Episode 70: Rome’s Forgotten Epic

Statius’ Thebaid, Books 1-6. This epic is hardly ever read or taught these days, but in 100 CE, it was as famous as anything in the Roman world.

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Statius Thebaid, Books 1-6

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 70: Rome’s Forgotten Epic. This program is on the first half of the Thebaid, a 12-book long epic written by the Roman poet Publius Papinius Statius, and finished in about 92 CE – a story about men and women who lived a generation before the events of Homer’s Iliad.

Publio Papinio Stazio Statius

A 16th-century illustration of Statius. Though the poet’s reputation was bolstered in Italy during the Early Modern period due to his placement in Dante’s Purgatorio, he has receded in popularity since the High Middle Ages.

Literature is full of back corners and byways – works that were loved by one or two generations, and then forgotten by posterity, or forgotten by an initial generation and then adored by posterity, only later, ,maybe, to be forgotten again. Reputations rise and fall, and sometimes our own favorite works are obscure things that, for whatever reason, no one seems to know about. In the case of Statius and the Thebaid, we encounter an epic poem that soared in popularity over the first century of its existence. A thousand years later, the Thebaid’s popularity continued, and the poem was circulated widely alongside the Aeneid and Metamorphoses.1 It inspired the influential French poem the Roman de Thèbes, which, along with other antique romances of the 1100s, helped open the High Middle Ages to the texts of classical antiquity. Dante loved Statius so much that, while Virgil guides the medieval Italian poet through hell and the regions that lay beyond it, Statius becomes Dante’s guide halfway through Purgatorio, the second part of Dante’s journey.2 Statius inspired works by Geoffrey Chaucer and John Lydgate. And while Statius was once regarded as being on roughly equal footing with Virgil and Ovid, these days, he has been relegated to the dustbin of classics courses, appreciated as a good, long sample of Silver Age Latin poetry, but hardly revered to the extent that Virgil, and Ovid, and Homer are.

For those of us who come to Statius late in studying classics, though, the poet, who lived from about 45-96 CE, is full of surprises. We open the Thebaid expecting, maybe, a cheap knock off of Virgil, and find a surprisingly different voice, elegant and dark, inclined to excess and digression from time to time, but often visionary in the way that he melds the conventions of epic to tell his story. Statius had the disadvantage of being born during a later, and less known and romanticized period of Roman history than the collapsing republic, the Augustan Age, or the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and when most of us read him, it is after reading the prominent works of these earlier periods. Statius had the secondary disadvantage of working under the mantle of the emperor Domitian, an authoritarian, and a harsh younger brother with a chip on his shoulder, who paid no respect to the senate and peripheral systems of government, and in turn received no affection from the aristocratic historians who wrote about him. And the period in which Statius wrote – often denigrated as the “silver age” of Latin literature – is criticized for preferring rhetoric, and ornament, and mannerism over grit and substance, and often when literary critics evaluated Statius’ achievements, they rushed to pigeonhole him as a product of his times, rather than considering his works in isolation. But notwithstanding Statius’ inconveniently late arrival onto the scene of Roman poetry, readers have never quite been able to dismiss him. At his best, Statius is explosively brilliant and entertaining, telling the story of the war at Thebes that is as cinematic and spectacular as it is profoundly critical of war itself. At his worst, Statius, like Homer and Virgil before him, can pile on repetitious animal similes, include pedantic catalogs of armies, and lose himself in a long and rather dry account of funeral games. All told, Statius’ Thebaid is captivating for reasons far different from the Iliad and Aeneid. Epic war stories were a thousand years old by the time Statius wrote his, and the later imperial poet’s magnum opus throws itself into the genre with a restless desire for innovation matched only by a sometimes paradoxical respect for the traditions that preceded it.

So in the remainder of this program, we’re going to read the first six books of the Thebaid – and there are twelve in total. After we hear the story of the poem’s first half, I’ll talk a bit about what we know about Statius – who he was, the political world in which he lived, and why he may have been drawn to write the Thebaid. But before we open the pages of Statius’ Thebaid, we need to cover some background information. Like many epics, Statius’ great story of Thebes opens in the middle of things, and assumes that you know perhaps a dozen characters and a flurry of events before reading the first line of the poem. Let’s talk about those characters and events a bit. [music]

The Situation and Setting of Statius’ Thebaid

Often, in an action movie, a team of adventurers form ranks to do something challenging and dangerous. Whether it’s sacking an enemy fortress, or robbing a bank, or rescuing someone, frequently this story involves very distinct and different personalities grouping together to accomplish a daunting goal. We might see a stouthearted protagonist working alongside a marksman, an infiltrator, an assassin, a berserker, a femme fatale, a joker – in other words, any one of a set of archetypal characters who, for a time at least, find themselves yoked together for mutual gain. From Dungeons and Dragons to modern multiplayer mode video games, fictional worlds where diverse skill sets combine with one another are the building blocks of many fun and engrossing stories. This, in essence, is the plot of Statius’ Thebaid – the saga of a group of very different, and very distinct warriors who join forces in an expedition against an enemy city. It was not a story that Statius invented.

An 1889 illustration of the Seven Against Thebes swearing an oath to bring war to the enemy city.

About 550 years before Statius’ Thebaid, the classical Greek playwright Aeschylus had written a play about the same war – a play called the Seven Against Thebes. And almost two thousand years after Statius’ Thebaid, the same essential story surfaced in Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai, in 1954, and John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, in 1960. In all of these stories, a charismatic leader bands together a crack team of seven combatants and, under the onslaught of massive enemy assaults, the team holds together as long as it can. Whoever tells this archetypical story, it is a compelling one, filled with a slow attrition of heroes, of heroic sacrifices and last stands, and of unlikely brother- and sisterhoods forged amidst the fires of war. That, in essence, is the heart of the epic you’re about to hear – a story about a small group of very different heroes who lead an expedition against an enemy city – specifically, the city of Thebes.

The city of Thebes, often a major power in the ancient Greek world, and as always not to be confused with the Ancient Egyptian capital of the same name, is about 30 miles northwest of Athens as the crow flies. And just as Homer’s Iliad is the story of a war at Ilium, also known as Troy, Statius’ Thebaid is the story of a war at Thebes, a city in the south of mainland Greece that was the setting of many ancient myths – the story of Cadmus and Harmonia, the tale of Zeus and Semele, and later, Dionysus and Pentheus. That aforementioned crack team of seven adventures band together to join a war that’s being fought between two brothers. These two brothers have been instructed by their father to share a throne, but one brother, in a bid to claim sole executive power, exiles the other brother. The exiled brother, not to be swept under the rug, allies with a foreign city, raises an army, complete with six other captains, and makes war on his home kingdom of Thebes.

Before we talk about the characters of this epic, let’s just go over the setting of the entire story, because it’s all pretty simple. The exiled brother, as the tale progresses, travels south, to the city of Argos. While Thebes is about 30 miles northwest of Athens, Argos is about 60 miles southwest of Athens. The majority of Statius’ poem takes place in these three ancient cities – a brother is exiled from Thebes, he allies with Argos and raises an army there, complete with a small set of heroic captains, and then he treks back to Thebes to pursue his war against his brother. There is a brief scene toward the very end at Athens, and we’ll also hear a couple of books set in the countryside of Nemea – the northeastern Peloponnese between Argos and Athens. But as far as the setting is concerned, the Thebaid takes place in a small triangle of turf central to Ancient Greek literature and culture – the city of Athens; and then Thebes, 30 miles northwest of it; and finally Argos, 60 miles southwest of it.

Statius’ Thebaid‘s Main Characters

Now, let me introduce you to the Thebaid’s most important characters. At the core of the Thebaid is a family of six – a very unusual, and very troubled family. If you’ve read Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, you’ve met these six characters. The father is Oedipus. He has inadvertently killed his father and married his mother, and by the time Statius’ Thebaid opens, everyone in Greece knows about it, and poor Oedipus has gouged his eyes and relinquished the throne of Thebes to his sons. Oedipus’ wife (and also his mother), Jocasta, shares his guilt, and the older pair, with the exception of a couple of showstopper scenes, lurk in the periphery of Statius’ Thebaid, watching the actions of the younger generation with dismay. We should note that while in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, Jocasta kills herself as soon as the news of her illicit union with her son slash husband Oedipus is discovered, in Statius’ version of the story, however, Jocasta has not committed suicide.

Oedipus and Jocasta have four children. Their two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, are the main characters of the Thebaid. When Oedipus abdicated his throne, he passed it down to his sons Polynices and Eteocles, intending them to share rulership of the city. The very first book of the epic tells how this system of joint rulership broke down fairly quickly, but before we even begin reading the story, let’s memorize those two exotic ancient Greek names, because they’re a key to understanding the epic. Polynices is the exiled brother around whom much of the action revolves – he allies with the foreign kingdom and raises the army. His brother Eteocles stays entrenched on the throne of Thebes, unwilling to surrender the city’s leadership once his time is up. Polynices the exile, and Eteocles the king. For a mnemonic device, Polynices travels widely and has to be nice to people in order to band together with them, Eteocles sits on the Theban throne drinking tea. A bit anachronistic, but sometimes with mnemonic devices, the stranger the better.

Anyway, exiled Polynices and the ruling Eteocles have two sisters, Ismene and Antigone. The two women become important figures as the war unfolds, distraught, just as their parents Oedipus and Jocasta are, that Polynices and Eteocles are going to war with one another. Much of the story of Sophocles’ play Antigone appears late in Statius’ Thebaid, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, since I don’t want to give away the ending of the epic we’re about to read. So for starters, let’s remember that famous Theban family of six – two parents, once a proud king and queen who have now fallen; two brothers, who go to war with each other; and two sisters, who suffer from the collateral damage of the war their brothers start.

Statius expects you to know the main characters of the Oedipus myth at his story’s outset – Oedipus, his wife, and his unlucky children were broadly known in the literary culture of the ancient Mediterranean. Not quite so well known, perhaps, are the exiled Polynices’ partners in crime – that small band of hardened veterans who accompany him to make war on his brother Eteocles in the city of Thebes. Let me quickly introduce you to these figures – also characters in Aeschylus’ play Seven Against Thebes. These very diverse characters, for various reasons, come out of the woodwork to help Polynices with his dire quest.

Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices, by Henry Fuseli, 1786, oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington - DSC00044 Statius

Henry Fuesli’s Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices (1786). This dramatic scene unfolds differently in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.

Early in the story, the exiled Polynices meets a character called Tydeus. An exceedingly skilled fighter, Tydeus also has a bit of an anger problem – one which is only occasionally a liability during the campaign to Thebes. The third of the Seven Against Thebes in his epic is a seer called Amphiaraus – a prophet who is, conveniently, not bad with a sword. The fourth of Polynices’ captains is a brawny horseman named Hippomedon – perhaps not the most memorable of the Seven Against Thebes, but a solid team member nonetheless. Then there is an archer named Parthenopaeus – a beautiful young man whose courage and ambition aren’t quite matched by combat experience. And finally, there is Capanaeus, a giant warrior who openly denies the existence of any gods, and who at one point in the war seems almost singlehandedly capable of leveling the city of Thebes. There is a seventh – the King of Argos himself – but he is more of an administrator than a full-fledged team member. And this is the handful of musclebound adventurers that the exiled Polynices rallies to try and take the city back from his brother, a colorful, volatile, larger-than-life bunch whose deeds dominate the central action sequences of the epic.

So that’s a lot of ancient Greek names to throw at you at the outset of the episode, but we’ll meet these characters one by one as the story progresses. Now that we have a good idea of the Thebaid’s setting, its opening situation, and a general sense of its cast of characters, we’re about ready to get started. The only thing I will add ahead of time, and this is important – is that Statius tends to change scenes a bit more often than Homer or Virgil. A single book of Homer, for instance, is likely to focus on one, or maybe two scenes or events. Statius is more cinematic, telling, frequently in a single book, how an event unfolded using multiple perspectives. Thus, in Homer, we might get the story of an assault on the Greek siege camp by Trojan warriors, told in a way that generally valorizes the Trojans’ martial prowess at that moment in the story. If Statius wrote this same book, however, he might include camera cuts back and forth between the Greeks and Trojans, showing the perceptions of each, and tableaus of the citizens in and around Troy impacted by the war. The effect of all these changes in scene – in Statius, I mean – is to create a more pluralistic, panoramic war story, revealing not only how war impacts the combatants, but also various concentric circles of people who have little to do with the war. I will do a very short musical break to indicate these cinematic scene changes.

So let’s venture into Rome’s forgotten epic. Unless otherwise noted, I’m quoting from the Charles Stanley Ross translation, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004. This is the fifth epic we’ve covered in Literature and History. And while it’s not nearly as famous as the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, or even Argonautica, the Thebaid is very often every bit as sweeping, magnificent, and enthralling as its predecessors. [music]

Statius’ Thebaid, Book 1

The Curse of Oedipus

Classical epics begin with compressed statements introducing their subject matter. “Rage – Goddess,” reads the first line of the Iliad, “sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, that cost the [Greeks] countless losses,” and we know that this is the central subject of Homer’s first epic.3 The Odyssey begins with the line “All the survivors of the war had reached their homes by now. . .Odysseus alone was prevented from returning to the home and wife he yearned for,” and we know, of course, that the epic will be a story about Odysseus trying to get home.4 Virgil begins the Aeneid with a combination of these two openings, writing, “This is a tale of arms and of a man. Fated to be an exile. . .He met many tribulations on his way both by land and on the ocean,” and thus promising a story of both war and homecoming.5 Statius’ opening in the Thebaid is somehow more grim and ominous than these. The later Roman epic begins with the following lines:
My mind takes. . .fire. Fraternal strife
unfolds: unholy hatred, alternating reigns,
the criminality of Thebes. How far,
O goddesses, should I go? To the beginnings,
in Sidon, of the unholy race? the rape?
the rigor of Agenor’s law? to Cadmus,
Agenor’s son, who scrutinized the seas?. . .
Events stretch back in time. (1.1-7)6

There is a sense of infinity in these opening lines of the Thebaid – that Statius is only telling a small sampling of an ongoing sequence of events that stretch back into the unfathomable past. Unlike Homer and Virgil, who influenced him, and Dante and Milton, whom Statius himself influenced, Statius opens his epic with faltering uncertainty, as though the subject matter with which he engages is so immense that he needs divine help to even imagine all of it.

One subject that Statius announces he will steer clear of is the emperor Domitian. Domitian, Statius says, forestalled a war with the Dacians – Domitian’s progenitors and Domitian himself were all luminous additions to Rome’s great historical record. Statius prays that Domitian will be garlanded by Apollo and given a place in the cosmos by Jupiter himself, but at the same time announces that Domitian will be his subject some time on down the road, once the poet has been engulfed by an even brighter fire of inspiration. His subject, Statius announces, is Thebes – Thebes just after the awful fall of Oedipus, when the disgraced king Oedipus bequeathed his throne to his sons Polynices and Eteocles. And with this introduction, Statius begins the story proper, starting with the doomed Greek hero Oedpius.

Though shamed by his crimes of incest – though he had gouged out his own eyes – King Oedipus of Thebes still had a keen mind. Statius writes, in the older J.H. Mozley translation, that
Already had Oedipus with avenging hand probed deep his sinning eyes and sunk his guilty shame in eternal night, abiding in a long and living death. But while he hugs his darkness and the uttermost seclusion of his dwelling, and keeps his secret chamber which the sun’s rays and heaven behold not, yet with unwearied wings the fierce daylight of the mind hovers around him. (1.46-50)7

Oedipus turned his blank eyes upward. His voice was hoarse from recent shouting, but he raised it, nonetheless. And he prayed to a fury – perhaps the single most murderous and evil being in Greco-Roman mythology. She appears briefly in Virgil’s Aeneid – Aeneas sees her from the distance, standing atop the adamantine walls of hell on a guard tower, wearing a blood-soaked dress and staring down into the unknown depths on the other side, making sure that nothing ever escapes. And while Tisiphone is a fleeting presence in the Aeneid – a demon queen seen from far off – Tisiphone is central to Statius’ Thebaid.

Oedipus prayed earnestly to the fury Tisiphone. Tisiphone had been behind all of his suffering, Oedipus said – she had taken him away from his adopted father in Corinth, caused him to kill his father in the south part of the Greek mainland, told him how to solve the Sphinx’s riddle, and Tisiphone was behind his grotesque union with his mother, and the births of their children. While Tisiphone had been behind all of his strife, Oedipus said, still, Jupiter offered him no respite – Jupiter had ignored everything. Though the fury’s machinations against him had been ruinous and agonizing, said Oedipus, at least Tisiphone had not ignored him. If Tisiphone would pay heed to him a little further, Oedipus said, he had a request for her – indeed, one that would suit her unique taste for blood and torment.

His sons, Oedipus said, had disregarded him. The products of his incest, they ruled in Thebes and ignored their doomed father – indeed, his fall had led to their rise, and they disparaged him and hated him. Oedipus asked Tisiphone to act. Intervene, said Oedipus, between young Polynices and Eteocles. Oedipus asked the diabolical Tisiphone to position herself between the two brothers, and see to it that the ungrateful young pair became well acquainted with the horrors of war. [music]

The Fury Tisiphone Comes to Thebes

The fury Tisiphone heard Oedipus’ vengeful prayer. The demon, reposing along the river Cocytus in the underworld in a sort of hellish pastoral scene, was watching her snakes lap up the sulfrous water of the black river. But then, hearing a summons, the fury Tisiphone launched herself into action, blasting past the ghosts and flatlands and churning shadows of the netherworld and exploding out through its gates. Tisiphone then hurried on to Thebes. Her skin oozed with diseased blood and epidemic vapors poured from her mouth. Her dress bristled with snakes. She descended onto the roof of the Theban palace. And as she touched down, fog broiled around the structure’s grounds, and the minor local deities fell into shadows. Tisiphone located the two sons of Oedipus, and as Statius writes, in the Ross translation,
Passion struck the brothers, made
them frantic; their majestic souls went mad.
Pleasure turned sick with envy. Fear bred hate.
The consequence was savage lust for power. (1.126-7)

Dante meets the furies in Canto 9 of the Inferno. Dante would have known furies more from Statius’ Thebaid and Virgil’s Aeneid than, say, Aeschylus’ Eumenides.

The two sons of Oedipus had once ruled together. But, subsumed by the toxic aura of Tisiphone, they abruptly came to feel that sharing power would no longer be endurable. They decided, then and there, that one would rule one year, and the next the subsequent year. It was, Statius writes, a plan doomed to fail for obvious reasons. One youth would not relinquish power; the other would not tolerate continued exile. War, from that moment, was inevitable – and not even a war for a kingdom, for Thebes was broken and poor. Statius tells us, “The brothers, went to war for power alone; / they fought to win a kingdom that had nothing” (1.151-2). Polynices and Eteocles, sons of the doomed king Oedipus, drew lots to decide who would rule first under the new arrangement. Eteocles, as it turned out, was to rule first, and Polynices to go into exile.

The awkward distribution of power was immediately problematic. Some Thebans, after all, preferred Polynices, and others Eteocles. Others simply objected to the inherent instability that such a power sharing process would almost certainly cause. And concern about the newly destabilized Theban kingdom was felt not only by the Thebans themselves.

Up in the heavens, Jupiter summoned a council of the gods. He said he was weary of punishing mortals – even mortals descended from him, like those in the house of Thebes. Jupiter said he’d seen the royal house of Thebes decline and decline – most recently, Oedipus’ incestuous union with his mother seemed to mark Thebes’ final descent into utter turpitude. But, Jupiter emphasized, things would get no better. There would not only be strife between Oedipus’ sons Polynices and Eteocles. There would be a war. The city of Argos had, in recent memory, displeased Jupiter, and Argos would wage a bloody and unsuccessful campaign against Thebes.

