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  • Jeri Blair DeBrohun (a1)


It has long been noticed that in his Oedipus, Seneca diverges conspicuously from his primary model, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus (OT), in a number of aspects. Prominent among these is an expansive, two-part ritual sequence at the play's center, comprising a prodigy-filled yet spectacularly unsuccessful sacrifice and extispicium followed by a more successful, if no less terrifying, necromancy to raise the slain Laius. This article concentrates on the sacrifice and extispicium (Sen. Oed. 288-402). I argue that in this episode Seneca has employed tragic contaminatio (the weaving into one play of significant elements from two or more different source plays) and allusion to produce an exceptionally innovative scene that is a remarkable display of the Roman playwright's ingenuity. For while Sophocles’ OT remains an active intertext, Seneca has also imported elements from Euripides’ Phoenissae. His primary model for the passage, moreover, is actually to be found in a different Sophoclean Theban play, Antigone. Specifically, Seneca has reworked and elaborated upon the climactic reversal scene between Creon and Tiresias in Antigone (998-1114), in which the seer reports on the corruption of the prophetic rites he has just performed and identifies Creon as the cause of the pollution, both for his continued refusal to allow the burial of the fallen Polyneices and for his entombment of the living Antigone.



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1. On the relationship between Seneca's Oedipus and Sophocles’ OT, see esp. Thummer (1972); Graham (1977); Henry and Walker (1983); Palmieri (1983); Töchterle (1994), 9-18; Fitch (2004), 5-16; Ahl (2008); Boyle (2011), xlix-lxxxvii et passim.

2. For prominent use of contaminatio by Roman tragedians, including especially Seneca, and by Ovid, see esp. Larmour (1990); Curley (1997); Schiesaro (2005); Boyle (2006), 11f., 37-39, 67f., 88f.; Curley (2013), 24f., 117-216; Trinacty (2014), 74f., 167-85; for allusive innovation, esp. Schiesaro (1992); Hinds (1998). For Senecan allusion to other authors, esp. Virgil and Ovid, see esp. Jakobi (1988); Hinds (2011); Trinacty (2014) and references throughout Töchterle (1994) and Boyle (2011).

3. For this aspect of Seneca's tragedies, see in addition to works cited in note 2 above also Segal (1986), esp. 202-14; Tarrant (1978); Tarrant (1995); Schiesaro (2003); Littlewood (2004).

4. For moving offstage events onstage, see esp. Tarrant (1978), 246-52, and more recently Curley (2013).

5. The idea of staged presentation of Seneca's tragedies is relevant even if they were primarily read or recited rather than fully performed. I agree with Kragelund (2008) that the plays, whether envisioned as read, recited or performed, anticipated an audience who could readily engage with their theatrical aspects, either through their imaginations or as spectators at a fully realized staged performance; on the question of performance, see also Sutton (1986), Kohn (2013) and, for the Oedipus (and extispicium scene) in particular, Boyle (2011), 186f., with citations of earlier sources, Dodson-Robinson (2011), and Braund (2016), 27-31.

6. For mythological innovation via character construction, esp. Sommerstein (2005).

7. The verb contaminarit itself appears near the end of the scene (389).

8. On the manifold factors, see most recently Boyle (2011), lx-lxii, lxxvf., 186-205 ad 291-402.

9. Boyle (2011), lvif.

10. For Seneca's tragedies, quotations are from Zwierlein (1986a). Translations of Seneca, unless otherwise noted, are my own, although I have no doubt been influenced by the fine translations of Fitch (2004), Ahl (2008), and Boyle (2011).

11. Boyle (2011), ad loc., where he further notes that the phrase has ‘tragic pedigree’ and was employed by Pacuvius, ‘where it seems also to announce a dramatic entrance.’

12. For Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone, I have used the text of Lloyd-Jones (1994 [1997 reprint, with corrections]). Translations, while no doubt influenced by those of Lloyd-Jones, are my own.

13. Töchterle (1994), ad 289, with additional parallels cited, and Boyle (2011), ad 288-90.

14. For Euripides’ Phoenissae, I have used the text of Kovacs (2002). The translation, while no doubt influenced by that of Kovacs, is my own.

15. There is no extended report by Tiresias of his divination rites in Euripides’ Phoenissae.

16. On the complications and confusions in Sophocles’ scene, see Dawe (2006), 8f.

17. For a Senecan character's seeming awareness of his or her own literary history, see esp. Schiesaro (2003), 77 (Atreus); Boyle (1997), 132 (Medea); Trinacty (2014), 118-26 (Medea).

18. Tiresias’ struggle to avoid revealing the truth to Sophocles’ Oedipus continues for nearly fifty lines; when he does disclose his knowledge, he famously employs riddling language that Oedipus fails to comprehend. Seneca as dramatist has employed a different method to postpone the revelation.

19. Boyle (2011), ad 293-8.

20. In further recombination of characters from Sophocles’ OT, Seneca reserves the anger of Tiresias (and Oedipus) for its passionate expression by the vengeful Laius raised in the upcoming necromancy.

21. Griffith (1999), 296, for both quotations.

22. On the confrontations between king and prophet in Sophocles’ OT and Antigone as type scenes, see Griffith (1999), 15-17, 296. Braun (1867), 248, noted also by Töchterle (1994), 303, suggested that Oedipus’ query of Tiresias in Sophocles’ OT might have served as inspiration for Seneca.

23. Boyle (2011), 206, notes the importance of the Bacchus ode in Antigone as a model for Seneca's lyric hymn but does not suggest a connection between the two tragedians’ divination scenes.

24. Boyle (2011), lxii, ad 398f.

25. In both plays, though in different ways, Creon is involved in an attempt to raise the dead (releasing Antigone and supervising the necromancy of Laius, respectively).

26. For secundus as ‘another example of’ or ‘a copy or duplicate of’, OLD 2nd ed. s.v. 9. The re- in Seneca's respiciunt may, in addition to its most obvious meaning ‘to look to,’ also convey the notion of repetition (suggesting a ‘double take’) and serve as an allusive signal (‘look back to’). While a recital audience (or even reader) can be expected to appreciate (imaginatively) the visual effect of the simultaneous presence of Creon and Oedipus in Seneca's scene, the ‘spectacular’ impact of the dramatized contaminatio would be especially well appreciated if fully staged.

27. Discussed by Boyle (2006), 120.

28. Curley (2013), 218f, 229-32.

29. Ahl (2008), esp. 120-23; also Trinacty (2014), 230f.

30. uariatio is relevant even if we imagine Seneca's plays as intended for recitation rather than staged performance.

31. Schiesaro (2003), 9, 226f.

32. For discussions of Seneca's unusual characterization of Tiresias with different emphases than those presented here, see Ahl (2008), 122; Boyle (2011), esp. 184f. and 189, with additional references.

33. Pratt (1939), 93-99 (‘easily recognizable allegory’, 94); also Trinacty (2014), 190. Busch (2007) argued that Seneca's ‘hermeneutically ambiguous discourse’ in the extispicium establishes a ‘dialogue’ between two different possible interpretations of Manto's words, which hold different philosophical implications. The two ‘voices’ (proposed by Busch) juxtaposed in the extispicium are one supportive of the Stoic view of divination, based on sympatheia, according to which all nature is connected and reflects moral (dis)order, and on which an allegorical interpretation of Seneca's scene relies; and one that interrogates or rejects the notion of sympatheia and views nature as fundamentally disordered and irrational. As will be clear from my argument, I recognize the first of these views (that reliant on sympatheia) as dominant both in the extispicium scene and in Seneca's Oedipus. I am convinced, however, that one of Seneca's purposes for this scene—another Romanizing aspect—was to incorporate within his drama a version of the Roman religious and theological debate over the rationality and efficacy of divination, such as that presented most vividly in Cicero's de Diuinatione (with ‘Quintus’ representing the Stoic position and ‘Marcus’ as skeptic) and implied also in Seneca's NQ 2.32.3-5 (adduced by Busch, 227).

34. Pratt (1939), 93-99; Davis (1991), 158f.

35. Pratt (1939), 98.

36. Pratt (1939), 94.

37. The most detailed treatment of Bacchic imagery in Oedipus remains Mastronarde (1970), esp. 306-12. See also Boyle (2011), lxxvi, lxxxv-vi, 146 (on Oed. 111-14), and 205-30 (on the ‘Bacchus Ode’).

38. Cf. Iacchus, 157; Bacchum, 566.

39. Mastronarde (1970), 306-13.

40. Perfundit, while used both literally and figuratively in the play, is especially appropriate to Bacchus who, in the form of wine, is poured (fundit, 566) onto the sacrifice.

41. Mastronarde (1970), esp. 309-12; Boyle (2011), 275-88, who notes that Seneca's ode is indebted especially to Ovid Met. 3.1-252 but also to Sophocles’ Antigone and Euripides’ Phoenissae, texts argued here to be important for the extispicium scene as well. On the connections with Ovid, see esp. Jakobi (1988), 90-139; Hinds (2011).

42. impio partu (731) also recollects impio marte (646), the ‘unnatural war’ between Oedipus’ and Jocasta's sons with which Laius curses their incestam domum (645).

43. Pratt (1939), 96.

44. In their opening ode describing the plague's horrors, Seneca's chorus provides a gruesome scene of sacrifice that is altogether ineffectual, as the victim falls before the priest strikes and gore rather than blood gushes from the wound (133-41). This passage itself allusively recalls earlier depictions of rituals attempted in times of plague in Ovid (Met. 7.593-601) and Virgil (Georg. 3.486-93, a model for both Ovid and Seneca). While it is not implausible that the divination of Tiresias, a seer of presumed exceptional power, might be anticipated to succeed where other priests have failed, the Senecan reader who recalls this earlier choral vignette as Tiresias’ sacrifice commences might be better prepared to anticipate interference (due to the plague) in the rites’ interpretability.

45. On the rituals’ lack of productive, readable signs, note esp. Soph. Ant. 1013 ἀσήμων ὀργίων, ‘rites that give no signs’, and 1021 οὐδ’ ὄρνις εὐσῆμους ἀπορροιβδεῖ βοάς, ‘the bird of omen no longer screeches out cries that provide useful signs.’

46. Boyle (1997), 132.

47. Cf. eloqui fatum pudet (‘I am ashamed to speak my fate aloud’, Sen. Oed. 47).

48. Oedipus’ words at 388f. highlight his own inability to comprehend the complicated messages the sacrificial elements have relayed: memora quod unum scire caelicolae uolunt, / contaminarit rege quis caeso manus; ‘tell us the one thing that the gods want us to know: who polluted his hands with the king's murder.’ Seneca's audience perceives the irony in Oedipus’ (and Tiresias’) situation, since we alone realize that the gods want considerably more than one thing to be conveyed through the divination's elements, and they (or rather, Seneca) are not yet ready to deliver the name of Laius’ killer.

49. Palmieri (1989); Schiesaro (2003), 226f.; Boyle (2011), ad 392-4.

50. On Epistle 84 and Seneca's allusive practice, see esp. Trinacty (2014), 13-16. Seneca's mention of the ornithoscopy his Tiresias has not in fact performed may serve also to alert his audience that in the upcoming scene he will replace this more traditional means of divination (augury) with a darker rite.

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