The Clementia of Theseus?  Virtue, Intertext and the Nature of Kingship in the Thebaid

Randall Ganiban

After the Theban brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other, and the equally criminal Creon has ascended the throne, it falls to the Athenian king Theseus in book 12 to bring an end to the crimes that have dominated the Thebaid.  To some, Theseus represents a positive figure who promotes virtue after a terrible civil war, much like the Flavians (or more specifically Domitian) did for Rome (cf. Vessey, Ripoll, Franchet d’Espèrey, and Delarue).  Others dismiss a positive view of Theseus, taking him instead as another crazed tyrant, and the poem as subversive of Domitian (cf. Dominik, McGuire and Criado).  In this paper, I will argue an intermediate position, that Theseus is a positive figure, yet he also embodies the problems of kingship that have dominated the epic. The Thebaid thus does not condemn Theseus (or Domitian), but it does offer a general critique of kingship.  I will show this both by examining clementia as presented in book 12 and in Stoic philosophy (i.e. Seneca’s De clementia), and by interpreting Theseus’ actions against the backdrop of Aeneid 12.

I will first demonstrate the problematic nature of Theseus’ clementia.  It turns out to be very different from the virtue represented by Statius’ goddess Clementia  (12.481 ff.): the latter is amoral and dispassionate; the former involves both rage and reason.  Nor does Theseus correspond any closer to the clementia of Stoic philosophy, a significant influence in Roman poetry and imperial culture of the early Empire.  By employing definitions from Seneca we see that Theseus’ clementia turns out to be something more akin to Stoic misericordia (pity), which is a debased form of clementia and thus a Stoic flaw.

To understand Theseus’ clementia and its function better, we must consider the intertextual relationship between the Thebaid and the Aeneid. At various points in the epic, Statius virtually asks us to read his epic against that of his great predecessor (cf. 10.442-48; 12.816-19).  This is especially true with respect to the end of the Aeneid, not only because it describes a duel and decisive death but also because it involves the virtue of clementia: Aeneas is offered an opportunity to spare his enemy Turnus.

I will argue that the end of the Thebaid (like the poem more generally) involves an intertextual dialogue with the Aeneid concerning the moral basis of kingship.  On the one hand, Theseus’ swift and unproblematic killing of Creon retrospectively underscores the problematic nature of Aeneas’ slaying of Turnus, because Aeneas’ initial impulse for sparing Turnus is overcome by his wrath and fury (Aen. 12.946).  On the other hand, Statius’ Theseus unmasks the misleading Vergilian idea that moral virtue really matters in a monarchic world.  In attacking Creon, Theseus is not explicitly acting upon any particular virtue (whether it be clementia or pietas); rather he is indulging his own passions and thus is not that unlike Aeneas, who is motivated by fury to kill Turnus.

Theseus, instead of representing and reinforcing the moral virtues of Vergilian kingship, displays their very tenuousness.  He is representative of a political system where kings ultimately look to themselves and not to moral ideals. As a result, Theseus, though a positive figure in the Thebaid, is just as much a representative of the problematic nature of absolute power as were Eteocles and Polynices. The difference is that Theseus acts for what seems to be the public good, while the Theban brothers do not.  In this way, the Thebaid can be read as a political critique of idealized Vergilian kingship (and thus also of the political nature of the Flavian regime), even as it offers a positive view of Theseus (and thus, by implication, of Domitian).

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