Saturday, October 3, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Helen Lovatt, Statius and Epic Games. Sport, Politics, and Poetics in the Thebaid. Cambridge Classical Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xii, 336. ISBN 0521847427. $80.00.
Reviewed by Michael Dewar, University of Toronto

Statius' magnificent but grim epic of the Seven against Thebes has often been attacked for its supposedly episodic character and for the failure of the episodes to cohere in a manner either meaningful or aesthetically pleasing. It would be hard to say whether the extended portion most singled out for censure in this regard is the long narrative of the Lemnian massacre in the fifth book or the still longer account in the sixth of the funeral of Archemorus and of the institution of the Nemean games in his memory. The Lemnian massacre has in recent years been redeemed as a subtle presentation of nefas and civil war, of gender confusion and intertextual creativity,1 but the wrestling and the boxing, the discus and the archery, along with all the concomitant hyper-macho huffing and puffing, not to mention all the boasting and the complaining, still seem largely to bore the poem's readers and to discomfort the poet's defenders. Helen Lovatt here takes on the challenge of changing all that, and does so with two things rarely found together in scholarly writing, success and panache. She sets out to reread 'Statius and the Thebaid through a reading of the games in book 6 and their interaction with the rest of the poem' and to reread 'epic games from the vantage point of Statius, looking back over all his predecessors' while not forgetting his contemporaries, Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus (p. 2). In other words, the games are treated as central to our understanding both of Statius' poem as a whole and of its claim to a glorious place in its own competition with other epic poems, while in the various events at Nemea Lovatt also finds room for discussion of much that the criticism of our own day sees as being central to ancient literature: kingship and power, metapoetics, the construction of masculinity, identity and ethnicity, and intertextual awareness.

Seven chapters follow naturally enough from the seven events in the games, and one result is that in this book, as in Statius' poem, each of the seven princes earns his place in the sun. A brief introduction and a still briefer conclusion provide a frame. The tidiness of the structure is taken further in that each chapter is divided into two parts, the first examining issues of intertextuality (that is, Statius' contests with his predecessors) and the second matters of intratextuality (that is, how the event discussed provides a locus for the display of Statius' thematic and moral concerns). The sprawling ambition of Statius' poem, however, is not easily kept in check, and some of the heroes and their events claim considerable space in chapters designated as properly belonging to others. Capaneus, for example, is the focus of the fourth chapter (pp. 141-191) but it proves impossible for Lovatt to discuss Hippomedon without considering Capaneus at the same time and examining both as figures of gigantomachy (pp. 128-139). That kind of pushiness is perhaps to be expected in the border-transgressing would-be assaulter of the Heavens, but even a slighter character such as Parthenopaeus finds himself appearing in, for example, the chapter dedicated to Tydeus and the wrestling (pp. 235-236) in addition to naturally dominating that on his own victory in the footrace (Chapter Two, pp. 55-100). The point will be obvious: the division of material that Lovatt makes is licensed by the very structure of Book Six, but the narrative of that book and of the wider poem also undermines it because it is much too schematic to contain either poet or critic.

The evidence used in the intertextual portions of each chapter is impressively wide-ranging, and it is perhaps the most noteworthy single achievement of this book that it takes discussion of Statius' use of his epic predecessors far beyond any earlier study. Homer and Virgil unsurprisingly continue to exercise priority, but Lucan and Silius get their due, and even those familiar with Statius will be impressed by how convincingly Lovatt argues for close interaction not just with Ovid but, perhaps more surprisingly, with Apollonius of Rhodes. In this latter connection she provides a most welcome variation on, and addition to, another excellent recent monograph from the Cambridge University Press, one which has much to say on the engagement made by Statius' epic with the poetry of Callimachus.2 The evidence employed for the intratextual arguments in particular includes useful brief digests of the historical data of games and spectacle in both the Greek and Roman worlds, examples of which include discussion of the part played in games by the audience and their relationship with the editor (pp. 80-83), and of the gap between Greek and Roman views with regard to the usefulness of athletic competition as training for battle and to the larger moral value of such contests (pp. 262-269). In the discussion of the various princes, of their participation in the games, and of what that participation reveals about larger thematic concerns it is no doubt as inevitable as it is necessary that Lovatt should rely on close readings that emphasize key terms of vocabulary, both of the technical aspects of the games and of the emotions and ethical responses aroused, and rely also on close examinations of the heroes' success, qualified success, or outright failure in competition as a means of exploring connections with the roles they play elsewhere and above all in their aristeiai (or, in the case of Polynices, his fratricidal duel and, in that of Adrastus, his ignominious flight from the field). Here it is perhaps not to be expected that every section could be a complete triumph, but which chapters win most favour in which quarters may depend on how far individual readers are ready to accompany Lovatt in her interest in, for example, metapoetics. For my money, the first chapter and the last three are far more convincing than the others. To give more precise examples, the first chapter, on the chariot-racing (pp. 23-54), offers a commendably thorough interpretation of, first, its links with the Phaethon narrative of Ovid's Metamorphoses and, secondly, of how it can be seen to engage with the Pindaric metaphor of poetic competition as a race between chariots of song, while the fifth chapter, on the wrestling (pp. 193-241), offers an excellent addition to the growing body (the word is here unavoidable) of scholarship on the construction of gender and masculine identity in Roman literature. One general effect of competition, however, is perhaps to encourage too much indulgence of the superficially clever and provocative, though another way of saying much the same thing is to acknowledge that for the reader it is useful to be made to confront the reality of the points at which one finds resistance cannot be overcome. The image of the felled Capaneus in the guise of the body of Tityos 'raping the landscape with its very presence (11. 12-17)' (p. 132) is a picture I wish Lovatt had not put into my head (could it really be comfortable, let alone fun?). It is also one that is unlikely, I think, to stand the test of time, for all that contemporary students are no doubt having fun right now quoting it to their tutors in the hope, in some cases, of inducing apoplexy or, in others, of achieving a kind of bonding in a blessed state of reciprocal coolness. More seriously, there is a certain tendency to assert rather than to argue in full (p. 109 in particular offers what is in effect a tissue of non sequiturs), and there is also a certain amount of having of the cake just eaten. The modern Humanist academy is already rather too prone to indulge almost by reflex in idle paradoxes, and you do not need to have had the kind of rigorous training they give you in Philosophy departments to feel a touch exasperated on reading a sentence like 'The discus, through its shared shape, becomes the world, and, through its destructiveness, threatens it' (p. 106) or 'Statius is both the witch transforming and deforming the world order of epic and the desperately scared gentes trying to drown her out, the giants threatening the cosmos and Jupiter blasting them with his thunderbolt' (p. 113).

