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II. Esthétique, philosophie, psychanalyse. Entre théorie et émotions

Making Oedipus Roman

Faire d’Œdipe une tragédie romaine
Gregory A. Staley
p. 111-124


Chez Sophocle, la découverte de soi a pu être mise en scène comme un événement public et théâtral ; à Rome, à l’époque impériale, cette découverte ne pouvait avoir lieu qu’en privé, dans le for intérieur. Pour mettre en scène la révélation de la vérité, Sénèque a dû transformer la forme discursive et dialogique de la pièce de Sophocle en une série de monstra, d’événements frappants qui conduisent à la vérité à travers les signes de la nature et ceux du corps. Pour Sénèque en tant que stoïcien et personnage important à Rome, les vérités sont cachées : il faut les trouver par déduction. La recherche de la vérité se fait au moyen d’un regard « scrutateur » au sens propre, d’un sondage dans ce qui se cache à l’intérieur. Je propose l’idée que, chez Sénèque, le regard « scrutateur » est, au sens premier du terme, l’accomplissement d’un extispicium qui ne devient qu’au figuré une démarche d’auto-analyse. Son Œdipe retourne à la réalité qui se trouve derrière la métaphore.

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  • 1 Rudnytsky, 1987, p. 97.
  • 2 Bartsch, 2006, p. 192.

1In his book, Freud and Oedipus, Peter Rudnytsky argues that Freud’s reading of Oedipus’ tragedy was only possible once German Romantic writers and philosophers “were able to clear away neoclassical and Senecan excrescences, and behold Sophocles’ drama afresh as a tragedy of self-knowledge.”1 By this argument, Seneca’s play is not a tragedy of self-knowledge in the Sophoclean tradition but instead a bombastic spectacle in which the seer Tiresias summons from the underworld the ghost of Oedipus’ father, Laius, who denounces his son as his killer. As Shadi Bartsch has argued, however, Seneca as a philosopher was much concerned “with gnothi sauton, the imperative to know oneself.”2 Why then would he have wished to replace Oedipus’ quest for self-knowledge with Tiresias’ necromancy?

1. Alia Temptanda Est Via

  • 3 I cite the Latin text and translation (with some modifications) of Seneca’s Oedipus from A. J. Boyl (...)

2Any discussion of Seneca’s relationship with Sophocles must begin by acknowledging the enduring sense, among Roman poets, of their own belatedness. Seneca’s tragic heroes, because they are aware of their literary traditions, know their plots and characters. Therefore Seneca’s Oedipus has what we might label “literary self-knowledge.” He is in the same position as any member of the Greek audience during a performance of Sophocles’ Oedipus: he knows how it will turn out. After his blinding, Oedipus acknowledges his model: uultus Oedipodam hic decet, “This face befits an Oedipus” (1003).3 I would argue that Seneca’s first reason for transforming Oedipus’ quest for self-knowledge was simply the fact that the Sophoclean Oedipus had already done that. Although Oedipus will say to the shepherd Phorbas, dic vera, “Tell the truth” (866), Seneca’s play regularly suggests that Oedipus already knows that truth; Phorbas is merely confirming it.

  • 4 Mastronarde, 1970, p. 314.
  • 5 Vellacott, 1970.
  • 6 Fitch and McElduff, 2002, p. 23.

3As Donald Mastronarde has observed, “To speak of discovery or Enthüllung in Seneca is perhaps somewhat false, since Oedipus’ guilt is implicit in the imagery from the prologue on.”4 Philip Vellacott infamously tried to make a similar case for Sophocles’ play, arguing that Oedipus (and those around him) were aware of the truth from the beginning.5 Although Vellacott did not characterize Oedipus’ knowledge as unconscious, suggesting instead that Oedipus chose to live a lie until he realized the harm it was doing to Thebes, Vellacott’s case, translated into psychological categories, would suggest that Oedipus has repressed his knowledge of the truth. As Fitch and McElduff have noted, the “obsessive nature” of Oedipus’ fear puts it “closer to Freudian neurosis.”6

  • 7 Boyle, 2011, p. 110.

4Oedipus’ opening monologue suggests that the fear that now characterizes him is the product of a dim awareness of his past actions. Oedipus was curis solutus and intrepidus, “carefree” and “fearless” (13) while in exile from his father Polybus, but now as king he fears the unspeakable. A. J. Boyle argues that Oedipus has “no reason to doubt that Polybus and Merope are his parents” yet “doubt” is the leitmotif of this entire scene: Titan dubius . . . redit (1).7 The sun’s doubtful return is a reminder of Oedipus’ own “return” to his birthplace, a return that is the beginning of his cares. Oedipus’ fears began after he “stumbled onto a kingdom”: in regnum incidi (14). Although he means to say that he “came by chance” to the kingship, the verb hints at his knowledge of his maimed feet and of his chance meeting with Laius at the place where three roads meet. In fact, he uses the same verb at the end of the play, in an ironic and macabre way, to remind himself, in his blindness, not to “stumble upon” his mother’s body (i profuge uade siste – ne in matrem incidas, “Go, flee, away—stop. Don’t stumble—onto your mother.” [1051]). Retrospectively, he can now acknowledge that he had earlier stumbled upon his father.

  • 8 Boyle, 2011, p. 101.

