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No Place Like Home: Exile and Theban Identity in the Thebaid

Clayton Schroer

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In recent years, scholarship on Statius’ Thebaid has emphasized the complexities and nuances of Theban identity, whether in relationship to the enemy Argives (Augoustakis 2010) or anachronistically to Statius’ contemporary Rome and its mytho-historical past (Braund and Cowan). Such analyses accept that Statius promotes the idea of a unified Theban identity, an assumption which needs to be challenged. Beginning with Lovatt’s observation that Statius prefers to mark Theban identity with epithets recalling its exilic roots (e.g. Tyrius), I employ Edward Said’s essay on exile and argue that Thebes is a city of exiles without a “rhetoric of belonging.” In the Thebaid, the poet depicts a city which is foreign to itself. In particular, I examine the portrayal of several characters, addressing such questions as: how are we to interpret Statius’ use of adjectives marking non-Theban identity in his description of Thebes and her soldiers? Does Statius present Menoeceus as a unifying or destabilizing figure in terms of Theban identity? How are we to interpret the opposing views on Theban identity espoused by Menoeceus and his father Creon?

My argument unfolds through analyses of three scenes: the arrival of Atys on the battlefield (book 8), Menoeceus’ appeal to his Theban comrades in the defense of their wounded ally (book 8), and the suicide of Menoeceus (book 10). Atys, betrothed to Ismene, is called by Statius Tyrii iuvenis non advena belli (Theb. 8.555), although the boy is not from Thebes. This description marks Atys as one who signifies the “uneasy relationship between Thebans and others” (Augoustakis 2016). The problem lies not with Atys but Thebes and her citizens: the war to which Atys is said to be non advena is Tyrium. Similarly, Atys’ betrothal to Ismene is described through the words pactus Agenoream, a reference to Statius’ allusive account of Cadmus’ exile at Theb. 1.5-6 (inexorabile pactum / legis Agenoreae). Tyrium and Agenorea point to Theban identity only by pointing away from it. In Said’s language, without a “rhetoric of belonging” the distinction between advena and non advena becomes difficult to maintain.

Other scholars (especially Bernstein) have argued that Menoeceus provides a voice of Theban unity. This interpretation is largely based on the rallying cry of the youth at Theb. 8.602 (sanguine nostro): the Thebans are to emulate the Spartoi (601: terrigenas) and fight their enemies. Such argumentation ignores the allusions made by the poet and Menoeceus himself to the exilic origins of Thebes just two lines before the youth’s unifying exhortation (600: nec prohibent Tyrii. “pudeat, Cadmea iuventus…”). Menoeceus’ attempt to spur the Thebans to action by invoking the city’s unifying, autochthonous origins is itself measured against the city’s alienated, exilic founder Cadmus who encourages flight/metaphoric exile (fuga) from the battlefield (nec prohibent Tyrii). Statius, in addition to adopting his Homeric source material (Juhnke, Il. 16.422: αἰδὼς ὦ Λύκιοι: πόσε φεύγετε; νῦν θοοὶ ἔστε) and its dichotomy of flight/fight, also exploits the exilic connotations which the former implies.

Finally, in book 10 Creon espouses a rhetoric of belonging in opposition to his son’s but in keeping with the fractured identity we have seen above. The future monarch names his fellow Thebans as externi and alieni (10.708: externi te nempe patres alienaque tangunt…), implying by externus that most of the other Thebans are not autochthonous (i.e., were not born in the terra) and are, therefore, “other” (cf. Paul. Fest. p. 79: externus est alienus terrae). Such wordplay in the context of a Thebais goes back at least to Aeschylus’ Septem, where Theban citizenship is expressed by the adjective ἐγχώριος (Sept. 413). Aeschylus presents autochthony as the marker which differentiates native citizens from foreign enemies. By contrast, in the Thebaid autochthonous origins guarantee not unified Theban identity but a fractured one without a rhetoric of belonging.

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Ethnicity and Identity

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