The Seven Against the Seven Hills: The Ancient-Medieval Mashup of the Roman de Thèbes & the Roman d’Eneas

“If lord Homer and lord Plato, and Virgil and Cicero, had concealed their knowledge, there would never have been any talk of them. For this reason I do not wish to keep my intelligence hidden, or to suppress my knowledge, rather does it please me to recount something worthy to be remembered.” — Roman de Thèbes

Back in July we looked at Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie and the medieval tradition of adapting the major classical myth cycles for, what was at the time, a contemporary audience. This week, I thought I’d return to this tradition by examining the other two works that form an adaption trilogy with Troie: the Roman de Thèbes and the Roman d’Eneas. Troie, as an abridged adaption of the Argonautica, the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Oresteia, was trying to condense a huge chunk of ancient literature. Comparatively, the romans de Thèbes and d’Eneas are individually covering much less ground. Thèbes is an adaption of the Oedipus myth cycle and the wars of his sons in the Seven Against Thebes, while Eneas is simply a retelling of the Aeneid. But like Troie, these two French poems provide an important lens on the culture and mores of their time, so they are more than worth a gander.

As with my entry on Troie, my texts come from the 2021 Burgess and Kelly English translations of the poems (Liverpool University Press), and since like their Troie translation, they provide only batched verse line references, if I reference something directly, I will only be notating the corresponding page number in my copy.

Unlike Troie, we have no record of the author(s) of Thèbes/Eneas. However, as with our conjectures about Benoît de Sainte-Maure, we can draw some similar conclusions about them. Because of the necessity of being able to read at least Latin to access the ancient sources of these stories, they were most probably members of the clergy, and because their audience was a noble, secular one, they were likely attached to either the courts of France or England (as opposed to being cloistered monks, for example). There is some scholarly debate about the exact dating of these two poems, but as they abut the emergence of the earliest attested secular-writing medieval authors (Benoît and Chrétien de Troyes), the current consensus believes that Thèbes is the oldest, written around 1150, with Eneas appearing next no later than 1160. This is supported by the fact we’re fairly certain that Troie was written by 1165, and Benoît is clearly aware of the other two works (p. vii, 2). Chrétien’s first Arthurian work, Érec et Énide, was written around 1170, again because we are reasonably sure that Troie predates all of his writing. That said, our records are not precise and we know very little about even Benoît and Chrétien beyond their names. Though it stands to reason that since we think those two men were contemporaries moving in the same Capetian-Angevin court milieu, it is likely that they were acquainted with the Thèbes/Eneas authors as well.

It has been suggested that these clerics began adapting classical literature as edutainment for their aristocratic patrons as a way to woo the ruling class away from the more mindless entertainments of the secular-folk jongleurs who dominated the courts of Europe before the rise of the troubadours and medieval prose poets (p. 3). The vernacular translators were tapping into a blossoming desire among the lay nobility to affect a certain level of knowledge and sophistication beyond the usual markers of wealth (land and martial prowess). In the secular sphere, this would produce the tenants of chivalry and courtly love, but the classically-steeped clerics saw an opportunity to co-op these popular ideals and incorporate them into morality tales embedded in stories from antiquity. Thèbes, Troie, and Eneas—the so-called romans d’antiquité—are the literary bridge between the chansons de geste (like the Song of Roland) and the Chrétien Arthurian romances (p. 4), much the way that the Greek cycle plays are a bridge between the Iliad/Odyssey and the Aeneid. The chansons, like Homer’s works, were initially oral and improvisational, whereas romans d’antiquité represent the transition to written compositions with a set form and narrative.

But, as with Troie, although the Thèbes author is aware of Homer (as evidenced by my flavor text taken from the poem’s prologue), the Greek poet is not the main source for Thèbes’ content, nor are the usual suspects for a modern audience, the Greek playwrights Sophocles and Aeschylus. Rather, the Thèbes author is largely pulling from the Thebaid, a Latin epic poem written by Publius Papinius Statius (c. 45-96 CE) in the late 1st century. We know little about Statius outside of what his few surviving works attest to, but he is thought to have been a part of the Greco-Roman cultural scene in Naples of the time and as at least an occasional court poet for the emperor Domitian (which the satirist Juvenal loves to mock him for). Despite Juvenal, Statius’ poems were very popular during his lifetime, which helped them survive into the Middle Ages, where his work would continue to be used by the early modern authors like Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer. The Thebaid is very consciously modeled on the Aeneid, down to its twelve books and dactylic hexameter, and indeed, the only person more excited than Dante to see Virgil in the Divine Comedy is Statius in Purgatorio (20-21). Additionally, both the Thèbes author and the Eneas author also reference the supposed Trojan War eyewitness accounts of Dares and Dictys for their information, same as Benoît will do in Troie, although as stated, obviously the Eneas author is primarily using Virgil as his source material. But as with all medieval adaptations, there is always one more source ever lurking in the background…

[Ovid: AHHAHAHAHA!! All of you thought she was going to say the Bible!]

