Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.12.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.12.03

Stefano Rebeggiani, The Fragility of Power: Statius, Domitian and the Politics of the Thebaid.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 321.  ISBN 9780190251819.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Lauren Donovan Ginsberg, University of Cincinnati (


The Fragility of Power is a new study of the intersection of poetry, politics, and Domitianic ideology. Rebeggiani argues that scholars have been overly swayed in their assessment of the Thebaid’s response to imperial power by the negative picture of Domitian presented in post-Domitianic sources; instead we must look to Domitian’s early reign, the period in which the epic was completed. Important for Rebeggiani’s reading is the princeps’s renegotiation of his relationship with the elite, his foregrounding of clementia, and the influence of the memory of Nero and 69 CE in Flavian culture. This approach is much indebted to Bessone’s work on Statius, especially her analysis of clementia.1 Taking this approach as a starting point allows Rebeggiani to avoid dichotomies between optimistic and pessimistic readings.2 Instead, he foregrounds the Thebaid’s complicated response to imperial power based on two interpretive principles. First, he argues that Statius’ engagement with political power is best seen not as a question of praise or blame, but as a form of the protreptic, didactic interrogation of kingship now often seen to be at the heart of panegyric.3 At the same time, Rebeggiani underscores, the Thebaid is no Panegyricus; rather the epic embraces the fragility of monarchical power, its potential abuses, and its unavoidable reliance on fear as a governing principle. Every character is fashioned as an inextricable combination of good and bad, civil strife is omnipresent, and the ability of leaders (divine or mortal) to quell this strife is often found wanting. As Rebeggiani provocatively notes, Statius’ vision of monarchical power in the Thebaid guarantees nothing for his princeps; success or failure are equally possible outcomes of his imperial mission. This is an interesting argument that I have oversimplified for the purpose of space in this review. Its various arguments and conclusions will need to be taken into account by scholars working on the politics of poetry in Flavian Rome.

The book contains six chapters plus introduction and conclusion. While individual chapters tackle different themes, characters, or episodes, each proceeds in a similar sequence. After an opening vignette from Flavian history, Rebeggiani lays groundwork for his reading of Statius by offering sweeping yet detailed surveys of a given topic’s wider importance to Flavian culture, to the literary tradition as Statius inherited it, or to Domitianic ideology. These surveys combine a dizzying amount of material ranging from other works of Greek and Roman literature to the material culture of imperial Rome to close readings of particular moments in Roman history. Against this background he moves to his analysis of select episodes of the Thebaidwith the intent of elucidating the multilayered strategies through which Statius engages with the Domitianic ideology laid out at the start of the chapter.

Throughout these chapters two interrelated themes stand out that, while not featured in the book’s titles, nevertheless inform its various arguments. The first is the influence of the memory of Nero on Flavian Rome, a topic which is taken up at length in Chapter 1 but then remains a crucial theme in later chapters. On Rebeggiani’s reading, memories of Nero’s reign influence the Thebaid at every turn from individual historical allusions to the epic’s larger representations of tyranny. It is Rebeggiani’s contention that the historical tyrant that lies behind many of Statius’ cruel and power-hungry characters is not Domitian but Nero. He argues against those who see a partial rehabilitation of Nero by Domitian – a problematic idea largely stemming from post-Domitianic conflation of the two notorious emperors. Rather, Rebeggiani shows that Domitian continued his father’s official condemnation of Nero and cultivated a circle of Neronian survivors connected with the Annaeans. At the same time, Domitian integrated core aspects of Neronian ideology within his own self-presentation, including solar imagery and an emphasis on clementia. Both aspects of Nero’s memory are important to the Thebaid. What I find most successful about this investigation into the Flavian memory of Nero is Rebeggiani’s scrupulous attention to the ways in which the Flavian emperors and wider Flavian culture received and reinterpreted core aspects of Neronian ideology and the Neronian literature which was intertwined with that ideology. Rebeggiani has much to say about Seneca’s De Clementia, the pastoral poetry of Neronian Rome, and Nero’s own self-representation; he also has much to say about how the literature of Neronian Rome was reinterpreted in light of Nero’s fall to suit the ideological needs of a new era.

Civil war is the other major theme (perhaps unsurprising given the epic’s subject), which Rebeggiani tackles from two directions simultaneously. First, he views the Thebaidas profoundly influenced by the memory of the year 69 CE, both the trauma of renewed civil war and the Flavian celebration of their victory in that final war. He also builds on a recent theme in the study of Latin literature by recognizing the role that civil war played in early imperial ideology. Augustus and the Julio-Claudians foreground the suppression of civil war as a core benefit of empire. This in turn becomes a major theme in Neronian literature, but already we see a recognition that an emperor’s crudelitas and inclementia could replicate the violence of civil war, especially when it comes to the execution of leading citizens. The Flavians capitalized on these associations. Their focus on Neronian crudelitas put the blame for 69 CE onto Nero as a man whose tyranny fostered the passions of civil war. At the same time, they positioned themselves as the dynasty who could truly practice clementia and who could truly bring an end to bellum civile once again. Remembering the madness of civil war became a prop of Flavian empire as well as a topos in the literature of empire, as it had been for the Julio-Claudians before them. Rebeggiani shows that both aspects are important for understanding Statius’ handling of this theme.

