Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 48.

Statius XXI: On the Renaissance of Papinian Papers

P. J. Heslin, The Transvestite Achilles: Gender and Genre in Statius' Achilleid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 349. ISBN 0-521-85145-9. US$80.00.

Hellen Lovatt, Statius and Epic Games: Sport, Politics and Poetics in the Thebaid. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. 336. ISBN 0-521-84742-7. US$80.00.

Bernhard Kytzler
Postgraduate School, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

1. No Apologies for Statius?

Not more than a dozen years ago, a learned paper[[1]] pointed to the fact that two contemporary scholars did not 'offer apologia for Statius but rather present detailed studies of Statius' poetry which take it for granted that Statius' poetry should be taken seriously.' This short remark nicely sums up the present situation of Statian Studies; the time when his work was held in contempt by the scholarly world is coming to an end. A new look on the Flavian poet begins to dominate the field. No apologies are needed for dedicating time and effort to him and his work. This is, however, not so much a new but rather an age-old appreciation of an artist who was counted among the leading poetae Latini through many centuries.

According to Dante, the soul of the Flavian poet Papinius Statius had to wait a dozen centuries in purgatory until Divine Grace allowed him to proceed to paradise (Purg. XXI/XXII). In our modern age, the fame of Statius, as a poet highly praised in the Middle Ages and later strongly marginalised in the period of romanticism, had to wait more than a dozen decades until it was allowed to re-enter the public domain. While Statius and his work was seen as 'unoriginal' and 'decadent' and 'bombastic' by most of the scholars during the nineteenth and by many in the early twentieth century, so that little research work was done, a renewed interest awoke during the last fifty or so years.

This course of development can easily be observed by comparing the 'Forschungsbericht' of Rudolf Helm of 1956[[2]] with the optimistic overview by William J. Dominik of 1996,[[3]] who uses the terminus 'Statian renaissance'. Similarly Nial W. Bernstein observes in 2007 'These are felicitous times for the study of Statius' Silvae. Important new editions, translations, commentaries, edited volumes, article collections, and monographs devoted to this unique collection of 32 poems have appeared in the last few years.'[[4]] And, similarly again, S. Franchet d'Espèrey talks of '. . . L'entreprise de rehabilitation de Stace qui se poursuit depuis la moitié de ce siècle.'[[5]]

While no one in modern times has so far taken up the herculean task of working out a detailed commentary on the whole of the Statian poems, recently more and more research work has been done: not only entire books of the Thebaid have been explained in learned commentaries,[[6]] but also single passages and also single topics have been selected for elucidation.[[7]]

2. Two Case Studies

Noteworthy is not only the present interest in Statius in general, but also the tendency to use his texts for exploring new fields and new methods of research. In 2005, two books have shown this trend side by side. Both books mark, each in its own way, a refreshing initiative in Statian studies.

Lovatt's work is a solid, far-sighted study of the funeral games in Theb. 6. But it is more; it studies epic games from Homer to the Flavian epoch, their elements, and their general lay-out. Lovatt explains (p. 3): 'It is a book about both intratextuality and intertextuality.' This means (ibid.): 'Each chapter comes in two halves; the first half is mainly intertextual. Each reads one event in the games in detail, looking at the relationships with previous versions; the second half is intratextual, taking a theme from the event and tracing it through the rest of the Thebaid.' Understandably, this brings in a host of important topics: 'Starting from close reading of a small part of the poem, we move out towards wider interpetation of the whole poem the poetics of athletics meets the poetics of gigantomachy; games are played on and through bodies and audiences; the tripartite power structure of editor [producer of the games], audience and spectacle forms one frame for the discussion; the construction of masculinity, ethnicity and poetic identity another.'

This initial promise is kept through all the 300 pages of a well-organised, dense presentation. Lovatt is to be commended for her masterful analysis of a complex text, a study including the small details as well as the overarching context. Her conclusion (pp. 307-10) seeks to sum up her results and to apply them to the end of the Thebaid. However, it is incorrect to state, that the triumph of Theseus in Book 12 'is the only representation of victory in the Thebaid' (p. 310). This remark overlooks the victory of Tydeus over no less than fifty enemies who ambushed him on his way back from Thebes to the exiled Eteocles. So what seems to be intended as fulmen in clausula appears to come out as lapsus in clausula. Obviously, however, this is not of any importance for the whole of this valuable contribution. The book masters the difficult combination of a precise detailed study and a far ranging context discussion in a well balanced manner. So it presents not only a study of Statius's poetry, but a contribution to the clarification of the history of ancient epic literature. And if the Silvae, in their format as occasional poetry, serve as information about Flavian court society, patronage, and private life, so a thoughtful observation of the Thebaid and the Achilleid can serve as elucidation in the concatenation of poetic topics through all antiquity's literary genres. Lovatt's example might be followed by many.

