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Seneca in Spring-Time

By Emily Wilson


April, says T.S. Eliot famously in the Wasteland, is the cruellest month, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead ground, mixing/ Memory and desire.” Spring, in this shocking reversal of common tropes, is bad for precisely the reasons we usually think it good: because it involves a rebirth of what had seemed dead. Eliot’s poem, which will itself enact the rebirth or zombie resuscitation of many greatest hits of western literary culture, begins with a recognition of how horrible, and how spooky, this process is. You try to bury the dead, but they won’t stay in the grave.

Eliot’s epigram for the Wasteland is taken from the Latin author Petronius, who lived in the time of Nero and was forced to kill himself when accused of conspiracy against the emperor. Petronius’ work (the Satyricon) survives only in fragments, but Eliot’s quotation comes from one of the more complete sequences, which is an account of a brash, nouveau-riche freedman, Trimalchio, who gives a crazily flamboyant dinner party, and whose conversation keeps coming back to death.

Nam Sibyllam quidem ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σίβuλλα, τί θέλεις; respondebat illa, ἀποθανεῖν θέλω. “I saw the Sibyl once with my own eyes, hanging in a bottle. When the children asked her [in Greek, her language], ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she said, ‘I want to die.’”


Death is a kind of performance art for Trimalchio: he pretends to be dead, and even makes his slaves act out an elaborate funeral for him — while he is still alive to enjoy the goodness of it. The trope of the long-extended death which inspires art, and itself becomes a kind of artistic creation, is also a major theme of writers who were contemporary with Petronius in the rule of Nero, including Lucan (author of the aggressively anti-imperialist epic, The Civil War) and Seneca the Younger. Both these writers were also forced to kill themselves, accused of conspiracy against the emperor.

Seneca was the most famous philosopher/essayist/natural scientist/rhetorician/moralist/political advisor/tragedian of his day, and died on April 12th, 65 BCE, by a number of different means. The range of roles is extraordinary, and matched only by multiplicity of his death. Having served as first tutor and then political advisor to the increasingly monstrous emperor Nero, Seneca eventually fell out of favor with his most powerful student, and found himself accused of conspiracy against the emperor. The future did not look good, and like many in that situation, Seneca decided to kill himself to escape worse. Most people find one instrument enough to kill them; but Seneca, we are told in Tacitus’ gory and partly mocking narrative, needed three. He and his wife together slit their wrists, but Seneca’s blood was so thinned by his meager diet that the blood would not flow out. He then tried the classic suicide method of philosophers — hemlock — but the poison could not take hold in his cold, skinny body. It was only when he got into a hot bath that the end finally arrived.

Seneca’s tragedies (about which Eliot wrote, and which inspired Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe and John Webster, among others) take much of their extraordinary energy and intensity from their relentless focus on death — which comes painfully slowly or not at all, which often gets reversed, and which is experienced and performed in ever more horrible ways. The usual hanging, stabbing, or poisoning are rarely enough for Seneca’s characters. They search for cruel and unusual punishments, death by wild horses or death by fire; children are devoured by their parents, a father tries in vain to gather up the mutilated fragments of his son’s body; suicide is always a possibility, but never seems quite enough to fit the desperate case.

In commemoration then, of both Seneca’s death and the cruellest month, here are a series of quotations from Seneca’s tragedies. As a quiz, try to join each passage to the correct mythological speaker.

What great river Tanais can wash me clean, or what Maeotis
with its barbarous waves rushing down to the Pontic Sea?
Not even Neptune, father to the whole Ocean
could wash away so great a sin. O woods, O beasts!

(a) Hippolytus
(b) Ulysses
(c) Oedipus
(d) Aegisthus

Gape open, Earth, and take me, terrible Chaos,
Take me; this is a better way for me to visit Hell;
I go to find my son. Do not worry, King of the Dead:
my motives are pure. Take me into your eternal home;
I will not leave again.

(a) Jason
(b) Theseus
(c) Hercules
(d) Psyche

Pile up horrible punishments on me;
I have earned them. Let the king in his anger crush this concubine,
torture me, make me bleed, weigh down my hands with chains,
shut me up in a stony jail for an unending night.
My guilt will still outweigh my punishment.

(a) Electra
(b) Jocasta
(c) Medea
(d) Helen

The laws of Nature are perverted, even birth
is strange. Then let my punishment be novel too.
May I live and die, and live and die,
constantly reborn, to feel again
new punishments. Use your head, poor fool;
suffer for many years unprecedented pain.
Have a long death.

(a) Orestes
(b) Achilles
(c) Antigone
(d) Oedipus

I did not want the city sacked. I would have stopped it.
But there are things no harness can restrain:
anger, a burning enemy, and victory
let loose upon the night.

(a) Hector
(b) Agamemnon
(c) Paris
(d) Menelaus

If I live, I am a murderer. If dead, a victim.
I need to hurry up and clean the earth; too long
this wicked, cruel, wild, barbaric monster
has wandered free before me. Come, right hand,
try a mighty labor, bigger than the Twelve.
Coward, do you hesitate? Are you only tough
When facing children and their frightened mothers?

(a) Ajax
(b) Haemon
(c) Phaedra
(d) Hercules

If enemy arrows shot my ribcage full of holes,
if my hands were bound by biting chains, if cruel fire
engulfed my body, I would never cease
to be a mother and to love my child.