A few words must be said about how Rebeggiani excavates the political culture and ideology of Domitianic Rome and its relationship to Flavian literature. Rebeggiani’s view of imperial ideology eschews old-fashioned notions of a unified discourse disseminated from above that is then reflected in imperial literature (hence he avoids the fraught term ‘propaganda’). Rather he understands Domitianic ideology as multidirectional: imperial literature is engaged in a constant process of constructing and reconstructing imperial ideology in dialogue with a given princeps. On Rebeggiani’s reading, literary and historical allusion play a major role in Statius’ participation in this process. He argues for the near constant presence of what he terms “punctual” historical allusions. These are moments in which an individual passage from the Thebaid recalls a specific historical memory: so, for example, when Polynices falls from his chariot in the games of Thebaid 6, Rebbegiani argues for an allusion to Nero’s failure to drive a chariot at Olympia (p. 111). Such allusions, however, never aim to produce fully-fledged historical allegories. Polynices is not a Nero-figure throughout the epic; rather, individual allusions to Nero occur throughout the Thebaid in connection with many failed images of leadership and thereby contribute to the epic’s reflections on tyranny. Rebbegiani is equally interested in how Flavian authors reread Neronian literature and find in that literature various political reflections of Nero. How do Flavian authors read Seneca’s tragic tyrants as reflecting Nero? How can Neronian panegyric be reconfigured in light of the tyrant’s fall? What does Flavian Rome do with the conflicting visions of Nero seemingly authorized by Lucan’s Bellum Civile (on which, see below)? Here Rebeggiani is remarkably nuanced, acknowledging that Statius’ intertextual engagement with Neronian literature necessarily oversimplifies what Senecan tragedy or Lucan’s epic might have meant in their original contexts, but nevertheless articulates a political reading of these texts that informs Flavian literature’s reception of them.

It would be impossible to do justice to each chapter in the space remaining, and so I will single out several particularly effective arguments. In Chapter 2, Rebeggiani shows the importance of the myth of Phaethon to early imperial narratives of succession; through a close reading of solar imagery in the chariot race of Thebaid 6, he articulates a series of competitions between would-be rulers who try to escape Phaethon’s (and Nero’s) weaknesses and, in so doing, open a dialogue about leadership and succession. This is reinforced by a wider discussion of Domitian’s appropriation of Neronian solar imagery. Chapter 3 offers an intriguing discussion of Domitian’s Herculean imagery, Hercules’ role in tragedy (especially Senecan tragedy), and the influence of that role on the Thebaid’s images of failed kingship; at the same time, Rebeggiani argues, Statius simultaneously foregrounds more peaceful aspects of Hercules by linking the hero to ideas of clementia, as seen through Theseus in Book 12. Chapter 4 offers a sustained interrogation of the Thebaid’s reception of Lucan’s Bellum Civile, which, he argues, must have seemed to be an ambiguous and contradictory text to its Flavian successors. Rebeggiani’s Statius fully embraces these contradictions, allowing for Lucan’s epic to be anti-Nero yet pro-empire simultaneously. Lucan’s text also serves a third function as a window through which Statius alludes to the civil wars of 69 CE. As a result, Lucan’s Bellum Civile becomes a tool through which Statius can highlight the contested ideologies of empire present in his poem. 4 Finally, Chapter 6 offers a wide-ranging reading of the siege of Thebes in Thebaid 10 and the significance of Gallic imagery to Roman narratives of crisis, especially to the cultural memory of assaults on the Capitoline. This is a chapter where historical allusion, intertextuality, and material culture really come together to read the siege of Thebes in light of Domitian’s participation in the fight against the Vitellians on the Capitol in 69 CE.

Scholars will quibble with individual readings. For example, I am not entirely convinced that Polynices’ failure to match his Herculean model in the games of Thebaid 6 would necessarily recall Nero’s theatrical interest in Hercules (pp. 135-38); so too, while Rebeggiani sees Tacitus’ figuring of Otho and Vitellius as a latter-day Caesar and Pompey as evidence for a commonplace idea in Flavian Rome (pp. 183-84), it is equally possible to take it as part of Tacitus’ well documented reception of Lucan. I would also like to see more evidence for the idea Statius’ use of the Niobe myth brought back “memories of the cruel repression that had cost the lives of Lucan and Seneca” (p. 195) on the basis of Nero’s choice to sing of Niobe in the Neronia of 65 CE (though I take Rebeggiani’s point that the myth was open to being politicized).

But these are small quibbles. This book should be of interest to scholars of Flavian epic and culture as well as to those interested in the reception of Nero, Rome’s literature of civil war, or the intersection of poetry and power. His writing style is clear and compelling, and every passage of Latin is accompanied by appropriate translation making this book accessible to non-specialists. I would not hesitate, for example, to assign his chapter on Nero to graduate students or advanced undergraduates. For all of these reasons Rebeggiani’s is a welcome contribution to the flourishing literature on Statius and Flavian culture.


1.   Bessone, F. 2011. La Tebaide di Stazio: epica e potere. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra.
2.   The two often-cited figureheads of this dichotomy are, respectively, Vessey, D.W.T. 1971. Statius and the Thebaid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press and Ahl, F. 1986. Statius’ Thebaid: A Reconsideration. ANRW II 32.4: 2803-912. But Rebeggiani also gives a complete survey of more recent approaches to this question.
3.   e.g. Whitby, M. ed. 1998. The Propaganda of Power: The Role of Panegyric in Late Antiquity. Leiden: Brill. Despite its title, this volume discusses earlier panegyric as well.
4.   Rebeggiani could have engaged more here with Stover on Lucan’s multifaceted influence on the politics of Flavian epic. Stover, T. 2012. Epic and Empire in Vespasianic Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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