Statius, Thebaid I - Impressions


Permalink 02:54:51 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 554 words, 5193 views   English (US)
Categories: Statius' Thebaid I

Statius, Thebaid I - Impressions

Over the past two months I’ve been posting a commentary as I read the first book of Statius’ Thebaid. Though I’ve enjoyed a lot of Latin poetry over the years, I had never studied more than a line or two of this work. Statius has been largely dismissed in a modern classical canon that favors originality and thematic complexity; he’s overly-cute, demonstrates all the vices of the Silver Age, and revels in obscurity (I learned more mythology in studying the allusions of book I than from the Latin I read over the past 10 years). Still, I thought I’d approach the work fresh and give Statius a fair chance. I found that posting my thoughts was an excellent way to organize an interpretation–my opinions changed as I wrote each post, and I think Latin students would benefit from writing personal interpetations of lengthy texts.


And so after completing the first book of the epic, I thought I’d take a look back and share my general impressions. Technically Statius is quite gifted, but the Thebaid so far isn’t very engaging. I see it more as a collection of set pieces strung together by a shopworn mythological plot, like tapestries hanging on a clothesline. Individual scenes can be quite good–I’m sticking by my assessment that the descriptive introduction of Polynices (I.312-23) as the best passage in the book, though Adrastus’ calming words followed by the simile of a ship at storm (I.467-81) is also a favorite. But the poem has yet to establish a decent theme; I have no sense that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In the last section I noted that Statius may be hinting at the folly of religion. In looking back over the book this isn’t quite right, and think instead Statius is making a broader comment on unchecked authority. I’m drawn back to the scene setting up the council of the gods (I.197-204), which sounded a lot like the imperial court–especially in contrast to Vergil’s Jove, a benevolent ruler in the mode of an (idealized) Augustus. If so, the god’s lackluster speeches and his brush-off of Juno’s insightful (if bitter) objections might be a sly parody of the imperial court. Juno’s points are spot-on: Jove routinely ignores more heinous crimes, his repeated adulteries leave him open to a charge of hypocrisy, and (in my interpretation) his past attempts to wield his power terrarum furias abolere et saecula retro emendare haven’t worked out very well. Contrast this with the other authority firgure depicted in the book–the mild and conciliatory Adrastus, a king who answers his own door for goodness’ sake! There isn’t enough here to judge the merit of this interpretation–and as I am viewing this poem with the modern pro-democracy perspective of government I’m biased toward finding it, regardless of whether it’s actually there–but I think it’s a point of interest worth pursuing.

In summary, the Thebaid not as bad as I thought it would be, though it is more than a little trying. Like panning for gold in a well-combed riverbed, you may find the occasional nugget but only if you are willing to pour through tons of worthless sand and mud. I’m planning to move forward, but reserve the right to skip ahead after I do a little research.


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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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