Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.03.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.03.26

Tatiana Korneeva, Alter et ipse: identità e duplicità nel sistema dei personaggi della Tebaide di Stazio. Testi e studi di cultura classica, 52.   Pisa:  Edizioni ETS, 2011.  Pp. 243.  ISBN 9788846730824.  €22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Anke Walter, University of Rostock (

Table of Contents

More than any other work, the post-Vergilian epics are epics of “doubles”, densely populated by brothers, twins and all kinds of other pairs. For Statius's Thebaid in particular the theme of doubling is crucial. The epic’s very protagonists are twins, the sons of Oedipus, who cannot be distinguished in their chief desire: the throne of Thebes. As Tatiana Korneeva shows in her monograph, a revised and expanded version of her dissertation of 2008, these double protagonists are especially prominent in the Thebaid and provide a unique centre of gravity around which Statius organises his narrative and systematically arranges his characters. The symmetry of episodes, motifs and narrative structures becomes the hallmark of the work and guarantees its unity and internal cohesion. To be sure, in the wake of the generally flourishing interest in Statius's Thebaid, the questions of doubling and identity in this epic have received a good amount of critical attention.1 Yet Korneeva still succeeds in shedding new light on these issues, as well as on the larger structure of the Thebaid. Her book can be considered as a worthwhile contribution to an essential aspect of Statian studies.

Chapter 1 (“La discussione teorica”) gives a detailed overview of the main critical opinions on the Thebaid from the 19th to the end of the 20th century, especially the debates about the unity and coherence of the work and its individual episodes. In chapter 2 (“Epos simmetrico: la neutralità assiologica dei protagonisti come anomalia”), Korneeva addresses what she sees as a major anomaly of the Thebaid in comparison with Statius's predecessors: the fact that it “distributes the conventional role of the protagonist between two interchangeable figures” (46) whose relationship can be described as symmetrical. First, it is established that the myth of the Seven against Thebes as well as the topic of civil war bears historical and political relevance for Statius's audience in Flavian Rome. This is followed by a brief overview of the question of how Statius's sources for the myth of the Seven handle the issue of the protagonist of their works. She describes the characteristics of the antagonistic “heroes” Eteocles and Polynices with regard to the way the works of Seneca and other historical or philosophical texts have influenced the Thebaid. Eteocles is examined in his role as a tyrant and Polynices as “the personification of ira” (59), driven by the ambition to become the ruler of Thebes. Korneeva explains the basic similarity of these two protagonists by making use of Girard’s concept of doubling and mimetic desire.

Chapter 3 (“Le dinamiche della duplicità e dell’ ambiguità nei rapporti fra i personaggi principali”) is, to my mind, the most successful of the book. Korneeva illustrates how the symmetry between the two protagonists dominates the epic’s structure from the correspondence of major themes and motifs down to linguistic details. Korneeva makes good use of acute linguistic observations to show how Statius's employment of nautical imagery suggests that Eteocles and Polynices cannot be distinguished from each other; the imagery links the brothers also to the Furies (90). She observes that from book 7 onwards, Eteocles and Polynices, in contrast to the first half of the epic, are always mentioned together in Statius's similes (89). Korneeva explains the nature of the fraternal conflict by means of psychoanalytic and sociological concepts (Jung and Bourdieu). A consideration of parallels between the Thebaid and the Roman civil warfare of the years 68-9 AD leads her to the conclusion that Statius's poem shows the inadequacy of Augustan values for the political culture of Flavian times (106; on the basis of this claim see below).

Korneeva explores how all the characters of the Thebaid, major and minor alike, are impelled by the desire “to be the other” (107), which is again examined with recourse to Girard’s concept of mimetic doubling. In line with Girard’s thesis, invidia is singled out as the major organizing principle of the entire narrative, as it determines the identity of the characters as well as their desires. This conclusion rests on a detailed observation of the way the Fury Tisiphone, who plays a pervasive role in the Thebaid, is modelled on the personification of Invidia in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2.760-832). Of interest here is also Korneeva’s observation that in the Thebaid even the gods (e.g., Bacchus) fall victim to invidia (119-20). She concludes with an examination of twins and amici fraterni whose relationship is characterised by affection and by identity rather than alterity (126), which makes them function as positive mirrors of Eteocles and Polynices. The postulated identity between these figures is analysed in the light of Lacan’s theory of the ego (142-3).

