Seneca’s Plays

What follows are notes on E.F. Watling’s introduction to his translation of Seneca’s plays, published by Penguin Books in 1966, then a summary with comments of the four Seneca plays it contains:

Seneca’s biography

Lucius Annaeus Seneca was born in 4 BC Corduba, Spain, the second son of Annaeus Seneca the Elder. His father had studied rhetoric in Rome and returned to Spain to bring his sons up with respect for the traditional virtues of the Roman Republic, which had ceased to exist a generation earlier, following the victory of Octavian against Anthony at Actium in 31 BC.

As a young man Seneca the Younger studied Stoic philosophy. He lived in Egypt for a while, probably due to ill health (tuberculosis?) and because his aunt was the wife of the prefect there. By 33 AD he was back in Rome, married to his first wife (whose name is unknown) and achieving recognition as a lawyer and teacher of rhetoric.

Seneca had run-ins with several of the early emperors. At one point he was forced to retire into private life due to the suspicions of Caligula. He returned to public life on the accession of the emperor Claudius but in the very same year, 41 AD, was exiled to Corsica, accused of adultery with the new emperor’s niece, Julia, probably at the instigation of Claudius’s scheming third wife, Valeria Messalina. Seneca spent eight years on Corsica during which he wrote a number of philosophical works.

In 48 Claudius had Messalina executed for (supposedly) conspiring to overthrow him, and married his fourth wife, the equally scheming Agrippina. But it was Agrippina who asked for the recall of Seneca and made him tutor to her 12-year-old son, Lucius Domitius, the future emperor Nero. When Nero came to power 6 years later, in 54 AD, aged just 17, Seneca became his principal civil adviser (Nero had a separate adviser for military affairs, Sextus Afranius Burrus).

Some attribute the fact that the first five years of Nero’s reign were relatively peaceful and moderate to Seneca’s restraining influence. According to Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca taught Nero how to speak effectively, and wrote numerous speeches for him to address the senate with, praising clemency, the rule of law, and so on.

However, palace politics slowly became more poisonous, Nero came to rule more despotically, and Seneca’s position and wealth made him the target of increasing political and personal attacks. In 62 Seneca asked to be allowed to retire from public life, a conversation with Nero vividly described (or invented) in Tacitus’s Annals. Emperor and adviser parted on good terms but, over the next few years, Seneca’s name was cited in various plots and conspiracies.

The largest of these was the conspiracy of Gaius Calpurnius Piso in 65, a plot to assassinate Nero which was discovered at the last moment (the morning of the planned murder), and which, as the suspects were interrogated and tortured by Nero’s Guard, turned into a bloodbath of the conspirators.

Historians think Seneca was not an active conspirator, and debate how much he even knew about the plot, but whatever the precise truth, Nero ordered him put to death. Hearing of this, Seneca, en route back to Rome from Campania, committed suicide with a high-minded detachment that impressed the friends who attended the deed, and made him a poster boy for Stoic dignity. Many classic paintings depict the noble scene. Nero himself was, of course, to commit suicide just three years later, in 68 AD.

The Death of Seneca by Manuel Dominguez Sanchez (1871)

Seneca’s works

Seneca was a prolific writer. He wrote 12 philosophical essays, an extensive work of natural science, and 124 letters of moral exhortation to his friend Lucilius. The letters are probably his most accessible and popular work.

But Seneca is also credited as the author of ten plays (though scholars bicker: maybe it’s nine; maybe it’s eight). The plays are all tragedies, loosely modeled on Greek tragedy and featuring Greek tragic protagonists. The Romans had a technical term for these, fabula crepidata, meaning a Roman tragedy with a Greek subject.

Seneca’s plays make a striking contrast to his philosophical works not only in tone but also in worldview. The Letters to Lucilius go into great detail about how to banish all attachments, emotions and feelings from your life in order to achieve a calm, rational, Stoic detachment. By contrast, the plays are full of gruesomely bloodthirsty plots and characters wrought to the utmost degree of emotional extremity. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the works seemed so utterly different in worldview that scholars thought Seneca the moral philosopher and Seneca the dramatist were two different people.

Critics have been very harsh indeed about these plays. The editor of the Penguin edition, E.F. Watling, accuses them of ‘bombastic extravagance’, of ‘passionate yet artificial rhetoric’. The German critic Schlegel is quoted accusing them of ‘hollow hyperbole’, ‘forced and stilted’. Watling cites the consensus among scholars who condemn them as:

horrible examples of literary and dramatic incompetence, travesties of the noble Greek drama, the last wretched remnant of declining Roman taste. (Introduction, p.8)

And yet Seneca’s plays had a very important influence on Renaissance theatre, influencing Shakespeare and other playwrights in England, and Corneille and Racine in France.

Seneca’s tragedies are customarily considered the source and inspiration for what became known as the genre of ‘Revenge Tragedy’ in Elizabethan theatre, starting with Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy of the 1580s, and continuing on into the Jacobean era (the reign of King James I, 1603 to 1625).

Their importance to Elizabethan drama explains why so fastidious a critic as T.S. Eliot, obsessed as he was with the period, praised Seneca’s plays, singling out Phaedra and Medea – although most critics consider Thyestes to be Seneca’s ‘masterpiece’.

Seneca’s tragedies

  • Agamemnon
  • Hercules or Hercules furens (The Madness of Hercules)
  • Medea
  • Oedipus
  • Phaedra
  • Phoenissae (The Phoenician Women)
  • Thyestes
  • Troades (The Trojan Women)

The Penguin paperback edition of the plays, edited and translated by E.F. Watling, contains four of the ‘best’ plays – Thyestes, Phaedra, Oedipus and The Trojan Women. (It also contains an oddity, a play titled Octavia, which resembles Seneca’s tragedies in melodramatic tone but, since it features Seneca as a character, and describes his death, cannot have been by him. Scholars guesstimate that it was probably written soon after Seneca’s death by someone influenced by his style and aware of the events of his lifetime.)

