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Literature / The Thebaid

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"[Let] this monstrous infamy fall from memory—only kings should recall such a duel."

"Fraternas acies alternaque...
(Brothers crossing swords...)"
Statius, Book I.1-6

The Thebaid is a 1st-century epic by Statius detailing the fated war between Oedipus' son-brothers for the throne of Thebes.

Modeled off The Aeneid, The Thebaid repeats and expands upon a classic sequence of stories from Classical Mythology in twelve books of verse. The first six books see the exiled Polynices arrive in Argos as the gods of Olympus and Styx move him to wage war against his brother, King Eteocles. The latter six cover the war itself as Polynices and the rest of the seven against Thebes reckon with their cruel fates.

As the title suggests, the history of Thebes is of great importance to the work and there are frequent references to the events that shaped the city. The wanderings of Cadmus, the birth of Bacchus, the blasphemy of Tantalus, the death of Niobe, and especially the tragedy of Oedipus all shape how the gods regard the war, but outside of the distant past, Argos is the city that gets the most focus. The protagonist is a leader of said city and the other six (Amphiaraus, Tydeus, Parthenopeus, Hippomedon, Capaneus, and King Adrastus) all feature prominently in multiple episodes. In terms of Thebes, only Polynices' family and Creon have major appearances in multiple books.

Statius would go on to attempt another epic in the style of The Thebaid with his Achilleid, but his death left only a sample of The Achilleid completed. It would be left to readers like Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer to truly succeed his work with their own masterworks that bear his influence.

The Thebaid contains examples of the following:

