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Phaedra

Phaedra

In Greek mythology, Phaedra was the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of Crete and the younger sister of Ariadne. Phaedra married Theseus, king of Athens and slayer of the beast known as the Minotaur. Earlier, Ariadne had helped him kill the Minotaur and escape from Crete.

Theseus had a son named Hippolytus from a previous marriage to an Amazon queen, and after his marriage to Phaedra, they went to see him. Phaedra fell madly in love with Hippolytus, but he was disgusted by her feelings. Rejected, Phaedra killed herself and left a note saying that Hippolytus had raped her. When Theseus found the note, he asked the god Poseidon* to take revenge on Hippolytus. One day as Hippolytus was driving his chariot by the seashore, Poseidon sent a sea monster to frighten Hippolytus's horses. The horses bolted, tangling Hippolytus in the reins and killing him. The Greek playwright Euripides used the story of Phaedra and Hippolytus as the basis for his tragedy Hippolytus.

See also Ariadne; Minos; Theseus.

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Phaedra

Phaedra.
1. Dramatic cantata by Britten, Op.93, for mez. and small orch., being setting of extracts from Racine's Phèdre trans. by Robert Lowell. Comp. 1975. Ded. to Dame Janet Baker, who gave f.p. Aldeburgh 1976.

2. Monodrama for mez. and orch. by G. Rochberg, Comp. 1973–4 (text drawn from Lowell by Gene Rochberg). F.p. NY, 1976, by Neva Pilgrim with Syracuse SO, cond. D. Loebel.

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Phaedra

Phaedra in Greek mythology, the daughter of Minos of Crete and wife of Theseus. She fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who rejected her, whereupon she hanged herself, leaving behind a letter which accused him of raping her. Theseus would not believe his son's protestations of innocence and banished him, leading to his death.

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Phaedra

Phaedra In Greek mythology, the daughter of Minos and the wife of Theseus. She fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus. When Hippolytus spurned her advances, Phaedra accused him of raping her. Theseus condemend him to death and Phaedra hanged herself.

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Phaedra

Phaedra (fē´drə), in Greek mythology, daughter of Minos and Pasiphaë. She was the wife of Theseus. When her stepson, Hippolytus, rejected her love, she accused him of raping her and hanged herself.

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Phaedra

Phaedraairer, bearer, carer, Clara, darer, declarer, Demerara, Éire, habanera, Halmahera, parer, Perak, primavera, repairer, Rivera, Riviera, Sarah, scarer, sharer, snarer, sparer, squarer, starer, swearer, tearer, wearer •cause célèbre • torch-bearer •swordbearer • pallbearer • wayfarer •seafarer • capoeira • Phaedra •sacra, simulacra •Libra, vers libre •ex cathedra •chypre, Yprespalaestra (US palestra) • urethra •joie de vivre •mirror, sirrah •Coimbra • Middlesbrough • Indra •Sintra •aspidistra, sistra •algebra • orchestra • vertebra •Beira, Fujairah, Hegira, Lyra, Myra, naira, palmyra, spirogyra •Hydra • Lycra •begorra, Gomorrah, horror •double entendre • genre • amour propre • Le Nôtre • contra •Cosa Nostra, rostra

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Phaedra

Phaedra ★★ 1961

Loose and updated adaptation of Euripides' “Hipploytus.” Mercouri, the second wife of a rich Greek shipping magnate, is dispatched to London to convince her husband's adult son (Perkins) to come home to Greece. Mercouri and Perkins immediately begin a steamy affair but their return home brings problems for all. Dubbed. 116m/B VHS . GR FR Melina Mercouri, Anthony Perkins, Raf Vallone, Elizabeth Ercy; Cameos: Jules Dassin; D: Jules Dassin; W: Jules Dassin, Margarita Liberaki; M: Mikis Theodorakis.

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Phaedra

Phaedra

by Seneca (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)

THE LITERARY WORK

A tragic play set in Athens, Greece during an unspecified mythological time; published in Latin c. 54 ce.

SYNOPSIS

A woman conceives an incestuous passion for her stepson. When he rejects her, she falsely accuses him of rape, with dire consequences for the family.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Born around 3 bce in Cordova, Spain, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a son of Seneca the Elder, who devoted himself to educating his sons in the study of rhetoric. The younger Seneca was educated in Rome, where he studied rhetoric and philosophy and earned renown as an orator while still young. He rose from advocate (lawyer), to quaestor (a state official), and then to senator. In the first year of Emperor Claudius’ reign (41-54 ce), Seneca was charged with committing adultery with Claudius’ niece Julia Livilla. His death sentence was commuted to exile, and he spent the next eight years on Corsica. Recalled to Rome in 49 ce, Seneca served as tutor to Nero, Claudius’ stepson and eventual successor. After Nero became emperor in 54 ce, Seneca remained his advisor, exerting what most believed to be a calming influence on the volatile young ruler. Around 62 ce, however, Seneca lost the emperor’s favor and began to spend a great deal of time away from Rome. Three years later, implicated in a plot against Nero’s life, Seneca was forced to commit suicide. His surviving body of work consists of numerous scholarly essays and at least eight tragic plays, including The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon, and Thyestes The latter were all based on earlier Greek models, to which they have often been unfavorably compared. It is unclear whether Seneca’s tragedies were ever performed or if Seneca just intended them to be read or recited before small private audiences. In any case, the tragedies would have a profound effect on dramatists in later eras. The works would also further the fusion of ancient cultural ways in Seneca’s own era. In his adaptation of Phaedra, the tragedy of a queen who struggles with her incestuous love for her stepson, Seneca adds some distinctively Roman touches to an age-old Greek legend.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Phaedra and Hippolytus—the legend

Seneca’s play presupposes extensive knowledge of classical Greek and Roman mythology, especially the legend of Phaedra and Hippolytus. Scholars con-tend that the legend originated at Troezen, a town in the northeast Peloponnese by the Saronic Gulf. While the town’s most important local deity was Poseidon—the Greek god of the sea—Hippolytus grew into a popular cult figure there. Over time the legend spread, gaining wide renown in the region with the help of dramatic retellings by two of the foremost tragedy writers of Classical Greece (Sophocles and Euripedes).

While particulars of the Phaedra myth vary, the basic plot remains constant. Hippolytus, the bastard son of King Theseus of Athens and Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons, leads a perfectly chaste life. He worships Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and he shuns all mortal women. Phaedra, Theseus’ wife, falls in love with Hippolytus, possibly because Aphrodite, the goddess of love, wishes to punish him for his stubborn insistence on remaining chaste. Initially Phaedra struggles to conceal her incestuous passion for her stepson, but she finally confesses her love to Hippolytus. (In another version, she confesses to her nurse, who then informs Hippolytus.) Horrified, he rejects her. Phaedra, fearing that Hippolytus will denounce her to Theseus, takes matters into her own hands and accuses the young man of attempted rape. Theseus believes her story, curses his son, and calls upon Poseidon to punish Hippolytus with death. In response, Poseidon has a sea monster frighten Hippolytus’ horses. Terror-stricken, they fling their master from his chariot and then drag him to his death. Subsequently either human or divine intervention, depending on the version of the tale, proves Hippolytus innocent of the attempted rape. A guilt-ridden Phaedra commits suicide. Bereft of wife and son, and distressed by his own part in the tragedy, Theseus is overcome with remorse at having destroyed his son.

Dramatic treatments of the myth differ, especially with regard to the characterizations of Hippolytus and Phaedra. In Euripides’ Hippolytus (c. 428 bce), the young man is portrayed as morally self-righteous and arrogant; the lovesick Phaedra, as a formerly virtuous queen who becomes the instrument of Aphrodite’s vengeance against Hippolytus. A complex character, she suffers an internal struggle between her passion for Hippolytus and her deep sense of modesty. Centuries later, Seneca presented an innocent Hippolytus and his own complex, morally ambiguous Phaedra. The gods, who are a physical presence in Euripides’ play, do not appear in Seneca’s version; their absence renders Phaedra’s incestuous love for Hippolytus more the product of her sensual nature than the curse of a goddess. Yet if Seneca’s Phaedra is more shameless and sensual about her forbidden passion, she is also a sympathetic character. Manipulated by her crafty nurse into accusing Hippolytus of rape, the queen grows so remorseful after his death that she is driven to honorable action. “I lied, and sin/Which I my-self conceived in mad heart crazed / Falsely alleged…./To the just sword my impious breast opens, /Blood pays the death-dues for a sinless man” (Seneca, Phaedra, Act 6, lines 1192-94, 1198-99).

