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CJ-ONLINE  March 2009

CJ-ONLINE March 2009

Subject:

CJ Online 2009.03.03 MCNELIS, Statius' Thebaid

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Statius’ Thebaid and the Poetics of Civil War. By CHARLES MCNELIS. 
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. x + 203. Cloth, $96.00. 
ISBN 978–0–521–86741–2.

Order this text for $96.00 from Amazon.com using this link and 
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20


Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


CJ Online 2009.03.03

[[This review was commissioned by the previous CJ Book Review editor, and 
has been handled since then by S. Douglas Olson.]]

A recent survey of scholarship on Statius’ epic concludes that “the 
overall message of the Thebaid is not easy to extrapolate,” noting that 
power, pietas, anti-pietas, fury, the anger of Jupiter, civil war, 
allegory, dynastic succession and literature as a form of escapism have all 
been proposed as principal themes of the poem. [[1]] One key to a more 
definitive interpretation may lie in a fuller appreciation of Statius’ 
use of his Greek poetic predecessors. Although Statius explicitly situates 
his epic in relation to Vergil (Theb. 12.816; Silv. 4.7.25–8), [[2]] he 
studied poetic composition with a father deeply learned in Greek verse and 
chose for the subject of his epic a theme best known from classical 
Athenian tragedy. Charles McNelis’ (hereafter M.) study of the 
intertextual relationship between the Thebaid and the works of Callimachus 
thus represents a timely effort to shed light on an important and 
relatively understudied aspect of Statius’ epic poetics.

M. contends that Statius creates a program of allusion to Callimachean 
poetics and anti-Callimacheanism that mirrors the conflict over Thebes at 
the heart of the Thebaid (p. 1). Callimachean poetics is characterized as 
endorsing “small-scale creations that enjoy peaceful settings,” and is 
contrasted with the “large-scale productions about violence and strife” 
(p. 70) created by the Telchines. When M. finds allusions to Callimachus 
together with significant delay, an undermining of traditional epic heroism 
or a resistance to closure, he reads these gestures as appeals to 
Callimachean poetics. This poetic program counters, but often must yield 
to, a Telchinic drive for war more consonant with Statius’ epic 
predecessors, above all Homer and Vergil (e.g. pp. 44–5, 97–8, 132). 
Thus, as much as the conflict over Thebes reflects Roman concerns about 
civil war, the allusions to Callimachus act out a struggle over whether and 
how to tell a civil war story.

M. lays out this argument in his introduction, and elaborates it through 
six chapters that take episodes of the poem in order. Chapter 1 examines 
the aetion of the Argive festival of Apollo told by Adrastus in Thebaid 
1.557–668. M. argues that, through allusion to related Homeric and 
Vergilian scenes, Statius creates the expectation that the aetion will show 
the gods establishing control of the cosmos, but then presents them as 
allying with chthonic forces, thereby “reject[ing] the notion that 
control and order are dependent upon the gods” (p. 47). Here various 
allusions to Callimachus’ version of the story help “disrup[t] the 
theological vision of earlier epic” (p. 37). Chapter 2 centers on the 
ekphrasis of Harmonia’s necklace at 2.269–305. M. argues that Statius 
mentions Vulcan, the Telchines and the Cyclopes when describing the 
necklace in ways that allude to the conflict between Callimachus and his 
detractors on view in the Aetia prologue. This and subsequent allusions 
“establis[h] that the narrative of Theban violence has an 
anti-Callimachean programme” (p. 52).

The interpretation of the necklace becomes a touchstone for the remainder 
of the book. In Chapter 3, M. reads the delay of the Argive armies at Nemea 
in Books 4–6 as a Callimachean “counterpoint to the martial agenda 
devised by Vulcan and his assistants” (p. 77). Chapter 4 argues that 
delay at the beginning of Thebaid 7 represents a final gesture of 
allegiance to Callimachean poetics (pp. 98–9) before the war begins. In 
Chapter 5, M. interprets the deaths of five of the seven heroes of the 
Argive contingent as representative of “an anti-Callimachean poetic 
agenda that exemplifies the narrative of violence and intestine warfare 
created in part by the Telchines” (p. 124). Chapter 6 argues that “epic 
models are challenged by allusions to Callimachus’ poetry” (p. 176) to 
produce an open ending to the poem signifying the difficulty of concluding 
civil war. An epilogue restates the thesis that Statius uses Callimachus to 
voice an alternative to grand, heroic epic narratives.

M.’s study takes as a premise, without explanation, a firm conception of 
Callimachean poetics as advocating non-heroic, non-linear, open-ended 
poetic narratives. This is a commonly accepted interpretation, but, given 
the importance of Callimachean poetics to M.’s book, one would have liked 
some discussion of how he arrived at this conception, including some 
consideration of Cameron’s views, however unorthodox. Nor does M. 
consider what the unleashing of dueling poetic programs within the epic 
signifies about Statius’ own poetics. If in the end Statius sides with 
Callimachus entirely, why does he compose a long, ultimately linear poem 
about warfare? Is he rather staging the defeat of Callimachean ideals? Or 
is he somehow disinterested? Discussion of this question might have made an 
apt theme for M.’s epilogue.

M. offers no discussion of his approach to intertextuality, but his 
interpretations at times set a demanding standard for the poem’s 
audience, or perhaps rely implicitly upon the notion that it is the critic 
alone who produces meaning. Such is the case with the use of Harmonia’s 
necklace as a key to interpretation. Once M. has argued that allusions to 
Callimachus in the necklace ekphrasis refer to contrasting poetic programs, 
he then understands subsequent references to Callimachus in the remaining 
ten books of the poem, however slight and in whatever context, as referring 
to this conflict. Readings of individual passages also seem to envision 
readers tracing wide-ranging and subtle allusions, as when M. argues that 
an intertextual nexus contributes to Coroebus’ effort to shame Apollo 
into desisting from his slaughter of Argives (p. 45). The argument proceeds 
as follows: Coroebus speaks of the inclementia of the gods (1.651); the 
most notable example of clementia is the altar at 12.481–518; the 
clementia of the altar is a translation of the Greek eleos; the mention of 
inclementia at 1.651 thus brings to mind eleos; this in turn recalls 
Apollo’s appeal to eleos at Il. 24.44 to persuade Achilles to end his 
anger; so Coroebus is challenging Apollo (intertextually) to live up to the 
values he espoused in Il. 24. Some theoretical discussion of how intertexts 
signify might have given M.’s reader a benchmark against which to measure 
the efficacy of such chains of allusion.

At the same time, when M. focuses more tightly on inter- and intratextual 
connections, he offers compelling readings of key passages. Thus he nicely 
details the resonances of Harmonia’s necklace with Homer, Callimachus, 
Ovid, Statius’ Siluae and other parts of the Thebaid. His concise 
discussion of the duel of Eteocles and Polynices in light of the final 
duels in the Iliad and Aeneid (p. 147) is equally illuminating. And M. 
illustrates that the triumphal return of Theseus looks rather equivocal by 
comparison with the finality of Augustus’ triumph on the shield of Aeneas 
(pp. 175–6).

In the end, M. delivers a thoughtful reading of Statius’ use of 
Callimachus, with telling observations on other intertextual links. I 
myself did not find the argument for a thoroughgoing program of 
Callimachean allusion fully persuasive. But M. has shed substantial light 
on Statius’ use of Callimachus, and has thus opened up a new perspective 
that, alongside others, will form the basis for continuing interpretation 
of Statius’ epic.

NEIL COFFEE
University at Buffalo, SUNY


[[1]] K. Pollmann, Statius, Thebais 12: Introduction, Text and Commentary 
(Paderborn, 2004) 26.

[[2]] See R. Ganaban, Statius and Virgil: The Thebaid and the 
Reinterpretation of the Aeneid (Cambridge, 2007).


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