Tag Archives: Drama

Seneca and Vergil on the Vanquished Trojan Women

Hector, Andromache and Astyanax. Sculpture by Benzoni, 1871. The Met Museum.

As I was looking through my well-worn copy of Seneca’s Troades this morning, my husband remarked in passing that Seneca seems to be my philological equivalent of comfort food.  Last week did happen to be a long and difficult one, but I was also thinking about Seneca in relation to Vergil as I am translating the Aeneid with an exceptionally talented group of students this semester.

Even though Vergil points out time and again that Aeneas suffers many hardships while trying to found a new homeland in Italy, his fate is still far better than the vanquished Trojans who are left behind in that burning city.  The women, in particular, who are divided up among the Greek warriors as plunder, are given special attention by Seneca in his play the Troades.

Of all the women standing on the beach of Troy, the one who has suffered the most, who is the most deserving of sympathy, is Andromache.  Her husband was slain when fighting Achilles in battle and although he died fighting as a hero, this is no consolation to Andromache.  She reminds the other Trojan women that she would have gladly followed her husband to the underworld if it were not for their infant son, Astyanax: (translation is my own)

Oh pathetic crowd of Trojan women,
why do you tear at your hair and strike
your wretched breasts and moisten your
faces with effusive tears? We have suffered
trivial things if we can endure them by
simply weeping. Ilium fell only just
now for you but the city died for me
a long time ago, when that savage man,
Achilles, seized my husband’s limbs with
his rapid chariot and, trembling, its
axel groaned with a heavy sound because
of Hector’s weight. It was at that very
moment—overwhelmed and overcome,
dazed and frozen by disaster, knocked out
of my senses—I was forced to endure
whatever happens. I would follow my husband
even now, escaping the Greeks, if this
child were not holding me back. It is this
child that subdues my spirit and prevents
me from dying. It is this child that
compels me to ask favors from the gods even
now and he has postponed my time of distress.
It is this child that has stolen from me
the greatest reward of my suffering,
that I had nothing to fear. Any chance at
happiness has been snatched away from me and
only dreadful things are still to come.
Fear is the most wretched experience when
one has nothing to hope for.

Andromache, I think, is one of the most pathetic and tragic characters in the Iliad and the scene in which she and her son bid Hector farewell is one of the most poignant in the entire epic.  She is equally worthy of sympathy in Seneca’s play and she puts the situation in perspective for the other Trojan women: suffering is individual and it is also relative.  It is Vergil, later in his epic, that gives her a new story of hope, a future  beyond Troy, with another man and another, entirely different, yet happy life.  Andromache becomes an additional example of ruins in motion that I wrote about for my Seagull essay. 

For the extra curious, here is a link to the Latin text:



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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?


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Review: The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard

Today I have something a little different to review, a play by the Czech-born British writer Tom Stoppard.  This is a very short work, fewer than 100 pages long.  But it is full of great humor and insights about love and relationships.

My Review:
The Real ThingWhen the play opens, Max and Charlotte are having a discussion about Charlotte’s recent trip to Amsterdam.  It becomes evident to Max that Charlotte never went on any trip and it was all just a cover to have a clandestine rendezvous with her lover.  Max commends Charlotte for making the trip seem as authentic as possible by bringing back souvenirs for her mother.  We soon realize that the scene between Max and Charlotte are not really married but were acting in a play that was written by Charlotte’s husband, Henry.

Stoppard plays quite a bit with drama and reality and oftentimes blurs the distinctions between the two as I noted in the first scene.  We learn that Charlotte and Henry’s relationship, much like that of Charlotte and Max’s onstage relationship, has its issues.  After Henry and Charlotte separate and marry other people, Henry makes an interesting observation about commitment; he believes that many people say they are committed in a relationship and never give it a second thought.  But for a relationship to succeed, both parties involved must renew their commitment on a daily basis.  He concludes, very astutely, that there are no real commitments but bargains that are constantly being made between lovers.

The characters in the play are flawed and are trying, like everyone else, to figure out what love is and to find long-lasting love.  They deal with their relationship issues with humor but also with golden nuggets of wisdom that they have learned through experience.  One of my favorite speeches in the play is given by Henry to his young daughter about love.  He uses the Biblical Greek word “to know” in his definition; “to know” someone in a carnal sense is a euphemism in the Bible but Henry feels that it is a fitting definition for love because it is through the flesh that we allow one special person to truly know us like no other.

THE REAL THING is a quick yet thought-provoking read.  If you want to add more drama to your reading lists then I highly recommend it.  This play has also made me want to explore more of Stoppard’s works.

About The Author:
StoppardSir Tom Stoppard OM CBE FRSL (born Tomáš Straussler; 3 July 1937) is a British playwright, knighted in 1997. He has written prolifically for TV, radio, film and stage, finding prominence with plays such as Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Professional Foul, The Real Thing, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He co-wrote the screenplays for Brazil, The Russia House, and Shakespeare in Love, and has received one Academy Award and four Tony Awards. Themes of human rights, censorship and political freedom pervade his work along with exploration of linguistics and philosophy. Stoppard has been a key playwright of the National Theatre and is one of the most internationally performed dramatists of his generation.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard left as a child refugee, fleeing imminent Nazi occupation. He settled with his family in Britain after the war, in 1946. After being educated at schools in Nottingham and Yorkshire, Stoppard became a journalist, a drama critic and then, in 1960, a playwright. He has been married three times, to Josie Ingle (m. 1965), then Miriam Stoppard (m. 1972), and Sabrina Guinness (m. 2014).


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Filed under Humor, Plays

Review: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus

I received a review copy of this title from The New York Review of Books through Edelweiss.  As my regular readers know, I am a big fan of their line of classics.  For more information on their titles visit their website: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/.

My Review:
PrometheusI have to admit that when I found out that the translator of this ancient classic drama is not himself a classicist and does not know Ancient Greek I was rather skeptical.  After reading the introduction to the work, however, I began to come around to the idea that Joel Agee was capable of giving us a modern rendition of this play while making it accessible to a 21st century audience.  Agee describes his process of consulting older, literal translations as well as consulting experts in Ancient Greek philology.  The result is an impressive translation of one of the oldest Greek dramas in existence.

Prometheus is a Titan and in Zeus’ fight against the generation of Titans, Prometheus knows that Zeus will reign supreme and so Prometheus wisely takes the side of the god of thunder.  Yet, after his defense of Zeus, Prometheus betrays him by stealing fire for mankind.  As his name in Greek tells us, Prometheus is literally “forethought,” he knows what will happen before anyone else.  So we might wonder why Prometheus chose to steal fire from Zeus and gift it to humans if he understands perfectly well that his punishment from Zeus will be long-lasting and most severe.

When the play opens Prometheus is being chained to a rock by Hephaistos for his crimes against Zeus.  Zeus is about to destroy man and create a new race of beings when Prometheus gives these pathetic humans the gift of fire.  Fire allows them many things, including warmth, food, light, and civilization.  Prometheus becomes the champion of civilized societies, artists and those who fight against any form of tyranny.

One of the most interesting aspects of this play is the fact that Zeus himself is not a character and never speaks a word.  Zeus’ thugs, or henchmen, which include Kratos (Power), Bia (Force), Hephaistos and Hermes speak on his behalf.  The Chorus in the play is a group of water-nymphs, the Oceanids, who are horrified at and sympathetic to Prometheus’ sufferings.  The other female in the play, which I have always found to be an interesting choice, is Io who also explains her path of suffering which is caused by Zeus.  Io and Prometheus commiserate with one another and Prometheus, even though he is tortured, still manages to give Io hope about her own situation and her release from torment.  It is Io’s progeny who will ultimately be responsible for freeing Prometheus.

Prometheus Bound is not the most action oriented of the early Greek dramas yet, it is one of the more thought-provoking: Is Prometheus the champion of mankind who opposes all manner of tyranny or is he a dangerous revolutionary who challenges the authority that is necessary to maintain order and justice?

Thanks to the New York Review of Books Classics series for providing us with another great translation of a classic.

About The Authors:
Aeschylus (525 BC–456 BC), the first of ancient Greece’s major dramatists, is considered the father of Greek tragedy. He is said to have been the author of as many as ninety plays, of which seven survive.

Joel Agee is a writer and translator. He has received several prizes, including the Berlin Prize of the American Academy in Berlin in 2008 and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize for his translation of Heinrich von Kleist’s verse play Penthesilea. He is the author of two memoirs—Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany and, more recently, In the House of My Fear. His translation of Prometheus Bound was produced at the Getty Villa in 2013. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Filed under Classics, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books