Ō Fortūna virīs invida fortibus,
quam nōn aequa bonīs praemia dīvidis.525
Eurystheus facilī rēgnet in ōtiō;
Alcmēnā genitus bella per omnia
mōnstrīs exagitet caeliferam manum:
serpentis resecet colla ferācia,
dēceptīs referat māla sorōribus,530
cum somnō dederit pervigilēs genās
pōmīs dīvitibus praepositus dracō.
The Chorus complains that Fortune is unfair to brave and good men and proves its point by saying that Eurystheus rules at ease in Mycenae while Hercules must carry out the Labors that Eurystheus has assigned to him. These include the second and eleventh Labors: killing the Lernaean Hydra and stealing the Apples of the Hesperides.
In the first half of this ode the Chorus describes four of Hercules’ Labors. They briefly mention the Lernaean Hydra and the Apples of the Hesperides (529–32), then give longer descriptions of Hippolyta’s Belt (533–46) and Cerberus, Hercules’ current Labor (547–57). In the second half of the ode, the Chorus gives two reasons to hope that Hercules will return successfully from the Underworld: Hercules has defeated Pluto in the past (558–65), and so did Orpheus (566–89)—and Hercules’ strength will surely be even more effective than Orpheus’ music (590–91).
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All of these myths were well known, though we may be less familiar today with the story of Hercules fighting Pluto at Pylos. Seneca himself has treated Hercules’ Labors more than once already in this play (44–63, 205–48). As usual in Latin literature, the originality and interest derives not from the material, but from the way the author uses it. In this ode, Seneca’s artistry shines through in the musicality of his verse, the careful intratextual links he draws between various sections of his text, and his creative responses to the several earlier treatments of these myths.
The meter is the Lesser Asclepiad. Unlike the shifting patterns of longs and shorts possible in the anapestic dimeter of the first ode, or in the iambic trimeters of the acts, every line of this ode has the exact same metrical pattern (– – – u u – || – u u – u x). The topics of this ode are the relentless cruelty of Fortune, the endlessness of Hercules’ Labors, and the inescapability of death. The unvarying rhythm expresses these ideas in sound, and heightens our sense of the challenge that Hercules has in front of him, as he tries to beat Fortune and overcome the laws of the Underworld. But Seneca finds many ways to produce musical variety within the constant rhythm of the ode. We will point out many instances of alliteration, anaphora, and other sound effects in the individual notes. Here we highlight some striking sound-play in pairs of words: the roads travelled by Sarmatians (539 sēmita Sarmatīs), the lord of death afraid to die (565 mortis … morī), Hercules finding a path back from the “pathless” Underworld (567–68 invius ... viās), the judges of the Underworld weeping for Eurydice (581 Eurydicēn iūridicī), and, in 588, Orpheus’ love (amor) not tolerating delay (mora).
The previous ode was integrated closely with the plot of the acts surrounding it: the Chorus began the ode by describing the sunrise that Juno had noted at the end of Act 1, and ended the ode by pointing out the appearance of Megara and Amphitryon, whose speeches begin Act 2. This ode, in contrast, would seem to be strangely separated from the plot. At the end of Act 2, Amphitryon has heard the sounds of Hercules returning from the Underworld, and Hercules himself will appear at the beginning of Act 3. We might therefore expect the Chorus to be in a triumphant mood. Instead they begin with complaints about the unfairness of Hercules’ labors that recall Amphitryon’s and Megara’s complaints at the beginning of Act 2. The ode ends with a sententia expressing hope that Hercules’ strength will be able to overcome the power of the Underworld, just as Orpheus’ song did. But this hope is belied by the lines immediately before: Orpheus’ temporary victory was followed by Eurydice’s second death. In place of hope and triumph, then, Seneca’s Chorus gives us an expression of despair and the endlessness of Hercules’ suffering, just at the moment when he returns successfully from his greatest Labor. This triumph, we understand, will be as short-lived as Orpheus’, and similarly result in the deaths of his loved ones.
Within the ode itself, Seneca creates verbal and sonic links between individual lines and sections. Consider, for instance, the two Labors that he treats briefly in 529–30, the Lernaean Hydra and the Apples of the Hesperides: serpentis resecet colla ferācia, / dēceptīs referat māla sorōribus. Each of these lines features a three-syllable word ending in –tis, a three-syllable third person verb starting with re–, a two-syllable neuter accusative plural noun, and a four-syllable word. The longer descriptions of Hercules’ theft of Hippolyta’s Belt and of Cerberus focus on the desolation and stagnation of Scythia and the Underworld. In Scythia, the frozen Black Sea has no waves (537 illīc dūra carent aequora flūctibus) and stands still (stat pontus). Similarly, in the Underworld, the waters have no waves (550-1 illīc ... flūctibus aequora) and stand still (554 stat ... pelagus).
