he is still in the underworld. Ag. It is not enough to return: the terms governing the shades have been breached. In this instance it is difficult to assume that at 47–51 Juno is simply foreshadowing future events. 2. is still described as inhabiting the underworld at the opening of act 2. Hercules. The unfolding of Hercules’ return is further complicated by Theseus’ remarks at 813–21. . from the underworld. however. An influential model must have been Virg. however. and has flaunted to Jupiter the victory he obtained against the god’s own brother (51–2).

proleptic viewpoint which replicates the author’s perspective. The limited examples I have presented show a treatment of dramatic time which emphatically breaks away from the linear structure that is consistently observed as the norm in ancient drama. these tragedies make repetition an essential modality of tragic representation. see Leo (1878–79) 375 and Lindskog (1897) ii. superordinate phase of the play. By creating a framework in which certain sections of the play appear to revolve back to a point in time that has already been treated. The latter detail. the tragedy produces a strong alienating effect. Juno’s words do not describe reality as much as they in fact create it: she envisages Hercules’ challenge. as they actually ‘happen’ for the spectators.186 The Passions in Play returned with a reluctant Cerberus to the mouth of the river Tenarus. encompassing the rest of the drama from a superior. who rightly argues against the suggestion that line 523 or even the whole section 520–3 should be deleted because they contradict 813–17. I will discuss in the next chapter how these alienating structures impact on the audience. Regardless of whether Juno is a vatic character.28 In any event. as the curtain rises on the first act the audience will inevitably experience the anxious feeling of d´ej`a vu. not to Thebes. hence disrupting the linear arrangement of events which is a cardinal feature of dramatic texts. Fitch (1987) 252 argues that ‘[a]s elsewhere. Theseus’ narrative also disrupts the expected overlap between the level of the story and the level of the plot. Sen[eca] is ignoring consistency in favor of immediate dramatic impact’. This is one more metadramatic feature of the prologue. albeit one which is made acceptable by its insertion in a rhesis. By emphasizing repetition and serialization. seems to contrast with Amphitryon’s words at 520–3. but offer a number of specific details which will make those events. 41.29 This alienation is largely determined by the conspicuous short-circuiting of a literary canon whose rules had so far been scrupulously observed 28 29 I agree with Caviglia ((1979) 238). though consistent with the internal chronology of events once we accept the proleptic nature of Juno’s prologue. provided that we assign them a specific topographical function. and – behold – the challenge really takes place shortly thereafter. and by substituting iteration for linearity. or whether the prologue really covers a temporal expanse which successive phases of the tragedy will repeat. In this respect she embodies the creative power of the author. Juno’s words do not simply anticipate the course of events described in the tragedy. . and the plot that she conceives is the tragedy which happens. which functions as a preliminary. repeat a masterplot they already know.

hence the definition ‘Zielinski’s law’ (on which see the reservations of Rengakos (1995)). exploits the potential of linear arrangement.33 Ovid extensively explores the signifying value of a fragmented and often confusing representation of time. Three books of the Aeneid (5. I should add. .Fata se vertunt retro 187 (at least. It is unlikely. for further bibliography. But the ambiguities. See also Whitman and Scodel (1981) and Janko (1992) 150–1.31 Virgil. because creative manipulation of the temporal links between events is widespread in epic. The most recent and exhaustive treatment is offered by Stanley (1993). 18–19. The importing of typically epic narrative techniques into a dramatic text inevitably produces a jarring effect. arranged serially one after the other. had explored early in its development the possibility of narrating simultaneous events in a linear scheme. this is how it appears). especially 6–9. n. multiple plot-lines. this is a case of ‘loose’ use of interea. generally moves forward in an uninterrupted flow in which even simultaneous events seem to be treated as a linear sequence.’ The phenomenon was first described by Zielinski (1901).30 The treatment of internal time is one of the most radical ways in which tragedy and epic can be differentiated. On Ovid’s treatment of time see now Feeney (1999) and Zissos and Gildenhard (1999).1 does the meaning ‘meanwhile’ appear to be fully active. See the fine discussion in A. and it is reasonable to assume that significant variations in the treatment of time did occur. Barchiesi (1992) 16–19. proposed a solution and imposed a rule. with its complex. 10 and 11) have interea in the first line. creating in his poem a complex web of temporal intersections which are essential to an understanding of the narrative. too. If the Heroides stand as a particularly effective example of this technique. . however. Epic. that Seneca could have found a direct model for his treatment of dramatic time. 31) remarks. systematic deviation from the recognized decorum of temporal linearity. As Heinze ((1928) 306. and to detect in Virgil the first symptoms of narrative ‘disorders’ magnified by his ‘Silver’ successors.32 One should resist the temptation to read the development of this aspect of epic technique as the progressive complication of a supposedly ‘simple’ archetype (Homer). nn. Simultaneous events would have to be separated and juxtaposed. in this particular instance. in direct narrative. however. On the use of interea in the Aeneid see Reinmuth (1933). which approximately equals ‘now’. . it is in Ovid that we find the first extended. and become a pervasive feature of the text. His use of ¯ and prolepsis ¯ transcends the limited function that they have in the analepsis Aeneid. Homer. but only in 5. See Harrison (1991) 58 and Kinsey (1979) 263–4. It need hardly be remarked that the ‘simplicity’ attributed to Homer is little more than convenient shorthand. 306. See Stanley (1993) 6: ‘Like the Homeric sentence. 153–5 and. poised to exploit the interplay of different narrative times to the full. where they are rather rigidly controlled by the internal narrator(s). in this respect as in others. here as elsewhere. about post-classical drama. as Heinze points out. ] simultaneous actions’.34 the Metamorphoses complicate and 30 31 32 33 34 We do not know enough. Virgil can also be seen to experiment with chronology: see Heinze (1928) 305 for a discussion of ‘how difficult [Virgil] found it to deal with [ . remain. Homeric narrative presents an ongoing series in which each successive action seems at first glance to receive equal status – just as time.

was bound to the rule of the hic et nunc. The temporal discontinuities that we have observed are evident enough to elicit an active interpretative gesture from the audience. abunde est – we perceive both the internal correlations between causes and events and the imperfectly linear structure of time that subtends them. (In the next chapter I will attempt to situate intertextuality within the painful.188 The Passions in Play muddle the temporal linearity established at the beginning35 to such an extent that they end up offering what we might call a ‘cubist’ representation of time. the Fury’s speech in the prologue to Thyestes contains internal discrepancies that should alert the audience to the fact that there are – at the very least – different modes of perceiving time. a comparison with the latter retains nonetheless a considerable heuristic value. Fasti. 38 Poetics 1449b26. unidirectional movement is perhaps inappropriate. intelligible arrangement. not of stories. too. See below.38 and that narrative interventions should be limited to specific. At an even later stage – when. the narrator’s boundless power facilitates the organization of complex temporal structures into a clear.37 ) In epic. yet subtle enough to dawn on us only gradually. coupled with the realization that – again – we have been moving backwards. and that to rely exclusively on the notion of linear. pp. we are inevitably gripped by a sensation of d´ej`a vu. 221ff. to Aristotle’s dictum that it should be made up of actions. self-contained loci such as the messengers’ speeches. Barchiesi (1994) and Newlands (1995).36 It is tempting to assume that Ovid’s sustained engagement with temporal (dis)continuity is a metaliterary register of his posteriority. For instance. What we can certainly say about the structure of Thyestes is that. once we perceive the repetition of a key phrase in a specific moment of the dramatic action. The most stimulating recent readings of the poem are A. But it is only as Atreus’ own speech unfolds in the following act that the audience is made to recognize a number of striking parallels between the two characters. ‘Going back’ in literary time – as Ovid does in his intertextual dialogues – becomes one of the ways in which the text performs its ideological negotiation of the past. 35 36 37 See Ludwig (1965) 56. juxtaposing discordant scenes which twist and turn below the surface of temporal linearity. as I will show in the next chapter. are obviously engaged in the treatment of time. for instance. it should be noted again. . Theatre. The Fury herself. Atreus voices for a third time the refrain bene est. on the other hand. and to note the causal relationship between their utterances and actions. If this deconstruction of linear narrative structures can never compare to its much more intense modern counterparts. oppressive ideology of the past that Senecan tragedies seem to privilege.

and therefore to further engagement with the past. not forwards: it does not aspire to the consoling sense of progress crowned by final resolution. the upsetting effect of such a sensation stems primarily from the denial of meaningful closure encoded in the structure of the prologue and in its relationship with the rest of the play. mirrors the illusory closure of the prologue and highlights the overall regressive movement of the plot. If the prologue encompasses in its short frame a much larger portion of the tragic action. In Thyestes.39 In Thyestes. with its call to further revenge. To deny closure means that everything will happen again and again.Fata se vertunt retro 189 reversed through a well-trodden literary background that is prominently inhabited by Euripides and Virgil. as a repetitive. Not only does the prologue tear open wounds which its most prominent model. to reach a meaningful point of closure. The denial of closure encoded in the contrast between the apparently final ending of the inner level of the plot and the emphatically open finale of the play as a whole turns out to be anticipated at its beginning. the Aeneid . 61ff. The tragedy starts all over again in Atreus’ chambers. in its horrific. in other words. But the closural sign which brings the Fury’s speech to an end is also rapidly exposed as illusional. and no battles. but it fashions. 39 See above. regression. pp. and this time we are going to see it all. . is arguably the single most relevant operating principle of Thyestes – and of Senecan tragedy. in which the actions unfold one by one. unabridged version. had struggled hard to heal (or. then we are bound to perceive the successive stages of the play. we realize. Indeed. to give the consoling illusion of doing so). the illusion that the audience could be treated this time only to the superhuman level of deliberations without having to face in excruciating detail the actual unfolding of events: imagine the second half of the Aeneid with only divine meetings. at different levels and in different guises. regressive exploration of an already accomplished misdeed. the tragedy is trapped in the repetitive exploration of the consequences of Tantalus’ pollution. too. The lack of closure inscribed in the end of Thyestes. is bent backwards. in its compact brevity. the non-linear organization of dramatic time and the complex framing structure of the play as a whole allegorize the force of regressive repetition which can be seen as the tragedy’s driving dynamic. at least. The plot of Thyestes. that regression will know no end. if not altogether painlessly. There is no progression in the play: from the end of the prologue onwards. the illusion that the new ordeal can be concluded swiftly.

Zwierlein (1966) 91. embodies the enduring pleasures and pains of memory. if we can now call it that. his analysis of the Greek models is excellent. and its memory lives on to determine future actions. and the articles by Schetter (1965) and Owen (1970) particularly useful.40 But the tragedy also engages its audience in a complex evaluation of the effect and nature of repetition from the point of view of dramatic structure. unlike his brother. at its end. compounded by the bold. and his conduct allegorizes the virtues of memory. Thyestes is condemned to oscillate between returning to and returning from. that the spiral of revenge and counter-revenge cannot find a final resting place. While his revenge in the play could be construed as a means to actively reshape the past (this time. and that even his current victory must be seen in the light of a cyclical arrangement of history. the altercation between Agamemnon and Pyrrhus in act 2 and the dramatic confrontation between Andromache and Ulixes in act 4. both during the play and. . Although I do not agree with Calder’s strictures on the play as a whole. decision to unite in one play the fates of Polyxena and Astyanax. Troades has long been considered to mark Seneca’s resignation to a loose structure with very limited attempts at a unified plot. On the lack of unity cf. iii Repetition and regression sustain the dramatic tension in Troades. has been explained mainly on the basis of the unsuccessful mixture of disparate Greek sources. But Atreus knows no forgetting. On sources see Fantham (1982) 50–75 and Calder (1970). even obsessive memory. he is the first to recognize. Prevented from moving forward. The result. not unpredictably. he firmly believes that the past cannot and will not be erased. but confusing.190 The Passions in Play Atreus. His overarching goal throughout the tragedy is to avenge past wounds.41 I propose to set aside for the moment a 40 41 In my reading of Troades I have found Fantham’s (1982) and Boyle’s (1994) commentaries very valuable. after all. promises only the repetition of a well-known pattern: as Thyestes consummates his revenge. most emphatically. Thyestes is tricked into thinking that Atreus has finally forgotten the slights he has endured and is ready to turn a new page in their relationship. The future. Atreus will win). Pained reflections on the hopes and despairs of repetition loom large throughout the tragedy and especially in two crucially important scenes. His superiority vis-`a-vis Thyestes is based on the fact that. His dogged determination proves that the past cannot be undone. he will merely repeat once more the fixed script which holds his whole family hostage. the protagonist of the play.

but Achilles’ ghost had appeared to Talthybius. To him. The Greeks. who had already been promised to him. It is. See the crucial evocation at the heart of Oedipus. But as father you slaughtered your own daughter for Helen: I ask for things now customary and with precedent. a simple repetition of past patterns of behaviour does not seem to make any sense. The sacrifice would represent a decisive victory of the past over the present in more ways than one. are poised to repeat a well-known pattern of delay (164–5): o longa Danais semper in portu mora. with a sinister Ringkomposition. above. His position is based on a series of compassionate. whether they will set out for war. We find Agamemnon. and had demanded that the Greeks respect their promise: otherwise he will prevent their departure.Fata se vertunt retro 191 discussion of the play’s structure. Agamemnon’s rebuttal shows that he has undergone a significant transformation during the war. and the tragic precedent that Agamemnon should keep in mind (248–9): at tuam gnatam parens Helenae immolasti: solita iam et facta expeto. The last words of Pyrrhus’ impassioned speech foreground the traditional nature of his request. it is a request made in the name of past practices whose value Pyrrhus readily accepts despite Agamemnon’s tormented doubts: it is. Pyrrhus urges the leader of the Greek army to honour his dead father. Even before Pyrrhus appears on the stage. in many senses. rationalistic assumptions which question the appeal to tradition that is powerfully voiced by Pyrrhus. the Greek messenger Talthybius has introduced into the play. petere seu patriam volunt. seu petere bellum. here. one infamously brought to an end by the sacrifice of Iphigenia. and especially at its end. the tragic spectre of a previous mora. Moreover. by sacrificing Polyxena. literally. and their return home (Achilles could count on his mother’s help).42 Pyrrhus does not seem to be aware of that. Achilles. a re-enactement of the dispute that dominates the Iliad from its very beginning. as we hear in the first scene of act 2. or set out for their homeland. impersonating the voice of resistance to the evils 42 The underworld as home of the dead who successfully impose their rule on the upper world is a symbol for the past. and to concentrate instead on the role that repetition plays in its thematic texture. stranded at Troy by bad weather. a request coming from the underworld. 8ff. O that there is always this long delay in harbour for the Greeks. . pp.

43 On the character of Agamemnon see Anliker (1960) 65 and Schetter (1965) 401. Phaedra’s nurse . Agamemnon articulates in detail his psychological evolution. though. grandson of Priam. In fact Agamemnon goes as far as stating that he would have liked to prevent the destruction of Troy (279). Agamemnon is a prominent character with a well-defined past from which he now tries to free himself.). ‘rather let Calchas. dabo. the spokesman of the gods. . but in the costume that is worn for marriage by brides of Thessaly or Ionia or Mycenae. and he does so abruptly by promising to heed Calchas’ orders (351–2: potius interpres deum | Calchas vocetur: fata si poscent. tum mille velis impleat classis freta. Let him whom the fates demand. of course. The seer establishes at the very beginning of his response the connection between the present predicament of the Greeks and their bloody past (360–70): dant fata Danais quo solent pretio viam: mactanda virgo est Thessali busto ducis. in any event. 286–7).192 The Passions in Play of tragedy – to its nefas – precisely like Tantalus’ shadow or the satelles in Thyestes. 86–7). cruore debetur cruor. Pyrrhus parenti coniugem tradat suo: sic rite dabitur. Polyxene. with further bibliography (and diagnoses ranging from ‘weakness’ to ‘noble humanity’). that enough. the child of Hector. quem fata quaerunt.43 Irresistibly. The fates grant a way to the Greeks at their customary price: the virgin must be sacrificed on the tomb of the Thessalian leader. non tamen nostras tenet haec una puppes causa: nobilior tuo. Let Pyrrhus present her as wife to his father: thus she will be properly given in marriage. Unlike most of his counterparts in Thyestes or other plays (the satelles. . who is loath to engage in new crimes (Thy. Agamemnon is ensnared in the discourse of the past that is advocated by his opponent. and. be called: if the Fates demand it I will grant the sacrifice’). sed quo iugari Thessalae cultu solent Ionidesve vel Mycenaeae nurus. Unlike Tantalus’ ghost. The insults that Pyrrhus and Agamemnon start exchanging at line 336 are focused on their past: both look to it for compelling explanations of what they are doing – or what they should be doing. must yield. but whose psychology is only defined in terms of rather simple oppositions. however. Polyxena. more than enough punishment has already been dealt out: (exactum satis | poenarum et ultra est. Agamemnon. turre de summa cadat Priami nepos Hectoreus et letum oppetat. . But this is not the only cause that detains our ships: a blood more noble than your blood is owed.

This particular combination of horrors is especially striking because nothing in the plot so far has led the audience to expect Calchas’ request: indeed. as I remarked earlier.47 Atreus’ obsession with a maius nefas draws attention. 46 Calder (1970) 76. a final and irrevocable decree. and their connection disrupts any rigid opposition we might have counted on so far. which stands out as a direct. It is a development. Both forces are responsible for the continuation of nefas in the face of moderation and restraint. but Astyanax. 368). . moreover. 95.44 and so does fata (360. his order that the sacrifice of Iphigenia be re-enacted specifies also that it proceed with all due respect for religious ritual: Polyxena’s death. . On Atreus’ ordo sacri see above. On iconic repetition in general. 368) perversely parallels her reliance on furor.Fata se vertunt retro 193 fall from the highest tower and so meet his death. p. Leo (1878–79) 149–55 has very interesting remarks on Seneca’s use of soleo. 27. cruor (367) further reinforces the effect. however. In fact. masked as a wedding. Then let the fleet cover the sea with a thousand sails.46 but which by its very brevity elides any space for discussion: it is. Schetter ((1965) 408) rightly emphasizes the central importance of Calchas’ words in the structure of the play. which is similar to the dialogue between Creon and Tiresias in Sophocles’ Antigone.49 It is important to notice that Calchas is acting here as the structural counterpart of the Fury in Thyestes: his appeal to fata (360. This obsession finds a novel incarnation in Calchas’ unexpected order that the Greeks sacrifice not just Polyxena. The voice of fata appears to be steeped in the cruel repetition of the past and is as 44 45 47 48 49 Although in a different perspective (that of tracing elements of rhetorical colour). pp. Wills (1996) 6–7 and passim. but a test of [the contestants’] self-possession. See Tarrant (1976) 208. there seems to be no precedent in the tragic tradition for combining in this manner the fates of the two Trojan youths. too. As Braden ((1985) 37) aptly remarks: ‘Senecan dialogue is not an exchange of news or feeling. The polyptoton cruore . will thus be a perfect repetition of Iphigenia’s murder and will testify further to the disturbing connection between ritual and murder which can be identified in other parts of the Senecan corpus. Repetition.’ See above. These lines exploit verbal repetition as the iconic correlate of the repetition that Calchas advocates: solent occurs twice (360. 85ff. and more can be obtained. emphatic rebuttal to Agamemnon’s statement that ‘more than enough punishment has been exacted already’ (286–7): Calchas shows that more can be asked for.45 It is also worth stressing the dramatic effectiveness of Calchas’ concise intervention.48 to the fact that any repetition of nefas is necessarily worse than its precedent. 362). . p. in all senses. stresses the ritual nature of Calchas’ order. and above.

102–3. Here it will suffice to say that the contrast between Calchas and the chorus inevitably portrays the seer’s words as belonging to the vatum terriloqua dicta criticized by Lucretius immediately after his depiction of Iphigenia’s death:50 both in De rerum natura and in Troades the sacrifice of Iphigenia is invested with enormous paradigmatic importance. . which stressed the need for Polyxena’s sacrifice. Troades as a whole represents a re-enactment of the archetypal menis-epic. we should remember. and the very essence of this form of literary production. silenced forever at the end of act 2. Andromache’s actions. Repetition will dominate in its most literal. since it imposes a cycle of actions which can never stray from its archetypal model and can never alter significantly the psychological profile of the characters or the actual course of events they inevitably choose. no less than those of her Greek foes. The contrast between Calchas’ brief speech (his only presence on the stage) and the following choral ode. as the apparently endless replica of past nefas. the Iliad. The moral balance of the story is at this point painfully clear: Agamemnon’s resistance to the invariable pattern of repetition is brutally cut short by Calchas and. Thus revenge encodes both the supreme power of the past over present and future. as in other Senecan plays. revenge – retribution for deeds and obligations long past – becomes the most reliable guarantee of tragedy. a structural problem which would deserve separate. she retells the 50 De rerum natura 1. with which they share a sense of scepticism and uncertainty. detailed consideration. In this. coincides with the dark menaces uttered by Achilles’ ghost from Acheron.194 The Passions in Play complicit with the forces of the underworld as the furor it would supposedly counteract: the voice of fata. Agamemnon’s suggestion that a radical modification of the past could represent a valid alternative to this pattern – and to the plot of the tragedy – is rejected outright. in that it provides the masterplot which the author must follow while also clearing space for his creative innovation. quite literally. and a tentative reassessment of the relationship between life and fate. The chorus’s Epicurean overtones stand in complete contrast to earlier choral lyrics. obsessive form. As she enters the play in act 3. Thus the chorus picks up both on Talthybius’ appearance. In revolving around Achilles’ wrath over Polyxena. The chorus’s rationalistic doubts about afterlife seem to present both an apt continuation of Agamemnon’s speech. are motivated by the spell of the past. and on Agamemnon’s own doubts about this solution. which contains a remarkable number of Epicurean reflections on the nature of death. highlights the deceiving rationality of fata.

The iunctura occurs at Aen. 4. where. of his own tragic fate. 7. 10. it seems. o matri cito.51 it shows nonetheless the cognitive subordination of the living to the dead: Achilles and Hector know more. in the case of Astyanax. 771–85. In this respect. its dark. As a new Hector. he will be able to build a new Troy and take revenge against the Greeks (469–74): o nate sero Phrygibus. The theme is further elaborated in 659–61. of course. giving back its name to your country and your Phrygians? Recidiva Pergama directly alludes to an idea which. and bring back your people scattered in exile. as defender and avenger of the Trojan land. the appearance of Hector stands as an immediate denial of the chorus’s latest reflections on the non-existence of the afterlife. once more. will found a Troy renewed. and pointed. too soon for your mother.Fata se vertunt retro 195 appearance of Hector’s shadow in exact parallel to Talthybius’ report about Achilles’s ghost in act 2. the only permitted form of repetition is ad litteram. and they can enforce other people’s behaviour. will that time come and that blessed day when you. nomen et patriae suum Phrygibusque reddas?52 Dear son.344. born too late for the Trojans. negative potential. with different overtones. eritne tempus illud ac felix dies quo Troici defensor et vindex soli recidiva ponas Pergama et sparsos fuga cives reducas. .53 For Ulixes. The solution that Andromache devises in order to save her son grimly foreshadows the eventual outcome of her efforts: she hides Astyanax in 51 52 53 A contrast especially emphasized by Schetter (1965) 409. it visibly embodies repetition as it alludes to Hector’s archetypal appearance in the second book of the Aeneid (270–97). the possibility that Astyanax will in fact avenge his country represents a compelling reason to kill him now: thus repetition inevitably displays. Andromache repeatedly voices her hope of a ‘Virgilian’ future for her son. Although Hector’s message is helpful.322. is central to the Trojans’ negotiation of their past destruction and future hopes in the Aeneid. But Hector’s appearance is intrinsically fraught with ambiguity: while it is ostensibly geared to prevent a repetition. futurus Hector in Ulixes’ words (551). he will be denied any such success in the Troades. contrast between the results brought about by the two apparitions: while Virgil’s Hector will succeed in saving Aeneas and will thus ensure the Trojans a future that is significantly different from their past. Thus the stage is set for the inevitable.58.