5In the opening scene he proceeds in the next line to acknowledge his fear: ne mea genitor manu / perimatur, “lest my father perish by my hand” (15-16). If, as Boyle nicely suggests, this “opening monologue is psychoanalytic in character,” then Oedipus’ train of associations suggests a link between his stumbling and patricide.8 Oedipus mentions the Delphic prediction of his destiny only after he has already sensed the truth it predicts. When later Creon returns from Delphi with the “enigmatic response,” Oedipus proudly (and with a clear sense of his belatedness) announces: Ambigua soli noscere Oedipodae datur, “Only an Oedipus knows ambiguities” (216). That assertion confirms that Oedipus already has an uncertain sense of self. Later Oedipus will suggest that he knows himself better than the gods do: sed animus contra innocens / sibique melius quam deis notus, “But my mind’s innocent. It knows itself better than the gods do” (766-7). Perhaps it really does. What is irony in Sophocles, the audience’s superior knowledge that allows it to interpret Oedipus’ words in ways in which he cannot, becomes in Seneca something more like the symptoms we can find in his words not just of our superior knowledge but also of his.

  • 9 Bloom, 1973, p. 10.
  • 10 Cf. Palmieri, 1989.
  • 11 Cf. Curley, 1986, p. 85: “By isolating the Sophoclean elements of the plot in one act and surroundi (...)

6Belatedness would seem to be a concept particularly relevant to the tale of Oedipus, since Harold Bloom, in The Anxiety of Influence, used Freud’s reading of Oedipus as the basis for an intergenerational dynamics of poetic influence. Every poet is an Oedipus, in awe of his father, desirous of taking his place and anxious about his ability to do so. As Bloom notes, “Oedipus, blind, was on the path to oracular godhood, and the strong poets have followed him by transforming their blindness towards their precursors into the revisionary insights of their own work.”9 When Tiresias acknowledges that neither auspicium nor extispicium, the examination of birds and entrails, has proven successful in discovering the murderer of Laius, he announces, alia temptanda est via, “We must try a different way” (392), echoing a line from Vergil’s Third Georgic (8-9): temptanda via est, qua me quoque possim / tollere humo uictorque uirum uolitare per ora, “Another way must be tried by which I might rise from the earth and fly victorious through the mouths of men.”10 Vergil’s programmatic statement, which rejects the trite subjects of myth in favor of the pugnas / Caesaris, “the wars of Caesar” (46-7), gives voice to both a personal and cultural desire to surpass the Greeks and along the way alludes to Pindar and Ennius among others. By having Tiresias echo Vergil’s words, Seneca also is able to emulate Vergil’s theme: the desire to try a different way.11

2. Tragedy and the Plague

7Horace suggests that it was after the successful Punic wars that Romans began to ask quid Sophocles et Thespis et Aeschylus utile ferrent (Epistles 2.1.163), “of what use Sophocles and Thespis and Aeschylus might be”; they then tried to translate the genre into Latin and occasionally did it well enough. They feared, however, to make corrections, out of ignorance (inscite). Seneca does not succumb to this fault; he does not simply translate Sophocles, he adapts him, he Romanizes him, he writes a tragedy of a different sort: not Oedipus as a hero searching for the truth, but Oedipus as spectator to the revelation of a truth which he already suspects.

8Tragic kings at Rome do not come to know themselves; at best, others must do that for them, as Seneca did for Nero in the De Clementia, where he serves as the mirror into which Nero should look. Oedipus as a king can only be beneficent, can only serve society, when he flees from Thebes. His departure is in some ways analogous to that of the tyrannical Tarquinius Superbus, marking the end of monarchy and the beginning of republic; Oedipus, too, had been a “tyrant” in the title of Sophocles’ play. The plague at Thebes can only end when Oedipus, as deposed King, leaves the city.

  • 12 Sophocles devotes approximately six lines to describing the plague at Thebes, but in Seneca’s Oedip (...)
  • 13 Mitchel-Boyask, 2008, p. 3.

9The outsized attention that Seneca, in contrast to Sophocles, devotes to the plague, moreover, is yet another sign that Seneca is adapting Sophocles to create a Roman Oedipus and a Roman tragedy.12 Robin Mitchell-Boyask has argued that, “because of the traditional associations between song and healing in Greek culture, tragedy becomes a form of therapy for the diseased polis,” a connection which is developed after the plague in Athens in 430 B. C.13 Tragedy thus served as a ritual song intended to restore health, a paean of the sort that the citizens of Thebes were singing as Sophocles’ play opens. A temple to Asclepius was built next to the theater of Dionysos around 420 B.C., suggesting in the Greek mind an association between tragedy and healing that had intensified during a time of political instability in Athens that both tragedy and Plato had imagined as a type of disease.

10Livy’s famous description (7.2) of the origins of drama at Rome may be read as a later adaptation of this link between tragedy and plague. In 365 B.C. a pestilentia ingens (“a huge plague”) broke out at Rome; to appease the anger of the gods, ludi scaenici (“theatrical festivals”) were introduced. What began as dances evolved by the time of Livius Andronicus into plays with a plot. Deeply skeptical of the superstitions involved, Livy seems pleased to report that such plays failed to free bodies from disease. Seneca’s attention to the plague has usually been explained as a reflex of his love of description, especially of morbid states of body and soul. I want to suggest instead that the plague has a metatheatrical dimension, that it serves here as a mark of tragedy’s supposed origins and of its demise in imperial Rome.

11The Bacchus Ode (403-508) in the middle of the play points to this connection. The chorus of Thebans sings a carmen populare, “a people’s song” (402), in the form of a dithyramb asking Bacchus to deliver them from the plague. Prayers for healing were usually offered to Apollo or his son Asclepius; Seneca’s anomalous prayer to Dionysos, therefore, seems to be motivated not just by the god’s close links with Thebes but also by his close connection with tragedy. In the midst of its review of the god’s biography and its account of his powers, the chorus includes a number of references to Dionysos’ associations with tragedy: he wears the syrma, a long robe worn by tragic actors and from Seneca on a metonymn for tragedy itself; the Theban Bacchae and their dismemberment of Pentheus are recalled in the midst of an account of Dionysos’ traditional followers.