Particularly any time the romans d’antiquité veer off into the conventions of courtly love, that is pure, uncut Ovid the authors are drawing from. And as we’ll see a bit later the results are sometimes amusing, especially in Eneas, where the poet is clearly answering the question of “Virgil and Ovid—will they blend?”

[Because who in their right mind would try to suggest two such disparate writers could be similar enough to be two sides of the same coin??]

Ovid is used for the motifs and romantic structure of the romans d’antiquité (p. viii), but Virgil and Statius are where the medieval poets draw their themes. Taking ancient ideas like fama (fame) and migration/origins, the Thèbes/Eneas authors adapt them to the related preoccupations of their own times of onor (honor) and terre (land ownership) (p. viii). The conflict between the two brothers of Thèbes is about kingship (onor), but in the medieval world, land (terre) was the source of a noble’s power far more than a title was, so Eteocles’ control of the city is just as much of a threat to Polynices as his retention of the throne. Terre, through marriage with Lavinia, is also the focus of the struggle between Eneas and Turnus in Eneas. Turnus’ fight for Lavinia is about the territory/kingdom promised to him through his betrothal to the princess, which is contrasted with Eneas’ primary concern of gaining terre for the Trojan refugees in Italy, which would be made much secure if he formed a marital alliance with the local king’s daughter.

What the medieval authors add of their own to the mix is something a little closer to biblical morality, and that is the concept of contre nature, that is, punishment or misfortune as a result of going against the natural order as understood from a medieval perspective, both in Nature and in society. Unlike the Troie text, Thèbes and Eneas are comparatively comfortable at least acknowledging polygamy, homosexuality, and the gods as moving actors, but things that have the potential to disrupt the fabric of society are treated with much more suspicion. Those who break taboos or refuse to stay in their proscribed societal lane are doomed to be struck down by Fate. In Thèbes, the unintentional violation of the incest taboo destroys not only Oedipus, but ensures that his children-siblings will suffer as well, even though they are even more removed from direct blame. In Eneas, Turnus is punished for refusing to bend to the will of the gods (nature) that Eneas is destined to rule Latium, but the main transgressors of the story are the women who try to act like men, no matter how otherwise beautiful and virtuous they appear to be. Dido tries to rule like a king and her star-crossed infatuation with Eneas is her comeuppance; and the warrior maiden Camilla is killed fighting for Turnus—her masculizing role being her undoing (and adding insult to injury, she’s killed because she wants a particular fancy helmet as a prize, because women be distracted by shiny things…) (p. 18-20). It will take European literature a little longer to massage these kinds of characters (Silence, Britomart, etc.) into the romance canon.

[“They [Polynices and Eteocles] were born contrary to Nature, and for this they were destined to be filled with wickedness. In their lifetimes they were incapable of doing good. In God’s name, my lords, pay heed to this: do not do anything against Nature, in order to avoid coming to an end such as did those whose story I here bring to a close.” (Roman de Thèbes, (p. 192)]

To focus now on plot, the medieval author in Thèbes follows the broad strokes of the Oedipus cycle as a modern person would recognize it. Laius, king of Thebes, and his wife, Jocasta receive a prophecy that their son will kill his father and marry his mother, so the baby Oedipus is taken away to be killed, but he is found by Polybus, the king of Corinth, instead and raised as his son. Oedipus as a young man kills Laius through happenstance, solves the riddle of the sphinx, returns to Thebes and marries the city’s widowed queen, Jocasta. After many years of marriage and children of their own, the secret of Oedipus’ parentage comes out and Oedipus blinds himself in shame. He divests himself of the kingship of Thebes, leaving it to his two sons (brothers), Eteocles and Polynices, who are supposed to solely rule on alternating years. Eteocles draws the first ruling year, but refuses to surrender the throne to Polynices at the end of that year. Polynices, who spent his “off year” in Argos, rallies its king, Adrastus, and his allies to retake Thebes by force. The “Seven Against Thebes” are the seven most prominent heroes of this group, though who is included in this group is different depending on your sources. After a brutal siege, Thebes is victorious against the Polynices-led Greeks, most of the Greek forces are annihilated, and Eteocles and Polynices kill each other in single combat, leaving the city to the rule of Jocasta’s brother, Creon. Creon refuses to bury the dead Greeks, including Polynices.

