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Satire and Epic: The Case of Statius' Thebaid

Thomas J Bolt

University of Texas at Austin

In recent years, genre criticism has become an increasingly important means for understanding ancient epic (Harrison 2007). Many of these studies, however, deal almost exclusively with the genres “high up” on the generic hierarchy, such as tragedy (Soerink 2014, Augoustakis 2015, Marinis 2015), whereas the “lower” genres of comedy and satire have been neglected (Cowan 2011 is an important exception). Yet formal generic similarity, such as the metrical similarity that satire and epic share (Hutchinson 2013 groups them under the same “supergenre”) suggest that there is good reason for drawing a connection between the two. The goal of this paper is twofold. First, the paper discusses the undertheorized relationship between satire and epic, with particular attention to the hyper-epic aesthetic of Statius’ Thebaid. I argue that Statius is responding to satiric criticisms of epic in his hyper-epic, “maximizing” aesthetic. Second, I argue that Statius, in turn, criticizes satire by inserting would-be satirists, Oedipus and Pluto, in his epic world. Their moralizing criticisms ring hollow and hypocritical, suggesting that is it not satire to which Romans should look for moral direction, but epic.

Satire’s picture of epic as a genre is clear: it (and tragedy) is a bloated (Pers. 1.13 and 20), self-important, irrelevant (1.7 and 12) genre whose descriptions of war are tiresome (Juv. 1. 1-6) (Cowan 2018 makes a similar point about the “satiric idea” of tragedy; although Juvenal post-dates Statius, many of his criticism are within the satiric tradition). Many of these criticisms, particularly about a “bloated” register, seem to have been written with a poem like the Thebaid in mind: battle scenes are often lengthy and descriptions of death are excessively gory (one need only think of Tydeus’ cannibalism). I suggest, however, that Statius commits the very “offences” on purpose in an effort to discredit and “reclaim” epic from satiric criticism, and we can see an awareness of his “elevated” register in his comments on the poem in the Silvae (at Stat. Silv. 4.7.25-28 the poet acknowledges the poem’s life of its own as it assails the Aeneid against the poet’s instructions, per Leigh 2006). Statius’ “maximized” epic becomes something like the satiric idea of epic in order to “reclaim” the genre--epic is, in Statius’ mind, by no means out of touch with his contemporary world. Its maximized aesthetic fits in comfortably.

Many of the satirists’ complaints about epic are also reflective of satire. Therefore, by adopting the very idiom of satiric criticism, Statius imbues his work with a certain degree of satire, most clearly in two characters: Oedipus (Stat. Theb. 1. 45-87) and Pluto (8.1-126) Both take the stance of a satirist, as they decry the lapse of contemporary morality ( 1.74-79; 8.40-46) by distorting reality to fit their narrative (Oedipus omits his own errors while Pluto interprets Amphiaraus’ descent into the Underworld as an Olympian invasion of the Underworld), both claim to be upholders of justice for which they no do not see a point in their perverted world (1.60-74; 8. 50-51) and both borrow general satiric style in the form of rhetorical questions, generalized moral platitudes, second person address, and rhetorical crescendo. In effect, Oedipus and Pluto are the satirists of Statius’ epic world. Yet they are difficult to take seriously. Pluto’s exaggeration (or misinterpretation) of Amphiaraus’ descent renders him nearly impossible to take seriously while it is ironic to take moral advice from Oedipus. Moreover, Pluto’s Underworld happily welcomes Capaneus, the most impious mortal in the poem (11.70) after death, and Oedipus eventually rues his own curse (11.605-26). Statius portrays both moralists as hypocrites. I argue that these portrayals of Pluto and Oedipus are Statius’ epic vision of satire: itself empty of moral authority, but full of bombastic rhetoric. Epic’s generic totalizing force allows for epic to assume the moralizing role of satire, and, indeed, helps to account for the genre’s contemporary relevance.

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