12The ode culminates in the wedding of Dionysos and Ariadne, over which Apollo presides by singing a sollemne . . . carmen, “a solemn song” (498-499), a counterpoint to the carmen populare (“people’s song”) which is announced as the ode begins. This focus at the end on a wedding is, on the one hand, suggestive of Dionysos’ connection with comedy as well as with tragedy; but it also has ominous implications for this tragedy, which centers on the disastrous marriage of Oedipus and Jocasta. If the ode, therefore, represents tragedy in its original conception as healing song, the ensuing events serve to challenge tragedy’s very efficacy. As is so often the case with Senecan choruses, the speakers are naïve and their insights prove false.

13Earlier in the play Seneca had used carmen to characterize the Sphinx’s song, which Oedipus had both demanded and “solved,” thus ending the plague the first time: nodosa sortis uerba et implexos dolos / ac triste carmen alitis solui ferae, “I untied the oracle’s knot of words / And tangled net, the rabid bird’s grim riddle” (101-2). Carmen is, of course, a word often used to describe a prophecy or riddle; but Seneca’s choice of it here, in preference to aenigma, seems intended to suggest Sophocles’ earlier play. Once again Oedipus acknowledges his belatedness; in Sophocles he was the rational solver of puzzles who thereby heroically brought the plague to an end. The “clever” Sphinx, however, now makes war again upon the Senecan Oedipus and the plague has returned:

Ille, ille dirus callidi monstri cinis
in nos rebellat, illa nunc Thebas lues
perempta perdit. (106-9)

That, that dire dust—from the clever monster—
Attacks us again. Now the plague I destroyed
Destroys Thebes.

14In the era of mad emperors Seneca seems to suggest that tragedy is no longer capable of healing society; like Livy, I argue, Seneca rejects tragedy’s traditional public role. Seneca’s lines (107-8), illa nunc Thebas lues / perempta perdit, “Now that destroyed plague destroys Thebes”), read like a parody of Horace’s: Graecia capta ferum uictorem cepit et artis / intulit agresti Latio, “Captured Greece has captured the rude victor and brought the arts to rustic Latium” (Epistles 2.2.156-7).

15Here Horace, of course, is offering another account, like Livy’s, of the introduction of drama (and in this section, particularly of tragedy) into Italy. It is not just Seneca’s play on words, perempta perdit replacing capta . . . cepit, that suggests a link; the dramatic context of Horace’s famous remark applies as well. “The plague which was destroyed now destroys” can be read to mean that tragedy in the Greek sense in fact cannot be imported into Italy. The plague’s prominence in Seneca’s Oedipus is a mark of the failure of Greek tragedy, introduced to be the end of plagues.

3. Oedipus and Aeneas

  • 14 Knox, 1957.
  • 15 Lefèvre, 1985.

16Just as Sophocles turned a story set in Thebes into an allegory of Athenian character and history, Seneca here transforms Thebes into Rome and Oedipus into a Roman rex. Sophocles could portray Oedipus as an image of Athenian “tyranny” but also as the embodiment of the Greek enlightenment, as Bernard Knox has shown.14 If Oedipus was to be Roman, a national self-image in the way that Sophocles’ Oedipus had been, he could not be the beneficent king of his people but instead a self-centered, insecure man unsuited for his role, as the parallels in his story and Tarquinius Superbus’ would suggest. Eckard Lefèvre has noted that Sophocles’ Oedipus had only been Romanized once before Seneca; Julius Caesar, as Suetonius reports (Diuus Iulius 56.7), had written an Oedipus.15 For unspecified reasons, Augustus later ordered his librarian not to preserve Caesar’s youthful writings. As an Oedipus truly deserving the title rex, Seneca’s protagonist could not be a representative of Rome’s highest aspirations but only of its greatest fears, a point which Seneca highlights by contrasting Oedipus with Aeneas, the “Roman” hero.

  • 16 Cf. Putnam, 1995.
  • 17 Tiresias’ role as Oedipus’ intermediary reminds us of his role in the κατάβασις which served as Ver (...)
  • 18 Lefèvre, 1985, p. 1255-56 catalogs the verbal parallels between the two underworld scenes: black co (...)

17Seneca’s tragedies are in many ways epilogues to the Aeneid in that they challenge the golden future which Vergil’s text had announced and portray a world in which Aeneas’ final act of furor becomes not the exception but the norm.16 Seneca’s use of an underworld journey to learn the truth from a father inevitably recalls Aeneas’ descent and suggests another paradigm in which to assess the play’s central scene.17 Read within this frame, the contrasts between Aeneas’ κατάβασις (“descent”) and Oedipus’ are revealing.18 Aeneas descends heroically through the dark night of the soul and is rewarded for his piety with a vision of Rome’s glorious future delivered by his beloved father. Oedipus does not descend at all, but hears at second hand the narrative that Creon offers. Aeneas explores all of the underworld before arriving in Elysium to reunite with his father; Oedipus’ vicarious journey takes him only as far as Tartarus, where the Furies reign and he meets figures from Thebes’ theatrical (and tragic) past, in contrast to Aeneas, who meets the future heroes of Rome. When Oedipus finally encounters his father, Laius is a vengeful figure, quite literally the face of anger. If Vergil’s model for the sights of Hades can be found in Rome’s visual traditions of ancestral masks and monumental statues, Seneca’s model is located in theater itself, in the tragic tales that had been made of Niobe, Antiope, and Pentheus, Oedipus’ Theban ancestors.

