Horror in the Service of Stoic Philosophy: Seneca’s Medea

Dagmar Kiesel

                      noctis aeternae chaos,
aversa superis regna manesque impios           10
dominumque regni tristis et dominam fide
meliore raptam, voce non fausta precor,
nunc, nunc adeste, sceleris ultrices deae,
crinem solutis squalidae serpentibus,
atram cruentis manibus amplexae facem,       15
adeste, thalamis horridae quondam meis
quales stetistis: coniugi letum novae
letumque socero et regiae stirpi date.
mihi peius aliqud, quod precer sponso, manet:
vivat, per urbes erret ignotas egens                 20
exul pavens invisus incerti laris 


                                        Chaos of eternal night,
realms faced away from life above, unholy spirits of the dead,
lord of the gloomy realm, and lady stolen like me
but shown better loyalty: I pray to you with words not of good omen.
Be present now, you goddesses who revenge crime,
your hair bristling with loosened snakes,
your bloody hands grasping a black torch;
be present, as once you stood unkempt and fearful
around my marriage chamber. Bring death on this new wife,
death on the father-in-law and the whole royal stock.
For the bridegroom I have a worse prayer in store:
may he live. May he wander through unknown cities in want,
in exile, in fear, hated and homeless.

(Med. 9‒21, trans. J.G. Fitch).[1]

Medea kills one of her sons, red-figure neck-amphora, c.330 BC (found in Capua, Campania, and now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

Seneca’s Medea as a horror tragedy avant la lettre

Horror as a literary genre started with the Gothic novel in the late-18th century. Yet ‘scary’ characters of course feature in ancient literature, from witches to werewolves. One of the most impressive examples is the tragedy Medea written by the Roman Stoic Seneca (c.4 BC – AD 65). The play’s opening passage, quoted above, demonstrates several common motifs of horror.

Medea, the mythical daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis and niece of the famous enchantress Circe (see Books 10 and 12 of Homer’s Odyssey), having been rejected by her unfaithful husband Jason, conjures up horrible (horridae, Med. 16) creatures of the underworld to bring death to Creusa, Princess of Corinth and Jason’s new bride, as well as her father – spirits of the dead, goddesses of revenge, poisonous and choking snakes. Furthermore, she curses Jason to a peaceless existence as an eternally wandering spirit. In doing so, Medea refers to the traditional dichotomy of the moral worlds of good and evil, metaphorically described as realms of light and darkness.

But our contemporary notions of horror differ from the horror that Seneca wants to provoke.[2] Modern readers and audiences can enjoy fictional horror because they are aware that these characters and situations are safely fictional: this generates an ambivalent mixture of horror, suspense and pleasure in the spectator. In antiquity, however, belief in magical powers and mythical creatures was quite widespread. The fact that Seneca deliberately triggers the fear of his audience is also demonstrated by his decision not to report acts of violence. Instead, he depicts them on stage, contrary to ancient custom. Medea, who kills both of her (and Jason’s) sons in an ultimate act of revenge, does so before the spectator’s eyes.

Medea, Frederick Sandys, 1868 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK).

At first it seems surprising that Seneca would want to arouse strong painful passions in audience members. According to Stoic doctrine, passions are false value judgements that consider indifferent things to be good or evil as well as relevant for happiness. But for Seneca and the Stoics, only virtue is good, and only vice is evil.

The dominant passion in the tragedy, whose dating is controversial, is Medea’s anger. Intent on seriously hurting her unfaithful husband Jason, she poisons his bride, the princess Creusa, and sets fire to the palace in Colchis, which also kills King Creon. In the climax of her revenge, she kills the two sons she has with Jason and flees the scene in a dragon chariot.

Medea’s anger, as depicted by Seneca, is based on the false judgement that Jason’s infidelity is an evil that affects her happiness. It is Medea’s disappointed love, along with her resulting anger, that results in the excessive violence in the tragedy, from the murder of Creon and Creusa to the double filicide. This is precisely what Seneca wants to draw our attention to, and he does this paradoxically by making us afraid of passions with the help of numerous horror motifs. In Stoicism, however, all passions are expressions of false value judgements, including fear.

Nero and Seneca, Eduardo Barrón González, 1904 (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

Seneca was one of the most important personalities of the Roman Imperial Period, both politically and philosophically. First, he was Nero’s private tutor, and later his closest political advisor. Yet, when Nero accused him of involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy to overthrow the emperor (and possibly be installed as the princeps himself), Seneca committed suicide on Nero’s orders in AD 65. Philosophically, Seneca was connected to the Stoics, and his wide range of prose writings explores the vast realm of Stoic thought. Nevertheless, he was always open to accommodating the thoughts of other philosophical schools (e.g., the Epicureans), if their views could contribute to securing the happy life (vita beata). In addition to his philosophical corpus, ten tragedies have come down to us under Seneca’s name, eight of which can be considered genuine – including, of course, Medea.

Thanks to his protreptic and soul-healing intentions, Seneca is hardly dogmatic. If it is, for example, impossible to eliminate a painful emotion (such as fear) by correcting a false value judgement, then it may be replaced with a pleasant emotion (such as hope), even though the latter is also based on a false value judgement (Epp. 13.12). More than other Stoics, Seneca admits the possibility of an intermediate disposition between folly and wisdom and acknowledges that the one who progresses in the philosophical art of living (the proficiens), unlike the wise (the sapiens), can still be shaken emotionally at times (Epp. 35.4). The essential step from the foolish (stultus) to the progressive is initiated through the process of ‘enlightenment’, which takes the form of philosophical instruction and rational argumentation, an undertaking to which Seneca devotes himself in his philosophical oeuvre.

Speculative bust of Seneca, anon., 17th cent. (Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).

Long before Seneca, Plato developed a narrative-based approach to enlightenment, through the use of established myths, invented stories and dramatic-style dialogues. Socrates retells several famous myths in Platonic dialogues. Scholars have long debated what their precise functions were and what their relationship with the underlying philosophical argument (logos) of each dialogue may have been. One prominent theory is that the Platonic myths are intended to convey relevant insights to the intellectually less gifted or educated. Seneca’s tragedies may have a similar function: they are intended to make philosophically uneducated spectators recognise the dysfunctionality of their attitude to life and thus lead them towards philosophy.

Moreover, the spectator’s fear differs from Medea’s destructive passions in one important respect. Medea as a tragic character is directly affected by the events. She has sacrificed home, family and fortune to her beloved Jason, and now experiences his disloyalty as her only reward.

The audience, however, knows that although the events on stage are within the realm of the possible, they are not actually real. The audience’s sense of horror is softened and tempered as a reaction to a fictional event. This is what gives Seneca’s aim of making people afraid of the passions its essential legitimisation, because one of the main reasons for the threatening nature of passions is their unbridled and unrestrainable excess: they are boundless and unreasonable impulses to act. But fictional horror is indirect, and the associated awareness of the fictional character of the events removes a good deal of the unnatural excess of the passion. On the contrary, Seneca seems to hope that the impulse to act that is generated by horror motifs and fear will prove to be not excessive, but beneficial, and that it will lead the audience to dedicate themselves to Stoic philosophy.

Maria Callas performing as Medea in Luigi Cherubini’s opera (1797) at the Dallas Opera, TX, USA, in 1958.

Medea as a witch and embodiment of the unnatural

A characteristic of the horror genre is its preoccupation with the unnatural, and its integration of figures from mythology and superstition (witches, monsters, the undead, etc.), as they are also found in Seneca’s tragedy. If one interprets Seneca’s Medea against the background of the modern genre of horror, then the tragedy furthermore counts as psycho-horror: a wounded woman takes revenge on her beloved husband by murdering the children they share.

In Seneca’s Stoic thought, unnaturalness is the epitome of a failed existence. The core thesis of Stoic eudaemonism defines happiness as living in accordance with one’s own nature as a rational being, as well as in accordance with the nature of the cosmos (Dial. 7.3.3). The cosmos and the fate of the individual are guided by the well-meaning divine reason that permeates all of nature and determines the course of the world completely teleologically. The wise willingly and gladly submit to their fate and refrain from developing painful emotions: those who know that divine reason cannot err do not quarrel with the divine arrangement of things and they neither fear coming adversities nor grieve over present ones.

Moreover, according to Seneca, man’s reason is a part of the divine spirit (Epp. 66.12), which is bound up with a human body. By accepting and approving the divine providence and realising a godlike virtue in action, individuals thus perfect their own godlike nature. However, the realisation of a natural life according to reason and virtue is not a self-fulfilling issue, but an extremely demanding project of self-improvement, the realisation of which is uncertain. Failure can take on different degrees. In the character of Medea, Seneca portrays the opposite model to the ideal type of the wise woman and thus the paradigm of an unnatural and pathological personality.

