Seneca Thyestes 938-970: A Feast of Flesh

So far on my blog I have focussed on the beautiful and the evocative. The poetry I have looked at comes from the Golden Age of Latin poetry, the time of Augustus when the Roman Empire was peaceful and prosperous. The poetry from Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes is something completely different. Seneca was writing under the emperor Nero, a man whose perverse cruelty reverberates across history. This is the emperor who was said to have slept with his mother and then murdered her. The literature of this period is not beautiful or harmonious, it is a product of anger and fear in a time when few were safe from the emperor’s whims. Seneca did well to last until his late 60s, however eventually the emperor turned against him as well. The writer and philosopher was commanded to commit suicide, a common order under Nero’s time.

The story of Thyestes is a gruesome one. Son of Tantalus, the king of Greek Peloponnese, Thyestes harbours a deadly rivalry with his brother Atreus. He tricks Atreus and claims the throne, banishing his brother from the kingdom. However their positions are soon reversed. When the play starts Atreus is now the King and Thyestes the exile. Atreus has not forgiven his brother for his previous betrayal and he plots a terrible revenge. He invites Thyestes and his sons back to Mycenae, pretending that he wants to restore peace between them. However, once they are in his grasp he murders Thyestes’ children and serves them on a plate them to their father, disguised in a brilliant banquet to celebrate the brothers’ reconciliation.

In Seneca’s Thyestes Atreus is a truly terrifying character. Consumed with a violent desire for revenge he mercilessly plots his brother’s downfall with a terrible clear-sightedness. Thyestes on the other hand is portrayed as a weak and foolish man; greedy for power and the comforts it brings he is only too happy to be welcomed back to the palace. He is pathetic in his refusal to see his brother’s true nature.

The passage I give below is Thyestes speaking. He has just eaten from Atreus’ dreadful feast and tries to celebrate his good fortune. He does not know what he has just eaten, but his body rebels against him. Gorged with his sons’ flesh, he knows deep down that something terrible has happened, and he weeps without knowing who he weeps for. His speech breaks down into terrified exclamations and he grows more and more desperate in his attempts to reassure himself that all is well and his brother is trustworthy. It is a truly horrific scene. He finally trails off with the pathetic hope that his tears are tears of joy. Meanwhile Atreus looms over him, eager to tell his brother what he has done.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco de Goya (1819-1823)

Saturn Devouring his Son by Francisco de Goya (1819-1823)

But this peculiar failing dogs the wretched:
they never believe in their happiness.
Though good fortunes come again,
still those who have suffered find it hard to smile.
Why am I drawn back to grief 
on this festive day? Why do I weep,
When I have no cause for 
grief?
Why can I not wreathe my hair
with beautiful flowers? It is forbidden! Forbidden!
The spring roses have slipped from my head;
my hair, dripping with rich oil,
stands on end in sudden horror,
tears fall down my unwilling cheeks,
and my speech is filled with groans.
Grief grows fond of her tears,
the wretched have a strange love of weeping.
I want to utter ominous laments,
I want to tear off these garments,
made with rich purple, I want to scream. 

My mind warns me of future misery,
it predicts its own woe;
just as when a fierce storm comes to sailors 
and without a breeze the calm waters rise.
What grievance, what distress 
do you imagine, fool? Let your heart
trust your brother. By now, whatever it is, 
it is nothing to fear, or it is feared too late.

I do not want to be unhappy, but within me
roam vague terrors, my eyes shed
sudden tears, but there is no reason for them.
Is it grief or fear? Or do my tears fall in 
great joy?

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7 thoughts on “Seneca Thyestes 938-970: A Feast of Flesh

      • You’re welcome! By the way, not to be critical, but helpful, I noticed a couple of typos: it should be “tears fall down my unwilling cheeks” (not tears falls) and “within me roam vague terrors” (not roams vague terrors). Not knowing the original, but just for the sound of English, I hear the ending more like:
        But what is the reason for them?
        Is it grief or fear? Or do my tears fall
        only in great joy?

        Keep up the great work!

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      • Ooh thank you for spotting the typos, I definitely need to proofread more carefully! With the last lines I’ve tried to stick to the latin. Thyestes says firmly that he shouldn’t be crying, and perhaps the speech would end there if that was the case, but he is unconvinced by his own reassurances and he continues, trailing off with half formed questions and doubts. Personally I think it is meant to come across a bit stilted at the end, but naturally every reader will have their preference! Your suggestion definitely reads a lot more smoothly.

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  1. Pingback: Nero’s Empire in Roman Literature: A Godless Land | a classical blog

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