Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.31

Randall T. Ganiban, Statius and Virgil. The Thebaid and the Reinterpretation of the Aeneid.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2007.  Pp. 258.  ISBN 978-0-521-84039-2.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Bob Cowan, Balliol College, Oxford (
Word count: 2792 words


[The reviewer would like to apologise for the lateness of this review.]

Like the proverbial buses, the long wait for monographs in English dedicated specifically and synoptically to Statius' Thebaid has ended with the arrival of three in quick succession, indeed in three years, and all from the same press. Almost a quarter of a century after Vessey's seminal, if much-challenged, Statius and the Thebaid and thirteen years after Dominik's brace of subversive studies on rhetoric and politics in the poem, Cambridge University Press have followed Helen Lovatt's Statius and Epic Games (whose scope is far wider than the title suggests) with the more-or-less simultaneous publication of Charles McNelis' Statius' Thebaid and the Poetics of Civil War and the current volume by Randall T. Ganiban.1 This, in concert with the steady production of commentaries on individual books, not to mention monographs in languages other than English, is vital for the advancement of research on the poem. For, despite the profusion of often outstanding articles, chapters, and sections published in journals and studies of Flavian epic and poetry more generally, which tend to focus on specific aspects of the poem, such attempts to see the poem steady and see it whole must be the ultimate aim of Statius' readers.

As with Lovatt, so Ganiban's scope is broader and more comprehensive than his title suggests. Though it bills itself as 'a monograph that interprets Statius' epic as a political critique of the Aeneid', the book does not limit itself to intertextuality with Virgil, but provides a reading of more-or-less the entire poem, stressing its dominant moral and political pessimism, specifically the irrelevance of pietas and the overriding 'poetics of nefas'. Indeed, one might argue that the title of Ganiban's original dissertation, Nefas and the Poetics of Statius' Thebaid, would have been more appropriate, since this is probably a more central concern than intertextuality with Virgil. Nine chapters, all thematic, but still broadly chronological and focused on a specific episode or episodes, reinforce this aim through a sophisticated analysis of Statius' intertextual and metatextual engagement with Virgil. Some interpretations are familiar, as is inevitable in such a comprehensive treatment, while others are arguably a little strained. There is also one major omission, which Ganiban's explicit explanation only partly justifies, in the refusal to discuss Domitianic or more broadly Flavian politics. However, overall the book succeeds extremely well, particularly on the level of illuminating and sophisticated close readings, but also on that of its powerful, if flawed, overarching thesis.

The introduction appropriately sets the agenda for the book, with a discussion of how Ganiban intends to read the Thebaid's engagement with the Aeneid and a paradigmatic analysis of an appropriately paradigmatic episode, Adrastus' narrative of Linus and Coroebus. This introduces the first central contention, that the Thebaid, in polemical opposition to the Aeneid, or at least its 'Augustan voice', depicts the central Virgilian ideal of pietas as being (in various formulations) 'irrelevant' or 'meaningless' in the world of the poem. The second, equally if less explicitly programmatic chapter treats an even more programmatic passage, Oedipus' invocation of Tisiphone, and establishes the concept of the 'poetics of nefas', the second and even more dominant of the book's themes. The following seven chapters are each centred around a theme, so that there is no sense of trudging through a running commentary on the poem, but each still focuses on a specific episode or series of connected episodes, in broadly chronological order, so that the reader gains a sense of a cumulative argument building through the epic as well as the monograph. So, chapter 3 on prophecy and the gods surveys the early books, including Jupiter's council, the various prophecies at Thebes and Argos, and Eteocles' necromancy of Laius; ch. 4 focuses on Hypsipyle, and especially her relationship with the pietas of her warring Virgilian antecedents, Aeneas and Dido; ch. 5 treats Bacchus' two failed attempts to emulate the Virgilian Juno in delaying the epic telos; ch. 6 on Dis and the domination of hell in fact traces infernal influence on the deaths of Menoeceus and of the five of the Seven to die before Polynices. Ch. 7 focuses again on the motif of delay, this time the failed attempts to forestall the fratricide. Ch. 8 particularly successfully treats spectacular viewing and its connotation for monarchy. Finally, the last chapter discusses the last book and whether, as is often argued, the positive virtues of pietas and clementia finally win through in the actions of Argia, Antigone, and Theseus.

