Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.13

Johannes J. L. Smolenaars, Harm-Jan van Dam, Ruurd R. Nauta (ed.), The Poetry of Statius. Mnemosyne, Supplementa 306.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. x, 269.  ISBN 9789004171343.  $152.00.  

Reviewed by Pramit Chaudhuri, Dartmouth College (
Word count: 2053 words

Table of Contents

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

After their 2006 conference volume Flavian Poetry, Smolenaars, Van Dam, and Nauta have now produced a follow-up devoted "to the most brilliant and versatile of the Flavian poets, P. Papinius Statius" (vii). The papers originate in a symposium marking the retirement of Hans Smolenaars, whose interest in Statian intertextuality is reflected in many of the contributions. With imperial poetry firmly established in most Latin curricula, and given Statius' high stock in particular, this collection will be consulted by specialists on Latin literature and Flavian culture alike, who will find much of value here. Eleven well-known authors represent a broad range of nationalities, and this cosmopolitan scholarship can be sampled by undergraduates too since all papers are in English, including translations of all Latin passages. Accessibility in language is not, however, matched by accessibility in price, a now traditional gripe with Brill.

The preface contains one-paragraph summaries of each of the papers and no more by way of introduction. Nor does the organisation of the volume suggest a whole greater than its parts; the editors have arranged the collection alphabetically by author in order to "leave readers more room to construe links between papers" (vii). The volume thus opens with Valéry Berlincourt's piece on Statius' early modern commentary tradition, in particular the work of Gronovius and Barth. Deploying contemporary epistolary sources and the comments of subsequent critics, Berlincourt conveys the catty and competitive world of seventeenth-century humanist scholarship. While somewhat distant from Statius' poetry itself, the argument does offer a convincing account of how commentators' choices and vagaries of style led to the relative obscurity of Barth's monumental work in the wake of Gronovius' great success. The finer points of northern European intellectual history aside, most readers will nevertheless benefit from the reminder to consult Barth's copious and often fascinating commentary.1

Kathleen Coleman discusses the superficial absence of inscriptions in the Silvae ("stones in the forest", as she nicely puns). She argues that Statius' poetry of praise and commemoration avoids using something so typical and ubiquitous as the inscription. So, at 5.1.238-41, the tomb of Priscilla obtains its identity not through any written marker but through the guesswork of an imagined viewer. The lack of an inscription forces the viewer into an act of interpretation, whether one is identifying a tomb or, as in 4.6, attributing an art object (a poem addressed to the connoisseur Novius Vindex). Coleman concludes that Statius "replaces the functions of epigraphy with a far more oblique and sophisticated game of words" (43). The deliberateness of Statius' play with inscriptions emerges through contrast with earlier authors from Horace to Petronius, whose epigraphic habits Coleman briefly reviews in the first half of the paper.

Harm-Jan van Dam offers a study of Statius' early modern reception in the Netherlands, in particular the poetry and criticism of the prolific polymath Hugo Grotius. Van Dam argues that Grotius' scholarly and creative work concerned with the Silvae compares in importance to the achievements of Angelo Poliziano in the fifteenth century. As with Berlincourt's piece, the research into contemporary sources is impressive and provides a vivid picture of the tradition from which Grotius emerged. Van Dam identifies some excellent examples of Grotius' use or transformation of Statius' text, but he occasionally buries this material in the footnotes, a choice that sits oddly with the paper's initial claim to focus on literary rather than purely philological concerns. However, van Dam clearly demonstrates the kind of interpretive work which Grotius deserves--an important contribution in itself, especially as it brings an understudied area of reception (at least outside continental Europe) into focus.

