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  • Lauren Donovan Ginsberg (a1)


Over the past two decades, scholars have devoted increasing attention to Roman civil war literature and its poetics, from the vocabulary of nefas, paradox, and hyperbole to the pervasive imagery of the state as a body violated by its citizens. Thebes and especially the civil war between Oedipus’ sons became prominent lenses through which Romans explored their country's strife-ridden past. Seneca's Phoenissae, however, has received comparatively little attention in this regard, often overshadowed by Statius’ epic Thebaid of the next generation. This paper investigates Seneca's contribution to the wider poetics of civil war through his expansion of the theme of incest, which Seneca uses to articulate civil war's most invasive, penetrative, and disintegrative effects. In particular, Seneca capitalizes on both the metaphorical potential of maternal violation and the eroticized imagery of Roman conquest to create disturbing points of contact between two generations of Jocasta's sons: the one who invaded her bed in the past, and the other who will soon invade his mother city. Seneca writes his Phoenissae to be an escalated return to the original sins of Oedipus’ incesta domus as another of Thebes’ native sons prepares to conquer his motherland.



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1. Ennius’ Sabinae frag. 1 echoes Euripides’ Jocasta (Eur. Phoen. 571-76). See Jocelyn (1972), 82-88; La Penna (2000), 246-49; Manuwald (2001), 178f; Erasmo (2004), 59 n.29; Boyle (2006), 86f. Cicero uses the same play to elucidate contemporary concerns (Att. 2.25.1; 7.11.1). Lucan also sees a reflection of Eteocles and Polynices in the war of Caesar and Pompey (Luc. 1.550-52). For Thebes and Rome more generally, see Petrone (1988-89); Hardie (1990); Braund (2006); Hinds (2011).

2. While Hershkowitz (1998), 272, asserts that in Statius’ Thebaid ‘sex is the fundamental theme in any account of Oedipus and his offspring’, prior to Seneca this would not necessarily have been the case. See especially Fantham (1983). See also Barchiesi (1988); Petrone (1988-89); Frank (1995b); Boyle (2011), lxxxix; Ginsberg (2015).

3. See, e.g., Cic. Cat. 1.17, 1.29, 1.33. Seneca does explore civil war as another form of Oedipus’ parricide (Phoen. 40f., 56f., 106-08).

4. Fantham (1983), 62-64. See also Frank (1995a), ad loc. For the Ovidian pedigree of the Phoenissae’s language of guilt and criminality (esp. error and scelus), see Hinds (2011), 33-38.

5. The text used throughout is Zwierlein (1986a) except where otherwise noted. All translations are my own.

6. On the importance of Oedipus as a prophet-figure linking the Oedipus and Phoenissae, see Barchiesi (1988), 24f. See also Opelt (1972), 276, for whom Oedipus is the spiritual embodiment of the curse which the play visualizes.

7. I disagree with Li Causi (2009) that Oedipus’ primary desire is for the death of his sons as a symbolic act that would erase the final living pieces of himself and the proof of their incestuous paternity. At this point, Oedipus seems more interested in perpetuating the cycle.

8. Fantham (1983), 65.

9. On repetition as an inherently incestuous practice in Senecan poetics—especially as far as the Theban dramas go—see Gunderson in this volume.

10. Fantham (1983), 65. For editorial preference of matri over patri, see Hirschberg (1987) and Frank (1995a), ad loc. Petrone (1988-9), 257-59, while reading date arma matri as an escalation of Oedipus’ parricide, notes the shared imagery of fraterna arma and incest, especially in terms of mixing blood. She is followed in this by Li Causi (2009). Henry and Henry (1985), 88, also note bellum ciuile’s links to incestuous violation of the home. Though Fantham (1995) later retracted her position in favor of Gronovius’ interpretation that the sons will provide Jocasta with a weapon for suicide on the model of Euripides, the symbolism of Fantham's original suggestion merits reconsideration. Seneca had already sexualized Jocasta's suicide in his earlier play: see Boyle (2011), 351-54. A variation of that scene would fit Senecan practice.

11. Fantham (1983), 66-69.

12. When Jocasta talks about her sons, it is ambiguous whether she means Oedipus or Oedipus’ sons. The absence of proper names throughout the play creates confusion (Frank [1995b]). As Jocasta seeks to specify her guilt, her language conflates Oedipus, Polynices, and Eteocles. See also Hirschberg (1987), ad loc.

