Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.04.06

William J. Dominik, The Mythic Voice of Statius: Power and Politics in the Thebaid. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994 . Pp. xiv + 198. ISBN 90-04-09972-7.

Reviewed by Stephen T. Newmyer, Duquesne University.

It is a sad commentary on the reputation of Statius' epic masterpiece that Dominik feels obliged to inform us in his Preface that his book seeks to demonstrate that the Thebaid is a poem about something, and not about nothing, a comment directed specifically against the harsh strictures of R. M. Ogilvie, 01 but not uncharacteristic of the censures leveled against the epic by many nineteenth and some twentieth century scholars. It is Dominik's contention that the Thebaid, far from being an empty exercise in obsolete mythological epic as its critics have maintained for decades, is a powerful poetic depiction of the horrific consequences of the negative exercise of power by rulers both human and supernatural. As Dominik notes in his Preface, this emphasis on the use and abuse of power in the Thebaid makes his work the first thematic study of the epic to appear in English since David Vessey's seminal work Statius and the Thebaid, 02and it is the only study that deals specifically with that theme in the epic. Yet what strikes the reader as particularly innovative in Dominik's approach is his thesis, developed extensively in the last chapter, "Political Relevance to Contemporary Rome" (130-180), that the Thebaid harbors a distinct political undercurrent that reveals itself only upon careful analysis of the poet's superficially flattering language, an undercurrent that hints at a situation as oppressive and desperate under Domitian as anything we read of in Tacitus, Suetonius or Juvenal. The startling assertion that Statius, a poet usually considered an abject flatterer and opportunistic toady, 03 had a serious political agenda to advance under the fictionalized guise of mythological epic, is bound to make Dominik's book controversial, a circumstance at which the author hints in the Preface and which is revealed in the large number of footnotes in the opening pages of the book which are directed against the positions of earlier scholars. It is Dominik's aim, in short, to prove that the Thebaid, like the Aeneid and the Pharsalia, is an epic of ideas that deserves to be taken more seriously than the weight of previous critical opinion has allowed. In the course of developing this thesis, Dominik makes an effort to dispel another of the long-standing criticisms of the epic, namely that it is hopelessly episodic and lacking overall unity, by relating several of the ostensibly irrelevant episodes of the epic, notably the Hypsipyle narrative (5. 49-498) and all of the Theseus episode of the twelfth book, to the main narrative structure of the epic. These, too, are shown to be illustrations of the negative consequences of abuse of power by human and divine rulers.

Dominik's book is divided into four chapters, of which the first, "Use and Abuse of Supernatural Power," encompasses almost half of the entire volume (1-75). Here, employing a close analysis of the poet's often allusive and difficult language, Dominik develops the idea, central to his vision of the Thebaid, that the human actors in Statius' epic world are doomed to suffer because the gods act with cruelty and injustice toward man. Dominik sees this as the predominant motif of the epic (1). In consequence of this, the irrational behavior of Statius' protagonists, one of the striking aspects of the poem, is seen to be most often caused by malevolent deities and beyond the control of the characters themselves. This construction of Statius' use of divine machinery places Dominik's interpretation in strong opposition to the more optimistic construction of Vessey, who interprets the Statian Jupiter as a kindly and indeed Stoical ruler, in the manner of Vergil's deity. Vessey's interpretation is in keeping with his somewhat allegorical understanding of the epic's gods, while Dominik is at pains to argue that Statius' gods possess substantial corporeality and physical being. Attempts on the part of various gods, in particular Jupiter, to justify the impending annihilation of Argos and Thebes are seen as mere pretexts intended to cover the vicious intentions of the gods.

Dominik's interpretation has important ramifications for the understanding of key scenes and personalities in the epic. He demonstrates that Polynices and Eteocles do not harbor the thoughts of mutual slaughter that will form the climactic scene of the Thebaid until they are prompted by the Furies (40), and he shows that some of the bloodiest acts of the conflict are inspired by female divinities like Juno and Venus. Indeed, in this hostile world even Virtus functions more as martial inspiration than "virtue." In this context, Dominik relates the long Hypsipyle episode to the overall structure of the epic, proving that it is not the irrelevant digression that it is usually considered to be, but a grisly illustration of excessive divine punishment for human culpability (54-63).

The second chapter of Dominik's study, "Pursuit and Abuse of Monarchal Power" (76-98) helps to set the stage for the discussion of Statius' anti-Flavian political program that forms the subject of the final chapter of the book, for here Dominik emphasizes Statius' hostile attitude toward the institution of monarchy. Once again the author sees negative supernatural intervention as the cause of the irrational and injurious behavior of the epic's monarchs, even of those who have traditionally been considered to act benevolently, in particular Adrastus and Theseus. Dominik demonstrates, through careful analysis of the scenes of the twelfth book, that even Theseus, whom Vessey had seen as a mirror-image of Jupiter, is actually at best morally ambiguous in the Thebaid, a monarch eager for war and bloodshed and merciless in victory. In Dominik's reading of the epic, comparisons of Theseus to Jupiter are intended not as compliments but as indications of the sinister side of Theseus' personality. Dominik likewise dispels the frequently expressed notion of the moral superiority of Polynices to Eteocles by arguing that Polynices possesses the potentialto be as wicked a tyrant as his brother has the opportunity to be (80).

The horrifying results of the imprudent exercise of power in the context of the epic are analyzed in the third chapter, "Consequences of the Abuse of Power" (99-129), an examination of the terrors of war, not only of civil war but of war in general. Statius seeks to demonstrate in his epic that little is achieved after all by the war that forms the subject of the poem, and that the loss of human life in war is tragic and wasteful. Even those mortals whose conduct in war seems the most splendid and praiseworthy, achieve nothing, as is the case with Tydeus, for he sacrifices the immortality that the gods plan for him by savagely gnawing on the head of the warrior who dealt him his fatal blow. Yet what matters in Dominik's reading of the text is Statius' notion that human suffering results not from divine retribution for human failings, but from the purposeless harm that the gods delight in inflicting on mortals. This gloomy Weltanschauung prompts Dominik to draw the intriguing conclusion (118) that in the final analysis one can sympathize even with Eteocles and Polynices since their ghastly deeds are ultimately prompted by hostile divinities.

In the final chapter of his book, "Political Relevance to Contemporary Rome" (130-180), Dominik seeks to show that the hopeless vision of the universe that Statius presents in the Thebaid is in fact a reflection of his view of Roman life under Domitian. He asks that question which, as he had noted already in the Preface to his book, remains hotly debated: is the Thebaid after all about anything? Dominik's answer is a resounding yes, for he considers the epic to be Statius' political manifesto, and not the mere working out of a rhetorical topos, no mere versified treatise on the theme of tyranny, as some modern critics see in the poem. Having built a careful case to this point for the position that the Thebaid is a serious meditation on power and its abuse, Dominik now declares the epic to embody its poet's "perception of the deepest and darkest truths about the nature of Roman society" (132), an epic that "speaks directly to the most important issues of the first century" (134). The oppressive and sinister atmosphere of the world of the Thebaid under Jupiter's governance is a poetic mirror of the Roman world under Domitian's governance.

To divine an ancient poet's message, to see through to the truth under layers of flattery and ostensibly neutral mythological storytelling, enmeshes the critic in a myriad of thorny problems of intentionality and "real" meaning. In the case of Statius, these problems are rendered even more difficult by recent critical attempts, observable as well in the cases of Tiberius, Nero and even Caligula, to rehabilitate the personality and policies of Domitian, that is, to judge Domitian to be more like what Statius "seems" to say he was like than the manner in which he is portrayed in writers like Pliny, Tacitus and Juvenal. Dominik rejects such rehabilitations and opts to trust the negative portraits of the ancient authorities (136-137). A more difficult problem is posed by Statius' other work, the Silvae, which "seems" to present a somewhat rosy picture of Rome under Domitian. Dominik must convince us that this is not what the poet really intended. To do so he must argue that the poet's apparent cordiality toward Domitian in the Silvae was insincere, and that Statius' occasional poems embody a picture of Rome as negative as that offered in the Thebaid. While the reader may well concur that the bleak and hopeless landscape of the epic might harbor unflattering allusions to contemporary tyrants, this reading of the Silvae is a harder sell.

To portray Domitian in any manner that he might take as unflattering involved obvious dangers to any poet in his service, as generations of critics have stressed, and Dominik argues that Statius avoided such dangers by employing an encoded language of metaphor, irony, and cryptic circumlocution (130). Generations of critics, in Dominik's view, have missed his message because they have been misled by the poet's apparent praise of Domitian (133), in both the Thebaid and the Silvae. Even Domitian himself was apparently misled into overlooking the potential implications of fratricidal warfare by soothing flattery offered by the poet. The use of traditional mythic material, in Dominik's view, "sufficiently distanced" (137) Statius from contemporary politics, but "the key was to evoke sufficient resemblance to the contemporary political situation without being too obvious" (137). A difficult task indeed! Only a subtle poet using encoded language could succeed. Dominik asserts (133) that a politically astute audience of refined sensibilities would have caught the poet's message, while Domitian was lulled by the poet's flattery.

As ultimately happens in all considerations of imperial literature written under tyrannical emperors, Dominik's case rests on a judgment of sincerity, and here Statius proves a particularly difficult case. Dominik's vision of Statius' politically charged epic world will succeed only if all apparent positive references to Domitian and his rule are seen as insincere, and Dominik spends much time in the final chapter arguing that Statius' flattery is always at best superficial. Although Dominik admits that expressions of flattery cannot be dismissed out of hand, he is willing to assert that "the expressions of admiration and support for Domitian are so adulatory as to suggest their insincerity to a modern observer" (141). Clearly not every modern observer has this reaction and Dominik's vision will work only if every positive reference to Domitian, in the Thebaid and the Silvae, is read as a veiled negative. It will work only if much of the evidence for happiness and prosperity under Domitian presented in the Silvae is ignored or taken as cynical and insincere. Not all readers will join Dominik in this reading of Statius' Weltanschauung.

While readers may not agree with all of Dominik's conclusions and approaches, they cannot fail to be stimulated by his sensitivity to Statius' language and style and by his desire to show that Statius is a poet who deserves to be taken seriously as a thinker and an artist. Students of Statius will be grateful to Dominik for the extensive and up-to-date bibliography he provides, and by the chronology of Statius' life (181-183) that reflects the current state of thought on the subject. The volume is remarkably free of misprints although the reference to Helvidius' execution for his allusion to "the divorce of Jupiter from his wife" (144) surely should read "the divorce of Domitian from his wife."


  • [01] R. M. Ogilvie, Roman Literature and Society (London 1980) 234, " . . . The Thebaid cannot be said to be about anything. The poem is not in any sense the author's testament about the world. . . . "
  • [02] D. W. T. Vessey, Statius and the Thebaid. (Cambridge 1973).
  • [03] Perhaps the classic expression of disgust at Statius' fawning treatment of Domitian is that of H. E. Butler, Post-Augustan Poetry from Seneca to Juvenal (Oxford 1909) 229, "The emperor who can accept flattery of such a kind has certainly qualified for assassination."