magnusque parēns aetheris altī1054bis
et vaga pontī mōbilis unda,
tūque ante omnēs1057
quī per terrās tractūsque maris1057bis
noctemque fugās ōre decōrō,
tēcum Alcīdēs vīdit et ortūs
nōvitque tuās utrāsque domōs.
The entire world—sky, earth, ocean, and the sun that travels across it all—should lament the tragic actions of Hercules.
The ode begins with the Chorus commanding the entire universe to lament the death of Hercules’ family (1054-62) and praying to the god Sleep not to let Hercules awake until he has regained his sanity (1063-81). Hercules moves agitatedly in his sleep, prompting the Chorus to modify its prayer: it would be better, in fact, if Hercules remained insane and unaware of the crime he had committed (1082-99). The ode returns to the theme of universal lament (1100-14) before concluding with an address to Hercules’ sons, whose lives have been tragically cut short (1122-31).
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Descriptions of the realms of the world (sky, earth, and sea) are common in poetry, but the idea of Hercules’ actions having universal consequences is especially resonant given Seneca’s concerns with the problems of Rome’s worldwide empire (see Ode 3 Introduction). The theme also gives Seneca a chance to display his poetic talents at the opening of the ode. Thus, for instance, he balances his reference to Jupiter as a Sky Father (1054bis parēns aetheris) with “the fertile earth” (1055 tellūsque ferāx), suggesting the reciprocal idea of Mother Earth. With 1057bis terrās tractūsque maris, he repeats two of the three divisions of the world just listed (aether, tellūs, pontus). The missing realm (sky) may be found in the line of Virgil that this phrase echoes: Eclogues 4.51 (= Georgics 4.222) terrāsque tractūsque maris caelumque profundum. Turning from intertextuality to intratextuality, we may note that the lamentation of the sun in 1060-2 completes a series of ominous references to the sun in previous odes. In the first ode, the rising of the sun (also called Tītān there) evoked several myths of family violence, suggesting the climax of the play (nn. on 129-31, 133, 134-5). In the third ode, the Chorus’s triumphant declaration that Hercules had brought peace to all the lands between the sunrise and sunset (883) was undercut by their earlier declaration that every living thing between sunrise and sunset was doomed to die (871). Here, the connection between the sun and death is emphasized by the use of obitus for “sunset” (instead of the more usual occāsus): most frequently this noun means “destruction, death.”
The Chorus’s praise of Sleep also engages with a well-worn theme, since Sleep is praised throughout Greek and Latin literature (a phenomenon with which every student will sympathize). In Homer’s Iliad, Hera addresses Sleep as “lord of all gods and men” (14.233). In the generation after Seneca, Statius wrote a well-known poem entirely addressed to Sleep (Silvae 5.4). Praise of Sleep is also found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in a passage which Seneca likely drew on for his praise here:
Somne, quiēs rērum, placidissime, Somne, deōrum,
pāx animī, quem cūra fugit, quī corpora dūrīs
fessa ministeriīs mulcēs reparāsque labōrī …
Sleep, rest for all things, sleep, gentlest of the gods, peace for the spirit, from whom care flees, who soothes bodies wearied by hard work and restores them for new labor…
Seneca complements his explicit statement that Sleep and Death were brothers — a common theme (1069n.) – with more subtle references to the relationship between the two. The Chorus calls sleep portus vītae (1072), but Greeks and Romans more often thought of death, not sleep, as a harbor. At 1074, the Chorus describes how Sleep comes equally to kings and servants: again, Greek and Roman authors tended to point out that death came equally to the powerful and the weak, or the rich and poor (e.g. Horace, Odes 1.4.13-14: pallida Mors aequō pulsat pede pauperum tabernās / rēgumque turrīs, “pale Death kicks with an impartial foot at the doors of paupers’ huts and kings’ towers”). In fact, when it came to sleep, rulers were often depicted suffering from anxious insomnia while their subjects enjoyed a carefree rest; this trope continued in later European literature, such as the soliloquy of the King in Shakespeare’s Henry V (IV.i.238-93). Finally, Sleep forces humans “to learn about the long night,” i.e., death (1076). Latin poets frequently compared death to a long night, perhaps most famously in Catullus’ 5th poem, to Lesbia: nōbīs cum semel occidit brevis lūx, / nox est perpetua ūna dormienda (“when our brief light has set once and for all, we will have to sleep through one eternal night”).
The Chorus then turns to observe Hercules fūsus humī (“sprawled on the ground”, 1082). This phrase occurs in poetry only once before Seneca, in Virgil’s description of Cerberus lying on the ground after being drugged with a magical dog treat (Aeneid 6.423). Although that scene involved Aeneas (not Hercules), this echo may remind us that Hercules has just recently defeated Cerberus. But now, after killing his family, he lies asleep on the ground like the monster he has just faced. In this section, we may observe the care with which Seneca chooses his diction. At 1092 the Chorus describes Hercules’ īnsānōs flūctūs animī (“the insane commotion of his mind”). Poets more commonly join īnsānus, –a –um (or īnsānia, –ae) with the noun mēns, mentis, and Seneca could have written mentis here. But this would not have produced the evocative assonance of īnsānōs … animī, and the resulting line would have been all spondees, which would perhaps have not best represented the disturbance of Hercules’ mind. In the next line, the Chorus prays: redeat pietās virtūsque virō. The word virō is emphasized by the figura etymologica with virtūsque (virtūs is literally “the quality of being a vir”), and is full of meaning: after Hercules’ monstrous actions, the Chorus wishes for him to become a “human/man/hero” once again by regaining two of the defining Roman male qualities, piētās and virtūs. But one other common meaning of vir suggests how difficult this rehabilitation will be: having killed his wife, Hercules can no longer be a “husband.” Finally, vēsānō (1095) is a synonym for the more common īnsānus, –a –um. It would of course have been inelegant to repeat īnsānus from line 1092, but vēsanō also produces assonance with the previous word, mēns, and alliterates with vel in the previous line (this alliteration is complemented by the alliteration of mēns … mōtū).
