Saturday, March 11, 2017

TFBT: Senecas Phaedra III

The Kosmos Society is going to have a reading of the Phaedra  Here are some of my random notes on the play by Seneca.


  • "835] At last I escaped the realm of eternal night, the dark world which in vast prison-house o’ershades the dead, and scarcely do my eyes endure the longed-for light. Now for the fourth time is Eleusis harvesting the bounty of Triptolemus, as many times has Libra made day equal unto night,"  So Theseus sat on the bench four years? 
  • No gods on stage.  Is that a Roman thing?  Senecan thing?   No evidence or mention that Diana (Artemis) cared about Hippolytus.  
  • One commentator suggests if Theseus has escaped Pluto, Hippolytus has gone to fill his place.
  • THESEUS: Who—say it!—has upended my  honor?”   Not, are you okay?  Not, who did this to you? But, who offended my honor.  Not a nice guy, but we know that from the way he treated Phaedra’s sister, Adriane


  • 1128 Seldom does the moist valley suffer the lightning’s blast; but Caucasus the huge, and the Phrygian grove of mother Cybele, quake beneath the bolt of high-thundering Jove. For in jealous fear Jove aims at that which neighbors on high heaven; but the low-roofed, common home ne’er feels his mighty blasts. Around thrones he thunders. 
  • Grieving and tears and woe, and on my very threshold sad lamentation? – auspices that well befit a guest from hell.
  • And something in its burdened womb this pregnant surge was bearing.  

Hearth vs. Altar

 No more justly did ever any hearth see blood spilled to the bow-holding goddess! Translated by Mark Damen (

 Never has blood been more justly spilled upon thy altar, O goddess of the bow. Translated by Miller, Frank Justus

Hated of Half-breeds

Probably the most despised “barbarian” in Greek mythology is Medea daughter of Aeëtes, king of Colchis.  Medea is also Phaedra’s first cousin.  But  Medea was more than a barbarian princess; she betrayed her father and country, diced up her little brother, convinced the daughters of Pelias to do the same to their father, sacrificed her children on Hera’s altar and tried to poison Phaedra’s husband.  So maybe the classical dislike of Medea had more to do with what she did rather than where she was raised. 

Medea and Phaedra’ mother were raised in Colchis.  The kingdom lies at the back end of the Black Sea up against the Caucasus Mountains.  Alexander Dumas1 says that Mt. Elbruz of this range “is, says mythological tradition, the rock to which Prometheus was chained”.  This was the eastern edge of the universe in Ancient Greek thinking. 

To the North of this distant,  barbarian land lays the home of the barbarian women called the Amazons.  Hippolytus mother was an Amazon, as we are regularly reminded in the play.  Generally, when a Greek character prays to or swears by some obscure river god, it was the river back home on whose banks they were raised 2   Hence, it is notable that when Hippolytus calls upon a river god to witness Phaedra’s monstrous behavior he doesn’t call upon a local river god, but rather the Tanais of his mother’s homeland. 

I wonder if Seneca’s is hinting at Hippolytus’ mixed ancestry when Hippolytus discusses Phaedra’s mother Pasiphae and her brother the minotaur; “thy monster-bearing mother… did but pollute herself with her shameful lust, and yet her offspring by its two-shaped infamy displayed her crime, though long concealed, and by his fierce visage the hybrid child made clear his mother’s guilt.”  Is there a subtle comparison between the half-breed Hippolytus and the half-breed Minotaur?

Phaedra and then Theseus easily slander the half-breed Hippolytus, “Whence came this infection of infamy in our stock? Was that man nurtured by the land of Greece or by the Scythian Taurus and Colchian Phasis? The breed reverts to its progenitors and debased blood reproduces the primal stock.”

I can think of no “barbarian” other than Medea that is despised in Greek myth nor any prejudice against characters of mixed Greek/Barbarian blood.  Is this hatred of half-breeds a Roman thing? Asenecan thing?


  1.  Adventures in Caucasia, Alexander Dumas,
  2. The most famous example being Achilles and the river-god Spercheus n (Iliad 23.141)

1 comment:

  1. Romans allowed citizenship to half-breeds and Romanized Barbarians (I think they even produced some emperors). So I don't think it is Roman. It might be a Senecan thing. Or it might be Seneca's idea about Greek views. After all, Greek polises had blood-based restrictions on citizenship. Just remember poor Pericles Jr. and how difficult it was to get Athenian citizenship for him! He'd better live in exile.