Thomas Bolt (Florida State University)
Despite recent work on aesthetics in Latin literature (Hardie 2013, Day 2013, Hardie 2009), Statius’ bold experimentation with the sublime remains poorly understood. Statius’ sublime is decidedly ambivalent, careening from the lofty to the absurd in a short space. While most scholars discuss Statius’ sublime with reference to Vergil, Lucretius, and/or Longinus (Lagière 2017 is a major exception), this paper seeks to construct an alternate lineage for Statius’ sublime through prioritizing Senecan scientific thought in the Naturales Quaestiones. This paper proceeds in two sections. In the first, I distinguish the mechanisms of Seneca’ sublime from Lucretius’. In the second, I use Seneca to read Statius’ sublime, drawing out new valences and assessments of the Roman imperial project.
Recent work on the Naturales Quaestiones has put Seneca’s sublime front and center (Garatani 2020, Williams 2016, Gunderson 2015, and Williams 2012). I begin by examining how Seneca departs from Lucretius’ standard account of the sublime. While the outcome of the sublime experience for both writers is transformative liberation, the mechanisms through which it is achieved are crucially different: for Lucretius, reason elevates and frees humanity (e.g., DRN 1.62-79). For Seneca, however, liberation lies in fully understanding how insignificant humanity is compared to the immensity of the universe. This realization, in turn, leads us on the path to enlightenment. In this section, I trace the language with which Seneca describes this perspectival shift, and I argue that the cognitive process most important to Seneca is viewing things as absurd (e.g., tunc iuuat inter ipsa sidera uagantem diuitum pauimenta ridere et totam cum auro suo terram at NQ 1.pref.7 and o quam ridiculi sunt mortalium termini! at NQ 1.pref.9). Where Lucretius liberates through rational thought, Seneca does through reevaluation of human importance. On this reading, absurdity and sublimity go hand in hand, a radically different view from Lucretius.
In the second part, I consider one case study of the sublime from Statius’ epic: Amphiaraus’ descent to the Underworld in Thebaid 8. Although the scene ostentatiously evokes the sublime through the natural cataclysm (Porter 2016), Statius ultimately renders the scene absurd through Pluto’s misinterpretation of Amphiaraus’ body as a theomachic assault from Jupiter (Stat. Theb. 8.1-126). I argue that absurdity is central to Statius’ sublime experience thus betraying Senecan influence. Accordingly, the Underworld becomes a place of even more philosophical complexity than previously appreciated (Bennardo 2018). Moreover, Statius’ decision to re-deploy the sublime not as lofty and ennobling but as absurd and subversive reframes and decenters Vergilian influence on the canon. I close by connecting Seneca’s and Statius’ aesthetic reassessment to larger conversations about reevaluating the importance of the Roman empire in the increasingly connected world of the first century BCE (e.g, Rimell 2015).