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Nature's City: Nemea as urbs capta in Statius' Thebaid

Adam Kozak

University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Despite their failure to conquer Thebes, the Seven in Statius’ Thebaid succeed in sacking a city—though not the one they expect. Utilizing an ecocritical and intertextual approach, this paper explicates the role of nonhuman nature in the delay of the Seven. Similes in the Thebaid and intertexts with the fall of Troy in Aeneid 2 characterize the landscape of Nemea and its nonhuman inhabitants as an urbs capta. The sack of Nemea blurs the line between city and nature and presents excessive violence against nonhuman nature as dangerous.

Scholars have come to recognize the importance of nonhuman nature in the ancient world (Hughes 2014) and in Latin epic (Augoustakis 2006, Brown 2016, Micozzi 1999, Morzadec 2009, Thomas 1988). Developments in ecocritical theory (Oppermann 2014) can be used to break down easy distinctions like the nature/culture binary. Scholarship on the Argives’ delay in Nemea in Thebaid 4-6 has emphasized that it symbolizes resistance to the war between Argos and Thebes. Scholars have focused mainly on the story of Hypsipyle (Nugent 2016) and the funeral games for the baby Opheltes (Ganiban 2013) while also arguing that the Argives bring war and destruction to a pastoral paradise in Nemea (Newlands 2004, Soerink 2015). However, key similes, programmatic in the poem (Dominik 2015), present Nemea as a city, challenging this characterization as a purely pastoral paradise. Indeed, the Argives plunder the forests of Nemea like soldiers sacking a city (Theb. 6.114-5). As an urbs, Nemea is not a simple pastoral paradise but rather a civilization unto itself.

My analysis focuses on three parts of the Nemea episode: the storming of the Langia River, the killing of the giant snake, and the felling of the Nemean forest. Bacchus causes a drought and delays the Argives who storm the still-running Langia River and fight each other to relieve their thirst. They tear the Langia from its source (Theb. 4.816-7) and Statius compares them to soldiers sacking a city (putes…captam tolli victoribus urbem, Theb. 4.822-3). An unnamed member of the Seven addresses personified Nemea, asking her to stop fighting against them (Theb. 4.829-30) and promises to celebrate the Langia only if he happily receives the Argives as they process in triumph (laetus ovantes / accipias, Theb. 4.842-3). From the Argives’ point of view, the drought is the land’s resistance to their campaign and they feel that Nemea herself is at war with them.

The conflict with Nemea continues when Capaneus kills the sacred snake of Jupiter after it accidentally kills the baby Opheltes. Fauns, Nymphs, and personified Lerna and Nemea mourn the snake, the genius loci, illustrating that they belong to an interconnected community. Realizing that they have committed a sacrilege, the Argives prepare pyres for the snake and Opheltes. Yet they compound their crime rather than expiate it by despoiling the forest like greedy soldiers sacking a city (ut…possessas auidis uictoribus arces / dux raptare dedit, Theb. 6.114-5). Statius enumerates the casualties of the Argives’ assault in a catalogue of trees (Theb. 6.98-106) that looks back to the tree-cutting undertaken for the burial of Misenus in Aeneid 6. Statius uses procumbunt piceae (Theb. 6.100) in the same metrical position as Vergil (Aen. 6.180). The Misenus passage (advolvunt ingentis montibus ornos, Aen. 6.182) looks to the simile comparing Troy’s destruction to a falling ash tree (antiquam in montibus ornum, Aen. 2.626). The ash tree represents Troy compacted into a single entity, but Statius’ urbs capta similes expand the Nemean landscape into a civilization, whose inhabitants flee weeping.

Blurring the distinctions between city and country, Statius presents the landscape of Nemea as an urbs capta akin to Troy. Nemea’s fall prefigures the destructive war of the Oedipodae, but, ironically, only in Nemea are the Argives’ ambitions realized.

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Latin Hexameter Poetry

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