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Male Lament in Statius’ Thebaid

Antonios Augoustakis

In the last fifteen years, Thebaid scholarship has emphasized how Statius uses female lament to graft elegiac overtones onto the “masculine” genre of epic (Augoustakis 2010, Dietrich 1999). The poem’s ending especially has been interpreted as Statius’  personal statement.  Theseus overturns Creon’s edict forbidding the cremation of the Seven—and Statius declares himself unable  to narrate the Argive women’s lament in Thebes (Theb. 12.797-809).  Silencing the women at the end and alluding to the coming of the Epigonoi underlines how temporary is Thebes and Argo’s peace (McNelis, 159; Augoustakis 2010; Lovatt 2013). But since the poem’s narrative so prominently features death and burial, the Thebaid’s grieving fathers also merit attention. This paper explicates male lament—understudied generally in epic, and certainly in Statius’ poem—in a world characterized by nefas (Ganiban 2007).  Non-coincidentally, the three most prominent male mourners are all despotic kings and fathers: the King of Nemea, Lycurgus; the Kings of Thebes, Oedipus and Creon. My paper shows that the Thebaid’s women transgress the boundaries of decorum in their mourning, undermining social structures dependent on traditional female roles.  However, the ways the poem’s kingly fathers mourn their sons confirm male power as tyrannical and autocratic.  In the Thebaid, royal fatherhood’s (thwarted) desire to propagate its power over generations breeds violent male despotism—an alarming but not surprising inference for a poet writing under Domitian.  Despite having lost his son and natural heir, the last Flavian emperor perversely but steadily thinned the ranks of potential replacement heirs, including kinsmen (Syme 1983, 189-190).  Little wonder the Thebaid’s portrait of royal male grief links it to destructive absolutism.

Lycurgus’ railing at his baby boy Opheltes’ negligent nurse Hypsipyle exemplifies this link.  Learning a monstrous Nemean snake has killed his son, Lycurgus demands Hypsipyle’s death (5.654-55), though the Argives intervene to save her. Statius likens Lycurgus’ lament to the rabid, unappeasable violence of nature (6.46-53). The grieving father even throws into Opheltes’ pyre the emblems of his office as Jupiter’s priest, forcefully denouncing the father of the gods (6.197-201).

By contrast, Creon turns into political capital his son Menoeceus’ self-sacrifice to save Thebes (devotio). Creon repeatedly stalls his son, but cannot stop him (10.689-718). Yet after the suicide, while berating Meneoceus’ valor, Creon distinguishes his son from the other corpses. Menoeceus receives separate cremation (with human sacrifice, 12.68-70) and a king’s insignia. Unlike the actual dead king, Eteocles, only Menoeceus’ corpse has the trappings of royal status.  Creon announces Menoeceus as a numen (12.78)—like Opheltes, the first “sacrificial victim” of the Theban war, whose death-venue becomes a Nemean cult-site.  Creon further forbids the burial of the Argive soldiers (12.93). As Pollmann observes (2004: 115), “The speech must be seen as a performance by a powerful ruler who intends to manipulate the public politically and emotionally, rather than as a true and authentic mirroring of his own internal state.”

Statius’ Oedipus combines both Lycurgus’ psychotic ferocity and Creon’s calculation.  Another Charon (11.587-91), his cursing his sons sets the poem in motion (1.56-87); anticipating a decisive duel between Eteocles and Polynices, he rejoices (8.251-53).  True, he later laments the fratricide—Antigone must even restrain him from suicide (11.605-31).  Yet Oedipus quickly turns the blame on the gods, claiming he uttered his curse unaware of the consequences (11.617-19).  True to form, he strikes out against his last remaining kinsman, Creon,  “instinctu rabido” (11.673).

Fatherhood in the Thebaid illuminates its own potential flaws as model for kingly power and as conduit for that power’s transfer.  Blood-heirs are a link to the future both fragile and threatening: they are mortal, but also potential contenders for the king’s power (congruent with the fact that the childless Domitian nonetheless “lapped the blood of his own relatives,” Pliny, Pan. 48.3).  Lycurgus and Creon’s wild bereavement, and Oedipus’ filicidal jealousy, capture both weaknesses of patrilinearity.

Session/Panel Title

Family Values: Fathers and Sons in Flavian Literature

Session/Paper Number

57.3

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