BMCR 2021.12.14

Elements of tragedy in Flavian epic

, , Elements of tragedy in Flavian epic. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 103. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2021. Pp. vii, 210. ISBN 9783110709520 $114.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The relationship between Roman epic and the genre of tragedy has attracted some critical attention over the last few decades. It has fostered at least two important monographs dedicated to Virgil’s and Ovid’s engagement with tragedy: Vassiliki Panoussi’s Vergil’s “Aeneid” and Greek Tragedy (CUP 2009) and Dan Curley’s Tragedy in Ovid (CUP 2013). Flavian scholarship, in its steady expansion, has also shown interest in the theme, and a few groundbreaking studies have been produced, mainly on the Thebaid.[1] In editing this first volume entirely devoted to Flavian epic’s interaction with tragedy, Sophia Papaioannou and Agis Marinis have given a most valuable stimulus to a promising line of research in Flavian literature.

The volume comprises an introduction, eight essays, and an afterword by Carole Newlands. In the introduction, the editors raise central questions regarding the classical conceptualization of tragedy and the extent of its influence on epic; a helpful abstract of the chapters is also provided. The essays privilege the mythological poems. This is hardly surprising, since Valerius’ Argonautica and Statius’ epics furnish more material for analysis than the historical Punica and considering the massive loss of drama on historical themes. The Flavian epicists’ reception of Greek tragedy, Roman Republican tragedy, and Seneca’s plays falls within the scope of these studies. As Newlands states in the afterword, which reads like a first review, the volume benefits greatly from the diversity of approaches. They range from broad issues, such as the reception of the fragmentary Republican drama, the relevance of the Flavian political context to the poets’ reading of tragedy, the epicists’ engagement with their models (verbal echoes, window allusion, the relevance of Virgil and Seneca), to generic tensions, themes common to the genres (especially civil war and leadership, of major relevance under the Flavians), the profile of heroes and tyrants, ethical issues, inherited guilt, anagnorisis and the recognition of “the tragic.” The various views contribute to assessing the role of tragedy in the Flavian renewal of the epic tradition, and consequently the definition of Flavian epic, which is appropriately envisaged in this volume as “a distinct literary and socio-historical phenomenon” (Newlands, p. 171).

The first chapter is Augoustakis’ study of “Republican Roman tragedy in Flavian epic,” an enterprise hampered by the severe loss of Republican texts. Nevertheless, the author discerns traces of Accius (and Pacuvius) in Valerius and in Statius’ Thebaid (e.g., Accius might be echoed in Valerius’ description of the Argo at 1.127-129). With regard to the Thebaid, Roman Republican tragedy should be added to Seneca as a significant influence on Statius. According to Augoustakis’ analysis, the Flavian epicists were attracted by themes discussed in Republican tragedy that were of relevance in the Flavian period, especially those related to leadership and power.

Neil Bernstein’s chapter, “Silius’ Punica and the traditions of Greek and Roman tragedy,” concentrates on the variety of strategies developed by the poet to assimilate motifs inherited from tragedy into his epic. Bernstein scrutinizes Silius’ reworking of some of those motifs. The first, “foreknowledge and irony,” exposes the relevance of incomplete knowledge in Silius’ narrative, and how it assists in depicting Hannibal as a tragic victim. Secondly, “paternity and its consequences” explores the character of Hannibal, who is an example of the destructive legacy a parent may carry. Concerning the motif of the “tragic tyrant,” Bernstein suggests approaching Hannibal as a “Senecan revenger.” Finally, attention is paid to “sacrificial ritual,” namely to instances of averted sacrifice.

