Category: Latin literature

188. The Phoenician Women by Seneca (65 AD)

188. The Phoenician Women by Seneca (65 AD)


Oedipus wanders the countryside, blinded by his own hand, and seeking his own death after learning of his actions in Thebes, guided and protected only by his daughter Antigone. Meanwhile his sons Eteocles and Polynices are at war for the throne, held apart from coming to blows only by their mother Jocasta placing herself litrerally between their swords.

My version was in Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 1, ISBN 9780226748238)

My thoughts :

Not only is this play unfinished (two Acts at  best, ending abruptly, and missing the chorus which would otherwise be suggested by the play’s title) but it also may well be two fragments from different plays, as Antigone appears in both settings simultaneously.

The story of the two brothers going to war against each other was told five hundred years earlier in the plays Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus, and The Phoenician Women by Euripides.

What stands out in this fragment is Antigone’s devotion to her father, refusing to leave his side and deterring him from his urge to end his wretched life. They reminded me of Shakespeare’s Cordelia and King Lear.

“No force will ever loose my grasp upon your body, Father; nobody will ever rob you of my company. The glorious house and wealthy realms of Labdacus – my brothers can fight for them ; the prize possession in my father’s mighty realm belongs to me – my father, and he will not be taken from me…. “                               Antigone lines 51-56

 “My daughter, why prostrate yourself at my knees in tears? …. Only you can melt my hardened feelings, only you in this our house can teach me natural love. Nothing that I know you want is onerous or painful for me. Just give the word: this Oedipus will swim across the Aegean waters at your command, he’ll swallow down the flames that earth spews from the Sicilian mountain, … he’ll offer up his liver to the vultures, at your command he’ll even stay alive.”                                                                     Oedipus, lines 306, 309-319

 As a father with a lovely daughter myself, this spoke to me.

Personal rating:  Not really worth pursuing as it is only a fragment. I’ll give it a 4, but perhaps more if it had been complete, especially the first half with Oedipus and Antigone.

Next :  A change of pace from all this tragedy : The Satyricon by Petronius

187. Thyestes by Seneca (62 AD)

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

186. Agamemnon by Seneca (55 AD)

186. Agamemnon by Seneca (55 AD)

Plot:  Agamemnon is returning from the ten-year siege of Troy, bringing with him the Trojan women of the royal family including the prophetess Cassandra. But things have changed at home during that time : his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus are laying a trap.

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 :  Despite the name of the play, Agamemnon plays little direct time on stage, with much of the play looking at Clytemnestra’s wavering determination to kill her husband and rule in his place alongside her lover, and the plight of Cassandra. It also describes how the Greek fleet was scattered and destroyed by the supernaturally wild storm on their way home. (The sacrifices of Polyxena and Astyanax as shown in The Trojan Women were obviously not enough to guarantee safety)

The most dramatic scene for me was not the murderous climax but the storm-wracked ships, including the death of Ajax.

“lashed by rising waves, the waters swell; when suddenly the moon is hidden, stars obscured, and night is doubled: dense fog overwhelms the darkness … the winds swoop down and churn the sea up from its lowest depths … You’d think the world in its entirety was being ripped up from its roots, the gods themselves were falling from the shattered sky….”

Eurybates, Act 3, lines 469-487

Ajax, the only one unconquered by disaster, fights back. While he’s reducing canvas with a tightened halyard, he’s grazed by hurtling flame. Another thunderbolt is poised: with all her force Pallas, drawing back her hand, launches it unfailingly … it pierces Ajax and his ship … Unperturbed he stands up in the sea-salt like a towering crag scorched. He parts the maddened sea and breasts the waves and as he grabs his ship he catches fire … At last he climbs up on a rock and thunders furiously … While he ventured more in fury, father Neptune lifting up his head from deepest waves, with his trident struck and undermined the rock, destroying the crag. And as he fell, he took it with him, and he now lies conquered by the earth and fire and sea.”                                                                              Eurybates, Act 3, lines 532-556

Personal rating:  The story is very dramatic but I’m only giving this a 4 out of 10. Bring on some new stories.

