You are here

Senecan Politics on Stage

Lisl Walsh

Beloit University

While much has been said about the political stance of Senecan tragedies in terms of their existence as written texts, Senecan scholarship has yet to consider the political implications of these texts as potentially performed (or at least imagined as performed). As Marshall (2006), Goldberg (1998), and Moore (1998) have shown in the case of Plautus, the performance of dramatic text presents several semantic routes of enhancing, twisting, or even subverting the text itself; through masks, costuming, gesture, improvisation, location, and audience response, the political meaning of a dramatic text can never be singular. Despite Seneca the Younger’s prominent participation in the politics of his day, scholars have yet to account for crucial aspects of his tragedies in performance contexts.

This paper focuses specifically on the importance of spatial semantics in the reception of Seneca’s dramatic texts by imagining Seneca’s Agamemnon in the performance space of the Theatre of Marcellus. As has been explored fruitfully in the genre of Greek tragedy at the Theatre of Dionysus (e.g., by Mitchell-Boyask 2007 and Rehm 2002), the topography of the specific theatre can affect significantly the creation of textual meaning on stage. In the case of Seneca’s Agamemnon, this paper shows two specific ways that a place-based reading in the Theatre of Marcellus serves to alter the assumed meaning of the text. First, the location within earshot of the Tiber and proximate to the Forum Boarium, Forum Holitorium, and Ara Maxima serves to highlight the text’s own references (some of which have not been noticed in the scholarship) to Augustan poetry: likening Agamemnon’s homecoming in Seneca to the “discovery” or “takeover” of the physical space of Rome by Evander (e.g., Ovid Fas. 1.509-16, Verg. Aen. 8), Aeneas (e.g., at Verg. Aen. 7.120-2 and Hor. CS 37-44), and Augustus himself (Hor. CS, Prop 4.6, 2.31-32, Tib. 2.5).

Secondly, this proposed location builds on the strong intertextual correlation to Augustus and his Palatine Temple to Apollo (Hor. CS, Prop. 4.6, 2.31-2, Tib. 2.5, and possibly Verg. Aen. 8 (Crofton-Sleigh 2014)) and accounts for the tragedy’s choral ode to Apollo (Sen. Ag. 310-88), seen thus far by scholars as “unrelated” to the rest of the text (Tarrant 1976, Hanford 2014): the Theatre of Marcellus sits next to the Temple to Apollo Sosianus, itself rededicated in the same year as Augustus’ temple to Apollo, and by Sosius no less—a former Antonian forgiven by Augustus and made quindecemvir for the Ludi Saeculares. The proximity to Sosius’ temple alongside allusions to that of Augustus invites the audience to rethink the role of Apollo in the creation (and preservation, by Seneca’s time) of Augustus’ founding of a new “golden age” in the city of Rome (Miller 2009, Galinsky 1996, Newlands 1997).

This paper asserts neither that this reading of Seneca’s Agamemnon is more “correct,” nor that this reading should be used as evidence for ancient performances of Seneca’s tragedies; rather, this paper concludes with a discussion of its implications as a way of reading politics in(to) Senecan drama. As scholars increasingly realize the importance of place as inextricably entangled with (Barad 2007) and a memorialization of/for Roman culture (e.g., Galinsky 2014, Flower 2006, Vasaly 1993, Welch 2005), finding political analysis in non-political texts—as this panel proposes—might increasingly be a project of topography as much as of philology.

Session/Panel Title

Political Thought in Latin Literature

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy