The relationship between Seneca’s theatre of cruelty and his allegiance to Stoicism has been the subject of intense scholarly controversy. At the center of this debate is the “most unpleasantly sanguinary” of Seneca’s tragedies, the Thyestes. Certain scholars insist on an ideological connection between the play and its author’s philosophical persuasions. Tarrant, for instance, maintains that the tragedies are “unmistakably the work of a writer imbued with Seneca’s particular philosophical outlook” (23). Others maintain that Seneca’s roles as philosopher and dramatist are distinct and in tension. Poe argues that the play channels a non-Stoic morality, while in Wray’s estimation, Senecan tragedy “confounds and refutes” the Stoic tradition (241). Schiesaro’s influential book maintains that Seneca, though interested in the Stoic passions, had little interest in touting Stoic doctrine. This schism in scholarly thought suggests that further work must be done to reconcile the Stoic elements in Senecan drama with their elliptical and sometimes problematic representation.
In this paper, I hope to offer fresh perspective on this dichotomy in Classical scholarship. I posit a connection between the author’s aesthetic choices in constructing the world of the play and his Stoic worldview. I argue that Atreus and Thyestes embody the psychological processes which Stoicism investigates as they are reified through the narrative events of the play. Atreus’ rage is presented in concrete terms: it is a festering tumor, and transforms him into a panorama of savage beasts that give fuller expression to his anger. Likewise, through Thyestes’ literal embodiment of his own children, he is transformed into the figurative embodiment of his Stoic vice: ravenous desire. Such externalizations and reifications go beyond mere sensationalism: they are revelations of the internal through the external, they enact a Stoic psychology that is inseparable from Stoic morality, and they betray the monstrosity of boundless passion and its contravention of the natural. Interpreting the central characters as incarnates of their excessive passions thus conceptually integrates Seneca’s dramatic works into the corpus of his explicitly philosophical ones.
First, I consider Atreus’ succumbing to—and becoming—his own anger. His rage is an entity beyond the limits of nature, one that cannot be conceived in the terms of normative emotion. It takes on a grotesque corporeal form: it is a cancerous tumor, one that swells (tumet), fills him (impleri), and presses against his insides (instat). This is consistent with the Stoic picture of anger that we see in De Ira, where is it deemed a “swelling” and “pestilent excess” (1.20.1). As Atreus is overcome by his unfettered passion, he is transformed through figurative device into a hungry tigress (707-13), and a furious lion(732-37). Not only are these beasts emblems of unbridled emotion, but their appetites seem to exceed natural bounds. Atreus has thus not only achieved a state of feritas, he has come to embody it. So too the adulterous Thyestes comes to substantiate his own Stoic vice: cupiditas. Tumescent with the flesh of his own progeny, Thyestes becomes a symbol of self-consumption (suos artus edat, 278). Seneca’s representation of his characters’ emotion reduces them to something monstrous and inhuman. In the eyes of a Stoic, this is what being overtaken by emotion is: an alienation from what is natural and proper to a human being, and so a vice.
The reading of the Thyestes that I offer has significant implications for our understanding of the Senecan corpus as underlined by a common purpose. The violence and unwieldy emotion depicted in the Thyestes are not contrary to Stoicism or gratuitous. Rather, they invite us to explore what a human being is and how he becomes monstrous: both salient concerns of Stoic doctrine. Seneca’s drama and philosophy, rather than being at odds, are mutually reinforcing and illuminating. It is through Stoic psychology that we come to a greater understanding of the Thyestes, but it is through the dramatic phenomena in the Thyestes that we become more astute and disciplined students of Stoicism.