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Ancestors in Adrastus’ Atria: Multivalent Retrospection in Statius’ Thebaid

Laura Garofalo

This paper analyzes the representation of ancestors in Adrastus’ palace at Argos (Theb. 2.213-225), in order to examine how and to what ends Statius blends traditional Roman cultural practices with those of a mythical Greek past. Commentators on this passage have noted its evocation of Roman imagines, but have generally considered this type of retrospective assimilation as anachronism, or more generously, as a reworking of similar Virgilian themes and scenes, such as the procession of Aeneas’ descendants in Aeneid 6 (Miedel 1891/1892, Mulder 1954) or in relation to similar ancestor depictions in Thebaid 6 (Fortgens 1934, Lovatt 2007). A close analysis of this passage will demonstrate some of the resonances and stakes of Statius’ cultural and temporal conflations in this scene within a broader Flavian cultural framework.

As the wedding day arrives for the marriage of Adrastus’ daughters to Polynices and Tydeus, the scene is focalized through the viewpoint of the arriving guests filing into Adrastus’ regialia atria. This phrase evokes imperial audience halls, such as the so-called Aula Regia on the Palatine, as well as Vitruvius’ (De arch. 6.3.1-4, 6.7.1) and Varro’s (Ling. 5.161) notions of the atrium as a reception and display area in traditional Roman domus. This particularly Roman sense of the atrium (or at least, Vitruvius and Varro’s constructions of it), is further evoked by the description of images of mythical Argive ancestors, which echo the display of imagines in aristocratic Roman atria (Theb. 2.215-223). This assimilation of Adrastus’ display to elite Roman cultural practice situates the Argive king within the conceptual world of Roman aristocratic tradition and creates a literary-mythical antecedent for these Roman traditions within the pre-Homeric setting of the epic.

However, the changing roles and cultural associations of atria and imagines by the last decades of the first century CE (Flower 1996, Wallace Hadrill 1994, 1997, Allison 2004, Nevett 2010, Sewell 2010, Goldbeck 2010) may have lent Statius’ scene a further sense of temporal remove. By this period, the cultural practices surrounding atria and imagines are thought to have shifted (Flower 1996: 193-194, 261-203), especially in light of Vespasian’s self-conscious positioning of himself as a man without imagines, in contrast to a fellow contender for power such as Galba (Suetonius, Galba 2; Tacitus, Hist. I.14-19). The mention of atria with imagines may have already seemed somewhat dated by the time the Thebaid was first circulated, as the younger Pliny’s letters concerning the almost antiquarian nature of his villa’s atrium suggest (Ep. II.17.4; V.6.15; Flower 1996: 193-194).

A close analysis of the Argive heroes and ancestors depicted in Adrastus’ atria, however, reveal an eclectic mix of epic, mythographic, and in this case, sculptural references. Rather than wax masks, these species avorum are described as bronzes with performative bodies and attributes. These figures represent mythical founders, such as Inachus, alongside more fearsome forbearers, such as Coroebus and Danaus. This depiction allows for a further blending or adaptation of Roman practices to Greek forms of statuary or portraiture, in a conflation of styles and representational types that is especially characteristic of Roman sculptural collections and artworks (Hölscher 1987/2004, Bergmann 1995, Wyler 2006). For example, pater bicornis Inachus is described as leaning upon a tilting urn, evoking traditional Hellenistic and Roman depictions of river deities (Theb. 2.217-218). Thus, Statius evokes Greco-Roman sculptural forms and assemblages in addition to or in place of traditional masks in the atrium.   

In sum, I argue that this type of cultural positioning through retrospection and the collapsing of temporal bounds serves as a purposeful, self-reflexive element of Statius’ epic project, and also marks the poet’s own place within the epic tradition. Like the return to pre-Augustan portrait styles during this era, Statius’ reworking of the traditional idea of imagines in the atrium takes its place as another example of a broader Flavian interest in reimagining pre-imperial forms, making the Roman past more ancient and the remote past more Roman.

Session/Panel Title

Art, Text, & the City of Rome

Session/Paper Number

40.4

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