Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.05

D.R. Shackleton Bailey, Statius. Silvae. Loeb Classical Library, 206.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2003.  Pp. viii, 438.  ISBN 0-674-99604-6.  $21.50.  

Reviewed by Paolo Asso, Kenyon College (
Word count: 1755 words

The present edition of the Silvae occupies the whole first volume of D.R. Shackleton Bailey's (SB) three-volume edition of Statius.1 The press announces that SB's remaining two volumes containing the Thebaid and the surviving fragment of the Achilleid will be available this fall. SB's Statius is likely to become the most readily available English translation of this difficult poet, most appropriately characterized as a Greek poet writing in Latin.2

Unlike the Silvae, Statius' Thebaid was read and admired throughout the Middle Ages. The Silvae remained unknown until they were unearthed at Saint Gall by papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini in the period 1416-1418, while he accompanied the Roman Curia to the Council of Constance on the homonymous lake (now Bodensee). This datum of manuscript tradition is fundamental to our reading of Statius' Silvae because all the extant manuscripts depend on a copy of the codex discovered by Poggio. This copy, rediscovered in 1879 by Gustav Loewe in the National Library in Madrid, is the very one produced for Poggio by a German amanuensis hired for the occasion, a man whom, in a letter from Constance to his friend Francesco Barbaro in Florence, Poggio describes as ignorantissimus omnium viventium. This letter, published over a century ago by A.C. Clark in The Classical Review 13 (1899) 125, should be consulted by editors of Statius' Silvae as an important source on the manuscript tradition of this text, which relies so heavily on a single, ultra-corrupt manuscript.3

The accidents of the textual transmission, along with the difficulties intrinsic to Statius' style, to say nothing of the uniqueness of the collection, have made the editing and translating very hard and laborious tasks. The present edition is no exception. I must state forthwith my doubts about SB's text, which relies on conjecture to such an extent as to cause the impression occasionally that the text has been manipulated to reflect the interpretation supported in the translation. In accordance with the guidelines of the series, SB has produced a highly readable text. And yet, given the particulars of the transmission, a higher degree of conservatism in establishing the text should have been observed in order to avoid misrepresentations.

After describing briefly the contents of the edition, I devote some attention to SB's choices in matters of text and translation.

As customary in the series, the volume opens with a brief introduction (3-10), in which SB provides literary-historical information (3-7), hints of textual transmission (7-9), as well as two concise half-page paragraphs, one on commentaries (9-10) and one on his own translation (10). Kathleen Coleman has enriched the introduction with a useful overview of recent scholarship (11-21). The text and the translation (26-381) feature a concise critical apparatus for the Latin text as well as footnotes on the translation with useful information on content in SB's pleasantly concise style.

Statius prefaced each book with a dedicatory prose epistle to a friend or patron. Along with the poems in the collection, these prefaces offer most if not all the information we have on Statius' life. Not all of the poems featured in a given book are addressed to that book's dedicatee; e.g. Book II is dedicated to M. Atedius Melior, but 2.6 is addressed to Flavius Ursus and 2.7 to Lucan's wife Polla. Readers unfamiliar with Statius' patrons and friends shall be grateful to SB for the concise and useful information he offers in his own 'prefatory notes' that introduce each book. The critical appendix (383-404) offers material that SB published previously in HSCP 91 (1987) 273-82. The volume ends with an index of names (405-38).

SB translates the title Silvae as 'Extempore Poems'. We must applaud this elegantly simple rendering because Statius' prefatory epistles strive to convey precisely this notion of hasty composition. Taken literally, the letter to Stella prefacing Book I claims that none of the six poems in this book took longer than two days to compose. Scholars have doubted the veracity of Statius' claim;4 yet whether the claim is literally true or not, it is clear that the author wants his Silvae to be regarded as almost-impromptu poetic artifacts, a notion notably considered by Quintilian as the fault of those "who elect to make a draft of the whole subject as rapidly as possible and [. . .] call this draft their 'raw material.' They then revise [. . .] but the original triviality of the hastily accumulated material is still there."5 Far from being a poetic canvas, the Silvae show remarkable elaboration as well as a variety of styles and meters. Epic vocabulary and meter are not limited to the imperial themes of 1.1 and 4.1-3, but surface also in the consolatory poems (all in hexameters: 2.1 on the death of Glaucias, Melior's delicatus, 4 on the parrot, 5 on the tame lion, 6 on Ursus' delicatus' death; 3.3 to Claudius Etruscus; 5.1 to Priscilla, 3 on his own father, and 5 on his own son). Among the latter poems, the tame lion and the parrot shine for exquisiteness and originality, and even in these short compositions, as in the longer consolations, Statius makes use of epic vocabulary.

