Poems from a Silver Age

The Oath of the Seven Chiefs

The Oath of the Seven Chiefs, by John Flaxman

Poems from a Silver Age 

P.Papinius Statius, Vol. I – Text; Vol. II – Translation; Vol. III – Secondary Apparatus; Thebaid and Achilleid (2007-8) by J.B. Hall, A.L. Ritchie and M.J. Edwards, Cambridge Scholars Publishers, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

People should read classical literature for pleasure, to familiarize themselves with ancient characters and their customs, and in order to clarify ancient writings by means of modern techniques. It was only a century ago that the works of Caesar were used to influence the formation of youthful character and to affect beginners in their introduction to Latin idiom. In most schools now pupils are not introduced to Virgil’s (70BC-19BC) Aeneid until their third or fourth year of study. There are private and public institutions today in which that curriculum continues. As a consequence, eager learners anticipate reading that epic poem. When first I read the Virgil’s initial line ‘arma virumque cano’ – of arms and the man I sing, I was instantly enchanted. Later, though, I was disappointed and unhappy when I discovered that Virgil’s poem was left unfinished at his death. Then I searched for another epic poem of Latin idiom to claim my attention, whose appeal would be longstanding. It was not hard to find. Ancient Roman poets were clever. Thebaid, a first century AD text, became a new stand-by for me in my youth: Statius became my new hero.

Publius Papinius Statius (c.AD50-c.96) was once a very popular Flavian era poet. Today, outside of a small circle of Latinists, his poetry is rarely mentioned. This is no fault of his. At one time Statius’ poems were read widely and appreciated. He had his fans in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. A few smart scribes of the Renaissance also recognized genius in Statius’ writings. Displaying competence in more than one language and supported by wealthy patrons, but not too condescending of others, Statius reordered Greek thought for readers of Latin verse. The Thebaid was his great literary masterpiece, apparently based on a story in Aeschylus’ (c.525BC-c.456) Greek tragedy, Seven Against Thebes. All the way through the Thebaid, Statius retells the celebrated battle for control of the city of Thebes between Oedipus’ sons, Polynices and Eteocles.

The best writers in ancient Latin were busy during the century before the birth of Christ: Lucretius, Virgil, Propertius and Horace etc. Such an era is routinely designated “The Golden Age” of Latin poets, a time when hexameter lines of verse could be used to tantalize readers. Following in succession was “The Silver Age” of poetry when Statius composed the Thebaid. Readers owe the descriptions of gold, silver and other type of poems to writers who relish the ascription of graphic titles to various eras. Although literary criticism was regarded highly in ancient times, I disagree with the overstressed value of it as a discipline for assessing a text’s significance. In my view, the appreciation or depreciation of poems of any kind derive entirely from a reader’s enjoyment of them, from their own exclusive and private ability to adjudge its merits. Even then, those judgments tend to follow specific lines of reasoning or some sort of consensus opinions. Sensible decisions are not made in a vacuum. There are always causes and effects.

Volume 1

So what happens when Statius’ Latin poem is examined, edited and translated according to unconventionally modern standards? – the answer is, you get the Thebaid according to J.B. Hall, A.L. Ritchie and M.J. Edwards (henceforth HRE). Another epic tale could be told of the circuitous routes, over several years, which it took for these three volumes to arrive. The volumes have been in the marketplace for nearly a decade, and they provide readers ample material for studies in text-critical principles and translation theory and in manuscript collation. The blurb on the back of a volume says:

“The present work, in three volumes, offers a revised a text of two epics with an apparatus criticus (volume I), a prose translation (volume II), and an extensive secondary apparatus accompanied by discussion of the manuscripts and previous editions (volume III)”.

Cambridge Scholars Publishers (CSP) offer an impeccably edited textbook. Well-polished, critical, Latin texts are editorial creations. HRE are astute text-critics. The result is not one that has surrendered to accepted wisdom. Henry Sidgwick’s remark would be disagreeable to them: “it is much more important for ordinary men to learn to think correctly about historical and philosophical subjects than about philological” (as quoted in E.R. Dodds, Plato: Gorgias, 1959, p.v); although the editors are endowed with talents for correcting the text, they seem to be defensive about their use of divinatory gifts for conjectural emendation. Bold statements are made. Activists in favor of preserving or adjusting a text’s original form mainly through variant MSS readings and text-critics who prefer radical alteration of the text through conjecture are reprimanded for their criticisms of what are perceived to be unneeded conjectures. HRE’s principles and aims are set forth in volume one’s General Introduction. They aver (p.viii),

“We do not print conjectures unless we believe them to be necessary, that is to say, unless we think that the text, however intelligible it may seem to some to be, is not what Statius left behind; and not to print conjectures when we deem them necessary seems to us to be an act of moral cowardice and dereliction of critical duty.”