In addition to countless superb close-readings, and the success of most of the individual chapters as satisfyingly self-contained arguments, the overarching theses are broadly convincing, though with a number of weaknesses on matters of detail and of fundamental conception. As noted above, a certain amount of Ganiban's discussion is relatively familiar and he is quite frank about his debt to, for example, Hardie on heaven and hell, Fantham and Heinrich on Menoeceus, or Bernstein on spectacle.2 This is perfectly appropriate for a book which is drawing and building on existing scholarship to provide a holistic interpretation, and Ganiban is careful to differentiate his own interpretations. Just occasionally, this desire to differentiate himself from earlier discussions, or sometimes simply to support the central thesis, can lead to overstrained and (an inevitably subjective judgement) unconvincing arguments. The discussion of Apollo's clementia towards Coroebus (9-23) rightly emphasizes the problematic depiction of the god and his behaviour, but the argument that his reuerentia caedis has nothing to do with Coroebus' pietas, simply because the latter quality is not explicitly mentioned seems rather forced and unsound foundations on which to build the claim that this episode is paradigmatic for the 'meaninglessness of pietas' in the world of the Thebaid. There is a little confusion and slippage in the otherwise impressive chapter on Hypsipyle between the notion that the latter's pietas is in some way compromised or tainted, and that it is simply futile and irrelevant in a perverted world. Particularly forced, though of less importance for the surrounding argument, is the suggestion that the mysterious hand which avenges Parthenopaeus is not related to and hence undermines Diana's promise to avenge him (129-31). In general, the 'meaninglessness' or 'irrelevance of pietas' is a convincing argument, even if Ganiban sometimes strains to make every instance fit it. However, I wonder whether 'futility' or 'impotence' might be better terms, since individual virtue is often shown and (arguably) valorized; it is only that it has no effect in a post-Lucanian world of nefas. Ganiban himself comes closest to this in his (for me) most successful formulation on the subject, describing the upshot of Argia and Antigone's burial of Polynices (212): '[Pietas] might provide temporary solace on a private level, but it is not rewarded in the larger, political world.'

The other, related quibble I have with the book's overarching theses is the nature of the engagement with the Aeneid. In the first instance, though intertextuality with the Aeneid, often analysed in a very sophisticated manner (see more below), is very frequently to the fore, it is not quite the central issue which both title and agenda suggest. In terms of intertexts, Lucan is quite as important, not least as Statius' principal antecedent as a practitioner of the 'poetics of nefas', while Ovid and Seneca are not far behind. Moreover, Ganiban shows that the aforementioned pietas and nefas are of more general and far-reaching significance than merely as points of contact with Virgil. However, even in terms of the Thebaid's engagement with the Aeneid--of course an immensely complex and slippery issue--there is a certain, perhaps inevitable, lack of clarity about what the relationship is. The title claims a 'reinterpretation' and Ganiban frequently depicts Statius as undermining the 'Augustan voice' of the earlier epic; he certainly provides ample evidence for this, but at least as often there is a sense of the Thebaid and its characters as providing a dark equivalent, an evil twin, if you will, of the Aeneid, constantly failing to measure up to the ethics (if not the poetic achievement) of its great predecessor; this would tend to suggest a positive reading, an affirmation of the 'Augustan voice', which the Thebaid does not 'reinterpret' but to which it rather presents a perverted alternative. Related to this is the notion of Thebes as 'Other', famously discussed by Zeitlin in relation to Attic tragedy, and often applied to the Thebaid.3 Admittedly, as Ganiban shows, Statius' Argos and Athens are also tainted, but it would be instructive in the context to examine the question as to whether, crudely, Thebes as 'Other' to Rome (as earlier to Athens) is roughly equivalent to the Thebaid as 'Other' to the Aeneid.