Jupiter’s wife Juno objected. She liked Argos, and not Thebes.8 And besides, Juno said, if people had to pay for their father’s crimes, then everyone was guilty, and there were so many unpunished mortals running around that choosing Argos for punishment was really pretty arbitrary. Juno wanted to dissuade Jupiter from punishing Argos, and her speech ended with a call for Jupiter to “Turn aside war’s violence. / So many faithless cities better serve / your purpose than the one that must endure / your feuding progeny” (1.279-82).

Jupiter was unmoved. I guess, contrary to the statement with which he had opened the council, he wasn’t actually that tired of punishing mortals. Jupiter began plotting how the war would begin. Jupiter decided that he’d have the ghost of Eteocles’ grandfather come to the upper world and warn Eteocles that Polynices was gathering an army. This would get Eteocles, currently the ruler of Thebes, on guard against his brother. As to the rest, said Jupiter, he would take care of everything. [music]

The Exiled Polynices Meets Tydeus and the King of Argos

Some time later – presumably about a year after all of these expository events and in the narrative’s present day, Polynices was wandering around central Greece in exile. The year of his demotion already felt long. Polynices dreamed frantically of his brother Eteocles’ fall from power. And as he wandered, something prompted Polynices to go southward – across the Corinthian isthmus, into the Peloponnese, and the kingdom of Argos. The exiled Polynices approached the city of Argos during the night. The rising moon hung over a ground layer of frost, and birds and grazing animals had fallen silent. A storm began, dragged in by distant winds, and cold buffetings dragged doors from hinges. Rain soon joined the tempest, flooding long dry riverbeds and gushing down high peaks. The storm ripped through sacred groves, and though young Polynices perceived something grim in the air – though he even saw shelves of rock being torn from mountain cliffs and shepherds’ huts being washed away by floodwaters – Polynices trudged, shield first, through the hostile night. Finally, passing a dark and marshy lake, the exiled Polynices saw the distant light of Argos. The young Theban passed through the gates and fell asleep in an obscure building in the city.

Polynices, however, was fated to have more strife that rainy night. Another traveler had come from far off, and happened to seek the very same shelter that Polynices had. And rather than sharing his sleeping spot, the startled Polynices immediately began fighting the intruder. The stranger was strong. His name was Tydeus. He would eventually become second of the Seven Against Thebes, and the father of the Greek war hero Diomedes, who spears the belly of Ares and stabs Aphrodite in Book 5 of the Iliad. And Tydeus’ most enduring characteristic, as we’ll see again and again in the Thebaid, was wrath. The first meeting between Polynices and Tydeus was hardly friendly. The young Polynices and wrathful Tydeus fought fiercely with their bare hands, and soon their blood flowed freely, and the commotion of their fracas was so loud that the King of Argos appeared and broke them up. Prompted by the King of Argos, the two fighting foreigners identified themselves. The King of Argos, learning that the strangers had aristocratic backgrounds, invited him into his palace.

At this moment in Argos, Statius tells us, the ruling king had two unmarried daughters, but no sons. The King of Argos had heard prophecies about who would marry these daughters – prophecies describing certain physical details of his future sons-in-law, and the King of Argos noticed that young Polynices and wrathful Tydeus displayed these very details. The King didn’t hesitate. He had a banquet speedily prepared for his unexpected guests – a lavish banquet with as much furniture and finery as it had food. The two young foreigners washed themselves and forgave one another for their initial struggle. And the King of Argos had his two unmarried daughters come out and join the impromptu feast. With a table laid and guests at harmony with one another, the King of Argos took the opportunity to tell some stories.

Palma il Giovane - Apollo and Marsyas - Herzog Anton Ulrich - Museum Braunschweig

Palma il Giovane’s Apollo and Marsyas (16th century) shows a story from Book 6 of the Metamorphoses in which Apollo, who has beaten the satyr Marsyas in a musical contest, skins the poor creature. Here he is shown with the same murderous serenity with which he appears throughout Statius’ later epic.

The first story was a tale about Apollo – a deity who is incomparably revolting in Statius’ Thebaid. And here begins a story-within-a-story, told by the King of Argos to his dinner guests. Long ago, Apollo had killed a giant snake called the Python with his arrows. Apollo thereafter went to Argos, and raped the princess there. The princess, knowing she was doomed for having been raped, wandered and wandered, and eventually gave birth and left her baby in the wilds. Her baby, however, was eaten by feral dogs. When the princess found out about it, she could contain her secret no longer, and revealed her rape and secret to her father, the former King of Argos. Thereafter, the King of Argos killed her. Cheery story, so far – just the sort of thing you’d want to tell your guests about the past history of your kingdom just after meeting them for the first time.

The current King of Argos continued his story about Apollo’s malicious adventures. Apollo, said the King of Argos, decided to atone for his rape, and the death of his rape victim and their baby. The story of his atonement is depressing, and utterly nonsensical. Apollo created a gruesome monster. This monster crept into the chambers of nursing mothers, and it ate the babies of Argos. A hero named Coroebus, knowing about this terrible creature, marshaled some forces against it and drove his sword through its heart, killing the monster. But even the monster’s death could not quell the trauma at Argos. The citizens of Argos continued to be shocked and disoriented that such a creature had preyed upon them. And Apollo, for whatever reason, decided to start killing the citizens of Argos for protecting themselves against the baby-eating monster that he had created. The hero Coroebus, who’d slain the creature, presented himself to Apollo. He said the fault was his – take his life and spare the rest of Argos. And Apollo, showing clemency at last, said he’d let the hero Coroebus live.

The story, which is about a hundred lines long, is an odd little excursion – the sort of morally senseless prattle you might expect a computer program to write, and at its end, Statius, gratifyingly shifts the narrative back to present day at the dinner party – at which Polynices, the wrathful foreigner Tydeus, and the current King of Argos are getting to know one another. The King of Argos asked Polynices who he was. Polynices stammered. It was clearly awful for him to admit that he was the product of incest, but at last he revealed that his mother was Jocasta of Thebes. The King of Argos, however, did not condemn his young guest. And as bizarre as his story about baby killing monsters and sadistic Apollo had been a moment before, the King of Argos comforted troubled young Polynices with some insightful and much needed words. The King of Argos said,
Forget your father’s errors. Sigh no more!
Our blood has also not been scrupulous,
yet sins are not transmitted by descent.
Dare to be different. Let your good deeds
redeem your people. (1.688-92)

And following this blessing, the King of Argos sung a long hymn to Apollo, bringing the first book of the Thebaid to a close. [music]

Statius’ Thebaid, Book 2

The Gods Stir Up Trouble in Thebes

The second book of the Thebaid changes scenes for a moment to focus on what was happening back in Thebes. In the city of Thebes, the exiled Polynices’ brother, Eteocles, was enjoying his time on the throne. But something was stirring – something that the gods had put into motion. Specifically, the ghost of Eteocles’ grandfather was slowly making his way upward from the underworld, guided by Mercury. This ghost passed the decaying forests of the underworld, scores of witches, thick-necked Cerberus, and finally came up into the upper world through a gloomy cove somewhere in Greece. From there, the ghost of Eteocles’ grandfather travelled to Thebes.

In Thebes, there was a party going on – a celebration of the god Bacchus. King Eteocles, who’d shared in the revelry, was deep asleep. And the ghost of Eteocles’ grandfather took on a different form, transforming into the shape of the prophet Tiresias. The ghost disguised as Tiresias drew close to the sleeping Theban king Eteocles. And he gave Eteocles a dire warning. Eteocles lay there celebrating, said the ghost, while his brother Polynices was off consolidating power down to the south, in Argos. Polynices, Eteocles was told, had found an extremely powerful ally – the wrathful Tydeus. And with these words, the ghost of Eteocles’ grandfather bared an open wound and poured blood all over his sleeping grandson, and then vanished. As for Eteocles, he burst suddenly awake, and, as wary as a startled a tiger, looked all around him. Eteocles had been asleep, but he’d heard it all. It was time to find and confront his exiled brother Polynices.

You can see here, by the way, that although the opening line of the epic promises that “fraternal strife” is the story’s main theme, what happens between Polynices and Eteocles is not at all started by fraternal strife. Oedipus prays to Tisiphone to hurt his sons, and she causes them to come up with the unsustainable idea of alternating every other year on the throne. Jupiter, seeing a nice opportunity to kill a lot of Argives, then decides that he’ll stir up some fear and trembling by telling King Eteocles that Polynices is plotting against him. This, in effect, is what starts the war between the brothers – a combination of ill will from their father and eager deities who jump in with excitement at the thought of carnage. It’s not, then, fraternal strife that causes the events of the Thebaid any more than the rage of Achilles causes the central events of the Trojan War. The violence at the heart of these epics, as in all the major epics of antiquity, is caused by a swarm of gods who massacre humanity for the sake of amusement and private vendettas, something we’ve been aware of for some sixty episodes now, but something that’s still, nonetheless, occasionally jarring. [music]

The Royal Marriages in Argos

In distant Argos, the next morning, dawn broke, and the King of Argos awoke. His guests, exiled Polynices and wrathful Tydeus, woke up, too. The King of Argos greeted them and then took them to a private place to speak. The King of Argos said that he had two daughters – twins – and that as his guests had seen the previous night, his daughters were beautiful and knew the rules of propriety. Many had sought them in marriage, but the King of Argos wanted to offer them to the noble pair who had arrived – in all likelihood by divine providence – the previous evening. Would Polynices and Tydeus marry his daughters? Tydeus and Polynices agreed, and they were to be wed to the princesses of Argos – Deipyle to Tydeus, and Argia to Polynices.

Up in Thebes, news of the impending wedding reached Polynices’ brother Eteocles quickly. Eteocles realized that his nightmare of the previous evening was coming true. But down in Argos, the news of the impending weddings was received with great joy. They would be fitting weddings, everyone seemed to believe – celebrations were in order. And yet a curious accident marred the double wedding announcement. A giant bronze shield attached to a statue in a tower plummeted from the heights. It crushed part of a wedding procession, and as it did so, the horns of war were audible from one of the city’s oracles. No one knew what was happening. Statius explains that one of the princesses of Argos was wearing a cursed necklace, and briefly records this necklace’s history.

