Episode 71: The Gods Depart

Statius’ Thebaid, Books 7-12. Six hundred years after Aeschylus, Statius once again brought the Theban epic to a thunderous conclusion.

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Statius Thebaid, Books 7-12

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 71: The Gods Depart. This program is on the second half of the Thebaid, an epic poem completed by the Roman poet Statius around 92 CE about a great war fought at the ancient Greek city of Thebes. We covered the first half of the epic in the previous program – that was Episode 70, so if you want to hear the story from the beginning, you can start there. This show will take you through the final six books of Statius’ epic, the Thebaid – books in which enemy forces arrive at the city of Thebes, and begin to besiege and make war on the city.

The Plague of Thebes

Antigone leads Oedipus through the plague-ridden city of Thebes in Charles Jalabert’s Oedipus and Antigone. The great saga of Thebes, following the humiliation of Oedipus, continues with the question of what the ensuing generation ought to do.

It’s been a little while since we heard the beginning of this story, so let’s first quickly review the central family at the heart of Statius’ epic, and then the famous “Seven Against Thebes” – those military captains who lead the opposing forces to war with the city of Thebes. We’ll begin with the Theban family at the heart of Statius’ Thebaid, a tragic and doomed set of six people, who, due to divine providence, bad luck, and strong personalities, just don’t seem to have it very easy. The father of this family of six is Oedipus, that famous Greek tragic hero who killed his father and married his mother, and, finding out the truth of his marriage, gouged out his eyes and abdicated his throne. Statius’ Thebaid opens not too long after Oedipus’ awful revelation took place. Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, is equally distraught by the revelation concerning her family. In Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, Jocasta kills herself immediately upon learning that she’s married her son, although in Statius’ version of the story – our version for today – Jocasta remains alive, as evidence from the poem suggests, to try and take care of her children. Oedipus and Jocasta’s four kids are central to Statius’ story. The two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, are at war with one another. As we open to the middle of the Thebaid today, King Eteocles of Thebes has refused to give up his throne to his brother Polynices, according to an annual arrangement they’d previously worked out, and the exiled Polynices has allied with the city of Argos, married an Argive princess, and led the Argive army much of the way up to Thebes. Old Oedipus and Jocasta, the parents of the warring brothers Polynices and Eteocles, also have two daughters, Ismene and Antigone. As Statius’ epic comes to its climax, Ismene and Antigone, largely powerless due to their gender, try to sue for peace and preserve a level of basic human decency as things on the battlefield grow ever more savage. So that’s the family of six at the core of Statius’ epic – the incestuous parents, Oedipus and Jocasta, their warring sons, king Eteocles and the exiled Polynices, and their morally clearheaded but politically impotent daughters, Ismene and Antigone.

So, the most important thing for us to remember is that a war is about to break out – a war between the entrenched forces of King Eteocles in Thebes, and the forces of his brother Polynices, who are coming up from the south. These forces in the south include the notorious “Seven Against Thebes,” a set not unlike the Seven Samurai or Magnificent Seven. These characters have banded together with the exiled Polynices to help him take back his throne. Taking back his throne is, as we learn throughout the Thebaid, a questionable enterprise. After all, the exiled Polynices has married an Argive princess, and thus become heir to the throne of Argos, and Argos is a richer and more powerful kingdom untarnished with a history of recent incest and subsequent succession disputes. Nonetheless, due to divine prompting, Polynices has mobilized large armies in the south, led by seven powerful captains, against the city of Thebes. Let’s review those captains.

First, there is Tydeus, a small, wiry man who in the second book of the Thebaid kills a party of fifty Theban assassins sent against him. Tydeus meets the exiled Polynices early in the epic, becoming Polynices’ friend and brother-in-law, as Tydeus also marries an Argive princess. Tydeus is perhaps most remembered for his anger problem. Second, there is Amphiaraus, an Argive seer and sage who doubles as a strong warrior and charioteer. Third, a horseman called Hippomedon, also a powerful warrior, joins the Argive forces with his armies. Fourth of the Seven Against Thebes is Parthenopaeus, a swift running, handsome young archer whose enthusiasm for warfare isn’t quite matched by combat experience. Fifth is Capaneus, a giant of a man who denies the existence of gods and seems unafraid of anything. Sixth of the Seven Against Thebes is the King of Argos, less of a warrior and more of a figurehead for the assembled Argive forces. And seventh, of course, is the exiled Polynices himself – that banished brother whom everyone has come to support. This diverse group – their actions down on the field of Thebes and along the Theban city walls – this group, along with Polynices’ family, are the main cast of the story we’re about to finish up.

There’s just one more thing to review before jumping back into this epic. Where we last off, the Argive army was in the territory of Nemea, on their way from Argos to Thebes. Last time, we learned that the ancient city of Thebes was about thirty miles northwest of Athens, and that Argos was about sixty miles southwest, in the Peloponnese. While you don’t need to memorize this geography to enjoy the story, it’s useful to know that the action of this entire epic is restricted to a small geographical area in the south of modern day Greece; specifically, three storied cities central to ancient Greek epics. As we open the pages of the epic to the beginning of Book 7, the Argives are just embarking on the second leg of their short overland march to the city of Thebes. One last small point to recall upfront is that Statius changes scenes pretty often, cinematically shifting from one group of characters to the next, and I’ll generally play short musical interludes to indicate those scene changes.

So let’s finish our own journey through Rome’s wonderful but largely forgotten epic. Unless otherwise noted, my occasional quotes will come from the Charles Stanley Ross translation, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2004. [music]

The Thebaid, Book 7

Jupiter’s Enigmatic Agenda

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio - Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto - WGA04203

Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury stand menacingly over the head of the viewer in Caravaggio’s Jupiter, Neptune and Pluto, a ceiling painting appropriate to the Thebaid.

The Argive warriors had delayed for a long time in the land of Nemea – to hear Hypsipyle’s story, and thereafter to hold funeral games for the dead Nemean prince. Jupiter was not happy. He wanted murder and mass graves, and he wanted them as soon as possible. Jupiter told the deity Mercury to hurry to wherever Mars was, and to get Mars to get the Argives spurred into military action. Jupiter mocked the funeral games that the Argives had just held. Jupiter threatened the God of War that if Mars didn’t get the war started soon, then Jupiter himself would usher in an era of peace.

And so Mercury, bearing Jupiter’s message, hurried to the citadel of Mars – a place with iron walls, surrounded by furies. In the house of Mars, sunlight faltered. The war god’s altars were littered with blood and the remnants of burning towns – his city walls were decorated with the broken walls of other cities; with smashed ships, crushed heads and pulverized chariots. And just as Mercury arrived, Mars burst out through his city’s gates. Mercury explained what needed to be done, and Mars sped off to get the war started in earnest. From far off, Jupiter watched, pleased at the carnage that would soon unfold.

Mars thundered southward across the Isthmus of Corinth. One of his attendants – the deity called Panic, spread fear and anxiety across the northern Peloponnese. And as the momentum of the coming war began to quicken, a single deity looked on in consternation.

Bacchus, the god of wine, was also the patron god of Thebes. Bacchus went to Jupiter and asked his father if Jupiter really intended to obliterate the city – a city in which so many of Jupiter’s own descendants lived. Did Jupiter intend to disregard and override the hopes of his son, Bacchus? The Thebans, said Bacchus, weren’t a warlike people – they liked to weave leaves into their hair and dance on the grass. Couldn’t Jupiter spare Thebes?

Jupiter smiled and gave his young son a kiss. And he comforted his son with an egregiously nonsensical speech that contradicted what he’d said in earlier books of the Thebaid. Jupiter told Bacchus, in the Johns Hopkins Charles Stanley Ross translation,
It is not – as you think – my wife’s advice
or fearsome importunity, my son,
that binds me, but the steadfast wheels of fate.
Old and new grievances have caused this war.
What god has quieted his anger more
or made as frugal use of human blood? (7.197-201)1
In past instances in the Thebaid, Jupiter has said that he himself wants war, and in this very same book Jupiter is actively urging Mars to go out and get the homicide started, and so his insistence of his own clemency to Bacchus is either self delusion or an outright lie. Jupiter added that it wasn’t him who was spurring the war on – no – instead it was Piety and Faith – abstract principles that themselves demanded retribution. Whatever his immediate reaction to his father’s muddled speech, which we’ll talk about more later, Bacchus put his cloak on and headed off somewhere else.

Antigone Atop the City Walls

Meanwhile, back in the city of Thebes, citizens heard increasing news that a large military force was headed their way. The Thebans, contrary to what Bacchus had told Jupiter a moment ago, weren’t necessarily flower children through and through. The Thebans had taken up spots on the plain below Thebes, and high up on the city walls, a certain famous citizen of Thebes examined the troops. Her name was Antigone, and she was the sister of King Eteocles and his exiled brother Polynices. Just as Book 4 included a catalog of various Argive heroes and their respective armies, Antigone, standing on the walls of Thebes, looked down on the best and brightest Theban heroes and discussed them with an old attendant.2 For over a hundred lines, Antigone was acquainted with the names and identities of all those who were preparing to defend Thebes against the coming Argives.

Once Antigone had been treated to a lengthy catalog of who was down on the field to protect the city, King Eteocles offered the armies a brief address. Essentially, Eteocles villainized his brother Polynices, saying Polynices had come to make war on his family. Conveniently, Eteocles left out the bits about how he had agreed to an alternating co-regency with Polynices and how he’d killed Polynices’ emissary, but of course such complexities would have been counterproductive to his attempt to rile up the troops down below. [music]

An Attempted Peace, and Outbreak of War

Around the same time, perhaps forty miles to the south, the Argives had completed their lengthy stayover in Nemea, and were marching toward Thebes at top speed. As they travelled they saw and heard of numerous ill omens – ghosts, a crying effigy, wailings from the ocean, a flooded river that blocked their path – the Argives ignored all of these omens until they came to be within sight of the plains and ramparts of Thebes, where they set up camp.

As for the Thebans, they soon saw with horror that the rumors were true – an enemy army had indeed encamped nearby. The war between the Theban king Eteocles and his exiled brother Polynices, who had partnered with the Argives, was now imminent. The fury Tisiphone, unleashed back in Book 1 by the prayers of furious old Oedipus, ran rampant amidst both Thebans and Argives, encouraging greater and greater rage to build between King Eteocles and exiled Polynices. But one Theban attempted to take measures to prevent the war. Jocasta, the mother of Eteocles, Polynices, and their sisters Antigone and Ismene, went out of her city gates to talk to her estranged son Polynices. (And just a reminder, by the way. Jocasta kills herself in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King immediately upon finding out that she’s sired children with her son. In other epic traditions, though, including Statius’, Jocasta remains alive, and so that’s why she’s still living and breathing and trying to do some good at this moment of Statius’ Thebaid.) Anyway, Jocasta greeted her exiled son Polynices fondly, and asked Polynices if he’d speak with his brother Eteocles, at least. The war might be forestalled, after all, and if not – well, then they could go ahead with it. Jocasta said did not want to lose her son Polynices – she said she knew the Argives were fond of him, but that she was infinitely moreso.

