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Seeing Double: The Temporality of Theseus’s Shield in Statius’s Thebaid

Jasmine A. Akiyama-Kim


In the final book of Statius’s Thebaid, Theseus arrives in Thebes carrying a shield inscribed with an image of himself fighting the minotaur, a deed now firmly fixed in the past. The Thebans, terrified by the combined effect of Theseus and his shield, “see Theseus double, and double his hands soaked in gore” (bis Thesea bisque cruentas/ caede videre manus, 12.673-4). Theseus, however, “himself looking, remembers past deeds” (veteres reminiscitur actus/ ipse tuens, 12.674-5). I argue that these two different reactions to the ekphrasis on Theseus’s shield encode the difference between Theban and Athenian temporalities and provide competing models for Domitianic Rome. 

    The fact that the Thebans see two Theseuses is significant. Thebes is a place where the past repeats itself (Zeitlin 1986); the mistakes of the house of Cadmus manifest themselves a second time in the house of Oedipus. Doubles, I suggest, result from and should be read as signifiers of this temporal circularity. For example, Oedipus takes on the dual identity of son and husband when he resows his mother’s womb; in turn he is both father and brother to Polynices and Eteocles (for the womb as the site of doubling, see McAuley 2016). Both of these dual relations (son-husband, father-brother) prevent the mapping of temporal progression through generational difference. Oedipus’s family tree and Theban time both continually return to their origins: actions that should be generative and progressive inevitably lapse back into the same familiar patterns. Although Theseus stands out as a singular figure in an epic full of doubles, the Thebans do not perceive him as such. Rather, they collapse the temporal strata that keep his past and present selves apart, and perceive the two Theseuses as existing simultaneously. But Theseus himself, as an Athenian, conceptualizes past and present in neat stratigraphic layers, which he differentiates as he progresses through time: one he remembers, and the other he perceives (cf. Zeitlin 1986 for Thebes as the anti-Athens, and Heslin 2008 for Athens as a paradigm for Rome). 

    Following a tradition of Latin ekphrasis that comments on Rome’s own temporal patterns, I suggest that Theseus’s shield ekphrasis poses the question of where, between Thebes and Athens, Rome might be situated. The two major ekphrases in the Aeneid, the Thebaid’s self-consciously identified predecessor, look in different directions: Dido’s paintings (2.453-93) to the past and Aeneas’s shield (8.626-731) to the future. Both, however, are best understood in retrospect as examples of “battles fought in succession” (pugnataque in ordine bella, 8.629) that punctuated Rome’s foundation and early history, and question the extent to which its temporal narrative is progressive rather than repetitive. By the time Statius composed the Thebaid, Rome had confirmed its tendency to repeat old patterns, including a string of interchangeable emperors and reoccurring civil war. Eventually Domitian would become Nero’s double, but before 93, he was still attempting to define himself in opposition to the last Julio-Claudian emperor and the civil wars of 69 (Rebeggiani 2018). Situated at a time when Rome had become self-conscious of its own temporal circularity, Theseus’s shield ekphrasis becomes a mirror of a Rome that will either persist with cyclical (Theban) time, or forge an (Athenian) future meaningfully different from its past. 

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Lucan Statius and Silius

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