Statius, Thebaid I.324-400


Permalink 12:00:53 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 542 words, 5553 views   English (US)
Categories: Statius' Thebaid I

Statius, Thebaid I.324-400

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

Summary: Polynices makes his way to Argos, where king Adrastus worries about a portent from Apollo.


Passages like this illustrate the culture-gap modern readers must bridge when approaching the literary scene of Silver-Age Latin. The myths we consider obscure today were the foundation then of literate education, and Statius is writing for a highly-select group of intelligent readers. If you don’t know who Sciron is, if you confuse the Megaran Scylla with the Scylla in the Strait of Messina, or if you are unaware of the geography and history of Lerna, one might dismiss the picturesque poetry as cute and pretentious (to be clear, I had to look up quite a few of the sites mentioned, and had that very reaction).

But there is something else going on in this passage which can get buried under the amplified footnotes required for most modern readers. Take, for example, lines 336-9, where Statius introduces nightfall:

Iamque per emeriti surgens confinia Phoebi
Titanis late mundo subvecta silenti
rorifera gelidum tenuaverat aera biga;
Iam pecudes volucresque tacent…

This is a reversal of the usual epic-language about “rosy-fingered dawn". Diana–the moon–is the goddess Titanis, but in contrast to Aurora, her “dew-bearing chariot” introduces gelidum into the world. Personification of dawn is an old trick in epics, and Statius is referencing them in inverted form; for comparison, look at Lucretius II.144-6:

primum aurora novo cum spargit lumine terras
et variae volucres nemora avia pervolitantes
aera per tenerum liquidis loca vocibus opplent

Spargit contrasts with tenuaverat; tenerum with gelidum, and birds which are pervolitantes in Lucretius are tacent in Statius.

This reversal of the usual epic trope allows Statius to underscore the gloom of his epic via pathetic fallacy. Nature itself reflects the impending conflict: Venti transversa frementes/confligunt…dum caelum sibi quisque rapit could easily describe the competing brothers, a metaphor Statius makes plain in line 369: pulsat metus undique et undique frater. It’s unfortunate Statius added the rather lame epic simile comparing Polynices to a sailor caught in a winter storm. The navita is described as stat rationis inops, but Polynices is clearly driven by a purpose: dat stimulos animo vis maesta timoris. I really don’t see the connection between the two.

Polynices finally makes it to the regia vestibula, and collapses in exhaustion. Statius then smartly introduces King Adrastus by contrast: Rex ibi, tranquiliae medio de limite vitae. A rather good summary IMO, though feminists would likely find the line describing Adrastus’ lack of male heirs insulting: Hic sexus melioris inops. The portent mentioned near the end of the passage is enigmatic enough; although a reader will easily guess that either suem or leonem refers to Polynices, it also makes one suspect that some other, unknown person is scheduled to arrive soon. Statius closes the selection with another apostrophe–this time to Amphiaraus, the seer who would become one of the better leaders in the doomed fight against Thebes. Though I normally don’t like this device, I’m somewhat fond of this oblique reference, a detail that helps highlight the nobility of Adrastus’ court in contrast with Polynices, Eteocles, and the foolish war they are about to undertake.


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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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