Eneas deviates very little from the main plot of the Aeneid. Eneas flees the fall of Troy with a handful of survivors, finding temporary refuge in Carthage under the rule of its queen, Dido. Eneas and Dido fall in love, but the gods command Eneas to leave her and Africa because he is destined to found the lineage of a great kingdom in Italy (Rome). He reluctantly obeys and Dido kills herself out of grief. Eneas receives a visit from the ghost of his father Anchises asking him to visit him in the underworld, which Aeneas does with the help of the Cumaen Sibyl, and sees the glorious future of Rome. Eneas and the Trojans arrive in Italy where Latinus, the king of Latium has had a prophecy that a foreigner is destined to inherit his kingdom through marriage with his daughter, Lavinia. He recognizes that this is Eneas, but unfortunately he’s already promised Lavinia to a local man, Turnus. Turnus refuses to step aside, and he and Eneas battle it out for the future of Italy. Eneas is ultimately victorious, marries Lavinia, and becomes the ancestor of Romulus, the Tarquin kings, and the Julians.

But with both of these poems, the devil is in the details and it’s in the details where the culture of the adapting authors shines through the classical story. Like we saw in Troie, the warriors of these poems wear medieval armor and ride post-ancient warhorses. The ladies give their sleeves to their champions, and both sexes know the symptoms of lovesickness. What first drives Oedipus from his adoptive parents’ court isn’t as it is in the mythology (a drunk tells him he’s a bastard), but rather the derision from Polybus’ court, where everyone, including him, knows he’s adopted. The court specifically tell him that his real parents and kin aren’t there to offer him the protection a knight would need to survive and move ahead in the world (p. 30)—a real fear to a medieval noble. Rather than accidentally murdering Laius at a crossroads, Oedipus kills his father in a tournament melee that gets out of hand. The riddling sphinx becomes male instead of female and the riddle is posed in the style of the challenging knight that would become de rigueur in Chrétien’s Arthurian stories.

[Later in the story, Polynices has to answer a riddle from a female demon, Astaroth, the medieval equivalent of Astarte, and I got excited to see what the author came up with to match the timelessness of the classic sphinxian riddle. Spoiler alert—it’s just the same riddle again. Which begs the question—did Oedipus tell his kids the riddle and Polynices gets it right because of family lore? Or does he just get the answer right too?]

Also, Oedipus immediately admits to Jocasta upon his arrival in Thebes that he killed her husband, but since it happened in an honorable/courtly fashion (at a tournament), she’s cool with letting bygones be bygones; though the author chalks this up to women being “soon brought to the point when [one] can do with her what one wants” (Women are fickle and easily changed) (p. 34). Without the mystery of who killed Laius, the retributive plague plot of Oedipus Rex is excised from Thèbes, and Oedipus’ real parentage is discovered when, after twenty years, Jocasta asks her second husband about the weird scars on his feet and the whole truth is unraveled from there. Unlike in Sophocles, Jocasta doesn’t kill herself after the denouement, and spends a lot of the war between her other sons doing what any medieval queen would do: interceding between the parties to try to find a non-combative solution. Antigone and Ismene are portrayed as typical medieval maidens, who each have a champion/lover who dies tragically, and the death of Ismene’s lover causes her to retire to a convent as a nun. After the war is finished, the mourning women of Argos go to Theseus in Athens to get him to avenge their dead men whom Creon won’t bury, and he leads an army that razes Thebes to the ground. Antigone, who is drawn as the perfect princess, then gets to respectfully bury her brother, rather than uncomfortably challenging Creon’s power as she does in her eponymous play.

The authorship of Thèbes will probably never be known for certain, but with Eneas, we can at least be pretty sure that it’s not Benoît de Sainte-Maure. The Eneas author follows pretty closely Virgil’s blandly heroic characterization, which is in sharp contrast to the duplicitous Trojan noble depicted in Troie. In Troie, the city falls partly because Aeneas sells it out to the Greeks in exchange for being able to book it the heck out of there, while in Eneas, our hero is appropriately shocked when the sack of Troy happens. Another deviation from Benoît’s recounting is how the Eneas author deals with the Judgment of Paris. As you might recall from my Troie post, because Benoît has taken the gods out of the direct action of the plot, Paris’ choosing of Venus as the fairest goddess is merely something that occurs in a dream. The Eneas author restores the judgment to a literal event between Paris and the goddesses, in part because the gods are more directly necessary to the Aeneid’s story. Juno’s wrath with the Trojans is the main mover of the plot once they leave Troy, and Eneas’ favor with Venus is because he is literally her son.

