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Reviewed by:
  • Statius' Thebaid and the Poetics of Civil War
  • Antony Augoustakis
Charles McNelis . Statius' Thebaid and the Poetics of Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. x, 203. $90.00. ISBN 978-0-521-86741-2.

Undoubtedly, Callimachean influence in Roman epic poetry is both omnipresent and substantial; one may, for instance, recall Ovid's story of Baucis and Philemon. It comes as no surprise then that Statius fully exploits Callimachean poetics in his civil-war poem, the Thebaid, a topic that had not attracted the attention of scholars in the past, though Statius' own Neapolitan background induces to a degree his deep engagement with Greek literature. McNelis' study provides a thought-provoking exploration into the poetics of the Flavian poet's world of fratricidal, internecine strife. In this book, concisely Callimachean in size, McNelis investigates how Statius upsets the Virgilian norms of epic diction by struggling with a Callimachean voice that in the first seven books of the poem constantly opposes the genus grande and the standards of epic diction; for the author, Callimachean refers to the Hellenistic "tradition with its intense interest in origins, the epic past, narrative form and the relevance of myth for a contemporary context" (179). Soon, however, by what the author calls a "Telchinic" method, Statius forsakes this Callimachean preference for unwarlike narrative, aetiological in nature, as the Thebaid inevitably progresses towards the fratricide and the death of the other six Argive leaders.

An illustration of McNelis' argument concerning Statius' struggle with Callimachean poetics is presented in his discussion of Argia's necklace, crafted by Vulcan, the Cyclopes, and the Telchines. As the author argues, Statius establishes the narrative of Theban violence "as an anti-Callimachean programme" (52), because the reference to the Telchines, Vulcan, and the Cyclopes explicitly points to the producers of enormous objects and therefore represents the practitioners of turgid poetry, such as epic. One wonders, however, why the necklace is a seemingly small object: McNelis justifies Statius' choice by associating it with the poet's labor over Callimachean poetics: the poem's theme of civil war and strained family ties presents the poet with the opportunity to underscore the many forces that counter one another in a poem that will eventually result in a battle of inevitably epic proportions, between Eteocles and Polynices.

Emerging from McNelis' examination is the exploitation of Callimachean topography in books 4, 5, and 7. In line with his argument concerning the delaying tactic and the lack of progress in the Argive expedition, McNelis submits that "Callimachean aetiology overturns Virgilian patterns of order and national progress" (95). For instance, in book 7, the description of the river Asopus constitutes a great digression in the already digressive troop catalogue: Callimachean, aetiological topography presents an obstacle to the continuation and forward movement of the narrative. By a reversal of choices, however, Statius adopts an anti-Callimachean geography in book 9, e.g., when Hippomedon is overcome by the raging waters of the Asopus and the Ismenos rivers. [End Page 346]

The concluding chapter confronts the reader with a series of thoughtful insights about the closing book of the Thebaid and its preoccupation with civil war. Though the twelfth book renegotiates the norms of epic poetry through its reminiscence of Iliad 24 or the end of the Aeneid, as McNelis suggests, it is in constant dialogue with Callimachean poetics: consider, for example, the split fire that refuses to consume the remains of the two brothers, the allusions to the episode of Theseus and the distraught Hecale, or the intertextual relationship between Theseus' lack of clementia in Catullus 64 (a Callimachean poem itself) and his appropriation of clementia in the Thebaid.

As a minor criticism in this carefully crafted book I found the unnecessary (and surely anti-Callimachean in style) verbatim repetition of passages from Silvae 4.6 and 3.1 (pp. 84–85 from pp. 69–71). This stimulating study, however, will provoke further inquiry into the wealth of Statius' poetic world.

Antony Augoustakis
Baylor University


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pp. 346-347
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