Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.13

Carole Newlands, Statius' Silvae and the Poetics of Empire.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.  Pp. 356.  ISBN 0-521-80891-X.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by Llewelyn Morgan, Brasenose College, Oxford (
Word count: 3043 words

Read the right way, Statius' Silvae can tell us everything we need to know about the anxieties afflicting Rome under the last of the Flavians. What kind of place, after all, generated poems as obsessed as these are with asserting the immortality and eternal youth of the monarch? A place, pretty obviously, which like Elizabethan England was preoccupied with the threat to stability posed by a ruler with no children. Again, what does it tell us about Domitian's regime that both friendly and hostile literature thematized his high facial colour, making him the sun if they were favourable, or the very incarnation of shame if they weren't? The dominant position occupied by Domitian in the state could hardly be more vividly illustrated. In general terms, the most important thing we learn from the very fact that Statius and Martial praise their emperor so fulsomely and relentlessly is surely that the Domitianic regime was experiencing a profound crisis of legitimacy. In other words, the Silvae are, despite themselves, eloquent testimony to the crisis of Domitian's later reign. A poet says about the imperial eunuch, 'To no other was the power to feminize the boy/ entrusted, but with quiet skill the youthful scion of Phoebus/ bids his body gently pass over from his sex/ undamaged by any wound' (Silv. 3.4.68-71), and you get a fair idea what's eating him.

So far so good, but it's quite a different matter to claim, as Newlands regularly does in this book, that Statius designed his poetry as a critique of Domitianic Rome. The difference is that between what Newlands quotes Fowler as saying about negative comparisons ('an "alert" reader cannot in good faith escape making the connections we are told to avoid', p.292) and a typical critical procedure by Newlands (p.277): 'With his portrayal of Jupiter here, Statius subtly suggests then an ideal model for the relationship between the ruler and the poet.' This distinction is never, however, drawn by Newlands, and the fundamental weakness of this book is a failure to establish and observe a coherent critical methodology. For most of it we hover between something like deconstruction of an ideology which Statian poetry is striving to assert, on the one hand, and an old-fashioned reconstruction of the poet's design on the other. The issue is certainly not resolved in the opening methodological chapter. Here the 'faultline' thesis of Sinfield is quite a promising one for Newlands to cite ('all stories comprise within themselves the ghosts of the alternative stories they are trying to repress', p.24), but it is entirely unsupported by, indeed unrelated to, the discussion of 'ancient thinking about panegyric' which precedes it.

And even this preceding discussion falls some way short of satisfactory. Newlands' aim is to establish that the Silvae, as panegyric, could encompass criticism of Domitian's regime without offending ancient notions of literary propriety. To this end we are encouraged to take Pliny at his word in the Panegyricus and conclude that 'to praise is also to encourage, to advise, and sometimes to admonish' (p.21), although 'admonish' is, on Newlands' own evidence, rather too strong a word here. The conclusion is then drawn, as if self-evident: 'The Silvae, then, approach Domitian and his court circle from a variety of positions that incorporate praise and criticism, wonder and anxiety.' This simply doesn't follow, and the model of 'faultlines' which Newlands talks about next is of a different order of criticism entirely.

It is not a very auspicious beginning, and the incoherence characterizes the book from start to finish. On p.59, for example, when Newlands discusses the comparison of the great equestrian statue of Domitian in the Forum with the Trojan Horse and the constellation of Orion at Silv. 1.1.8-15 and 43-5, we are presented with competing and incompatible models of criticism married by a wholly illegitimate 'thus' which implies a logical progression that simply doesn't exist. The comparison with 'the mighty but impious Orion', runs Newlands' argument, associates Domitian's statue with 'the potential overstepping of moral and political boundaries.' As a consequence, 'The comparison has ... a protreptic function as a reminder of the dangers inherent in such extraordinary powers as Domitian was arrogating to himself.' Newlands continues: 'Thus, the comparison of the Trojan horse, along with the later one of Orion, creates a "faultline", a fissure that reveals a gap between the noble myth of military success and containment and the lurking threat of indiscriminate power and violence. Despite the poet's protestations, there lurks beneath the dominant discourse of praise an uncertainty about the meaning of Domitian's statue and the concept of power it embodies.' The question is, what role is envisaged for Statius in all this? The first part of the passage, with an expression like 'protreptic function', implies the agency of a designing poet. Later on, though, Newlands talks in terms of meanings which assert themselves in spite of the poet's design. It is certainly the latter approach to Statius' text which Newlands' argument requires. How else can she circumvent explicit statements like the following on the essential difference between Domitian's statue and the Trojan Horse: 'Add the fact that [the Trojan Horse] was harmful and contained savage Achaeans,/ and this horse is rendered appealing by its gentle rider' (Silv. 1.1.14-5)?