[But the Eneas author might be the world’s only Paris stan, as he treats us to this wild interpretation of why the goddesses chose Paris, one of the dumbest and most impulsive characters in the Iliad, as judge: “[because] he had a great knowledge of the laws” and “he would not make his judgement hastily or without deep thought” (p. 199-200)]

Instead, where the Eneas author differs most strongly from Virgil, and even Benoît, is his treatment of Dido and Lavinia. Virgil’s poem is famous for its deep sympathy for Dido’s tragic fate as a pawn of the gods, and his almost complete disinterest in anything to do with Lavinia’s characterization. No one has ever mistaken the Latin princess in the Aeneid as anything other than a symbolic means to an end, while Dido is one of the most famous heroines in Western literature. However, the Eneas author does not share ours or Virgil’s tastes. Dido as a medieval queen has two strikes against her: she insists on ruling herself as a queen regnant, and she’s a widow who throws away her chastity on a lover. One of the most poignant moments in the Aeneid is when Aeneas is forced to confront Dido’s ghost in the underworld, where Virgil depicts the queen of Carthage’s understandable anger at Aeneas and how she flees from him in a rage into Dis (“Aeneas, with such appeals, with welling tears, tried to soothe her rage, her wild fiery glance. But she, her eyes fixed on the ground, turned away…”). By contrast, the Eneas author characterizes Dido’s flight as motivated by the shame of “her wicked actions” (p. 238), rather than righteous indignation at her treatment. But this fits with the medieval trope of the wicked, lustful widow—something absent from Virgil’s cultural context.

[“Here lies Dido, who killed herself for love. There would never have been a better pagan if she had not had this unrequited love. But she loved very foolishly, and her wisdom was of no use to her.” (Roman d’Eneas, p. 231)]

Lavinia, as the virginal prize princess, is much more in line with a medieval audience’s idea of a heroine, so the Eneas author has to basically wholesale make a personality for her (even if it’s a pretty standard, bland one). It’s through her that he’s also able to sew in a courtly love plot to his audience’s tastes. Before the climatic duel between Eneas and Turnus, the author full-on hits the breaks and goes on a fairly lengthy digression where Lavinia and Eneas individually fall in love with one another according to courtly proscriptions. One of the last chapters is entirely given over to a monologue Lavinia has with herself diagnosing herself as being in love and how to manage it, in the style of courtly love poems and manuals. I won’t say any of this extra dialogue makes her a more interesting character, but it does give her more to do than Virgil did.

To wrap up, I want to talk about the famous scene in the Aeneid where Anchises delineates Aeneas’ descendants to him the underworld, showing him the future of Rome. When I was reading Eneas, I was interested to see how the medieval author would deal with this deeply Roman scene full of Augustan-specific propaganda—it’s such a niche-audience part of the poem that I half expected it to be cut completely. But no, the Eneas author kept it, though it’s not exactly the same. But it is the very choices that he makes as to what to save, what to ditch, and what to alter that I think perfectly sums up the whole adaptive style of all three of the romans d’antiquité.

To his credit, the author tries to maintain some semblance of the exultation of descendants by Anchises, though stripped down to the essentials. For example, we get Romulus, but none of the Tarquin kings or (the first) Brutus; Caesar, but no mention of Pompey; Augustus, but no Marcellus. Most interestingly, the author seems to parse the celebratory Augustus verses wrong, and speaks of Julius as the one “long promised to you by the gods.” (p. 242). At first I thought this might be a reflection of Caesar having a better reputation at the time—Julius, as a warrior and statesman, fits the model of ideal medieval kingship better than the “very stable peace… great sweetness and great beauty” (ibid) of Octavius’ reign, and is therefore easier to point to as a paragon to his audience. But then I thought about it for a minute more and realized it might be a simple translation error by the Eneas poet. Here’s a basic translation of the same lines from the Aeneid:

...Here is the man, he’s here! Time and again

You’ve heard his coming promised — Caesar!

Son of a god, he will bring back the Age of Gold

to the Latian fields where Saturn once held sway,

expand his empire past the Garamants and the Indians

to a land beyond the stars...

Most modern English translations will change Virgil’s contemporarily-appropriate designation of Octavius as simply “Caesar” to “Caesar Augustus” for clarification as to whom he is referring to, but modern translators have access to more of Roman history and literature than most medieval scholars did, and even then parsing out who is who in an ancient Roman text is sometimes little better than an educated guess. Whether the Eneas author is making a sophisticated statement about the values of his cultural by changing the verses’ meaning, or a completely understandable misinterpretation about two guys with technically the same name, both options represent the rich options and many pitfalls open to those of us who dabble in historical fiction and modern retellings of older stories.

[Did I have a point using Holy Grail stills in this entry? Not really—I just thought of them as a modern Arthurian retelling to link to our medieval authors telling “modern” classical stories in their own time. Vague synergy!]
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