Quā spē praecipitēs āctus ad īnferōs,

audāx īre viās irremeābilēs,

vīdistī Siculae rēgna Proserpinae?

illīc nūlla notō nūlla favōniō550

cōnsurgunt tumidīs flūctibus aequora;

nōn illīc geminum Tyndaridae genus

succurrunt timidīs sīdera nāvibus;

stat nigrō pelagus gurgite languidum,

et, cum Mors avidīs pallida dentibus555

gentēs innumerās mānibus intulit,

ūnō tot populī rēmige trānseunt.


Ēvincās utinam iūra ferae Stygis

Parcārumque colōs nōn revocābilēs!

hīc quī rēx populīs plūribus imperat,560

bellō cum peterēs Nestoream Pylon,

tēcum cōnseruit pestiferās manūs

tēlum tergeminā cuspide praeferēns;

effūgit tenuī vulnere saucius

et mortis dominus pertimuit morī.565

fātum rumpe manū: trīstibus īnferīs

prōspectus pateat lūcis, et invius

līmes det facilēs ad superōs viās.

A description of the infernal wasteland where Hercules has travelled for his final Labor.

As in the previous section on Scythia, much of the description of the Underworld focuses on its strange and inhospitable waterways, culminating in the striking image of Charon’s single boat ferrying innumerable souls across the black and sluggish Styx. The recurrent focus on travel highlights the far-flung nature of Hercules’ Labors: in an age long before planes, trains, and automobiles, simply getting from one Labor to the next was part of the challenge.

547–49 quā spē … āctus … vīdistī: “Driven by what hope did you see…?” i.e., “By what hope were you driven to see…?” As is common in Latin, the most important idea is expressed by a participial phrase instead of a finite verb. praecipitēs … īnferōs: “the precipitous Underworld.” The adjective may describe a person or object moving quickly downwards or, as here, a landscape that slopes steeply downwards. It also has a metaphorical sense of “hasty, rash,” and this may hint at how the chorus views Hercules’ mission.

548 īre: explains the way in which Hercules is audāx; such infinitives after adjectives are common in poetry (AG 461). viās: a cognate accusative (AG 390) after the intransitive verb īre. This construction may be expressed in English: “to walk paths.” irremeābilēs: “from which one cannot return,” a compound adj. > meō, meāre (“to go, pass”) + the prefixes in– and re– and the suffix –ābilis. The idea that people cannot return from the Underworld is common in classical poetry, but Seneca alludes specifically to Virgil’s use of this very rare adjective in describing the River Styx: Aeneid 6.425 rīpam irremeabilis undae.

 549 vīdistī: the chorus addresses Hercules in an apostrophe. Siculae … Proserpinae: Proserpina (Greek Persephone) is “Sicilian” because Pluto (Greek Hades) abducted her from Sicily. She became Pluto’s wife and queen of the Underworld. She was a central figure in ancient mythology and literature (e.g., in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae) and frequently depicted in ancient art (e.g., a Roman altar from the Baths of Diocletian depicting her abduction). regna: a poetic plural.

550–51 “There, no waters rise with swollen waves because of the south wind, no waters rise with swollen waves because of the west wind.” The Latin expression is compressed, featuring anaphora with asyndeton of nulla and alliteration of “n” at the start of the clause. nulla … nulla: the repeated adjective modifies aequora in the next line. notō … favōniō:ablatives of cause (AG 404), explaining why the water rises. Both winds are appropriate to the marine context: the south wind was associated especially with storms, while the west wind was associated with the beginning of the sailing season in spring.   

551 aequora: “the level surface” of the water, emphasizing the extreme calm of the waters in the Underworld, which are not disturbed by wind or waves.

552–53 Both geminum … genus and sīdera are in apposition to Tyndaridae, the subject of the sentence: “in that place the sons of Tyndareus, a twin race, do not help frightened ships as stars.” This refers to the twin brothers Castor and Pollux. Although they are associated with the constellation Gemini, the “stars” in question are “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a weather phenomenon that can result in a bright glow near a ship in a storm; this was interpreted as the brothers coming to a ship’s aid.

552 Tyndaridae: the patronymic derives from Tyndareus and uses a Greek declension, with a nominative plural in –ae (AG 44.a). Castor and Pollux were the sons of Leda and either Jupiter, or Tyndareus (Leda’s mortal husband), or both. Thus, they are often referred to as “the sons of Tyndareus.”

553 timidīs … nāvibus: dative after the compound verb (AG 370) succurrunt.

