Nātus Eurystheus properante partū830
iusserat mundī penetrāre fundum.
dērat hoc sōlum numerō labōrum,
tertiae rēgem spoliāre sortis.
ausus es caecōs aditūs inīre,
dūcit ad manēs via quā remōtōs835
trīstis et nigrā metuenda silvā,
sed frequēns magnā comitante turbā.
The third ode begins with Eurystheus’ order for Hercules to steal Cerberus from Pluto, followed by a description of Hercules’ daring in walking the gloomy path to the Underworld, thronging with the dead.
Like Ode 1, this ode is integrated closely into the action of the play. In the first part (830–63), the Chorus reflects on the nature of the Underworld, offering a variation on Theseus’ description of the Underworld at the end of Act 2. In the second part, the Chorus triumphantly anticipates Hercules’ sacrifice, in thanks for his return (875–94). In between the two sections, there is a brief description of the universal power of Death (864–74). This is a power that Hercules has overcome—at least for now.
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The first part of the ode is in a Sapphic meter (repeated lines with the rhythm -u--- || uu-u-x) and the second part uses shorter Glyconic lines (---uu-ux). This contrast emphasizes the difference between the more sombre beginning and triumphant end of the ode. Seneca also uses the Sapphic meter to create its own expressive effects. Several times in the opening lines (803–7), the “fastest” part of the line (syllables 6–9, with the rhythm uu-u) is filled with a word suggesting speed or violent action: properante, penetrāre, spoliāre, and perhaps even metuenda.
The ode begins with Eurystheus ordering Hercules to retrieve Cerberus (830–31). Eurystheus is describes as having a “rushed birth” (830 properante partū): as the birth of Hercules approached, Jupiter swore that the descendent of Perseus born on that day would become king. Juno then began her persecution of Hercules by delaying his birth and causing Eurystheus to be born prematurely. By referring to the births of Hercules and Eurystheus in this line, and the last of Hercules’ Labors in the following line, the Chorus begins their praise of Hercules with a synopsis of his entire life of heroic suffering up to this point. The description of the Underworld then begins with a dark forest lining the path to the dead (836–37). This passage responds to Virgil’s famous description of the Underworld in Aeneid 6, where narrator compares Aeneas’ journey to “a path in the woods under the unkind light of the doubtful moon, when Jupiter has buried the sky in shadow and black night has robbed all color from the world…” (Aeneid 6.270–72).
Seneca’s Chorus then offers three similes in a row, comparing the great number of shades in the Underworld to the crowds at a Roman spectacle, the Olympic Games, and the Eleusinian Mysteries (838–49). Fitch (1987) points out that the first two similes create a contrast between the happiness of life and the gloom of death, while the final simile is particularly relevant because the Mysteries offered the hope of defeating death. The cyclical nature of the festivals is also relevant: the Olympic Games recurred every four years, the Eleusinian mysteries every September-October. As in Ode 1 (188–91n.) the cycles of the human world contrast with the inevitability and finality of death. All three of the institutions described in the similes were part of the Roman world in Seneca’s day, and are thus anachronistic from the perspective of a group of mythical Theban citizens. But the Chorus is speaking to Seneca’s contemporary Roman audience: their meditations on life and death are as relevant in Rome as they are in the mythological world of Hercules.
Virgil uses a single simile to describe the number of shades in the Underworld at Georgics 4.473–74 (flocks of birds), and two similes in a similar passage at Aeneid 6.306-8 (falling leaves in autumn, and flocks of birds). With his three similes, Seneca continues the expansion that Virgil had begun. The Chorus’s descriptions of the different age groups to be found among the dead should also be understood with reference to these passages in Virgil’s Georgics (4.475–77) and Aeneid (6.306-8), where the poet describes the shades of:
mātrēs atque virī dēfūnctaque corpora vītā
magnanimum hērōum, puerī innūptaeque puellae,
impositīque rogīs iuvenēs ante ōra parentum.
“Mothers and men and the lifeless corpses of noble heroes, boys and unwed girls, and youths placed on pyres before the faces of their parents.”
These famous lines are full of pathos and focus on the special tragedy of parents burying a child, which happened far more frequently in premodern societies than it does today. Seneca, in a somewhat more philosophical mood, reflects on how much life is “enough.” The shades of the old are longā satiāta vītā (850): not so much “satisfied” with their long life as “sated,” like a person after a feast unable to stand the thought of more food. In his philosophy (Epistles 24.26), Seneca calls this vītae nōn odium sed fastīdium (“not hatred, but distaste for life”). In contrast, the girls, boys, and infants have died long before reaching this state of satiety, as emphasized by repeated temporal adverbs in 851–54 (adhuc ... nōndum ... nōndum ... modo). They are “still” young, “not yet” adults, or even “just now” taught to say “mamma,” but their deaths have frozen them all, forever, in these liminal moments of “still,” “not yet,” “just now.” The Chorus ends their description of the Underworld with a truly frightening question (858–60): how do the dead feel when they realize that the light is gone and the entire earth has buried them? The Chorus addresses the question directly to the dead (vōbīs), but the second person plural pronoun might prompt Seneca’s audience to wonder how they will feel when the time comes. In any case, the Chorus offers no answer, but only a description of oppressive darkness, silence, and emptiness (861–63).
