Book 1 The Thebaid opens with a priamel in which the poet rejects several themes dealing with Theban mythology and decides to focus on the House of Oedipus (Oedipodae confusa domus), and following this is a recusatio and a passage in praise of Domitian. The narrative begins with Oedipus' prayer to the chthonic gods and curse on his sons Polyneices and Eteocles who have rejected and mistreated him. The Fury Tisiphone hears Oedipus' prayer and ascends to the earth to fulfill the curse, causing strife between Eteocles and Polyneices (who is in exile for a year while Eteocles holds the throne of Thebes). This is followed by a council of the gods concilium deorum at which Jupiter informs the gods of his plan to involve Thebes and Argos in a war; when Juno passionately pleas for Argos, she is silenced by Jupiter's unshakable decision. Mercury is sent to the underworld to fetch the shade of Laius to cause drive Eteocles to war. Meanwhile Polyneices is driven by a storm to Argos and the threshold of Adrastus's palace, where he meets Tydeus, an exile from Calydon who is also seeking shelter, and fights with him. Adrastus invites the two exiles in, feasts them, and, in fulfillment of a prophecy, offers them his daughters to marry; he then goes on the explain the aetiology of the festival the Argives are celebrating, telling the story of Apollo's rape of Psamathe, the death of her and her child Linus, followed by Apollo's vengeful summoning of a child-eating monster from the underworld which later was slain by Coroebus, and finally, Coroebus' offer of self sacrifice to Apollo to end a plague at Argos. The book ends with Adrastus' prayer to Apollo.
Book 2 The second book begins with Mercury's guidance of the shade of Laius to Thebes; Laius appears in the guise of Tiresias to Eteocles in a dream and drives him to refuse to allow Polyneices to become king when his year is over. Adrastus marries Polyneices to Argia and Tydeus to Deipyle in a ceremony marred by ill omens. The poet describes the necklace of Harmonia, which Argia wears to the wedding, as an object that brings its bearers bad luck and causes strife. Polyneices sends Tydeus on an embassy to Eteocles to remind him that his time of rule is over. Eteocles refuses Tydeus' request for him to give up the throne. Tydeus leaves in a rage and Eteocles sends an ambush to kill him as he returns in a mountain pass. Tydeus kills all the ambushers except Maeon so he can carry the news back to Eteocles. Tydeus then attaches the battle trophies—taken from the slain—to an oak tree as he prays to Minerva.
Book 3 Maeon returns to Thebes, reports the slaughter to Eteocles, criticizing the tyrant's behavior, and then commits suicide. The Thebans go out to survey the slaughter and bury the dead. Jupiter orders Mars to go to earth to stir up war, but Venus blocks his chariot, beseeching him to prevent the war. Mars follows Jupiter's commands and heads to earth, stirring up trouble in the cities and driving Adrastus and Polyneices to declare war once they hear of Eteocles' outrage. Amphiaraus and Melampus go to Aphesas to take auspices about the coming war, which portend confusion, violence, and death. The Argives and their allies prepare their forces. Argia asks Polyneices not to fight and expresses her concern over the war. The book ends with Polyneices' reassurances that the war will turn out well.
Book 4 Book 4 opens three years after the third book. The Argives and their allies are gathered and the poet asks Fama and Vetustas to help him in the catalogue of heroes and allies. Each hero's armor and appearance are described. Adrastus and Polyneices muster the Argive forces, Tydeus the Aetolians, Hippomedon the Dorians, and Capaneus the Messenians. Amphiaraus is driven to fight by Eriphyle and leads the Spartans, while Parthenopaeus unbeknownst to his mother, Atalanta, leads the Arcadians. The Thebans reluctantly prepare for war. Because of bad omens, Tiresias, Eteocles, and Manto go to the grove of Diana to perform necromancy. Manto and Tiresias have a vision of the underworld and find the spirit of Laius which tells them that Thebes will be victorious but terrible crimes will occur. As the Argives march through Nemea, Bacchus causes a drought for the army. The army encounters Hypsipyle who is nursing the child Opheltes (Archemorus). She leaves the boy and shows the Argives a spring where they finally find water; the book ends with praise for Nemea.