Women and marriage in Classical Athens

The time in which Seneca’s Phaedra takes place is un-specified. But the values reflected in the course of the play may be likened to those of fifth century bce Greece, when its playwrights began to dramatize the legend. In this era, often called the Classical Age, Athenian women of good family continued to live under the guardianship of their fathers or other male relations until they reached marriageable age. Ideally a young teenage girl of 14 married a man of about 30, mainly to bear his children.

The bride’s guardian and the groom usually arranged the match, which was based mostly on economic and political considerations rather than affection or even attraction. Arrangements were often made for blood relatives to marry, the aim being to consolidate family financial and property holdings. Among the elite, marriage be-came a means to promote political alliances. A girl was expected to marry the man chosen for her, even if she had never met him.

The birth of children to carry on the family line was the highest priority of a marriage. Once a bride had borne offspring, preferably sons, she had fulfilled her main marital obligation. Since the purpose of the children was to perpetuate the father’s family line, they were considered his property and they remained in his house, even if the marriage dissolved because of death or divorce.

In Seneca’s play, Phaedra reveals that her own marriage to Theseus is a political arrangement, intended to quell hostilities between Athens and her native island of Crete. Although the marriage has produced two sons, little love appears to exist between husband and wife, as was often the case in ancient Greek and Roman marriages. Phaedra laments to her nurse, “Why compel me, hostage to a hated house,/ Married to my foe, to consume a life / In pain and tears?” (Phaedra, 2.89-91). Within this context, Phaedra’s romantic yearnings for her stepson, who may have very well been close to her age, become more understandable, if no less transgressive.

Incest and the ancients

Phaedra’s forbidden passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, remains the most controversial element of the myth. Throughout antiquity, sexual relations or marriage between close kin was mostly forbidden or condemned.

The criteria for incest varied from region to region, allowing for certain exceptions. For example, siblings who shared a father could marry in Athens; siblings who shared a mother could do so in Sparta. Marriages between full siblings could occur in Egypt when it was part of the Greek and then the Roman Empire, but they occurred only rarely, usually to preserve the ethnic identity of a small population. It is telling that the Greeks of Egypt found these marriages shocking and incestuous, despite their infrequency and their legality. Siblings who were related only by adoption could wed if one of them no longer lived under the legal authority of a paterfamilias (father or grandfather). During the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54 ce), marriages between nieces and paternal uncles were permitted in Rome, a practice that would later be outlawed. Marriages between a man and his sisters’ daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters remained forbidden, as did marriages between men and their aunts.

Parent-child incest was universally condemned, a fact reflected in several myths, including those of Oedipus (see The Theban Plays, also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Even when the parent and child commit the sin unknowingly, dis-aster and divine retribution inevitably follow. Although Phaedra is not related by blood to Hippolytus, she is his stepmother by virtue of her marriage to Theseus, as her nurse forcibly reminds her in Seneca’s play: “Will you confound beds of father and son, / In impious womb take mongrel progeny?” (Phaedra, 2.171-172).

The Play in Focus

Plot summary

The play begins one morning in Athens as Hippolytus, the illegitimate son of King Theseus, prepares for a hunt with his comrades. Virile and handsome, Hippolytus scorns women and love, devoting himself instead to the worship of the virgin goddess Diana (Rome’s equivalent of the Greek goddess Artemis).

THE LEGENDS OF THBEUS

The Phaedra and Hippolytus story is part of a larger cycle of myths about Theseus, a legendary king of Athens who is said to have ruled in the generation before the Trojan War. In his youth, Theseus had many adventures, including the slaying of the Minotaur, a monstrous creature—half-bull, half-man—born of an unnatural coupling between a wild bull and Queen Pasiphae of Crete. Her husband, King Minos, makes use of the monster. Demanding an annual tribute from Athens, he forces its citizens to send him seven youths and seven maidens each year to be devoured by the Minotaur. One year Theseus disguises himself as one of the youths and travels to Crete. With the help of Ariadne, Minos’ eldest daughter, he finds his way into the maze in which the Minotaur is hidden and kills it Theseus quickly flees Crete, taking Ariadne with him, but he abandons her on the isle of Naxos for reasons that vary from version to version. In another famous legend, Theseus travels to the land of the fierce women warriors known as Amazons and carries off their queen, alternately known as Hippolyta or Antiope. The queen bears him a son, Hippolytus. She dies, either in battle or by Theseus’ own hands, after which Theseus marries Ariadne’s younger sister, Phaedra, in Seneca’s portrayal, Theseus is a mostly unsympathetic character; the play depicts him as a faithless, often cruel husband.