Michael Dewar sets Silvae 1.1, on the equestrian statue of Domitian, in the context of a Flavian ideological program centred on peace and manifested in many of the monuments and buildings erected by the dynasty. The paper makes good use of topographical context to illustrate how spatial organisation and interaction with other buildings can create significance, especially in the relationship the Flavians constructed with the Julio-Claudians. Building on and modifying recent work by Geyssen and Thomas, Dewar argues convincingly for the statue's domination (or intended domination) of its Julio-Claudian surrounds in the Forum Romanum.2

Bruce Gibson argues that Statius' handling of battle narrative in the Thebaid forms part of his competition with his epic predecessors, and identifies several features in which Statius' poetic practice is strikingly original. Thorough comparison with the earlier tradition reveals the poet's novel approach to individual fighting (unexpectedly compressed) and division of night and day (irregular). Gibson also identifies a type of Statian simile that compares an aspect of battle not to the natural or non-martial world, as so often in epic, but rather to a heightened or intensified vision of what is already going on in the narrative. Though both points compellingly advance the case for Statian originality, Gibson might have pressed them further. For instance, the minimisation of epic's typical confrontations between leading heroes may also be attributable to the absence of any genuine challenge posed by the Theban side, signaled by the narrative attention to the implosion of the Argive heroes. Likewise, Statius' inward looking similes point to the inescapability of the Thebaid, where the language of comparison, far from offering a different view, traps the reader in the author's relentless and repetitive universe.

Building on recent work by Helen Lovatt and Karla Pollmann, Peter Heslin argues that allusion to tragedy at the end of the Thebaid, especially the competing versions of the Theban story by Sophocles and Euripides, renders Athens simultaneously a positive and negative exemplar for Rome.3 Close readings show Argia playing the role of the Sophoclean Antigone, leading to the Statian Antigone's resentment at her stolen scene. This witty manipulation of the literary tradition, as so often with Statius, points to paths not followed, especially where Euripides' Suppliant Women seems to have been the preferred model. Where Heslin really comes into his own is in the identification of Greek oratorical tropes behind the entire Altar of Mercy passage, thereby assimilating Athens as refuge with Rome's asylum tradition together with the plot of the Oedipus at Colonus. Against this Greek literary background, Rome inherits Athens' mantle as cosmopolis but also stands to learn the hard lessons of Athenian history during the period of late Sophocles and Euripides.

Donald Hill here continues his near twenty-year campaign against the Statian Jupiter, in his view "no more than a blustering buffoon" (129).4 As in the earlier forays, Hill focuses on Thebaid 1; this time he highlights the ways in which the text first builds a sense of expectation that Jupiter will resolve the tension generated by Oedipus' curse, and then explodes that expectation through the portrayal of an incompetent and uncomprehending Jupiter. Hill's analysis of Jupiter's poor reasoning and justification is mostly convincing, but he sees perhaps a little more incoherence in Statius' god than is strictly warranted. For instance, Hill claims that Jupiter misrepresents (or misunderstands) his role in the Phaethon episode as dealing out punishment rather than saving the world (133). But Jupiter may well be rereading, rather than misreading, his earlier role--in linking the punishment of over-reaching mortals to the integrity of the universe the god unifies two of the central themes of the Thebaid.5

Ruurd Nauta discusses Statius' self-presentation in the Silvae. The essay takes the form of a poem-by-poem analysis of how Statius engages his addressee: as a member of a community, as an epic poet, as a beneficiary of a favour, as a participant in a (fictive) ceremony, etc. The parameters of Statius' self-presentation are determined by his role as praise poet and by the relationship with his addressee. Nauta well observes, for instance, that Statius knows when to downplay formal ties of amicitia, where that relationship might suggest that a poem was commissioned or artificial rather than spontaneous and heartfelt--the effect for which he typically strives (159-61).

Recent interpretations of the epilogue of the Thebaid have seen in Statius' praise of Vergil a more complex attitude than mere deference. To these views Gianpiero Rosati adds another argument for Statius' attempted self-canonisation, beginning with the deification of his poetic predecessor, which, as in Roman imperial practice, sets up Statius' own future entry into the poetic pantheon. Rosati identifies several other strategies for identification of the Thebaid with the Aeneid, among them Statius' claims of imperial favour and the poem's supposed use in schools. But at the same time the Thebaid's epilogue disengages its success from imperial power-- the poem, at least explicitly, neither depends on nor is co-extensive with emperor or empire.6

Where other scholars have mostly concerned themselves with the Flavian fondness for gender-bending, Lorenzo Sanna takes a slightly different approach to the ephebic hero of Statian poetry.7 Sanna shows how the puer's interaction with specific materials--dust, sweat, water--can position him with respect to martial heroism and sexual attractiveness. The analysis of the Statian figures is convincing in its own right, and Sanna goes on to trace these intertwined threads back to their likely source in the androgynous youths of Ovidian poetry.

