Iam rāra micant125
sīdera prōnō languida mundō;125bis
nox vīcta vagōs contrahit ignēs
cōgit nitidum Phōsphoros agmen;
signum celsī glaciāle polī
septem stēllīs Arcados Ursa130
lūcem versō tēmōne vocat.
iam caeruleīs ēvectus equīs
Tītān summā prōspicit Oetā;
iam Cadmēīs inclita Bacchīs
aspersa diē dūmēta rubent,135
Phoebīque fugit reditūra soror.
The ode begins with a description of dawn. The stars fade, and the Morning Star and Ursa Major change their position in the sky. The sun rises over Mount Oeta. The moon sets, but will return the next night.
As Fitch argues (1987: 163) this first ode is “indispensable for our understanding of the play. It establishes a standard of normality in the conduct of human life, and indicates that by that standard Hercules is condemned.”
read full essay
This normality is established in the first half of the ode, as the Chorus describes the human and animal inhabitants of the countryside rising with the dawn to go about their day. This humble country life is contrasted with stereotypical ambitions of city dwellers, and especially those who do not know how to enjoy the present moment. Hercules is introduced as an extreme example of this: his restless travelling has brought him even to the Underworld, thereby hurrying the encounter with death that must come inevitably to all humans. But Seneca’s vision is tragic throughout this ode, foreboding the violence that will spoil Hercules’ triumphant return from the Underworld, and even the seemingly peaceful description of dawn at the beginning holds an undercurrent of menace.
As the ode begins (125–36), the stars fade, and the Morning Star and Ursa Major change their position in the sky. The sun rises over Mount Oeta. The moon sets, but will return the next night. The initial focus on the movements of the heavens recalls Juno’s list of constellations at the start of Act 1 (especially the similar descriptions of Ursa Major in lines 6 and 129–30: hinc Arctos altā parte glaciālis polī ~ signum celsī glaciāle polī / septem stēllīs Arcados Ursa). This helps to link the ode to the previous act and remind us of Juno’s upcoming revenge. Descriptions of sunrise or sunset commonly mark changes of scene in Greek and Roman poetry, and often contain important thematic meaning. Here, military language hints at the violence to come later in the play (see 126–28n.). Furthermore, allusions to myths about family violence (Callisto and Arcas, Hercules and Deianira, Pentheus and Agave: nn. on 129–31, 133, 134–5) hint more specifically at the horrific actions that Hercules will take. Several details in this passage are adapted from a description of sunrise in Ovid’s tale of Phaethon (Metamorphoses 2.114–18):
diffugiunt stellae, quārum agmina cōgit
Lūcifer et caelī statiōne novissimus exit.
quem petere ut terrās mundumque rubescere vīdit
cornuaque extrēmae velut ēvānescere lūnae,
iungere equōs Tītan vēlōcibus imperat Hōris.
The stars retreat, their troop driven on by the morning Star, who is the last to leave his post in the sky. When the Titan Sun saw him heading towards the ground and the sky beginning to blush and the horns (so to speak) of the waning moon fade away, he ordered the swift Hours to yoke his horses.
This allusion provides another hint of the family tragedy to come, since Phaethon dies while driving the chariot of his father, the Sun.
In the second section of the ode (137–58), the rising of the sun is accompanied by the “rising” of hard work for humans (shepherds, sailors, fishermen): 137 Labor exoritur dūrus. “Hard work” is a common phrase in Latin, as it is in English, but here it probably specifically recalls Virgil’s Georgics, an agricultural poem with labor and its difficulties as a central theme. Nevertheless, the work takes place in the countryside, and all-around nature is exuberant. The descriptions of baby animals (calves, kids, nightingale chicks) specify the time as spring; the human labors described are also typical of spring. The rebirth of the day at dawn is thus complemented by the rebirth of the year in spring. This rebirth is marked by the happy energy of newborn animals, which contrasts with the human toils and anxieties described. But even the animal kingdom is not entirely free from care: the list of animals ends with the nightingale, whose description as Thrācia paelex evokes the horrific myth of Philomela (146–51n.).
For all its toils and cares, life in the country was still traditionally considered to be better than life in the city. The contrast between country and city life in the next section (159–73) would have made the more well-to-do of Seneca’s Roman audience think of the opulent country villas, to which they frequently escaped from the unhealthy, crowded city of Rome (for this audience, life in the country did not involve much labor dūrus). But criticism of city life was a common theme in Greek and Roman literature, and the characters that the Chorus describes are stereotypical: one man seeks the support of powerful patrons, another lusts after wealth, a third pursues popular acclaim, and a fourth sells his services as a lawyer. Seneca and his audience would have been familiar with several famous descriptions of country and city life, including a passage in Virgil’s Georgics (2.458–74) and Horace’s parable of the Country Mouse and Town Mouse (Satires 2.6.75–115).
