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Accademia Editoriale

Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's "Medea"

Author(s): Laura Abrahamsen
Source: Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, New Series, Vol. 62, No. 2 (1999), pp. 107-121
Published by: Fabrizio Serra editore
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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea

Laura Abrahamsen

The figure of Medea has been endlessly fascinating throughout

the history of Western literature. Poets and dramatists choose to retell
her story over and over in different eras and cultures. The "facts" of
Medea's remain constant over time, but each poet
mythological history
that inherited tradition in ways that reflect the
reshapes mythological
societal context in which s/he writes. The Medea best known to classi
cists is the Medea who survives from Greco-Roman antiquity in
as a from
tragedy, epic and elegy, approached subject by poets Euripi
des to Seneca, spanning nearly 500 years from late 5th century Athens
to early Imperial Rome. She is the young Medea of epic, the witch

princess of Colchis who

helps her Greek lover Jason obtain the Golden
Fleece; and she is the mother Medea of tragedy and elegy, betrayed by
that same Jason, the mother who kills their mutual children.
Because of the vagaries of textual transmission, the child-killer
Medea is represented to us by only two extant that of Eu
ripides and that of Seneca. Unfortunately, chronology has often com
critics to consider version of the as the
pelled Euripides' Medea-story
model based upon which Seneca writes a defective imitation. It is more
fruitful, perhaps, to consider Seneca's as a of its time
tragedy product
and to discuss its difference not in terms of originality and imitation,
but in terms of how those differences allow Seneca to create a thor

oughly Roman retelling of the Medea legend.

One of the primary issues driving the action of Seneca's Medea is
the conflict over who retains the legitimate as Jason's wife.
Seneca marks this contested identity in the way the different charac
ters of the use the Latin associated with
play vocabulary marriage. By
situating the dramatic issues of Seneca's Medea into the context of
normative Roman and divorce practice, we can to per
marriage begin
ceive one level on which Seneca has with the her
played mythological
of Medea in order to make her legendary more trou
itage criminality
to a Roman imperial audience/reader. In taking this
bling specifically

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108 L. Abrahamsen

I assume the Senecan dramatic texts were intended for some

kind of performance, whether or 1.
public private
Such a of the play the acceptance of two
reading requires
premises in addition to the assumption of Al
public performance.
the characters of Senecan drama are "fictional" in the sense
that they are bound an inherited tradition, their sto
by mythological
ries nonetheless take on the coloration of the life and times of the poet
who chose to use this tradition. Furthermore, the action of the Medea
takes place in an ostensibly Greek setting, with the characters of Ja
son, Creon and the Chorus identified as Greeks, while
Medea is marked as a barbarian. I would nonetheless that a
Roman "audience" of the first century CE would assimilate Seneca's
identification of "Greek" and "other" in a way that the normative,
civilized community of Corinth would be understood as to
Rome, while Medea would retain her status as barbara, a
A Roman audience would mentally translate the situation of
Seneca's into a Roman context, and so it is not extreme to view
the Medea, a issues revolve around marriage,
play whose dramatic di
vorce and children, the lens of the standard Roman
through practices
of the 1st century CE. This exploration will determine whether
Medea's situation to usual Roman or whether
corresponds practice
Seneca portrays a world and particularly a character whose behavior
and situation violate the societal norms of both the world of the play
and the larger Roman context in which the play was written and pre
sumably presented.
Let us turn, then, to a consideration of Roman marriage and di
vorce and the status of children in each situation. In this pre
discussion, I am indebted to Susan monu
liminary heavily Treggiari's
mental work on Roman ~.
The jurists define the Roman institution of marriage by capacity
and intent. Provided that certain were met and
legal qualifications
certain did not exist, then a who intended to
disqualifications couple

For in favor of stage production, see L. Herrmann, Le Theatre de S?
neque, Paris 1924, 152-232. For arguments see O. Zwierlein, Die
pp. against staging,
Rezitationsdramen S?necas, Meisenheim 1966. While other scholars have considered
the question, these two remain the centra] statements on the issue
of production. W. M.
Calder HI, "Seneca: of Rome', Class. Journ.72,1976, pp. 1-11, sug
Tragedian Imperial
that the plavs were in private theatres, in the manner of "home movies"
gests performed
(p. 5).
Susan Roman Iusti the Time to the
Treggiari, Marriage: Coniuges from of Cicero
Time of Ulpian, Oxford 1991.