. Almost certainly a Senecan innovation.56 Andromache’s final words find a disturbing. and you. earth! 54 55 56 The image realizes what in Thyestes is a perverse metaphor: Thyestes is the ‘tomb’ of his children. realizes at the end of his ordeal that he has become a monstrous coffin for his children: genitor en natos premo | premorque natis (‘I. o e. and out of control. hence Achilles establishes with an undisputed sense of finality his right over the slain maiden (1162–4): non stetit fusus cruor humove summa fluxit: obduxit statim saevusque totum sanguinem tumulus bibit. coniuge est genitus tua. On the association of tombs with kleos. 1050–1). 8. n. see Goldhill (1991) 120–2. . and they can be buried. o e. open up. Lines 1050–1 fulfil Atreus’ vow at 890–1: pergam et implebo patrem | funere suorum. dehisce. Thy. revenge is in your hands.196 The Passions in Play Hector’s tomb. . tuque. and her envoy expresses the distressing ambiguity of the solution (519–21):54 dehisce tellus. too. Thyestes. ultimo specu revulsam scinde tellurem et Stygis sinu profundo conde depositum meum. Born of your wife. paradoxically. and the literary implications of this connection. The spilled blood did not stay or float on the surface of the ground: but the mound instantly swallowed and savagely drained dry all the blood. o e. Earth. si ferus videor tibi et impotens. see Schetter (1965) 418. If I seem harsh to you. parata vindicta in manu est: dic vera: quisnam? quove generatus patre? qua matre genitus? ph. Oedipus employs the very same words when he is finally made aware of the fact that he is the sinner (Oed. almost verbatim parallel in two other Senecan passages. only if he is cremated and buried himself (1090–2). tellus . 864–8): o e. rend the earth away from its farthest cavern and bury my dear treasure in the deep gulf of Styx. Polyxena’s blood is sucked up by the thirsty soil covering Achilles’ grave. dear husband. Accius had been even more explicit: natis sepulchro ipse est parens (226 Ribbeck2 = 57 Dangel). and by my sons am overwhelmed’. Hope of future salvation is sought in the ultimate embodiment of the past – a grave – which literally swallows Andromache’s hope for the future:55 in a similarly poignant scene at the end of the tragedy. speak the truth: who is he? of what father begotten? of what mother born? ph . Open up. the father. overwhelm my sons. coniunx.

Fata se vertunt retro


The revelation of incest is met by the desire to hide in the depths of the
earth, to return to it. As we will see presently, Andromache’s decision to
have Astyanax hide in Hector’s tomb is fraught with upsetting resonances
connected with incest and adultery: the Oedipal connection certainly intensifies them.57 And Phaedra, too, at the end of her tragedy, wants to
disappear into the depths of the earth (Phaed. 1238–9):
dehisce tellus, recipe me dirum chaos,
recipe . . .
Open up, earth, receive me, dread Chaos, take me back . . .

Even more striking, however, is the hallucinated internal debate about
the fate of Hector’s tomb which torments Andromache at Troades 642–62.
As she probes her feelings, Ulixes informs her that since Astyanax is reportedly dead,58 the only way in which the Greeks can perform the requested
ritual purification that is essential for their departure is by tearing down
Hector’s tomb. In a harrowing aside Andromache weighs the alternative –
whether she ought to preserve her husband’s tomb or save her son’s life.
The alternative, of course, simply does not exist: if the Greeks tore down
the tomb, both Hector’s remains and Astyanax would be destroyed. Yet
Andromache desperately clings to the distinction, as she tries to preserve the contrast between past and future which has been an essential component of her thinking all along. As she inclines towards saving
the tomb, she desperately wants to spare Hector a repetition of his fate:
better to see Astyanax thrown from a tower than Hector killed once again
potero, perpetiar, feram,
dum non meus post fata victoris manu
iactetur Hector.
I will be able, I will endure and bear it, so long as my dear Hector is not abused
after his death by the victor’s violence.

Later she realizes that saving her son means saving a chance of a different
future: serva e duobus, anime, quem Danai timent (‘my heart, of those
two, save the one the Greeks fear’, 662). But there is no real possibility
of choice, and Andromache finally must admit to the harsh truth which


On the connection between womb and tomb in Seneca see Robin (1993) 110–11 and, in general,
duBois (1988) 54. Racine’s Andromaque explores more fully the intricate set of erotic and sexual
implications that are tentatively suggested in Seneca: the plot itself, of course, hinges on romance.
A particularly poignant confession is registered at line 279, where Andromaque declares, referring
to Astyanax, that ‘il m’aurait tenu lieu d’un p`ere et d’un e´poux’ – alluding to Il. 6.429–30.
So Andromache had claimed at 594–7.


The Passions in Play

for the audience has ironically been clear all along. Ulixes’ trick has in fact
obliterated any distinction between past and future for her: utrimque est
Hector (659), there is no choice between preserving the memory of the past
and rescuing the seed of future revenge. Andromache’s ineffectual debate
poignantly underlines a truth that the play has already upheld not once, but
several times, namely that the only movement allowed by fata is a repetition
bound to keep as close as possible to its model. If anything, Andromache’s
inconsequential emotional struggle shows that she herself is ultimately more
inclined to preserve the past than to give the future a chance. After all, by
asking Astyanax to come out of his shelter, and by leaving him at the mercy
of Ulixes (Andromache and the senex had deliberated at length on the
danger of the situation, and Hector’s ghost had been extremely clear in this
respect) she chooses the only option that could guarantee the preservation
of her husband’s tomb.
A reading of these conflicting allegiances can naturally enough be expanded into an analysis of the emotional intricacies of Andromache’s character, especially in the light of what might appropriately be dubbed a significative lapsus at line 501. Before committing a reluctant Astyanax to his
frightful refuge, Andromache invokes Hector’s protection: ‘Hector, keep
safe the stolen treasure of your loving wife, and with trusty ashes welcome
him so that he may live’ (Hector, tuere: coniugis furtum piae | serva et fideli
cinere victurum excipe, 501–2). Coniugis furtum is a surprising definition
which the oxymoronic addition of piae (and fidelis in the following line)
does nothing to tame: it still refers, in no uncertain terms, to adultery.59
Thus, even if we set aside the tense Oedipal implications to which Andromache effectively draws our attention with these unguarded words, it is
plausible to infer that she is thinking here that her ploy to save Astyanax –
victurus – constitutes a betrayal of sorts of her dead husband. By committing her son to her husband’s grave, Andromache vicariously and perversely
fulfils a wish which is well known to lovers, classical and otherwise: that
they might be joined together in death.60 The spell of the past, it seems,
holds hostage even the one character in the play who seems to be generally
sincere, if not without a degree of ambiguity, in her desire to guarantee
¯ of
her son and her country a different, better future. The tomb, the sema
epic honour and the symbol of epic grandeur (here charged with a gesture
towards elegiac wish fulfilment), violently encodes in the drama of Andromache the demands – both tragic and appealing – of the past. Determined
to save Hector’s tomb, Andromache echoes her Virgilian counterpart. In

Cf. Fantham (1982) 288.


Ov. Met. 4.157, with B¨omer ad loc.

Fata se vertunt retro


the third book of the Aeneid she is recognized by Aeneas while she offers a
libation to Hector’s empty grave, an ‘empty tomb’ (tumulus inanis, 3.304)
which seals her unwavering determination to live in the past, in a miniature Troy built around a ‘false’ Simoenta (3.302: falsi Simoentis ad undam).61
Against Andromache stands the unwavering request of immutability and
repetition, voiced in different guises by Pyrrhus, Calchas and Ulixes, even
as the latter proclaims that killing Astyanax is necessary in order to avoid
a new Trojan war:62 as the protagonists who catalyze the string of events
which constitute the tragedy, they also embody the narrative progress of
the play and guarantee its successful arrival at an end, of a sort. But they
advocate an apparent progression which ultimately results in the denial of
meaningful change, and strives in fact to assure that no substantial change
will ever occur.
Even Astyanax’s physical appearance is moulded by the spell of the past:
he greatly resembles his father; indeed, too much to give him any hope
of a happy future, or to keep at bay the incestuous undertones of Andromache’s feelings (Sen. Tro. 646–8).63 This similarity, which Euripides had
briefly remarked upon (Eur. Tro. 1178–81), is especially magnified in Troades
o nate, magni certa progenies patris,
spes una Phrygibus, unica afflictae domus,
veterisque suboles sanguinis nimium inclita
nimiumque patri similis. hos vultus meus
habebat Hector, talis incessu fuit
habituque talis, sic tulit fortes manus,
sic celsus umeris, fronte sic torva minax
cervice fusam dissipans iacta comam.
Dear child, true offspring of a mighty father, sole hope of Troy and of your shattered
family, scion of an old race, too glorious and too like your father; these were my
dear Hector’s features; he was like this in his walk and in his bearing; he held his
gallant hands just so; just so he carried his shoulders high and seemed to threaten
with frowning brow, shaking his streaming hair with the toss of his neck.

Only later do we discover why Astyanax is nimium . . . similis to his father.
Seneca departs from the tradition according to which the boy is buried on


See also Andromache’s reaction to the appearance of Aeneas, which seems to be echoed in 3.310–12:
‘verane te facies, verus mihi nuntius adfers, | nate dea? vivisne? aut, si lux alma recessit, | Hector ubi est?’
Owen ((1970) 130) argues that ‘to the present victor belong the future and the power’, which is
certainly true at the immediate level of action witnessed in the play. But it is important to remark
that the future that Ulixes has in sight is essentially a repetition of the past.
Compare Phaedra’s comments about Hippolytus’ close resemblance to his father as a youth at Phaed .


The Passions in Play

Hector’s shield,64 and he has the messenger describe in graphic detail the
complete destruction of his body after the fall from the tower (1111–17):65
ossa disiecta et gravi
elisa casu; signa clari corporis,
et ora et illas nobiles patris notas,
confundit imam pondus ad terram datum;
soluta cervix silicis impulsu, caput
ruptum cerebro penitus expresso – iacet
deforme corpus.
His bones are fragmented and crushed by the violent fall, his weight cast down to
the earth below blurs the features of his noble body, his face and those lineaments
of his glorious father; his neck is broken by the impact of the flint, his head split
open and the brain squeezed out from inside – the body lies there a shapeless

It is at this point that Andromache interrupts the messenger and sees that
her hopes are to be cruelly realized: Astyanax will follow in his father’s
footsteps only in the most gruesome of senses – ‘in this, too, he is like his
father’ (sic quoque est similis patri, 1117).66
One more scene embodies the power of repetition in a perversely effective way. In the fourth act of the play Helen reflects alone on her involvement with marriages that are destined to be ‘unhappy’ and ‘sorrowful’ (861:
funestus, inlaetabilis). She is referring, of course, not only to the devastating
long-term consequences of her wedding, but more specifically to the nefas
which opens the Trojan expedition, the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Her aside
(861–71a) declares her completely self-conscious nature as a character who
is aware both of the moral implications of her actions and of the literary
background to which she is inevitably connected.
Dismemberment is, of course, a disturbingly common feature of Senecan
death, as, for that matter, of other first-century authors.67 As the basic
model of natural order, the body, dissected and scattered, is warped into
the supreme emblem of disruption, and symbolizes a breaking down of
spatial order which is germane to the dissolution of temporal linearity that
I have been discussing so far. Sometimes a disjointed body, as in the case of


Eur. Tro. 1133ff.; see Enn. scen. 73 Ribbeck2 = 106–7 Jocelyn.
Homer does not describe Hector’s dismemberment, but places enough emphasis on the damage
that the corpse suffers because of Achilles’ cruelty: see Il. 22.396–404, and especially 401–3, which
climax, as Seneca does, at the head. See also Virg. Aen. 1.483: ter circum Iliacos raptaverat Hectora
A poignant reversal of Catullus’ wish in 61.214: sit suo similis patri (cf. Procne’s words as she sees
Itys, Ov. Met. 6.621–2: a! quam | es similis patri); Leigh (1995) 471.
See especially Most (1992).

Fata se vertunt retro


Hippolytus, who is disfigured beyond recognition, aptly portrays the cracks
in a reading of reality as a coherent, organic whole. The conflict between
points of view and competing narratives, together with the weak causal links
between acts and scenes, testifies to a pervasive epistemic quandary. How
can we comprehend and represent a reality which has long ago lost firm
internal points of view? How can we reconstruct a narrative which overcomes the puzzles and limitations of human understanding? In Theseus’
anguished question at the sight of his dismembered son – Hippolytus hic
est? (Sen. Phaed. 1249) – we can infer a much larger question on the nature
of representation and the understanding behind it. Reality, diffracted in a
range of conflicting perspectives, escapes a unified approach, as if the very
abundance of details (of ‘moments’) denies the possibility of a complete,
immediate vision.
Thus the threat that circularity and repression pose to the norms of continuity and linear progress is also played out in the spatial dimension of the
tragedy. In the metonymic, often less than organic, segues that regulate the
development of the play’s actions lies the intimation that the fundamental
categories of perception must face a new reality, where the ‘natural’ order has
been ripped up and replaced by an obsessive regression and return, where
the present is menaced by the spell of the past (as represented by a literary
heritage). So much so, in fact, that only individual moments survive, arranging themselves in erratic, shifting structures. Spatially, the fundamental
inversion of ‘above’ and ‘below’ fatally connects upper world and underworld, and inverts their traditional hierarchy. This is not, however, the only
instance of spatial disruption. Troades, for instance, by alternating scenes in
the Trojan and Greek camps in direct succession, and using two different
choruses (one of Trojan women, the other of Greek sailors),68 represents a
reality torn between two competing, opposed points of view, and resists a
uniform approach. Troades, it seems, can understand and express emotions
and events only by partial, metonymic approximation. Gone is the illusion
that a linear Aristotelian plot can ensure a united, coherent vision of events,
and can signify a logical chain of causal connections. Events succeed each
other in a less than orderly fashion, forcing the sometimes puzzled audience to reconstruct the relationship that glues them together. Considerable
effort is required simply to understand the underlying structure of the plot.

In Hellenistic tragedy (Sifakis (1967) 113–26) and Senecan tragedy the chorus is no longer present
uninterruptedly from beginning to end and might well have followed the Hellenistic practice of
leaving the stage after each ode, thus making it possible for the scene to change and for time to elapse
(Calder (1975), (1976–77) 6; Tarrant (1978) 221–8; Davis (1993) 11–38). On secondary choruses in
classical Greek tragedy see Wilamowitz (1909) 116, n. 13; Lemmers (1931) esp. 131–42; and Carri`ere
(1977); on Eur. Hipp. 58–71, see Barrett (1964) 167–8 and Taplin (1977) 230–8).

the king will die. distinct traces of epic discourse. Phaedra and Thyestes. vanquished and vanquisher. gnomic. In this appalling elimination of potentiality. progressive. spectate. children are sacrificed to a regressive logic of revenge. While Caesar embodies epic discourse (winning. Paradoxically. geared towards the future). and now it is time for the Greeks to suffer. Troy will be avenged (752–8): haec hodie ratis Phlegethontis atri regias animas vehet. . victamque victricemque. umbrae.202 The Passions in Play Astyanax’s death is thus highly symbolic. Cassandra foresees a distortion of the linear continuity of time at the conclusion of her prophecy in Agamemnon. Troades. punishment and furor. iurata superis unda. it deprives it of any forwardlooking implication and constantly imposes its conflictual. vanquished past. It is remarkable that while Senecan tragedy adopts. vos. Look. soon to be Romans. miseri: fata se vertunt retro. as are the deaths of so many other children in Senecan tragedy. levis ut Mycenas turba prospiciat Phrygum. it is Anchises who dies. Pompey (as Cato) gives voice to a tragic instance which hopelessly reverts to an irretrievable. poor souls: the fates turn backward on themselves. once Trojans. waters upon which the gods take their oath: for a little open up the cover of the dark world. Today this boat of dark Phlegethon will carry the royal souls. for instance. o shades. static perspective. Senecan tragedy also overturns one of the main principles of epic narrative. Medea. I pray you. Epic strives to construct a bridge between the past and a future that should normally be different from the past. and equally I pray you.69 iv Endowed with prophetic powers. te pariter precor: reserate paulum terga nigrantis poli. In Hercules furens. that the insubstantial crowd of Phrygians may look at Mycenae. leaving Aeneas (and Ascanius with him) free to construct his own new identity and that of his fellow citizens. In the Aeneid. as we have seen. precor. Here. the opening of the gates of Acheron portends Cassandra’s desire that her fellow Trojans (although it is difficult to overlook the larger impact of spectate) see the breaking down of historical progression which had determined their demise: the decrees of fate seem to be turning backwards. Their deaths testify to the overwhelming power of the past over the future. the prophetess is able 69 It is useful to compare this opposition with the different connotations of the main characters of Lucan’s Bellum Civile.

and her eyes. as the inhabitants of the underworld express their impotent. anhela corda murmure incluso fremunt. just as she hopes that dead Trojans will be allowed to look up from the underworld.70 in more senses than one (712–15): stetere vittae.Fata se vertunt retro 203 to conjure up an image of the future course of events precisely because her eyes are turned backwards. her soft hair rises in horror. By looking back and down. rursus immoti rigent. gnatis nepotes miscui – nocti diem. but the price to pay for her epistemological prowess is inscribed in her power’s dark. she also privileges a point of view which is the antithesis of the norm. purely negative joy at Agamemnon’s demise. On torqueo as a sign of frenzied anger see Hershkowitz (1998) 92–3. her gasping heart rumbles with pent-up murmuring. pointedly linked to Agamemnon’s in the iunctura victamque victricemque (754). albeit as winners. mollis horrescit coma. At the very beginning of Agamemnon another character had testified to the regressive quality of backwards movements. since they have not been heeded when they should have been: ‘Now Troy has fallen – what have I. 70 71 See Tarrant (1976) 304 for parallel descriptions of frenzied ecstasy. accordingly. Dying together. Inspired by her underworldly furor. patri virum. another form of vision which is exceptional and unnatural. Cassandra looks back to the past history of Troy. She looks back. and her prophetic abilities seem utterly pointless. As he dominates the prologue. turned backwards. pro nefas. Cassandra’s own death. her glance roams uncertainly. Troy is forever destroyed. The movement backwards. even if it does not manage to accomplish the opposite feat. Her fillets hang still. denies the possibility of escaping from the web of the past. circle. Cassandra sees more and better than anybody else. . signals the regressive nature of their desire to repeat the past. incerta nutant lumina et versi retro torquentur oculi. chthonic origin.71 and she looks down. Thyestes reflects that his incest has subverted the law of nature (34–6): versa natura est retro: avo parentem. Cassandra signals the arrival on stage of a reversal of fortune which transforms winners into losers. false prophetess. to do?’ (725: iam Troia cecidit – falsa quid vates agor?). has none of the empowering overtones that connote the archetypal reversal of the Trojans’ defeat elaborated in the Aeneid. then again stare unmoving. As Cassandra herself had desperately acknowledged. but by denying her eyes their normal forward-looking perspective.

115 (iam Lerna retro cessit) and.72 incestuous offspring move in the wrong direction: they look at the past. and will bequeath war to your children too. rape retro reversas generis ac stirpis vices. You will not enjoy the pleasure of your slaughter for long: you will wage war against yourself. sed acta retro cuncta: non animae capax in parte dextra pulmo sanguineus iacet. drag to the deepest Tartarus this succession of ancestry and progeny which has turned back on itself. Unable to see. you who have foully returned to your mother’s womb. natis quoque bella relinques. 459 (the unnaturalness of ‘pushing back’ the sea by building in it). Incest forces a repulsive mixing of different generations and perturbs their natural motion forward. Tiresias asks his daughter to describe to him the manifesta . Later in the play. somewhat differently. Oedipus will mark his belated awareness of his nefas by invoking a similar image of reversal (868–70): dehisce. earth! And you. lord of darkness. grandsons with sons – and day with night. The findings are portentous (366–71): mutatus ordo est. not at the future. signa (302) marked in the entrails of a slaughtered cow. the sacrifice performed by Manto at 303–402. 349. non molli ambitu omenta pingues visceri obtendunt sinus: natura versa est. of blood flowing backwards. As unnatural as streams rushing back towards their sources.204 The Passions in Play Nature has been turned backwards: I mixed father with grandfather – monstrous! – husband with father. Thy. in the sacrifice at Oed. Similarly. non laeva cordi regio. . 236–8): nec tibi longa manent sceleratae gaudia caedis: tecum bella geres. Creon scathingly attacks the king who has ‘returned to his mother’s womb’ (Oed. turpis maternos iterum revolutus in ortus. sede nil propria iacet. . . A similarly upsetting image of incest is established in the tragedy of Oedipus. nulla lex utero manet. and king of the shades. rector umbrarum. tellus. 72 For retro in such contexts see Thy. Open up. But the most extensive engagement with images of unnatural and ominous reversal comes in one of the most powerful scenes of the play. in Tartara ima. tuque tenebrarum potens.

denies the normal flow of events which should preclude his renewed union to Jocasta. implet parentem What monstrosity is this? A foetus conceived by a virgin heifer. an endless. . nec more solito positus alieno in loco.76 In his nefarious regression. The tragic suffering never seems to deter Oedipus’ obsession with returning. no caul with soft covering stretches with rich folds over the entrails. In the prologue to Thyestes the Fury points out that as soon as Tantalus’ ghost has polluted the house.73 an equally devastating upheaval of natural laws. but all has been reversed: on the right side lies the lung. in effect. . iterum vivere atque iterum mori liceat.74 No less stomach-churning is the presence of a foetus in the womb of an ‘unmarried cow’ (373–5): quod hoc nefas? conceptus innuptae75 bovis. . who also compares Soph. Oedipus cancels the passing of time. Nature is subverted: no rule is left for the womb. fills its mother. another appropriate indication of retroflection as sign of perversion: cernis ut fontis liquor | introrsus actus linquat . filled with blood and unable to breathe. ? (107–8). Bettini (1984) 151–2. so can he overstep societal and natural boundaries and return to Jocasta’s womb. See Bettini (1984) 149–50 for a more extensive discussion of this point. part of which (A). the heart is not on the left. a return to the status quo ante of his prenatal existence. since the real monstrosity of his marriage to Jocasta is. The retroflection of the internal organs of the cow is the iconic correlate of the incest which Oedipus has committed. unusually placed in a strange location. . explicit return to Jocasta’s womb (942–7): illa quae leges ratas Natura in uno vertit Oedipoda. Bettini argues. water starts to flow backwards. OT 1213–15: Time condemns the   (1214) because. and questions the necessary correspondence between causes and results: as an unmarried cow can conceive (a hysteron proteron of sorts). Even as he fully acknowledges his monstrosity. The unnatural association of conceptus and innuptae has perturbed the manuscript tradition as well. . The oxymoron fits Oedipus’ own situation. the punishment he initially proposes for himself privileges a repetitive modality which would actually entail the endless rehearsal of his crimes. prefers the facilior infaustae. supplicis eadem meis novetur. nothing lies anymore in its place.Fata se vertunt retro 205 The position has changed. 73 74 75 76 Bettini (1984) offers a persuasive analysis of this scene and its anthropological implications. renasci semper ut totiens nova supplicia pendas . novos commenta partus. ‘l’unione incestuosa si configura simultaneamente come “generante” e come “generata” ’.

driven in flight across the stage by his own mother armed with her torches and black snakes. .206 The Passions in Play Let Nature. and voices his desire to turn back. as the striking detail of the geminus sol (Ag. the queen of Carthage – furens (4. Oedipus embodies in Seneca’s tragedies the temptation and danger of returning to an impossible past. be changed anew for my punishment. be born again forever to pay new penalties as many times . armatam facibus matrem et serpentibus atris cum fugit ultricesque sedent in limine Dirae. 728). threatens nature and history alike. Cassandra is ready to die.465–73): agit ipse furentem in somnis ferus Aeneas. and she was always alone and desolate.465) – is assailed in her sleep by tormenting images (4. . moving slowly with Antigone in the aftermath of the disaster that has wrecked his life. old and blind. He resists his daughter’s help. Resolved to die. taken to its extremes. semperque relinqui sola sibi. aut Agamemnonius scaenis agitatus Orestes. The intertextual thread connecting Cassandra to Dido encourages comparison of the negotiation of Trojan past and future which is at the core of Virgil’s Aeneid. son of Agamemnon. provided that she can see the death of Agamemnon. predicated on a violent reversal of history which is geared to annihilate the past even more than simply to reverse fortune. semper longam incomitata videtur ire viam et Tyrios deserta quaerere terra. to seek once again the slopes of Mount Cithaeron. always going on a long road without companions. She would be like Pentheus in his frenzy when he was seeing columns of Furies and a double sun and two cities of Thebes. Eumenidum veluti demens videt agmina Pentheus et solem geminum et duplices se ostendere Thebas. As she slept Aeneas himself would drive her relentlessly in her madness. a retrogression which. who in Oedipus alone reverses her fixed laws. the first scene of Seneca’s Phoenissae finds him. a thinly veiled disguise for an unavowable desire to return. No less than Thyestes’ and Oedipus’ incests. while the avenging Furies sat at the door. devising strange births. Let me live again and again die. It is worth noting the elaborate allusive game that Agamemnon plays with its model. or like Orestes. and can no longer happen. Cassandra’s desire to even the score with her Greek foes is a nefas. inserted in a text . but did not. looking for her Tyrians in an empty land. and that the dead Trojans can ascend briefly from the underworld in order to see what could have happened. the place where he was found. Later.

