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The ambiguity of Virtus in Lucan's Civil War and Statius' Thebaid [*]

di ELAINE FANTHAM (Princeton)

Virtus, the quality of manliness or manhood, might seem the ultimate and unquestionable Roman value word, the more so for its combination of ethical and pragmatic excellence: yet in Virgil the virtus so characteristic of Turnus is inferior to the pietas of Aeneas. It is in fact in Turnus that we see the seeds of a devaluation of virtus that will sprout sinister flowers in Lucan and bear its bitter fruit in Statius. A glance at Aeneid 12 shows Latinus warning Turnus that he as older man must show judgment to counteract Turnus' self-driving ferox virtus (12.20): though virtus is clearly an absolute positive value in Aeneas' parting words before the final combat (disce puer, virtutem a me, verumque laborem 12.435), though the virtus of Camers' ancestors or of the generic Itali (226, 827) is a source of proper pride, Turnus' conscia virtus will drive him to his death (12.668, 714, 913) as it has caused the death of others.

This equal power for good or evil is evident in Lucan's use of the concept, which has to be separately appraised in the different contexts of its use. It is first applied in book 1 to Caesar's aemula virtus, envious of Pompey and a few lines later nescia stare loco, as a kind of passionate masculine pride and energy, little different from animus or Greek thumos (1.120, 144). Many instances, including the model Caesarians with their deathwish like Volteius in book 4 and Scaeva in book 6, denote simply courage and pride, though this courage can be associated with battle-rage (7.103) and imagery of fire and goads (6.240; 7.103-4, 8.329). Indeed in the human breast the value of this spirit of self, of pride, of defiance, can be accepted in Homeric or heroic terms, where the agent is or are simply soldiers in action; but when the agent is individual and significant Lucan show by his comments that its moral value depends on the warrior or citizen's larger moral code. Thus the third instance of virtus in the poem presents it as the name now given to nefandum scelus in the madness (furor) of civil war (1.668-69). In the Scaeva episode of book 6, the only truly Homeric Aristeia of the whole epic, the warrior facing cohorts of Pompeians single handed is credited with virtus (6.132, 169, 229, 262) but reproached for not realizing how great an offense such courage is -- not so much because it is exercised in the service of Caesar, as because it has no place in civil conflict: in armis / quam magnum virtus crimen civilibus esset (6.148). When Scaeva is finally floored his comrades revere him as vivam magnae speciem virtutis: the manifestation of mighty courage -- or its mere appearance?

On the positive side, of course, Lucan in his own voice and that of Brutus repeatedly celebrates the moral virtus of Cato, that dura virtus which gratuitously braves the opposition of Nature to test himself and his unfortunate men against the hardships of the desert march. Although Lucan sets out in our first encounter with Cato the qualities of selfdenial and service to the state for which he could be equated with the virtuous Roman, I have argued elsewhere that Lucan gives us enough clues at least in book 9, to challenge the absolute moral validity of Cato's behavior.

There are perhaps only two places in which Lucan isolates the higher Stoic single excellence of virtus: when Cato identifies it as the abstract dwelling place of the Stoic world deity (9. 569) and when we follow Pompey's soul to that dwelling place of the half-divine Manes whose ignea virtus has made them able to sustain the rarified ether among the stars (9.7-9). If there are still many examples of virtus as simple courage and derring-do -- the last of them, indeed, the potential valour of Caesar himself trapped and alone in the Egyptian island palace (10.539), it is in keeping with Lucan's grim world of collective furor that marked instances of the higher, morally pure, Stoicizing virtus should be so rare.

It is hardly surprising then, that in Statius' Thebaid, whose theme is fratricidal conflict, virtus (more often personified as Virtus) becomes more suspect than laudable. The spirit of emulation that makes it meritorious in the sporting contest of the games of Archemorus (seven times: 6.3, 294, 550,627, 669, 729, 823 [the conscia virtus of Tydeus]) is more often a spirit of anger, even rage, (so the first instance in the epic 1.469; cf 4.229), something quite unreasoning, found equally in fierce winds (12.727) and raging lion (3.333). The supreme exponent of unreasoning virtus turned to frenzy is Tydeus, whose pride and fury in his final defeat leads to the savage cannibal revenge of gnawing his dead enemy's face, disgusting even the God of war himself (8.741 refers to his own virtus; 9.37: 9.6 for the alienation of Mars).

