187. Thyestes by Seneca (62 AD)


Going back a generation before the events of Agamemnon, we have two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes competing for both the throne of Mycenae, and Aerope, the wife of Atreus. Upon discovering their affair, Atreus exiles Thyestes, but then seems to relent and invites his brother and nephews back.

My version was from Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 2, ISBN 9780226013602)

My thoughts :

This tale of cannibalism is actually a repetition in part of the events a generation even earlier in the same family, where Thyestes’ and Atreus’ father Pelops was killed by his father Tantalus and served to the Gods in stew. The Gods restored Pelops to life, only for the curse to reappear again in Tantalus’ grandson Atreus. Really, these ancients had the dysfunctional family soap opera market all sown up long before today’s reality star families.

Like the earlier plays, each Act in Thyestes marks a separate character in the story and how their actions and decisions build into the tragedy. Act 1 shows the Ghost of Tantalus dragged up from Hades to pollute the House of Atreus with his own cursed history. He is reluctant bur forced by the Fury goading him. Act 2 shows Atreus resolving to trick Thyestes and lead him to unwitting cannibalism : the rage and hatred of the bad king seeking revenge and exerting his power for evil that Seneca warned Nero about in his essay On Mercy.

Act 3 shows Thyestes about to re-enter the City after being recalled from exile by Atreus and promised half the throne, and yet still undecided if it is a wise move. He is urged on by his sons who wish to resume their rich and regal lifestyle (again the characters reject Seneca’s Stoic virtues, this time of simplicity and poverty). Thyestes has the choice, as did Atreus, of moving into danger and vice, or returning to a life of virtue, and though he recognises good from the bad and suspects the truth; like Atreus, his weakness drives him on to ruin.

 After each Act, the Chorus sings ironically of the good they foresee for the State, oblivious to the actual evil planned. Even after the Messenger reports the horror of the childrens’ murder and the meal served to Thyestes in Act IV, the Chorus still seems to fail to understand the nature of what has happened, and speak of the premature ending of the day and the collapse of all the constellations without connection to the monstrous acts they have just heard reported.

Act V opens with Atreus celebrating the success of his horrific deeds, and basking in the depths of his depravity, eager to announce to Thyestes what he has done. When all is revealed, Thyestes call on the Gods to avenge him, but the play ends with evil ascendant.

[Later, Thyestes upon the advice of an oracle, will force himself on his own daughter Pelopia to conceive a son Aegisthus, who will eventually kill Atreus’s son Agamemnon]

Favourite lines/passages:

“Not to need a kingdom is itself a massive kingdom”           Thyestes, Act III, line 470.

Personal rating:  Repugnant subject matter but strongly delivered, 6/10

Also in these years:    (from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978)

Between 50 and 65 BC:

  • Emperor Claudius dies, apparently poisoned by his wife/niece, Agrippina, and her son Nero (adopted by Claudius) becomes Emperor, initially ruling wisely under the influence of his tutor Seneca. (54 BC)
  • Hero of Alexandria invents a steam engine (c. 60 BC)
  • Queen Boudicca of the Iceni revolts against the Romans in Britain, but is killed and the uprising quashed.
  • Rome burns (64 BC) and Nero kills Christians as scapegoats. Apostles Peter and Paul are martyred. Seneca is sentenced to death by Nero (65 BC)

Next :  The last surviving tragedy reliably attributed to Seneca, The Phoenician Women

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.