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Virgo, Coniunx, Mater: The Wrath of Seneca's Medea Author(s): Gianni Guastella Source: Classical Antiquity, Vol. 20, No. 2 (October 2001), pp. 197-220 Published by: University of California Press Stable URL: Accessed: 07-12-2017 19:23 UTC

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Virgo, Coniunx, Mater: The Wrath of Seneca's Medea Author(s): Gianni Guastella Source: Classical Antiquity, Vol.

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GIANNI GUASTELLA Seneca’s Medea is inevitably marked by the signs of wrath which are her liter-
GIANNI GUASTELLA Seneca’s Medea is inevitably marked by the signs of wrath which are her liter-

Seneca’s Medea is inevitably marked by the signs of wrath which are her liter- ary inheritance, such as the frenÀn barÌj xìloj of Euripides’ Medea (Medea 1265). 1 Yet the wrath of Seneca’s Medea also takes shape in its own distinctive context. 2 Speci cally, I will argue that the behavior and actions of Senecas Medea recall still more closely a character such as the Atreus of Seneca’s Thyestes, 3 although the revenge unleashed by Medea’s wrath will prove even more com- plicated, elaborate, and methodical than in the case of Atreus and Thyestes. To understand the “logic” of Medea’s revenge, I will analyze the way in which her revenge, ultio, is driven by wrath, ira, based on the model of revenge which Seneca himself proposed in his treatise De ira. 4 The basic idea is that ira is a passion that has gotten out of control, causing a sort of madness in the injured party. The resulting desire for vengeance lacks any sense of justice and instead seeks to repay the original injury with a crime that is entirely disproportionate to the initial oVense. This model of ira and ultio provides the basis for a new and complex understanding of Medea’s story, in which the subject matter of the myth, the literary tradition, and Roman cultural reality are all inextricably intertwined.

An earlier version of the paper was presented at the 1998 Heller Colloquium at Berkeley, organized by James Ker and Laura Gibbs, who also translated the original Italian text of this article. I wish to thank her for her help and valuable suggestions. I am also grateful for some useful comments from an anonymous reader.


See Knox 198. See also the famous Horatian prescription (Ars poetica 123): sit Medea ferox



For Euripides’ Medea, see Guastella 2000.


For an analysis of Seneca’s Thyestes in these terms, see Guastella 1994.


This notion is developed in Books I and II of De ira, and especially in 2.3.4–2.4.2.

Classical Antiquity. Volume 20, Number 2, pages 197–219. ISSN 0278-6656(p); 1067-8344 (e). Copyright © 2001 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions. University of California Press, 2000 Center Street, Ste 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223.

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  • 198 classical

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In particular, I will focus on the way in which the Romans understood the role played by kinship, especially the bonds of matrimony and of maternity, in the story of Medea’s ira and ultio. The central issue of Seneca’s play is the problem of ending a marriage, and he addresses this problem in particularly Roman terms. In the plot of this play, and also in its rhetorical construction, Seneca consistently invokes the juridical terminology and reality of his day: these aspects of the story thus depend on Roman ideas about marriage, and cannot be easily understood outside this Roman context. 5 Obviously, we should not expect to nd that a tragedy based on ancient Greek mythology would perfectly reproduce in every detail the social reality of imperial Rome, 6 but it is also true that the text insistently invokes some speci c terms such as repudium and motifs such as the restitution of the dowry which can be directly compared to the actual reality of Roman divorce. 7 Jason’s rejection of Medea is something that she absolutely refuses to accept:

the divorce deprives her former life of any meaning, confusing the whole series of crimes which Medea committed against her own family of origin in order to assist the hero Jason and win his love. Afterall that she had done for him in the past, Jason now abandons his coniunx, yielding to the demands of Creon, the ruler of Corinth, who wants Jason to marry his daughter Creusa. Medea’s revenge, which consists of burning down the royal palace and then killing her own children, is de nitely meant to in ict injury on Creon and on Jason, as was the case in Euripides’ play. In Seneca’s version, however, there is an additional dimension to this story of vengeance and criminality: Medeas actions now become a way of reconstructing her own identity—an identity thrown into disarray by her separation from Jasonwhile at the same time exacting a compensation for the crimes she had committed in the past.


Already in the play’s opening lines, we encounter the motif of ultio, revenge, as Medea invokes the Furies, the ultrices deae:

  • 5. See Pratt 90–91 and Seidensticker 132. On the relationship between the De ira and Seneca’s

tragedies see Staley, who pursues an even closer relationship between these texts, forcing the tragedies to serve as a kind of on-going demonstration of the Stoic theory which Seneca advances in his philosophical writing. However close the connection between these texts may be, Staley’s work is perhaps too much focused on the philosophical side of the question.

  • 6. As opposed to the recent eVort of Abrahamsen who tries to demonstrate that the relationship

between Jason and Medea can be described as a matrimonium iniustum. Yet it is certainly the case

that many of the diVerences between the Senecan tragedy and Euripides’ Medea do depend on the presence of these speci cally Roman elements. It is enough to consider the situation of the children: in Euripides’ play, Medea refuses to accept Jason’s proposition that the children be raised as illegitimate children in the house of Creon, while in Seneca’s version the children always remain with their father, as would normally occur in a Roman case of repudium. On this topic, see Guastella


  • 7. On this topic, see Treggiari 323–64 and 435–82.

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nunc, nunc adeste sceleris ultrices deae, crinem solutis squalidae serpentibus, atram cruentis manibus amplexae facem, adeste, thalamis horridae quondam meis quales stetistis: coniugi letum novae letumque socero et regiae stirpi date. Medea 13–18

Be present, be present you goddesses who avenge crime, your hair foul with writhing snakes, grasping the smoking torch with your bloody hands, be present now, as once you stood dreadful beside my nuptial bed; bring destruction upon this new wife, and destruction on this father-in-law and the whole royal lineage.

The “ill-omened wedding” was a popular element in Roman literature, at least as early as its use by Vergil in the Aeneid, along with several such episodes in Ovid. 8 Seneca, however, puts this traditional material to a highly original use when Medea links the funereal ritual of Jason’s rst wedding to his subsequent marriage to Creusa. Both weddings are attended by the Furies, the goddesses of revenge. The Furies had attended Jason’s rst wedding as a result of Absyrtus’ murder—and this murder will prove to be central to the development of Seneca’s play. As we will see later on, Medea actually interprets her brother’s death as a loss which she had to bear, a crime committed against herself which must be avenged by the murder of her sons. 9 For the moment, however, Medea limits herself to invoking the Furies so that they might now bring disaster upon the house of Creusa, just as the Furies had brought disaster down upon her own house when she married Jason. It is as if Medea were projecting onto this new wedding the vengefulness which the shade of her brother had previously cast upon her own wedding to Jason. The parallel between Medeas past and her present is the fulcrum of what we might call the “psychology” of Seneca’s Medea. Her life is split in two by this divorce: after the repudium, everything that Medea had previously done to win her coniugium with Jason has suddenly been rendered null and void. This dimension of the plot—the full force of Medea as an active character, making choices and committing crimes in her original adventures with Jason—is strongly emphasized by Seneca. We can see this, for example, in the way that both Jason and Creon attempt to make Medea assume full responsibility for all of her crimes.

