You are here


A prominent and growing body of scholarship claims that Senecan tragedies dramatize, in diverse forms, the internal struggle between passion and reason: the psychomachy of a divided self (e.g., Gill, 2009; Littlewood, 2004; Schiesaro, 2003; Fitch and McElduff, 2002; Gill, 1997, 1987; Foley, 1989; Segal, 1986). Charles Segal, for example, argues, “In Seneca the tragic element operates in a struggle that is almost entirely inward, in a battle against the passions” (1983: 174). Segal’s interpretations build on those of earlier scholars who insist upon the inwardness of the drama (e.g., Staley, 1981; Shelton, 1977; Shelton, 1975; Regenbogen, 1927-1928). Such interpretations, although frequently at odds with the language and action of the tragedies, now predominate. In contrast, this paper argues that Thyestes dramatizes the breakdown between inner and outer world: a socio-psychic breakdown between the ostensibly autarchic self and others. Through explication of two key passages of Thyestes with reference to Seneca’s De Ira and to recent scholarship in Stoic philosophy, I demonstrate that external psyches infiltrate Atreus’ ethical agency. My essay, which examines Thyestes through a Stoic, rather than a Freudian aperture, explicitly challenges Alessandro Schiesaro’s contention that the tragedy portrays a struggle between “passion” and “repression” (2003: 2, 42). In doing so, my reading illuminates flaws in the predominant view that Seneca’s tragedies are in general allegories for internal conflict.

Seneca deploys the metaphor of a besieged city in De Ira to demonstrate that the soul must keep anger completely outside and separate from itself in order to retain reason (1.8.1-2). My argument begins with contextualization and close reading of this passage. For the Stoics, all that exists, whether mind, cause, soul, or event, is corporeal (Boeri, 2001; Rosenmeyer, 1989). Contagio, the interconnection and interpenetration of all being, entails that when one body moves, it acts on others with inevitable consequences. Because the mind is material, it, too, is subject to external movements or infection (Graver, 2007). In De Ira, Seneca describes the mechanisms by which external impressions act on the mind: when a stimulus acts, one may make a rational judgment to resist. Should one accede, however, there is no possibility of internal struggle, as the resulting passions overwhelm, transform, and rule the soul (1.7-8; 1.16.7; 2.4; 2.5.8; cf. Ep. 18.15).

With reference to the vocabulary of contagio and furor in De Ira, I show that in Thyestes, Atreus does not wage an internal struggle against passion within a divided psyche. Instead, he consents or gives in to an external impulse. Tantalus invades Atreus’ agency, I argue, by initiating an impression, or pre-emotion (ictus), that leads to furor and violence. When Furia commands Tantalus, “concute insane ferum pectus tumultu” (84-5), the tumultus that agitates Atreus’ breast is an impression that penetrates from without. Tantalus infects Atreus with furor, such that a resulting tumultus shakes Atreus: “tumultus pectora attonitus quatit / penitusque volvit” (260-1). Atreus’ chiastic echo of Furia’s words indicates Tantalus’ ethical contagio, or infection, of Atreus. The furor of Tantalus invades and overwhelms Atreus’ agency, and Atreus assents to its impetus: “fiat hoc, fiat nefas” (265), he proclaims. For Atreus, atrocity (nefas) will determine his identity, as he makes explicit during his dialogue with the Satelles (176-335) and in other key passages (887; 1098-9; 326-9). The contagio of ethical agency ironizes autarchic self-construction and dramatizes that what is at stake in acceding to the impetus of external passion is one’s very identity.

I conclude by very briefly suggesting the applicability of my argument about Thyestes to other tragedies in the Senecan corpus, particularly Hercules. While my reading challenges psychoanalytic interpretations that read Senecan drama in terms of self-constructed identity and exclusively internal conflict (especially Schiesaro, 2003; Fitch and McElduf, 2002; Segal, 1986; Shelton,1977), it also resonates more broadly with recent scholarship and controversies pertaining to Senecan perspectives of agency and ethical selfhood (Bartsch and Wray, 2009).

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy