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The Tragic Burp: Satire in Seneca’s Thyestes

1§1 The climactic feast in Seneca’s Thyestes is described to the audience by the character Atreus in lines 908–919. As he gazes upon his brother Thyestes gobbling down a sumptuous meal made from the meat of Thyestes’ own children, Atreus puts the scene in words:

aperta multa tecta conlucent face.

resupinus ipse purpurae atque auro incubat,

vino gravatum fulciens laeva caput.

eructat. o me caelitum excelsissimum,

regumque regem! vota transcendi mea.

satur est; capaci ducit argento merum—

ne parce potu; restat etiamnunc cruor

tot hostiarum. veteris hunc Bacchi color

abscondet; hoc, hoc mensa claudatur scypho.

mixtum suorum sanguinem genitor bibat;

meum bibisset. ecce, iam cantus ciet

festasque voces, nec satis menti imperat.

The opened house shines brightly with many a torch. He himself lies supine on purple and gold, propping up his head, made heavy with wine, with his left hand. He burps. Oh me, highest of heavenly gods and king of kings! I have exceeded my prayers. He is full. He drains unmixed wine from capacious silver. Don’t refrain from drinking. Even now the blood of so many victims remains. The color of aged wine will conceal it. With this cup, this one, let the meal be concluded. Let the father drink the blended blood of his children. He would have drunk mine. Look! Now he is stirring up a song and festive sounds, and he doesn’t control his mind enough.

The sight that Atreus here describes for us is punctuated by a one word sentence at line 911: eructat (“he burps”). This brief and vulgar detail at once evokes both Atreus’ extreme bloodlust and Thyestes’ utter loss of self-control: that Thyestes cannot restrain his bodily functions evinces the latter clearly enough, while the exclamation that Thyestes’ burp elicits from Atreus (o me caelitum excelsissimum, regumque regem!) demonstrates the former. In observing his brother belching, Atreus has realized the desire he expressed immediately before this passage in line 907: miserum videre nolo, sed dum fit miser (“I do not wish to see him wretched, but while he becomes wretched”), and, as Richard Tarrant notes, “Thyestes’ audible signs of pleasure show that he has fulfilled Atreus’ wish, liberos avidus pater / gaudensque laceret [‘let the father greedily and joyfully tear his children’] (277–78, cf. also 788–82).”[1] Eructat in this context is, then, a loaded word and has, accordingly, been much commented upon.[2]

1§2 This important instance of corporeal discharge is especially jarring in the context of a tragedy. Gary Meltzer observes that Atreus’ mention of Thyestes’ burp “belongs to the sphere of comedy, especially Aristophanic comedy, which often uses vulgar physical processes as comic material.”[3] Meltzer points out that in Euripides’ ribald satyr play Cyclops, the Cyclops lets forth a belch after having scoffed down two of Odysseus’ men.[4] Though the humor in satyr plays is, in general, not nearly as coarse and obscene as the humor in Old Comedy and though satyr plays were perceived to have much in common with tragedy, Euripides seems to have been more inclined than other writers of satyr plays to borrow language from the comedic realm. The burp of the Cyclops fits into pattern of graphic language in Cyclops, language which is similar in register to that of Old Comedy.[5]

1§3 Euripides’ Cyclops recalls Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, where after Odysseus has given him three helpings of unmixed wine, the Cyclops Polyphemus falls into a drunken stupor: φάρυγος δ᾽ ἐξέσσυτο οἶνος / ψωμοί τ᾽ ἀνδρόμεοι: ὁ δ᾽ ἐρεύγετο οἰνοβαρείων (“and wine and bits of human flesh gushed forth from his throat; and he belched, heavy with wine”) (IX.373–374). The wretched state of Polyphemus at this point in the Odyssey bears striking resemblance to the plight of Thyestes: both are drunk, both have consumed human beings, and both are about to experience great suffering—Polyphemus will be blinded, and Thyestes will learn of the destruction of his children. A comparison between Polyphemus and Thyestes reveals the process of dehumanization that Thyestes has undergone at the hands of Atreus. For Polyphemus lacks many of the important features of civilized human life: οὐδὲ μετ᾽ ἄλλους / πωλεῖτ᾽, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπάνευθεν ἐὼν ἀθεμίστια ᾔδη (“but he did not go among others, but being apart he kept lawless things in his mind”) (Odyssey IX.188–189).