13. In Seneca's Oedipus, Laius asserts that the greatest crime in Thebes is maternal love (maternus amor, Oed. 629f.). I follow Fitch (1981) in seeing the Oedipus as the earlier of the two dramas.

14. sed matrem amaui (‘but I loved my mother’, Phoen. 262). Both phrases occur at line-beginning, reinforcing the echo.

15. See also Hirschberg (1987), ad 270. As Opelt (1972), 285, notes, Seneca's Phoenissae differs from Euripides’ in its focus on the emotional reactions of Oedipus and Jocasta as parents. See also Petrone (1988-9), 248f., on how the mirroring of Oedipus and Jocasta highlights their sons’ fraternal strife as a further manifestation of their incestuous birth.

16. As Littlewood (2004), 177, notes, Seneca's Phoenissae demands our memory of Oedipus’ past to understand the tragedian's presentation of the present. Seneca reworks familiar themes in order to re-envision the Oedipus’ complex mother-son dynamic.

17. ‘In the Euripidean drama, the focus is on the brothers and their claims, whereas in Seneca's play, it is Jocasta's anxiety and maternal distress which is highlighted’ (Frank [1995a], 21). Mazzoli (2002) singles Jocasta out as Seneca's most important innovation on Euripides’ text. Though Eteocles is present, Seneca's Jocasta appeals almost exclusively to her exiled son. See also Hirschberg (1987), 14f., on this innovation. This focus may have influenced Statius’ decision to remove Eteocles entirely from his analogous scene (Theb. 7.470-563).

18. See also: ut exul errat natus et patria caret/ profugus (‘my son wanders as an exile and as a refugee he lacks a fatherland’, Phoen. 372f.); quam bene parentis sceptra Polybi fugeram!/ curis solutus exul (‘how good it was that I fled my father Polybus’ scepters! As an exile free from cares…’, Oed. 12-14).

19. At 516 I deviate from Zwierlein (1986a) by preferring the text of A (sollicitae) over E (suspensae). The complex web of intratextual connections that scholars have noted between the Phoenissae and the Oedipus lends support to an echo of the Oedipus here. That said, given the previous use of sollicitae and the other echoes of the Oedipus, the argument would stand with either reading.

20. The language of repetere regnum also appears elsewhere in the Phoenissae in reference to Polynices’ assault on Thebes (Phoen. 324; Phoen. 378f.), creating further connections between past and present.

21. Though Oedipus will not reach his moment of anagnorisis until further in the scene (Oed. 867), Seneca makes clear that Jocasta—who listened silently to the entire exchange between Oedipus and the senex—understood the implication of his words (Oed. 825-36).

22. Boyle (2011), ad loc.

23. For the metapoetic aspects of attempting to escape one's models, see Gunderson in this volume.

24. See: teneo longo tempore / petita uotis ora. te, profugum solo / patrio penates regis externi tegunt (‘I hold the face that was sought by me in prayers for so long. You, a refugee from your native land, the gods of a foreign king protect’, Phoen. 501-03).

25. ‘Nor did I as your parent lead you as a companion into your first marriage chamber.’

26. See Frank (1995a) and Hirschberg (1987), ad loc.

27. I follow Zwierlein (1986b), 126, over Frank (1995a), ad loc., who views the sexual innuendo as being inappropriate and thus takes primos thalamos to refer to ‘to the very threshold of the marriage chamber.’ While Euripides’ Jocasta is upset about her son's foreign wedding (Eur. Phoen. 338-54), the emphasis Seneca's queen puts on Polynices’ bed—especially given the sexual charge of the word throughout Seneca's Theban dramas—shows how the Roman dramatist adapted Euripides to his own ends.

28. Cf. also thalamos parentis, ‘my parent's marriage bed’, Oed. 20; nefandos occupat thalamos patris, ‘he occupies the cursed marriage bed of his father’, Oed. 635. This juxtaposition of thalamus with parental vocabulary recurs throughout Latin literature in incestuous contexts: Ov. Met. 10.469; Sen. Phaed. 171; Stat. Theb. 2.464; Ap. Met. 10.6.1. See also Barchiesi (1988), 32, who notes that in Euripides’ play, Jocasta's anger was political due to Polynices’ new foreign alliance, but in Seneca it seems to transgress the political.

29. I build on Frank (1995a), ad loc. who notes the innuendo and discusses accede, uagina, hasta, coire, ensis, solum as well as the imagery of joining breasts with reference to Adams (1982). While Fantham (1983), 69, sees nothing suggestive in Jocasta's language, she notes that allusions to her womb ‘take on an altogether different color from, say, the appeal of Hecuba to Hector by the breasts that suckled him. While Jocasta is seemingly undisturbed in her love for her sons by the recollection of their unnatural parentage, the reader is not allowed to forget it.’

30. See Adams (1982), 180.

31. There is a parallel with Ovid's Niobe (Met. 6.298f.), as Hirschberg (1987) notes ad loc., but Jocasta's relationship with her son makes this a less straightforwardly maternal gesture.

32. ‘In no way do the laws of nature stand firm. After the examples set by my brothers not even the fidelity of my mother can be trusted.’ He here unwittingly recalls Oedipus’ own assessment of his maternal anxieties: timeo post matrem omnia (‘I fear everything after my mother’, Phoen. 50). For the incestuous overtones of the Antigone-Oedipus scene which threaten a different sort of ‘repetition’, see Ginsberg (2015).

33. The Oedipus passage technically refers to the womb of the heifer sacrificed during the extispicy scene but, as Boyle (2011), ad loc. notes, the entrails look to Jocasta's womb. DeBrohun's analysis of this line (this volume) foregrounds its wider allusions to the incestuous and internecine patterns that plague Theban history. See also Gunderson (this volume) on how the Oedipus’ scenes of prophesy anticipate the incestuous intratextual poetics of the sequel. Cf. also Sen. Ag. 34f. and Phaed. 176f.

34. Contra Frank (1995a), ad loc. who considers fratrum a poetic plural.

35. ‘If there is any regret for the affinity between you, if there is any regret for our marriage bonds, turn your anger against us.’ Hirschberg (1987) and Frank (1995a) also note this echo.

36. For Jocasta as usurping a masculine role through her echoes of transgressive Roman women (the Sabines and Veturia), see Mazzoli (2002). While the extensive intertextual connections posited by Moricca (1917) between Livy's Veturia and Seneca's Jocasta have not persuaded all, Veturia's final appeal to Coriolanus seems important to Seneca: ergo ego nisi peperissem, Roma non oppugnaretur; nisi filium haberem, libera in libera patria mortua essem (‘therefore if I had not born you, Rome would not be besieged; if I did not have a son, I would die a free woman in a free country’, Liv. 2.40.8).

37. On the symbolic role of women's bodies in Roman conquest, see Keith (2000), 102-04. The similarity between waging war and the pursuit of a woman is a defining trope of Latin love elegy and Kennedy (1993), 53, notes that ‘military action can be described in terms which also suggest sexual potency: enemy territory (frequently anthropomorphized and gendered as female) may be penetrated’ (emphasis original). The gendering of space in Greek and Latin literature and the view of the land as a macrocosmic, fertile female body made the assimilation of Rome and its legendary women natural. The earth as mother appears in the epigraphic and in the numismatic record as far back as the 1st c. BCE (‘Terra Mater’, TLL viii.443.6-16). Moreover, the idea of conquest as a form of incest through the image of terra as the ‘mother of all’ seems not to have been uncommon (cf. Liv. 1.56; Suet. Iul. 7). Seneca manipulates these ideas for his own purposes.

38. Li Causi (2009) anticipates my argument somewhat in his discussion of Jocasta as an ‘anti-Veturia’, but he focuses on Jocasta's furor rather than the significance of her incestuous impurity.

39. Jocasta's phrasing here is also reminiscent of Phaedra's sexualized pleas for death in a similarly incestuous context (Phaed. 1159-61). I am grateful to my anonymous reviewer for drawing this passage to my attention.

40. hunc uentrem…haec membra (‘this womb…these limbs’, Phoen. 447f.). Cf. per decem mensum graues / uteri labores (‘by the labors of my womb heavy for ten months’, Phoen. 535f.)

41. nudum inter enses pectus infestos tene! (‘hold your bared breast between their hostile swords’, Phoen. 405); stabo inter arma (‘I will stand between their arms’, Phoen. 408.); affusa totum corpus amplexu tegam (‘having poured myself over your whole body with my embrace’, Phoen. 475); laniata canas mater ostendit comas…irrigat fletu genas (‘the mother shows how she has torn her white hair…she covers her cheeks with tears’, Phoen. 440f.); maternas…lacrimas (‘maternal tears’, Phoen. 500f.); membra quassantur metu (‘my limbs quake with fear’, Phoen. 530).

