Statius, Thebaid 123-164


Permalink 01:07:11 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 729 words, 3784 views   English (US)
Categories: Statius' Thebaid I

Statius, Thebaid 123-164

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

Summary: Tisiphone sews emnity between the brothers Eteocles and Polynices; Statius laments the paltry stakes they will fight over.


The selection begins with the praeceps Fury’s influence hovering over the roof of the house. Statius provides a laundry list of violent emotions, with gentilis furor at the top–interesting that Statius attributes this madness to Oedipus’ lineage (remember the king admitted himself to be furentem in the previous passage). Others pile on: invidia, metus (pithily described as parens odii), amor regendi, and ambitus, which to Roman ears was a particularly heinous crime.

Staius explains the split between the brothers by comparing them to untamed oxen (131-6), and in this case I think he falls short. The better epic similes do more than simply match one or two aspects of A to B, they move beyond the material similarities and either strike at multiple layers of comparison–like the simile vergil cribbed from his Georgics between the workers at Carthage and bees (Aen. I.430-6)–or they double back on the comparison to imply more than they are saying–like the simile between Neptune and a political leader in Aen. I.148-53, a veiled reference to the recent political situation in Rome and the rise of Augustus. Other than having two matched oxen, unused to working together, who end up plowing in different directions, there’s little else that’s relevant in the comparison. For example, Statius could have expanded this simile to better describe the destruction wrought by the broken team–the best he says is the two oxen in diversa trahunt…vincula laxant…et vario confundunt limite sulcos, hardly a picture of epic destruction.

Line 137 repeats praeceps from earlier to describe the brothers’ discordia. Part of me wonders if this is a MSS error for biceps, which IMO would be more apt with the just-concluded simile and because four lines later he describes the power-sharing agreement as foedere praecipiti. In any case, the repetition of praeceps from ealier is significant: a quality which initially described the perched Tisiphone has now been passed to the brothers. The phrase used to describe the agreement–alterni placuit sub legibus anni/exilio mutare ducem–is the sort of unusual phrasing you expect in epic poetry; literally “it pleased under terms of an alternate year to exchange the leader(ship) for exile.” Statius quickly describes the obvious problem, and inserts an ironical description of the brothers’ phony pietas:

Haec inter fratres pietas erat, haec mora pugnae
sola, nec in regem perduratura secundum
. (142-3)

This allows the author to launch into a lengthy aside in the second half of the passage, one that starts out quite well with (yet another) negative description: The things the brothers were not fighting over–luxurious palaces, dutiful retinues, and opulent banquets. The details here are interesting: Staius mentions the palace halls are raised with montibus Grais–an excess of Greek marble–and congestos satis explicitura clientes, that the retinue is required to guard kings impacatis..somnis, and the banquets mero committere gemmas/atque aurum violare cibis–literally putting gemstones in wine and “dishonoring” gold (plates) with food. This is ostensibly done to contrast with the meagre rewards of the Theban kingdom in the next four lines, squalentia jugera and the right to sit non altus on the solio Tyrii exilis. But in reality, Statius is lobbing a subtle criticism of his own age, when Greek marble was mined to extinction, the emperor’s Pretorian guard was everywhere, and Petronius’ Cena Trimalchionis could satirize the common vice of gaudy excess. Perhaps then periit ius fasque bonumque/et vitae mortisque pudor is intended not just to describe the brothers but the foibles of the poet’s own age.

The section concludes with an apostrophe, or a direct address from the poet to the brothers. I’ve never cared for this rhetorical device–it smacks of amateur melodrama–and IMO Statius uses it here simply to indulge cute description about the East/West “limits of the sky", which of course means introducing Boreas and Notus to get the other two compass points. And I see furiis again in line 163, another hint and the underlying thread of madness in loco Oedipodae.

To summarize, there are flashes of talent here, but I’m beginning to understand how the poet earned his reputation. Still, onward…


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Qui sciet quae quoque sint modo dicenda, nisi tamen in procinctu paratamque ad omnis casus habuerit eloquentiam, velut clausis thesauris incubabit.

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