1§4 But although Thyestes’ burp evokes a pitiful aspect of the character’s dehumanization, such a coarse bodily function still seems largely beneath the dignity of tragedy, especially when we compare Seneca’s drama to the Greek model of tragedy in which “the fates of characters were taken seriously” and “the stakes are always high.”[6] If we follow Aristotle’s definition of the tragic genre, ἔστιν οὖν τραγῳδία μίμησις πράξεως σπουδαίας καὶ τελείας μέγεθος ἐχούσης (“tragedy, then, is an imitation of a serious and completed action that possesses magnitude”) (Poetics 1449b25),[7] such gross behavior from a character would be entirely inappropriate. Far from evincing the sort of weightiness suitable for tragedy according to Aristotle’s definition, Thyestes’ eructation undoubtedly serves as a feature of what Meltzer describes as “Senecan black humor: the sophisticated, self-conscious manipulation of generic expectations.”[8]

1§5 Meltzer’s identification of similar material in Old Comedy notwithstanding, the burp is suggestive of another genre involving humor, one with which Seneca would have been entirely familiar: satire. Even a cursory reading of extant Roman satire, both prose and verse, reveals many occurrences of belching, flatulence, urination, and defecation. These four forms of corporeal expulsion, which I refer to here as “bodily functions” or describe as “scatological,” are the aftereffects of eating and drinking, and, as such, find a comfortable home within the pages of Roman satire, since, as Emily Gowers asserts, “food is in the guts of Roman satire, not just because of its laughable qualities and its capacity for grabbing at our most basic instincts of revulsion: the very name, ‘satire’, is culinary in origin.”[9] Indeed, the name “satire,” with its culinary origins, also points to the influence of that genre on lines 908–919 and on Thyestes as a whole, which is “a play obsessed with the theme of eating.”[10] The character Atreus himself hints at this connection when he says of Thyestes, satur est (“he is full”) (913), and terms signifying the ideas of “fullness” and “sufficiency” that resemble or are related to satur appear throughout the play (e.g. 138, 252, 256, 889, 890, 895, 955). But the most telling pieces of evidence for the satirical element in Thyesetes come from Roman satire itself. The poetry of the three most important Roman satirists whose works we have more than mere fragments of, Horace, Persius, and Juvenal, as well as the prosimetric Satyricon of Petronius and Apocolocyntosis of Seneca himself, all bring gross bodily functions to the fore and so indicate that Thyestes’ burp is meant to evoke the tone of a satire.

1§6 We might be able to gain a better sense of the burp’s appropriateness in a tragic context by examining some of the other literature in which the word that expresses the burp is used. James Adams does not include eructo in his authoritative list of obscenities related to bodily functions.[11] Moreover, a search for eructo in the Perseus Digital Library reveals that the verb occurs in forty-seven documents, none of which fit into the decidedly un-tragic genres of satire or comedy.[12] The verb is in fact fairly rare and, outside of works by patristic Christian writers and writers living after the fall of the Western Empire, only appears in Perseus in the work of ten individuals, the earliest of whom, Cicero, uses it in oratory to describe the disgraceful behavior of the rebel Catiline’s allies, who debilitati stupris eructant sermonibus suis caedem bonorum atque urbis incendia (“weakened by debaucheries burp out with their conversations the slaughter of good men and the conflagrations of the city”) (Against Catiline II.5.10). Eructo later occurs in Lucretius, where it has as its subject Tartarus (De rerum natura III.1012), and three times in Virgil’s Aeneid, where its subjects are Mt. Etna (III.576), the Cyclops (III.632), and the river Acheron (VI.297). The other instances of the word eructo in the non-Christian Roman writers in the Perseus corpus all occur in works composed after Thyestes. Based on the literature that has come down to us, then, examples of the word eructo in oratory and epic would have been available to Seneca. The concept conveyed by the word, which was used to describe the actions of human (Against Catiline II.5.10), humanoid (Aeneid III.632), and non-human (De rerum natura III.1012; Aeneid III.576, VI.297) subjects, was not limited to comic contexts.

