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: