Evaluate Seneca's Thyestes as a tragedy of violence and intrigue.

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Seneca's Thyestes was written in the middle of the first century CE, a time in Roman history when violence and intrigue were the order of the day. Seneca had lived through the assassination of the Emperor Tiberius, in which the subsequent emperor Caligula may have participated. He had lived through...

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Seneca's Thyestes was written in the middle of the first century CE, a time in Roman history when violence and intrigue were the order of the day. Seneca had lived through the assassination of the Emperor Tiberius, in which the subsequent emperor Caligula may have participated. He had lived through the assassination of Caligula by Roman soldiers, who then compelled Claudius to assume the principate. Around the time that the Thyestes was composed, Claudius was poisoned to death by his own wife, Agrippina, the mother of Nero.

Given the climate in which Seneca lived, it is perhaps no surprise that the playwright found it appropriate to take up this story of two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, at odds with one another over the kingship of Mycenae. Thyestes had stolen the kingship from Atreus by, among other things, seducing Atreus' wife. Later, though, when Thyestes had to give up the kingship, Atreus exiled Thyestes. Atreus decides he wants further vengeance on his brother, so he decides to summon Thyestes to the palace under the pretense of sharing the kingdom. When Thyestes returns, Atreus planned to hold a banquet at which he would kill Thyestes' children and manage to have Thyestes eat his own children.

When Thyestes and his sons come to Atreus' home, Thyestes falls into Atreus' trap. He dines with his brother, who has killed Thyestes' children and intermingled their flesh with the food. After dinner, Thyestes initially thinks that he has regained his good fortune. When he asks his brother where his children are, Atreus displays their heads and reveals the truth about the contents of the feast. Thyestes reacts with horror:

What words will suffice for me? I see the severed heads, the torn-off hands, the feet wrenched from the broken legs – this much the father, for all his greed, could not devour. Their flesh is turning round within me, and my imprisoned crime struggles vainly to come forth and seeks way of escape. Give me thy sword, O brother, the sword reeking with my blood; by the steel let deliverance be given to my sons. (F.J. Miller translation).

The play ends with Thyestes' praying for the gods to take vengeance upon his brother.

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Seneca's Thyestes was composed around the middle of the first century CE. The time and place in which Seneca lived was one of the most corrupt in a city whose name has become synonymous with corruption and scandal. Seneca himself served as an advisor to the Emperor Nero, who even had his own mother put to death.

Seneca's play examines the quarrel between two brothers, Atreus and Thyestes, both of whom struggled to become the king of Argos (or Mycenae, depending on the source). The play's intrigue involves Atreus' attempts to bring his brother Thyestes back from exile, an exile that Atreus imposed upon him.

Atreus tricks Thyestes into returning by inviting him to a feast and leading him to believe that the hostilities between them will be over. Thus, Atreus says to his brother:

With mutual accord, brother, let us keep this festal day; this is the day which shall make strong my sceptre and bind firm the bonds of peace assured. (F.J. Miller translation)

What Thyestes does not know is that Atreus intends to kill Thyestes' children, cut them up, and intermingle their flesh with the food he will serve to his brother. Thus, Atreus commits a horrific act of violence--he kills his own nephews--and then tricks Thyestes into eating his own children.

All these things better the father might have done; my grief has fallen fruitless; with impious teeth he tore his sons, but unwittingly, but them unwitting.


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