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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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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