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 109

be married were in fact, married. The issue of legal capacity to enter a

involved such as age, consent of the if the
marriage questions father(s)
bride and/or groom were still in potestate-, degree of relationship and
conubium, the to marry based on status.
right legitimately legal
Ulpian gives a succinct definition of conubium (Tituli Ulpiani

Conubium est uxoris hire ducendae facultas. Conubium habent cives

Romani cum civibus Romanis: cum Latinis autem et peregrinis ita, si
concessum sit. Cum servis nullum est conubium.

The of this definition in relation to Seneca's Medea oc

key words
cur in the second sentence: cum Latinis autem et ita, si con
cessum sit. Roman with non-citizens
citizens have conubium only if it
has been granted. If the right has not been granted, then no conubium
exists forthe couple, and it is impossible for them to have a iustum
matrimonium, a in which the children are as
legal marriage recognized
and also follow the status of their fathers. Let us
legitimate legal apply
this definition to Jason, Medea and Creusa.
If we are to assume that Jason would, for a Roman audience, rep
resent an elite Roman citizen male, then the issue becomes whether he
was free to marry Creusa, assimilated to the position of an elite Roman
citizen female, or whether he was still bound in marriage to
Medea, a or The situation, as Seneca it out in
peregrina, foreigner. lays
the play, is complex. Medea considers herself married to Jason. She
names him as coniunx and to the
refers she shares with
him. Jason, however, refers to Medea as his coniunx once, and
Creon names her as such not at all.
Elsewhere in his
philosophical writings, Seneca indicates that
conubium or thelack of it, was an issue for a Roman citizen born and
raised in provincial Spain, who would break off marriage negotiations
upon learning of the lack of conubium (De ben. 4,35,1):

Promisi tibi in matrimonium ??liam; postea peregrinus adparuisti.

non est mihi cum externo conubium; eadem res me d?fendit, quae

From a Roman citizen's conubium was an essential

prerequisite for not only a legal marriage, but a socially desirable mar
to exist. The Chorus in the Medea, in for Roman soci
riage standing
ety, reflects these values as celebrate the of Jason and
they marriage

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110 L. Abrahamsen

Creusa, explicitly welcoming Jason back into civilization (w. 102

106) 3:

ereptus thalamis Phasidis horridi,

effrenae solitus pectora coniugis
invita trepidus prendere dextera,
felix Aeoliam corripe virginem
nunc soceris volentibus.
primum sponse

The on the first wife's Jason's

emphasis foreignness (Phasidis),
reluctance as a in that first marriage
bridegroom (ereptus/ trepidus/
invita... dextera) and the consent of Creusa's father to the new mar

riage (nunc primum soceris sponse volentibus) all indicate that this
new union is iustum matrimonium, unlike Jason's marriage to Medea.
Parental consent is explicitly present and conubium is implied with
the contrast to the first The phrase invita... dextera
marriage. implies
that ajfectio maritalis, the intent to be married, was absent from his
first marriage. Jason and Creusa certainly
meet the minimum age re
and are not within of
quirements, clearly prohibited degrees kinship.
In the eyes of the Chorus and presumably the Roman audience, Jason
and Creusa have no impediments to a
legal marriage.
But Medea is an impediment. She views herself as an obstacle be
cause, in her mind, she is still Jason's wife; the other characters of the
do not her claim to the status of wife, but they
play acknowledge legal
understandably do fear her supernatural powers and legendary crimi
Medea's to retain her as Jason's co
nality. desperate struggle identity
niunx, while that identity is denied by the other characters of the play,
is underlined at a level as well as a dramatic level by
Seneca's use of marital Seneca uses coniunx as his over
whelming word of choice for "spouse" 4, perhaps because of its non
as well as its metrical convenience, in a way that accords
with the prevalent literary usage and marks Medea's struggle. Medea
calls herself coniunx five times and Jason once; she also refers to her
coniugium with Jason two times. Only twice do other characters apply
the word coniunx to Medea 5.