Next :  Thyestes by Seneca

185. Oedipus by Seneca (55 AD)

185. Oedipus by Seneca (55 AD)

Plot:  Oedipus discovers that the plague devastating his kingdom of Thebes is a result of his unknowingly murdering his true father and marrying his mother. 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 :

It comes as a shock to return to these brutally described and gruesomely detailed tragedies after reading Seneca’s eloquent and rational arguments for stoicism in the face of anger, grief, misery and disaster in his letters and essays. In particular, the scenes in this play describing the unnatural entrails and gore of the sacrificed animals for augury, and where Oedipus gouges out his eyes in horror and remorse, are graphic and terrifying.

“with a groan and terrifying roar, he gouged his fingers deep into his face …. Greedily with hands like hooks he probes his sockets, rips and wrenches out entirely from their deepest roots, both his eyeballs … with fingernails scratching out the hollow spaces of the eyes and empty sockets. His rage is impotent, his frenzy out of bounds: so awful is the risk of daylight. He lifts his head, surveys the sky’s expanse with hollow eyeballs, and tests his night. He snaps the shreds still hanging from the mess of dug-out eyes and calls triumphantly to all the gods”

Messenger, Act 5, lines 961-975

The lengthy Chorus interludes between acts are still present, and I must confess to reading through them rapidly to get to the next Act. They probably deserve better than my impatience grants them. Also annoying is Seneca’s too-frequent use of aliases instead of direct naming of characters : Dis (Pluto/Hades), Lyaeus (Bacchus), ‘master of the winds’ (Neptune/Poseidon), the Cnossian King (Minos), all very poetic and probably obvious to the audiences of the time,  but send me scurrying repeatedly to the footnotes.

Again, Seneca has retold a Greek play, in this case Oedipus the King by Sophocles. I went back and read my post covering that play ( and found the earlier version more satisfying and quotable. The Greek tragedies certainly continued to dominate theatre 400 years later, at least from what examples of Latin plays survive today.

Personal rating:  4/10

Next :  Agamemnon, again by Seneca


184. The Dialogues and Letters of Seneca (40-64 AD)

184. The Dialogues and Letters of Seneca (40-64 AD)


A selection of essays on the various virtues from Seneca’s Stoic viewpoint.  My version is the Oxford World’s Classics edition translated by John Davie (ISBN 9780199552405) (Oddly featuring a painting entitled Archimedes on the cover, see above)

My thoughts :

Between writing tragedies and scientific papers, Seneca survived the madness and jealousy of the Emperor Caligula, and the exile imposed by Claudius, to return to Rome and become tutor, advisor and speechwriter to the young Nero.  Much later, Seneca was implicated (probably falsely) in a conspiracy against Nero, and ordered to kill himself, which he did by poison in imitation of Socrates.

The first letter On Providence, discusses why bad things happen to good people, a question that has been tackled by philosophers and students of religion for centuries. Seneca’s answer is that God/Providence loves good people and wants them to grow stronger and more virtuous by overcoming adversity – misfortunes are opportunities to strive and be recognised in greatness, and cannot lessen the soul, only our earthly belongings. Even suicide is honourable if is the only way to overcome great adversity and remain virtuous.

On Anger provides advice on dealing with anger, the universal vice, in oneself and others.

Firstly, avoid succumbing to anger yourself, and the resulting urge to seek revenge of some sort. “The man who has done {you} injury is either stronger than you or weaker; if he is weaker, spare him, if stronger, spare yourself.”  (Shades of the Desiderata!)

Secondly, surround yourself with those who are peaceful, “amenable, kind and charming”, adopting their habits through association. Avoid hard tasks which are likely to be beyond one’s ability, but “be given over to pleasurable arts … be calmed by reading poetry and charmed by the tales of history”,  and avoid hunger, thirst and exhaustion.

Recognise your own weakness, and what leads you as an individual to anger.

“What matters is not how an offence is delivered, but how it is endured.”  p.27

The Consolation of Marcia is written to encourage a mother to lay aside her excessive grief over the loss of her son three years earlier, and rejoice in his accomplishments, and the nearness of her grandchildren; all life is fleeting and we must take pleasure in our loved ones while we can. Seneca also writes a consolation to his own mother Helvia from his exile on Corsica.

On the Shortness of Life teaches us to treasure every moment and not give away our time to people or pursuits unworthy of this precious gift.

I quite like Seneca’s views on life. At times he sounds lofty, but shouldn’t we all be aiming for our very best? He himself admits he strives more than he succeeds.