I can see the groves of Ida: the fateful shepherd sits in judgement of the powerful goddesses. and there seems to be no counterbalancing force which might eventually displace them. Look. There is. Senecan tragedy makes it an integral part of the problem. will bring no new crimes. the day shines with a double sun. in effect. thus fulfils the theatrical reference suggested by the Aeneid (Ag. . no clinamen which may lead to a future that is significantly different from the masterplot of the past. While there is no guarantee that looking forward. At the very core of the Aeneid stands the complex. in the ultimate predominance of a teleological solution of the plot which breaks with the repetitive. Looking back. Epic models of representation import into the tragedy a disruption which is ethical as much as it is narrative. any such teleological drive is conspicuously absent. Idaea cerno nemora: fatalis sedet inter potentes arbiter pastor deas. too. ineffectual compulsions displayed by the Trojans in the earlier phases of their wanderings. The battle between past and future which dominates the first part of the Aeneid finds a resolution. albeit a painful and uncertain one. such as the messenger’s speech – contaminates the texture of tragedy 77 Quint (1993) 50–96.Fata se vertunt retro 207 in which Cassandra describes Agamemnon (if not Orestes) agitatus scaenis. and the Aeneid . often obsessive elaboration of the relationship between past and present. But there are conspicuous differences between the way in which the poem negotiates these opposite trends and Seneca’s own approach to the same critical theme. Regression and return impose seriality as the dominant organizing principle of the plays.77 In Agamemnon. but also in Oedipus and Thyestes. it is certain that further engagement with age-old ones will only perpetuate the spiral of revenge and counter-revenge. The radically different status of epic vis-`a-vis dramatic representation – once freed from its prescribed boundaries. Rather than looking at epic as a possible (if far from entirely successful) solution. and obsessively insisting on the repetition of a past nefas. highlights the temptations and dangers inherent in the desire simply to return to an unattainable status quo ante. and double Argos lifts up twin palaces. to the future. prevents the successful repression of nefas which many characters in these tragedies advocate. often with less than compelling force. 728–31): sed ecce gemino sole praefulget dies geminumque duplices Argos attollit domus.

to privilege in a reading of Medea a particular obsession. still. a recurrent thread which lends the protagonist’s actions and emotions their common denominator: her desire to push her life backwards. to her. although we might want to see her portrayed as an unruly. In retrospect. perhaps true only. furious and uncontrollable maenad. to forgo such a partial investigation in the name of a hypothetical organic approach (which. he shows that epic. even more than Atreus. . in fact consistently evaluates her predicament and displays a dogged determination to achieve her goals. and shatter any optimistic ideals that it may have nurtured. v An impossible dream of return also torments Medea. Thyestes and other Senecan tragedies question the discursive assumptions on which the Aeneid was built. Metastatizing as an alien entity in the play. if at all. She is far from irrational: ‘irrationality’ is a weapon she wields with poise and sophistication. it is more difficult. Like Atreus. too. The opposite process is well documented in the Aeneid. she forcefully communicates her clear-headed reasonings to the audience. Medea. But this complementary demonstration is hardly neutral. the arch-heroine of Senecan drama. clear intent and strategy. is the supposedly rational explanation of events which Jason half-heartedly tries to uphold. in a different context.208 The Passions in Play and precipitates the incumbent threat of nefas. I believe. To show that epic can be to tragedy what tragedy was to epic proves that relative hierarchies and privileges are hardly tenable. epic narrative and temporal structures thematize the breaking down of narrative conventions and the ethical boundaries they imply. Thus it is legitimate. we see now that the association extends to other important aspects of the play. and that the illusory strength of the epic masterplot is precisely that – illusory. incidentally. that there is no haven safe from the menace of nefas. where tragedy powerfully deconstructs the forward-looking. is the embodiment of nefas. in strictly relative terms. In the prologue to Thyestes it was precisely an epic intertext which vigorously introduced nefas. Seneca shows that the epic’s linearity is illusory. might be faulted even more in the case of Seneca’s tragedies than in others). to privilege specific thematic links in the compact poetic texture of Medea. self-assertive conventions of epic narration. Medea could easily be dismissed as a dreadful embodiment of boundless revenge: yet. and perhaps dangerous. Far more ‘irrational’. While it is undoubtedly difficult. to deny the future any real possibility of unfolding and deviating from the past.

245–6): si placet. a role from which she has now rather hastily been displaced by Creusa. But even that is too much. 967–8: CL. When the tragedy opens she already knows what is going to happen. before it all happened. or rather give me back my companion – why order me to flee alone? I did not arrive alone. orders her to return home. in act 2. she still deserves what was once hers (Med. She might be guilty.Fata se vertunt retro 209 Medea strives to arrest the implacable sequence of events set in motion by the announcement of Jason’s wedding. give me back my ship. Euripides’ heroine makes no attempt to win back the object of her passion. and the epithalamion sung by the chorus after the prologue only confirms the truth in a suitably contrasting shallow tone. but the return she has in mind is less literal and less circumscribed. . condemn the accused woman. to reveal only the inner core. Et tu parentem redde. She is resigned to her fate. She insists that Jason should be given back to her. In her triumph. 241: sed nunc casta repetatur fides. redde nunc gnatum mihi. 928). a suppliant. the mother is completely reinstated’. 482).78 Creon. Compare a similar exchange between Electra and Clytemnestra in Ag. Seneca’s Medea finally achieves the nefarious return she has so much longed for. the true Medea (or ‘Medea’). returning to be only a mother: materque tota coniuge expulsa redit (‘the wife in me is driven out. 489). If you so decide. but give me back my crime. but if she is. determined only to take on Jason as agonizing a revenge as possible. damna ream. She sheds first her status as a wife. Towards the end of the confrontation her pleas become insistent (272–3): profugere cogis? redde fugienti ratem vel redde comitem – fugere cur solam iubes? non sola veni. | EL. are the high points of her appeal. that their story (history) turn back to the point before the tragedy started. Deeply wounded in her pride. A similar iteration returns in her dialogue with Jason: redde supplici felix vicem (‘give me. Her actions describe a stripping away of features that she considers external. Images of return. and again redde fugienti sua (‘give your wife’s property back as she flees’. play a central role in the tragedy.79 It is important to stress the fact that this particular aspect of Medea’s psychology is wholly Senecan. accordingly. my reward’. Medea longs for a return to a past in which she was Jason’s partner. and 78 79 A comparably impossible dream is voiced (perhaps deceivingly) by Clytemnestra in Ag. You force me to flee? As I flee. sed redde crimen.

and infanticide. At the conclusion of her revenge. Again. simply a ‘womb’. i) (Freud (1913) = SE xii. 1012–13). The Greek Medea displays a realistic preoccupation with her future. Mater. | scrutabor ense viscera et ferro extraham (‘if any pledge even now lurks unseen within its mother. who plans her departure towards ‘Erechtheus’ land’ (1384). In her triumph over the laws of time and nature – Oedipus’ own triumph – Medea denies the constrictions that reality imposes on emotional drives. She has held true to the vow she expressed in her magic rite: indeed. before flying away. has held back its sullen waters. which a few lines earlier meant ‘mother’ (928). and simply disappears into the sky. in which Freud discusses the relationship between lack of temporal awareness and anger. Ceres has been compelled to watch a winter harvest. it is worth while to contrast this turn of events with its Euripidean model. see De Ritis (1991) 233.328 and v. On Beginning the Treatment (Further Recommendations on the Technique of PsychoAnalysis vol. is especially interesting in connection with Medea). she has succeeded in bringing back a past which is – paradoxically – both before crime. truces compressit undas omnibus ripis piger. She erases the notion of temporality with the same determination with which the unconscious refuses to acknowledge time’s existence80 and 80 On Freud’s central tenet that the unconscious ignores temporality see especially The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud (1900) = SE iv. She is willing to eradicate any trace of motherhood from her very womb: in matre si quod pignus etiamnunc latet. In general. but at the price of multiple murder. and yet full of it. driven in a blaze of serpents. pure anatomy. which branches out into so many mouths. is now (1012) a strictly physiological marker. . Her virginity is back. I have bent the courses of the seasons: the summer earth has shivered at my chant. 984).210 The Passions in Play the path backwards can proceed further: rediere regna. violenta Phasis vertit in fontem vada et Hister.74).577–8. and the Hister. and ensures for herself a safe refuge at Aegeus’ palace in an episode which is completely omitted by Seneca.130). The Phasis has turned its violent waters back to its source. my raped virginity is restored’. at the end of this play Medea does not have a new city to move to. the latter passage. in tot ora divisus. In sharp contrast to Euripides’ Medea. reluctant to move in any of its channels. coacta messem vidit hibernam Ceres. returning to the ancestral abodes of her family. rapta virginitas redit (‘my kingdom has been restored. New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Freud (1932) = SE xxii. I shall probe my womb with the sword and tear it out with the steel’. she has ‘bent the courses of the seasons’ (759–64): temporum flexi vices: aestiva tellus horruit cantu meo.

a compulsion satisfied against the requirements of logic and reality. 168–86) on the prevalence of the present in the Stoics’ ideology of time. quite literally. her actions acquire a grandiosity that completely overshadows Ulixes’ Realpolitik. of her complex. Bodei (2000) 3–19. to assure himself that his children are really his own and that his wife has never been seduced by a wanton brother: liberos nasci mihi | nunc credo. by punishing Thyestes with abandonment. ‘negative magic’.247). his role is similar to Andromache’s. a wish fulfilled. with The Interpretation of Dreams (Freud (1900) = SE iv.Fata se vertunt retro 211 the unidirectionality of causal connections81 – another crucial aspect of its symmetrical. in the unconstrained realm of symmetrical logic and ‘negative magic’. on the basis of his intrinsic weakness.119–20 at 119). castis nunc fidem reddi toris (‘now I am convinced that my children are my own. paradoxically. Thy. This is. like Calchas or Ulixes in Troades. at a certain level of abstraction. Symptoms and Anxiety (Freud (1926) = SE xx. an instance of Ungeschehenmachen. both natural and historical. ineffectual character. The tone is set from the beginning. of course.82 Medea is. embodies the power of the past over the present and the future. his desire to save himself and. a dream come true. 1098–9). Medea’s reasons – compared with Ulixes’ – are also basically private in nature. that she will halt the course of events. generalizing logic which emerges in contrast to the prevailing ‘adult’ logic that is based on Aristotelian principles. engaging inner turmoil. whether it can still bear to proceed in its 81 82 83 On the parallelism between the elision of chronology and the unconscious’ undermining or abolition of causal links see Fragments of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (‘Dora’) (Freud (1905) = SE vii. The moral balance. his children. Inhibitions. and she alters the regular succession of times. Her greatness lies precisely in her adamant conviction.83 which is perfectly possible. he is able to restore what has been lost. that Astyanax’s survival will provoke endless agony for the mothers of Greece. She cannot claim that the future of a whole nation is at stake. . in order to achieve her goals.17). or. but nothing remains of her emotional appeal. We are reminded of Atreus’ similar victory over the basic principle that what is done cannot be undone. Medea. as is usual with Senecan characters. Functionally. It is interesting to read in conjunction with Freud’s remark the important arguments put forth by Goldschmidt ((1969) 47–9. deeply personal and undebatable nonetheless. now I believe that I can trust again the purity of my marriage-bed’. the ‘retroactive annulment of an event’. perhaps. His desire for change – for a new bride – is essentially rooted in selfishness. She does not accept Jason’s change of mind. when she defiantly asks the sun.235–6). is less easy to determine than one might be tempted to think. her ancestor. excused without much enthusiasm by the chorus. Yet. Notes on a Case of Obsessional Neurosis (the ‘Rat Man’) (Freud (1909) = SE x . in psychoanalytic terms. Jason is a lame.

Medea ensures that there will be. Her cry of joy. never shall my madness falter in its search for vengeance. anguish. [She kills the second son] Good. but retained by Murray and Page). By taking control of time. Med. The apparent adynaton is fulfilled precisely as she kills her second son: misereri iubes – bene est.212 The Passions in Play path – should it not turn back right now (Sen. At the end of the play her furor and her dolor do acquiesce: she has altered the regularity of time with her rites. 1017). while the grains of sand are innumerable. is revealing: meus dies est. means giving her the very weapon she needs (292). even a little time. it is finished. 28–31)? Creon had dimly foreseen the truth: giving Medea time. I am enjoying the time I have been granted’. back to her ancestors’ home. while rivers flow down into the sea. ‘it is right to adapt to circumstances’). and it will increase constantly. while the pole keeps the Bears dry as they revolve. and she has found a limit to her revenge (1018–20). to sacrifice to you. All Jason can do. quae tibi litarem. . dum siccas polus versabit Arctos.84 She wants to control time in order to bend it backwards. I had nothing else. in a sense. noctem sequentur atra. as Medea poignantly 84 In Euripides. which turns on its head the chorus’s moralizing sententia at the beginning of the play (175: tempori aptari decet. dolor. . But she also carries out her proposal to subvert and destroy everything: sternam et evertam omnia (‘I shall ruin and destroy everything’. The certainty of her furor is rooted in the certainty of natural events (401–7): dum terra caelum media libratum feret nitidusque certas mundus evolvet vices numerusque harenis derit et solem dies. while day attends the sun and stars the night. tempore accepto utimur (‘The day is mine. while the bright universe maintains its constant revolutions. flumina in pontum cadent. You’re telling me to have pity. plura non habui. and Medea disappears into the sky. peractum est. . no future: Jason has lost Creusa and his children. while the earth stays at the centre and keeps the heavens balanced. Creon remarks explicitly on the fact that the time he finally grants Medea is not enough for her to commit any of the deeds he fears: see 355–6 (these lines are deleted by Nauck and Diggle. 414). numquam meus cessabit in poenas furor crescetque semper .

331). 1021). that the idealized life of the farmer ‘who has reached old age in his ancestral fields’ (patrioque senex factus in arvo.Fata se vertunt retro 213 remarks. Her intent is largely negative: things should not change. which. parens (1024). ‘Medea’ as a recognizable entity. It is time for the others. Recognition is a belated act of cognition which reveals something previously hidden. It is easy to file this ode in the bloated category of laudationes temporis acti. even as she longs for its return. for instance. 166). Her fixation on a surpassed state of events finds a significant echo in the second chorus of the tragedy.86 Medea draws attention more than once to the weight and implications of her name. To be able to ‘recognize’ Medea as ‘Medea’. for a fine analysis of this ode. or Atreus as ‘Atreus’. the emblem of their past life together that he had rejected: recipe iam gnatos. Yet the chorus itself resists such a simplification.85 It should be observed that Medea pointedly refrains from any idealization of the past. 332) should be characterized as ‘lazy’ (piger. as a persona somehow distinguishable from the person who carries it. Again: Medea – fiam (‘I’ll become “Medea” ’. . is ‘to take back’ his children. stands as the ultimate victory of the past. 85 86 The order does not imply any action on either Medea’s or Jason’s part: there is no need to suppose that Medea actually throws the children’s corpses from the roof. and to construe this event as evidence of the fact that the play could not have been staged. she is fully aware of the potential embedded in it: Medea superest (‘ “Medea” is left’. a vital ´elan which is not intrinsically immoral. They both guarantee that past patterns will prevail. the deprecation of the geographic and moral disorder which marks a degenerate present. is predicated on the immutability of fundamental characteristics which define them as what they are. together with the nefarious practice of navigation. At the end of the play. as her revenge is being carried out. In the midst of expected judgements. in this sense. and to dissect it in search of topoi: the dangers and intrinsic impiety of navigation. In her dialogue with the nurse. the longing for a long-gone golden age with no ambitions and no sorrows. See Biondi (1984) 87–141 and Nussbaum (1994) 464ff. Both Medea and Atreus embody the superiority of the past over the present – and the future. particularly for Jason. it is remarkable. or unfocused. where the women of Corinth elaborate on the nefas of seafaring. 910). 171). to acknowledge this fact: coniugem agnoscis tuam? (‘do you recognize your wife?’. The contrast that it institutes between past and present is less facile and less reassuring. These characters can deceive and disguise. and which we would in fact expect to be praised in the context of Roman ideology. but their inner nature sooner or later shines through and is revealed in a flash of horror. Jason should not marry again. as if it lacked. she feels that she has lived up to the expectations: Medea nunc sum (‘now I am “Medea” ’.

This turning back implies. and that Tantalus’ exhortation was therefore dangerous. regression denies the movement forward inscribed in the natural passing of time. Once they do. for instance. ‘dismiss the old Thyestes from your thoughts’). On a more positive note. The desire to turn back the clock on history. they admit the fallibility of their desire. regressive repetition is complicit with the action of repressed forces and impulses of destruction and upheaval.214 The Passions in Play they rise from the certainty of a model which their antagonists need time to learn. at this juncture. vi As I remarked in the opening section of this chapter. impossibly happy one (Thy. We should ask ourselves. ‘recognizes’ her son’s character. or hope. Thyestes. and she reveals nothing less than the violent overturning of the fate’s decrees. of nefas and furor. At the most basic level. sometimes literally. 937: veterem ex animo mitte Thyesten. and to a . He was right: his only mistake was not acting on such a good hunch. which is strikingly similar to her dead husband’s: ‘I know your nature: you are ashamed to show fear’ (agnosco indolem: | pudet timere. too. had indeed suspected that Atreus could not possibly have changed. Even at a later stage he tries to dispel his depressing forebodings.18) – Seneca expounds the immoral connotation of fighting time’s natural forward movement. to discard his past worries: the ‘old Thyestes’ should make room for a new. personal and otherwise. Similarly. Cassandra sides with a compelling form of knowledge which is chthonic and subversive. finds its most poignant expression in the emphasis placed on the past. Andromache. it is a sort of counterfactual. Tro. Senecan characters stage a rebellion against the notions of law and order represented by time’s unerring flow. for change. 504–5). once they ‘recognize’. Jason entreats Medea to change. In their struggle upstream against the linear determinism of time. ultimately impossible reparation that they stubbornly try to achieve. what may be the overall implications of this obsessive regression that seems to characterize many of the tragedies on the various levels I have discussed. In his attack against those who ‘live backwards’ – retro vivunt (122. a return to darkness. We might perhaps take our cue from an incisive passage in Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius 122 that raises an intriguing set of associations. If time is inreparabile. which slowly bulges out of proportion as it invades the present and conditions the future. Inverting the order of day and night is the most powerful icon. to accept something new and different in lieu of what she can no longer have. As her eyes turn back. the darkness of unspeakable crimes.

88 Merging day and night is revealed as the emblem of a much more upsetting tampering with natural laws. the temporum dispositio (122. 34–6).Fata se vertunt retro 215 certain extent the cause. ut diu virum pati possit? et cum illum contumeliae sexus eripuisse debuerat. even to erase. See especially line 5: tellus colenda est: paelices caelum tenent. which is repeatedly mentioned in the tragedies and voiced with particular emphasis by an enraged Juno in the prologue to Hercules furens. prevented the dawning of a new day – the hero symbolizes the disruption of natural order which will be especially evident in his trampling of the thresholds of the underworld (24–6):89 87 89 88 See above. (We will see in a moment how this image can be connected with the repeated instances of the sun turning its course that dot several tragedies. p. .18). is the connection between morally inappropriate behaviour and interference with the natural flow of time that is inscribed in a well-known mythical episode. the structure and names of the constellations are now a permanent cosmic reminder of Jupiter’s unfaithful behaviour. From the very moment of his conception – when Jupiter. Appropriately.8). eager to prolong the night he was spending with Alcmena. but equally revealing.7). In the latter case Seneca makes explicit the connection between the artificiality of tampering with time and the connotations of sexual immorality which configure the whole process as nefas: ‘do they not live against nature. Author’s translation. natural ageing (122. day and night (Ag. 122. It is a sign of dubious distinction to alter the normal arrangements of time. even if the sinners who choose to live in this manner reveal their obsession in a number of seemingly innocuous activities: they crave spring flowers in the middle of winter and will do anything in order to obtain them (122.8). but now not even age will’87 (non vivunt contra naturam qui spectant ut pueritia splendeat tempore alieno? quid fieri crudelius vel miserius potest? Numquam vir erit. His gender should have spared him this iniquity. grandparents and their descendants. and 6–18. those who strive to retain the glow of adolescence at the wrong age? Can there be something more cruel or miserable? He’ll never be a man so that he can continue to lie under a man. of a denial of nature which immediately affects morality.) Less upsetting. In his speech at the beginning of Agamemnon. 203. non ne aetas quidem eripiet?. The connection that is raised in the letter between sexual deviation and the subversion of nature’s laws of ordered time finds a remarkable counterpart in a tragic passage which I have already had an opportunity to discuss. the shade of Thyestes complains that he has mixed together things which the norms of nature keep separate: children with their fathers. just as they strive to prevent.