Each page provides a glimpse of how hypothesis becomes a firm basis for their scientific reconstructions. In these spheres of study, one comes across many arguments in which modal verbs – akin to ‘might’ or ‘could’ etc. – are exploited. This is inevitable; but the exploitation of these verbs does not substantiate, in my opinion, the scientific claims made in the investigations. They merely indicate possibilities, but also they verify the many uncertainties yet extant. Technical, academic language suffuses the text-critical comments; but that kind of language does not always convey exactitude: the result of their efforts is wholly an artistic approach, in which an [ancient] author’s poetic text is amended to restore the form and beauty the editors believed the poem originally communicated. This criticism does not undermine their disciplined performance. Still, afterwards, one is surprised to read the following words (p.ix),

“Indeed we have made a point of starting to punctuate with just the words in front of us and no marks of punctuation in sight. We commend this method to others as a procedure which works to advantage.”

However, “this method” easily yields interpretations that tend toward vagueness and imprecision. As stated further on the same page they say they did not want to: “get bogged down in niggling about the right place for a comma, or whether there should be a parenthesis here or not and so on… Our punctuation is minimal…”.

Since HRE give preferentiality to publishing a profuse amount of conjectures, it is stunning to note to what extent they undervalue the need for proposing a fully punctuated Latin text as the base of their English translation. A Bibliography and Conspectus Siglorum follow the General Introduction.

In appearance, this edition of Statius’ Latin text is pronounced and easy to read. Unlike the miniscule font size one finds in the critical apparatus of an Oxford Classical Text or in a Bibliotheca Teubneriana, CSP’s critical apparatus presents a font equal in size to the printed text. This presentation is ideal. Hopefully editions of the same kind will appear regularly.

Volume 2

Of HRE’s renderings into English, they theorize stating (vol. II, vii),

“Our translation of the Thebaid and Achilleid has one primary objective, and that is to represent in English prose as far as we can what we believe to be the uppermost meaning of Statius’ Latin. It is a prose translation because only in prose is there the possibility of such maneuver as is necessary to catch subtleties of the original, whether it rises to the heights of grand epic or descends to the human level of the colloquial.”

It is not true that prose is the needed medium to reproduce Statius’ nuances. Word-conversion has less to do with form of the receptor language than with extensive, encyclopedic knowledge of English idiom. Translators of older, stand-by volumes have stated something similar (cf. C. R. Rann, The Olynthiac and Other Public Orations of Demosthenes, 1896, pp.i-ii),

“Brevity and simplicity of style, together with the choice of apt and forcible words, are the most essential elements of a good translation… . The primary object of a good translation is, that it may be read with pleasure, or at least without difficulty, by your countrymen; and secondary to this is the assisting of the student in his perusal of the original… . And a translation, either in prose or verse, may in this respect be made a useful medium of instruction, testing the powers and capabilities of your own tongue in comparison with those of another.”

HRE opt for a style that is “as natural as possible” avoiding antiquated English parlance, believing that: “Nobody ever spoke like that in the history of our language, and translationese is the death of sincerity of style” (viii).

Their claim is debatable; but they did not entirely circumvent the dangers of which they have warned readers: e.g., “affrighted” and “forthwith” appear on page 3. The need to capture a reader’s attention compels translators of ancient poetry to execute with care their renderings of the initial lines. That is because, in general, the preponderance of renderings which appear further on in English translations incline towards blandness. Not so here; nonetheless, in the opening paragraph readers encounter an English sentence, the like of which has not been seen or uttered of late (p.1):

“A long retrospect, were I to tell of the trembling husbandman of hidden warriors sowing conflict in accursed furrows and to follow closely the song [10] by which Amphion bade mountains come to make Tyrian walls, the source of Bacchus’ grievous anger against whom the wretched Athmas took up his bow, and his mother who was destined to fall together with Palaemon felt no fear of the mighty Ionian Sea.”

