Spartāna tellūs nōbile attollit iugum,
dēnsīs ubi aequor Taenarus silvīs premit.
hīc ōra solvit Dītis invīsī domus
hiatque rūpēs alta et immēnsō specū665
ingēns vorāgō faucibus vastīs patet
lātumque pandit omnibus populīs iter.
nōn caeca tenebrīs incipit prīmō via;
tenuis relictae lūcis ā tergō nitor
fulgorque dubius sōlis affectī cadit670
et lūdit aciem; nocte sīc mixtā solet
praebēre lūmen prīmus aut sērus diēs.
hinc ampla vacuīs spatia laxantur locīs,
in quae omne mersum pergat hūmānum genus.
nec īre labor est; ipsa dēdūcit via.675
ut saepe puppēs aestus invītās rapit,
sīc prōnus āēr urget atque avidum chaos,
gradumque retrō flectere haud umquam sinunt
Theseus describes how he and Hercules entered the Underworld at Taenarus (nōbile… iugum) in Sparta, one of the traditional entry points.
Seneca includes several details from previous Latin poems. For example, 664 invisi (“hateful”) recalls Horace (Odes 1.34.10-11 invīsī horrida Taenarī / sēdēs) and 666 faucibus (“jaws”) recalls Virgil (Georgics 4.467 Taenariās … faucēs).
663 premit: Taenarus is imagined to “press” against the water with its dense forests. Seneca probably imagines a bay surrounded by forested land, holding the cave described in 664–67.
665–66 immēnsō … patet: “and in an immense cave a giant chasm opens with its vast jaws.”
668–72 This realistic description of the light slowly fading during the journey to the Underworld features a series of careful sound repetitions: tenuis … tergō, relictae lūcis, nitor / fulgorque.
668 nōn caeca tenebrīs incipit prīmō via: “The road begins, not hidden by shadows at first.” The word order emphasizes nōn caeca. caecus has both an “active” meaning (“not able to see, blind”), and, as here, a “passive” meaning (“not able to be seen, dark, hidden”). See LS caecus I and II.
669–70 tenuis … nitor / fulgorque dubius … cadit: both nouns are the subject of cadit: daylight “falls” down the descending path and also “diminishes” (LS cado II.B).
669 relictae … ā tergō: “left behind.”
670 sōlis affectī: “weakened sunlight” (LS afficio II.A.β)
affectī: a correction by Richard Bentley; the manuscripts all read afflictī (e.g., Par. Lat. 8260, left hand page, 2nd line from the top), which would produce the strange image of the sun being “broken, damaged, distressed, sad.” afflīctus is a common word in Seneca, and thus could have easily been substituted by a scribe for the rarer affectī.
671 lūdit aciem: “deceives the eye”
671–72 Prose word order would be: sīc prīmus aut sērus diēs solet praebēre lūmen, nocte mixtā.
nocte … mixtā: ablative absolute (AG 419): “with night (i.e., the darkness of night) mixed in.” The sentence is carefully arranged with “night” and “day” placed at opposite ends.
673 vacuīs … locīs: locative ablative (AG 426)
674 in quae … pergat: relative clause of characteristic (AG 534), “the kind of spaces into which…” mersum: “once plunged into the earth” (Fitch 2018).
675–79 A variation of Virgil’s description of the road to the Underworld at Aeneid 6.126–29: easy on the way down but impossible on the way up.
676–77 ut … sīc: “just as … thus,” the typical markers of a simile. The current “seizes” (rapit) “unwilling” (invītās) ships, while the void is “greedy” (avidum) and the air “pushes” (urget) souls downwards. Note also the repeated a’s and o’s in 677: if you read the line out loud, you can feel your mouth open wide like the avidum chaos.
677 urget: supply tē as the object.
678 haud umquam sinunt: “do not ever allow (you) to…”
679 umbrae tenācēs: postponement to the end of the sentence and enjambment emphasize this nominative phrase. The image of the dead “clutching” at the living is unsettling, just as in a contemporary zombie movie.
Spartānus –a –um: Spartan
attollō attollere: to raise up, lift up
dēnsus –a –um: thick; close, compact
Taenarus or Taenaros –ī m. or Taenarum –ī n.: Taenarus
Dīs –ītis m.: Dis; Pluto
invīsus –a –um: hated
hiō hiāre hiāvī hiātus: to lie open, gape
rūpēs –is f.: rock, cliff
immēnsus –a –um: immeasurable, boundless, vast
specus –ūs m./f.: cave, chasm
vorāgō –inis f.: abyss, chasm
faux faucis f.: throat; jaws, mouth; entrance
vāstus –a –um: empty, desolate; vast
pandō pandere pandī passus: to spread out, extend; unfold
prīmō: at first
tenuis tenue: thin, fine; slight, weak
nitor –ōris m.: brightness, lustre
fulgor –ōris m. or fulgur –ūris n.: lightning, flash, brightness
lūdō lūdere lūsī lūsus: to play, frolic; mock
sērus –a –um: late, too late
hinc: from here, hence
laxō laxāre laxāvī laxātus: to spread out; open up
mergō –ere –mersī –mersus: to dip, immerse, plunge
puppis puppis f.: stern of a ship; ship
aestus aestūs m.: heat; surge, wave; mental/emotional turmoil
invītus –a –um: unwilling, reluctant
prōnus –a –um: sloping; prone to
urgeō urgēre ursī: to press, drive; force
avidus –a –um: eager; greedy; hungry
Chaos (only in nom. and acc. sing.) n.: void, boundless space; the Underworld
flectō flectere flēxī flexus: to bend; turn, direct; persuade
tenāx –ācis: gripping, holding fast