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Prophecy in Senecan tragedy is fraught with problems: figures who are traditionally unfailing seers possess limited knowledge in Seneca’s tragedies (as they themselves often self-consciously articulate), while others who are not prophets per se assume a prophetic role. One significant example of the intricate workings of prophecy in Seneca occurs in what one recent commentator calls the ‘overfulfilled’ oracle (‘übererfüllt’): Oedipus declares that he has exceeded what is fated by killing not only his father but his mother (Töchterle, 1994; cf. Fischer, 2009). Yet the ramifications of this and other similar prophecies in Senecan tragedy have not to date been explored. In this paper I argue that the phenomenon of overfulfilling an oracle or prophetic utterance is not mere rhetorical amplification but is a key component in the larger matrix of causality in the dramas -- specifically, that such prophecies highlight the shared responsibility between the human agents and divine machinery and that the multiple motivations for action that stem from poetic necessity vs. innovation. The double meaning of vates as ‘poet’ and ‘prophet,’ as well as the resonances of fatum as ‘that which has been spoken’ in addition to ‘fate,’ strengthens the link between the internal action of the dramas and the external workings of the poet (Bettini, 2008; Boyle, 2011). With this in mind, I propose a model of causality in these tragedies which is based on the Stoic theory of co-fated events (confatalia), where the events of the play are co-motivated by the backdrop of the mytho-literary tradition and the demands of dramatic necessity -- which function as antecedent cause, or fate -- and by Seneca’s own set of poetic decisions -- which functions as individual choice, or what is eph' hêmin.

In fact, the birth of Oedipus to Laius was one of the classic examples adduced by Chrysippus and other Stoics to show the distinction between simple and co-fated events: while Oedipus’ birth was fated by the oracle (the proximate cause), it was also contingent upon Laius’ mating with Jocasta (Cicero Fat. 30.1-6, quoting Chrysippus, quoted in Long, 1996 and in Bobzien, 1998; cf. Sen. NQ 2.38). When Seneca’s Oedipus articulates that he has outdone what the oracle originally foretold by killing both parents, he implicates himself in the scenario as well as accusing Apollo of lying (…solum debui fatis patrem./bis parricida plusque quam timui nocens/matrem peremi…/O Phoebe mendax, fata superavi impia, Oed. 1042-6). Oedipus’ quick shift from self-address to apostrophe to Apollo underscores the fact that the blame is shared between the human agent and the divine workings of fate – which is itself an apposite illustration of the workings of confatalia.

Within Seneca’s own corpus, the salient differences between the events of the Oedipus and the Phoenissae -- most significantly, that Jocasta lives on at Thebes in the Phoenissae -- further draws attention to the autonomic nature of the individual poet, who is charged with poetic creation, against the backdrop of what-has-been-said in the literary tradition. On this intra-textual level, the iteration of the Theban drama in which Jocasta survives allows for the focus to shift from the parricide and incest to the maius malum of the brothers’ civil war, inter alia signalling the poet’s outdoing (or at least innovating on) his earlier play. While the Theban diptych is arguably the fullest, and most striking, example of how overfulfilled oracles can mark co-fated occurrents, other plays also feature this conjunction. To that end, I briefly offer two other examples of the phenomenon in Seneca’s Troades and Agamemnon,sketching out their workings and examining them in light of the Oedipus plays.


  • Bettini, M. (2008), ‘Weighty Words, Suspect Speech: Fari in Roman Culture,’ Arethusa 41, 313-375.
  • Bobzien, S. (1998), Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford.
  • Boyle, A.J. (2011), Seneca: Oedipus. Oxford.
  • Fischer, S. (2009), Seneca als Theologe. Berlin.
  • Töchterle, K. (1994), Senecas Oedipus. Heidelberg.

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