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Staging Thebes in the 2nd Century BCE

Hannah Čulík-Baird

Boston University

In this paper, I examine how the depiction of Thebes in Latin tragedies from the 2nd century BCE reflects the social, political, and religious concerns of contemporary Rome. I focus on two specific themes that emerge from the fragments of Latin tragedies which staged the Theban cycle: a) the worship of Bacchus, b) the portrayal of female characters. An examination of these two themes — Latin songs of Bacchus, perceived female venality — strongly suggests an interconnection between the Latin stage of the 2nd century BCE, and the concerns faced by contemporary Romans during that time. Several of the Latin Theban plays describe the worship of Bacchus at the precise moment, or in the immediate aftermath, of the politicization of the worship of Bacchus in Rome and Italy. The presentation of female characters in the Latin Theban plays seems also to reflect the contemporary concerns of the period: a perceived female venality, litigated by Roman legislation during this time, was also presented on stage. Additionally, the female as a metaphor of the Roman state (à la Ilia, Lucretia et al.) more generally allows us some access into the social concerns dramatized by the Latin tragedians.

I discuss the Bacchic scenes from Latin plays (Ennius’ Athamas, Accius’ Bacchae) alongside the Bacchanalian affair (186 BCE) as dramatized by Livy (39.8-19). In the historical struggle between Bacchus and the Roman state, the state won; but in the Latin plays, staged after 186 BCE, Bacchus was depicted again and again defeating civilized order. I also discuss the depiction of women in the Latin Theban tragedies alongside Livy’s (34.1ff) depiction of the “first women’s demonstration” (Pomeroy 1975: 77) which demanded in 195 BCE the repeal of the Lex Oppia (215 BCE), restricting women’s access to material goods. A number of the Latin Theban plays also dwelt on a perceived venality of women. Different components of the Eriphyla saga — her bribery with the garments of Harmonia, her betrayal of Amphiaraus, and her murder at her son’s hands— seem to have been repeatedly restaged in 2nd century Rome: Ennius’ Alcmeo, Accius’ Epigoni, and Accius’ Eriphyla all told elements of this tale. One fragment of Accius’ Eriphyla describes the necklace itself weighing heavily on Eriphyla’s neck: camo collum grauem! “neck heavy with that necklace” (Dangel 601).

Additionally, this paper offers a corrective to an assumption that the motif of Thebes was a “Greek” idea that was imported into Rome without any intervening engagement. Susanna Braund wrote that Statius in composing the Thebaid used “an archetypal Greek myth, which has no apparent links to Rome” (2006: 259). Cynthia Bannon wrote that “Statius had set his exploration of fraternal rivalry in the Greek cycle of Theban myth, sidestepping direct contact with Roman paradigms” (1997: 182). Not only was there a long history of Thebes in Italy (Eteocles and Polyneices, Oedipus and the Sphinx, and Tydeus eating Melanippus’ brains were all figured in Etruscan art — Krauskopf 1974), but we know that Thebes was staged numerous times at Rome during the 2nd century BCE: we can be reasonably certain that around 20 Latin tragedies staged episodes from the Theban cycle at this time. In offering this corrective to the assumption that Thebes was a “Greek” myth at Rome, I also offer a corrective to the assumption that Latin tragedies of the 2nd century BCE were simply derivative of Greek prototypes and held no creative originality of their own, and a corrective to the assumption that Rome owed all of its culture to Greek influences.

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What's Roma Got to Do with It?

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