Caveat Regnator: A Translated Excerpt from Seneca’s Trojan Women

Andromache and Astyanax, The Fall of Troy.

What is it like being an advisor to a powerful, narcissistic leader whose main interest lies not in serving his constituency but instead in acting and performing for his sycophantic groupees?

No, I’m not talking about the current state of American politics.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 B.C. in Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder and served as the emperor Nero’s closest advisor.   When he was brought to Rome at an early age to obtain an education that would prepare him for a political career, one wonders if he ever imaged that his fate would be entangled with the affairs of two volatile and difficult emperors. In 41 A.D., during the first year of the reign of Claudius, Seneca was condemned to death by the senate on the charge of having committed adultery with Julia Livilla, Claudius’s niece. Claudius, however, spared his life and banished him to the island of Corsica where he spent the next eight years.

Seneca was recalled early in 49 A.D. by Agrippina, Claudius’s new wife, in order that he might become the tutor of her sixteen-year-old son Nero. When Nero ascended to the throne, Seneca acted as the Emperor’s chief advisor for at least five years. Somewhere in the midst of all of this Seneca managed to write treaties dealing with moral philosophy, volumes of private letters, a work dealing with terrestrial and atmospheric phenomena, a satire on the deification of the emperor Claudius and even several tragedies. Scholars have debated for centuries about when this influential rhetorician and adherent of the Stoic sect found time to compose these tragedies.

Seneca’s extant dramatic works include the Hercules Furens, Phoenissae, Medea, Phaedra, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules Oetaeus, and the Troades. My post and translation today focuses on the Troades. This play deals with the aftermath of Troy’s destruction, as the Trojan women are standing amongst the ruins of their city and waiting to hear which Greek hero will claim them as plunder. Andromache desperately tries to save her son Astyanax by hiding him inside the tomb of her husband Hector. After Andromache is forced to give up her son, he is thrown by the Greek soldiers from the last remaining citadel of the city. Achilles’ ghost also demands the sacrifice of Polyxena in this play and the pathetic account of her death is related to us in the messenger’s speech. Seneca drew his subject matter from a long tradition of Greek plays that include Euripides’ Trojan Women and Hecuba and Sophocles’ Polyxena, as well as the epic tradition that includes Homer, Vergil and Ovid.

In this opening scene in the Troades, Hecuba, the once proud queen of this glorious city,  has a warning for any leader who takes his power for granted.  No wonder the Greeks were afraid of her (translation is my own):

Any ruler who has faith in his power and who reigns supreme in his grand palace and does not fear the fickle gods and gives his trusting spirit to happy matters, let him look at me and at you, Troy:  Never has fortune presented a greater proof that the haughty stand on weak ground.  The pillar of powerful Asia has been overthrown, that extraordinary work of the gods; and even though many came to her aid—Rhesus who drinks from the cold waters of the Tanais, spreading its sevenfold mouths, and the neighboring Amazon who, looking over the wandering Scythians, strikes the shores of Pontus with her unmarried troops, and Memnon son of Aurora who first, greeting the newborn day, mixes the warm Tigris with the red colored sea—Troy still falls by the sword,  Pergamum collapses on itself.  And the highly adorned walls lie heaped in ruins with scorched roofs.  Flames surround the royal palace and the entire house of Assaracus is smoldering.  The fire does not hold back the greedy hands of the victor:  Troy, as she burns, is torn to pieces, and the sky is hidden by the billowing smoke.  This black day, overcome by a dense cloud, is covered with the embers of Troy.

This has always been one of my favorite passages in Latin literature to translate.  Hecuba stands among the burning ruins of her once grand city and, before she laments her sad fate, gives a stern warning to any ruler who might feel secure in his position.  How very Stoic of her.

Maybe this warning does aptly apply to current American (and global) politics?

10 Comments

Filed under Classics

10 responses to “Caveat Regnator: A Translated Excerpt from Seneca’s Trojan Women

  1. Seneca is one of my favorite thinkers. This was a wonderful post, thank you. (And yes, of course my head went exactly where it should have in that introduction.)

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  2. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose… I think you can include my home country in the global brackets, sadly.

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  3. Sounds terribly relevant to nowadays, doesn’t it?? 😦

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  4. Thank you! Your mailings about the Classics are always illuminating.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed reading your reflection on Seneca and the Trojan women. The problem of personality and power was brilliantly explored by your wonderful political philosopher and theorist, William Ker Muir, in his (1977) ‘Police: Street corner politicians.’ I’m sure he was mindful of this warning from history. I would have liked to include your note in some of my teaching. Thank you.

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