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Statius' Thebaid: A Glimmer of Light in a Sea of Darkness

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2014

D.E. Hill*
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


This essay was largely completed before I had an opportunity to read Professor F. Ahl's contributions to Statian scholarship in ANRW. In those two essays there is to be found an extensive survey of the negative judgements accorded to Statius in general and to the Thebaid in particular, scholars have united in assuming that Statius' flattery of Domitian is either sincere or merely servile and that his epic has nothing to say about the world in which he lived. By challenging both these assumptions in an extremely trenchant and, I believe, convincing way, Professor Ahl has prepared my ground for me and I do hope that any reader who feels that the thesis of this paper must be unsound because of what we ‘know’ already about Statius will consult Professor Ahl first. On the other hand, while I do think that the recently traditional view of Statius as, at best, an escapist and, at worst, a toady is unsustainable, I do believe that Professor Ahl is, from time to time, guilty of over-interpreting and I think that there must be some danger that critics who can see the excesses in some of the details of his position will imagine that they can safely ignore his far more important fundamental point. In this piece, I intend to explore the first book of the Thebaid in the light of its models, especially the Aeneid, not because that is a method that will reveal all there is in the book but because it is possible to apply reasonably rigorous tests of plausibility. At a later time and elsewhere I hope to pursue this kind of analysis both to the rest of the epic and in relation to other sources. It is also my view that Statius presented his material in a particular order for his own good reasons and that it can be unhelpful, as many do, to rearrange the material in the hope of revealing some novel insight.

Research Article
Copyright © Aureal Publications 1989

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1. Ahl, F.M., ‘The Rider and the Horse. Politics and Power in Roman Poetry from Horace to Statius’, ANRW 2.32.1 (1984), 40–124Google Scholar, and Statius’ Thebaid. A Reconsideration’, ANRW 2.32.5 (1986), 2803–2912Google Scholar. I should like to pay tribute to the three anonymous readers who reported on an earlier version of this paper; I have learnt much from all three and I hope that they will feel I have done justice to their observations.

2. In an earlier version of this paper, I included some speculation on the relationship between this book and the role of Theseus in book 12. I have decided to omit it here and revert to it when I am considering that book in its own context.

3. Nothing, of course, hangs on whether the reader accepts this particular association between the Aeneid and contemporary politics, provided only that it is accepted that such associations do regularly occur in the epic.

4. There is now a fascinating new analysis of Virgil’s world view in Hardie, Philip, Virgil’s Aeneid: Cosmos and Imperium (Oxford 1986)Google Scholar.

5. See also Rudd, W.N.J., ‘The Idea of Empire in the Aeneid’, Hermathena 134 (1983), 35–50Google Scholar. For arguments in support of a strongly pessimistic world view in Virgil’s Aeneid see Boyle, A.J., The Chaonian Dove: Studies in the Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil (Leiden 1986)Google Scholar.

6. E.g. Ahl (n.l above) and Boyle (n.5 above).

7. There is a comprehensive assault on this position in the two articles by Ahl (n.l above) together with a depressing catalogue of its adherents. One of the earliest to see the light was A.J. Gossage in Dudley, D.R. (ed.), Neronians and Flavians (London 1972), 184–235Google Scholar.

8. See, for example, Horace Epod. 1 and, perhaps of more immediate interest, Lucan B.C. 1.94–97. Ahl also reminds us of the rivalry between the brothers Titus and Domitian.

9. The translations in this paper are mine except that I have taken advantage of Professor David West’s kind invitation to borrow from his forthcoming translation of the Aeneid. It should not, however, be judged from these pages since I have doctored it from time to time.

10. For an analysis of this celebrated passage, see Ahl, F., Lucan: An Introduction (Ithaca 1976), 29–31Google Scholar.

11. The whole scene clearly owes much to Ovid Met. 4.448–80 where Juno seeks Tisiphone’s help. There we are made to feel how much greater is Tisiphone’s power than Juno’s. Beneath Tisiphone’s apparently unquestioning obedience (facta puta quaecumque iubes, ‘consider done whatever you command’, Met. 4.477), there is, surely, a significant degree of contempt: non longis opus est ambagibus … inamabile regnum desere teque refer caeli melioris ad auras (‘You have no need to ramble on at length … leave the loveless kingdom and take yourself back to the better air of heaven’, Met. 4.476–78).

12. Virgil repeats the opening words of the Aeneid early in the first book (119) though not, it would seem, to achieve any comparable effect.

13. Vessey, David, Statius and the Thebaid (Cambridge 1973), 79Google Scholar. Ahl (n.l above, 2828ff.) devotes much space to what he sees as the problem arising from the fact that Statius distances himself from the typical Theban (Theb. 1.171) although he clearly agrees with his opinions. The truth surely is that it is one of the worst features of bad government in the eyes of all ancient writers that it tends to give legitimate complaints to unworthy people. Thersites is the first example of this but he is not the last. Statius may have been from a relatively humble background but it would be very anachronistic to see anyone in his position as a champion of what we would call the common man. See also n.21 below.