It is rather clear that Senecan heroes try hard to precipitate what they would like to see not just as a phase in the unstoppable process of creation and destruction. Long (1985). Medea advocates. The kind of repetition that.5 in the context of his attack against the poetarum furor: Jupiter’s crime is magnified and perpetuated in the poetic descriptions of his lascivious deeds. The immorality. I have observed a number of instances in which repetition acquires distinctly negative overtones and is portrayed as a dangerous obsession. for instance. On this issue. The contradiction is only apparent. Although repetition is prominently inscribed in the Stoic concept of palingenesis. purifying event (Rosenmeyer (1989) 151–9). which might come in the form of a flood (Q Nat 3. unduly forestalls the natural and expected evolution of the cosmic cycle which ¯ 91 This form of repetition will eventually culminate in a purifying ekpyrosis. but as a final catastrophe. again. Mansfeld (1979). which. 814–15: cui lege mundi Iuppiter rupta | roscidae noctis geminavit horas.8: our fate has been determined since the moment of our birth. ¯ as final catastrophe. contrary to the surviving (Greek) Stoic authorities. necessarily implies acceptance of time. which we should contrast with the righteous attitude described by Seneca at De providentia 5. and wisdom resides in a complete acceptance of its decrees. see Barnes (1978). even perversion. slows down the movement of the cycle and constantly threatens its potential for renewal. shone forth late from the Eastern seas.90 is mentioned by Seneca at De brevitate vitae 16. which elsewhere in the tragedies is explicitly referred to as a breaking down of natural laws. when Phoebus. Lapidge (1978). a basic tenet of Stoic thought. with orders to keep the sunlight immersed in Ocean. . Also. It is a sinful form of restitutio in integrum.216 The Passions in Play in cuius ortus mundus impendit diem tardusque Eoo Phoebus effulsit mari retinere mersum iussus Oceano iubar. of holding back personal or public history must arguably be read in conjunction with the notion of time that structures Stoic thinking about the physical universe. and of the movement forward which will lead to destruction and purification. and it might 90 91 Ag. to go with the flow of the universe is indeed a relief: ‘it is a great consolation that it is together with the universe we are swept along’ (grande solacium est cum universo rapi). It has been argued that Seneca presents a distinctively pessimistic view of ekpyrosis which is at odds with the traditional Stoic notion of a natural. [This son] for whose begetting the whole world lost a day. however. A rebellion against Stoic orthodoxy alone.29–30). can hardly account for the far-reaching prominence of this theme in the tragedies. Seneca posits a direct correlation between their wickedness and the catastrophe. is portrayed in terms of punishment. Acceptance of nature. This very detail of the mythical narrative.

literally. there is no act of poetic creation which could be deemed completely innocent in this respect. Cf. to approach its ultimate goal. as I remarked earlier. though. must be restrained lest they obstruct the chosen path forward.315) which structures in a very basic sense the Aeneid as a whole. seized by love. Lucan’s poem. it needs no heroes to enact unity’. tempting as they are.95 Time becomes one of 92 93 G. from Virgil. Moreover. There is something to be gained by insisting on the contrast between the furor-led temptation to digress and the rationality of the move that Virgil opposes to it. while. too. Or is there? The narrator’s fiddling with the linearity of time is an act complicit with furor. 94 Johnson (1987) 110. Yet. lanigeros agitare greges hirtasque capellas. fugit inreparabile tempus. at a point when the insisted description of the furor equarum92 threatens the ordered unfolding of his didactic project (G. we linger around each topic. having no unity. 95 Johnson (1987) 110. Helv. It is worth remembering in this connection the importance of Juno’s furor as a principle of delay (explicitly acknowledged by the goddess herself at 7. The flow of time is undeniably determined by Fate. no going around that fact. singula dum capti circumvectamur amore. 8. Regressions and digressions.284–7): sed fugit interea. I will start. Virgil gives this principle emphatic expression not in the Aeneid but in his Georgics. flies irretrievably.93 There is. 3. the second part of our labour remains. the ‘comforting logic of chronology’94 is abandoned in favour of fractured.266. Arguably. 4. and thus to disclaim the uniqueness and linearity of time.3. But in the meanwhile time flies. competing narratives which stubbornly refuse any call to order. to lead the woolly flocks and shaggy goats. and.2. By retelling events. with the subversive forces down below. ‘has no unity unless it is the absence of unity.7. The story has to proceed forward. with Schiesaro (1993a) 140. Sen. In the Bellum Civile. poetry is bound to repeat. certain works display much more obviously than others their willingness to challenge the ordered unfolding of time. Enough now about herds.Fata se vertunt retro 217 be worth while to expand our points of reference to include other firstcentury authors. any act of poetic evocation inevitably disrupts the temporal framework of the events that it narrates. Ben. 3. . hoc satis armentis: superat pars altera curae. as Ralph Johnson elegantly puts it. The teleological ambition of an epic such as the Aeneid is inextricably linked with a treatment of narrative time that privileges linearity and control. not to mention unity. whether they are historical or not: there can be no perfect coincidence of histoire and r´ecit.

but none can give the poem in its entirety a sense of unity) can provide useful insights into Senecan tragedy as well. however. By the beginning of the twentieth century similar challenges. reliable calendar. but still report about you too. Never before (pace Lycophron. just one year before his death.96 The ‘momentary’ nature of Lucan’s heroes (many are able to hold the stage convincingly for a while. In his desire to reveal the inner secrets of nature.98 But Roman culture. always in the midst of battles I found time for higher things. by all accounts. nec meus Eudoxi vincetur fastibus annus. the experiments with time undertaken by Ovid. I was brought to Pharos’ cities by report about my son-in-law. nor will my own year be worsted by Eudoxus’ calendar. see Masters (1992) passim. 188. had experienced its own ‘Copernican’ revolution. and thus inevitably displays his Caesarian allegiances. especially if we consider it alongside the ‘cubist’ diffraction of time in Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I recalled earlier. In this more recent scenario it is possible to connect experimental attitudes towards time with a flurry of scientific discoveries and philosophical reflections which substantially modified our perception of time and imposed uniformity and order on that which was previously defined only by ignorance and superstition. no mean feat. It is undoubtedly striking that Caesar seems here almost to equate his pursuit of Pompey to his insatiable drive to know. a new. Bringing order to the confusion that had reigned for several centuries. It was. redolent in many respects of Lucretius’ portrayal of Epicurus. 96 97 One of Masters’ most important acquisitions. p. As he engages in the re-enactement of a nefas. Caesar introduced. as Lucan’s Caesar remembers in his meeting with the Egyptian priest Acoreus (10. for regions of the stars and sky. Caesar momentarily turns into a cultural hero of sorts.97 Taken together. For sure. too.218 The Passions in Play the most charged signifiers in the poem. Lucan and Seneca testify to a shared sense of uneasiness and anxiety. See above. . 98 Kern (1983).184–7): fama quidem generi Pharias me duxit ad urbes. sed tamen et vestri. endowed with competing ideological values: delay is pro-Pompeian as much as proceeding forward is pro-Caesarian. an exception that confirms the rule) had classical texts built up such a comprehensive onslaught against the linearity of time. media inter proelia semper stellarum caelique plagis superisque vacavi. Lucan multiplies morae which can at least postpone Caesar’s inevitable victory. had indelibly marked the experience of Western culture.

association. and any reaction to it should be read not simply as antagonistic to the political powers who may at certain times appear to be fostering it (too reductionist a move).Fata se vertunt retro 219 who pushed himself to the edge of the world in order to comprehend the regulatory mechanisms of all things. that the foregrounding of ‘irrational’ elements and the development of avant-garde poetics especially in first-century a d literature should be read only as a reaction to Augustanism and its undoubted impact on cultural protocols. Reacting to the myth of progress and renewal that is so central to Augustan rhetoric. thanks to the multiple opportunities afforded by a novel. There will be. Lucan and Seneca problematizes in different ways the most basic category of human understanding. repetition and delay. Caesar’s ordered annus proceeds smoothly and without uncertainties. regression. and Schiesaro (1993b) 263). the ruler who embodied a profound link between the thirst for knowledge and the thirst to conquer. Not even time is safe from nefas: it can actually be one of the ways in which nefas achieves its victory. creative poetics. and even more of Alexander the Great.99 but it was his predecessor who had explicitly paved the way. but primarily in the context of an ongoing cultural debate (see Schiesaro (1997). a well-ordered ‘time for Augustus’. History can bend back on itself and explore darkness and regression. Neither is poetry safe: poetry. however. Caesar marks the ordered passing of time as a personal accomplishment intertwined with the vicissitudes of Roman history. It is not simply a matter of observing that political power is intrinsically involved in the regulation of the calendar and especially of its festive days. It is precisely because there can now be. 99 100 Wallace-Hadrill (1987). as we know. not unlike his plan to catch Pompey and progress to a new form of political organization. can eliminate the future and proclaim the triumph of the past. The drive towards rationalization is an important feature of Roman culture at least from the second century b c onwards (Moatti (1997)).100 The unstoppable vector of history that was promoted by Augustus can now be shown to be simply one of many possible movements of history and hence deprived of any teleological impact. Causality and chronology waver under the repeated attacks of analogy. Rather. too. that the active and unpredictable manipulation of time in poetry can acquire a significant disruptive force. the disruption of time portrayed by Ovid. such a thing as ‘time for Augustus’. I do not believe. as Ovid’s Fasti amply attest. we should try to recapture at least part of the fundamental sense of (new) order and predictability that lay at the core of the Julian reform. literally. As the ‘inventor’ of the new calendar. and to imagine that such a powerful revolution could come to be seen as the perfect target of equally forceful counterreactions. implicitly questioning its very foundations. bends backwards. .

for the first time based entirely and reliably on the sun’s regular movements. 136. Time turns back not so much to redress the misfortunes of the past as to guarantee that no change and no variation can occur. Bickerman (1980) 51. displaying in its perturbed and unpredictable movements the irrational criminality of human actions. Virgil’s promise of imperium sine fine101 (a promise that the Aeneid powerfully questions at several critical junctures). can now become. . presents us with a dramatic visual icon for the fundamental disruption of natural laws which recurs with remarkable frequency in tragedy. or in Horace’s Epode 16. His tragedies often display the sun’s uncertainty in following its course or even its extraordinary retrocession.104 The sun. Rosenmeyer (1989) 160 and Schmitz (1993) 90. the ultimate symbol of disorder. 1. Seneca. as in the constant return of the past.220 The Passions in Play In the reversal of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ worlds. in Seneca’s obsessed and distraught universe. the sun withdraws. Senecan drama gives voice to the dead who emerge from Acheron to impose their dreadful rule on the living. for instance. In. seems to have been one of the immediate motivations behind a surge in the popularity of solar cults. It is indeed tempting to recall that Caesar’s calendar. 101 103 104 102 Eliade (1954) 133–40. as I mentioned. with Nilsson (1932) 166 and Weinstock (1948) 37. esp.257–96. elevated on the one hand to the position of supreme guarantor of the regularity of time. they have lost even their qualified problematic appeal and are ripe for deconstruction. Aen.103 Shocked at the sight of the nefas perpetrated by Atreus. throwing mankind into utter darkness as the text repeatedly emphasizes. thanks to the king’s vital force.102 Two or three generations after these hopes had been tentatively expressed. we can read the hope that the new Augustan beginning has interrupted the law of cosmic cycles and. has inspired a progression which will not have to be tempered by catastrophe. It is difficult not to read in this reversal a pained scepticism about the regularity imposed by Augustus on time and space – a regularity and faith in the future that Augustan poets had tried to make their own.

of allowing a past constituted by texts. and in the third section I will investigate how spectatorship is dealt with in the tragedies themselves. 877. ‘the trace of the earlier writer’s absence’ (208).1 I now want to explore this dimension of intertextuality further. which may be characterized by the particular mode of reception it demands and purports to foster. I also want to look again at the connection between poetry and passions. All texts are by definition intertextual. ‘the visible mark of Seneca’s own “anxiety of influence” ’. even if and when they happen 1 In his important discussion of Seneca’s intertextuality Segal ((1986) 202–14) focuses especially on the implications of the sword at Phaed.chapter 6 The poetics of passions i n t e rt e x t ua l i t y a n d i ts d i s co n t e n ts i The thematic insistence on the role of the past in the tragedies is displayed to great effect in the extensive and for some even hypertrophic allusive dimension of Seneca’s writing. words and narratives to shape the present and possibly the future. Hipp. the relationship between this form of drama and epic. The sword. 221 . is. Can Seneca’s theatre be considered ‘epic’ in any Brechtian sense? Was his notional audience predicated on a similar set of presuppositions? Intertextuality is indeed one way of looking back. In the second section of this chapter I will therefore focus again on the Stoics’ theoretical discussion of the role of the audience confronted by theatrical outbursts of passion. By problematizing the relationship between intertextuality. I will also look further at possible analogies between Seneca’s plays and modern ‘epic drama’. and at what implications such connections might suggest for the interpretation of Thyestes and other plays. that is. according to Segal. which replaces the writing tablet with which Theseus accuses Hippolytus in Eur. ‘this sword will tell you’). 896 (hic dicet ensis. The last portion of this chapter will be devoted to an issue which is crucial both within the tragedies and in the possible modalities of their reception. poetry and the past.

but ideologically independent of. but the inverted order in which they are recalled establishes an active gesture of modification. too. its Greek counterpart. rooted as it is in a mythical continuum which is relatively flexible but ultimately fixed. proving that the curse of repetiton can indeed be broken. Considered in this perspective. it is interesting to start by comparing the relationship established by the Aeneid with its Homeric models and the modalities that configure Seneca’s connection with his tragic antecedents. Similar considerations arguably extend to Latin epic as a genre. which testifies to the degree of originality and freedom that the poet enjoys in the treatment of his 2 3 The divide between allusion and intertextuality is questionable. Latin epic shows from its very inception the ability to Romanize a past that is connected with.3 Tragedy does not enjoy the same kind of freedom. from Ennius’ Annales to Naevius’ Bellum Poenicum. is impervious to the insertion of completely new material. Thus. and to the same kind of active modification of the plot which is encouraged by epic. Senecan tragedy differs drastically from the Aeneid in its exploitation of and reflection on literary models.222 The Passions in Play to be only marginally engaged in overt allusive strategies. tragic and otherwise. but their language. and Hinds (1998). for that matter. several other first-century authors revel in the expressive possibilities afforded by a sustained dialogue with their models. Its two halves follow the lead of the Iliad and the Odyssey. can easily shape his own distinctive voice. The Aeneid rewrites Homer in more senses than one. and. signals at every turn their genetic connection with previous points of reference. The Aeneid follows in Homer’s steps. On this point see now Fowler (1997a) = (2000) 115–37. On this topic see now Goldberg (1995). But tragedy as a whole. but this time the Trojans will win. these two concepts must often be considered more as different points on a graded continuum than as alternative options. The tragedies not only insert themselves explicitly in a history of literary production which revolves around wellknown and repeatedly staged myths. while it is certainly useful to retain a terminological distinction. Of course the playwright is able to choose from different versions of the same myth. and as a self-conscious form of critical reflection on a text’s literary affiliations. Steeped as it is in a dialogue with its Greek models. by plotting it creatively. Roman epic emerges as the preferred medium for a negotiation of tradition and innovation in the literary (and historical) realms. . intertextuality acquires a crucial role both as the marker of an ideological obsession with the past. and.2 Yet it is generally and rightly admitted that Seneca and. In deciphering the connections between intertextuality and the ideology of the past. Even a play such as Thyestes.

thus questioning with an elaborate scheme the apparently seamless experience of watching a tragedy. a frustrated desire for lost forms mediated by an overwhelming and oppressive intertextual memory. if it tries to continue and modify the Homeric plot by staging a reversal of fortunes which looks forward to general reconciliation.The poetics of passions 223 chosen theme. This lesser degree of freedom paradoxically entails a higher degree of responsibility. If the Aeneid can attempt to impose a new narrative order which carefully balances nefas and ratio. cannot escape a largely predetermined series of events. The contrast is especially glaring if we compare the plays. . and our enjoyment of them as acts of defiance – aesthetic as much as ethic. They will only be able to reiterate the nefas. The author-on-stage – be it Medea. and they reflect. even obsessive confrontation with their models. to return to it. while Thyestes’ children still cannot escape their fate. so harrowing. The metadramatic activation of the plot and the consequent denial of any immediacy to the tragic experience intensify features that Greek tragedy had only intermittently displayed (especially in such plays as Euripides’ Ion or Helen. Seneca’s tragedies stem from a continuous. Oedipus embodies perhaps more vividly than any other play the torment of Seneca’s post-Virgilian quandary. And the thematization of ‘posteriority’ is what makes the opening scene of Phoenissae. Seneca’s tragedies are constitutively denied any such illusion. in different forms. Senecan tragedy validates its existence (and its novelty) by displaying total awareness of its epigonic nature and by laying bare its internal mechanisms. which had enjoyed unprecedented freedom in the manipulation of the mythistorical histoire that it stages. as do the tragedies themselves. The pervasive characteristic of Seneca’s tragedies is their belatedness: they represent an anachronistic return to the past. As they give new life to the tragic experience first brought onto the stage by the Greeks. all the characters in these tragedies are intensely aware of their previous existence in the domain of literature. they inevitably problematize the relationship with their Greek counterparts. incessantly and regressively. as opposed to endless revenge. or. for instance. In general. and come to represent the most individual hallmark of Seneca’s tragic writing. again. Thyestes or Juno – advertises in no uncertain terms the constructedness and artificiality of the text as well as the fact that a fresh representation of nefas could (should) have been avoided. There is no mythic masterplot to rule what should happen to Turnus. with the epic Aeneid. in the case of Sophocles). on the intermediate stages of writing which divide these belated mythical narratives from their supposed ‘originals’. It is precisely the metadramatic structure and the manipulation of time which colour the existence of these plays.

can fruitfully move towards an evaluation of rhetorical features as they interact with the psychological processes of the reader. See. especially this particular brand of Senecan self-conscious. It will offer the well-read reader the pleasure of recognition. It is not just that poiesis is (literally) staged as a constructive process: it is portrayed as a pollution which inevitably involves author and audience alike. can never be a neutral operation in either its contents or in the dynamics of its perception. ii The analysis of intertextuality. Intertextuality. Whether they were staged or not. The intertextual gesture that impels the tragedy of Thyestes from the shadows of non-existence makes explicit. for instance.224 The Passions in Play If all post-Ovidian literature is programmatically self-conscious to a very high degree. thematized repetition. Seneca’s own narcissism takes the form of a sustained critique of authorial responsibility as it is showcased in the author’s staged counterparts – a group of obsessed. written) is their defining characteristic. hope or terror. or to look at them with relief. But some texts more than others display a high degree of perceptible. to encourage identification with the emotions provoked by the past. makes an issue of the decorum of poetry by calling into question its limits. at a more general level. This intertextual impulse vehiculates the crucial metadramatic theme of the moral responsibility of a certain type of poetry and. Hall (1996). determined criminals. they repeat each other. a chance to share with the author control over the text and its signification. All texts. or it may puzzle and disempower those who perceive it in an unfocused manner. . the ethical problems implicit in the creation and fruition of this play. are necessarily repetitive: they repeat a mythic story. as I showed in chapter one. It will be a way to activate memories of pleasurable events (the very act of remembering can be pleasurable). which they force the reader to acknowledge. or to recreate the painful experience of nefas. anguish. at any rate. Seneca’s tragedies imply a form of communication which is not primarily or exclusively written. hidden. metadramatic intertextuality. especially those involved in the narration of mythical events. spoken) and the invisible (implied. yet the tension they dramatize between the visible (staged.4 It is arguably in this intrinsic tension that we can locate the peculiar force of Seneca’s poetic project (and of those authors 4 It would be interesting to extend the interpretation of intertextuality that I sketch here through an engagement with modern philosophical and psychological theories of memory and its ambivalent nature as either a source of pleasure or as a catalyst for the onset of psychiatric conditions.

Intertextuality becomes an internal. 8ff.5 From this perspective the vast mass of circumscribed intertextual points of contact with previous poets. of clearly defined ethical and aesthetical alternatives.The poetics of passions 225 who are closest to him in this respect). There exists no real choice between giving up Hector’s tomb or Astyanax’s safety.3). This is possible only – in all conceivable senses – after: after Virgil. ambiguous mode of defence for inconceivable monstrosities: it partially displaces responsibility while almost compulsively deepening the original wound. The text provokes both pleasure and pain. imitation of and competition with the past are also essential components of his poetics of the sublime. regina. the seer 5 6 ‘The sorrow you bid me bring to life again is past all words’ (Aen.203). in a solution that is apparently preferable to the repressive force of silence. a source of horror and at the same time a reiterated – if imperfect – apology for its legitimation. pp. Both have already been lost. Gone is the illusion that the world is ordained in a logical sequence of discrete events. we are left to contemplate with surprising satisfaction the pleasure that his revenge. It is precisely with these intimations in mind that I now return to the scene from Oedipus with which I opened this book. Andromache’s desperate monologue in Troades offers a sequence of thoughts that can be extrapolated as a more general epistemic protocol: the categories she carefully defines (living and dead. becomes in Thyestes. See pp. ‘The day will come. Infandum. Or then again: forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. 117ff. when it will give you pleasure to remember even this’ (Aen. and in Senecan tragedy at large. 2. Determined to take revenge for the wrongs he has suffered. and his poetry. in Virgil’s words. poetic inspiration and an obsession with the past. especially Virgil and Ovid. Tiresias. its poetics invite us to rejoice in agnition and to recoil in horror as intertextual memories exhibit their violent. husband and son. iubes renovare dolorem. In the end.6 The urge to transcend the limits of humanity seems to emerge from the same terrifying depths of horror from which his unquenchable thirst for revenge has originated. Atreus offers a compelling image of the mutually reinforcing connection between furor. As the poet Atreus has made abundantly clear. . 1. after almost one hundred years of engagement with the memory of the systemic disruption that was witnessed in the first century. 7 Above. perhaps. confusing potential.7 There Laius’ evocation of the ghosts of the underworld suggested a compelling vision of poetry slowly and painfully emerging from its chthonic dens. he is equally determined to surpass the poetic models he explicitly chooses as points of reference. have been able to afford us. honour and safety) turn out to be so intertwined as to be useless. after Ovid.