4. Acheronta Movebo

  • 19 Boyle, 2011, p. cix.

18In our recent discussions of this play, Alessandro Schiesaro and I have both turned to Freudian concepts. For, as A. J. Boyle has observed, “Seneca’s Oedipus is more embedded . . . in Freud’s Oedipus theory than most seem to have realized.”19 Seneca’s decision to abandon Oedipus’ quest for self-discovery could be the consequence not simply of his literary sense that Sophocles had already told that story but also of his psychological sense that on an unconscious level Oedipus already knows the truth.

  • 20 Staley, 2013.
  • 21 Freud (1953) SE 5 :608. Freud’s epigraph includes only the Latin. In a footnote Freud’s translator, (...)

19Seneca’s relationship with Vergil can be further illuminated, therefore, by examining Vergil’s relationship with Freud. I have elsewhere explored Freud’s use of the Vergilian line flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo, “If I cannot bend the Higher Powers, I will move the Infernal Regions,” (Aen. 7.312) as his epigraph to Die Traumdeutung.20 Freud himself sought to explain his choice of Vergil simply and briefly: “this line of Virgil is intended to picture the efforts of the repressed instinctual impulses.”21 This explanation, however, only came twenty-five years after his book was first published and better suits his second use of this same line near the end of Interpretation, than it does its use at the beginning.

  • 22 The Interpretation of Dreams, as Didier Anzieu (1986, p. 457) has suggested, turns to Vergil not si (...)

20As the opening words of a book about Deutung, the “moving of Acheron” should have something to say about the act of “interpretation”. The account and product of the self-analysis Freud conducted from 1895-1899, the dream book parallels the story of Aeneas’ search for self: son of a defeated man, a wandering outcast, Aeneas dares to descend to the underworld to confront his past and to foresee his future.22 Freud’s use of Juno’s words, Acheronta movebo, as the entrée to his book highlights the importance of κατάβασις, of journeying down, to his project of self-discovery; the underworld journey, from Gilgamesh to Odysseus and Aeneas, is a myth about self-knowledge.

  • 23 Freud, 1958, SE vol. 12, p. 164.

21Juno “raising Hell” is Freud the analyst, summoning from below the emotions which require interpretation, a point which Freud makes clear when he describes analysis as an act of necromancy, of summoning up spirits: “It would be just as though, after summoning up a spirit from the underworld by cunning spells, one were to send him down again without having asked him a single question.”23 Freud’s reading of Vergil is useful, I believe, because it in several ways parallels Seneca’s. Tiresias in stirring up the underworld is interpreting Oedipus’ under-self as an alternative to Sophocles’ Socratic model of self-examination. In Vergil’s story Freud could see himself in the heroic Aeneas; in Seneca’s, he could see himself as Tiresias, the analyst exploring the unconscious for the signs of the true self.

5. Tiresias

22While the chorus sings its appeal for Dionysos’ healing powers, Tiresias is singing a song of a different sort, one which, it could be argued, is ultimately more successful in ending the plague and thereby in characterizing the powers of tragedy. The juxtaposition of this chorus and the necromancy of Tiresias has suggested to several scholars that Tiresias’ attempt, through several forms of divination, to discover the cause of the plague is itself metatheatrical. As Tiresias prepares his necromancy, he “reels off a magic song” (carmenque magicum uoluit 561) which summons up the inhabitants of the underworld.

  • 24 Schiesaro, 2003, p. 9.
  • 25 Ibid., p. 11.
  • 26 Ibid., p. 12; cf. also p. 226.

23Alessandro Schiesaro has suggested that as singer and as uates, Tiresias is “analogous to the poet, whose inspiration vivifies the characters of tragedy.”24 In Schiesaro’s reading, the ultimate failure of Oedipus’ rational “solution” to the riddle underlines Seneca’s rejection of tragedy as a rational explication of human experience, in favor of the view that tragedy is the voice of the irrational. It is Tiresias’ magicum carmen that finds the answers to Oedipus’ identity, not Oedipus’ quest for self-knowledge: “The real breakthrough in learning the truth occurs only because of the elaborate magic rite organized by Tiresias and Manto . . .”25 Since Tiresias used poetry as part of this rite, Schiesaro concludes that “[t]he search for truth thus becomes a search for poetry,”one that ultimately articulates Seneca’s own poetics, especially since it is Tiresias who voices Vergil’s programmatic words, alia temptanda est via (392).”26

24Although vates was used to mean “poet” from the Augustan era and beyond, in an attempt to elevate poetry into the voice of wisdom and of prophecy, its root sense is that of “prophet” or “seer.” Song is but one of several tools which Tiresias uses in his attempt to discover the truth; his use of it may simply be an allusion to the Homeric image of the bard, the blind Demodocus whose gift of song was a compensation for his loss of sight. I have therefore suggested that Tiresias is not analogous primarily to a poet but to an interpreter who is attempting to read monstra (“unnatural events functioning as omens”) and ultimately the monstrum (“unnatural thing”) that is Oedipus himself. In this regard it is noteworthy that Tiresias rejects inspiration in favor of divination: si foret viridis mihi / calidusque sanguis, pectore exciperem deum, “If my blood pulsed strong and hot, I’d take the god full in my breast” (297-8).

  • 27 Ibid., p. 12.
  • 28 Ibid.

