You are on page 1of 16

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid

University Press Scholarship Online

Oxford Scholarship Online

Ritual and Religion in Flavian Epic


Antony Augoustakis

Print publication date: 2013


Print ISBN-13: 9780199644094
Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013
DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199644094.001.0001

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


Anne Tuttle

DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199644094.003.0005

Abstract and Keywords


This chapter discusses the thematic significance of omens and portents in Statius
Thebaid. It also provides an overview of and considers its intertextual relationship with
other Latin epics with respect to augury and other signs from the gods, and how human
characters react to them. By comparing the different instances of augury and portents
and filtering them through the lens of Roman religion, the signs given and the
consequences of human responses to the signs provide clues to the disposition of the
gods and the role of human will in each narrative. The main focus of this chapter is upon
the Argive augury and portents, and the implications for the nature of the divine
machinery, Fate, and the relationship between humans and gods. Statius unique
approach to supernatural signs has thematic consequences for the poem as a whole.
Keywords: Latin epic, Statius, Thebaid, augury, omens, divine machinery, intertext, Fate

Page 1 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


Scholars have debated whether the literary disposition in which Statius account of the
ArgiveTheban war is couched is one of despair and gloom or of hope and redemption.1
The supporters of both the pessimistic and optimistic interpretations consider the role of
the gods and fate, crime, deserved or undeserved punishment, predestined cruelty, use
of people as pawns, and the poems denouement.2 Regardless of the perspectives on the
overall atmosphere of the epic and of its conclusion, however, the position of Argos within
the Thebaid is clear: the Peloponnesian citys bleak destiny remains unalterable. It could
be that Theseus victory in the twelfth book represents a sign of redemption; 3 and yet
the imminent defeat of Argos anticipated in the epic prior to book 11 still supports a
rather pessimistic reading of the Thebaid, namely, that the doom of the cities and the
peoples roles within the framework of fateor within Jupiters plan4are fixed, and that
the people themselves have no freedom to act contrary to the will (p.72) of fate or the
gods. As William Dominik has observed, abuse of supernatural power is the predominant,
pervasive motif in the Thebaidit is the tale of the supernaturally engineered annihilation
of humanity.5
Dominiks point is clearly demonstrated in the instances of augury and omens on the
Argive side. The omens, to which the men of Argos bear witness and react, and the
augury itself of book 3 demonstrate an inclination toward autonomy and an attempt at
responsible and pious decision-making. Yet the results of, and reactions to, the portents
reveal an inextricable futility in the Argives attempts to determine or understand the
future. Their path is unswerving in spite of their augurs testimony, and in spite of
obviously bad omens; Statius uses the supernatural elementsaugury and portents
evident on the human plane to emphasize the vanity of action and thought on the part of
the people of Argos. Even more than illustrating the human position, as we shall see, the
divine communication to the Argives paints a frightening picture of the deities in the epic.
As Federica Bessone claims in Jupiters case, [Stazio] nega a Giove, se non la volont o la
visione complessiva, di certo lespressione di un disegno volto al bene e la sua compiuta
messa in atto.6 Indeed, the nature of the messages highlights the collapse of the celestial
machinery in terms of moral authority and communal relationship to the mortal sphere
before battle is ever engaged. As Eleni Manolaraki observes in Chapter 5 below, Statius
creates literary prodigies that unravel emotional and ethical complexities of the war
beyond the battlefield envisioned by Amphiaraus.

The Roman context for Statius augury

Divination by augury, here strictly the observation of birds7 in flight to discern whether
the gods approve of an intended action by a person or (p.73) group of people8
(hereafter called recipients), is interpreted by the Romans as a means of influencing the
recipients decisions. If the augur reads disapproval or displeasure in the skies, the
person(s) whose actions require the gods approval either changes plans or attempts an
immediate expiation in hope of assuaging the gods anger and renewing their favour.
Augury signifies a relationship between the mortal and the divine, human trust in the
honest communication of divine will. As part of his propaganda in the early principate,
Octavian emphasizes the traditionally held views on the beneficence and reliability of
augury.9 Generally, the signs in the augury are believed to be true; any

Page 2 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


miscommunication or deception of the recipients is ascribed to misreading of the signs by
the augur himself (Cic. Diu. 1.3771). Portentous or prodigious events, such as
upheavals in nature, are signs that relations between men and gods have been
disrupted,10 and once recognized as such require a response.11 People are expected
to react to communication from the gods, and to make decisions only after taking the
auspices into account.
As Statius augury echoes the Roman rite of taking the auspices,12 it carries political
connotations as well. In Roman augural practice, the gods through their communication
are considered to be members of the community. Political reciprocity becomes
important, even a religious imperative, and is achieved through the human responses to
the gods communication of their displeasure, namely through expiation or an alteration in
behaviour.13 For augury and portents to be legitimate communication, then,
reciprocation by humans must remain possible. This element also affects the impact of
augury and portents in the framework of the Thebaid.
While the Latin epicists widely use augury and portents14 to illustrate the relationship
between the human and the divine planes, in various poems several depictions of
supernatural phenomena call into question any positive presuppositions, namely that the
gods communicate truly and clearly and offer an opportunity for humans to make things
right. (p.74) This recasting of divine communication with humans necessarily impacts
the poems thematically, perhaps most clearly the Thebaid. In order to analyse fully the
implications of the augury at Argos and the later portents observed by the Argive host,
the depiction of supernatural communication by Statius predecessors, Virgil and Lucan,
and by his Flavian contemporary epicists, Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus, must be
examined further.