Book 5 Asked by the Argives who she is, Hypsipyle tells her story. To punish the island of Lemnos for ignoring her worship, Venus drives the women of the island to kill all the men. Hypsipyle saves her father, Thoas, setting him adrift at sea in a chest. Just as the Lemnian women despair of their future, the Argonauts arrive, sleep with the women, and soon leave. When Hypsipyle's rescue of her father is revealed, she flees Lemnos and becomes a nurse to Opheltes. As Hypsipyle talks, a snake crushes Opheltes, which is killed by the Argives. King Lycurgus and Eurydice mourn their son, and the Argives suggest the institution of the Nemean games to commemorate Opheltes.
Book 6 The Argives burn Opheltes on a massive pyre, and funeral sacrifices are performed while Eurydice recites a lament. Nine days later, contestants gather for the new Nemean Games which include chariot racing, which Amphiaraus wins, foot races, at which Parthenopaeus is cheated of an easy victory, and a discus contest, which Hippomedon wins. Capaneus is almost killed in the boxing, and Tydeus wins in the wrestling. The book ends with Adrastus' ill-omened attempt at archery.
Book 7 Jupiter, angry at the Nemean delay, sends Mercury to the Thracian temple of Mars to stir the army. Mars sends Panic into the Argive army to frighten the soldiers who resume their march. Bacchus pleads to Jupiter to avert the war in vain as the Argives arrive at Thebes with terrible omens. Antigone and an old servant look at the army from a tower and describe the heroes (teichoscopia) and Jocasta tries to dissuade Eteocles from fighting. The Argives kill two tigers sacred to Bacchus and stir the Thebans to battle. The poet invokes the muse as he begins to describe the first skirmish where Apollo gives Amphiaraus an aristeia. During battle, the earth opens and swallows Amphiaraus and his chariot.
Book 8 As Amphiaraus descends, Pluto, threatened by this violation of his realm, sends Tisiphone to create crimes in the war. The Thebans celebrate after the battle while Melampus propitiates Tellus with sacrifices in the Argive camp. The poet invokes Calliope when the battle is joined again. Both sides make gains in the fighting, but Atys, Ismene's betrothed, is killed and brought to Oedipus. Tydeus is wounded by Melanippus. Tydeus then slays him and eats his head.
Book 9 Tydeus dies and the armies struggle for the body. Tisiphone drives Hippomedon to enter the fray and recover the body and the hero has an aristeia. There is a battle in the river Ismenus and Hippomedon is killed when the river floods to avenge its grandson at the behest the boy's mother, Ismenis. The heroes fight for the body of Hippomedon and Hypseus dies. Atalanta in Arcadia has a dream of Parthenopaeus' death and prays to Diana who gives him an aristeia before he is killed by Dryas.
Book 10 The Thebans celebrate as the wives of the heroes in Argos perform sacrifices to Juno. Juno sends Iris to the grove of Sleep who puts the Theban army into a deep sleep during the night. A band of soldiers is gathered by the Argives which enters the Theban camp and slaughters the sleeping warriors. The pair Dymas and Hopleus kill many Thebans and are slain together. The Thebans awake and flee into the city; there is battle at the gates, which are eventually closed. Tiresias demands the death of Menoeceus for the war to end. Menoeceus leaps from the walls. Capaneus climbs a tower and curses Jupiter who kills him with a thunderbolt.
Book 11 The Argives are driven by the Thebans to their camp. Tisiphone and Megaera stir Polyneices to challenge Eteocles to single combat to decide the war. Jocasta and Antigone try to dissuade them, but they go out into the plain to fight. Fortuna and Pietas try to delay the fight but are driven away by the furies. The brothers kill each other, and Oedipus laments as Jocasta kills herself at the news. Creon assumes power, forbids the burial of Polyneices and the Argive dead, and exiles Oedipus while the Argives quietly return home.
Book 12 The Thebans bury their dead. The Argive widows travel to Thebes to bury their dead relatives but receive the news that Creon has denied them burial; the women travel to Athens to ask Theseus to help them. Argia secretly comes to Thebes and meets Antigone outside the wall; they burn the bodies of the brothers on one pyre, but the flames separate. Creon arrests the women as the widows become suppliants at the altar of Clementia at Athens. Theseus prepares an army against Thebes and slays Creon in battle. The Thebaid ends with an epilogue in which the poet prays that his poem will be successful, cautions it not to rival the Aeneid, and hopes that his fame will outlive him.
Read more about this topic: Thebaid (Latin Poem)
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—Ralph Waldo Emerson (18031882)
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