Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar

GIS Report: 12/6/2015: Theseus in Statius’ Thebaid and Metapoetics in Grattius’ Cynegeticon

Theseus slaying the Minotaur on a neck-amphora. Circa 460 BC. Attributed to the Oionokles Painter. (Source:

Theseus slaying the Minotaur on a neck-amphora. Circa 460 BC. Attributed to the Oionokles Painter. (Source:

GIS concluded this term with a pair of literary papers, both of which were trial-runs for conferences taking place this summer. First up was Henry Tang, talking on ‘Theseus in Statius Thebaid: A Symbol of Progression or Cyclic Sin?’ (which he presented again in Edinburgh last week at the Annual Meeting of Postgraduates in Ancient Literature). As with the ending of the Aeneid, scholars have long been divided by the ethical questions posed by the conclusion of Statius’ Thebaid. After eleven books of horror and bloodshed, the final twelfth book might at first sight seem to represent a victory of humanity: the Athenian Theseus, at the request of the mourning Argive widows, marches on Thebes and in battle defeats the tyrannous Creon (who had forbidden burial of the Argive dead). Henry, however, demonstrated the difficulty of such an ‘optimistic’ reading by highlighting subversive elements in the portrayal of Theseus which suggest that the tragedy of Thebes has not been so neatly resolved. Henry achieved this by focusing on Statius’ animal imagery: first by exploring how it relates to the warring brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, as well as the figure of Tydeus, before turning attention to Theseus and especially his relation to bulls. Although Theseus can be celebrated as a famous bull-slayer (think of the Minotaur or Marathonian bull), various intertexts hint at less positive elements of this connection (especially Catullus 64 and Euripides’ Hippolytus). As Henry concluded, this sustained taurine imagery complicates Theseus’ identity as saviour of Thebes and hints at an unending cycle of family troubles still to come. The questions that followed Henry’s stimulating talk focused especially on Statius’ debt to Greek tragedy, including Euripides’ Supplices and Aeschylus’ Eleusinians, as well as potential other interactions with Lucan, whose civil war topic would have offered Statius ripe material for his own account of inter-familial disruption and decay.

In the final ‘Museum Favourite’ of term, Matthew Scarborough introduced us to his own favourite: a Carian funerary stele from Saqqara housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, a fascinating example of cultural hybridity and linguistic curiosity. A write-up of Matthew’s talk can be found here. Discussion centred around the hand gestures of the two individuals, whether the stele might represent a joint tombstone, and whether the pair, if indeed a couple, might somehow be modelling themselves on the exemplary Egyptian partnership of Isis and Osiris.

Our second paper of the afternoon came from Christina Tsaknaki, who introduced most of us for the first time to Grattius’ fragmentary Cynegeticon (or, perhaps more precisely, Cynegetica: it was once a multi-book poem). Her talk, ‘Ars Venandi: the Art of Hunting in Grattius’ Cynegeticon and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria‘ was an opportunity for her to explore some of the ideas that she will be presenting later this week at the International ‘Grattius in context(s)’ Conference at UCL. I cannot give too much away now, but by exploring the relationship between the Cynegeticon and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (which often uses imagery of hunting to reflect erotic pursuit), as well as various debts to Callimachus and beyond, Christina illuminated Grattius’ reflections on his own art and skilful manipulation of his literary heritage.

These papers concluded a successful term for the Graduate Interdisciplinary Seminar, which has witnessed many thought-provoking papers and many insightful discussions over a drink in the pub afterwards. There’s a long summer hiatus now, but GIS will be back next October in the safe hands of Rob Sing and his as-yet-unconfirmed co-consul.


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