All from Seneca's Medea are taken from Costa's 1973
quotations Cambridge
edition (C. D. N. Costa, Seneca. Medea, Oxford 1973). Variations from Zwierlein's
1986 OCT are noted (0. Zwierlein, L. Annaei Senecae Tragoediae, Oxford 1986). The
quotations from Euripides' Medea follow Diggle's 1984 OCT (J.Diggle, Euripidis Tabu
lae, Oxford 1984).
Translations for all Latin and Greek are my own.
Treggiari 1991, p. 6.
The first w. 102-106, was discussed above. Jason does
passage, immediately

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 111

Jason is identified as a maritus, a husband, twice; each time the

context augments the constant tension between the identities of his
new wife and the old. The Chorus refers to him as &peregrino... mari
to at v. 115, while banishing Medea at the end of the
that they can refer to him as Medea's husband acknowledges the mar
but the context puts it firmly in the past. The second usage
comes from Medea herself, highlighting her duelling perceptions of the
As Creon attempts to cast her out of Corinth, she argues that
Jason is equally guilty (w. 275-280):

cur sontes duos

illi Pelia, non nobis iacet;
adice, desertum patrem
fugam, rapi?as
fratrem, etiam nunc novas
lacerumque quidquid
docet maritus non est meum:
totiens nocens sum facta, sed mini.

between two guilty parties?

Why do you distinguish
Pelias lies dead for him, not for me; add the flight,
the theft, my father betrayed and brother butchered;
whatever the husband even now teaches his new wives,
it's not my fault: so many times I have been made harmful,
but never for my own benefit.

The is bitter, Creusa as well as herself, in a way

plural including
that shows Medea on to an union. In Roman law,
hanging impossible
maritalis, the intent to regard one another as spouses, was a
prerequisite for a legal Roman marriage to exist 6. Consequently, the
absence of intent, whether unilateral or bilateral, could create a di
vorce. What is certain from the Roman is
legal and anecdotal evidence
that subsequent of one of the former partners confirmed that
the original marriage had ended 7. Jason cannot be Medea's maritus if
he has a new bride, but Medea numbers herself among the women
whom marriage
to Jason has corrupted. One should note here also
Medea's first linking of the loss of her father and brother with her
to Jason. Seneca starts here a pattern of valuation that
Medea's her marital a pattern
weighs original family against family,

refer to Medea as his coniunx at 435, where he weighs his limited It is

just once, options.
his of what she has done for him. The Chorus also sings of the le
only acknowledgment
gendary wrath of wronged wives in the first part of the Argo ode (v. 579 f.); the coniunx
viduata taedis / ardet et odit at v. 581 is clearly inspired by Medea's speech, but the
context makes coniunx a
proverbial Everywife.
Treggiari 1991, pp. 54-57.
Treggiari 1991, p. 450.

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112 L. Abrahamsen

which culminates in the murder of the children at the end of the

The mutually exclusive perceptions of the marriage that Medea
holds emerge in her references to herself as a coniunx. Her use of the
a as can
word always has negative cast, if she claim the title only in
anger and bitterness: at v. 23, part of her curse upon Jason is that he
should want her for a wife (me coniugem optet) 8; at v. 418, she notes
that he was afraid to say a final word to her; at v. 501, she calls herself

coniugem infamem. At v. 928, coniuge expulsa, contrasted with tota

mater, marks her indecision as she the murder of her
children; and in their final horrific scene after she has mur
dered their children before his eyes, she demands Jason's final ac

knowledgment: ingrate Iason. coniugem agnoscis tuam? (v. 1021).

Since Medea is given no honor as a wife, the word on her
a threat not to herself,
becomes only in reference but also in her ironic

applications of the title to Jason's new bride, Creusa. In all three of

Medea's references to Creusa as a coniunx, the context is threatening.
From her earliest speech, death for Creusa is part of her plan: coniugi
letum novae (v. 17); and this new wife will be part of her means of re
venge: utinam esset Uli frater! est coniunx: in hanc / ferrum exigatur.
("Would that he had a brother! There is a wife: let the sword be
drawn her", w. 125-126). Finally, at v. 999, Medea an
nounces the deaths of Creon and Creusa to Jason: coniunx socerque
iusta iamfunctis habent / a me sepulti ("Wife and father-in-law have
the rights due the dead / buried by me").
As she applies it to herself and to her rival, the word coniunx de
notes violence, both enacted and suffered. Thus it is interesting that of
her three uses of the words coniunx /coniugium in reference to Jason,
two are neutral, and the other, part of her declaration of fidelity and
service to him 9. As Helen Fyfe notes, Jason is Medea's only link to the
Greek society in which she finds herself; she is to maintain
that relationship, to no avail 10. Seneca puts the definitive
of the word to Jason in the mouth of Medea's nurse: Abiere Colchi, co

niugis nulla est fides / nihilque superest opibus e tantis tibi ("The
Colchians have departed, there is no trust in your husband / and noth