  • 8. For a discussion of the motif, see Cleasby 45–46, Cazzaniga 8–16, Bo¨mer 124–26, and

Pease on Vergil’s Aeneid 4.168. For Ovid, see Metamorphoses 10.1–8 and Heroides 2.117–20 and 7.96 (and compare Seneca Oedipus 644–46 and Trojan Women 1132–36). Quite similar to Medea’s wording is a passage in the Metamorphoses where Ovid describes the wedding of Procne and Tereus (6.428–34). Even more directly connected with Medea’s story is what Hypsipyle says in the Heroides

when she describes her own wedding with Jason (6.45–46). In all of these passages, we are dealing with weddings that came to catastrophic ends.

  • 9. On the literary precedents of this theme, see Bremmer 83–88.

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This eVort to exonerate Jason requires considerable sophistry on their part, given that Jason was certainly the bene ciary of Medea’s crimes, even if he did not actually commit the crimes himself. 10 Medea admits her guilt, 11 and tries in vain to show that this is precisely what binds her to Jason, whose destiny Creon plans to sever from hers. Despite all her eVorts, however, Medea is unable to regain the coniunx acquired by the criminal acts she committed. 12 As a result, those crimes recoil against Medea, who is now left completely isolated, bearing all alone the burden of her guilt. But if Medea is now alone, what purpose, what meaning, can be assigned to all her past and the crimes that she committed? What was the point of choosing to abandon her own royal family and her homeland? What was the point of having assassinated Absyrtus, a crime which aroused the Furies against Medea herself? For whose sake did Medea dare such things, if the very bene ciary of those deeds now pushes her away? This seems to be the point from which Seneca began to develop his version of the myth of Medea. Senecas Medea reveals a deep division between the Medea of once upon a time, the love-struck virgo ready to do anything for Jason, and Medea the coniunx /mater, who has attained the object of her love and consolidated her union with Jason by having borne him two sons. It must be clearly emphasized that the functions of coniunx and mater represent two sides of the same coin in Roman culture: the children are actual tokens, pignora, whose existence, whose very bodies attest to the commingling of the mother’s blood with the father’s. 13 This is why I would make a clear distinction between Medea the virgo on the one hand and Medea the coniunx/mater on the other hand, although we will see that Medea’s maternal function will become increasingly problematic as the plot unfolds. The divorce strips away the meaning of everything that the virgo Medea did in order to become the coniunx/mater. Creon’s demands, following the normal rules of a Roman divorce, deprive Medea of her coniunx and also of her sons. 14

  • 10. Medea not only admits to having committed these crimes but also implies that this violated

the norm of behavior for a virgo: that is, the expectation that a virgo should defend her pudor

and be loyal to her pater (see Medea 238–41: virgini placeat pudor / paterque placeat: tota cum ducibus ruet / Pelasga tellus, hic tuus primum gener / tauri ferocis ore agranti occidet). On the acknowledgement of guilt, see especially Medea 245–51, which is highly reminiscent of some lines in Heroides 12 where the theme of conscious guilt is developed at length (see Heroides 12.106–32 and the discussion in Bessone ad loc., who supplies a long list of parallel passages).

  • 11. Seneca’s Medea tries, for her part, to separate the idea of being guilty from the idea of being

responsible (see Perrenoud). These crimes are what link her destiny to Jason’s, since he was the bene ciary of the crimes which she materially committed.

  • 12. For a discussion of the end of Jason and Medea’s marriage, see Guastella 2000.

  • 13. For a discussion, see Guastella 2000.

  • 14. Medea 143–46: Culpa est Creontis tota, qui sceptro impotens / coniugia solvit quique

genetricem abstrahit / gnatis et arto pignore astrictam dem / dirimit. About the fact that in a Roman divorce the children are supposed to follow the father, see the discussion in Guastella 2000. Given that the function of marriage was to assure a male line of descent from the domus of a paterfamilias, and that divorce usually involved the removal of the wife from her husband’s house, it is clear that

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Medea’s revenge is thus based on a logic of awesome precision, meticulously matching the crimes she committed to become coniunx/mater with even greater crimes that she will now commit in order to re-establish the identity thrown into total disarray by Jason’s repudium:

Quodcumque vidit Phasis aut Pontus nefas, videbit Isthmos. EVera ignota horrida, tremenda caelo pariter ac terris mala mens intus agitat: vulnera et caedem et vagum funus per artus—levia memoravi nimis:

haec virgo feci; gravior exurgat dolor:

maiora iam me scelera post partus decent. Accingere ira teque in exitium para furore toto. Paria narrentur tua repudia thalamis: quo virum linques modo? Hoc quo secuta es. Rumpe iam segnes moras:

quae scelere parta est, scelere linquenda est domus. Medea 44–55

Whatever horror Pontus or Phasis has seen, Isthmos will see. My heart deep inside is planning wild deeds, unheard-of, horrible calamities at which heaven and hell alike will tremble—wounds, slaughter, death, creeping from limb to limb. Too trivial are the deeds I mentioned; such were my crimes when I was a girl. Let my grief rise stronger; greater crimes become me now that I am a mother. Arm yourself with wrath, and be prepared for deadly deeds with the full force of madness. Let the story of your divorce match the story of your marriage. How will you leave your husband? Just as you followed him! Break oV now dull delay; the home you gained by crime, by crime must be abandoned.

Seneca’s Medea declares that scelus, crime, has been the guiding thread of her life, and so it will supply the means by which she can attempt to reconstruct her own identity. 15 This erce barbarian woman, whose cultural marginality constitutes a danger for the city which has taken her in, is the ideal character to dramatize the eVects of unrestrained ira and of a furor that exceeds the very limits of rationality. But this ira is also subject to a precise and perverted ratio, a reckoning which is extraordinarily accurate in all its calculations. Thus, just as the marriage between Jason and Medea was the unconventional and unethical union of a Greek hero and a barbarian virgo, their divorce also takes on a clearly anomalous and criminal character: it is a separation whose “procedures” basically observe the requirements

the sons would need to remain, in normal circumstances, in the house of their father. See Treggiari 466–71 for a discussion of the rare exceptions to this rule. 15. In her last attempt to induce Jason to remain with her, Medea invites him to run away together, even if it is a crime (scelus, 515). Alternatively, Jason could remain, as always, innocens, leaving it up to Medea to destroy every possible enemy (521–28).

