Seneca, Oedipus 980-993: How Stoic a Chorus?

Robert John Sklenar

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The fifth choral ode of Seneca’s Oedipus has long posed difficulties for those critics in whose view Senecan drama portrays Fate as “malign and irrational” (Henry and Walker 1983: 136). Indeed, this line of criticism tends altogether to avoid analyzing the fifth choral ode, whose message of submission to an unalterable Fate (fatis agimur: cedite fatis, 980) appears to support the case of those interpreters who regard Senecan drama as ultimately affirmative of Stoic values (e.g. Egermann 1940, Lefèvre 1969, Rosenmeyer 1989). This paper will argue that the fifth choral ode is in fact consistent with an anti-Stoic interpretation of the play. The ode’s ostensibly Stoic declarations are undermined by its depiction of Fate as dura, which is entirely at odds with the Stoic conception of Fate as rational and benign. The ode also represents divinity as subordinate to Fate (non illa deo vertisse licet, / quae nexa suis currunt causis); this is contrary to Stoic doctrine, which holds that Fate and divinity are identical.  When analyzed in the context of the play as a whole, the fifth choral ode emerges as a summation of the Senecan dystopia. The purpose of its Stoic language is to underscore the difference between Stoicism’s rational and optimistic cosmology and the universe to which humanity and divinity alike are consigned--a universe presided over by a sadistic and arbitrary Fate.    

Select Bibliography  

Egermann, Franz. 1940. “Seneca als Dichterphilosoph.” Neue Jahrbücher für Antike und deutsche Bildung 3: 18-36.  

Henry, D. and Walker, B. 1983. “The Oedipus of Seneca: An Imperial Tragedy.” In: Boyle, A.J. (Ed.). Seneca Tragicus: Ramus Essays on Senecan Drama.  Berwick.  

Lefèvre, Eckard. 1969. “Quid ratio possit?  Senecas Phaedra als stoisches Drama.”  WS (N.F.) 3: 131-160.  

Rosenmeyer, T.G. 1989. Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London.  

Töchterle, Karlheinz. 1994. Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Oedipus. Kommentar mit Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung.  Heidelberg.

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