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Diplomacy and Doubling in Statius’ Thebaid

Pramit Chaudhuri

Literary treatments of civil war inevitably reflect on the concepts of self and other, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in Statius’ epic about fraternas acies (Theb. 1.1). In this paper, I argue that the negotiation of these concepts comes especially to the fore in episodes of embassy, when the actors are expected to mediate opposing points of view to the advancement of their side’s interests. Focusing on Tydeus’ disastrous diplomatic mission and its aftermath in Thebaid 2 and 3, I show how the embassy highlights Tydeus’ failure to distinguish self from other through his doubling of Polynices’ identity and the consequent overlapping of foreign and civil war. The doubling of words, in addition, is a notable feature of embassy-related scenes: the device articulates at the level of diction the larger concerns with self, sameness, and repetition that make diplomacy in the Thebaid so fraught.

            At many points in the Thebaid Statius explores the ideas of doubling and twinning inherent in the core relationship between Polynices and Eteocles (cf. Hardie 1993: 64-6). Critics have compared the relationship between Polynices and Tydeus, in particular, for its modelling of sibling rivalry as well as affection (O’Gorman 2005, Bernstein 2008: 77-81, Korneeva 2011: 99-103). Moreover, since Polynices and Tydeus come neither from the same family nor even from the same city, their relationship also raises broader questions of how one defines similarity and difference and what behavioural expectations those definitions create. These issues take on particular importance in the scene of Tydeus’ embassy. As a proxy for Polynices, it is incumbent on Tydeus to balance similarity and difference: he ought to be similar enough to Polynices to represent his interests, but different enough not to recapitulate the brothers’ internecine strife. Rather than speaking effectively on Polynices’ behalf, however, Tydeus takes on too deeply the emotions and attitudes of Polynices himself, thus replicating at the micro level the larger confusions typical of the Thebaid and of civil war. After Tydeus brusquely (2.391-2) delivers his demands, Eteocles observes Tydeus’ over-identification with Polynices (illum / mente gerens, 2.417-8). In going on to claim that Tydeus would not have spoken so aggressively on an embassy to distant and savage peoples (2.420-3), Eteocles further highlights the expectation that diplomacy between kin ought to be both possible and civilized. Given the brothers’ mutual hatred, however, Tydeus’ resemblance to Polynices makes him less, rather than more, able to perform his diplomatic role. At the end of his speech, Eteocles calls Tydeus germane (2.459; cf. Polynices at 3.369, 3.380), emphasizing once again the doubling of Tydeus and Polynices that had undermined the embassy from the outset.

            The language of twinning and doubling suffuses the poem’s embassy-related scenes, notably Tydeus’ breathless report on his return to Argos. He repeats in close succession the words arma, iuuat, bellum, nunc (3.348-60), and he appropriates Eteocles’ own rhetoric about sending embassies to savages (3.351-3). The same habit recurs in Jocasta’s embassy to Polynices (matrem / matrem iterat; nunc ... nunc ... 7.494-5) and the Athenian envoy Phegeus’ embassy to the Thebans (bella ... bellumque, 12.682, ingeminans, 12.686). The example of Phegeus is especially telling since even a war between Athens and Thebes, a conflict between two states in no way connected by kinship, is framed in terms invested with the doubling characteristic of civil war. The verbal echoes, diplomatic failures, and bellicose intentions form a set of intertwined threads running through the poem. Read together, the later episodes bear out the initial lesson of Tydeus’ embassy: within the Thebaid, the language of diplomacy, which ought to maintain a delicate balance between self and other in order to arrive at a compromise, collapses into sameness and repetition. These features hint at one effect of the experience of the multiple upheavals of AD 68-69 - an increased cynicism about diplomacy and assertions of individuality in the context of civil war.

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After 69 CE: Epic and Civil War in Flavian Rome

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