As I mentioned in a previous post, Dante has caused me to reevaluate my rather negative review of the Roman poet Statius which opinion I have held since my early twenties. Writing during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, Statius composed two epics on lofty, ambitious topics: the Thebaid, which describes the violent war between Oedipus’s sons (or brothers) and the Achilleid, which fills in the early years of the Homeric hero Achilles. The Thebaid, lugubrious, weighty, and wordy is still, for me, a bit of a tough read and translation. More on that in a later post. The Achilleid, however, is tragic without being overwrought, balanced and even playful at times. Unfortunately the epic is unfinished and contains only two of the four books that Statius had intended to write but what we do have is a very important part of the tradition of the Trojan cycle. For instance, the story of Achilles being anointed in the river Styx by his mother who holds him by the heel which is the only vulnerable part of his body, is first mentioned by Statius.
When the epic begins Thetis, Achilles’s mother, knows that war is eminent between Troy and Greece and she also knows that the Greek kings will soon be coming for her young son to fight in the war. Statius also rounds out the character of Thetis as presented in the Iliad by portraying her as a mother who desperately wanted a different father for her son. She laments time and again in this epic that Jupiter should have been Achilles’s father and not Peleus. As a result he is mortal and she must do whatever she can to protect his life. Even though she dips his infant body into the Styx, she knows this is not enough to protect when he will be recruited for war . She becomes desperate to hide him and so hatches another plan.
The Achilles whom Statius presents us with is a fearless young man—probably in his mid-teen years—who is learning to hunt, be a soldier and to be a good man from the Centaur, Chiron. When Thetis goes to retrieve her son in the Centaur’s mountainside cave, Achilles has just come back from killing a lioness with his father and is playing with its cubs. He is happy to see his mother and gives her a tender embrace—a heartwarming example of the more playful, younger and happier Achilles in this epic.
Achilles is hidden by his mother on the island of Scyros among the king’s daughters. But one detail about Achilles story that is missing in the epic tradition before Statius, is how Thetis get her warrior son to agree to put on ladies clothes and put aside his manhood. Statius describes Achilles as a boy who is ashamed to put on women’s garb for fear of what Chiron and his father, Peleus, might say about him. The Achilles who displays the Greek ideal of shame (aidos) has to be reconciled with the person who would agree to such a scheme. Statius has a simple yet touching solution for Achilles decision: this fierce warrior pretends to be a woman because of love. When the king’s daughters are presented to him and his mother, he instantly falls in love with the most beautiful of them, Deidamia.
Some of the most touching scenes in the epic are those between the young lovers; at first Deidamia suspects that Achilles is a man and she tenderly teaches him spinning, other women’s work and dancing. This tender, love story and its tragic end is reminiscent of Ovid, I think, more than any other epic poet because of its playful tone (all Latin translations are my own):
When vigorous Achilles was living among this young, virginal group of girls and his mother’s departure had caused him to relax his coarse modesty, he immediately chose his companion, Deidamaia; even though all the girls vied for his attention, he seductively applied new traps for the timid girl who didn’t suspect a thing. He followed her around, he shamelessly pursued her, and he looked straight into her eyes again and again. He remained close to her unflinching side, he threw flowers and baskets, deliberately tipped over, at her and tapped her with the thyrsus.
Achilles’s love for Deidamaia grows and his Homeric sense of shame (aidos) nags him to finally profess his love. He says to himself, “How long will you suppress these wounds burning in your heart? Will you not prove that, even in love, you are a man—ah the shame!” This is also the language that Dido uses to describe her love for Aeneas in Book IV of Vergils’ epic poem—an allusion which hints that this love will be equally as tragic as Aeneas and Dido. Their love affair produces a son—the famous Neoptolemus (or Pyrhuus) who is a central figure in Vergil’s epic for sacking the palace in Troy and killing King Priam. The real tragedy of the Achilleid comes when Achilles is found out by Odysseus and his fellow Greeks and he must leave his son and his young wife; for me this replicates the heart wrenching, tragic, Homeric scene with Hector who must also leave his family. On their last night together Deidamia prophetically says to the hero: “A single night has both given you to me and taken you away from me, Achilles. Will this be the only amount of time we have for our marriage?” And later, “You have left behind for me this one sad solace, a son, so at least keep the memory of him close to your heart.”
The Achilleid is a must-read for anyone who loves the epics of Homer and/or Vergil. In only 1100 lines (it can be read in an hour), Statius fills in the gaps of the Achilles story that makes the hero of those other epics seem more human, and more tragic.