(a) Medea
(b) Hecuba
(c) Andromache
(d) Alcmene

Chopping up
Their lifeless bodies, I pared their limbs
to little scraps, which I plunged in the boiling pots, and had them simmered on a gentle heat.
I cut the arms and legs and muscles off
while they were still alive, and skewered them
on nice slim spits. I saw them groan, and brought
fresh fires with my own hands. But all of this
could have been better done by their own father.
My vengeance is a failure. The wicked father
munched up his sons and did not know it; nor did they.

(a) Atreus
(b) Clytemnestra
(c) Tantalus
(d) Iphigenia

ANSWERS BELOW…

La mort d'Hippolyte by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne the Elder, 1715, Louvre Museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


AND NOW THE ANSWERS…

What great river Tanais can wash me clean, or what Maeotis
with its barbarous waves rushing down to the Pontic Sea?
Not even Neptune, father to the whole Ocean
could wash away so great a sin. O woods, O beasts!
(a) Hippolytus

Gape open, Earth, and take me, terrible Chaos,
Take me; this is a better way for me to visit Hell;
I go to find my son. Do not worry, King of the Dead:
my motives are pure. Take me into your eternal home;
I will not leave again.
(b) Theseus

Pile up horrible punishments on me;
I have earned them. Let the king in his anger crush this concubine,
torture me, make me bleed, weigh down my hands with chains,
shut me up in a stony jail for an unending night.
My guilt will still outweigh my punishment.
(c) Medea

The laws of Nature are perverted, even birth
is strange. Then let my punishment be novel too.
May I live and die, and live and die,
constantly reborn, to feel again
new punishments. Use your head, poor fool;
suffer for many years unprecedented pain.
Have a long death.
(d) Oedipus

I did not want the city sacked. I would have stopped it.
But there are things no harness can restrain:
anger, a burning enemy, and victory
let loose upon the night.
(b) Agamemnon

If I live, I am a murderer. If dead, a victim.
I need to hurry up and clean the earth; too long
this wicked, cruel, wild, barbaric monster
has wandered free before me. Come, right hand,
try a mighty labor, bigger than the Twelve.
Coward, do you hesitate? Are you only tough
When facing children and their frightened mothers?
(d) Hercules

If enemy arrows shot my ribcage full of holes,
if my hands were bound by biting chains, if cruel fire
engulfed my body, I would never cease
to be a mother and to love my child.
(c) Andromache

Chopping up
Their lifeless bodies, I pared their limbs
to little scraps, which I plunged in the boiling pots, and had them simmered on a gentle heat.
I cut the arms and legs and muscles off
while they were still alive, and skewered them
on nice slim spits. I saw them groan, and brought
fresh fires with my own hands. But all of this
could have been better done by their own father.
My vengeance is a failure. The wicked father
munched up his sons and did not know it; nor did they.
(a) Atreus

Emily Wilson is an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania and translator of Six Tragedies by Seneca. She is author of The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint and Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton, recipient of the Charles Bernheimer Prize of the American Comparative Literature Association.

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2 Responses to “Seneca in Spring-Time”
  1. Max Bini says:

    Thank you so much Emily. Reading these passages out of context allowed me to recall all the tragedies and how distinctive Seneca’s style is – the lightning quick repartee of clashing thoughts and moods as well as the gory details, the venomous hate and the uber-rationality of his major protagonists.
    In the context of spring being a time of “rebirth of what had seemed dead,” the passages on turning back time, the gods fleeing and day turning to night are also relevant. So, here is another quiz (guess the tragedy and the speaker ( with answers below)):
    a) “But what is this? Darkness gathers at noon! The sun is overcast but by no cloud. What makes day run away, driving it back to the east? Why does strange night bring forth its black face? Why do so many stars fill up the sky by day?”
    b) “But what is this? My hands refuse me, the cup is too heavy to hold; the wine slips from my very lips and pours away from my open mouth. How very frustrating! Look, even the table is shaking, the ground trembles; the fire flickers out; even the heavy sky is empty, stupefied: not night or day.”
    c) “No longer will the Sun, leader of stars, raise his eternal torch and usher in the seasons, pointing out the proper times for summer and winter.”
    d) “This is what made the gods ashamed, this drove the day back to the east.”
    e) “O all-enduring Sun, though you retreated and drowned the broken day in the middle sky, you set too late!”
    f) “Why, Lord of Earth and Sky? Why is all beauty gone, why is dark night risen at noon? Why this change of yours, why destroy day in the middle of day? Why, Phoebus, do you rob us of your face?”
    g) “I have confounded the law of the sky: the world has seen both sun and stars together, and you, Bears, have touched the forbidden sea. I have bent the course of the seasons, the summery earth has shuddered at my spell, Ceres has been compelled to see harvest in winter.”

    Answers in order:
    a) Hercules in Hercules Furens
    b) Thyestes in Thyestes
    c) Chorus in Thyestes
    d) Thyestes in Thyestes
    e) Messenger in Thyestes
    f) Chorus in Thyestes
    g) Medea in Medea.

  2. [...] we had so many fine articles from Oxford World’s Classics editors, but Emily Wilson’s “Seneca in Spring-Time” took me by surprise and made me realize what a poor state my Latin was [...]

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