  • Agent Scully: Capaneus doesn't believe in anything divine and insults Amphiaraus for his profession as an augur.
  • Always Accurate Attack: The arrows of Diana never fail to kill game, even in the hands of a boy with his bow squaring off with herds of human prey.
  • Ambition Is Evil: Eteocles and Polynices renounce their father, kill each other and destroy huge swaths of their home in their attempts to take the throne of Thebes. Thebes isn't even a rich, beautiful or even decent city, so their hatred for each other is based on nothing more than a desire for control.
  • Animal Motifs: Prophecy tells the Argives that their princes will come in the guise of a lion and a boar. It is no coincidence that Polynices and Tydeus are fighting while wearing the skins of those two beasts. Even when they ditch the skins for armor, the two are still consistently compared to a carnivorous lion and a wild boar and sometimes the comparisons are swapped to show the new brothers influence on each other.
  • Belated Injury Realization: The battle between Tydeus and the assassins sees both side brutally injuring each other, but while the assassins die from their injuries, Tydeus is too enraged to even notice the cuts and bruises covering his entire body until he's killed every man gunning for him.
  • Blasphemous Boast: Capaneus' whole M.O. is renouncing the gods, so he'll always go into the battle praying to his right hand or mocking others for relying on divine protection. Jupiter doesn't see much reason to deal with it, until Capaneus grows bold enough to boast that the Thunderer was too scared to face anyone that wasn't a defenseless maiden. Then comes the logical conclusion of this trope: the Bolt of Divine Retribution.
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution:
    • Jupiter complains that dealing divine justice upon humanity has exhausted his supply of thunderbolts, overworked the Cyclops who build them, and worn out the fire they are forged in. For Oedipus' enemies, some subtler form of punishment will have to do.
    • Book X ends with a firsthand account of the bone-melting, wall-crushing power of Jupiter's thunderbolt. After all of Capaneus' arrogance and blasphemies, such an extreme display of divine power the only fitting way he could have been executed.
  • Book Ends: The first book begins with Statius thanking and praying to the The Muses and it ends with a character in the story heaping praise upon Apollo, the father of the Muses.
  • Breather Episode: Book VI glosses over the Theban war that every book before and after it focuses on in favor of detailing a bunch of races, wrestling matches, and other games. No one dies and there's some fun racing and low-stakes fighting, all thanks to the god of war procrastinating.
  • Cain and Abel: Polynices and Eteocles are driven to wage war and kill each other each other due to a curse put on them by their father, the intervention of Jupiter, and their hunger for the throne. Of the two, Eteocles is the more like Cain since he betrays the other first, by denying Polynices his promised year as king. That said, Polynices isn't as innocent as Abel despite all his brother's villainy. He manipulates the people of Argos to die on his behalf and although he's the protagonist, he's the protagonist of a tragedy, so that's actually points against him being some innocent Abel.
  • Child Eater: A fiend from Hell slaughters the infants of Argos and eats their entrails to avenge death of Apollo's son. It doesn't take long for the people get upset and kill the fiend as it wanders around sipping intestines from child corpses.
  • David vs. Goliath: Two of the Nemean games pit a hulking brute against a tiny underdog:
    • In the boxing match, the blasphemous Capaneus scares off any challengers due to his sheer size until Alcidimas stands up. Trained by the legendary boxer Pollux, the smaller boxer is able to dodge most of Capaneus' lethal blows and jab him until he nearly goes down. Its the humiliation of that near-knock out that enrages Capaneus to the point of beating Alcidimas to death. His comrades stop the brute and Capaneus is rewarded a palm branch while Alcidimas gets the compensation prize of his life.
    • In the wrestling match, one of Hercules' fatter kids goes up against the Pint-Sized Powerhouse Tydeus. The Herculean is explicitly as big as his dad (although not nearly as strong) and expects his bulk to win the day, which allows Tydeus to totally outmaneuver and exhaust him throughout the fight. Even crushing the little man with his whole bulk doesn't save the big guy, since Tydeus just slips out of his grasp, puts his arms around him, and throws the giant man so hard into the ground that he doesn't get back up.
  • A Death in the Limelight:
    • Book VIII focuses almost exclusively on Tydeus' vicious exploits in the war on Thebes and ends with him being abandoned to die after his goddess becomes disgusted by his savagery.
    • Book XI follows on Polynices and Eteocles moreso than any of the books dealing with the war. Of course, it ends with the two brothers crossing arms in unlawful war, as mentioned in the first words of the epic.
  • Desecrating the Dead: In Book IX, the Thebans do everything in their power to capture Tydeus' corpse and cut it into so many bits that it will be impossible to give him a burial or a pyre. Considering his dying act, their hatred is at least understandable.
  • Due to the Dead: The conflict of the last book centers around the women of Argos trying to bury their husbands despite King Creon making that a capital crime. Just like in Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus rebel against Creon in order to bury her brother, but unlike in that play, Theseus and the army of Athens arrive to set Creon straight.
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Amphiaraus doesn't go to Hades by the hand of another soldier; instead, his god opens a chasm in front of him mid-battle and he drives his chariot down through the Earth straight into Hell. The moment is so awe-inspiring that the Fates forget to cut his string when he crashes into the Stygian floor and he spends his first few moments in the land of the dead alive.