Still in a philosophical mood, the Chorus wonders why Hercules is rushing to the Underworld, even though death comes for everyone, and all too soon (864–74). Death lays claim to every living thing on earth: et quod occāsus videt et quod ortus, “both what the sunset and the sunrise sees” (871). In addition to the parallel structure that is typical of Seneca (repetition of et quod o-), in this line we also find word order carefully used to draw a picture: sunset to the “West” (left), sunrise to the “East” (right), and the sun in the centre, which “sees” everything around it.
We should keep this line in mind as the Chorus switches to the Glyconic meter to celebrate Hercules’ triumphant return (875–94). Hercules’ Labors have created peace throughout the world: “between the East and West and where the sun, keeping its middle course, does not let bodies cast a shadow” (882–85). Hercules’ universal peace has replaced the universal empire of Death, at least in the Chorus’s rhetoric. But Death will invade this new peace with unexpected swiftness, creating several new shades who have not had “enough” of life. The Chorus concludes by claiming “now there is no more fear left; nothing lies beyond the Underworld” (891–92). Their point is that Hercules’ Labors must necessarily be finished, since there is no place “beyond the Underworld” (ultrā īnferōs) to which he could travel for a more difficult task. But if we understand ultrā as referring to degree, rather than distance, we may hear an ominous hint of the murders he is about to commit, which are “beyond” (i.e., more extreme than) his trip to the Underworld.
For many Roman authors, family violence was a powerful metaphor for civil war, and Thebes a metaphor for the dark heart of Rome. These metaphors help us to understand Hercules’ ill-fated return to his family at Thebes. And, as our colleague Randall Pogorzelski has observed, the fact that Hercules returns after establishing his worldwide peace reflects a typically Roman problem that Seneca explores in several of his tragedies: what lies in store for a people after they have conquered the world? The decades of civil war that followed Rome’s imperial expansion find their echo in the violence that the triumphant Hercules is about to bring home to Thebes. After conquering the whole world, he has no one left to turn on but his own family.
830 Nātus … properante partū: Eurystheus was “born with a rushed birth.” As told in the Iliad (9.95–133), when the birth of Hercules approached Jupiter swore that the descendent of Perseus born on that day would become king. Juno then began her persecution of Hercules by delaying his birth and causing Eurystheus to be born prematurely. By referring to the births of Hercules and Eurystheus in this line, and the last of Hercules’ Labors in the next line, the Chorus begins their praise of Hercules by synoptically describing his entire life of heroic suffering up to this point.
831 iusserat … penetrāre: supply Hercules as the person being ordered. Unlike many other verbs of command, iubeō is regularly followed by the infinitive, rather than ut or nē and the subjunctive (AG 563.a).
832 dērat … numerō: by the process of synizesis, the two “e’s” of dēerat (> dēsum) have been compressed into a single vowel. Because the abduction of Cerberus was the last of Hercules’ Labors, it was the only thing “missing” from the number of tasks he had been assigned; numerō is thus an ablative of separation (AG 400).
833 spoliāre: this infinitive explains hoc sōlum from the previous line: spoils (i.e., Cerberus) from Pluto were the only thing that was missing. tertiae rēgem … sortis: as at 609, tertiae sortis refers to the story of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto dividing up the sky, sea, and Underworld by lot (first told at Iliad 15.187–92); by this process, Pluto was made king of the third (and worst) realm.
Roman poets frequently took advantage of opportunities to play with numbers (their most common word for “meter” or “verse” was in fact numerus). It is thus probably not a coincidence that a number word like tertiae follows closely after the word “number” (numerō) in the previous line.
834 ausus es: the subject is Hercules, who is the addressee of this hymn of praise. Because the subject is not explicitly expressed, many manuscripts corrupted this verb to ausus est, thereby continuing the third person verbs from the previous line (Par. Lat. 8260, left-hand page, 17th line from the top). caecōs: “dark” (see n. 668).
835–36 Prose order: quā via, trīstis et silvā nigrā metuenda, ad manēs remōtōs dūcit. Seneca’s word order emphasizes difficulty and unpleasantness of the path to the Underworld (highlighting remōtōs and the adjectives that describe via in 836). This emphasis makes it even more striking that the road is thronged with “a great crowd” of spirits (in line 837). nigrā … silvā: the ablative of cause (AG 404) explains why the road to the Underworld is “to be feared.”
837 magnā comitante turbā: ablative absolute (AG 419) describing why the path is “crowded” (frequēns). The crowd of spirits of the dead is “accompanying” Hercules on his journey.
Eurystheus –eī m.: Eurystheus, king of Mycenae
partus partūs m.: birth, offspring
penetrō penetrāre penetrāvī penetrātus: to go into, enter; pierce
fundus fundī m.: bottom, foundation
spoliō spoliāre spoliāvī spoliātus: to take spoils from, despoil, plunder, strip
aditus aditūs m.: an approach, access; entrance
ineō inīre iniī/inīvī initus: to enter
mānēs –ium m. pl: souls or ghosts of the dead
remōtus –a –um: distant, removed
comitō comitāre comitāvī comitātus: to accompany, follow