Horace’s parable contains an instance of another common theme in Greek and Roman literature, that life is fleeting and so each moment should be enjoyed: dum licet, in rēbus iūcundīs vīve beātus, / vīve memor, quam sīs aevī brevis (Satires 2.6.96–7; compare the Chorus’s words at 177–78: dum fāta sinunt, vīvite laetī. / properat cursū vīta citātō). This is the theme of the next section of the ode (174–91). It would have been well known to Seneca and his audience: Horace’s advice, carpe diem (Odes 1.11.8) is familiar to modern readers, and Seneca himself discusses the theme frequently in his philosophical writing (e.g., Epistles 1). But Seneca shows his originality by taking the theme in an unexpected direction. Death comes quickly and cannot be avoided, and so it is wise to enjoy the simple pleasures of the moment. But not only does Hercules not follow this advice, he even speeds up the meeting with death by going to the Underworld!
This introduces a final common theme at the end of the ode (192–201), that excellence can lead to disaster. The Chorus treats this theme by rejecting the pursuit of glory in favour of a simple life: another man may enjoy glory and fame, riding high on a triumphal chariot; the Chorus wishes to grow old in the safety of a humble house. This rhetorical technique (rejecting one or more alternatives before embracing a preferred idea), called a priamel, can be found once again in the poetry of Horace (e.g., Odes 1.1), which repeatedly embraces the kind of simple life that the Chorus values throughout this ode.
The theme of dangerous excellence is central to the Hercules Furens as a whole, and Seneca expresses it with typical epigrammatic force: 201 altē virtūs animōsa cadit. The image in this section of a man riding high on a chariot (195 alius currū sublīmis eat) would have evoked not only the heroic image of the Greek Hercules, but also that of a Roman general (or, in Seneca’s day, the emperor), riding in triumph through the city. In a Roman triumph, a slave stood beside the triumphātor to remind him that he was not a god. This, as we will discover, is a message that Hercules could have benefited from.
125 rāra: “scattered” (L-S rarus II.A). Fewer stars are visible as the daylight brightens. The phrase rāra micant is also found in Virgil’s Aeneid (9.189) to describe the widely spaced campfires in a poorly defended military camp.
125bis prōnō … mundō: describing the stars setting in the western part of sky (L-S pronus I.B.1). The phrase may be read either as an ablative of place where (AG 426), emphasizing the location of the stars, or an ablative absolute (AG 419), emphasizing the movement of the heavens. sīdera prōnō languida mundō: in this carefully structured line, Seneca places the words in synchysis according to case (nom. – abl. – nom. – abl.) and chiasmus according to part of speech (noun – adj. – adj. – noun). This recalls a similarly careful structuring in line 124 (ortūque Tītān lūcidus croceō subit): at the end of Act 1, Seneca describes dawn by focusing on the rising of the sun; at the beginning of Ode 1, he describes the same event by focusing on the fading of the stars.
126-8 As the eastern sky brightens, stars remain visible only in the west. Seneca describes this phenomenon with a striking military metaphor: Night, defeated (victa) by the dawn, rallies (contrahit) her scattered (vagōs) forces in the western sky, while the Morning Star maintains order from the rear (cōgit … agmen).
126 contrahit: “diminishes” (OLD 2), although in the military metaphor operative in this passage night “musters” (OLD 4.a) her troops (the stars) after defeat by the dawn. ignēs: in poetry, “fire” can describe the brightness of the stars or the sun (L-S ignis I.B.1).
127 lūce: similarly, lūx most often describes the light of the sun, or daylight/day in general. renātā: perfect participle of the deponent renāscor.
128 Phōsphoros: a Greek nominative ending in –os (AG 52). The so-called “Morning Star” (really the planet Venus) was named Phōsphoros by the Greeks, literally “light bringer,” since the planet was visible just before dawn. This was usually translated literally into Latin as Lūcifer (from lūx, lūcis and ferō, ferre), but Seneca uses the rarer and more poetic Greek form.
129–31 Ursa Major was often used in Roman poetry to describe the time of night. Seneca structures his description of the constellation’s movement by starting each line with the same rhythm: two spondaic disyllabic words (signum celsī, septem stēllīs, lūcem versō). Note also the similarity in sounds of the first words signum, septem, lūcem. Seneca draws details from three different interpretations of the constellation: seven ploughing oxen (septem stēllis), the nymph Callisto after her transformation into a bear (Arcados Ursa), or a wagon (referred to metonymically by its wagon pole, tēmō).
129 signum celsī glaciāle polī: this phrase stands in apposition to Ursa in the next line. Seneca uses the same complex word order here as in line 125b (employing synchysis and chiasmus). signum: subtly continues the military metaphor of lines 126–8: signum can describe not only a constellation, but also a military standard.
