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perial Rome was favourable to recitations; and it is evident from Juvenal's language that they formed a more prominent feature in his experience than they had done in that of Horace or Ovid. The same satire which complains that they did not bring money, admits that they brought fame. The poet might appear in his own person, and deliver his own verses, with no actor to intercept the rays of popular favour. The Thebaid, as we learn from the famous passage in Juvenal, was received with rapture by a crowded assembly. The author himself, in a poem to a friend, speaks of the day when the representatives of Rome's great founders will come to hear his Achilleid. We do not know what was the precise nature of the periodical contests for the crown of poetry, which formed so characteristic a feature of this, the silver age of Roman genius, and in which Statius was repeatedly successful ; but we may well imagine that the poems submitted to competition would be of a more elaborate kind than the occasional pieces which make up the five books of the Silvæ. The Roman Clio had not yet abandoned faith in her origin;
she still strove to execute feats which might be worthy of a goddess. In a later age, we find her contenting herself with minor epic excursions, like the Rape of Proserpine of Claudian, while she sometimes condescends, with Ausonius, to compose catalogues of words and names for grammar-schools, and celebrate the conflicting powers of Yes and No. But at present she is confident in her strength, and even fonder of exhibiting it than when that strength was really at its height. The epigram is the amusement of her leisure moments; she may give days or weeks to the composition of a satire : but it is to poems like the Thebaid, the product of the vigils of twelve long years, that she looks for enduring glory.?
The early Roman epic had been national in subject, if not in form. Nævius had sung of the great struggle against Carthage; Ennius had recounted the annals of the Roman people from the days of Romulus, if not earlier ; Hostius had commemorated the war with Histria. The Æneid is the glorification of the forefathers of the imperial nation, who, though vanquished in Phrygia, had been victorious in Italy. But the Æneid, though national in one of its aspects, is exotic in another. It might be read by a Roman as a celebration of the antiquarian glories of his country; it might be read as a tale of the Homeric school, a sequel to the Iliad, a companion to the Odyssey. It would The Thebaid as a subject for Narrative Poetry.
1 Contrast the early part of the first and seventh satires of Juvenal with such passages as Hor. Sat. 1. iv. 23; Ep. 1. xix. 37 foll. 2 See the concluding lines of the Thebaid :
O mihi bissenos multum vigilata per annos
naturally foster the love, not only of Greek mythology in relation to the history of Rome, but of Greek mythology as such ; of that wonderful body of legendary lore, by turns terrible and pathetic, sublime and grotesque, which, even in our alien atmosphere, has such a charm for the imagination of the boy, and for the intellect of the grown man. These two aspects, combined in the Æneid, are found separately in the epics of the silver age. Silius and Lucan choose national subjects; the one going back on the traces of Nævius, and celebrating the Punic wars, the other treading on the scarcely extinguished embers of civil discord, and telling the story of Pharsalia. Flaccus and Statius resort to the storehouse of Grecian fable, which furnishes to the former the voyage of the Argonauts, the subject selected by the Alexandrian poet, to the latter the first siege of Thebes, the fertile theme of Athenian tragedy, and the life of Achilles, that grand whole, of which only a part had been appropriated by Homer.
