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Tutorial Latin: Seneca Thyestes


Admission requirements

This class can be taken in fulfilment of the requirements of both the MA and the Research MA program in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (track Classics), with differential requirements. Minimum amount of participants: 5.


Seneca’s tragedies are the only Roman tragedies which have been fully transmitted to us. However, compared to what we know about Greek tragedy, they are very special: we read extremely long en detailed speeches, extremely short and sharp dialogues; and the presentation of the mythical stories show an unusual fascination for cruelty.

Seneca’s tragedies were written after a centuries-long development of theatrical performances – a development that can be traced back to the early, preliterary performances of impovisation theatre in the fourth century BC in Italy and ‘officially’ started, when Livius Andronicus performed the first literary Latin theatreplays. Even though there is only scarce information about early Roman tragedy, it is obvious that the Roman traditions (and not only Greek, Attic, tragedy) did have an impact on Seneca’s specific approach to tragedy. Secondly, Seneca writes his tragedies in a very special context: he writes them in a societal environment that is extremeley theatrical and doesn’t show clear boundaries between art and life. In the imperial period, ‘art’ and literature are far from belonging to an autonomous domain, that would have its own realm and rules; artistic (specifically: dramatic) practices are rather inseparable from (other) societal practices, such as politics. Finally, the recipients – and the expectations – Seneca wants to address, are quite different from the audience of Attic tragedy. As a consequence, theoretical approaches or concepts, such as katharsis or the tragic paradox, can only partly be used to understand the specific techniques and effects of Senecan tragedy.

In our seminar we will focus on one of Seneca’s most prominent (and cruel) plays, his Thyestes. We will explore how – and why – Seneca re-worked the traditions of the Thyestes myth; how he reacts to the theatralization at the time, and what kind of audience he has in mind, when employing techniques (e.g. enargeia, ecphrasis, stichomythia) in order to describe as well as to ‘perform’ violence by language.

The seminar will start with two introductory classes. Class III-XIV will be devoted to a close reading of Seneca’s Thyestes and a discussion of its theoretical contexts.
Students are required to regularly write short commentaries on a selection of passages and to submit their commentaries via the discussion board.

In short oral mini-presentations students will e.g. describe a relevant context or a theoretical approach.

Course objectives

  • Survey Roman tragedy, history of Roman drama (including pre- and non-literal dramatic forms);

  • Aesthetic theory, concepts of art in the imperial period, art versus ‘non-art’;

  • Theory of drama and history of crucial concepts (mimesis, imitatio, katharsis);

  • Advanced research skills: independent formulation of a complex research question, collecting materials (both primary texts and results of earlier research). Analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions;

  • Critical assessment of secondary literature;

  • Oral presentation: presenting clearly and making effective use of hand-outs, illustrations and/or multi-media techniques; responding to the argumentation of one of the papers and chairing the discussion;

  • Written presentation: setting out research results effectively, clearly and in a well-structured manner.


The timetable is available on the Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

Total course load 10 ec x 28 hours = 280 hours:

  • Attending Classes: 28 hours;

  • Preparing classes (studying primary and secondary literature): 14 x 5 = 70 hours

in case of 5 ec:

  • Preparing short oral or written presentations: 14 hours;

  • Preparing paper (1000 words): 28 hours.

in case of 10 ec:

  • Preparing short oral or written presentations: 14 hours;

  • Preparing paper (1000 words): 28 hours;

  • Preparing paper (5000 words): 140 hours.

The requirements for MA and Research MA students are differentiated: Research MA students are expected to come up with their own original research topic, find literature, and write a scholarly report; MA students may expect more help in choosing their topic and their papers may consist of an assessment of the status quaestionis on a given question.

Assessment method

In case of 5 ec:

  • Active participation, preparation of the pensum (40%);

  • Short oral or written presentations (40%);

  • Paper (1000 words) (20%).

In case of 10 ec:

  • Active participation, preparation of the pensum (20%);

  • Short oral or written presentations (20%);

  • Paper (1000 words) (10%);

  • Paper (5000 words) (50%).

Papers (1000 words) are to be submitted in December and will be discussed at the end of the course. Students who want to react on the feedback and to submit a revised version, are welcome to do so before 10 jan 2019.

Papers deadline: 10 jan 2019 (50%).


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.


If the overall mark is unsatisfactory, either the written exam or the paper can be repeated after consultation with the teacher. The marks for the oral presentation and the response will still count in such a case.

Exam review

Students will be invited to discuss their paper and their results for this seminar (participation, oral presentation, oral examination, paper) individually with the teacher, as soon as the results have been published.


Blackboard will be used for: to upload powerpoints, handouts and papers and to provide a discussionforum. Secondary literature will be available via the University Library.

Reading list

Please note: Seneca’s Thyestes (as well as other passages from Seneca’s tragedies) will be read in the OCT-edition. All students are required to bring their own exemplar (Otto Zwierlein, L. Annaei Senecae tragodiae, Oxford 1986).

You are required to have read Seneca’s tragedies in advance in either English, German or Dutch translation:

  • Seneca Tragedies, 2 vols., vol. 1: Hercules; Trojan Women; Phoenician women; Medea; Phaedra; vol. 2: Oedipus , Agamemnon, Thyestes, Hercules on Oeta, Octavia, ed. and trans. by John G. Fitch, Cambridge/Mass. 2004;

  • Durs Grünbein: Seneca Thyestes, Frankfurt a.M. 2002. (with additional material provided by Bernd Seidensticker and Antje Wessels);

  • Seneca Tragedies, deel 1: Medea; Phaedra; Trojaanse vrouwen, deel 2: Thyestes, Agamemnon, Oedipus, Hercules, vertaald door Piet Schrijvers, Groningen 2014-2015.


L. Annaei Senecae tragoediae, ed. Otto Zwierlein, Oxford 1986. (OCT)


Tarrant, R. J.: Seneca’s Thyestes. Edited with an Introduction and Commentary, Atlanta 1985.

Introductory literature to Seneca’s tragedies

Davies, P.: Seneca’s Thyestes, London 2003.

Research literature (a bibliography will be provided at the seminar)

Wessels, A.: Ästhetisierung und ästhetische Erfahrung von Gewalt. Eine Untersuchung zu Senecas Tragödien, Heidelberg 2014.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about registration in uSis is available in English and Dutch.

Exchange and Study Abroad students: please see the Study Abroad/Exchange website for information on how to register.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Prof. dr. A.B. (Antje) Wessels


Students are required to attend the classes regularly, to be fully prepared and to join the discussions.