Literary models
The Aeneid offers two mirroring instances of augury. In the first, Venus, disguised as a
Spartan huntress, acts as augur and reads the sky to encourage Aeneas to continue
toward Carthage; she anticipates the future success of his voyage (Aen. 1.393400). This
augury not only proves to be true, but is also traditional in its presentation; it is intended
to influence the decisions of Aeneas as a leader.15 The communication is reliable, and the
divine realmin this case, Jupiter himselfis honest in its intention to convey the
consequences of Aeneas actions.16 The second augury, on the other hand, paints a
rather different picture.
In Aeneid 12, Virgil casts suspicion on the practice of augurymore specifically, on the
nature of the gods communication through the augury, the observation of the seizing of
a swan by an eagle (Aen. 12.24556). As Green argues, Virgil insinuates that bird-signs
not only may be interpreted incorrectly but may also be purposefully deceptive. In the
case of the Latins and their assumption that the successful eagle represents them, Virgil
does not blame the wrong interpretation on a misreading. Rather, he indicates that the
sign from the gods is intended to deceive the Latins: quo non praesentius ullum/turbauit
mentes Italas monstroque fefellit (than which none was more potent to confound the
Italian minds and cheat them with its miracle, Aen. 12.2456). Their appropriate and
Page 3 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


expected reaction (to attack Aeneas) is pious, and they have no reason to fear defeat, as
they believe they execute the will of the gods. Thus, the lie of the augury which impels the
Latins to battle dooms them to defeat. Though they communicate through bird-signs, the
gods are not always benevolent with its use. For Virgil, people may react to (p.75)
augury to negate or change the predicted future, but the prediction in the bird-sign itself
may be false.17
In Lucans De bello ciuili, predictions of the future do not include a lengthy or detailed
scene of augury before the war begins, and so it is necessary to look briefly at the impact
of portents, the apparition of Roma, and the scene of divination by haruspicy, which has
its parallel in the Thebaid. The Neronian poet mentions repeatedly the lightning, the
earthly tremors, and the strange behaviour of animals as signs18 that the imminent civil
war is already disrupting cosmic order.19 The fear of the people indicates that they
understand the meaning of these portents. Yet Caesar, Pompey, and their respective
allies wage the war contrary to universal laws of human society and in spite of the dire
warnings. The nature of omens and characters reactions is encapsulated in the omen of
Romes appearance to Caesar before the crossing of the Rubicon (Luc. 1.183212).
Caesar obviously recognizes that the portent signifies that his assault on Rome is
forbidden; and yet he does not hesitate. The communication from the celestial realm is
not dishonest; it is, quite simply, ineffective. While the civil war seems fated to happen,
Caesar nevertheless is both informed of and understands the cosmic injunction against
his actions. He is evidently frightened by Romes appearance and message (Luc. 1.192
4), and responds to it with an explanation of his actions and a shift of the blame onto
Pompey (Luc. 1.200203). He chooses the war and its consequences anyway, while his
criticism of Pompey demonstrates that he understands that someone must expect to pay
for the ruin of civil war. While fate plays a role in the unfolding of the events, Caesar here
deliberately acts contrary to the warnings of the apparition, giving his reasons for doing
so, and thus chooses his path freely.20
The scene of haruspicy at the end of the first book also gives clear and foreboding signs
of what is to come. Arruns knows from the reluctance of the bull (Luc. 1.61213), the
putrid gore (Luc. 1.61415), and the defilement of the liver (Luc. 1.61822, 1.6269) that
the war is outright condemned (Luc. 1.630). He then offers a prophecy which he clouds
with (p.76) ambiguity (Luc. 1.6378), followed by a similar reading of the stars by
Figulus; both question the intent of the gods and the trustworthiness of the signs, but
the reader knows that they read the signs aright, and that the forewarnings of doom are
clear. The recipients of the signs hope desperately that their interpretations are wrong,
or, as in Arruns prophecy, that the signs are tainted by infernal powers (Luc. 1.6356).
Nevertheless, the prophetic ambiguity does not assuage the people, and in spite of
Arruns and Figulus proclaimed doubt, their hearers are terrified (Luc. 1.673) because
they know that the signs are true. Still, Caesars will cannot be turned by bad omens. In
our examination of Statius augury we will return to the connection between Lucans use
of portents and the portents observed by the Argives.
These Argives nearest literary companions in the augural rites can be found in the other

Page 4 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


Flavian epicists, Silius and Valerius.21 In Punica 4, Silius describes briefly a scene of
augury and its two interpretations (Sil. 4.10142). Here, a hawk harasses a group of
pigeons but is then driven away by a young eagle. The Carthaginian Liger, a man able to
perceive the warnings of heaven (sentire monentes, Sil. 4.120),22 takes into account
both parts of the augury, promising Hannibal success over the Roman troops as
indicated by the hawk but warning him against excess, for which the punishment would
be his defeat by the eagle. Bogus contradicts Liger by merely urging Hannibal on to
battle, deliberately forgetting the eagle and focusing on the meaning of the hawk. He then
demonstrates his faith in his incomplete reading by hurling the battles first javelin (Sil.
4.1345). Once again, the gods communication of their will and pleasure is not dishonest,
and the humans involved are free to act in response to the sign.23 In this case, taking into
account only the augury itself, Hannibals actions and their consequences may be said to
be the result of error or irresponsibility with regard to Bogus interpretation and
subsequent advice. Hannibal does have access to both honest communication and true
interpretation in Liger. His choice, either to respect Ligers or Bogus reading, is made
with the backdrop of at least honest, if not benevolent, divine machinery, and an
awareness of the possible future.
(p.77) Finally, let us turn to a counterpart scene for the augury in Thebaid 3, Valerius
Argonautica 1.20539.24 This is another instance of a double augury, as in Argos, but
serves a much different function. Mopsus gives his prophecy first, replete with an
overwhelmingly negative and pessimistic view of the future, which Idmon follows with a
correspondingly positive and optimistic one.25 Idmons second augury serves to calm
the recipients of the augury and the readers, with the augur deliberately attempting to
assuage the Argonauts fears to the point of withholding negative information. The result
is a twofold perspective on the nature and purpose of augury,26 and perhaps the augurs
forthrightness. Idmons motive is likely to encourage the men in the undertaking of the
voyage, but his nuanced presentation of the future casts suspicion on the art. Although
the dual augury includes two different reports, contradictory in tone, the expectation
that the recipients will react to the augury is implied. Idmon, and by extension Valerius,
are successful in raising spirits and motivating the Argonauts forward through the
narrative toward their destiny. Though the element of reciprocity is not overly evident,
Statius does use Valerius framework to colour his own presentation of augury in the
Thebaid, not with similarity but with stark contrast, and in a situation where reciprocity is
impossible.
Altogether, the preceding (by nature selective) four readings of divine willin Lucans
case, portentsinvite questioning and comparison of the value, reliability, and purpose of
augury and omens. In Virgils augury, the benevolent disposition of the gods and
forthright nature of the bird-signs are questioned, but not necessarily mans ability to
react freely to the signs. The characters witnessing Lucans portents, in which the moral
injunctions against the civil war are obvious, act, either by will or fate, with full knowledge
against the warnings of the portents. The cosmic signs are trustworthy and the
characters are aware of the consequences of their actions. Likewise, while Silius augury
results in conflicting readings, the nature of the sign itself is not questioned. Hannibal

Page 5 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


seems free to choose the interpretation he prefers and to react accordingly. Valerius
two augurs also do not question the bird-signs, and each speaks authoritatively and truly
to his respective auguryalthough he may alter the tenor of the truth in order to benefit
his hearers. Valerius uses the dual augury to address the potential (p.78) darkness of
fate in the quest of the Argonauts, but offers the crew and the readers a sort of
consolation prize in the second augury, where, in spite of the hardship and suffering to
be endured, a degree of happiness is nevertheless promised. Statius augury and, to a
lesser extent, portents surpass any of these in foreboding and in implications of the
darkness of the divine machinery in the Thebaid, to which the discussion now turns.

The Argive augury


Shortly before the Argive augury, Tydeus returns from his embassyand the Theban
ambushand stirs up hostility against Thebes amongst the Argives (3.32486). Adrastus
is hesitant to call his men to arms (3.4434) and orders the two augurs, Melampus and
Amphiaraus, to take the auspices and discover the will of the gods concerning the war (3.
44951).27 Adrastus does not realize that Mars with his entourage has already inflamed
the men of Argos to battle (3.42039). The augurs, in what soon becomes a typical Argive
reaction, are unsatisfied with their first divination, the examination of the entrails of young
sheep (3.4569). They then turn to the skies. The structure of the scene recalls the
double augury from Valerius Argonautica and the seers prophecies there. A certain
outcome is therefore anticipated before the reading of the birds even begins. In light of
Valerius Idmon and Mopsus, whom Statius replaces with Amphiaraus and Melampus
respectively, the reader expects a dark interpretation from Melampus and then comfort
and equivocation from Amphiaraus.28 And yet Statius will not fulfil such expectation.
Before Melampus proceeds with the first of the two readings, Amphiaraus opens the
augury by invoking Jupiter as the originator of all augural omens (3.4714), asking that,
should it be possible, Jupiter send clear sign of Argive victory or defeat (3.4916). Such a
demand is of course extremely ironic, not only because it follows the juxtaposition of the
description of Mars preparations and Adrastus reluctance, but also because earlier in
the book Jupiter had given his command to Mars personally to incite war (3.23035).
Jupiter himself, possibly through Tisiphones agency,29 exclaims iam semina pugnae ipse
dedi (I myself (p.79) have already sown the seeds of battle, 3.2356). The reader
already knows the outcome planned by Jupiter for the Argive Seven. Nevertheless, in
light of the Latin epic tradition before Statius, there are numerous possibilities for the
outcome of the prophetic reading. The god(s) may deceive the augurs, and the Argives
may thus be led into war under false pretences, as in the Aeneid; the signs may be clear,
and the Argives defy them willingly, believing their reasons for the war justify their
defiance; the augurs may offer differingand perhaps wronginterpretations, as in
Silius; or there may be a second sign by which the Argives and the reader, like the
Argonauts, learn of a more positive outcome awaiting the Argives after the war. The
Argive augury takes a uniqueand most forebodingturn.
In the first place, while the double augury very clearly echoes the Argonautica,
nevertheless, because of its structure and Amphiaraus character and comments,30 the

Page 6 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


thematic function is wholly dissimilar. Upon answering Melampus description of the
ominous vultures, Amphiaraus immediately warns that the second augury contains no
promise of a silver lining. Instead, as he declares, similes non ante metus aut astra
notaui/prodigiosa magis (But never before have I observed terrors like these or
heavens more prodigious, 3.5223). Contrary to other literary precedents, Amphiaraus
continues in Melampus footsteps, in a manner that heightens the horror of the scene; 31
as Stover points out, following Ganiban, [it] functions to redouble the horror of what is to
come in the Thebaid, a narrative that is dominated exclusively by the forces of hell who
unleash unmitigated death and destruction.32 More importantly, Statius deliberately
overturns the function of the second augury, as expected from the pattern in the
Argonautica. The second augury not only seals the coming doom for Argos, but also
demonstrates that no real consolation exists. Thematically, the double augury offers no
balance between bad and good, suffering and wellbeing. Instead, both dark
interpretations highlight the absolute and imbalanced darkness and horror of the
fratricidal war, as well as the inevitable despair of the Argives.
This imbalanced darkness originates in Jupiters use of the Argives as destructive agents
against Thebes (1.24043), though he declares that (p.80) both peoples are being
punished (1.2246).33 This decision, he declares, is a mansurum et non reuocabile
uerbum (pronouncement fixed and irrevocable, 1.29092). The later actions of the
Argives correspond to Jupiters pronouncement in book 1; in the augury, in particular,
Jupiter makes it obvious that the Argives are his instruments of destruction and
announces his intention to destroy them. As Amphiaraus watches the swans, here
representative of the Thebans, he spies another group of birds (3.53033). As eagles, and
more specifically as bearers of Jupiters lightning (septem ordine fuluo/armigeras summi
Iouis exultante caterua, seven arm-bearers of highest Jupiter, an exultant troop in tawny
line, 3.5312), the Argives symbolize Argos special utility to Jupiter, not to the benefit of
the troops; it rather emphasizes their instrumentality. While the Argives may yet respond
sensibly to the augury, nevertheless the destruction of their representatives, the eagles
(3.53945), which Amphiaraus believes is due to Jupiters wrath, does not bode well for
them (saeua repente/uictores agitat leto Iouis ira sinistri? What fierce wrath of baleful
Jove suddenly drives the victors to death? 3.5378). Though the augury indicates that
the Argive assault will first be a success, the Seven will then fall in a crushing defeat
orchestrated by the very god who enables their earlier victory, and whose intervention
in the augury is evident.34
In this case of augury in epic, then, Jupiter is all too frank in his message through the
birds. He declares openly to Melampus and Amphiaraus his will and intentions. What
follows ought to be the interpretation of the auspices to the people and Adrastus and the
Argives decision to defy the augury or attempt to win the gods favour. But both augurs,
in terror, sequester themselves from the rest of the city (3.57073), afraid to reveal the
meaning of the omens, regretting their vocation and rejecting the gods (3.54751). This,
however, does not seem to matter to the Argives. Filling the citizenry with hunger for
war (3.57793), Mars sweeps the men away in a frenzy (3.5768). Yet momentarily they
seem eager for Amphiaraus reading; they are spurred on by Capaneus blasphemous

