Wednesday, March 30, 2016


W.J. Dominik, C.E. Newlands, K. Gervais (ed.), Brill's Companion to Statius. Brill's companions in classical studies. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2015. Pp. xx, 702. ISBN 9789004217898. $222.00.

Reviewed by Andrew M. McClellan, University of Delaware (

Version at BMCR home site


Brill's most recent volume in the Latin author 'Companion' series puts Statius under the microscope. We might have expected this a bit sooner, considering the swell of material on Statius' poetry from especially the early-to-mid 2000s, which helped inspire something of a large-scale re-examination of his poetic output. Still, like Statius himself, the editors should feel no anxieties about the volume's 'belatedness'. It was worth the wait.

The Companion is massive: 34 chapters divided among 33 international scholars yielding over 600 pages of discussion. It is separated into seven sections: 'Introduction'; 'Beginnings' (three essays); 'Social and Cultural Matters' (four essays); 'Transgressive Poetics: The Achilleid' (three essays); 'Conflict, Power, and Death in the Thebaid' (six essays); 'Predecessors and Contemporaries' (eight essays); and 'Reception' (nine essays). The contributions are weighted somewhat to discussions of the Thebaid (no surprise), but this does not produce on the whole a feeling of imbalance. Many of the chapters tackle issues that bridge all three of Statius' extant works (Thebaid, Achilleid, and Silvae), and the size of the volume is a testament to the range of Statius' output and the eclectic interest his poetry inspires. I do not have space here to analyze each chapter in depth; what follows is an illustrative cross-section of the volume.

From 'Beginnings', K. Sara Myers' chapter (pp. 31–53) examines the proem of the Thebaid and its relation to invocations of the Muses throughout the poem. She ends by looking at sources of inspiration in the Silvae. Among many insights, she argues convincingly that the somewhat staggered opening of the Thebaid mirrors the famously fraught multiple ending of the poem. This is a key insight and foregrounds two of the overriding themes of the volume: Statius' obsession with his 'belated' position in the history of Greco-Roman epic; and the almost dizzying (and thrilling) cacophony of intertextuality that Statius activates with his poetic predecessors.

From the section 'Social and Cultural Matters' (pp. 123-38), Bruce Gibson analyzes stereotypes of wealth in Flavian Rome through the various perspectives of wealth relations in the Silvae and Thebaid. The Thebaid equates wealth with corruption, but it becomes more difficult to parse wealth relations in the Silvae, particularly given the nature of Roman gift exchange in the context of poetic composition. Gibson shows how Statius skillfully extricates himself and his (very rich) patrons from the traditionally negative portrayal of wealth.

Two essays in 'Transgressive Poetics: The Achilleid' examine how Statius blurred character and genre in the Achilleid. Peter Davis (pp. 157–72) explores the 'paradoxical' nature of the poem. The focus, again, is on Statius' intricate conflation of poetic models. The epic's wide array of intertexts destabilizes our conception of genre (the poem is both 'epic' and 'anti-epic', p. 169), and this generic ambiguity mirrors the ambiguities of characterization, especially of the central character, Achilles. This essay will be required reading for those interested in the Achilleid and in Statius' engagement with his predecessors. Christopher Chinn (pp. 173-88) reaches some similar conclusions but pushes further on the metapoetic context for these ambiguities: Statius presents Achilles' ambiguous appearance (between boy and man; female and male) as a vehicle to expatiate on the generic status of the poem and on the process of generic composition.