What should not be overlooked.9 Tiresias’ own words are implicated in the language of poetics. The parallel is pointed out by Palmieri (1989).8 ) As he prescribes a procedure that in Seneca’s poetry acquires strong metadramatic overtones. who had not hesitated to include among his examples of sublimity a similar image that he found in Homer. had ordered this rite once his own attempts at understanding had failed (390–7): nec alta caeli quae levi pinna secant nec fibra vivis rapta pectoribus potest ciere nomen. populus infernae Stygis huc extrahendus . Cf. pp. at one level. above.61–5. 1. that knowledge will eventually arise. so that.226 The Passions in Play whom Seneca forces to confess his impotence against the plague which ravages Thebes. however. not from the living. released from Erebus. the implacable power of Dis must be implored. The earth must be opened up. 21. Ditis implacabile numen precandum.750. . incidentally. the author of On the Sublime. It is from the dead. and vows to embark on a project of startling novelty. . in metaphoric terms. but strongly reinforces the supposition that the scene as a whole can be read. 5. alia temptanda est via: ipse evocandus noctis aeternae plagis. 20. 8ff. Virgil’s aspiration to fame is couched. which quotes together Il. is the sharp antiphrastic undertone of the allusion.388. . another route must be attempted: the king himself must be evoked from the regions of eternal night. a scene that would have pleased Ps. .6. as the desire to lift himself up 8 9 10 Subl. and for that purpose the earth has to be prised open and forced to yield its secrets.-Longinus. as a reflection on poetics. Tiresias comes close to a number of other first-century characters whose competence in the domain of divination and prophecy was closely intertwined with the nature and effect of poetic creation. Neither the birds which on their light wings cut the depths of heaven. nor entrails grabbed from still living breasts can summon up the name. emissus Erebo ut caedis auctorem indicet. 9. ch.10 The Virgilian allusion not only underlines Seneca’s analogous intention to innovate (in fact the whole scene with Laius is conspicuously absent from his Sophoclean model). (This is. Alia temptanda est via (392) echoes the programmatic passage from the beginning of the third book of the Georgics in which Virgil declares his dissatisfaction with a number of overexploited poetic subjects. he may point out the author of the murder. the people of infernal Styx must be drawn forth here . reseranda tellus. .

the very symbol of nature acta retro. and on his power to metamorphose objects and human beings alike (418–22. 11 12 13 See esp. the Bacchae themselves. that Laius’ tragic catalogue ends.11 Its seemingly digressive intonation heightens the level of dramatic suspense after the rites have been announced. Poetry blurs the thresholds between dead and living and between past and present. See p. He is not only the divine patron of Thebes. as we know. 14 See Paratore (1956) 125. may rise from earth and fly victorious on the lips of men’). Caviglia (1996). canit (567). Davis (1993) 202–7. thus preventing the former from being lost for ever. Tiresias’ project revolves around the diametrically opposed movement. but also a powerful reminder of the tragic confusion of roles and natural norms which Oedipus has brought on his city: he is. too. | populare Bacchi laudibus carmen sonet. See carmen magicum (561). Lines 616–18. Agave. with Bacchic figures. qua me quoque possim | tollere humo victorque virum volitare per ora (‘I must attempt a path whereby I. with the shocking world of Acheron. Pentheus. . rata verba fudi (572). and the audience knows that they are being performed elsewhere in the same time span (401–2: dum nos profundae claustra laxamus Stygis. 9 above. and in so doing transgresses the semiotic and ethical boundary which should guarantee the separation of those worlds and protect the living from pollution. Mastronarde (1970). T¨ochterle (1994) 362–7.13 ) In Tiresias’ negotiation between the living and the dead.8–9): temptanda via est.12 In fact we will hear from Creon that Tiresias pours wine – Bacchus – on the earth as he begins his rites (566–7). 486–8). ‘while we loosen up the gates of Styx in its abyss. an exploration of the depths of Acheron which will be made possible by the ghosts’ ascent. (It is. 3. The choral ode that separates Tiresias’ intimation from its actual fulfilment celebrates in ‘a people’s hymn’ (populare carmen) the achievements of the god Bacchus. let the people’s hymn resound with Bacchus’ praise’).14 The ode focuses at an early stage on the confusion of sexual identity that characterizes the god. Poetry is to be the medium which enables underworld and upper world to communicate. in fact. The ‘new way’ of poetry outlined by Tiresias in his own programmatic statement will have to emerge from a deep involvement with chthonic forces. the carmen is thus coextensive with those arcane procedures. Bacchus appears as a powerful intermediary who embodies both the joyful enthusiasm of inspired love and the dreadful dangers of orgiastic rites. Bacchus is a uniquely appropriate character to be called into the picture at this point. and subjecting the latter to the constant anxiety of unwelcome returns.The poetics of passions 227 from the ground and to be able to fly from mouth to mouth (G. is part of the evocation through carmina that had been mandated by Tiresias.

The form of poetry that emerges from Oedipus’ metadramatic reflection is centred on a pained yet inevitable relationship with the past. Wilde. its ability to dredge up from memory and nefas dark secrets and terrible truths. he is the principle of life as much as of deadly violence. nullam adhuc vocem audii ex bono lenique animosam. but also of all the dark forces that project their grim shadow on powerless mortals. is also the perfect symbol of a poetry which constructs a bridge between the dead and the living. threatening undertones. It is in the context of this ideology of the past that intertextuality should be set and allowed to acquire some of the eerie connotations that must inevitably accompany such an extended interaction with the world of the dead. of blood and milk. All influence is immoral – immoral from the scientific point of view. is the ultimate embodiment of this form of poetics. one which passion. . It is a combination of emotions which brings us back to the same issues that I faced when I began this investigation: what are the function 15 See Mastronarde (1970) 310–11.228 The Passions in Play Bacchus continuously shifts between the dark violence of blood and the resplendent light of his smiling appearance. but it is Thyestes that focuses extensively on the extraordinary power which accrues to the character who has fully understood those principles and knows only too well how to exploit them. the joyful frenzy of the Bacchic orgy and its obscure. It can hardly be meaningless that it falls to Oedipus to outline a poetics of regression. The underworld is not only the repository of all things dead. of light and darkness. De clementia 2. And Atreus. (Seneca. The numerous points of contact between the ode and the following necromancy scene15 reinforce the notion that the invocation to Bacchus is an essential component of those rites and shares to a certain extent their metapoetic implications. a cocktail of pleasurable and painful passions. of masculinity and femininity. Portrait of Dorian Gray) ac nescio quomodo ingenia in immani et invisa materia secundiore ore expresserunt sensus vehementes et concitatos.’ (O. Gray. the Dionysiac poet. Bacchus.3) The choral ode in Oedipus prompts us to confront once again the overwhelming force of poetry. pa s s i o n s a n d h e r m e n e u t i c s : t h e au d i e n c e ‘There is no such thing as a good influence. at once sublime and regressive. the god of life and death. Mr. furor and Bacchic enthusiasm can access and elaborate for the living.2.

Although they insist on the potential educational value of poetry.17 expresses all these concerns very clearly. even so the fettering rules of poetry clarify our meaning. matter and form. poetry can deceive the reader into endorsing morally objectionable ideas. These different forms of influence rely on the assumption that poetry itself can be analysed into two separate entities. listening to poetry produces pleasure in the listener. 47. For a similar evaluation of Cleanthes see Philodemus. and because it arguably captures the audience’s attention better than prose. the audience. sprung from their underworldly roots? What role do these emotions play as we try to assess the ideological balance of each play? Or.10) formulated this thought with particular clarity: ‘Cleanthes used to say. which is very close. justified and contained. which must offer its own less systematic but hardly less compelling answers. first of all. on the other. 108. Nussbaum (1993) 122. to put it in wider terms: can there be a truly coherent Stoic theatre? In search of answers to these questions it is interesting to turn once more to Stoic thinkers in order to clarify. Secondly. and the Stoics must negotiate its existence by taking into account.” ’18 There are two main ways in which poetry can be dangerous. as we learn from a reference in Seneca (Ep. De Lacy (1948) 250. Afterwards. to traditional Stoic thinking. It is a form of expression which is more effective than prose. a passion that has to be accounted for. the necessity to avoid passions altogether and. the potential benefit of the excitement of poetry for the reader. . First of all. by representing passions in the characters. on the one hand. Poetry can be dangerous for the very same reasons as it can be useful.The poetics of passions 229 and effect of poetry? How are we. supposed to confront the emotional reality of Seneca’s plays. it will be poetry. It is an irrational movement of the soul. “As our breath produces a louder sound when it passes through the long and narrow opening of the trumpet and escapes by a hole which widens at the end. it can induce passions in the audience.486). n. too. and. however.1–14 Neubecker = SVF 1. De musica (28. again. Plutarch’s How the Young Man Should Study Poetry (Quomodo adulescens poetas audire debeat). as far as we can ascertain. the theoretical framework of the issues at stake. in the form of metapoetic images culled from the plays themselves.16 the Stoics are also keenly aware of the possible dangers it presents to the audience. or – in Stoic terms – logos and lexis. with caution. a rhythmical pattern of sounds which is 16 17 18 De Lacy (1948) and Tieleman (1992) 219–48. Cleanthes. both because it enables the poet to express himself more concentratedly. uses Plutarch.

in any case.20 and a wellcrafted ‘form’ (lexis) alone can produce pleasure in the hearer. Poetry can also represent immoral ideas and forms of behaviour. if controlled and moderated. and has his opinions perverted (  .21 It is necessary to remember. he will not hesitate to say to himself. poetry can produce sympathetic passions. . . therefore. will need such inducements. the proficientes. as well as of education. For one thing. provided that the content of the poetry is morally acceptable. and. irrespective of the content it expresses. I quote Plutarch again on this point (16d–e): Whenever. However.19 to which Stoic authors often compare it. he who accepts the statement as true is carried off his feet. As an irrational movement of the soul. Much like music. or content. that the ability of poetry to produce pleasure irrespective of its moral contents is a constant danger which educators should carefully guard against. for this reason. 16e): will check himself when he is feeling wroth at Apollo in behalf of the foremost of the Achaeans . but. ‘Hasten eager to the light. such pleasure should normally be avoided. and if. says Plutarch (Mor. which the wise (sapiens) will normally eschew. At the level of logos. in the poems of a man of note and repute some strange and disconcerting () statement either about gods or lesser deities or about virtue is made by the author. he will cease to shed tears over the dead Achilles and over Agamemnon in the nether world . it can be justified because of its educational benefit. . poetry appears to be an equally double-edged form of expression. poetry affects the hearer with harmonious sounds and the appropriately composed relationship between different parts. perchance. it is essential that the audience should restrain itself. 11. The reader. .223–4]. only those still struggling in the way to wisdom. and all you saw here lay to heart that you may tell your wife hereafter’ [Od . he is beginning to be disturbed by their suffering and overcome by the enchantment.230 The Passions in Play peculiar to poetic expression.


33. n. will not suffer any dire effects or even acquire any base beliefs. and comments: 19 21 20 De Lacy (1948) 246 and n. . . 20. whereas he who always remembers and keeps clearly in mind the sorcery of the poetic art in dealing with falsehood . His is not  but . 248. n. A little later (17d) Plutarch quotes two short passages from the Iliad and Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis. De Lacy (1948) 248. 33. ). But the Stoics also posit that even the philosopher can derive pleasure from poetry.

48. . a state of ‘rational elevation’ which derives from a correct judgement.. with n. that is from a correct evaluation of the contents of the poem in question: De Lacy (1948) 250.

too. For this reason such sentiments take a more powerful hold on us and disturb us the more. in case the subject in hand has been properly imitated’. however. for they are inescapable in the case of tragedy. To imitate ‘ “beautifully” means “fittingly and properly” and ugly things are “fitting and proper” for the ugly’ (18d). in the same paragraph. can produce pleasure. . Against these influences. While Plutarch insists on the fact that education and judgement must avoid the audience’s endorsement of wrong ideas represented on stage. such as painters.22 here called    or . is undermined by the observation. but the art. that fear. These two possibilities – that poetry will stir passions. A pleasant mythos (he says at 1. Strabo seems more confident that the text can safely orient the reactions of the audience. then. inasmuch as we become infected by their emotions ( ) and by the weakness from whence they proceed. who depict unnatural acts (   ). . for instance Medea slaying her children.The poetics of passions 231 These are the voices of persons affected by emotion and prepossessed by opinions and delusions. Plutarch gives an interestingly simple answer to the issue (18a–b).2. and that it will liberate wrong ideas – come closest to the core of the issue here at stake. once more let us equip the young from the very outset to keep ever sounding in their ears the maxim that the art of poetry is not greatly concerned with the truth .8) produces in the audience an impulse ( ) towards that particular behaviour. In the case of artists. This clear-cut distinction. ‘it is especially necessary that the young man should be trained by being taught that what we commend is not the action which is the subject of the imitation. while a frightening mythos exercises a deterring effect called  .

But if you add thereto the marvellous ( .  . and it is just this that makes men eager to learn. This confidence. and so is what one did not know before.24 Strabo’s apparent trust in the idea that the intrinsic shape of the text can produce the desired effect of   or   matches the rhetorical writers’ confidence that the reaction of the audience can be safely oriented. presupposes a set of ‘shared values and cultural norms’ which shape the audience’s 22 23 ‘And what is new is pleasing. De Lacy notes that the term   is used in On the Sublime precisely to describe the pleasurable excitement provoked in the audience by great literature. in turn.23 a state ‘closely akin’ to the enthousiasmos of the poet producing such literature.


 ) and the portentous ( .

Now since the portentous ( . you thereby increase the pleasure (). and pleasure acts as a charm to incite to learning . . ). .

. Subl. 1. De Lacy (1948) 270.4. and for grown-up people too. we can employ both kinds of myth [pleasing and fear-inspiring] for children. but fear-inspiring ( ) as well. ) is not only pleasing ().’ 24 Russell (1964) 62.

again in Seneca’s words (2.-Longinus points out. says Seneca (2. or blush.1). and the well-known blare of the War-god’s trumpets. [4] Singing sometimes stirs us. so to speak. ‘Passions’. 26 Webb (1997) passim. It is said that Alexander. The next step is to investigate the dynamics of aesthetic reception: how the audience perceives poetry and is influenced by it. The impact of poetic enthousiasmos and phantasia are altogether less easy to gauge in advance even within a cultural system which does not admit the existence of a free.3–6): This [impulse of the mind] (ictus animi) steals upon us even from the sight of plays upon the stage and from reading of happenings of long ago. . because. and therefore reason cannot prevent their unfolding (quorum quia nihil in nostra potestate est. creative. nulla quominus fiant ratio persuadet). esp. against the proscriptions which Sulla used? . with Antony for killing him! Who is not aroused against the arms which Marius took up.25 As Ps. This ‘impulse’ (ictus). or involuntarily perform any such acts. patitur magis animus quam facit). however.232 The Passions in Play reactions and allow the rhetor to foresee them. . is not a passion. when Xenophantus played the flute. rather than causes them’ (nihil ex his quae animum fortuito inpellunt adfectus vocari debet: ista. Essential to the existence of a passion (adfectus) is the assent (assensio) which the receiver of such an ictus will or will not grant to the ictus. ‘consist not in being moved as a result of impressions of 25 Webb (1997) 123–5 at 125. phantasia operates differently in poetry and in rhetoric. however. I have tried to show that Stoic theories on poetry fail to provide an adequate explanation of how the moral and educational value of poetry can be safeguarded in forms of poetry which represent negative exempla. these reactions are not controllable.1). ut ita dicam. De ira includes episodes related to the effect of poetry and other forms of artistic expression (2. will receive an involuntary ‘impulse’ (ictus) which will make him or her jump.3. wise or not. 123–4. Pedrick-Rabinowitz (1986) 107. ‘none of these things which move the mind through the agency of chance should be called passions. When presented with a frightening appearance (species). As Seneca points out in De ira 2.3. ‘modern’ imagination. Among the various examples of involuntary reactions. How often we seem to grow angry with Clodius for banishing Cicero. since the latter is bound by verisimilitude and must eschew exaggeration. any human being.1.2. . .26 So far.2. our minds are perturbed by a shocking picture and by the melancholy sight of punishment even when it is entirely just . . reached for his weapons. and quickened rhythm. The Stoic theory of passion posits a fundamental distinction between instinctive reactions and rational assent. the mind suffers them.

however. however. the pleasure of hearing certain sounds and forms of expression. verses in which wealth is praised as if it were the only credit and glory of mortal man. but they are all emotions of a mind that would prefer not to be so affected. and it entails interesting consequences for the critical interpretation of Senecan tragedy. but that only when the mind has granted its assent to such an ‘impulse’ will poetry have produced a real ‘passion’ (adfectus).12): ‘Verses of poets also are added to the account – verses which lend fuel to our passions (quae adfectibus nostris facem subdant). . but the beginnings that are preliminary to passions. can be resisted. . more specifically. or. Before. to dramatic poetry.5): Such sensations. fear. animorum moveri nolentium). . The involuntary reactions to poetry or painting. Seneca criticizes poetic endorsements of wealth as a value (115. they are not passions. according 27 The torches are also traditionally associated with the Furies. since it implies not only that the tragic endorsement of negative thoughts can produce an involuntary ‘impulse’. but also that such thoughts constitute intrinsically dangerous temptations. This structure appears to be consistent with Plutarch’s almost exclusive emphasis on the fact that the audience should be educated to resist the ‘impulse’ of poetry. are no more anger than that is sorrow which furrows the brow at the sight of a mimic shipwreck. we know. are not proper adfectus. I would like to elaborate further on the dynamics of passions and on other Senecan passages which shed light on the relationship between poetry and adfectus. indeed a dangerous one since it is associated with the pleasure of poetry. pleasure or hate. but in surrendering oneself to them and following up this fortuitous movement’ (ergo adfectus est non ad oblatas rerum species moveri. for then it is that vice steals subtly upon one through the avenue of pleasure’.The poetics of passions 233 things. but only principia proludentia adfectibus (2. turning to these consequences by way of conclusion. for instance.2. but it is still a temptation.’ The torch is a remarkable metaphor for the ictus. and. If we apply this doctrine to the case of poetry.2. In Letters to Lucilius 115. we can say that the text produces an ‘image’ (species) which provokes an ‘impulse’ (ictus) of. in so far as they are ‘the movement of minds not wishing to be moved’ (motus . no more anger than that is fear which thrills our minds when we read how Hannibal after Cannae beset the walls of Rome.27 As Seneca states in Letter 7. whose connection with poetry I explored above. ‘nothing is so damaging to good character as the habit of lounging (desidere) at the games. The ‘impulse’. sed permittere se illis et hunc fortuitum motum prosequi).

Letter 108 also acknowledges the possibility that adfectus be stirred by poetry (108. the author is responsible for his intentions. the famous letter on circus games. who wishes only for what is sufficient. Even men in whose opinion nothing is enough.’ . Surely. and should be judged accordingly (if we so desire).’ Although some interpreters choose to read in these lines a disguised praise of Nero’s 28 29 Danae. wonder and applaud when they hear such words. keep at them . if they so wish. It is left to the audience’s interpretation. and thus forgo any chance of being morally improved. . tragedy should stage evil actions only if it also shows the retribution they deserve. contrary to his supposed aims. Seneca mistakenly attributes the lines to the Bellerophon. the pleasure essentially linked with the very act of mimetic representation. that a bad example reacts on the agent? Thank the immortal gods that you are teaching cruelty to a person who cannot learn to be cruel.11–12): ‘but our minds are struck (feriuntur) more effectively when a verse like this is repeated: “he needs but little who desires but little” or “He has his wish. In the hermeneutic process that links the author to his text and the text to its audience.” When we hear such words as these. whatever these intentions. to fulfil the educational intentions of the author. do you not understand even this truth. there is a gap which the author’s intention cannot bridge and which effectively renders the question of the educational value of poetry aporetic. . strike home. Again. we are confronted not so much with the fact that Senecan tragedy represents immoral conduct. 324 Nauck2 .28 the audience rushed forward. It is perfectly possible to assume that Seneca’s intention in portraying Medea was to move his audience to a stern criticism of the passions which dominate her. and ultimately lies outside the author’s sphere of influence. we are led towards a confession of the truth. But it is equally possible that. In the following paragraphs of Letter 115. Seneca relates an anecdote about Euripides’ career. But. the real burden of interpretation falls on the audience. At 7. and swear eternal hatred against money. Hearing some lines praising wealth. a reader will end up feeling great sympathy for Medea and her crimes.29 The relationship between passions and poetry that is established in the passages above implies a remarkable shift of responsibilities from the author to the audience. Euripides came to the stage and asked them to wait and see what ‘end’ (exitum) that ‘admirer of gold’ would eventually get (115. in order to preserve its educational value. fr. Another section of Letter 7.5 Seneca exclaims: ‘Come now. When you see them so disposed. but that it conspicuously fails to offer a convincing image of punishment. This episode seems to imply that. pushed away the actors and tried to end the performance. provides an interesting confirmation that this particular brand of the Stoic theory of interpretation is heavily focused on the reactions of the audience.234 The Passions in Play to Plutarch.15).

and to concentrate instead on how seeing and watching function in a specific Senecan context. ede et enarra omnia. The history of later reception seems to have crystallized this figurative quality of Ovidian and post-Ovidian representations into consistent patterns: comparing the two is much like distinguishing between the restrained Virgilian landscapes of Poussin and the colorful reworking of Ovidian themes offered by Titian or Rubens. it is often assumed. is not to deny it a measure of truth. offers the most engaging and poignant of paradigms. with his flamboyant fantasy and his passion for ekphrasis. however. Unlike the crowd. a l l e g o r i e s o f s pe c tato r s h i p gaudet magnus aerumnas dolor tractare totas. referring to watching and being watched as essential components of the actions performed on stage. commonplace. I am inclined to think that the person ‘who cannot learn to be cruel’ is Seneca himself.The poetics of passions 235 clemency. but simply because his principles are already against it. the substitution of voyeuristic detachment for a sense of active purpose that is now regrettably lost. again. Troades 1066–7) Senecan tragedy can often be seen to dramatize the emotional quandaries of spectatorship. I thus choose to discuss a scene from Troades which. but it might well invite a wrong assent from the morally weaker proficiens (let alone the insipiens). And. the point is precisely that he is uninfluenced by the evil example in front of his eyes not because of its intrinsic evilness. I believe. First. I will concentrate for one last time on Thyestes itself. To say that this contrast is. Ovid started it. by now. Yet it pays to set aside for a moment the temptation to outline too neat a history of post-Virgilian literature. the ‘baroque’ (or ‘Mannerist’) penchant for overwrought. If his principles had been different. But. It is easy enough to connect this emphasis with more or less obvious features of ‘Silver Latin’ aesthetics: an obsession with form over content. caught watching the slaughter of the arena despite himself. even less a prima facie appeal. the same ‘text’ could have provoked very different results. in order not to lose sight of the relevance of the topic as far as this particular play is concerned. Seneca is able to resist the ictus that comes from the performance because his moral principles lead him to deny his assent to such a monstrosity. A negative spectacle will probably not affect the sapiens. (Seneca. This applies to the spectators of tragedy as well. regrettably. graphic descriptions. . there are very few sapientes in this world.

is a privileged locus for analysing the mixed emotional responses that are elicited by this spectacle. The words of horror carry an irresistible force: they flow unchecked past the superficial attempt at removal advocated by the messenger in selfprotection. Once his initial opposition is overruled. is. In fact the messenger’s words – haeret in vultu trucis | imago facti (‘the picture of that ghastly deed still lingers before my face’. In his capacity to recreate for our eyes an otherwise irretrievable scene. We should also remember that all those watching are in turn being watched: the Fury had said early on that Tantalus’ ghost would be forced to watch. Seneca retains in this scene the structural pattern that characterizes the whole play: the messenger.30 ) The messenger makes only a lame attempt to stifle the overpowering force of the human sacrifice that he has watched. p. 170. 635–6) – echo an expression previously employed by Atreus himself: ‘already before my eyes flits the whole picture of the slaughter’ (281–2: tota iam ante oculos meos | imago caedis errat). guarantees that Atreus’ deeds are not lost for the chorus and the audience in spite of the messenger’s own wish that the image of that nefas might abandon him: ‘what whirlwind will headlong bear me through the air and in murky cloud enfold me. unseen. as usual. who might otherwise fulfil this function.236 The Passions in Play At the very centre of the dramatic action in Thyestes stands the elaborate relaying of the slaughter scene to a hardly composed chorus by an equally distressed messenger. an unseen spectator. the macabre developments of the plot: ‘let blood mixed with wine be drunk before your eyes’ (65–6: mixtus in Bacchum cruor | spectante te potetur). the messenger is yet another authorial persona in the text and is subject in turn to the disruptive dialectic of the repressed and the repressive that shapes the play 30 On the chorus’s reaction see above. . But his resistance is weak and fleeting: the chorus does not have to prod him much in order to obtain a full and emphatic report on the most minute aspects of the sacrificial rite. (The chorus. the horrendous scene is recalled and described in an impressive display of eloquence. He starts by hoping that the dire image might be erased from his memory (624–5). ut tantum nefas | eripiat oculis?). rather restrained. Atreus’ royal palace. and thereby guarantee that the spectacle Atreus had envisaged has now been carried out in all its enormity. since the messenger’s reaction to the horrific scene exemplifies the reactions that his own rhesis is expected to provoke in the reader. and a few lines later he begs to be dragged away because that image is still painfully stuck in his mind (635–8). that it may snatch this awful horror from my sight?’ (623–5: quis me per auras turbo praecipitem vehet | atraque nube involvet. The detailed description of the site where the slaughter takes place.

