Nature and Nurture in Statius' Achilleid

Neil Bernstein

Ohio University

In the figure of Achilles, Statius' Achilleid investigates the complex relationship between the inherited and social aspects of identity, the "given" and the "made". The incomplete epic depicts Achilles' varied emotional responses to his consanguineous parents Peleus and Thetis and to his fosterer Chiron (cf. Mendelsohn 1990). This paper examines the contribution of the Achilleid to the Roman debate on the relative importance of nature and nurture (cf. Treggiari 2003) and on the role of caregivers and preceptors in the formation of individual character.

The duration of Achilles' relationship with Chiron encourages him to ignore his mother's demands and privilege the model of behavior inculcated by his fosterer. Chiron's paideia encourages Achilles' propensities for violence. His fosterer withheld affection unless Achilles had been successful in his hunting and drawn blood (2.126-8). Animal similes figure the effects of Chiron's training on Achilles: he is compared to a young bull (1.313-7) and to a domesticated lion who resumes his "natural" savagery (1.858-63). When Thetis attempts to disguise her son in women's clothes, memories of his father and fosterer as well as his nature (indoles) prompt him to resist initially (1.274-6). Achilles represents his rape of Deidamia as a form of independence from his mother (1.650, 660) and repudiates his female disguise as a maternum nefas (2.44). Thetis' attempts to control her son conflict with both his nature and his nurture.

The epic sensitively illustrates the emotional links between fosterling and fosterer (cf. Fantham 1999) and the power of Achilles' memories of his absent father. The young man prefers to embrace Chiron's nonhuman breast rather than Thetis' maternal breast (1.197), and pities his "bereft" (orbatus, 1.631) fosterer after his departure. Although separated from Peleus, Achilles "measures himself by his father's spear" (et patria iam se metitur in hasta, 1.41) and sings about Peleus' marriage with Thetis as an exploit akin to the deeds of Hercules and Theseus (1.193). The Achilleid grants its hero the ability to choose among the varied ancestral and social models of behavior made available to him.

The Achilleid's narrative of a mythological hero's upbringing offers several points of contact with the experience of the late first-century Roman upper class. Many upper-class Romans came to maturity in families that experienced serial marriage, and many were entrusted as children to servile or lower-class nutritores and pedagogi (cf. Bradley 1991). Achilles' separation from his consanguineous father and his lengthy period of fosterage reflect these experiences. Furthermore, the relative merits of nature and nurture were subjects for debate among a class that could no longer privilege ancestry as the major criterion of nobility. Most upper-class Romans of the first century could not count distinguished lineage among their social assets; Garnsey and Saller (1987: 123) estimate, for example, that senatorial families died out at the rate of 75% per generation in the early empire. The effects of these social changes are visible throughout contemporary literature: Seneca, for example, argues that studia rather than kinship connections create nobility (Ep. 21), while Quintilian represents natura as necessary but not sufficient and privileges the contribution of doctrina to the formation of the ideal orator (Inst. 2.19.1). The Achilleid's representation of the effects of Achilles' divine birth, fosterage, and paideia responds both to the realities of upper-class Roman life and to first-century intellectual tradition.

The paper is accompanied by a handout and no audiovisual resources will be required.

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