Statius' Silvae and the Poetics of Empire is structured around discussions of individual poems, or pairs of poems with related themes, with a view always to the effect of the Silvae as an ensemble. Thus the first substantive chapter tackles the two statues of Silv. 1.1 and 4.6, the great equestrian statue of Domitian in the Forum and the miniature image of Hercules belonging to Novius Vindex. Through these contrasting images, Newlands argues, Statius establishes an evaluative opposition between the two realms, public and private, they occupy. The public statue of Domitian is thus a focus of anxieties about the legitimacy and stability of Domitian's regime and suggestive of his isolated status as supreme ruler, whereas the privately owned and displayed statuette is an instance of a possession only properly valued and understood when it eventually found its way into the private realm. Silv. 1.2 and 3.4 are also read together, this time as poems offering divergent accounts of private and public houses. The house mentioned in 1.2 is read as a benign reflection of its unusually empowered mistress, Violentilla, Domitian's palace in 3.4 as an uneasy meeting-place of East and West and what is effectively a prison for Domitian's eunuch Earinus. Violentilla also has it over Earinus, apparently, because her relationship with Stella, unlike any we may posit between Domitian and Earinus, was a 'creative, fertile union' (p.118): a rare illiberal note from Newlands' Statius. The description of Manilius Vopiscus' villa in 1.3 is read as a bold redefinition of the pastoral locus amoenus and Epicurean philosophy in terms of the wealth and privilege of a member of the imperial elite, a correction particularly aimed at Horace. Pollius Felix's villa of 2.2 also elicits a revisionary account from Statius of 'luxury as moral decorum' (p.155) but also sets out a revaluation of the alteration of nature, which again takes Horace's strictures on this point as its major target. Allusions to Virgil, meanwhile, maintain Statius' promotion of the private over the public realm. Thus a supposed allusion to Aeneid 1 in the description of Neptune as tumidae moderator caerulus undae yields a differentiation of the core values of Silvae and Aeneid, and the private realm of Pollius and public realm of Domitian: Statius' Neptune 'guards a garden estate of poetry and philosophy, not a fleet that is single-mindedly bent on the building of a nation' (p.168). Next 1.5, the baths of Claudius Etruscus, yields through some typically hard reading (the exclusion of white Luna marble from the houses of Violentilla, Vopiscus and Pollius and the baths of Etruscus signifies 'separation from the world of the court', for example) another critique of public life, largely achieved by a combative engagement with Statius' own Thebaid, which by contrast with this place of leisure 'immerses its poet and his audience in the pain and trouble of public life' (p.201). Predictably, the last three chapters, which all tackle poems directly concerned with Domitian, consistently identify elements of anxiety in Statius' assessment of the emperor. In 1.6, on the Saturnalia celebrations, 4.2 on the dinner thrown by Domitian in the Domus Flavia, and 4.3 on the Via Domitiana, Statius' anxiety is focussed upon Domitian's near-divine status: his aloofness and distance at the Saturnalia and the dinner, and the threatening quality of the domination of nature involved in the construction of the Via Domitiana.