As you can see, there are punctuation issues. Besides, that long answer is in reply to the question: “Shall I sing of the first beginnings of a dread race…?”. The English does not beautify the Latin lyrics, and as a lone sentence it is the most ungainly in the whole of the translation. Such as it is, my assertion is a compliment; but it is disheartening because it confronts the reader on the opening page. The English of the quotation is vague too, so one must go to the Latin to learn of who is ‘sowing the conflict’, whether it is the husbandman or the warriors. As it is written, the ‘trembling husbandman’ could also have been one of the ‘hidden warriors’.

Triumphant Achilles

Triumphant Achilles

As for the uncompleted Achilleid fragment, the translation has many bright spots. The brief Latin text left to readers recounts the tale of Achilles’ youth, of his mother’s attempt to protect him from going to war, and divulges the subtle means she used to accomplish her goal: she played upon his strong affection for a beautiful girl and influenced him to wear female apparel in order to be near the object of his desire. Too bad Statius died before he finished this interesting poem.

A spate of articles and individual book studies has appeared in the last 25 years on Statius’ Thebaid, e.g., of books: William J. Dominik, Speech and Rhetoric in Statius’ Thebaid (Olms-Weidmann, 1994); D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Statius. Vol. 2: Thebaid, Books 1-7; Vol. 3: Books 8-12 (Harvard, 2003); Karla Pollmann, Statius, Thebaid 12: Introduction, Text, and Commentary (F.Schӧningh,2004); Helen Lovatt, Statius and Epic Games. Sport, Politics, and Poetics in the Thebaid (Cambridge,2005); W.J. Dominik, C.E. Newlands, K. Gervais (edd.), Brill’s Companion to Statius (Brill,2015); Antony Augoustakis, Statius, Thebaid 8. Edited with an Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Oxford,2016).

Generally the above material is all worth reading, if for no other reason than to follow scholarly debates. One peculiar topic lately has appeared time and again: private and public material circulated about Achilles “transvestitism” has been exploited in post-modern discussions of sexuality (cf. P.J. Heslin, The Transvestite Achilles: Gender and Genre in Statius’ Achilleid, Cambridge,2005).

Scholars usually avoid the re-conception of moral overtones in ancient poetry for modern uses. Yet reconfigurations of this specific aspect of a fragmentary poem live on with an exaggerated importance. It is not a matter of propaganda, but one of legitimacy. Of real significance is the internal textual evidence, that there is nothing in the Achilleid to lead one to suppose Statius ever intimated Achilles underwent a crisis of sexuality. Philologists who keep a close eye on the text rarely are snared by the tangled webs of modernist discussions. HRE, therefore, translate the Latin text of the Achilleid straightforwardly. Here is an excerpt describing Achilles’ adolescent training.

“Even in my babyhood when I was still crawling, from the time when the aged Thessalian received me on the bleak mountain-top, I did not take any food of the usual kind, I am told, nor did I satisfy my hunger at any nourishing breasts but sucked on the tough entrails of lions and the marrowbones of a half-dead she-wolf. This was my first bread, these gifts of jolly Bacchus: such was the dispensation of my renowned foster-father. Soon he was teaching me to go with him through the trackless wilderness, dragging me along as his stride was too big for me, and to laugh at the wild beasts we saw, and not to be frightened by rocks shattered in rushing waterfalls or by the silence of the endless forest. At that time a spear was already in my hand, at that time quivers were already about my neck, my devotion to weaponry began early, and my skin toughened by much sun and cold; and my limbs did not loll on a soft couch but shared a rocky bed with my mighty governor. Scarcely had my young life turned the wheel of twice six years when he compelled me to outstrip speeding stags… .

And now I was being trained for armed conflicts among the neighboring young men, and no kind of fierce warfare passed by me. I mastered the whirling motion with which the Paeonians hurl their missiles and the Macedonians their javelins, the vigorous actions with which the Sarmatian wields his pike, the Getan his scimitar and the Gelonian his bow… . I could scarcely relate to you all my activities” (2. 93-138).

