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Statius’ Thebaid and Greek Prose: Reimagining Intertextuality in the Early Empire

Thomas J Bolt

University of Texas at Austin

Due to the explosion of work on Flavian poetry in recent years, scholars now understand the sophisticated intertextual practices of Statius more than ever (Hershkowitz 1997, Gervais 2015, and Lovatt 2017). Yet while there is an obvious attraction to finding intertexts from the Thebaid’s Latin poetic predecessors and contemporaries, a study of Statius’ prose influences remains largely unexplored. When prose works are examined, scholars have largely focused on historical epic (Masters 1992 and Zissos 2013 for Lucan’s Bellum Ciuile or Stocks 2014 for Silius’ Punica). This paper falls into two parts. In the first, I make the textual case that Statius draws heavily from Greek prose in his Thebaid. In the second, I suggest that Statius’ frequent use of Greek prose challenges our understanding of Roman practices of reading, writing, and intertextuality.

In order to show Statius’ use of Greek prose, I will limit myself for the sake of space to three case studies from the first half of the Thebaid. First, I build upon Rihannon Ash’s argument that Status translates the famous θάλαττα θάλαττα into aquae! aquae! (Ash 2015) and argue that the Argive discovery of the Lerna (Stat. Theb. 4.670-8) is a broad reworking of the climax of Xenophon’s Anabasis (Xen. An. 7.24). Next, I argue that the Theban landscape for the night ambush of Tydeus (Stat. Theb. 1.496-504) is indebted to the landscape of Thermopylae described by Herodotus in his Histories (Hdt. 7.175-6 and 213-9). Lastly, I turn to the Hypsipyle episode in Thebaid 5 (Stat. Theb. 5. 28-498), which I argue draws on themes popularized by the Greek novel, such as piracy, kidnapping, and the reunion of long-lost relatives. Since the only Greek novel that can be firmly dated to before Statius is Chariton’s Callirhoe on the evidence of Persius (Pers. 1.134), I understand the novel as an early, but illustrative, example. I argue that each of these intertexts serves a different literary purpose — to reflect on empire and cultural imperialism, to imply the moral contagion of Thebes stretches from the mythical past into historical time, and to cast doubt on Hypsipyle’s narrative.  

I close by reflecting on the theoretical implications of sustained poetic appropriation of prose. Intertext detection remains an integral part of Roman literary studies. While important discussions have recently occurred regarding developing methodologies for intertextual readings (e.g. Coffee 2012, Scianna 2015, and Coffee 2018), the persistent Vergiliocentrism of literary studies means that comparatively little attention has been paid to the non-poetic, non-prestige, or non-Roman sources of intertexts. Statius’ use of Xenophon, Herodotus, and the Greek novel challenge orthodox and one-size-fits-all ideas of literary practice and challenges our an implicit privileging of verse over prose and prestige literature over popular. Furthermore, given that Statius was raised in the ancestrally and culturally Greek Naples that likely affected his poetic sensibilities (Parkes 2015), we might interrogate ideas of elite education and reading practices that privilege the environs and culture of the city of Rome.

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Flavian Epic

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