BMCR 2007.04.53

The Transvestite Achilles. Gender and Genre in Statius’ Achilleid

, The transvestite Achilles : gender and genre in Statius' Achilleid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (xx, 349 pages). ISBN 9780511482236. $85.00.

Table of Contents

Statius’ unfinished poem on the life of Achilles is defined by its position between priority and belatedness: it isan epic coming very late in a long tradition but dealing with events earlier than those related in the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, and most of its other predecessors. In like manner, Heslin (H.) has written, as he notes, the first ‘full-length, general monograph devoted to it in any language’ (xviii), but, as he also notes on the same page, he bears the weight of a strong tradition of criticism in commentaries and articles.1 H.’s method, like Statius’, is to do something quite different, to produce an idiosyncratic but insightful study, which encompasses opera, anthropology and Lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as perceptive close readings grounded in a sophisticated use of intertextuality and rhetoric. The results are not uniformly successful, and occasionally the smell of the roses along the way seems privileged over the journey itself, but this is an extremely intelligent, provocative and insightful study of a poem which shares its virtues and its vices.

Following an introduction which provides a useful plot-summary and a sensitive discussion of the Achilleid‘s scholarly reception from the mediaeval period to the present day, H. begins, surprisingly but deliberately and self-consciously (xviii-xix), with a chapter on the creative reception of the poem in operas between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries (‘Opening Nights at the Opera 1641-1744’). This engrossing tour de force provides fascinating insights into European history, performance practices, aesthetic factions, and the potential for myth to be manipulated and exploited to various ends through complex engagement with every stage of its earlier reception. The examples range from the low burlesque of Bentivoglio to the Arcadian classicism of Capece, the political satire of Gay to the allegorizing court panegyric of Metastasio. Impressive as all this is on its own terms, it is more debatable how much light it throws on the Achilleid. Few today would wish to talk of ‘the text itself’, imagining that our interpretation of it can be separated from the history of its reception. However, though there are some connections drawn with Statius and the issues which his poem foregrounds, there may be too few to convince the reader that this is a way into a discussion of the Achilleid rather than a superb, but self-contained, essay on the reception of the Achilles-on-Scyros myth in early opera. H.’s principle of wishing reception not to be merely a pendant to discussion of the poem is one I would fully endorse, but in practice I fear many readers will simply skip the first chapter instead of the last, and be at little disadvantage when reading the rest of the book.

The second chapter, on ‘The Design of the Achilleid‘, deals imaginatively and virtuosically with the key issues surrounding the poem’s incomplete state, its role in Statius’ canvassing for patronage, and its position (and self-positioning) within the epic tradition. Reacting against the tendency of even the poem’s most sympathetic readers to describe it as a fragment, H. marshals evidence from the Silvae and suggestive parallels in the work of Claudian and even Sir Walter Raleigh to argue convincingly that the book and a bit which we have is a coherent whole, which was probably circulated as a lure for patrons who might help finance its continuation and completion. The Achilleid‘s generic status has been discussed perhaps more than any other aspect, but H. builds on the work of Barchiesi, Hinds, Feeney, and others to provide some striking new insights. Statius’ playful appropriation of the language of recusatio, which belongs in non-epic genres, is shown to be part of the Achilleid‘s problematization of its own epic status. H.’s neat formulation that ‘explicitly to mention Homeric poetry is an extremely unepic thing to do’ (74), backed up by a parallel from Ovid’s Remedia Amoris, could be even better supported by an even closer verbal parallel for Statius’ cantu / Maeonio (1.3-4) in one of the classic recusationes, Horace Odes 1.6.2 Equally successful are the discussions of Achilles’ own learned song as programmatic for an Alexandrian, unIliadic epic (86-93), Statius’ ‘tongue-in-cheek’ threat to flout Aristotle’s rules for writing epic (80-2), and of his aemulatio (though H. does not use the term) in playfully correcting Virgil, using the scholarship of Probus in the same way that Virgil used Homeric scholia (93-101).3