The volume closes with a piece by the editor and conference honorand, Hans Smolenaars. The paper complements Heslin's by reading Jocasta's suicide in the Thebaid against the background of Attic tragedy. A thorough rehearsal of the Greek evidence and a keen eye for Statius' multiple allusions support the argument that, contrary to the opinion of certain scholars, Jocasta is very much alive at Theb. 1.72 and that the poet has here combined strands from all of the major dramatic treatments of the queen's suicide. From this concluding paper, perhaps more than any other, emerges a picture of a deeply learned poet whose work rewards close and repeated reading in the light of the classical literary tradition. The remaining pages include an index locorum, a full general index, and an extensive bibliography.

It may be that the self-evident unity of the volume left the editors feeling no need for preamble or justification or last word. I have no doubt that these editors in particular would have made an especially fine job of an extended introduction or conclusion, so I note here that the absence of their overall reflections is an unfortunate omission, especially in the case of a poet whose reputation is burgeoning but not yet recanonised.

A final quibble: cross-referencing is usually limited to the plainest overlap between papers and is generally uneven. Nauta's paper is fully cross-referenced, for instance, but several other opportunities were missed. To pick just two pieces, Gibson's and Heslin's, the editors might have linked Heslin's discussion of Olynthus' anachronistic presence at 12.510 (122) to Gibson's pages on anachronism in Statian battle narrative, especially given the Macedonian connection (106). And where Gibson points to Statius' avoidance of scenes of combat at the Theban gates, common in tragedy, (86) a note might have looked ahead to Heslin's discussion of how Statius' confrontation between Creon and Theseus responds to Euripides' Suppliant Women (126).8

For Flavianists and Latin literary scholars there is much of value in this collection ranging from understudied points in Statius' reception through the interaction between poetry and material context to the most rewarding Greek and Latin intertextual relationships. The volume indeed leaves the impression of a 'brilliant and versatile' poet, and the eleven papers set an example of the varied and interesting scholarly work which Statius can offer.


In pondere non magno satis ponderosae: Gronovius and the printed tradition of the Thebaid / Valéry Berlincourt

Stones in the forest: epigraphic allusion in the Silvae / Kathleen M. Coleman

Wandering woods again: from Poliziano to Grotius / Harm-Jan van Dam

The equine cuckoo: Statius' Ecus Maximus Domitiani Imperatoris and the Flavian Forum / Michael Dewar

Battle narrative in Statius, Thebaid / Bruce Gibson

Statius and the Greek tragedians on Athens, Thebes and Rome / P. J. Heslin

Jupiter in Thebaid 1 again / D. E. Hill

Statius in the Silvae / Ruurd R. Nauta

Statius, Domitian and acknowledging paternity: rituals of succession in the Thebaid / Gianpiero Rosati

Dust, water and sweat: the Statian puer between charm and weakness, play and war / Lorenzo Sanna

Statius Thebaid 1.72: is Jocasta dead or alive? the tradition of Jocasta's suicide in Greek and Roman drama and in Statius' Thebaid / Johannes J. L. Smolenaars.


1.   Barth has recently been put to intriguing literary critical use by M. Leigh 2006, "The Sublimity of Statius' Capaneus", in Clarke et. al., Epic Interactions: Perspectives on Homer, Virgil, and the Epic Tradition.
2.   J. W. Geyssen 1996, Imperial Panegyric in Statius: A Literary Commentary on Silvae 1.1; M. L. Thomas 2004, "(Re)Locating Domitian's Horse of Glory: The Equus Domitiani and Flavian Urban Design", Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 49: 21-46.
3.   H. Lovatt 1999, "Competing Endings: Re-reading the end of Statius' Thebaid through Lucan", Ramus 28.2: 126-51; K. Pollmann 2004, Statius, Thebaid 12. Introduction, Text, and Commentary. The paper also complements Braund's recent piece on Thebes as a model for Rome (perhaps too recent to be used by Heslin). Attention to cities in Flavian poetry is on the rise generally, cf. Cowan's forthcoming monograph on cities in Silius' Punica.
4.   D. E. Hill 1989, "Statius' Thebaid: A Glimmer of Light in a Sea of Darkness", Ramus 18: 98-118; D. E. Hill 1996, "Thebaid I revisited", in Delarue et al. (ed.), Epicedion: Hommage a P. Papinius Statius 96 - 1996, 35-54.
5.   The killing of Phaethon and the Flood are thus linked in Jupiter's speech not only as elemental apocalypses, nor merely as two intertexts drawn from Ovid Met. 1 and 2, but also as responses to the over-reaching of Phaethon and Lycaon. In this light it makes perfect sense that Jupiter would end with the example of the similarly over-reaching Tantalus. In the Thebaid, impiety is over-reaching and over-reaching is impiety, a theme partly inspired by Ovid and subjected to even greater scrutiny by Statius.
6.   Rosati's excellent paper would have been enriched by closer engagement with the recent work by Helen Lovatt and Matthew Leigh on divinity and literary succession. Lovatt 2005, Statius and Epic Games: Sport, Politics and Poetics in the Thebaid; Leigh, op. cit. n. 1. Rosati shows familiarity with other parts of Lovatt's first-rate monograph.
7.   E.g., S. E. Hinds 2000, "Essential Epic: Genre and Gender from Macer to Statius", in Depew and Obbink (edd.), Matrices of Genre. Authors, Canons, and Society; D. C. Feeney 2004. "Tenui ... latens discrimine: spotting the differences in Statius' Achilleid", MD 52: 85-105; P. J. Heslin 2005, The Transvestite Achilles: Gender and Genre in Statius' Achilleid.
8.   There are few grave typographical errors, but I note here all that I found: 12 n. 37 'Gronovius'' should not have an apostrophe; 13 n. 41 'others' should be 'other'; Reeve 1997, cited by Van Dam at 45 n. 2, is missing from the bibliography; 46 n. 7 Godman 1991 is actually from 1993, as correctly listed in the bibliography; the punctuation of 'before-,' (47) is wrong (likewise 'books-,' on p. 57); 'puerile' (47) strikes the wrong note (especially since Poliziano, however competent a Latinist, was only fourteen); 'Politians'' (49) should be 'Politian's'; Groenland's doctoral dissertation is from 2006, not 2007 as in 49 n. 18, and not 2005 as listed in the bibliography; to 50 n. 21 could be added Heath's 2004 book on Menander; 'key-figure' (51) ought not to be hyphenated; 52 n. 26 'numbers' should be singular; Clivus Capitolinus should probably be Via Sacra (67); Transitor[i]um (71); interesting[ly] (99); incorrect italicisation of footnote number 3 in the text (112); 149 n. 21 'is any case' should be 'is in any case'; 151 n. 25 'Ipse' should not be capitalised; 'Pollius son-in-law' lacks an apostrophe (164); 'representing themselves a[s] spoken' (165); 'Book 4 continuous' should read 'continues' (171); 204 n. 29 'life lives' should simply be 'lives'; 'espressive' should be 'expressive' (205); the attribution to Shackleton-Bailey is missing from the Achilleid translation (208); 220 n. 10 the reference to Richardson is missing from the bibliography; 223 n. 17 Mastronarde-Bremer 1982 is also missing from the bibliography; 'posses[s]ions' (227); 'Jocasta in Phoen.' should be 'Jocasta in Oedipus' (230); under Culler 1985, a little Dutch has slipped in between 'Hosek en Parker' (241); under Galand-Hallyn 2007 the italicisation of 'posteriores' has missed the first letter (243); Geyssen 1994 should read 1996 (243, but correctly cited in Dewar's paper); inconsistency in citation of papers from edited collections, e.g., Micozzi 1999 and 2004 (246).

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