Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.03.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.03.32

Antony Augoustakis, Statius, Thebaid 8. Edited with an Introduction, Translation, and Commentary.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. lxxvii, 449.  ISBN 9780199655335.  $165.00.  

Reviewed by Andrew M. McClellan, Florida State University (

The study of Flavian epic poetry is in very good hands. The ever-growing garrison of scholars working on these poems (Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Silius Italicus’ Punica, and Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid) has yielded a slew of excellent monographs, with focus shifting especially in the last few years to much-needed commentaries on individual books.1 Antony Augoustakis turns his attention to Statius’ Thebaid 8, the first full commentary on this book since Casper von Barth’s Latin commentary from 1664 (Barth is well deployed throughout Augoustakis’ commentary, I should add). For my money, this is Statius at his finest. The poet traverses, among other things, the underworld, hellish fields of battle, the perverse and generically distorted Theban oikos, and the depths of bestial furor in the grim hero Tydeus’ anthropophagy that closes the book in a whirlwind flourish. There is a striking dexterity here that demands an equally dexterous scholarly eye, and Augoustakis is admirably up to the task. There is no doubt that this work will be the standard commentary on Thebaid 8 in any language going forward.

First, the skeleton. An ample General Introduction (pp. xvii-lxxv) makes way for the Latin text, apparatus, and no nonsense English prose translation (pp. 2-57). 2 The bulk, naturally, consists of the detailed commentary (pp. 59-356). A bibliography follows (pp. 357-90); but why some of it is listed chronologically and some alphabetically I cannot begin to understand. There are several indices: Latin Words and Phrases (pp. 391-98), Greek Words and Phrases (p. 399), Index Locorum (pp. 400-35), and a very useful and full General Index (pp. 436-49).

The Introduction is excellent and wide-ranging. Augoustakis begins with a brief biographical sketch of Statius with particular nods to the influence of Statius’ poet-father, Statius the Elder, a vatic ‘Amphiaraus’ figure, nicely tying his own introduction to the major introductory figure of the first part of book 8 (see also the notes on 8.91-3, pp. 177-8). The next section on literary criticism tackles difficulties of genre (especially the blending of epic and elegy), always an issue in Statius’ poetry, but well assessed for Thebaid 8 in particular. This section also contains discussion of the highly fraught and contentious (I might add: tiresome) ‘optimistic’ vs. ‘pessimistic’ readings of the poem and the place of book 8 in this debate. Other sections examine the complex relationship between gods and humans, character and source studies of Amphiaraus and Tydeus (the ill-fated stars of book 8), Atys and Ismene, Thiodamas’ placatio, literary reception, and finally issues of prosody, meter, style, and the deployment of similes. This is all useful and feeds seamlessly into the commentary that follows, but I note briefly a few highlights. In the discussion of the Greco-Roman tradition (literary and iconographic) of Tydeus’ anthropophagy Augoustakis is truly in his element (pp. xxx-xlii). The range of material brought to bear on this brutal and breathtaking mythic scene underscores both Statius’ and Augoustakis’ masterful handling of a vast range of sources. The section on meter (pp. liv-lviii) offers an impressive distillation of sources and material on Statian metrics. In general, Augoustakis makes good use of meter in the commentary as building blocks for mood, pacing, effects, and pyrotechnics. Those interested in the reception of Statius will find much value here (et passim). The section on ‘Medieval Statius’ (pp. lxiii-lxvi) was a particular delight, especially the detailed examination of the anonymous Old French Le roman de Thèbes (1155-60), a poem with which I was unfamiliar, but will now absolutely consult for, inter alia, its staggering reworking of Tydeus’ killing of Atys, here construed contra Statius as accidental and melancholic (!).

This is the appetizer to the commentary’s entrée. Augoustakis states his agenda upfront in the Preface: ‘My focus has been both philological and literary, whilst I insist particularly on identifying Statius’ Greek intertexts, in addition to the many allusions to other epicists and Latin authors in general’ (p. vii). Augoustakis sticks to the script and these aims hold true throughout. The intertextual networks activated here are a real treat, with vast surveys both of Statius’ Greek, Roman, and antiquarian sources as well as an impressive range of post-Classical texts looking back to Thebaid 8. This allusive panoply is not simply ornamentation and very often striking intertexts prize key pieces of information from particular cruces (e.g., Joseph of Exeter’s surprising role in solving—or attempting to solve—textual disputes through Statian allusions in his Ylias: n. 8.35-6, 315-16, 614-15). I offer in what follows below a sample of some of the more thought-provoking notes and findings, though there is much here to praise and I have found confining myself to a selection a difficult task in its own right.

On occasion, neat links to Roman historical/imperial concerns creep into the notes: Statius’ underworld, for example functions like a well-oiled (Flavian) imperial administrative machine—Proserpina tallies the names of dying soldiers on a door ‘as if on a list of fasti or as the censors put a mark of disgrace against the names of citizens’—which grinds to a halt at the sudden arrival of the outsider Amphiaraus (n. 8.10-11, 19-20). Elsewhere, the reluctant and modest transference of vatic power from the accidentally katabatic Amphiaraus to his successor Thiodamas calls to mind an emperor’s recusatio (n. 8.284-5 with the following note on the Parthian Prince simile at 8.286-93). The lord of the underworld himself is cast as a tyrant (n. 8.21-2, 23, 27-9, 43-4, 44-6), and the imagery is ripe for those interested in reading politicizing elements into his characterization, especially considering the imperial ‘administrative’ aspects of the subterranean realm over which he reigns.