25When Tiresias announces that “a great part of the truth is hidden from one who is blind” (295), he is not suggesting that “vision is an unreliable source of knowledge” in favor of some more irrational means such as song.27 As I read it, Tiresias is first of all trying to defer Oedipus’ request for the truth, as he does in Sophocles; he therefore denigrates his abilities. As he does also with Narcissus in Ovid (Met. 3.346-8), Tiresias discourages the search for self-knowledge. Since his daughter Manto is present to function as his eyes, it is simply not accurate to say that his blindness is an impediment to his search for knowledge nor that “Manto’s description . . . emphasizes the problematic status of vision more than an eyewitness account would have done.”28

  • 29 Boyle, 2011, p. 195.

26It is through seeing rather than through singing that Tiresias and ultimately the audience finally discover the truth; and it is that truth, rather than the power of sight itself, which proves to be problematic. Tiresias asks Manto to report the manifesta sacri signa (“the clear signs of this rite”) (302) of the sacrificial animal, using the language of Stoicism to characterize the “clear and vivid” evidence which truth naturally can offer. The signs in this case, however, prove to be ambiguous, not because the process is inadequate but because the truth is just as “perplexing” as Oedipus himself, as Laius’ words finally acknowledge: magisque monstrum Sphinge perplexum sua, “a more entangled monster than his Sphinx” (641). As A. J. Boyle has noted, “though the rite is corrupt, its signs are sure and prefigure events later in the play.”29 Monstrum, not carmen, is the leitmotif of this scene and, I believe, the key to Seneca’s sense of tragedy. Through the interpretation of signs, through the art of divination, Tiresias, Oedipus and eventually the audience itself discover the truth about the plague, about the killing of Laius and about Oedipus’ own identity.

27Extispicium is used in Seneca’s De Ira as a model for the process of self-inspection, as a tool for self-knowledge. Seneca chooses the language of perverted entrails (ater maculosusque et aestuans et distortus et timidus, “black, spotted, restless, deformed and frightened” De Ira 2.36.2) to describe what the animus of an angry man would look like if we could only access it, suggesting that he would like to perform “an examination of the entrails” on the body of an angry man. Seneca’s Oedipus turns this metaphor for psychological discovery into a reality as Tiresias examines the entrails of a bull that in significant ways serves as an image of Oedipus himself. The certas uiscerum . . . notas (“surk marks on the entrails” 352) for which Tiresias searches in the sacrificial animal are echoed later in the certas corporis nostri notas (“the sure marks on my body” 811) which Oedipus uses to confirm his own identity. The foetus, nec more solito positus alieno in loco (“the foetus, strangely positioned in a place not its own” 374) is a sign that declares Oedipus’ own incestuous origins.

  • 30 On metatheater in Seneca’s plays, see Curley, 1986, Boyle, 1997, and Schiesaro, 2003.

28Along with others, I have suggested that this scene is metatheatrical, an indication within the play of Seneca’s idea of tragedy.30 It is not, however, like Atreus’ Thyestean banquet, staged as a play; such scenes, I would argue, are theatrical but not necessarily and self-referentially a definition of Senecan tragedy. Seneca writes an Atreus; Atreus stages a Thyestes. Tiresias’ divination, by contrast, is staged as a ritual which is assimilated to theater in a way which can re-define tragedy. In fact, I would suggest that one reason why Seneca does not have Oedipus discover his identity in the Sophoclean manner is that such an ἀναγνώρισις (“recognition”) is more cerebral than visual. By the same token, Tiresias cannot simply know a truth that he is reluctant to reveal as he does in Sophocles; he needs to lead us by the eyes to discover this truth step by step with him. When Tiresias says that “to one who is blind a great part of the truth is hidden” (295), he is at one level acknowledging that truth must be seen.

  • 31 Schiesaro, 2003, p. 11: “The uncontrolled fear that pushes Seneca’s Oedipus to search for explanati (...)

29The other form of divination which Seneca uses here, the necromancy which brings Laius back before us, is likewise a trope in the De Ira for the discovery of psychological truths: qualia poetae inferna monstra finxerunt . . . talem nobis iam figuremus, “Just as poets visualize infernal monsters, . . so let us picture anger” (2.35.5). Alessandro Schiesaro has rightly described Laius’ role as parallel to Tiresias’: both speak with “rabid mouth.” But I would dissent from the characterization of Laius’ words as a “song.”31 Tiresias, it is true, summons Laius and the forces of Hades with a magic song; it is always poets who take us to the underworld, for “poets . . . give form to infernal monsters.” It is not the means (poetry) but the message (monstrosity) which is therefore important: the soul is an underworld filled with monstrous emotions.

  • 32 Ibid., p. 226-7.

30It is helpful to set Tiresias alongside the Sibyl of Cumae in book six of the Aeneid; he is playing her role, prophesying truths that will be found in the underworld: Talibus ex adyto dictis Cumaea Sibylla / horrendas canit ambages antroque remugit, / obscuris uera inuoluens, “From the innermost shrine the Cumaean Sibyl sings with such words frightening puzzles and echoes back from her cave, wrapping truths in obscurities” (Aen. 6.98-100). Should we take the Sibyl then as our guide to Vergil the poet, concluding that Vergil’s poetics links passion to poetry and the underworld to truths carefully hidden from reason and power? Although many now read the Aeneid as a covert expression of Vergil’s doubts about Augustus and Rome, book six is in fact one of the most Roman and Augustan books in the epic. It is filled with philosophical truths and the Sibyl is a teacher: discite iustitiam moniti et non temnere diuos “Now that you have been warned, learn justice and not to scorn the gods” (Aen. 6.620). Schiesaro has suggested that the poetics implicated in Tiresias’ exploration of the underworld is “a diametrically opposed movement, an exploration of the depths of Acheron” which stands in contrast to Vergil’s aspiration to “lift himself up” by following “another way”; but Vergil, too, followed a poetic path that led to the underworld.32

31When Tiresias “sings,” therefore, he is simply following the traditional function of the prophet; when he thereby opens up the underworld, he is preparing the hero to discover truths about himself. On my reading, it is less important that Tiresias speaks ore rabido than it is that he reveals a Laius who speaks ore rabido: Laius is literally the face of anger, a face which Seneca says “must be shown” if we are to understand what passion is like. This Laius does not represent truths which Seneca as rational philosopher has himself repressed; Laius is the return of what Oedipus has repressed, the knowledge about his own angry act of patricide. What is most important here about passion is not that it is the means by which the truth is revealed but that it is the truth that is revealed.