The choice of such a subject as the Thebaid is itself a significant one. It was indeed not new to epic poetry; it formed the subject of one of the poems of the Cycle, the substance of which modern critics' have apparently been able to recover by the help of Pindar and Pausanias, though the extant fragments are but few; and it was revived some centuries later by Antimachus of Claros, whose enormous poem, twenty-four books of which were occupied in bringing the Seven Chiefs to Thebes, was listened to, Cicero tells us, by Plato, after all the other auditors had left the room, and is known to have been preferred by the imperial judgment of Hadrian to the works of Homer. Our associations with it are, of course, those of readers of Greek tragedy, in whose gallery of terrible imagery it forms so prominent a feature. There is reason to think, that as treated in the cyclic poem, it was without some of those revolting traitswhich now characterize it; but whatever may have been the condition in which the tragic poets received it, there can be no doubt about the horrors which invested it when it left their hands. As handled by Æschylus and Euripides, it pleases more than it shocks; but it is only because we have submitted ourselves to the laws of that species of art, the object of which is to purge the passions by pity and terror. Just before Statius' time, Seneca, if we are right, as we well may be, in ascribing the Theban tragedy to him, had shown what might be made of the subject by a practised rhetorician who should simply abandon himself to the task of drawing out its horrible and loathsome details. Possibly, by a recurrence to the ancient severity of treatment, it might have
1 See Mure, History of Greek Literature, vol. ii. pp. 269 foll. . ? Such as the self-inflicted blindness of (Edipus.
been made endurable as a subject for narrative poetry. But such self-restraint was foreign alike to the ambition of the poet and to the taste of his
to have been drawn to the subject, not in spite but in consequence of the features which would have repelled a sounder and more chastened judgment. He wished to produce what, in language with which the somewhat kindred experience of our own time has made us familiar, would be called a work of the "sensation" school; and in the choice of means towards his end, he certainly showed himself not injudicious.
It is of this poem that we intend to speak for the rest of the present article. We shall give a critical account in detail of the conduct of the story; we shall indicate more briefly the principal characteristics of the poet's style; and we shall mention one special point which may seem to entitle him to the praise of incidental success, even though the final verdict should be, as we fear it will be, that the poem, as a whole, is an elaborate failure.
The Thebaid is contained in twelve books, the number which the Æneid had made classical ; and the average content of each is about the same as the average content of the several books of the Æneid. But it is made clear at the very outset, that the spirit of Statius is not quite the same as the spirit of Virgil. Instead of the modest “cano" with which Virgil informs us of the subject of his song, we are told that Pierian inspiration impels the poet to sing of the strife of the brothers and the guilt of Thebes. He asks rhetorically where he shall commence ; whether from the very first, the rape of Europa and the voyage of Cadmus; and concludes that such a starting-place would be too far off, and that he had better confine himself to the family of Edipus. He invokes his Cæsar, Domitian, remembering that Virgil had invoked Augustus, but apparently forgetting that it was at the outset, not of the Æneid, but of the Georgics ; and then, after another rhetorical inquiry, which of the invading heroes he shall sing first, plunges into his subject. In the true vein of Seneca, he introduces us at once to the blind Edipus, who, in the depth of his solitude at Thebes, raises the empty sockets of his eyes to heaven, strikes the ground with bloody hands, and implores the Queen of the Furies, by the recollection of his former deeds of horror, to avenge him on his undutiful children, and urge their congenial minds to some crime great enough to gladden their father. The Fury, to the loathsomeness of whose personal appearance full justice is done, makes her way to Thebes, and induces the two young kings to agree to a compact that they should reign alternately, the outgoing king leaving the country at the end of his year. Thebes, we are told,
The First and Second Books.
is but a poor kingdom, yet the lust of sway is as strong in the two brothers as if they were striving for the empire of the world. Eteocles is the first to reign. The people feel some discontent at the arrangement, which they think, not without reason, has been made for the advantage of the brothers more than for their own. Jupiter calls a council, and announces his intention of taking vengeance on the two royal houses of Thebes and Argos for a long series of crimes. Juno puts in a word for Argos, but is sternly overruled, and Mercury is sent down to raise the ghost of Laius, who is to incite Eteocles to break the compact. Meantime Polynices, being excluded by the terms of the compact from Thebes, resolves, for some reason unknown, to visit Argos. He is represented as a veritable exile, without any companion to share his journey, which turns out to be an exceedingly rough one, through rain, wind, and thunder.