42. The scene's reception reinforces a sexual reading. In Petronius (Petr. 80), Encolpius and Ascyltus (a Thebanum par) fight over sexual access to Giton who must mediate between would-be lovers ready to tear him in two. Statius too suggests the sexual nature of Polynices’ conquest (Stat. Theb. 7.493). Elsewhere Statius links Polynices’ desire for the homeland with his desire to regain the sinus matris (‘the bosom of his mother’, Theb. 4.88, with Hershkowitz [1998], 271-82). Seneca himself may allude to Propertius who used Jocasta's role as mediator between warring men to describe the position in which his rivalry with other amatores puts Cynthia, language which Seneca's passage here echoes (Prop. 2.9.49-52).

43. ‘Seek out this womb that bore brothers for a husband.’ Contra Zwierlein (1986a) and most current editorial practices.

44. Seneca's choice to use Jocasta to vocalize the devastation of war also plays into a wider discourse about the role of women and war recently getting renewed scholarly attention. See especially Fabre-Serris and Keith (2015): ‘women are, in effect, the cause, stakes, and victims of war: indirectly because they lose their male relatives in war…and directly because they are sacrificed, raped, killed and/or reduced to slaves’ (3).

45. On the urbs direpta as a narrative trope, see Ziolkowski (1986).

46. ‘The fact that sexual violence was inherently contained in the semantic field of the verb diripio is of utmost importance for discerning the decisive connotation of the term in the context of sacking of cities’ (Ziolkowski [1986], 73). See also Adams (1982), 145-51. For an excellent recent analysis of the various victimizations of women in siege warfare, see Durcrey (2015), 192-98. For a complementary reading of metaphors of sexual assault in Virgil's Sack of Troy, see Whittaker (2009).

47. Ramsby and Severy-Hoven (2007) discuss this imagery's development into a standard topos of representation during the early Augustan age. See also Beard (2007), 25, on the significance of Pompey's Nationes.

48. On the importance of the woman's desirability in representations of conquest, see Dillon (2006); Beard (2007), 119-23; Ramsby and Severy-Hoven (2007). On the development of the similarly seductive imagery of uictoria under the empire, see Kousser (2006).

49. ‘Overturn Thebes!…do you burn this land with hostile weapons?…do you seek these roofs with weapons and flames?’

50. Littlewood (2004), 178. See also Petrone (1988-9), 256, on abstrusum’s associations with the womb.

51. That Oedipus wishes for the destruction of Thebes to begin symbolically from his marriage bed links even more closely the complementary perversions of incest and civil war. For the incestuous undertones of Oedipus’ language of urban destruction, see also Petrone (1988-9), 258.

52. See Dillon (2006); Ramsby and Severy-Hoven (2007). See also n.54 below on Ovid's elegiac manipulation of the fear of the conquered female in triumphal contexts. That this language (esp. stupere) is ubiquitous in Senecan drama for moments of horror and/or shock (cf. Ag. 508f.; HF 414; Med. 688; Thy. 905; Tro. 949, 1143) does not diminish its particularized force in this context of siege.

53. As Beard (2007), 119-24, notes, audiences were excited by the high rank, status, and beauty of the triumphal captives. The best praedae were royal families whose capture visually represented Rome's conquest. See also Hirschberg (1987), ad loc.

54. Ovid's sexualized description of Germania shares many similarities with our present passage: see, e.g., Tr. 3.12.47f. and Tr. 4.2.43. Ramsby and Severy-Hoven (2007) analyze well the shared symbolic system and imagery which Ovid uses of Rome's foreign conquests, his elegiac mistress (e.g. Am. 1.7.39-42), and his own subjugation to Amor (Am. 1.2.19f.). The sexual and the political become one in conquest. On elegy's erotic engagement with these motifs, see also Beard (2007), 111-14, 135f., and Keith (2015).

55. This paper has benefited from the incisive comments of the volume's editors and their anonymous reviewers, from the questions and comments of the audience at the 2013 panel on Senecan Poetics held at the Classical Association of Canada in Winnipeg, and from the suggestions of Caroline Bishop, Liz Gloyn, Isabel Köster, and Darcy Krasne. Any remaining faults are entirely my own.

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