While the wedding celebration had been marred by ill omens, nonetheless the marriages took place, and twelve days of celebrations, and at the end of them, young Polynices began considering a strategy to get back to Thebes and take up his rightful year on the throne. He recalled his departure – how his sister Antigone had come with him part of the way, and how it would soon be time to go back. Polynices’ new bride asked him what was on his mind – why did he want to leave Argos? Was there another woman in his life? Polynices said it definitely wasn’t a woman, and comforted her, and then went off to talk to his companion Tydeus, and the King of Argos. It was time, Polynices decided, to get some information about how the throne was going to change hands. Polynices needed a reliable messenger to go and make inquiries in Thebes, and could think of no one better to do so than his burly new friend and brother-in-law, Tydeus. [music]

Tydeus’ Ill-Fated Embassy to Thebes

Tydeus, who will later prove the most violent and fierce member of Polynices’ band of adventurers, was asked to venture forth on a diplomatic mission to Argos, and he left soon thereafter. After making the journey, Tydeus showed up at the court of Thebes. His task was fairly simple – to ask Eteocles why Eteocles had stayed on the throne past the time that had previously been agreed on. Tydeus’ gifts, however, leaned more in the direction of smashing things and ripping stuff apart than diplomacy. While Tydeus didn’t insult the Theban king Eteocles altogether, Tydeus made it quite clear that it was past time for Eteocles to abdicate for his allotted year.

Statius' Tydeus. (A.Ryabinin.

Tydeus’ confrontation with his Theban assassins resulted in his unlikely victory, as this colorful Russian illustration shows.

Eteocles wasn’t happy about the burly emissary who had come to see him. He had been given false information by the ghost of his grandfather in his recent dream – Eteocles believed that his brother was conspiring against him – and the brawny envoy Tydeus’ appearance at his court seemed to lend evidence to his greatest fear. And while Eteocles ultimately sought to break their arrangement – the arrangement to rule alternately for a year each – Eteocles’ reasoning was not without merit. For goodness’ sake, said King Eteocles, Polynices was now a prince of Argos! He had a proper kingdom and royal family. What did he want with the blighted and meager territory of Thebes? Why would Polynices seek to reinstate himself in a lineage of incest and suicide? Couldn’t the exiled Polynices just leave the scrappy and diminished kingdom of Thebes to his brother and enjoy his better fortunes? Polynices’ new wife, the princess of Argos, would be appalled by the specters of Oedipus and Jocasta lurking around the palace of Thebes.

Tydeus would have none of it. He said Eteocles had inherited all of his father’s depravity. Polynices would have his year on the throne, and that was that. Furious, Tydeus tossed down his olive branch and stormed out of the palace, and away from the kingdom of Thebes. And falling quickly into a dark plot, once Tydeus left his palace, King Eteocles of Thebes began to scheme. The angry stranger, thought King Eteocles, would pay for his insolence. King Eteocles prepared an ambush for Tydeus – in a place deep in the woods where declivities in leafy hills created a section of pathway as unavoidable as it was perilous. When burly Tydeus reached this spot, he noticed glints of light ahead in the forest – moonbeams hitting sheens of armor. Tydeus addressed the assassins, asking them why they were hiding. A man hurled a huge spear at Tydeus, narrowly missing. Angry and terrified, Tydeus told them to come out into the open. They did. There were many assassins assembled there – too many for him to fight without some sort of advantage. Fortunately for Tydeus, what he lacked in courtly mannerisms he made up for in no holds barred savagery.

Tydeus scrambled up a rocky ridge. And it soon became clear, as it continues to, throughout the Thebaid, that it is a very, very bad idea to make Tydeus angry. Tydeus began hurling large rocks down at his assassins, killing four immediately. Then he jumped down onto the forest floor and seized a shield and weapons from one of his dead adversaries. Fighting cautiously at first – he was still significantly outnumbered – Tydeus sliced and speared his way through the opposition force. A Theban tried to rally his companions and Tydeus speared him through the throat. An assassin tried to pick up his dead brother, and Tydeus threw a spear that went through both of their hearts. The assassins dwindled in number, and as Tydeus turned to carry the trophies of his dead foes back into the city of Thebes, Minerva appeared. Minerva, a dead-eyed and ruthless goddess in her own way, is wrathful Tydeus’ associate throughout the Thebaid. She told him to relent, and to spare the last of the Thebans. Tydeus did so, and he said this to the sole survivor of the party that had sought to ambush him. In the Charles Stanley Ross translation, Tydeus fumed,
Tell your [king],
whoever you may be. . .
this – and Aurora will tomorrow see you
spared by my mercy from the other shadows:
“Pile mounds before your gates. Take down your weapons.
Inspect your walls for signs of ruinous aging.
Draft your best men, and plan to multiply
your crowded battle lines. Look how this grove
smokes from my sword; see how we manage war!” (2.697-703)

Thereafter Tydeus piled the Theban corpses into a mound and set their battered armaments against a tree. He thanked the goddess Minerva, and turned to go back to Argos. The first hostilities of the coming war had been committed. [music]

Statius’ Thebaid, Book 3

The Aftermath of Tydeus’ Massacre

That night, King Eteocles of Thebes lay awake, tossing and turning. He thought of the envoy he’d ordered killed and wondered what had become of the man. Where were his assassins, wondered Eteocles – what had happened to them? He wished he’d killed his brother’s messenger Tydeus straightaway.

At dawn, Eteocles heard the bad news. The sole survivor of the unsuccessful ambush party returned. He told King Eteocles of Thebes the truth – the assassination had failed, Tydeus had killed nearly all of them, and the omens were grim. All told, the fierce Tydeus had killed fifty assassins sent to do him in. Eteocles’ men prepared to seize the disgraced survivor, but the survivor saved them the trouble. He stabbed himself, and following this, the wives and families of the dead assassins went out into the forest to collect the corpses of the fallen warriors. One woman in particular was stricken to find her twin sons, both killed, seemingly by a single spear. Just as they’d been born together, the twins had died together, and their mother planned to immolate them as one, and mingle their ashes.

Side note. The scene of mourning family members here is important, and it goes on for over a hundred lines. Tydeus’ murders, though committed in self-defense, still have heartbreaking consequences – consequences that Statius is keen to show in detail. War, throughout the Thebaid, is not merely a contest of men vying for glory – it is a sort of raging epidemic, spellbinding to watch and all-consuming to its participants, but always with horrific repercussions that extend to family and kinship networks.

So as the families of the Theban dead attended to the funeral pyres, an old Theban told stories in an attempt to make sense of things. Thebes had suffered a whole catalog of calamities, he said, but this one was especially awful. And he blamed not Polynices, the brother in exile, but Eteocles, the brother on the throne, who had ordered the ill-fated ambush, and thereafter the old man enumerated the punishments Eteocles deserved. [music]

Jupiter and Mars Plan to Stoke the Fires of War

Jupiter learned of the botched assassination attempt. And, becoming ever more villainous, Jupiter ordered Mars, the God of War, to go to Argos. He told the god of war to make sure that there was nothing left of the treaty between the two brothers. And he warned Mars that he wanted mass killing, and nothing less would be satisfying. Jupiter said, in the Ross translation:
. . .Interfere
with me, as I mete sacred punishments
to these inhabitants for old offenses
their ancestors committed, and I swear
by my eternal heaven, by the shrines
where we are worshiped and the rivers of
Elysium, which even I hold sacred,
That I, with my own hand, will level Thebes
And raze her lofty walls to their foundations. (3.244-52)

We should recall that earlier, the King of Argos assured Polynices that Polynices bore no guilt for his father Oedipus’ transgressions. Jupiter is less enlightened, and less forgiving to those who have slighted him. To Jupiter, those who cross him, or offend him, must pay with their blood, and their distant descendants must, as well.

To get back to the story, Jupiter said he would destroy Thebes and Argos himself if the coming war weren’t sufficiently catastrophic. And Mars, god of war that he was, was ecstatic. He prepared to go off and get the war started in earnest. Venus forestalled Mars, begging Mars to spare the Thebans – some of whom were descended from Venus and Mars. Mars said he could do this – he’d ultimately come down harder on the Argives. [music]

Polynices’ Reaction to the Brewing War

Meanwhile, Tydeus was heading back to Argos, a little bit worse for the wear. And as he went along, Tydeus told people he encountered what had happened – that the King of Thebes had broken the treaty he’d signed with his brother and attempted to kill an envoy. Mars, meanwhile, amplified the message that Tydeus was spreading, sowing discord further between the two kingdoms.

When Tydeus reached Argos, he told his new father-in-law what had happened, and thereafter recommended a full scale war between Argos and Thebes. Polynices, hearing of the attempted murder, was shocked that his brother Eteocles was capable of such a breach of trust. And then, something happened that’s quite rare indeed in Greco-Roman epic. Polynices decided to do something that was actually, and unquestionably heroic.

Polynices said he didn’t want to drag Argos into war. He still felt like a guest there, having just married into the royal family. There was no way Polynices wanted the wives and families of Argos’ soldiers to blame him for the deaths that would inevitably happen if a war broke out. Polynices said he’d go to Thebes and die. He’d go to Thebes and die so that no one else had to.9 And so Polynices set forth, went to the north, and surrendered himself to his brother, saving thousands of innocent lives. Just kidding. This is not, unfortunately, what took place. The kingdom of Argos’ citizens did not want to surrender their new prince to his unjust and dishonorable brother. As for the old King of Argos, he proposed a compromise – no one wanted a war, but at the same time, Eteocles couldn’t be allowed to try and assassinate an Argive prince – that would set a dangerous precedent. An act of military aggression had, after all, already been committed. What was important was that poor Tydeus was home, and home safe – the rest could wait – at least for the present. And while the slighted Tydeus slept that night, he dreamt of great, dark things. [music]

The Argive Captains Gather for War

There had been a whisper of peace in the court of Argos that night, but, as Tydeus dreamed, Mars roamed freely, filling the kingdom with a lust for battle. When dawn broke, the wise old King of Argos was deep in thought. He needed counsel. And for this counsel, he decided to seek out the aid of a sage named Amphiaraus – the third of the famous Seven Against Thebes.

