Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Born in Spain in 4 BC, Lucius Annaeus Seneca was educated in Rome and became famous not only as a playwright, but as an orator and philosopher as well. He served as tutor to the young Nero, and when the boy became Emperor in 54 AD, he retained Seneca as his advisor. For several years, Seneca exerted a calming influence on the young emperor. After he retired in AD 62, however, he lost favor with his former pupil, and in AD 65, he was accused of conspiring against Nero and was forced to commit suicide.

Of the plays Seneca left behind, at least 8 have survived including The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Medea, The Mad Hercules, The Phoenician Women, Phaedra, Agamemnon and Thyestes. Two more plays, Octavia and Hercules on Oeta have sometimes been attributed to Seneca although many scholars doubt their authenticity. Hercules on Oeta is generally considered to be an unremarkable imitation of Senecan tragedy, and Octavia appears to have been written after Nero's death, thus discounting Seneca as the author.

All eight of the authentic Senecan tragedies are adapted from the work of other playwrights. Oedipus is adapted from Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, Agamemnon is adapted from the play by Aeschylus, Thyestes is adapted from an unknown--probably Latin--source, and the rest are adapted from the plays of Euripides. Seneca never allowed himself to be bound, however, by the original text, freely discarding scenes, rearranging, and using only the material that he found useful.

It is not certain whether Seneca's plays were actually performed in Roman theatres or whether they were simply intended for recitation before a small private audience. Some scholars have suggested that the wealthy Seneca would have considered it beneath him to write for the theatre, and the plays themselves often show a lack of concern for the physical requirements of the stage. However, with a little imagination, they are certainly stageable, and it is undeniable that Seneca's plays had a profound influence on the development of the tragic form in later times, particularly in the age of Shakespeare.

Seneca's tragedies are divided into five episodes separated by choral interludes. This five-act form would become the standard during the Renaissance. Another of Seneca's conventions, the use of soliloquies and asides, would also prove integral to the evolution of Renaissance drama.

Seneca was perhaps best known, however, for his scenes of violence and horror. In Oedipus, for example, Jocasta rips open her womb, and in Thyestes, the bodies of children are served at a banquet. Other writers would later imitate these scenes of violence and horror. Consider, for example, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi in which the Duchess' enemies create a ghastly wax scene of her murdered husband and children. Seneca's fascination with magic, death, and the supernatural would also be imitated by many Elizabethan playwrights including, among others, Christopher Marlowe.

Seneca's Plays  |  Other Works


Seneca's Plays

Other Works

Related Sites

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Seneca Index

Seneca Monologues

Roman Theatre Index

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Christopher Marlowe

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