The all-round incompetence of Thetis is the main theme of ch. 3, ‘Womanhood, Rhetoric, and Performance’, in which H. demonstrates how the goddess fails as a rhetorician and as a manipulator of intertextual roles, and how these failures are a result of her gendered, feminine ‘exclusion from the circle of competence and erudition that Statius constructs between his audience and himself’ (109). H.’s case is generally convincing, though it is open to objections. Thetis certainly fails in her attempts to replay the Virgilian Juno and Venus in her request that Neptune provide a storm to stop Paris’ abduction of Helen, and the extension of this that she is an inadequate reader of the Aeneid is extremely attractive, but it is less clear that this is a function of her gender. Quite apart from the fact that her Virgilian models are themselves female, we might note the frequency with which characters in the Thebaid similarly fail to re-enact Virgilian roles, regardless of their gender.4 The contrast between the competence and authority of father Neptune’s rhetoric — the product of a good, old-fashioned Roman male education — in contrast to Thetis’ misjudgements and faux pas (such as using the transsexual Caeneus as an exemplum of harmless transvestism) is more convincingly gendered. There are numerous points of ingenious interpretation: Thetis’ role as a perverted father dressing her son in an inversion of the donning of the toga virilis (125-9); her panicked fudging of Achilles’ female pseudonym as an aetiology of the obscurity of that particular piece of mythological lore (129-31); her failed attempt to re-enact the role of Leto in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, aetiologizing the obscurity of Scyros vis-à-vis Delos, and absurdly evoking the noisy Curetes as a precedent for the silence she wants observed about Achilles’ presence (134-7). The closing sections on Deidamia and on Lycomedes’ display of Achilles are less successful and markedly less integrated with the coherent discussion of Thetis.

Ch.4, ‘ Semivir, semifer, semideus‘, unexpectedly but effectively, focuses on Achilles’ liminality, not between masculine and feminine, but between human and both bestial and divine. Particular emphasis is put on the repeated allusions to the counterfactual scenario in which Jupiter, not Peleus, would have been Achilles’ father, which simultaneously assimilate him to and distance him from the divine, and to the aspects of Chiron’s tutelage which reduce him to the level of a beast. H. again provides many elegant and erudite readings, such as Statius’ play with the variant versions of Thetis’ attempts to render Achilles immortal (166-9), and the allusions to Callimachus’ and Euphorion’s rival etymologies of his name (175-81). The analysis of Achilles’ consolation of Deidamia after the rape as a perversion of the heroic genealogy, which markedly lacks a reference to his father Peleus (164-6), is particularly attractive, though it might be developed by comparison with the typical rape consolation speech which also features self-identification and self-aggrandizement, but is generally delivered, again in contrast to Achilles, by a god.5 This chapter is particularly marked by a tendency, notable to a lesser degree throughout the book, to employ very short sections focusing on erudite, but sometimes apparently tangential points, which do not obviously follow one another in a structured sequence. The effect is rather one of pointillism than of a conventionally cumulative argument, but it is certainly an idiosyncrasy and an acquired taste rather than a weakness.

H. next tackles the mythographic background of Achilles’ sojourn on Scyros and the common assertion that his transvestism there reflects ritual, specifically rites of passage (ch.5 ‘Transvestism in Myth and Ritual’). The first half is devoted, partly to an appropriately tentative evaluation of the poem’s relationship with the fragments of [Bion]’s Epithalamium and Euripides’ Scyrians, before a comprehensive rejection of attempts to retroject the myth into the archaic period and the epic cycle; H. argues instead for its being a local Scyrian myth which came to prominence following Cimon’s conquest of the island in the fifth century. This is important for the question of the development of the myth, but its direct relevance to Statius is not made clear. H. then proceeds to a comprehensive and lengthy demolition of the case for transvestism as a widespread feature of rites of passages (apart from a few examples in Africa) and hence of Greek initiatory ritual. This again is an important and salutary corrective to a widespread assumption, but one might feel that the balance is imperfect between the considerable quantity of ethnographic material and the excellent, but all too briefly developed, conclusion, that Statius, by interpreting the myth symbolically, was making the connection between Achilles’ transvestism and the ritual transition from youth to maturity, rather than preserving it from the supposed ritual origins of the myth.