1§7 But despite the occurrence of literary belches outside of the lighter genres of comedy and satire, Meltzer’s observation that such gross bodily functions seem more appropriate in humorous settings is not unwarranted. In addition to the depictions of bodily functions Meltzer finds in the Greek Old Comedy of Aristophanes and the sole surviving satyr play of Euripides, several lighthearted moments of scatological humor exist in works composed during the time period in which Seneca was active, the mid-first century CE.[13] If we agree with the scholarly consensus that the Satyricon of Petronius was composed during the Neronian period (54–68 CE),[14] the novel would provide a near contemporary point of comparison to Thyestes. The fragments of the Satyricon that have come down to us depict the sexual escapades of Encolpius and his teenaged companion Giton. The bawdy tone of the novel starkly contrasts with that of Thyestes, and some scholars believe that the Satyricon represents a parody of Seneca’s often self-righteous brand of Stoicism.[15] But despite their apparent differences, both works take an interest in the scatological. One instance of bodily discharge takes particular prominence in the lengthy “Trimalchio” episode in the Satyricon. After having moved his bowels and returned to the dinner table, Trimalchio at Satyricon 47 comments on a recent intestinal ailment he has suffered from. He then urges his guests to feel free to relieve themselves and remarks that nemo nostrum solide natus est. ego nullum puto tam magnum tormentum esse quam continere…. credite mihi, anathymiasis in cerebrum it et in toto corpore fluctum facit (“no one of us is born solidly [i.e. without a hollow cavity]. I think that no torture is so great as to contain oneself…. Believe me, vapor goes into the brain and makes a disturbance in the whole body”). Less lengthy instances of crude references to bodily functions occur throughout the Satyricon. At 117, for example, Corax, the hired man, protests at how he is being treated by farting: nec contentus maledicitis tollebat subinde altius pedem et strepitu obsceno simul atque odore viam implebat. ridebat contumaciam Giton et singulos crepitus eius pari clamore prosequebatur (“and not satisfied with curses he was repeatedly lifting his leg higher and was filling the road with a disgusting noise and odor as well. Giton was laughing at the disobedience and was following each of his farts with an equal noise”).

1§8 Such scatology seems quite at home in the world of the Satyricon which is heavily influenced by the bawdy humor of satire.[16] Kirk Freudenburg, drawing on the late fourth-century grammarian Diomedes, notes the common features that satire maintained throughout its history in antiquity: “variety, comic situations, and low diction, fables, autobiography, lively dialogue, and so on,” as well as “personal abuse and social criticism.”[17] Breaking wind and other expressions of gross behavior are suited to these features and, in fact, regularly occur in works of Roman satire. Susanna Braund and Barbara Gold, in their introduction to an issue of the journal Arethusa devoted to Roman satire and discourse of the body, point out bodily functions as a key element of satire:

Satirical texts do not shy away from bodily functions. On the contrary, they tend to use bodily functions as an index of human conduct. This explains the prominence in satire of things that enter and leave the body and of the concomitant focus upon the bodily orifices. Eating and drinking, the sexual and excretory functions: whatever breaches the boundaries of the closed, self-sufficient, classical body is the business of satire.[18]

Numerous passages from Roman satire bear out Braund and Gold’s statement. Horace at Sermones I.8.46–47, in the voice of a Priapus statue, speaks of a technique he used to ward off witches: nam displosa sonat quantum vesica pepedi / diffissa nate (“for, as much as a bursted bladder resounds, I farted from my split buttocks”). The satirist Juvenal, writing in either the late first- or early second-century, describes a bureaucrat cuius ad effigiem non tantum meiere fas est (“at whose statue it is right not only to piss”) (Satires 1.131). Elsewhere he complains of the behavior of women at the altar of chastity: micturiunt hic / effigiemque deae longis siphonibus implent (“here they piss and flood the statue of the goddess with long jets of liquid”) (Satires 6.309–310). Nor does Juvenal limit his fascination with bodily discharge to urine or the targets of his abuse to women. Lambasting the ostensible propensity of Greek people for flattery, he writes at 3.104–108,

non sumus ergo pares: melior, qui semper et omni

nocte dieque potest aliena sumere vultum

a facie, iactare manus laudare paratus,

si bene ructavit, si rectum minxit amicus,

si trulla inverso crepitum dedit aurea fundo.

We are not, therefore, equals. He is better who always and every night and day is able to affect an appearance from someone else’s expression, prepared to throw up his hands and praise if his friend burps well, if he pissed straight, if the golden cup gives a fart with the bottom having been turned over.

We see here a sort of tricolon of bodily functions: burping, pissing and farting. Notable here is the verb Juvenal uses to describe the burp, ructo, the form from which eructo is derived. The appearance of ructo here, however, has little bearing on our understanding of eructo in Thyestes, since Juvenal’s Satires were composed after the death of Seneca. That Juvenal makes use of the word, though, is indicative of the role such bodily functions as burping had in the genre of satire.