  • Epic Catalogue: The forces allied with Argos are lined out in 300 lines at the beginning of Book Four. Unlike several epic lists, the catalogue is less about listing all the individuals involved as with highlighting the most important characters in the coming story and describing their motivations for going to battle.
  • Evil Living Flames: In the final book, the funeral fires of Oedipus' sons inherit the hatred of their corpses and battle each other in a horrible display.
  • Gendercide: The men of Lemnos had their throats slit by their wives and daughters, who were furious at the men for abandoning them to wage war. The only girl who doesn't partake in the massacre is Hypsipyle, who sneaks her father out of the island.
  • The Good King: Unlike just about everyone else in the story, King Theseus is a good guy. Despite having just returned from a tiring campaign, he welcomes refugees into his kingdom and leads the armies of Athens to force Creon to allow the widows of Argos to give proper Due to the Dead.
  • Grim Up North: Where else could the God of War sit but the dark north? In fact, Mars' fortress in Thrace is so far north that Mercury starts his journey from the North Pole to get to him in a timely manner. If the latitude and barrenness wasn't enough, the very presence of Mars dims the Sun, so his home will always look suitably deadly.
  • Heaven Above: The gods look on and call their wrath upon Thebes from the heavenly globe that surrounds the Earth. There, all the Sky-Dwellers chatter in unending day until Jupiter silences them to focus on matters of justice.
  • Heaven's Devils: Oedipus' pious prayers for the death of his sons is answered by the heavenly King Jupiter by sending the Queen of the Pit, the Fury Allecto, to breathe hatred and envy into their souls.
  • Hero of Another Story: Before settling on singing about Thebes, the narrator admits he'd rather tell about noble Emperor Domitian and how he stayed on Earth to make Rome eternal when he could have left to become a god in Heaven. Problem is, that story is really hard to tell, so Thebes will have to do.
  • How We Got Here: The first line of the poem describes the climax ("brothers crossing swords") and the whole rest of the work builds up to the lethal duel between Eteocles and Polynices, the sons of Oedipus.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Humans are so inclined to sin that the gods can't punish evil-doers fast enough. Even flooding the whole world and letting the sun-chariot set the skies aflame can't kill enough people to get rid of every villain. If the word of the gods won't convince readers, then the history of incest, murder, envy, and betrayal that defines Thebes should get that theme across enough.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The war of Thebes and Argos degrades men even to cannibalism. It’s brave Tydeus who does the horrid deed, biting into the decapitated skull of an enemy that wounded him.
  • In Medias Res: The Thebaid starts with Statius describing the final duel between the sons of Oedipus, which is only fully told in Book XI. He quickly realizes that's no place to start his song of Thebes and considers beginning from Jupiter's rape of Europa, Cadmus' founding of the city, Amphion's choral wall-building, or the vengeance of the wine god before settling on Polynices' exile as the starting point.
  • Kid Hero: Parthenopeus can barely grow peach fuzz when Argos goes to war, yet his sheltered upbringing and heroic lineage makes him eager to see the front lines. His mother notices he's left too late to stop him and even with the patronage of Diana, he does not return from the war unscarred.
  • Kill All Humans: A few world-ending events in Classical Mythology, namely the Great Flood and Phaethon's solar joyride, are explained by Jupiter as failed attempts to wipe out all of humanity's guilty souls (i.e. all of them). Unfortunately, evil so pervades the world that no amount of flood or fire could secure earthly justice.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: One of the mercenaries tries to surrender for Tydeus, only for a javelin to fly into his mouth and cut out his tongue. He bleeds to death from the mouth and falls to the ground.
  • Luckily, My Shield Will Protect Me: Mars is armed with a blood-red shield radiating with enough divine light to be mistaken for the Sun.
  • Magic is Evil: The rites of divination are unreliable, unnatural, and traumatic to those who practice them. The narrator takes an aside to ask why humanity developed such an arrogant and evil art when it's obvious the future is unknown to all men.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Tydeus walks into the palace of Argos shining with the joy of victory, so absorbed in pride that he barely notices the excruciating pain of all his bleeding and pulsing battle wounds.
  • Morality Pet: As in Sophocles' play, Antigone is devoted to the good of her whole family. She, more than any other, works to keep her brothers from committing fratricide and may have even succeeded in placating Polynices' rage if the Furies weren't inflaming his worst qualities.
  • The Muse: The poem begins with the author asking the Goddesses of Song to decide how to tell the story of Thebes and where in its long history to begin
  • One-Man Army: Tydeus is able to single-handedly fight off an ambush of fifty Theban assassins (including several demigods). He crushes five men by throwing a boulder on them, he skewers one of the fiercest assassins by throwing one of the Theban's own lances through his tongue, and he kills forty-nine of the assassins before tiring, allowing a single member of the party to bear the bad news back to Thebes.
