BMCR 2008.06.01

Statius’ Thebaid and the Poetics of Civil War

, Statius' Thebaid and the poetics of civil war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. x, 203 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521867412. $96.00.

Table of Contents

In this book, a welcome addition to Statian scholarship, McNelis examines allusions to Callimachus and to Callimachean-style poetics in the Thebaid and demonstrates how these allusions serve to modify and disrupt the generic expectations of Roman epic. As has frequently been noticed, the Thebaid situates itself within the epic tradition primarily through allusions to the Aeneid, but also to Homer and other epic poets.1 Taken as a whole this epic intertextuality serves both to define the genre of epic over time and to provide the basis for the thematic interpretation of individual works. McNelis contributes to the discussion of the Thebaid‘s epic intertextuality by showing how allusions to Callimachus and Callimachean-style poetry engage with the generic and thematic expectations of “traditional” epic.2

The principal thesis of the book, as formulated in the Introduction, is that aspects of contemporary civil war are reproduced at the level of poetics in the Thebaid. McNelis claims that throughout the Thebaid there is a persistent Callimachean poetics that tends to work against the predominant epic mode of the poem. McNelis bases his argument on the fact that Roman poets like Propertius and Ovid tend to contrast the Callimachean mode of writing with epic discourse in general and the Theban story in particular (15-20). Hence Statius’ allusions to Callimachus in what appears to be a rather stridently anti-Callimachean story would seem to evoke this poetic conflict. McNelis then claims that both poetic modes are actually enacted within the course of the narrative, and thus contribute to the unfolding of the story. Finally, McNelis argues that the Theban myth may be understood as a metaphor for Roman civil strife in much the same way as Thebes stood as foil for Athens in Greek tragedy (2-8).3 Hence, McNelis argues, the poetic conflict within the Thebaid also may be understood as a metaphor for Roman civil strife.

The upshot of all this, according to McNelis, is that Statius may be understood as demonstrating through the conflict of poetics in the Thebaid a profound uncertainty about the viability of epic as a satisfactory imperial discourse. The “Callimachean contamination” of the poetics of the Thebaid reveals an instability in epic discourse which in turn suggests problems in the Roman imperial system that epic is meant to serve and describe. I should hasten to add, however, that McNelis does not read the Thebaid as straightforwardly subversive, but rather shows how Statius may be understood as a writer in the throes of recreating the epic genre to fit changed political circumstances. As is frequently the case with arguments of this type, some will question McNelis’s political interpretation of the poem (I do not) and be taken aback by the subtlety of his intertextual analyses (I am not). Nevertheless all readers will find McNelis’s interpretations provocative and fully engaged with the text and its scholarly exegesis.

Chapter One (“Gods, Humans and the Literary Tradition”) is an extended analysis of Adrastus’ explanation of a particular Argive festival in honor of Apollo ( Theb. 1.557-668). The story begins with Apollo’s slaying of the Python at Delphi, and thus creates the expectation in readers that Apollo will act in his familiar civilizing role. Indeed, McNelis points out parallels between this story and the story of another civilizing hero, the tale of Hercules and Cacus in Aeneid 8 (27-29). According to McNelis, however, Statius then proceeds to upset this expectation by narrating the story of Apollo, Linus and Coroebus (33-46). Instead of continuing to establish order, Statius’ Apollo becomes embroiled in a tale that portrays the god as making use of an apparently chthonic monstrum as an instrument of revenge. This act seemingly undoes the progress toward civilization that resulted from the slaying of the chthonic Python. In addition to all this, allusions to Lucan and especially to Callimachus add a generic dimension to the tension between the traditional civilizing Apollo and Statius’ apparently de-civilizing version of the god. McNelis argues furthermore that Lucan’s anti-Vergilian description of the defunct Delphic oracle in Civil War 5 infects Statius’ account of Apollo and hence creates in the Thebaid a destabilization of, at the very least, Vergilian-style Roman epic (31-32). Moreover, McNelis claims that Callimachus’ version of the story of Linus and Coroebus provides the source for Statius’ chthonic monstrum (33-36) and therefore serves as a generic foil to the civilizing god of traditional epic. McNelis then goes on to claim that this “inverted Apollo” contributes to the ominous tension between Olympians and chthonic deities throughout the Thebaid (47-49).

