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Dramatic Manipulations of Vergil's Georgics in Seneca's Phaedra

India Watkins

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

In his Phaedra, Seneca draws on passages from Vergil’s Georgics that explore the struggle between ratio and furor, more pervasively than has been previously noted (Trinacty, Coffey and Mayer). He weaves these Vergilian intertexts into a genre rich in dialogism in order to explore contrasting approaches to Stoicism and the consequences of a life lived without philosophy’s stabilizing force, reveling in the kind of decline Stephen Hinds argued that imperial poets embraced. Where Christopher Trinacty focuses on Ovidian intertexts in Seneca, I focus on Seneca’s Vergilian intertexts to argue that Phaedra, Hippolytus, and the chorus approach the Georgics differently, manipulating Vergil’s poem and its Stoic undertones to advance opposing agendas in a dialogue in which “neither text has the last word” (Edmunds 145). Seneca thus introduces a new voice to his play’s already polyphonic discourse in order to dramatize the conflict between Stoic principles and amor.

When Phaedra reads herself into the Georgics, she twists Vergil’s words to serve her own agenda. Arguing with her nurse about her passion for her stepson, she evokes the Georgics by subverting Vergil’s simile of a man stoically rowing upstream (Ph. 178–85; Georg. 1.199–203). In Phaedra’s version, the rower drops his oars as furor overtakes him (Ph. 178–79), and the simile’s final lines (vicit ac regnat furor, Ph. 184) illustrate her attitude that rationality (animus, Ph. 179) in is futile against amor. In confessing her love to Hippolytus, she reads herself into Vergil’s poem as a stallion chasing mares (Ph. 700–01; Georg. 3.253–54), casting herself in the active, male role. Here, Phaedra both masculinizes and bestializes herself in order to justify her passion to Hippolytus, but her self-portrayal also suggests that Hippolytus cannot control her—as mares, not stallions, were used to draw chariots—and foreshadows Hippolytus’ death, torn to pieces by runaway horses.

The chorus similarly inserts Phaedra into its synthesis of Vergil’s catalogue of love’s sway over wild beasts (Georg. 242–83; Ph. 338–57). The vocabulary and syntax of the chorus’ song closely mirror Vergil’s passage, as it portrays the aper (Ph. 348; Georg. 3.247), the tigris (Ph. 345; Georg. 3.247, and the cervi (Ph. 342; Georg. 3.265), concluding with rhetorical questions (Ph. 356; Georg. 3.265) and a reference to evil stepmothers (Ph. 356–57; Georg. 3.282–83). The chorus collapses the boundaries between amor and natura and recasts Vergil’s saeva noverca, now no longer evil but in love with her own stepson. Like Phaedra, the chorus also foreshadows Hippolytus’ gruesome death by using currus as metonymy for horses, a usage that appears first in Latin at the end of Georgic 1 in a description of a charioteer losing control over his horses (Ph. 787, Georg. 1.512–14). The unusual use of currus again emphasizes Hippolytus’ lack of control and evokes his downfall.

In contrast, Hippolytus echoes Vergil’s description of the Golden Age (Ph. 486, 537–38; Georg. 2.495–96, 1.127–28). Instead of undermining the Georgics, he lifts Vergil’s vocabulary to bolster his own escapist imaginings of a bygone era. Just as he does not manipulate Vergil’s text, he fails to assert control over his circumstances, particularly in his loss of control over his horses that results in his dismemberment. 

The ways in which the characters of Seneca’s Phaedra engage with Vergil’s Georgics mirror how they approach Stoic philosophy. Phaedra undermines the Georgics, just as she manipulates her circumstances, including her self-portrayal and the people around her, instead of stoically resisting amor. Hippolytus’ lack of control over the text reflects his powerlessness both in his predicament and in his death, despite his attempts to outrun Phaedra’s advances. Seneca uses the polyphonic context of drama to create dialogue about Stoicism’s role in the face of amor, using Vergil’s Georgics to create another layer of discussion as well as a means of illustrating his characters’ attitudes towards Stoic philosophy. 

Session/Panel Title:

Virgil and his Afterlife

Session/Paper Number

16.3

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