Medea rejuvenating Aeson, Conrado Giaquinto, c.1760 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Already in the prologue, Seneca puts a confession of Medea’s abnormality into her own mouth. In a dialogue with herself, Medea interprets her murderous plan as contrary to God: “Savage, unheard-of, horrible things (horrida), evils fearful to heaven and earth alike, my mind stirs up within me” (Med. 45–7).

To illustrate the unnaturalness of Medea’s attitude, Seneca presents her as a witch and harmful sorceress. In antiquity was black magic considered not only as a perversion of the natural but also as a destruction of the natural order; the portrayal of Medea as an evil sorceress clearly places her on the side of evil and vice. Seneca thus demonstrates, in the figure of Medea, the Stoic equation ‘happiness = living according to nature = virtue’ by means of the reverse equation ‘misfortune = living contrary to nature = vice’.

Foolish thoughts, actions and character are not always as dramatic as in the case of Medea. However, because Seneca wants to show that false values and the struggle against God-ordained fate are fundamentally threatening and unnatural – even if they superficially seem to make a successful life according to conventional standards possible – he depicts Medea as a sorceress even in the run-up to the tragic events of the story (as is consistent with mythological tradition). It is also necessary insofar as the pre-tragic Medea initially seems to lead a productive life and her ventures are crowned with success: already fortunate by descent (Medea is the daughter of king Aeetes and granddaughter of the sun-god Helios/Sol), she wins the heart of the Argonaut Jason, who succeeds in stealing the Golden Fleece thanks to her magical support.

Jason and Medea join hands in the gesture of marriage, Roman sarcophagus, late 2nd cent. AD (Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Italy).

With Medea’s excessive erotic love for Jason, the disaster begins. The unnaturalness of this passion, which far exceeds the natural emotional bond between woman and man, is shown by Medea’s willingness to subordinate everything else to this love and to spare no atrocity: funestum impie / quam saepe fudi sanguinemsaevit infelix amor (“How often have I spilled blood fatally…; the cruelty came from unhappy love,” Med. 134–6).

With the help of Medea’s magic, Jason fulfilled all the tasks which Aeetes had set him and for which the Golden Fleece was the promised reward. Yet the king did not accept Jason’s claim of ownership and pursued the returning Argonauts with his fleet. As the Argonauts fled from their pursuers, Medea destroyed natural family ties for the first time, and sacrificed her brother Absyrtus, whom she had kidnapped from the family home. To stop her pursuers, she threw the dismembered corpse into the sea (cf. Med. 131‒3; 911‒2). Medea justifies the fratricide by her sexual dependence, and exonerates herself by shifting the responsibility to Jason, but she is tormented by feelings of guilt immediately before the killing of her children. As in modern psycho-horror, Seneca personifies Medea’s sense of guilt in the form of vengeful spirits who accompany the ghostly shadow of Absyrtus and demand atonement for his murder.  But Medea regards her murder of her own children as a means to appease Absyrtus. Her self-chosen means of atonement carries the perversity and falsity of Medea’s moral convictions to the extreme. She has no need of punishment from another’s hand but is ready for self-sacrifice: mihi me relinquevictima manes tuos / placamus ista (“Leave me to myself… With this sacrifice I placate your [i.e., Absyrtus’] shade” [she then kills one son], Med. 969–71). Medea’s abnormality is twofold: first, fratricide is to be atoned for with infanticide. A murder that radically destroyed family ties is atoned for with a second murder of the same kind. The idea of moral repentance and improvement of one’s own behaviour, which is associated with remorse, is replaced by a new, even greater transgression. Furthermore, Medea’s concept is not only based on erroneous convictions, but also on a deliberate deception: the motive of infanticide is not an act of self-punishment but arises from the thirst for revenge – and is thus self-centred to the highest degree.

Vision of Medea, J.M.W. Turner, 1828 (Tate Britain, London).

But back to the chronology of events: after Jason’s return to his homeland of Iolcus, the ruler Pelias does not accept Jason’s claim to the throne. Pelias must therefore be forcibly removed. Known to be a witch, Medea convinces Pelias’ daughters to apply a pretended rejuvenation cure for the regent: they would have to kill the ageing king, cut him up and boil him in a herbal decoction. The destructive power of passion and Medea’s perversion of natural bonds is also evident here. To help the beloved Jason to power, she abuses the affection of the king’s daughters for their father and lets them become guilty through their best intentions and familial love (Med. 258–61).