Polynices, suddenly in the company of his mother, wondered what he was doing there below his city walls with an army. He said yes, he’d go speak with his brother and try to resolve differences. Polynices’ companion Tydeus, however, had different ideas. Tydeus, if you remember from Book 2, had gone to Thebes as an emissary and had had a pack of fifty assassins set against him. He was not so trustful toward Eteocles, and proposed that Eteocles be brought out to parley with the Argives – or better yet, to just fight Polynices and settle things without mass casualties.

Now, as with every time humans seem to be about to broker peace with one another in the Thebaid, or seemingly any Greco-Roman epic, the gods intervened to make sure that things became as horrible as possible. The fury Tisiphone stirred a pair of sacred Theban tigers to attack some Argive forces. The Argives retaliated, killing the sacred Theban tigers. A Theban killed an Argive in retaliation. And the peacemaking attempt between the two brothers suddenly faltered. The armies drew their swords, wrathful Tydeus screaming that this was precisely what he’d expected from the dishonest Thebans. And finally, after nearly seven books of the epic, war broke out between the Argives and the Thebans.

Giant Capaneus first threw a spear through a powerful Theban warrior. Eteocles was ready for a total slaughter of the Argive invaders, but Polynices’ situation was more complex – Polynices stared at a city full of people whom he knew. But out of all the warriors present in that first skirmish, one in particular distinguished himself – the Argive sage Amphiaraus. There is a convention in Greco-Roman epic poetry called the aristeia – or “excellence,” or maybe “moment of excellence.” During an aristeia, a character begins to do something – most often to fight, with invincible fury. We might use the slang terms “going into beast mode” or “hulking out” today to describe, for instance, what happens to Achilles after Patroclus dies, or what happens to Aeneas after Pallas dies. And so one of the Seven Against Thebes, Amphiaraus, in the opening sallies of the war, immediately has an aristeia, killing a large number of Theban foes. The prophet Amphiaraus, who was a seer, knew he was going to die anyway, and so he felt very little apprehension.

The Argive prophet Amphiaraus fought his Theban foes from his chariot. The violence is a little bit ridiculous in its excessiveness – Statius tells us
The heartless [chariot] axle ground unconscious men,
and others, half-dead, wounded, saw it coming
but had no strength to move. The reins were slick
with gore; the chariot was soaked; blood clogged
the wheels; they had no solid place to stand,
and mangled entrails slowed the horse’s hooves. (7.760-7)
Some of this imagery is borrowed from the Iliad, and Statius continues to pile the epic brutality on thick.3 Apollo came to Amphiaraus and told him that the prophet’s days were about up, and, in a moment that terrified everyone, the earth itself yawned open and consumed the prophet Amphiaraus, who didn’t hesitate to drive his chariot into the mouth of the underworld. And thus died the first of the Seven Against Thebes. The initial skirmish of the awful war had ended. [music]

The Thebaid, Book 8

Amphiaraus in Hades

Book 8 of the Thebaid picks up just seconds after the closure of Book 7. The seer Amphiaraus rushed into the darkness of the underworld, a halo of daylight behind him, startling the attendants there with his unusual appearance. The sudden sunburst was of particular concern to Pluto, lord of the underworld. He did not like daylight being cast down onto the shades of his realm. If the gods of the upper world could illumine his darkness, Pluto said, then he could smear the sun with the tarry blackness of the netherworld. Pluto railed curses at the upper realms, and asked the fury Tisiphone to set in motion some of the more gruesome acts of the Thebaid yet to come. With his imprecations finished, Pluto turned his formidable visage to the seer Amphiaraus, who had intruded into the darkness of the underworld with such a bright blaze.

Amphiaraus, handily, was a considerate and skilled speaker. The prophet said he knew and feared the laws of hell, and that he had not come there to cause a disturbance, or cheat anyone. Amphiaraus said he’d been betrayed by his wife into joining a lost cause, that he’d died unmourned and unburied. Further, the prophet Amphiaraus said, he would fall in line in the underworld, and become a ghost, and lay low. Pluto was unconvinced, but before we learn the fate of Amphiaraus, Statius changes the scene to the upper world.

The War’s Second Day

Rochegrosse Vitellius traîné dans les rues de Rome par la populace, 1883 crop

Georges Rochegrosse’s Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome (1883). Statius and everyone in his generation would have remembered the Year of the Four Emperors that led to the installation of the Flavian dynasty, during which a combination of opportunism and random chance led to catastrophes at every level of Roman society.

Down on the plains of Thebes, the Argives were uneasy about the fate of Amphiaraus. Generally, when the earth yawns open to gobble one of your companions into the mouth of hell, something isn’t quite right. The King of Argos learned of his captain’s dark and dire demise from multiple soldiers, who told their monarch that now might be a good time to call things off. The day lengthened and evening fell. The mood at the Argive camp was bleak – men neither washed their armaments nor tended to their wounds. The death of Amphiaraus had not only been a terrible omen – many of the men in the camp had called the prophet their friend, and relied on his auguries to guide them forward.

Up above the camp, in the city of Thebes, the mood was considerably more positive. The Thebans drank wine and sang songs, mocking the dead Amphiaraus, secure with a sense that the war would go their way after all, if the events of the day were any indication. In the midst of the festivities, old Oedipus emerged, having cleaned himself up a bit from his period of mourning. Oedipus, to his fellow Thebans, seemed newly rejuvenated. And yet, Statius tells us, it wasn’t the calamity that had befallen the Argives that inspired Oedipus with new energy. It was the outbreak of a war between Oedipus’ sons – a war that the blind and embittered former monarch believed would make Eteocles and Polynices pay for spurning him.

Down in the Argive camp, the King of Argos heard the sounds of Theban celebration and found them disheartening. The next morning the Argives appointed a new prophet. One was chosen, and he voiced a long prayer that no more Argives would be sucked down into the underworld. He even tried to spin Amphiaraus’ death as a sort of positive – Amphiaraus hadn’t been devoured by hell, he said, but instead embraced by mother earth. The speech by the new Argive prophet wound up just in the nick of time, because a moment later, war horns sounded from the city of Thebes.

The city of Thebes, famously, had seven gates. And out of these gates came various especially powerful Thebans, a couple of whom are counterparts to Statius’ Seven Against Thebes. The armies squared off against one another, the god Mars standing between them with his sword drawn. Statius describes the first full scale battle of the Thebaid with breathless urgency. Here’s a long quote from the older J.H. Mozley translation, narrating the moment of the first charge.
Love of country is driven out, and love of the light, that lingers latest in the heart; rage holds their hands all ready on the sword-hilt and on the lance, the panting spirit strives beyond its corselet, and the helmets tremble beneath the quivering plumes. What wonder that the heroes are hot for battle? Horn-footed steeds are inflamed against the foe and bedew the crumbling earth with a snow-white shower, as though they were made one in body with their masters, and had put on their riders’ rage: so champ they the bits, and neigh to join the fight, and rearing toss the horsemen backward.

And now they charge, and the first dust-clouds of the heroes begin to meet in the onset; both sides dash forward an equal space, and see the intervening plain diminish. Then shield thrusts against shield, boss upon boss, threatening sword on sword, foot against foot and lance on lance: in such close struggle they meet; together their groans reek, close-packed crests gleam over helmets not their own. The face of battle is still fair: plumes stand erect, horsemen bestride their steeds, no chariot is without its chief; weapons are in their place, shields glitter, quivers and belts are comely, and gold as yet unsightly with blood. (388-405)4
Soon so many arrows were crowding the sky that they knocked each other from the air. The armies gave and lost ground. A score of single serving warrior characters appeared and killed one another. Then Tydeus, who’d once killed the fifty Theban assassins sent against him, began to dominate the battlefield. Still, evidently bearing a grudge against Thebes, Tydeus speared two men, dismembered two with a sword, and dismembered a third with a rock. A Theban named Haemon, who would later be engaged to Antigone, proved useful on the battlefield, striking back against many Argives set against him. When Haemon saw the ferocious Tydeus, however, Haemon decided not to try his luck, and his patron goddess protected him from one of Tydeus’ spears before Haemon called it quits for the day.

As for furious Argive Tydeus, he was just getting started. He killed a horse and its rider with one blow. A weak young warrior – in fact, the fiancé of Polynices and Eteocles’ sister Ismene – armed for battle by his mother, attempted to attack Tydeus, but the wrathful Argive laughed out loud and threw a javelin into his opponent’s groin, saying he’d not even do the man the honor of confiscating his armaments.

And within the city of Thebes, Ismene and Antigone, sisters of Eteocles and Polynices, wept at their family’s continuing self-destruction. Ismene didn’t know that her fiance had just been wounded in an especially agonizing fashion. But when her fiance was brought in a little later, poor Ismene had to watch him die. [music]

The Blasphemies of Tydeus

Out on the battlefield, the Argives and more than anyone the remaining Seven Against Thebes were massacring their foes. But fiercest of all of them continued to be wiry, vicious Tydeus – Polynices’ brother-in-law. Tydeus taunted as he killed. Tydeus went for the enemy king, but a fury intervened. Angry that he’d been denied his victory, Tydeus rushed into a throng of Thebans, and soon heads and arms and legs were literally flying all over the place. Tydeus, in fact, took it a bit too far, rushing so deeply into enemy ranks that he became outnumbered. Arrows and rocks were thudding into his armor and blood slicked the inside of his helmet. A heavy ashen spear flew through the air and cut into the side of Tydeus – a spear thrown by a warrior named Melanippus, who, as soon as he saw he’d struck his target, worried about what would happen next. Tydeus tried to throw back, but his wound was too severe. He was taken off the field to be cared for. He said he needed something – he was dying – he required an act of retribution. The man who had wounded him, Melanippus, had fallen in battle, and some other members of the Seven Against Thebes brought Tydeus Melanippus’ head. And Tydeus, especially ruthless throughout the Thebaid, proceeded to eat the head of the man who had wounded him.

The goddess Minerva had been a supporter of Tydeus. Knowing he was wounded, she went to him. But what she saw horrified her. The Ross translation reads that
[Minerva] saw that blood and broken brains perfused [Tydeus’] jaws,
that slime and filthy stains befouled his face.
His comrades could not stop him. The fierce [fury Tisiphone]
stood there with outstretched hair, and her horned serpents
stiffened and cast their shadows on [Minerva].
[Minerva] turned her face away and fled,
nor did she enter heaven till her eyes
had undergone purgation. (8.758-66)
It’s a sickening moment – a moment at which a member of the Greco-Roman pantheon attempts to reward and punish humankind as she always has, and instead finds that other, more aggressive deities have taken it upon themselves to get involved with the affairs of humanity. Dante, who knew Statius’ poetry well, takes this most gruesome moment of the Thebaid and makes it the one of the most awful moments of the Inferno – Count Ugolino, in the icy lake at the bottom of hell, gnaws at the base of his foe Ruggieri’s skull for all eternity, just as dying Tydeus chomps on Melanippus’. As for Statius’ epic, the war at Thebes, which had already involved an Argive being swallowed by hell itself, and now this, would not soon be over. [music]

The Thebaid, Book 9

Hippomedon Fights the River

Book 9 of the Thebaid is, nearly from end to end, a long, violent sequence of confrontations between Argives and Thebans, following on the heels of Tydeus eating the head of his assailant in the previous book. As it turned out, eating an opponent’s head wasn’t really an acceptable thing to do, even amidst the general bone breaking and dismemberment of an epic war. The Argives were queasy about it, and the Thebans outright incensed. The Theban King Eteocles rallied his men to go and attack the cannibalistic Tydeus.

