Places: Thyestes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First produced: c. 40-55 c.e. (English translation, 1581)

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Tragedy

Time of work: Antiquity

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Mycenae

*Mycenae Thyestes (Mi-SEE-nee). Fortified city in southeastern Greece and site of the Bronze Age kingdom ruled by the mythical general who led the Greek alliance in the Trojan War. Seneca follows Homer rather than Aeschylus in locating this dynasty in Mycenae rather than in nearby Argos. Lust to possess the city and the royal power it conveys motivates the chief characters to commit monstrous crimes which are described as polluting not only Mycenae’s Argive territory but also neighboring lands, such as the Isthmus of Corinth and Mount Cithaeron to the north and even the entire earth.

The hero describes specific features of Mycenae; its massive, irregular stone walls and cliffside palace site are still visible today, but a hippodrome and huge palace complex are monuments belonging to contemporary Rome. The intra-dynastic atrocities committed at Rome under the reign of Nero recall the events of the play. Seneca’s detailed depiction of the Mycenaean palace resembles an imperial Roman villa of a sort that was familiar to him, as he was once the Roman emperor Nero’s close advisor and knew Rome and the emperor’s palace well.

A messenger in the play luridly describes a shrine deep within the vast wings and porticos of the palace where a gloomy grove shelters a hellish spring, howling ghosts, relics of the dynasty’s crimes, and altars which receive human sacrifice. At the play’s climax, temple doors open to reveal the sumptuous royal banquet hall where the hero discovers he has unknowingly indulged in cannibalism. However, the play regularly evokes place through vivid rhetorical description rather than by scenic effects.


Hell. Mythical region of punishment for earthly crimes. The ghost of the Mycenaean dynasty’s founder and his tormenting fury open the play, summoned from Hell to motivate the action. The ghost describes Hell’s tantalizing pool with its elusive fruit tree and the fiery river Phlegethon, features familiar from traditional mythology, and promises that his entire progeny will someday join him in Hell to pay for their crimes.

BibliographyGriffin, Miriam Tamara. Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1976. Definitive study of Seneca. Evaluates the man who had so many lofty ideals and whose life was so full of less-than-lofty facts. Dramatizes the problem of public service in a corrupt state.Henry, Denis, and Elisabeth Henry. The Mask of Power: Seneca’s Tragedies and Imperial Power. Chicago: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1985. A study of Seneca’s tragedies, placing them in their cultural context. Bibliography.Holland, Francis. Seneca. London: Longmans, Green, 1920. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. For a time, this work was the only biography on Seneca available in English. Thorough, readable, and still authoritative.Motto, Anna Lydia. Seneca. New York: Twayne, 1973. Clear presentation of Seneca’s life and work. A good starting place.Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989. Argues that Seneca’s Stoicism, as expressed in his philosophical works, must be studied in order to gain greater understanding of his plays. Bibliography.Sutton, Dana Ferrin. Seneca on the Stage. Leiden, The Netherlands, E. J. Brill, 1986. Argues against the long-held idea that Seneca’s tragedies were written to be read. Supports claim with its discovery of stage directions in the form of clues in the characters’ speeches.
Categories: Places