Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.03.48 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.03.48

Gregor Bitto, Vergimus in senium: Statius’ Achilleis als Alterswerk. Hypomnemata, 202.   Gottingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2016.  Pp. 384.  ISBN 9783525208717.  €100.00.  

Reviewed by Antony Augoustakis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (

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Statius’ unfinished Achilleid was his Schwanengesang: composed after the Flavian poet’s epic Thebaid, the fragment of the poem that we have constitutes an intriguing remake of the early life of Achilles, with most students and scholars today focusing on the hero’s crossdressing on the island of Scyros, for which it is one of our famous, extensive sources; the poet had intended, as indicated in the prologue, to memorialize the hero’s whole life. In his monograph on the poem as Alterswerk, that is, the product of an aging poet and his latest and last work, Gregor Bitto opens with a review of composers, authors, and playwrights whose later products are characterized as such, namely as the fruit of the last part of their lives. Think of Tschaikowsky, Ibsen, or Sophocles, for instance. Here of course the term “old” is used not as an indication of biological decline of the mind and body, but as a demonstration of maturity and choice of different themes, tones, or philosophical outlook, which puts “late” works in (sometimes sharp) contrast to “early,” or “earlier, younger.” Bitto makes it clear from the outset that he is not addressing Statius’ physical old age (23), but the fashioning of the poet as an aging individual in the Silvae, thus preparing the reception of his work as such.

This monograph is divided in three parts and a conclusion, followed by a bibliography and an index locorum. The first section comprises three chapters and addresses the author’s methodology through discussion of modern approaches to late works of composers, authors, and artists, as mentioned above, as well as ancient attitudes towards such works, with a particular focus on Hellenistic and Roman authors in the last part of the section. Specifically, in the second chapter Bitto examines Ps.-Longinus’ treatment of the Odyssey as a work of old age, analyzing those traits (ἦθος vs πάθος) identified by the author of the Περὶ ὕψους as characteristic of poetic maturity—and Bitto accepts the theory that Statius is roughly a contemporary of Ps.-Longinus or knows the work well. Bitto then builds on the existing scholarly division between the Thebaid and the Achilleid as poems of pathos and ethos respectively, inasmuch as the latter is associated with sweetness, urbanity, charm, irony; and yet, this division notwithstanding, it is hard to preclude elements of one that pervade the other, resulting in a complementarity of the two poems. It is in this distinction made by the ancients between pathos and ethos that one can locate the intersection of epic poetry with other generic forms, such as elegy, lyric or comedy, elements that become so prominent in Statius’ last poem. Furthermore, Bitto delves into a discussion of ancient ideas and conceptions regarding a writer’s corpus, that is, their complete works, in Hellenistic and Latin literature, beginning with Callimachus through Virgil and the poets, as well as Cicero, Seneca, and Quintilian. Without doubt, the Hellenistic and Latin authors profess an interest in the biographical aspect of their publications and previous work with an eye towards the appropriateness of the themes they address according to where they are in life’s cycle.

The second part includes five chapters, where Bitto shifts attention to the Achilleid in an overview of the poem, its genesis, and its macrostructure. In the first chapter, he turns to the Silvae and to those references to Achilles and the Scyros story in order to trace Statius’ self-representation as an aging poet. For instance, in 3.5, the Flavian poet relates how he nearly died, but the gods pitied his wife and extended his life a bit further. Or in 4.4, the poet uses the famous phrase, vergimus in senium (which becomes this monograph’s title), to indicate once again not only his advancing age, but also the completion of his magnum opus, the Thebaid and the beginning of another poem, namely the Achilleid, which he marks, as the author claims, as his Alterswerk. As Bitto notes, in the second chapter, the Achilleid itself is fashioned already in the prologue of the poem as a second (and perhaps secondary) work, a follower of the previous poem by Statius, the song of Thebes, but at the same time, the two poems are meant to form a diptych. Bitto delves into an examination of individual characters, like the king Lycomedes, and his presentation as an older, aging person (by contrast to the younger Achilles, the hero of the poem). In the third chapter, the author looks at the poem in terms of the generic demands of an epithalamium, as exemplified in Statius’ own Silvae 1.2 and as a retelling but also an extension of Catullus’ 64. And while the elegiac overtones of the first book are unmistakably present, Bitto correctly postulates that we should not surmise that such elements would have played such an important role in later books of this poem. As he recaps in the last chapter, the poem should not be regarded just as a parody of the epic genre or a crossing between elegy/comedy and epic: this poem can be interpreted as the late work of Statius, who keeps in mind the distinction between pathos and ethos, with the latter being the trademark of the Achilleid.

The third section of the book comprises nine chapters and offers to analyse the whole poem in detail. There are a lot of good points in the individual analyses here, and the chapters read as running commentary on the poem or at least on some prominent scenes therein. First, Bitto looks at Thetis’ opening scene, as the goddess is heavily worried about her son’s fate after Helen’s kidnapping. He compares the scene to similar scenes of pathos in the Thebaid to conclude that Statius does not dispense with these scenes in his new poem, but rather opts to tone them down. In the next chapters also, following detailed analysis of the poem’s denouement in sequence, Bitto points out a so-called “ethicization” of pathos, as the latter is more or less subdued to the former. For instance, in chapter 5, he discusses Achilles and Deidamia to show that the intensification of pathos between the two characters, which has been prepared by the elegiac overtones in the preceding episodes, is soon to be limited and muted. Achilles becomes the emblem of an epic poem that is inclined towards the ps.-Longinian concept of ethos: gender-bending plays a big role in the representation of a rather thoughtful, hesitant, and reserved hero.

Bitto’s work offers a new approach to Statius’ unfinished, last poem and provides good analysis of individual scenes under the prism of Statius’ self-fashioning of his work as the product of older age. Since the Achilleid is now part of the imperial poetic canon, I am sure this monograph will be consulted by students and scholars of the Neapolitan, Flavian poet.

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