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
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:
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
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.
[log in to unmask]
If you have been forwarded this review, you may subscribe to the listserv
by sending an email to: [log in to unmask]
Leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message write:
You may remove yourself from the CJ-Online listserv by sending an email to:
[log in to unmask]
Leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message write: