This paper offers an analysis of the communication between mortals and gods in Statius’ Thebaid, a topic which has been relatively neglected despite the wealth of scholarship on other aspects of the divine in the poem (cf., e.g., Feeney 1991 following Lewis 1936, Dominik 1994, Criado 2000, Hill 2008). In particular, I examine two scenes concerned with epiphany, which are intertextual with - yet crucially different from - their Iliadic sources. I argue that Athena’s speech to Tydeus in Theb. 2 and, more briefly, Hippomedon’s theomachy against Ismenus in Theb. 9 show minimal direct contact with the divine compared to their Homeric counterparts. Through this distancing of epic epiphany, Statius draws attention to theological uncertainties that will come to a head towards the end of the poem, in which the gods play a considerably diminished role.
After his defeat of the fifty Thebans, Athena reminds Tydeus that she granted him success ‘from afar’ (absentes, Theb. 2.687). By raising the question of Tydeus’ dependence on the goddess Statius puts this scene in dialogue with its Iliadic sources, in which Agamemnon (Il. 4.384-400) and Athena (Il. 5.800-13) attempt to incite Tydeus’ son, Diomedes, to battle through unfavourable comparison with his father’s bravery at Thebes. The Iliadic sequence takes place in the context of Diomedes’ aristeia, which explicitly relies on the presence and direct intervention of Athena (e.g., σοá½¶ δ’ á¼¤τοι μá½²ν á¼γá½¼ παρÎ¬ θ’ á¼µσταμαι á¼ δá½² φυλÎ¬σσω / καÎ¯ σε προφρονÎως κÎλομαι ΤρÏŽεσσι μÎ¬χεσθαι, ‘But as for you, I stand by your side and guard you, and readily do I urge you to fight the Trojans’, Il. 5.809-10; cf. 5.405, 5.853-7). In the Thebaid, by contrast, Athena asserts her authority despite her absence from the battle. Moreover, Athena’s instruction that Tydeus wish only for belief in his feat (huic una fides optanda labori, Theb. 2.689; cf. 2.694-5) adapts the Homeric concern with divine aid to an epistemological enquiry about the credibility of communication with the gods.
As a comparandum, the paper briefly compares Hippomedon’s battle with Ismenus (Theb. 9.315 ff.) with its source in Achilles’ struggle against Scamander (Il. 21.130 ff.), and observes Statius’ removal of face-to-face communication between hero and god. By raising issues of belief, autopsy, and divine unresponsiveness in his handling of these two Homerically-inspired episodes, the poet stages a dialogue between two forms of epic representation and their corresponding theologies: a world defined either by vivid and active gods or by abstract entities and human will. I conclude by suggesting that the final book, often criticized as disjunctive and superfluous, in fact represents the realization of a sceptical view that runs throughout the poem: the substitution of the gods by the mortal Theseus is the logical consequence of the scrutiny to which the gods have been subject even in episodes, such as epiphany and theomachy, where their presence would seem to be least contestable.