Watling’s critique

Watling’s introduction pulls no punches in detailing Seneca’s shortcomings:

He was not a constructor of tragic plots; his plays are not concerned with the moral conflict between good and good which is the essence of true tragedy: he only recognises the power of evil to destroy good. He does not delay or complicate the issue by any moral dilemma exhibiting the conflict of justifiable but mutually incompatible ambitions; his tragedy is simply a disastrous event foretold and anticipated from the start and pursued ruthlessly to its end. (p.25)

Seneca routinely stops the action of his ‘plots’ to give characters long, highly-strung, melodramatic speeches, which might not even be particularly relevant to the plot and often take no account of who else is on stage at the time.

His technique of dramatic speech is extremely narrow, having only two modes: either a character is delivering a long monologue, or he deploys stichomythia, where just two characters swap exchanges of dialogue; rarely anything more complicated than that.

Many of the long speeches and even some of the exchanges are so stock and stereotyped that they could easily be swapped from one play to another without anyone noticing. Watling names some of these stock topics – the ‘simple life’ speech, the ‘haunted grove’ speech and ‘the king must be obeyed’ dialogue, which all crop up in several of the plays.

The climax of all the plays is always a gruesome barbarity and Seneca uses the Greek conventions of having it take place offstage and described by a breathless messenger who comes onstage hotfoot from the scene. The messengers’ speeches all follow the exact same formula: the description of the place, the horror of the act, the stoical courage of the sufferer.

Seneca’s use of the Chorus is for the most part flaccid and unconvincing. (p.24)

The Chorus declaims its verse in a different metre from the rest of the play. They are known as Choric odes. The Choric odes’s main purpose is to comment on the main action but they often feature a clotted recital of myths or legends similar or related to the one we are witnessing.

The Chorus also often expresses ideas which contradict the worldview of the play and even of the main action. For example they will powerfully express the idea that death is the end of life and there is nothing after, except that… the plays feature ghosts and numerous descriptions of the classic souls in hell (Sisyphus, Tantalus, Ixion). There is no attempt at consistency – immediate and sensational effect is what is strived for.

The sense of unnecessary repetition is echoed at a verbal level where Seneca creates a drenched and intense effect by repeating synonyms for just one idea – Watling says examples in English would be larding a speech with the synonymous words anger-rage-ire, or fear-terror-dread. No idea is left to float subtly but is bludgeoned into submission by repetition.

Watling sums up Seneca’s plays as 1) sporting a bombastic, over-the-top rhetoric, deriving from 2) gruesomely bloodthirsty plots, which 3) are staged with a remarkable lack of dramatic invention i.e. very clumsily and straightforwardly.

But despite all these shortcomings, the sheer visceral intensity of his plays goes some way to explain why they were useful models for the earliest Elizabethan playwrights writing the first attempts at English tragedy, influencing Kyd, Marlowe and the early Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus (which contains several quotes from Seneca’s Phaedra).

To return to T.S. Eliot who I mentioned above, we can now see why Eliot (in an introduction to a 1927 reprint of Elizabethan translations of Seneca) made the characteristically perceptive remark that, foregrounding vivid rhetoric over more traditional notions of plot or characterisation as the do, might make Seneca’s plays suitable for what was (in 1927) the very new medium of radio – rhetoric i.e. the power of words alone, triumphing over all other factors. A surf of sensationalist sound. The bombastic power of words superseding all considerations of ‘plot’ or ‘characterisation’.

**********

Plots of the four plays

1. Thyestes

Summary

It’s a tragedy of two brothers who hate each other, Atreus who takes a horrific vengeance on his brother, Thyestes.

Background

Tantalus was a son of Jupiter. He killed, cooked and served up his own son, Pelops, at a banquet of the gods. For this atrocity he was condemned to eternal punishment in hell, fixed in a pool of water, dying of thirst but unable to bend down to scoop up any of the water, and dying of hunger, but unable to touch any of the fruit growing just out of reach above him. Hence the English verb to tantalise. Jupiter restored Pelops to life but he himself went on to win a wife and a kingdom by treachery. Pelops banished his two grown-up sons, Atreus and Thyestes, for the murder of their half-brother, Chrysippus. When Pelops died, Atreus returned and took possession of his father’s throne, but Thyestes claimed it too. Thyestes seduced Atreus’s wife, Aërope, who helped him steal the gold-fleeced ram from Atreus’s flocks which was said to grant the kingship. But instead of gaining the crown he was banished. Despite sitting pretty, Atreus wants to make his ascendancy over his brother complete, so he is now planning to recall Thyestes from banishment on the pretext of sharing the throne with him, but in fact carrying out an atrocious act of revenge.

Act I

A Fury raises Tantalus’s miserable spirit from the underworld. He moaningly asks if even more pain and suffering await him. The Fury delivers an extraordinary vision of the sins of the house of Peolops, ramifying out to undermine all the order in the world. The Chorus comes onstage. It consists of citizens of Argos. They invoke the presiding gods of the cities of Greece in the hope they can prevent the tragedy.

Act II

Atreus consults with his minister about the best way of carrying out vengeance on his brother. The minister wonders how he can do this, allowing Atreus to explain that he will offer forgiveness and a share in the crown to lure Thyestes back to Argos, where he can carry out his revenge; what it will be, exactly, he is still considering but it will be awful. The Chorus reproves the ambition of rulers, describing the character of a true king, before singing the praises of a retired life.

Act III

Thyestes, having been invited back to his homeland by Atreus, arrives with his three young sons and expresses his distrust and sense of approaching disaster. Atreus applauds himself: his plan is working. The Chorus, apparently oblivious of the preceding act, praises the fraternal affection of Atreus for putting aside the brother’s enmity.

Act IV

With no development of plot or character, with melodramatic abruptness, a messenger appears who describes to the appalled Chorus the grotesque climax of the play which is that Atreus had Thyestes’s three children killed, cooked and served up to Thyestes at the brothers’ reconciliation feast. It takes the form of a question and answer session, the Chorus asking what happened next, the messenger answering. The Chorus, observing the going down of the Sun, hysterically fears that this criminal act might tear apart the whole fabric of the universe.

Act V

Atreus congratulates himself on his cruel revenge. Thyestes trembles with premonition that something terrible has happened. The Atreus reveals to him that he has just eaten his own beloved sons.

(Incidentally, the curse on the house of Pelops was to continue into the next generation in the persons of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, who was murdered on his return from the Trojan War, by Aegisthus, son of Thyestes – the subject of one of Seneca’s other plays.)

Thyestes demonstrates the classic characteristics of a Seneca play. It maintains a continuous, shrill, hyperbolic tone. Hyperbolic exaggeration Here’s the Fury seeing the feud escalate into end-of-the-world anarchy:

Vengeance shall think no way forbidden her;
Brother shall flee from brother, sire from son,
And son from sire; children shall die in shames
More shameful than their birth; revengeful wives
Shall menace husbands, armies sail to war
In lands across the sea; and every soil
Be soaked with blood; the might of men of battle
In all the mortal world shall be brought down
By Lust triumphant. In this house of sin
Brothers’s adultery with brothers’ wives
Shall be the least of sins; all law, all faith
All honour shall be dead. Nor shall the heavens
Be unaffected by your evil deeds:
What right have stars to twinkle in the sky?
Why need their lights still ornament the world?
Let night be black, let there be no more day.
Let havoc rule this house; call blood and strife
And death; let every corner of this place
Be filled with the revenge of Tantalus!
(Fury, Act 1)

Here’s Atreus whipping himself up to commit the worst crime in the world:

Sanctity begone!
If thou wast ever known within these walls.
Come all the dread battalions of the Furies!
Come, seed of strife, Erinys! Come, Megaera,
With torches armed! My spirit yet lacks fire;
It would be filled with still more murderous rage!
(Atreus, Act 1)

In the introduction Watling talks up the discrepancy between Seneca the lofty Stoic and Seneca the author of blood-thirsty, amoral plays. But there is some overlap, some places where characters appear to speak the language of Stoic detachment, such as the second Choric ode which describes the true nature of kingship as not being power or riches but resilience and mental strength. The true king

is the man who faces unafraid
The lightning’s glancing stroke; is not dismayed
By storm-tossed seas; whose ship securely braves
The windy rage of Adriatic waves;
Who has escaped alive the soldier’s arm,
The brandished steel; who, far removed from harm,
Looks down upon the world, faces her end
With confidence, and greets death as a friend.
(Chorus, Act 2)

That’s the Chorus, but Thyestes himself also declaims an ‘advantages of the simple life‘ speech to his son as they arrive at Atreus’s palace:

While I stood
Among the great, I stood in daily terror;
The very sword I wore at my own side
I feared. It is the height of happiness
To stand in no man’s way, to eat at ease
Reclining on the ground. At humble tables
Food can be eaten without fear; assassins
Will not be found in poor men’s cottages;
The poisoned cup is served in cups of gold.
(Thyestes, Act 3)

(Words which resonate with Seneca’s experiences in the fraught court of the emperor Nero.) In the final act, just before Atreus reveals to Thyestes what he’s done, Thyestes feels a powerful, world-shaking sense of doom, very reminiscent of the same premonition characters experience in Shakespeare’s tragedies:

The table rocked, the floor is shaking.
The torches’ light sinks low; the sky itself
Hangs dull and heavy, seeming to be lost
Between the daylight and the dark. And why –
The ceiling of the heavens seems to shake
With violent convulsions – more and more!
The murk grows darker than the deepest darkness,
Night is engulfed in night; all stars have fled!
(Thyestes, Act 5)

Once the deed has been revealed, here’s the Chorus reciting a welter of classical precedents in an effort to capture the enormity of the event:

Are the Giants escaped from their prison and threatening war?
Has tortured Tityos found strength in his breast again to renew his old aggression?
Or has Typhoeus stretched his muscles to throw off his mountain burden?
Is Ossa to be piled on Pelion again
To build a bridge for the Phlegrean Giants’ assault?
Is all the order of the universe plunged into chaos?
(Chorus, Act 4)

These are all formulae or stock ingredients, which are repeated in all the other plays, and were to be enthusiastically taken up by the Elizabethan playwrights striving for sensational effects in the 1590s and early 1600s.

2. Phaedra

Background

Theseus was a typical Greek ‘hero’ i.e. an appalling human being, guilty of countless crimes, infidelities, murders and rapes. But the play isn’t about him, it’s about his second wife and his son. In his first marriage Theseus married the Amazon warrior Antiope, also known as Hippolyta, who bore him a son, Hippolytus. This Hippolytus grew up despising love, refusing to worship at the temples of Venus. He preferred Diana and the joys of the hunt. During this time, Theseus divorced his first wife and married Phaedra, daughter of Minos, king of Crete (following his adventure on Crete where he slew the Minotaur).

Now, Hyppolitus had grown to be a handsome young man and Phaedra was a mature woman when Theseus left his kingdom for a while to help his friend Peirithous rescue Persephone from the underworld. During his absence, the goddess of love, Venus, determined to take her revenge on Hippolytus for spurning her worship, inflamed his stepmother, Phaedra’s, heart with insatiable desire for the handsome young man.

Prelude (Hippolytus)

Hippolytus soliloquises on the joys of the hunt, delivering a long list of Greek hunting locations to his companions. It not only reveals Hippolytus’s character but impresses the audience with Seneca’s detailed and scholarly knowledge of Greek geography.

Act 1 (Phaedra and the nurse)

Phaedra soliloquy in which she laments that Theseus has gone off to the underworld, abandoning her in a place she has never liked, exiled from her beloved Crete. She wonders that she has recently become obsessed with the hunt.

(Her mother was Pasiphae, wife of King Minos who notoriously allowed herself to be impregnated by a bull, giving birth to the Minotaur. More relevant, though, is that Pasiphae was a daughter of Phoebus the sun god, and Venus the goddess of love has a long-running feud with him. Which explains why Venus is also against Phaedra.)

It is the nurse who makes explicit the fact that Phaedra has fallen in love with her stepson. Phaedra says her infatuation is driving her so mad she wants to kill herself.

Unreason reigns
Supreme, a potent god commands my heart,
The invincible winged god, who rules all earth,
Who strikes and scorches Jove with his fierce flame…

Interestingly, the nurse insists that all this talk of Venus and Eros is rubbish. There is no little god with a bow and arrow fluttering about in the sky. Instead it is the corruption of the times: ‘Too much contentment and prosperity and self-indulgence’ lead to new desires. In fact she states the Stoic theme that the simple life is best and luxury leads to decadence.

Then the Chorus delivers a long impressive hymn to the power of Eros or Love, as demonstrated by mating behaviour throughout the animal kingdom. As a Darwinian materialist I, of course, agree that the urge to mate and reproduce is the primary function of all life forms, including humans.

Act 2

The nurse describes to the Chorus Phaedra’s ever more miserably lovelorn state, pale face, tearful eyes etc. We are shown Phaedra in her boudoir angrily bossing her attendants about, despising her traditional dresses and jewellery, wanting to wear the outfit of a hunting queen and roam through the woods after her beloved.

Enter Hippolytus. The nurse tells him to stop hunting so hard, relax, find love, enjoy his youth. She counsels him to reproduce; if all young men were like him, humanity would cease to exist. Hippolytus replies not really to her points, instead declaring that he prefers simple rustic rural life in its honest simplicity to the deceit of courts and the city, mob rule, envy etc – turns into an extended description of that old chestnut, the sweet and innocent life of the age of Saturn, before cities or ships or agriculture, before war itself. Illogically this long speech ends with a swerve into his hatred of women, who he blames for all conflict and wars, and explains why he shuns women like the plague.

Enter Phaedra and metaphorically falls at Hippolytus’s feet, swearing she will be his slave and do anything for him. He mistakes, thinking she is upset because of the long absence of her husband, his father, Theseus in the underworld. He tries to reassure her, while Phaedra cannot contain her made infatuation:

Madness is in my heart;
It is consumed by love, a wild fire raging
Secretly in my body in my blood,
Like flames that lick across a roof of timber.

Phaedra describes how beautiful Theseus was as a young man when he came to Crete to kill the Minotaur and sue King Minos for the hand of his daughter, Ariadne. But all this leads up to Phaedra kneeling in front of Hippolytus and declaring her love for him. Hippolytus responds with end-of-the-world bombast:

For what cause shall the sky be rent with thunder
If no cloud dims it now? Let ruin wreck
The firmament, and black night hide the day!
Let stars run back and all their courses turn
Into confusion!..
Ruler of gods in heaven and men on earth,
Why is thy hand not armed, will not thy torch
Of triple fire set all the world ablaze?
Hurl against me thy thunderbolt, thy spear,
And let me be consumed in instant fire.

He rebuffs her. She throws herself into his arms, swearing to follow him everywhere. He draws his sword. Yes! She begs to be killed and put out of her misery. He realises it will defile his sword and all the oceans will not be able to clean it. (A very common trope in tragedy, originating with the Greeks, repeated in, for example, Macbeth, one thousand five hundred and fifty years later.)

Phaedra faints, Hippolytus flees. The nurse steps forward to comment and make the suggestion that, now Phaedra’s criminal love is revealed and Hippolytus has rejected her, to deflect blame she ought to accuse him of propositioning her. She yells ‘Help! Rape!’ as the Chorus enters, representing ‘the people’, showing them the sword Hippolytus dropped in his flight and the Queen, lying distraught on the ground, her hair all dishevelled.

The Chorus apparently ignores the cries of the nurse and instead proceeds with a 3-page hymn to Hippolytus’s matchless male beauty.

Act 3

Weirdly, act 3 opens with the self-same Chorus only now summarising the situation i.e. the queen intends to pursue her utterly false claim of rape against Hippolytus. But the Chorus hasn’t got far before who do we see arriving but Theseus, the mature hero, who describes how he has been in the underworld for four long years, only able to return because Hercules rescued him. But what is all this weeping and lamentation he hears?

The nurse explains her wife is distraught and some kind of curtain is lifted or something removed to reveal an ‘inner scene’ where we see Phaedra holding a sword as if to kill herself. Theseus interrogates Phaedra who refuses to explain. So – in the kind of casual mention of hyper violence to servants and slaves which always disturbs me – Theseus says he’ll have the nurse bound and scourged and chained and whipped till she spills the beans.

But before he can do this, Phaedra says Hippolytus tried to rape her, saying this is his sword which he left in his flight. Theseus now delivers the ‘Great gods, what infamy is this!’ type speech. Interestingly, he accuses Hippolytus not only of the obvious things, but accuses him of hypocrisy in his ‘affectation of old time-honoured ways’ i.e. Seneca has expanded Hippolytus’s traditional character of hunter to include this extra dimension of him being a proponent of the whole back-to-the-ways-of-our-ancestors movement, a view Seneca himself propounds in the Letters to Lucilius.

Theseus accuses Hippolytus of being the worst kind of hypocrite, in language which reminds me of Hamlet berating his uncle Claudius, then vows to track him down wherever he flees. He tells us that the god Neptune granted him three wishes, and now he invokes this promise, demanding that Hippolytus never sees another dawn.

The Chorus steps in to lament why the king of the gods never intervenes to ensure justice, why men’s affairs seem governed by blind fate, why the evil triumph and the good are punished.

Act 4

Enter the messenger with stock tears and reluctance to tell what he has seen. Theseus commands him and so the messenger describes the death of Hippolytus. The youth fled, jumped into his chariot, and whipped the horses off at great speed but that is when a strange enormous storm arose at sea, vast waves attacking the land, and giving birth to a monster, a bull-shaped thing coloured green of the sea with fiery red eyes. This thing proceeds to terrify Hippolytus’s horses which run wild, throwing him from the chariot but tangling his arms and legs in the traces, so that he is dragged at speed over the clifftop’s ragged rocks and flayed alive, his body disintegrating into pieces until he collided with a fallen tree trunk and was transfixed in the groin. Theseus laments that his wish has been so violently fulfilled.

The Chorus repeats the idea which I’m coming to see as central to the play, less about love or lust etc but the safeness of the humble life, not exposed to the decadent living, random lusts and shocking violence associated with the rich.

Peace and obscurity make most content,
In lowly homes old age sleeps easily…
For Jupiter is on his guard
And strikes whatever comes too near the sky.
The thunder rumbles round his throne,
But no great harm can come to common folk
Who dwell in modest homes.

If you think about this for a moment, you’ll realise it’s bullshit. Poor people living in lowly homes often have terrible lives, scarred by poverty, ignorance and, of course, the random violence of their superiors who might, for example, decide to start a civil war and devastate the homes and livelihoods of ‘common folk’ in entire regions. Think of Julius Caesar laying waste entire regions of Gaul, burning cities to the ground and selling their entire populations into slavery. It’s the kind of patronising crap rich people tell themselves to convince themselves that they, the filthy rich, living in the lap of luxury, eating at gluttonous banquets, waited on hand and foot by literally hundreds of slaves, and filling their day with sexual perversions, that they are the ones who have it rough.

Act 5

Barely has Theseus heard all from the messenger than Phaedra enters, wailing and wielding the sword. She begins her lament as the ruined corpse of Hippolytus is brought onstage and continues, lamenting his death, berating her treachery and falsehood, confessing to Theseus that Hippolytus was totally innocent, then stabbing herself to death.

Theseus then laments a) was it for this that he was allowed to escape from hell, into a hell of his own devising? And then lists all the ingenious punishments he saw in hell and says none of them are adequate for him.

The Chorus intervenes to advise that they honour and bury the body first and then, very gruesomely, specifically directs Theseus in placing the left hand here and the right hand over here, and so on, as they assemble his body parts, a ghoulish jigsaw.

In the final lines, Theseus orders his staff to a) go scour the landscape to find the last missing bits of Hippolytus and b) and as for the wicked Phaedra:

let a deep pit of earth conceal
And soil lie heavy on her cursed head.

3. The Trojan Women

Background

The Trojan War has ended. Troy has fallen. Outside the smouldering ruins of the city huddle the surviving royal women, rounded up by the victorious Greeks and awaiting their fate. The leading women are Hecuba, widow of King Priam, and Andromache, widow of the great Trojan warrior, Hector.

Act 1

Hecuba opens the play with a long lament about the fall of Troy, symbol of the uncertainty on which all pomp and power is based. She interacts with the Chorus of Trojan women. She makes them unbind their hair and loosen their tunics to expose their bare breasts which they then proceed to beat in lament for Hector, wall of Troy, and Priam its murdered king. But at least they are at peace now and will never be led as slaves to foreign lands.

Happy is Priam, happy every man
That has died in battle
And taken with him his life’s fulfilment.

(The literal baring and beating of their own breasts occurs in several of the plays. Was it performed literally in ancient times? Women mourning in ancient times were meant to not only beat their bare breasts but scratch their faces till they bled. If taken literally, surely this would be as difficult to perform persuasively onstage as a sword fight.)

Act 2

The Chorus wonders why the Greeks are delaying. Talthybius describes the momentous appearance of the ghost of Achilles, demanding the sacrifice he was promised before the fleet can sail. A prime slab of Senecan bombast:

A rift appeared,
Caves yawned, hell gaped, earth parted and revealed
A way from worlds below to worlds above.
His tomb was burst asunder and there stood
The living ghost of the Thessalian leader…

Pyrrhus, son of dead Achilles, takes up the case for his father, first listing his great victories before he even came to Troy, then insisting the Greeks fulfil their vow and make a human sacrifice at his tomb. Agamemnon sharply refuses, saying he regrets the blood and cruelty of the night of the sack of Troy but it was sort of justified by bloodlust. But now in the cold light of day, sacrifice a human being? No. This dialogue turns really bitter as the two Greeks insult each other, accusing each other of cowardice and crimes.

Agamemnon calls for Calchas the soothsayer. Enter Calchas who announces that the gods demand two sacrifices: a young woman dressed as a bride must be sacrificed on Achilles’ tomb; and Priam’s grandson must be thrown from the battlements of Troy. Then the Greek fleet can sail.

The Chorus delivers quite a profound speech about death: is there anything afterwards, does the spirit live on, or is this all? It concludes:

There is nothing after death; and death is nothing –
Only the finishing post of life’s short race.

Therefore, ambition give up your hopes, anxiety give up your fears. (This is the third play in which, contrary to Watling’s comments in the introduction, we find Seneca’s characters delivering very clearly Stoic beliefs, entirely in line with Seneca the philosopher.)