6. The Sphinx and Self-Knowledge

Si dux es, illuc ire morituro placet,
ubi sedit alta rupe semifero dolos
Sphinx ore nectens.
Dirige huc gressus pedum,
hic siste patrem. dira ne sedes uacet,
monstrum repone maius. hoc saxum insidens
obscura nostrae uerba fortunae loquar,
quae nemo soluat.

“If you are my guide, it would give me
pleasure to go there to die where the
Sphinx who wove deceits with her
half-barbarous voice sat high on
a rock. Guide my steps there; there
place your father. So that this awful
seat might not be vacant, install a
greater monster. Sitting on this rock
I shall speak the dark words that tell
my fortune, which no one may understand.”
Phoenissae 118-124

32In Sophocles Oedipus becomes the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle and thereby an exemplification of what it means to be ἄνθρωπος, “a human being.” In Seneca he becomes the Sphinx itself, a monster more complex than she was, a monster greater than she was. Why does Seneca reduce Oedipus from the hero to the monster, from the answer to the question?

  • 33 Aygon, 2004, p. 409-410.

33The scene of Oedipus’ blinding can help us with that issue; for in it Oedipus first becomes the Sphinx. As J.-P. Aygon has shown, Oedipus blinds himself in language which recalls the description he offered earlier in the play of the threat which the Sphinx posed to him: the Sphinx had wished to rip out his entrails with its talons; Oedipus probes his eyes with his clawed hands.33 Oedipus did not flee the Sphinx who entangled her words with “blind measures”; now he acknowledges her victory by blinding himself. In essence, Oedipus is blinded by the Sphinx, punished as he originally would have been for NOT knowing the answer to the riddle, not knowing himself.

  • 34 Littlewood, 2004, p. 175-6.
  • 35 For example, in recessu Tartari (“in a recess of Tartarus,” Hercules Furens 709); Stygis / sinu pro (...)

34His blinding, moreover, is a replication of Tiresias’ extispicium. As C. A. J. Littlewood has observed, “In Seneca’s version of the Oedipus myth the process of discovery anticipates the violence to the eye which will close the tragedy.”34 Manto wishes to “probe” the entrails of the heifer (scrutemur [372]) just as Oedipus “probes” his eyes (scrutatur [965]), which, as the comparison with the Sphinx suggests, are equivalent to his entrails (saxaque . . .revulsit unguis uiscera expectans mea, “She clawed the cliff with talons, awaiting my entrails” [100]). Seneca, in short, stages Oedipus’ self-examination as a tactile probing of his body which confirms the truths discovered by Tiresias’ reading of the signs of the sacrificial animal. Moreover, Oedipus’ blinding also replicates Tiresias exploration of the underworld, as “his hands tear with their nails the hollow recesses and empty hollows of his eyes” (haeret in uacuo manus / et fixa penitus unguibus lacerat cauos / alte recessus luminum et inanes sinus [967-69]); Seneca here uses of the eyes words that he elsewhere uses of the underworld.35 These verbal connections highlight the way in which Seneca has replaced Oedipus’ self-discovery in Sophocles with Tiresias’ monstra that in the end reveal a monstrum.

  • 36 Totum diem meum scrutor factaque ac dicta mea remetior (“I probe my entire day and go back over my (...)
  • 37 Bartsch, 2006, p. 203.

35What is most striking, however, about this substitution is the fact that, as a philosopher, Seneca regularly preached and practiced the search for self; in fact, he used in his philosophical prose the same verb, scrutari, which in the play has a sense of physical probing, to describe the intellectual process of meditatio that can lead to self-knowledge: excute te et uarie scrutare et obserua, “Examine and probe and observe yourself in a variety of ways” (Ep. 16.2), he says to Lucilius, advice that he practiced himself.36 As Shadi Bartsch has observed, “Seneca . . . introduces a twist on one of the oldest injunctions in classical philosophy; his understanding of the gnothi sauton is that to know oneself is to watch oneself, to engage in an act of self-scrutiny that judges personal choices . . . ”37

  • 38 Staley, 2010, p. 134-135.

36Seneca couches this process in the language both of Roman social practice and of the theater; the Stoics were fond of the analogy between life and the theater and Seneca, as I’ve argued, gave to Shakespeare his most famous expression of it: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player” (Macbeth 5.5.24).38 Moreover, Seneca regularly uses agnoscere, the Latin equivalent to the Greek ἀναγνώρισις, in his tragedies to describe the Aristotelian process of recognition. The tragedy of Oedipus, it would seem, should have been for Seneca the ideal venue in which to illustrate this process of self-discovery as dialogic rather than necromantic.

  • 39 Bartsch, 2006, p. 272.

