Eating in the Thebaid should make us uneasy. From Tantalus’ feast (1.246-7) to Tydeus’ cephalophagy, meals gone wrong beget violence and suggest the breakdown of both social order (Coffee 2009) and the boundary between human and animal (Gervais 2015), illustrating the disorder and perversity prevalent in Statius’ universe. This paper examines one such meal, and argues that the simile that Statius deploys within it contains disturbing implications of bloodthirstiness, bestial furor, and even cannibalism.
As the Thebans banquet to celebrate their success in war, an unexpected guest joins them: Oedipus, cleansed of his customary grime and apparently pleased at the victory, emerges from his underworldly lair to partake in the feast (8.240-54). Oedipus’ brief appearance concludes with a simile: Oedipus eats with the Thebans in the same way that Phineus hesitatingly returns to his table and eats after the Harpies have been driven off (8.255-8).
In the first part of my paper, I trace the affinities this simile establishes between Oedipus and Phineus. Statius combines reference to Apollonius’ and Valerius’ accounts to emphasize similarities between the two characters: descended from the same ancestor, both are prophetic figures; both are punished with blindness and live in squalor; both delight in their eventual consumption of food (Lovatt 2015; Augoustakis 2016). Superficially, comparison with Phineus suggests Oedipus’ reincorporation into society. But, I argue, Statius’ characterizations of both Oedipus and Phineus also evoke his depiction of Oedipus in Thebaid 1: the experience of the blind Phineus accosted by the Harpies is evoked by the sound and sensation of feathery disturbance (8.258), which echoes the disturbance that the blind Oedipus perceives as the “cruel daylight of his life continues to flit around him with its relentless wings” (1.51-2). The repeated evocation of the Oedipus of Thebaid 1 works against the simile’s apparent suggestion of Oedipus’ rehabilitation and emphasizes the speciousness of his joy: Oedipus does not delight in the food, but rather that the spectacle of fratricidal nefas he requested is coming to fruition (8.251-2). Comparison with Phineus thus highlights the perversity of the real appetite underlying Oedipus’ joy: Phineus longs only to eat, but Oedipus hungers for something different.
Next, I argue that the simile is also crafted to liken Oedipus to the Harpies themselves: the phrase sceleris rimatur semina confers distinctly bird-like associations on Oedipus (for rimor of birds, foraging for food: OLD s.v. 1; for semina as bird-food: Pliny NH 19.116.204, Ovid Metamorphoses 5.484-5, inter alia). Statius’ similes offer disturbing alternative interpretations: killers resemble their victims; hunters, the hunted; eaters, the eaten (Gervais 2015). Oedipus’ bird-like characterization immediately precedes Statius’ explanation for Oedipus’ real enjoyment of the feast (inde epulae dulces ignotaque gaudia vultu, 8.254), suggesting all the more affinity between Oedipus and the Harpies: they eat not for their own enjoyment or nourishment, but rather out of desire to exact vengeance.
Finally, I show how Oedipus at the banquet resembles another bird-like beast with a vengeful appetite: the Sphinx. Gore smears their faces and encrusts their eyes as well as their hair and feathers; the real motive for Oedipus’ joy is hidden (causa latet, 8.250), like the Sphinx’s riddle (et latuere doli, 2.516); like the Sphinx’s, Oedipus’ true appetite goes unsatisfied (inexpletam… alvum, 2.518). The implication of these similarities between Oedipus and the human-devouring Sphinx is that Oedipus’ appetite extends beyond the food in front of him: his appetite for violent spectacle, his sons’ mutual destruction, is akin to an appetite for his sons’ very flesh.
Oedipus’ cannibalistic appetite foreshadows the atrocities of the coming war: Tydeus’ death and Creon’s exposure of Argive corpses. Moreover, Thebaid 7 and 8 see the re-entry of divine forces into the epic and stir up longstanding familial resentments among the Olympians. Oedipus’ appetite for his sons recalls Cronus’ consumption of his children and thus attributes to the gods and cosmos themselves the same dysfunctional appetites that consume the family of Oedipus.
Lucan Statius and Silius