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of the Roman institution, but which will also involve drastic criminal acts. Because Medea brought about her marriage with Jason by means of a series of crimes committed against her own family in her future husband’s favor, the dissolution of that marriage, in Medeas perverse frame of mind, must now be accompanied by a new series of crimes balancing out her past actions, or even exceeding those old crimes with a new, unprecedented ferocity.


As Medea herself describes the development of her revenge, 16 she begins by considering the merita, the credits she had earned by helping Jason in his struggle:

Hoc facere Iason potuit, erepto patre patria atque regno sedibus solam exteris deserere durus? merita contempsit mea qui scelere ammas viderat vinci et mare? Medea 118–22

Did Jason have the heart to do this—having robbed me of my father, homeland and kingdom, could he so cruelly leave me alone in a foreign land? Has he scorned my well-deserved merits, having seen ames and sea conquered by my crime?

Medea here juxtaposes her merita, which were systematically the result of criminal activity, 17 with three items she claims to have lost as a result of helping Jason. These losses are, speci cally, her father, her homeland, and her royal position. It is important to keep these items in mind, because they will return again later (along with others) in Medea’s accounts of “giving” and “getting” as she calculates her revenge. Unlike earlier literary versions of this myth, Seneca’s Medea does not list her merita as an oVering of help made in vain to an ungrateful man; instead, Medea expresses herself in terms of losses which she has suVered, and for which she demands some form of compensation. 18 When she followed Jason into uncertain exile, Medea had to renounce her family and her homeland, thus also renouncing the safe asylum they would have been able to oVer her in case she

  • 16. Medea, like Atreus, elaborates this plan in a sort of slow and painful “gestation.” On this

topic see Picone 1995 and on the traits shared by Atreus and Medea, see Staley 107 (and passim), Seidensticker 126, Picone 1984: 111–12, Picone 1989: 59–63, and Picone 1995: 149n. 9. More recently, see also Burnett 10–18.

  • 17. For merita, see also Ovid Heroides 12.21–22 and the discussion in Bessone 90–93. Although

Seneca’s Medea does not dwell on reproaching Jason with the things she did on his behalf (as both Euripides’ Medea (see Medea 465–72) and Ovid’s Medea do), Seneca’s Medea’s way of talking

about her past merita resembles that of Ovid’s Medea in the rst half of her letter in the Heroides.

  • 18. Liebermann 205 has treated this problem thoroughly: “Medea fordert bei Seneca nicht Lohn

fu¨r gute Taten, sondern schlicht Schadenersatz.” Inside the frame of his revenge plan, Seneca is emphasizing the motif of loss and deprivation that was already at work in Euripides’ Medea (for this speci c aspect of Euripides’ tragedy, see Menu 119–21).

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was abandoned by her husband. Moreover, to free herself of her family and her homeland, Medea committed a series of crimes, most important of which was the murder of her brother Absyrtus. 19 How then is Medea going to be compensated for these losses? At this point, Medea begins to imagine a series of future crimes that will parallel those crimes of the past:

Unde me ulcisci queam? Utinam esset illi frater! est coniunx: in hanc ferrum exigatur. Medea 124–26

Whence can I get vengeance? I wish he had a brother! He has a wife; let the sword strike her heart.

Medea wishes that Jason had a brother so that the murder of this brother could compensate for the murder of Medea’s brother Absyrtus. But Jason doesn’t have a brother—what he has is a wife, and it is this wife who will be the rst of Medeas victims.


Yet by itself, the murder of Creusa will not be enough: in order to fully realize her revenge, Medea intends to repeat all the crimes of the past with exact precision. The crimes of the past have to “come back” (cuncta redeant, 130), 20 recreating the same circumstances in which the virgo Medea had once found herself:

Scelera te hortentur tua et cuncta redeant: inclitum regni decus raptum et nefandae virginis parvus comes divisus ense, funus ingestum patri Medea 129–32

Let your own crimes urge you on, and let them all come back—the bright ornament of the kingdom stolen, and the wicked virgo’s little companion torn to pieces with the sword, his murder forced upon his father.

Medea does not see the murder of her brother simply as the loss of a blood relative, but more precisely as an injury in icted on a father: funus ingestum patri. The importance of understanding Absyrtus’ death in these terms becomes clear if we compare these lines from Seneca’s Medea with a parallel passage from Seneca’s Thyestes, along with another close parallel in Ovid’s famous account of Procne

  • 19. This is also the Ovidian version of Absyrtus’ story: see Heroides 6.129–30 and especially

Tristia 3.9.

  • 20. For the notion of redire and retro verti in Seneca’s tragedies see Schiesaro 91–95.

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and Philomela in the Metamorphoses; taken together, these passages constitute what seems to me a highly signi cant cluster of allusions. 21 Let us take the Thyestes passage rst, where Atreus contemplates the horrible crime that he is about to commit, using words very similar to Medea’s funus ingestum patri:

tota iam ante oculos meos imago caedis errat, ingesta orbitas in ora patris. Thyestes 281–83

Already before my eyes its the whole picture of the slaughter; his lost children heaped up before their father’s face.

Seneca’s description of orbitas, the lack of sons, ingesta


in ora patris brings

us to Ovid’s text, where we nd a similar expression used to describe the moment

when Philomela throws Itys’ severed head at his father Tereus, in ora patris:

Ityosque caput Philomela cruentum misit in ora patris. Metamorphoses 6.658–59

and Philomela threw the bleeding head of Itys in his father’s face.

In both cases we are dealing with children who are killed in order to carry out a revenge that punishes a guilty father. This is not precisely the situation in the case of Medea’s father, Aeetes: although Aeetes is a tyrant, his son is murdered only in order to put a stop to his pursuit of Medea and Jason. 22 Nevertheless, Medea considers this act of infanticide to be an injury in- icted on the victim’s father. 23 The words Medea uses to describe the murder

  • 21. While I believe it is worthwhile to read these texts together in order to see more clearly

the cultural elements which are the common parameters of stories that are so fundamentally similar to one another, I am not attempting to establish which of the plays was written rst, a task which seems to me impossible to achieve. For a review of the hypotheses on the dating of Seneca’s plays, see Fitch, Zwierlein 1983: 233–48, and Tarrant 10–13.

  • 22. There is also an analogy between these stories of infanticide and the story of Harpalyce

(Parthenius Erot. 13; Hyginus Fab. 206, and Euphorion frag. 24a), who takes revenge on her father,

Clymenus, who committed incest with her and killed her husband. Harpalyce supposedly fed to her father the esh of her brother (or, according to one version of the myth, of the child she herself bore to her father).