For all that, there can be no doubt that this book sweeps us a long way forward from even the most sympathetic and insightful earlier reading of the games that takes them at all seriously, namely David Vessey's argument that their primary function in the poem is to 'foreshadow' the events of the second half of the book.3 Lovatt herself points out with trenchant courtesy the limits of that idea (pp. 258-261), and her readings, even where one might not go along with her to the end of the road, are the most subtle and stimulating on the subject now to be found in print. Her work ought at any rate to banish for ever the claim that the poem is episodic to no purpose: that might not make Statius more palatable in every quarter, but it certainly corresponds well with the view taken by his enthusiasts, that he is, like Ovid, a poet of remarkable learning and subtlety whose reputation has suffered, like Ovid's, from the lingering effects of both high classicism and romanticism. On a lesser and more pragmatic note I can also attest from personal experience that the rich offerings Lovatt lays before the reader, combined with her impressive documentation and knowledge of decades' worth of scholarship, make this book an excellent tool for discussion in the seminar room.

As a physical object, this book, like more or less everything that comes from the Cambridge University Press, is produced to a very high standard: sturdy but elegant, costly but durable, and beautifully laid out and easily legible; all in all, a very good bargain. As with so much else in this discipline produced by even the most respected houses, however, the contents would have benefited from better copy-editing by someone who knows some Latin and preferably a little about metre. There are, it is true, very few misprints, but there are some elementary errors in the translations, such as rendering the subjunctive 'expediat' in Aen. 12. 503 as if it were a future indicative (p. 299) and mistaking 'idem' at the start of the line in Aen. 5. 371 ('idemque ad tumulum', rendered as 'and, at the same tomb' (p. 146)) for the masculine accusative (or should that be neuter?) form when it is clearly a resumptive masculine nominative singular picking up 'solus qui' in the previous line. More worrying still are the two examples, appearing in quick succession, of mistranslation whereby an epithet is given to a noun the metre will not allow it to qualify. Careful readers can see and, more importantly, hear that 'ego foedera faxo/ firma manu' (Aen. 12. 316-317: pp. 296-297) means not 'I will make this treaty with a firm hand' but 'I will with my own hand (or 'by force') make the treaty firm'. Similarly, 'fraterna claudere quaerit/ bella acie' (Theb. 11. 58-59: p. 302) means not 'she seeks to close the fraternal wars in battle' but 'she seeks to close the wars with a battle between brothers', something which is not only much more pointed but also a better fit for the possible echo of the poem's opening words 'fraternas acies' (Theb. 1. 1) that Lovatt goes on to emphasize. She should no doubt have added in any case that 'acie' is not to be found in the manuscripts and is in fact a conjecture from the pen of Baehrens, from which it follows that there is a certain element here of circular argument. I note also that, although Lovatt informs readers she is following the text of Hill (p. xi), Hill in fact prints the 'tuba' of the manuscripts. A few sub-Hendersonian puns also survive the editing process, such as 'Perhaps the point is that this is both a moment of play for the epic poet, a dis[play] less serious than the war to come...' (p. 6) and 'the mourning after' (p. 232). They will no doubt seem to some readers, as they seem to me, otiose and distracting, but the rich soil of Cambridge has long been accustomed to bring forth such exotic blooms, and I freely acknowledge the right of authors to sow and to cultivate as their taste inspires them. In any case, only a spoilsport would begrudge Lovatt the opportunity to make space, in a study like this one, for all forms of the ludic.


1.   See e. g. Keith, A. M., Engendering Rome. Women in Latin Epic (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 32-34, 59-60, 97-98.
2.   McNelis, Charles, Statius' Thebaid and the Poetics of Civil War. Cambridge, 2007.
3.   Vessey, D. W. T. C. (1970) 'The Games in Thebaid VI', Latomus 29: 426-241.

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