The sixth chapter, ‘Rape, Repetition, and Romance’, deals with the uncomfortable but central issue of Achilles’ rape of Deidamia, and its role in determining his gender. H.’s approach is again unexpected, focusing on the Bacchic setting of the rape and tracing the allusions to Greek maenadism, especially as reflected in and influenced by Euripides’ Bacchae, and the Bacchic cult at Rome, both as demonized in hostile sources such as the SC de Bacchanalibus and as it was (probably) more commonly experienced. Achilles’ rape of Deidamia is thus analogous to the unveiling of the phallus in Dionysiac ritual, but its efficacy as a means of asserting male mastery is undermined by further parallels with Cybelean Galli (esp. Catullus’ Attis) and Achilles’ father Peleus’ own rape of Thetis in Ov. Met. 11. In contrast with the rape of Deidamia in Ars Amatoria 1, which H. argues asserts an essentializing model of gender, Achilles’ employment of vis in the Achilleid is insufficient to reassert his masculinity, with the result that he remains on Scyros for at least the nine months it takes to bear Neoptolemus, and probably longer. This case is generally convincing, though less so than the best of H.’s arguments. Suggestive though H.’s new directions are, they would still benefit from a more general assessment of the issues of gender in what is still to many a relatively unfamiliar text.6 More specifically, I wonder whether H., in stressing the complexity of the Achilleid, rather oversimplifies the Ars‘ exploration of gender: Ovid’s erotodidaxis in general, and especially this exemplum, plays with the competing gender polarities between, on the one hand, masculine lover and feminine beloved, and on the other, masculine/epic warrior and effeminate/elegiac lover. Ovid in Ars 1 wittily telescopes Achilles’ transitions from feminized transvestite to masculine-but-still-effeminate lover and on to fully-masculine warrior, but the very act of problematizing the conflation of those two moments of becoming male through violence enables Statius to insert the nine months and 250 lines between them.

The ‘Conclusion’ is in many ways a further chapter, launching on a suggestive parallel between Lacan’s use of the symbol of the phallus (especially as a revision of Freud) and Statius’ use of the same Dionysiac imagery in depicting Achilles’ rape (especially as a revision of Ovid). The explanation of this particular aspect of Lacanian theory is lucid, and the importance of Peleus’ re-emergence in Achilles’ consciousness as a manifestation of the Lacanian ‘Name-of-the-Father’ is very nicely handled. Although this argument does draw on some early discussions of Peleus’ absence and Thetis’ incompetent dominance, this section does feel like a chapter in its own right and it could certainly benefit from development which that scope would permit. Short (arguably too short) sections on gender and how the poem might have continued are more conventionally retrospective and conclusive.

The book is beautifully produced and H. should be congratulated on its design, for which he is himself responsible (ix). A striking new feature is the inclusion in the bibliography of references to pages where each item is cited; I cannot immediately envisage the applications of this (except by compilers of citation indices), but it does offer a further supplement to the more conventional indices. The one unsettling peculiarity of the formatting is the printing of elegiac pentameters flush with the hexameters, rather than indented, as is (to the best of my knowledge) universal practice. A related minor blemish is the occasional (though not general) omission to indent when a quotation does not start at the beginning of the hexameter ( Silv. 5.2.160 at 59, Ach. 2.76 at 176). Errors and typos are few and innocuous. 45: ‘the diplomatic revolution…lay in the unforeseeable future’; 52: Robert Bridges briefly metamorphoses at one point into his namesake Graves; 68: the prefaces to the first two books of Claudian’s De Raptu Proserpinae are elegiac rather than ‘pentameter’; 129: for euis, read eius; 131 n.59: for ξανθηός, read ξανθός; 211 n.77: the unassigned reference ‘Leukippos woos Daphne: 8.20.2’ is to Pausanias; 230 n.152: for ‘becasue’, read ‘because’; 252 (1.597): for prestare, read praestare (correct on 243).

H.’s translations can occasionally be a little loose, sometimes beyond the requirements of idiomatic fluency,7 and in two cases the mistranslation is used to support part of the argument. H. makes the generally convincing case that Deidamia’s propempticon to Achilles at 1.931-55 is a new, improved version of an Ovidian Herois, making small and realistic, rather than extravagant and overreaching, demands on her lover (141-3). This is true of her omission to request that he stay, or keep calm at Troy, or various other typical pleas, but to assert that she does not ask him to remain faithful depends on translating ‘i felix, nosterque redi!’ (1.942) as ‘Go, good luck, and return to me!’, rather than ‘Go with good luck, and return as mine!’8 Admittedly this is part of the request to return which, as H. rightly notes, she immediately retracts ( nimis improba posco.), but the demand for fidelity still has the same status as that to come back. The (again, generally persuasive) assertion that Ovid’s Ars Amatoria promotes a more essentializing view of gender than the Achilleid is by no means refuted, but it is problematized, by the fact that the verbs in Ars 1.709-10 are jussive subjunctives, promoting the advice of the praeceptor amoris that men should take the initiative and women passively accept it, rather than indicatives, expressing simply the way things are.9