Andromache invites him to relate the events in detail (1065–7): . Her tongue could find no speech to match her outraged anger. problematizes the emotional response of the readers and questions their possible identification with the chorus: once again the poetic word appears to be working against the repressive force of rational criticism. even more than the qualified moral detachment of the narrator. her whole soul filled with visions of revenge. Fasque nefasque confusura ruit expresses. Hecuba and Andromache. stand in direct contrast to the moral judgement of Atreus’ deeds that is suggested by the messenger’s and the chorus’s incidental remarks. as we have seen. 6. Here again we have a graphic account of a negative force that the messenger wishes he could resist. The rhetorical elaboration of the speech thus acquires a significance which goes beyond Seneca’s ‘Baroque’ predilection for florid expression.581–6): evolvit vestes saevi matrona tyranni fortunaeque suae carmen miserabile legit et (mirum potuisse) silet: dolor ora repressit. Nowhere in the Senecan corpus is this issue thematized more effectively than in the final scene of Troades. just as Tantalus’ shadow cannot help stirring up the dramatic actions demanded by the Fury. As the messenger appears and announces to both women that they have suffered tremendous losses. she stormed ahead. sed fasque nefasque confusura ruit poenaeque in imagine tota est.The poetics of passions 237 at different levels. and to which he can only succumb: there is no hiding what he has seen. but anguish locked her lips). the notion that such a reading (or vision) will provoke emotional consequences of a morally ambivalent nature. both the pleasure he provokes in the well-read audience and the pleasure to which he yields as he relishes his own description. ready to confuse right and wrong. verbaque quaerenti satis indignantia linguae defuerunt. the pleasure of the messenger’s words. nec flere vacat. We remember that the figurative story sent to Procne by Philomela provokes an explosive response (Met. The self-conscious richness of language in the rhesis becomes the clearest textual signifier of the unopposed literary triumph of Atreus’ deeds. no room here for tears. a collapse of clear-cut distinctions between fas and nefas. The rhesis of Thyestes. but which demands to be represented. the savage monarch’s wife unrolled the cloth and read the tragic tale of her calamity – and said no word (it seemed a miracle. a tense three-way dialogue between the messenger. The Ovidian subtext which powerfully structures Atreus’ thoughts about his revenge is also important here.

238 The Passions in Play expone seriem caedis. illum laurus. The whole throng has assembled abandoning the fleet. and the whole wood quivers with its load of people. atque aliquis (nefas) tumulo ferus spectator Hectoreo sedet. the crowd weeps (1099–1100: non flet e turba omnium | qui fletur). This tower. For some a distant hill offers a free view from open ground. Unlike the boy. hunc pinus. Andromache interjects with a histrionic lament (1104–9). A pine tree supports one man. and unfold the story of the double crime: a great grief delights to consider its sorrows entire: speak out and recount it all. another a beech tree. His language makes it clear that the underlying association is with a theatrical performance. This time. The messenger obliges by describing first the death of Astyanax. idem ille populus aliud ad facinus redit . his alta rupes. a laurel another. his collis procul aciem patenti liberam praebet loco. semusta at ille tecta vel saxum imminens muri cadentis pressit. Recount the order of the slaughter. ede et enarra omnia. once famous and pride of the walls. Another man makes for the edge of a steep hill. is now a cruel outcrop. a tragically real one. nunc saeva cautes. The centre of the ‘stage’ is occupied by the tower from which the Greeks plan to throw the boy. we come to Polyxena’s death. or the projecting masonry of the falling wall. extrema montis ille praerupti petit. Finally. Around the tower stands a crowd of Trojans and Greeks alike (1075–87): haec nota quondam turris et muri decus. upon whose summit the eager crowd poised the tips of its feet. as soon as the messenger relates Astyanax’s brave resolve in jumping voluntarily from the tower. for others a high cliff. and there is even (o abomination!) a barbarous spectator who sits on Hector’s mound. yet another treads on a half-burned dwelling. totum coit ratibus relictis vulgus. hunc fagus gerit et tota populo silva suspenso tremit. the messenger emphasizes even more the theatrical aspects of the scene (1118–28): praeceps ut altis cecidit e muris puer flevitque Achivum turba quod fecit nefas. surrounded on all sides by the spreading crowds of princes and common folk. undique adfusa ducum plebisque turba cingitur. cuius in fastigio erecta summos turba libravit pedes. et duplex nefas persequere: gaudet magnus aerumnas dolor tractare totas.

the same people turned back to another wicked act and the tomb of Achilles.The poetics of passions 239 tumulumque Achillis. Each crowd wept: but the Trojans sent up a hesitant groan. The Rhoetean waters beat on its far side with gentle breakers. rising with an easy slope and enclosing a central space. cuius extremum latus Rhoetea leni verberant fluctu vada. a plain fringes the near side. and their bearing on the interpretation of theatri more. Awe holds both peoples in shock. as the messenger insists on them three times (1128–31. clarius victor gemit. nec Troes minus suum frequentant funus et pavidi metu partem ruentis ultimam Troiae vident. they marvel and they pity her. while the victor groaned more loudly. see Fantham (1982) 377 and Zwierlein (1986) 111–12. 1147–8): magna pars vulgi levis odit scelus spectatque. terror attonitos tenet utrosque populos. When the boy fell headlong from the lofty walls and the Greek crowd had wept for the wickedness it had committed. The numerous throng filled the whole shore: some believe the delay of the fleet will be ended by this death. The minds of all are trembling. omnium mentes tremunt. A great part of the shallow crowd both hates the crime and watches it. The crowd’s reactions are especially singled out.31 concursus frequens implevit omne litus: hi classis moram hac morte solvi rentur. the Trojans as eagerly attend their own burial and panicked with fear look on the last fragment of falling Troy. The final remark on the reaction of the ‘spectators’ once again conjoins the two different groups (1160–1): uterque flevit coetus. hi stirpem hostium gaudent recidi. adversa cingit campus et clivo levi erecta medium vallis includens locum crescit theatri more. mirantur ac miserantur. others are glad that the young shoot of the enemy has been pruned back. 31 On the textual issues raised by these lines. like a theatre. 1136–7. . and a valley grows. at timidum Phryges misere gemitum.

33 since the Trojans’ moderate reactions must doubtless be rooted in their rational determination to offset the effects of the painful scene they are watching with the desire to maintain a dignified appearance in front of their oppressors. By watching watchers watch – an ‘allegory of spectatorship’32 – the audience is naturally invited to acquire a critical distance from the very act of watching. too. The tragedy. They. is not immediate. This is especially true since the messenger carefully distinguishes the reactions of Greeks and Trojans.34 Furthermore. and. and points out that the latter are able to refrain from crying out although they would be expected to be hit harder by the tragic events unfolding before them. Presumably they must also moderate their cries for fear of retribution – tyrants may even order relatives to display ‘joy’ after the execution of their family members: Jal (1963) 286–7. both Trojans and Greeks are watching real events. The analogy between the Greeks and Trojans watching the deaths of Polyxena and Astyanax and the audience watching the play. Andromache reacts with an outburst of pained indignation 32 33 34 A term I borrow from Stam (1992) 29 and passim. One could consider this a form of ‘critical spectatorship’. If the Trojans are able to avoid uncontrolled despair. spectators should infer that they can avoid being completely overwhelmed by emotions mediated by a mimetic representation. The first is the explicit use of the theatrical analogy which the messenger exploits throughout as a structuring device for his narration.240 The Passions in Play There are two intertwined elements of great interest in this scene. . react to the speech. 244. since the messenger relates the events not directly to the external audience (us). however. presents an intermediate level which frames this allegory of spectatorship and complicates its extrapolation. a fortiori. their reactions represent another point of reference and comparison which is offered to the ultimate audience of the play. although their emotional involvement is obviously of a more directly compelling nature. in fact. The second is the insisted focus on the emotional reactions of the people watching the deaths of Polyxena and Astyanax. I anticipate here a reference to Martha Nussbaum’s notion of ‘critical spectatorship’ which I discuss more fully in the next section of this chapter. this should prove that a form of restrained spectatorship is indeed possible. which. but to an internal audience made up chiefly of Hecuba and Andromache. After the first part of the messenger’s exposition (1068–103). The latter issue should perhaps be dealt with first. in the context of that analogy. Thus. invites reflection on the relationship between that form of involved spectatorship and the reactions which the audience would be expected to experience while watching the play. p. not a mimesis of those events.

On the one hand. There are several disturbing implications of this remark which need to be untangled. But the further complication of this model finally turns it on its head. but that no coherent prescription for it can be given. the tragedy foregrounds different modalities of reaction. its own critical burden. Finally. . in turn. 1129). the Trojans – who cannot but detest the events in front of them – are able to superimpose a level of rational consideration onto their reactions. Andromache and the messenger react with violent emotions. Between the events narrated and the audience watching the play there are. her reaction is one of pride. The event is (i) watched by the Greeks. The paratactic arrangement of these verbs cannot obliterate the concessive force of odit: the epigrammatic tension of the expression represents intrinsically contradictory emotions: the ‘authors’ of the scelus abhor it and yet are compelled to watch it. What the scene ultimately provides is the illusion of critical spectatorship. and probably puzzled by. By multiplying the internal points of reference. Hecuba expresses her feelings by voicing her despair and regretting that she has to survive the demise of her family (1165–77). and watch despite hating what they have to see. a form of controlled reaction which is theoretically possible but actually elusive. The differing attitudes of the Greeks and the Trojans prove that emotional reactions are not a direct. the exemplary value of metadramatic alienation. I suspect. whose own reactions are. and thus (apparently) offering substantial stimuli for a critical analysis of the implications of spectatorship. however. A critical juncture in the mirroring of spectatorship occurs in the final scene of Troades. univocal consequence of emotional involvement: hence we lose. whose reactions are (ii) described to Andromache and Hecuba. and in the poignant observation that the text reserves for the behaviour of most Greeks in the ‘shallow mass’ (magna pars vulgi levis). therefore. which is described as ‘hating the crime and watching it’ (odit scelus spectatque. At each of the first two levels. The mise en sc`ene of spectatorship does invite the audience’s critical reflection on its own acts. a number of layers. (iii) displayed on the stage. the play finally leaves the audience alone with. upon hearing of her son’s brave behaviour. the Trojans and the messenger. as she observes the similarity between son and father: sic quoque est similis patri (1117). The audience is left with the tantalizing impression that a form of critical distancing is indeed possible. and thus fosters the possibility of critical viewing. as it shows that no definite pattern of behaviour is really predominant. The Greeks weep uncontrollably. Shortly after.The poetics of passions 241 (1104–10). Hecuba. since it depends too much on individual attitudes and reactions.

Such an implication. hos vagae rerum vices. et fere cuncti magis peritura laudant: hos movet formae decus. 35 36 37 A paradox already discussed by Plato.242 The Passions in Play we notice that the scelus resists control on the part of its creators. ‘in spite’ of her demure and shy behaviour (1138: tamen). movet animus omnes fortis et leto obvius. imminent death (1143–8): stupet omne vulgus. the messenger describes Polyxena’s arrival on the scene of her death. For further references to this motif see Schiesaro (1985) and Seaford (1987). . others ‘hate’ the crime. even as the reference to natural events tries to downplay the disruptive potential of the pleasurable association between imminent death and moving beauty. however.36 This suggestion finds circumstantial corroboration elsewhere in the speech. The latter also show by their reaction that the staged scelus they have planned cannot be controlled to its end. Resp. The scelus keeps the vulgus riveted precisely because it is cruel and hateful. 439e–440a. moreover. Pyrrhum antecedit. that the concessive force of odit is far from determined by the syntax of the phrase. Moreover. exploiting the pathetic quality of the wedding-asfuneral motif. it is clear from the messenger’s observations that the scelus commands attention in spite of its loathsome nature. the messenger confesses. is clearly brought out after the simile. the modern reader. a detail which would clearly befit a bride. hi stirpem hostium | gaudent recidi). mirantur ac miserantur.35 It should be noticed. and which in this context focalizes her as an object of sexual desire in the eyes of the male narrator and the predominantly (we assume) male crowd. hos mollis aetas. might well be inclined to suspect in such a vague syntactical arrangement traces of a causal connection between odit and spectat. Shortly after line 1129. since it elicits widely differing reactions from different groups of people: some of the Greeks rejoice at the Trojans’ demise (1126–8: hi classis moram | hac morte solvi rentur.37 The extended simile at 1140–2 foregrounds the ‘perverse’ reaction of the crowd to Polyxena’s beauty. and in fact turns against them emotionally. The three-line portrait of Polyxena is fraught with erotic overtones. as the messenger confirms that Polyxena’s beauty stirs strong emotions in the beholders and – for the second time – reinforces the association between aesthetic pleasure and the awareness of a cruel. Her beauty is especially resplendent. omnium mentes tremunt. See Boyle (1994) 229 on the theatrical force of spectare. The suggestion is made explicit at line 1132: thalami more praecedunt faces. alerted by Freud’s well-known dictum.

The generalizing remark at 1143–4 (et fere cuncti magis | peritura laudant) has been suspected as an interpolation. a drunken. While the reading I offer is always open to the objection that. who relishes all the details of Thyestes’ distress: miserum videre nolo. and unable to resist the ictus they receive. Atreus could actually be set up to provide a negative model of spectatorship (he is pleasurably affected by tragic events). sed dum fit miser (907). It is not difficult to see how this involvement plays an important role in Thyestes as well. if not impossible. is the example of an internal audience deeply affected by the events in front of them. others her delicate youth. the allegories of spectatorship that I have examined appear to confirm that it is indeed difficult. Fantham (1982) 380 deletes 1143b–1144a but not 1147. others the straying course of fate: but her brave spirit moves all as it goes to confront death. however. In both cases. . if not annulled. The analysis of the final scene of Troades is consistent with my previous reading of Stoic theoretical statements on the emotional impact of performance. and the minds of all are trembling. Further see Boyle (1994) 231 for a discussion of the role of spectacle in tragedy according to Aristotle. they marvel and they pity her.38 but it actually reinforces the poignant tone of the simile. effectively to insulate viewers from the pathos that they experience. and prevented from affecting the audience’s internal balance. as the audience. Critical distance is severely jeopardized. what we. and suitably glosses the contrasting emotions that are experienced by the vulgus watching Polyxena’s death. Boyle (1994) rightly retains both. in the final analysis. There Atreus himself is the delighted spectator of his own creation. 38 Lines 1143b–1144a as well as 1147 are deleted by Zwierlein (1976) 190 and 188 respectively. by the voyeuristic involvement of the audience in the spectacle that they are watching. and generally all men praise more what is about to die: some the grace of her beauty moves. this strategy would be less easy to uphold with respect to the Trojan audience. as interpolated comments. the challenge of epos If Stoic theories fail to offer a coherent and fully convincing account of how the emotional impact of the tragedies could be contained.The poetics of passions 243 The whole crowd is dazed. Stoic theories emphasize the critical burden of the spectators. who are asked to evaluate the moral implication of the text without a firm and unequivocal internal point of reference. with reference to these lines. he exclaims. She goes before Pyrrhus. are offered. as the curtain rises on the crowning glory of his masterpiece. which is legitimately upset by the horrors it observes. ignorant Thyestes acting out a grotesque combination of inner pain and outward intoxication.

Pratt (1948) argues. Tragedies would thus be. Martha Nussbaum has eloquently argued that the Stoics intend to promote a ‘critical spectatorship’. is. Zeno.244 The Passions in Play My reading of the Stoic sources. actively judging rather than immersed. on the contrary. and their implications for an understanding of Senecan drama. on the other. about the expectation that Seneca’s tragedies can be seen to bear out such a hypothesis.40 I sympathize with Nussbaum’s assertion that we should look at the spectator as the locus for a resolution of these tensions. is that this solution would actually work in his tragedies. like music. Diogenes of Babylon).39 The ‘critical spectator’ will observe the tragedy with ‘a concerned but critical detachment’ and will analyse every aspect of the play with a reasoned coolness: ‘the Stoics hope to construct a spectator who is vigilant rather than impressionable. the ‘non-cognitive’ and the ‘cognitive’. harmony and melody.41 But is the spectator’s identification with such powerful characters as Medea or Atreus really discouraged. and that such a form of spectatorship may escape the seemingly unsolvable contrast outlined by Stoic sources between the potential benefits and dangers of poetry. represented respectively by Posidonius (and. Nussbaum distinguishes between two different Stoic views. on the one hand. especially when their apparent lack of reason (of ‘ordinary’ reason) is set against the commonplace superficiality or moralizing dullness of the characters who surround them. primarily the chorus? And especially when the central negative character of the play is invested with the responsibility and prestige of creating his or her own play: can we really loathe Atreus if we enjoy Thyestes? This is not to say that the notion of ‘critical spectatorship’ could not be precisely the answer that Seneca himself would have given if asked how he would justify his poetic project on a theoretical level. the insistence of many plays on passions and their inner workings does highlight one of the elements that are crucial to the formation of a critical. The authors of the ‘cognitive’ line insist that emotions are evaluative judgements. For instance. Seneca and Epictetus. however. or that we could consider the chorus’s moralizing orthodoxy as ‘a guide for the spectator’s response’. to a large extent. What he could not have guaranteed. that the philosophical infrastructure of his plays effectively avoids the possibility of a 39 40 Nussbaum (1993). critical rather than trustful’. however. The ‘noncognitive’ position argues that emotions are non-rational movements which poetry can order by equally non-rational forces such as rhythm. and that poetry has an educational function in as far as it tries to modify those judgements. But I am not sure that the repellent nature of many central characters discourages the audience’s emotional identification. means to affect the irrational (!") and emotional (. I am less optimistic. and Chrysippus. True. however. detached spectator. that Seneca’s tragedies reject Chrysippus’ theory of passions while embracing Posidonius’ notion that irrational emotions have no cognitive value. only one possible reading. who is reminded of the existence of such mental processes.

41 Nussbaum (1993) 148.  ) part of the soul ‘through the irrational’ ( # $ "). . Nussbaum (1993) 137.

each used separately in the different parts of the play: it represents men in action and does not use narrative. The opposition that Aristotle draws here between drama and narration (. first because it enables us to explore further the issue of the audience’s reaction. and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.The poetics of passions 245 ‘misinterpretation’ which would transform his supposedly didactic project into a dangerous source of passion and turmoil. The notion of ‘critical spectatorship’ is rooted in Brecht’s theories on drama. and secondly because it may be helpful in explaining the generic interaction between drama and epic which we have already had an opportunity to confront. then. The idea that tragedies should inspire strong emotional reactions finds its most influential expression in Aristotle’s canonic definition of the genre (Poetics 1449b24–8): tragedy is. To bring Brecht42 into the picture is doubly interesting. a representation of an action that is heroic and complete and of a certain magnitude – by means of language enriched with all kinds of ornament.


Aristotle notices that the tragedy’s reliance on music (something which epic does not have) increases the pleasurable effects of tragic poetry by making them more evident (&.) is predominantly concerned with the tragedy’s different impact on the audience and is echoed in the sections of the Poetics which discuss the relative features and merits of tragedy and epic.43 Thus. towards the end of the surviving part of the essay.

47 Letter of 26 December. For a cogent argument on the limitations of Brecht’s view of Greek theatre see Lada (1996). appear to move. Drama relies on a swift. its plotting of actions. tightly connected succession of events. .45 Drama affects the audience more deeply than epic does. and ‘greater concentration is more pleasurable than dilution over a long period: suppose someone were to arrange Sophocles’ Oedipus in as many hexameters as the Iliad ’. who is mainly concerned with ancient sources. as it were. since its strategies of communication.46 ‘dramatic action moves in front of me’.44 tragedy is more compact and concentrated than epic.").’47 Schiller emphasizes especially the different effects on the readers: 42 43 46 There is only a cursory reference to Brecht in Nussbaum. Poetics 1449b. and it does not. on a forward-looking momentum which inevitably builds up suspense and preludes to climax. As Friedrich Schiller remarked several centuries later in his insightful commentary on Aristotle’s fundamental opposition. 45 Poetics 1462b. and its forms of expression hold readers and spectators more deeply enthralled in the mimesis in front of them. In an epistolary exchange with Goethe in December 1797. while ‘I move around epic action. 1461bff. 44 Poetics 1462a.

according to my subjective need.e. Not only did the background adopt an attitude to the events on the stage – by big screens recalling other simultaneous events elsewhere. had so far been predicated. His central point of dissatisfaction with ‘bourgeois theatre’ is that it encourages the audience’s emotional identification with the characters and actions on the stage. I must always remain by the object.246 The Passions in Play When the event moves in front of me [i. my phantasy loses all freedom. the director’s staging of it. a constant restlessness rises in me and stays in me. . I can. and thus prevents them from reflecting critically on the circumstances which govern their lives. all reflection is forbidden. Comparing his notion of ‘epic theatre’ with Seneca’s experimentalism. because I am following an external force. the actors’ acting and. Brecht’s theoretical reflections and his dramaturgic activity are affected by his thorough re-evaluation of the basic premises on which theatre. Erwin Piscator and especially Bertolt Brecht. on the power structures which silently articulate their fate.’48 Schiller’s masterful amplification of the contrast drawn by Aristotle already brings us back to some of the central interpretative concerns about Senecan drama which I have highlighted above. the audience’s reactions. A direct link connects Schiller’s words with what arguably remains the most incisive attempt at a redefinition of theatrical communication in the twentieth century. . along with the fourth wall. Brecht’s theoretical reflection proves invaluable for widening our notion of theatre beyond the norms that are powerfully encoded in Aristotle. a fullyfledged theory of ‘epic theatre’ has evolved. I can move backward or forward . Yet it is necessary to move one step ahead and interrogate another theoretical application of Aristotle’s opposition before I return to our author. and alienation should govern both the author’s construction of the play. With epic theatre: [t]he stage began to tell a story. in the case of dramatic action]. Not so with epic. Alienation (‘the A-factor’) is the only effective means of acquiring knowledge. I am firmly shackled to the present as I apprehend it through my senses. which allows ample freedom for readers to set their own pace: ‘I can proceed at uneven steps. . even modernist theatre. by 48 Ibidem. Around the names of Peter Szondi. linger for a longer or shorter time. one which brings the contrast between epic and drama to its most radical consequences and suggests that drama should utterly renew itself by abandoning the essential characteristics which set it apart from epic. The narrator was no longer missing. anachronistic as it obviously is. I maintain a quiet freedom. can have a heuristic value. finally and consequently. all looking back. Beginning in the 1920s.

is not made of ‘absolute antitheses but of mere shifts of accents’. and do so by exploiting a form of critical spectatorship derived from alienation.’49 ‘It is thanks to these strategic choices that “the spectator was no longer in any way allowed to submit to an experience uncritically (and without practical consequences) by means of simple empathy with the characters in a play” ’. Brecht (1936) 70. by figures and sentences to support mimed transactions whose sense was unclear – but the actors too refrained from going over wholly into their role. 50 53 Brecht (1936) 71. I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change – The sufferings of this man appal me. . When something seems “the most obvious thing in the world” it means that any attempt to understand the world has been given up. hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appal me.53 There are numerous elements of great interest in Brecht’s and Schiller’s analysis of the spectators’ reaction to these two different forms of theatrical communication. it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep.1. where it would buttress the assumption that the plays are meant to furnish elements of moral and philosophical instruction. The production ‘took the subject-matter and the incidents shown and put them through a process of alienation: the alienation that is necessary to all understanding. calls ‘epic theatre’ – effectively becomes a form of instruction. The opposition. I laugh when they laugh. because they are unnecessary – That’s great art: nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep. are described by Brecht in terms which echo Schiller’s intimations: The dramatic theatre’s spectator says: Yes. I will first explore further the contribution that Schiller’s and Brecht’s insights make 49 52 Brecht (1936) 71. because they are inescapable – That’s great art. I weep when they laugh.51 It is mostly a matter of ‘different methods of construction’ which depend ‘on the different way of presenting the work to the public’. The contrast between ‘dramatic theatre’ and ‘epic theatre’ thus becomes central to his theoretical approach. remaining detached from the character they were playing and clearly inviting criticism of him. 51 Brecht (1930) 37. drawing on Aristotle’s opposition.50 This form of theatre – which Brecht. The epic theatre’s spectator says: I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary. n. Indeed. However. he cautions. it would be possible to adopt their description of the effects of epic theatre on the public and apply it to Senecan tragedy. forcing the audience to acquire critical distance and to react rationally to the staged scene. by concrete and intelligible figures to accompany abstract conversations.52 The audience’s reactions to the epic.The poetics of passions 247 projecting documents which confirmed or contradicted what the characters said. Brecht (1936) 71. as opposed to the dramatic theatre.