The King of Argos went to consult with the sage Amphiaraus, asking him about the future. Amphiaraus, like any card carrying ancient augur trying to see the future, made a nice sludge of animal blood and guts, and stirred it around. Not finding enough data in his gut pile, Amphiaraus went outside to look at the skies. He marveled on the power of birds to foretell the future. Amphiaraus and his prophetic associate discussed the signs overhead – vultures and night owls filled the skies. After a bit of avian augury, the two prophets decided that they didn’t like what they saw up above, which culminated in an eagle, dying from wounds, eating another eagle, also dying from wounds, as they fell to the earth. Amphiaraus said he thought he knew what it meant, but did not disclose what he had intuited.

While the King of Argos and his prophets worked carefully to read the signs to decide whether or not they’d go to war, Mars, backed by Jupiter, raced around the countryside, stoking the desire for warfare in the citizens of the kingdom. Men uncased their armor and sharpened their weapons. Farming tools were turned into polearms. And in the midst of this general welter of rising bloodlust was the fourth of the Seven Against Thebes – one of the more memorable of the set. So far we’ve met the leader, the exiled Theban Polynices. We’ve met the formidable Tydeus, who singlehandedly killed fifty Theban assassins. And we met the prophet Amphiaraus, who knows his way around a bull’s entrails. The fourth of the seven is a very distinct character – Dante puts him in the seventh circle of hell in the Inferno – a place reserved for the impious, where in spite of a divine punishment involving perpetually burning sand, this Ancient Greek hero continued to scream defiance up at God. His name was Capaneus, and he was above all things a blasphemer, though he also enjoyed war and strife.

Impious Capaneus stomped up to the gates of Argos alongside many others who had been caught up by the fury of Mars. And Capaneus demanded to know why they were not all marching to war against Thebes right away. Capaneus said he didn’t care what omens the prophet Amphiaraus saw. Capaneus proclaimed, “My god is my own strength, this sword I hold!” (3.614), and he said to the assembled mob that it was time for a war. The prophet Amphiaraus disagreed. He addressed the assembled rabble, telling them that all the signs and omens were dead set against them. If Argos marched, there would be great suffering.

Impious Capaneus said it was ridiculous. Could the prophet really tell anything from omens? Capaneus proclaimed, “Men of the world created gods from fear” (3.661). Capaneus said he would be the soothsayer of the war, and that it was time to fight. And night fell slowly over the furious mob.

Up in the palace, Polynices’ wife Argia went to talk to her father. Her husband, said Argia, was a mess. Recent events had set him into agony, and the only cure, Argia believed, would indeed be a war with Thebes. The King of Argos faltered. He clearly wanted to help his daughter, but he told her it would take time. As dawn broke the next day, the King of Argos, previously dead set against a war, and fallen into a troubled uncertainty. [music]

Statius’ Thebaid, Book 4

Three years passed. And in those three years, Argos and Thebes prepared jointly for a great war. Many had joined the King of Argos, and Statius described them at length. The armies of Argos were commanded by seven captains – the famous Seven Against Thebes, four of whom we’ve already met. First, there was Polynices, the wronged heir to the Theban throne, and the primary catalyst for Argos’ military aggression. Polynices personally led a number of factions.

The second of the seven was wrathful Tydeus. Having healed from the old assassination attempt against him. Tydeus, scarred, formidable, and having his own deep greviance with Thebes, was nearly as great a catalyst for war as Polynices himself. The third of the Seven Against Thebes was called Hippomedon. Clad in shining armor, Hippomedon rode his warhorse thunderously down from the citadel of Argos, cutting such a powerful stride that even his horse’s shadow raised the dust. A great warrior with powerful military connections, Hippomedon was an integral part of the Seven Against Thebes.

In Canto 14 of the Inferno, Dante sees Polynices’ companion Capaneus, still unbowed by God even while being punished in hell. Not all of Polynices’ companions are exactly model citizens of the world.

Following his inventory of Polynices, the wrathful Tydeus, and the horseman Hippomedon, Statius tells us that impious Capaneus, whom we have just met in the previous book, had also joined Argos. Capaneus was not only a vociferous atheist – he was also a giant, and armed to the teeth with weapons and armor so powerful that no one else could use them. With Capaneus, fittingly came some particularly robust troops.

Following Polynices, fierce Tydeus, the horseman Hippomedon, and blasphemous Capaneus, the fifth of the Seven Against Thebes was the prophet Amphiaraus. Though Amphiaraus had seen terrible signs of things to come, his wife had convinced him to join the expedition – she had, we are told, been given gold to help convince her husband to fight, and she’d done so even though she knew he would die as a result. The gold had come from Polynices’ wife, who knew that if the prophet joined the expedition, others would be inspired to believe in its success, and indeed, many warriors followed in Amphiaraus’ entourage.

The sixth of the Seven Against Thebes was called Parthenopaeus. He was a young man, and a beautiful one, likely modeled on Virgil’s young Arcadian hero Pallas, if you remember him from the Aeneid. Statius’ character Parthenopaeus made wood nymphs and river goddesses swoon wherever he went, and yet young Parthenopaeus, who had always known love but never war, sought out battle. Young Parthenopaeus’ mother, herself a great warrior, was distraught that her son sought the perils of warfare.

Now, there is a seventh of Seven Against Thebes – and this is the King of Argos, a figure who plays a less memorable role in the war, though of course we can assume he provides the bulk of the troops and funding for the expedition. In any case, the other six military captains are quite enough to remember, and just for clarification, the six that we meet in the Thebaid are Polynices, the wronged brother; Tydeus, his violent brother-in-law; Hippomedon, the horseman; Capaneus, the giant blasphemer; Amphiaraus, the prophet, who’s been sold out by his wife; and finally, Parthenopaeus, the handsome young recruit who brings a lot of enthusiasm but little military skill.

All told, the six are a mixed bag far different from, say, the Argonauts or Homer’s Greeks or Virgil’s Trojans. All have various reasons for warmongering, but the reasons are often misguided or problematic; further, one of them has ample reason to suspect, from his augury, that the war will be as futile as it will be destructive. So following his catalog of captains and their forces, Statius changes the scene to the Kingdom of Thebes. [music]

Ambivalence Toward War in Thebes

The Thebans, at that moment, as the fires of war continued to spread, had it tough. They weren’t very attached to their king Eteocles, a product of incest who’d blatantly broken his ruling contract with his brother. At the same time they knew a big army had amassed in the south, and was headed their way. As Statius puts it, as the Thebans prepared for the conflict,
There was no fire
of spirit, just reluctance to proceed
and downcast soldiers who complained about
their bad luck to their parents, who concurred.
They grudged the loss of their young wives’ best years,
the babies growing sadly in the womb. . .
Years of neglect lay bare the old, worn [walls]
. . .once upraised, with sacred faith,
as high as heaven. Now they were repaired,
but inattentively, since no one cared. (4.348-58)

Indifferent toward the war, then, and wishing fate had brought them something else, the Thebans reluctantly got ready for the coming battles.

Their king, Eteocles, was a different matter. Angry and uncertain, Eteocles had already heard a number of unsettling rumors about what the Argives had already conquered. He heard a prophecy likening him and Polynices to two bulls that would kill each other in battle. Unsettled and dissatisfied, Polynices sought another prophecy – this one from the sage Tiresias. Tiresias knew all sorts of magical rites, but he said that bird omens just wouldn’t due for their current purposes. Instead, Tiresias said, they needed to raise the dead.

Tiresias prepared for a nighttime ritual. Without going into too much detail, after a bit of wine, milk, honey, blood, cypress branches, slaughtered cattle, fire, warm quadruped entrails, and special dirt, the Theban prophet Tiresias asked underworld deities to raise the dead to speak to him. He threatened to mention the name of an unmentionable deity, and this threat had the desired effect. Soon, some ghosts appeared. The founder of Thebes, Cadmus, appeared with his wife Harmonia. Other figures from Theban history appeared – Semele, mother of Dionysus; Pentheus, who had scorned Dionysus and been torn limb from limb by his supporters; Actaeon, turned into a stag and – uh – also ripped limb from limb. Amidst the large, sad company of Theban dead was a man named Laius – the father of Oedipus and thus the grandfather of Polynices and Eteocles.

Tiresias wanted information from Laius, and after some delay, Laius spoke the following not at all ominous words. Laius said,
Thebes’ victory is certain; do not fear;
your vicious brother will not gain your kingdom.
The Furies, your dual wrongs, and your cruel father,
whom your sad swords will make victorious,
will be, to my regret, all that remains. (4.641-4)

Eteocles and Tiresias didn’t know exactly what to make of these words. But as the ghosts faded away and the night deepened, they were fairly certain that nothing good would come of the war – even if Thebes won. [music]

The Argives Meet Hypsipyle in Nemea

The rest of Book 4, and the entirety of Books 5 and 6 all take place in a land called Nemea – in the northeastern Peloponnese, home of the Nemean lion which Hercules defeats in other stories. So, the Argives were trekking through the northeastern Peloponnese on the way to Thebes, speaking buoyantly of plunder and military victory. The deity Bacchus saw them coming, and he thought the war party had come to attack him and his followers. Bacchus rallied his motley followers to a defensive position, and used his divine powers to dry up all the waters around where the Argives were marching. Soon enough, rivers had been reduced to hard, baked mud, and lakes sat empty, and parched animals wandered along, dazed with thirst.

The Argives quickly fell into suffering. Dust was everywhere, and horses licked their chains to cool their mouths. The Argives sent out scouts to locate water. And Bacchus arranged it so that they met a woman named Hypsipyle – the queen of an island named Lemnos, who was trekking around with a baby. The King of Argos addressed Hypsipyle, lavishing praises on her, asking for her aid, and then promising great benefits if she could help them. Hypsipyle began to tell them her life story, and then stopped herself. They didn’t want to hear that, said Hypsipyle – they needed water. She set the baby down on the dirt and grass (it wasn’t hers, so evidently she wasn’t worried about its longevity – the abandoned baby actually comes up later), and quickly began leading them to water. Not long afterward, Hypsipyle and the Argives reached a river, where they finally had the opportunity to slake their thirst. And, satisfied by plentiful water, the Argives asked Hypsipyle who she was. Her story takes up the next book of the epic. [music]

Statius’ Thebaid, Book 5

The Grim Tale of Hypsipyle

The entirety of Book 5 of the Thebaid is a long narrative excursion, or tale within a tale. This narrative excursion is about Hypsipyle, and it’s a story that also appears in Apollonius’ epic Jason and the Argonauts. Additionally, Euripides wrote a play about Hypsipyle, though it now survives only in fragments, and Ovid wrote about her in the Heroides, and so we can assume that this was a major story in Statius’ time and not quite so much the digression that it might feel to us. Anyway I’ll retell Statius’ version of Hypsipyle’s story fairly quickly here.

