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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

Thyestes is a play by the ancient Roman playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca in style of earlier Greek tragedies. The play winds a twisted tale of revenge between two warring brothers who are the rulers of their kingdom. The tale begins with the history of the family, with grandfather Tantalus having...

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Thyestes is a play by the ancient Roman playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca in style of earlier Greek tragedies. The play winds a twisted tale of revenge between two warring brothers who are the rulers of their kingdom. The tale begins with the history of the family, with grandfather Tantalus having passed away and his son Pelops having banished his children, Atreus and Thyestes, for murdering their half-brother Chrysippus. When Pelops passes away, both brothers lay claim to the throne, but Thyestes steals a magical beast from Atreus and sleeps with his brother's wife, Aerope. Because of all this, Atreus banishes him but plots a far greater revenge.

The story of the actual play begins when Tantalus is revived from death and begins to stir the controversy between his grandsons. Atreus begins asking for advice on how best to take revenge on his brother but is met mostly with counsel to do the right thing and let the matter rest. Atreus refuses and devises a devious and terrifying plan. Atreus takes Thyestes's sons hostage in order to ensure that he returns, but he secretly has the boys executed instead of planning to return them as promised. Knowing his sons are imprisoned, Thyestes comes to visit Atreus. Upon his brother's arrival, Atreus throws a lavish feast in his honor. The Chorus and muses who have been interjecting throughout the story predict the horror and fear the world itself will collapse with the vile deed that is about to happen.

After eating the feast, Atreus enacts his revenge. He reveals to his brother Thyestes that he will not return his sons in the manner promised. In fact, the sons have already been returned—Atreus used them to create the feast set before them, and Thyestes has unwittingly been consuming his own children's dead bodies. This is one of the more vile and despicable acts of revenge in ancient literature, but the shocking nature makes it all the more memorable.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

Megaera, one of the Furies, summons the ghost of Tantalus to return from Hades to Argos, where Tantalus in life had been king, to watch revenge, hate, and havoc spread across that kingdom. Tantalus does not want to be reminded of the part he played in the story of his royal house, but Megaera forces him to witness the fate of his descendants.

The grandsons of Tantalus, the sons of Pelops, whom Tantalus sacrificed to the gods, are at war with each other. The elder of Pelops’s sons, Atreus, is the rightful ruler of Argos, but his brother, Thyestes, has seduced Atreus’s wife and carried her away. With them they have taken the golden ram, the symbol of power held by the ruler of the kingdom. Civil war breaks out, and Thyestes is defeated. After his defeat, he is exiled by Atreus.

Exile is not sufficient punishment for Thyestes. The fierce hatred of Atreus, burning over his brother’s crimes and his own misfortune in the loss of his wife, demands greater revenge. A tyrant who believes that death is a comfort to his subjects, Atreus broods over fierce and final vengeance upon his younger brother. He feels that no act of revenge can be a crime when committed against a man who has worked against him as his brother has. Moreover, he feels that he, as a king, can do as he wishes; private virtues are not for rulers. When an attendant suggests that Atreus put Thyestes to the sword, Atreus says that death is only an end. He wants Thyestes to suffer torture. Atreus finally decides on a punishment: He will feed Thyestes’ own children to him at a banquet.

Atreus takes the first step toward accomplishing his revenge. He sends his own sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus, as emissaries of goodwill to Thyestes and asks the exile, through them, to return to a place of honor at his brother’s side. Fearing that if his sons know his plans they might lack the discretion they need to act as friendly ambassadors, he does not tell them the part they are playing in his scheme of revenge.

Thyestes, trusting the king, returns to Argos with his three sons, including one named Tantalus, for his great-grandfather of famous memory. When Thyestes looks again on familiar landscapes, he feels a sense of foreboding. His footsteps falter, and his sons note his apparent unwillingness to return. The offer of peace and half the kingdom seems to Thyestes unlike his brother’s earlier hatred and fury. He fears that there has been too much hate and bloodshed between them for real peace to be possible. His sons, silencing his doubts, lead him on to the court of Atreus. Atreus, seeing his brother and nephews in his power, apparently unmindful of the revenge plotted against them, is overjoyed and acts as such, concealing his hatred and welcoming them to the kingdom once again.

Atreus announces a great feast to celebrate his brother’s homecoming. Then, taking the three sons of Thyestes aside, he leads them to a grove behind the palace, where he slays them with all the ceremony of a sacrifice to the gods. The first he stabs in the neck, the second he decapitates, and the third he kills with a blade thrust through the body. Thyestes’ sons, knowing that appeals are useless, suffer death in silence. Atreus draws off their blood and prepares the carcasses like so much beef. The limbs he quarters and places upon spits to roast; the bodies he hacks into small pieces and places in pots to boil.

The fire seems reluctant to burn as an accomplice to his deed, but Atreus stands by and acts as cook until the ghastly banquet is ready. As he cooks, the sky grows dark, and an unnatural night settles across the face of the earth. When at last the banquet is prepared, Atreus feels that he is the equal of the gods themselves.

The feast begins. After the banquet has progressed to the point that the guests are glutted by all they have eaten, Atreus prepares for Thyestes a drink of wine and blood drained from the bodies of Thyestes’ sons. All the while, a premonition of evil has hung like a cloud in the back of Thyestes’ mind. Try as he might, he cannot be happy and enjoy the feast, for vague terrors strike at his heart. When Atreus gives him the cup of blood and wine, he cannot lift it to drink at first, and when he does try to drink, the wine seems to roll around the brim of the cup rather than pass through his lips. Filled with sudden fears, Thyestes demands that Atreus produce his sons.

Atreus leaves and then shortly returns with the heads of Thyestes’ three sons on a platter. Thyestes, chilled with horror at the sight, asks where the bodies are. He fears that Atreus has refused them honorable burial and has left them for the dogs to eat. Atreus tells Thyestes that he has eaten his own children. Then Thyestes realizes why unnatural night has darkened the skies. Still Atreus is not satisfied. He is disappointed that he did not plan to force Thyestes to drink some of his children’s blood while they were yet alive.

The king brags of what he has done and describes how he himself committed the murders and spitted the meat before the fires. Atreus, enjoying his revenge, can never believe that the greatest weight on Thyestes’ mind is his regret that he did not think of such revenge and cause Atreus to eat his own children.

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