The essay “Knowing me, knowing you: epic anagnorisis and the recognition of tragedy,” by Robert Cowan, explores the role of anagnorisis, a marker of the genre of tragedy, in epic. Cowan proposes that not only characters, but also readers of epic experience “recognition” – and what readers recognize is the tragic genre’s intrusion in the epic poem. The chapter focuses of scenes that illustrate both kinds of recognition simultaneously. Cowan associates anagnorisis with kin-killing and demonstrates that association by commenting on Amphiaraus’ and Melampus’ augury (Theb. 3) and the episode of Solimus and his father Satricus (Pun. 9). Then Cowan focuses on the analysis of a tragic episode of failed recognition in Valerius, the clash between the Argonauts and the people of Cyzicus (Arg. 3).

In the essay “Apollonius’ ‘further voices’: cameo appearances of Greek tragedy in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica,” Sophia Papaioannou starts from the idea that Virgil’s reading of tragedy determined the interaction of his successors with that genre. She interprets four episodes that are considered tragic: two for which no tragic sources have been identified (the suicide of Jason’s parents, 1.730-850; the Cyzicus episode, 2.627-3.461), and two that rely on known tragic models (Hesione’s rescue, 2.451-578; Io’s story, 4.351-421). In these episodes, Papaioannou investigates intertextuality, narrative regression, and ritual in order to understand how the tension between the genres of epic and tragedy is expressed (p. 69). She considers this tension to be central for the generic dialogue and the poet’s positioning in the epic tradition. Papaioannou highlights that Valerius shows a preference for tragedies that Virgil explored for the construction of characters and episodes of tragic coloring in the Aeneid.

Manuwald’s contribution, “‘Herculean tragedy’ in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica,” examines Hercules in the Argonautica and in tragedies where he is the main character. In the subplot of the Argonautica concerning Hercules she finds a mini-tragedy comparable to those of Euripides and recognizes in it distinctive elements of the Senecan Hercules Furens and of the play Hercules Oetaeus, which was attributed to Seneca. According to Manuwald, structure, motifs, and Seneca’s engagement with tradition were relevant for Valerius. In her view, the depiction of Hercules as a tragic hero whose story enjoys a positive ending sheds a darker light on Jason: in comparison to Hercules’ path, Jason’s looks even more tragic.

Ruth Parkes aims at “Finding the tragic in the epics of Statius.” She delves into the poet’s narrative poems as case studies for the broader question of how the reader might recognize passages where an epic poet engages with tragedy. The first section of the chapter is dedicated to the differences between epic and tragedy, which the author relates to time and space. The second section examines the issue of cross-contamination between epic and tragedy: epic’s early engagement with tragedy, the genres’ sharing of content, characters, themes, motifs (e.g., anger). The difficulty of labeling a scene as “tragic” is exemplified by the complex web of references to the poetic tradition underlying Dis’ reaction to Amphiaraus’ descent to the underworld (Theb. 8). The last section of the chapter illustrates how the tragic may be advertised in epic (e.g., elements associated with tragedy, such as costume, practices, and language).

Kyle Gervais investigates Statius’ reading of certain Senecan plays in the essay “Senecan heroes and tyrants in Statius, Thebaid 2.” Gervais clarifies how Seneca’s Oedipus underlies Statius’ description of the site of the hero’s defeat of the Sphinx (2.504-518), whereas Hercules Furens resonates in Laius’ visit to the underworld (2.2-5, 12, 26-28). Traces of the Phoenissae are detected mainly in the episode of Tydeus’ embassy to Eteocles (2.430-442, 465-466, 482-483). Finally, Seneca’s Thyestes is traceable both in details and in the structure of Thebaid 2 and justifies the analysis of links between Tantalus and Laius, Atreus and Eteocles, Thyestes and Tydeus. A significant aspect of Gervais’ study is that Senecan intertexts occur alongside other echoes, especially of the Aeneid. The examination of the several Statian passages against their Senecan sources reveals that in the Thebaid Hercules is a tragic hero like Oedipus. Seneca is shown to have been relevant to Statius’ discussion of “heroism, tyranny, power, and madness” (p. 148).

