history lesson

Succession Loves Ancient Greek and Roman Myths, But What Does It All Mean?

Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession.
Like a Roman among the Greeks. Photo: HBO

Succession relishes playing the name game. The regal and imperious air of the Roy family is reflected in their on-the-nose last name, Old French for “king.” The duplicity and nastiness that the Roy children assume as birthright comes out in the nicknames for firstborn, Connor (“Con”), and lone daughter, Siobhan (“Shiv”). Throw in the names of longtime Waystar Royco counsel Gerri Killmann as well as the rival media family that proved to be just as cutthroat as the Roys (the Pierces), and the ruthlessness of the dramatis personae is revealed before the first insult is delivered.

Dig even deeper into the show’s naming patterns and you’ll find a further layer of nomenclatural richness. Again and again, ancient Greek and Roman references bubble up in episodes and lurk behind the names of pivotal characters, adding to both the gravity and the humor of the show’s unfolding drama, while also pointing to where the show may be heading and how the succession in Succession might play out.

But before addressing the names drawn from Greek and Roman myth and history, it’s worth first noting just how thickly such references occupy the show’s air. At the Argestes retreat for the superrich, the setting of an episode of the same name, this is quite literally the case: Argestes means “clearing” or “brightening” in Greek and became a name for the South Wind, whose gusts were thought to have a clearing effect on the skies. The retreat produces such an outcome for the Roys, as the venue sees their built-up tension with the Pierces cleared in sweeping but messy fashion in the episode’s dramatic final sequence: Pierce family matriarch Nan calls off the deal between the families and storms out of the retreat, with Logan chasing after her in a panic. The clarifying gust provided by Argestes turns out to be more of a tornado.

Another display of the show’s Classical pomp comes in the plumed Corinthian helmet that peers out from behind Logan’s desk (a nod, perhaps, to Brian Cox’s turn as the equally menacing Agamemnon in 2004’s Troy). And then there is Rhea Jarrell’s suggestion to Shiv in “Return” that Nan Pierce “wouldn’t mind putting a fucking sharp, burnt stick in your dad’s cyclops eye” — an image that casts Logan as the boorish, myopic cyclops Polyphemus, poised to be outsmarted and ousted by the next Odysseus who crosses his path.

Also bandied about are references to the myth of Oedipus, the Greek hero who unwittingly kills his own father, succeeds him as king of Thebes, and marries his own mother. In “Which Side Are You On?”, youngest son Roman approaches Waystar Royco board member Lawrence Yee about the plan he and brother Kendall are hatching for a vote of no confidence in their father. “You and Kendall are thinking of killing your dad? Well, that’s a little Greek tragedy,” responds Lawrence, whose partner adds, “Yeah, Oedipus.” Roman picks up from there, follows the myth through to its next disturbing episode, and entertains the thought of sleeping with his stepmother, Marcia, since “that’s, you know, that’s like phase two.” But it is the pointed differences between the Roy sons’ Oedipal narrative and Oedipus’s own that are perhaps most interesting. First of all, Logan’s children have, to this point, failed in any attempts at corporate patricide. Secondly, their efforts are not unwitting. Betrayal is the modus operandi of the Roys, as indeed everyone in their orbit knows. When Rhea first meets Kendall in “Safe Room,” she extends her hand with the greeting, “And you must be Oedipus Roy.”

It is in and around Rhea that many of the Greek and Roman references in Succession’s second season converge. She arrives on the scene in “Safe Room,” visiting the Waystar Royco headquarters in her capacity as the CEO of the Pierce Media Group to entertain offers for a buyout. Her visit prompts longtime Roy family advisor Frank Vernon to confide to Logan, “She could be our Coriolanus.” The reference is to Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, a quasi-historical Roman general (and subject of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus) who betrayed Rome and besieged the city while commanding the army of a rival state.

