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Seneca's Philosophical Thyestes

Julie Levy

Boston University

Seneca’s Philosophical Thyestes

Arguments have long raged about the extent to which Seneca’s tragedies reflect his philosophy.  I maintain that there is a systematic and logical connection between the ideas espoused in the Epistulae Morales and the characters of the Thyestes, and moreover, I believe that the connection is one which reflects Seneca’s own relationship with Nero. 

The main connection between the Epistulae and the Thyestes resides in the latter’s two main characters, the brothers Atreus and Thyestes.  Atreus is overcome by passionate anger; this is a favorite topic of Seneca’s, between De ira and the letters.  In De ira, Seneca outlines three stages of anger, and Fischer rightly points out that every one of Seneca’s tragedies has some connection to this idea. Many have noted that Atreus is terrifying precisely because he uses his ratio, his full intellectual force, in support of that emotion.  While some read this as an anti-Stoic argument, since ratio is supposed to be a force that prevents passion-driven madness, I agree with Star who says Atreus is “us[ing] Stoicism to achieve unstoic goals.” What Atreus has is part of the Senecan Stoic paradigm- but not all.

Thyestes has the complementary half.  He has no constantia, he fails at using ratio, but repeatedly throughout the play, Thyestes expresses an impulse towards what Seneca might call honestas.  Where Atreus has total self-control, and even control of others, he has rejected honestas outright, seeking to outdo crime with further crime.  But Thyestes wants no crime; he doesn’t even want the crown.  Thyestes knows that the right thing to do is to stay in exile, senses the looming evil, but lacks the control to enforce his own decisions. 

Intentional or not, Seneca has dramatized the central tension of his own letter 94: the only good is honestas, but without constantia it cannot be maintained.  Constantia is necessary, but without understanding of honestas, it is misapplied to even crueler ends than a person without constantia could manage.  No one is happy at the end of the Thyestes; when Schiesaro says that Atreus is successful, I think that perhaps he has overlooked one of the implications of the ending’s lack of closure.  Atreus can never be satisfied: his crime is his own punishment.

Each brother catastrophically lacks what the other has, and all comes to disastrous ruin.  But why?  Chaumartin calls this play “apotropaic,” along with Phaedra, Medea, and Agamemnon: “Seneca, by all appearances, wrote four plays of his corpus… with the purpose of seducing the spectator or the reader away from passion by throwing its disastrous consequences into relief.” But others, like Schiesaro, call this into question by noting the vividness and appeal of Atreus as a character.  Whether or not Atreus somehow makes his evil tyranny attractive and sympathetic is a real question.

Davis points out that Thyestes, as a trope in Roman tragedy, is seen as a critique of tyranny as early as Accius. If we accept that Atreus is the vivid, point-of-view character, and also that Atreus is meant as a critique, it is a short step to remembering the image from the beginning of Seneca’s De clementia: he is holding up a mirror for Nero to see himself in.

The Thyestes story is an old Roman tragic topos and an older Greek myth.  And it would be difficult to claim that the Greekness is at issue here; the many anachronisms and lack of Greek-specific tropes refer not to a foreign world in the past, but a Roman present.  If this is, then, a Roman image of kingship, it can only be pointed at the king: Nero himself.  Seneca's old mirror for Nero was one of hope and clementia, but this new mirror is dark and bloody - and shows the dangers of misapplied Stoic thinking.

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Texts and Contexts: Learning from History

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