Tydeus saved them the trouble by dying of his wounds, becoming the second of the Seven Against Thebes to perish in the war. Polynices bemoaned the death of his longtime comrade and brother-in-law. He blamed himself for the death, and would have taken his own life, had his comrades not intervened. Polynices was utterly distraught. Another Argive would have to carry the day.

King Eteocles of Thebes began marshalling his forces, and the horseman Hippomedon, who will now figure centrally into this book, stood against them. Hippomedon isn’t perhaps distinct of the Seven Against Thebes, but he was a powerful warrior nonetheless. He stood fast as the Thebans tried to get control of the dead Tydeus’ body, probably to desecrate it and make sure it never saw burial. Hippomedon executed a small population of Thebans, and as the day’s battle unfolded, first Argives had control of Tydeus’ corpse, and then Thebans, and then Argives again, and so on. Finally, a trick on the part of the fury Tisiphone led to the Argives losing control of Tydeus’ body. Tydeus’ remains were dragged, and stabbed, and mutilated.

Hippomedon then had his own moment of aristeia. Hippomedon climbed astride the dead Tydeus’ horse and began galloping around the battlefield, sword in hand. Hippomedon forded a river and began killing Thebans on the other side of it, and many Thebans drowned, trying to swim to safety. The violence grew so intense that severed limbs were floating downstream. Hippomedon taunted enemies as he killed them, and murdered a Theban amidst the waters of a sacred part of the river. A river nymph mourned Hippomedon’s murder of her son. She asked her father, the river, to intervene and take vengeance on the marauding Argive captain Hippomedon.

The river was angry – angry at his grandson’s death, and angry that his banks and flowing waters were clogged by the dead. Now, this entire episode replicates a scene in Book 21 of the Iliad when Achilles litters the river Xanthus with bodies and the river becomes mad and strikes back against him – there are so many parallels between the Iliad and Aeneid and Thebaid that I haven’t even mentioned most of them. But to give Statius his due as a poet, he always takes set pieces from his predecessors and dresses them up nicely. Here’s Ross’ excellent translation of Statius’ description of the river swelling up over Hippomedon:
Black foaming billows overwhelmed his shield,
broke into waves, grew larger, then surged back.
The mass of liquid overwhelmed the stream,
which plucked up trunks that held the crumbling banks,
rolled boulders from the depths, and swirled gnarled trees.
Human and river waged an even contest.
Much to the [river’s] dismay, Hippomedon
never retreated; he ignored all threats;
he stubbornly opposed the rushing flow
and shoved his target hard against the current. (9.462-72)
Finally, though, the river swept Hippomedon off of his feet, just as Thebans assaulted him with their weapons. Hippomedon grabbed an ash tree and tried to pull himself out, but the tree splashed into the flowing water. In the end, as Hippomedon lay dying in the riverbed, thronged by Theban foes, his comrade, the blasphemous Capaneus, hurled a spear that took his life in order to save him from the disgrace of enemy mockery. The third of the Seven Against Thebes had fallen. [music]

Parthenopaeus Fights and Dies

In spite of the Argive and Theban losses thus far, the war didn’t yet seem to favor either side. Nonetheless, the family of another member of the Seven Against Thebes worried about him. Parthenopaeus, the handsome, swift-running son of the huntress Atalanta, concerned his mother deeply at that moment. The virgin Atalanta prayed to the virgin goddess Diana to please not let Parthenopaeus suffer the grim fates of his fellow Argive captains. Diana heard, and she went to help young Parthenopaeus.

On the way, though, the goddess Diana met the god Apollo, who, as we know, had been heavily involved with the war between Argos and Thebes. Young Parthenopaeus, said Apollo, however nice he was – and whoever his mother was – young Parthenopaeus had overreached. He’d become involved with a dreadful war. Apollo said that Parthenopaeus should pay for his actions. Diana, thinking of her follower Atalanta’s petition agreed, but with a caveat. Diana said that whoever ended up killing young Parthenopaeus would have to answer to her. [music]

Down on the battlefield below the walls of Thebes, conflict had once again fierce. And into the fray rode the handsome youth Parthenopaeus, wearing a tiger skin, some of his armaments a little ill fitting, but eager to engage in his first battle. Parthenopaeus was so young that Theban archers were reluctant to target him, but this didn’t stop him from attacking them. His patron goddess Diana watched him sadly. He wasn’t ready for war, she said. He would leave his mother Atalanta disconsolate. Diana thought she could at least give Parthenopaeus a heroic death. Diana descended and stocked his quiver with a brace of magic arrows. And thereafter young Parthenopaeus had his own aristeia, shooting Theban after Theban after Theban, hitting foes in the eyes, through the temple, the bridge of the nose, the groin, the forehead, and never running out of arrows from his magical quiver.

Finally, though, Mars approached Diana on the battlefield and said it was time to stop interfering. A burly Theban warrior was about to mortally wound Parthenopaeus with a javelin, and the youth had time to deliver himself a lengthy eulogy before he died. The fourth of the Seven Against Thebes, then, had met his end. [music]

The Thebaid, Book 10

The Argive Night Raid

While Amphiaraus, and then Tydeus, and after him Hippomedon, and after him Parthenopaeus, had all managed to kill a great many Thebans in the previous two books, the three champions had nonetheless fallen, and the Thebans, as far as they were concerned, had won the day. A rain began to fall, and the battlefield sunk into deep darkness. A short section at the beginning of Book 10, though obviously embedded in a martial epic, expresses a sense of sadness at the cost of the war so far. Here’s the older J.H. Mozley translation:
Dewy night overwhelmed [the sun] in the gateway of the West, hastened by the commands of [Jupiter]; nought pitied [Jupiter] the [Argive] camp nor the [Theban] forces, but he grieved that beside the warriors so many innocent folk should fall by the sword. Far stretches the plain, a vast unsightly sea of blood; there they leave their arms, and the steeds whereon before they went so proudly, and the corpses deprived of their pyres and the neglected limbs. Then, an unsightly troop with tattered ensigns, they withdraw their exhausted lines, and the gates that were so narrow as they thronged to battle are all too broad as they return. (10.1-8)5
Nisus and Euryalus Surprise the Rutuli in their Camp (Aeneid, Book IX) MET ES774

Nisus and Euryalus (shown here in a 16th-century French engraving) of from Virgil’s Aeneid conduct a perilous nocturnal strike, in an episode Statius imitates in the Thebaid.

However exhausted both sides were by the fighting, the Thebans were heartened at having slain the Argive captains, and King Eteocles of Thebes inventoried the Argive dead with enthusiasm – Tydeus and Hippomedon, both pillars of the opposing army, were no more.

To the south, in distant Argos, wives and mothers of the dead thought mournfully of those they’d lost. The Argive wives and mothers asked Juno for help against Thebes – didn’t Juno have an old grievance against the city? Indeed, hearing the Argive women’s prayers, Juno remembered that she did have a bone to pick with Thebes. Juno had a messenger goddess go to the lightless and silent house of the deity Sleep. Sleep, in Statius’ epic, is personified as an indolent, subterranean male god. Petitioned by Juno to offer his aid, Sleep proved more than willing, and soon he was off to where the Thebans were camped below their city walls. As he arrived, a gloom of relaxation and drowsiness overtook the military forces encamped there. And while the Theban warriors sunk into a deep stupor, the Argives out on the other side of the field remained fully armed and awake.

And at that moment, one of the men in the Argive camp was told the good news. He was an augur. And he learned that the Thebans were unconscious, and thus vulnerable to a lethal nighttime attack. A small strike force would lead it – the Argives didn’t want to risk losing too many to a nocturnal assault. As the assault force assembled, the King of Argos was jubilant – the war had been against them, it seemed, and here was their chance to gain advantage!

The nighttime war party ventured forth and began their assassinations under the cover of darkness. The killers worked swiftly, trying to stifle any sounds. Blood flowed down to the turf and steamed there, and the unconscious Thebans died quickly. As the first light of dawn began to glow, the Argive killers, satisfied at the damage they’d caused, turned to go back to their own camp. One pair of Argives, however, lingered in the Theban camp, not yet satisfied with the damage that had been caused.6 They had, they believed, a unique opportunity and, reeling from the deaths of their comrades and the Argive captains, the pair resolved to use this opportunity to the fullest. This episode in the Thebaid, by the way – a perilous nighttime mission by a doughty duo – is modeled on Book 9 Virgil’s Aeneid, in which a pair of Trojan warriors named Nisus and Euryalus raid the enemy camp, and Virgil, in turn, modeled his episode on Book 10 of the Iliad, in which Odysseus and Diomedes raid the Trojan camp. Evidently nighttime raids conducted by courageous pairs of companions is an epic war staple, so if you decide to write an epic, don’t forget that bit.

Anyway, so although the main raid on the Theban camp had wound up, a young pair called Hopleus and Dymas took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way by continuing the lethal reconnaissance mission into the early hours of the morning. The two men had been companions of the fallen Tydeus, and they found and recovered Tydeus’ body. They were in the midst of bringing the corpse of the fallen captain back to their own camp when they were discovered by Theban warriors as dawn began to break. One of the Argive companions was killed immediately by a javelin. The second, securing his arms to protect the bodies of both Tydeus and his dead companion, squared off to fight.

His resistance didn’t last long, however. A dastardly Theban threatened to mutilate the body of another Argive captain – handsome Parthenopaeus – unless the last surviving Argive night raider revealed the secrets of the Argive campaign. As a result, the young Argive killed himself, falling on his dead friend, and announcing that by doing so, he was burying him. [music]

Creon and Menoeceus

The raid had had a bloody end, but nonetheless the previous night had clearly favored the Argives. Emboldened by their nocturnal killings, the Argives arrayed themselves in the field, crunching chariot wheels over corpses and smelling the reek of the dead. This time, the Argives didn’t charge the Theban camp, which had been battered and broken by the nighttime assault. This time, the Argives went for Thebes itself.

The Thebans rushed to close their gates, but one wasn’t closed quickly enough. Fierce fighting broke out there, until those inside managed to close the portal. All around Thebes, Argives assaulted the palisades, trying to get their reluctant horses to cross a defensive ditch. Projectiles and debris fell down on the assault force in a hail storm. Behind the walls, Thebes was in terror and chaos. Always conscious of the human cost of war, Statius describes Thebes’ citizens petrified by the fear of death or slavery – children, too young to know what exactly they feared, cried at the sight of their mothers’ tears. Theban women tried to help their men act with bravery. And gradually the sentiment amidst the citizens of Thebes turned more and more against King Eteocles. He wasn’t worth the war, they said. Couldn’t the brothers just stand by the agreement that they’d made – couldn’t Polynices enter and complete his reign, and find that Thebes was a blighted place and not worth such slaughter?

