Statius, Thebaid I.46-122


Permalink 02:08:02 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 818 words, 5899 views   English (US)
Categories: Statius' Thebaid I

Statius, Thebaid I.46-122

Thebaid text (new window) for this post. I laid out my rationale for this series in a previous post.

Summary: The story picks up with Oedipus–father of Eteocles and Polynices–calling on the fury Tisiphone to curse his two sons. Tisiphone grants his wish and wings her way to Thebes.


The ten lines used to introduce Oedipus highlight the former king’s most obvious feature: his vacuos orbes, eyes he put out when he discovered his monstrous crimes (cf. Sophocles Oedipus Rex). He dwells in penates (a household) inaspectos caelo radiisque, “heaven and rays” a hendiadys for sunlight. Circumvolat alis/saeva dies animi is ironic; “a savage daylight of the mind” has replaced the real sun for him, and I think given the circumstance Statius is deliberately echoing Virgil’s tragic description of Marcellus in Hades: nox atra caput tristi circumuolat umbra (VI.846). Finally, there’s a reversal as Oedipus manibus…cruentis/pulsat inane solum. The usual prayer-pose in Rome was to stand with hands extended to heaven, as when Aeneas calls on the gods duplicis tendens ad sidera palmas (Aen. I.93) or Horace’s Caelo supinas si tuleris manus (Ode III.23.1). Oedipus is pounding on the ground because he’s invoking the infernal goddess Tisiphone; his are perversa vota.

With such a promising beginning, I was nevertheless quite disappointed with the actual prayer, an overly-rhetorical exercise that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Lines 60-72 are a long series of conditionals which are only here so Statius can recount Oedipus’ backstory ("If I have split my father’s skull on the road, solved the riddle of the Sphinx, etc.") I found very little interesting in this other than the odd-looking word ini, a contraction of the perfect form inii - “I have entered” (had to think about that for a bit). The actual request begins with the Exaudi starting line 73. Statius tries to patch together a plausible rationale for Oedipus’ curse, but cops out and simply implies Oedipus’ madness is driving his request for things quae…ipsa (Tisiphone) furenti/subiceres. Aside from the passing non regere in line 75 (remember it was his daughter Antigone who guided Oedipus to Colonus after his blinding, not his sons), the king’s grievance barely explains his prideful sons’ snubbing him while alive–he cuts that discussion off with pro dolor!–and dwells implausibly on a lack of respect toward their dead father and the injustice of their kingly inheritance. For this slight he begs Tisiphone totos in poenam ordire nepotes; why the sudden over-reactive leap to totos nepotes, rather than just the sons that (per the text) seem to have so minimally wronged him? Overall I consider Oedipus’ speech a flawed attempt to justify the upcoming tragic events, one that pales in obvious comparison to the deft psychological portrait of Juno justifying her rage against Aeneas in the opening scene of the Aeneid. But then again Oedipus is furentem, so I guess anything goes…

There’s something of a recovery in the follow-on description of the Fury and her frightful trek to Thebes. Statius seems fond of Tisiphone’s snake-filled mane, and I loved the description of her pose when Oedipus’ prayer reaches her:

          …inamoenum forte sedebat
Cocyton iuxta, resolutaque vertice crines
lambere sulphureas permiserat anguibus undas.

(crines is Greek Accusative after resoluta)

Gives a whole new meaning to “washing your hair". This is the first of three allusions to her serpentine locks; in lines 103-4 we hear about centum…cerastae,/turba minor diri capitis and again in 115-6 fera sibila crine virenti/congeminat.

Tisiphone is described in lurid detail–her skin sanie gliscit, and igneus atro/ore vapor is the worst case of halitosis I’ve ever heard. Along with the detail in the Oedipus scene, the famous Silver Age interest in horrific details may put off some readers. My take is that the more appealing subjects of description lay on such well-trodden ground by the time Statius and other Silver-agers started writing that this interest in gore is mainly a function of its novelty as a descriptive topic.

But I do see two small creative lapses in this passage. First, in line 99, Statius says that upon the earthly appearance of Tisiphone far-off Atlas horruit et dubia caelum cervice remisit, repeating the same horruit trick he played recently in line 40 (where Thetis “shuddered at” a river bank formed by corpses). And in closing the scene with Tisiphone’s shrieking hair resounding thru the world, he mentions again the mythical Palaemon and his mother, whose story he already touched on in line 14 (the part he wasn’t going to tell us about). A little weak IMO.

Overall, as I said before, the Oedipus/Tisiphone dynamic here seems to invite comparison with the similar interaction between Juno and Aeolus that opens the first book of the Aeneid, and unfortunately it falls quite short. Not a reason to give up, but score one (I guess) for the detractors…


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