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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 3 Jun 2010 14:05:39 -0500
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In the Image of the Ancestors: Narratives of Kinship in Flavian Epic. By 
N.W. BERNSTEIN. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp. 281. Cloth, 
$65.00. ISBN 978–0–8020–9879–5.

Order this text for $44.17 from Amazon.com 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online 2010.06.06

Neil Bernstein’s (hereafter B.) book on the representation of kinship in 
the epic poems of the Flavian period is a welcome addition to the growing 
number of studies devoted to the Silver Latin epicists, who are starting to 
emerge from the label of being poets “of decline.” The author focuses 
on a topic that has received little attention so far, namely the role of 
kinship and family relationships in Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, 
Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, and Silius Italicus’ Punica. B. shows 
the importance of reading and interpreting Imperial Latin literature in its 
context: without doubt, the poems reflect the “ideological and social 
developments of the early Imperial period” (p. 3).

After a brief introduction, in Chapter 1 (“Kinship as Narrative”), B. 
divides his discussion in three groups, the first of which addresses the 
importance of descent for the formation of kin relations. Correctly, B. 
identifies that social identity based on descent is complex in that it 
never remains stable but is an asset conferred at birth that evolves into a 
quality, “a provisional status that must be continually justified through 
appropriate performance” (p. 13). Emulation of ancestral deeds, 
therefore, can be seen as an effort to replicate behaviors of the past but 
also to break away from tradition by creating a new identity. In the second 
part of the chapter, B. looks at kinship as social narrative, that is as a 
reflection of the shifting socio-political realities of the Roman world 
under the Flavian emperors: the emperor has by and large replaced the 
individualistic patria potestas, while the significance of descent can be 
and is often ignored, as other forms of distinction such as “virtue, 
wealth, and connoisseurship” (p. 20) are now prioritized.

Chapter 2 (“Valerius’ Argonautica: Kinship and Power”) looks closely 
at the first of the Flavian epics, Valerius’ Romanized Argonautica. B. 
argues that throughout the poem we witness several disrupted family 
relations, primarily in the Colchian palace of Aeetes. Tyrannical power 
perverts the norms of familial behavior within each kin group, and such 
threat to familial cohesion constitutes “a reflection of the anxieties of 
the contemporary Roman upper-class family” (p. 31). B. presents clearly 
the complex nature of familial relations as presented in Valerius’ 
version of the Argonautic saga: the apparent contradiction between 
obedience to the paterfamilias, joined by the obligation to return to 
one’s fatherland, and the pursuit of heroic glory, which often goes 
against the former two endeavors.

Tyrants abound in the poem, and B. shows how the sons of tyrants stand in 
sharp contrast when compared to their fathers, thereby exerting “a form 
of ethical pressure on their fathers through their examples of superior 
conduct” (p. 40). B. also observes the gendered difference between sons 
and daughters in their reaction to the tyrant’s / paterfamilias’ 
decisions: while the sons display greater virtue in contravening the 
paternal decisions, the daughters’ reactions are far more limited; for 
instance, Medea rebels against Aeetes’ commands and flees with Jason, 
showing an inability to “negotiate between the multiple forces 
(ancestral, divine, and ethical)” (p. 43). Filial disobedience is thus 
viewed by the narrator as deserved, since the system of family values 
collapses before the autocracy of the tyrant. In addition, B. investigates 
the deceptive role of the gods in the poem, especially of the goddesses, 
Juno and Venus, who actively promote Medea’s affair with Jason and thus 
help disrupt the relations within the Colchian house.

The following chapter (“Statius’ Thebaid”) explores the complicated 
kin relationships in Statius’ Thebaid and in particular, Polynices’ 
puzzling claim in Book 1 that his descent is from Jocasta rather than from 
his father, Oedipus, whom he refuses to mention. B. shows that the Flavian 
poet highlights the inevitability of ancestral stigma, despite the claims 
of the heroes to the opposite, and the value of descent in shaping 
character and status. By comparing the incongruous views on kinship and 
descent that Statius exposes in the Silvae and the Thebaid, B. draws the 
conclusion that Polynices cannot escape the hostility of the gods and of 
his ancestors after all, being inescapably stigmatized to participate in 
and commit fratricide, whereas Statius’ contemporaries praised in his 
occasional poems are being lauded for everything else but their descent 
from noble ancestors. Descent is no longer as important as are “offices, 
virtue, wealth, learning, and literary production” (p. 84).

In the second part of this chapter, B. focuses on the role of gender in kin 
relations. Statius’ women are typically portrayed with reduced authority 
in the androcentric world of Greco-Roman epic. B. insists, however, that 
mothers, daughters and wives acquire a prominent role in the narrative 
space of the Thebaid, since the patriarch of the Theban oikos, Oedipus, is 
absent, incapacitated and marginalized. Female figures emerge as prominent 
actors, trying to stop the impending fratricide (e.g., Jocasta and 
Antigone) and at the end as the authors of the burial of the Argive 
soldiers (e.g., Argia). Correctly, B. identifies Statius’ obsession with 
the effect of war on mothers and wives, what he calls “the poetics of 
bereavement” (pp. 101–3). Absent from this discussion, however, is 
Hypsipyle, who presents an interesting study case of a daughter with a 
complex relationship with her father, Thoas, whom she saves during the 
Lemnian massacre.

The subsequent chapter (“Statius’ Achilleid: Nature and Nurture”) 
offers a stimulating look at the complementing role that descent plays in 
conjunction with the epic hero’s nurture. B. demonstrates by means of 
parallels in contemporary literature of the period, including Statius’ 
own Siluae, that nurture and in particular fosterage are key elements for 
the formation of social identity, which is “neither predetermined nor 
stable but subject to a continual process of creation and definition” (p. 
107). Thus Chiron’s training of the young Achilles inborn talent balances 
the prominent role of the mother, Thetis throughout the short, unfinished 
poem. “The Achilleid reveals the constructed nature of social identity by 
tracing the causes of Achilles’ behaviour back to stimuli provided by 
relatives, caregivers, and exemplary models” (p. 125).

In Chapter 5 (“Silius’ Punica: Kinship and the State”), B. turns to 
the last Flavian epic, Silius’ Punica, to explore the different attitudes 
towards kinship and the state by examining the characters of Hannibal, 
Fabius, Pacuvius and Scipio Africanus. In particular, Hannibal is one of 
the multiple heroes of the poem who is beset by the debt to his ancestors 
(especially Dido) and “fated to re-enact their failures” (p. 133). 
Devotion to his ancestors turns out to be destructive, a process that 
generates only furor and ultimately supersedes the Carthaginian’s civic 
responsibilities. In addition, Hannibal is limited at all levels by the 
gods’ refusal: unlike Scipio, Hannibal’s actions are never sanctioned 
and therefore destined to fail.

In the case of Fabius, the famous Cunctator is fashioned as the exemplary 
father for both his son and the army. By exercising paternal authority, 
Fabius is portrayed as an ideal commander. And yet, this authority is not 
sufficient, as his absence generates lack of loyalty among the troops. 
Scipio is the only hero in the poem, according to B., who commands the 
human and divine approval necessary for the ultimate victory. Scipio’s 
double paternity from both Scipio the Elder and Jupiter himself proves to 
be the catalyst for the resolution of the conflict and Rome’s ascent to 
glory. Scipio Africanus balances both public and familial obligations, an 
aspect that aligns him with the emperor Domitian.

In the penultimate chapter (“From Family to Nation: Descent and Ethnicity 
in Flavian Epic”), B. takes his argument one step further by looking at 
descent and national identity as presented by the Flavian poets. B. argues 
that Flavian epic provides a parallel for the national epics of the 
Augustan period, the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses, inasmuch as descent and 
ethnicity are central themes, conducive to the formation of unity among 
Romans: peoples of different cultural aspects merge to form a new entity. 
In Flavian epic, however, we become at the same time spectators to a 
different trend, one inspired by Lucan’s epic on the civil war: the 
descendants of the hybrid people, the product of migration and 
resettlement, present a cultural discontinuity with regard to their 
ancestors. As B. shows, “this paradigm of cultural fission contrasts with 
the strong connections between Roman and Trojan descent posited in the 
Aeneid” (p. 171). More specifically, B. looks at Statius’ Menoeceus, 
whose suicide / sacrifice “embodies the problematic aspects of the Theban 
myth” (p. 191). Even in a small and homogeneous city like Thebes, the 
population is prone to civil war. In the Punica, Silius fashions cities 
like Saguntum and Capua as subject to Rome’s policies of expediency, 
since common descent (syngeneia) becomes irrelevant before considerations 
of the empire’s future welfare and safety.

Finally, in the concluding chapter, B. presents Statius’ figurative kin 
relationship with his poem, as one of father and child. Through such 
relations, the poet revisits his position in the literary canon.

B.’s study offers rich and insightful analyses of the epic poems of the 
Flavian period and will be appreciated by specialists and non-specialists 
alike, as an important addition to the study of Imperial Latin epic poetry 
and Roman thoughts on kinship and national identity.

Baylor University
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