Seneca the Younger, Medea

LCL 62: 310-311

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as if she were the young Colchian princess once again (982–83). But she is actually the mature Medea. What she achieves, what she has been working toward throughout the play, is an autonomous selfhood, untrammeled, able to impose itself on others. She realizes herself fully, achieves a personal power far beyond that of any other figure in the play and magnified by her association with the power of moon and earth, fire and sea: “Now I am Medea; my genius has grown through evils” (910). At one level, this line plays on her name: “I am the woman who thinks, who has cunning intelligence,” in allusion to the roots mēd- and mēt-.2 At another level it has a metadramatic quality: “I am that Medea famed for doing these deeds, that Medea whose story will be read millennia later.” But its primary suggestion is, “I have reached the fullness of my selfhood, the potential that was always within me.”

Responses to this triumph will be as varied as its audiences. A didactic reading seems unpersuasive: one does not discourage an audience from anger by showing its success, nor by suggesting that the forces of nature contribute to it. Of course we know that ordinary human beings must not behave as Medea does (a knowledge that constitutes one of the discontents of civilization)—that raging anger and violence are abhorrent in any functional society, that infanticide destroys the mother almost as surely as her children. Perhaps we also perceive, at least in retrospect, that this Medea is torn between conflicting passions (rage, love, hate, motherly affection, guilt) and between conflicting identities (wife, mother, Colchian,



criminal) that preclude any possibility of real selfhood. But to focus on such moral reservations during the play would be to resist the imaginative, vicarious, symbolic experience it offers: the experience of the amoral fulfillment gained by demonstrating one’s personal power over enemies who would deny it. Medea is like other intransigent heroes of myth, such as Ajax, who, when denied the arms of Achilles that he considered his right, planned to slaughter the whole Greek leadership. This intransigence can have such strength that it becomes a kind of greatness. These solitary heroes have power that reaches far beyond their own existence, whether from the grave as with Ajax, or from the stage and the printed page as with Medea.


Seneca will have been thoroughly familiar with the Medea myth, and with at least some of the many dramatic and literary treatments of it in both Greek and Latin, of which only a few survive. No doubt he composed independently, making use of this treasury of material as appropriate, rather than following the armature of any particular version. It is unlikely that he worked directly from Euripides, whose drama characteristically scales down Medea’s heroic stature to something more like ordinary human identity. Apollonius of Rhodes had described the young Medea’s infatuation with Jason in his Argonautica; that love story colored Virgil’s account of Dido’s obsessive passion in Aeneid 4, which in turn colored Seneca’s portrait of the mature Medea, though Seneca also knew Apollonius’ epic directly. Seneca’s beloved Ovid had recounted Medea’s story, particularly the episodes in Colchis and Iolcos, in

DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.seneca_younger-medea.2018