Ganiban's treatment of intertextuality and metapoetics is particularly impressive. Much work has of course been done on this and Ganiban is scrupulous in acknowledging the influence, in particular of Feeney on the self-consciousness of Statius' gods.4 However, his subtle analysis of Statian characters' attempts and especially failures (with a further, acknowledged debt to Hershkowitz5) to re-enact their Virgilian forebears, with all the ideological and political implications that entails, was particularly successful. I particularly enjoyed Jupiter's attempt to resemble his Virgilian equivalent and its being foiled by his affinity to the closer intertexts of Virgil's Juno and Ovid's Jupiter (55). In a similar vein, the emphasis on the poetics of horror--with a brief and judicious nod towards modern film theory (49-50)--and the combination of desiring fascination with disgusted rejection which horror and, by extension, the poetics of nefas was very convincing, especially as focalized through characters who express a desire for horrific spectacle, such as Oedipus, Tisiphone, and Dis. One surprising omission, or perhaps rather lack of emphasis, was on the connotations of nefas as that which cannot be spoken and hence narrated. Much work has been done on this with regard to Lucan, notably by O'Higgins and Masters, where the narrator's voice, or (in Master's analysis) its Pompeian component, constantly tries to delay and even renege on the narration of the unspeakable crime that is civil war.6 Ganiban's discusses morae, notably the splendid contrast of Bacchus' failed retardations with the Virgilian Juno's success, as well as the concatenation of failures in Theb. 11 discussed in chapter 7; he discusses Statius' famous prayer that his narrative of the fratricide not be read, except by kings; above all, the entire book is based on the central theme of the poetics of nefas. Despite this, there are only occasional nods towards the notion of narratorial desire to defer or avoid narration of crime.7 As with the lack of engagement with Flavian politics which I shall now discuss, the decision of what and what not to treat is of course entirely the author's, but it does seem something of a missed opportunity when so many of the other aspects of Ganiban's argument could be helpfully linked up by this motif.

As I mentioned in my preamble, the one major omission which I feel in Ganiban's discussion is an adequate engagement with the politics of Domitianic Rome, or indeed politics more generally. This is particularly surprising and disappointing because of his emphasis on the centrality of politics to his agenda. Not only is it the stated theme of the book, but he often emphasizes the politicized nature of his own approach in contrast to that of others, as, for example, when he notes that Hardie, in Epic Successors, 'less concerned with the political aspects of [the growing divide between heaven and hell].' Yet there is surprisingly little in the book which could be considered a thoroughgoing engagement with 'politics' in any focused sense. Of course, there is a sense in which 'politics' can cover almost any aspect of human life, and certainly the issues of pietas and clementia are important to how human beings co-exist and interact in any kind of πολιτεία. However, both this and the rather generalized approach to tyranny and the corruption of power in chapter 8 seem insufficient in the context. The closest Ganiban comes to a historically and politically situated analysis is in his use of a first century CE political text, Seneca's De Clementia, to discuss the Ara Clementiae and Theseus' intervention in chapter 9, but even there the stress is more on Stoic philosophy, and little is said about the Neronian political context, let alone how that might relate to either the Augustan or Domitianic era. Ganiban does explicitly, if very belatedly, justify on the last two pages his decision not to deal with the poem's attitude to Domitian. This is a wise decision because Herrscherkritik is a path oft-trodden and not always with the most careful of steps. However, it is surely possible to discuss Flavian politics and their relationship (and difference) from Augustan politics without simply looking for coded attacks on the princeps. Indeed, much recent work has stressed the Flavian cultural and political context of the epic and other poetry of the era.8

Ganiban does make some effort to engage with the Augustan political context of the Aeneid in his introduction,9 particularly the significance of the princeps' virtues. However, the implication--perhaps deliberate--seems to be that the Thebaid is engaging directly either with the Augustan situation or with some transhistorical conception of politics, independent of historical context. Neither of these is impossible, but surely more useful would have been some engagement with how attitudes to politics and especially imperial politics had changed in the course of a century, with the return of civil war in 69 CE, a change of dynasty, the unambiguous establishment of dynastic monarchy, and the monarch's being a hereditary dominus et deus as opposed to a (professedly) self-made first citizen who has delivered Rome from civil war. If, as Ganiban fully convinces us, the Thebaid engages with and reinterprets the Augustan politics of the Aeneid, at least part of that reinterpretation must be influenced by these changes in politics. Some engagement with the image of the princeps constructed in the Silvae and Martial's epigrams and, from the next dynasty, Tacitus' Agricola and Dialogus, Pliny's correspondence with Trajan and the Panegyricus, and Suetonius' Caesars. Of course, I run the risk here of criticizing the book for not being other than it is, but I think it is not unreasonable to argue that its own explicit agenda might lead the reader to hope for at least some engagement with these issues.

The argument is extremely well set-out, with a programmatic introduction and recapitulating conclusion to each chapter, which manage to be helpful without being redundantly repetitive. The only flaw in this respect is Ganiban's strong tendency to overload his footnotes. There can be no objection to the impressive weight of scholarship which the notes bear, a mark of intellectual thoroughness and honesty as well as a service to other researchers. My gripe is rather with the considerable number of extensive excursus, almost always interesting, convincing and in themselves valuable, which make up weighty and distracting footnotes. From numerous examples, I might select n.46 on 127, where fourteen lines of very small print are devoted to an important discussion of the infectiousness of Tydeus' nefas in gnawing on Melanippus' head. Such excursus cannot but interrupt the flow of the argument for a reader or, if she tries to avoid such interruptions, be ignored, which is a pity when the material is so good. Tempting though it is to smell such roses (and leave them to the side of the road), perhaps author and editor ought to be more brutal in deciding whether such extensive discussions are truly digressions, and hence should be trimmed or excised, or whether--which is the case with most of Ganiban's outsize footnotes--they should be integrated into the text and the body of the main argument where they belong.

The book is impressively free of errors. In noted only three very minor slips. The Lemnian parricide Alcimede briefly morphs into Alcideme (79) but is herself again two pages later. Antigone's tutor and exegete in the teichoscopy, Phorbas, less accountably becomes Pherecles (167). Finally, Ganiban, like Pollmann, whom he cites, understandably succumbs to the incestuous atmosphere of Thebes by briefly making Polynices Argia's brother rather than her husband (209). More subjectively, modo digna ueni (1.87) might be better rendered 'only come in a fitting aspect' than 'come now, worthy one' (28, 31, my italics).

In sum, this is a splendid study of the Thebaid, which combines a synthesis of much existing scholarship with considerable original insights on the levels of detailed close reading, sophisticated intertextual analysis and broader thematic discussion. Its overarching theses are important and cogently argued; if there are some flaws and omissions on both the micro- and macroscopic level of its argumentation, they do very little to undermine the book's overall quality.


1.   Vessey, D.W.T.C. Statius and the Thebaid. (Cambridge, 1974), Dominik, William J. The mythic voice of Statius : power and politics in the Thebaid. (Leiden, 1994), id. Speech and rhetoric in Statius' Thebaid (Hildesheim, 1994), Lovatt, Helen, Statius and epic games : sport, politics, and poetics in the Thebaid, McNelis, Charles Statius' Thebaid and the poetics of civil war (Cambridge, 2007).
2.   Hardie, Philip, The Epic Successors of Virgil (Cambridge, 1993), also Elaine Fantham (1995) 'The ambiguity of Virtus in Lucan's Civil war and Statius' Thebaid', Arachnion. A Journal of Ancient Literature and History on the Web, nr. 3., Heinrich, Alan 'Longa retro series: Sacrifice and repetition in Statius' Menoeceus episode' Arethusa 32 (1999) 165-95, Bernstein, Neil W. 'Auferte oculos: modes of spectatorship in Statius Thebaid 11.' Phoenix 58 (2004) 62-85.
3.   Zeitlin, Froma I. 'Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama' in Winkler, J.J. & Zeitlin, Froma I. edd. Nothing to do with Dionysus? (Princeton, 1990) 130-67.
4.   Feeney, D.C. The Gods in Epic. (Oxford, 1991).
5.   Hershkowitz, Debra 'Parce metu, Cytherea: 'Failed' Intertext Repetition in Statius' Thebaid, or, Don't Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before' MD 39 (1997) 35-52.
6.   O'Higgins, Dolores, 'Lucan as vates' ClAnt 7 (1988) 208-26.; Masters, Jamie, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's Bellum Civile. (Cambridge, 1993).
7.   E.g. 'The decision not to watch made by Jupiter, Adrastus, and Pietas reflects the inherent nature of the violence: if the war is "unspeakable" (nefas), it is also unwatchable.' (183). Even here, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on spectacle (the theme of the chapter) rather than narrative.
8.   E.g. Boyle, A.J. & Dominik, W.J. edd. Flavian Rome: culture, image, text (Leiden, 2003), Hartmann, Jana Maria, Flavische Epik im Spannungsfeld von generischer Tradition und zeitgenössischer Gesellschaft. (Frankfurt am Main), Marks, Raymond, From republic to empire; Scipio Africanus in the Punica of Silius Italicus. (Frankfurt am Main, 2005).
9.   His schema of polarized 'Augustan' and 'ambivalent' readings might be nuanced by taking fuller account of the third way offered by Morgan, Ll. 'Assimilation and Civil War: Hercules and Cacus ( Aen. 8.185-287).' in Stahl, H.-P. ed. Vergil's Aeneid: Augustan epic and political context (London, 1998) 175-97. Ganiban cites this (14 n.74) as quoting Gransden's simplistically positive reading of the Cacus narrative as if it endorsed it, whereas it actually embraces the passage's troubling civil war implications but sees them as contributing to a complex, ultimately pro-Augustan notion of sacrificial 'constructive destruction', a model for the post-Actium restoration of Rome.

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