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Headless but not harmless : the thematics and aesthetics of decapitation in martial epic McClellan, Andrew Michael


This study looks at decapitation in epic poetry from Homer to the early Imperial Roman epics of Lucan and Statius (Thebaid). I examine a variety of epic instances of decapitation, paying particular attention to the significance and symbolism of decapitation in each author in terms of thematic scope and aesthetics. In Chapter 1, I begin by tracing the development of the theme of decapitation from Homer onwards, culminating in an investigation of the elaborations of the theme by Lucan and Statius. Of particular note here are the sensationally graphic scenes of Pompey’ s murder and headembalming in Lucan (esp. BC 8.663-91), and Melanippus’ decapitation, and Tydeus’ subsequent “brain-eating” of his killer-victim in Statius (Thebaid 8.735-66), which receive fuller treatment in Chapter 2. I also, in an elaboration of Elaine Fantham’ s “Lucan’s Medusa-Excursus: Its Design and Purpose,” and Martha Malamud’s article “Pompey’s Head and Cato’s Snakes,” (CF 2003) consider the figure of Medusa and her decapitation by Perseus as a paradigm for the scenes in Lucan and Statius. Lucan presents a Medusa excursus in Book 9.619-69, framed by Pompey’s decapitation and Caesar’s ‘confrontation’ with the head in Egypt (9.1035-1108), which must be understood as a thematic unit. And frequent references in Statius to the gorgon-head on Pallas Athena’s aegis, particularly in the “brain-eating” scene of Book 8, receive similar analysis. The second chapter also consists of a discussion of audience reaction to scenes of decapitation, and the play of focalization Lucan and Statius create to complicate our viewing of the scenes. I examine reactions that the authors and characters within the epics themselves have to scenes of decapitation as a means of metaliterary readership response. The final chapter examines briefly the aesthetic attraction to scenes of the horrific and grotesque, and specifically the tension and dilemma these scenes create in the reader/viewer. Part of my analysis involves consideration of relevant literature treating the aesthetics of horror, including Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Poetics, Julia Kristeva’ s Powers of Horror: An Essay in Abjection (1982), and Noel Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror (1990), to gauge the inherent aesthetic attraction to scenes of the horrific and grotesque.

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