Nero’s Empire in Roman Literature: A Godless Land

In my post on Seneca’s Thyestes I talk about how how texts changed under the Emperor Nero. Literature written in this time was a lot darker and messier, and one of the most striking differences is the disappearance of the gods. In Augustan literature the Roman Empire is ordained by Zeus and a fulfilment of man’s manifest destiny, but under Nero chaos and uncertainty rule the world, there is no divine order or great purpose, and mankind are powerless under their psychotic rulers.

Seneca’s play Thyestes is a very pointed example of this change. In Ancient Greek tragedy the play usually ends with the appearance of a god, who explains to the characters how they can right everything and earn forgiveness for their misdeeds. In Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes however the gods do not appear. Thyestes has been tricked by his brother Atreus into eating his own sons at a feast, revenge for scheming with Atreus’ wife to overthrow him. Horrified by the knowledge of what he has done, Thyestes implores the gods to fulfil their role as divine rulers and punish the two brothers’ unholy crimes, listing Tartarus, Acheron and Phlegethon, places in hell traditionally reserved for the worst sinners. But humanity has been abandoned and there is no justice to be found. He cries go unanswered and where the gods are expected to step in there is a terrible silence.

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Saturn Devouring his Son by Rubens (1636)

Seneca’s Thyestes (1004-1021)

ATREUS
…Now, father, spread out thine arms;
they have come. Do you recognise your sons?

[He uncovers the platter, revealing the severed heads of Thyestes’ sons.]

THYESTES
I recognise my brother. How can you bear such a crime,
Earth? Why do you not plunge into the Stygian
darkness below 
and, on a gaping path
to empty chaos, not rip apart this kingdom and it’s king?

Why, tearing this whole palace from the ground,
not raze Mycenas? We should already both be standing
before Tantalus. With prison bars torn apart
on every side, 
if there is a land below Tartarus, 
below our grandfathers, send there your chasm 
with a huge abyss and hide us buried
beneath all of Acheron. Let guilty souls wander
above our heads and fiery Phlegethon,
with its burning waters 
driving burning sands,
flows violently above our place of exile.
 – Why Earth do you still lie an inactive mass?
The gods have fled.

Lucan was Seneca’s nephew, and he is famous for his epic Bellum Civile (Civil War). This tells the story of the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, and portrays the victorious Caesar as a terrifying, power-hungry desecrator of the gods. Before Lucan, the most famous Roman epic was Virgil’s Aeneid. In this text repeated again and again is the hero Aeneas’ divine destiny to establish the Roman empire. There is terrible bloodshed and violence within the text, but there is a point to this violence, and it is shown to be worth it because it will lead to the god-given rule of the Emperors. There are however no gods in Bellum Civile, they are only mentioned in addresses made by the first-person narrator. Like Thyestes above, this narrator desperately appeals to whatever deity might exist, but it is all in vain, and Caesar’s murderous advance is unchecked. In the passage below the narrator despairingly asks how a ruling god could allow such things to happen, left wondering whether everything is the result of some terrible chance; and the implications of this are terrifying.

Lucan’s Bellum Civile (2.4-15)

…Ruler of Olympus, why did you
decide to impose this anxiety on troubled mortals –
to learn of coming calamity by hideous omens?
Perhaps when the Creator first took up his shapeless realm
of raw matter after the conflagration had died down,
he fixed causes for all eternity, binding himself too by his 
all-controlling law, and with the immovable boundary of destiny
arranged the universe to introduce prescribed ages.

Or perhaps nothing is ordained, but Chance at random wanders
bringing change after change, and accident is master of mortal affairs.
Whatever you intend, let it be sudden; let men’s minds
be blind to future disaster; let the fearful have hope!

(Trans. by Susan Braund, 1992)

This omission is striking in a literary tradition that previously relied so heavily on the gods. Nero was famous for his cruelty, particularly to those close to him. Seneca was Nero’s tutor, but committed suicide when he fell out of the emperor’s favour, and likewise Lucan was originally one of Nero’s close friends, yet he died at the emperor’s order aged only 25. And so the Roman Empire is no longer a blessed fulfilment of the will of the gods, rather it is the result of a mindless chaos.

Tradition held that Nero sang while Rome burned in a great fire, although this may be an exaggeration by later biographers of the emperor. Nero Watching Rome Burning by Alphonse Mucha (1887)

Tradition held that Nero sang while Rome burned in a great fire, although this may be an exaggeration by later biographers of the emperor. Nero Watching Rome Burning by Alphonse Mucha (1887). Featured image (above) is a detail from The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert.

Tacitus the historian famously tells the story of Nero sleeping with his mother and then ordering for her to be murdered. Her death scene is portrayed here by Antonio Rizzi.

Tacitus the historian famously tells the story of Nero sleeping with his mother and then ordering for her to be murdered. Her death scene is portrayed here by Antonio Rizzi.

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2 thoughts on “Nero’s Empire in Roman Literature: A Godless Land

  1. This is fascinating. It calls to mind the quote in King Lear – ‘like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods they kill us for their sport.’ Well, I think that’s the quote anyway!

    Like

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