Oh such bravery! Ancient Greek and Latin poets loved stories of valor and mystery. Of the Graeco-Roman gods’ reckless rage and marvelous machinations, much may be read. A courageous person who is compelled to endure numerous misunderstood pains is a common motif (e.g., Homer’s Odyssey & Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica). The poetic image of the woman as a heroine, a facilitator of change, is not unusual. It is drawn into several storylines. Grief and agony which, otherwise, would not be experienced, repeatedly become the price of admission for men who desire entry into the enchanting worlds of beautiful women. The ten-year siege of Troy (The Trojan War) was fought to retrieve the abducted woman Helen, the finest looking woman many men had ever seen. The Iliad tells the tale.

Overindulgence characterizes many people in ancient works: material priorities rarely are secondary to concupiscent pursuits, but poets knew that tales involving sexual energy heighten readers’ alertness for subtle nuances. Roman poets redressed Greek themes in Latin texts: Valerius Flaccus’ own Argonautica in Latin is proof. So Achilles bedecked himself in items of clothing selected by a woman (his mother), and all this in order to be near a girl for whom he felt strong attraction. When carefully read, the ancient poets remind us of the vicissitudes that intrude upon mankind whenever someone is attracted by another’s magnetic charms.

Two other drawbacks are noticeable in volume II. To begin with, the translation reflects the aforesaid unpunctuated Latin text. This was by design. As a result, many phrases are protracted and ambiguities abound in sentence after sentence. Secondly, the page-layout of the translation does not encourage readers to tarry long with it. The block-paragraphing is tedious to read. Why the publishers did not stagger or separate queries and first-hand replies from the larger mass of words through indentation is incomprehensible.

No misunderstanding is intended by the above. The translation has many virtues. HRE are creative. As a rule, Statius’ Latin text lies behind their word-choices in English. The reading of it all tends to move the reader rapidly through various scenes.

Thebaid, courtesy Crystalinks

Thebaid, courtesy Crystalinks

Volume 3

Volume III is over 700 pages and opens with an excellent brief historical Introduction of the transmission of the Thebaid. Previous Editions and Discussions is a section worth reading. It contains scrupulous remarks on various editions. But several remarks are unwarranted in so far as ‘critical’ was not a scientific word in pre-scientific ages, as it is understood now. T.F. Dibdin (1776-1847), of F. Tiliobroga’s (1573-1648) 1600 edition had written, “This may be considered the first critical edition of Statius works” (vol. III, p.60) Hall responded by saying “This is quite excessive.” He believed J.F. Gronovius (1611-1671) 1653 edition to be the first truly critical edition. The judgement is personal. Ascriptions aside, the latter is not much better than the former one when judged according to 21st century standards. Yet when taken on the merits weighable in their day, both publications were impressive.

There are numerous unsubstantiated accusations leveled at deceased critics: e.g., of N. Heisius, “he sometimes let his Ovidian instincts get the better of Statius’s wording…” (p.62). In other places he puts up a fairly good defense, as when guarding Kaspar von Barth’s (1587-1658) reputation from allegations of deception, he writes, “Those who still insist that Barthius was out to perpetuate a fraud must show why he went to such excessive lengths to do so” (p.68). Few editions, if any, offer extensive details of manuscripts comparable to the data provided to readers in volume III. Hall, specifically, in collaboration with Ritchie and Edwards, takes a much more cautious approach in his [their] estimation of manuscript Puteanus, preferring to say of it,

“That the Puteanus is a very good manuscript is not to be questioned, and the contention that it has a higher concentration of true readings than any other manuscript so far known is also beyond question. But it does not have nearly so many true readings of its own as previous scholars have been aware… ” (p.138).

The Orthographical Index (pp.229-392), listing variations in spelling, and the Secondary Apparatus (pp.394-774), containing a repertory of conjectures that do not appear in the apparatus of volume I, both reflect wide-ranging industry and precision.

This volume is one of the more important critical editions to appear in the last century. The translation is vital to studies of Statius’ Thebaid in the same way that G.P. Goold’s (1922-2001) translation is fundamental to the study of Manilius’ Astronomica. Undoubtedly, Barrie Hall is the luminary in this editorial project. In the past, he has published papers that still are required reading for persons studying the Thebaid. If brilliant conjectures represent laudable scientific research, then this critical edition identifies HRE as pioneering spirits.



Classicist Darrell Sutton is rector of the Tabernacle in Red Cloud, Nebraska, a small village in the Great Plains. He also teaches Semitic languages and edits an academic bulletin entitled ‘The DS Commentary on Books’

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