More subtle links are produced by a pair of motifs running throughout the ode: dangerous snakes and thefts from, or of, women. Hercules’ defeat of the Lernaean Hydra in 529 is followed by his theft of the golden apples from the “sister” Hesperides in 530, apples which are guarded by a giant snake (531–32). This is followed by Hercules’ theft from Hippolyta and his trip to the Underworld to steal Cerberus, who, as Seneca notes elsewhere (794–95) is terrifying not just for his three dog heads but also for the snakes that surround them. The Underworld in turn is described not as realm of Pluto, but of “Sicilian Proserpina” (549): Hercules is stealing from another woman. And Proserpina is called “Sicilian” in an allusion to her own abduction by Pluto from Sicily. Orpheus descends to the Underworld at the end of the ode to retrieve—one might say “steal”—Eurydice from Pluto, after her death from a snake bite. But Eurydice is stolen back from Orpheus, just as he emerges from the Underworld. This is the thought that Seneca leaves us with as Hercules emerges from the Underworld to rejoin his wife and children.
Intertextual connections to previous poetry complement the intratextual links within Seneca’s play. In every case, these intertexts helped to anchor Seneca’s treatments of the myths in his literary heritage. In several cases, the echoes of previous authors enhance our understanding of Seneca’s meaning. From Virgil, Seneca adapts his description of the Underworld as “impossible to return from” (548 irremeābilēs; cf. Aeneid 6.425 rīpam inremeabilis undae [i.e., Styx]), and of the numberless souls that cross the River Styx (556–57 gentēs innumerās… tot populī; cf. Aeneid 6.706 innumerae gentēs populīque). The Chorus hopes that Hercules will have a “easy road” back from the Underworld (568 facilēs … viās). A famous phrase from Virgil’s Aeneid taught that only the descent to the Underworld was easy (Aeneid 6.126 facilis dēscensus Avernō).
Equally pointed is the description of the Fates’ spindles as “irrevocable”: Parcārumque colōs nōn revocābilēs (559). The very rare word revocābilis appears in Latin poetry only once before Seneca, at Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.264–65. When Apollo and Diana slaughter all the children of Niobe, the last victim begs in vain for mercy from the gods: “parcite!” mōtus erat, cum iam revocābile tēlum / nōn fuit, arquitenēns (“‘Spare me!’ The archer god was moved, but now his arrow could not be called back.”) As we will soon see, Hercules can no more overcome the powers of the gods than Niobe could, and he will also cause his children’s death by slaughtering them himself.
For the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Seneca had particularly recent and famous models: Virgil, Georgics 4.467–503 and Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.11–63. These too he cleverly adapts for his own purposes. For instance, he begins with the phrase immītēs … umbrārum dominōs, which combines descriptions of Pluto in both Virgil and Ovid (Georgics 4.492 immītis … tyrannī and Metamorphoses 10.16 umbrārum dominum). Thus, while the plural dominōs in Seneca refers to the various authority figures in the Underworld persuaded by Orpheus’ song (Pluto, Proserpina, Minos, the Furies, etc.), it also subtly acknowledges that Seneca’s two models presented two different versions of Pluto. But ancient poets did not simply echo or recombine material from their predecessors. Each new version of a story added to what had come before, as part of a never-ending process of literary creation. In Virgil’s version of the Orpheus myth, he famously does not give the contents of Orpheus’ songs and prayers in the Underworld. Ovid fills in this gap with a long speech by Orpheus (Metamorphoses 10.17–39). Seneca does not reproduce this, but instead fillsin a different gap by giving a speech to Pluto (582–87), which is found in neither of his models.
524 invida: invidus, “jealous of and hostile to,” is followed by a dative, on analogy with the compound verb invideō, invidēre, which regularly takes a dative. In the tragic world of Senecan drama, Fortune is envious of brave men—a complete reversal of the common ancient (and modern) idea that “fortune favours the bold”: e.g., Ennius, Annales 233 fortibus est fortūna virīs data. Like Ennius, Seneca’s phrase features a musical repetition of the syllable fort–. %% The opening of this ode is a variation on the idea at the end of the previous ode that “bold valor falls from on high” (201 altē virtūs animōsa cadit). It also echoes Megara’s description of fortune in the previous act (inīqua rārō maximīs virtūtibus / Fortūna parcit).