“… will not discourage me from engaging with what is best … continuing to praise the life, not that I lead, but that I should lead, or from revering virtue and following her, though haltingly and at a great distance behind”    On the Happy Life, para. 18 (page 100)

Seneca also wrote a treatise directed to the emperor Nero on the quality of mercy, perhaps because he was instructed not to formally teach Nero philosophy as it was deemed “unsuitable for a future emperor”. According to contemporary reports of Nero’s time as Emperor, he obviously didn’t pay a lot of notice, being suspected of giving the orders to kill his mother, wife, senators and rivals, as well as deliberately ordering the lighting of the Great Fire to clear land for his new palace, as well as ordering Seneca to commit suicide.

Tacked on at the end of the book is a chapter by Seneca discussing earthquakes, written when quakes affected Pompeii (but several years before the cataclysmic destruction). He gives a summary of the current theories believing air, water, fire and/or earth causing subterranean pressures or failures. He ends in true Stoic fashion, waving away the fear of death imminent in their unpredictability

“What is the difference whether I put the earth on top of me, or the Earth puts itself on top? ”   Earthquakes, para. 2 (page 223)

Favourite lines/passages:

“Wherever there is a human being, there exists the opportunity for an act of kindness” 

On the Happy Life, para. 24 (page 106)

“No man is crushed by misfortune unless he has first been deceived by prosperity” 

Consolation to Helvia, para. 5 (page 166)

 “Things that are necessary even places of exile will supply, those that are superfluous not even kingdoms. It is the mind that makes us rich; this is what accompanies us into exile.” 

Consolation to Helvia, para. 11 (page 176)

Personal rating: I feel I should give it higher than a 6, maybe a 7. Many of his arguments may be repetitive and  although it could do with an edit, I still think much of it is very good advice. It is better to read each slowly and thoughtfully, and pause to reflect.

Other reading:   Finished Isaac Asimov’s robot short story collection, The Complete Robot (combining I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots). Asimov devised the Three Laws of Robotics, then set about writing stories on how they could be interpreted and circumvented. To remind you, they are

  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

I find it fascinating when real life science often mirrors or catches up to fiction. I wonder if we will ever develop true artificial intelligence capable of action, and if we go back to Asimov’s Three Laws as a basis for guiding its development.

Next :  Back to Ancient Rome and Seneca’s tragedies, with Oedipus

183. Hercules Furens (Hercules Mad) by Seneca (c. 54 AD)

183. Hercules Furens (Hercules Mad) by Seneca (c. 54 AD)

Plot:  While Hercules is away capturing Cerebrus, the triple headed hound that guards the Underworld; Lycus kills King Creon of Thebes and usurps the throne. To try and legitimise his rulership, he demands Megara, daughter of Creon and wife to Hercules, marry him instead. Hercules returns from the last of his twelve labours in time to kill Lycus, but Juno is still furious with him, and drives him temporarily insane, so that he believes his own wife and children are enemies as well.

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 :  Seneca continues retelling the Greek tragedies of Euripides, and this one seems to stick pretty close to the earlier version. Seneca does stress different parts of the story, so we have the first Act with Juno/Hera ranting over the failures of the various monsters she has sent against Hercules, only to have their very defeats magnify his fame and praise, instead of being his downfall. Now she decides to make Hercules himself his own undefeatable enemy and destroy him psychologically, by having him murder his loved ones in a fit of induced madness.

Other versions of Hercules’ life say that his twelve labours for King Eurystheus were in penance for these murders. Fetching Cerebrus was the final labour which is what Hercules is doing immediately prior to the events in this play. This could have led to a cosmic circular life of torture, looping back to the start of the labours again and again – Juno should have thought of that!

I am finding Seneca’s versions more dramatic than Euripides, and also enjoying the poetic nature of his descriptions; although many critics over the centuries didn’t rate him highly. You would also have to wonder how a Stoic philosopher could write tragedies : obviously he wanted something different to do on his days off.

In Hercules Furens, we also appear to have the violence depicted on stage for the first time, rather than communicated by a messenger, giving it immediacy that previous tragedies have lacked.