The prophet Tiresias, always a source of divine information for Thebans, was consulted. Tiresias communed with the spirits. And he said that something dire had to be done to appease the gods – a sacrifice. The sacrifice would be of a youth named Menoeceus, the son of Creon. Now Creon, if you remember from Sophocles’ Oedipus plays, was Queen Jocasta’s brother, and thus Menoeceus was the cousin of Polynices and Eteocles, so he wasn’t just some nobody.7 Creon considered the dire prophecy, and news of the prophecy reached his son Menoeceus, who was serving on top of a wall amidst the siege forces. Menoeceus then went to talk to his father Creon, who told him to ignore the prophet Tiresias’ words – young Menoeceus didn’t have to die! Creon said Tiresias was trafficking in falsehoods, and to take time and consider – Menoeceus shouldn’t just die straightaway. At the very least, said Creon, Menoeceus could die heroically in battle against the Argives, and fulfill the prophecy’s requirements this way.

Brave young Menoeceus pretended – not very convincingly – that he was swayed by his father Creon’s words and that he believed the prophecy to be hogwash. Menoeceus then went to man the walls once more, still inwardly reeling at his father’s news.

But the private familial crisis had hardly put an end to the fight for the city. The Argive army worked furiously to break into Thebes. Capaneus, the blasphemous giant and one of the few remaining Seven Against Thebes, was thundering against turrets and parapets, and the condemned Menoeceus stood tall high over the battlefield and voiced a prayer to Apollo. Menoeceus said he would be willing to die, as the prophecy requested. He would die, provided that the gods changed the course of the war. And with this proclamation, he stabbed himself and threw himself from the wall, trying to fall on Argive warriors as his last heroic act in support of his beloved city. Thebes’ citizens and Menoeceus’ own parents eulogized his voluntary self-sacrifice. [music]

Capaneus Climbs the Walls of Thebes

Seven against Thebes Getty Villa 92.AE.86

Capaneus climbs the wall of Thebes in an image on this amphora, dated to about 340 BCE. Photo by the Getty Villa, from their collection.

The self-sacrifice of Menoeceus, however heroic, did not immediately pulverize the Argives’ assault. In fact, at that very moment, giant Capaneus, fearing neither men nor gods, stomped around the base of the Theban wall. He was tired and irritated at the day’s fighting, and saw a ladder that led all the way to the top of the walls. This would be his path upward, said Capaneus. As Capaneus climbed, he bragged and bragged. Rocks, beams, pellets from slings, siege machines, javelins, and spears were all ineffective against the impious behemoth as he advanced upward. Fearless of heights and assaults alike, Capaneus reached the top of the Theban walls and laughed, his shadow falling over the mortified townspeople.

Capaneus cackled, saying the Theban fortifications were pathetic. He picked up pieces of dislodged stone and hurled them down at temples and homes. The gods associated with Thebes all mourned – Bacchus, Apollo, and Venus. Capaneus said the gods had abandoned Thebes – they were afraid of him. And finally, Capaneus took it a bit too far. Screaming up at the gods, of whom he denied the existence, Capaenus said, “Do something! Let me feel / the force of all your lightning, Jupiter! / Or is your thunder only strong enough / to frighten little girls and burn the towers / of Cadmus, whom you made your son-in-law?” (10.904-7).

The gods all awaited Jupiter’s response, and although a storm began to brew, they wondered if even Jupiter were up to the task of toppling the fearless Capaneus. Capaneus laughed at the storm, and said it was only there to send lightning and fire down onto Thebes itself, but as it turned out, the blasphemous colossus was incorrect. A lightning bolt struck him squarely, and he exploded into flames and died soon thereafter. But Statius, in a way, gives Capaneus the last word. He writes, “Had Capaneus lost his strength more slowly, / he might have hoped to feel a second bolt” (10.938-9). With Capaneus dead, then, and before him Amphiarus, Tydeus, Hippomedon, and Partheonpaeus, all of the fighting Seven Against Thebes who appear in Statius’ Thebaid have fallen, and only Polynices, the exiled son of Oedipus, remained alive. [music]

The Thebaid, Book 11

The Furies Prepare Their Endgame

The increasingly catastrophic violence that has risen throughout the last few books of the Thebaid comes to its crescendo in Book 11. With so many on both sides fallen, many, especially the citizens of Thebes, who didn’t feel very strong support of King Eteocles in the first place, were ready for the war to come to its end.

The blazing fall of Capaneus had scarred the walls of Thebes with an ashy streak. This was yet another decisively terrible sign for the Argive assailants. Though the brief storm subsided, the Argives felt as though their armor had burned, and their helmets had received the shock of Jupiter’s lightning. Thebans surged up to defend their city walls, and the tide of the war, once more, had decisively turned.

The magnitude of violence that had unfolded had even satisfied the fury Tisiphone, who sought to enlist the aid of her sister Megaera to bring the war to its culmination by killing both King Eteocles of Thebes and his exiled brother Polynices. Tisiphone told her sister she was satisfied. There had been ample death and suffering, maimings – even, most piquantly, cannibalism. One final atrocity, the fury Tisiphone told her sister Megaera, would be the capstone of their gory triumph. Brothers, said Tisiphone, would cross bloody swords, and it would be the perfect culmination of the larger monstrosity that she had perpetuated. The fury sisters had to bring it to the most abominable end they could – quickly, before Antigone or Jocasta could sue for peace – before Oedipus, who was at that very moment feeling repentant, could try and stymie the violence. Jupiter saw the furies preparing the final chapter of the war. It had become savage, and depraved, said Jupiter. He gathered clouds so that the gods would not have to see what happened next, leaving humanity to the ravages of the unloosed furies.

The fury Megaera came to Polynices and took all hesitation and repentance from him, filling him only with the need to kill his brother. Polynices went to his father-in-law, the King of Argos, and told the man he would fight his brother Eteocles. Polynices thought of all who had died for the war – the dead Seven Against Thebes who had left behind their homes and families for him. The King of Argos might have remonstrated, but the fury Megaera, though hidden, stopped him from doing so.

The Brothers Square Off and Fight

Just as the fury Megaera had come to Polynices, the fury Tisiphone came to his brother Eteocles. Eteocles prayed for a solution for the war’s end, but the only deity present was Tisiphone. His prayer was hopeful. Hadn’t Jupiter just assisted them, Eteocles asked? Hadn’t Jupiter looked favorably on Thebes? Eteocles listed all the things that Jupiter had done for them, but at the end of his careful, articulate prayer, he only saw a burst of black flame, which seared his hair and melted his crown. Later, Eteocles tried to conceal his terror as his people and attendants comforted him. And when Eteocles’ plight seemed unable to get any worse, a messenger brought word. Eteocles’ brother Polynices was at the gate. And he was looking for a fight.

Eteocles’ men burst into commotion at the news. Forget about Polynices, they said! His army was broken! It was the desperate gesture of an ailing madman! Polynices’ uncle Creon, thinking of his own dead son Menoeceus, had a different opinion. Eteocles, said Creon, had drained Thebes of life. Its citizens were dead and dying. Would Eteocles really skulk inside of his city walls and require more death on his behalf – did he really think that his mother and sisters didn’t hate him? It was time for Eteocles to answer his brother’s call, said Creon.

Eteocles, ever a wary autocrat, castigated Creon, saying that his uncle had aims on the Theban throne. Eteocles said that he would fight, but that he would arm himself first. His mother Jocasta saw horror upon horror piling up – her sons would now fight one another. Eteocles, said Jocasta, was an ingrate – he was degenerate – he sought to blemish the history of Thebes with another installment that would live on in infamy. Jocasta told her son not to kill her other son. King Eteocles, Jocasta said, had a chance, at least – who knew what Polynices was thinking, out there with the Argives?

Another of Oedipus’ family members intended to find out. Antigone, again the sister of Eteocles and Polynices, shouted down at Polynices from atop the Theban wall. Nothing if not eloquent and sincere in poetic tradition, Antigone gave her exiled brother Polynices a speech that should have stopped any fight. Antigone said she wanted to see the brother she knew and loved. Antigone said that the Thebans were not Polynices’ enemies. Polynices’ sister Antigone was so effective in her persuasions that Polynices faltered – even though he was spurred on by a fury – and tears filled his helmet. At that moment, though, within the walls of Thebes, the other fury Tisiphone pushed Jocasta away, and Eteocles burst out of the city’s battered gates.

The brothers sized each other up, then, both armed to the teeth. It was not, as in the epic contests in the Iliad and Aeneid, a divinely consecrated struggle for primacy with a preordained victory. Statius makes clear that what happened was unspeakable. The Charles Stanley Ross translation is terrific here, in this description of the beginning of the fight between Eteocles and Polynices:
A single womb made war against itself:
flags trembled; trumpets ceased; war horns were silent.
Three times from hell’s black shores its vast king thundered;
three times he shook the bottom of the world.
Pallas and Mars – the gods of war – departed. . .
Glorious Virtue left. . .In turn the [furies] blushed.
The miserable people peeped from towering roofs;
groans came from every turret; tears wet towers.
The old complained that they had lived too long;
mothers laid bare their breasts, kept their small children
from witnessing the battle; and the king
of Tartarus himself commanded his
gates opened that. . .ghosts might see
their relatives at war. These [ghosts] took their seats
on native hills, where they bedimmed the daylight
and marveled that their own crimes were surpassed. (11.406-23)
The old King of Argos, Polynices’ father-in-law, tried to stop them. He said if it was a kingdom they fought over, then Polynices could have his scepter. The brothers didn’t seem to even hear him. The forces of Fortune and Piety endeavored to intervene – the elemental force known as Piety gave a speech, saying that violence against family was irremediable. But Tisiphone laughed and said that she’d been working on Thebes for a long time, and that she would taste the fruits of her machinations.

The brothers began to fight. Eteocles’ spear missed. Polynices’ spear threw Eteocles off of his horse, and soon both were on foot on the battlefield. The two brothers then fought viciously, with no grace, and no technique, barely standing apart from one another. Polynices, perhaps more enraged than his brother and filled with a less compromised sense of purpose, drove his sword into his brother’s groin, and then mocked his wounded adversary before Thebans and Argives alike. Feigning death, Eteocles sunk down to the ground, and when Polynices stooped to strip his armor, Eteocles summoned the last of his strength and stabbed his exiled brother through the heart, dying just a moment later. [music]

A Power Vacuum Opens

When it was over, old Oedipus, supported by his daughter Antigone, went out onto the field below Thebes. Blinded by his own hand, Oedipus still wanted to say goodbye to his dead sons, and as he touched their cold remains and pried off their helmets, it took him a while to find his words. He cursed nature for what had happened, and fumbled for their weapons in order to take his own life, but Antigone had removed them. One wonders about the complexities of Oedipus’ feelings in this scene, since it was Oedipus who had prayed for the war to start and the brothers to massacre one another. Jocasta, meanwhile, who really had opposed the war the entire time, went and retrieved her first husband’s sword from where it was stored in a shrine, and drove it through her chest. Her daughter Ismene saw it, and tried to sop up her mother’s blood with her long hair.