John Henderson in one of his two recent attempts to take the Thebaid by critical storm (PCPS 37 [1991], 30-80), has parsed the poem as an alternation of virtus and planctus, and stressed the "remaking of maleness" by Statius' promotion of the women's voice to narrate epic" (p55). " Virtus," he affirms, "is for losers", "the martial heroism of Thebes will have to be Freitod, the defiant suicides - Maeon, bearer of bad news to a tyrant, Menoeceus (good as) last of all autochthons <in> self-sacrifice to save the city."

True enough, and in an epic with so many warriors and such incessant lust for battle, one's best hope might be that Statius can preserve the dignity of the abstraction, of Virtue personified, while acknowledging its distortion in the individual breast. Now Statius' epic carries further than any previous ancient poem the personification of good and evil and the direct allegorical participation of these personified beings in the action. But Virtus' early cameo appearances bode ill for her status as a personification. She is first found in disreputable company: the violent retinue of Bacchus (nec comitatus iners: 4.661), consorting with rage, frenzy and fear and passion that knows no sobriety Ira furorque/ et metus....et numquam sobrius ardor : but she keeps worse company still in attendance on Mars at his sinister bronze palace in book 7: among the thousand frenzies (mille furoribus 41) are Mad Onslaught and blind Evil, bloody Anger and bloodless Terror, Treachery, and Discord, countless Threats, then, climactically, Grim Valour (tristissima Virtus 51) with gloating Rage and armed Death with gory gaze.

It is striking, by the way, that Mars in his first appearance, had a smaller retinue with no hint of Virtus (3.420). I believe that Statius is saving the paradox for the time when it will be more effective, for the second and fighting half of his epic. From the second appearance of Mars, and the return of Tisiphone in book 7, anger and battle-lust will dominate. But Statius moves during book 10 from the heroic desire to kill to another kind of heroism -- devotio , or dying for one's country. Theban defeats lead to a sacrifice and its interpretation by Teiresias, who calls for the voluntary death of the lastborn son of the dragon-race: Menoeceus the younger son of Creon. Statius draws himself up for an invocation to Clio herself: What god was it who applied to the youth the urge and delight in a noble death: stimulos et pulchrae gaudia mortis, adding his own comment that such a state of mind never comes to man without the presence of a god (628-30).

We wait expectant, and his narrative begins: diva Iovis solio iuxta comes -- dear Lord, is Statius bringing on the Dirae from the end of the Aeneid? hae Iovis ad solium, saevique in limine regis/ apparent (12. 849-50). No, it is Virtus, described as a rare blessing on earth, either as gift of Jupiter or from her own decision to enter worthy men (capaces penetrare viros). There is about this divinity a whiff of the Aidos and Nemesis who fled men and earth in Hesiod's Theogony. But as she leaps joyfully down to earth and changes to a mortal appearance, Statius provides a description of the appearance she is casting off -- a sort of negative notatio .

To appear as Teiresias' daughter the priestess Manto Virtus sheds (exuit ) her former countenance: her eyes lose their horror and vigor , her beauty is softened, her sword put down and prophetic robes substituted that fall to her feet, and her dishevelle hair is bound by a fillet, but still her fierce features and large strides betray the goddess. In the best study of this passage knwon to me Feeney (The Gods in Epic [Oxford 1991], 382-5) compares her with Vergil's giant Fama; I was myself reminded of another deity who appeared to another heroic fighter, disguised as a priestess: Allecto who shed (exuit) her own twisted features (torva facies) and put on the vittae (7.416-7). Statius' use of vocabulary is original: vigor is rare in Virgil, the closest instance being the caelestis vigor of the heroes in Aen.6.730; horror is more common, and its last occurrence is the horror with which the Dira fills Turnus in 12.868. With the aspera ora of Virtus we can compare the "asperity" of the warriors Mezentius and Thybris (Aen. 7.647, 729) and the three females dignified by the epithet: Juno Aen.7.279, Allecto, the pestis... aspera of 7. 505, and Camilla, 11.664.