Act 3

Andromache berates the Trojan women for only just learning grief, whereas for her Troy fell and the world ended when her husband, Hector, was killed. Now she only resists the death she wants to protect their son, Astyanax. An Elder performs the function of the nurse in other plays i.e. asks questions and is a sounding board for Andromache’s thoughts. She tells how the ghost of Hector came to her in a dream warning her to hide their son. Now she has come to the tomb of her husband and pushes the boy to go inside it (through gates) and hide, which he does without a word.

Then the Elder warns that Ulysses approaches. Ulysses announces he has been drawn by lot to ask Andromache for her son. While the son of Hector lives no Greek can rest, knowing he will grow up to restore Troy and relaunch the war. Andromache pretends her son was stolen from her during the sack of the city and laments his whereabouts and fate. Ulysses sees through her lies and threatens her with torture. Andromache welcomes torture and death. Ulysses understands her mother love and says it is love of his son, Telemachus, which motivates him.

At which point Andromache, to the accompaniment of fierce oaths, makes the ironic lie that her son right now is entombed with the dead (he, as we saw, is hiding in the tomb of Hector). Ulysses detects that Andromache is still anxious, pacing, muttering, as one who had lost everything would not. She is lying. He orders his men to tear down Hector’s tomb with the aim of scattering the ashes on the sea.

Andromache agonises over whether to surrender her son to save the ashes of her husband. She places herself before the tomb defying the soldiers to kill her first. Ulysses orders them on. She falls to her knees and clasps Ulysses’ legs and begs him to have mercy. She calls forth the boy, who comes from the tomb, she tells him to kneel before Ulysses.

Andromache ridicules the idea that this poor boy but himself could rebuild the walls of the ruined city. She begs Ulysses to let the boy become his slave. But Ulysses ducks responsibility, saying it is not his decision but Calchas’s.

Andromache despises him, but Ulysses says time is marching on, the ships have weighed anchor. He allows her a moment to lament her son and Andromache gives a page-long speech describing Astyanax growing to manhood and being a wise and noble king, which will not now happen. Andromache bids him go with the Greeks, but the boy clings on to his mother and doesn’t want to leave, but Andromache says there is no choice and bids him take a message from her to his father. Ulysses, bored of all this yap, commands his soldiers to take him away.

The Chorus of Trojan women pulls back, as it were, from this immediate scene, to consider the general problem, what will become of them, where will they be sent, whose slaves will they become?

Act 4

Helen laments that she has been ordered by the victorious Greeks to lie to Priam’s daughter Polyxena, and persuade her she is to be married to Pyrrhus. It is, of course, a lie, she is going to be sacrificed, but Helen dutifully tells her to rejoice and dress as a bride. Andromache, hearing all this, is filled with disgust that anyone can think of rejoicing at this disastrous time, and at the unremitting evil Helen represents, ‘bringer of doom, disaster and destruction’.

Helen replies to this attack, saying she had no say in the matter, was handed over like an object won in a competition, has endured 10 years of exile, and is now hated by all sides. Andromache knows Helen is telling lies and orders her to tell the truth. Herself weeping, Helen comes clean and says Polyxena is to be sacrificed, burned, and her ashes scattered over Achilles’ tomb.

Andromache is shocked that Polyxena takes the news that she is about to die with alacrity and enthusiastically changes clothes, braids her hair etc. It means exit from this misery and avoiding a lifetime of slavery. Not so happy is her mother, Hecuba, who laments.

Now Helen tells the Trojan women have been parcelled out to, Andromache to Pyrrhus, Hecuba to Ulysses, Cassandra to Agamemnon. Hecuba rains down curses on Ulysses, hoping that storm and sea will plague his return to Ithaca. And, as Pyrrhus appears, she extends her curse of storms and shipwreck to the entire Greek fleet.

The Chorus of Trojan women point out there is comfort in numbers, it is easier to mourn or suffer with colleagues, and describes how it will feel to be rounded up into the ships and sail away and slowly lose sight of their homeland, the smoke rising from their ruined city, Mount Ida, all fading over the horizon.

Act 5

The messenger arrives and announces the boy has been flung from the tower, the girl has met her death. The women ask for a detailed account, which he gives them. Both died with tremendous bravery, shaming the Greeks.

The last word goes to Hecuba who laments that death has come to everyone in her family, but will not come to her, to ease her suffering.

Thoughts

  1. The supernatural element of Achilles’ ghost rising up from the underworld is very unlike the chaste, restrained style of Euripides’ tragedy on the same subject. it feels closer in style to the Middle Ages or Gothic horror.
  2. The choral ode in act 2 persuasively argues that there is nothing after death, death is the end, our minds expire with our bodies – which is flatly contradicted by everything else in the play, including Achilles’ miraculous appearance, the ghost of Hector, and so on.
  3. The other plays feature a unified chronological plot. The Trojan Women is interesting because it has what feels like two plots, featuring two women (Hecuba and Andromache) running in parallel, though linking up at places. Its emphasis on the suffering of women reminds me of Ovid’s Heroides. It’s my favourite.

4. Oedipus

Background

The most famous Greek myth. A soothsayer tells Oedipus’s parents, Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes, that their unborn son will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, the royal couple deliver the baby, but then expose him in the country. To avoid the prophecy coming true they have the baby’s ankles pierced and joined together with a strap. (This caused the child’s feet to swell up and gave rise to Oedipus’ name, which literally means ‘swollen foot’.)

A peasant finds him and takes him to the king of the neighbouring realm, Polybus of Corinth who, being childless, considers him a providential gift from the gods and adopts him. As Oedipus grows to be strong and virile, his peers taunt him that he can’t be the son of the mild and gentle Polybus. So he travels to Delphi where the oracle tells him he is fated to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Horrified, Oedipus vows never to return to Corinth. On the way back he gets into an argument in a narrow path with an old man driving a chariot and hits him so hard he accidentally kills him. On the same journey he comes across the half-human, half-animal sphinx who won’t let him pass unless he answers the riddle: What walks on 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs at noon, and 3 legs in the evening. Oedipus answers correctly that it is Man. He travels on to Thebes to discover that the entire city had been terrorised by the Sphinx but he has saved them all. Not only that, but news has come that old King Laius has been killed. As saviour of the city, Oedipus is offered the hand of the widowed queen and marries Jocasta and becomes the new king.