H. has produced an idiosyncratic, sometimes mildly frustrating, always intriguing, often brilliant book. Its breadth of reference, spanning opera, anthropology, Lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as the more mainstream classical disciplines, is extremely impressive and, if they do not always cohere, that is the honourable price to be paid by ambition. The Transvestite Achilles is by no means the definitive book on the Achilleid, nor is it an obvious introduction, but it does not claim to be either of these. Rather it is an ambitious and stimulating study of certain aspects of the poem and a substantial addition to the growing body of critical literature on this endlessly fascinating text.


1. Following H. (xviii n.25), I would single out A. Barchiesi (1996) ‘La guerra di Troia non avrà luogo’, AION(filol) 18: 45-62; E. Fantham (1979) ‘Statius’ Achilles and his Trojan model’, CQ 29: 457-62; D.C. Feeney (2004) ‘ Tenui … latens discrimine : spotting the differences in Statius’ Achilleid‘, MD 52: 85-105; S.E. Hinds (2000) ‘Essential Epic: Genre and Gender from Macer to Statius’, in M. Depew and D. Obbink (edd.). Matrices of Genre. Authors, Canons, and Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP) 221-44; S. Koster (1979) ‘Liebe und Krieg in der Achilleis des Statius’ WJA 5:189-208. Rosati’s edition (Milan, 1994) is more valuable for its excellent introduction than its generally brief notes; Dilke’s very traditional commentary (Cambridge, 1954) was recently reprinted (Exeter, 2005) with a new introduction by the reviewer.

2. Maeonii carminis alite, Hor. Carm. 1.6.2.

3. That Aeneas’ echo ( inuitus, regina, …) of Cat. 66.39 at Verg. Aen. 6.460 ‘appears to be completely inappropriate’ has been convincingly challenged by R.O.A.M. Lyne ( G & R 41 (1994) 187-204), but this subtle explanation does not preclude that Statius — playfully or otherwise — might have represented it as being so.

4. See esp. Debra Hershkowitz (1997) ‘ Parce metu, Cytherea : ‘Failed’ Intertext Repetition in Statius’ Thebaid, or, Don’t Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’, MD 39: 35-52.

5. E.g. Hom. Od. 11.248-52 (Poseidon to Tyro); Mosch. Europa 154-61, Hor. Carm. 3.27.69-76 (Zeus/Jupiter to Europa); Claud. DRP 2.277-306 (Pluto to Proserpina).

6. H. does very briefly touch on this in the conclusion at 294-5 but it is too little, too late.

7. refer (1.3 at 71) is surely ‘relate/tell the story of’ rather than ‘consider’. virtus (1.14) is nominative, so Italy and Greece’s prowess stands astonished at Domitian himself, rather than the countries at his prowess. quaerisne meos, Sperchie, natatus / promissasque comas? (1.628-9 on 258) means not ‘Do you, river Sperchius, in whom I used to swim, look for the lock of hair that once was promised to you?’, with natatus as perfect participle, but ‘Do you, river Sperchius, look for my swims and the lock of hair…?’ aurem quoque foratu effeminatus (Tert. De pallio 4.2) contains no reference to the ring in Achilles’ pierced ear’s being gold (270-1). In the same passage, ‘he could even have married’ is not a mistranslation of potuit et nubere, but it obscures the gender distinction between nubere and uxorem ducere which is Tertullian’s point — Achilles ‘could even have been a bride’.

8. Rosati goes so far as to translate “va’ e abbi fortuna, ma torna fedele da me!”

9. So vir prior accedat, vir verba precantia dicat / excipiat blandas comiter illa preces… means not ‘the man takes the initiative; the man is the one who speaks pleading words; the woman listens complacently to his flattery and entreaties…’, but ‘ let the man take the initiative, etc.’