Newlands' case is made through close and detailed analysis of (it has to be said, carefully selected) passages from the Silvae, and readers will need to evaluate her specific arguments for themselves. There is some effective criticism here, for example a neat interpretation of the statuette of Hercules in 4.6 as an embodiment of the complex aesthetics of the Silvae (pp.77-9), and her readiness in general to see the poetry mimicking the qualities of the objects or people praised is commendable. But the overwhelming impression, for this reviewer at least, was of a book which was fundamentally untrue to its subject. The Silvae I read, and the Silvae I read about here, have almost nothing in common. How remarkable, after all, that Statius' likes and dislikes correspond so closely to those which might be expected of an early-twenty-first-century Westerner: every poem which concerns the emperor is riven with anxiety and criticism, but the praise offered in the poems about other members of Statius' circle is perfectly ingenuous, and Statius is particularly impressed by empowered women, particularly dismayed by the institution of slavery.

Too often, also, arguments are built on tendentious interpretations of text, or even inaccurate translation. In the discussion of 1.1, for example, a lot of weight is placed on the statement addressed to Domitian at 80-1 that 'you win the evil of civil conflict': 'Allusions to recent insurrection and civil strife ... disturb the hegemonic discourse of the noble rider whose perfect control of his steed allegorises his position as head of the Roman world' (p.65). Except that the translation 'win' implies an involvement in civil war which the Latin of Statius is at pains to obfuscate: Statius says domas, 'you suppress the evil of civil conflict.' In a similar way, too much of the force of the argument on p.306 depends on tendentious translation or paraphrase of Volturnus' statement that thanks to Domitian's technological achievements amnis esse coepi, 'I have begun to be a river (i.e. my proper self).' This is rendered by Newlands, in semi-paraphrase, as 'but has now become a stream' and (in full paraphrase) 'becoming a subjugated stream'. where the (imported) pejorative associations of 'stream,' let alone 'subjugated stream', are obvious. Elsewhere I am chastised for wrongly assuming 'that Earinus is long-haired' (pp.110-1 and n.81): 'Only one lock of hair can travel to Pergamum (81-2), for Earinus as eunuch has little hair on offer (78-82).' Newlands is misinformed about the effects of castration, however, which has no detrimental impact on head hair. Newlands' ignorance on this point leads her to a rather comical misinterpretation of the passage she cites. 3.4.78-82 would be better translated, 'You also, had you been born later, would now be a young man,/ dark on your cheeks and stronger with limbs full-grown,/ and would not have sent just one offering to Apollo's threshold;/ as it is, let this head hair alone [not 'this sole lock of hair'] sail to your native shores.' The hair Earinus did not have the opportunity to dedicate, in other words, was the hair of the first beard which as a eunuch he never grew.

In general, there is an opportunistic quality to Newlands' use of other scholarship, theoretical in particular. Scholars are cited when it suits Newlands' preconceived view of a poem to do so. A salient example of this is in her discussion of 4.3, where a contrast is drawn with accounts in other poems of alterations to the landscape (p.294):

'In Silv. 2.2, the expression gaudet humus ('the land rejoices', 58), articulates the joy and gratitude of the land at its transformation. In Silv. 3.1 likewise we are told that Pollius' acts of building and landscaping have brought joy to the land. In Silv. 4.3, on the other hand, images of breaking (fragor / fractam, 62 and 63), stirring (mobiles, 61), and simmering (feruent, 61) give vehement expression both to the enormous effort required in road-building, and to the unsettling impact of such activity not only upon nature but also upon the cities of the region (urbes, 62).'