The play opens as a plague is ravaging Thebes. A sequence of events, and messengers bringing news, slowly reveal to Oedipus that he was never the natural son of King Polybus, that he was adopted, that his true parents were Laius and Jocasta and then…that the old man he killed in the fight in the road was Laius and…he has been sleeping with Jocasta, his own mother, for years. At which point a) Jocasta hangs herself and b) Oedipus blinds himself.

Act 1

Oedipus outlines the situation i.e. he is king at Thebes, the city is stricken with plague which is striking down everyone but himself, he has sent to the oracle at Delphi which has sent back the horrifying prediction that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. He is pleased he fled his homeland and his father Polybus, but feels a terrible sense of dread.

I see
Disaster everywhere, I doubt myself.
Fate is preparing, even while I speak,
Some blow for me.

Of course the blight of the plague gives Seneca scope for some typical hyperbole, ‘the murk of hell has swallowed up the heavenly citadels’ and so on. The description of the plague goes on at length, describing people too sick to bury the dead and so on, reminding me of the vivid description of the plague which ends Lucretius’s long poem De Rerum Natura, premonitory of Albert Camus’s great novel about a 20th century plague. Oedipus says maybe he brought the bad luck, maybe must leave the city.

His queen (and unbeknown to him, his mother) tells him a true king grasps misfortune with a steady hand.

Oedipus describes his encounter with the Sphinx who is made to sound a hellish beast surrounded by the bones of those who failed her riddle. Well, he triumphed over her but now seems to have himself brought the plague to Thebes.

The Chorus is made up of Theban elders. It gives a 4-page-long, vivid description of the plague, how it first struck animals then moved to humans. With characteristic bombast it then shrilly describes:

Out of the depths of Erebus their prison
The Furies have rushed upon us with the fire of hell.
Phlegethon, river of fire, has burst its banks,
The River of Hades is mingled with the River of Cadmus.

The act ends as Oedipus sees Creon, Jocasta’s brother, arriving. He has been to the oracle.

Act 2

Creon described to Oedipus the mood of horror at the oracle, till a superhuman voice declared that only when the murderer of Laius is driven out will Thebes know peace. Oedipus then makes one of those ironic vows, vowing to all the gods that the murderer of Laius will never know rest but live in permanent exile, a wandering nomad, and find no pardon – ignorant of the fact he is cursing himself.

On a more mundane note Oedipus now asks Creon how Laius met his death. He was attacked and murdered at a crossroads out in the countryside, says Creon.

Enter the old blind prophet Tiresias, led by his daughter, Manto. He tells Oedipus he can interpret the situation through a sacrifice, so a bull and heifer are brought in and the sacrificial flame rises and parts in two parts which fight each other.

[This is a classic example of the way these plays would be hard to stage but work very well when read, or read aloud, or broadcast. The getting onstage of the animal, its execution and especially the behaviour of the flame would be impossible to create onstage but work pretty well when read out.]

Manto describes the strange behaviour of the flame which Tiresias interprets as the gods themselves being ashamed of the truth. Tiresias asks how the animals behaved when sacrificed and Manto tells him the heifer submitted but the bull shied and defied the blows. The heifer bled freely but the bull’s blood not at all, while dark blood poured from its eyes and mouth. When they examined the entrails, they were in bad shape, the heart was shrunk, the veins were livid, part of the lungs was missing, the liver was putrid. Far, far worse, the virgin heifer turned out to be pregnant and the deformed life in her stirred. The fire on the altar roared, the hearth quaked etc.

Oedipus begs to know what this all means, but Tiresias pushes the play deep into Gothic territory by saying they will have to perform a magic rite to call the soul of the dead king himself up from hell to tell them. Oedipus must not attend, so he nominates Creon to go in his place.

Incongruously, oddly, the Chorus sing a sustained hymn to the Bacchus, god of the vine, listing his adventures and achievements – notably the occasion when he scared pirates who had captured him into jumping overboard and being changed into dolphins, and the time he rescued Ariadne from Naxos and proceeded to marry her.

Act 3

Creon enters. Oedipus asks what he saw at the ceremony. Creon is so terrified he repeatedly refuses to speak until Oedipus forces him. Then Creon gives a terrific description of the dark and ill-fated glade where they took Tiresias and dug a ditch and burned animal sacrifices and chanted evil spells and a great chasm opened up and hordes of the dead appeared before them. Last of all came the reluctant figure of Laius, still dishevelled and bloody, who proceeds to give a long speech saying the plague on Thebes is due to the current king, who killed his father and has slept with his mother and had children by her. Only when he is cast out as an unclean thing will Thebes be cured.

Oedipus is appalled but refuses to believe it: after all, his father Polybus lives on at Corinth and he’s never laid a finger on his mother, Merope. Oedipus refuses to believe it and says Creon is conspiring with Tiresias to seize the crown. Creon, for his part, advises Oedipus to abdicate now, to step down to a humbler position before he is pushed. They proceed to have a page of dialogue which turns into a debate about whether a subject should stand up to the king, Oedipus dismissing these as typical arguments of the revolutionary.

The Chorus gives a potted history of the land of Thebes, and the wider region of Boeotia, populated by Cadmus in search of his abducted sister Europa, of the many monsters which have been spawned in this region, with a final mention of the myth of Actaeon, turned into a stag and ripped apart by his own hunting dogs.