In the second act, Theseus’ queen Phaedra and her nurse engage in a heated discussion about her incestuous love for Hippolytus. Phaedra argues that the absent Theseus is a neglectful, philandering husband and that she is only following her own nature by craving an illicit love. By way of explanation, she cites her mother’s passion for a great bull, which led to the birth of the monstrous Minotaur. Even the nurse’s argument that Hippolytus shuns women fails to sway Phaedra from her infatuation. Nonetheless, the nurse continues to exhort Phaedra to resist this illicit love and re-main true to her husband. Phaedra finally yields to these pleas, resolving to commit suicide rather than to expose her love and stain her honor. Alarmed, the nurse reverses her previous stance and promises to approach Hippolytus on Phaedra’s behalf.

THE PROBLEM OF EXCESS

The Greek word sôphrosynê can be translated variously as “common sense, “self-restraint,” and most often, “temperance” or “moderation.” The practice of these qualities was important to both Greek and Roman culture According to the Greek historian Polybius, moderation was a Roman trait; famous Romans—from the orator Cicero, to the poet Horace, to Seneca himself in his Moral Letters (also in Classical Literature and It’s Times)—counseled moderation as a virtue. In Seneca’s Phaedra, although Phaedra and Hippolytus strive for sôphrosynê each fails to exhibit moderation. Phaedra gives vent to an excess of passion, while at the opposite extreme, Hippolytus insists on remaining chaste. Yet, in Euripides’ dramatization, Hippolytus credits himself with being sôphrosynê A few times in the play, including on his deathbed, Hippolytus says with conviction that “there is no man more sôphrône than I” (Euripides in Skinner, p, 136),

The Chorus enters at this point to deliver a monologue on the destructive power of love. When the third act opens, the nurse reveals that the lovesick Phaedra has now taken to her bed, weeping and refusing all comfort. Moved by the queen’s distress, the nurse prays to Diana to soften Hippolytus’ heart and render him amenable to the love of women. When Hippolytus himself approaches Diana’s shrine, the nurse tries to convince the youth to abandon his rural pursuits and embrace the pleasures of Venus (Rome’s equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite). Hippolytus resists, defending his austere way of life and reiterating his hatred of women: “I loathe them all, I dread, I shun, I curse them, / Be it reason, nature, or insensate rage, / I choose to hate them” (Phaedra, 3.566-567).

In the midst of their confrontation, Phaedra enters and swoons into Hippolytus’ arms. Hoping for the best, the nurse draws aside, leaving them alone. Upon reviving, Phaedra tries to con-fess her love but Hippolytus repeatedly misunderstands her, believing she is pining for Theseus. When the truth of her passion finally emerges, Hippolytus recoils in disgust. At first he considers stabbing Phaedra, then flings away his sword as defiled by her touch and flees to the woods while Phaedra swoons again. Finding the queen unconscious, the nurse decides to conceal her charge’s guilt and accuse Hippolytus of rape instead. Phaedra herself later makes this false accusation, echoing the deceit. The act concludes with another monologue from the Chorus, this one addressing the hazards of male beauty.

In the fourth act, Theseus, who was trapped in the realm of the dead until rescued by Hercules, returns to find his palace in an uproar. The nurse enters and tells the king that Phaedra means to commit suicide because of some unknown shame. Hurrying to the queen’s side, Theseus finds her holding Hippolytus’ sword and urges her to confess her sorrows. Phaedra tells Theseus that the bearer of the sword has raped her. Recognizing the blade as Hippolytus’, a horrified Theseus calls upon Neptune (the Roman Poseidon) to destroy his son. The Chorus somberly laments the gods’ indifference in letting the innocent suffer and the guilty go unpunished.

In the fifth act, a messenger arrives at Theseus’ palace to reveal that Hippolytus is dead. He was torn to pieces when his chariot’s horses fled at the sight of a monstrous bull from the sea. Hippolytus’ companions enter with parts of his body, which they lay before Theseus. He weeps, despite his belief in his son’s treachery; meanwhile, the Chorus comments upon the fickleness of fortune.

The sixth act begins as Phaedra enters, frantic with grief. On beholding Hippolytus’ dismembered body, she breaks down completely, confesses her sinful love for her stepson and her lie about the rape, and stabs herself to death with Hippolytus’ sword. A devastated Theseus laments his part in the family tragedy, then gives orders for the disposal of the dead. Hippolytus is to receive all ritual honors due his station, but Phaedra will be ignominiously buried: “This one—earth press deep upon her, / And soil lie heavy on her impious head” (Phaedra, 6.1279-1280).

Stepmothers in antiquity

Phaedra concerns a classically infamous literary character, that of the villainous stepmother. Greek literature has given rise to more than 20 legends that feature a stepmother’s mistreatment of her stepchildren. The ancient Greek legend of the evil stepmother first gained popularity in the fifth century bce and continued to attract audiences thereafter. In general, these stepmothers are an unsavory lot—they tend to be evil, self-centered, jealous, cunning, treacherous, and lacking in self-control. Often the stepmother’s villainous plans fail and she is punished, either forced to flee or commit suicide. The typical literary stepmother is unequivocally evil while the other characters in these ancient legends are unequivocally good.

The legends fall into two main categories: 1) a jealous stepmother abuses or plots to kill her stepchildren, usually to make her own son the heir; and 2) the stepmother plots against her stepson because he has rejected her amorous advances. Neither storyline reflects real-life commonplaces in fifth-century bce Athens. But the possibility of the amorous stepmother existed, since, as noted, young girls (aged 14) often married older men (aged 30). As in Phaedra’s case, this meant that the stepmother was likely closer in age to her stepson than to her husband, which could lead to love, infatuation, or sexual tension. Yet, despite this danger, “there are virtually no stories involving lust on the part of a stepson” (Watson, p. 88). Instead, the legends feature (and condemn) the stepmother as the root of amorous desire, perhaps because the ancient Greeks and Romans considered women more subject to sexual passion than men. It was furthermore thought that if women acted on these impulses, disaster would follow.

Sources and literary context

By the fifth century bce, the myth of Phaedra and Hippolytus had become well established enough to have inspired at least three Greek plays, one by Sophocles, entitled Phaedra, and two by Euripides, both entitled Hippolytus. Probably Seneca was familiar with all three, which today survive only in fragments or, in the case of one of Euripides’ versions, not at all. Seneca may also have been influenced by lost dramatizations, such as the Hippolytus of Lycophron, a tragedy writer of about 280 bce. Still another likely influence was Ovid’s Heroides (Heroines, c. 5 bce), a series of fictitious letters from mythological women to the lovers who have spurned or abandoned them. The fourth letter in the sequence is from Phaedra to Hippolytus, confessing her love and begging him to love her back.

I thought I should be able to resist
Temptation—does such strength of mind
exist?
Vanquished but royal, I embrace your knees:,
A lover overlooks the decencies,
And shame forsakes its standards of the field.
Forgive my frankness, heart of stone, and
yield!

(Ovid, p. 46)

In Ovid’s letter, Phaedra anticipates Hippolytus’ surprise at the advances of his stepmother: “… but why should incest shock / You? Don’t believe that pious poppycock: / Nowadays such scruples seem as old-/ Fashioned as the fabled age of gold” (Ovid, p. 45).

Seneca’s plays are often considered in the con-text of the Hellenization of Roman culture (its fusion with Greek ways). Roman artists and writers adopted or borrowed elements from Greek

FUNERAL RITES

Funeral customs varied throughout the classical world. At Athens, where Seneca’s Phaedra takes place, funeral rites changed over time. Burial in stone-lined pits covered with wood or stone was customary in the eleventh century bce, followed by cremations, with the ashes stored in urns, from 1000-750 bce, Next came burial in earth-cut pit graves from 750-700 bce and cremations within the graves themselves from 700-550 bce. From 550 bce onwards, people burred their dead either in stone coffins decorated with sculpture (sarcophagi) or in pit graves. In the Roman Empire of the first and second century ce, urn cremation was the most popular practice. Burial did not become customary until late in the second century e.g. Seneca’s play reflects these circumstances when Theseus orders that Hippolytus be cremated and Phaedra ignominiously buried in the earth.