Agis Marinis’ chapter, “Eteocles and Polynices in Statius’ Thebaid: revisiting tragic causality,” takes us back to a most distinctive problem raised by Greek tragedy. Marinis examines the beginning and the end of the war (books 1 and 11) to assess the brothers’ guilt, which is discussed by Statius in the fashion of the Greek tragedians. The characters’ responsibility lies between personal (their misbehavior towards Oedipus) or inherited guilt (the curse that runs in Laius’ family), the influence of supernatural powers (especially the role of furor), and the constraint of terrible circumstances. Multiple causes are seen to be in action in several passages read against Statius’ major Greek subtexts, Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Euripides’ Phoenissae. There is no final answer to the question of causality.

One feels the lack of a chapter dedicated to the Achilleid, especially given that Ruth Parkes calls our attention to the potential of reading Statius’ poem on Achilles against drama. According to Parkes, the study of Statius’ engagement with Euripides’ Scyrians and Iphigenia at Aulis, Seneca’s Troades, and motifs of New Comedy are particularly promising.[2] I would like to add that it would have been useful to have read Ruth Parkes’ chapter at the beginning of the volume. Parkes provides a clear introduction to the convoluted problem of epic’s relationship with tragedy. Her section on “The problems of disentangling the epic and the tragic,” with an illustration of the layers of readings of the tradition underlying an episode of Thebaid 8, is particularly helpful. That said, the positioning of the chapter next to others dedicated to Statius is perfectly understandable.

The volume is commendable for proposing original approaches, and also for pointing out potential paths for further research on Flavian epic and tragedy. To mention just a few examples, Augoustakis shows that deeper investigation of the fragmentary tragedy of the Republican period might bring new perspectives on the poetic background of the Flavian epics; Cowan encourages further study of the poets’ assimilation of anagnorisis into epic, given the diversity of strategies employed to that end; Manuwald draws attention to the potential of detailed study of Hercules’ story in the Argonautica as a tragic narrative, which is all the more pertinent given that several Greek and Roman tragedies featuring Hercules have come down to us. To these perspectives one should add that of Carole Newlands offered in the afterword. After recalling the problems touched on throughout the book and highlighting its main contributions, she opens up the way for a new departure in Flavian scholarship by suggesting an examination of the influence of Flavian epic on historiography.

Authors and Titles

Sophia Papaioannou and Agis Marinis, “Introduction”
Antony Augoustakis, “Republican Roman tragedy in Flavian epic”
Neil W. Bernstein, “Silius’ Punica and the traditions of Greek and Roman tragedy”
Robert Cowan, “Knowing me, knowing you: epic anagnorisis and the recognition of tragedy”
Sophia Papaioannou, “Apollonius’ ‘further voices’: cameo appearances of Greek tragedy in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica
Gesine Manuwald, “‘Herculean tragedy’ in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica
Ruth Parkes, “Finding the tragic in the epics of Statius”
Kyle Gervais, “Senecan heroes and tyrants in Statius, Thebaid 2”
Agis Marinis, “Eteocles and Polynices in Statius’ Thebaid: revisiting tragic causality”
Carole Newlands, “Afterword”


[1] See e.g., Marco van der Schuur on Seneca and Thebaid 7 in Lauren Ginsberg, Dracy Krasne (eds.), After 69 CE: Writing Civil War in Flavian Rome. Berlin/ Boston: De Gruyter, 2018; Agis Marinis on the Thebaid and Greek tragedy, and Antony Augoustakis on Statius and Seneca in William Dominik, Carole Newlands, Kyle Gervais (eds.), Brill’s Companion to Statius. Leiden: Brill, 2015; Jean-Michel Hulls on Statius and tragedy, and Soerink on the Thebaid and Euripides’ Hypsipyle in Antony Augoustakis (ed.), Flavian Poetry and Its Greek Past. Leiden: Brill, 2014; sections of Federica Bessone, La “Tebaide” di Stazio: epica e potere. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra, 2011. Some of these and further references are offered by the editors in the introduction, p. 4, notes 14-15.

[2] See the bibliography suggested by Parkes at p. 107, notes 4 to 9.