Dire as all these events were, they also left a power vacuum in the city of Thebes – one which Creon, the uncle of the feuding brothers – hurried to fill. And having done so, Creon quickly sought to consolidate his power. He told Oedipus that the previous king was exiled. Oedipus was furious – he told Creon that Creon might as well just kill him – he’d never bow and scrape to the usurper – and Oedipus prayed that Creon would also know the feeling of total ruination. Antigone said she would take care of her father, and fortunately violent confrontation was averted. As for the Argives, when night fell, they packed their things and left under cover of dark. Shade and starlight made their defeat, and the futility of their comrades’ deaths, easier to bear. [music]

The Thebaid, Book 12

The Days After the War

Dawn broke over the wall of Thebes the next morning, and in another rather distinctly anti-war passage, Statius describes the atmosphere of shock and horror in the aftermath of the battles. He says of the Thebans in the Ross translation that
Even though they might sleep – their first reprieve
since conflict ended – still the sickly peace
dispelled their quiet, and their victory
could not undo the savagery of war.
They hardly dared to sally, to demolish
fortifications, to unbar their portals.
Former fears stood before them, and the horrors
of vacant fields. . .
People moved past the lifeless and the fallen
remnants of war, wherever Grief and Mourning –
those bloodstained leaders – took them. Some saw corpses;
some looked at weapons; others stared at gashes
and saw dead friends beside dead enemies. . .
So people wandered, their laments
held in abeyance, ready for the worst. (12.5-32)
In the stricken haze of that anguished morning, Statius writes, Thebans lamented enemies as well as friends, staying long amidst the dead until two days had passed, and then funeral rites were carried out. Menoeceus, who’d thrown himself from the walls to save Thebes, was given a sufficiently grand funeral pyre. Eteocles, the king who’d caused the war by breaking the treaty with his brother was given a smaller one. Polynices, though, and the other Argives, were left to rot unburied.

Elsewhere, from the southern city of Argos, a procession of Argive women began making their way toward Thebes. The wives and mothers of the Seven Against Thebes were in this cavalcade, and a small group of female goddesses helped them make their way north. Polynices’ wife takes a large role here at the beginning of Book 12. Her name is Argia, and she is again the daughter of the King of Argos, and becomes a sort of figurehead for those who survive a war and still want there to be peace and law and decency in its aftermath, as she seeks burial for Polynices and his companions.

Poor Argia and the other mothers and widows wandered through the wilderness and cultivated lands alike, through dense forests and over rivers, until they came to the fringes of Thebes, where they could smell the rotting dead from far off. Argia then ventured toward the town, nearly heedless of the new king’s prohibition against burying the Argive dead. Polynices’ widow Argia searched amidst the battered armor and bloody grass for her departed husband, until she saw her husband’s cloak – one she herself had knitted. She said she had him back now, in a way – he was hers again – but why had the cruel Thebans refused to bury him?

Argia saw another figure coming across the blood matted grass. It was Antigone. Never having met her sister-in-law, Argia hid, but soon the two women realized they were there for the same reason, and indeed, that they were united by marriage. Argia revealed to Antigone that Polynices had always loved Antigone profoundly, and spoken of her reverently. They might have visited there for a long time – a pair who had lost everything to the war and had every reason to be friends, but necessity drove them to their purpose. Polynices’ widow and his sister carried his body over to a pyre – a pyre where there rested the blackened remains of Eteocles, who had had a proper burial. The two women put Polynices onto this same pyre, and ignited him at last, and in one of the most famous images in the Thebaid, a blaze rose that forked into two, like a snake’s tongue, one side trying to lick higher and higher than the other, as though the two brothers were vying for superiority, even in death.

It was an ill omen. Antigone said that while the shades of the two men continued to struggle with one another, they’d both missed the point – Creon had stolen the throne from both of them! And speaking of Creon, soldiers of the newly minted monarch, having seen the blaze from afar, rushed out onto the field and confronted the widow and sister of Polynices, who both confessed to giving him a proper funeral. They were impenitent, and fearless in the face of the new monarch’s harsh dictates, and expected only death. [music]

The Embassy to Theseus

Angelica Kauffmann Ariane donne une pelote à Thésée

Theseus, shown here with Ariadne as a young man in an 18th-century painting by Angelica Kauffmann, in the mythological tradition intervened in the chaos that followed the war at Thebes and helped restore order there.

Meanwhile, some of the Argive women had gone to Athens. Athenians, hearing the story of the bereaved women, learned that up in Thebes, the new monarch Creon was forbidding the timely funeral rites of the dead. The Argive women sought refuge at a shrine consecrated for victims of great losses and calamities in Athens.

It was at about this time that King Theseus returned from a northern expedition in Scythia, having conquered the Amazons and brought a new bride – Hippolyta – home with him.8 The Athenians looked with reverence and curiosity on the return of their king with such exotic foreigners. Theseus paused in his victory procession to ask what the Argive women were doing in Athens. And one of the Argive women – the wife of the giant champion Capaneus – told Theseus about Creon’s law against burying the Argive dead. The poor widow asked King Theseus to help them – leaving the dead to rot was unnatural, after all – if he did this he would be doing a great thing indeed.

Theseus was, in fact, disgusted. A trio of lines reveal his attitude in full color. Theseus growled, “What moved such madness? Ill-abiding Creon, / did you think Theseus beaten? I am here, / and do not think that I am sick of killing” (12.592-4). Theseus’ forces already packed and loaded, Theseus offered a speech to the army. He said people had universal rights, and the news from Thebes reeked of the furies. Whatever was going on, Theseus announced, they were marching with a just cause.

The full army of Athens spurred their horses northward, making the short journey to Thebes. They were an awe inspiring sight. And they reached Thebes just in the nick of time, because Antigone and Argia – again the sister and widow the dead Polynices – were about to be executed for giving him funeral rites. Creon, irritated that his execution was being interrupted, was told that an army had come to their walls. The arrogant new king smirked. He said they’d already repulsed an army. Anyone who attacked them now did so knowing that their dead would putrefy on the field. Only, Creon didn’t smile for long. As he went out he saw that the newly arrived army had carried with it dust – a lot of dust.

The Theban army, still dirty, demoralized, and exhausted from their war with the Argives, limped out of their weakened walls. Theseus and the Athenians were a different sight entirely, shining and triumphant from their recent victory. Theseus fought strategically. A small handful of Thebans died – enough to get him toward Creon. Creon’s men were abandoning him on all sides, sick of following wicked kings and lost causes. Theseus told his soldiers to stay back. He’d take care of Creon. The harsh new King of Thebes confronted Theseus with a volatile threat. He threw a spear and Theseus blocked it, laughing. Theseus’ spear in return, however, struck true, and Creon was stone dead before he hit the ground. Theseus said the heresy of leaving corpses unburied ended then and there – Creon would receive his funeral rites, regardless of his crimes.

And with that, the war was over. No gods, for once, perpetuated the killing out of their perverse jealousies or lusts. Theseus entered Thebes peacefully and became the city’s guest, treating its citizens with deference and respect. The long beleaguered townspeople wept with joy and thought mourningly of their beloved dead.

Statius finishes the Thebaid with a short sequence of lines that are endearingly humble. He first admits that there was too much in the story – too many people, and details – too much passion and beauty for him to cover all of it. And in closing, he writes,
Will you, my Thebaid, endure for ages,
survive your author, and be read? Twelve years
I spent, preoccupied, but surely Fame
already comes to you, though young, and carves
a friendly path to guide you to the future.
Caesar, magnanimous, has deigned to know you.
Italy’s schoolrooms teach you, and the young
memorize passages. So thrive, I pray,
but do not envy the divine Aeneid.
Follow well back. Always adore her traces.
If any envy clouds you, it will fade;
when I am gone due honor will be paid. (12.810-19)
And that’s the end.

Statius and Literary History

Once, on a plane, I was reading Dante’s Purgatorio. This great poem, the second part of the Divine Comedy, sees Dante trudging up the mountain of purgatory – that mythical peak, supposedly far in the southern hemisphere, where sinners are sent to repent for various crimes, often for a long time, before eventually taking the elevator up to heaven. Dante and Virgil trek upward and upward in this poem, and like so many readers of the Divine Comedy I was enjoying Dante’s meticulously hierarchical imagination and the rigid order of his afterlife. When Dante and the imaginary Virgil reached the fifth terrace of Purgatory, it wasn’t long before Dante poked his head over Virgil’s shoulder at a key point, and I came to these intriguing lines.
     And behold, just as Luke writes for us that
Christ appeared to the two who were on the way,
when he was just risen from the hollow tomb,
     a shade appeared to us, coming behind us, and
we were avoiding the crowd lying at our feet,
unaware of the shade until it spoke. (Pur 21:7-12)9
Now knew this was an important figure, since Dante compared the newcomer to the resurrected Christ. The newcomer knew of Virgil, and Virgil’s Aeneid, and he joined Virgil and Dante for a full ten books before the poet Dante continued upwards to heaven. His name, however, was unfamiliar to me – I’d never, with about six years of undergraduate and graduate literary studies under my belt, heard of Publius Papinius Statius. I decided to do some homework.

By this time, as is the case with most people who make it to the Thebaid, I had been through the Iliad, Odyssey, Argonautica, and Aeneid. My reader’s encyclopedia entry on the Thebaid told me to expect a derivative story told in an overwrought style, and initially, this is what I thought I’d found. The epic – the Thebaid – opened with a customary drudgery of divine machinations. Refurbished set pieces – funeral games, gods descending to earth, and an increasing overabundance of hackneyed animal similes sputtered the story along. Characters were hastily introduced, killed, and then lugubriously lamented. Ancient literature, generally speaking, is only capable of the most monochromatic characterizations – Polynices and Eteocles, who fill the epic from beginning to end, are never very distinct from one another. And Statius’ admittedly florid style also made me cranky from time to time – it seemed that some of the most irritating aspects of John Milton’s lust for obscure allusions and baroque language were encouraged by Statius. Sometimes, you really don’t need to refer to the chariot of Phoebus, or the blushing goddess Aurora and her tragic consort Tithonus, or the tragedy of Phaëthon, or the lover of Leucothoë, or the children of Hyperion and Theia to explain that the goddamned sun came up.10
The Thebaid, then, like anything in literary history, was not without its splotches, and many of the things that frustrate us about it today are simply hallmark features of epic tradition in general. However, the Thebaid, I found when I read it for the first time, also had some soaring, unique strengths. Most notably, for me, then and now, is this. Olympian gods steer the plot from end to end in the Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. Zeus solemnly decrees that the Trojan champion Hector has to die in the Iliad, and Athena that Odysseus’ wild turf war on Ithaca needs to end in the closing lines of the Odyssey. In the Aeneid, Jupiter declares that Venus has had her fun, but Turnus needs to die, and the Trojans need to settle. In all three, the gods, having eaten popcorn and placed their bets while ringed around their human proxy wars, eventually grow fatigued, and elect to wrap things up. When I first read the Thebaid, this was what I expected to happen in the epic. Jupiter would give his thumbs up to the Thebans or the Argives, one of the two brothers would bite the dust, and then the war would stoically, grimly end. This was not how the Thebaid ended, though, and as I read, especially, Books 11 and 12 of the Thebaid, I was stunned, line after line, by the radically new direction Statius took. Because in Statius, the Olympians leave. Jupiter shutters the clouds, not wanting any of the gods to see the end of the war at Thebes. The furies Tisiphone and Megaera continue to turn the motor of the war a bit longer, but in the end, it’s up to a wandering band of Argive widows and mothers and a foreign king to try and restore moral order in Greece. This, in my opinion, is a visionary and poignant departure from the way that Homer and Virgil tell their stories, and the greatest strength of Statius’ epic.

So in the remainder of this program, I want to talk about two related subjects. Last time, we discussed Statius’ biography, the ascendency and reign of the Emperor Domitian, and a couple of reasons why readers often find a pacifist message at the heart of Statius’ poem. What I think we should do first in this how is explore some sections of the Thebaid – especially later sections – that show war as a human and cultural tragedy. Statius surprises us, again and again, by panning the camera away from the scene of the action and onto the vast majority who have little to gain from armed conflict. After that, we should spend some time exploring the way what Statius depicts gods and their whims. Because while Homer and Virgil’s gods may be cruel, they do have specific mortals they habitually chum with, Venus loving Paris in the Iliad, Athena adoring Odysseus in the Odyssey, and Venus supporting Aeneas throughout the Aeneid.11 Statius’ deities are more distant – a hellish cabal of hidden figures who enlist the furies of the underworld to help them hurt humankind before finally becoming sufficiently disgusted at the ensuing mess that they simply hide themselves from it. So let’s first talk about Statius’ especially ambivalent portrayal of war. [music]

Pacificism and Non-Combatants in the Thebaid

Gone But Not Forgotten - John William Waterhouse

Statius is acutely conscious of how war affects non-combatants – civilians, wives, parents, children, and even military men who don’t believe in the cause for which they’ve been martialed to fight. The painting is John William Waterhouse’s Gone But Not Forgotten (1873).

The martial epics of the ancient Mediterranean never glorify war, pure and simple. The frequent similes of the Iliad pause combat to show us glimpses of a world at peace – plowmen, or women gathering water, farmers winnowing seeds, weary woodsmen, a shepherd looking up at the stars – these images are precious moments of respite from Homer’s war story. The Odyssey, particularly in its finale, does not shy away from battle, but it’s at least as full of scenes of diplomacy, and the exchange of stories and cultural traditions as it is of combat. More relevant to Statius himself, the Aeneid folds romance and grand adventure into its closing war story, and Virgil is careful to depict divine vendettas as the tragic causes of Aeneas’ war, which is continually interrupted with tantalizing scenes of characters wishing for peace. Out of all these stories, though, and in my opinion, more than even Virgil, Statius depicts war as a shameful mistake – a thing undertaken by deluded or wicked people. It is, after all, possible to read the closing seconds of the Aeneid – that moment when Aeneas sees his friend’s belt around Turnus’ waist and then stabs Turnus through the heart and the epic jarringly ends – we can read that scene as a heroic combat triumph, and nothing more. But it is impossible, on the other hand, to close the last page of the Thebaid with a sense that anything has been accomplished. The Aeneid ends with Aeneas’ triumph, a presage of the luminous future of Rome to come, and anticipatory applause for Augustus. The Thebaid ends with an utterly unnecessary civil war ground to a grisly halt, blasphemies committed, gods having fled the scene, a city ringed with rotting dead, and finally, at least, the intervention of a foreign king who restores a basic level of human decency in the aftermath of the brutality. Largely, perhaps, due to the story that he chose to retell, Statius’ pacifism is more pronounced, and clearer than what we find Virgil’s saga of conquest and manifest destiny. Let’s talk about how that story starts.

The war in the Thebaid arises out of a muddled murk of mostly divine animosity. Oedipus, feeling sidelined by his two sons, prays to the fury Tisiphone to hurt them. Soon, everyone gets involved. We’ll talk about Statius’ gods in a minute here – for now, the point is that the war at Thebes ultimately begins due to the perverse jealousy of an embittered man wishing for his sons slash half brothers to suffer. Mass murder results from a kidnapped wife in the Iliad, and an invaded palace in the Odyssey, and while these slights could easily have been atoned for without recourse to war, Statius makes the root cause of his war even uglier. A blind and disgraced old man in the bowels of the Theban palace, who has voluntarily stepped aside, regrets it, and wants his sons to kill one another. Sophocles’ Oedipus is a tragic hero. Statius’ Oedipus, though Antigone stands beside him and though he prattles his regrets at his son’s deaths – Statius’ Oedipus is a spiteful old villain.

As the action of the Thebaid begins in earnest, a general pattern emerges in which Statius alternates back and forth between gods and warriors on one hand, and civilians on the other. The most prominent of these civilians are Jocasta and Antigone. However troubled their family history, Jocasta and Antigone are consistently, and movingly against the war. Jocasta asks her estranged son Polynices in Book 6,
Are you the man I wept for night and day?
We mothers are so miserable! If you respect
the words and admonitions of your family,
I order you, I beg you as a parent –
now while the camps are still, and wavering
Piety scorns this war – to join me. Look:
your household gods, the buildings that will burn,
even your brother!. . .
I married and, alas, conceived in sin,
but yet I love you; I excuse your rage. (6.503-6,14-15)
Jocasta’s plea, of course, goes unheeded, but she is hardly a single dissenter forgotten as Statius tells heroic tales of warriors seeking kleos, or combat glory. As Argive men battle Theban men and the gods enjoy the dogfight, a second and maybe equal struggle is perpetually occurring in the Thebaid – the struggle of noncombatants to try and stop, and then to try and cope with the horrors of war. Several books after Polynices’ mother tells him to stop the war, Polynices’ sister does the same. Antigone tells him, “If there is any sweetness in your home life. . .my brother, / subdue your rage! Both of the cities and both armies beg you!. . .Soften your warlike face and let me see the features I love for what may be / the last time” (11.367-9). The pacifist appeals Jocasta and Antigone make to Polynices are powerful works of oratory – ones that seem very nearly on the verge of convincing him to sheathe his sword, but ultimately prove ineffective.

Polynices’ mother and sister fail to dissuade him from his warmongering, but really, his expedition is fraught from the very beginning. One early scene, before the war begins, sticks in the reader’s head, offering a very different animal simile than the martial ones that fill the later part of the epic – this warrior is like a lion, this warrior is like a wolf, and so on. This early animal simile involves the King of Argos. The King of Argos, in Book 4, is leading his men through the Peloponnesian countryside. Water is proving scarce, and the King of Argos and those with him are not at all certain that they even want to participate in the coming war. And Statius tells us,
the [Argive] king advanced
like some great bull who wanders through the fields
he has long owned. His neck hangs loose, his power
has faded, yet he leads. The younger bulls
have no desire for combat, not when they
can see horns maimed from fighting and the huge
swellings of scars that run across his trunk. (4.68-73)
The eldest of the Seven Against Thebes, then, is a hale but scarred expedition leader who really should know better. And while the King of Argos himself makes numerous attempts to end the war – at one point even offering his throne to his son-in-law Polynices so that Polynices can have his own kingdom and stop the war at Thebes – the rest of the seven suffer various hideous fates. The head-chomping Tydeus dies of wounds. The sage Amphiaraus is swallowed alive by hell. Capaneus is struck down by lightning. The Seven Against Thebes might mourn one another, the greater citizenry affected by the war are quite glad to see them fall.

A passage late in Book 10, once the war has come to the walls of Thebes, shows the scale of the horror amidst the besieged citizens. Here’s a passage chronicling the experience of the average Theban citizen during one of the most dire moments of the siege, in the older J.H. Mozley translation:
[N]ow the trumpet’s clangour smites the city with dismay, and its harsh sound penetrates the barricaded doors. They divide the approaches, and in every gate there stands a fierce ensign-bearer, raising high for all to see their sufferings or their joys. Dreadful is the sight within, scarce Mars himself would rejoice to behold it; Grief and Fury and Panic, and Rout enwrapped in blinding gloom rend with many-voiced discord the frenzied, horror-stricken town. One would think the battle was within; men are hurrying to and fro about the citadel, the streets are full of clamour, everywhere they see in imagination sword and fire, everywhere cruel chains. Fear anticipates the future; already houses and temples are thronged, and the ungrateful shrines are ringed with lamentation. Old and young alike are in the grip of one universal terror; the old men pray for death, the young flush with ardour and grow pale by turns, the houses rock with the shriek of women’s wailing. Children weep, nor know the cause of their weeping, but stand aghast and tremble at their mothers’ sobs. (10.552-571)12
War, as we see here, has consequences in Statius, consequences that range from the mourning of bereaved family members, to the tears of anonymous children, to the apprehension and fear of the warriors themselves. And maybe the capstone of the anti-war sentiment that runs throughout the Thebaid occurs toward the poem’s very end.

Succession disputes, Statius tells us, often have unintended general consequences. Statius would have remembered that when Galba declared himself emperor as Nero’s reign fell apart in 68 CE, he was usurped by Otho, who stepped down for the sake of Vitellius, who, to the surprise of many, lost out to Vespasian, the first of the Flavians, who won largely due to the attrition of the other forces involved and his late arrival on the scene. The Year of the Four Emperors was a dice tossed – its result was arbitrary and not providential, and in just the same fashion, Statius tells us, the end of the Theban war produced a result that neither Polynices, nor Eteocles, nor their father Oedipus sought. As Statius tells it,
Now fortune, happy to have foiled the hopes
of those two princes, with malignant hand
transferred the scepter and Amphion’s realm
elsewhere – to Creon. . .
This was the outcome of that useless war:
The brothers fought for [Creon]. (11.648-52)
The great war, then, winding to a close, elevated a family uncle who came out of the woodwork and rapidly revealed despotic tendencies. And the results of the war thereafter grew worse. In cinematic and piercingly effective scenes, the Thebaid’s final book pans back and forth between the wandering Argive widows and mothers, and then the reeking, corpse-filled fields of Thebes. No one, save Creon, has gained anything from the war, and even Creon himself has lost a son.

Book 12 is Statius’ coda, and maybe his most original achievement as a poet. Some of it is part of the tradition he inherited, of course – Sophocles’ Antigone was a popular play that indeed dealt with the aftermath of the war at Thebes. But by peppering the entire Thebaid with passages about the sadness and suffering of the average citizen, and then concluding with a variation of the story told in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone, Statius is able to make the war’s aftermath, and not the brief fight between the brothers, the climax of the entire story. Ultimately, we understand, it wouldn’t have mattered if either brother survived. The point is that war – especially war between countrymen, is an abomination – one flares out of control and scars generations.

The scholar and author C.S. Lewis, in an assessment of Statius’ work, regretted the extent to which Statius is associated with the early imperial period of Roman history, a period so commonly pigeonholed as being preoccupied with oratory and rhetoric, a period, as we’ve learned, that often gets called the “Silver Age” of Latin literature. Lewis laments that Statius isn’t taken seriously, writing that
I think Lucan, Statius and the tragedies of Seneca are to be taken as if they really had something to say. I think the horrors they relate are a vehicle whereby to express their sincere reaction to the terrible period in which they lived. No honest man’s comment on that age could be made in plain terms. . .But the enormities of history and myth provided a medium through which men could still express their horror, amazement, and despair.13
I might add to this list “their hope.” Because as bleak as the Thebaid’s message is, it is also a sonorous, and clear one. War, in Statius’ epic, may be dramatic and breathtaking, but it is much more importantly, an internecine tragedy so awful that not even the gods can watch it. As C.S. Lewis notes, when we read the Thebaid, we agonize over comparisons with Virgil and Homer, trying to find some ineffable quality that makes Statius silver and Virgil gold. And while this is always worth doing, we need to remember that Virgil’s Aeneid is a rhapsody to the lost cause of the Julio-Claudian dynasty – an ambivalent rhapsody, no doubt – but a rhapsody nonetheless. Statius, however, did not write a poem about a dynasty. He wrote a poem that pinpointed and literally demonized the single problem that would plague Rome for the rest of its existence – squabbles for executive leadership. And in his epic poem about a futile succession dispute, Statius seems to have reminded his readers that glory can be found much more reliably in peace than it can in war.14 [music]

Statius’ Gods

Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson - Minerva between Apollo and Mercury, 1814-15

Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson’s Minerva between Apollo and Mercury (1814).

There is another aspect of Statius’ Thebaid that often gets discussed – one that we really can’t pass over. And that is Statius’ gods. As I have taken Literature and History through many of the major works of the Ancient Mediterranean, I have nearly run out of ways to describe the Olympian pantheon, a bunch that seems at best to be blunderingly gallant, at worst sadistic, and, most often, self-absorbed and ruthless egomaniacs. When we encounter the Olympian pantheon in Homer for the first time, the effect is novel. Accustomed to the omniscient, beneficent, and otherworldly deities of Christianity and Islam as so many of us are, we meet Zeus and his team members, the impresarios of the Trojan War, with bemused distance. Oh, those Bronze and Iron Age gods, we think, how silly. With no more wherewithal or dignity than the human heroes Achilles or Agamemnon, Homer’s gods drive the plot along with a combination of insecurity, hatred, and lust, and the course of the war is decided based on who happens to talk to Zeus about Achilles first. We don’t have much from the Archaic period of Greek history, and so we take the deities of Homer and Hesiod as the religious imprints of a lost past, assuming, because we have little evidence to the contrary, that eighth- and seventh-century BCE Greeks really did worship anthropomorphic divine egoists.

Throughout the Hellenistic period, though, in the historical record we begin to have more literature, more theological texts, and more scientific and philosophical writings. And as we reach the first century BCE, and encounter diverse urban centers like Rome, and Athens, and Alexandria, the ancient world just doesn’t seem very ancient at all. In Virgil’s Aeneid we can see ideologies of the poet’s time period fusing together in ways that are often incongruous. Can Virgil, we wonder, a man who knew more about Epicurean atomism and ethics than we do, who knew a lot more about stoic metaphysics, who perhaps knew the original texts of Pythagoras, who probably knew Aristotelian and Platonic philosophers, and mathematicians, and astronomers in the widely visited Bay of Naples – could Virgil really write about the wrath of huffing Juno and take his own poem seriously? Did Virgil actually believe in the old Olympian dogpile, or was he such an adherent to poetic tradition that he did so out of deference to epic custom and maybe respect to the legendary heritage of Julius Caesar?

We can ask the same question about Statius, and maybe with even more skepticism and incredulity. By Statius’ age, the cosmopolitanism and theological diversity of the Roman capital is documented with increasing clarity – Domitian himself, though a proponent of good old fashioned Roman polytheism and especially Jupiter, was extremely tolerant of Egyptian religion.15 The cult of Cybele had been on the scene in Roman culture for perhaps centuries, and Mithraism was making its first appearance alongside Christianity – many Epistles, and some of the Gospels were written while Statius was alive, and Revelation, biblical scholars suspect, during nearly the same timeframe as the Thebaid on an island just off the southwest coast of modern day Turkey.16 Amidst these religious developments, not to mention another century of philosophical history that elapsed between Virgil and Statius, it seems exceedingly difficult to believe that the latter Latin poet was actually bowing and scraping at the altars of Jupiter and Apollo. Indeed, the Thebaid suggests something quite to the contrary.

Let’s talk about what that something is. The Thebaid follows many of the theological conventions of Greco-Roman epic, of course. Jupiter, the overlord, is ultimately in charge for most of the epic. He, Mars, Apollo, Juno, and Mercury negotiate the scope and timeframe of the war to a large extent. And while Jupiter and company are rarely consistent or tidy administrators in epic poetry, in Statius, they are very jumbled indeed. Jupiter detests the city of Argos, and Juno likes the city of Argos. Jupiter has many descendents in Thebes, but doesn’t really care about the city – at one point he threatens to simply obliterate Argos and Thebes (3.248-51) while ordering Mars to stop screwing around and to get the war started. And then, later, to Bacchus, Jupiter offers the following staggeringly incoherent speech. Here it is, we heard part of it earlier. Jupiter tells Bacchus,
It is not – as you think – my wife’s advice
or fearsome importunity, my son,
that binds me, but the steadfast wheels of fate. . .
I hesitate to slaughter Thebans. . .
I leave the Argive’s crimes. . .aside. . .
My former animosity has faded. . .
I do not judge the sons of Oedipus
by my own grievances; the earth and heavens
demand this, as do Piety and the wounded
Faith and the ways of the Eumenides.
Cease to be worried for your city. (7.195-7, 206, 210, 215-9)
Now a long speech in its entirety, but the gist of it is to say “Look, Bacchus, I’m a pretty good guy – hey, I didn’t want this, the fates did. No, yeah. Uh, the furies did. And – uh – no, yeah, Piety and Faith wanted this, actually. Anyway, don’t worry, don’t worry, a lot of people are going to die – don’t worry, some of them will be your people. Don’t worry.” Jupiter’s speech seems nearly a moment of schizophrenia in an epic in which he has perpetuated the brewing war with impatient single mindedness. Not long before, Jupiter claims, “Sisters of the dark / spindles – the Fates – have made me promises” (3.242-3) thus claiming the Fates owe him something, rather than the other way around, as he claims to Bacchus.

For the most baffling moment of nonsense on the part of Jupiter, though, we have to look at a scene which may be my favorite in the entire epic, perhaps just due to its novelty in the poetic tradition. This is the moment in Book 11, just before the duel between the brothers, at which Jupiter closes the gates of heaven so that the gods don’t have to look down on the fratricide that’s about to occur. Taken in isolation, it’s a brilliant scene. Jupiter has just witnessed the skullduggery of the furies come to its fruition, and Polynices and Eteocles are finally about to have their fight. And Jupiter, high above, suddenly looks away. And he gives this speech to the other gods, in the Ross translation – Jupiter says,
“Heavenly dwellers, we have seen armed madness
taken as far as decency allows. . .Now a pair
of criminals begins a duel that Earth
in all her miseries has never known.
Let it be distant from divinities,
Unknown to Jupiter! Avert your eyes! . .Accept, o Earth,
these evil clouds, and let the skies recede.
I must protect my world of deities
and not permit [them] to behold such things.”
[And following Jupiter’s speech, Statius tells us:]
Thus the omnipotent father spoke and turned
his gaze from evil fields and let the world
no longer know his sweet serenity. (11.122-35)
This is, again, a remarkable juncture of the story, and a departure from Homeric and Virgilian tradition, in which the gods stick it out to the bitter end. It’s the last we see of Jupiter in the Thebaid – the moment at which the gods abandon ship and leave humanity to sink. A moment ago, I said it was baffling. It is a baffling scene, because Jupiter has definitely been the prime mover in getting the war at Thebes going. Jupiter tells Mars, back Book 3, “Eliminate delay! / Trample the treaty [between Polynices and Eteocles]!. . .End peace. . .I mete sacred punishments to these inhabitants for old offenses / their ancestors committed” (3.233-5, 245-6). Statius’ Jupiter, in short, starts a war between two brothers, and then condemns the war he has started and leaves them to suffer. When we compare these two scenes – Jupiter telling Mars to start the fratricidal war in Book 3, and then Jupiter telling the gods to look away in Book 11, we see either inconsistent characterization, or, perhaps, the most revolting and evil version of Jupiter slash Zeus in epic tradition. Statius’ Apollo is hardly any better, his Mars is an oversized sociopath with a bloody sword, and his Juno the usual evil and jealous hellcat who torments Virgil’s Aeneas most of the way across the Mediterranean. In Statius, then, the Olympian gods, rarely buddying up with select mortals like they do in Virgil and Homer, are the story’s villains, pure and simple. When they shut themselves off in the heavens, stunningly, things start to change for the better.

Apollo, God of Light, Eloquence, Poetry and the Fine Arts with Urania, Muse of Astronomy - Charles Meynier

There is something chillingly haughty in this image of Apollo that might well represent the figure we meet in Statius Thebaid. The painting is Charles Meynier’s Apollo with Urania (c. 1789-1800).

When the gods depart, the brothers Polynices and Eteocles speedily kill one another off. The war, having no divine whips to urge it along, stops. The Argives leave. A nasty despot leaps onto the Theban throne, but King Theseus of Athens, though he’s hardly an angel in the mythological record, hurries over to Thebes, accuses Creon of lacking a basic sense of human decency, and with as little violence as possible, ends Creon’s short, ugly career by killing him – and then, in a gesture of the very universal human decency Theseus has spoken of, burying his fallen enemy. Then the strife is resolved properly. Argive women find, mourn, and bury their dead. Unlike in the Sophocles play, the great Antigone and her fair-minded husband Haemon live. With the gods gone, humanity can cope and work out differences. Among the closing lines of the Thebaid are “The banners of the loyal armies met; / the soldiers intermingled; they agreed / to peace, now, on that battlefield. . .So many corpses, commoners and princes; / so many moans; so many mighty deeds. / I could not count them” (12:782-4, 90-2). Statius thus emphasizes the finality of the peace finally brokered, and at the same time the enormity of the whole story – a story that has included aristocrats and average Joes. The Aeneid ends with a sword through a heart; the Odyssey with a palace massacre and brewing retaliatory war; the Iliad with a temporary respite that we know will only lead to greater terrors. Only Statius closes his epic with every indication pointing toward firm, lasting peace. When I read Statius for the first time, this was what stuck with me the most – the astounding closing two books of his epic seem to do something that had never been done before. His great story deserves to be read far, far more often than it is.

Anyway, the peace at the epic’s end, it seems, has been made possible precisely because the gods have left. To get back to what we were discussing a moment earlier, Statius wrote the Thebaid at a moment when the good old stalwarts of the Olympian Pantheon were beginning to have a lot of competition from other religions and schools of philosophy. Early Christianity was slowly starting to have small installations around the Aegean rim, alongside a number of Hellenistic cult religions that had been gaining adherents for centuries. When we study authors, we often try to imagine that they share our belief systems – I’m sure I do this so often. Dante did it quite unapologetically with Statius, having his Statius declare himself a Christian convert in the Purgatorio. At first glance, this is utterly strange. Other than the fact that Statius’ gods are atrocious beings, we’ve seen nothing so far to lead us to conclude that Statius knew about Christianity at all, let alone subscribed to it. But Dante’s wishful thinking was based on a tiny bit of evidence – evidence that probably won’t lead us to similar conclusions – but evidence that’s fascinating nonetheless.

In the Thebaid, the Olympian gods are not the only divine beings. Other divine agents are moving around, and pursuing their agendas, too. There are, first and foremost, the furies – Tisiphone and Megaera. The furies are terrific, and they’d look great onstage at a heavy metal concert, but we’ve seen plenty of furies in our podcast so far, so let’s move forward. There are also the Fates, which Jupiter mentions at a couple junctures, who sometimes Jupiter has to bow to, and at other times seem to be working on his behalf. But the fates aren’t really a major presence in the Thebaid, so let’s move forward a final time. What perhaps most tantalized Dante about Statius, and led Dante to draw the unlikely conclusion that Statius was a Christian like him was the presence of certain proper nouns at key moments in the epic.

These proper nouns represent what translator Charles Stanley Ross calls “allegorical figures,” and they conventionally get capitalized in translations.17 Piety – meaning piety as either an absolute moral value or an actual deity, is mentioned often (7.215, 10.650-72, 10.782). Alongside Piety with a capital P, Virtue comes up in the same way – an allegorical figure representing something universal and collectively understood (10.650-72, 10.782). Another allegorical figure is Faith (7.215), with a capital “F,” another still is Fortune (11.447), and another still as Clemency (12.482). Amidst the ever-dangerous Olympians, the bloodthirsty furies, and the enigmatic fates, the allegorical figures of Piety, Virtue, Faith, Fortune, and Clemency are something else in the Thebaid – something maybe more permanent – a small set not unlike Platonic ideals whose mandates must be honored even by the gods. Jupiter might change his mind about something, or simply lose interest and run off to rape someone; the furies might be perpetually running around with chainsaws and hand grenades, but the allegorical figures that bubble up to the surface of the Thebaid are enduring, immutable things to which we all must adhere – again, Piety, Virtue, Faith, Fortune, Clemency, and others.

To Dante, the repeated mention of these moral constants was likely evidence that Statius was a Christian convert. Dante knew about the martyred Catholic saints Faith, Hope, Charity, and their mother Sophia, figures who are ubiquitous amidst the Christian writings of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages – heavily allegorized figures who represented everlasting moral constants, just like the allegorical figures in Statius did. Dante, in all likelihood, made an iffy logical leap in casting Statius as a Christian in his Purgatorio, but that shouldn’t stop us from considering the significance of abstract personifications of morals in the Thebaid. Because the fact that the Thebaid isn’t a Christian poem doesn’t necessarily mean that the poem isn’t a general barometer for some of the religious evolutions taking place during the late Flavian dynasty.

To put it most simply, in the Thebaid we can observe that by the 90s CE, the Olympian clown car, in the literary tradition, at least, had just about run out of gas. Readers had been laying into Zeus and the gang since at least the time of Xenophanes, or roughly 500 BCE. Stoicism and Epicureanism, and Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy had led intellectuals to suspect that the world might be run by something more sophisticated than an unseen globetrotter with a lightning bolt in one hand and a stiff penis in the other. To the common man on the street, cult religions based around Isis, Cybele, Dionysus, and later Mithras and Jesus promised various versions of a stable universe and a blessed afterlife. Even in Virgil’s day, the Homeric epic was beginning to seem anachronistic in some ways – poetically marvelous, always; thrillingly narrated, certainly; but not containing much in the way of content relevant to modern daily life. A century later, though, Statius wrote an epic even more modern than Virgil’s – a fiercely, explicitly anti-war story that simply kicked the Olympian pantheon offstage and grasped restlessly for a more coherent system of theology than the slovenly Homeric one. So in the closing lines of the Thebaid, the modest Statius tells his epic poem to never pretend to be as good as Virgil’s, warning it “do not envy the divine Aeneid. / Follow well back.” Readers, unfortunately, have taken Statius at his word a bit too often, assuming that early arrivals occupy a place of primacy over their later imitators. But there are advantages to joining a tradition late, after mistakes have been made and responses have been tabulated. And while I’m not one to create simple hierarchies where one author is better than another, I can tell you that my copies of the Iliad, Odyssey, Argonautica, Aeneid, and Thebaid all sit next to another in a special, chronologically out-of-order spot on my bookshelves. Because while each of them have great fictional stories to tell, the five of them, put together, tell a story about humanity, and the way we have evolved to understand the world around us, and that story, to me at least, is the most remarkable one of all. [music]

Moving on to Juvenal

Well that, folks, concludes my episodes on Statius’ Thebaid. I always wanted to teach this poem in a classroom and have never been able to, and when I started Literature and History I positively couldn’t wait to teach Homer, Apollonius, Virgil, and Statius as a set. There are other Homeric epics in antiquity – the poet Quintus of Smyrna probably lived after Statius and wrote a poem called the Posthomerica, covering the Trojan War from the death of Achilles to the fall of the city. There’s also the extremely long Dionysiaca of Nonnus, a poet who lived in the late 300s or 400s CE, which tells the story of Dionysus’ adventures. To me, though, the Thebaid will be a capstone, for now, for our ancient epics – the five we’ve studied together are the ones that had the longest and most enduring impact on the Anglophone literature that came along later on.

Now, Statius had a younger contemporary – a writer who is the subject of our next show. His name was Decimus Iunius Iuvenalius, and he had a major influence on literary posterity, and just as importantly, later understandings of Roman history. Juvenal, as we now call him, was a satirist, poking fun at the vices, excesses, and commodity culture in a series of pieces written between about 100 and 130 BCE, as the Nerva-Antonine dynasty oversaw a long era of prosperity. Within this prosperity, not all of the Roman Empire’s citizens were convinced that their civilization, notwithstanding its overall functionality during that period of history, was the crown jewel of all creation. In past works of social commentary – Ancient Egyptian proverbs, the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, the works of Horace and ethical philosophy of Epicureanism and Stoicism, we have seen various texts that denounce materialism and the quest for worldly success as misguided and futile. Into this long tradition of social criticism, during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian, came the satirist Juvenal. Juvenal is ferocious. There are passages in his satires that are as heinously disgusting as anything we’ve heard in Catullus or Petronius. A conservative and surly social critic, Juvenal looked at the crass greed and ignorance of his generation and turned down the corners of his mouth in complete disgust. In Petronius’ Satyricon we read a prolonged dinner scene in which the protagonists go to the house of a nouveau-riche freedman called Trimalchio and watch, with stupefaction, as the newly wealthy buffoon reveals his own idiocy just as much as he does his riches. The Trimalchios of the Roman Empire were some of Juvenal’s main targets, but more than just rich cretins, Juvenal detested what he saw to be a generally nihilistic and hedonistic spirit that characterized his age.

Juvenal is a complex writer – his vicious and filthy lines can also reveal unexpected compassion and acute wisdom. And as we’ll learn in the next episode, due to the sensual contents of Juvenal’s works, but also due to the fact that his satires confirmed later Christian stereotypes about Roman decadence, Juvenal’s Satires were one of the most popular Latin texts throughout the Middle Ages – a set of writings that allowed monks and priests to take a sexy tour through Rome at its steamiest and yet still walk away with a sense that Rome had been rotten and was better off gone. So next time, while we’ll enjoy Juvenal for the uncensored tour he gives us through the gutters and palace courtyards of the Roman Empire, we’ll also enjoy him for his more timeless observations about what happens when a scant few individuals in a civilization control its power and wealth, and the rest of us try to get by as best they can. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and for taking a trip through Statius’ Thebaid with me. I have a quiz at literatureandhistory.com if you want to review the events and characters of this epic. For you Patreon supporters, out of sentimentality, I’ve recorded and uploaded my favorite scene from the Iliad, since we’re getting close to having to say farewell to the Greco-Roman pantheon. The scene is actually from the 1715 Alexander Pope translation – one that’s in rhymed couplets of iambic pentameter, and this translation, which enjoys a surprisingly good reputation with modern classicists, still reads quite nicely – for all of us, it’s worth remembering that Homer and other classical authors influenced Anglophone literature by means of a variety of English verse translations just like Pope’s. And the scene in question is that tearjerker of a scene at the climax of the poem when Priam travels to Achilles’ tent, rage meets age, and the two men come to a degree of understanding and sympathy. For everyone, I’ve got a song coming up. Stay on if you want to hear it, and if not, see you next time.

Still here? Well, I have to admit that the densely allusive style of Statius had me grinding my teeth from time to time – a style that as I said earlier likely influenced the most florid aspects of Milton. Now, I love Milton – I’ve done undergrad and undergrad courses on Milton and taught him, too, but I also find him really, really annoying sometimes. Because in addition to being an erudite genius, Milton is a pedant, and his appetite for showcasing his knowledge of literary history frequently makes him hard to read. He really can’t just tell you that it’s morning in his stories. He has to mention Aurora, Tithonus, Phaethon, and half a dozen other proper nouns that leave you swearing under your breath after the first three. So I got to thinking about what it would sound like if Milton and I sung a song together – Milton singing the story of his epic Paradise Lost, and then myself offering a simple English translation of each line, or a “gloss,” on Milton if you will. The result is this duet, which is called “Paradise Glossed,” which, if you’ve ever muscled your way through Milton’s poetry, might give you a chuckle. Thanks again for stopping by, and here’s John Milton and I, performing a tune for you.


1.^ Statius. Thebaid. Edited and with an Introduction by Charles Stanley Ross. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 2134. Further quotes from this edition will be marked with parenthetical citations in this transcription.

2.^ Similar scenes of princesses observing military forces below occur in Il 3 and Met 8.

3.^ Il 11.564-7, 20.521-5.

4.^ Statius. Thebaid, Books 5-12. Achilleid. Translated by J.H. Mozley, M.A. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928, p. 223, 225.

5.^ Ibid. p. 321.

6.^ Hopleus and Dymas are obviously modeled on Virgil’s Nisus and Euryalus.

7.^ Perhaps Creon’s obstinate refusal to bury Polynices in Sophocles’ earlier play has to do with their being some early tradition with Menoeceus having died to help win the war.

8.^ Statius’ decision to have Theseus enter the story at this particular juncture of his life is dubious. Theseus, after all, has just led his own invasion, done his fair share of killing and conquering, and is at this very moment leading a disenfranchised queen in captivity.

9.^ Dante. Purgatorio. Translated by Robert M. Durling and with an Introduction and Notes by Ronald L. Martinez and Robert M Durling. OUP, 2003, p. 347.

10.^ The florid description of a sunset in 3.407-15 might have come from either poet.

11.^ Diana’s (brief) support of Parthenopaeus in the Thebaid is an important exception.

12.^ Statius. Silvae, Thebaid V-XII, Achilleid. Translated by J.H. Mozley, M.A. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928, p. 361.

13.^ Lewis, C.S. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 95.

14.^ There was once a sequel to the Thebaid, just as the Thebaid was a sequel to the tale of Oedipus, and this was called the Epigoni. Sophocles wrote a tragedy on the theme, which is lost, and the Greek compiler Apollodorus and geographer Pausanius summarize the Epigoni as an epic about a war between the younger generation of Thebans, including the sons of Eteocles and Polynices.

15.^ See Jones, Brian W. The Emperor Domitian. Routledge, 1992, p. 100-1.

16.^ The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests 81-96 CE as the probable date of Revelation. See See Coogan, Michael, Michael D., ed. et. al. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Third Edition. Oxford University Press, 2001, New Testament p. 420.

17.^ “Introduction.” Ross, Charles Stanley. In Statius. The Thebaid. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Kindle Edition, Location 343.