art and literature, mixing Greek and Roman aesthetics, a practice that during Seneca’s lifetime was on the rise. Seneca’s age also valued experimentation, paradox, absurdity, exaggeration, wit, and artificiality. Authors of the era usually employed a colorful style, full of passionate speeches and dazzling rhetorical displays that constituted ends in themselves. While rich in rhetoric, Seneca’s plays also exhibit an experimental flair. Phaedra, for example, takes audiences into the realm of the gruesome and sensational. While Euripides’ version has Theseus view the maimed body of his dying son, Seneca’s depicts the king trying to piece together the fragments of his son’s mangled corpse: “His strong right hand goes here / Here put his left hand which controlled the reins / With skill; I recognize signs of his left side. / But how great the part still lacking our tears” (Phaedra, 6.1258-1261).

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

Greek culture in Roman life

The influence and then the predominance of Greek culture in Roman high society was a gradual, centuries-long process. Between 197 bce and 146 bce, Rome became a supreme force, extending its control over much of Alexander the Great’s former empire, which included Egypt and Greece. The wealth and beauty of Greek civilization enraptured many Romans, leading to the spread of Greek (Hellenic) culture throughout the Roman world. So seductive did the Greek influence

CATO THE YOUNGERS SUICIDE

Cato of Utica (95-46 bce) was a firm believer in the cause of the Roman Republic (the idea that political power rested with the people). He strongly opposed Julius Caesar’s drive to turn Rome into a dictatorship under his rule. When Cato realized that Caesar would conquer Roma, Cato took action. He attempted suicide—twice. The first time Cato stabbed himself with a sword, missing all his vital organs. He was found by his physician, stitched up, and saved. Regaining consciousness, with desperate resolve, Cato reattempted suicide, this time rip-ping out the stitches with his bare hands. Successful at last Cato gained posthumous renown as a champion of the republic and an anti-imperial martyr.

prove that the Roman poet Horace declared “Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit (Captured Greece captured her savage conqueror)” (Horace in Jones and Sidwell, p. 22; italics added).

Numerous aspects of Greek life were absorbed into Roman civilization over the next few centuries. The Greek and Roman pantheons of gods merged, Roman aristocrats adopted Greek dress and collected Greek art, and Roman architects designed buildings in the Greek style. Likewise, the literature of Greece greatly affected Roman writers, who adapted Greek legends and plays for Roman audiences (see Plautus’ The Braggart Soldier and Terence’s The Brothers, both also in Classical Literature and Its Times).

Sometime after the first Punic War (264-241 bce), Rome decided it ought to increase its intellectual achievements. In their wanderings, “young Roman soldiers came into contact with the flourishing Greek civilization” (Butler, p. 79). Spending lengthy periods in Sicily, an island that had been colonized by the Greeks in the eighth century bce, the soldiers likely picked up some of the Greek language and attended the plays frequently staged there. With the encouragement of the soldiers, as well as the many Greek slaves in Rome, its writers were soon translating and adapting Greek plays into Latin. The first person to translate, adapt, and produce a Greek play in Latin was a Roman of Greek descent named Livius Andronicus (c. 284-204 bce). Although much remains unknown about his life, he ap-pears to have been a freed slave who worked as a tutor. The practice of adapting Greek plays for Roman audiences grew increasingly common after his initial effort. Theater became one more aspect of Roman life that was strongly influenced by Greek culture, which in the century after Seneca’s Phaedra would predominate in Rome.

Rise of aristocratic suicide

During Seneca’s lifetime the act of suicide was in vogue among the upper classes. Suicides increased between the time of Tiberius’ ascension to the throne (14 ce) and Nero’s death (48 ce). In his Annals, the Roman historian Tacitus reports 74 recorded suicides over 50 years, more than Livy reported for 500 years in his From the Founding of the City (both also in Classical Literature and Its Times). While modern society regards suicide as an in-tensely personal act, many ancient Romans saw it as an opportunity for self-staged display, a way to preserve one’s honor or avoid shame. In Seneca’s era, for example, people saw the self-inflicted death of Cato the Younger (95 bce-46 bce) as the pinnacle of moral acts—a “lesson learned by every school boy” (Hill, p. 179). Cato had held fast to his republican principles, opting for death rather than life without them.