Heslin's work has already found high acclaim.[[8]] His is indeed a special book: Heslin is 'an author who insisted on designing his own book' (p. ix), and in doing so he has succeeded remarkably well. He begins his observations in reverse order: Chapter 1 treats operatic compositions of the subject between 1641 and 1744. Thus starting with 'Nachleben', Heslin takes the reader step by step back to antiquity, where he studies first 'The Design of the Achilleid' (pp. 57-103), then 'Womanhood, Rhetoric, and Performance' (pp. 105-55). In the centre is Chapter 4 'Semivir, semifer, semideus' (pp. 157-91), formulated after Arist. Polit. 1253a, supplemented by Chapter 5 'Transvestism in Myth and Ritual' (pp. 193- 236) and rounded out by Chapter 6 'Rape, Repetition, and Romance' (pp. 237-76). After so many excursions away from the text of Statius, it is no wonder when Heslin's 'Conclusion' (pp. 277-300) finally brings in Lacan and when he discusses in some detail the role of father figures in the life of this Statian Achilles figure. So the Achilleis comes out as 'a meditation on sons, mothers, foster-fathers and biological fathers, men and animals, men and gods, sex as power, gender as a cultural construction, and gender as innate and essential' (p. 297).

What Heslin contributes, is not so much the elucidation of the art of Statius as an epic poet but rather the contextualisation of his creation as we have it.[[9]]. Thus, the Achilleis becomes an enormously interesting poem, touching on operatic history and contemporary philosophy, on cultural development, on the history of mentality, and on religious and ritualistic phenomena. Interestingly enough, a similar approach marks the recent special issue of Arethusa devoted to the Silvae.[[10]]

Heslin's book ends with three registers: 'Works cited' (pp. 277-300); 'Index Locorum' (pp. 301-30); 'General Index' (pp. 343-49). The first of them, the bibliography, reveals an unusual feature: for each entry, there is not only the title, followed by place and date of the publication, but also the page or pages in Heslin's book, where the work is cited. In some cases this leads to endless lines of figures: the lemma for the editor 'O. A. W. Dilke' for instance counts seven lines filled with figure after figure after figure. Cui bono? Of course it is in some instances quite helpful and meaningful to be guided to the context in which a certain publication is used. However, this holds true only for a limited number of these references; most of them just register a remark that rounds out a thought en passant. And of course such an effort demands a great lot of work; hours and hours must have been spent compiling this index. So the question of input versus output remains: is all the sweat in the end really enriching our understanding so much? Doubts seem justified. Time will teach us whether more and more modern authors will undergo the labour and follow, or whether the scholars will feel satisfied with the traditional approach.

3. Statius XXI

What was it that lay at the basis of the contempt in which Statius was held in the scholarly world until recently? Was it prejudice only? Or were there some understandable reasons? There is a remark by Ulrich von Wilamowitz- Moellendorff, which might help us along. He said: 'Einen wirklichen Dichter will ich gem anerkennen, such wenn mir sein Stil zuwider ist' ('I will gladly accept a true poet, even if his style is distasteful to me.') In other words: To express his poetic visions, Statius used the rhetorical style of his time, which is held in little regard in our times. Two of the greatest of his colleagues in poetry testify to this. Dante (Purgatorio 22.73) makes him say to Virgil Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano. For Dante therefore Statius is a poet in the full traditional meaning of this important word. For Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Gesprache 5.102, to F. G. Hand in March 1813, in Hand's Latin report): Ille Statius poeta est magnopere laudandus assiduoque studio nostro dignus. Non me offendunt ea quae luxuria quadam ingenii effudit, sed admiror in eo artem, qua res conspicuas mente comprehendere et exacte describere optimum quemque poetam decet. (‘This Statius is a poet much to be praised and worthy of our continuous study. I do not feel offended by all that what he brings about so abundantly through a superfluity of his talent; but I admire in him the art with which the best poets will have to grasp visible things as visible and to describe them precisely.’)

This makes the field clear: Statius is seen by the great philologist, the leading medieval poet, and the foremost German thinker, as a true poet of the greatest talent, and although he has to express himself in a style somehow remote from our modern world, he succeeds in showing his visions in poems which have stood the test of time. What, then, do we expect for him and his works in this new century?

Two key features of the present 'Statian Renaissance' might be mentioned here. The one is the growing emphasis on what used to be called 'the influence of' and is now seen as 'reception' -- an approach which in German is nicely named 'Nachleben' ('After-life'). Here we may point to Heslin's first chapter on the Achilles theme in baroque opera, or the study on the sphragis of the Thebais as a model for eleven later writers in Hilton/Gosling's fine collection Alma Parens originalis?.[[11]]

The other phenomenon is the increasing trend to teamwork. We find it initiated by the noble volume Epicedian on the occasion of the 1900th anniversary of Statius' death in 1996,[[12]] carried on by the common review of six contributors on Bruce Gibson's work on Silvae V (in BMCR 2007.6.19) and carried further in the last volume of Arethusa discussing various Statian topics in the articles of nine authors.

What might we hope for at the beginning century? Perhaps (a) a better, more intensive use of the all too often neglected valuable research work produced in other languages than English, such as in Italian (Arico) and French (Delarue); (b) an intensification of well planned teamwork research; (c) an overall project exploring the influence of Statius in poetry, music, and the arts.

What perspectives on Statius could the incoming century bring us? Maybe, after the romantic rejection, a coincidentia oppositorum might appear: the picture of a classicistic composer, deeply steeped in poetic tradition, taking up, developing, and transmitting the best elements of it; a poet who also uses modern manneristic means of expression, of description, of composition; we might learn to see -- and to appreciate -- an artist aiming at mastering the balance of opposing forces and contrasting tendencies; a poeta creator. 'Il reste encore au XXI. siecle beaucoup a decourvrir chez Stace' (p. 13).


[[1]] Debra Hershkowitz, ‘Patterns of Madness in Statius’ Thebaid’, JRS 85 (1995) 62.

[[2]] Rudolf Helm, 'Nachaugusteische nichtchristliche Dichter' Lustrum (1956) 121-318, especially 272-99. Helm, whose (latin!) PhD thesis De P. Papinii Statii Thebaide appeared in Berlin in 1892, also contributed the Article 'Papinius Statius', RE 18.2, p. 993. His 'Forschungsbericht' has to cope with an intellectual climate in which scholars criticise the inclination of Statius for 'ghastly details' and 'his lack of a balanced economy' ('des Dichters Neigung zum Schauerlichen'; rein 'Mangel an richtiger okonomie', p. 295f.).

[[3]] William J. Dominik, 'Statius' Thebaid in the Twentieth Century', in Richard Faber and Bernd Seidensticker (edd.), Worte -- Bilder -- Tone (Wurzburg 1996) 129-41. He describes 'a larger Statian renaissance that had begun in Germany during the early 1950s' (p. 130). He adds: 'Outside Germany the renaissance of the Thebaid became evident mainly in Italy' (p. 131). Finally, he concludes: 'The Statian Renaissance took a little longer to reach the United States' (ibid.).

[[4]] Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.02.26 on Meike Ruehl, Literatur gewordener Augenblick: Die Silven des Statius im Kontext literarischer and sozialer Bedingungen (Berlin 2006).

[[5]] Sylvie Franchet d’Espèrey, REL 69 (1991) 229.

[[6]] H. Heuvel (1932) and F. Caviglia (1973), Book I; H. M. Mulder (1954), Book II; J. Snijder (1968), Book III; J. J. L. Smolenaars (1994), Book VII; M. Dewar (1991), Book IX; R. D. Williams (1972), Book X; A. G. Maher (1950) and P. Venini (1970), Book XI; K. F. L. Pollmann (2004), Book XII.

[[7]] J. J. L. Smolenaars, Theb. VI, 1-451 (Amsterdam 1983); Manfred Hoffmann, Theb. 12, 312- 463 (Gottingen 1999); Judith Steiniger, Theb. 4, 1- 344 (Stuttgart 2005); Helen Lovatt, Theb. 6, 249- 946 (Cambridge 2005).

[[8]] Expressions like 'extremely intelligent, provocative and insightful' or 'imaginatively and virtuosically' or 'ingenious' or 'excellent' were used, summed up as: 'an idiosyncratic, sometimes mildly frustrating, always intriguing, often brillant book' (Bob Cowan, BMCR 2007.04.53).

[[9]] A few details: it appears strange that a book like Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam: Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York 1995), went unnoticed; similarly the study 'Achill und die Dichter', in Ulrich Muller et al. (edd.), Europaische Mythen von Liebe, Leidenschaft, Untergang and Tod im (Musik-)Theater: Der Trojanische Krieg = Wort and Musik 51 (2002), reprinted in the collection B. Kytzler, Sermones Salisburgenses XII (Salzburg 2004) 85-96, is not used, an essay, which discusses the recreations and adaptations of the Achilles myth by Statius and von Goethe (both under the same title 'Achilleis'); Christa Wolf (in her novel 'Kassandra'); Gottfried Senn in his cycle 'V. Jahrhundert' [final poem]. The careful edition, lucid italian translation and helpful commentary of the Achilleid might have been useful (in Antonio Traglia and Giuseppe Arico, Opere di Stazio [Torino 1980] 1003-77). Equally missing is the valuable contribution of Fernand Delarue, Stace, Poete Epique. Originalite et coherence (Paris 2000), for which see my comments in Gnomon 75 (2003) 269-72.

[[10]] Antony Augoustakis and Carole E. Newlands (edd.), Statius Silvae and the Poetics of Intimacy, Arethusa 40.2 (2007).

[[11]] John Hilton and Anne Gosling, Alma Parens Originalis? The Receptions of Classical Literature and Thought in Africa, Europe, The United States, and Cuba (Bern 2007) 257-68.

[[12]] Fernand Delarue et al. (edd.), Epicedion: Hommage a P. Papinius Statius, AD 96-1996 (Poitiers 1996).

[[13]] Fernand Delarue, Stace, Poete Épique (Louvain/Paris 2000) 432.