Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.05.06

J.J.L. Smolenaars, Statius: Thebaid VII, Commentary. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994. Pp. xlii + 462. $114.50. ISBN 90-04-10029-6.

Reviewed by Randall Ganiban, Princeton University (

Thebaid 7 opens with an impatient Jupiter, angered that his plans for fraternal war have been stalled, and closes with the earth-shaking descent of the priest Amphiaraus (still living) into the depths of Hell. It is a book full of fury, pathos and horror, and has important implications for the narrative movement of the poem. Like its counterpart in the Aeneid, Thebaid 7 sets the second half of the epic in motion. Despite its importance, book 7 has been poorly served by scholars over the centuries. There has not been a commentary on 7 since Amar & Lamaire's edition (1825-30), and before that readers had to turn to Barth (1664) (ix).

S.'s new commentary therefore fills a great need. Revising and expanding his doctoral dissertation (Amsterdam, 1983), S. has produced a massive volume which includes a thirty-page introduction, almost 400 pages of commentary, eight lengthy appendices detailing the various sources imitated by Statius, a full bibliography and several indices. The commentary follows the Klotz-Klinnert Teubner edition (though the text of 7 is not reprinted), and is aimed at an advanced audience; those who already have some familiarity with the Thebaid and the classical epic tradition will benefit most. Despite a fair number of misprints, the book is nicely produced overall.

S. brings remarkable erudition to bear on Thebaid 7. For S., Statius is an extremely learned and allusive poet. Consequently, study of the Thebaid requires a wide-ranging knowledge of the Greek and Latin literary traditions. This, of course, is not news for students of Statius and other poets of the early Empire, and S. cites and develops the work of scholars who have engaged in Statian Quellenforschung and poetic imitation (e.g. Legras, Juhnke and G. Williams). What distinguishes S.'s study of the Thebaid from others is the broad, thorough and methodical nature of his examination of Statius' sources.

Central to an appreciation of the Thebaid, S. argues in his introduction, is an understanding of Statian allusiveness. S.'s book thus reflects the current interest in Latin intertextuality articulated by critics such as Conte, Thomas and Farrell (though S. does not fully explore its interpretive implications, see below). S. proposes the concept of 'multiple imitation' as a foundation of Statian poetic technique:

Each episode, section and many scenes in Statius have (a) a primary source, which provides (part of) its content and narrative structure and is often signalled by a Leitzitat, and (b) one or more secondary sources which supply specific conceptual and stylistic elements adding to, or replacing, those of its primary source. (xxviii)
S. does not limit himself to strictly verbal imitations in determining "parallels":
Once a specific source is established it frequently appears that Statius borrowed elements from that same context which he transformed to such extent that these 'parallels' will not show in any Concordance or Pandora-program. Consequently a 'parallel' may also be taken as significant if it occurs in a context which has been established as a source for this particular passage for other reasons, or has demonstrably been exploited by Statius in a different passage. The furnishing of proof in these cases will inevitably be of a cumulative nature. (xxviii)
Thus, only by taking into account all possible sources and examining their relationship to Statius' text will readers of the Thebaid be "equipped to interpret the poem's words and 'meaning'". With this approach, S. aims "to avoid any impression of being an ardent adherent of excessive Quellenforschung for its own sake" (xxvii). Drawing on examples from Thebaid 7, S. goes on to show quite methodically and compellingly how multiple imitation can function (xxixff.).

I have dwelt on S.'s introduction because it enunciates the unifying principle of the commentary. Multiple imitation influences every page of S.'s book. In fact, the commentary might be read, at one level, as a full-scale examination of Statius' skill in imitation; its overall structure seems to suggest this. S. divides Thebaid 7 into eight episodes and organizes his commentary around them. For each section, S. provides an introduction conforming to a general formula: summary of episode followed by a paragraph on its dramatic or structural function and a discussion of its primary and secondary sources. The line-by-line commentary then focuses largely (but by no means exclusively) on the relationship between Statius and his sources, and the eight appendices at the end of the book present in convenient chart-form the authors and works imitated by Statius in a given line or episode.

The results are impressive. S. displays again and again an enviable command of the literary traditions and sources behind the Thebaid. His treatment of Jocasta's attempt to halt the war (470-563), for example, includes a good introductory discussion of the main sources for this scene (Euripides, Vergil, Seneca) as well as line-by-line commentary examining Statius' use of them and other writers. S.'s comments on the Argive crossing of the river Asopos (424-440) are also worthy of note. As S. points out, this is the one passage in book 7 for which Statius lacked a Vergilian model and consequently relied primarily on Lucan. S. suggests in several places how recognition of Statius' imitation of Lucan here can help us understand better some of the details Statius includes (fragmine 430 and deiecit equum 431). Equally instructive is S.'s treatment of the literary sources influencing Statius' depiction of Pavor (105-130). S. shows how Statius drew on Homer, Vergil, Ovid, Lucan and others to create his terrifying portrait of Pavor in action.

As a result of his examination of the Thebaid's sources, S. also proposes a relationship between the Thebaid and Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica that is closer than usually recognized. S. argues for the chronological priority of the Argonautica (xvii) and Statius' use of it as a major poetic resource (passim). In a number of places (e.g. xxixff., and comments on 1-89 and 690-711), he illustrates how Statius can simultaneously imitate both a Vergilian passage and Valerius' reworking of it.

Besides his central concern with multiple imitation, S. offers notes on other aspects of Statian poetry. On diction, S. will often cite the frequency with which certain words appear in Statius and/or other poets (furit 320, nempe and commercia 544, inpete 585), albeit sometimes unnecessarily (queo 695, negative participial adjectives 703). Though he does not include a text, S. explains where his readings differ from other editions (177, 307, 457f., 624, 714). He provides useful notes on Statius' compact mythological allusions (Nycteidos 190, Lycaonis 414, and Oenemaum ... Acheoloon 415-6) and often cites other classical sources -- especially in the Latin poetic tradition -- in which these myths are retold. S. is also good at highlighting epic conventions (243-373, 718-722, 760f.) and at pointing to aspects of Silver Latin style (117f., 427-429, 430, 475f., 700f., 809-816) and Statian composition (86-9, 139-144).

Despite S.'s erudition and skill at identifying the Thebaid's many intertextual connections, the commentary can at times be frustrating because of S.'s commitment to multiple imitation. In this regard, the programmatic statement in the introduction is illuminating: "The fact that in some cases in Thebaid VII I have failed to trace these sources does not, I think, falsify this theory [i.e. multiple imitation]; the source may have been lost ... or others may recognize a source I have overlooked" (xxviii). This almost ideological zeal leads S. to suggest parallels which sometimes seem questionable -- such as Livy in 700, Vergil in 727, and Sophocles in 778-788. Since S. includes not only verbal imitation but also structural and thematic, it is difficult to determine where coincidence ends and active imitation begins. Moreover, S.'s vision of how a line is created can be extremely mechanical. For example, S. explains "Statius' poetic procedure" in composing lines 658-9 and identifies 5 sources which contribute to an 8-word phrase. One must wonder at what level of consciousness such a combination of sources could have been made -- a question which S. does not adequately address.

In addition, S.'s introduction (xiii-lxii) does not offer a wide-ranging discussion of the Thebaid or of general characteristics of Statian style, etc. With headings such as "Sources and models", "Structural relations between Thebaid VII and Aeneid I and VII", "Statius and his literary predecessors: the nature of intertextuality", and "The Aeneid and Argonautica as sources of Thebaid VII", this section functions more as an introduction to the concept of multiple imitation and to the related picture of Statius as a learned poet, than as an introduction to the world of the Thebaid. By concentrating so much on imitation, perhaps S. has provided too narrow a perspective on Statius' art.

Finally, S. is often unclear on how the countless instances of imitation might affect our view of Statian poetry. S. argues that imitation in the Thebaid represents a 'challenge' to Statius' predecessors (xxxii, 1-89, and 43f.) and claims that full analysis of Statius' sources is necessary before interpretation of the poem can begin. But S. does not always discuss what Statius' challenge to his predecessors achieves or how multiple imitation can aid or influence our interpretation of the epic as a whole. Is Statius a slavish imitator? A shrewd innovator? How does imitation affect the 'meaning' of the poem? In the absence of an interpretive vision of book 7, it is difficult to develop S.'s detailed source analyses into a broader understanding of the Thebaid.

Despite these criticisms, S.'s commentary remains an impressive piece of scholarship. It will prove a tremendously valuable resource for students of Statius and of post-Vergilian epic. All of us who take pleasure in reading Statius owe S. a great debt of gratitude.