525: “How unfair are the rewards that you assign to good men.” dīvidis = distribuis (LS divido I.A.2.a).
526–32: the subjunctive verbs (rēgnet, exagitet, resecet, referat) may be deliberative (AG 444) expressing indignant questions: “Is Eurystheus to reign in easy leisure, while Hercules…?!” Or they may be jussive (AG 439) expressing the Chorus’s assumptions about Fortune’s wishes: “(Fine!) Let Eurystheus reign in easy leisure, while Hercules ….” Either way, the unfairness of Fortune is the point.
526–27 Eurystheus: the king of Mycenae, for whom Hercules performed his Twelve Labors. As is common in Latin, two contrasting statements are juxtaposed without a conjunction. In English, we would join the statements with a connective like “while.” The contrast between Eurystheus and Hercules is underscored by identical rhythms in these two lines: a three-syllable proper noun, another three-syllable word, a two-syllable word, a monosyllabic preposition, and a three-syllable word starting with “o.” Alcmēnā genitus: Hercules. genitus (> gignō, gignere) is regularly followed by an ablative of source, as are most participles that describe birth or origin (AG 403). bella per omnia: take with exagitet in line 528. Hercules’ Labors are frequently called bella in the play (85, 211, 638, 997). The word order here (noun – preposition – adjective) is rarer than the typical pattern: adjective – preposition – noun.
528 caeliferam manum: Hercules’ hand is “heaven-bearing” because he held up the sky for Atlas while the Titan got him the Apples of the Hesperides (Atlas himself is called caelifer by Virgil, Aeneid 6.796 and Ovid, Fasti 5.83). The Chorus is indignant that, despite this impressive feat, Hercules must “trouble” (exagitet) his hand with mere monsters. This episode from Hercules’ Labors is depicted on a well-known metope from the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.
529 resecet: although the normal meaning of the verb is simply “cut off,” the prefix re– (which can mean “again”) suggests the repetitive nature of Hercules’ struggle against the Hydra. ferācia: the Hydra’s necks are “fertile” because two heads grow back each time one is cut off. Do not confuse the adjective ferax with the more common ferox (“fierce”); in fact, the correct reading ferācia was corrupted to ferōcia in many manuscripts (e.g., Par. Lat. 8260, left hand page, 12th line from the top; Par. Lat. 11855, 1st column, 17th line from the bottom).
530 dēceptīs … sorōribus: the Hesperides, sisters who guarded golden apples for Hera. māla: the length of the first vowel allows us to distinguish between mālum, “apple,” and malum, “evil.” The scribe of Par. Lat. 11855 wrote poma (“fruit”) above mala to help avoid precisely this confusion (1st column, 17th line from the bottom).
531–32: prose order would be cum dracō, pōmīs dīvitibus praepositus, genās pervigilēs somnō dederit. genās: “cheeks” is a poetic metonymy for “eyes” (LS genae II.B). This seems to refer to a version of the myth found in ancient art, according to which either the Hesperides (who were somehow “deceived”: 530 dēceptīs) drugged the serpent and picked the apples for Hercules, or Hercules himself drugged the serpent. In other versions of the myth, Hercules persuaded Atlas to get the apples from the Hesperides and held up he sky while Atlas did the job (see line 528), or Hercules simply killed the serpent himself. dederit: perfect subjunctive in a circumstantial cum clause (AG 544). pōmīs dīvitibus: dative after praepositus, the participle of a compound verb (AG 370). Note the patterned alliteration (p– d– p– d–) to finish this section of the ode.
invidus –a –um: envious, jealous
Eurystheus –eī m.: Eurystheus, king of Mycenae
rēgnō rēgnāre rēgnāvī rēgnātus: to rule
Alcmēna or Alcumēna –ae or Alcmēnē –ēs f.: Alcmene, mother of Hercules
mōnstrum mōnstrī n.: monster; omen
exagitō –āre –āvī –ātum: to stir up, rouse; disturb, harass; scold, criticize
caelifer –era –erum: heaven–bearing
serpēns –entis (gen. pl. serpentum) m./f.: snake
resecō resecāre resecuī resectum: to cut, cut off
collum collī m.: neck
ferāx –ācis: fertile, fruitful; abounding
dēcipiō dēcipere dēcēpī dēceptus: to deceive, cheat
malum malī n.: apple
pervigil –ilis: ever watchful
gena –ae f.: cheek; eyelid; eye
pōmum –ī n.: fruit
praepōnō praepōnere praeposuī praepositum: to place before, prefer; set in charge
dracō –ōnis m.: dragon, serpent