The Thebaid is an ancient, Latin epic written by Publius Papinius Statius (c. 45 – c. 96 AD). According to the last verse of the poem, Statius wrote the Thebaid over the course of a dozen years during the reign of Emperor Domitian. Written in hexameters, the standard metre of Greco-Roman epics, it deals with the same subject as the Thebaid – an early Greek epic of several thousand lines which survives only in brief fragments (also known as the Thebais), and which was attributed by some classical Greek authors to Homer.
Statius’ Thebaid, like the earlier work, is about the assault of the seven leaders and allies of Argos against the city of Thebes which received its most notable treatment in the plays of Aeschylus -- of which The Seven Against Thebes survives to this day. The epic focuses much of its attention on fraternal strife, most notably the fraternal strife between Eteocles and Polyneices who were the sons of Oedipus. The brothers could not cordially rule Thebes together so they decided to split the years of their rule and be kings in alternating years. As the epic begins, Eteocles is ruling in Thebes but his year as king is coming to a close. Polynieces, meanwhile, has just wed one of the daughters of Adrastus, the king of Argos (making him a prince as well as a king), and he is eager to become the ruler of two kingdoms at once.
Statius masterfully weaves the theme of fraternal strife into the Thebaid. He includes countless allusions to brothers and sisters in history and in mythology, and he has the action many secondary characters mirror or contrast the central conflict between the two brothers. In this way, many aspects of sibling relationships, both the love and the rivalry, are depicted and commented on.
Also, much like the Homeric epics that precede him, Statius makes full use of the gods as plot devices. For instance since Thebes is Bacchus’ city (his home as well as home to one of his temples) and Adrastus is a priest of Apollo, there is an added layer of drama and conflict that occurs because these two central deities begin to wage war against one another indirectly as the opposing armies clash. In his depiction of the gods, C. S. Lewis sees Statius' technique as a departure from Homer's and Vergil's more mythological treatment; Statius' allegorical treatment came to dominate the Middle Ages. To illustate the difference, Lewis contrasts Homer's Ares, who does other things besides rage in war, with Statius' Mars, a personification of an abstraction, who even before the battle begins is always already raging in his blind and insane passion (The Allegory of Love 48-56). Lewis further claims that on account of this difference, in the Thebaid "lies the germ of all the allegorical poetry" (54).
The Thebaid was popular in Statius's lifetime and (according to the epic’s final verse), Roman schoolboys were already memorizing passages from the epic before it was finished. Statius was personally favored by Emperor Domitian, and the educational use of his poem might be seen as a consequence of official favor; however, the poem remained a popular piece of Latin literature for many centuries proving that it possessed not only genuine literary merit, but that it also possessed lasting appeal.
In the late 1100s a French verse romance, Le roman de Thèbes, was composed by an unknown author, probably at the court of Henry II of England. Here the Thebaid is transformed into a chivalric epic. According to Charles Stanley Ross (the Thebaid’s most recent translator), the Roman de Thèbes is a far inferior work; it is at any rate a very different one, because so many of the characters are presented as being honorable men. Statius, much like Homer, derived much of his drama and intrigue from the personality flaws of his cast and from the conflicts that arose because of these character flaws. Most of the work’s characters are egomaniacal, arrogant or impious and all of their deaths are informed and foreshadowed by these weaknesses.
Giovanni Boccaccio, the 14th century Italian poet and author best known for writing the Decameron, also borrowed heavily from the Thebaid when composing his Teseida (which, in turn, was used heavily by Chaucer when composing his “Knight’s Tale” segment of the Canterbury Tales). Of particular importance is a scene in which Hermes is sent to the realm of Mars. All three of these works (as well as Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene) contain large tracts of allegorical figures that are housed in War’s realm and which represent the various futilities of war and violence.
Finally, one of the chief reasons that Statius is remembered today is because of the poet Dante Alighieri. Much like Virgil, who is a character in the first section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Statius, too, plays a large role in the later poet’s work. In the Divine Comedy, “Dante and Virgil meet Statius in Purgatory, on the level reserved for the avaricious, where his spirit, having completed his atonement for the sins of his earthly life, accompanies the poets through the remainder of Purgatory proper to the Earthly Paradise at the summit of the holy mountain”(quoted from the wikipedia article Dante). Through the medium of Dante, Statius gets to meet his precursor, Virgil, and praise him personally. This scene is justified as the historical Statius had devoted the closing lines of his Thebaid to praise of Virgil:
Ross, Charles Stanley. Seven Against Thebes: the Thebaid.