In Chapter Two (“Beginning”) McNelis shows how Statius’ powerfully metapoetic description of Harmonia’s necklace ( Theb. 2.265-296) programmatically anticipates the plot of the Thebaid as a whole. Consequently, the metapoetic aspects of this passage shape our interpretation of the poetics of the larger narrative. According to Statius the necklace was created by Vulcan as a means of taking revenge on his wife Venus for her adultery with Mars. The necklace was given as a wedding gift to Harmonia, the offspring produced from this adulterous union. The necklace was then handed down to Semele and then Jocasta. Thematically, therefore, the necklace is embroiled in the troubles of the royal house of Thebes, and, when Argia receives the necklace from Polynices, we have definite expectations of the strife that will attend to this new generation. Statius’ treatment of the creation of this necklace is, as stated above, powerfully metapoetic. McNelis points out in particular the strange fact that Vulcan is assisted by the Telchines, whose inescapably Callimachean associations are suggestive of poetic conflict (61-75). For McNelis this is a crucial passage, for it alludes most explicitly to the contrast between traditional epic poetics and the Callimachus’ own reaction to these poetics in the Aitia. The “friendly rivalry” between the Cyclopes and Telchines in the creation of the necklace, an object with thematic implications for the impending Theban war, articulates very nicely the parallels in the Thebaid between civil war and poetic conflict. Hence, McNelis argues, we are invited to pay attention to signposts of the two types of poetics throughout the poem (epic/Telchinic and Callimachean poetics), and to relate them to the themes of civil war with which the poem is overtly concerned. The implications of this poetic conflict are explored in the next chapter.

Chapter Three (“Nemea”) argues that Thebaid 4-6, the section that relates the Argives’ stay at Nemea and the foundation of the Nemean games, constitutes a Callimachean delay in the poem’s otherwise inexorable progress toward the epic duel between the brothers Eteocles and Polynices. McNelis sees generic signposts and metapoetic allusions throughout these three books, all of which contribute to the theme of poetic conflict outlined in the previous chapter. For example, the sequence contains a catalogue of warriors, a generic scene that establishes the expectation that epic-style battles are soon to follow (81-83). This expectation is frustrated, however, by the intervention of Bacchus, the appearance of Hypsipyle, and the funeral games for Archemorus (86-91). Indeed, the whole sequence is a sort of Callimachean aition of the Nemean games, and as such serves to impede the progress of the poem as a traditional martial epic (91-93). Indeed, Linus reappears (on the tomb of Archemorus), recalling for us the Callimachean aition in Thebaid 1 and Statius’ initial allusion to poetic conflict (93-95, cf. Chapter 1). McNelis also usefully compares Thebaid 4-6 to Aeneid 4-6, showing how both sequences constitute a sort of delay or retardation of the narrative (95-96). The crucial difference, according to McNelis, is that while in Vergil the delays tend to reinforce the teleological aims of the poem (the foundation of Rome), in Statius the delays end up producing a kind of “narrative anxiety” about the consummation of the narrative (viz. fraternal strife) of which they are a part.

According to McNelis it is in Thebaid 7 that the “normal” epic narrative is resumed. In Chapter Four (“Middle”) McNelis argues that allusions to Homer and Vergil set the pattern for epic warfare in this book and in a certain sense appear to signal the triumph of traditional epic poetics. Nevertheless, claims McNelis, there are Callimachean undercurrents, as well as allusions to Lucan, that work against this traditional epic framework. Book 7 contains another catalogue, this time of Theban forces, which functions as a reminder that we are indeed in for the epic narration of warfare (101-102). However, allusions to Callimachean-style poetics in Ovid, Propertius and others within this catalogue (particularly at Theb. 7.282-289) serve to undermine these generic expectations (104-108). Moreover, Hippomedon’s crossing of the Asopos River ( Theb. 430-440) alludes to Lucan’s account of Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon (120-122). This, McNelis suggests, signals the elimination of the final obstacle to the progress of martial narrative. Nevertheless the elimination of this obstacle comes at the price of troubling violence like that found in Lucan’s account of civil war. Thus Statius both invites us to expect full-blown epic sequences in what follows, and to read these sequences warily, given the continued instability in the narrative’s poetics.