554 stat: the repetition of this verb from 540 (describing the frozen Black Sea) helps to link the Chorus’s description of the Underworld with its description of Scythia. Alliteration of “s” helps to link this line with the previous one (succurrunt … sīdera … stat). nigrō … gurgite: ablative of quality (AG 415). The basic meaning of gurges, gurgitis is “whirlpool.” Although it often refers to “waters” in general, without any sense of movement, here it creates a contrast with the stillness described in the rest of the line. pelagus: the Chorus continues to refer to the waters of the Underworld as a “sea” (see 551n.).

555 Mors avidīs pallida dentibus: paleness is frequently associated with death and the Underworld in Greek and Latin poetry (e.g., Horace, Odes 1.4.13 pallida Mors; Seneca, Oedipus 584 pallentēs deōs), but the description of Death with “greedy teeth” seems to be original to Seneca. An adjective (pallida) combined with an ablative of quality (AG 415) creates a compact description: “pale Death with its greedy teeth”.

556 mānibus intulit: “has brought to the shades,” i.e. to the Underworld (mānibus > mānēs mānium, not to be confused with manibus > manus, manūs). Inferō can be followed by the dative, as here, or in + acc. (LS infero).

557 Charon, ferryman of the dead, rows across the River Styx. Artistic and literary depictions often focus on the large number of souls that he ferries (for instance, Charon carries souls across the river Styx by Alexander Litovchenko). ūnō tot: juxtapositions like this are common in Greek and Latin poetry; poets are especially interested in the contrast between “the one and the many.” ūnō … rēmige: “with the aid of (only) one rower.”

558–68 The Chorus wishes that Hercules will be able to accomplish the impossible and return from the Underworld. Some of their hopes rest on the fact that Hercules has already faced Pluto (in battle at the city of Pylos) and triumphed.

558 ēvincās: optative subjunctive with utinam expressing a wish (AG 442). iūra ferae Stygis: the “laws” in question are those that prevent people from leaving the Underworld by re-crossing the River Styx once they have entered. These laws were broken with some regularity by Greek and Roman heroes, such as Hercules, Theseus, Orpheus, and Aeneas.

559 colōs: a distaff is a tool used to hold unspun fibers while spinning wool. The word is feminine and varies between second and fourth declension forms.  Elaborating on the “laws of savage Styx,” the Chorus described the “irreversible distaffs of the Parcae,” referring to the common image of the Fates spinning and weaving the destiny of each human life (see 181–82n.). The language here recalls passages earlier in this ode (558 audāx īre viās irremeābilēs) and the previous ode (182 nec sua retrō fīla revolvunt).

560–65 Hercules attacked the city of Pylos, slaughtering all the sons of King Neleus except for Nestor (who would go on to play an important role in the Trojan War). Pluto (Hades) fought as an ally with the Pylians on that occasion (Pausanias 6.25.2) and was wounded by Hercules. This myth is referred to as early as Homer’s Iliad (5.395–96), where it is compared to Aphrodite’s embarrassing retreat to her mother Dione after receiving a mild wound from Diomedes (Iliad 5.330ff.). Pluto’s retreat from Hercules here is likely intended to be similarly amusing.

560 “The king who rules many peoples here.” hīc is the adverb (“here”), not the pronoun. It refers to the Underworld, where Pluto rules. rēx is the subject of the verb in the main clause (562 cōnseruit), even though it is placed inside the relative clause; this inverted word order is common in poetry. %% The form of this line is modelled closely on 542 illīc quae viduīs gentibus imperat. The verbal echoes help to connect the Chorus’s description of Scythia with its description of the Underworld. populīs pluribus: the tot populī who cross the River Styx (line 557) are then ruled by Pluto in the Underworld.

561 bellō cum peterēs: “when you (Hercules) were attacking with war,” a pleonastic expression. The imperfect subjunctive is part of a circumstantial cum clause (AG 546). Nestoream Pylon: Nestor was the only son of King Neleus to survive Hercules’ attack on Pylos; he then became king of the city. Seneca uses the Greek declension of Pylos, with an accusative singular in –on (AG 52).

562 tēcum cōnseruit … manūs: the subject is Pluto (the rēx of line 560). “To join hands with” is a common Latin idiom for engaging in close combat with an enemy. pestiferās manūs: Ovid uses this phrase to describe the hand of Tisiphone, a Fury of the Underworld (Metamorphoses 4.496).

563 tēlum tergeminā cuspide: “a weapon with the triple point,” ablative of quality (AG 415). This weapon is a trident, which is usually wielded by Neptune or other sea gods. %% It is possible that Seneca is alluding to a description of the battle at Pylos by Pindar (Olympian Ode 9.30–35), where Hercules fights not only Pluto, who wields a “staff,” but also Neptune, who wields a trident. Seneca playfully gives Neptune’s weapon to Pluto. praeferēns: Pluto is “wielding” his trident to attack Hercules.

