Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.26

Jane Wilson Joyce (ed.), Statius, Thebaid: A Song of Thebes. Masters of Latin Literature.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2008.  Pp. xxxv, 502.  ISBN 9780801482854.  $27.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Kyle G. Gervais, University of Otago, Dunedin (
Word count: 2968 words

Following her translation of Lucan's Pharsalia (Ithaca, 1993), scholar-poet Jane Wilson Joyce (hereafter J.) offers a new translation of Statius' Thebaid (hereafter St. and Th.)--including a general introduction and prefaces to individual books, explanatory footnotes, glossary, and an interpretive commentary--that is a major contribution to the field. Very readable, well researched, and insightful, it should prove useful and stimulating to students, casual readers, and serious scholars (both Statians and the uninitiated). It addresses three important needs. It provides the first English commentary on the epic in its entirety (although selective and not a "scholarly commentary", as J. admits (xxxiv), it is impressive and most welcome). It is the first verse translation in English using a six-beat line,1 which is rapidly becoming the standard for rendering Greek and Latin hexameters. And it is the first English translation with a decent chance of convincing readers that St. the epic poet can be enjoyable--that his is indeed a vox iucunda, to borrow Juvenal's description (7.82). I begin with J.'s introduction, book prefaces, and commentary, then turn to consider her translation (minor points and corrections are listed at the end of the review).


J. offers a wide-ranging introduction, discussing the political world in which St. wrote ("Dynasty": xvi-xxiii), the important details of his life ("Poet": xxiii-xxviii), and the literary qualities of his epic ("Poem": xxviii-xxxiii). She also touches on St.'s literary predecessors, especially tragic poets (xiii-xiv), and describes her approach to translation (xxxiii-xxxv). Notable are her sensitive and sensible treatment of the repressive atmosphere under Domitian and St.'s reaction to this (xiv-xvi, xxii), her discussion of intriguing but speculative details of St.'s life (including his bilingualism, travels in Greece, and early popularity in Rome: xxiv-xxv), and her attention to St.'s personal and artistic relationship with his father (xxiii-xxv). Evaluation of the Th.'s literary qualities, based on E. M. W. Tillyard's discussion of the epic genre,2 is less successful, but is supplemented by the analysis she gives in the prefaces to each book.


These twelve, one-page prefaces give good structural and thematic introductions to each book, and may be read in succession as a stimulating interpretative essay on St.'s poem. Discussion of structure focuses on the bipartite (books 1-6, 7-12) and four-fold (1-3, 4-6, 7-9, 10-12) divisions of the epic, the ordering of each book by setting and scene, the impact of various narrative delays, and particularly the importance of doubling: balanced or contrasting repetition of character, scene, setting, perspective, tone, and tempo throughout the epic. Thematic discussions include the cosmic significance of the Theban war, the contagiousness of Theban guilt and gradual "Thebanization" of Argos, the futility of war, the degeneration of the heroic ideal, and the inevitable association of power with destructive violence. This gloomy evaluation, well in keeping with the tone of most modern studies, draws silently on the works of most contemporary Statian scholars, and is as good an introduction as any to current opinion on St.'s poem. Before each preface is a book outline, showing the major and minor scene changes and structural divisions by line number--quite a useful reference.


J.'s interpretive commentary, comprising 111 pages, is selective and aimed at the general reader. It is, nevertheless, insightful, informative, and impressive in its grasp of scholarship Statian and otherwise (in several places, J. goes further in her pursuit of information than one would expect for a commentary of this sort: see, e.g., her measurements for the width of the river Alpheos (n. on 6.675-73), obtained with the help of the U.S. embassy in Athens). Particularly impressive is her detailed commentary on the catalogues in books 4, 7, and 12, the archaeological information she brings to bear on the Nemean Games in book 6 (this section of the epic has until now been without any modern commentary), and her treatment of book 12 as an epyllion that doubles the main epic. I also welcome her focus on the poem's wit, the careful artistry with which it presents battlefield death and violence, and the influence of the contemporary Roman world on St.'s writing and his audience's reception. Aside from a number of minor errors or dubious points (inevitable in a commentary of this scope; I note these at the end of the review), the two biggest drawbacks of this commentary are almost unavoidable: because J. comments on her English translation, rather than the Latin text of the Th., and because her book is addressed to an English-language readership, she has chosen to omit nearly all discussion of Statian intertextuality and to cite English-language scholarship almost exclusively. Understandable choices, but regrettable--particularly concerning intertextuality, a central element in St.'s poetic technique and modern studies on his poems (as J. acknowledges: xxxiv-xxxv) to which J. would undoubtedly have made useful contributions. The commentary is supplemented by copious explanatory footnotes and a comprehensive glossary to help both student and scholar deal with St.'s difficult poem.


Turning to the most important consideration: J.'s translation. It is, on the whole, an impressive feat: written in a "loose, six-beat line" (xxxv) with a one-to-one correspondence between Latin and English lines, it suggests much of the energy, humour, and inventiveness of St.'s Latin which is often obscured in the more sombre style that has characterized English translations. At the same time, J.'s confident and distinctive poetic voice shines through--sometimes at the expense of St.'s meaning or (to my ear) his tone, but more often with happy results. As with any translation, faults may be found. I briefly outline these (minor errors are listed below this review) before turning to a few excerpts from the translation, which should clearly show its strengths.

At its best, the six-beat line is almost certainly better than blank verse for translating hexameters (there are exceptions: blank verse seems to be the right choice for Ovid, and Sarah Ruden's new blank verse Aeneid (New Haven, 2008) is often stunning). But this loose metre, if both poet and reader are not careful, runs the risk of losing its rhythm entirely. J.'s lines are often quite loose (turning to a page at random, I find 1.77-8: "O/h no/! A/rrogant ki/ngs--how ga/lling it i/s!--the/y, in my lo/ng // dea/th, deri/de their fa/ther's da/rkness, they loa/the his groa/ns. Am I/..."; eight and seven beats, by my count). This combines with her consistently bold line-breaks (take 7.195-214: of 20 lines, only three or four are end-stopped, and lines end with "not", "And", "I" (2X), "But", and "Still,"). The result could have looked like prose in verse-form--if J. were a lesser poet. Luckily, she shows a strong sense of the natural rhythms of English, which consistently drives her verse forward. Thus, she writes: "Now, I hold no grudge on my own account, nor require the dire / Oedipodionidês to die" (7.215-16; note the impressive patronymic: J. reproduces St.'s learned nomenclature throughout her translation).

The alliteration supporting this rhythm is obvious; it is in fact the most evident of J.'s poetic techniques. The overall effect is quite compelling. For instance, an address to Jupiter (3.471-4): "for You, tradition tells us, freight / flickering wings with wisdom, fill birds brimful with Your / forecasts, send omens down from the sky, disclose causes / deep-seated". But often J. seems to seek out alliteration at the expense of good translation. Thus for per inane uolatus, she writes "swooping, sweeping space with his wings" (1.310); for lucidus Euhan, "bright Bacchus" (5.675); and for inuida fata piis et fors ingentibus ausis / rara comes, "Fate envies the righteous, and Fortune but rarely favors / the brave" (10.384-5; see also below, on J.'s allusions to well-known English phrases).

Another striking feature of this translation is its formatting. Adopting the same scheme as her translation of Lucan, J. uses "outsized initials and stanzaic breaks" (xxxv) to mark the structure of the poem, and italicizes and indents passages where St. makes authorial asides. These techniques are effective and helpful. Less so are the broken lines with which she represents ekphraseis; I find these awkward at best, and jarring at worst (12.675-6 is a particularly disruptive example). Readers' taste will vary on this point.

Finally, J.'s modern idiom occasionally feels too modern. Particularly problematic are "Saint Opheltes" (4.722, sacrum Ophelten), "Mars Bringer of War" (3.422, deus armifer), "shocks and awes" (1.289, reverentia obstat), "what they've skyjacked" (3.509, altis...rapinis), and "off their own bat" (7.125, ultro!). Again, readers' taste will vary.

Having dispensed with these few and minor criticisms, I conclude with three excerpts from J.'s verse, the many virtues (and minor flaws) of which should be evident. I include for comparison Shackleton Bailey's prose translation from the Loeb series (2003) and Melville's blank verse version (Oxford, 1992; Ross' new blank verse translation (Baltimore, 2004) does not improve on Melville, in my opinion).

First, the speech of an anonymous shade in the underworld, who addresses Laius as he follows Mercury up to Thebes. Here J.'s earthy tone is perfect for the sarcastic rhetoric--better than the more melancholy versions of Shackleton Bailey and Melville. Note especially the sly line-break "mad High / Priestess" (but maior Erinys means "a greater Fury [sc. than Jove]", not "the senior Fury").


'uade' ait 'o felix, quoscumque uocaris in usus,
seu Iouis imperio, seu maior adegit Erinys
ire diem contra, seu te furiata sacerdos
Thessalis arcano iubet emigrare sepulcro,
heu dulces uisure polos solemque relictum
et uirides terras et puros fontibus amnes,
tristior has iterum tamen intrature tenebras.'

Shackleton Bailey

'Go,' he cries, 'happy one, for whatever uses you are summoned--whether Jove's command or a greater Fury has forced you to face the daylight or a Thessalian priestess in frenzy bids you leave your secret tomb, you shall see the sweet sky, alas, and the sun you left behind and the green earth and the pure founts of rivers; yet the sadder shall you enter this gloom a second time.'


'Go, lucky soul, whatever purpose summons,
Whether Jove's edict calls to face the day
Or mightier Furies drive, or frenzied witch
Of Thessaly commands you to forsake
Your secret sepulchre. You'll see, alas,
The sweet and lovely sky, the sun you left,
The lush green land, the crystal-springing streams;
Yet with a sadder heart you'll come again,
Re-entering this sombre world of dark.'


"So long! Lucky you--no matter what uses
you're called for, whether you're sent to face the day by Jove's
command or the senior Fury's, or whether a mad High
Priestess of Thessaly bids you slip out of your sealed sepulcher...
Too bad! though you'll see sweet sky, the sun you once knew,
vivid green fields, and rivers of pure spring water, you'll be
that much more glum when you're dragged back down to this gloom."

The second excerpt shows J.'s treatment of a battle scene, which is quite sensitive to the effects of St.'s Latin: she keeps Iacchus, inserts a very effective line break (marked by "//"), matches the enjambment of excutit with her own ("out of his grip"), and underscores the dark humour of the final line.


tunc flauum Hypanin flauumque Politen
(ille genas Phoebo, crinem hic pascebat Iaccho:
saeuus uterque deus), uictis Hyperenora iungit
conuersumque fuga Damasum; sed lapsa per armos
hasta uiri trans pectus abit parmamque tenenti
excutit et summa fugiens in cuspide portat.

Shackleton Bailey

Then for blond Hypanis and blond Polites--the one keeping his beard for Phoebus, the other his hair for Bacchus, but both gods were unkind. To the vanquished he joins Hyperenor and Damasus, who had turned to flee; but the spear, slipping through his shoulders, runs out through his chest and shakes the shield from his grasp, carrying it on the point in flight.


Fair-haired Hypanis,
Fair-haired Polites, both he slew; one grew
His hair for Bacchus, one his beard for Phoebus--
Both gods were cruel. Hyperenor too
He added to his dead and Damasus
Who turned to flee, but through his shoulder shot
The spear and, traversing his chest, dislodged
The buckler from his grasp and flying on
Carried it on its point.


Haemon next slew Hypanis (blond) and Politês (blond):
one grew his beard for Phoebus, one his hair for Iacchus.
Both Gods were cruel. //
Hyperenor he joined to his victims, also
Damasus, who'd turned to flee when the hero's spear, stabbing
between his shoulders, came out through his chest, struck the buckler
out of his grip: on flew the spear, his shield pinned to its nose!

Finally, St. in a more lyrical mood. Here the loftier tone of Shackleton Bailey and Melville is perhaps more effective than J.'s rendering. Further, I suspect that simplex became "foolish" (rather than "simple") for the sake of alliteration with "field", and ipsisque...Thebis surely refers to ibat...sanguis (not prensis...negant). But J.'s last line is moving: the best of the three translations, and probably the best of any possible rendering.


at puer infusus sociis in deuia campi
tollitur (heu simplex aetas!) moriensque iacentem
flebat equum; cecidit laxata casside uultus,
aegraque per trepidos expirat gratia uisus,
et prensis concussa comis ter colla quaterque
stare negant, ipsisque nefas lacrimabile Thebis,
ibat purpureus niueo de pectore sanguis.

Shackleton Bailey

But the boy collapsed upon his comrades is borne to a sequestered part of the field. Alas for the simplicity of youth! Dying, he wept for his prostrate horse! Unloosed his helmet, his face sank and in his flickering eyes sick beauty fails. Three times and four they seize his hair and shake his neck that will not stay upright; and (a sacrilege to draw tears from Thebes herself) blood coursed purple from his snowy breast.


In his friends' arms far from the battlefield
The lad was borne--alas, those simple years!--
And dying he bewailed his fallen steed.
Freed of its helmet, his head drooped, his eyes
Swam and his grace, sore wounded, breathed away.
Three times they grasped his hair and shook his head
But it sank back again and crimson blood--
A wickedness to make even Thebans weep--
Over his death-white breast was flowing down.


But the boy, sprawled limp, was borne by his comrades off to a far
part of the field where (ah, foolish youth!), dying, he wept for
his downed horse. They loosened his helm and his head fell forward,
his beauty now ailing, the spark in his eyes expiring.
Though they seized his hair and shook him three times, four times,
his neck would not stiffen--an evil grievous even
to Thebes! Blood made its crimson way down his snow-white breast.

English readers of the Th. once had to rely on Mozley's problematic Loeb translation. Statians now are faced with a somewhat unfamiliar situation: choice. We now have two prose versions (Shackleton Bailey and Hall (Newcastle, 2007)) and two blank verse translations (Melville and Ross), not to mention versions in other languages.4 Readers will choose the language and form of translation according to their tastes and linguistic talents; for those choosing English verse, J.'s will be an attractive option. The vigorous, engaging translation, copious supporting material, and confident interpretive voice will appeal to student and scholar, devoted Statian or relative newcomer. Her work rewards casual reading or more intense study. An impressive achievement that will be hard to match, it deserves to become the new standard.

I append a few brief notes on the commentary, followed by a list of typos and formatting errors (rather a lot in a book whose quality is otherwise quite high).

1.692-3: it should be specified that the seasonal rising and setting of Arcturus are associated with storms.

2.108-14: Harmonia's necklace is a gift from Polynices to Argia, not part of the Argive dowry (cf. 2.265).

4.24-31: 2.193 ff. is not a Ship of State simile, but refers primarily to Polynices and Tydeus.

4.626-8: Laius is not referring to his epiphany in book 2, but to the current necromancy and his memory of his murder by Oedipus.

4.786-7: add pp. 95-115 in Pache, C. O. Baby and child heroes in ancient Greece. Urbana, 2004.

6.95-6: a supporting reference would have been welcome.

6.296-923: add Lovatt, H. Statius and epic games: sport, politics and poetics in the Thebaid. Cambridge, 2005.

10.518: Shackleton Bailey is surely right. The deaths of Ormenus and Amyntor elaborate on 513-14, the first accounting for hoste retento, the second for exclusere suos; furthermore, Amyntor's begging (515-16) fits best with a defender suddenly caught outside his walls.

11.509-16: reference to 7.632 ff. would have been welcome.

v (Dedication): should be "optimis parentibus".

xi n. 2: Suetonius reference should be specified.

xii: "Stygian", not "Stydian".

xxiii: in "his father('s)", the apostrophe has become an opening single quotation mark (and an opening quotation mark has become a closing one at 8.111, 9.901, and n. on 12.581-2).

xxiv: "c.e." should be in small caps.

fn. on 1.597: Poinê, not Pornê!

3.399: "then", not "than" (also at 6.860).

4.8: should be "Aonian".

6.358: should be "as if".

7.9: should be "Ocean".

7.82: an en has replaced an em dash.

p. 179: the line number 125 should be moved up one line.

7.705-8: should probably be italicized.

9.712: should be "gentle".

9.719: should be "Maenalian".

10.813: should be "swallowed".

p. 320: "Statius", not "satatius".

12.103: space between "rise" and "by".

n. on 4.746-52: "Hypsipylê" (a macron has supplanted a circumflex accent).

n. on 4.786-7: remove period after the second "Archemorus".

n. on 5.431-44: the second "Calaïs" is missing a diaeresis.

n. on 5.609: no space between "Statius" and "-Poet".

n. on 6.934-7: should be a single word, "[t]here".

n. 7.792-3: "St. Elmo's fire", not "Statius Elmo's fire"!

n. on 9.293-301: should be "clementia".

n. on 9.319-31: should be "Crenaeus", not "Croesus".

n. on 10.646-9: "Omphalê" has been twice misspelled.

n. 12.499-505: capitalize "Hercules".

n. on 12.814: a rogue square bracket before "is magnanimus".

p. 499: Papinii is misspelled in the title of Klotz-Klinnert (1973), Seneca in the title of Lawall (1983).


1.  W. Lillington Lewis (Oxford, 1767) used heroic couplets, A. D. Melville (Oxford, 1992) and C. S. Ross (Baltimore, 2004) blank verse, J. B. Poynton (Oxford: The Shakespeare Head Press, 1971) the Spenserian stanza.
2.  The English epic and its background. Oxford, 1954.
3.  Line numbers refer to J.'s translation, but are usually identical with the Latin, which I take from D. E. Hill's edition (Leiden 1983).
4.  E.g., Lesueur (Paris, 1990), Traglia-Aricò (Turin, 1980), Schönberger (Würzburg, 1998), and Rupprecht (Mitterfels, 2000).

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