The Thebaid Essay - Critical Essays

Publius Papinius Statius

Critical Evaluation

The Thebaid of Statius, a retelling in epic form of Hepta epi Thbas (467 b.c.e.; Seven Against Thebes, 1777) by Aeschylus, draws extensively on the general body of material dealing with the ill-fated family of Oedipus. Statius’s version of the tale of the contending brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, extends to twelve books. Written over a period of twelve years, this narrative of bloody and tragic conflict is a product of the so-called Silver Age of Latin literature. Statius’s epic, produced during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, represents a falling off from that of great works such as Vergil’s Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), the model for this lesser and more melodramatic poem.

The Thebaid is usually mentioned in conjunction with Lucan’s Pharsalia Bellum civile (60-65 c.e.; Pharsalia, 1614). Both epic works grew up under the shadow of the Aeneid, and both are responses to it. Lucan attempts to escape the mold, Statius to fill it. Lucan is militantly topical and innovative; Statius is unapologetically derivative. He misses few of the situations and mannerisms that have become the epic stock-in-trade—extended simile, scenes in the underworld, funeral games, catalog of forces, single combats, interference by the gods, and so on. In fact, Statius’s greatest contribution to literature, for better or worse, has been to turn all that Vergil borrowed from Homer into an expected element of all future literary epics.

As a writer of verse Statius has few breathtaking passages but considerable flexibility of language, ranging from the softly pathetic to the grandly rhetorical. Statius boasts of the polishing the work received and claims that it required twelve years of labor. This latter claim may be exaggerated, but clearly the language of the Thebaid has been worked over carefully.

Statius appears to have taken Aristotle’s stricture against loose, episodic epics to heart. Rather than telling the whole story of Thebes, he centers on the conflict between the two sons of Oedipus, climaxing with their mutual destruction in book 11. Book 12 is an appropriate epilogue dealing with the dispute over the burial of Polynices and the Argive invaders and ending with a general reconciliation. The frame is narrow enough for unity but provides room for numerous digressions. One of the most conspicuous features of the epic is the dense texture of legendary and mythological allusion along with the creation of pseudomythological...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)