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The Volcanic Poetics of Statius’ Thebaid

Kenneth Draper

Indiana University

This paper explores an overlooked symbolic program in Statius’ Thebaid and in his commentary on the Thebaid in the Silvae. Statius fuses diverse associations of Vulcan, Aetna, and Phlegra to make volcanic fire a multifaceted emblem of his epic verse. On the one hand, Vulcan’s forges in Aetna and elsewhere furnish an image of the poet crafting epic arma. On the other hand, Statius mobilizes another legend about such volcanic regions—that they are the battlefields and burial places of the giants, whose doomed rebellion against the Olympians is an allegory for the impious fighting at Thebes. Finally, Statius connects both these aspects of volcanic fire to Vesuvius’ recent eruption, an analog for the grandeur, violence, and tragedy of his tale. The Thebaid’s craftsmanship, subject matter, and tone are subsumed in the image of volcanic fire.

Previously, scholars have seen some aspects of this program in isolation. Charles McNelis (2006: 50-75) analyzes Vulcan in Thebaid 2 as an authorial figure whose workshop stands for anti-Callimachean grandeur. Separately, he examines the Gigantomachy’s role as an allegory for Thebes’ fratricidal war (2006: 47-49, 124-51), and Nikoletta Manioti (2019: 67-68) discusses Statius’ reference to the Gigantomachic Aetna and Inarime in Capaneus’ death scene. Meanwhile, Carole Newlands (2020: 360-61) argues that in Silv. 4.4, Vesuvius’ rivalry with Aetna is a metaphor for the Thebaid’s competition with the Aeneid.

But such symbols are part of a unified volcanic program, bound together by parallelisms, juxtapositions, and ambiguous references. Consider, for instance, three interrelated depictions of poetic rest. In Silv. 1.5.6-9, Vulcan leaves his forge at Aetna to celebrate Claudius Etruscus’ baths, as Statius takes a break from crafting the Thebaid to do the same. In Silv. 4.4.78-100, Vesuvius plays a similar role to Vulcan in 1.5: the volcano rests after its eruption but threatens future violence, just as Statius has completed the Thebaid but contemplates future epic projects. In Theb. 5.49-52, resting Vulcan again stands for the epic poet, as Statius delays his narrative with the Hypsipyle epyllion: “Lemnos is ... where Mulciber recovers his breath, worn out from fiery Aetna. Nearby, Athos clothes the land in its enormous shadow and darkens the sea with the image of its woods.” Aetna here conjures more than poetic craftsmanship. Its juxtaposition with Athos, a mountain created in the Gigantomachy, reminds readers of its role in that myth. Like Vulcan, Statius goes to Lemnos to escape his “Aetna,” but even this retreat is darkened by the Gigantomachic shadows of the larger narrative.

These associations similarly animate the transitions of Silv. 5.3.195-211. Statius praises his father for his writing about the civil war of 69—a conflict that Statius compares to the battle of Phlegra—and about the eruption of Vesuvius. Statius then transitions to his own Thebaid, implicitly the inheritor of his father’s two “volcanic” compositions, a grand story of loss similarly in tune with Italy’s recent pains.

I examine these and a few other such passages in which Statius makes volcanic fire a polysemous symbol for his epic.

Session/Panel Title

Flavian Epic

Session/Paper Number

11.3

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