  • 23. Ovid too had already described in a similar way both the killing of Absyrtus and that of

Itys. In Tristia 3.9, Ovid describes Medea’s deeds in a way that is very similar to Metamorphoses 6.619–60, where Procne’s infanticide is described. In both cases the child accidentally comes into

the room while the woman is seeking a solution to her dilemma; in both cases the child does not understand what is happening; and in both cases when the body has been dismembered it is the hands and feet which are shown to the father (Tristia 3.21–31: Dum quid agat quaerit, dum versat in omnia vultus, / ad fratrem casu lumina exa tulit. / Cuius ut oblata est praesentia: “Vicimus, inquit; / hic mihi morte sua causa salutis erit.” / Protinus ignari nec quicquam tale timentis / innocuum rigido perforat ense latus / atque ita divellit divulsaque membra per agros / dissipat in multis invenienda

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of Absyrtus—funus ingestum patri—point both towards the murder of Thyestes’ sons and to the murder of Itys, a comparison that will achieve its full realization in Medea’s nal crime: by murdering their children, Medea punishes Jason in a way that is analogous to the way in which Procne punished her husband Tereus (in revenge for Tereus’ having raped her sister) and the way in which Atreus punished his brother Thyestes (in revenge for Thyestes’ having committed adultery with his wife).

FROM AMOR TO IRA As Medea gradually unfolds her plans for vengeance, we see that there are two juxtaposed emotions which drive Medeas crimes, past and present:

et nullum scelus irata feci: saevit infelix amor. Medea 135–36 None of my crimes did I do in wrath: my unfortunate love rages on.

The scelera of the past were prompted by amor, but from now on it is no longer love but wrath, ira, which will drive Medea’s revenge. 24 As the chorus itself observes, this revenge will arise from a fusion of ira and amor:

Frenare nescit iras Medea, non amores:

nunc ira amorque causam iunxere: quid sequetur? Medea 866–69

Medea does not know how to curb her wrath or her love: now that wrath and love have joined cause, what will the outcome be?

The criminal career of the virgo Medea was driven by love, 25 while that of the coniunx/mater will be marked by the consequences of that same love, now deeply wounded. 26 It is this fusion of amor and ira that will give Medea the means to

locis— / neu pater ignoret, scopulo proponit in alto / pallentesque manus sanguineumque caput— /

ut genitor luctuque novo tardetur et, artus / dum legit extinctos, triste moretur iter; compare, for example, Metamorphoses 6.513 with vicimus here at line 23). For the analogies between these two accounts, see Degl’Innocenti Perini 153–54.

  • 24. The theme of Medea’s ira as a result of her wounded love had already been developed by

Ovid: see, for example, Ars amatoria 2.373–86, Remedia amoris 55, and Tristia 2.387–88: tingeret ut ferrum natorum sanguine mater / concitus a laeso fecit amore dolor.

  • 25. See Kullmann 158–59. Ovid’s version in Heroides 12, following the rules of elegy, only

hints in the last line at the crimes that will follow. On the possible literary implications of this line, see Spoth 202–204, Barchiesi 343–45, Hinds 34–43, and Bessone 32–41.

  • 26. After her dialogue with Creon, Medea herself will equate her past feelings and her present

hate, caused by her earlier love (Medea 397–99): Si quaeris odio, misera, quem statuas modum,

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reassemble the shattered pieces of her identity, now that she has lost all that had once been hers:

NVT. Abiere Colchi, coniugis nulla est des nihilque superest opibus e tantis tibi. ME. Medea superest: hic mare et terras vides ferrumque et ignes et deos et fulmina.

Medea 164–67

Nurse. The Colchians are no longer on your side, your husband has proved faithless, and there is nothing left of all your wealth. Medea. Medea is left—in her you see sea and land, and sword and re and gods and thunderbolts.

Nihil superest, Medea has lost everything: in this dialogue the nurse emphasizes the material loss of Medea’s homeland as well as the end of her marriage, the loss of her coniugis des. But Medea superest, Medea remains, and she declares that she will take what is left and put the pieces of her life back together:

NVT. Profuge. ME. Paenituit fugae. NVT. Medea— ME. Fiam. NVT. Mater es. ME. Cui sim vide. NVT. Profugere dubitas? ME. Fugiam at ulciscar prius. Medea 170–72

Nurse. Run away. Medea. I don’t want to. Nurse. Medea— Medea. I will be. Nurse. You are a mother. Medea. You see for whom. Nurse. Do you hesitate to run away? Medea. I’ll run away but rst I’ll be avenged.

Fiam: Medea is not lost, but she must “become” herself. Her identity as a coniunx/mater no longer makes sense without Jason, who has rejected her (the precise meaning of this cui is a point to which we will return). Medea must thus avenge herself in a way that allows her past to regain the meaning which was destroyed by the divorce. It is precisely the logic of this revenge that will allow Medea to reacquire her identity.


Among the losses which Medea has lamented so far, we could list her pater, patria, regnum, 27 and also her coniugis des. The theme of loss is also emphasized

/ imitare amorem. Regias egone ut faces / inulta patiar? In her dialogue with Jason, Medea will then try for the last time to use the power of amor (465–90).

  • 27. Among Medea’s losses we can also include the nobility and the opes mentioned by the nurse

(Medea 164–65). Medea comes back to this point several times. During her dialogue with Creon, for example, she complains about her former identity as a noble descendant of the Sun (209–10), the daughter of a very powerful and rich king (211–16), a bride very much courted (218–19). Medea says she has lost all of this in order to save the Argonauts, taking only Jason for herself (225–35).

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in Medea’s dialogue with Jason, as Medea reminds him that she had been willing to commit any sort of crime in order to follow him into exile:

Ex opibus illis

[. ..


nil exul tuli nisi fratris artus: hos quoque impendi tibi; tibi patria cessit, tibi pater frater pudor— hac dote nupsi. Redde fugienti sua.

Of all that wealth

[. ..

Medea 483–89 ]I brought away nothing in my exile but my

brother’s limbs. Those too I spent for you; for you my country has given

way, my father, my brother, my chastity—with this dowry I married you. Give me back what is mine now that I am banished.

