Boy Interrupted: Liminalities of Gender and Genre in Statius’s Achilleid and Silvae 3.4
2 Pages Posted: 18 May 2010
Date Written: May 14, 2010
This paper demonstrates a strong relationship between two works of Statius: the Achilleid and Silvae 3.4. Both poems have been the subject of recent scholarly attention – for the Achilleid, the interpretations have focused on issues of gender, genre, and the construction of a literary identity (e.g. Hinds 1998, Feeney 2004, Heslin 2005); for Silvae 3.4, on the poet’s construction of and relationship with imperial ideology under Domitian (e.g. Newlands 2002) – but there has been no recognition of the extensive connections between the two in terms of character, plot, language, and theme. Read alongside each other, each work enriches our interpretation of the other, providing a more complex picture of the themes and concerns that inform Statius’s poetic production. Silvae 3.4 was written for a eunuch and freedman of Domitian named Earinus, commemorating the dedication of his hair to the temple of Asclepius at Pergamum. In the poem’s 100 lines, Statius quickly moves from the hair to a mythological narrative describing how the goddess Venus discovered Earinus as a child under the care of Asclepius at Pergamum, and, struck by his beauty, brought him to Rome to serve in the emperor’s court of boys as cupbearer and sexual plaything. The poem’s joyous celebration of Earinus’s castration – performed by Asclepius himself – has variously led scholars to read it either as shameless flattery (Vessey 1973), coded insult (Garthwaite 1978), or some combination thereof (Newlands 2002). As my paper demonstrates, this mythological narrative is modeled closely after the plot of Statius’s unfinished epic the Achilleid, in which the goddess Thetis finds Achilles under the care of Chiron in Thessaly, and takes him to Scyros to hide among the king’s court of girls. In the two works, Statius particularly links the characters of Achilles and Earinus through similarities in descriptive language: emphasizing the whiteness of their skin, compares their hair with gold, and comments on the absence of the first growth of facial hair. In many respects, the status of these two figures is liminal and uncertain: are they boys or men, men or women? By disguising himself as a woman, Achilles symbolically enacts Earinus’s literal castration (and Statius explicitly or implicitly compares both with the famous castrato Attis, creating an intertextual nexus with Catullus 63). Using these liminal figures, the two texts raise larger questions about the firmness of gender boundaries, most evident in passages in each poem featuring the striking collocation of the words frangere and sexus (Silvae 3.4.74: frangere sexum ~ Achilleid 1.264: ambigui fregerunt...sexus). My paper explores these questions and their significance to the interpretation of both works. The Achilleid has also been read as a meditation on genre as, in an Ovidian turn, the incipient epic takes an elegiac turn toward the romance between Achilles and Deidamia, suggesting that genre categories might be as unstable as gender (cf Hinds 2000). The recognition that Statius has staged this silva as a mini-epic (or this epic as an expanded silva) adds another layer to our picture of the instability of generic categories, and to the multiplicity of themes and ideas to be found within – and across – this poet’s works.
Keywords: Statius, Achilleid, Silvae
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