Zwierlein 1986, opto for optet in p. 23, Axelson's sugge
prints following
At v. 144, she blames Creon as one solvit-, in her last to Jason
qui... coniugia plea
to flee Corinth (w. 447-489), she calls her sacrifices for him coniugi testes mei (v. 481).
At v. 740 f. she calls for a graviorpoena to be on socero mei
imposed Sisyphus, coniugis
(v. 746).
Helen Fyfe, An Analysis of Seneca 9sMedea. Seneca Berwick-Victoria
1983, pp. 77-93, 80.

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 113

remains w. In this
ing from your great riches for you", 164-165).
statement the Nurse the marital bond between Medea
and Jason, but like the Chorus, she recognizes
the union only to note
its rupture.
Seneca's use of the Roman of marital alliance
vocabulary clearly
creates a of exclusion for Medea the Since
pattern throughout tragedy.
five of the seven applications of the word coniunx to Medea in the
come from Medea's own mouth, it becomes part of the tragic conflict
that the other characters of the play identify Medea by parameters
other than her marital status, a situation which motivates her violence.
Seneca gives his Medea further language that underlines her belief
that she is legitimately married to Jason. At w. 488-489, she requests
the return of the bloody she to their union: tib? patria
dowry brought
- sua
cessit, tib? pater frater pudor / hac dote nupsi. redde fugienti
- to
(amy home-my father, my brother, my chastity all have fallen you
/with such a dowry Iwed. Give the exile her due"). The definition of
her losses has escalated. At w.
277-278, her father and brother are

only part of hercrimes, for which

Jason should share the blame. Now

they have become her dowry, and Medea will cooperate only if her
is returned to her. The return of such losses is of course
dowry impos
sible, but through her angry logic, the murder of her children will be
come her means of regaining her father, brother, homeland and inno
cence. Her words here underscore the notion that her fury stems from
a sense of -
legal having been betrayed she has given much, but gotten
in return n.
Seneca has situated his Medea, however, in a context in which she
is the only one who believes her marriage to be All of
legally binding.
Corinth celebrates the wedding of Creusa and Jason, and no character
but Medea (and once, briefly, Jason cf. n. 5, above) uses
that contradicts the existence of the new union. Furthermore, Seneca's
use of socer and gener, about a
secondary relationships brought by
primary marital bond, also tightens the pattern of exclusion and inclu
sion. The words denote what we call in English uin-law" relation
As of kinship ties, they create bonds between charac
ships. language
ters which can serve to exclude others. Euripides the
barely employs
Greek in his Medea. at vv. 990-991 does
equivalent vocabulary Only
the Chorus address Jason as the uson-in-law of kings":

11 G. 'Coherence Psychologique de laMed?e de S?n?que', Seneca e il

Teatro 486. For
the practice of returning in the event of
52, 1981, pp. 477-513, dowry
divorce see 1991, Ch. 10: 'Dos', esp. pp. 350-353, 'Rules for Re
(retentio), Treggiari
see also Ch. 13: 'Divorce', pp. 466-467. See also Jane Gardner, Wo
claiming Dowry7;
men in Roman Law and 1986, p. 112.
Society, Bloomington,

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114 L. Abrahamsen

ov ?\ x?kav (b xaxovDftqpe xrj?eiaojv


Otherwise in the play, the three-way interdependent relationship

among Jason, and Creon
Glauke is expressed as in Cre
by participles,
on's confrontation with Medea (w. 287-289):

xXikd ?9 ?mikelv os, ob? anayyekkovoi fxot,

x?v ?ovta xai yr\\iavxa xai yaiiov\i?vr\v
?oaaeiv xi.

I hear that you are threatening, as they tell me,

to do something against him who is giving in marriage,
him who marries, and her who is being married.