Medea now explicitly includes her brother and her former status as a virgo pudica in the list of other losses which she has suVered (regnum, pater, patria), 28 and she links this nal, catastrophic reckoning of accounts to the Roman institution of the dowry. Medea considers these losses to be the equivalent of a dowry paid to her husband. Of course, this can only be a metaphorical dowry: Medea’s marriage was completely unusual, without any of the normal guarantees required by a proper matrimonial exchange. 29 The dowry was not paid by Aeetes as it should have been, but by Medea herself, and at her own loss. Senecas rhetoric thus imposes a kind of formal metaphorical order on an irregular and criminal union, treating that union as if it followed all the rules of a regular marriage. Insofar as Jason and Medea’s wedding is assumed to follow the rules of marriage, it is only logical that their divorce should do the same, and in the case of a repudium the rejected woman’s dowry must be returned to her family of origin. 30 Yet here the logic fails:

Jason cannot give anything back to a father-in-law who had not even agreed to the marriage. Indeed, it would not be Medea’s father who requires compensation, but Medea herself, since it was Medea who paid the price, so to speak, of her wedding. Medea’s belief that a dowry was paid is already a paradox; so too is this request for its return. In Heroides 12, Ovids Medea also demands the restitution of her dowry, but in a far less radical sense: 31

  • 28. These are the same elements found in Ovid Heroides 12.109–14: proditus est genitor,

regnum patriamque reliqui, / munus in exilio quodlibet esse tuli; / virginitas facta est peregrini

praeda latronis; / optima cum cara matre relicta soror. / At non te fugiens sine me, germane, reliqui! / De cit hoc uno littera nostra loco.

  • 29. See Guastella 2000: 152–57.

  • 30. See Treggiari 325 and 446–82, especially 466: “The legal eVect of divorce was normally

considered to be the physical separation of the coniuges and the restoration of the dowry, apart from

whatever the husband retained on account of children, fault, expenses, gifts, or things taken away.”

  • 31. It could be argued that Ovid might have developed this theme in his own Medea because

Ovid’s Medea in the Heroides brings her speech to an abrupt end exactly when she gives herself over to wrath and to vengeful designs, pronouncing a threat in the last line of the letter. Similar

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Dos ubi sit, quaeris? Campo numeravimus illo, qui tibi laturo vellus arandus erat. Aureus ille aries villo spectabilis alto dos mea, quam dicam si tibi ‘Redde’, neges. Dos mea tu sospes, dos est mea Graia iuventus; i nunc, Sisyphias, improbe, confer opes! Quod vivis, quod habes nuptam socerumque potentes, hoc ipsum, ingratus quod potes esse, meum est. Quos equidem actutum—sed quid praedicere poenam attinet? Ingentes parturit ira minas. 32 Heroides 12.199–208

You ask where my dowry is? I counted it out on that eld which you had to plow so that you could carry away the eece. That golden ram, with his remarkably thick coat of wool, that is my dowry, the dowry which you would deny me when I tell you to give it back. My dowry is you, safe and sound, my dowry is those Greek youths—go now, traitor, and compare your Sisyphian wealth. The fact that you are alive, that you have a bride and a father-in-law who are power- ful, the very fact that you can be ungrateful, that is all due to me. And as for them, I am going to—but what does it matter if I say what the punishment will be? Awesome are the perils being hatched by my wrath.

Within the epistolary framework, the words of Ovids Medea become a mere rhetorical device, an utterly impossible demand. 33 Seneca’s Medea, on the other hand, not only expects the return of her “dowry34 but constructs her revenge in such a way that she can paradoxically claim that she has in fact received compensation. Ovid’s Medea speaks about a dowry only in order to construct a metaphor, but Seneca’s Medea takes that metaphor and pursues it according to the cultural model on which it depends, thus de ning the rules that her revenge will ultimately follow.

motifs can be found, although diVerently distributed, in the dialogues of Seneca’s Medea with both

Creon and Jason. The theme is also found in Hypsipyle’s letter to Jason (Heroides 6.137–38: quid refert, scelerata piam si vincit et ipso / crimine dotata est emeruitque virum?).

  • 32. Already according to Leo 168–69, Seneca was quoting these lines in Medea 486–89. For

more recent discussions about the signi cance of Seneca’s citation of these lines, see Bessone 266–86

and Heinze 206–19.

  • 33. Ovid’s Medea seems willing to acknowledge that Jason not only would not give her back

this dowry, but that this would be impossible to do.

  • 34. Medea asks for the restitution of her dowry using almost the same words she uses to ask

for the restitution of her coniunx (Medea 272–73: redde fugienti ratem / vel redde comitem). For the juridical value of such words, see Perrenoud 495–97, who interprets the expression at line 272 in terms of the notion of “reddere crimen” found in lines 244–46.

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The infanticide which makes it possible for Medea to punish her coniunx in the very body of his children is conceived and carried out in haste, all within the last “act” of Seneca’s tragedy. Yet this is in fact the core of Medea’s revenge, the real focus of her eVorts. The murder of Creon and his daughter is of considerably less importance in Seneca’s version of the story than in Euripides, and constitutes only a small part of Medea’s overall project. 35 There is absolutely no comparison between the logical and rhetorical eVorts which Seneca devotes to the murder of Medea’s children and the scant attention which he pays to the fates of Creon and Creusa. Medea herself describes her revenge as unfolding in two stages, with the rst stage serving as a mere prelude that is by itself incomplete:

Pars ultionis ista, qua gaudes, quota est? Amas adhuc, furiosa, 36 si satis est tibi caelebs Iason. Quaere poenarum genus haut usitatum iamque sic temet para. Medea 896–99

How much of your revenge is this, that you are so happy with it? You are still in love, madwoman, if it is enough for you that Jason is unmarried. Look for a kind of punishment no one has ever tried and prepare yourself for this.

The real revenge, the more terrible punishment, has yet to begin, but the elaborate rhetoric of Medea’s long monologue shows clearly that this is where the whole plot has been leading. It is only now that the heroine starts to untangle the confusion of her past life that has been created by Jason’s repudium. Here is where we can discern the project that will unite all of these aspects of Medea’s life into a meaningful whole, an aspiration that is as clear and articulate as it is utterly insane:

  • 35. Seneca seems to have wanted to quickly discharge his debt to the literary tradition, in which

the myth involved the murder of Creon and Creusa. In Seneca’s play, this murder does not have the same importance as in Euripides’ version (see Guastella 2000). Before the sudden preparation of this crime, the only allusions to the need to kill Creon and Creusa are found at lines 125–26 and 143–49. Even during the long scene of witchcraft, no reference is made to the reasons why Medea

needs to kill her rival, apart from a generic hint to the hated novi thalami (743). Seneca devotes only 12 lines to the messenger speech about Creon and Creusa’s death (879–90), compared to the more than 90 lines in Euripides. Seneca has mostly used this crime in order to construct an impressive scene of witchcraft, according to the literary taste of his own times. The atmosphere of this scene (670–848) owes much to the character of Medea as presented by Ovid in the Metamorphoses (see Newlands 186–92 on the subject of “Medea the witch”).

  • 36. The correction furiose, which was proposed by Bentley and is now accepted by both Costa

and Zwierlein, is unnecessary. The correction is not needed for the meter, and I do not think that it is so unlikely that Medea would brie y interrupt her apostrophe to the animus in order to address herself. Indeed, it seems to me instead rather improbable that Medea would address her animus, rather than herself, as “still in love.”