130 septem stēllis: an ablative of description or quality (AG 415): “Arcas’ Bear with its seven stars.” Arcados Ursa: using the Greek genitive of Arcas, Arcados (AG 81), Seneca describes the constellation as “Arcas’ Bear”. He refers to the myth of Callisto (told at length in Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.401-507). %% This companion of Diana was raped by Jupiter, driven from Diana’s company, and turned into a bear by Juno after giving birth to a son, Arcas. Years later, Arcas encountered his transformed mother while out hunting and prepared to kill her; taking pity on his former victim (rather late), Jupiter turned mother and son into Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Diana’s discovery of Callisto’s pregnancy captured the imagination of artists from the Renaissance onwards; many different versions of the scene can be found here.
131 versō tēmōne: ablative absolute (AG 419). As night progresses, Ursa Major (here pictured as the Wain: a wagon with a wagon pole) turns in a small circle around the North Star. vocat: the subject is Ursa, in the previous line.
132-6 Seneca describes the sunrise in two groups of lines connected by anaphora of iam. The word after iam begins with a “c” in both line 132 and 134, and each of those lines have the same structure: iam – ablative adjective – participle/adjective – ablative noun.
132 caeruleīs … equīs: the Sun and the Moon were commonly represented riding chariots in Classical art and literature (as were other celestial divinities or personifications, including Dawn, Hesperos, Day, and Night). See, for example, this metope from the early Hellenistic temple of Athena at Ilion. Although caeruleus usually describes a dark blue color, here, the Sun’s horses are “sky-blue” to associate them with the caelum through which they fly.
133 summā prōspicit Oetā: ablative of place from where (AG 428): “looks out from the top of Mount Oeta.” Poets regularly use an ablative without a preposition to express various ideas of separation. Mount Oeta is located about 100 km northwest of Thebes, so the chorus of Theban citizens could not in fact have witnessed the sun rising over it. Instead, Seneca mentions the mountain because it is closely associated with the death and apotheosis of Hercules (this myth appears in Latin poetry in sources such as the pseudo-Senecan Hercules Oetaeus and Ovid, Metamorphoses 9.159–272).
134-5 “Now the thickets made famous by Cadmean Bacchants turn red, spattered with daylight.” The thickets in question are on Mount Cithaeron, famous site of Bacchic worship in myth and ritual. The description features violent language: rubeo often describes the light of dawn, but also the colour of blood, while aspergo is very often used of spilled blood. This violence brings to mind, specifically, the myth of Pentheus, grandson of Cadmus, who was torn to pieces on the mountain by his mother Agave and her fellow Bacchants. The myth was popular in the ancient world (see, for instance, Euripides’ Bacchae, Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.629-733, and a wall painting in the House of the Vettii in Pompeii).
136 Phoebīque fugit … soror: the sister of Phoebus (a name for Apollo as god of the sun) is Phoebe (i.e., Diana as goddess of the moon). reditūra: future active participle of redeō: although the moon yields the sky at dawn, it will return the following night. This allusion to the cycles of nature recalls the common observation in Greek and Roman literature that a human life, unlike the natural world, is not continually renewed. The chorus uses the same future active participle later in Ode 1 to describe human mortality: tempora numquam reditūra (176). Catullus offers a famous statement of this contrast in his 5th poem, to Lesbia: sōlēs occidere et redīre possunt: / nōbīs cum semel occidit brevis lūx, / nox est perpetua ūna dormienda).
micō micāre micuī: to vibrate; sparkle
prōnus –a –um: sloping; prone to
languidus –a –um: weak, sluggish, feeble
contrahō contrahere contrāxī contractus: to collect, unite
renāscor renāscī renātus sum: to be reborn
nitidus –a –um: shining, bright
Phōsphoros –ī m.: the Morning Star (Venus)
celsus –a –um: high, lofty
glaciālis –e: icy
polus –ī m.: pole, heavens
septem; septimus –a –um: seven
Arcas Arcados m.: Arcas (son of Jupiter and Callisto); an Arcadian
ursa –ae f.: she-bear; Ursa Major
tēmō –ōnis m.: the pole of a plow or cart; wagon
caeruleus –a –um: blue, azure
ēvehō –ere –vexī –vectus: to carry forth or up, proceed; (pass.) ride forth
Tītān –ānis m.: a Titan
summus –a –um: highest; top (of)
prōspiciō prōspicere prōspexī prōspectum: to look out; look forward, forsee
Oetē –ēs f.: Oeta, the mountain range between Thessaly and Italy
Cadmēus –a –um: of or pertaining to Cadmus, Cadmean
inclutus –a –um: famous, glorious
Baccha –ae f.: a Bacchant, a female attendant of Bacchus
aspergō –ere –spersī –spersus: to scatter, sprinkle
dūmētum –ī n.: thicket; thorn-bushes
rubeō rubēre rubuī: to blush, be red
Phoebus –ī m.: Phoebus, Apollo