In the opening essay from 'Conflict, Power, and Death in the Thebaid', Rhiannon Ash (pp. 207-20) considers the Thebaid's battle narratives within the context of Domitianic Rome. She identifies specific narrative features that Statius exploits in battle descriptions that would resonate with his contemporary readers: narrative 'delay'; substitute battle; grotesque or surrealist visual imagery; 'paradoxography' (note the excellent autopsy of Theb. 8.412–18, pp. 216–18). These features share similarities with historiographical descriptions of warfare, and Ash concludes by suggesting a few scenes that convey a 'cross-fertilization' with historical violence during the civil war of 69 CE. That Tydeus' cannibalizing of Melanippus' head may contain a grim reference to a blending of historical moments later narrated in Tacitus' Histories—Otho's gazing at the severed head of Piso (Hist. 1.44.1; cf., too, Luc. BC 9.1032–36, of Caesar staring at Pompey's severed head); and Aquilius Regulus' cannibalizing of Piso's head (Hist. 4.42, p. 219)—does convince me, although Tacitus could easily be reading Statius' scene back into his own narrative (see Antony Augoustakis, pp. 377–92, on the influence of Senecan tragedy in the cannibalism scene). The Thebaid projects a dismally and thematically 'tragic' worldview of cyclical socio-political madness onto an epic framework, and the subject matter offered by ancient Thebes allowed Statius to explore disturbing elements in Rome's recent history. We have to dig a bit to uncover historical/historiographical allusions, but, as Ash recognizes, they are surely there.

Next, Kyle Gervais (pp. 221–39) looks at the distorted parent-child relationship in the Thebaid, sharing a thematic interest with Neil Bernstein on kinship in Statius' corpus (pp. 139–54). The poem presents a series of dead and dying children and the destruction of parent-child bonds. Read in this context, Statius' epilogue, in which he presents himself as a parent-poet sending his 'child' out into the world, carries certain self-defeating metapoetic overtones. Gervais argues that Statius is stuck between his desire for his poem's immortality (the sphragis, 12.810–19) and prayers that its wickedness be forgotten (e.g. post fratricidal duel, 11.574–79). The temptation to read into this reading Theban (Oedipal) child 'exposure' is strong, although Gervais is more interested in foster parenting; the coda, linking Statius' own foster child to Hypsipyle, is a nice touch (p. 239).

Also in this section is Frederick Ahl's chapter (pp. 240–65). As with the contributions by Ash and William Dominik (pp. 266–90, on the theme of the abuse of power in the Thebaid's similes), Ahl focuses his attention to socio-political undercurrents of the Thebaid. The path Ahl leads is dense and circuitous with some rehashing of previous arguments (e.g. the ingenious, but surely specious, claim that Seneca's tragic corpus is the product of our Elder Seneca, pp. 260–63). This is a robust broadside to readings of the poem that downplay the connection between Theban myth and memories and contemporary trauma of civil war. Ahl's Thebaid is gloomy (see Cecilia Criado, pp. 291–306, for discussion of 'optimistic' vs. 'pessimistic' readings).

Closing out the section on the Thebaid, Jessica Dietrich (pp. 307–21) argues that Statius' Jocasta exists in a state between life and death. Dietrich reads Jocasta through a matrix of previous epic, tragic, and historical figures, concluding that she is a uniquely Flavian creation, suited to Flavian ambivalence about Rome's past—a past that is continuously, simultaneously bulldozed and resurrected. Jocasta is, of course, just one of a number of zombie-figures in the poem: e.g., Laius (to whom Dietrich compares Jocasta, appropriately), Oedipus (cf. Theb. 1.46–52, 4.414–17, 11.580–4), Amphiaraus (7.794–8.122), Polynices and Eteocles, who renew their 'deathly' duel on a joint-pyre (12.429–36). Similar ground is covered in Helen Lovatt's chapter (pp. 408–24). The poem, like other post-Augustan epics, is on the whole suffused with the stain of death, and characters take on the features of corpses living out extended death rituals.

In 'Predecessors and Contemporaries', Laura Micozzi (pp. 325–42) looks broadly at Statius' engagement with his literary sources. She argues that Statius' self-conscious recognition of his poetic 'belatedness' draws him directly into rehashing standard epic topoi. Statius' main strategy for creating epic originality is the bold appropriation of major epic tropes. He achieves this by having characters speak out against their own literary pasts, appropriating mythic traditions by refusing to follow them, and continuing stories from earlier poems, building quasi-narrative continuity with his predecessors. The range of poetic material Micozzi covers is vast, a 'melting pot of models' (p. 335). Statius' dexterity in juggling this series of models allows his Thebaid a pride of place despite its 'belatedness' in the epic tradition.

In the same section, Victoria Pagán (pp. 362–76) spots an unnoticed intertext between Thebaid 1.19–20 and Virgil Georgics 2.497 concerning the Dacians and the Hister river. She argues that Statius explores the obliquity to Roman (civil) warfare contained in the Virgilian line, imposing upon Virgil's 'silence' a reading implicit in the original poem (one is reminded of Dryden's famous aphorism in his dedication to Examen Poeticum: 'Virgil had the Gift of expressing much in little, and sometimes in silence'). Pagán's essay is a battle cry for the preeminence of the Georgics for post-Augustan writers. The idea that Statius plays upon the gaps and deliberate silences of the Georgics is, I might add, a valuable adjustment to Philip Hardie's thesis in his Epic Successors of Virgil (1993) on the importance of the Aeneid to post-Augustan epicists.

François Ripoll (pp. 425–43) tackles the fraught allusive relationship between Silius Italicus' Punica and Statius' poems. Much of this chapter is highly speculative, but note the enticing claim (pp. 442–43) that the density of allusions to Statius' poetry in Punica 16 indicates Silius' homage to Statius who, he argues, had recently died before Silius' composition of that book.

Scholars typically compare Statius' Silvae and Martial's Epigrams as a means of scrutinizing particular Flavian sociological phenomena (e.g., here: Gianpiero Rosati, pp. 54–72; Meike Rühl, pp. 91–105). Luke Roman's chapter (pp. 444–61) in 'Predecessors and Contemporaries' examines ideological ties between these two works. He posits that both Statius and Martial deconstruct and satirize the conceit of the Augustan poet-vates in favor of a devotion to the 'playful informality' of Catullan poetics. He suggests convincingly that both poets create unified poetic collections for general readership, but that the strategic 'unpolished' nature of the poems re-invokes the off-the-cuff context of their composition.

Peter Heslin (pp. 512–26) opens the final and longest section of the Companion by looking at Dante's portrayal of a Christian Statius in the Commedia, unpacking layers of a pagan façade through the lens of Dante's ill-informed netherworld Virgil. For Dante, Statius' Thebaid offers a mediating force between Virgil's traditional poetic centrality and Lucan's 'godless' redefinition of the epic landscape. Heslin explores potential Christ-like figures in the Thebaid, prey for a Christian audience applying the 'light of Christian revelation' to pagan poetry (p. 516). Finally, the Ara Clementiae takes center stage and Heslin makes a reasonable claim that Dante followed Peter Abelard's cue in attaching Statius' Altar to the Christian altar visited by St. Paul in Athens. The suggestion that Statius in the Commedia functions, like Hypsipyle in the Thebaid, as a metapoetic marker for the central turning-point of the poem is brilliant (p. 518).

Dustin Mengelkoch (pp. 562–78) compares contrasting early modern views of Statius' Silvae. The Italian scholar Poliziano viewed the Silvae as useful for its recondite learning and pedagogical value. Conversely, Dryden found its erudition vulgar and extravagant, setting a precedent for negative evaluations of his poetry only recently readdressed. Carole Newlands, whose essay concludes the volume (pp. 600–12), picks up on negative views of Statius' poetry but focuses instead on the impact of reading Statius' biography into his work. She argues that Statius' reputation even now is burdened by the political factionalism of seventeenth- to nineteenth-century European and American criticism that sought to equate Statius' style with a presumed political lifestyle of monarchal flattery tantamount to the negative portraits of decadent Romanticism. Happily, the Companion is devoid of the disparaging ideological residue Newlands identifies here.

This is just a taste. The rest of the collection is strong. Programmatic statements, of course, come early. In the 'Introduction' the editors state that they "have attempted to provide for our readers both an overview of present trends in research and a stimulus to future exploration of Statius, his times, and his reception' (pp. 13–14). These goals are easily met in the volume and everywhere contributors point to fertile avenues for future research. Students and scholars alike will find much value here.

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