37In the Stoic view, however, tragic heroes are not Stoic and therefore not likely to practice meditatio. Even when Medea does so in Seneca’s play, she perverts the process, as Bartsch has shown:“Her preoccupation with self-exhortation and self-analysis . . . all seem like an inverted version of the progress of a Stoic sage.”39 Medea wants to be recognized by others as the Medea of tragic fame; she does not want to recognize herself. Medea, like Oedipus, is not the hero but the monstrum . . . saevum, “the savage monster” (Med. 191). Seneca’s Oedipus exemplifies the human potential not for godlike wisdom but for animalistic rage. When he tears his eyes out, he is Oedipus iratus who rages like a lion and shows quantum monstri sit homo in hominem furens, “What a monster man is raging against his fellow man” (De Ira 3.3.1). Sophocles’ Oedipus is man when he goes on two; Seneca’s is man when he goes on four, when he is a monster. Seneca’s Oedipus is the Sphinx.

7. Lessing’s Seneca

  • 40 Lessing, 1886, p. 50-51; Laokoon, 1901, chapter 4: “. . . ein Theater ist keine Arena. . . Verrathe (...)

“A theatre is surely not an arena . . . The moment [tragic characters]
appear to act under the influence of constraint and rule, they lose at
once the power of touching our sensibilities, and base admiration is
all that we can award to the stoic gladiator of the sock. Such is the title
which may with propriety be given to all the personages of what
are called the tragedies of Seneca.” Laocoon

  • 41 Laokoon, 1901, chapter 4: “. . . ich bin der festen Meinung, daß die gladiatorischen Spiele die vor (...)
  • 42 In De Ira 1.2.4 Seneca makes clear that gladiatorial contests did not leave the Roman audience cold (...)
  • 43 Lessing’s dismissal of Stoicism is part of his polemic against Winckelmann’s praise of the “noble s (...)

38Seneca has suffered because so many critics, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, completely misunderstood him. The German denigration of Seneca during this period began with Lessing, who in his Laokoon (1766) asserted that the Romans remained “so far below the level of mediocrity in tragedy.”41 Rome’s gladiatorial culture had caused tragedy to degenerate into Bombast. Somewhat to our surprise, Lessing’s point was not that gladiatorial shows conditioned the Romans to scenes of blood and violence but that the “Stoicism” of the gladiators kept them from showing their emotions.42 It is hard to believe that Lessing had actually read Seneca’s plays, where the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” that Lessing attributes to Seneca’s gladiatorial characters is barely to be found, perhaps only in Astyanax in the Troades.43

  • 44 Laokoon, 1901, chapter 1.

39Seneca’s characters speak, like Tiresias and Laius, ore rabido; shrieks of anger are far more common than moments of calm endurance. Seneca’s Oedipus is not a hero who “bears his misery with nobility of soul” and he is not unique in that regard. Therefore when Lessing asserts that “all stoicism is undramatic,” he fails to appreciate what is really Stoic about Seneca’s plays. Lessing asserts that our “admiration” for Stoic heroes leaves room neither for every warmer passion (wärmere Leidenschaft) nor for clear conception (jede andere deutliche Vorstellung).44

  • 45 Sidney, 1965, 116.34-117.6.

40“Admiration” (Bewunderung in Lessing) was the term used by many Renaissance critics as the translation of Aristotelian φόβος or “fear.” Philip Sidney uses the same term in his An Apology for Poetry and applies it specifically to Seneca’s Oedipus as an example of tyranny:45

high and excellent Tragedy . . . that maketh kings fear to be tyrants, and
tyrants manifest their tyrannical humours; that, with stirring the affects
of admiration and commiseration, teacheth the uncertainty of this world
. . . that maketh us know,

Qui sceptra saeuus duro imperio regit,
Timet timentes, metus in auctorem redit.
The savage who kings it with merciless power
Fears those who fear. Terror recoils on its author.
(Seneca, Oedipus 705-6)

  • 46 For more on the issue of tragic psychology in Seneca, see Staley, 2010, p. 54‑60 and 81‑92.

41For Sidney, and I would argue for Seneca, tragedy “maketh us know” by producing both “warmer passion” and “clear conception,” the very qualities which Lessing had found wanting. The Stoics interpreted emotion as a cognitive and persuasive process in which powerful impressions produce a shock, an ictus, a kind of amazement that is a preliminary form of emotion, the “warmer passion.” When these impressions are kataleptic, they function as “clear conceptions” that lead us to right judgments.46

42As Lessing was misguided in general in his assessment of Seneca, so too were those Romantics who followed him in rejecting Seneca as tragic mediocrity, interested in spectacle and not in self-inspection. For Seneca, self-inspection is spectacle, the spectacle of Tiresias drawing out the truth from the underworld for us to observe. Lessing was right to associate Roman tragedy with public spectacle but misguided in his interpretation of what was Stoic about it.

8. Conclusion

43The Sophoclean process of self-discovery could be staged as a public and dramatic event; in imperial Rome such an act could only be private and internal. To create theater, Seneca had to transform the revelation of the truth from its verbal and dialogic form in Sophocles into a series of monstra, vivid events which search for the truth in the signs of nature, the signs of the body. For Seneca as a Stoic and as a prominent figure at Rome, truths are hidden and need to be inferred. The search for truth is quite literally “scrutiny,” the probing of the hidden and inward. I would suggest that for Seneca “scrutiny” is in its primary sense an act of extispicium that only metaphorically becomes an act of self-analysis. His Oedipus returns to the reality behind the metaphor.

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1 Rudnytsky, 1987, p. 97.

2 Bartsch, 2006, p. 192.

3 I cite the Latin text and translation (with some modifications) of Seneca’s Oedipus from A. J. Boyle’s edition of the play (2011). All other translations are my own.

