BMCR 2000.04.13

Statius, Thebais 12, 312-463. Einleitung, Übersetzung, Kommentar

, Statius, Thebais 12, 312-463. Einleitung, Übersetzung, Kommentar. Göttingen: Duehrkohp und Radicke, 1999. 100. DM 29.

During the last two decades or so one can observe a renaissance of interest in Statius’ works. Most noteworthy for the Thebaid are the works by Feeney, Hershkowitz, Dominik and McGuire, the editions by Hill, Lesueur und Traglia / Aricò, and the commentaries by Smolenaars (book 7) and Dewar (book 9). However, there are still books of the Thebaid without a modern commentary (books 4, 5, 6 [apart from Fortgens 1934 on lines 1-295], 8, and 12), a fact even more deplorable as the poet presents problems both on the linguistic and more generally interpretative level. Therefore it is more than welcome that this book1 presents, after a brief introduction (6-14) and translation (15-19), the first modern commentary (20-92) on a section of book twelve, containing the particularly dramatic encounter of Argia and Antigone on the battlefield before Thebes and their effort to bury Polynices.

As a whole, the commentary is careful and diligent, and tackles a lot of problems with Statius’ mostly difficult language successfully. For instance, 12.353 contractaeque uices is convincingly explained as ‘the vigil shifts are changed at shorter intervals’ and crebrior excubat ignis as ‘more guards are posted, wherefore the number of watch-fires increases’ (44), which means a double reinforcement of attention in order to keep Antigone under control and prevent her from going and bury her brother Polynices. Another excellent explanation is 12.364 crasso foedatam sanguine uultus as ‘Argia’s face is disfigured by her own clotted blood’ (50), because she had scratched her face in ritual lament for her dead brother. This is proven by the fact that Antigone asks her which corpse she is looking for (12.366), therefore she obviously interprets the blood on Argia’s face as a sign of lament and not as the blood of a corpse already found. This explanation also manages to avoid a contradiction which would otherwise be hard to resolve: if it were Polynices’ blood clotting on Argia’s face why is his blood then still liquid enough to be pressed out of his clothes in 12.320?

H. makes a lot of valuable observations on Statius’ style, for instance, the emphasis of Statius’ preference of the paradox as a feature derived from the rhetorical tradition of his time (40; 80; 91), his bestowal of emotions upon inanimate things (23), or the sometimes unusual word-order and his preference for a condensed way of expressing things (40; 52-4; 56-7; 76; 88). Also worth mentioning are the author’s remarks regarding Statius’ way of imitating and emulating poetic predecessors (especially Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan), namely, that Statius sometimes keeps the word order but modifies a poetic expression used by others before him, wherefore a mechanistic search of parallels is not always successful (39; 48-9; 62); that Statius sometimes keeps the terminology of a predecessor but changes the syntax (25-6) or meaning (68); finally that Statius occasionally creates new phrases not hitherto found in poetry (35; 65-7; 79; 83; 85).

H. is sensitive to the fact (thus advancing a very promising angle of research) that Statius is consciously evoking (sometimes by a literal quotation) previous scenes from his own epic, with the intention of rewriting them (and thus the narrated past) as, e.g., in 12.333-5 (34) or 12.396-7 (63-4). Therefore H.’s tentative remark that there seems to be a discontinuity between the first eleven books and the last one (14) in a way contradicts his own findings later. The question should rather be what Statius’ intention is by doing so. In general, one can occasionally note a certain insecurity in H. when it comes to the more general interpretation of the meaning or function of scenes and especially similes, which stands in sharp contrast to H.’s superior linguistic abilities: in 12.356-8 Antigone finally escaping her guards is compared to a young lioness finally free from her mother’s control. Her cry of triumph about the successful escape is compared to the lioness’s fremitus (12.356) which H. finds difficult to understand (44-7), though, for instance, in Val.Fl. 2.307 the gathering of the Lemnian women in order to make new laws after they had killed their husbands is described as accompanied by rauco fremitu. Both instances hint at the animal-like state of the women who have transgressed human boundaries. Though H. rightly points out that Antigone’s mother cannot be the equivalent of the lioness’s mother (46), he does not see that its equivalent are the guards — thus Antigone’s successful escape, which would normally be seen as something wholly positive, acquires a gloomy and morally dubious shade, blurring the difference whether she escapes the control or the protection of the guards. Similarly, the comparison of Argia and Antigone burying Polynices to the Heliads burying Phaeton in 12.413-5 is not understood by H. (74). The aesthetic surplus of the simile, which he feels is lacking any explanatory value, can indeed be explained by the poet’s intention to continue the main narrative indirectly by adding further elements of the story in the simile (something also to be observed in Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus). In this case, the metamorphosis of the Heliads is supposed to imply a similar metamorphosis of Argia and Antigone, who, by having fulfilled the task of burying Polynices, experienced the last, pivotal event of their lives – after that, there remains only grief for them, as for the Heliads. That they do not transmogrify literally could be interpreted as a poetological comment of Statius on Ovid (or on Ovid’s Weltanschauung), but both the reception of Ovid in the Thebaid and Statius’ technique of using similes still need scholarly investigation.

Moreover, though the author (93) emphasizes the selective nature of the bibliography (and hence of the secondary literature he used), certain works should not have been omitted, as F. Caviglia, Tebaide 1, Rome 1973; W. Dominik, The Mythic Voice of Statius, Leiden 1994; D. Feeney, The Gods in Epic, Oxford 1991 (and reprints); I. Frings, Odia fraterna als manieristisches Motiv, Stuttgart 1992 (also her interpretation of 12.384 in Gespräch und Handlung in der Thebais des Statius, Stuttgart 1991, 170 should at least have been considered); and D. Hershkowitz, The Madness of Epic, Oxford 1998. Also, it should have been mentioned that D.E. Hill in the second edition of his text of the Thebaid (Leiden 1996) gives a list of corrections of misprints in his first edition of 1983, which H. follows.

But these critical remarks should not diminish the merits of this fine specimen of philological mastery and its predominantly unprejudiced way of handling a still relatively unusual author. In a way it is a shame that H.’s commentary remains a fragment, as it contributes so much to our understanding of the Thebaid. The reviewer, writing herself a commentary on the whole of book 12 for the Cambridge Green & Yellow series, got a lot out of it, for which she is most grateful — as will many readers besides her.


1. The book is supposed to be put on the internet, see