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Prolusit dolor per ista noster: quid manus poterant rudes audere magnum, quid puellaris furor? Medea nunc sum; crevit ingenium malis:

iuvat, iuvat rapuisse fraternum caput, artus iuvat secuisse et arcano patrem spoliasse sacro, iuvat in exitium senis armasse natas. Quaere materiam, dolor:

ad omne facinus non rudem dextram aVeres. Medea 907–15

In them my grief was but practicing; what great deed had my inexpe- rienced hands the power to do? What, a girl’s rage? Now I am Medea; my identity has grown through crime: glad am I, glad, that I tore oV my brother’s head, glad that I carved his limbs, that I robbed my father of his guarded treasure, glad that I armed daughters for an old man’s death. Seek the right stuV, my grief: no untrained hand will you bring to any crime.

Once again Medea makes an account of the wrongs committed in her earlier criminal career, those deeds that Medea the virgo committed in a puellaris furor. These crimes are now interpreted as the means to a new end, a prepa- ration for redemption (iuvat, as Medea insists four times in three lines). At last, by means of all her suVering, Medea can achieve a full realization of her identity: Medea nunc sum. 37 Medea’s identity thus emerges in three dif- ferent phases: 38 beginning with the total disorder in which only the erce en- ergy of the abandoned woman continued to function (Medea superest, 166), followed by Medea’s intention to put her ruined life back together (MedeaFiam, 171) and nally the realization of the actual revenge. When she is n- ished, Medea’s life will have regained a new meaning. We have now reached the moment in which the virgo Medea will be integrated with the spurned coniunx/mater so that Medea, at last, will be able to become “herself” once and for all.

  • 37. See Kullmann 161–64, who has correctly noted that this line is the culminating moment

of the progress of Medea’s ingenium over the course of the play.

  • 38. See Liebermann 189, who provides a useful schema of the three phases of Medea’s character

development. About the extraordinary fortune of the theme “Medea am” in later versions of this story, see Friedrich 227–37. For the Ovidian precedent, see Heroides 12.5, 12.25, and 12.182, with a discussion in Bessone ad loc. In comparison to these lines of Ovid (along with Heroides 6.127–28 and 6.151), Seneca multiplies his variations about the name Medea throughout the play (see lines 8, 166, 171, 179, 362, 496, 517, 524, 567, 675, 867, 892, 910, 934). Both Traina and Segal 1982 discuss the repeated “naming” of Medea in the course of the play.

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Now that she must persuade herself to kill her own children, Medea relies on a series of expressions which dramatize the incompatibility of her identity as a mother with the reality of her divorce. Separated from her children, Medea tries to make herself believe that her children in fact belong to Creusa, the stepmother under whose jurisdiction the children now live. 39 But despite the monumental rhetorical eVort, Medea’s decision remains unthinkable, and she must undergo the internal questioning traditionally associated with the heroines of myth who murder their own children:

Ira discessit loco materque tota coniuge expulsa redit. Egone ut meorum liberum ac prolis meae fundam cruorem? Melius, a, demens furor! Incognitum istum facinus ac dirum nefas a me quoque absit; quod scelus miseri luent? Scelus est Iason genitor et maius scelus Medea mater—occidant, non sunt mei; pereant, mei sunt. Crimine et culpa carent, sunt innocentes, fateor: et frater fuit. 40 Medea 927–36

Wrath has given way; the mother has all come back, the wife is banished. Can I shed the blood of my children, of my own oVspring? Ah, mad rage, say not so! Let not that unheard-of deed, that accursed guilt attend even me! What sin will the poor boys atone? Their sin is that Jason is their father, and, greater sin, that Medea is their mother. Let them die, they are not mine; let them be lost—they are my own. They are without crime and guilt, yes, they are innocent. I acknowledge it; so, too, was my brother.

Medea nds herself having to overcome the gap between her maternal identity (mater tota, 928; Medea mater, 934) and her marital identity (coniunx, 928). At the moment of her divorce, these two aspects of Medea’s identity became

  • 39. Medea 921–22: Quidquid ex illo tuum est, / Creusa peperit. See also 924: liberi quondam

mei. For a discussion, see Guastella 2000: 157–62.

  • 40. Nussbaum 227 has proposed a quite interesting punctuation for this line: Pereant. Mei

sunt, crimine et culpa carent, / sunt innocentes—fateor: et frater fuit. In this reading, the children belonging to Medea would be, for this same reason, innocent, so that they would turn out to be innocent victims in exactly the same way as Absyrtus had been. However, I am afraid this would represent a banalization of the text. Apart from the improbable undoing of the strong syntactical parallelism (which is typically Senecan, as well as Ovidian), such a solution also cancels an important thematic element. Medea has said (933–34) that her children share the scelus that comes from being born as a result of a criminal union. Medea is here proposing a twofold reason for the infanticide:

the children are to die because they are at this time both Creusa’s and Medea’s sons and because they must share the same destiny as Absyrtus (only this second aspect would remain in the text as punctuated by Nussbaum).

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incompatible. For whom, cui, is Medea now a mother? The problem is stated quite clearly in the dialogue between Medea and the nurse which was cited earlier (Medea 171): “NVT. Mater es. ME. Cui sim vide.” Medea is saying that amother” (a Roman mother, we might add) is not a mother in some absolute sense, but is a mother only with respect to someone else’s bene t(cui). It is here that we nd the central element in the logic of the infanticide, as we can see by comparing Medea’s words to analogous expressions found in similar myths, such as Ovid’s account of Procne in the Metamorphoses. Procne is also suVering a crisis of identity, vacillating between her role as a“sister” who wants to avenge the rape of Philomela and her role as “mother” who does not dare to murder her son Itys:

quam vocat hic matrem, cur non vocat illa sororem? Cui sis nupta, vide, Pandione nata, marito. Degeneras! Scelus est pietas in coniuge Tereo. Metamorphoses 6.633–35

When he calls me mother, why does she not call me sister? See whom you have married, you, Pandion’s daughter! Will you betray your birth? With such a husband as Tereus, aVection due to kin is a crime.

Cui sis nupta, vide: Procne’s words are a terrible sophism, but at the same time they reveal a great deal about the Roman notion of marriage. To be the mother of Itys and to be the wife of a despicable man like Tereus are two sides of the same coin, a situation which manages to somehow justify a crime (the elimination of their common oVspring) which would otherwise be unthinkable. Sarah Iles Johnston has recently observed that the fascination which is still exerted today by Medea and her story “owes much to the fact that a mother’s deliberate slaughter of her children undermines one of the basic assumptions upon which society—indeed humanity—is constructed: mothers nurture their children.” 41 In ecting this argument according to the cultural paradigms of ancient society, we would need to add that this nurturing function of the mother does not take place in isolation, but to someone else’s advantage, as Medea herself observes. 42 To be a wife and to be a mother were functions both linked to the bene t of one and the same man. As a result, the sacri ce of the children is the culmination of the divorce, a visible manifestation of the need to make this separation into a loss not only for the woman who has been abandoned, but above all for the man who had previously bene ted from the union, and who would otherwise continue to pro t from its fruits, keeping the sons for himself. Thus many ancient stories of infanticide involve not so much the complete negation

  • 41. Johnston 44.

