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.

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Homer’s Iliad Book 22: The Tragedy of Hector

In my previous post I looked at Hector’s farewell to his wife and child in Book 6. Book 22 recounts the hero’s death. Hector has killed Patroclus, Achilles beloved comrade, and Achilles’ rage is violent and terrifying. He has resolved to kill Hector no matter what.

While there is life, there is hope. And when Achilles’ first javelin throw misses, Hector is briefly triumphant. However, when he then misses his own shot, he is left unarmed and completely isolated outside the gates of Troy. He understands now that he is about to die. All that is left for him is the hope that he will die in a manner worthy of remembrance:

‘But let me not die without a fight, without true glory, without some deed that men unborn may hear.’
(22.304-5)

As in Book 6 it is what other people think that defines heroism for Hector. In ancient Greek thought there was a strong link between great deeds and poetry. Heroes are remembered through poetry, it is through epics like the Iliad that they live on. Hector is concerned with his ‘undying glory’, for the songs of the poet are the closest a mortal man can get to immortality.

The glory of war and the desire for a glorious death are important themes in the Iliad. However, it is interesting that the actual depictions of death are extremely graphic and often grotesque. In no way does Homer glorify the cost of war, and Hector’s death and the mutilation of his body is humiliating rather than glorious. Achilles’ rage is terrible, and even with his enemy dying at his feet his revenge is not satisfied.

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Homer’s Iliad Book 6: Hector’s farewell

Hector’s fate in the Iliad is perhaps western literature’s greatest tragedy. In some ways he is Homer’s most modern hero: a family man forced to fight in a war that is not his doing. And yet he is very much a product of Homer’s heroic society, and his understanding of the world is shaped by the epic values of a warrior.

The story of Hector cannot be summed up in one post. There’s far too much to say! However here I’ve copied a bit from the end of Book 6, where Hector speaks to his wife and child. Although the hero does not know it yet, it is to be their last meeting before he is killed by Achilles. It is one of the Iliad’s most memorable scenes, in which Hector displays a heartbreaking affection for his wife and son.

The scene starts with Hector returning from the battle, eager to see his wife Andromache and his baby son Scamandrius, nicknamed Astyanax. However his wife is not at home but is running around the city in a frenzy, fearful that her husband has been harmed in battle. Hector runs out and finds her at the city gates:

And with her there went a maid carrying at her breast their innocent child no more than a baby, Hector’s only beloved son, shining lovely as a star. Hector’s name for him was Skamandrios, but the other’s called him Astyanax, Lord of the City, because Hector was Ilios’ sole protection. Hector looked at his son and smiled in silence.
(6.399-404)

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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.

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Euripides’ Hipploytus, 732-75: Mortal Wishes

On Wednesday I was lucky enough to see a brilliant adaptation of Euripides’ Hippolytus by Antic Face at the V&A museum. It is one of my favourite tragedies, mostly because of its memorable female characters, proud but wretched Phaedra and the terrifying goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis. I had not originally planned to put any tragedy on this blog, however this chorus song is one of my favourite moments in Greek poetry. It is a dream of a divine escape from earth, a fantasy of the lands they would reach. However the imagery eventually leads the chorus back down to earth, and the beauty and prosperity of the first strophe are distorted in the portrayal of Phaedra’s wedding and the destruction it will cause.

The tragedy acts out the myth of Hippolytus, son of Theseus. Hippolytus is a virgin and exclusively worships Diana, goddess of virginity, spurning Aphrodite, goddess of love and lust. This infuriates Aphrodite and she has her revenge by forcing Phaedra, Theseus’ husband and Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him. Phaedra tries to hide her love, but eventually reveals her secret to her nurse. The nurse then tells Hippolytus who is enraged and rails against Phaedra and womankind as a whole. Phaedra is overwhelmed by grief and shame and determines to kill herself. It is at this point that the chorus song begins.

In Greek tragedy a chorus is a group of singers and dancers who collectively comment on the dramatic action of the play in their songs. Here they build up the sense of impending doom and horror of what is happening offstage with their idyllic fantasies, a sense that is heightened as the imagery is distorted and the chorus are relentlessly dragged back down to earth.

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