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, a play would often end with the appearance of a god, who would then explain to the characters how to earn forgiveness for their misdeeds. In Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes however, the gods do not appear when they are summoned. 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 their unholy crimes. He asks that they are banished to whatever places lie below Tartarus, Acheron and Phlegethon, places in hell traditionally reserved for the worst sinners. But humanity has been abandoned and his cries go unanswered. Where the gods are expected to step in there is only 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 terrifying. He is determined to have revenge, and in Book 22 he faces Hector in single combat.

When Hector misses Achilles with his javelin, 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)

In ancient Greek thought there was a strong link between heroism and poetry. Heroes are remembered for their great deeds and glorious deaths through epics like the Iliad, and this is the only way for a mortal man to achieve immortality.

However, it is interesting that the actual depictions of death are extremely graphic and often grotesque. Homer’s narrative emphasises the cost of war, and his portrayals of death are at odds with his characters’ visions of a glorious end in battle. In the below passage Achilles promises to humiliate Hector’s corpse by refusing him a burial.

Then Hector of the gleaming helm replied, in a feeble voice: ‘At your feet I beg, by your parents, by your own life, don’t let the dogs devour my flesh by the hollow ships. Accept the ransom my royal father and mother will offer, stores of gold and bronze, and let them carry my body home, so the Trojans and their wives may grant me in death my portion of fire.’

But fleet-footed Achilles glared at him in answer: ‘Don’t speak of my parents, dog. I wish the fury and the pain in me could drive me to carve and eat you raw for what you did, as surely as this is true: no living man will keep the dogs from gnawing at your skull, not if men weighed out twenty, thirty times your worth in ransom, and promised even more, not though Dardanian Priam bid them give your weight in gold, not even then will your royal mother lay you on a bier to grieve for you, the son she bore, rather shall dogs, and carrion birds, devour you utterly.’

(22.337-354)

Achilles’ reply is shockingly brutal and unyielding. The desire to eat Hector raw is that of a savage. In addition, burial rights were sacred to the Greeks and to deny them is tantamount to sacrilege.

Despite the intimacy of the scene, in which the final words of the dying man create a terrible bond between the slain and his slayer, both heroes are being watched by many audiences: the Greeks held back by Achilles, the Trojans watching anxiously from the city walls, the gods from above like spectators at the games, and of course the readers of the poem and the poet himself. Hector’s death is not a private matter; his death seals the fate of many men, and so the whole world watches as he falls to the ground and begs for a final act of mercy.

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Homer’s Iliad Book 6: Hector’s farewell

Below is an extract from one of the Iliad’s most famous scenes, taking place at end of Book 6. Hector speaks to his wife and child after returning from battle and although he does not know it yet, it is to be their last meeting before he is killed by Achilles. It is a memorable moment, in which Hector displays a heart-breaking affection for his wife and son, alongside a tragic understanding that he will ultimately be unable to protect them.

Hector’s wife Andromache makes a tearful speech to Hector, begging him to be more careful and stay behind the battlements more often. For with Hector gone she and her son will be alone in this world. Hector however is a hero in a warrior society and to stay behind the battle would mean disgrace for himself and his family. His response to Andromache reflects this:

“Wife, I too have thought upon all this, but with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward? I cannot do so: I know nothing save to fight bravely in the forefront of the Trojan host and win renown alike for my father and myself. Well do I know that the day will surely come when mighty Ilius shall be destroyed with Priam and Priam’s people, but I grieve for none of these- not even for Hecuba, nor King Priam, nor for my brothers many and brave who may fall in the dust before their foes- for none of these do I grieve as for yourself when the day shall come on which some one of the Achaeans shall rob you for ever of your freedom, and bear you weeping away.”
(6.441-455)

Andromache in Captivity by Frederic Leighton (ca. 1886)

Andromache in Captivity by Frederic Leighton (ca. 1886)

How you are perceived by others is an important tenet of heroism in Homeric society and crucial to a hero’s self-worth. Yet his compulsion to fight has tragic consequences for Hector, who in Book 22 is slain in battle by Achilles. Troy is doomed to fall, and so Hector cannot succeed either as a husband and father nor as defender of the city. Hector is aware of this, and knows that he fights to protect those he loves in vain. He accepts his death heroically, mourning only for the fate of his wife as a slave to the Greeks.

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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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