  • 42. Both Seneca’s Medea and Ovid’s Procne use the dative cui, which is normal in Procne’s

case, but less so in Medea’s, since Medea is not discussing “whose mother she is” (as Procne is

discussing “whose wife she is”) but “for whom she is a mother.”

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of all the rules, but rather involve a method—an extreme method, but with a clearly de ned aim—which can be used either to dissolve erroneous marriages or to punish the (male) parents who engage in sexual relations with prohibited partners. 43 Thus, in order to propose a correct anthropological account of the dichotomy between Medea coniunx and Medea mater as depicted here by Seneca, we must begin with the following question: for whom, cui, is Medea now a mother? The answer is that she is a mother for a coniunx who has rejected her. As a result, her sons remain linked to her by blood since she is still their mater, but at the same time they are alienated from her insofar as she is alienated from the father, the man for whom, cui, she had assumed the role of mother. This rejected coniunx, carried away by ira, can imagine the possibility of killing those children, even though the mater, still moved by amor and pietas, is horri ed by this idea. 44 In this moment of con ict, the children’s innocence will not be enough to avert Medea’s fatal blows, even though she is their mother, just as once upon a time the innocence of Absyrtus had not been able to restrain the fatal blows struck by his sister (et frater fuit, 936).


There is thus a fundamental con ict here between relations of blood kinship (Medea as mater) and relations with kin acquired by means of marriage (Medea as coniunx). To better understand the signi cance of this con ict in a story like Medea’s, we can compare Medea’s situation to that of two analogous characters, Procne (again) and Althea, 45 although I will only be able to brie y outline the comparison here. In Ovid’s version of Procnes story (Metamorphoses 6.627–35)

  • 43. The valuable ancient and modern evidence collected twenty years ago by Easterling needs to

be reexamined in this light. I suspect that the cultural reasons underlying these crimes changes over time. For instance, in our culture the psychological attitude seems to be the same for both parents who might commit infanticide: the man and the woman aim at harming their partner in more or less

the same way by killing their children. In ancient myth, however, this seems to be a crime intended to injure fathers, not mothers (see also Segal 1996: 16, who cites the case of Procne and also that of Hecuba, who kills the sons of Polymestor in Euripides’ Hecuba). Even in stories where infanticide seems to be directed against a mother (as in the story of Ino and Athamas), the woman is usually not punished by the father of the child, but by some other character (in Ino’s case, by Hera). As Segal observes (1996: 16): “Her [sc. Medea’s] behavior here departs from modern patterns of child murder, for modern society does not place so much emphasis on the father’s need for children to continue the male line.”

  • 44. Medea 943–44: ira pietatem fugat / iramque pietas—cede pietati, dolor. Compare the

description of Medea’s crime in Ovid Metamorphoses 7.396–97 (after the killing of the nova nupta): sanguine natorum perfunditur inpius ensis / ultaque se male mater Iasonis effugit arma. Liebermann 190–91 rightly points out that the last part of this tragedy is centered upon the oppositions

pietas /dolor, amor/ira, mater /coniunx.

  • 45. Althaea’s story is explicitly evoked by the chorus (Medea 779–80). For the similarities

between these two stories, see Friedrich 202–203.

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and also in his account of Althea (Metamorphoses 8.462–84), 46 there is a similar con ict in kinship loyalties. Both women decide to kill their children in order to avenge the victimization of their siblings by their enemies: Procne avenges her sister’s rape by her husband and Althea avenges her brothers’ murder by her son. In both cases, the women must choose between loyalty to their acquired family and loyalty to their family of origin. In other words, they must decide whether to be a good mother or to be a good sister. Of course, Medea’s situation is somewhat diVerent, since it was in fact Medea herself who committed the crime against her family of origin, killing her own brother. Yet even though Medea does not face a con ict between her role as a mother and as a sister “synchronically” (that is, Medea is not choosing now between being a good mother and the alternative of being a good sister, as Procne and Althea do), she does face this dilemma diachronically.That is, Medeas renunciation of her role as a mother reproduces her earlier refusal of her sisterly identity in an act of revenge that is meant to expiate the original crime by means of another, entirely analogous infanticide. By killing her children, Medea does aYrm her role as a sister, but in a delayed and perverted way, avenging the death of her brother at her own hands by later killing her own children. Ultimately, Medea’s murder of her children is imagined as a sacri ce oVered to the Erinyes of her brother, those same Furies evoked in the opening lines of the play. In the end, Medea gives herself over completely to dolor and is surrounded by the Furies urging her to carry out her crime, 47 until the actual ghost of her dismembered brother appears before her, turning her hand (perhaps even literally) to the murder of her rst child. 48 Senecas Medea, therefore, does not punish Jason simply because he has betrayed her, as is the case in Euripides. Instead, in this version of the story Medea’s wrath unleashes a much wider-reaching strategy. Medea does not intend only to deprive Jason of his progeny, but also to obtain compensation for the

  • 46. Ovid Metamorphoses 8.475–77: Incipit esse tamen melior germana parente / et, consan-

guineas ut sanguine leniat umbras / inpietate pia est. Compare Medea 779–80: piae sororis, impiae

matris (about Althaea). For a discussion of these passages, see Jakobi 59, who comments also on the stylistic similarities between Medea 939–44 and Ovid Metamorphoses 8.470–77, providing a list of parallel passages.

  • 47. Medea might have seen the Furies on stage, if the tragedies had theatrical performances.

The theme of Medea urged by the Furies was traditional, as in Neophron’s tragedy (frag. 2.10–12:

see Dingel 1074). In Euripides (Medea 1333–35), Jason remarks that he is the victim of divine vengeance being exacted for Medea’s fratricide. Ovid (Heroides 12.160) also has Medea say, albeit in a diVerent context, that the divorce was celebrating the inferiae of her brother’s umbra (inferias umbrae fratris habete mei).

  • 48. Medea 963–71: Cuius umbra dispersis venit / incerta membris? Frater est, poenas petit:

/ dabimus, sed omnes. Fige luminibus faces, / lania, perure, pectus en Furiis patet. / Discedere a me, frater, ultrices deas / manesque ad imos ire securas iube: / mihi me relinque et utere hac, frater,

manu / quae strinxit ensem—victima manes tuos / placamus ista. Hosidius Geta actually made the umbra Absyrti a speaking character in his cento (390–91). Friedrich 211–12 discusses the subsequent versions in which this same detail can be found.

