Academic journal article Akroterion

Ambiguus Sexus: Epic Masculinity in Transition in Statius' Achilleid

Academic journal article Akroterion

Ambiguus Sexus: Epic Masculinity in Transition in Statius' Achilleid

Article excerpt

Recent sociological and theoretical studies have commented on the paradox of masculinity: characterised as the norm, the point of fixity against which femininity is defined as "other", it has been silent and hidden from view in critical thought--in the words of historian John Tosh, "everywhere but nowhere". (2) As the archetypal genre of wars and heroes, classical epic poetry, from the Iliad onwards, exemplifies this irony: until lately, the gender of the epic hero was never in doubt, let alone placed under scrutiny. Moreover, the primary importance of heroic, warrior masculinity to Roman male identity and society is affirmed again and again by Roman poets, orators and historians: one need only consider how military might is integral to the Aeneid's famous definition of the essence of Roman-ness: "to spare the conquered and to war down the proud" (parcere subiectis et debellare superbos, 6.853). (3) Yet, with the recent development of an increasingly sophisticated discourse on gender in Roman society and literature, representations of male heroism in Roman epic no longer appear monolithic, but rather appear fluid, diverse and fraught with ambiguity. (4)

In fact, a certain questioning and confronting of the tenets of warrior manhood may have been a marked feature of some Roman epics themselves. The subject of this article is the unfinished Latin epic Achilleid, by Publius Papinius Statius, written around AD 95; I argue that this text playfully challenges assumptions about classical epic masculinity and illustrates the instabilities of men's position within the epic genre. The incomplete poem avoids battle-narrative, telling instead the myth of the young Achilles disguised in female dress before he goes to Troy. Its extant 1200 lines narrate how the goddess Thetis, anxious that her son should not fulfill his fate to die at Troy, whisks the adolescent away from his foster home with the centaur Chiron and secretes him on the island of Scyros among the maidens of King Lycomedes' court, disguised as a girl. The central section details Achilles' sexual awakening on the bucolic island, where he falls in love with Lycomedes' daughter Deidamia and, revealing himself to her as a boy, rapes her, after which she secretly bears him a son. Statius' version reaches its climax when Ulysses arrives, searching for the boy who is destined to win the war for the Greeks. Ulysses exposes Achilles' feminine masquerade in a trick that counteracts and trumps that of his mother Thetis: among the girlish gifts he has brought for Lycomedes' daughters, Ulysses places a shield and spear. When a sudden trumpet blast scatters the girls in fright, Achilles finally reveals his true identity to all by forgetting his disguise and seizing the bloodied weapons placed in front of him. The text breaks off as the newly "come-out" warrior Achilles sails on a ship to Troy with the Greeks. One effect of this interruption is that the existing lines, comprising just over one book, assume the appearance of a self-contained poem and the prevailing impression of Achilles that emerges from the Scyros episode is not of a wrathful, implacable, aggressive warrior cutting a swathe through the battlefield, but of a draft-dodging, submissive boy in drag, immersed in a titillating harem of Dionysiac dancing and amor.

The Achilleid has lagged behind the Silvae and the Thebaid in the critical reappraisal of Statius' work, but it has recently been dragged centre-stage in the theoretical debates concerning intertextuality. Most of these debates circled around claims of the poem as Ovidian or Virgilian, or as a demonstration of the inevitable miscegenation and hybridity in literary genres. But the focus on allusion and genre leaves questions still to be explored, particularly on the poem's representation of gender. Peter Heslin's extensive 2005 monograph finally provided an in-depth study of the main subject of the epic, the temporary transvestism of Achilles on Scyros, its significance for the literary figure of Achilles and for the generic identity of the poem. …

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