There is, in fact, a glaring exception to this reading in the figure of the river Volturnus, who from lines 67 to 94 delivers a ringing endorsement of Domitian's alterations to nature in general and to himself in particular. Ah yes, writes Newlands, but we can discount Volturnus' sentiments because he provides an instance of 'what Fowler has called "deviant focalisation", that is, instances where narrator and focaliser, contrary to expectation do not coincide' (pp.300-1). Volturnus 'speaks from a position of subservience. He is no longer a free agent' (p.301). But as Fowler also says in the same article, 'whoever it is to whom we ascribe these viewpoints, they are there, in the text, and the reader has the option of looking at the world that way.' You can't open up the text in this way, introducing a plurality of perspectives, in other words, only to impose arbitrary restrictions on interpretation in a slightly different place; and this is what Newlands consistently does, corralling theoretical arguments, when it suits, into a fundamentally conservative critical exercise of reconstructing the poet's intent. Kurke's work on epinician poetry is cited in a similarly partial way, mined for useful material on the validation of a patron's wealth in panegyric but not pursued for insights it might have provided on the issue of the praising text's tendency to imitate the form of the object or person praised, something Newlands is particularly interested in. For Newlands this assimilation of praising text and object of praise is always understood as a competition between poet and patron, a means for the poet to assert his autonomy, often to the detriment of Domitian. But there is a more interesting story to tell about gift exchange and reciprocity, the need to create a gift equal to the benefit bestowed, a competition, certainly, but a competition that increases, rather than threatens, the status of the recipient. Statius explicitly marks 4.2 as a gift (Silv. 4. praef. 6-7), secundo gratias egi sacratissimis eius epulis honoratus. But for Newlands, 'Statius constructs himself in this poem not merely as an awe-struck guest but as a major poet who subtly contests the emperor's superiority by stressing his own poetic powers' (p.282). It has to be more complicated than this, and somewhere there has to be a recognition that exercises in panegyric are always in danger of failing in their task unless they come from poets who also insist on their own high status.

But the fundamental problem of this book is an inability to decide where the meanings Newlands finds in these poems are being realised. At times she attributes a great deal to the poet's power to mould and direct his readers' responses and at other times represents the poet as a passive victim of ideologies about which he can do nothing. Thus 'Statius' villa poems are provocative in their bold endorsement of luxury' (p.125), reacting against the mainstream of moral discourse and boldly asserting a revolutionary set of values (a section on 1.3 is entitled 'LUXURY REDEEMED'). And yet at p.106 we are presented with a blunt, non-negotiable cultural fact: 'the eunuch was a constant figure of physical and moral repugnance in Roman society.' Why is it beyond Statius' capacity to rehabilitate one form of (what might once have been described as) Eastern depravity, the creation of eunuchs, but not another, the flamboyant display of multicoloured marbles? Complimenting members of the rich elite comes easily, it seems, but schmoozing Domitian is out of the question. In fact, of course, the difference has everything to do with Newlands' preferences and nothing to do with Statius's. The same kind of tendency can be seen with the other non-authorial speaker of 4.3, the Sibyl of Cumae. Newlands interprets her through Aeneid 6 (p.312): 'Yet the particular attraction of the Sibyl as a final vehicle for imperial praise lies, I believe, in her well-known association with obscure and riddling speech. In Aeneid 6 the Sibyl's prophecies are called "fear-inspiring riddles"; she weaves the true with the false (100).' In the Aeneid, yes, but not in Silvae 4.3, where the Sibyl dispenses with her riddling practices to speak to Domitian straight, a case, in other words, of Statius creatively engaging with the literary tradition of the Cumaean Sibyl, and exploiting it to produce his own, original literary artefact, as I have argued in a recent article. Newlands does allow Statius this capacity, but only when it suits her preconceptions. Comparable is a claim like the following on p.221: 'Essentially, Silv. 3.3 represents Etruscus as a victim of court society.' As an account of 3.3 this is simply untrue, the passage cited, 3.3.154-171, saying no such thing. The evidence supplied, to the effect that Domitian's courtiers 'lived in an atmosphere of hypocrisy, competition, and distrust', comes not from Silvae 3.3 but from Andrew Wallace-Hadrill's contribution to the Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd edition. So who's in charge here? When it doesn't fit her argument to do so, Statius is allowed very little control over what his text means. Does Statius' individual creativity and design matter? Is the author of the Silvae a genius or dead? It is never clear in this book, and the result is a very personal Statius--fair enough, perhaps, if Newlands weren't claiming to be elucidating the Silvae for all of us.

The Silvae are a fascinating collection, works of a scintillating poetic talent which cannot help but display, nevertheless, the strains attendant on court poetry in Domitian's later years. They deserve more critical attention than they yet attract, but this contribution is far too confused about first principles to advance their cause.

Read Latest
Index for 2002
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:08, Friday, 03 April 2009