He finds his way to the palace of Adrastus, the king of Argos, and has just taken shelter in the vestibule, when he is interrupted by another traveller in a similar plight. This is Tydeus, who has had to leave his own home, Calydon, for having killed his brother. The strangers fight with fists, attempt to gouge each other, and would have drawn their swords if the noise had not awakened Adrastus, who separates them, takes them into his house, and entertains them. It is the night of a festival to Apollo, the institution of which is related by Adrastus in a long story, obviously modelled on Evander's narrative of the death of Cacus. A hymn to the great Sun-God concludes the book.
While this is going on, Laius is being conducted to earth by Mercury, not without envious gibes from his brother shades, who solace themselves with thinking that he will like his underground dwelling less for having been allowed a glimpse of daylight. On reaching Thebes, he takes the form of Tiresias, and appears to Eteocles in a vision, at the end of which he makes himself known. The scene then changes to Argos again. The morning after the storm, Adrastus makes a speech to his guests, and offers them respectively the hands of his two daughters,
whom they had seen at the banquet of the previous night. They accept with thankfulness, and the double nuptials are celebrated with great pomp, which is, however, marred by one bad omen, the fall of a heavy shield from the roof of the temple of Pallas, just as the brides-elect are entering it by torchlight. The wedding festivities over, Polynices begins to sigh for Thebes; and eventually it is agreed that Tydeus, who has now come to be his firmest friend, should undertake the office of ambassador to Eteocles, and remind him that the year of royalty has expired.
1 “Pugna est de paupere regno” (Book 1. 151), one of the very few expres. sions in Statius that have become in any way proverbial.
This duty he discharges in a speech which might have ruffled a more accommodating temper than that with which he has to deal. The king refuses to abdicate, basing his resolution on public grounds, as a change of rulers must be a bad thing for the nation; the ambassador breaks into a fury, denounces war, captivity, and death, and so leaves the presence. Eteocles determines to avenge himself on his audacious visitor, and posts fifty men in ambush along the road by which Tydeus has to travel. And now the poet has got his opportunity, and he uses it unsparingly. The scene is appropriate to a deed of impiety, being a defile overlooked by a rock,-a place where the Sphinx once sat and tore her victims, and which cattle, and even birds of ill omen, avoid with horror. Tydeus is surprised by a dart, which strikes him, but does not draw blood; he vehemently calls on his adversaries to show themselves, springs on the fatal rock, and from that vantage-ground attacks the enemy with a fragment of stone, crushing four and making the rest retire. He comes down from the rock, and they soon assail him again; but he is more than a match for them ; he keeps them off with his sword, receives their spears on his shield, and hurls the weapons back with deadly effect. Finally, he stands like Ulysses after the slaughter of the suitors, with all slain but a few unnerved wretches, who vainly beg for life, or attempt a feeble resistance. One of these, who happened to be innocent, is spared at the instance of Pallas, and sent back to Thebes to tell the tale. The conqueror ends the book with another hymn of praise, which this time is to Pallas.
The Third Book brings us back to Eteocles, who has passed a restless night, wondering that he does not hear of the death of Tydeus. In due time the unhappy survivor arrives, tells his tale, inveighs against his wicked master, and ends by stabbing himself. Eteocles refuses him burial ; and the poet, with that zeal for freedom which so curiously characterizes the courtiers of imperial Rome, delivers an enthusiastic eulogy on the man who dares boldly to confront a tyrant. The bodies of the other ambuscaders are brought home and buried, and there is more free speaking against Eteocles. Jupiter has been watching what has happened, and, apparently thinking that Argos and Thebes are not sufficiently likely to quarrel already, sends for Mars, and bids him pay a visit to the Argives. Venus stops her lover as he is going, and pleads her affection for Thebes; he reassures her by a rough caress, hurting her, we are told, against his shield, and says that Fate must have its way, but that when the war has begun, he will bear hardly on Argos. And now we are called back to Tydeus, who reaches his fatherin-law's home, and finding a council assembled, urges an imme