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Arethusa 35.3 (2002) 381-402
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Ovidian Personae in Statius'sThebaid
Contemporary discussion of Statius's Thebaid is particularly concerned with elucidating the Flavian poet's debt to Vergil in the Aeneid in terms of structure, thematics, and poetics. 1 Indeed, the adulatory tone of Statius's explicit references to Vergil may be said to invite such critical scrutiny into the relation between the two poets (Theb. 10.447-48, 12.816-17). In addition to sustained engagement with Vergil's Aeneid in the Thebaid, however, many critics have observed a pervasive debt to Ovid, especially the Metamorphoses. 2 Thus David Vessey notes (1973.120) that the Thebaid, like the Metamorphoses, "is a 'carmen perpetuum,' 'a blend of continuity and change,' in which there is constant movement, delicate articulation and unbroken development," while Carole Newlands (2002) prefaces a stimulating exploration of Statius's adaptation of Ovidian techniques of landscape representation in the Thebaid with the observation that "aitiological myth, internal narrators, an emphasis on female experience and on psychological effects, subtle transitions, a dysfunctional pantheon, the participation of personifications in the narrative . . . are features that Ovid's epic and Statius's share." In this study, I wish to examine further one feature of the Flavian epicist's debt to Ovid's Metamorphoses, his adaptation of Ovidian characters and techniques of characterization in the Thebaid. Particular attention will be paid to Statius's characterization of the leading members of the House of Oedipus (Oedipus, Polynices, Eteocles, and Creon), the Argive [End Page 381] heroes Tydeus and Parthenopaeus, the Fury Tisiphone, and the Theban seer Tiresias.
Statius implicitly acknowledges a debt to Ovid's Metamorphoses at the outset of his poem in a proem that reviews the history of Thebes that he will not narrate (Theb. 1.4-17): 3
gentisne canam primordia dirae,
Sidonios raptus et inexorabile pactum
legis Agenoreae scrutantemque aequora Cadmum?
longa retro series, trepidum si Martis operti
agricolam infandis condentem proelia sulcis
expediam penitusque sequar, quo carmine muris
iusserit Amphion Tyrios accedere montes,
unde graues irae cognata in moenia Baccho,
quod saeuae Iunonis opus, cui sumpserit arcus
infelix Athamas, cur non expaverit ingens
Ionium socio casura Palaemone mater.
atque adeo iam nunc gemitus et prospera Cadmi
praeteriisse sinam: limes mihi carminis esto
Oedipodae confusa domus.
Shall I sing the origins of the dread family, the seizure of the Sidonian maiden, the relentless terms of Agenor's ruling, and Cadmus searching the sea? The line runs far back, if I unfold the tale of the anxious farmer of hidden war who sowed battle lines in accursed furrows and then press on with the incantation by which Amphion bade the Tyrian mountains contribute to the city walls; the source of Bacchus's harsh anger against his relatives' city; the deed of savage Juno; the target against whom unfortunate Athamas took up his bow; the reason why Ino did not blanch at the huge Ionian sea when she leapt in with her son Palaemon. And so now I shall allow the sorrows and successes of Cadmus to pass by: let the turbulent house of Oedipus be the path of my song. [End Page 382]
The subjects Statius eschews constitute the core of Ovid's Theban narrative, spanning the third and fourth books of the Metamorphoses (2.836-4.603). 4 Indeed, with the exception of Amphion, the characters catalogued by Statius here receive their fullest treatment in extant Latin literature in Ovid's Theban history. 5 Even Amphion, although he plays no role in Ovid's "Thebaid," appears in Metamorphoses 6 as king of Thebes and husband of the unfortunate Niobe (6.221, 271, 402), in an episode that reprises the themes of the earlier Theban narrative.
Statius signals his engagement with his predecessor not only in his catalogue of Ovid's Theban subjects but also in his diction. Philip Hardie remarks (1990.226 n. 13) that the "'longa retro series' of Stat. Theb. 1.4-16 is virtually a summary of Ovid's Theban books" 6 and compares the phrasing of Ovid's retrospective summary of his Theban tales: serieque malorum ("a...