Hypsipyle sauve Thoas BnF Français 599 fol. 16 Statius

Hypsipyle sees her father Thoas off in this early modern illustration. The Lemnian queen makes a major appearance in two suriving epics – the Argonautica and the Thebaid, though in both cases her tenure in the narrative is short lived.

After being requested to tell her story and making a few prefatory remarks about how it was difficult to open the wounds of bad memories, Hypsipyle began to tell her tale. She was from the island of Lemnos in the north Aegean, she said. The citizens there did not pay proper heed to Venus, and Venus and other deities of love abandoned the women of Lemnos. The men, we presume because their women had lost the power of amorous allurement, began to yearn for a war in the nearby land of Thrace to pass the time, and left their wives and children behind. Amidst ill omens, an old woman named Polyxo gathered a council of all the women who remained in Lemnos.

The old woman bewailed the fact that the Lemnian women had been abandoned, and then proposed a new solution – their husbands were coming home. They should all kill their negligent husbands, and seek out more attentive ones. The women on the island brooded and considered, and gradually the fury of their long abandonment became an all-consuming emotion, and they felt justified in the atrocity. Not only the husbands would die – the male children would, as well. The first casualty of the purge was indeed none other than an innocent male child, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Amidst all the fury of the Lemnian women, Hypsipyle kept her wits. That night, the men came home. They feasted and celebrated after their campaign. A distinctive darkness fell over the island, and the slaughter began. Hypsipyle lost two half-brothers, and her fiancé. A woman killed her twin brother. Terrified, Hypsipyle went to her father to save him, and after some calamity, she managed to get the old king off the island.

Octavien de Saint-Gelais 1

Hypsipyle writes her letter to Jason in an illustrated version of Ovid’s Heroides, which includes her letter to her departed lover. The solemnity of Hypsipyle’s face and rich color contrasts seem appropriate to Ovid’s version of her story.

When dawn broke, it had a sobering effect on the murderous Lemnian women. Venus and the furies, who had helped stir homocidal impulses in the women, left the scene, leaving the islanders along with the corpses of their victims. Since it was presumed that Hypsipyle had killed her father, she was given the kingdom to reign, and the Lemnian women tried to survive and forget their heinous crimes.

Not long afterward, Jason and the Argonauts, bound for the far off Golden Fleece, arrived. A ship full of musclebound adventurers was a terrifying sight – the Lemnian women wondered whether the Argonauts had been sent to punish them. The women attacked the Argonauts’ ship while a storm pressed it against the rocky side of the island. Victory against the intruding Argonauts seemed plausible for a moment, but the women saw that their assaults on the powerful warriors were ineffective, and a moment later Venus arrived back at the island and instilled love and lust in the Lemnian women. Hypsipyle – not by choice, she explained, was forced to be Jason’s bride, and she bore him twins. But the Argonauts didn’t linger long on Lemnos. As Hypsipyle puts it, “Jason never loved his children or / respected promises” (5.470). The Argonauts left.

Shortly thereafter, things grew worse for Hypsipyle. The other women of Lemnos discovered that Hypsipyle had not killed her father, after all, and her countrywomen were jealous that Hypsipyle alone had evaded the guilt of the massacre. Hypsipyle fled to the island’s shores, where she was captured by pirates.

Statius then shifts the narrative to the present day, at which time Hypsipyle has just led Polynices and his Argives to water in the land of Nemea in the northeastern Peloponnese on their way to Thebes. If you remember from the previous book, Hypsipyle had had a baby with her when the Argives found her – one that she set down in the grass to fend for itself so that she could more quickly lead the Argives to water. As it turns out, this unfortunate baby was killed by a dragon, who accidentally struck the infant with its tail. Hypsipyle intuited that something was wrong, and she and some of the Argive captains went to investigate. There, they saw the dragon. The horseman Hippomedon threw a huge boulder at the dragon, which dodged the projectile. Blasphemous Capaneus was more successful, hurling his spear into the dragon’s open mouth – thereafter the creature struggled home and died in its cave.

Hypsipyle was devastated at what had unfolded – the baby had been given to her care by a local monarch named Lycurgus, and the infant had been her only companion. She berated herself for leaving the baby unattended, and said now that she’d committed an atrocity she could forgive those of Lemnos. She brought the mangled remains of the child back to the local king. The king demanded that Hypsipyle be brought to him. He was going to murder Hypsipyle, but Tydeus, the man who’d once killed fifty assassins set against him, intervened, along with several others of the Seven Against Thebes.

Although she’d been saved from summary execution, Hypsipyle was nonetheless very sorrowful, and her grandfather Bacchus felt sorry for her. He brought Hypsipyle’s twins to her – the sons of Jason. They were twenty, now, and joyful to reunite with their mother. The Argives said that funeral games should be held to commemorate the death of the dead baby prince, games which are the main subject of the epic’s next book.

Now the Hypsipyle episode is, at first glance, a clunky intrusion into the Thebaid – a sort of hamhanded attempt to loop the Thebaid together with a secondary epic tradition and spin the rather silly yarn of an island full of women killing all the men and then coupling with a new shipful of arrivals, inset at a moment at which the book’s main character has abandoned a baby in the wilds to tell her story. Just a short moment of consideration, however, shows that the Hypsipyle episode fits rather well in the Thebaid. The awful violence on Lemnos, after all, is divinely prompted, as is the great Theban war that is the central subject of Statius’ epic. The subject of the epic is divine pettiness tearing apart human families – we already saw that Polynices and Eteocles were enjoying a peaceful co-regency until Tisiphone set them against one another, and even after they’d set up the scheme for ruling alternately one year at a time, Jupiter and his lieutenant Mars made sure that the brothers would start a war which would result in the general massacre of Argos and Thebes. The story of Hypsipyle, then, fits in the epic’s general theme of jealous gods seeking their pound of flesh from mortals who slight them. Further, Statius’ epic, like Virgil’s earlier one, concerns itself with the plight of commoners and aristocrats alike who are either ambivalent about, or altogether opposed to war. This is the story of Hypsipyle – a woman who could not kill her father, who watched despairingly as violence overtook her island and tried to survive the awful and morally murky aftermath of a mass homicide. While Hypsipyle’s abandonment of the infant prince – as she goes off to guide the Argives to the river – is by all accounts perplexing and badly conceived, the episode in general is an inset tale that harmonizes with many themes in the epic that enfolds it. [music]

Statius’ Thebaid, Book 6

Funeral Games for the Prince of Nemea

Archemoros 119 statius

The infant prince Opheltes of Nemea is killed by a dragon in this 19th-century German woodcut, an illustration that capturers one of the mor bizarre moments in Statius’ Thebaid, whether or not the story was original to him.

All of Book 6 of Statius’ Thebaid is about funeral games – funeral games for the dead infant prince of Nemea, that land in the northeastern Peloponnese in which much of Book 4 and all of Book 5 have taken place. Epic poets have a real affection for funeral games. Book 23 of the Iliad pauses the great narrative of the Trojan War so that Achilles can hold funeral games for Patroclus. Book 5 of the Aeneid covers Aeneas’ funeral games for his father. And Book 6 of Statius Thebaid, which now concerns us, is again about the funeral games of the dead infant prince of Nemea, plopped down onto some grass and then accidently killed by the tail of a dragon in the previous book. Book 6 of the Thebaid allows Statius to follow the epic traditions established before him – the other guys did funeral games books, so why shouldn’t he? Additionally, Book 6 of the Thebaid serves as an origin story, or etiology, for a recurring athletic contest that dated back to the 500s BCE – a contest that Romans of Statius’ generation would have known as the Nemean Games.

Statius emphasizes that the inaugural Nemean Games did have multiple purposes – to honor the poor infant prince of Nemea, and also to get the Argives used to the strife of combat through events like chariot racing, foot racing, and discus throwing. Let’s cover the funeral games of Book 6 quickly – for certain specialists they are likely of great interest, but for our purposes, they are a secondary narrative digression appended to the long story of Hypsipyle in the previous book.

The king and queen of Nemea mourned their dead baby son. Many things had been made for the infant prince – a little scepter, child’s clothing, robes of purple, and it was all set on his funeral pyre. The baby, by some, was considered the first casualty of the war to come, although the baby’s mother (the queen of Nemea, in other words), made it quite clear that she blamed Hypsipyle, who had abandoned the youngster. The baby’s mother requested that Hypsipyle at least be carried away from the funeral games.

The pyre was lit and Nemeans and Argives threw their offerings onto it. The child’s remains were burned, and for the next nine days, all present built a large stone monument to consecrate the dead prince – a monument that showed, in detail, Hypsipyle abandoning the baby and leading the Argives to the river, and then the serpent coming for the baby. Maybe not the happiest moment of history to commemorate, but at any rate, the Nemean people would not soon forget the tragic death of their young prince.

With the funeral wrapped up, it was time to actually begin the games. A parade of elaborate effigies was carried along to catalyze the event. First up was chariot racing. After a florid and extended description of all the contestants in the chariot race, the first contest of the athletic games began. Statius is nothing if not a marvelous writer of set pieces like athletic games – here’s a little sample of the Johns Hopkins Charles Stanley Ross translation in which chariot racers are dashing around the track for a second time:
The second circuit smoothed out former furrows.
The eager drivers leaned and touched their yokes,
flexed with their knees, and doubled tight-held reins.
Neck muscles bulged. Winds combed the flying manes;
wheels squealed; hooves pounded; parched earth drank white rain.
Hands never paused; whips whistled through the air.
Cold hail does not fall faster in north winds
nor water tumble from the horns of winter. (6.415-23)

However inconsequential the scene is to the overall momentum of the epic, Statius here shows the Argive contestants in their prime, all the more beautiful and ephemeral, considering the tragic war they are about to commence.

