Purdue News

November 22, 2004

'Seven Against Thebes' – Winning the American West, Latin style

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The Latin epic that influenced a Japanese film classic and a Hollywood Western now has a more modern voice, thanks to a Purdue University English professor.

Charles Ross
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Charles Ross, chair of the comparative literature program, translated from Latin into American verse the "Thebiad," which was first published by Publius Papinius Statius in A.D. 92. His "Thebaid: Seven Against Thebes" ($55) will be published by John Hopkins University Press in December.

Statius' epic strongly influenced European literature, Ross says. It also provides an apt analogue to the famous Japanese film "The Seven Samurai" and the Hollywood film that imitated it, the 1960s Western "Magnificent Seven," which starred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

"Each of these works features seven heroes who fight a losing battle in what seems to be a good cause," Ross says.

In the American movie, seven cowboys are hired to free a small town in Mexico from bandits. But the cowboys are troubled by their profession and resolve to put down their guns. They look for stability in a family and a place to settle after this fight.

"The movie, filmed in the aftermath of World War II, is really about America’s anxieties as a world power, even though it is set in the old West," Ross says. "Statius' Roman epic similarly uses an earlier period, in this case the story of the ancient Greek city of Thebes, to make a point about current events. Statius commands our attention because he lived when Rome's situation was similar to that of America today, now that we have become the world's sole superpower.

"The 'Thebaid' is about using violence to influence justice," Ross says. "It’s about how easy it is for the best intentions to go awry because humans are self-destructive, and anger comes all too easily. The poet's subject is the sad horror and inevitability of conflict, especially for those living in the wake of the grim victories that underlie the establishment of a world power."

The "Thebaid" tells the story of how two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, sons of Oedipus, fight for control of the Thebes. This family feud is based on the Greek myth of Oedipus, the king who killed his father and married his mother as part of a prophecy. This myth is at the center of modern thinking about violence and sex, particularly in the work of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, Ross says.

"Statius offers a unique perspective on Freud, however," Ross says. "Because Statius focused not on Oedipus, the father figure, but on Oedipus' sons."

The epic was popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Dante Alighieri thought Statius, who lived in Rome at the time of St. Paul, was a suitable guide to the soul because he inferred the truth of the Christian religion. Statius also influenced Geoffrey Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" and the subplot of William Shakespeare's "King Lear."

"This translation into modern English was needed to ensure that this classic is accessible for today's audience," Ross says. "Statius was a fabulous poet, as Dante well knew, but in an era of modern novels, movies and world literature, we often overlook one of the West's great epics. Yet Statius' message is critical to us. He helps explain where our culture came from. And his artistic achievement is monumental."

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Charles Ross, (765) 494-3749, cross@sla.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu

 

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Note to Journalists: Review copies of the book are available to journalists by contacting Karen Willmes, academic publicist at Johns Hopkins University Press, (410) 516-6932 or kwillmes@press.jhu.edu.

 

PHOTO CAPTION:
Charles Ross, professor of English, translated the "Thebiad," which was first published by Publius Papinius Statius in 92 A.D., from Latin into American verse. His "Thebaid: Seven Against Thebes" ($55) will be published by John Hopkins University in December. The "Thebaid" tells how two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, sons of Oedipus fight for control of the city Thebes. Statius' epic strongly influenced European literature, Ross says. It also provides an apt analogue to the famous Japanese film "The Seven Samurai" and the Hollywood film that imitated it, the 1960s Western "Magnificent Seven." (Purdue News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at http://ftp.purdue.edu/pub/uns/+2004/ross-book.jpg

 

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