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losses that she suVered in order to marry Jason in the rst place. 49 The two disconnected “halves” of Medea’s identity thus nally seem to achieve a sort of unity. Originally, Jason was the “bene ciary” of a crime which had Medea as its “subject,” and which injured Medea’s father by means of Absyrtus’ murder. Now the situation is reversed: (Aeetes by means of) the ghost of Absyrtus is the “receiver” of a crime, whose “subject” is once again Medea, who injures the father Jason by means of his children. 50 With the parallelism that is typical of ultio, revenge, the original iniuria suVered by the house of Medea is compensated for by an analogous iniuria suVered by the house of Jason. In Ovid, too, this motif emerges in the words that Hypsipyle addresses to Jason in the Heroides, in the form of a series of curses against Medea, who has stolen Jason from her in a way that parallels the way in which Creusa in turn will deprive Medea of her coniunx. Hypsipyle’s nal wish is that the barbarian woman will suVer all the same things which Hypsipyle herself has had to suVer, and that Medea will commit precisely those crimes which her literary destiny condemns her to carry out:

quam fratri germana fuit miseroque parenti

lia, tam natis, tam sit acerba viro. Heroides 6.159–60

A bitter sister to her brother, a bitter daughter to her wretched father, may she be as bitter to her children, and as bitter to her husband.

Here in Ovid we see the same method that Seneca will use to juxtapose the crimes of Medea’s past with the crimes she commits after her divorce, based on values that have a strongly marked cultural content. Yet what was a purely verbal exercise in Ovid emerges in the action of Seneca’s play in a more radical form, exploiting this approach for all of its narrative and dramatic potential. Medea thus emerges as the inversion of the ideal bride: instead of eVecting an alliance between two houses, Medea instead brings disaster on both her family of origin and on the family that she acquires by marriage. More precisely, the logic of Medea’s revenge demands that a parallel injury be in icted on her family by marriage as compensation for the injury this marriage in icted on her family of origin. 51 The plan to avenge the crimes committed against Medea’s family

  • 49. Revenge is also inserted into the larger context of the nefas committed by the Argonauts.

They were haunted by a series of divine punishments, recalled in the third choral ode (Medea 579–

669); for a discussion, see Lawall 426. There is also a folkloric prohibition against having a murderer on board a ship. Both Apollonius of Rhodes (Argonautica 4.557–91) and Ovid (Heroides 12.117–18) feature this motif; for a discussion, see Heinze 166, who provides a list of parallel passages.

  • 50. See Morse 51. The perfect parallelism in Medea’s strategy of revenge has been highlighted

very well by Hass, who also emphasizes the damage which the loss of the children in icts on the father.

  • 51. On these aspects of Medea’s myth see Visser 153–59, who clearly shows that the mythical

gure of Medea radically reverses the unifying role of the wife by destroying both of the families

(her own and Jason’s) which she would be expected to unite.

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of origin is completely absent from Euripides’ play but in Seneca’s version this aspect of Medea’s revenge is what actually motivates the infanticide. When Medea welcomes Jason’s arrival on the stage, she gives a shout of victory, announcing that she has now requited those earlier injuries:

Iam iam recepi sceptra germanum patrem, spoliumque Colchi pecudis auratae tenent; rediere regna, rapta virginitas redit. O placida tandem numina, o festum diem, o nuptialem! Vade, perfectum est scelus— vindicta nondum: perage, dum faciunt manus. Medea 982–87

Now, now have I regained my regal state, my brother, my father; and the Colchians have once more the spoil of the golden eece; restored is my kingdom, my ravished virginity is restored. Oh, divinities, at last propitious, oh, festal day, oh, nuptial day! Come, the crime is accomplished; but vengeance is not yet complete; nish it while there is still work for your hands.

Similarly, in Seneca’s Thyestes, when Atreus sees that he has achieved his goal, he also shouts that his revenge has restored to him what he had thought he had lost because of the iniuria he suVered at his brother’s hands (Thyestes 1096–99):

Nunc meas laudo manus, nunc parta vera est palma. Perdideram scelus, nisi sic doleres. Liberos nasci mihi nunc credo, castis nunc dem reddi toris. Thyestes 1096–99

Now I praise my hands, now is the true palm won. I had wasted my crime if you did not suVer like this. Now do I believe my children are my own, now may I trust once more that my marriage-bed is pure.

With this rhetorical formulation Atreus nourishes the illusion that he has erased the eVects of Thyestes’ adultery with his wife Aerope, thereby restoring his con dence in the legitimacy of their oVspring. 52 Likewise, Medea declares that she has succeeded in picking up the broken thread of her life, having recovered everything that she had given up “for Jason’s sake”: her royal status, her brother, her father, the golden eece, and even her own original identity as a virgo, the whole list of losses which Medea has been lamenting throughout the rst half of the tragedy, the so-called “dowry” which Medea had paid in order to get married to Jason. 53 If only in the logic of a paradoxical metaphor, Medea has recouped

  • 52. See Guastella 1994: 145–47.

  • 53. See Medea 209–20 and 483–89.

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guastella: Virgo, Coniunx, Mater


her losses; her revenge creates the illusion that “everything has come back,” rediere/redit (984). 54


By the time the play reaches its close, the seduced virgo and the abandoned mater have both been avenged; Medea can nally show herself to Jason in the terms he had refused to accept: no longer as the rival of Creusa, but as his old coniunx, the companion of his exile. Medea then ies oV into the cloudless sky, her identity as a“mother” discarded and the events of her past annulled. At the end of the tragedy, Jason has not put Medea aside, but instead it is Medea who puts Jason aside, having requited the crimes, scelera, she had once committed on Jason’s behalf with crimes now committed against him. Medea had become a mother to Jason’s pro t, but now she has ceased to be a mother, and has done so at a loss to him. In this way Medea has succeeded in doing just what she promised at the end of the play’s prologue (Medea 55): quae scelere parta est, scelere linquenda est domus.


University of Siena

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figures 1–2 joyce Fig. 1: Punishment of Dirce with Amphion and Zethos apprehending Lykos. Sicilian Calyx
figures 1–2
Fig. 1: Punishment
of Dirce with Amphion
and Zethos apprehending
Lykos. Sicilian Calyx
Crater. Staatliche Museen
zu Berlin, Antiken
Sammlung, F 3296.
Photo by Isolde Luckert.
bpk, Berlin.
Fig. 2: Dirce under an Ithyphallic Bull. Augustan Carneol. Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, Antiken Sammlung, FG
Fig. 2: Dirce under an
Ithyphallic Bull. Augustan
Carneol. Staaliche Museen
zu Berlin, Antiken
Sammlung, FG 6897.
bpk, Berlin.

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