The participles identify the members of the triad through their

particular functions in the act of marriage. Creon's words immediately
follow his reference to Jason at v. 286 as Medea's husband. Compare
Euripides, Medea 373-375:

tt)v?9 ecpfjxev rifx?oav

ux?vat |i' ?v fji TQe?? x v ?ji v ?x^ocov vexoo??
Jtat?oa xe xai jt?oiv t' ?uov
drjoa), x?o/nv

He has said that I remain for this day,

this day on which I will bury the three bodies of my enemies, the fa
ther, the daughter, and my husband

with coniunx socerque of Seneca, Medea 999-1000, quoted above.

The two passages express the same idea; Euripides' as a future inten
tion and Seneca's as a action. Medea's use of the
completed primary
terms, father and daughter, as well as the
kinship possessive adjective
for husband in Euripides' passage her, at least linguistically,
part of the family group, unlike the parallel statement in the Senecan

In Seneca's Medea, the use of gener and socer establishes a close

relationship between Creon and Jason, further legitimizing Jason's

to Creusa at the expense of his union with Medea. The Cho
rus celebrates soceris ...volentibus at v. 106. Creon names Jason as
gener in his first speech to Medea, in which he banishes her from
Corinth 12. Medea names Jason as gener (w. 240, 421,
460), even as she tries to on to her status as coniunx the
hang (v. 418);

The is at v. 179 f.; it is worth that nowhere in it does he refer to
speech noting

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 115

juxtaposition intensifies the theme of the conflict of family alliances 13.

Both Medea and Jason refer to Creon as socer, for Jason, at w. 538
and 546, the word may reflect a reliance upon Creon as a source of
power and 14; but Medea uses it as a threat, in the same
manner as her of Creusa as coniunx. Thus, in the opening
speech of the play, after she wishes death for the coniugi novae, she
goes on to wTish it for the socero
(w. 17-18).
The word socer can also be used to evoke it to
pity. She applies
Creon at v. 522, while she is still begging Jason to run away with her,
and uses it at v. 746 to refer to Sisyphus in her incantation speech.
The reference is in a request to
punish her husband's "in
law": gravior uni poena sedeat socero mei . Al
coniugis (v. 746)
though there are many examples in Latin literature of socer and gener
used to indicate prospective rather than actual in-laws 16, the posi
of socero in the line, flanked as it is and mei, again
tioning by coniugis
heightens the tension of the conflicting alliances and Medea's lack of
marital status. The words should not go together: if Jason were still
her husband, his father-in-law should be her own father. Throughout
the play, then, we see a Medea who is
in an impossible situa
tion: in her mind she is married, and her language reflects this belief;
but surrounding her is incontrovertible evidence that her husband has
a new wife and new alliances. She must them in terms
family identify
readily understandable
to her interlocutors, and so Medea must em
that denies her own status as a wife.
ploy language
We might compare Medea's fictional situation to a real Roman
situation well-known to Seneca's audience: union with
the Ptolemaic queen was social
Antony. Although certainly Antony's
if not superior, she was not a Roman citizen nor had Ptolemaic
Egypt yet been absorbed into the Roman Empire and conubium "with
Roman citizens granted 17. Their union was iniustum matrimonium in
Roman law and did not prevent Antony from entering a Roman

a role in Jason's sees her as a

Medea with words that give her family. He only product of
her Colchian Colchi noxium Aeetae genus.
Costa n. 110.
(above, 3), p.
Costa, n. p. 118.
(above, 3),
10Axelson deleted v. 746, which Zwierlein (above, n. 3) brackets. See Costa
n. 138-139, for as socer.
(above, 3), pp. Sisyphus' identity
Judith Hallett, Fathers and Daughters in Roman Society, Princeton 1984, pp.
17 The
slurs cast at Cleopatra by the Augustan poets (nefas! Aegyptia coniux, Ver
gil, Aen. 8, 688; coniugis obscenii (Propertius 3, 11,31) and meretrix regina Propertius
3, 11, 39) are evoked by some of the language applied to Medea in Seneca's