Page 7 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


taunting of the uates and disregard for his divinely sanctioned authority.35 After
Amphiaraus responds with his ill tidings (3.64044), Capaneus and the others reject him
and his admonitions. Amphiaraus, however, seems to have expected such behaviour,
indicating even before their reaction that the augury, and divination in general, have
proved futile (p.81) (3.6357 and 6457). Though augury traditionally prefaced a
decision, in the case of Argos the augur himself understands that to read this auspice is
to read, not a possible future, but the only future, which cannot be averted by any action
on the part of the recipient of the omens. This is an overturning of augurys very function,
and as such it prefaces the complete overturning of the divine structure.
Since the function of augury is undone, the omen cannot be averted, and in addition it
cannot be understood properly. What is the reason for the Argives inability to respond
to the omens? The descriptions of Mars activity before and after the augury indicate that
it is warlike furor that prevents the Argives consideration of and proper response to the
augury. Mars, acting on orders from Jupiter, has incited this upheaval; the gods are
therefore responsible for the Argives trespasses against the declared will of the gods:
deus ecce furentibus obstat ecce deus! (See the god opposes your frenzy, see, the
god!, 3.6434).36 The Argives never have the opportunity to understand and address,
as Lucans Caesar does, the signs they receive. Rather, they are compelled by fate, and
Jupiters will, to misunderstand or ignore the repeated signs of divine displeasure.
Jupiters control is emphasized repeatedly in the auspice and the events which
correspond to it.37 A brief look at the divination of the haruspex and two portents
witnessed by the Argives reinforces the argument that it is ignorance, due to divine
determinism, that prevents the Argives from reacting to supernatural signs that the war
they undertake is nefas.

Prewar portents
First, let us look at the portent of the falling shield (2.25661). No Theban at first denies
the obvious terror of the bad omen during the double wedding, foretold to Adrastus
through an oracle. And yet the Argives look to their king and then compose themselves,
even though they are troubled. Statius shifts focus to the necklace of Harmonia and its
ekphrasis38 and thus distracts the reader: the Argives themselves, as much as they may
deliberate, never consciously consider the significance of the omen. Jupiter himself
chooses Adrastus to become Tydeus and Polynices father-in-law, for the express
purpose that they may advance (p.82) upon Thebes from Argos. It is therefore
reasonable to assume that the Argives may not be permitted by circumstance or the
gods to change their course of action. Jupiter has chosen his method and tools of
punishment for both Thebes and Argos, and though their doom may be communicated to
them, the Argives cannot clearly perceive and internalize the information.
Second, before the Argives officially embark on their campaign in the fourth book, an
unnamed priest reads the entrails of several animals. Statius says that this haruspex
neglects to declare his dark findings to the armed men (4.15) so that he may not deny
them hope. In Lucans haruspicy, Arruns simply veils the truth with a dubious prayer
that the sign might turn out to be false, though this faade does not assuage the peoples

Page 8 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


fear. His Statian counterparts decision, however, is juxtaposed with a long description of
the troops sorrow (4.1623). Mars has, it seems, momentarily departed, and the Argives
are hesitant to go into battle. Thus, the haruspexs decision to withhold the bad omens
seems of little import. And despite his own and his soldiers reluctance, Adrastus does
not take time to reconsider or take counsel; they simply leave. Though having earlier
rejected the augury and still ignorant of the omens of the entrails, the no-longer-eager
troops depart on behalf of their king and Polynices (4.75) as if they had no choice,
indicating that Jupiters intention drives them even contrary to their emotional
dispositions. As much as the gods deny comprehension to the mortals, even when they
(especially Mars) are not inciting them to furor, they compel the Argives to act contrary
to their instincts.
The third portent closes the funeral games of book 6 and, after the delay and distraction
of the competition, reminds the reader of Argos imminent doom. This portent consists of
Adrastus returning arrow (6.93846). Like the fall of the eagles in the augury in book 3,
the sign very specifically represents one Argive princeAdrastus himself. Not only do
the witnesses refuse to analyse the omen, but they also offer various flimsy explanations
for the arrows return. In an apostrophe, Statius himself muses that fate is made clear in
omens, yet man fails to respond properly: fata patent homini: piget inseruare (The fates
lie open to man, but he cares not to observe, 6.9345).39 The signs from the gods are a
waste of time because people make them so. At first, this seems a criticism of a purposeful
neglect of responsibility in light of the revealed (p.83) future. Yet Statius indicates that
to the Argives at least deep lies the mighty outcome, the evil revealed (penitus latet
exitus ingens/monstratumque nefas, 6.9445). Like the augury, which is clear to at least
Amphiaraus, the omens are not within the Argives scope of understanding, as they prove
incapable of applying any insight they might otherwise have garnered from both the
augury and the portents.
If the Argives in general are prevented from understanding the gods communiqus, two
men in particular illustrate the significance of divine dominance over the wills of the
humans in the epic: Adrastus and Amphiaraus. Adrastus is pious and reluctant to engage
in the war. Thematically, if the Thebaid is indeed an epic of horror and despair, Adrastus
hopes and disposition exist only to be dashed and to heighten the inevitable darkness that
pervades the poem.40 Like Latinus in the Aeneid, the position of authority and level of
discernment avails Adrastus nothing; in intertextual terms, at the very moment that
Amphiaraus auspicy presents the possibility that the disastrous war might be averted,
Amphiaraus and the Argives replay literary models that make the war in Statius still
more inevitable.41 Adrastus attempt at thwarting Jupiters commands is undermined
and his doubts are forcibly dismissed. In the end, even he seems not to understand the
uates prediction.
On the other hand, Amphiaraus comprehends the omens from the beginning. Even when
in later books he is swept away by his passion for war (book 7), he understands the
fixedness of fate and the Argivesand his ownpowerlessness to resist the will of the
gods, avert consequences, or turn aside Jupiters anger. He also knows that the gods are

Page 9 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


responsible for the outbreak of the war.42 The seer suffers a fate similar to the other
leaders, including Capaneus. Amphiaraus skills and understanding are of no avail. Alone
of the Argives he acts with full knowledge of fate, as he knows at the same time that his
knowledge is useless to his people, because they are destined not to listen and not to
avert the war. Though Amphiaraus in this way is unique among the Argives, his prophetic
abilityproves to be of no valuesince he is unable to save Argos or himself from
destruction. Neither the priest nor the Argives are able to exert any measure of control
over their lives; their lack of free will epitomizes the hopeless plight of human figures in
the Thebaid and contributes much to the despairing tone.43 The interpreter of Apollos
(p.84) will, with a glorious personal history, cannot make use of his skill, and suffers in
the very understanding of the futility of his knowledge.
After looking at the augury scene and other portents, and their implications for two
important Argive men, a synthesis of such scenes in the epic tradition will help us
understand the role of gods and the divine machinery in the Thebaid. Returning to the
three other epicists, Virgil, Lucan, and Silius, we can re-evaluate the augury and portents
in light of the other writers questions. In Virgil, the omen sent by the gods to the Latins
seems blatantly deceptive. In Statius, not only is the augury true, but Amphiaraus also
perceives Jupiters direct intervention in the birds behaviour. The augury itself is not
deceptive. But this is indicative only of Jupiters confidence in the fixedness of fate
(sometimes, his own will, as the two seem to intermingle). As we have seen, he states that
his commands are irrevocable. The augury, then, is not intended to warn the Argives of
anything or permit them an opportunity for expiation. Jupiter is not deceptive simply
because there is no risk of his will being either understood or altered; he and Mars,
among others, prevent both. In the world of the Thebaid, humans are unable to
understand, much less avert, the predicted future.
In light of Lucans poem, the portents carry the same implications as the augury. While
Lucans depiction of portents illustrates the pervasiveness of destiny and fate, Caesars
will is nevertheless in line with fate even if he defies the omens. In the Thebaid, the will of
the Argives is entirely irrelevant, and so is their understanding of the signs of the nefas
of the war. Fate here is also fixed, but there is no necessary connection between the
characters ambitions; fate is fixed because Jupiter compels the Argives to act as the
punishing agency against Thebes. Also, the portents do not permit the characters the
opportunity of justifying their actions to the reader, the gods, or themselves. Because
they do not fully understand the portents, they do not seriously question their actions.
This is another sign that their comprehension of the wars moral implications signifies very
little in terms of how the gods judge their nefas.
To return to augury, Statius augurs, like those in the Punica, take the auspices in order
to advise their leader on the propriety of the war. Melampus and Amphiaraus, however,
never deliver their interpretations of the signs to Adrastus himself, nor does he weigh
them. Only Capaneus and his followers force the augury from Amphiaraus, and even
then, the augury has no impact on their actions. The uates authority is utterly rejected.
Here, there is no competition between the augurs for influence or interpretation. More

Page 10 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


foreboding is the fact that, rather than questioning the reliability of the augurs, in Statius
the augurs interpretations do not matter at all. Unlike Hannibal, Adrastus does not even
have the (p.85) opportunity to weigh the augurs advice before he takes action. As
Helen Lovatt notes, in a typically Statian manner, this scene mixes up oppositions
established by the earlier tradition, assimilating prophet and warrior, destabilizing the
relationship between knowledge and virtue, humans and gods.
Statius surpasses other epic poets in a negative portrayal of augury and omens. But
unlike Virgils depiction, this is not the result of deception on the part of the divine.
Statius Jupiter and the other gods do not need to deceive, because the Argives, as tools
of Jupiters wrath, have no discernible ability to act contrary to his will. They in fact have
no free will of their own, nor the dignity of understanding the augury or portents, whose
meanings are kept hidden from them. Statius surpasses the other epicists doubts or
ambivalence on the subject, and the picture therefore becomes much darker.
The focus of this darker picture is not the augury or portents themselves, but rather the
indictment of the gods, which they necessitate. While Jupiters use of the Argives and
instigation of the war in general is supposedly just punishment for past crimes, the
Argives of the presentin the poemare given no opportunity for expiation.
Communication from the gods in the Thebaid does not include the element of reciprocity
and does not allow the recipients to react. Augury and portents, especially true signs, are
not only futile but utterly hollow, because the gods prevent the recipients from
understanding their significance. Futility is the defining characteristic for the Argives. If
augury and the possibility of appeasement betokens a trust existing between mortals and
the divine, the augury and portents of Statius, wherein characters are prevented from
understanding or reacting according to the communication, indicate a breakdown of that
trust and of any relationship between the two realms. The gods moral standing is indeed
suspicious, but the breakdown of the relationship evident in the augury also signifies a
complete collapse of the divine machinery in the Thebaid. While one can argue for abuse
of divine power in the poem as a whole, the supernatural instances of communication
alone signify a predeterminedand likely unjustfate for the Argives. Through the
augury alone, it becomes possible to discern the disposition of the gods. While Jupiter
gives a very thorough depiction of the future, the celestial powers are nevertheless not
benevolent. As representative of the other heaven-dwelling gods,44 through the augury
Jupiter proves that human responsibility, at least for the Argives, (p.86) is no longer as
important, but instead irrelevant in the unfolding of the plot of the Thebaid. But the divine
machinery also collapses in terms of any moral obligations or reciprocal relationship to the
Argives and, by extension, to humankind as a whole. Jupiter can be viewed as a chessplayer, and the Argives as his pawns. In that case, for them omens are futile and
shadowy; for him, they are both a waste of time and evidence of his destructive
irresponsibility in communication. The war with Thebes is predestined to be bleak, but
unexpectedly so, since blindness to the true warnings is ironically engineered by the god
of bird-signs himself.

Augury and the end of the Seven

Page 11 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


Amphiaraus declares that the Argives are represented by the eagles, and that the swans
symbolize the Theban heroes. This is borne out in their deaths and Adrastus escape,
which reflect the falls of the eagles in the augury scene. What merits further exploration,
however, is the imagery used in the passages in which the Argive heroes deaths take
place. For instance, just before his death, Parthenopaeus, the blossoming youth and
perhaps the hero most emblematic of nave Argive hope, is like an albusolor (white
swan, 9.8589).45 This role reversal in terms of symbol, without any reversal in fate, may
indicate that, thematically, the Argives and Thebans are interchangeable, inasmuch as
both are agents of Jupiters will and victims of his caprice.
A further complication in the analysis of the purpose of the augury is the disappearance of
Jupiter (and even his rival, Dis) before the epics conclusion. The gods loss of interest in
the war and in Theseus intervention, however, does not prevent Jupiters initial purpose
from being fulfilled. Indeed, it does not matter whether the gods remain to observe how
humanity regroups or copes with the outcome. The hasty conclusion is brought about by
Creons edict and Theseus invasion. This is proof not only that the relationship between
the divine and mortal planes has evaporated, but also that even at the close of the conflict,
the gods have no interest in restoring order from the chaos of civil war.46 The major
powers have played a role in the action as long as they might wreak (p.87) havoc or, like
Apollo and Athena, spur their respective favourites to glory. When the dust settles, the
vindictive yet active gods become like their Lucanian counterparts: utterly unconcerned
with human affairs. With Creon having forbidden the burial of their men, the Argive
women seek justice from another power on the mortal plane, owing to the power vacuum
left in the wake of the gods, particularly Jupiters, withdrawal.47 Jupiter has not proved
himself consistent as the punisher, a champion of justice. His abandonment of the epic
altogether indicates that, as in the augury, through which it is clear he is not open to any
attempt at expiation, he is interested only in crushing the humanity he claims to be justly
punishing (1.21447). All the while, the Argives who seek the revelation of his will,
presumably so that they may act accordingly and rightly, are still compelled by him from
the beginning to pursue their own destruction.48 (p.88)
Notes:
(1 ) See Augoustakis (2010: 3091, esp. 30 n. 1) on the three trends, pessimistic,
optimistic, or pluralistic, surveyed also in Braund (1996: 1718). On the most recent
reassessment of the poem that combines the pessimistic and optimistic interpretations,
see Bessone (2011: 12835), who recognizes the forces of evil but also underscores the
positive presence of Theseus in the final book (il finale inverte la rotta e tenta una
soluzione, per quanto provvisoria, 104).
(2) See Bessone (2011: 104): la Tebaide unepica del nefas, dominate da forze negative
e modellata sullepos di Lucano e sulla tragedia di Seneca
(3) As seen by Bessone (2011), who notes, however: Esemplarit e pessimissmo sono
inscindibili in questo finale, quasi una sigla che definisce lepica di StazioQuando la
guerra si realizza sul campola Tebaide dimostrapu diventare difficile distinguere

Page 12 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


una guerra giusta da una sbagliata, 199). Pace Bernsteins conclusions in Ch. 13 below.
(4) It is difficult even to assess who, if anyone, may be consistently behind the unfolding of
the action; among the primary driving forces are first Tisiphone, then Jupiter, followed by
Dis. These three may be seen as the main enforcers of fate in the poem. Cf. also
Manuwald (Ch. 2) on Jupiters plan in Valerius and the role of fate.
(5) Dominik (1994a: 1).
(6) Bessone (2011: 54). Of course, the indictment is particularly one of Jupiter,
traditionally the representative of cosmic order, moral authority, and divine justice. On
Jupiter in the Thebaid, see most recently Bessone (2011: 538 and esp. 53 n. 3 for
further bibliography). In particular, Bessone promotes the stance that Jupiters
propensity towards nefas is later counterbalanced by Theseus (cf. esp. 54,
67).
(7) As Green (2009:159) calls them, the gods messengers to mankind.
(8) Beard et al. (1998: 2.166 and 171). On divination history, see ThesCRA 3.7980; for
more general information, see ThesCRA 3.79104.
(9) Green (2009: 149). Though certainly in the late republic there is widespread criticism
and doubt of divination in general; see Fowler (1911: 296).
(10) Beard et al. (1998: 2.172).
(11 ) Ando (2008: 14).
(12) Frings (1991: 50).
(13) Ando (2008: 3 and 6).
(14) Following Green (2009), I shall define these as unsolicited signs in nature, indicating
the gods intervention or disapproval.
(15) Venus urges Aeneas on (Aen. 1.401), with the promise that, if he should continue to
Carthage, his men and fleet would be restored to him.
(16) Green (2009: 1545). See also Manolaraki, Ch. 5 below.
(17) Green (2009: 1568).
(18) Cf. e.g. in the first three books, Luc. 1.2335, 1.52283, 2.14, 3.36, 3.21112, 3.417
25.
(19) A reading of Lucans portents is by no means simple, because the divine machinery
is, for all literary purposes, nonexistent. It is useful to read them as proof to humans that
the civil war is a breach of a universal moral code, that the cosmos itself conjures signs

Page 13 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


(the gods themselves are disinterested in human affairs, 7.4545), including the
appearance of the personification of Rome, to warn against the breaking of a natural law.
(20) See Braund (1992: xxvxxix).
(21 ) On the various scenes of ornithomancy in Flavian epic, see Ripoll (2002).
(22) The idea of admonishing also sets up the expectation for the recipient to react.
(23) Cf. Manuwald, Ch. 2 above: Divine messages may provide (partial) insight into what is
predetermined by fate. And as Lovatt observes in Ch. 3 above, prophecy is a particular
form of foreshadowing that contributes to a sense of the inevitability of epic teleology and
causation. But here competing interpretations and intertextuality combine to destabilize
the authenticity of both omen and interpretation.
(24) On the scene, see also Manuwald in Ch. 2 above. Stover (2009) suggests that
Valerius scene is a model for Statius; Feeney suggests an interaction between the epics,
which may include interaction between the augury scenes themselves, Feeney (1991:
313).
(25) Stover (2009: 449).
(26) Stover (2009: 44951).
(27) On the augury of book 3, see most recently Fantham (2006 [2010]); Ganiban (2007:
5561); Stover (2009).
(28) Stover (2009: 45053).
(29) As she has taken action already, immediately answering Oedipus request for
vengeance (see Hubert, Ch. 6 below). For discussion on the humans perception of
Jupiters lack of involvement, or lack of promptness, see Feeney (1991: 346 and 3567).
For his part, Jupiter seems hardly aware that he has been slow to act.
(30) Cf. 3.52021: nec me uentura locuto/saepius in dubiis auditus Iasoni Mopsus (And
Jason in doubt listened to me no less often than to Mopsus as I told of things to come).
(31 ) Frings (1991: 523).
(32) Stover (2009: 452); cf. Ganiban (2007: 5561 and passim).
(33) At the same time, he disregards the fact that the gods crimes have been just as
heinous; see Feeney (1991: 355).
(34) Dominik (1994b: 166 and 1912).
(35) Rpke (2007a: 231).

Page 14 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid


(36) Consistent with Jupiters refusal to punish, or take responsibility for, the gods nefas
in the past.
(37) Dominik (1994b: 1912).
(38) See Chinn, Ch. 18 below.
(39) The alternative meaning of piget, as a stand-in for paenitet, may also imply that the
Argives should repent of the future foretold by the omen or regret their disregard for it;
this nuance brings an additional cold irony, since six of the seven at any rate will not live
to regret their decisions.
(40) Ganiban (2007: 55 and 58).
(41 ) Ganiban (2007: 59).
(42) See Dominik (1994a: 11314 and 116), as well as Dominik (1994b: 197).
(43) Dominik (1994b: 198).
(44) As distinct from the infernal deities, whose traditional characterization with regard to
benevolence or malevolence merits further analysis. In the Thebaid, however, Statius
invites a comparison between the celestial and infernal deities, represented by Jupiter
and Dis (with Tisiphone) respectively, when Dis and the Furies seem to hijack the action
preceding and during the battle; see Feeney (1991: 25052) and Ganiban (2007: 117
51).
(45) For more discussion of bird imagery in this instance, see Manolaraki, Ch. 5 below.
(46) Feeney (1991: 340) points out that the confusion is caused by constant delays in the
action.
(47) Feeney (1991: 3568).
(48) I would like to thank the editor for his guidance and instruction during the research
process, and for his advice in the writing and polishing of the completed article. I would
also like to thank the fellow contributors to this volume, for their helpful questions and
suggestions; their input was essential in the editing and evolution of this essay into its final
form.

Page 15 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015

Argive Augury and Portents in the Thebaid

Access brought to you by: University of Oxford

Page 16 of 16
PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2015.
All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a
monograph in OSO for personal use (for details see http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: University of
Oxford; date: 01 May 2015