Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Thebaid

It's not easy to find even a synopsis of Statius' Thebaid. The epic, in 12 books (same as the Aeneid), tells the story of the Seven Against Thebes (link will bring up something of a summary). The story has its roots in Aeschylus and Sophocles, but is filled to overflowing with Statius' baroque Latin style.

The main plot of the Thebaid derives from Oedipus' curse on his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, who, after he blinded himself, pushed him aside in order to pursue their own ambitions. The sons initially agreed to share the rule of Thebes by alternating one-year reigns. But Eteocles, the younger, soon broke faith.

Polynices went to Argos to ask help from its kings, Adrastus I and Amphiaraus. The latter had the celebrated and unusual dual gifts of prophecy and kingliness. On his way back from Argos, Polynices encountered his frail father on the road. The son sought his father's blessing, but received his curse:
This curse I leave you as my last bequest: Never to win by arms your native land, nor return to Argos, but by a kinman's hand to die and slay.
A minor aside: In this scene (from Oedipus at Colonus) with Polynices, Oedipus resembles the way the seer Teiresias had seemed to the pre-blind Oedipus. In Oedipus the King, there is much made of the difference between the kind of prophetic instinct, if that is the word, of the blind Teiresias and the rationative intelligence of Oedipus:
"Come, tell me, where have you proved yourself a seer? Why, when the Sphinx was here, did you say nothing to free the people? Yet the riddle, at least, was not for the first comer to read: there was need of a seer's help, and you were discovered not to have this art, either from birds, or known from some god. But rather I, Oedipus the ignorant, stopped her, having attained the answer through my wit alone, untaught by birds." (Oedipus the King.)

"How terrible it is to have wisdom when it does not benefit those who have it" - Teiresias. (Oedipus the King)
The story of the Seven against Thebes is the endgame of the duel of knowledge and power, fate and freedom, begun with the prophecy given to Laius and Jocasta, the parents of Oedipus. There is no exit, no glimmer of a way out.

Eteocles and Polynices slay one another at Thebes

Of all the poets who could have been cast in the role of "resurrected Christian convert," no one would seem a less promising candidate than Statius. It is a measure of the assurance of Dante as the poet of the era of promise beyond the classical world that he springs (literally) this surprise on Dante the Pilgrim, on Virgil, and on us in Canto 21.

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