Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.09.08


William J. Dominik, Speech and Rhetoric in Statius' Thebaid. Altertumswissenschaftliche Texte und Studien, Band 27. Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 1994. Pp. 377. DM 64,-. ISBN 3-487-09814-8.


Reviewed by Michael Dewar, The University of Calgary.

What Highet did for the Aeneid, someone ought really to have done for the 'much more rhetorical' Thebaid long ago; Dominik scores points straight away for having elected to make good this shortfall in the now burgeoning critical industry on Statius' magnificent poem. He offers us an intelligent taxonomy of the 265 speeches of the Thebaid, with a principal division into 'rhetorical' and 'non-rhetorical' speeches, subdivided into such different types as 'prayers', 'deliberative speeches', 'taunts' and 'oracular and prophetic speeches.' The basic classification is made by attaching the label 'rhetorical' to those types of speeches for which specific formulae are given in the works of rhetoricians such as Menander; the others are not directly discussed in the rhetoricians (for the very good reason that people rarely comissioned orators to compose 'taunts' or 'questions'), but are recognizable as types well-established in epic poetry. The distinction is thus, within an epic poem, rather an arbitrary one, but the author himself accepts this (p. 2), and proceeds to use it primarily as a model which allows exploration. The result is that he succeeds not only in drawing out the salient characteristics of each type, and of numerous specific examples of each type, but also in effect ingeniously collapses his own division by showing that, while in practice all speeches in the Thebaid are profoundly influenced by the prescriptions of oratorical theorists, it is also frequently the case in speeches from both groups that distinguishing between 'rhetorical' and 'literary' motivation is impossible. In short, however they are classified, Statius' speeches are always directed to the advancement of the plot and the thematic concerns of the poem.

The bulk of the main text (pp. 70-204) is given up to an examination of the speeches, class by class, and example by example. In general, the interpretations offered by Dominik for each individual speech are sound enough, if rarely radical. They range from the fairly incisive to the fairly bland, but it would be too much to demand a consistently high standard when the material covered is so diverse. For example, the section on 'deliberative prayers' (pp. 90 ff.) makes a real contribution to our reading of Adrastus' often misunderstood syncretic 'Sminthiac Hymn' at the end of the first book, and there is a bleak but well-argued interpretation of the deuotio of Menoeceus (107 ff.) which departs strikingly from the so-far dominant readings of Vessey and Williams. And the sections on the various speeches of Polynices also bring out his ambiguous character very well indeed, aided as they are by the general reflections on his role in the later chapter on the revelation of character (pp. 217 ff.). On the down side, much of what appears in this central section of the book is extremely repetitive, while much too much space is in any case given over to the retelling of the plot and the summarization of the content of individual speeches. Here an impulse towards comprehensiveness seems to have been allowed free rein, with damaging effect. It reaches its nadir in the treatment of Parthenopaeus' mandata morituri at the end of Book 9 (p. 196; two paragraphs of summary, a single sentence of comment) and of Eteocles' reply to Tydeus in the embassy scene of Book 2 (pp. 201 f.). If you know the poem well (and such people do exist), then you may well feel that a good hundred pages could have been cut without any undermining at all of the central arguments of the book.

Subsequent chapters offer some reasonably useful, if not particularly novel, comments on the part that speeches play in the construction of character in the Thebaid (pp. 205-235) and on the stylistic devices used to embellish them and to give them greater expressive force (pp. 236-270). The book is then rounded off with about ninety pages of very helpful statistical analysis which allow one readily to identify the various general patterns (who speaks when, what types of speech they make, the length of speech etc.) that have been discussed in the main body of the text.

The principal critical stance taken is one of pessimism, with the human characters of the poem seen as little more than helpless victims of malicious supernatural beings. This is insisted on again and again, with numberless appeals to an interpretation of Jupiter's speeches in the council of the gods in Book 1 (esp. pp. 34 f., 72 f., 88 f., 191 ff.) that presents him as a liar and a tyrant. The fickleness and frequent cruelty of the Thebaid's deities have been the object of detailed and insightful comment in some quarters in recent years, most notably in Denis Feeney's The Gods in Epic (Oxford, 1991), where Jupiter is seen as being marked by 'violence, self-indulgence, and final indifference' (p. 371). But Dominik pushes his case rather too far, or, worse, tends to take it as incontrovertible when in fact many serious objections can be raised against it: note that Feeney at least is aware that in the Thebaid Jupiter in fact is of all the gods the one who 'remains most true to his traditional nature', and this has serious implications for how we read such crucial scenes. There is no room here to discuss so large a subject in any detail, so let me simply say that Dominik has a case to make but fails to address satisfactorily many important questions. In particular, no sufficiently cogent distinction is made between the actions of Olympian and chthonian powers, and Jupiter and Tisiphone are in effect treated as if they were willing and deliberate allies in the same divine-fiendish pl ot against humanity. In fact, the worst excesses of the war, as Dominik is well aware, result from Dis' curse in Book 8, and do not form part of Jupiter's plan to punish Thebes and Argos. It is therefore perverse to treat Jupiter simply as the villain of the piece, or, for example, to accuse him in effect of hypocrisy in expressing horror (Book 11. 118 ff.) at the duel between Eteocles and Polynices, since that duel was ordered by Dis (8. 70 f.) and provoked in accordance with those orders by Tisiphone (11. 57 ff.). Nor is it fair to dismiss Vessey's psychological account of the guilt of the seven princes in the summary manner of the footnote on pp. 206 f., for all that Dominik is right in holding that Vessey's analysis is excessively reliant on Stoic thought. The Tydeus who chomps away on the mangled head of Melanippus is not just some poor working stiff of a hero who caught the king of the gods on an off day, and surely some account must be taken of the moral implications of such passages as the poet's apostrophe of the fratricidal pair, in which he rips apart the fabric of his own narrative in order to curse them to hell in his own voice at 11. 574 ff. Last and by no means least, Dominik pretty much ignores the role of Theseus in this poem, vouchsafing him little more than ten lines of mind-bogglingly one-sided comment such as makes the author of the In Pisonem look like an amateur. No convincing consideration of the ethical issues of the Thebaid can afford to omit a thorough discussion of the restoration of human and divine law in the last book of the poem, and this is something scholarship is yet to give us. Perhaps, however, a clearer and a fuller exposition of Dominik's thought will be found in the author's forthcoming The Mythic Voice of Statius: Power and Politics in the Thebaid, to which many cross-references are made in footnotes. I look forward to it.

Unfortunately, the present book is absolutely riddled with errors, some venial, others of such a kind as to raise the eyebrows and even to undermine confidence in the author's professional competence. To begin with, the proportion of typographical foul-ups is higher than it should be, and some of these errors are decidedly unsettling. It is, for example, easy to forgive such a typo as Tartar for Tartara in the quotation from Thebaid 8. 58 on p. 194; but why is it made again on p. 246? And if that sounds picky, we have furibundae for furibunde in the quotation from Thebaid 3. 272 on p. 82 -- and again on p. 253. Meanwhile, Lucan's Thessalian witch Erictho acquires an extra aspirant on p. 114 -- and again on p. 124. When the discussion turns to Parthenopaeus, the virginal goddess Diana is credited with motherhood at the expense of Atalanta on p. 189. The same miracle occurs in reverse on pp. 99 f., where, between the title and the second sentence, 'Argolic mothers' metamorphize into 'maidens', having been briefly 'matrons.' The habit of repeating errors is given a twist on p. 180, where the first two sentences of the second paragraph of the section on taunts are practically identical. The river Ismenos is confused with Oedipus' daughter Ismene on p. 167, but then again, Crenaeus' mother is also called both Ismenis (rightly) and Ismene in the space of a few lines (p. 130). Ancient authors, because of false etymologizing, sometimes wrote querella for querela (LHS i. 312): Dominik gives the impression of wanting to subscribe to both orthographies at Thebaid 8. 57 (pp. 246 and 247), siding now with Hill, and now with the Teubner of Klotz and Klinnert (and Mozley's Loeb). Lastly, it is very disconcerting to see the first two syllables of hominum scanned as a spondee on p. 263, especially since metre is given such short shrift in any case in the discussion of 'elements of style.' If it is not ignorance that is to blame, then what we have here is quite simply the worst example of sloppy copy-editing I for one have ever come across in a book that purports to have seen the light of day in a respectable academic publishing house.

As if all that were not distraction enough, Dominik's English style is, to say the least, somewhat unusual. Solecisms abound (a particularly common one is the attribution of singular verbs to plural subjects), but far more striking is the author's extraordinary diction. For example, I am simply not capable of summoning up the proper frisson of dread at the 'direful commingling' of Polynices' and Eteocles' remains (p. 125; cf. p. 242 'direful events'). The adolescent in me also greatly enjoyed seeing examples of the epikedion referred to as 'lamentable speeches' on p. 120, though the adult winced when the phrase cropped up again four pages later. So too did the Statius enthusiast: one has to put up with enough in the way of puerile witticisms from detractors of Statius in this walk of life without having to endure this kind of 'friendly fire' from those who are supposed to be on our side. Dominik's foremost stylistic quirk, however, is the unrestrained use of Latinate adjectives of doubtful pedigree. Adrastus' speeches are 'mediative' (p. 43), and Ide makes a 'declarative statement' (p. 125). When Parthenopaeus talks about the hair he vowed to Diana, Dominik talks about 'pileous references' (p. 118). A 'lachrymatory Polynices' is obliged to compete on p. 134 for the linguistic centre stage, but is roundly beaten by Oedipus, what with his 'hair indurate with blood' and his 'traces of ocular effosion.' Also on offer are a 'mitigative section' and a 'condolent spirit' (p. 139), as well as a 'contaminative character' (p. 160), a 'sanguineous conflict' (p. 165) and 'imperatival' deliberations (p. 190). The reader perhaps by now 'refects exclamatively' (p. 174) on the boundless vitality of the English tongue, and also on the 'inutility' (p. 196 ) of attempting to suppress such vigour. Indeed, perhaps this is what Dr Johnson would be like on speed: one might admire his inventival fecundity, but it would still be sanguineously direful. The point is that we all have more to read than we can possibly cope with. It seems only fair to observe that this book should have been a lot shorter, and a lot better written.