Chapter 4 (“II riscatto della marginalità”) is about the female figures of the Thebaid. Korneeva starts by displaying how the women leave the marginal space they had been confined to in previous epics. Lotman’s semiological model of narrative space and “fixed” vs. “mobile” figures is used to analyse the story of the Lemnian massacre told by Hypsipyle in book 5, a mirror image and “double” of the narrative as a whole. According to Korneeva, the women on Lemnos manage to leave the confined space of the margin to play an active role in the centre of the narrative. Hypsipyle’s narrative itself is interpreted as indicating that the women in the Thebaid acquire a voice and an “assertive capacity” (218). In the next section, Korneeva returns to examining the role of the Furies. They represent the women of the epic and their sexual desires but act on both female and male characters alike, thus taking the women close to the level of the male characters and “giving them a central space by masculinizing them” (208-9). The chapter ends with sections on the pairing of female characters such as Argia/Antigone and Jocasta/Hypsipyle.2 This analysis illustrates that the system of female characters is structured in correspondence with its male counterpart, which Korneeva regards as another contributing factor to the release of the women from the marginal position which epic had reserved for them so far.

Overall, Korneeva makes good use of intertextual parallels to advance her interpretations. However, her study still might have profited from a more profound engagement with Lucan’s Bellum Civile (which is, to be sure, examined as the intertext of individual episodes, cf. e.g. p. 87-8), not least for its presentation of divided protagonists. As Henderson states, Statius's opening words, fraternas acies, referring to the warfare of Eteocles and Polynices, are designed to outdo Lucan’s cognatas acies (BC 1.4).3 In the handling of his two protagonists, Statius from the very beginning enters a close dialogue with Lucan’s epic, a work profoundly determined by the collapse of all boundaries between the self and the other.

Some minor quibbles concern Korneeva’s slight tendency to base her argument on rather sweeping generalisations, as evidenced by her 6-line reference to the Aeneid in chapter 3, which leads her to the conclusion that “the destiny of Aeneas, whom Vergil assimilated to Augustus, represents a subtle affirmation of the values of the monarchy” (106). Although she bases this claim on the relevant monograph by Ganiban,4 it needs at least some further elaboration. Another recurring problem of the book becomes visible for example in the section on the amici fraterni Menoeceus and Haemon who serve as a positive counterpart of Eteocles and Polynices: Korneeva tends to take words spoken by epic characters invariably as expressions of fact, without paying proper attention to their context. Menoeceus's words in 10.722-34 are regarded as an expression of genuine “altruism and solidarity” (134) with his brother Haemon. This seems questionable in the light of the fact that Menoeceus's concern for his brother is only feigned, a “silent trick” (fraus tacita, 10.721) designed to silence his father’s fears. Korneeva mentions this (133-4), but it does not lead her to question the sincerity of Menoeceus's words.

Korneeva shows a good grasp of a vast area of scholarship in all relevant modern languages (quotations of which are, somewhat oddly, partly translated into Italian, partly quoted in the original). One of the few omissions I noted, however, is the article by O’Gorman (quoted in note 1), whose thematic focus is in fact quite similar to Korneeva’s. The book is very well produced, typos are few. A disadvantage, though, is the fact that there are no indices. Especially the lack of an index locorum is regrettable since it makes it hard to consult Korneeva’s interpretations of individual passages, which would certainly deserve to be read by Statian scholars working on other aspects of the poem as well.

These concerns aside, however, Korneeva has produced an interesting book. For the most part she makes good use of theoretical concepts and combines them with acute observations on Statius's language to bring out in detail the crucial importance of doubling and identity both in minor and in larger structures of the Thebaid.


1.   I restrict myself to quoting the studies by W. S. Bonds, “Two Combats in the Thebaid”, TAPhA 115 (1985), 225-35; P. R. Hardie, “Tales of Unity and Division in Imperial Latin Epic“, in: J. H. Molyneux (Hrsg.), Nottingham Classical Literature Studies 1 (1993), 57-75; A. Heinrich, ”Longa retro series. Sacrifice and Repetition in Statius’ Menoeceus Episode”, Arethusa 32 (1999), 165-95; E. O'Gorman, “Beyond Recognition. Twin Narratives in Statius' Thebaid”, in: M. Paschalis (Hrsg.), Roman and Greek Imperial Epic (Herakleion 2005), 29-45.
2.   Although these sections are fundamental to the book’s focus on the systematic arrangement of epic characters, Korneeva curiously does not include them in the initial summary of her argument (13).
3.   J. G. W. Henderson, “Statius’ Thebaid. form (p)re-made”, in: J. G. W. Henderson (ed.), Fighting for Rome: poets and Caesars, history, and civil war (Cambridge 1998), 219-20.
4.   R. T. Ganiban, Statius and Virgil. The Thebaid and the Reinterpretation of the Aeneid (Cambridge 2007).

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