There is a useful discussion of the play of light and darkness in the underworld as the chasm that swallows Amphiaraus also allows unaccustomed daylight access to Pluto’s grim kingdom (n. 8.31-3, 38-9, 40-1, 44-6, 46-7). Amphiaraus’ descent in curru allows Statius space to toy with versions of Pluto’s ascent to steal Proserpina, through the god’s own defensive statements about the theft (n. 8.63-4). Augoustakis astutely unpacks Amphiaraus’ clever reworking of the language of Pluto’s speech during his subsequent apologia, which doubly acknowledges and reworks material from (especially) Ovid’s version of Proserpina’s rape in Met. 5 and Orpheus’ pleas to Pluto for the return of Eurydice in Met. 10 (n. 8.91-3, 95-7, 97-8, 99-100, 104-5, 107). Amphiaraus’ plea will end in a curse aimed at his treacherous wife Eriphyle, cleverly warping the amorous sentiments of Orpheus’ request. Infernal darkness extends, naturally, to Oedipus whose Fury-invoking curse sets Statius’ epic in motion, and Augoustakis draws well upon existing scholarship and cues from earlier texts in his portrait of Oedipus as a sadistic ‘creature of darkness’ (n. 8.240-58, 240-2, 246-7, 254).

The excellent note at 8.229-36 construes the celebratory ‘Theban Songs’ following the death of Amphiaraus (a mini, inset ‘epic poem’ about Thebes’ mythic past) as a mise en abyme of the Thebaid in general; the songs also function, Augoustakis argues, as a stand-in for Statius’ earlier refusal in the proem (Theb. 1.4-10) to sing such carmina. Augoustakis untangles with ease Statius’ somewhat convoluted engagement with the placement of soldiers at the Seven Gates in Aeschylus’ Septem and Euripides’ Phoenissae, the latter already significantly reworking elements from Aeschylus (n. 8.353-7, 353, 353-4, 354, 355, 355-6, 356, 357). The ‘centaur’ imagery at 8.392-3 is well spotted (corpora ceu mixti dominis irasque sedentum | induerint; see n. ad loc.), as riders and horses merge uncomfortably into one hybrid body (cf. Vir. Aen. 11.634-5; Sil. Pun. 6.6-7, perhaps more morbidly). The centaur image here seems clearly evocative of the disturbing transition from man to beast that will occupy the final third of the poem and immediately following Statius’ activation of a noua Calliope (8.373-4) to assist his war song (fast upon Pluto’s injunction for ‘monstrous crimes’ at 8.66-74). Tydeus will fulfill (most emphatically!) his bestial role at the end of this book, and he is similarly associated with centaurs at Theb. 2.559-64 (via simile), and through his ‘centauric’ slaying of Pterelas at 7.636-40 and Prothous at 8.536-47.

There are perceptive notes on constellations (e.g., n. 8.407-8), astrology and extispicy (n. 8.177-8, 178), etymological play (n. 8.29-31, 315-16, 659-62, 726-7; see index s.v.), and I learned much from the examination of Ismene and Antigone and the corresponding nightingale and swallow simile (n. 8.610-13, 616-20, and following). The famously fraught verses detailing Tydeus’ grotesque and oddly self-reflective engagement with Melanippus’ severed head are well assessed (esp. n. 8.753, 754-5, 755-6) and the general note on 8.751-66 (coupled with the introductory discussion, pp. xxx-xlii) provides useful material for those interested in Statian ‘horror’. The Gorgoneion’s active role in protecting Minerva from the pollution of Tydeus’ boundary-breaking cannibalism is clear (n. 8.762-3), but it seems also to play at an imagistic Medusan freeze-frame of this horrific scene (constantly articulated with visual overtones), which we might be tempted to read as a literary complement to the physically ‘petrified’ monument of the myth on the temple relief at Pyrgi (Augoustakis discusses the relief and other artistic examples of the scene which may have influenced Statius at pp. xxxv-xxxvi).

The commentary is full of further treasures and I have found little with which to quibble in terms of content. Augoustakis’ scholarship is of the highest caliber and students and scholars working on Flavian epic will be grateful for his efforts here. Overall the production quality is high. I only spotted a handful of harmless typos (available upon request). More irritatingly, the typeset becomes ‘wavy’ at times (e.g., p. 3, 19, 51, etc.), which of course has no impact on content but is distracting and unsightly.


1.   We look forward to the forthcoming commentaries by Kyle Gervais on Thebaid 2, R. Joy Littlewood on Punica 10, Augoustakis and Littlewood on Punica 3, and Neil Bernstein on Punica 2 (among others, I’m sure).
2.   The translation is sober and clear, usefully cribbing a variety of renderings in various languages: ‘I have employed and combined a number of translations into English, French, German, and Italian, as indicated in the relevant section of the bibliography, most often with a critical eye’ (p. lxxv, n. 276).

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