Friending Thebes

by Amanda Gerber

“Of friends,” one fifteenth-century reader dubs the topic of his list addition to Book 1 of Statius’s Thebaid. As demonstrated in my last blog post about Statius, “Epic Hit List,” readers might more readily associate the Roman’s bloody epic poems with murder victims than friends, but friendship occupies the mind of this Thebaid reader nonetheless, prompting a list of four pairs of famed heroic friends. With each pair of names introduced by a paraph marker and a bracket to connect them, the annotator commemorates some of antiquity’s most renowned heroic couples almost as heroic couplets:

De Amicis
Tideus &
Pollinices      (London, British Library, Harley MS 4869, f. 7v)

The pairs mostly pertain to the fall of Troy instead of to the Thebaid’s fall of Thebes, which occurs in the aftermath of Oedipus’ incest and death. In fact, only the final pair seems to belong completely to the Thebes theme, and yet only tenuously seems to belong to the friendship theme, considering that the relationship between Tydeus and Polyneices formed when Adrastus married them to his daughters to keep them in Argos and from fighting each other. In this regard, the final pair of friends stand out as the most relevant to the poem beside which they appear. They also stand out as the least homoerotic, considering that the other relationships entailed more than platonic affections. For example, Achilles’s and Patroclus’ presumed homoeroticism even appears in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, which accuses them of neglecting their martial duties due to their philandering. The list thus proves curious for its emphasis on friendship in a tale of battle, for its connections between Trojan and Theban epic traditions, and for its presentation of these four pairs as equal representatives of any topic.

This list and all its peculiarities appear in the margin below an allusion to Theseus and Pirithous[1] within a narration about the dispute and bond between Tydeus and Polyneices (Thebaid, I.474–77). The Thebaid supplies two of the four befriended pairs, but the other two pairs derive from the list-maker’s own collected associations, resulting in an assembly of loosely connected friendships formed in times of conflict. How does this puzzling contribution relate to the epic tradition in which it appears? This brings us back to two old questions about epic lists: What roles do lists play in epics? And to what extent do medieval manuscript marginalia co-opt or emend the ancient traditions they modify?

To begin with, this reader’s friend list seems to keep alive the epic catalogue tradition, or list of items that tends to interrupt the narrative progress of an epic poem. In an analysis of epic catalogues in Homer’s Iliad, Jan Felix Gaertner extrapolates three effects and applications for epic catalogues:

First, catalogues, as lists, are alien to the narrative proper; they form a digression and cause a retardation of subsequent events […]. Second, by furnishing additional information, catalogues direct the reader’s attention and modify his impression of events and characters. Third, catalogues carry and bestow emphasis.[2]

The Statian friend list, like most lists in manuscript margins, fulfill all three of Gaertner’s categories: They digress from the narrative (in the case of the listed friends, they even digress from the poem’s locale and subject matter), supply additional information, and bestow emphasis. In the last category, medieval marginal catalogues like the friend list were often enumerated, bracketed, or even schematized, creating a visual emphasis beside the texts upon which they commented. In these respects, the friend list both responds to and imitates the epic tradition it modifies, extending catalogue-able epic topics beyond its usually savage or genealogical subjects to friendlier spheres.

These friendlier spheres, however, obscure some of the traditional divisions of ancient catalogues. According to Gaertner, two types of catalogues existed during antiquity: The Homeric epic catalogue and the didactic Hesiodic version. In the former category, catalogues emerge in characters’ speeches, whereas the latter present them in the poet’s voice as inspired by divine Muses.[3] In a sense, the Statian friend list blends the roles of both didactic and epic writers because the list derives from the epic as well as from the didactic instruction about its contents. The list-maker thus blurs the line between the poem’s characters and its didactic narrator. In this regard, manuscript marginalia can acquire the shape of epic poetry, exemplifying poetic forms that commentators seek to clarify and expanding the forms’ applications to new subjects in the process. These new catalogued subjects seem to invite refinement to this post’s initial questions about the role of lists in epics. Rather than asking what role they play within their poems, perhaps we should ask what role they continue to play for the readers studying (or skipping over) them. Can we treat catalogues as an ossified literary feature belonging solely to ancient epics, or might the medieval notes that assume their format qualify as imitations or even evolutions of the form?  After all, is not the catalogue, even a marginal medieval addition of one, still a way to direct readers’ attention? Regarding the last question, modern audiences seem to have lost their taste for the informative digressions that epic catalogues and their medieval imitators supply, except in the case of the reinvention of the list as a narrative, which the last post on so expertly analyzes. And perhaps, as the previous posts about modern lists point out, this medieval friend-lister recognizes the power of a list to tell a new tale, one that rewrites the incestuous and murderous relationships that destroyed Thebes with the convivial and productive relationships that continued to form homo-social bonds in times of war.


[1] The poem alludes to their friendship that emerged after Pirithous, a long admirer of Theseus in reputation, decided to test Theseus’s mettle by releasing the hero’s cattle and meeting in battle when the latter pursued them. Admiring each other’s prowess, they swore an oath of friendship that results in multiple mutual adventures, such as the hunt for the Calydonian Boar.

[2] Jan Felix Gaertner, “The Homeric Catalogues and Their Function in Epic Narrative,” Hermes 129.3 (2001): 298-305, at 299.

[3] Ibid., 299.

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