Hercules. Amphitryōn. Megara tacita. Thēseus.
HER. Ō lūcis almae rēctor et caelī decus,
quī alterna currū spatia flammiferō ambiēns
illūstre lātīs exseris terrīs caput,
dā, Phoebe, veniam, sī quid illicitum tuī595
vīdēre vultūs; iussus in lūcem extulī
arcāna mundī. tūque, caelestum arbiter
parēnsque, vīsūs fulmine oppositō tege;
et tū, secundō maria quī scēptrō regis,
īmās pete undās. quisquis ex altō aspicit600
terrēna, faciē polluī metuēns novā,
aciem reflectat ōraque in caelum ērigat,
portenta fugiēns. hoc nefās cernant duo,
quī advēxit et quae iussit. — in poenās meās
atque in labōrēs nōn satis terrae patent605
Iūnōnis odiō. vīdī inaccessa omnibus,
ignōta Phoebō quaeque dēterior polus
obscūra dīrō spatia concessit Iovī;
et, sī placērent tertiae sortis loca,
rēgnāre potuī. noctis aeternae chaos610
et nocte quiddam gravius et trīstēs deōs
et fāta vīcī; morte contemptā redī.
quid restat aliud? vīdī et ostendī īnferōs.
dā sī quid ultrā est, iam diū pateris manūs
cessāre nostrās, Iūno; quae vincī iubēs?615
— Sed templa quārē mīles īnfēstus tenet
līmenque sacrum terror armōrum obsidet?
Hercules announces his arrival from the Underworld. He instructs Phoebus, Jupiter, and Neptune, gods who oversee the earth, to look away from Cerberus so they will not be polluted. Only Juno should see the monster. Hercules claims that he could have ruled in the Underworld. He dares Juno to assign him a bigger challenge, now that he has conquered death.
Act 3 Essay
As Lycus prepares to kill Megara and Amphitryon, Hercules and Theseus suddenly appear, back from their trip to the Underworld. Hercules dashes off to kill Lycus, while Theseus describes the Underworld at great length, occasionally prompted by Amphitryon’s questions. Nothing happens to advance the plot, but the audience is treated to some of Seneca’s most beautiful and evocative descriptions.
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This scene drew criticism in modern times because of its incongruity with the rest of the action. The Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot (1888–1965) best expressed the modern audience’s incredulity: “While Hercules is . . . engaged in a duel on the result of which everybody’s life depends, the family sit down calmly and listen to a long description by Theseus of the Tartarean regions” (Essays on Elizabethan Drama, 1956: 69). The apparent problem disappears if we recall that the ancient audience already knew how the story would turn out and wanted to listen to the beauty of Seneca’s poetry. Readers who can experience this Act in its original Latin have the advantage.
Theseus’ speech, like Juno’s equally lengthy monologue in Act 1, recalls crucial scenes of the Aeneid and Metamorphoses. Seneca sets Act 3 in dialogue with Vergil’s lengthy narration of Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld in Aeneid 6, and the shorter episodes in Georgics 4 and Ovid’s Metamorphoses 10 in which Orpheus descends to recover his bride Eurydice. This Act raises a different series of ethical questions than the Augustan epics. Hercules comes not as a seeker after knowledge like Aeneas or a suppliant like Orpheus, but as a robber. Aeneas avoided the great sinners of the Underworld, so as to keep himself safe from their moral pollution. Hercules seems to have charged right through them (750-9), and so may have been tainted by them. The consequences of Juno’s threat to drive him mad and his own excessive behavior become clear in the subsequent Act.
592 A prayer to Phoebus Apollo, the god of the sun. Compare the address to Jupiter at 205: Ō magne Olympī rēctor et mundī arbiter. Amphitryon’s despair there has become Hercules’ triumph here.
593 alterna … spatia … ambiēns: “circling through alternate expanses,” i.e. moving from east to west and back again.
594 exseris: “you reveal” (LS exsero II.B). Note the “Golden Line” word arrangement: adjective – adjective – verb – noun – noun.
595 sī quid: = sī aliquid (AG 310). illicitum: it was thought that the gods above could be polluted by the sight of evil or unclean things (cf. 601 faciē polluī metuēns novā). See 60–61, where Juno speaks of the sun being afraid at the sight of Cerberus.
595–96 tuī … vultūs: “your face,” poetic plural.
596 vīdēre: = vīdērunt (syncopated perfect). iussus: the nominative participle is placed emphatically at the start of the clause: “because I was commanded,” i.e., not of my own free will.
597 arcāna mundī: “the world’s secrets,” i.e., Cerberus.
One branch of the manuscript tradition has sēcrēta (“the secret things”) instead of arcāna (e.g., Par. Lat. 8260, left hand page, 2nd line from the top; cf. Par. Lat. 11855, 3nd column, 3rd line from the top, the medieval spelling archānawith sēcrēta written in the margin as a variant reading). It is likely that the synonym originated as a gloss to explain the meaning of arcāna.
597–98 caelestum arbiter parēnsque: Jupiter. caelestum = caelestium (gen. pl.) for metrical convenience. vīsūs: accusative. fulmine oppositō: ablative of instrument (AG 409), i.e., use your thunderbolt to shield your face from the sight of Cerberus.
599 secundō … scēptrō: ablative of instrument. Neptune’s scepter is “second” because Jupiter and his brothers divided the world by drawing lots (Virgil, Aeneid 1.138–39). Jupiter rules the heavens, Neptune the “second” kingdom of the seas, and Dis “third” kingdom of the Underworld (see line 609).