Seneca chose his words with care, but we cannot always be sure what those words were: our text of the poem emerges from centuries of hand copied manuscripts, which often do not accurately preserve the text that Seneca wrote. Frequently, the manuscripts present more than one possible variant reading for a given word; in some cases, none of the manuscripts appear to retain Seneca’s original, and the corrupted version must be corrected by conjectural emendation. For instance, the text of line 1068 (volucre ō mātris genus astriferae) in the manuscripts is volucer, mātris genus Astraeae: “winged one, child of your mother Astraea [goddess of justice]” (e.g., Par. Lat. 11855, 4th column, 25th line from the top; note the medieval spelling astree). Scholars have judge this text to be corrupt because Sleep is called the child of Night by other Greek and Roman authors, and not the child of Astraea, who is regularly called a virgin. volucre ō was likely corrupted to volucer when a scribe became confused by the placement of ō in front of the genitive mātris. The corruption of astriferae to Astraeae was probably caused by a scribe’s unfamiliarity with the extremely rare adjective astrifer (it is found nowhere else in Seneca, and only a handful of times in all of Classical Latin poetry).
At 1076, all of the manuscripts contain the reading longam … mortem (Par. Lat. 8260, right-hand page, 1st line; note the abbreviate longā). The important metaphor of death as a form of sleep is lost with the corrupted text “long death”, and so this was corrected to longam … noctem by the 16th century philologist Janus Dousa. It is likely that mortem is an “intrusive gloss”: a word originally written above noctem to explain (“gloss”) its meaning, which was subsequently mistaken as the correct reading. A typical example of supralinear glosses may be seen in line 15 of the play in Par. Lat. 11855 (left column, 12th full line), where Apollo et Diana is a gloss of quibusque natis, and Delos glosses tellus.
Finally, at 1102, scholars print ultrīce manū, so that Hercules inflicts vengeance or punishment on his body for killing his family. The manuscript tradition has the reading victrīce (from victrix, “conquering, victorious”) instead of ultrīce (e.g., Par. Lat. 11855, 1st column, 10th line); the 17th century scholar Nicolaas Heinsius suggested the emendation ultrīce on the grounds that it makes more sense for Hercules’ hand to be “avenging” or “punishing” than “conquering” at this point in the narrative. But victrīce could also make sense as an ironic description: Hercules’ hand is normally “conquering,” but here must fulfil a different function. The letters ultr- and victr- are often confused in manuscripts. In this case, there is no way to be completely certain what Seneca wrote. As with all other facets of literary interpretation, with the text of the poem itself scholars must use informed judgment to produce the best reading possible.
1054 lūgeat: this jussive subjunctive, with its expressive long “u,” is emphasized by its initial placement. It is followed by a series of subjects: the sky, Jupiter, the earth, the waves, and the sun (addressed in the second person).
1054bis magnusque parēns aetheris altī: the two adjectives (“great” and “lofty”) emphasize Jupiter’s status; they are given extra force by the chiastic word order of the line.
1056 vaga pontī mōbilis unda: the general rule of “one adjective per noun” in Latin poetry dictates that mōbilis must modify pontī. But mōbilis could describe the waves of the ocean just as well as the ocean itself: all the words of the phrase influence one another to create a composite picture.
1057 ante omnēs: this phrase indicates that the Sun is the climax of the list. There is no particular reason the Sun should lament more than the other subjects of lūgeat—except for the Chorus’s upcoming suggestion that Hercules and the sun are fellow wanderers across the globe. 1059 fugās: > fugō, fugāre (“to cause to flee”), not to be confused with fugiō, fugere(“to flee”).
1060bis-61 obitūs … vīdit et ortūs: the wide expanse of the world between sunset and sunrise is emphasized by placing the two objects of the verb at the very beginning and end of the clause.
pariter / tēcum: “like you” or “in the same way as you”: the comparison indicated in English by “as” is indicated in Latin by cum or (more often) ac/atque (LS par II.A.β).
1062 tuās utrāsque domōs: the Sun is imagined to have an “abode” in both the East and West. Ovid describes the Palace of the Sun at Metamorphoses 2.1–30.
lūgeō lūgēre lūxī lūctum: to mourn, grieve
ferāx –ācis: fertile, fruitful; abounding
mōbilis –e: loose, changeable; easy to move
trāctus –ūs m.: a dragging; stretch (of space), track, territory
radius radi(ī) m.: rod, spoke; ray, beam
decōrus –a –um: fitting, suitable; elegant, handsome
fervidus –a –um: glowing hot, fiery
Tītān –ānis m.: a Titan
obitus –ūs m.: approach; setting, sunset; downfall, death
pariter: alike; equally
Alcīdēs –ae. m.: a descendant of Alceus; Hercules
ortus ortūs m.: rising, beginning; sunrise, the East