Crashes, close calls, and the intervention of Apollo led Polynices himself to clatter violently to the ground, and Statius emphasizes that the whole Argive-Theban war might have ended then and there with a chariot racing accident. But Polynices survived, and the prophet Amphiaraus won the race. Prizes were distributed – the winner got a special cup, another racer received a nice cloak, and as for Polynices, who hadn’t done too badly, Polynices’ father-in-law gave him a slave girl. A strange prize to give a son-in-law by modern standards, but of course these were different times, writing about different times still.

Next up was a foot race. One of the Seven Against Thebes had a great advantage here – handsome young Parthenopaeus, who was the son of Atalanta, herself an unbeatable runner, and he was expected to be victorious. As Statius tells us, “He could fling a weapon / and run to catch it” (6.568). During the race, however, even though Parthenopaeus dominated for most of its duration, the second-place contestant grabbed Parthenopaeus’ hair and kept him from taking first prize. There was quite a bit of grumbling – Parthenopaeus had obviously been cheated. The King of Argos said the two men would race again, only in separate lanes. And this time, Parthenopaeus was the clear victor.

Next was a discus contest. After a couple of flubs and mistakes, it was the horseman Hippomedon’s turn, and he easily had the longest throw of any of the contestants, winning a tiger skin for himself. A boxing contest followed. Giant, impious Capaneus squared off against a young Spartan, laughing at his smaller and younger opponent. The young Spartan was skilled, though, tactically saving his energy as Capaneus tried to crush him. The fight was long and conducted competently on both sides, and finally several of the Seven Against Thebes had to pry Capaneus away from the young boxer and declare him the victor.

The athletic games continued with a wrestling contest. Wrathful Tydeus, who’d fought off all the assassins back in Book 2, fancied himself a strong wrestler. He squared off against an opponent much taller and larger than him. Tydeus was not intimidated. He was small, but he was strong and wiry. He won the contest and received some new armor. Following the wrestling, there was going to be a contest of swordsmanship, but it was decided that such a thing was too dangerous – after all, a real war lay in their near future.

The last athletic contest was an archery competition – in it, the King of Argos, seventh of the Seven Against Thebes, himself tried his luck. Unfortunately, the first shot of the competition resulted in a singularly ill omen – the King’s arrow, crossing a broad field, hit an ash tree, rebounded, and flew all the way back to where the King stood. And as Statius puts it, in the ominous closing lines of Book 6, “The secret of our death is deep and hidden, / but also visible. The arrow promised / its master’s sad return from war – alone!” (6.938-9). [music]

Statius: His Life and Works

So that was the first of half of Statius’ Thebaid, finished around 92 CE. In the remainder of this episode, I want to talk a bit about Statius himself and the period of history in which he lived. So let’s start with what we know about Statius.

When we read the Thebaid, as, perhaps, when we read the Iliad, we imagine a poet who was well acquainted with the terrors of war – whose gripping tales of peril and combat are drawn from personal experience. With Statius, this seems not to have been the case. Much of what we know about the poet comes from another book that he wrote – a collection of poems called the Silvae. The Silvae is a diverse compilation of incidental poems that Statius wrote over the course of his later career – most often poems written to various rich patrons, including the emperor Domitian. The book contains verses written to celebrate aristocratic weddings (I.2), praises of famous Roman baths (I.5), poem honoring the lavish villas, gardens and construction projects of Statius’ patrons (I.3, II.2, II.3, III.1), consolation poems for aristocratic patrons (III.3, V.1), and at least one piece composed with the emperor Domitian himself as an intended audience (I.1). They are, in large part, the well wishing and effusive praises of an increasingly famous poet to his patrons and friends, shot through with occasional stylized autobiography – Statius’ verse letter to his wife Claudia (V.5), and his own laments on the deaths of his father (V.3) and stepson (V.5). The Silvae – again Statius’ compilation of incidental poems mostly written for patrons – does not suggest a military man who put down his sword and picked up a quill, but instead an industrious professional writer plugged into a wide variety of relationships, from the professional to the personal and everything in between.

Statius, like Seneca, was the son of a prominent writer. His eulogy to his father, again published in his incidental compilation the Silvae, extols his father’s literary achievements and victories in verse – Statius’ father had won some of Greece and Rome’s most high profile poetic contests. Statius’ poem to his wife recalls how she kissed Statius when Statius himself won a major poetry contest, and how she stood by him throughout the laborious process of writing the Thebaid – a process which Statius records having taken twelve years.

Now, being wealthy, successful, and well-connected is often a liability to the reputation of a writer to later critics. And just as Horace once mocked Plautus for writing for cash, the satirist Juvenal, a younger contemporary of Statius, disparaged Statius for the epic poet’s venal artistry. Here’s Juvenal:
Crowds flock to hear that mellifluous voice, his darling
Theban epic, whenever Statius delights the City
by promising a performance. The audience sits there spellbound
by such fabulous charm, even the common people
are mad to hear him. And yet, though he brings the house down,
he’ll starve, unless he can sell his virgin libretto to [the] –
. . .Director of Ballet, the jobber of high commands,
who hands out poets their six-month carpet-knighthoods. (VII.82-9)10

In other words, Juvenal says, Statius’ wild popularity came from his willingness to pander to the popular taste – to pirouette like a ballet dancer – and collect the spoils of public adoration. Juvenal’s line about “the jobber of high commands, / who hands out poets their six-month carpet- knighthoods” – tough line, there – is likely a reference to appointing poets as honorary military tribunes and thereby promoting them to equestrian status, even though they’d had no real military experience. This practice began under Claudius, and was still in use half a century later.11 So Statius, to Juvenal, was a war poet who knew nothing of war, and moreover a shameless sellout whose first concern was money.

The assessment is pretty harsh. Statius, like Virgil and Ovid before him, was born into a patronage system – a patronage system that favored professional poets capable of writing amicable praises. Further, Statius, like Virgil and Ovid before him, was born into a world in which public recitation was part of a poet’s expected role, and thus the fact that Statius performed portions of the Thebaid to the audiences should come as no surprise. The fragments of information we have about Statius suggest a courteous, perceptive family man who followed in his father’s poetic footsteps and played by the rules of literary society – a man with a connoisseur’s eye for luxury who learned how to write about epic war through epics, rather than war.

While Statius’ dilatory arrival on the scene of ancient epic didn’t do much to help his literary reputation, Statius’ association with the court of Domitian wasn’t helpful either. In our most recent episodes, we’ve followed the stories of Seneca and Petronius, authors whose lives were lived beneath, and ended by the Julio-Claudians. Statius was born in 45 CE – a generation later – and though his early life surely must have been colored with tales of Caligula and Claudius and Nero, Statius’ professional rise and summit took place beneath a very different dynasty – the Flavians – Vespasian, who ruled for nine years; Titus, who ruled for two; and Domitian, who ruled for fifteen. Let’s talk about the Flavians for just a moment – this trio of mainly military men who ruled Rome for nearly 30 years after the Julio-Claudians collapsed for good. [music]

Statius and His Historical Milieu

When Statius was about 23 years old, in the summer of 68, Rome finally lost its patience with having a murderous clown as emperor, and Nero, purportedly whimpering about what a great loss his life would be to posterity, had his private secretary kill him. The Year of the Four Emperors began, with stingy and austere Galba up first, the ultimately selfless and resigned Otho next, then the lax and permissive Vitellius, and finally, a 59-year-old military man named Vespasian coming to the throne and ending the other three men’s overlapping bids for power about a year after Nero’s demise. Statius was in his early to mid twenties, once again, during this chaotic power transition, watching, in his formative years, the death throes of a nearly century old dynasty and, very nearly, the end of Rome.

Domitian Louvre world of statius

The Emperor Domitian (51-96; r. 81-96) was a mixed bag for Rome. He dominated Domitian’s generation of writers, which also likely included the authors of the Gospel of John, the Epistles of John and Peter, and the Book of Revelation.

The historian Suetonius and others give largely positive accounts of the reign of Vespasian, which lasted from 69-79, although Suetonius admits that the emperor “presented eminent poets with princely largesse and great rewards,” which hardly hurt Vespasian’s posthumous reputation.12 And Vespasian, whose leadership is generally reported as mild, energetic, and detail-oriented, also had eligible heirs – most prominently, the widely admired Titus.

When Vespasian became the first Roman emperor in some time to die of natural causes in 79, Titus, the promising older son of Vespasian, ascended to the throne. While not remembered fondly in Jewish history – Titus had conquered Jerusalem a decade earlier, and the famous Arch of Titus still shows Roman soldiers looting the Second Temple – to the Romans who’d lived under Vespasian’s rule, the 40-year-old Titus’ ascension seemed fortunate indeed. If he lived as long as his father had, Titus would bring 30 years of competent administration to Rome. A year into Titus’ reign, the Roman Coliseum, which Vespasian had begun ten years prior, was completed, and Titus would have been there to host the inaugural games. The Coliseum, perhaps the Flavian dynasty’s most enduring achievement, was built atop palace grounds that Nero had seized after the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE – a sort of symbolic gesture to return the heart of the city to the masses, and correct the wayward course of Rome’s imperial history. Built atop a lake that Nero had thought fit to construct for himself, the Coliseum, which Romans called the Flavian Amphitheater, symbolized the measured populism of the first two Flavians. The ribbon cutting ceremony, if there were one, would have taken place in 80 CE. The poet Statius was about 35, and just beginning work on the Thebaid. And as the inaugural games proceeded – purportedly for a hundred days – it must have seemed that Romans of all stamps, under the leadership of Titus, might be headed into tranquil waters for some time to come. A dynasty of hardy military stock had replaced the slow gangrene of the Julio-Claudians, and Rome was suddenly led by men who looked like the husky consuls of the early republic.