This Virtus has sinister associations. But they are followed by a less sinister, even comic, simile: "Just so did the Lydian bride laugh at Hercules when he cast off his bristling lionskin and ruined the Sidonian robes and messed up the distaff and broke the tambourine with his hand". So Virtus , this virile personification disguised as the priestess, is comparable to Omphale, assuming a male role? The virile female in the garb of a human woman is like the Queen in Herculean lionskin? No, and again for another reason, No - Statius' syntax is in conflict with his psychological focus: Virtus cannot be the laughing Lydian bride; rather in her assumption of the female Manto's garb, she is the transvestite Hercules, whose clumsy frame and gestures traditionally (e.g. Prop.4.9. 49-50, Ov. Her.9.57-70) and here also, strain the woman's garb and break the instruments of the woman's craft. Through whose eyes are we seeing Virtus? Who is the focalizer? Surely we must be seeing Virtus as Menoeceus sees her and he will show us, the readers, by the respect which he shows her, that far from being absurd, Virtus deserves the respect Statius also gives to his hero of devotio. Is the comedy all in our twentieth century minds? Then Statius must have chosen this image because it makes the strongest contrast between (Herculean) inner strength and its humble female medium.

Menoeceus meanwhile, like some pagan Parsifal, was innocently slaughtering Argives at the open gate of a tower in the wall, with his brother Haemon, but more successfully. Even before Virtue was at his side his blows were unerring and there were dead heaps piled up around him, his greedy weapons unresting, as even the Sphinx on his helmet raged and seemed to leap brought back to life by the sight of blood. LIke Athene, checking Achilles, the goddess plucks at his sword arm and hilt and calls him away. "These battles are unworthy (humiles ); this is not the valour that is your due." Her message is that his Virtus urges him to snatch divinity in death, and - deceptively - that he must hurry lest Haemon should anticipate him. Must the hero then be goaded to self-sacrifice by jealousy of his brother? This is the kind of Virtus we know from Lucan, moved by competitiveness (remember Lucn's first example is Caesar's jealousy: 1.120 stimulos dedit aemula virtus).

The effect of Virtus too resembles the effect of Allecto on Turnus. Like Turnus Menoeceus hesitates, like Allecto she enters his heart, stealthily stroking his breast:

[ ...........] cunctantis pectora dextra
permulsit ...seseque in corde reliquit (672-3)

(cf. Aen.7.449 cunctantem, 457 fixit sub pectore). And Menoeceus is inflamed with amor... leti 677, a love as fierce as Turnus' amor ferri (7.461) and marked by as violent a simile: a forest fire instead of a cauldron boiling over. He recognizes Virtus only as she turns to depart (read aversae, not adversae with OCT) and promises obedience in words that echo Aeneas' obedience to the vision of Mercury: cf sequimur, divum quaecumque vocasti,/ nec tarde paremus 680-81 with sequimur te, sancte deorum / quisquis es, imperioque iterum paremus ovantes Aen.4.567-8.

In face of his father's protests Menoeceus offers well-meant deception, suggested by the gods to which he has already committed himself (dis votum 720). But his pietas to father and country is introduced as a new aspect of his goodness as he ascends the tower sacer aspectu solitoque augustior ore and pledges his life to the gods of war and to Apollo in return for the salvation of Thebes. Menoeceus stabs himself and leaps down to his death, hurling himself like a missile on the besieging Argives. But he does not fall; Pietas and Virtus together bear his body gently to earth - but only his body. His spirit was long since standing before Jupiter and claiming his place in the stars.

Statius has carefully interwoven with the death of Menoeceus the Aristeia of the Argive giant Capaneus, whom we first meet rallying the defeated Argives in the name of Virtus: he calls on his fellows to display their valour in full daylight, relying on the divinity of his right hand and his battle-frenzy (10.483). Between the inspiration of Menoeceus and his actual devotio the poet returns to a vignette of Capaneus in action (737-55): his single-handed assaults on the roofs and towers of Thebes compensate for the losses of Tydeus, Hippomedon, Amphiaraus and Parthenopaeus: he rages so mercilessly that men quail at the very sight of his armour or the crest of his helmet.

