BMCR 2024.02.06

Aurores et crépuscules dans la Thébaïde de Stace

, Aurores et crépuscules dans la Thébaïde de Stace. Mnemosyne supplements, 469. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2023. Pp. x, 193. ISBN 9789004537132.

Open access


Tomcik’s thesis was published just a little over two years after its defense, and taken piece by piece, the chapters still have a feel of measured, doctoral work to them. The book is organized in four chapters, each approaching the descriptions of dawns and sunsets in Statius’ Thebaid from a different angle: Statius’ incorporation and transformation of epic formulas to indicate dawn and sunset (chapter 1) is presented as a “synthesis” to and a “complement” of studies on this motif in the eight preserved epic poems up to Statius’ Thebaid; the manner in which the place and length of dawns and sunsets structure and signpost Statius’ epic (chapter 2) completes a portion of the thesis that still largely synthesizes and complements. Having thus delineated Statius’ mastery of the epic motifs and models, the author subsequently delves into the atmosphere of the poem painted by the indications of light and darkness and their sometimes contradictory use to shape the interpretation of the unfolding events (chapter 3); finally, the study of metaphors for rivalry and of the meta-poetic discourse borne by dawn and sunset scenes (chapter 4) complete an in-depth exploration of transitional scenes in the Thebaid. The conclusion pieces back together this multi-layered reading of aurora and vesper by this master of combined allusions.

The methodological introduction explains that, far from being a mere epic trope, descriptions of dawn or sunset in Statius are markers of his originality against his predecessors in epic poetry. They include, in addition to the inevitable Homer and Virgil, Apollonios, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Lucan, but also Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica (with a brief examination of its date of composition) and Silius Italicus’ Punica, based on the plausibility that they knew each other’s work. Statius’s innovation is also measured in allusions to tragic poets who staged the Theban cycle: Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca. Time markers (such as nox erat) are not considered because Tomcik aims to analyze the function of transition in the descriptions of dawn and sunset, not to propose a thorough system to understand the succession of days and nights in Statius.

Statius develops the epic motif of dawn and sunset over more lines on average than his predecessors, and this extension reveals the significance of the role he assigns to it. In the first chapter, Tomcik explores how techniques of combination, correction, inversion of the meaning of allusions, innovation in the treatment of the motifs, and synthesis of multiple allusions, all allow the poet to underscore his original treatment of the Theban war. In this regard, I find it striking that the four examples chosen to illustrate how Statius aims to “complete” Virgil (2.139–140) are all located in the first three books and draw from the “source” of Homer (3.409) while reversing the symbolic meaning of the descriptions (of, for example, the Sun’s chariot in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or of the dawn opening the episode of Phaeton in Valerius Flaccus (3.407–419). A first turning point happens in the Thebaid, as the presence of the Big Dipper at dawn at the end of the third book (3.683–685) is understood as the symbol of the imminence of the military campaign. Would I go too far in suggesting that the first three books constitute a flamboyant and lengthy introduction, where Statius makes a point of displaying his mastery of his predecessors’ texts? Moreover, at the end of the third book, the Big Dipper is isolated and sees the other stars leave as the dawn approaches, reproducing the image of Argia who will soon see the departure of her husband for the war. The author argues that the military connotations in the description of the Currus later in the poem (8.369–372) announce the imminence of the war at this point and underscore the newness of Argia’s incongruous plea for this war (pp. 45–46). I would rather argue that the course of the constellation “revolving on itself” (Homer, Iliad, 18.488 and Odyssey, 5,274, p. 41) announces a continuation of the delays, as the fourth book opens with an indication that three years have passed (4.1–2).

In the second chapter, the author remarks that the circulation of poems in book form had transformed the opening and closing function of dawns and sunsets of Homeric epic into structuring elements to bring the reader’s attention to upcoming events or concluding ones. The transformation is operated by displacement, inversion, suppression, or addition of transitions from day to night or night into day. The most striking example of this function is illustrated by a three-verse long dawn, not the longest, but located twenty-five verses into the opening of book 6: Tomcik argues that this displacement adds focus on the opening verses as a sort of preamble and highlights the delaying function of book 6 as a whole. As Statius progresses into the second part of his poem, time-shaping descriptions fail to put an end to action: a sundown described two-thirds into the book does not bring quiet and rest nor close the book, but sets Tydaeus’ nocturnal expedition in motion, much earlier in the narrative than its Iliadic or Virgilian counterparts. The unconventional place of the description here signals its function as the spark igniting the fights, a new sequence of the events of the Theban cycle underscored by the incongruous place of the sunset. Confusion of time also transforms the structuring role of descriptions: book 10 opens with a sunset and, in the following verses, the poet does not indicate that daylight has come. The absence of dawn and its repeated delay—at v. 390 “light still had not dispersed all shadows”—suspends time and thus increases the expectation of the events of book 11 (p. 64), but also underscores their dark nature. Indeed, books 10 and 11 see the death of Capaneus, the sacrifice of Menoeceus, the deaths of Eteocles and Polynices and Jocasta’s suicide. Therefore, if book 11 opens with the return of the day, Jupiter’s clouds soon veil the sky (v. 134–135) so the day may avoid the pollution of Eteocles’ and Polynices’ confrontation. The same book also closes with the retreat of the Argive troupes with a verse reminiscent of the death of Turnus at the very last verse of the Aeneid (11.761: profugos amplectitur umbra; Aen. 12.952: fugit indignata sub umbras). Statius’ epic, however, is not over, as is indicated by the contrast between the openings of the Iliad’s last song (24.1 Λῦτο δ’ἀγών, “the assembly was dissolved”) and of the Thebaid’s last book (12.1: Nondum, “not yet”). Thus the opening dawn of book 12 sets its action as an extension, because Creon’s decision to deny funerary rites to the Argives prevents the close of the poem. Once again, Statius advertises his originality with his innovative use of a trope.

Dawns and sunsets contain precise indications of light and darkness that also undergo some perturbations. The third chapter explores how the poet deliberately blurs the passing of time to reflect the uneven progression of events in his epic: the multiple sunrises of the third book shine lights on the obstacles to the start of the war and, conversely, the rise of the day on which Eteocles and Polynices face each other is implied, but never described, thus leading the reader to the fatal day without any introduction. Jupiter holds the days back before dreadful nights (5.177–185) or, on the contrary, precipitates the sunset at the beginning (10.1–4). The author argues that, in this last case, the god’s intention is to put an end to pointless fighting and to come more quickly to the main encounter. On the contrary, the rapid nightfall at the opening of book 10 actually delays the course of events, by filling a full night and a full day with fighting before the fated encounter. The first half of the tenth book is filled with the attack on the sleeping Thebans (a treatment congruous with Statius’ desire to deceive the reader’s expectation that night brings all cessation of activity and worries, as explained in the second chapter), and yet another day stretches over to book 11 before the fratricidal combat. In the second part of this chapter, indications of light and darkness and the veiled light over the killings are interpreted as ways for Statius to indicate the abnormality of a fratricidal war, notably with references to Lucan, and the greater scale of atrocities even compared to the Trojan war. Obviously, perturbations of brightness generally paint places, actions or people in a negative light, and as the course of events unfolds in books 10 and 11, the light of day diminishes, culminating with the description of the decomposing corpses under the faint light of stars fleeing the scene as dawn is trying to hold its horses back (12.563–567).

In the last chapter, the author shows how the rivalry of the heavenly bodies—Lucifer who lingers longer than his imparted time (2.138) and rises twice in a day (6.241), clouds that will not let the Sun come back (1.342–343) or the Sun who does not share his light with his sister (2.140), the Big Dipper envying the other stars who leave the sky (3.685)—mirrors the struggle for power between the brothers. Images of succession between day and night highlight the main theme of the poem, a theme read by Tomcik as a warning to Domitian, the dedicatee of the Thebaid, on the consequences of not preparing one’s succession. In a second section, the treatment by Statius of the meta-poetic images of the chariot (as grand poetry), weaving (of a text), or water as source of inspiration are meticulously examined. The chapter ends with the explication of Jocasta’s appearance at dawn, as in Euripides’ Phoenician Women (v. 1–6). She tries to “transform this epic dawn announcing an imminent duel into a tragic opening to avoid the confrontation between her sons” (p. 146). I would have added to this dialogue between the genres that Jocasta’s prayer is a vain response to Oedipus’ wish for the eradication of his fates at the opening of the Thebaid, wishes pronounced not in daylight, but in the darkness (1.49: tenebris 1.49) of his home unseen by heaven (v.150: inaspectos caelo … penates). Oedipus claims that Tisiphone put everything in motion, inspired his every decision as the Muse inspires the poet. His wishes for the eradication of his house make him the initiator of the ensuing action.[1] Statius thus creates a clear contrast with Seneca’s Oedipus, where the blinded king leaves Thebes at the close of the play, freeing the city of himself and of its deadly evils (Seneca, Oedipus, v. 1058: mortifera mecum uitia terrarum extraho), fulfilling the cathartic function of tragedy. Statius opposes his creator of epic action to this tragic version of the king.

The reader closes this book with a sense that the structuring function and symbolic nature of dawns and sunsets increases in the Thebaid as the poem progresses, and a renewed awe for Statius’ mastery of the art of allusion. The analyses are conducted throughout with diligence (only one or two failed to convince completely, but I could not disagree with any). I found slightly annoying the use of verbs such as “manipuler” and “corriger” (passim) to qualify the work of the poet on tradition or the way that he foils the reader’s expectations. The words in French carry connotations of deception from the part of the poet in the first case, or that something was off with the tropes or with the readers’ understanding of them in the second. I understand that it is difficult to find enough synonyms to describe the way in which a poet makes an allusion, transforms it, gives it new meanings, uses it to underscore a theme, a contrast, a dialogue with another work or genre, but to the foreign-language reader: beware! This book does not think that there is anything to be corrected in the tropes of dawn and sunset, or that Statius is playing with your mind (although, on a second thought, maybe a little).



[1] See Fernand Delarue, « Deux interprétations de la Thébaïde de Stace », Vita Latina 160 (2000) 32-44, and François Ripoll, « La Thébaïde de Stace entre épopée et tragédie », in Rome et le tragique : colloque international 26, 27, 28 mars 1998 = Pallas 49 (1998) 323-340, two titles absent from the bibliography.