Statius’ Thebaid is characterized by a profound disorder in the relationships between men and gods. The Olympian gods have to accept their powerlessness in the face of the gruesome events, while the divine powers of the underworld reign supreme. Ultimately, the heavenly gods have to turn their faces away from the horror of the fraternal duel.
This picture becomes even more desolate considering the numerous instances when men resort to ritual and religious observance, usually to no avail. At the same time, however, religious observances retain their function of structuring the narrative plot, at least in the first half of the epic. A fact that is usually overlooked in the scholarship is that the build-up of the war in books 1-7 is structured by the celebration of festive days: the Apollo festival in Argos at the end of book 1 (1.482-720), the Bacchus festival in Thebes in book 2 (2.71-88), which takes place on the same day as the Argive festival (cf. interea, 1.2), and the triennial celebration of the Nemean Games (5.731-7.104). All of these festivals are deeply involved with memory and its enactment: the memory of Apollo’s supposed salvation of the Argives, the memory of the Theban founding fathers, and the memory of the death of Archemorus, the first ‘victim’ of the Theban war. In all three cases, the war against Thebes leaves deep traces in the commemorative character of these festive days. This is true not only of the festival in honor or Archemorus, but for the Argive and Theban festivals as well. They both occur at important points when the tragic ‘knot’ of the Thebaid’s action is being forged: when Adrastus welcomes Polynices and Tydeus into his house as his sons-in-law, and when Eteocles is being incited by the ghost of Laius to deny his brother Polynices the throne. Since they coincide with festive days, these events are being inscribed into the commemorative system of Argos and Thebes. Henceforth, the day in question will not only be known for the Argive or Theban early history, but for the fateful beginnings of the war against Thebes itself.
Long before the ‘actual’ war comes to pass, then, its origins are already encoded in the structure of religious festivities. This clashes violently with the narrator’s statement, after the fraternal duel, that these horrible events should be forgotten and that only ‘one day’ – certainly not a festive day – and only kings, should remember the duel (11.577-9). Retrospectively, then, we realize that the festive days commemorating these events have been doomed from the start. Not only do the gods turn their eyes away from the site of action; even by honoring the gods and celebrating festive days, men and their religious calendars are already tainted. Even while three festive days structure the epic plot of the Thebaid – in the way festive days structure religious life – they implant the conflict between memory and forgetting, which is so characteristic of the Thebaid, in the epic structure from a very early stage. Ultimately, the epic teaches its readers an important lesson that is also relevant to Roman constructions of time and memory: celebrations of a city’s stories of origin must be treated with caution. They might already be implicated in a process of self-destruction.
Epic Gods Imperial City: Religion and Ritual in Latin Epic from Beginnings to Late Antiquity