About a year after the Persians captured, sacked and burned the city of Miletus in 494 BCE, the Athenian playwright Phrynicus produced The Capture of Miletus, a tragedy about the colony’s harrowing fate. It was still early in the history of Athenian drama, and it may have been the audience’s reaction to Phrynicus’ play that led later tragedians to prefer mythological topics to contemporary ones. Herodotus tells us that the entire theatre fell to weeping and that Phrynicus was fined a thousand drachmae for reminding the Athenians of misfortunes all too familiar to them. Any future production of the play was forbidden.
The Octavia, a first-century drama of unknown authorship once attributed to Seneca the younger, comes closest to providing a Roman parallel to Phrynicus’ play – a tragedy on a contemporary theme – although the similarities are tenuous. Most obviously, only a few fragments of The Capture of Miletus remain; we have all of the Octavia, except the name of its author. Phrynicus depicted the fate of an entire city; the Octavia the impending death of a single woman, the emperor Nero’s wife and stepsister. One play upset a large audience of Athenian citizens; the other may have been recited only to a group of senatorial literati. The Octavia – we don’t know about The Capture of Miletus – mixes some mythology into its history: the character of Octavia draws something from Euripidean and Sophoclean heroines like Iphigeneia, Electra and Antigone.
But, unlike other Greek and Roman tragedies, these plays deal with the tragic present. The Romans for whom the Octavia was performed or recited had lived through the events that led up to her death at the hands of the murderous and unstable emperor; they would have remembered the public rioting that took place when Nero replaced her by marrying his mistress Poppaea (whose beauty, according to one of the play’s choral odes, rivalled that of Helen of Troy; Octavia, meanwhile, is portrayed as a model of virtue, but no one mentions her appearance). They would also have remembered that Octavia was exiled to the island of Pandateria, a two-mile-long volcanic outcrop off the coast of Campania, on a trumped-up charge of adultery; and that, after a short interval, she was murdered and decapitated, her head brought back to Rome at Poppaea’s request.
The Octavia is the only surviving example of its genre, the fabula praetexta: that is, a Roman drama on a historical topic (the praetexta was the purple-bordered toga worn by Roman magistrates and priests). But others, all now lost, preceded it; in the 3rd century BCE, Naevius, Pacuvius and possibly Ennius wrote dramas celebrating the res gestae of particular noble families, as Accius did in the following century. We know the names of some of these: Naevius, for example, wrote a Romulus and a Clastidium, the latter in honour of the victory of the Roman general M. Claudius Marcellus over the Gallic Insubres in 222 BCE. Ennius’ Ambracia was probably a praetexta treating the capture of Ambracia in 189 BCE by M. Fulvius Nobilior, Ennius’ patron. In the first century BCE, L. Cornelius Balbus even wrote a praetexta about himself, dealing with a journey he made before the battle between Pompey and Caesar that ended the Roman Republic. We are told that the play was staged in Gades (not Rome) at Balbus’ own expense, and that he wept at the portrayal of himself. But none of these plays would have been much like the Octavia: most of the events they dramatised took place in Rome’s distant past, and few were tragic. The purpose of the praetexta was largely celebratory or honorific: Horace describes it as being intended ‘to celebrate Roman deeds’. When these deeds had unhappy conclusions they were described on stage only if they belonged in the legendary past, as in Accius’ dramas about P. Decius Mus, who sacrificed himself to save the Roman army at the battle of Sentinum in 295 BCE, and about Lucretia, whose rape and suicide incited the Romans to overthrow the last king of Rome.
The dramas that were closer to what we think of as tragedy – the fabulae crepidatae (‘dramas using tragic footwear’) or tragoediae – were, like their Athenian precursors, based on mythological topics. The early Roman playwrights often produced such works; all of Seneca’s dramas, written during the first century CE, were tragedies in this sense. The protagonist of Thyestes eats his children unawares; Medea slaughters her children and rides off in a flying chariot; Oedipus puts out his eyes (in Seneca the guilty eyeballs voluntarily extrude to meet his hands halfway). Some of the tragoediae were, it’s true, interpreted as conveying a historical or political message (Mamercus Aemilius Scaurus’ Atreus greatly offended Tiberius), and some were restaged long after their first appearance to serve a political purpose. And a few exceptions to the dominance of legend and mythology exist: Tacitus, in his Dialogue on Oratory, introduces Curiatus Maternus, who dared to recite the historical drama Cato (dealing with the suicide of a republican hero more than a century earlier) to a Vespasianic audience; Curiatus appears to have met a bad end, possibly as a result.
The Octavia, however, had a uniquely direct message. Set in 62 CE, it gives the earliest extant account of the divorce and death of Claudia Octavia, the daughter of the emperor Claudius and his third wife, Valeria Messalina. It was not much of a life by any account. Octavia was a child when her mother killed herself rather than face execution for adultery and conspiracy; at 13, she was married to her stepbrother Nero, the son of Claudius’ new wife, Agrippina; a year later, in 54 CE, her father suddenly died, according to some sources poisoned by Agrippina; a year after that, her brother Britannicus, too, was fatally poisoned; at 22, she was divorced and put to death. The play closely matches the account in Tacitus, who himself probably relied on earlier, now lost, Flavian sources (such as those of Pliny, Cluvius and Fabius; other, shorter accounts can be found in Suetonius and Dio Cassius). Tacitus tells us that Nero, wanting to get rid of Octavia and marry Poppaea, first tried to drum up a charge of adultery; when that failed, he adduced sterility. At first Octavia was granted the estates of two of Nero’s other victims in compensation; then she was apparently banished to Campania, and recalled only after popular rioting in Rome. Finally, Anicetus, the fleet commander at Misenum, was bribed into confessing to adultery with her; she was deported to Pandateria and murdered shortly afterwards. The play fits these events into a span of three days. (Six years later, on 9 June 68 CE, Nero himself was abandoned by the praetorian guard and drove a dagger into his throat as he cowered in a freedman’s villa on the outskirts of Rome.)
Following on the heels of a renaissance in Senecan studies, the Octavia is enjoying a surge in critical interest. In the last decade, there have been two new English editions, including the excellent 2003 text and commentary by Rolando Ferri. Now comes A.J. Boyle’s critical edition and commentary, with facing English translation in literal but elegant blank verse. Boyle’s commentary goes to pains to situate the drama in its historical and social context. The introduction starts by discussing the authorship and date of the play, and moves on to the Neronian principate and the theatrical nature of Nero’s reign. We then get a review of the history of Roman theatre in the republican and imperial periods (Boyle observes that political drama seems to decline as it becomes more risky) and a good account of the genre of the fabula praetexta.
The most valuable part of the introduction is Boyle’s analysis of the play itself, which gives new shape to a work often criticised as being formless, arid in its imagery and stilted in its dramatic action (the three main characters – Nero, Octavia and Poppaea – never converse with each other on stage). Where other critics have seen seven acts, Boyle sees six, and from this new structure a new order emerges: there are repeated doublings. To echo the scene with Octavia and her nurse on the first day of the play, there is one between Poppaea and her nurse on the third. Octavia has a nightmare, and so does Poppaea; Nero and Seneca’s conversation is parallelled by that between Nero and his prefect; and, most unusually, there are two chorus groups, one pro-Octavia and the other pro-Poppaea. There are two distinct portrayals of the divine Augustus: the standard one offered by Seneca to Nero, and Nero’s savage exposé of the power politics and bloodthirstiness of the supposedly clement first princeps of Rome. Everything here is up for political manipulation, including Rome’s past and its present.
Boyle sees the Octavia as a political reading of Senecan tragedy and its themes, and of Seneca’s own writing about kingship. As he points out, the Seneca of the play, in his exchange with Nero, introduces the idea that a consensus of the people and the senate with the emperor is the basis for just rule – an idea that is absent from Seneca’s essay On Clemency, addressed to Nero, in which the emperor’s absolute power of life and death is supposed to encourage self-restraint. (One assumes Seneca eventually realised just how badly he had miscalculated.) In dramatic terms, the play sides with Nero’s view of the Augustan principate rather than Seneca’s: Nero’s description of the butchery carried out by Octavian and the other members of the triumvirate is shocking; Seneca, by contrast, offers only platitudes – platitudes that we, too, apply to the age of Augustus. The play is dominated by ideas about fortune, tyranny, the Furies, rumour, death and the struggle between the will of the people and the will of the emperor. There is also the theme of incest; it is only ever discussed by Octavia and Nero, and they always direct their comments towards others, never towards their own union. Lurking in the background is another incestuous marriage, that of Agrippina to her uncle Claudius, which suggests an appropriately tragic aetiology for the destruction of the family line.