Logan replies to Frank’s learned analogy with the unforgettable quip, “Why don’t you take your library card and fuck off?” (Which would surely be his response to this piece, too.) But Frank’s prediction proves to be more or less accurate: Rhea does betray the Pierces, does come to work for Logan, and, in “Dundee,” is announced by Logan as Waystar Royco’s next CEO, its lead general.

While Rhea emerges as a Coriolanus figure, the other mythical reference in this character is more direct. Rhea is the name of one of the Greek gods known as the Titans. She is the daughter of Earth and Sky, the wife of Cronus, and the mother of the Olympian gods Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, and Demeter. She is a divinity of great influence, and, crucially, an expert at the machinations of divine succession. When the powerful but paranoid Cronus is scheming to devour his children so as to prevent the rise of a successor (sound familiar?), it is Rhea who outsmarts him, conspires with her parents Earth and Sky, and gives birth to eventual successor Zeus in a concealed place.

Parallels with Roy family drama are not precise, but the name Rhea surely evokes this formidable goddess and her pivotal role in the divine succession myth. And it leads viewers to wonder: Has Succession’s Rhea, like her mythical forerunner, outmaneuvered the Cronus-like Logan? Does she have the smarts to align with other powerful players, as the Titan Rhea did?

While the figure of Rhea from Greek myth looms large in season two, connections with the ancient Romans run strong across the arc of the show. In the Roy family’s big meet-up with the more cultured Pierces in “Tern Haven,” Logan offers a toast and introduces the Roys as “like Romans among the Greeks. I’m sure you find us all rather, you know, big, vulgar, and boisterous.” His words draw on an age-old stereotype of Rome as militaristic, moved along by men of action, with aspirations of imperial dominance. In “Dundee,” Logan’s brother and fierce detractor, Ewan, picks up on this comparison when reflecting on the damages done by Waystar Royco’s media empire. He hearkens to a celebrated Roman historian when saying of Logan, “Tacitus comes to mind … He’s made a wasteland, and calls it an empire,” prompting a spot-on bit of literary criticism from Ewan’s grandson, Greg: “God, Tacitus … all killer, no filler with him.” Ewan is loosely quoting a statement Tacitus included in a speech by the Caledonian warrior Calgacus, as he rallied his men to stand up to Rome’s invasion of Britain in the first century C.E. (actual quote: “They make a wasteland and call it peace”). And so one proud Caledonian — that is, Ewan — picks up on the words of another, each decrying an empire that is sprawling out to world dominance. Bad news for Ewan, though: Calgacus and his Caledonians are summarily crushed.

In spite of condemnation from the likes of Ewan, neither Logan nor the Roy children seem at all interested in downplaying their “Roman-ness.” Quite the opposite: Their vulgarity, boisterousness, and airs for domination are an essential part of the family identity. And this brings us back to the youngest Roy child, whose name is simply Roman. For the Roy who is the most vulgar, the most preening, the most like the boy-emperors Caligula and Nero, Roman is the perfect name.

However, the name Roman is not enough for this Roy. Across the show, Logan routinely uses another name for his youngest: Romulus. In Roman myth, Romulus was the son of Mars, the god of war, and he rose to be the first king of Rome after killing his twin brother, Remus, in a contest for the throne. Do Succession’s nods to Romulus and his tale point us toward similar developments in the empire of Waystar Royco? After all, it is only Logan who calls his son Romulus. And he does so at key moments — in their very first exchange in the pilot, in the first season episode when Logan pressures him at the boardroom table to backstab his brother Remus (er, Kendall), and when Roman votes to tank the investment in Vaulter, the website that Kendall had championed. Are Logan’s well-placed drops of this name signs of the coronation that is ultimately to come? Is this a case of nomen as omen? Will Romulus Roy (“King the King”) emerge, after boardroom bloodshed, as Succession’s successor?

Or will Succession only confound things further, pulling in more threads of myth, piling on more Greek and Roman references, filling the air with more ancient and ominous spirits?

Succession Loves Ancient Greek and Roman Myths