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Maternal Malfunctions: Niobe and Latona in Seneca’s Medea

Katherine R De Boer

Xavier University

This paper argues that Seneca’s Medea draws on Ovid’s Niobe narrative (Met. 6.146-312) to reframe the parental identities of both mother and father: Medea is characterized simultaneously as failed mother (Niobe) and avenging supermother (Latona), while Jason takes on Niobe’s maternal qualities. Studies of Ovidian intertextuality in the Medea have generally focused on the “Medeae” of the Metamorphoses and Heroides (Martina, Hinds 24-33, Trinacty 93-123), though several critics have also noticed echoes of Ovid’s Procne and Althaea (Jakobi 51, Guastella 2001, McAuley 217-218). Yet Medea herself alludes to another Ovidian mother: regretfully comparing herself to Niobe, she wishes for a larger “throng” of offspring to murder (utinam superbae turba Tantalidos meo | exisset utero, 954-955), concluding “I have been barren for revenge” (sterilis in poenas fui, 956). The comparison suggests a shared utilitarian model of maternity: like Niobe, Medea views her children as instruments, the “raw material” (materiam, 914) for her revenge against Jason. Medea’s allusion, however, also highlights her likeness to Latona, Niobe’s adversary—as she concludes, “I have given birth to two” (peperi duos, 957; cf. illa duorum...parens, Met. 6.191). There are other significant parallels between Medea and Latona: Medea’s role as recurring exile, ejected from one home after another (exul, 486; cf. exuli exulium imperas, 459), echoes the tale of Latona’s wandering in search of a birthplace for her children (cf. exsul, Met. 6.189). Further, while Niobe claimed divinity for herself based on her extraordinary fertility, her hubris ultimately served to showcase the power of her rival (manifestam numinis iram, Met. 6.314). Medea’s dominance is similarly asserted in her final confrontation with Jason, when she speaks from the roof, her elevated position suggesting her godlike power and aligning her with the divine avengers of the Niobe-narrative, rather than their human victim.

Further, Jason himself comes to occupy the role of Niobe at the play’s conclusion. Finding one son dead at Medea’s hands, he begs her to spare the other (iam parce nato, 1004), concluding “one is enough for punishment” (unus est poenae satis, 1008). He therefore echoes Ovid’s Niobe when she tries to shield her last surviving daughter, begging “leave me one” (unam...relinqueMet. 6.299). Frécaut (130) describes this act as Niobe’s “première et seule preuve d’un véritable amour maternel.” The allusion figures Jason as maternal, both father and mother, and indicates his strong affective ties to his sons. Yet the parallel with Niobe also suggests Jason’s culpability for his children’s deaths, as is implied when Medea addresses him as superbe (1007), echoing her earlier reference to "the proud Tantalid" (superbae...Tantalidos, 954). Jason’s children are his “reason for living” (haec causa vitae est, 547), but, as with Niobe, they are also his weak point—as Medea observes (vulneri patuit locus, 550). Many critics view Seneca’s Jason as a sympathetic character because of his claim that he abandoned Medea to save their sons (437-439; see e.g. Zwierlein 40-45, Nussbaum 229-230, Guastella 2000: 156, Rimell 15), but his likeness to Niobe destabilizes his self-presentation as victim, suggesting that he too has committed hubris by disregarding an opponent’s potential for retributive violence.

I conclude that Seneca uses these shifting allusions to Niobe and Latona to explore the interdependence of Medea’s motherhood and her revenge. Though some critics argue that the play dramatizes Medea’s rejection of her maternal identity (e.g. Gill, Schiesaro 209-210, Guastella 2001), recent scholarship has suggested that she rather reclaims and redefines motherhood through her filicide (Rimell, Trinacty 94-126, McAuley 201-227). McAuley makes this point in terms of Medea’s Niobe reference, describing her as “a Niobe who claiming a mother’s power not only to give birth but to dole out death” (227). I argue instead that Medea succeeds by occupying the roles of both Niobe and Latona, simultaneously playing the part of the mortal mother who loses her children and the divine mother who destroys them. 

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Tragic Tradition

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