Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.05.12 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.05.12

Antony Augoustakis (ed.), Ritual and Religion in Flavian Epic.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvii, 406.  ISBN 9780199644094.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Simms, Chuo University (


The collection under review—born of a 2010 international conference—has the express purpose of broadening the discussion of the neglected area of ritual and religion in Flavian epic. After the editor’s preface and introduction, which explains the motivation for the volume, surveys the terrain, and summarizes the content, the volume is divided into three parts: Gods and Humans (chs. 1–8), Death and Ritual (chs. 9–15), and Ritual and the Female (chs. 16–19). No conclusion. The lion’s share of the discussion is devoted to Statius; however, Silius Italicus’ Punica and Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautica are well represented. The contributors, who range from established scholars in Flavian Studies to promising up-and-comers, appear to have read, considered, and where appropriate, responded with interdiscussion to other essays, which gives the volume a robust sense of cohesion and collegiality. Readers may, however, regret that cross-referencing does not provide specific page numbers. While not a problem for broader matters, this may be a slight inconvenience for tracking down specific citations (e.g., pp. 39, 85, 95, 178, and 203). Précis of individual chapters follow.

Part 1. Gods and Humans

1. Marco Fucecchi (‘With (a) God on Our Side: Ancient Ritual Practices and Imagery in Flavian Epic’) opens the volume with a discussion of the historical practice of translatio and euocatio in the ‘Palladium’ of Punica 13, then moves to Hannibal’s futile efforts to recruit Anna Perenna in Punica 8 and the departure of Zacynthus (soul of Saguntum) in Punica 2, and closes with a discussion of Valerius Flaccus’ symbolic transposition of Medea to goddess in Argonatutica 7 and 8. As Fucecchi demonstrates, efforts to ally oneself with divinity routinely fail to impart the hoped-for protection or safety.

2. Gesine Manuwald’s chapter (‘Divine Messages and Human Actions in the Argonatutica’) explores the portentous communication of divine messages that are not fully comprehended by their recipients, although readers likely possess less limited understanding of the message’s meaning and likely impact. Manuwald examines, in particular, the Phineus episode (Argonatutica 4); the role and position of seers (e.g., Mopsus, Idmon, and Polyxo); divine intervention; double motivation in the actions of Jason, Pelias, and Aeetes; divine influence of Medea; and the limited help that comes from knowing future outcomes (e.g., Jason and Cyzicus). Manuwald concludes that the literary conventions of divine influence and the varieties of oracular and prophetic expression “have been adapted to a more rationalist or philosophical framework” (p. 50).

3. Helen Lovatt (‘Competing Visions: Prophecy, Spectacle, and Theatricality in Flavian Epic’) provides an engaging discussion of how prophetic authority can be established through competition and conflict. After preliminary discussion of Vergilian and Lucanian models, she examines theatricality and performance in the Flavian epicists’ use of prophecy in the agon (dramatic vs. persuasive) between Idmon and Mopsus, widens the scope to Statius’ major episodes of prophecy, and considers points of contact with Senecan tragedy.

4. Anne Tuttle (‘Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid’) tackles the prophetic revelations of intractable future events presented by some of the Thebaid’s antecedents—namely Vergil and Lucan—as well as contemporary augury scenes in Silius and Valerius Flaccus before offering a close analysis of Amphiaraus’ ornithomancy (Theb. 3). Tuttle stresses, “it is ignorance, due to divine determinism, that prevents the Argives from reacting to supernatural signs that the war they undertake is nefas” (p. 81).

5. Eleni Manolaraki (‘Consider in the Image of Thebes: Celestial and Poetic Auspicy in the Thebaid’) continues the discussion of Amphiaraus’ augury by reading the scene through Statius’ censure of divination and prophecy (3.552–65) and uses the ornithomancy to illustrate how Statius collapses the interpretive divide between expressions of divine knowledge, which are conveyed in the form of omens, and poetic knowledge, which is routinely presented through simile. Manolaraki observes that both Amphiaraus and Phorbas “transcend limits of physical vision. The Argive looks at swans and perceives men; the Theban looks at men and perceives swans” (p. 103).

6. Ann Hubert (‘Malae preces and their Articulation in the Thebaid’) argues that the act of prayer is largely self-serving and self-defeating throughout Statius’ Thebaid. She considers first Oedipus’ perverse imprecations against his sons before offering a perceptive discussion of correspondences between the prayers that conclude each of the Thebaid’s books.

7. Bruce Gibson (‘Hymnic Features in Statian Epic and the Silvae’) deals with the influence of hymn on Statius’ poetic program. Notably, Gibson observes that in poems addressed to Domitian Statius does not use his own voice (e.g., Silvae 5.4, 3.1 and 3.2) but that of a character. The chapter then examines Domitian in the recusatio of the Thebaid and the Achilleid, the prayers of Oedipus and Adrastus in Thebaid 1, and Tydeus’ hymn to Minerva (Theb. 2). He rounds off the discussion with an analysis of hymnic features present in speech acts that are not in themselves hymns.

8. Federica Bessone (‘Religion and Power in the Thebaid’) closes the first section with a discussion of religion and politics (an ever divisive issue when it comes to Statius’ Thebaid). In the most provocative essay in the volume, Bessone argues for Theseus as a positive influence who, through just war, contrasts with the standing of would-be tyrants.

Part 2. Death and Ritual

9. The second section begins with Ruth Parkes’ exploration of the literary topos of necromancy in the Thebaidand its epic predecessors (‘Chthonic Ingredients and Thematic Concerns: The Shaping of the Necromancy in the Thebaid’). Parkes demonstrates how the chthonic episodes move beyond conventional and formulaic presentation to operate as “a microcosm of the Thebaid as a whole” (p. 180) and pays special attention to the epic’s thematic interests in dysfunctional power and intra- familial conflict.

10. Nicholas Dee’s chapter (‘Wasted Water: The Failure of Purification in the Thebaid’) addresses the problem of pollution and ritual purification in Statius’ Thebaid. As Dee argues, attempts to purify are consistently unsuccessful, no matter how well- meaning they are. The chapter works through instances where lustration and efforts to atone for sacrilege are demonstrably futile gestures, then grapples with the critical questions: Can the Labdacid clan ever be made clean or atone for its wickedness?

11. R. Joy Littlewood (‘Patterns of Darkness: Chthonic Illusion, Gigantomachy, and Sacrificial Ritual in the Punica’) discusses Silius’ exploitation of Vergil’s foundation legend of the Ara Maxima to laud Roman heroes and demonize Hannibal. Lines of support are developed first through ancestral connections with Hercules, which colors Fabius’ heroism; second, the supernatural imagery that surrounds Hannibal and his forces as well as characterizing connections to gigantomachy; and finally, Hannibal’s seemingly sacrilegious subversion of Roman triumphal sacrifice. Littlewood also comments on the contrastive imagery of darkness and light that characterizes Hannibalic and Roman forces, respectively.

12. Robert Cowan (‘Back Out of Hell: The Virtual Katabasis and Initiation of Silius’ Minucius’) keeps us in the Punica with the melee of Minucius and Hannibal in Punica 7. Cowan interprets the rescue of Minucius by Fabius as a ‘virtual katabasis’, referentially positioned within the intertexts of Orpheus’ failed attempt to bring Eurydice back from the underworld. This ritualized rescue from hell initiates Minucius in the mysteries of a Fabian cult, with Fabius himself being “a deified proto-princeps” (p. 232).

13. Neil W. Bernstein (‘Ritual Murder and Suicide in the Thebaid’) returns to Statius to discuss the notionally positive presentation in four death scenes: Maeon’s suicide, Hypsipyle’s faux-funeral for her father Thoas, the self-sacrifice of Menoeceus, and Theseus’ tyrannicide of Creon. Bernstein teases out the ambiguities in these episodes to “expose the contingency of the relationship between ritual performance, the claim of merit, and the exercise of power” (p. 235). 14. The death of Opheltes raises several matters of culpability and negligence for the Argives that Randall Ganiban explores (‘The Death and Funeral Rites of Opheltes in the Thebaid’). To deflect or minimize responsibility for the infant’s death, Adrastus and company attempt to control the boy’s funeral by providing “an ideological meaning that various forces (religious, divine, intertextual, and thematic) continually resist” (p. 249). Even so, their actions at Nemea undermine their sincerity.

15. In the final chapter of the section, Martin T. Dinter (‘Epitaphic Gestures in Statius and Silius Italicus’) explicates the intermediality (as distinguished from Kristevan intertextuality) of epitaphs and epitaphic gestures from Virgil to Statius’ Thebaid and Silius’ Punica. Dinter focuses especially on the signaling used among Roman poets in the formula tu/te quoque, derived from the epigrammatic and sepulchral kai su in connection with, or in anticipation of, heroic or otherwise praiseworthy death.

Part 3. Ritual and the Female

16. The final section of the volume begins with Raymond Marks’ study of Anna Perenna’s Protean identity, which shifts between Rome and Carthage when, at Juno’s behest, she encourages Hannibal to go to Cannae (‘Reconcilable Differences: Anna Perenna and the Battle of Cannae in the Punica’). Though appearing to sponsor Hannibal, after the battle, Rome’s star begins to rise as Hannibal’s falls. Her involvement offers short-term losses, but long-term gains, which displays “permanence through change” (p. 297).

17. Alison Keith (‘Medusa, Python, and Poine in Argive Religious Ritual’) examines female pollution in Adrastus’ account of Coroebus’ heroism in Thebaid 1, looking particularly at the overlap between Ovid’s Medusa and Statius’ legion of monsters. Keith connects the pollution engendered in these monstrosities to the pollution of Adrastus’ household.

18. Christopher Chinn (‘Orphic Ritual and Myth in the Thebaid’) presents the Orphic elements underlying the Thebaid, notably in the programmatic and anticipatory description of Harmonia’s necklace. The chapter also examines Statius’ imbrication of Orphic theogony, which enriches the literary and mythic subtexts of the Cretan protection of Zeus and Dionysus in the concilium deorum of Thebaid 1, Bacchus’ plaintive suasoria in Theb. 7, and the Hypsipyle sequence, where Chinn considers Hypsipyle as “Great Mother” surrendering the infant Zeus to the Curetes, before concluding with the negative associations of Argia with a Corybant, which offers a parallel to Polyxo.

19. In the final chapter, Vassiliki Panoussi (‘Dancing in Scyros: Masculinity and Young Women’s Rituals in the Achilleid’) examines the rituals of young maidens and their demonstrable influence and power over Achilles’ masculinity in the Achilleid. Their comeliness, which for a time dominates and threatens to impair heroic masculinity, their Amazonian similitudes, and performance of Bacchic ritual reveal expressions of female power over the consummate warrior.

Overall, Augoustakis and the assembled contributors provide welcome discussions of ritualistic and religious expression among Flavian epicists. While the topic is hardly exhausted, this volume provides a highly comprehensive and integrated resource. Aside from the minor blemish of an unmated parenthesis (p. 2 n. 5), the volume has been meticulously edited, stands free of typographical errors and is, as most Oxford volumes are, cleanly typeset and tightly bound.

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