SENECA, Thyestes

SENECA: [Lucius Annaeus Seneca] was born at CORDOBA in Spain, ca. 4 B.C., of a rich family of Italian ancestry. His aunt, the wife of C. Galerius Prefect of Egypt (16-31 A.D.) brought him to Rome, and at some point he visited his aunt in Egypt as well.

Versed in rhetoric (thanks surely to his father) he turned eventually to philosophy, and studied with the eclectic SOTION, the Stoic ATTALOS, and with PAPIRIUS. He was an intimate friend of the Cynic DEMETRIOS.

Caligula (37-41) was jealous of his eloquence, and in 41 Seneca was banished to Corsica; the official charge was adultery with Julia Livilla, Caligula's sister. Through the influence of Agrippina, he was recalled to Rome in 49 and became Praetor. He was appointed Nero's tutor, and from 54, along with Burrus (the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard) was Nero's inner political advisor. He wrote Nero's accession speech, according to Tacitus (Annales Book XIII). In 56 he became consul, though the death of Burrus in 62 brought about his own eclipse. In 65 he allegedly participated in the Pisonian Conspiracy (Tacitus Annales XV) and was compelled by circumstances to commit suicide.

Characters and action:
The fury MEGAERA reminds TANTALUS (grandfather of Atreus and Thyestes) of the crimes, weaknesses and troubles afflicting the House of Tantalus (son of Zeus), which include murder, incest, adultery, hybris, and madness. She predicts that Thyestes will eat the flesh of two of his sons, served up to him by Atreus. Tantalus is horrified and repelled by his own palace and says he would prefer Hades. While he would like to restrain his children, the Fury is eager to urge them on.

CHORUS The MEN OF MYCENAE pray for an end to the crimes of the royal family. They relate the family's crimes and the punishment of Tantalus. 122-176
ATREUS, THE MINISTER (satelles) Atreus works himself up into a vengeful rage against Thyestes. The attendant counsels restraint, but Atreus is arrogant and unrestrainable. In fact he is repeating the family history of Tantalus and Pelops. He reveals his idea: to kill his nephews and serve them up as `people soup' to their father. He intends (against the advice of the satelles) to involve his sons AGAMEMNON and MENELAUS as agents in his crime by using them as emissaries to lure Thyestes to the palace.

CHORUS The men believe that harmony is about to return to the royal family with the return of Thyestes. They state their veiw of what a king should be. 343–401
Thyestes happily returns and is greeted by his three sons, but he is wary and a bit confused. He no longer craves power, but instead poverty and retirement.Though he fears the palace, his son, young TANTALUS, convinces him that Atreus means well. Atreus greets Thyestes, pretending to be happy, but in fact in a triumphantly vengeful mood. Atreus offers half of his kingdom, and Thyestes pledges his sons for his good will.
CHORUS Strength of family ties and of peace after war. FORTUNA: not stable. 541–622
ACT IV Messenger reports the events that took place inside the palace:
-sacrifice of the children at the altar, dismemberment, roasting and boiling;
-serving up the children to THYESTES while he is drunk.

CHORUS Unnatural darkness because of Atreus' crime. 780–884
Atreus exults over his revenge; THYESTES is revealed inside the palace, drunken and singing happily away about his good fortune. This soon turns to tears, but he cannot think why. Atreus offers Thyestes a cup of wine-and-blood. Atreus shows him the heads of the children on a platter. When Thyestes begs for the bodies to bury, Atreus tells him that he has eaten them. Recapitulation by Atreus. Thyestes predicts complete vengeance for Atreus' crimes.


  • D.F. Sutton, Seneca on the Stage (Leiden 1986), 13, 18, 20, 40-41, 55-56.
  • V. Sorensen, Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero (Chicago 1984) Ch. IX, pp. 240-286.
  • N.P. Pratt, Seneca's Drama (Chapel Hill: U.No.Carolina 1983)
  • M. Griffin, Seneca. A Philosopher in Politics (Oxford 1976).
  • R.J. Tarrant, "Senecan Drama and its Antecedents," Harvard Studies in Class.Philology 82 (1978) 216-263.
  • R.J. Tarrant, Seneca's Thyestes (Introduction, text, commentary, bibliography): pp. 256-59.
    [PA 6664 .T5 1985]
  • Joe P. Poe, "An Analysis of Seneca's Thyestes," Transactions of the American Philological Association 100 (1969) 355-376.
  • A. J. Boyle, Seneca Tragicus (Berwick, Australia 1983) (collection of essays)

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January 26, 2010 12:57 PM

John Paul Adams, CSUN

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