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Hymning Vergil’s Hercules in Statius’ Thebaid

Brittney Szempruch

Stanford University

Augustan poetry (and Vergil’s Aeneid in particular) has been thoroughly located in
its historical context in recent scholarship, but the historical contexts of the Aeneid’s
descendants have often been undervalued when their intertexts with Vergil’s work
are discussed. While the Silvae are often read as products of the dynamic between
the poet and Domitian (Newlands 2010), studies of the Thebaid’s politics have
focused on anxieties around succession (Rebeggiani 2013, Rosati 1990) rather than
how the Thebaid assumes the politics of an earlier intertext.

The allusions between the Thebaid and the Aeneid have been well documented. In
Book 4 of Statius’ Thebaid, the Tirynthian soldiers arm for war and sing a paean to
Hercules, a passage that has been recognized as an intertext with the song of Salii in
Book 8 of the Aeneid (Parkes 2009). The Salian hymn in Vergil is revolutionary in its
own right, both as the first hymn performed in Latin heroic epic (Miller 2014) and
as a point of fruitful interaction between the political and literary arguments of the
Aeneid (Rosati 1990). In this paper, I argue that Statius’ hymn to Hercules at Thebaid
4.157-8 deserves the same sensitivity to contemporary empire as does Vergil’s
corresponding hymn. Reading the paean to Hercules in Statius’ Thebaid against
Vergil’s Salian hymn to Hercules demonstrates that Statius’ seemingly obvious
praise of Domitian in the Silvae is complicated by the Thebaid’s positioning against
Vergil’s language of Augustan empire.

The first half of this paper argues that the hymn to Hercules in Thebaid 4.145-63
suggests the Aeneid’s Augustus as the Statian Hercules; by alluding to the hymn of
the Salian priests in the Aeneid, the Thebaid capitalizes on the Augustan poetic
connection between apotheosized emperor and hero (inmanis at 1.148, and
Hercules’ perch on Oeta, the site of his deification). On a literary level, the Tirynthian
warriors sing a hymn whose subject matter is reminiscent of the Salian priests’
“Herculean praises and deeds” at Aen. 8.285-305; theirs is a “paean of Hercules and
all things freed from monsters” (Theb. 4.157-8). I argue that this deliberately evokes
Vergil’s Augustus in two ways: first, the explicit use of the hymnic subgenre of paean
aligns Hercules with Apollo, both gods repeatedly linked to Augustus throughout the
Aeneid; second, in a passage already marked as an intertext with the Aeneid, the
paean’s inclusion of “all things freed from monsters” matches Augustus’ description
on Aeneas’ shield in Aeneid 8 (the same book as the Salian hymn), where he defeats
the monstra “of all kinds of gods” (omnigenumque deum 8.698).

In the second half of this paper, I argue that the figure of a Vergilian Augustus-as-
Hercules in the Thebaid invites readers not only to reflect on the nature of civil war
in Statius (Gibson 2013; Parkes 2009, 2012), but functions as commentary on the
political situation contemporaneous with the Thebaid. Scholarly work has shown
that Augustus was portrayed as the healer of state through Apollo (Wickkiser 2005),
and if Vergil’s Augustus stands behind Statius’ Hercules, the description of a town
and people in the Thebaid under Hercules’ distant watch paints a Rome with a
questionable future; while it may still abound in mighty men and enjoy the fama of
its Herculean past, it has fallen from fortune and lacks its former opulence (Theb.
4.148-50).

I conclude that the hymns to Hercules in the Thebaid and the Aeneid suggest that
Statius’ relationship with empire may be more complicated than the panegyrics of
the Silvae may initially lead us to believe. The Augustan comparison through
Hercules demonstrates that Statius’ Rome is not what it was at the time of the
Aeneid, and Rome’s former “protector” now sits from afar, watching the civil strife.
In much the same way that the Aeneid is neither wholly optimistic nor pessimistic,
the Thebaid’s Tirynthian paean to Hercules simultaneously allows possibilities of
both political dissent and praise of Domitian in Statius’ Thebaid.
 

Session/Panel Title

Latin Epic (organized by the American Classical League)

Session/Paper Number

55.5

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