The epic writer D¨oblin provided an excellent criterion when he said that with an epic work. as ‘evolutionary determinism’ is replaced by ‘jumps’. In dramatic theatre. Walter Benjamin provided an apt analogy for this structural model when he intimated that the peripeteia (and. In epic theatre. They can pause to describe and refrain for a while from portraying actions. Brecht says. Quoted by Stam (1992) 41. but which relies heavily on delay rather than suspense. Seneca. . They can move sideways to a different plot or subplot without destroying the texture of their creation. are hallmarks of the ‘dramatic’. A particular passion of utterance. one can as it were take a pair of scissors and cut it into individual pieces. on carefully orchestrated movements backwards and forwards in the temporal frame of the narration. it is often claimed. Drama creates tension by its strict adherence to unity of action. on structural parataxis.248 The Passions in Play to an understanding of ‘the different methods of construction’ presiding over epic and dramatic theatre. as opposed to a dramatic. As Brecht rightly emphasizes. and vice versa: The bourgeois novel in the last century developed much that was ‘dramatic’. What Brecht calls the ‘linear development’ of drama as opposed to the epic’s development ‘in curves’55 is responsible for the drama’s premium on emotional solutions which are precipitated by an unstoppable crescendo of tension. since they can alter the linear arrangement of the plot almost at leisure. ‘each scene [is] for itself ’. by which was meant the strong centralization of the story.56 Epic relishes a plot which might ultimately be teleological. The narrators who control the epic narrative are free from many of the constraints imposed on the dramatic writer. on changes of viewpoints. but also by organizing each scene in a continuum which creates an ever-increasing tension.57 I have insisted especially on the different notions of internal time and scene-succession which characterize epic and drama because they recall important (if problematic) aspects of Senecan theatre. Brecht (1936) 70. a certain emphasis on the clash of forces. we might add. anagnorisis with it) is the crest of the wave which breaks and sweeps the audience with it and rolls forward to the end. 57 Brecht (1930) 37. ‘one scene makes another’. ‘dramatic elements’ can be found in epic works. which remain fully capable of life. a momentum that drew the separate parts into a common relationship.54 Brecht is looking at a central feature which distinguishes epic from drama from the point of view of plotting and pacing. constructs his plays as a sequence of relatively unconnected scenes which are not organically linked: such a lack of what Brecht would call 54 56 55 Brecht (1930) 37.

The poetics of passions 249 ‘growth’ (as opposed to epic ‘montage’) is strongly reinforced by the chorus’s suspended. and he replaces it with a complex intertwining of different temporal levels. expropriate the issue of much of its interpretative potential. demonstrated that the interplay of frames and contents. which do nothing to ease the transition among different moments of the plot. we also noticed. what Ovid ultimately accomplishes is a violent disruption of the notion of closure. And. narrators and tales. Virgil had shown. I would first like to explore a middle ground which privileges literary history before turning to the epistemological and cognitive implications of Seneca’s strategy. What are we supposed to do with the substantial presence of epic elements in Senecan tragedy? One solution could be to extend Brecht’s observations about the fact that dramatic and epic elements inevitably coexist in various artistic forms. that by the time Seneca wrote his plays epic had become an extremely flexible and far from unambiguous medium in Latin literature. The internal articulation of time. The Metamorphoses are structured on the combined claims to truth and reliability of different narrators. first of all. is but a part of a larger whole whose borders are nowhere to be grasped in the play as we see it: all the play ultimately guarantees is that we can glimpse snippets of an extended sequel of actions without being able to know exactly how they may evolve. Ovid. In Thyestes. of course. the centrality of Atreus’ killing and his subsequent revelation to his brother are further problematized by the framing structure. dream-like interventions. for instance. and thus. too. we could fully embrace. which makes it clear that the central plot. all the corollaries which Brecht suggests concerning the effects of epic theatre on the audience. Again. so traditionally hinging on such climactic moments. As we have seen in Thyestes and in Troades. in effect. too. on the other hand. for his part. unidirectional flow of time which is essential to traditional drama. for instance. We would do well to recognize. were essential elements in the work’s fractured and polyphonic signification. as I mentioned. remain open for hundreds of lines. is remarkable. Or. who had shown that within an epic frame dramatic and dialogic scenes could be combined with sustained narratives and the constant presence of one (or indeed more than one) narrator. that extensive contacts with tragedy were essential to his poem. and he appropriated – both specifically and generically – a great deal of the Greek and Roman tragic tradition. . The ‘epic’ thread in a text which is still predominantly dramatic is much less surprising after Virgil and Ovid. whose narratives are often nested one inside the other in a confusing array of layers: some narrative frames. Seneca tampers with the linear.

and project onto each other a relativizing. without offering. Long rheseis and extended similes violate the relative stylistic homogeneity of the tragedy. There is a noticeable analogy between this technique and Seneca’s predilection for rather detached acts within a play. Such a continuum is exactly what works such as Metamorphoses or Thyestes radically question. ‘critical’ picture. as we have seen. its narrative norms are no longer based on clearly articulated structural patterns. 58 On episodic narratives in imperial literature see Williams (1978) 246–53 and Johnson (1987) passim. narrators and time – can lead not to the critical distancing and empowerment of the readers. an internal logic which makes more space for patterns of thought akin to the working of the unconscious. provides critical distance and ultimately affords them a privileged point of view which they might understandably mistake for that of the narrator. but rather to a form of confusion which effectively denies the privilege of insulation. dazzled by the web of frames within frames and narrations within narrations. 211. any less troubled or disconnected impression of reality. can only forget the larger. by adopting. at a basic level.250 The Passions in Play The bewilderment which is part and parcel of the effect of the Metamorphoses ultimately deprives epic of some of its supposedly ‘critical’ function vis-`a-vis drama. For the unconscious rejection of temporality and causality see above. A certain level of framing helps readers understand their position in the flow of narratives. p. troubling shadow. identifying with a character while forgetting what is implied or suggested by part or all of the metadramatic framing. The ‘safety’ of an external epic that is relatively unscathed by the pervasive violence of passions is questioned when tragedy and epic intersect not just once. ‘Epos’ no longer guarantees the interpretative effects that would be consistent with a distinctly didactic view of Senecan drama. but twice.58 When Seneca conspicuously introduces epic elements into his drama he accomplishes more than a mechanic Kreuzung der Gattungen. and both authors have often been censored for what critics have seen as their inability to create a coherent continuum between scenes. on an ideological level. since. The Metamorphoses show how an energetic exploitation of epic’s structural freedom – its possibility to shift narrative. But Ovid multiplies this effect to the point that readers. rendering them victims of an emotional identification which epic could theoretically discourage. but less than a total revolution. and are as likely as the audience of a play to focus on the tale in hand. Stories such as those of Tereus and Polyxena hark back to epic. . where in turn they had been imported from tragedy.

the constructedness of the tragic experience and encourages speculation on the specific literary features of the tragedy. is the main vehicle of metadramatic reflection in the play. before the spectator’s eyes. . we have seen. as it enacts. Rather. Responsibility is emphatically foregrounded.The poetics of passions 251 In the context of Senecan drama. and an involuntary acquiescence on the part of the audience made more and more difficult. Framing. even the Brechtian notion of epic theatre as a guarantor of critical distance can hardly ensure the ethical and didactic viability of the plays. therefore. the comparison between Brecht and Seneca illustrates how Seneca ‘contaminates’ epic with tragedy far more than he ‘disinfects’ drama with it.

As I said earlier. the battle between two sides. 252 . Predictably. This fact alone introduces into the play a degree of openness and ambiguity that no amount of authorial intention can hope to dispel for good. readers are left alone with their hermeneutic burden. A full recognition of the doubleedged powers of poetry. represented with accuracy and artistic as well as psychological credibility. They might have thoughtful teachers to guide them in the process. which is the critical juncture in the development or forestalling of a passion. For instance. But for all the reasons explored above. would have perhaps recommended a different course of action. Tragedy involves conflict. . but the author of the text. . Letters to Lucilius 29) The analysis of Stoic perception and evaluation of literary phenomena offers an interesting way out of the dilemma of reading the tragedies as either enactments or extended refutations of Stoic dogmata. the situation is more muddled than this. it could have supported an attempt at poetry along the lines of Cleanthes’ Hymn to Zeus. whose respective stances must be represented with equal accuracy and conviction if the play is to be effective. much as Plutarch recommends. where the pleasurable impact of the medium is put to the service of an impeachable moral lesson. . Bad behaviour will take centre stage. nisi audituro dicendum est (Seneca. is inevitably out of the picture. The very explanation of how passions work and are perceived which Seneca offers in accordance with Stoic principles makes the effect of a literary utterance less safely ascertainable than one would like to expect. with his responsibilities and intentions. . his choice of the tragic form is inevitably perilous and ambivalent. At the level of assensio.Epilogue Verum . nulli . a recognition which could derive directly from the theoretical principles of Stoic poetics. I find wholly unpersuasive the proposition that Seneca must secretly have meant his tragedy to be a systematic refutation of the philosophical positions that are advocated in his prose.

This examination will be all the more difficult. but they cannot go further than that. This position is perfectly in line with what our Stoic sources have to offer on the subject of poetics.Epilogue 253 But to resort to the psychagogic qualities of poetry in order to represent negative passions. must do: they present a forceful ‘display’ (phantasia) of contrasting forces and passions and ask the audience. and all the more rewarding. Seneca’s tragedies do precisely what most tragedies. is to take a step too far on the path to collusion with the enemy. the more the poet will have been able to make a compelling case for the very forces that constitute tragedy. to examine their feelings and assumptions. the fearful myths presented by tragedy can produce ‘steering away’ ( . when they try to explain how. As I have tried to show. or at least good tragedies. exactly. to create powerful phantasiai of winning evil. brought to ‘ecstasy’ ( ).

) rather than ‘incitement’ ( .


at least an audience of proficientes. I hope they might allow an appreciation of this and other plays that is less focused on the philosophical ‘truth’ they supposedly encode. As Seneca admits in one of his Letters to Lucilius (29. What we ultimately face is the impossibility of Stoic tragedy. For sapientes will have no interest in it. or by depriving characters such as the satelles and the chorus in Thyestes of much of the poetic credibility and ethical consistency which might mould them into powerful counter-examples. will only be able to resist the wicked allure of the various forms of tragic passion on the strength of previously held moral convictions. The audience. . on the dubious assumption that a final message can indeed be ascertained. such as many written by Seneca.1). they do not offer anything more than a suspiciously circular argument. by presenting figures such as Medea and Atreus as deeply connected with the fascinating tension of poetic creation. I am not advocating a free-floating indeterminacy as much as I am trying to place tragedy’s complex signifying strategies squarely at the centre of the reader’s and the critic’s attention. Only in this very restricted sense does tragedy preserve an educational function. This is true in a particularly poignant way in the case of tragedies. for instance. . But the risks implicit in writing tragedy are considerable. . in the case of Seneca. which can thus be tested and perhaps strengthened. all the more so. nisi audituro dicendum est). and proficientes are as likely to be deceived by it as they are to draw useful precepts. the only function which Stoicism is ready to grant it. that is. less predicated. . nulli . which do all they can to blur the possibility of a clear-cut ethical reading. ‘for one must not speak the truth to a man unless he is willing to listen’ (verum . Where do these theoretical considerations leave the present reading of Thyestes? Above all. . ). as I just emphasized.

a Fury that has appeared and disappeared to motivate the action and can return. too good not to be true. the integrity of the genos that has been obscenely perverted by Thyestes. Atreus is. but he goes further. survive the force of the tragedy intact. The issue. just as they cannot be taken as reliable guides in deciding a priori what can actually be said or not be said in poetry. who is right and who is wrong.254 The Passions in Play There is no code to be broken: rather. since no certainties. since he explicitly connects them to the appeal of poetry. Thematically and ideologically. There is no way in which we can escape the moral dilemma that Seneca imposes on us when he celebrates Atreus’ deeds. we are left to ‘storm ahead confusing right and wrong’. The alternae vices of the House of the Pelopidai admit no other solution. blood. has its appeal. is momentary and elusive. since he relentlessly undermines the superficial moral judgement expressed by the chorus: Atreus does have his reasons. in a round-table debate over ‘Poetry and Emotions’ with his fellow Stoics. the murders he commits could be seen as an archaic. and what will or will not be poetically successful. there are emotions to be experienced and negotiated. Everything in Thyestes points to future evil. Once these elements of doubt are allowed to creep into the otherwise neat system of Stoic morality. whether moral or poetic. non-human force. but ‘to be continued’. simply. its dazzling aesthetic quality. deceit and darkness. once we start doubting what is fas and what is nefas. even Atreus’ undoubted triumph. revenge. The intersecting layers of dramatic action that structure the play offer an illusion of order and enclosure just as they remain ultimately at the mercy of an exterior. Like Procne. its right to be foregrounded. might not even constitute reliable moral definitions in themselves. the moral certainties which Seneca seems to offer in much of his work begin to crack (perhaps they were a generous illusion all along). or at least hints at. The fact is. But it shows. rational intimations to be assessed. the play is a celebration of nefas: it reaffirms its poetic excitement. and Thyestes shows it splendidly. would have defended him or not. as she indeed will. there is no way back. The curtain comes down to announce not ‘the end’. at any moment. more: that perhaps fas and nefas. in . His overwhelming physical domination of the play in every conceivable aspect triggers the audience’s emotional response to a degree which is unparalleled by any other character. the one of passions. that the other world. its horror is inextricably fused with voluptas. more painful story. again. is not whether Seneca. by horrendous retaliation. its pleasure and beauty (moral or otherwise) forever disjointed. hatred. What we have watched is but a fragment. fascinating ritual in which he tries to restore. The sparagmos is now complete. a segment of a longer. In this respect everything.

Or again. considerate tyranny. a (pagan) god who has scared away the pious gods of traditional religion. and the dully moralizing chorus. and it is a pleasure that Thyestes and Atreus want us to share with them. he would have defended Thyestes on the basis that. the satelles.Epilogue 255 all likelihood he would have argued that yes. as he defensively puts it in De vita beata. There is too much pleasure in Atreus for the author or the audience to be unaffected by it. the ‘moral’ lesson of the play is to be found in the chorus’s well-meaning purple passages about power’s selfrestraint. He is. or in the satelles’ sheepish advocation of a moderate. after all. what you really need to do is to try to be wise (repent and you will be saved). in his own words. the guarantors of a world order whom Thyestes ineffectually invokes even as their power has been shattered by Atreus’ determined cruelty. emotionally and artistically. He relishes passions and he relishes pain. Po`etes maudits are (at least in their theoretical dimension) a very recent discovery. And. Atreus is fulfilled. not to mention intellectually. without purporting to explore his own personal ambivalences about the kind of writing he offers. I suspect that he would have been the first to admit (perhaps sotto voce) that he had intentionally stacked the cards against Thyestes. But Seneca could no better control the implications and emotional provocations of his play than any ‘modern’ author can. There is pleasure to be found in passions. and there is no point in asking Seneca to provide a satisfactory prototype. . his enemies’ pain.

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28.64: 22 4.Index of passages cited ACCIUS (Ribbeck2 ) 198–201: 132 199–202: 142 205: 101 206–8: 102 220–2: 85 226: 196 634–5: 81 AESCHYLUS Agamemnon 944–5: 151 1096–7: 85 1192–3: 141 1587–8: 142 1598–1601: 136 1662–73: 67 Prometheus 1–87: 30 Seven at Thebes 87–170: 166 Supplices 225: 101 ARISTOTLE Poetics 1449b: 245 1449b 24–8: 245 1449b 26: 188 1461b: 245 1462a: 245 1462b: 245 CALPURNIUS Eclogue 3.68–9: 99 De officiis 1.59–60: 132 CATULLUS 61.36: 116 Tusculanae 1.5: 44 15. 128 AUCTOR AD HERENNIUM 23.97: 161 De optimo genere oratorum 1: 136 De oratore 2.41: 131 DIODORUS 1.1: 44 BRECHT ‘The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre’: 247–8 ‘Theatre for Pleasure or Theatre for Instruction’: 246–7 ENNIUS Fragmenta scenica 73 Ribbeck2 : 200 Annales 332–4 Skutsch: 100 269 .194: 22 3.38: 132 CLEANTHES Hymn to Zeus SVF 1.214: 200 85: 51 CICERO De natura deorum 3.65: 118 Paradoxa stoicorum 25: 39 Philippicae 1.219: 132 De republica 1.

1.401–3: 200 22.18.388: 226 22.270 EURIPIDES Antiopa 177–227 Nauck2 : 9 Bacchae 1: 56 196: 134 231: 135 269: 134 326: 134 332: 134 436: 135 451: 135 479–80: 134 491: 134 508: 134 586–92: 138 655–9: 134 656: 134 731–3: 135 842: 138 845–6: 151 848: 135 861: 138 977: 135 989–91: 135 1019: 135 1021: 135 1113: 135 1120–1: 135 1189–91: 135 1281–2: 134 1345: 135 Danae 324 Nauck2 : 234 Electra 699–728: 141 Hecuba 1: 56 52–4: 49 Hercules furens 822–74: 30 843–54: 30 857: 30 858–73: 31 865–6: 31 872–3: 31 897: 31 Hippolytus 51–3: 48 58–71: 201 877: 221 Ion 5: 56 78–80: 48 Kressai 466–9 Nauck2 : 141 Index of passages cited Medea 355–6: 212 376: 17 376–80: 17 807–8: 17 1384: 210 Phoenissae 509–10: 130 553: 53.16.335–9 = 17.126–7: 1 3.1–4: 116 3.61–5: 226 21.188–93: 100 22.402: 124 Odyssey 4.396–404: 200 22.292–300: 124 17.429–30: 197 12.61–7: 124 17.260–5: 9 14.3–6: 59.223–4: 230 11.192: 115 HOMERIC HYMN TO DIONYSUS 7.35–6: 59.540–2: 124 20.126–30: 124 11.1.44: 123 HORACE Ars poetica 6–9a: 120 9b–13: 120 189–90: 65 445: 132 Carmina 1. 116 1.15: 124 1.23–6: 124 5.1.7–11: 76 2.2–3: 9 . 116 1.750: 226 6. 130 554: 130 Troades 1: 56 1133: 200 1178–81: 199 HESIOD Catalogus mulierum 182 Merkelbach–West: 9 Theogonia 27–8: 24 HOMER Iliad 3.20.

548: 74 6.3: 128 1.47–8: 39 3.556: 41 10.649–50: 73 2.519–26: 73–4 6.582: 75 6.537–8: 80 6.641: 30 4.462: 136 NAEVIUS 57 Ribbeck2 : 123 OVID Amores 1.471–2: 27 6.76–7: 151 4.404–8: 100 5.2: 129 14.7.212: 81 Ibis 187: 28 Medea 2 Ribbeck2 : 51 Metamorphoses 1.2.2: 115 8.581–6: 75.57.878–924: 120 MANILIUS Astronomica 79 6.17–18: 51 Epistles 2.5–6: 29 Heroides 12.67: 131 2. 128.1.4: 132 LUCAN Bellum Civile 1.3: 129 10.556: 74 6.204–12: 124 7. 237 6.3: 121 LIVY Ab Urbe condita libri 21.574: 74 6. 231 7.565: 73 6.484–5: 9 5.4: 128 9.617–18: 77 Fasti 1.2: 98 76 271 .7.424: 71 6.611–32: 77 3.2: 128 9.14: 51 3.552–6: 41 7.19.576–9: 74–5 6.79: 98 1.184–7: 218 LUCRETIUS 1.51: 40 Ars amatoria 3.102–3: 194 1.44: 40 3.10: 51 HYGINUS Fabulae 87: 97 88: 97 ISIDORUS Origines 8.9: 51 [LONGINUS] 1.469: 73 6.9: 128 18.544–8: 74 6.1: 71–6 2.164–9: 123 6.524: 74 6.173: 28 4.157: 198 4.6: 128 12.412–674: 70 6.2.498: 79 6.469–74: 79 6.1.1–3: 51 3.123: 132 Epodes 7: 35 Satires 2.1.1–2: 131 34.473–4: 73 6.4: 127.575: 74 6.6: 226 10.3: 23 8.95: 35 1.211–13: 10 2.25.1: 128 8.6: 85 39.2: 130 13.Index of passages cited 3.8: 91 22.1: 131 15.3: 129 15.

4.621–2: 200 6.130–9: 137 Tristia 4.568–72: 146 15.137: 131 9.86: 123 15.54: 131 9.1.59–61: 9 14.611: 77 6.11: 115 SAPPHO 31 Voigt: 129 SCHILLER Letter to Goethe (26.41–3: 29 Index of passages cited Pseudolus 524: 136 584: 136 1063: 136 1243–4: 136 1295: 136 1301: 136 Stichus 739–72: 136 Trinummus 1–2: 29 1–3: 32 706: 116 PLINY Panegyricus 3.4: 115 PACUVIUS 1–20a Ribbeck2 : 9 PLUTARCH Quomodo adulescens poetas audire debeat 16d-e: 230 16e: 230 17d: 230–1 18a–b: 231 18d: 231 PHILODEMUS De musica 28.587: 133 6.272 6.635: 81 6.1–14 Neubecker: 229 PROPERTIUS 2.69–71: 151 7. 215 38: 180 . 123 6.76–7: 151 7.4.126–7: 1 SENECA Agamemnon 12: 28 31: 88 33–4: 88 34–6: 203–4.586: 81 6.12.142: 132 PLAUTUS Amphitruo 69: 116 Bacchides 925: 136 925–78: 136 Poenulus 37: 116 SALLUST Bellum Catilinae 52. 180 6.1797): 245–6 SCHOLIA TO ILIAD 3.659–60: 82 6.45: 142 9.66: 81 3.173: 28 12.663–5: 89–90 7.1: 115 3.8.585–6: 76 6.3: 9 PLATO Gorgias 466c: 121 Phaedrus 245a: 22 Respublica 439e–440a: 242 533e–534e: 119 565d–566a: 126 571b: 118 571c–d: 94. 118 572b: 118 577b: 119 579b–c: 119 603c–605c: 119 605c–607a: 119 QUINTILIAN Institutio oratoria 3.3.588: 76 82 6.611–13: 80–1 6.601–2: 179.618–19: 81 6.636–7: 80.

10: 22 17.35.11: 23.10: 229 108.4: 160 De ira 1.4: 25 De beneficiis 22.35. 216 De clementia 1.3–6: 232 2.2.7: 22 17.15: 234 122.15.3: 217 Consolatio ad Marciam 1.12: 233 115.5: 233 2.10.6: 24 Epistulae ad Lucilium 7.2: 53 15. 24 De vita beata 2.8: 216 De tranquillitate animi 1.12.3: 86. 127 41.2.2: 217 5.20.26: 53 115.2: 24.3.1: 232 2.2: 233 7.6: 53 De providentia 5.4: 162 53 9.5: 22 17.8: 160 2.4: 153 1.10: 143 75.4.10: 24 1.9.1: 124 2.3–4: 159–60 1.5.13: 147 79.4: 29 De brevitate vitae 2. 215 Hercules Furens 5: 215 6–18: 215 24–6: 215–16 30–6: 183 47–51: 185 47–52: 184–5 51–2: 185 64: 184 66–8: 184 67: 184 74: 184 75–7: 183 86–8: 183 96–8: 9 100–5: 183–4 254–7: 185 520: 185 520–3: 185–6 521–3: 186 523: 186 690–6: 9 813–17: 186 813–21: 185 898–9: 92 926: 185 273 .1: 253 41.8: 215 122.Index of passages cited 43–4: 181 44: 164 46: 181 53–6: 181 77–8: 164 241: 209 656: 185 712–15: 203 725: 203 728–31: 207 752–8: 202 754: 203 814–15: 216 881–3: 137 881–4: 137 901: 179 967–8: 209 1096–7: 85 Consolatio ad Helviam 8. 53 16.10–11: 22.5: 24 24.4: 161 2.4: 44 19.11–12: 234 108.4: 24–5 2.1: 232 2.19. 53–4 17: 53 17. 53 17.2: 50 1.4: 160 1.7: 215 122.5: 234 29. 24 108.5: 159 1.5: 29 15.6: 52 108.8: 22 17.7: 23.18: 214.6: 127 47.6: 29 26.

226 390–4: 12 390–7: 226 392: 12. 87 561–3: 8 566–7: 227 567: 227 567–8: 8 571–3: 9 572: 227 572–81: 89 573: 2.274 1035: 179 1039: 92 Medea 12: 17 13–17: 17 25–6: 90 28–31: 212 40: 17 45–52: 18 47: 17 52–3: 18.32–4: 29 Oedipus 15: 10 25–7: 10 82–6: 10 202: 11 211: 11 213–14: 11 216: 11 230: 12 233–8: 12 236–8: 204 291–402: 92 302: 204 303: 12 303–402: 204 349: 204 366–71: 204 Index of passages cited 373–5: 205 390: 12. 212 331: 213 401–7: 212 414: 212 482: 209 489: 209 535–7: 146 759–64: 210 910: 18. 87 582–6: 9 590–2: 9 592–4: 9 595–6: 9 611–18: 9 616–18: 227 626: 9.29–30: 216 6. 43 166: 213 171: 18. 12 576: 9. 204 942–7: 205–6 971: 12 977: 12 998: 179 999: 12 Phaedra 171–2: 88 . 210 1012–13: 210 1017: 212 1018–20: 212 1019: 179 1021: 213 1024: 213 Naturales quaestiones 3. 11 669–70: 19 766–7: 11 768: 12 864–8: 196 868–70: 88. 213 175: 212 176: 17 192–3: 18 245–6: 209 272–3: 209 292: 164. 226 401–2: 227 418–22: 227 424–6: 123 457–8: 123 458: 123 486–8: 227 509–29: 11 509–658: 8. 210 984: 105. 213 928: 209. 54 530: 89 530–1: 8 530–68: 11 530–658: 92 548: 8 550: 89 551: 12 551–5: 12 552: 8 553: 12 554: 12 555: 12 561: 227 561–2: 11.

138. 140 176–204: 46. 43. 192 89–90: 165 89–95: 39 90–5: 28 92: 39 95: 28 96: 29 96–99: 29. 46. 131 192–3: 18. 149 100–4: 178–9 101: 29 101–4: 178 102: 66 103–4: 87. 60. 165. 66. 129. 159. 161 275 . 143. 45. 205 115: 204 120–1: 172. 178 83–6: 32 84: 33 86b–101: 178 86–7: 27. 50 204–5: 154. 179 57: 38 58–9: 72 62: 38 62–3: 28 65–6: 38. 178 105–7: 179 107: 33 107–8: 87. 131 179: 93 192: 46. 165 167: 113.Index of passages cited 262–3: 158 267–73: 158 360–86: 158 406–30: 158 605: 29 646–8: 199 896: 221 991–3: 39 1180: 76 1238–9: 197 1249: 201 Phoenissae 319: 29 407–9: 29 Thyestes 1–4: 171 1–6: 26–7 1–121: 49 4: 28 9–11: 56 13: 28 23: 50 23–9: 38 24–5: 47 25: 165 25–6: 83 26: 38 27: 38 28: 38 28–9: 165 29–30: 38 39: 38 46: 38 47: 38 47–8: 38 52–3: 43 52–67: 38 54–7: 31 56: 38. 236 65–7: 178 66: 48 68–83a: 178 70–1: 165 78–80: 48 82–3: 165 83: 33. 159 176–335: 49 178–80: 80. 47. 131 176–8: 46 176–80: 131. 165 174–5: 166 176: 17. 51 56–7: 52. 51 96–100: 28 98–9: 34 96–101: 178 100: 29. 179 103–7: 33 105: 66 105–6: 48. 155 193: 46 193–6: 141 195–6: 144 199–200: 106 201–4: 141 202: 143 203: 46. 154. 180 122–6: 164 122–75: 49 127–9: 164 132–5: 164 133: 164 133–5: 165 135: 165 138: 165 139–40: 165 150–1: 165 159: 113.

143 267–8: 98 267–77: 52 267–78: 134 267–86: 156 268: 50. 64 406–7: 152 407: 56. 49. 159 215–17: 159. 52. 159 336–403: 49 336–8: 175 339: 175 339–41: 145 340: 145 344–6: 138 344–7: 175 350: 175 353–7: 175 365–8: 59 386: 35 396: 153 404–7: 148 404–20: 59 404–90: 47. 81 260–2: 51.276 205–7: 161 205–10: 157 206: 161 207–10: 159 209: 161 211–12: 161 212: 143. 175 335: 35. 157 294–5: 106. 157 299–302: 113 302–5: 106 303: 107 305–7: 157 306–7: 106 312: 175 314–16: 141–2 315: 114 316: 175 318: 157 320: 175 321: 175 325–30: 102 329–30: 103 331–3: 102 332–3: 175 333: 157 334–5: 157. 98. 121 269–70: 81 272–5: 130 274–5: 143 275–6: 180 279: 59 279–80: 179 279–81: 142 281–2: 60. 157 Index of passages cited 294: 107. 160 216: 155 217: 156 219: 155 220: 81 220–4: 101–2 221–4: 147 222–4: 80 239–41: 102 240: 72 244: 17. 151. 236 281–3: 131 285: 126 285–6: 144 286–9: 156 287: 156 288–9: 112. 81. 129 267: 130. 156 295: 107. 56. 91 245: 155 246: 155 246–8: 96 248–54: 50 249: 131 250–4: 30. 179 253–4: 143 254: 50–2. 46 252–3: 143 252–4: 34. 157 213: 155. 108. 181. 57 409–10: 116 410: 59 411: 162 412–20: 149 414–16: 57 416: 108 418–20: 108 419–20: 162 421–2: 132 423–8: 149 434: 110 434–7: 108 434–9: 149 436: 47 440: 47 446: 150 . 51. 143 255–8: 156 256: 130 257: 17. 130 261–2: 51 265–6: 50.

150 520–1: 79. 38 558–9: 167 560–1: 167 562: 167 568–71: 33 572: 168 573–6: 168 588: 168 588–95: 168 590: 169 594: 169 596–7: 169 596–622: 169 607–14: 169 613–14: 169 621–2: 170 623: 170. 64. 150 489–90: 47. 99 491–3: 135 491–507: 49. 91 686: 91 687: 91 688: 91 689: 91 690: 170 691: 87 691–2: 87 695: 91 696–9: 87 700–1: 87 707–14: 80. 57. 236 623–5: 180. 150 524–6: 137 525: 57 533–43: 150 539–43: 109 540: 109. 59 624–5: 236 626: 170 633: 170 634–8: 129 635–6: 236 635–8: 236 638–40: 145. 236 623–788: 49. 149 493: 57 496–505: 99–100 497–505: 55 498: 79 504: 96 504–5: 55. 100 505: 131 507: 55. 56. 149. 59 553: 145 552–4: 33. 149. 58 491: 57. 210 508–45: 49. 155 542: 109 542–3: 155 544–5: 111. 56. 122 713–14: 91 715–16: 91 716: 170 719: 170 730–1: 170 732–41: 122–3 735: 123 737: 123 743: 170 744: 129 277 . 106 487–9: 149 488–9: 47 489: 29. 175 546–76: 145 546–622: 49. 56. 115 520: 64. 88 650–6: 103 651: 87 657–8: 86 658: 103 659: 86 666–7: 103 667–8: 103 668: 86 670–1: 86 671–2: 86 673: 86 677: 86 677–8: 86 681: 87 682–90: 90–1 684: 40. 87. 166 546–51: 166–7.Index of passages cited 446–70: 108 449–51: 113 459: 204 469: 57 476–82: 109 487: 56. 170 639: 50 640: 145 641–90: 8 649: 85 650: 85. 137 545: 65. 64 512–14: 147 512–16: 149 513–14: 106 516: 150 517: 77. 113.

59. 64. 215 892: 180 894–5: 60 895: 60 903: 60 903–5: 60.278 745–6: 170 747–8: 170 755–8: 88 755–60: 103 757: 99 758: 177 759: 99 765–7: 87 776: 180 783–5: 171 789: 180 789–91: 180 789–93: 171 789–884: 49. 105. 173 1112: 96 1112–13: 152–4 Troades 164–5: 191 170: 185 248–9: 191 279: 192 286–7: 192. 180. 211 1100–2: 104 1102: 105 1102–3: 152 1104–10: 144 1106–10: 104 1107: 105 1110: 105 1110–12: 65. 179 890–1: 143. 129 920–1004: 49. 193 336: 192 351–2: 184. 82. 116. 192 360: 193 360–70: 192–3 362: 193 . 152 888–9: 116 889: 59. 68 885–919: 49. 243 909–10: 138 911: 136 917: 60 917–18: 144 920–69: 105. 196 891–2: 172. 150 1027–31: 112 1030–1: 82 1036–7: 40 1040: 113 1050–1: 196 1051: 97 1052–68: 58 1057–9: 91 1057–65: 96 1059–60: 9 1077: 152 1085–8: 146 1089–99: 211 1090–2: 196 1096–8: 59. 180 885–8: 59. 59 888: 98. 143 885–6: 98. 152. 111 1005–6: 134 1005–112: 49 1006: 11 1011–12: 146 1021: 152 1021–2: 113. 129 803: 172 803–14: 172 806: 98 813–14: 172 821: 172 827–32: 172 831: 174 833: 174 837: 173 874: 173 875–81: 173 875–84: 173 885: 116. 96 907: 60. 64 922: 109 922–4: 107 937: 214 938–41: 109–10 942–4: 110 947: 138 952–6: 40 957–8: 115 957–64: 107 Index of passages cited 962: 107 964: 110 967: 110 970–2: 110 976: 110 982–4: 113 990: 180 990–1: 180 997–8: 112 1004: 66 1005: 110. 116 1096–9: 104 1098: 103 1098–9: 5. 96.

3: 153 279 .1. 214 519–21: 196 548: 9 551: 195 594–7: 197 613–14: 136 642–62: 197 646–8: 199 653–5: 197 659: 198 659–61: 195 662: 197 771–85: 195 861: 200 861–871a: 200 883: 137 883–5: 137 1065–7: 237–8 1068–103: 240 1075–87: 238 1099–1100: 238 1103: 29 1104–10: 238.131: 76 2.2.653: 91 9.204: 73 SILIUS ITALICUS Punica 5.1–2: 145 STRABO 72 2.1.92–3: 88 2.4.63–6: 72 193 461–8: 199 469–74: 195 501: 198.1–4: 59–5: 146 SOPHOCLES Ajax 669–76: 169 674–5: 169 693–717: 167 Antigone 1115–54: 167 Electra 8–10: 56 77–85: 48 Oedipus Tyrannus 158–215: 166 1086–109: 167 1213–15: 205 1214: 205 Oedipus Coloneus 1769–76: 67 1779: 67 Trachiniae 633–62: 167 STATIUS Silvae 5.80: 72 5.142–4: 114 5.194–5: 73 5.57: 124 Thebaid 1.1.123–8: 88–9 Titus Andronicus 2.Index of passages cited 367: 193 368: 152.3.28–30: 72–5: 76 2.8: 231 SUETONIUS Augustus 15: 85 Caligula 32.1.69: 73 5.2.38–43: 70–1 3.133–5: 46 4. 241 1118–28: 238–9 1126–8: 242 1128–31: 239 1129: 241.98–104: 88 2. 202 501–2: 198 504–5: 55. 241 1111–17: 200 1117: 200.98: 88 2. 242 1132: 242 1136–7: 239 1138: 242 1140–2: 242 1143–4: 243 1143–8: 242–3 1143b–4a: 243 1147: 243 1147–8: 239 1160–1: 239 1162–4: 196 1165–77: 241 [SENECA] Hercules Oetaeus 207: 185 1457: 179 1472: 179 SHAKESPEARE King Lear 4.1.

5: 132 TERENTIUS Phormio 16–17: 116 ULPIAN Digest 3.4 Courtney: 100 VARRO De lingua Latina 6.793: 41 10.8–9: 227 3.559: 179 7.7.44: 31.5: 44 Dialogus 18.45: 35 7.339–41: 126 9. 35 7.1: 187 10.1: 153 Tiberius 44: 153 TACITUS Annales 6.266: 217 3.499–501: 185 3.313: 35 12.1: 187 11.552: 179 7.317: 35 7.1: 187 5.344: 195 4.465–73: 206 4.81–2: 94 12.2.660: 178 5.723–9: 125–6 10.406–74: 34 7.386: 34.337: 33 7.58: 195 10.568–71: 33 7.792–8: 125 10.273–81: 9 6.456–7: 34 7.517–20: 94 10.4–9: 125 12.30: 39 Fragmenta operum incertorum (Salvadore) 66: 2 VIRGIL Aeneid 1.11. fr. 116 3.77–80: 29 6.552–4: 33 7.315: 217 7.580: 51 9.203: 225 1.1: 31 Georgics 3.257–96: 220 1.183–4: 126 9.385–90: 34 7.304: 199 3.791–3: 41 10.179: 93 12.302: 199 3.161–215: 93 12.322: 195 7.1: 102 VARIUS 1 Ribbeck2 : 142 De morte.156: 78 12.945–9: 93 Eclogues 4.280 Index of passages cited Nero 21: 9 56.454–6: 125 10.3: 225 2.100–1: 29 7.335–40: 32 7.20: 59.469: 9 4.446–9: 41 9.335: 35 7.270–97: 195 2. 35 744–5: 71 7.750: 28 6.483: 200 2.843: 116 11.310–12: 199 4.373–5: 29 7.10.422: 28 7.284–7: 217 .312: 152 7.48–51: 53 6.286–322: 32 7.336: 33 7.443: 60 10.

L. 133 audience. W. 245–8 Caesar 126 and Alexander the Great 219 and calendar reform 218–19 in Lucan 124 Calder. 225 as animal 98 as Dionysiac character 133–8 as god 97 as poet/director 55–6 as sacerdos 84–9. 98–105 metadramatic role 90 puns of 77. 16 cannibalism 94. 153 and passions 105–8 and paternity doubts 5. 212 chorus 164–76 in Sophocles 167 in Thyestes 144–6. T. 229–43 281 . 151–3 compared to a lion 122–8 compared to a tigress 122 intertextual competence 115–17 linguistic prowess 111–13 logic of 94–5. 105 and Procne 80–3.General index Abel. 84 Bacchae 9 Aeschylus Agamemnon 84–5 beginnings in 56 closure in 66–7 revenge plots in 141 Alexander the Great and Caesar 219 and Dionysus 97 anagnorisis 60. 250 Brecht. 14 Accetto. 135 children. 148. 66. 171. B. 33 in Procne 133–4 in Virgil 76 beginnings in Aeschylus 56 in Euripides 56 in Sophocles 56 belatedness in Senecan tragedy 223 in Oedipus 223 in Phoenissae 223 bi-logic 143. 16 Augustus and Dionysus 97 and time 219–20 Bacchic/Dionysiac elements 97. 101–2. reaction of 182–3 see also frames Auerbach. 210–11. 133–8 and Augustus 97 and enthousiasmos 121 and inspiration 10 and sparagmos 84–5 and women 77 in Alexander the Great 97 in Horace 51 in poetry 31. 114–15 Accius Atreus 30. 111. 169–70. E. 126. 165–7. 248 anal¯epsis 187 Atreus and cannibalism 126–7 and foreknowledge 105 and memory 189–90 and nefas 193 and Nero 97. 133–4 and satelles 154–64 and the sublime 127. death of 201–2. 61. 174–6 in Troades 201 Chrysippus 24 civil strife in Thyestes 146–7 Cleanthes 24. 113–15. 88.

100. 207–8 in Ovid 249–50 in Senecan tragedy 249 Euripides 84–5 and metatheatre 223 and sacrifice 92–3 Bacchae 61–2. 30 lexis in Stoic theory of poetry 229 lion-simile as stylistic icon 127 and Caesar 124 locus horridus 85. 37–9. B. 93. 70. 31 gigantomachy 98 Gigon. 127 and sexual symbolism 87–8 [Longinus] 127–30. G. 189 in Sophocles 67 in Virgil 67–8 comic elements in tragedy 136–7 critical spectatorship 244 deception 61–2. 30. 87. 79 Democritus 22. M. 92. 73. 147 Girard. 121. 67 in Greek tragedy 66–7 in Ovid 249 in Seneca 65–9. 76. 186 knowledge 12. S. 87–9. F. 250 Freud. 147 Leo. 21 dismemberment 201 dissimulation 114 Dupont. 50. 143 Mazzoli. 173. 226. Bellum Civile 40. 10. Stoic theories of 231 Ennius 222 enthousiasmos 22–5. E. 75 emotions. 143 Fury/Furies 24–5. 42. 41. 57–8 Lef e`vre. 115 Naevius 222 nefas 31. 43. 29. 74. 35. 36–9. 87–8.282 closure in Aeschylus 66. 135 Orlando. 94. S. 233 incest 94 and poetry 72 in Agamemnon 204 in Oedipus 196. F. 132. 193 Nero 97 and Atreus 153 Nussbaum. 95–7. 42 Ovid and Aeneid 146 Ars amatoria 77 irony in 112 Metamorphoses and metapoetry 13. 231 epic and tragedy 83–5. I. 204–6 in Troades 197 intertextuality 221–8 and Bacchic elements 227–8 and defence mechanisms 225 and horror 225 and memory 224 in Oedipus 225–8 in Virgil 222. 124–6 mise en abyme 11. T. 188–90 General index ictus in Stoic theory of passions 232. 124. 76. 46. 103. O. 51. 244 Hesiod 24–5 Horace 120 Bacchic elements in 51 Epode 16 1. 93 Graci´an. 18–19. 36–7 in Lucan 13 in Oedipus 54 in Ovid 13 in Thyestes 49. 42. 90. 146 and metapoetry 13 Lucretius 98. 47. 54 Mezentius 73. 84. 249 . 53 Dingel. 24 metadrama and metatheatre 13–15. 232 Lucan. 47. 34. 130 Matte Blanco. 47. 53. 98. F. 25. 133–8 beginnings in 56 Hercules furens 30 Medea 17 Orestes 40 Phoenissae 130 extispicium 101–2 frames (narrative) 14. 120. R. 94 furor 21. 218 maius-motif 31. 45–64. 182. 97. 15 ¯ 173 ekpyrosis Eliot. 91. 226–7 iterum 27 Juno as metadramatic character 183–4. 16–19. 220 hunting imagery in Thyestes 99–100. J.

18–20. 157 Shakespeare. 37–8. G. 118–20 Plautus’ Trinummus 32 play-within-the-play 64 Plutarch 229–31 poetry and the female body 89–90 and tyrants 118–20 as danger 72. 55. 111 Shelton. 206 Thyestes passim Troades 92.General index passions 20 peripeteia 248 phantasia 130–1 in [Longinus] 232 Picone. 181 Sophocles 10. 40. E. 154–64 scelus 11. 55. R. 188–90. 197–9. 186. 54. 151 and Tantalus jr 149–50 and Virgil 115–16 and women 90 lapsus of 148–9 time and alienating effects 186–7 and Augustus 219–20 and Caesar 218–19 and political discourse 218–19 . 118 sun 95 disappearance of 170–2 reversal of path 220 Szondi. 106. 115 Thyestes 140–7 and gods 152 and Horace 116 and rational understanding 108–11 and Stoic ethos 147–8. 76 revenge in Thyestes 141 sacrifice and murder 93–4 satelles 46. 139. 102. 75. 137. 167 Tereus–Procne episode in Ovid 179–80 in Seneca and Ovid 26–31. 106. 91–2.-A. 42–4. J. 87 Posidonius 24 Procne 81 as tigress 123 Dionysiac features 133–4 ¯ prolepsis 187 psychoanalysis and time 186–7. 43. 224 and female characters 76–7 and regression 214 in Agamemnon 194 in Stoic thought 216–17 repression/return of the repressed 39. 229 as power 77–8. 183–6 Medea 16–19. M. 211 in post-Freudian thought 94 regression 189. 225. 83 and metatheatre 223 Antigone 193 beginnings in 56 chorus in 167 closure in 67 Oedipus Rex 12 Philoctetes 65 Tereus 83 spectatorship 57. 137 Hercules furens 27. 87. 14 Seidensticker. 159–64 style of prose works 13 Seneca’s tragedies Agamemnon 28. F. 41 Tarrant. 207 and repetition 189. 27–9 Schiller. 34 Seneca and theory of enthousiasmos 22–5 dating of works 20 De clementia 118–19. 127–32 and intertextuality 129–30 stylistic features of 131–2 Suetonius 97. 53. 245–6 Schmeling. 237–43 sententiae 29. 214 in Phoenissae 206 repetition 35. 53 and bacchic inspiration 119 description of tyrants 94. 194–5. 68. B. King Lear 88–9 Titus Andronicus 70–3. 90. 70–1. 79. 53 Piscator. 235 in Aristotle 245 in Thyestes 235–7 in Troades 237–43 Stoic theories of passions 229–35 sublime 23. 146 Oedipus 8–12. W. P. 246 Plato 22. 60. 89 Phaedra 92 283 Phoenissae 158–9. 246 Tacitus 44 and irony 112 Tantalus in Thyestes 27–8.

U. 248 in Epistulae ad Lucilium 214–16 in Euripides’ Medea 210 in Greek tragedy 177 in Hercules furens 183–6 in Lucan 217–18 in Lycophron 218 in Medea 208–14 in Ovid 187–8 in psychoanalytic theory 186–7. 101 Virgil 84–6. 121 vestigia 12. 84–5 and Homer 222 closure in 67–8 Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. 195.) and undoing of the past (Ungeschehenmachen) 211 ‘cubist’ treatment of 188 in Agamemnon 180–1. 32–4. 206–7 reversal of 214–16 Turnus 146 as a lion 124–5 tyranny and maius-motif 130 in Euripides’ Phoenissae 130 Varius 142–3 vates 8–9. 202 in ‘epic’ theatre 183. 211 in Senecan tragedy 177–220. 87. 202. 248–9 in Thyestes 178–83 General index in Troades 190–202 in Virgil 187. 53. 12.284 time (cont. 202–4 in epic 187–8. 146 Aeneid 7 and Thyestes 27. 19. von 18 .