Medea’s treachery fails, and Peliasʼ son Acastus drives the couple out of Iolcus. Medea and Jason settle in Corinth and rejoice at the birth of two sons. The family breaks up when Jason casts out Medea to marry Creusa, the daughter of King Creon. Medea foils the marriage and seeks revenge by plotting the murder of the bride and bride’s father. Once again, Seneca emphasises Medea’s perversion by having her use her own children as henchmen: they are to hand Creusa a cloak and jewellery soaked in poison.

Witches at their incantations, Salvador Rosa, c.1646 (National Gallery, London).

Seneca dramatizes the toxic preparation of the bride’s gifts in detail (Med. 670–845). He stages the mixing of poisons as a magical incantation, which perhaps reminds a modern reader in some respects of the voodoo ritual in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987). The fact that Seneca allows Medea’s witchcraft such broad scope is based on his intention to show the unnatural character of the passions by using Medea’s anger as an example. For this very reason, classical horror and witchcraft motifs are interwoven here: Medea conjures up the pessimos induta vultus (“most hostile looks,” 751) of Hecate and several other infernal demons and handles arcana (“occult things,” 679), such as blood, ashes, wood, feathers, and tripods. She hails the squamiferaturba (“scaly throng [i.e., of snakes],” 685) with her “magic spells” (magicis cantibus, 684) and collects “the poisons of ominous plants” (frugis infaustae mala, 706). Medea’s brutality is further demonstrated when she is said to devour a still-living owl, a bird that in Greco-Roman antiquity was not only revered as the epitome of wisdom but also feared as a harbinger of bad luck and death (Med. 731–5).

The arbitrary destruction of the natural order is also evident in the manipulation of dark powers: “gods of the grave” (ferales deos, 740), “sightless chaos” (Chaos caecum, 741), the god of the underworld Dis as well as the Danaids atoning for the murder of their spouses on their wedding night in Tartarus (749), and finally the lunar “star of nights” (noctium sidus, 750): Hecate (833) or Trivia (788), the torch-wielding goddess of sorcery. All these figures are associated with the Underworld. In addition, she confuses “the laws of heaven” (lege confusa aetheris, 757), changes the “pattern of the seasons” (temporum flexi vices, 759), hinders the flow of the Danube, and causes the sea to roar despite the absence of wind.

Red-figure calyx-krater (mixing vessel) depicting Medea escaping on her chariot, c.400 BC (found in Lucania in Southern Italy and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, OH, USA).

The end

The tragedy ends as it begins: with a classic horror motif. Medea floats away to heaven in a chariot drawn by winged serpents and Jason dismisses her with the words: testare nullos esse, qua veneris, deos (“bear witness that there are no gods where you ride,” 1027). With Medea’s remoteness from God, Seneca does not intend to weave a hole in the pantheistic cosmos of the Stoa; rather, he uses it to illustrate Medea’s own godlessness. Man’s godliness can be so perverted by vice that the person becomes almost completely alienated from the divine (Epp. 87.21). Medea’s journey to a place of godlessness serves as a metaphor for her turn towards evil, the unnatural as well as the anti-divine. Her triumphal majesty is a desperate manic gesture that only superficially masks the shards of her life: Medea has not only lost her home, husband, and wealth, she has also robbed herself of her children, her humanity and dignity, and all social ties. Her journey to a place without gods is a journey into no-man’s land.

Dagmar Kiesel teaches philosophy at the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany. Her main fields of interest are Ancient Philosophy, and the interrelationship of Philosophy with Psychology, Literature, and Theology. She has a certificate in DBT Peer Coaching for Borderline Personality Disorder and is therefore used to dealing with intense passions.

Further Reading

The text and translation in this piece are drawn from John Fitch’s Loeb edition of Seneca’s tragedies (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2002). Other useful items are:

G. Damschen & A. Heil (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Seneca: Philosopher and Dramatist (Brill, Leiden, 2014).

K.A. Fraser, “Roman Antiquity: The Imperial Period,” in D.J. Collins (ed.), The Cambridge History of Magic and Witchcraft in the West (Cambridge UP, 2015) 115–47.

D. Kiesel, “Das Grauen im Inneren. Zur Destruktivität der Affekte in Senecas Medea,” in E. Brock & Th. Lerchner (eds.), Denken des Horrors, Horror des Denkens. Unheimliches, Erschreckendes und Monströses aus philosophischer Perspektive (Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg, 2019) 131–62.


1 The complete Latin text of Seneca’s play can be freely read here, and an English translation here.
2 There is intense debate among scholars about whether Seneca’s tragedies were intended for theatrical performance or just for reading. In this essay I assume that they were written, at least, potentially, for the stage.