Nothing Worth Celebrating: Disintegrating Families and the End of a Genre
in Ps.-Seneca's

Siobhan McElduff

Harvard Westlake Upper School

The Octavia poses the question of how one writes in a genre whose aim is to celebrate great families and great moments in Roman history when the greatest of all families, the imperial domus, has collapsed under the burden of its own shameful past, and history has become the recitation of one foul event after another.  This paper discusses how the Octavia deals with this paradox by paralleling the dissolution of the fabula praetexta as a genre with the disintegration of the Julio-Claudian dynasty and its members, showing individual psyches, the family unit, and genre collapsing together.

The Neronian and Flavian periods saw the revival of the fabula praetexta as a genre, but only under limited circumstances: the praetextae produced in this period dealt with heroes and great families of the past, not with contemporary figures and history.  The Octavia eschews this practice, and in the process reveals how praetextae of this period are forced to fixate on the distant past because contemporary history does not
permit one to celebrate. This paper will discuss how the
Octavia emphasizes the impossibility of the task it has set itself; for how can one write within a genre when circumstances force an author to overturn all that genre's traditions? This praetexta rests upon a series of inversions: instead of a foundational moment we have the un-founding of the Julio-Claudian dynasty; instead of the celebration of a family we have its total and utter collapse; instead of men as the driving forces behind history, we have women as the key and active elements in its unfolding; instead of heroic clarity of purpose and stern morality we have the vicious drive to indulge all desires. As Octavia, the heroine of the
drama, discovers, the only solution to the misery of being part of the history of the Julio-Claudians, to being part of the history of Rome, is to find escape from that history in death.

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