Dealing with a massacre : spectacle, eroticism, and unreliable narration in the Lemnian episode of Statius' Thebaid

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Gervais, Kyle G.
Latin Literature , Thebaid , Hypsipyle , Lemnian Episode , Statius
I offer three readings of the Lemnian episode narrated by Hypsipyle in book five of the Thebaid, each based upon an interpretive tension created by textual, intertextual, and cultural factors and resolved by the death of Opheltes, the child nursed by Hypsipyle. In the first reading (chapter two), I suggest that Hypsipyle emphasizes the questionable nature of the evidence for the involvement of Venus and other divinities in the Lemnian massacre, which is on the surface quite obvious, as a subconscious strategy to deal with her fear of divine retribution against her and Opheltes. In the second reading (chapter three), I argue that much of the violence of the massacre is eroticized, primarily by allusions to Augustan elegy and Ovidian poetry, and that this eroticism challenges a straightforward, horrified reaction to the Lemnian episode. In the third reading (chapter four), which continues the argument of the second, I suggest that the reaction of Statius’ audience to the Lemnian massacre was influenced by familiarity with the violent entertainment offered in the Roman arena, and that this encouraged the audience to identify with the perpetrators of the massacre rather than the victims. The problematization of the audience’s reaction and of the divine involvement in the massacre is resolved by the death of Opheltes, which is portrayed as both undeniably supernatural in origin and emphatically tragic in nature. Thus, as the first half of the Thebaid draws to a close, Statius decisively affirms the power of the gods and the horrific tragedy of violence and prepares to embark upon the war in the Thebaid’s second half, which will end ultimately with the double fratricide of the sons of Oedipus and Statius’ prayer for future generations to forget this sin.
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