Boyle’s verse translation is meant to serve for performance as well as serious study, and it was in fact staged in San Diego in 2006 – perhaps one reason Boyle feels strongly that the play wasn’t written merely to be read aloud to a private group. Boyle’s main competition is Ferri’s Cambridge edition, but Ferri’s does not include a translation and his 300-odd pages of commentary are more closely focused on philology. The difference between the two approaches is illustrated by their notes on the prophecy uttered by Agrippina’s ghost in lines 616-31. Boyle unpacks the oracular language and points us to the actual details of Nero’s death in Suetonius’ Life; he also identifies the quartet of punished sinners in the underworld to whom the ghost refers (Tantalus, Sisyphus, Tityos and Ixion) and tells their stories. In addition, he gives full details of the Domus Aurea, to which the ghost seems to allude. In his notes on the same lines, Ferri discusses textual emendations and mentions Nero’s punishment, but spends more time on the architecture of the Domus Aurea. Each commentary is valuable; if used together, it’s hard to imagine needing any other source of information.
Other English translations are also in print. The most commonly used is probably the 2004 version by John Fitch in the Loeb Classical Library. And another new translation is forthcoming from George Harrison. Each has different strengths. A lyric passage near the beginning of the play (21-25), in which Octavia laments her sad existence, is rendered most literally by Fitch (who elsewhere uses prose for the drama’s usual iambic senarii):
I have borne my cruel stepmother’s commands,
her hostile spirit and grim looks.
She was the dismal Erinys that lit
my marriage chamber with Stygian torches;
and she quenched your light, piteous father.
I served a vile stepmother’s will,
Endured her hate and savage looks.
That – that dire Fury’s Stygian
Torches lit my marriage chamber,
And quenched you, piteous father.
The iambic metre allows a rhythmic flow, and the sibilant alliteration, taken from the Latin original, successfully conveys Octavia’s hostile hissing. On the other hand, ‘That – that’ might suggest impotent stuttering: Fitch’s ‘She was’ gets across the Latin ‘illa, illa’ more effectively. More lyrical and operatic than either is Harrison’s much looser version:
We had to curtsey to a stepmother’s summons,
sadistic, ill-disposed, reeking malice;
that woman, that contemptible Fury
carried funeral torches in procession at my wedding;
she killed you, poor, dear father.
Here the Latin saeva is rendered as ‘sadistic’ and delayed to form part of a trio of epithets, and the torches of the marriage chamber are explicitly associated with funeral torches, perhaps to evoke the famous lament in which Sophocles’ Antigone contrasts her ‘marriage to death’ with her planned but unfulfilled marriage to Haemon.
Why was the Octavia written, and how should we interpret it? These are difficult questions, given how dependent the answers must be on the unknown dates of the drama’s composition and performance. Scholars have long agreed that Seneca himself couldn’t have been the author: his presence in the play, Agrippina’s forward-looking references to the Domus Aurea and Nero’s own death, the stylistic departures from Senecan drama (the use of different particles and adverbs, the less skilful handling of metre, the absence of Senecan self-address, of a five-act structure and of typical features such as long ekphrases) rule out the possibility that Nero’s ill-fated adviser, who committed suicide in 65 CE on the emperor’s orders, had any hand in the play. But it may have been written at least partly to exculpate Seneca: the majority of the extant historical accounts of his political involvement with Nero, unlike this one, are negative, and charge him with complicity in Nero’s murders. In the Octavia, his resistance may be futile, but it is brave.
Some modern scholars date the Octavia to the short period in which Nero’s successor, Galba, was in power; T.P. Wiseman has suggested that it was performed for Galba’s entry into the city in October 68 CE. It would thus represent a look back at the end of the Neronian period on the part of an audience that could afford to be hopeful despite the drama’s grim resolution, when Octavia is led off in chains. Ferri sees parallels with Statius’ Silvae and dates the play to Domitian’s reign (though apparently Domitian was touchy about criticism of Nero, and at one point repudiated his own wife). Boyle argues, quite reasonably, that early in the reign of Vespasian is our best guess; partly on the grounds that Rome’s theatres were revitalised at that time (an explanation that will not convince scholars who don’t think the drama was publicly staged), but also because Claudius’ murdered son Britannicus was a childhood friend of Vespasian’s son Titus. In addition, as Patrick Kragelund has pointed out, the coinage under both Galba and Vespasian showed an emphasis on the celebration of the populi Romani, something paralleled (one could argue) by the respectful treatment of the chorus of anonymous Roman citizens in the play. Unlike the republican Cato, recited by Maternus Curiatus to a Vespasianic audience, the Octavia shared the perspective of those in power in Rome – just as The Capture of Miletus presumably shared the perspective of its citizen audience. We will never know whether Octavia’s fate, too, made audiences cry, or whether the name of the author of this curious play, with its series of static tableaux, disappeared precisely because no large audience was much moved to see it – or no large audience did.