Stanley Lombardo has produced a sparkling translation of Statius’ fragmentary gem, the Achilleid. This slim paperback contains an introduction by Peter Heslin; a brief translator’s note; Lombardo’s translation; and a glossary of names.
Stanley Lombardo is one of the contemporary Anglophone world’s major translators of classical epics, and readers of his previous translations will come to this one with a good idea of what to expect. Features such as a readable, well- apportioned line, similes set off in italics, and occasionally colloquial turns of phrase can all be found here. If Lombardo does dip now and then into the parlance of our day, as when he has Ulysses mention Thetis’ “grand larceny” ( grandia furta, 2.36), this is no slang Statius.
Instead, Lombardo plays in the space between Statius’ terse, demanding style and the debatable gravity of his epic’s tone and subject matter. He locates the Achilleid precisely where he should, in the beguiling presence of simultaneously conflicting and complementary forces. Moving through the translation can feel like walking down a sidewalk on a warm spring day that turns chilly when the wind picks up. Is it hot or cold, winter or summer, or all of the above? If these warring elements prompt the reader to investigate how the whole coheres, so much so the better.
Consider Lombardo’s Thetis as she ponders where to hide Achilles from the Achaeans. As she runs through a list of ancient place names that is sure to intimidate undergraduates, we see her dismiss Thrace as “nearest/ but much too martial,” thereafter “nixing first Myconos, then lowly Seriphos,/ then Lemnos as too inhospitable to males, and Delos as too hospitable to everyone” (9). Students might miss the reason why Lemnos and Delos are problematically (in)hospitable, but they should recognize the portrait of a nervous perfectionist dissatisfied with her options but toiling to find the perfect solution. We’ve all struggled with the problem of choice when trying to reach a consensus on which movie to watch, or perhaps we’ve combed through a catalogue looking fretfully for that perfect birthday gift for a family member. Thetis knows the experience. But is this the stuff of epic? It is, if we cast such decisions out of everyday life and into Aegean topography and factor in the fate of Western culture’s most lionized murderer. This moment, like so many in Lombardo’s translation, captures both Statius’ hefty demands on his readership and his finely drawn characterization.
In another example, Lombardo effectively conveys Statius’ sudden shift from Achilles’ survey of the silent woods to his violent rape of Deidamia (23):
So he speaks, and thanking the night’s thick shade
that his stealth is steeped in a listless, timely silence,
he gets his way by force, putting all his heart
into authentic embraces.
Comparing Lombardo with Dilke’s Latin (the translation is based on this text and Shackleton-Bailey’s Loeb), both texts give us two lines of tranquil description that turn immediately in the next line into a scene of rape (“he gets his way by force” ~ vi potitur votis, 1.642). When the chorus of worshippers stirs from sleep and takes Deidamia’s screams as cues to further revelry, and when both perpetrator and victim collaborate to hide the truth of Achilles’ assault, Statius and Lombardo prompt us to consider the authenticity of Achilles’ embraces ( veros/… amplexus, 1.642–643). Nor does Statius, and Lombardo with him, shy away from showing the impact of Achilles’ crime on his victim (24):
The princess was in shock, stunned by these outrages,
even though his good faith had been suspect for some time.
She was horrified to be up close to him, and his face
was severely altered as he confessed. What should she do?
The translation here is sensitive to the depth of the experience conveyed by the poetry. The simultaneous revelations to Deidamia of Achilles’ true sex, of the ruse Thetis had designed for him, of his sexual feelings towards her, and, most importantly, of his rape fuse with a reconsideration of her earlier suspicions to create a visceral, horrifying moment of rejection.
Lombardo doesn’t always strike the right note, and it is naturally impossible for one translation to satisfy all tastes. In the poem’s opening scene, for example, Lombardo’s “deep in the vitreous water” both renders too faithfully Statius’ vitreo sub gurgite (1.26) and also shakes off some of its beauty. On the other hand, a few lines later he offers “Atreus’ bloated sons,” a take on the Latin ( tumidis… Atridis, 1.36) that translates Thetis’ bitter resentment nicely. On the balance, Lombardo’s translation presents restrained interpretations of the Latin that honor the rigorous style and ambiguous tone of the original.
Still, this Achilleid is a relatively accessible read. Lombardo’s lines flow together with clear, unimpeded sense, except in those places where Statius wanted the sense impeded. When Thetis presents her son disguised as a girl to Lycomedes, she adds a disruptive aside, which Lombardo captures well (14):
“I present to you, lord, my Achilles’ sister
(and doesn’t she look just like her fierce brother?)
for your safekeeping.”
Thetis’ broken syntax perhaps contains a rhetorical ploy designed to disarm the king’s probing gaze and distract him from his duty to the truth. This is a ploy with a price, since Lycomedes becomes evidently too well convinced, and fails to keep his ward safe from Ulysses, the task Thetis has in mind here. Lombardo’s readers are confronted with the same effect. This Achilleid is as worthwhile a translation of Statius’ text as we could ask for.
Peter Heslin’s introduction, which runs 31 pages, is almost as long as Lombardo’s 37-page translation. Heslin focuses his remarks on a broad outline of the poem’s varied interpretive difficulties, which also effectively functions as a story summary. The question of the poem’s seriousness preoccupies Heslin, who argues that Statius was not writing a “Very Serious Epic” (xi, again at xvi), but instead “commits from the outset to two epic models: Homer and Ovid” (xxxi). Heslin also adduces comedy and tragedy as influences, without however considering how their generic priorities might be reshaped in the process of adaptation to epic.
Heslin’s occupation with the Achilleid‘s seriousness dominates the introduction to the exclusion of other considerations. Heslin has almost nothing to say about Statius’ life, times, or overall poetic output; the Silvae and Thebaid appear by name only once each, towards the introduction’s close (xxvii and xxxi, respectively). The word “serious,” however, recurs in most of his section headings, as in “The Prophecy of Calchas: Divining the Report of a Very Serious Soothsayer” (xvi) and “Serious Censorship: Deidamia’s Future in Epic According to Herself” (xxi). This focus provides a useful enough hook onto which first-time readers can hang their encounter with the text, but it also seems likely to narrow a reader’s horizon before s/he even reaches the translation. Although Heslin’s efforts to foreground literary considerations are thorough, the reader mostly learns what the poem isn’t, not what it is. Heslin’s emphatic focus runs the substantial risk of advising readers to treat the Achilleid exclusively as a trivial nugget of text, even when they encounter such moments as Deidamia’s reaction to Achilles’ rape. Lombardo’s translation does a far better job of capturing the dimensionality of this moment than its introducer. In this reviewer’s opinion, Heslin’s introduction seems mistakenly to fight last generation’s battles in a text aimed at a new generation of readers.
But this introduction does not purport to offer the final word on the poem, and if it serves as a point of departure for conversation, then Heslin will have done his job well. Teachers who assign this excellent translation should be prepared to address in class some of the numerous facets of the Achilleid not included in Heslin’s introduction before their students let Wikipedia fill in the gaps.
Although there are no notes at the end of this book, students struggling with Statius’ frequent barrages of proper names can bail themselves out by turning to the book’s thorough Glossary of Names. This glossary is well matched to the need of readers who might turn to it in crisis over whether they should know who Caeneus is or not. The entry for Caeneus concisely explains why Thetis cites him in her catalogue of transvestite and gender-bent exemplars: “Thessalian hero who had been born a girl (named Caenis), was raped by Neptune, and then transformed by him into an invulnerable man” (43). The glossary answers the reader’s basic question, even if it declines to direct her to the passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Caeneus takes center stage. Help with place names provided by the Glossary might have been reinforced by a map, but no map is included. This feels like a lost opportunity, since all of the major locations in the poem could have been included in a single image.
Lombardo’s Achilleid is a welcome translation that makes the text available for regular classroom instruction. Although the Achilleid has long been available to scholars and graduate students in a number of texts and translations, this is the first stand-alone English translation to be published in recent history. This fact lends the book the sort of pedagogical flexibility that facilitates its inclusion on a syllabus and brings its price down substantially from the cost of its nearest competitor, Shackleton-Bailey’s Loeb edition of Thebaid 8–12 and Achilleid 1–2. Let us hope that the translation finds as many receptive teachers and curious students as it deserves. In the meantime, the growing ranks of Flavian epic enthusiasts should hope that Lombardo might next consider other desiderata of ours, like a translation of Silius Italicus’ Punica.