Friday, May 19, 2023

The happy few who live in peace


from Chorus, The Madness of Hercules

Such is the lot of common people,
Who praise each day for its rewards,
Grateful for peace, they envy no one
But prize the small joys life affords.

Let ambition rule the City
Where truth and virtue are sold short,
Where suitors sleep in rich men's doorways,
And poets lisp their lies in Court.

Let the miser count his riches
Always aching to have more.
Each new coin adds to his nightmare
Of his death unloved and poor.

Noble politicians preach
Virtue to the shifting mob.
Defenders of a commonwealth
No one else but they can rob.

The happy few who live in peace
Realize it may not last.
The slightest change of fortune may
Leave joy and comfort in the past.

While fate permits, enjoy this life.
Death stalks us all with steady pace.
The wheel of Time turns just one way.
The steps we take we can't retrace.

The Fates themselves who measure life
Cannot lengthen what they've spun.
Why tempt death by seeking glory?
Why hurry to oblivion?

Only Hercules...

-Seneca (tr. Dana Gioia)

This is about half the first chorus in Seneca's tragedy Hercules Furens or The Madness of Hercules, as translated by Dana Gioia. It's a pretty free translation, but catches the spirit well, I thought.

As the play starts, Hercules has not (yet) returned from the underworld after the last of his twelve labours. (Capturing Cerberus, the three-headed dog of Hades.) His kingdom, Thebes, is under attack by Lycus, because everyone assumes Hercules won't return. But of course he does. He kills Lycus to restore his kingdom, but in his battle rage he goes on to kill his wife Megara, and their children together. "Why tempt death by seeking glory?"

I recently read that volume of Seneca's tragedies in translation.


  1. I love the idea of "the happy few who live in peace". :D

    1. I do, too. Seneca himself generally failed, however...