14. The general tone of this council owes much to Ovid Met. 1.163ff. It may not be accidental that that council sanctioned the Flood, an event followed in the next book by the contrasting story of Phaethon. Both incidents are quickly alluded to by Statius’ Jupiter in his ensuing speech.

15. Vessey (n.l3 above), 82.

16. A point developed by Vessey (n.l3 above), 92f.

17. The best passages to illustrate the connexion are Pausanias 1.39.6, where Sciron disputes with Nisus for the throne of Megara and is appointed polemarch instead as a consolation prize, and 1.44.6–9, where the polemarch, Sciron, builds the road that bears his name and is subsequently punished by Theseus for throwing strangers from it. Plutarch (Thes. 10) reports a favourable legend about Sciron told by the Megarians, as well as the more familiar brigand story that he attributes to the Athenians.

18. Horn. Od. 529ff. Compare especially Od. 5.306–12 with Aen. 1.94–101.

19. See also Vessey (n.13 above), 95.

20. This line does itself, of course, pick up externum cemimus … aduentare uirum (‘we see a man coming from afar’, Aen. 7.68f.).

21. Readers may be tempted to cite as a counter example nunc humilis genua amplectens (Theb. 10.625) which Mozley translates: ‘Then humbly clasping the knees of the seer.’ However, the point being made there is surely that it is degrading (humilis) as well as pointless (nequiquam) for Creon the king to supplicate Tiresias the prophet.

22. It may be felt that the natural connotation of clarescunt tells against this interpretation. The word occurs only twice elsewhere in Statius. It is used at Theb. 12.709 of sunshine and at Silu. 3.3.120 in an unambiguously honorific context. However, it is plain from Tacitus (Hist 2.53 and Ann 4.52) that the word can have a more ambiguous connotation. In both Tacitean passages, the word suggests self-glorification in the subject and real disapprobation in the writer. Similarly, but less tartly, here, it is at least possible that his natural grace leads Adrastus to express himself with a degree of tactful ambiguity; for, while we cannot doubt a pejorative sense to be uppermost in Adrastus’ mind, the sense of the word at Silu. 5.2.166 demonstrates that it was open to Polynices and Tydeus to accept in a more favourable sense. Furthermore, the development of the plot requires the relationship between Adrastus and the young men to improve; here, perhaps, is where that process began:

23. This interpretation is not invalidated by the fact that the two young men are dressed in a way that seems to confirm Apollo’s prophecy. The prediction does not seem in any way to presuppose a divine plan. In some mysterious way, Apollo knows what will happen but his prophecy is couched in a way that makes it utterly useless (not uncharacteristic of Apollo as Sophocles’ Oedipus could confirm) and which in no way suggests that the events foretold were in any sense planned. The picture of Apollo that emerges from the rest of the book should remove any lingering doubts.

24. Vessey (n.13 above), 97.

25. Vessey (n.13 above), 100, prefers to stress that Jupiter was responsible for Ganymede’s abduction and for the destruction of Argos. There is, however, no mention of Jupiter here and it is not plausible that we are expected to consider his role at all.

26. Vessey (n.13 above), 101.

27. Legras, Léon, Étude sur la Thébaide de Stace (Paris 1905), 38fGoogle Scholar.

29. See, for example, Hor. Odes 1.31 and Propertius 4.6.25–30.

30. Here again, the overt imitation of the Ovidian model, ostensibly of a story with a similar theme, serves chiefly to draw our attention to the enormous differences between Ovid’s mischievous Apollo and Statius’ cruel Apollo.

31. See also d’Esperey, Franchet, ‘Le destin dans les epopées de Lucain et de Stace’, Visages du destin dans les mythologies, Mélanges Jacqueline Duchemin (Paris 1983), 95–104Google Scholar. Mme. d’Esperey, who very kindly sent me an off-print of her essay, gives a useful summary of other modern works on this general theme. She is surely right to stress the power of evil to be found in Statius, but it is harder to accept Jupiter as the personification of ‘volonté’ bonne’ (102). However, the central theme of the essay, that the times in which they lived had forced Lucan and Statius to transform the Virgilian world view, is unassailable. On the possible importance of Theseus in this context see n.2 above.

32. See Vermaseren, M.J., Mithras (London 1963), 112fGoogle Scholar., Plutarch de Iside et Osiride 52 and the note on that chapter in the edition by J. Gwyn Griffiths (Wales, 1970) and Witt, R.E., ‘Some Thought on Isis in Relation to Mithras’, Mithraic Studies (Manchester, 1975), ii. 482Google ScholarPubMed.

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