4 Mastronarde, 1970, p. 314.

5 Vellacott, 1970.

6 Fitch and McElduff, 2002, p. 23.

7 Boyle, 2011, p. 110.

8 Boyle, 2011, p. 101.

9 Bloom, 1973, p. 10.

10 Cf. Palmieri, 1989.

11 Cf. Curley, 1986, p. 85: “By isolating the Sophoclean elements of the plot in one act and surrounding it with material original to himself, Seneca, in effect, says, ‘This is Sophocles; this is Seneca. Compare.’” Alessandro Schiesaro, 2003, p. 226 makes the same point: “The Virgilian allusion . . . underlines Seneca’s analogous intention to innovate . . . ”

12 Sophocles devotes approximately six lines to describing the plague at Thebes, but in Seneca’s Oedipus the “greedy plague” appears in the fourth line and is described at length in the first choral ode (110-201).

13 Mitchel-Boyask, 2008, p. 3.

14 Knox, 1957.

15 Lefèvre, 1985.

16 Cf. Putnam, 1995.

17 Tiresias’ role as Oedipus’ intermediary reminds us of his role in the κατάβασις which served as Vergil’s model: during Odysseus’ encounter with the dead (likewise summoned through sacrifices rather than through an actual descent) Tiresias is the wise man who reveals to Odysseus his future and he offers a σῆμα . . . ἀριφραδές (Ody. 11.126), a “very clear sign” much like the ones for which Seneca’s Tiresias searches.

18 Lefèvre, 1985, p. 1255-56 catalogs the verbal parallels between the two underworld scenes: black cows and sheep are butchered; whole animals are burned; and personifications of Luctus (“lamentation”), Metus (“fear”) and the like abound. The pious Aeneas is thus juxtaposed with the impious Oedipus: “Damit wird der augusteische Wertkosmos auf den Kopf gestellt.”

19 Boyle, 2011, p. cix.

20 Staley, 2013.

21 Freud (1953) SE 5 :608. Freud’s epigraph includes only the Latin. In a footnote Freud’s translator, James Strachey, translates and reviews Freud’s use of this Vergilian line. In a letter to Wilhelm Fliess (4 December 1896) Freud had proposed it as a motto for a chapter on symptom formation in some future work. In a note published later, as Strachey comments, Freud had connected the line with repressed instincts.

22 The Interpretation of Dreams, as Didier Anzieu (1986, p. 457) has suggested, turns to Vergil not simply for its epigraph but for its very model.

23 Freud, 1958, SE vol. 12, p. 164.

24 Schiesaro, 2003, p. 9.

25 Ibid., p. 11.

26 Ibid., p. 12; cf. also p. 226.

27 Ibid., p. 12.

28 Ibid.

29 Boyle, 2011, p. 195.

30 On metatheater in Seneca’s plays, see Curley, 1986, Boyle, 1997, and Schiesaro, 2003.

31 Schiesaro, 2003, p. 11: “The uncontrolled fear that pushes Seneca’s Oedipus to search for explanations . . . eventually leads him to discover in the song of Laius the truth he was afraid to know.”

32 Ibid., p. 226-7.

33 Aygon, 2004, p. 409-410.

34 Littlewood, 2004, p. 175-6.

35 For example, in recessu Tartari (“in a recess of Tartarus,” Hercules Furens 709); Stygis / sinu profundo (“In the deep hollow of the Styx,” Troades 520-21); latrauit Hecates turba; ter ualles cauae / sonuere maestum (“Hecates’ throng barked; three times the deep valleys issued a sad sound,” Oedipus 569-70).

36 Totum diem meum scrutor factaque ac dicta mea remetior (“I probe my entire day and go back over my deeds and words,” De Ira 3.36.3).

37 Bartsch, 2006, p. 203.

38 Staley, 2010, p. 134-135.

39 Bartsch, 2006, p. 272.

40 Lessing, 1886, p. 50-51; Laokoon, 1901, chapter 4: “. . . ein Theater ist keine Arena. . . Verrathen sie Abrichtung und Zwang, so lassen sie unser Herz kalt, und Klopffechter im Cothurne können hochstens nur bewundert werden. Diese Benennung verdienen alle Personen der sogenannten Senecaschen Tragödien . . .

41 Laokoon, 1901, chapter 4: “. . . ich bin der festen Meinung, daß die gladiatorischen Spiele die vornehmste Ursache gewesen, warum die Römer in dem Tragischen noch so weit unter dem Mittelmäßigen geblieben sind.”

42 In De Ira 1.2.4 Seneca makes clear that gladiatorial contests did not leave the Roman audience cold with admiration. Spectators grew angry with gladiators who would not die, he says, and were changed from spectators into adversaries.

43 Lessing’s dismissal of Stoicism is part of his polemic against Winckelmann’s praise of the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Greek art, values that Winckelmann associated with Stoicism. Lessing was, however, on the same page with Winckelmann in attributing the inferiority of the Romans in part to their gladiatorial culture: “The inhuman, sanguinary games, and the agonizing and dying gladiators, in the amphitheatres of the latter, even during the period of their greatest refinement, were the most gratifying sources of amusement to the whole people” (History 1.10).

44 Laokoon, 1901, chapter 1.

45 Sidney, 1965, 116.34-117.6.

46 For more on the issue of tragic psychology in Seneca, see Staley, 2010, p. 54‑60 and 81‑92.

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Gregory A. Staley, « Making Oedipus Roman »Pallas, 95 | 2014, 111-124.

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Gregory A. Staley, « Making Oedipus Roman »Pallas [En ligne], 95 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 23 janvier 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Gregory A. Staley

Director, Honors Humanities
Professeur d’Études classiques
Université du Maryland (USA)

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