Classics Seneca's Medea
Austin Busch
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0415


Lucius Annaeus Seneca (born around 4 BCE in the city now known as Córdoba, Spain), was a philosopher, tragedian, and influential figure in the Roman imperial court during the Julio-Claudian dynasty. He served as advisor to Nero, who ordered his suicide in 65 CE. Seneca’s extant corpus consists of works in a range of genres, from philosophical treatises to verse tragedies. The latter are foundational to the Western literary tradition, for the ten Latin plays attributed to Seneca (eight without serious question; the Hercules Oetaeus and Octavia doubtfully) provide a crucial link between Greek drama and the tragedies of Shakespeare, Corneille, and other early modern playwrights. Medea is characteristic of Senecan drama in terms of its stylized portrayal of extreme violence, its complex and ambiguous engagement with Stoic philosophical ideas, and other features as well. Though it may be based on the eponymous Euripidean tragedy, Seneca’s Medea is hardly derivative and, in fact, few studies devote much energy to probing Euripides’ influence. Seneca’s Medea, both on its own and in combination with his other dramas, poses compelling questions about how and whether to integrate passionate emotion into one’s life as well as laying the foundation for Renaissance revenge tragedy. Accordingly, since the second half of the 20th century, critics have focused not only on the role Seneca’s dramas, including Medea, play in the tragic tradition and related issues of early modern reception, but also on how they incorporate and challenge Stoic philosophy, in particular the elusive concept of the self, constructed as much as innate or discovered according to Seneca’s philosophical writings. Scholars have also considered what Medea has to say about gender, social, and political dynamics, especially against the cultural, ideological, and political backdrop of early imperial Rome. With this play, as with all Senecan tragedy, questions about staging, including the metatheatrical and ethical implications of Medea’s self-consciously spectacular violence, remain open, with important work relevant to these problems continuing to be published. Seneca’s Medea has generated eclectic literary interpretations, and many, even those that may at first glance seem dated, remain compelling. Frequently, scholars treat Seneca’s Medea alongside his other tragedies or in the context of broader analysis of his entire oeuvre. For that reason, some of the works listed deal as much with the Senecan corpus as they do with Medea in particular. Where feasible, this bibliography directs readers to sections most relevant to Medea, but it is not always possible to excise treatment of that tragedy from a scholar’s larger argument.

General Overview (including Critical Editions and Translations)

Only one book-length overview of Seneca’s Medea exists (Slaney 2019), so most of the works in this section are critical editions and translations with introductions. There are three critical editions in English of varying scope, with thorough introductions, Latin text, scholarly commentary, and sometimes translation. Boyle 2014 is the most detailed and exhaustive. Costa 1973 and Hine 2000 are more concise. Alongside a very good Loeb edition (Fitch 2002), Bartsch, et al. 2017 and Wilson 2010 offer reliable translations of Medea in the context of Seneca’s broader tragic corpus and provide sound overviews, including introductions to Seneca, the tragedies, and Medea in particular, along with useful notes. Zwierlein 1986 remains the standard Latin text of Seneca’s dramatic corpus, indispensable for anyone engaging with the original language and manuscript tradition. For readings of Medea that could serve as interpretive overviews of the play, see Corti 1998 under Family, Social, and Gender Dynamics; and Fyfe 1983 and Shelton 1979 under Eclectic Literary Studies, with Shelton treating Medea’s stylistic character as well.

  • Bartsch, Shadi, Susanna Braund, Alex Dressler, Elaine Fantham, and David Konstan, trans. 2017. Lucius Annaeus Seneca: The complete tragedies. 2 vols. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Each volume contains the same general introductory essay by Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch, and Martha C. Nussbaum, titled “Seneca and His World.” Bartsch’s excellent translation of and introduction to Medea begins on page 1 of Volume 1, with the latter in part based on Bartsch 2006 under Medea and the Self.

  • Boyle, A. J., ed. and trans. 2014. Seneca, Medea. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The introduction of Boyle’s edition alone approaches the length of Costa 1973 or Hine 2000, including sections on context, rhetorical style, theatrical performance, interpretation, meter, the Medea myth, and the play’s reception. The Latin text, with facing-page translation, frequently departs from Zwierlein, and the commentary, tied to the Latin, is exhaustive. This full-fledged critical edition is indispensable for serious study of the play.

  • Costa, C. D. N., ed. 1973. Seneca: Medea. Oxford: Clarendon.

    This is the first comprehensive critical edition in English of Seneca’s Medea, or of any Senecan tragedy. It includes introduction, Latin text, critical apparatus, and fairly traditional philological commentary.

  • Fitch, John G., ed. and trans. 2002, 2004. Seneca: Tragedies. 2 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    For general introduction to Senecan tragedy, see pages 1–33. Medea, including introduction, Latin text, facing-page translation, and notes, occupies pages 333–433 of this volume. The text is edited independently of Zwierlein 1986, the translation quite literal, and the introductory material sensitive and useful. Sparse notes elucidate select textual obscurities.

  • Hine, H. M., ed. and trans. 2000. Seneca: Medea. Aris & Phillips Classical Texts. Warminster, UK: Aris & Phillips.

    Hine’s volume is the most accessible of the three critical editions, with facing-page translation and astute commentary keyed to the translation rather than to the Latin text, based on Zwierlein 1986.

  • Slaney, Helen. 2019. Seneca: Medea. Bloomsbury Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Bloomsbury.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781474258609

    This work constitutes an invaluable introduction to the play, with treatment of historical context, the Medea myth in the ancient world, central themes, literary style, later reception, and performance.

  • Wilson, Emily, trans. 2010. Seneca: Six tragedies. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Wilson provides the most readable translation of Medea, which occupies pages 71–101. The notes are brief, but helpful. The introduction is insightful, including thoughtful integration of Seneca’s biographical context.

  • Zwierlein, Otto, ed. 1986. L. Annaei Senecae tragoediae; incertorum auctorum Hercules [Oetaeus], Octavia. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Zwierlein’s is the standard Latin text with brief introduction (in Latin), including manuscript stemma and critical apparatus.

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