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  • Visions of a Hero:Optical Illusions and Multifocal Epic in Statius's Achilleid
  • Federica Bessone (bio)

"Poetry for the eyes" is a felicitous definition of Ovid's epic. The Metamorphoses are a model for the Achilleid in this as in other aspects,1 like the themes of deceit, transformation, and gender fluidity; the spectacle of appearances, matched by ambiguity in language; the provocation of the proem, with its program of a cyclic epos and a carmen deductum (finely spun song); the dialogue with alternative genres, like elegy and comedy; and, in addition, the lightness of tone, irony, and detachment towards the characters, first and foremost Achilles. The greatest Greek hero is here the object of a witty attitude that recalls Ovid's epic, and of cleverly provocative jokes evoking the narrative about him in Metamorphoses 12 and 13, as well as his appearance as an exemplum in the Ars amatoria. Statius shares with Ovid multiple modes of literary self-consciousness and, in his whole work, is indebted to his experimentations; in the Achilleid he owes him, inter alia, an exercise in poetry as a feast for the eyes.

In the same years when he composed his second epic, the Flavian poet experimented with the ekphrastic poetry of the Silvae: an epideictic mode of poetry based on visual evidence, transfiguration of reality into mythic images, and a rhetoric of wonder. Like the celebratory gesture of occasional poetry, the subject matter of the Achilleid also lends itself to a poetics of vision, of stupefying vision: the Scyros episode above all, with its ingredients—ambiguity, disguise, simulation, unveiling—is a sequence of intriguing images and lively scenes, exploited by a rich figurative tradition, as well as by dramatic poetry, like Euripides' Skyrioi. Statius presupposes this visual (and scenic) heritage, which is part of the artistic experience and material culture of his contemporaries, and vies with it in another medium.

This ironic and light poetic discourse does not interrogate dramatic scenarios, but switches between tones without letting pathos prevail. It also adheres to the surface of things: it translates feelings into symptoms and stories into signs, looks with the eyes of the characters and follows the mimicry of their looks, and exhibits their rhetorical poses and ostentatious gestures, orchestrating stage movements to perfection. With an [End Page 169] amazed eye, the description explores territories of marvelous terrains inhabited by extraordinary creatures—a nymph, a Centaur, an exceptional ephebe—and transports the reader to idyllic landscapes, wild sceneries, and refined interiors. The narration, in turn, becomes a mise en scène, setting up a lively comedy, with effective simulations, coups de théâtre, and dazzling revelations. Statius develops a spectacular tale, and a "poetics of illusion": where evidence is equivocal, appearance surprising, language illusionistic. Here vision is subjective and deforming, different perspectives conflict with each other, and identity is deconstructed.

A multifocal epic, the Achilleid constructs a complex image of its hero, thereby straining the rules of the genre: it offers shifting pictures of Achilles' physical form, multiple perspectives on his appearance, and competing views of his literary profile (Bessone 2016). The ambiguous beauty of the young boy sets off a comedy of deceits, in which the reader's gendered assumptions are tested; staging a transvestite hero, the epic narrator engages the gaze of the characters and the external audience in spectacular illusions. The spectacle of the hero's body is at the center of this visual poetics: descriptions, similes, words of seeing, internal point of views, and projections by different characters keep Achilles—his gender identity and generic profile—under scrutiny by the reader's eye, continually changing its perception.

In this play of appearances, the female gaze has a crucial role. Thetis's anxious looking at her grownup child, her reeducation of him as a feigned daughter so that he can look like a girl, and her pride in her artistic creation show an anxious mother's concern for her offspring's social and literary appearance: the mother's 'vision' represents a deviation from the Achilles of heroic epic. The view of Deidamia and her sisters of the masculine newcomer, the ambiguous attitude of the courted princess towards the odd-looking girl, and...


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