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116 L. Abraliamsen

with Octavia 18. Medea, also royal, but nonetheless a for

does not have conubium with Jason. He can put her aside
eigner, easily
when the opportunity for politically advantageous marriage appears.
At best, from the viewpoint of Jason, Creon and the rest of the
Corinthian Medea was an uxor iniusta, a woman with
whom was intended but their lack of
marriage by Jason, prevented by
conubium 19.
xAsan uxor has very little power
iniusta, Medea to control the sta
tus of the union. Jason, therefore, from the of a Roman au
dience, is utterly blameless in his repudiation of Medea and marriage
to Creusa. Jason's intent to be married to Medea has ended, and there
fore, so has the marriage. Even if it were a
legal marriage (matrimo
nium iustum), his intent to divorce Medea, while perhaps callous, is no
more scandalous than the prevalent marital practices among elite Ro
man males of the late Republic and early Empire 20.
If we look at the dissolution of the union between Jason and
Medea in the context of the notion of conubium, however, Jason's de
mands to keep the children violate normative Roman practice. In a le
children stayed within the father's house
gal marriage, generally
hold21. In matrimonium iniustum, in which the did not have
conubium, under the Minician law, children followed the status of the
non-citizen parent;
one can further infer from a passage of Cicero

(T?pica 20) that children of a Roman citizen father and non-citizen

mother with their mother divorce, as the father is not
stayed following
entitled to retain part of the dowry for maintenance of the children 22.

K. R. Bra die v, Discovering the Roman Family: Studies in Roman Social History,
New York-Oxford 1991, pp. 133-135.
19 see
For matrimonia iniusta and their effects, Treggiari 1991, pp. 49-51. The
definition that emerges from Treggiari's careful consideration of the evidence makes it
that Medea could he viewed as a concubina, as Jason does name her as '"wife"
once and the union did produce children (Treggiari 1991, pp. 51-52).
20 see
For three case histories from the late Republic, 1991, Ch. 6: 'Dislo
in the Roman For the imperial see M. T.
cation Family', pp. 125-155. period, Raepsaet
Charlier. Ordre s?natoriale et divorce sous le haut-empire: un de l'histoire des
mentalit?s'. Acta class. Debrec. 17-18, 1981-82. pp. 161-173.
Bradley 1991, p. 131. See also Treggiari 1991, p. 467 f for the fate of children
after a divorce; and B. Rawson, The Roman in The Family in Ancient Rome:
New Ithaca 1986, 1-57, 35-36. Jason proposes at v. 544 f.
Perspectives, pp. explicitly
that he should keep the children, and the scene, his character does not ima
a future without the children.
Xreggiari 1991. p. 49.

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 117

So Jasonwrongs Medea twice; first by not returning her figurative

dowry, then by asking to the children 23.
The two are inextricably linked in Medea's mind the
shows his audience a Medea robbed of her status as
play. Seneca, who,
mother and wife, is forced into her status as a and
preferring daughter
sister. While such a preference may at first seem unnatural to the
modern reader, it may reflect the actual familial ties most in the
Roman family. In her 1984 book Fathers and Daughters in Roman
Society, Judith Hallett makes a for what she termed
strong argument
the "filiafocality" of the Roman family. In this model of understand
ing the bonds between members of a nuclear family, the role of daugh
ter is central because she links other members of the family through
her changing life roles as daughter, sister, wife and mother 24.
Hallett's view of the relationships between members of the Ro
man formed from a close of texts,
family, analysis literary departs
from the traditional view of Roman valuation a
kinship being agnatic,
view derived from sources, and instead an em
primarily legal posits
on bonds, those about by blood rela
phasis placed cognatic brought
to a woman 25. Since every Roman woman life as her
tionship began
father's daughter, Hallett coined the anthropological term ufiliafocali

to convey the essence of the importance of cognatic relationships
in the Roman
family. The bonds that Seneca has his Medea emphasize
to the bonds Hallett finds Roman
correspond emphasized throughout
are also bonds that recall an earlier, more model
They primitive
of kinship The choice to sacrifice one's marital relatives to
one's blood relatives has a in
avenge long tradition classical literature,
from Nestor's story of Meleager and Althaea in Book Nine of the Iliad
through Herodotus' Histories 3, 119, to the famous vexed passage of
905-920: there are women in classical
Sophocles' Antigone myriad
myth and literary retellings of myth who choose to honor brother and
father over husband and children. It is predominantly a female act,
until Aeschylus has Orestes use a twisted version of the reasoning to
justify killing Clytemnestra to avenge Agamemnon. It the in

That Seneca has Medea make such an uover the top" demand (w. 488-489),
which she not expect to be fulfilled,
surely does is part of his characterization. What Me
dea wants is and her character is driven to extremes in order to
recognition, consistently
get it. Like the first wife who put her husband
through medical school, Medea wants her
so-called "crimes" to be as acts of love. Her to Creon at w. 204
acknowledged speech
251 this as her defense, to no avail.
employs argument
Hallett n.
(above, 16).
25 Hallett
(above, n. 16), p. 320.

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118 L. Abrahamsen

tervention of Apollo to one is re

justify that murder, by arguing that
lated by blood only to one's father, not one's mother.
A point relevant to Seneca's Medea emerges from a consideration
of this folktale-like motif. Aeschylus has Apollo make this argument in
the Eumenides in a context of ending the old ways of justice, the eye
retribution that requires one to avenge kindred blood. The
end of the play is a celebration of the passing of the Furies into the Eu
menides, beneficent goddesses who no longer thirst for blood justice.
Aeschylus integrates the mythological material of the House of Atreus
into 5th century Athens at the end of
play with the establishment of
the Areopagus as the seat of for the new, civilized The
justice polis.
resolution of the play also marks the transition of divine authority
from older, chthonic to younger, masculine and
goddesses sky-gods,
with the victory of Apollo's argument, the transition from a female
based, system of kinship to a male-based
cognatic reckoning agnatic
system, a system since entrenched the time Seneca is writing
long by
his play.
his Medea to the older
system of blood
By having justice, Seneca
creates further tension in his
His Medea is acting by rules that
the other characters of the play have abandoned. For a happy ending,
Medea must be brought into line with normative Roman practice, but
that is not the way of tragedy. The end of Seneca's Medea, her horrific
boundless violence is at last, a clash of cultures.
The Medea of the last act of the play can no longer argue in the
civilized she had tried to in her scenes with Creon and
language adopt
Jason. In her speech that begins at v. 893, we see this dis
solution. She begins by rejoicing in her just-reported murder of the
but admits to herself that her husband's new
royal family, only killing
wife is not enough (w. 896-898):

pars ultionis ista, qua gaudes, quota est?

amas adhuc, furiose, si satis est tibi
caelebs Iason.

that part of revenge, in which you rejoice, is it enough?

Still you love, mad one, if it is enough for you
that Jason is merely widowed.

Medea's statement recalls her need for acknowledgment that has

been expressed in the use of marital vocabulary the play.
Jason caelebs denies her own existence as coniunx. Creusa may be
dead, but he is not caelebs. He still has a wife, as Medea has argued
throughout the play.
The veneer of civilized which Seneca has
propriety, through

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 119

Medea argue for a just marriage settlement by Roman standards, with

the return of her dowry and physical possession of the children, cracks
as the She reaches back to her barbar
completely speech progresses.
ian sense of justice to end the on her own terms. She calls to
mind the crimes she committed for Jason, the blood relatives she sac
rificed to aid him; it is as if the loss of her natal family has given her
the to avenge them (w.
strength 910-914):

Medea nunc sum; ere vit malis:

iuvat, iuvat fraternum
rapuisse caput,
artus iuvat secuisse et arcano
spoliasse sacro, iuvat in exitium senis
armasse natas.

Now I am Medea; the genius for evils has grown:

It gives pleasure, it pleases, to have torn off my brother's head
it pleases to have cut his limbs and to have
my father of his secret wealth, it's a joy to have given
weapons to the daughters for the death of the old man.

Once she has finally reached the to decision

slay her children, that
is, embraced her barbarian system of
justice, Medea is into an
Orestes like vision of blood She seems to see a crowd of Fu
ries, seekers of retribution crimes, who arouse
for blood in her again
the memory of her father and brother 26. Medea laments that she has
not borne more children so that their deaths more
might fully appease
the Furies (w. 954-957):

utinam superbae turba Tantalidos meo

exisset utero
bisque septenos parens
natos tulissem! sterilis in poenas fui -
fratri patrique quod sat est, peperi duos.

Would that the brood of Tantalus' proud girl

had come from my womb, and that I as parent
had borne twice-seven children! I was barren in revenge -
but enough for father and brother, I bore two.