Act 4

Oedipus is confused, he asks Jocasta how Laius died and is told he was struck down by a young man when travelling with his entourage at a place where three roads meet. It jogs a faint memory in Oedipus’s mind but then a messenger comes to interrupt his attempts to remember with news that his ‘father’, King Polybus of Corinth, has passed away peacefully in his sleep.

The old man/messenger requests him to come to Corinth to attend the dead king’s funeral, but Oedipus refuses, saying he is afraid of being alone in the company of his mother. The old man reassures him that Meropa was not his real mother and proceeds to tell the full story of how he, the old man, was given Oedipus as a baby, his ankles bound together with a metal pin. ‘Who by?’ Oedipus asks. ‘The keeper of the royal flocks,’ the man replies. ‘Can he remember his name?’ Oedipus asks. No, but he might remember the face. So Oedipus orders his men to assemble all the royal shepherds.

The old man warns Oedipus to stop probing while he still has time, but Oedipus insists he has nothing to fear and the truth will set him free. Poor dupe of fate.

Enter Phorbas, head of Thebes’s royal flocks. He begins to remember the old man. He confirms that he handed the old man a baby but doubts if it can have lived because its ankles were pierced through with an iron bolt and infection had spread.

Who was the baby, Oedipus demands. Phorbas refuses to say so Oedipus says he will order hot coals to torture him with. Phorbas replies with one line: ‘Your wife was that child’s mother.’

With that one line the truth comes flooding in on Oedipus. He is not Polybus and Meropa’s child; they adopted him; he is the child of Laius who he killed at the crossroads and of…Jocasta, the woman he has married and had children with. Oedipus is, understandably, distraught, and expresses it with full Senecan hyperbole:

Earth, be opened!
Ruler of darkness, hide in deepest hell
This monstrous travesty of procreation!

The Chorus continues its very tangential relationship with the story, not commenting on this amazing revelation at all, but instead wishing its ship of life was riding on milder waters to a gentler wind. And then goes off at a real tangent, briefly describing the story of Daedalus and Icarus to show that living in moderation, the golden mean, is best.

Act 5

The Chorus sees a messenger approaching. Never good news these messengers, and this one is no exception. He describes in great detail how distraught Oedipus went into the palace, grabbed a sword and made a great speech about killing himself, but then realised it wasn’t punishment enough, was too quick and easy. Something was demanded to placate the gods and end the curse and the plague, more like a living death, where he would die again and again every day. Then it comes to him to blind himself and the messenger gives a very gory description of Oedipus plucking his own eyes out.

The Chorus gives a brief didactic explanation that Fate is unchangeable, one iron chain of endless causes and consequences. No man can escape it.

Enter Oedipus blinded, freed from the light of the accusing sun.

The Chorus describes Jocasta coming onstage, distraught, uncertain whether to address her son and husband.

Jocasta addresses Oedipus who is horrified and says they must never speak, never be in the same country together. Jocasta seizes his sword and, after some debate exactly where to stab herself, stabs herself in her womb, seat of all her sinfulness, and falls dead.

In his final soliloquy Oedipus says he has expiated his sin and now will set out on his wanderings. He promises the poor suffering people of Thebes that he will take with him the capitalised allegorised figures of infliction and free them at last. What better companions and tormentors could he hope for on his endless wanderings and punishments.

Moral of the story

Even if you’re a childless couple, desperate for a baby, do not accept the gift of a little baby boy whose ankles are pierced together by an iron bar!

*************

Big ideas

When I was a boy reading these Penguin introductions, it was often not specific criticism of specific aspects of the play which stuck with me, but when the scholars and editors made throwaway generalisations which in a flash helped me make sense of an entire genre or period of history.

Thus, in among his detailed critique of specific plays or aspects, Watling offers three big, memorable ideas about Seneca’s influence on English Renaissance literature.

1. One is that Seneca is often blamed for Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights’ addiction to ghosts, ghosts of gruesomely murdered figures who return to the land of the living to trigger the action of the plot (p.28). The ghost of the dead Spanish officer Andrea appears at the start of the archetypal Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, and ghosts are important in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar and central to the plot of his greatest play, Hamlet. In fact, Watling refutes this by pointing out there are only two ghosts in Seneca’s oeuvre, Tantalus in Thyestes and Thyestes in Agamemnon.

2. The other is the simple but illuminating comment that:

The language of Elizabethan drama would not have reached its height of poetic eloquence without the infusion of the classical voice – the Ovidian mythology and the Senecan rhetoric. (p.32)

Aha, Ovid and Seneca – so that was their influence and how they fit together to flow through all Elizabethan drama: Ovid for mythological stories, with their bucolic settings, flowers and curlicues; Seneca for accusing ghosts, characters howling for revenge and invoking the shadows of Erebus and darkest night.

3. There’s a third insight, not so striking as the first two, maybe, and this is that, despite the best efforts of scholars and academically-minded authors like Philip Sidney or Ben Jonson to import the so-called Dramatic Unities and impose them on contemporary drama, they failed; they failed to dent the English preference for ‘straggling narrative plays‘ which cheerfully ignore the cardinal unities of time or place or even action (p.35).

In Watling’s words 1) Senecan rhetoric of extreme emotions was grafted onto 2) plots which lacked Senecan focus and concision, to create a ‘fusion of classical uniformity with romantic multiformity in the Elizabethan theatre.’ (p.37).

In the greatest Elizabethan plays, the theme, the form and the language may have crystallised into an impressive whole:

but yet not so perfect as to tidy up all the loose ends or exclude the superfluities and irrelevances which make the Elizabethan drama of life a different thing from the Roman sculptured monument of death. (p.38)

Messy, mongrel literature has always been our style.


Credit

E.F. Watling’s translation of Four Tragedies and Octavia was published by Penguin Books in 1966.

Related links

Roman reviews

  • Seneca: Plays
  • Seneca: Letters to Lucilius
    Seneca: The Apocolocyntosis

I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: