Thebaid (Latin poem)

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This article is about Latin epic poem. For other uses, see Thebaid (disambiguation).

The Thebaid (Latin: Thebais) is a Latin epic in twelve books written in dactylic hexameter by Publius Papinius Statius (AD c. 45 – c. 96). The poem deals with the Theban cycle and treats the assault of the seven champions of Argos against the city of Thebes.

Composition[edit]

A painting by Tiepolo showing the battle of Polyneices and Eteocles.

Based on Statius' own testimony, the Thebaid was written c. 80 – c. 92 AD, beginning when the poet was around 35, and the work is thought to have been published in 91 or 92.[1] According to the last verse of the poem,[2] Statius wrote the Thebaid over the course of a dozen years during the reign of Emperor Domitian, although the symmetry of the compositional period, assigning one book per year, has been taken with suspicion by scholars.[3] The poem is divided into twelve books in imitation of Virgil's Aeneid [4] and is composed in 9,748 hexameter verses, the standard meter of Greco-Roman epics. In the Silvae, Statius speaks of his extensive work in polishing and revising the Thebaid [5] and his public recitations of the poem.[6] From the epilogue[7] it seems clear that Statius considered the Thebaid to be his magnum opus and believed that it would secure him fame for the future.

Poetic models[edit]

Statius' Thebaid deals with the same subject as the Thebaid – an early Greek epic of several thousand lines which survives only in brief fragments (also known as the Thebais), and which was attributed by some classical Greek authors to Homer. Perhaps a more important source for Statius was the long epic Thebais of Antimachus of Colophon, an important poem both in the development of the Theban cycle and the evolution of Hellenistic poetry.[8] Also significant for Statius were the myth's many treatments in Greek drama, represented by surviving plays such as Aeschylus' The Seven Against Thebes, Sophocles' Antigone, and Euripides' Phoenissae and Suppliants. Other authors provided models for specific sections of the poem; the Coroebus episode in Book 1 may be based on Callimachus' Aetia, while the Hypsipyle narrative in Book 5 echoes Apollonius of Rhodes' treatment.

On the Latin side, Statius is highly indebted to Virgil, a debt he acknowledges in his epilogue.[9] Statius emulates Homer's Odyssean and Iliadic book division, concentrating aetiological material and traveling in the first six books and focusing on battle narratives in the second six, and many episodes allude to sections in the Aeneid (such as the correspondence of the Dymas and Hopleus episode to Nisus and Euryalus).[10] Ovid's considerable influence can be traced in Statius' handling of cosmic structure, description, style, and verse; Ovid in some ways seems to be more a model for Statius than Virgil at times.[11] The influence of Lucan can be particularly felt in Statius' penchant for macabre battle sequences, discussion of tyranny, and focus on nefas.[12] Seneca's tragedies also seem to be an influence in the Thebaid, particularly in Statius' portrayal of family relations, generational curses, necromancy, and insanity.[13]

Contents[edit]

A depiction of the Seven champions swearing an oath.

Book 1 The Thebaid opens with a priamel in which the poet rejects several themes dealing with Theban mythology and decides to focus on the House of Oedipus (Oedipodae confusa domus), and following this is a recusatio and a passage in praise of Domitian. The narrative begins with Oedipus' prayer to the chthonic gods and curse on his sons Polyneices and Eteocles who have rejected and mistreated him. The Fury Tisiphone hears Oedipus' prayer and ascends to the earth to fulfill the curse, causing strife between Eteocles and Polyneices (who is in exile for a year while Eteocles holds the throne of Thebes). This is followed by a council of the gods concilium deorum at which Jupiter informs the gods of his plan to involve Thebes and Argos in a war; when Juno passionately pleas for Argos, she is silenced by Jupiter's unshakable decision. Mercury is sent to the underworld to fetch the shade of Laius to cause drive Eteocles to war. Meanwhile Polyneices is driven by a storm to Argos and the threshold of Adrastus's palace, where he meets Tydeus, an exile from Calydon who is also seeking shelter, and fights with him. Adrastus invites the two exiles in, feasts them, and, in fulfillment of a prophecy, offers them his daughters to marry; he then goes on the explain the aetiology of the festival the Argives are celebrating, telling the story of Apollo's rape of Psamathe, the death of her and her child Linus, followed by Apollo's vengeful summoning of a child-eating monster from the underworld which later was slain by Coroebus, and finally, Coroebus' offer of self-sacrifice to Apollo to end a plague at Argos. The book ends with Adrastus' prayer to Apollo.

Book 2 The second book begins with Mercury's guidance of the shade of Laius to Thebes; Laius appears in the guise of Tiresias to Eteocles in a dream and drives him to refuse to allow Polyneices to become king when his year is over. Adrastus marries Polyneices to Argia and Tydeus to Deipyle in a ceremony marred by ill omens. The poet describes the necklace of Harmonia, which Argia wears to the wedding, as an object that brings its bearers bad luck and causes strife. Polyneices sends Tydeus on an embassy to Eteocles to remind him that his time of rule is over. Eteocles refuses Tydeus' request for him to give up the throne. Tydeus leaves in a rage and Eteocles sends an ambush to kill him as he returns in a mountain pass. Tydeus kills all the ambushers except Maeon so he can carry the news back to Eteocles. Tydeus then attaches the battle trophies—taken from the slain—to an oak tree as he prays to Minerva.

Book 3 Maeon returns to Thebes, reports the slaughter to Eteocles, criticizing the tyrant's behavior, and then commits suicide. The Thebans go out to survey the slaughter and bury the dead. Jupiter orders Mars to go to earth to stir up war, but Venus blocks his chariot, beseeching him to prevent the war. Mars follows Jupiter's commands and heads to earth, stirring up trouble in the cities and driving Adrastus and Polyneices to declare war once they hear of Eteocles' outrage. Amphiaraus and Melampus go to Aphesas to take auspices about the coming war, which portend confusion, violence, and death. The Argives and their allies prepare their forces. Argia, sympathetic to Polyneices' restlessness, appeals to Adrastus to hasten the war.

Book 4 Book 4 opens three years after the third book. The Argives and their allies are gathered and the poet asks Fama and Vetustas to help him in the catalogue of heroes and allies. Each hero's armor and appearance are described. Adrastus and Polyneices muster the Argive forces, Tydeus the Aetolians, Hippomedon the Dorians, and Capaneus the Messenians. Amphiaraus is driven to fight by Eriphyle and leads the Spartans, while Parthenopaeus unbeknownst to his mother, Atalanta, leads the Arcadians. The Thebans reluctantly prepare for war. Because of bad omens, Tiresias, Eteocles, and Manto go to the grove of Diana to perform necromancy. Manto and Tiresias have a vision of the underworld and find the spirit of Laius which tells them that Thebes will be victorious but terrible crimes will occur. As the Argives march through Nemea, Bacchus causes a drought for the army. The army encounters Hypsipyle who is nursing the child Opheltes (Archemorus). She leaves the boy and shows the Argives a spring where they finally find water; the book ends with praise for Nemea.

Book 5 Asked by the Argives who she is, Hypsipyle tells her story. To punish the island of Lemnos for ignoring her worship, Venus drives the women of the island to kill all the men. Hypsipyle saves her father, Thoas, setting him adrift at sea in a chest. Just as the Lemnian women despair of their future, the Argonauts arrive, sleep with the women, and soon leave. When Hypsipyle's rescue of her father is revealed, she flees Lemnos and becomes a nurse to Opheltes. As Hypsipyle talks, a snake crushes Opheltes, which is killed by the Argives. King Lycurgus and Eurydice mourn their son, and the Argives suggest the institution of the Nemean games to commemorate Opheltes.

Book 6 The Argives burn Opheltes on a massive pyre, and funeral sacrifices are performed while Eurydice recites a lament. Nine days later, contestants gather for the new Nemean Games which include chariot racing, which Amphiaraus wins, foot races, at which Parthenopaeus is cheated of an easy victory, and a discus contest, which Hippomedon wins. Capaneus is almost killed in the boxing, and Tydeus wins in the wrestling. The book ends with Adrastus' ill-omened attempt at archery.

Book 7 Jupiter, angry at the Nemean delay, sends Mercury to the Thracian temple of Mars to stir the army. Mars sends Panic into the Argive army to frighten the soldiers who resume their march. Bacchus pleads to Jupiter to avert the war in vain as the Argives arrive at Thebes with terrible omens. Antigone and an old servant look at the army from a tower and describe the heroes (teichoscopia) and Jocasta tries to dissuade Eteocles from fighting. The Argives kill two tigers sacred to Bacchus and stir the Thebans to battle. The poet invokes the muse as he begins to describe the first skirmish where Apollo gives Amphiaraus an aristeia. During battle, the earth opens and swallows Amphiaraus and his chariot.

Book 8 As Amphiaraus descends, Pluto, threatened by this violation of his realm, sends Tisiphone to create crimes in the war. The Thebans celebrate after the battle while Melampus propitiates Tellus with sacrifices in the Argive camp. The poet invokes Calliope when the battle is joined again. Both sides make gains in the fighting, but Atys, Ismene's betrothed, is killed and brought to Oedipus. Tydeus is wounded by Melanippus. Tydeus then slays him and eats his head.

Capaneus' attempt on the wall from a red-figure vase in the Getty Villa.

Book 9 Tydeus dies and the armies struggle for the body. Tisiphone drives Hippomedon to enter the fray and recover the body and the hero has an aristeia. There is a battle in the river Ismenus and Hippomedon is killed when the river floods to avenge its grandson at the behest the boy's mother, Ismenis. The heroes fight for the body of Hippomedon and Hypseus dies. Atalanta in Arcadia has a dream of Parthenopaeus' death and prays to Diana who gives him an aristeia before he is killed by Dryas.

Book 10 The Thebans celebrate as the wives of the heroes in Argos perform sacrifices to Juno. Juno sends Iris to the grove of Sleep who puts the Theban army into a deep sleep during the night. A band of soldiers is gathered by the Argives which enters the Theban camp and slaughters the sleeping warriors. The pair Dymas and Hopleus kill many Thebans and are slain together. The Thebans awake and flee into the city; there is battle at the gates, which are eventually closed. Tiresias demands the death of Menoeceus for the war to end. Menoeceus leaps from the walls. Capaneus climbs a tower and curses Jupiter who kills him with a thunderbolt.

Book 11 The Argives are driven by the Thebans to their camp. Tisiphone and Megaera stir Polyneices to challenge Eteocles to single combat to decide the war. Jocasta and Antigone try to dissuade them, but they go out into the plain to fight. Fortuna and Pietas try to delay the fight but are driven away by the furies. The brothers kill each other, and Oedipus laments as Jocasta kills herself at the news. Creon assumes power, forbids the burial of Polyneices and the Argive dead, and exiles Oedipus while the Argives quietly return home.

Book 12 The Thebans bury their dead. The Argive widows travel to Thebes to bury their dead relatives but receive the news that Creon has denied them burial; the women travel to Athens to ask Theseus to help them. Argia secretly comes to Thebes and meets Antigone outside the wall; they burn the bodies of the brothers on one pyre, but the flames separate. Creon arrests the women as the widows become suppliants at the altar of Clementia at Athens. Theseus prepares an army against Thebes and slays Creon in battle. The Thebaid ends with an epilogue in which the poet prays that his poem will be successful, cautions it not to rival the Aeneid, and hopes that his fame will outlive him.

Ancient reception and canonicity[edit]

The Thebaid was popular in Statius's lifetime and (according to the epic’s final verse), Roman schoolboys were already memorizing passages from the epic before it was finished.[14] Statius was personally favored by Emperor Domitian, and the educational use of his poem might be seen as a consequence of official favor;[15] however, the poem remained a popular piece of Latin literature for many centuries, a testimony to its literary merit and lasting appeal. A commentary on the Thebaid is transmitted under the name of Lactantius Placidus, dating from the 5th or 6th century AD, which has proven useful to modern scholars.[16]

Influence[edit]

The Knight from Chaucer's Knight's Tale.

In the late 12th century a French verse romance, Le roman de Thèbes, was composed by an unknown author, probably at the court of Henry II of England. Here the Thebaid is transformed into a chivalric epic. Giovanni Boccaccio, the 14th-century Italian poet and author best known for writing the Decameron, also borrowed heavily from the Thebaid when composing his Teseida (which, in turn, was used heavily by Chaucer when composing The Knight’s Tale for the Canterbury Tales). Of particular importance is a scene in which Mercury is sent to the realm of Mars. All three of these works (as well as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene) contain large tracts of allegorical figures that are housed in War’s realm and which represent the various futilities of war and violence.

Finally, one of the chief reasons that Statius is remembered today is because of the poet Dante Alighieri. Like Virgil, who is a character in the first two books of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Statius, too, plays a large role in the Comedy: Dante and Virgil meet Statius in Purgatory, and he accompanies the two to the Earthly Paradise at the summit of the holy mountain. Through the medium of Dante, Statius gets to meet his precursor, Virgil, and praise him personally. This scene is justified as the historical Statius devoted the closing lines of his Thebaid to praise of Virgil.

Critical responses to the Thebaid[edit]

Despite its popularity in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Thebaid's reputation suffered in 19th and early 20th century scholarship. Scholars of that era considered Statius "derivative" and unoriginal and criticized his seemingly positive view of Domitian's regime. In the late 20th century, scholars have attempted to rehabilitate Statius; a series of new translations have been accompanied by a slew of studies (see bibliography) which seek to bring Statius back into the classical canon.

The Thebaid and its context[edit]

Criticism of Statius' has been forced to deal with the poet's flattering attitude to the repressive emperor Domitian in his Silvae and his seeming vindication of the regime in the Thebaid.[17] Scholars of the early 20th century dismissed Statius as a mere panegyrist for a tyrant. More recent scholars have taken the opposite view of Statius and interpreted the Thebaid as a criticism of civil war and the Flavian dynasty's rise to power. The cruelty and madness of the characters have been interpreted as symbolic of the cruel behavior of Domitian and his officials. The prominence of suicide in the Thebaid has also been linked with the concept of suicide as social protest found in Tacitus. Scholars like P. Hardie[18] have pointed out a drastic imbalance in the poem which privileges violence over peace and have noted the focus on disrupted succession. Scholars have also looked at Statius' funeral games and their connection to the poetic competitions Statius participated in.[19]

Style[edit]

The style of the Thebaid has been described as episodic by scholars;[20] in the past this was considered a major flaw but has since been reevaluated. Scholars have noticed a strong degree of control over the arrangement of episodes, description, and teleological narrative and point out the way that the poem's juxtapositions emphasize certain structural devices in the text. The development of intertextual readings has similarly shown that Statius' imitation of Virgil and other poets is often highly astute and creative. The importance of rhetoric, another point of criticism from earlier scholars, has also been studied in the Thebaid; it is often through speeches that Statius develops his character rather than through narrative description and Statius' has been shown to be a masterful handler of rhetorical technique.

Divine machinery[edit]

Like the majority of epics that precede him (with the notable exception of Lucan's Bellum Civile), Statius makes full use of the gods as plot devices; however, Statius employs them in his own creative way.[21] Denis Feeney has pointed out that the role and effectiveness of the Olympian gods is drastically reduced in comparison with cthonic deities. Jupiter's power in particular is usurped by the gods of the underworld, personifications and allergories, and human heroes (like Theseus).[22] In his depiction of the gods, C. S. Lewis sees Statius' technique as a departure from Homer's and Vergil's more mythological treatment; Statius' development of allegory was an important step towards allegory's domination in Medieval literature. To illustrate the difference, Lewis contrasts Homer's Ares, who does other things besides rage in war, with Statius' Mars, a personification of an abstraction, who even before the battle begins is always already raging in his blind and insane passion[23] Lewis further claims that on account of this difference, in the Thebaid "lies the germ of all the allegorical poetry."[24]

Important quotes[edit]

A 19th-century painting by Marcel Baschet of Oedipus cursing his sons.


Fraternas acies alternaque regna profanis
decertata odiis sontesque evolvere Thebas
Pierius menti calor incidit

Fraternal warfare and alternate reigns,
fought for in unnatural hate, and guilty Thebes
Pierian fire falls on me to unfold

Theb. 1.1–3, D. R. Shackleton-Bailey, trans.


vive, precor; nec tu divinam Aeneida tempta,
sed longe sequere et vestigia semper adora.
mox, tibi si quis adhuc praetendit nubila livor
occidet, et meriti post me referentur honores.

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.

Theb. 12.816–819, Charles Stanley Ross, trans.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Feeney, Dennis The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford, 1996) pg.1439
  2. ^ Theb 12.811
  3. ^ Feeney, pg.1439
  4. ^ Shackleton-Bailey, D.R. Statius' Thebaid 1-7 (Cambridge, 2003) pg.3
  5. ^ Silv. 4.7.26
  6. ^ Silv. 5.2.161
  7. ^ Theb. 810-819
  8. ^ Bailey, pg.2
  9. ^ Theb. 810ff.
  10. ^ Theb. 10.448, where a striking mythological simile connects the two sets of heroes.
  11. ^ Feeney, pg.1439
  12. ^ Feeney, pg.1439
  13. ^ Feeney, pg.1439
  14. ^ Bailey pg.3
  15. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica 11th ed. s.v. Statius.
  16. ^ Kaster, Robert in The Oxford Classical Dictionary, (Oxford, 1996) pg.811
  17. ^ Coleman in Bailey, pg.10-13
  18. ^ Hardie, P. The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition (Cambridge, 1993).
  19. ^ Thuillier, J. Stace, Thebaide 6: les jeux funebres et les realities sportives (Nikephoros 9, 1996)
  20. ^ Coleman in Bailey, pg.13-18
  21. ^ Coleman in Bailey, pg.17-18
  22. ^ Feeney, D. The Gods in Epic (Oxford, 1991)
  23. ^ Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love (1936) pp.48-56)
  24. ^ Lewis, pg.54

Bibliography[edit]

  • Dominik, W. J. The Mythic Voice of Statius: Power and Politics in the Thebaid (Leiden, 1994).
  • Feeney, D. C. The Gods in Epic (Oxford, 1991).
  • Hardie, P. The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition (Cambridge, 1993).
  • Ross, Charles Stanley. Seven Against Thebes: the Thebaid.
  • Vessey, D. W. T. Statius and the Thebaid (Cambridge, 1973).

External links[edit]