Seneca admired Cato’s suicide. Like Cato’s, Seneca’s suicide was a long, drawn-out affair. Gathering his friends around him, Seneca ex-pounded on Nero’s murderous cruelty before killing himself in a death scene that must have been agonizing to watch. First, Seneca made incisions in his arms. But the blood did not flow quickly enough, so he sliced the arteries and vessels in his legs as well. As the dark red liquid oozed out, Seneca dictated a lengthy discourse to his secretaries and then drank poison. But the poison appeared to have no great effect—nor did placing his lacerated body into a container of slightly heated water. Finally, after being lowered into a very hot bath, Seneca suffocated to death from the steam. The onlookers probably felt admiration, as well as pity, fear, and grief.

Often aristocrats opted for suicide knowing that Romans looked with favor on a member of the upper class who took his or her own life in-stead of being executed. The state dropped all legal action against those who were accused of wrongdoing once they had committed suicide. By contrast, if an accused received the death penalty at his trial, he would lose his right to Roman citizenship. His name could be erased from all records, his property and assets would be seized and given to the state, and he would be denied a Roman burial. These consequences brought shame not only on the convicted but also on his family. Suicide forestalled such a dis-honorable end.

As Cato and Seneca demonstrated, suicide could also be a tool of political protest. The historian Tacitus reports that Seneca’s final words, intended for public hearing, turned the spotlight on Nero’s barbarous behavior: “Surely nobody was unaware that Nero was cruel! … After murdering his mother and brother, it only remained for him to kill his teacher and tutor” (Seneca, Letters, p. 243). Dying for one’s convictions is often seen as martyrdom, “whereby the individual’s willingness to die rather than renounce his or her ideals is held to be proof of the value of these ideals themselves” (Hill, p. 192). In Cato’s and in Seneca’s days, a well-staged suicide could serve as a powerful call for Senate opposition to imperial authority.

Performance and impact

Although it is unclear whether Seneca’s plays were ever staged in his life-time, a tradition of performing Latin plays began in the fifteenth century in the circle of Pomponius Laetus (1427-1497), a professor of Latin in Rome. Seneca’s Phaedra appears to have been performed in 1490. A century later in England, two more productions were staged, the first at Westminster School in 1546, the second—under the alternate title of Hippolytus—by William Gager of Christ Church in 1591. No record survives of how these performances were received.

For many years, critics have compared Seneca’s tragedies unfavorably with the Greek dramatists he imitated. His works have been dismissed as plays full of empty bombast, as constructs that lack emotional resonance and sincerity. Nonetheless, Senecan tragedy deeply influenced the works of later ages, passing down to the Renaissance such conventions as the five-act play, soliloquies and asides, and a Chorus that exited and re-entered as the tragedy unfolded. Seneca’s vivid scenes of violence and horror found imitators too, in England’s Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and John Webster, among others. In France, Seneca’s influence is evident in Jean Racine’s Phèdre (1677), the play often held to be the French playwright’s masterpiece. Like Seneca, Racine depicts the title character as a complex individual, focusing on her own guilt and horror over her love for Hippolytus.

—Pamela S. Loy and Lisa Granados

For More Information

Butler, James. The Theatre and Drama of Greece and Rome. San Francisco, Calif.: Chandler, 1972.

Casson, Lionel. Everyday Life in Ancient Rome. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Harrison, George W. M., ed. Seneca in Performance. London: Duckworth, 2000.

Hill, Timothy. Ambitiosa Mors. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Hornblower, Simon, and Antony Spawforth, eds. The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Jones, Peter, and Keith Sidwell, eds. The World of Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Ovid. Heroines. Trans. Daryl Hine. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Pomeroy, Sarah B. Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. New York: Schocken Books, 1995.

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. Trans. Robin Campbell. London: Penguin, 1969.

_____. Phaedra. Trans. A. J. Boyle. Wolfeboro, N.H.: Francis Cairns, 1987.

Skinner, Marilyn. Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture. Maiden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2005.

Watson, Patricia. Ancient Stepmothers. New York: E. J. Brill, 1995.

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