  • Person of Mass Destruction: In what doubles as an Establishing Character Moment, Mars is introduced riding towards Olympus just after finishing a day of destroying cities and slaughtering foreign nations by his lonesome.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: A rare villainous example (as well as technically predating the Pieta): a pair of twins among the fifty assassins stop fighting the battle the elder picks up the younger to make sure he's still alive. The younger is mortally wounded and then even moreso when Tydeus pierces his sword through the hearts of both of the twins simultaneously.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Capaneus is an open blasphemer, but he's so fearsome in battle that no one wants to punish him for his crimes against the gods, so Polynices and Adrastus allow him to assist in the war against Thebes.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Every character Tydeus fights is taller than him and he's described as kind of a runt, but his size disguises his gigantic strength and unbeatable endurance. The guy can lift boulders or demi-gods over his head and throw them like a javelin and still have energy to fight forty soldiers in the dead of night.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: After killing forty-nine men who ambushed him, Tydeus realizes he's in terrible pain and drops to the ground, moaning like a lion who's had too much deer carcass to eat.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: Despite how highly they think of themselves, the men of Argos start a frothing mob just because the day is hot and dry. They trample over each other without concern for their fellow man at the first word of a river, proving that they are just as illogical as the Thebans who worship the god of madness.
  • Power Glows: Amphiaraus's helmet shines like the sun just as Phoebus gifts him with divine power. Its a good sign of the gods' gift and it also helps blind the enemies Amphiaraus is trying to slaughter.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: Coroebus gives a speech against Phoebus while waiting to be executed in the god's own temple. The speech impresses Phoebus enough for him to spare Coroebus and his men for killing his fiend.
  • Red Is Violent: The God of War rides into Olympus decked out in blood-red armor that also shoots out lights of the same color. In case his title doesn't sell it, the same crimson armor is adorned with scenes of his brutal conquests and horrifying monsters in battle to get across the this red-clad old man riding through the sky is all about the violence.
  • Rescued from the Underworld: Discussed Trope; when a living dude stumbles into the Underworld, Hades/Pluto/Dis assumes he's here to abduct one of his subjects and bring them to the land of the living. Amphiaraus explains he's just a dead soul with a weird death, but Hades is still wary, citing his experiences with Theseus and Orpheus, other examples of this trope.
  • Shed the Family Name: In his exile, Polynices hides his incestuous ancestry out of shame. It is only when the king of Argos takes him in that he is obliged to reveal his infamous origin, and even then he mentions his most ancient ancestor, the city he's from, and then his famously gross parents.
  • Sore Loser: Neptune will not allow anyone to defeat his descendants, so he causes a earthquake that rocks all of Nemea just so that his equine son can cross a finish line before a competitor. His rider doesn't cross it with him, so Phoebus' champion still legally wins, but Neptune only cares about the horse.
  • Sugary Malice: Juno's objection to Jupiter is reverent, sure, yet its pretty suspicious that she mentions five different women Jupiter cheated on her with. Even as Juno calls her husband "Most Just of the Divinities," she finds a way it make it clear that she is tired of him punishing evil while never addressing his own sluttiness.
  • Supernatural Fear Inducer: Murder, cannibalism, blasphemy, and betrayal all occur under the infernal influence of a fury named Tisiphone, who invisibly spreads her vipers among men to make them panic and give into fits of violent rage. Almost the entirety of the war in The Thebaid happens under her influence, although getting two brothers to both attempt fratricide requires such passionate malice that she needs to call in her sister Megaera to assist in the deed.
  • Super-Speed: Mars' chariot can fly through heaven as quickly as Jupiter's lightning; its speed also leaves behind streaks of fire through the sky that make a pretty good omen that war is coming.
  • Telephone Polearm: Capaneus is so huge that his weapon of choice is a tree trunk that he wields like a club.
  • Vice City: Home to dragon-born men, the alcoholic god, and kings of incest, Thebes is a microcosm of all of man's sin. The whole brutal war against Thebes is brought about because Jupiter is frustrated with just how much evil there is in the world and uses Thebes as a representation of that evil which he can take out his frustration upon.
  • What Measure Is a Mook?: The soldiers of Thebes work for the fraudulent king Eteocles and are sinister enough to ambush Tydeus in the night, yet their deaths are written as horrific tragedies. This applies to no one more than the two twins, who Tydeus skewers while the elder is desperately trying to mend the younger's wounds.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Most of the gods are horrified to learn that the people of Thebes and Argos will be massacred in a great war and lobby to stop it. Most except Jupiter, who orders his lessers to carry out the decrees of Fate or suffer the wrath of his thunderbolt. Unable to challenge the king of the universe, all the unhappy gods can do is delay the inevitable:
    • Juno is the most successful at fitting fate to her designs, since she leverages Jupiter's many adulteries to make him concede that Argos shouldn't be totally destroyed.
    • Venus stops Mars from rousing the Argive army by breaking into tears in front of his chariot and waxing poetic about how Thebes' destruction will end the bloodline of their child Cadmus. Not wanting to upset his lover, Mars lets the men of Argos laze around for a week or two before Jupiter makes him stop procrastinating.
    • Bacchus orders all his nymphs to dry up their rivers with the exception of one near Nemea. This forces King Adrastus to take his men their and sets up a chain of events that delays the war another few weeks.
    • Phoebus knows a thing or two about fate, so he doesn't work against Jupiter and is content to give one of his doomed oracles a noble death.
    • Diana almost rebels against Jupiter to save the life of one of her devotees, but her twin Phoebus makes sure she doesn't commit suicide like that. Instead, she gives her arrows to the boy who loves her, allowing him to end his life having killed many men in glorious battle.