Favourite lines/passages:

Theseus describes the road into Hell (not apparently paved with good intentions)

“the path does not at first start in blind darkness; a faint glow from behind of light relinquished and a doubtful glimmer of the stricken sun fade and trick the sight … from there spread broad zones with empty spaces, where the entire human race can sink down and enter. To go is not laborious: the road itself leads down… within calm Lethe flows, its gulf immense, with placid shallows, ousting cares. Lest too great an opportunity for return lies bared, she coils her sluggish stream with many bends”

but soon the horror and despair arises..

“bleak Famine lies there with emaciated jaws, and tardy Shame conceals its guilty face. Fear and Terror, Death and gritting Pain and black Grief follow, shivering Sickness, Wars girt in steel; secluded at the end slow Age assists its steps with walking stick.”       Act 3, lines 668-696

and there’s more

“A foul old man, horrid in dress and mien, guards this river and ferries the fearful ghosts. His unkempt beard is straggly, a knot constricts his ugly cloak, his gaunt eyes glint; the ferryman himself directs his bark with a long pole. Bringing to shore his boat empty of load, he seeks more shades.”                                                      Act 3, lines 764-770.

Personal rating:  7/10

Kimmy’s comment:  enjoyed the description of Cerebrus (sort of)

“Here the fierce Stygian dog that guards the realm alarms the shades, tossing its triple heads with awesome noise. Snakes lick the head, filthy with slime: its mane bristles with vipers and a long reptile hisses at its coiled tail.”            Act 3, lines 784-788.

Other reading:   Started Isaac Asimov’s robot stories as collected in The Complete Robot.

Next :  Lets have a look at Seneca’s less dramatic side with his Dialogues and Essays.

182. The Trojan Women (Troades) by Seneca (c.54 AD)

182. The Trojan Women (Troades) by Seneca (c.54 AD)

Plot:  Troy has fallen, and the captive Trojan women lament their loss. Queen Hecuba mourns for all Troy as well as her husband King Priam (killed mercilessly by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles). Andromache mourns for her husband Hector. Yet more agony is in store: Pyrrhus demands Polyxena, Hecuba’s daughter, for a death bride for Achilles, to be sacrificed in bridal dress on his tomb; while Andromache’s young son Astyanax is be thrown from the remaining tower of Troy and dashed on the rocks below, to appease the gods and provide safe passage for the Greek ships.

My version was in Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 1, ISBN 9780226748238)

My thoughts :

With a larger cast than the previous two Senecan plays, and two storylines, the play feels rushed within its short space.

I don’t remember Pyrrhus featuring largely in The Iliad or Euripides’ play on the same subject, but here he is arrogant and bloodthirsty, with little nobility. He kills Priam (an old man) savagely, then demands Polyxena as a bridal sacrifice for his father Achilles. When Agamemnon declares that the Trojans have suffered enough, Pyrrhus has the audacity to  threaten Agamemnon himself. When the seer Calchas is counselled, he definitely insists that both Polyxena and Astyanax must die to ensure a safe return to Greece (just as Iphigenia was sacrificed by the Greeks to provide passage to Troy ten years before)

Ulysses is sent to Andromache to find and bring Astyanax back for sacrifice, and Helen is sent to trick Polyxena into thinking she is marrying Pyrrhus. Both victims go to their deaths fearlessly.

Favourite lines/passages:

Each act finishes with a speech by the Chorus. Normally I hurry through these asides to get back to the action, but this time I found something special in the speech that closes Act II, where the Chorus ponder death

Chorus : “Is it true, or a story to deceive the timid, that shadows live apart from the bodies we buried …

Or do we wholly die and afterward no part of us persists when, with a fugitive breath,

The spirit has mixed with the clouds and entered the atmosphere …

Whatever the sun knows when it rises, whatever it knows when it sets,

Whatever Ocean with its cerulean tides washes as twice it ebbs and twice it floods,

Will be swept away by time with its Pegasus-like stride ..


So we all pursue our fate, and he who has touched the river

By which the Gods on high swear oaths, exists no more.


After death there is nothing, and death itself is nothing –

The final turning post of a quick-run course …

… empty talk and pointless words, a story like an anxious dream.

You ask where you will lie when life is done?

With things that are unborn.”                                        Act II, lines 371-408


The definition of “contumacious” :  wilfully disobedient to authority

Personal rating:  6/10

Next :  Hercules Furens by Seneca