Titus, however, shortly after officially consecrating the new coliseum and nearby baths, died of a fever in 81, and his brother Domitian ascended to the throne. It was a smooth succession, unlike the chaos that followed in the wake of Nero’s suicide. Domitian’s first act upon coronation was to honor his dead brother as a deity, an innocuous enough act in some ways. But Domitian’s speedy deification of his deceased brother was, in actuality, a fitting introduction to the sort of emperor that Domitian would be – authoritarian, unorthodox, and tone deaf to the tacit political rules that Rome’s early emperors had thus far followed. The youngest member of the Flavian dynasty, above all, is remembered for his utter disdain toward the Roman senate. Domitian, who ruled from 81-96, was rigid, conservative, oppressive, and often severe in his persecution of those who opposed him, or those whom he suspected opposed him. At the same time, Domitian was energetic, eager to become involved in all aspects of government, realistic about foreign policy, critical of corruption, popular with the average Roman, and egalitarian in the way he thought of his subjects. The historians who chronicled his reign, especially Tacitus and Pliny, were of senatorial rank, and they depict Domitian as a brutal dictator.13 More recently, though, Domitian is perhaps best known, with a few exceptions, for his unsentimental, pragmatic efficiency.14 Domitian was too confident in his disregard of the senate – a mistake which cost him his life. Some of his policies were wildly unrealistic – he tried to renew Augustus’ anti-adultery legislation and established himself as censor for life to try and regulate the moral conduct of Rome’s citizens. Others aspects of Domitian’s reign were despotic – sources concur that Domitian didn’t care a whit for the freedom of speech, and sometimes a suspicious nature let him to trust the accusations of sketchy informants, and prosecute with brutality. But on the whole, as Statius wrote the Thebaid, Domitian pursued legislation that would go on to influence the legislation of the Five Good Emperors in the next century – anti-expansionist foreign policy, merit-based promotion rather than nepotism, revaluation of Roman currency, a dedication to the responsibilities of emperor, and decisive, principle-driven leadership.

There’s a basic parallel that often gets drawn between Statius’ Thebaid and the stretch of time between the death of Nero and the last years of Domitian – in other words, 68-95, and this parallel is worth remembering. The Thebaid is, ultimately, the ancient Mediterranean’s most famous story about a succession dispute – Polynices and Eteocles want the same throne. And in the year between 68 and 69 CE, Rome experienced just this same thing – a pack of four different men leading armies against one another in a succession dispute – one which saw Romans killing each other in large numbers for the first time since the Battle of Actium a hundred years prior. In the Thebaid, as we saw today, Statius sets divine machinations, rather than fraternal strife, as the catalysts to the mythical war between Argos and Thebes. But as the story moves forward, and Statius makes the war between the two brothers ever more ugly, destructive, and sacrilegious, most readers find that a tragic pacifism governs the poem from end to end – a pacifism that is far more pronounced and unambiguous than what various readers have found in Virgil’s Aeneid. Statius was in his early twenties during Rome’s sudden descent into civil war, and it’s easy to see why, as he sat down to write his epic a little over ten years later, he chose the Ancient Mediterranean’s ultimate cautionary story about brothers who fight one another. While he wrote the Thebaid under the reign and the auspices of Domitian, Statius knew that the stability of the empire could disintegrate as soon as the emperor’s heart stopped beating, and a straightforward historicist approach to the epic is that from its very first lines, “My mind takes. . .fire. Fraternal strife / unfolds: unholy hatred,” the Thebaid is a story passionately opposed to war – especially war between fellow countrymen.

We’ll have more to say about that in the next program. But for now, having reviewed the life of Statius, we can remember that he was the most famous writer at work under the flawed but often effective administration of Domitian. And something pretty remarkable happened after Domitian was assassinated in the early autumn of 96. This something was, as you may know, continued domestic peace and prosperity. The senate speedily chose Nerva to replace Domitian, a respected and savvy politician everyone suspected could bring the senate back to a position of power and relevance. Nerva’s reign was short, but peaceful. He was the first of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty, a string of five emperors that includes Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius – rulers who ushered Roman civilization into period of peace and relative prosperity. As translator Charles Stanley Ross notes, “Statius himself died at the very beginning of Rome’s greatest century. . .Given the [popularity] of Statius’ poem, it is possible to believe that its generally pacifist but heroic tenor found appreciation in the age that followed his death.”15

One could take it a step further. The forces that led to this period of peace were complex, but maybe, however much it is ignored today, Statius’ Thebaid made a small contribution to Rome’s armistice with itself over most of the 100s CE. In his choice of subject material, his public recitations, and his general depiction of civil war as an infernal blight on humanity, Statius wrote an epic war story that depicted war as depraved, rather than epic. If he were as popular, over the 100s CE, as sources attest, then for several generations, Rome’s newly minted epic may have done a modest amount of good for the stability of the entire empire. The closing lines of the Thebaid attest to its popularity – Statius is proud to say that “Italy’s classrooms teach [the Thebaid], and the young memorize passages” (12.815-16). To the Roman youths growing up reading Statius’ poem then – young people under the reigns of Trajan, and Hadrian, and all of the Five Good Emperors, war was depicted as something spectacular, but perverse; sometimes a grim necessity, but in almost all cases best avoided. Alexander of Macedon, as he swept eastward and killed and enslaved hundreds of thousands, slept with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow and imagined himself a reincarnation of Achilles. Statius’ epic was for a different time, and different readers, and it taught the Roman schoolchildren who read it that war, however much a part of the fiber of Roman culture it was, still came at an appalling cost. [music]

Moving on to Books 7-12 of Statius’ Thebaid

Well, there is a lot more to say about this epic, but to keep these episodes down to a manageable length for all involved, let’s just cut things off for now. In telling you about the Thebaid’s general history of being understood as an anti-war poem, I’ve unfortunately given you little evidence from the text. One of the reasons for that is that a great deal of the poem’s ambivalence, and antipathy toward war occurs in the second half, when the war begins in earnest. Next time, we’ll of course read the Thebaid’s closing six books – books that sink to an almost hellish level of darkness as the war spirals out of control. Statius’ collection of incidental poems, the Silvae, shows a poet who cherished the beauty of peacetime Rome – its marble buildings, old and new, clear water running through aqueducts, freshly cut and painted sculptures shining over baths and garden pools, networks of friends and neighbors who celebrated birthdays and weddings, picnics and exotic foods, and shady, sheltered spots, out of the rain and sun. This was the world the poet loved and lived in, and as he tells of civilization’s total breakdown in the Thebaid’s climax, it is the story of a bloody, godless nightmare, and not a chronicle of human martial valor.

Fortunately, bloody, godless nightmares are pretty engrossing. And now that we’ve done the work of learning this epic’s central set of characters, and wound our way through Hypsipyle’s life story and the funeral games held for Nemea’s dead baby prince, we’re ready for the Thebaid’s more tightly written closing six books – books about the legendary siege of, and fight for the city of Thebes. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. I have a quiz on this epic’s characters, including the legendary Seven Against Thebes, and also the background of the Flavian Dynasty,if you want to test your retention that way. For you Patreon supporters, I’ve recorded an introduction to, and then ten of the most famous poems by Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, to me, is like the Homeric Epics or James Joyce’s Ulysses – she’s a meteor from a different galaxy that crash landed into a period of literary history and was so much more powerful and advanced than her milieu that she seems almost otherworldly. I mean that – I mean I’ve read the Sewall and Habegger biographies and this woman is right within my area of specialty – I’ve read her works for twenty years and taught them for maybe ten – and if earth were having an intergalactic poetry competition I might nominate Dickinson as our champion. When I used to teach Dickinson to Intro to Lit courses I would do no prep work at all – just walk in about ten minutes early and write four or five of her poems on the board from memory and then get things going. Anyway, tangent, sorry – but for you Patreon supporters again there’s an introduction to the ten Dickinson poems, and then a separate recording of the ten themselves, parsed out by music. I tried to pick the very most famous Dickinson poems, but also a set of ten that show her full range – the black nailpolish, stereotypical Dickinson, writing about death, the quirky and impish Dickinson, writing on various subjects, and then the joyously literary Dickinson, talking about why she does what she does. Once again that’s for people who have pledged a dollar per show on Patreon – some of you have volunteered more and it is appreciated so much, as I seem to say with every single posting I put up there. For everybody, I don’t have a song for you this time around – just too much going on these past two weeks – I’ll spare you the details. Once again, thanks for listening to my show, and next time we’ll see some crazy stuff as we hear Statius’ epic Latin version of the great war at Thebes.


1.^ See “Introduction.” Ross, Charles Stanley. In Statius. The Thebaid. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 163.

2.^ Specifically, Pur 21:10.

3.^ Homer. Iliad (1.1-2). Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics, 1991, p. 77.

4.^ Homer. Odyssey. (1.1,5). Translated by E.V. Rieu. Penguin Books, 1991, p. 3.

5.^ Virgil. Aeneid. (1.1,3). Translated by W.F. Jackson Knight. Penguin Books, 1958 p. 27.

6.^ Statius. Thebaid. (1.1-7). Translated and with an Introduction by Charles Stanley Ross. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 439. Further locations are noted parenthetically with book and line numbers in this transcription.

7.^ Statius. Silvae, Thebaid I-IV. Translated by J.H. Mozley, M.A. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928, p. 345.

8.^ Her opposition to Thebes, predictably, comes from Zeus’ union with Europa and later Semele.

9.^ There may be a parallel here between Polynices’ valorous offer and the much-lauded self-sacrifice of the emperor Otho, who took his own life to prevent a full scale war with Vitellius.

10.^ Juvenal. The Sixteen Satires. Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Green. Penguin Books, 1998, p. 57.

11.^ Ibid, p. 167.

12.^ Vespasian 18. In Suetonius Delphi Complete Works of Suetonius. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 12236.

13.^ Agricola, Tacitus’ father-in-law, seems to have had a personal grudge against Domitian, to boot.

14.^ Brian Jones’ The Emperor Domitian (Routledge, 1993) marks the beginning of this revisionist tendency.

15.^ “Introduction.” Ross, Charles Stanley. In Statius. The Thebaid. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 97.