564 effūgit: the subject is still Pluto. tenuī vulnere: Pluto is hurt with only a “slight wound” because a god cannot be seriously injured, even by a hero as great as Hercules. There is also some humor in the image of the god of death terrified that he will die from a slight wound (see the next line).

565 The paradox of this statement is emphasized by placing the word for “death” and “die” at either end of the line. The prefix per– on pertimuit is also emphatic: “was terrified of,” rather than simply “was afraid of.” dominus: Seneca began this passage by calling Pluto a “king” (rēx 560) and closes by return, calling Pluto a “lord.” morī: infinitive < morior.

566 fātum rumpe: “annul fate” (which normally prevents humans from returning from the dead). But fātum often means “death” (everyone’s eventual fate), and so this phrase may also mean “break open (the land of) death,” by creating an exit from the Underworld. Horace uses a similar phrase at Odes 1.24.17: fāta reclūdere, “to open (the gates of) death.” manū:“by force,” a common meaning of manus –ūs in the ablative. trīstibus īnferīs: dative of reference (AG 376). The Underworld is “gloomy” from lack of light (as it is at Virgil, Aeneid 6.534 tristēs sine sōle domūs). Hercules would cheer up the area by breaking open the earth to let in the sun.

567: prōspectus … lūcis: “a view of the light” (LS prospectus  I.B.1)

567–68 “And let the impassible boundary give easy passage to the upper world.” The incredible idea of someone returning from the dead is expressed by the juxtaposition of invius (literally, “without a path”) and viās at the ends of the lines: Hercules will find a path where there normally is none. %% līmes also expresses this idea. The word originally meant a path that divided farmers’ fields; it then was used more generally to mean either “boundary” or “path.” Thus, the “boundary” that would normally prevent anyone exiting the Underworld will in fact provide a “path” for Hercules.

568 facilēs … viās: poetic plural. Normally, it is the descent to the Underworld that is easy, not the return: e.g., Virgil, Aeneid 6.126facilis dēscensus Avernō (“the descent to the Underworld is easy”). ad superōs: superī –ōrum can describe the human world (literally, “the people above” the Underworld, where the īnferī dwell), but it more often describes the Olympian gods (who are “the gods above” the human world). So this word may hint at both the Chorus’s immediate and ultimate hopes for Hercules: that he will find an easy path back up from the Underworld, and that his heroism will eventually earn him a place in heaven.

praeceps praecipitis: headlong; downhill, steep

inferī –ōrum m.: the dead; the lower world

inremeābilis –e: from which one cannot return, that cannot be retraced 

Siculus –a –um: Sicilian

Prōserpina –ae f.: Proserpina, Persephone

Notus –ī m.: the south wind

Favōnius –iī m.: the west wind

cōnsurgō –ere –surrēxī –surrēctus: to rise, rise together, arise

tumidus –a –um: swollen; inflated with passion or pride

geminus –a –um: twin

Tyndarides –ae m.: a male descendant of Tyndareus, i. e. Castor or Pollux

succurrō –currere –currī –cursūrum: to run under; come to mind; assist, be useful

timidus –a –um: fearful, afraid

pelagus pelagī m.: sea, ocean

gurges –itis m.: whirlpool, abyss; waters

languidus –a –um: weak, sluggish, feeble

avidus –a –um: eager; greedy; hungry

pallidus –a –um: pale

dēns dentis m.: tooth

innumerus –a –um: countless

mānēs –ium m. pl: souls or ghosts of the dead 

rēmex –igis m.: an oarsman

ēvincō –ere –vīcī –victus: to conquer completely; overcome

utinam: would that

Styx –Stygis f.: Styx

Parca –ae f.: the Fates

colus –ī and ūs f.: distaff

revocābilis –e: able to be called back

Nestoreus –a –um: of Nestor

Pylus or Pylos –ī m.: the city of Pylos

cōnserō –ere –seruī –sertus: to tie together; join (in battle)

pestifer –era –erum: destructive, noxious; pestilential 

tergeminus –a –um: threefold, triple

cuspis –idis f.: sharp point, tip; spear

praeferō praeferre praetulī praelātus: to carry in front of; place before, prefer; show

effugiō effugere effūgī: to flee, escape

tenuis tenue: thin, fine; slight, weak

saucius –a –um: wounded; afflicted, ill, smitten

dominus dominī m.: master, lord

per–timeō –timēre –timuī —: to fear greatly, be very timid

inferī –ōrum m.: the dead; the lower world

prōspectus –ūs m.: a looking forth; view, sight

invius –a –um: without a way, impassable

līmes –itis m.: boundary, limit; path

Text Read Aloud
article Nav