The characterization of Atreus within Seneca’s Thyestes presents a problem for those who seek to unite the works of Seneca the philosopher with those of Seneca the poet. In the tragedy, Atreus successfully avenges himself on his brother Thyestes for Thyestes’ previous attempts to subvert Atreus’ rule. Through careful plotting, Atreus convinces Thyestes to return home, secretly slaughters Thyestes’ sons, and feeds the children to their father in a disguised feast. Unlike his brother Thyestes, whom Atreus describes as nec satis menti imperat (Thy.919), Atreus is able to emerge victorious in the play through suspiciously scrutinizing the actions of those around him, and constantly reasserting his purpose to himself (e.g., Thy. 192-196). For Schiesaro (2003), Atreus symbolizes the power of poetry and serves as “the incarnation of a victory against the constraints of moral repression” (48). Although Schiesaro does not argue that Seneca’s tragedies are fundamentally incompatible with his prose works (as does Dingel 1974), he nonetheless finds that the Thyestes’ sympathetic portrait of a bloodthirsty tyrant presents a problem for those interpreters who wish to read the tragedy as designed to educate its audience in Stoic principles. Star (2006) problematizes Atreus further by focusing on Atreus’ language of self-command. Star describes Seneca’s tragic heroes as an expansion of his philosophical ideas: “Stoic self-control and constantia do not vary between Seneca’s philosophy and tragedy” but “Seneca’s characters also create a deadly new category that links vice withconstantia” (241). Yet Star’s analysis largely avoids mention of the actual contents of Atreus’ vengeance, and he leaves open the question of how the viewer is meant to reconcile Atreus, executor of nefas, with Atreus, Stoic exemplar. By exploring Seneca’s focus on the activity of viewing both within the Thyestes and within his prose works (in particular De Ira and De Clementia), I propose that the character of Atreus is meant illustrate the dangers of pursuing those activities, such as spectating, without natural limits (cf. Ep. 16).
I begin my discussion by highlighting the theme of visual consumption within the Thyestes. For Atreus is it not enough that he should know such a punishment was inflicted upon Thyestes; rather, he repeatedly expresses his desire to see the gruesome banquet for himself. Even before the crime occurs, for Atreus totaiam ante oculos meos / imago caedis errat, ingesta orbitas / in orapatris (282-283). The need for autopsy extends to Thyestes as well, whose very first words in the tragedy are an expression of satisfaction that he finally can see his homeland (404-410). References to the act of seeing mark other key moments of the Thyestes, such as the initial prodding of Tantalus by the Fury (63-66), the first meeting between the brothers (508, 517), the choral response to this meeting (546-549), and the entrance of the messenger who conveys the news of the implementation of Atreus’ plan (623-625). Further exploration of these passages shows that, contra Davis (2003: 66), neither Atreus nor any of the other figures in the Thyestes are viable candidates for the being a “Stoic sage”, for none of them understand the proper role of the visual within a philosophical life. Just like the audience members themselves, these characters fail to understand the psychic impact of the visual consumption of forbidden or unlawful acts, and mistakingly believe the pleasures of such sights will make them happy. Not only is this reading of Seneca’s Thyestes consistentwith the views put forward in Seneca’s prose works about the dangers of viewing spectacle (e.g., Ep.7), but it also illustrates the psychagogic force of the play on its audience through its inversion of the traditionally positive role of exempla in philosophical texts.