1§9 In addition to Horace and Juvenal, Persius too is quite fond of references to the scatological. At Satires 6.69–73 we read,

mihi festa luce coquatur

urtica et fissa fumosum sinciput aure,

ut tuus iste nepos olim satur anseris extis,

cum morosa vago singultiet inguine vena,

patriciae inmeiat volvae?

Do you suppose that I’ll have boiled nettles and smoked pig’s cheek split through the ear on holidays, just so that that wild descendant of yours, stuffed with goose innards, can some day piss into a patrician cunt when his pernickety vein sobs in his roving groin?[19]

Persius was active during the reign of Nero and, when taken together with Horace and Juvenal, provides us with a good idea of the central features of Roman satire before Seneca’s birth, during his life, and after his death.

1§10 The examples I have cited here only give a brief glimpse of the crude sights, smells, and noises that readers encounter in the works of three of the most prominent Roman satirists. But, for the purposes of our study, perhaps the most important instance of scatological humor in satire comes from Seneca himself. In his Apocolocyntosis, Seneca creates an obscene caricature of the recently deceased emperor Claudius, who at Apocolocyntosis 4 apparently dies defecating: et ille quidem animam ebulliit…. ultima vox eius haec inter homines audita est, cum maiorem sonitum emisisset illa parte, qua facilius loquebatur: “vae me, puto, concacavi me” (“and, indeed, he breathed out his life. This final sound of his was heard among humans, when he let rip a greater noise with that part with which he used to speak more easily: ‘ah, me! I have soiled myself, I think’”). As commentators have noted, the sentence et ille quidem animam ebulliit, which I have tamely rendered, “and, indeed, he breathed out his life,” perhaps “depicts a nasty case of diarrhea.”[20] In any case, what the opening sentence of these lines merely hints at, the rest of passage (“vae me, puto, concacavi me”) makes clear. Seneca here is employing crude humor to ridicule the hapless Claudius.

1§11 Ridicule of an authority figure is a crucial element of Apocolocyntosis, a work which serves as an important example of the genre known as Menippean satire, a style of writing named after Menippus of Gadara, which contains passages in both prose and verse and which is characterized by what Christopher Whitton terms “ludic irreverence.”[21] Indeed, the irreverence of Apocolocyntosis is especially bold, since it is directed against a historical figure, Claudius, who had been recently deified. Seneca, then, was no stranger to the sort of impertinence that pervades works of satire.

1§12 The burp in Thyestes is perhaps just such a moment of literary impertinence, but one that is artfully tailored to suit its context. As we have seen, belches and other bodily functions belong in the realm of satire, a realm that Seneca had inhabited as the author of Apocolocyntosis. But as we have also seen, the verb eructo is not found in satire and in fact occurs in epic, a genre with a register and level of prestige similar to that of tragedy.[22] Seneca here is using language that befits the dignity of tragedy in order to describe actions suitable for the low-brow, humorous world of satire. This double-force of the word eructo captures the woeful state of Thyestes, who is participating in the tragic destruction of his own children while he engages in a decadent and self-indulgent feast.

1§13 Christopher Star, in a study examining Petronius and Seneca’s shared interest in “problems of self-construction and presentation,”[23] asserts that “Seneca’s tragedies provide an extended look at the language of the self and an important pendant to the ideas of human psychology, action, and self-command presented in his philosophy.”[24] Star observes the similarities between the description of Claudius’ death in Apocolocyntosis and the feast scene in Thyestes. He notes that both passages “show the transgression of Roman moralizing ideals about the decorum and bodily control necessary for the elite male,” and he goes on to comment of Claudius that while he “may be the fool king, the Saturnalicius princeps, his foolish appearance should not lead anyone to believe that he is harmless. He is in fact a savage and capricious tyrant, made worse by his stupidity.”[25] The same might be said of Thyestes, whose inability to command his bodily functions demonstrates his inability to command a kingdom. The burp undercuts any feelings of pity we might feel for Thyestes and allows him to become an object of satirical scorn, even as he ingests his own children.

1§14 It is a perhaps futile but undeniably intriguing exercise to speculate on what implications Seneca’s use of satirical elements in Thyestes might have had beyond the self-enclosed universe of the drama itself, that is to say, to speculate on what political motives or intended effects on the audience[26] might lie behind the tragic burp. Anthony Boyle claims that Seneca’s tragedies exhibit “the style of shock, [a] product of a world which screamed its aesthetic and moral structures, which imaged through hyperbole in the arts, in the arena and in political and social behaviour the vacuum and appetitive excess of aristocratic Roman life.”[27] Certainly, there is much in Senecan tragedy that is shocking: Medea kills her sons on stage (Medea 967–971, 1019–1021), Theseus methodically arranges the mangled parts of his son’s dead body (Phaedra 1247–1270), and Oedipus’ destruction of his eyes with his own hands is described in gory and cartoonish detail by a messenger (Oedipus 957–979). Thyestes’ burp too, although not violent like the preceding examples, possesses an element of shock value. It is the only occurrence in any of Seneca’s tragedies of a bodily function.