Once Menoeceus has fallen, or rather risen to heaven, Statius can complete the saga of Capaneus: but first he must appeal to all the muses for help with the challenge of raising the blasphemous Capaneus astrigeros... in axes. Now the poet does not settle for a single explanation of Capaneus' superhuman overreach. It could be Furor sent from hell by the Stygian sisters, using Capaneus as a tool in their attack on Jupiter, or again a new manifestation of virtus egressa modum, or crazy vainglory, or the granting by fate of a mighty death, or one of those deceptively successful beginnings of misfortune sent to mortals by the angry gods.

But at the human level of motivation virtus, or perceived virtus is the cause. Like Tydeus before his act of cannibalism Capaneus prefaces his act of Hybris with another appeal to virtus: hac ... hac me iubet ardua Virtus /ire. The use of the personifying verb iubere recalls the hallucinatory language of say Seneca's Medea at the point of madness: and Statius' own narrative does not indicate the presence of Virtus. We have only Capaneus' delusion that his lofty Virtus has ordered him over the top: he will storm Thebes where Menoeceus spilled his blood and test the power of the sacrifice and Apollo's oracle (847-9). In a sort of counterpoint with Amphiaraus' ride into the underworld Capaneus strides into the sky: aerium sibi portat iter (842) hurling down pieces of masonry from the fortifications of Thebes and mouthing contempt for men and gods.

Menoeceus had been lifted to the stars; Capaneus assaults them with his abuse, and stands at the giddy height of the firmament while the heavens above darken and thunder. Struck by Jupiter's thunderbolt he stands until his earthly body is consumed by its fire and his animus released in death. Like Lucan's transition from Pompey's burial in book 8 to his catasterism at the opening of book 9, like Statius' own transition from Amphiaraus' descent to the underworld in book 7 to his angry reception by Hades at the beginning of book 8, Statius recapitulates and interprets what we have experienced:

Postquam magnanimus furias virtutis iniquae
consumpsit Capaneus exspiravitque receptum
fulmen et ad terras longe comitata cadentem
signavit muros ultricis semita flammae....

If the Hybristic Capaneus is magnanimus and has virtus, can these be value words for Statius?

Virtus loomed large in book 10, with ten instances, more than in any other book of the Thebaid: but after this retrospective reference in the first line of book 11 the word almost disappears from this book of doom. Towards the end Oedipus in his curse on Creon invokes the name of Virtus as he conceives it; Creon shall rule as he did, but he will lack the manliness to escape fate by his own sword, and live an unblinded coward (11.703). But Virtus herself -- the real divinity -- is nowhere (11.412). She has already left the field, with the gods of war, Bellona, Mars, and Athena, unwilling to watch the fratricidal combat: instead they are replaced by the Stygian sisters (whom we last met in the same metrical sedes motivating Capaneus: cf 11.415 with 10.833). Now that Virtus has withdrawn, there is only one good divinity still untried. When the brothers' horses twice shy away from the fight, Statius cuts to Olympus and Pietas, who in Hesiodic fashion long since resolved to shun the company of men or gods, and is sitting in a remote corner of the sky, distraught and lamenting like some Statian mother or sister, reproaching Jupiter and the fates (11.459-61).

Like Virtus in book 10 Pietas leaps down from heaven (desiluit 11.472 = 10.636), and the armies begin to feel the urge for peace and loathe the wickedness of war; even the brothers feel an unspoken horror. Reversing the gender-determined role and disguise of Virtus, this womanly divinity transforms herself with a man's clothing and weapons, and urges them to oppose the combat, pointing to the behavior of the horses as omen. In terms of the epic tradition Pietas is clearly an inversion of Juturna's role urging the violation of the truce in Aeneid 12.222-38. Like Juturna, given the inverted power-basis of the Thebaid, she is doomed to failure. Tisiphone is stronger and taunts Pietas as a numen iners pacique datum: iners , too, that traditional Roman antonym of the vir bonus ac strenuus seems to reverse its negative value: compare Statius' ambiguous praise of Bacchus' retinue, including Virtus, in 4.661: nec comitatus iners. Scornfully Tisiphone mocks the late appearance of Pietas: where was she when the family curse of the Labdacidae began -- or at any time since then? Whimpering, Pietas covers her face and runs away to complain to Jupiter.

In fact I contributed the whimper, because it seemed so in keeping with Statius' portrayal. Now we have brought together and examined the whole nexus of Statian scenes that play against each other these two moral conceptions of masculine Virtus and ?feminine? Pietas (apart from Menoeceus this quality is exclusively exemplified by women in the Thebaid). Clearly there is a real Virtus which can work in harmony with Pietas to make good things happen. But unlike Pietas , Virtus has a deceptive counterpart. Even the Virtus that inspires Menoeceus to kill himself has a sinister aspect closer to the Furies that patronise evil killing. And for one instance of self-sacrificing Virtus, Statius has shown and will go on to show many deeds of self-glorification and savagery committed in her name: Capaneus and Tydeus amply demonstrate Lucan's claim that scelerique nefando/ nomen erit Virtus. And even without overt moral judgment on the individual manifestations, Statius' text with its stress on hellish motivators, anger, envy, hatred and bloodlust, leaves virtually no human Virtus untainted and unsuspect.

Lucan, as we have seen, can use the concept of virtus in its Stoic sense of total moral arete, but chiefly follows the model of the epic tradition in applying it to acts of military daring, usually proved by multiple slaughter, and in special cases topped off with the supreme challenge of self-slaughter. We know from Greek Stoic sources and Lucan's own uncle Seneca that suicide was only an act of virtus when committed to avoid dishonor, or when circumstances showed that it was the will of providence or god that the Stoic should abandon his duty on earth and take his life. If Lucan's warriors seem to kill themselves out of sheer defiance, as the ultimate extravagant gesture, he also remembers at key moments to remind his readers that there can be no virtus in killing in a civil war; indeed his Cato sets up a model of what would be the highest virtus: to stand in the front line and divert all fire onto oneself in an act of devotio, dying to redeem his people (2.308-13). But it is equally clear that not even Cato's death could redeem this people, though Lucan may have hoped to make his final moment of glory of such a death.

Let us review two recent interpretations of the Statian scene before concluding: Marguerite Billerbeck, scrutinizing the Flavian epics for traces of Stoic thought, came to the clear eyed conclusion that Statius generally lacked significant elements of Stoic influence (ANRW 2.32.5.[Berlin 1986] 143-5). But she sees this scene as the exception, in which the hero is divinized by his Virtus in self-sacrifice, and even the transvestism of Virtus confirms an allusion to Hercules' mythical choice in Prodicus. Far closer to my proposed interprettaion is the recent study of William Dominik (The Mythic Voice of Statius [Leiden 1994] 52-53, see also 63, 67, and 134). For him the behaviour of Statius' Virtus is part of a larger pattern. He recognizes her negative aspects, her "propensity towards violence and destruction" and her function in the Thebaid as one of "martial inspiration rather than virtue." Dominik notes the juxtaposition of Menoeceus' death and Capaneus' claim of obedience to Virtus as supreme examples of her role as a tool of Jupiter's destructive aims, but without comment on the moral status and implications of either episode.

Statius' destructive Virtus, like his destructive Jupiter, surely has the widest possible reference. Because the inter-communal war of Argos and Thebes originates in the fraternal war of Polynices and Eteocles, Statius' loathing of civil war, echoing that of Lucan, extends to colour virtually all his combat narratives, driving out almost every trace of Homeric virtus. The narrative is Homeric and the audience is given Homeric thrills in dramatic acts of slaughter, but Statius cannot leave his readers the illusion of virtus unsullied; and nowhere is this more evident than in his juxtaposition and interweaving of Menoeceus' Cato-like devotio and Capaneus' Caesarian self-aggrandizement. We have no doubt of Capaneus' hubristic folly, but Menoeceus' death is neither validated by its choreography nor its consequences. Thebes is not saved, for there is no salvation.

[*] This is a slightly modified and updated version of a paper given at the Classical Association of Canada in June 1993.

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