These lines make clear the source of Medea's rage: she is not a
but an sister and daughter, like Procne or Al
jealous wife, avenging
thaea, who finds in her maternity a connection to her
repellent enemy,

26 The
Furies she invoked as witnesses of her wedding in her first speech (w. 13
have now arrived to over its final dissolution.
18) preside

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120 L. Abrahams en

a means of avenging a for more is

but also sibling "7.Her wish children
a threat to Jason; a desire for a more weapon, not a
powerful larger
and also an of allegiance to her of
family, expression family
Medea's comes to a furious climax as she one child to
speech slays
appease the apparition of her brother. Jason bursts upon the scene,
but she seems to hear him not at all, as she rejoices in
the perception of her status as of Colchis (w.
regained virgin princess

lam iam germanum

recepi sceptra patrem,

spoliumque Colchi pecudis auratae tenent;

rediere regna, rapta redit.

Now, now I have taken back power, father, brother

and the Colchians hold the prize of the golden fleece;/
my kingdom has come back, my stolen maidenhood has returned.

She has fulfilled the demand made for the return of the dowry
of her back at w. 488-489. As Medea sub
composed family literally
tracts from Jason's
family, she adds
to her own, those mem
bers she has
longed for throughout the play.

Although he tries to reason with her, she will hear nothing of it. In
her logic, two deaths are one for her brother and the other
for her father 28. Medea will be satisfied only if she leaves him wdth
as he tried to leave her in Corinth. Her furor reaches its cli
max (w. 1012-1013):

inmatre si quod pignus etiamnunc latet,

scrutabor ense viscera et ferro extraham.

If, even now, some hostage lies hidden inmy womb,

Iwill search my entrails with a sword, and drag it out by the blade.

R. The Ghost', Class, et Mediev. 41, 1990, pp. 151-161,
Edgeworth, Eloquent
that the fratri of line 957 refers to and pater Jason.
suggested patrique frater Absyrtus
When Medea o? frater and pater, however, as at v. 488, she means and
speaks Absyrtus
G. Lawall, 'Seneca's Medea: The Elusive of Civilization*, in Arktouros:
Hellenic Studies Presented to B. M. W. Knox, ed. G. Bowersock et al., Berlin-New York
1979, sees the two murders as first the crimes she commit
pp. 416-426, 425) avenging
ted for the sake of the Argo and second, Jason s desertion. Seneca states in the
text, however, that she equates the children with the loss of her two relatives,
father and brother (v. 957).

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Roman Marriage Law and the Conflict of Seneca's Medea 121

Here Seneca
effectively portrays the extremity of Medea's position
in her quest for vengeance. As Charles Segal notes, pignus used to
mean "child" evokes the idea of a love-pledge between husband and
wife. Her willingness to draw the sword against herself is a "literal
and metaphorical out' of her tie to Jason" 29. She would be
moved to violence her own womb if it were necessary, in order
deprive Jason of all possible blood relations 30. It is a neat summa
tion of the motivation behind her perceived reconnection with her vir
status. the for her natal
ginal princess Through ongoing preference
Medea is forced to show in Seneca's she has reversed their
family play,
situations. He is completely alone, but she has reconnected
with her roots.
Thedrama ends with a Medea the desolate
triumphant taunting
Jason, as Creon and the Corinthian chorus mocked Medea at its
beginning. Her parting question, coniugem agnoscis tuam? (v. 1021)
is the capstone for the character's use of coniunx in the play. The
monumental act of
murdering her own children, the act that defines
her mythic can force Jason to Medea's
identity, finally acknowledge
status as his wife 31. It is also the she can end the
only way marriage.
She cannot accept divorce on Roman terms; Medea, mad but tri

umphant, achieves the barbarian's victory of vengeance.


Ch. 'Boundary Violation and the Landscape of the Self in Senecan
Segal, Trage
dy, Antike und Abendland 29, 1983, pp. 172-187, 178.
Her words are extreme, and they have some extreme
certainly inspired interpre
tations. n. the lines as an affirmation of ma
Barthouil (above, 11), pp. 507-509 reads
ternal over the and finds her in the murders "un
power patriarchy pleasure orgasme".
them in a similar fashion her threat to abort is the threat to remove
Segal interprets
any proof of male sexual domination from her body (C. Segal, Language and Desire in
Seneca's Phaedra, Princeton 1986, p. 147 n. 31). I find the theme of sexual power dif
ferences less than that of human connections.
Medea is for external confirmation of her at v. 1021; in the
only looking identity
vision that led up to the killing of the children, she has already affirmed herself: Medea
nunc sum Elisabeth and Denis read this final scene as Medea's self-de
(v. 910). Henry
struction by Furor (Denis and Elisabeth Henry, The Mask of Power, Chicago 1986, pp.

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