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Tragedy: A Complete History

4. Romans: Seneca and the Circus Maximus

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In this module, we think about Roman theatre, focusing in particular on the relative paucity of surviving tragedy, and the possibility that the spectacle of tragic theatre was overshadowed by the other spectacular entertainments available to the Romans in the form of chariot-racing, athletics, and gladiatorial combat. In the second half of the module, we turn to the work of the single surviving Roman tragedian – Seneca – whose plays establish a number of the long-standing conventions of the tragic genre.

Key individuals:
– Aristophanes, c. 460/50-386 BC
– Menander, c.342-290 BC
– Plautus, 254-184 BC
– Terence, c.195-59
– Quintus Ennius, 239-169 BC
– Marcus Pacuvius, c.220-130 BC
– Lucius Accius, 170-86 BC

The Surviving Plays of Seneca:
– Hercules Furens, or the Madness of Herucles
– Troades, or The Trojan Women
– Phoenissae, or The Phoenician Women
– Phaedra
– Thyestes
– Hercules Oetaeus, or Hercules on Oeta
– Agamemnon
– Oedipus
– Medea
– Octavia


In this course, Professor John Lennard explores the history of tragedy from its origins in ancient Athens to the present day. In the first three modules, we think about the tragedy of Classical Athens, looking in particular at the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, before turning in the fourth module to Roman tragedy and Seneca the Younger. In the fifth module, we think about how the arrival of Christianity of Europe may have impacted people's views of tragedy in the Middle Ages, before turning in the sixth, seventh and eighth modules to the tragedy of the Renaissance period – including Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd, Marston, Webster. After that, in the ninth module, we think the Restoration Tragedy of the late 17th and early 18th centuries, before moving on in the tenth module to consider the intersection between tragedy and Romanticism – looking especially at works of Lessing, Schiller, Goethe and Kleist. In the eleventh and twelfth modules, we think about the impact on tragedy of first a new medium – the novel – and then a new technology – the camera. In the thirteenth module, we think about tragedy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, looking especially at the work of Henrik Ibsen, before moving on in the fourteenth module to think about the relationship between tragedy and war – especially the First World War (1914-18). In the fifteenth module, we think about the tragedy and Modernism, looking in particular at the plays of Bertolt Brecht and novels of William Faulkner, before turning in the sixteenth module to think about how tragedy has represented the Sho'ah, i.e. the Holocaust. In the seventeenth module, we return to Modernism by thinking about the works of Lorca and Beckett, before moving on in the eighteenth module to look at tragedy in film and television. In the nineteenth module, we think about tragedy written by non-Western writers and in non-Western contexts, looking in particular at Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan (1956) and the works of the Yoruban writer, Wole Soyinka, before turning in the twentieth and final module to tragedy today and in the future.


Born in Bristol, and educated at Oxford and St Louis, Dr John Lennard has taught English, American, and Commonwealth Literature in Cambridge, London, and Jamaica over more than twenty years. He has written two widely used textbooks (on poetry and drama) and monographs on Shakespeare, Paul Scott, Nabokov, and Faulkner, as well as two collections of essays on contemporary genre writers in crime, science fiction and fantasy, and romance. Enthusiastic, discursive, widely knowledgeable, and a demon for punctuation (on which he has also published extensively), he has been a popular Summer School Course Leader and lecturer for the Institute of Continuing Education since 1992.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Lennard, J. (2018, August 15). Tragedy: A Complete History - Romans: Seneca and the Circus Maximus [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Lennard, J. "Tragedy: A Complete History – Romans: Seneca and the Circus Maximus." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Aug 2018,

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