1§15 In the case of the burp, though, any shock to the audience is tempered by the register of the word eructo. Its rhetorical power stems not only from its ability to shock but also from its satirical overtones. If we accept Vasily Rudich’s contention that Seneca was an adroit “dissimulator,” a person who “conceals true feelings by a display of feigned sentiments,”[28] and if we recognize satire’s penchant for irreverence, we might understand Seneca’s necessity for embedding this bit of satire within a tragedy. Claudius had already died when Apocolocyntosis was published, but the target of Seneca’s criticism in Thyestes might very well have been alive when he was composing the drama.

[1] Tarrant 1985:220n911.

[2] For a very brief overview of this commentary, see Mader 2003.

[3] Meltzer 1988:315.

[4] Meltzer 1988:315n20.

[5] For an overview of the differences in register between Old Comedy and satyr plays and an account of the language in Euripides’ Cyclops, see Henderson 1991:26–27.

[6] Scodel 2010:5.

[7] For an examination of the effect that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy might have had on Seneca’s dramas, see Staley 2010.

[8] Meltzer 1988:312.

[9] Gowers 1993:109. OCD⁴, in an entry written by Gowers, states that the name “satire” comes from the feminine form of the adjective satur (“full”) (see OCD⁴, s.v. “Satire”). OLD for the most part affirms this etymology, with the qualification that the name perhaps originates from an Etruscan word with a different meaning (see OLD, s.v. satura). For word play on the etymology of satire in Juvenal, see Rimell 2005:84.

[10] Meltzer 1988:316.

[11] See Adams 1990:231–250.

[12] A search for the verb ructo, on the other hand, yields Plautus’ comedy Pseudolus and Juvenal’s Satires. For more on the use of this word, which like eructo means “to belch,” in Juvenal, see below.

[13] Tarrant 1985 provides a brief biography of Seneca (1–8). See Fitch 1981 for an attempt to date Seneca’s individual tragedies based on the frequency of “sense-pauses” within lines.

[14] See OCD⁴, s.v. “Petronius (1),” for the placement of Petronius in the Neronian period and the argument that the author of the Satyricon was the same person as the arbiter elegantiae at Nero’s court.

[15] See e.g. Ruden 2000:186–188 and Sullivan 1968:211–212. For an attempt to complicate the view that the relationship between Petronius and Seneca was one of hostility, see Star 2012:1–19.

[16] For the numerous literary influences on Petronius’ Satyricon, see Ruden 2000:173–179. Additionally, Rimell 2002 points out an extraordinarily wide variety of influences on the Satyricon (see e.g. 122 where she observes elements from comedy, tragedy, and satyr plays in the “Ship of Lichas” episode). Astbury 1977, on the other hand, based on a papyrus fragment of a Greek prosimetric novel, believes that the primary influence on the Satyricon was the Greek romance. He heavily plays down any connections between the Satyricon and satire. Astbury’s view, in my opinion, is not tenable, since he ignores many elements, such as scatological humor, common to both satire and the Satyricon.

[17] Freudenburg 2005:4.

[18] Braund and Gold 1998:248. The articles in this issue of Arethusa, which Braund and Gold also edited, make extensive use of Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1984) notions of “carnival” and “grotesque realism.” Since our study merely attempts to identify features of satire in Thyestes and is not primarily concerned with literary theory, we will not discuss Bakhtin’s work here.

[19] The translation is Braund’s (2004).

[20] Whitton 2013:151, drawing from Dobesch 2002.

[21] Whitton 2013:152.

[22] Aristotle claims that epic resembles tragedy in that it too is a μίμησις…σπουδαίων (“imitation…of serious things”) (Poetics 1449b10).

[23] Star 2012:2.

[24] Star 2012:62.

[25] Star 2012:144, 150.

[26] That Seneca’s plays were intended to be performed is now the opinion of a majority of scholars (see Trinacty 2015:32–33).

[27] Boyle 2006:197.

[28] Rudich 1997:17, 259n18.


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