In Seneca’s tragedy Hercules Furens (“Mad Hercules”), Hercules returns from his greatest Labor, stealing Cerberus from the Underworld, along with his friend Theseus. He arrives in Thebes just in time to save his wife, children, and father from being murdered by the usurper and tyrant Lycus. A demonic Fury sent by the hostile goddess Juno drives the hero temporarily insane and causes him to kill his wife and children. Hercules immediately accepts responsibility for his multiple murders once he returns to his senses. He then faces a choice: should he kill himself or live on? In narrating the hero’s tragic reversal, Seneca’s play explores the meanings of ambition, madness, responsibility, family, and friendship. The Latin of Seneca’s tragedy repays close study for its verbal richness, imagistic density, metrical variety, and pointed rhetoric.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (ca. 4 BCE–65 CE) was the greatest writer of the age of Nero. His surviving works include numerous philosophical and scientific essays and eight tragedies. The dating of his plays is uncertain, but he may have composed Hercules Furens sometime before late 54 CE. Hercules was the greatest hero of Greco-Roman mythology, and this story of the worst day of the hero’s violent life was extremely popular both in antiquity and afterwards. This play adapts mythological narratives from earlier Greek and Roman poets, including Euripides (480–406 BCE), Virgil (70-19 BCE), and Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE). Passages of Seneca’s Hercules Furens would be adapted in turn by Renaissance playwrights such as Shakespeare and Marlowe. Versions of the narrative appear in contemporary works such as Moore and Wijaya’s graphic novel Hercules: The Thracian Wars (Radical Comics, 2008) and John Farmanesh-Bocca’s staging of Seneca’s play (Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, 2013; a filmed performance is available online).
This edition is designed to serve students who have completed the fourth semester of college Latin study. The notes provide grammatical and cultural information, as well as appreciations of the artistry of Seneca’s Latin. There are close reading essays that interpret and contextualize key sections. Vocabulary lists gloss all words not included in the DCC Core Latin Vocabulary. Accompanying media files present recitations by volunteer performers of numerous passages of the Latin text in meter. For a fuller discussion of the play in its Greco-Roman context and its reception up to the present day, see Neil W. Bernstein, Seneca: Hercules Furens (Bloomsbury, 2017).
Cover image: Marble head of Hercules. Roman, 2nd c. AD. Metropolitan Museum, New York. Accession Number: 23.160.46. Image is in the public domain.