Chapter Five (“Heroic Deaths”) is concerned with the ways in which epic and Callimachean poetics come into conflict in arguably the most traditionally martial section of the poem ( Thebaid 8-11). McNelis focuses on the deaths of the Argive champions, showing how in each case the death of the hero establishes the triumph of anti-Callimachean poetics while at the same time it produces uncertainty about the thematic results of this triumph. For example, Amphiaraus’ katabasis in a sense marks the continuation of Vulcan’s vengeful (and Telchinic) intentions as embodied in Harmonia’s necklace. Amphiaraus is the husband of Eriphyle, to whom Argia had given the necklace, and hence his death may be seen as an extension of Vulcan’s anger (127-130). On a metapoetic level, then, the Telchinic poetics that went into the creation of the necklace have prevailed. At the same time, however, Amphiaraus’ katabasis is not only tragic (as it is in most traditional accounts of the story) but also reinforces Statius’ preoccupation with the troubling tension between Olympian and chthonic deities, as seen especially in Dis’ angry reaction to the seer’s appearance in the underworld. In the rest of the chapter, McNelis explores similar sorts of disturbing consequences that result from the apparent victory of Telchinic poetics.

In Chapter Six (“End”) McNelis argues that the traditional patterns of epic closure found in Homer and Vergil are also upset by Statius’ allusions to Callimachus. For example, the ends of both the Iliad and Thebaid are concerned with proper burial. But while the Iliad reaches a resolution of sorts with the burials of Patroclus and Hector, the Thebaid seems to destabilize this sort of resolution by portraying the brothers as still fighting even after they are dead and buried. McNelis argues that the scene in which the pyre of Eteocles and Polynices produces tongues of flame that fight with one another is a Callimachean reminiscence, on the basis of a reference in Ovid’s Tristia (155-172). Even the apparent triumph of clementia in the poem’s resolution to the civil war has, according to McNelis, a Callimachean basis (163-165). If this is so (and McNelis admits that his argument is fairly convoluted and contingent) then it would seem that the closure of civil strife is infected by the insistent Callimachean poetics in the poem. McNelis, we recall, claims at the outset of his book that civil war in the Thebaid is arguably analogous to civil war at Rome. On the metapoetic reading of the Thebaid, the anti-epic Callimachean poetics ultimately provide the solution to civil war. Hence, according to McNelis, Statius has rejected the typical epic (read: Vergilian) presentation of Rome and has provided a new but tentative type of epic discourse that is invested with Callimachean poetic ideas.

The book is extremely nuanced and works at a number of levels. I have only provided a summary of examples of what I take to be its main thrust. As I said above, those who question sophisticated intertextual arguments may have some difficulty accepting McNelis’s conclusions, but McNelis’s clear and concise style will perhaps gain some converts. At the very least, McNelis’s book fills a definite gap in Statian scholarship by providing, as far as I can tell, the only systematic account of Statius’ Callimacheanism. The book does leave me with some questions (perhaps another sign of its effectiveness: the fact that it provokes further discussion). While I feel that McNelis’s analysis of the tension in the Thebaid between Callimachean and traditional epic poetics is extremely effective, I am struck by how little McNelis has to say about how Statius reads Callimachean poetics in his Roman predecessors. For example, it is clear that Statius often juxtaposes the Vergilian with the Callimachean. But what about Vergil’s own Callimacheanism? Surely this also plays into Statius’ poetic sensibility. A larger, and perhaps unanswerable, question also comes to mind: why is Callimachus a particularly apt vehicle for an exploration of the relationship between epic poetics and imperial politics? What, in other words, does a Callimachean intervention into the Theban story accomplish for the poetics of civil war that, say, Lucan does not? Again, these questions should not be taken as criticisms of what McNelis actually argues, but merely as indications of the sorts of discussion his excellent book will provoke.4


1. See e.g. R. Ganiban, Statius and Virgil: The Thebaid and the Reinterpretation of the Aeneid. Cambridge, 2007; P. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the Dynamics of a Tradition. Cambridge, 1993.

2. Cf. the relatively large amount of attention paid to the Callimachean influence on Augustan poetry. See e.g. R. Hunter, The Shadow of Callimachus. Studies in the Reception of Hellenistic Poetry at Rome. Cambridge, 2006.

3. Cf. (of course) F. Zeitlin, “Thebes. Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama.” In J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin (eds.) Nothing to do with Dionysos? Princeton, 1990: 130-167.

4. The book is very well produced. A single, insignificant typographical error occurs on page 101, note 15, where a space is lacking between “321” and “observes.”