SB's superb translation succeeds in reproducing the Silvae's peculiar blend of high register and unelevated tone, not only in the consolatory poems but also in the wedding song for his patron Stella and his wife Violentilla. At 1.2.113 the poet praises Violentilla's beauty by having Venus admit that the girl has grown up to resemble the goddess; in Venus' own words: "She has shot up to be my sweet likeness" (112-13 mihi dulcis imago / prosiluit). Mozley had rendered the Latin prosiluit with "she has grown up," certainly correct, but lacking the nuance so well plucked by SB's "shot up." The latter idiom denotes the sudden growth of a blossom into a full flower. We hardly need to point out the etymological pun of 'Violentilla' with her namesake (viola, 'violet'). SB is remarkably successful in producing elegantly simple renderings of Statius' complex phrasal turns. One such case is the expression of time equivalent to the English 'at dusk.' At 1.2.51-2 "It chanced on a night just banished" is a particularly felicitous version of forte. . . /. . . pulsa modo nocte. Equally elegant is "bold stripling" for the 'culture-specific' audaci. . . ephebus at 1.3.28.

SB is aware that "Statius' oblique and artificial style makes for ambiguities of word and phrase and divergences among translators" (p. 10). As I have stated above, my doubts about this edition mostly concern SB's text, which sometimes seems to me as the result rather than the basis of his interpretations. In a few (perhaps negligible) cases, SB's elegant version improves Statius' text. I shall limit myself to a few such examples. At 1.2.119, for the attested potuisset SB prints Eden's conjecture licuisset and translates "had she been allowed." Whether or not potuisset could mean "had she been allowed" (and I suspect it could; e.g. OLD s.v. possum, 4), it would be less inappropriate to cite Eden's licuisset in the apparatus while conservatively printing potuisset as the attested reading. At 1.1.46, SB prints Markland's conjecture eriles for the transmitted equestres and interprets: "But the charger in counterfeit of his master's mien and spirit sharply lifts his head and threatens gallop" [emphasis added]. In note 15 on p. 35, SB explains: "Equestris is adjective from eques, not equus; not therefore 'equine,'" which is of course correct but I fail to see why it is necessary to print in the text Markland's conjecture. At 2.6.104-5, SB changes the three verbs' person from third to second singular. True, the third person is harder to understand, because it would mean that Statius is telling Ursus that his much missed dead boy will provide him with another boy. For SB this makes no sense, and he may well be right (p. 391). However, it could be that what Statius implies in the conclusion of this consolatory poem is that the benevolence of the boy toward his patron survives the boy's own death. In other words, the post-mortem positive effect of the boy's good feelings might become manifest in some supernatural way and provide Ursus with another young creature to cherish as a welcome consolation for his present loss. The exclusive nature of the relationship need not last after the boy is dead. With this latter interpretation, the text would display a higher degree of the poet's sympathy for his addressee's grief by so valuing Ursus' dramatically interrupted relationship that its positive effects are bound to be more lasting that the boy's life-span.6

Of the two most recent editions of the Silvae, Aldo Marastoni's Teubner (Leipzig, 1970) and Edward Courtney's OCT (Oxford, 1990), SB despises the former for "its conservatism reduced to absurdity" (9) and praises the latter for offering "the best text so far, including some original emendations" (8). Praise notwithstanding, the cases in which SB departs from Courtney's text "amount to more than 250, an average of about one every twenty lines in the first four Books and double that number in the ultra-corrupt fifth" (8-9).

The most conspicuous cases where SB's text departs from Courtney's are those where SB prints a conjecture of his own.7 At 1.praef.30 Courtney prints M's senseless reading +domonnum+, for which SB conjectures donandum. This minimally elegant intervention should meet with wide approval. As SB explains in the appendix (p. 383), Statius' prefatory epistle lists the poems' recipients as witnesses that each poem was composed in a few days, but the one on Etruscus' bath was composed at a dinner party "and that is more than the public can be expected to swallow. So Etruscus' testimony has to be waived: donandum est."

With this edition, SB has provided a great service to classicists. The book also will appeal to the generally learned, able to appreciate SB's commendable translation as well as his enviable command of the material. The edition should find a place on the shelves of every scholar interested in Statius and in the Latin poetry of the early empire.

Minor errors are often unavoidable in a first edition. I have been able to find only two:

In the critical apparatus on p. 26, Heinsius' conjecture et for the transmitted haec refers to line 10 in the text, not line 8.

4.6 is in hexameters, not in Sapphic meter, as stated in that poem's prefatory note on p. 238. In fact, it appears that the last sentence describing the meter of 4.6 was intended for 4.7, this latter one indeed composed in Sapphic stanzas.


1.   J.H. Mozley's old Loeb (Cambridge, Mass./London, 1928) was in two volumes. The Silvae and the first four books of the Thebaid occupied the first volume; the remaining eight books of the Thebaid and the fragment of the Achilleid occupied the second volume.
2.   L. Holford-Strevens, "In search of Poplios Papinios Statios," Hermathena 168 (2000) 39-54.
3.   In his introduction, SB misquotes from Poggio's letter the phrase about the scribe as 'omnium mortalium ignorantissimus'. Among the things we learn from this important source, however, is that the ignorantissimus omnium viventium copied for Poggio also the Saint Gall fragment of Valerius Flaccus' Argonautica, which with the Silvae forms the Matritensis 3678 (= M). We also learn that at some point the Silvae and Valerius were bound together with the lost copy of Silius Italicus' Punica on which all of the extant thirty-three manuscripts depend (E. Flores, Le scoperte di Poggio e il testo di Lucrezio [Naples, 1980] passim, but especially p. 33 nt. 3; P. Asso in AIONfilol 17 [1995] 329-35). This codex, then, was very hard to read even for Poggio and his circle because it contained two works, Silius and Statius' Silvae, previously unknown. Poggio and other learned Renaissance readers, however, tried to fix the text as they could; this is why M is today very challenging, not only because of copious scribal errors, aggravated by the scribe's own awkward attempts at correction, but because it bears several generations of often ingenious emendations, beginning with (perhaps) Poggio's own; cf. inter alia, J. Delz's preface to his Teubner edition of Silius Italicus (Stuttgart, 1987); P. Thielscher, "De Statii Sylvarum Silii Manilii scripta memoria," Philologus 66 (1907) 85-90.
4.   E.g. S.T. Newmyer, The Silvae of Statius: Structure and Theme (Leiden, 1979).
5.   Quint. 10.3.17, transl. D.A. Russell (Cambridge, MA, 2001) 345.
6.   Compare, e.g., Melior's delicatus encounter in Elysium with one of his patron's dear friends in 2.1.189-207: the encounter between the older man and the boy is portrayed as proceeding from their love for Melior. One of Statius' consolatory strategies hinges on a correspondence of amorous senses that continues post-mortem and is free of any petty jealousy. On the topos of encountering friends in the underworld, see H.-J. Van Dam, P. Papinius Statius Silvae Book II. A Commentary, (Leiden, 1984) 166 ad 2.1.191-3.
7.   I counted 25 editorial conjectures printed in the text. My total results from adding the following loci: 1.praef.30; 1.2.23, 201, 3.1, 31-2, 42, 72, 4.49; 2.2.14, 6.6, 104-5; 3.3.179, 5.104; 4.1.9, 2.23, 7.11; 5.1.83, 2.110, 3.63, 71, 72, 119, 132, 5.8, 77. In addition, there are at least four cases in which SB suggests an emendation of his own but refrains from printing it in the text: 3.5.50; 4.2.22, 4.42; 5.3.85. It is impossible for me to see why these latter four emendations are less deserving of being printed in the text than many of the former 25.

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