600–601 quisquis ... terrēna: in a polytheistic religion filled with gods who were easily offended, phrases like this covered any gods omitted from the rest of the prayer. ex altō: “from on high,” in opposition to īmās. terrēna: “earthly affairs.” metuēns: governs the complementary infinitive polluī (AG 456). faciē … novā: “by the strange sight” (LS facies II.B), ablative of means after the passive infinitive polluī.
602–603 reflectat … ērigat … cernant: hortatory subjunctives (AG 439). portenta fugiēns: Seneca restates the main idea with an emphatic two word-phrase in enjambment, a common means of concluding a lengthy period.
604 quī … quae: respectively, Hercules and Juno.
604–605 in… in: “for the purpose of” (LS in II.C.2).
605–606 non satis terrae patent / Iunonis odiō: “the earth is not wide-open enough for Juno’s hatred.” Her hatred of Hercules was so great that she ran out of places on earth to punish him and had to send him to the Underworld. Hercules echoes Juno’s own words at 46 nec satis terrae patent. The plural of terra often means “the whole earth” (LS terra II). odio is a dative of reference (“for the benefit of Juno’s hatred,” AG 376) or purpose (“for the purpose of Juno’s hatred,” AG 382).
606–607 inaccessa … ignōta: each adjective governs a dative. They may be understood as substantive adjectives (“things inaccessible [and] unknown”) or as modifying spatia in 608. dēterior polus: “the baser world” (Fitch 2018). Normally in poetry polus = “the heavens” (LS polus II.B); “the worse heavens” = “the Underworld.”
608 dīrō… Iovī: “the abominable Jupiter” = Dis/Pluto (like īnfernī Iovis 47).
609 sī placērent: supply mihi; present contrary-to-fact condition (AG 517.c). Hercules imagines himself ruling the Underworld. Indicative potuī (rather than potuissem) expresses his definite belief that he could have. tertiae sortis loca:see 599 for the division of the world by lot.
610–12 chaos … deōs … fāta: all objects of 612 vīcī, placed in ascending order of difficulty. Hercules conquered the Fates, which do not typically allow people to return from the Underworld.
611 nocte quiddam gravius: “something (even) more oppressive than night,” i.e., a darkness more impenetrable than that of night. The phrase amplifies the image of 610 noctis aeternae chaos. nocte is ablative of comparison (AG 406) after gravius.
612 morte contemptā: ablative absolute (AG 419).
613 quid restat aliud: “what else is left?” ostendī: i.e., to the world above.
614–15 As a final act of hubris, Hercules sarcastically complains that Juno is letting him rest for too long, and directly challenges her to do her worst.
614 sī quid: = sī aliquid (AG 310). pateris: present tense, but most naturally translated as a perfect in English: “you have allowed…”
615 quae vincī iubēs?: “what things do you command to be conquered?”
616–17 Hercules finally notices the soldiers surrounding the temple where his family is taking refuge. This couplet is a good example of how Latin poetry relies on theme and variation: after a straightforward description of hostile soldiers in control of the temple, Seneca restates the idea in more figurative language, focusing on “the terror of weapons.”
616 templa: poetic plural. mīles: poetic singular referring a group (like Virgil, Aeneid 2.20 uterumque armātō mīlite complent.)
almus –a –um: nourishing, cherishing
rēctor –ōris m.: director, leader, ruler
alternus –a –um: one after the other, by turns; alternate
flammifer–fera –ferum: flame–bearing
ambiō –īre –īvī or iī –ītus: to go round; surround; solicit, strive for
illūstris illūstre: clear, bright; famous
exserō –ere –uī –tus: to thrust out; expose
Phoebus –ī m.: Phoebus, Apollo
venia veniae f.: indulgence, mercy
illicitus –a –um: forbidden, unlawful
efferō efferre extulī ēlātus: to carry out
arcānus –a –um: closed; secret, hidden
arbiter –trī m.: witness; judge; ruler
vīsus vīsūs m.: sight
fulmen fulminis n.: lightning, thunderbolt
oppōnō oppōnere opposuī oppositum: to set before, against; oppose
scēptrum –ī n.: royal staff; scepter
imus –a –um: deepest, last
terrēnus –a –um: of earth; earthen, earthly
polluō –ere –uī –ūtus: to soil, defile
reflectō reflectere reflexī reflexus: to bend back, turn away
ērigō ērigere ērēxī ērēctus: to raise; set up, erect
portentum –ī: an omen
advehō –ere –vexī –vectus: to carry, conduct, convey to
Iūnō Iūnōnis f.: Juno
inaccessus –a –um: unapproachable
īgnōtus –a –um: unknown
Phoebus –ī m.: Phoebus, Apollo
dēterior dēterior dēterius; dēterior –ius; dēterrimus –a –um: worse
polus –ī m.: pole, heavens
obscūrus –a –um: dark, shadowy; obscure
dīrus –a –um: ominous, fearful, horrible; dire
Iovis –is m.: Jupiter, Jove
rēgnō rēgnāre rēgnāvī rēgnātus: to rule
Chaos (only in nom. and acc. sing.) n.: void, boundless space; the Underworld
restō restāre restitī: to remain, resist
inferī –ōrum m.: the dead; the lower world
cessō cessāre cessāvī cessātus: to delay; cease; be idle
Iūnō Iūnōnis f.: Juno
īnfestus –a –um: hostile, aggressive
terror terrōris m.: fear
obsīdō –ere: to beseige, beset