Studies of the theatrical element in Statius’ Achilleid have so far focused mainly on tragic intertexts (e.g. Heslin 2005; Fantuzzi 2013). In this paper, I posit that—as the Second Sophistic’s revived interest in Menander reached Rome—the Latin poet alluded extensively to Greek New Comedy as well. He did so to create an alternate, “Menandrian” world on his island of Scyros, where a costumed Achilles is allowed to hide from the Achilleid’s main and much grimmer “epic” narrative. Achilles may eventually abandon this New Comedy for the Trojan War, but he only does so once the “play” and its marriage plot have been brought to a close.
From the moment of Achilles’ first arrival on Scyros, the island is marked as different from the martial world that surrounds it (e.g.: hic thiasi tantum et nil utile bellis, 1.393). Scyros is deeply devoted to Bacchus, and accordingly, the daughters of King Lycomedes constitute a chorus (1.296, 319, 366, 370, 606, 614, 622, 647, 783, 821-40). To the modern reader, this may recall tragedy more than comedy, but female choreuts are not unusual in Aristophanes.
Furthermore, Greek (New) Comic choruses were re-performed, at times independently of their plays, in Imperial times (Csapo 2010). This alone would suggest that a chorus of any gender could easily have evoked comedy. For actual confirmation of these passages’ comic connotations, we can turn to a variety of characters who laugh as they—like theatai—watch the events unfold. E.g., a simile describing Achilles’ falling in love with Deidameia includes “bemused” onlookers (spectant hilares) and perhaps even a hint at blocking characters (obstantque magistri, 1.317). When a “masked” (falsum sub imagine sexus, 1.560) Achilles uses his concealed presence at a Bacchic festival to rape Deidameia, he himself dispels all possible tragic associations with laughter: tacitus sibi risit Achilles (1.602; similarly: 1.194, 378, 559).
A young man impregnating a virgin at a festival already recalls the opening dilemma of many New Comic plays. These associations only get stronger as Deidameia decides to hide the pregnancy donec ... partus index Lucina resolvit (1.674). In New Comedy as in the Achilleid, pregnancy is usually not displayed on stage (except in Plaut. Amph.). Furthermore, pregnant women in Menander’s Roman adapters commonly call out to this same goddess Lucina as they give birth offstage (e.g. Plaut. Aulularia 692–3, Truculentus 476; Ter. Ad. 487, An. 473).
Fittingly, only Deidameia’s cries from a hidden chamber attest to the ongoing birth of Neoptolemus at 1.884-88. Before Deidameia can re-appear on “stage,” Achilles has to place his son in front of Lycomedes and ask for Deidamia’s hand in marriage (natum ante pedes prostravit, 1.908), much like a New Comic adulescens would of a pater durus. And after the wedding, the bride even refers to this plot explicitly as a “play” (fabula, 1.948).
That this compositional strategy may be indebted to the Greek world’s Menandrian revival can be gleaned from the Silvae. Here, Statius connects his hometown of Naples directly to Menandrian freedom and theatrical festivals (3.5.89-94). As he created his alternate comic reality, Statius seems thus to have responded to a growing interest in the Greek playwright, both in the provinces and at Rome (cf. Quint. 10.1.99-100; Juv. 3.93-97). Notably, he seems to have engaged Greek Comedy directly to adapt (vortere) it to new “barbaric” Imperial contexts.