Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.09.25

Françoise Morzadec, Les images du monde. Structure, écriture et esthétique du paysage dans les œuvres de Stace et Silius Italicus.   Bruxelles:  Latomus, 2009.  Pp. 461.  ISBN 9782870312636.  €63.  

Reviewed by Pierre Schneider, Université d'Artois, Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée (

Françoise Morzadec focuses on two poets of the late 1st century AD, Statius and Silius Italicus. Her inquiry deals with the poetry of landscape. Actually the word «landscape» covers a a lot of meanings, ranging from «wild area» (e.g., mountains, forests) to «humanized spots», such as villae of Roman citizens. Which sorts of landscape appear in poems by Statius and Silius Italicus? How do they perceive and represent landscapes? Here are the major issues that Morzadec has tried to solve convincingly.

In the introduction, Morzadec makes a brief presentation of the concept of landscape. The theory of landscape has stimulated many studies among scholars, especially in literature and fine arts. But, as we are reminded by Morzadec, the theory of landscape belongs also to geographers, who introduced fundamental ideas. After this short review she discusses some theoretical issues which are specifically related to her subject. Instead of summarizing each conclusion drawn by Morzadec, I prefer to stress the two following ideas: 1) the literary landscape created by poets mixes objective and subjective elements. The former are the unambiguous components and features of landscape (e.g., rivers, trees, mountains etc.): they helped the Roman public to recognize the spot the poet was referring to. The latter resulted from the social and cultural determinations and stereotypes that shaped the mind of the poet. In the case of literary works, the language may obviously be considered as a major “code". 2) What we call “theory of landscape” did not exist in ancient Rome (indeed we cannot find any equivalent of the word "landscape" in Latin). The concept of locus was used by Romans instead. A few theoretical texts are known, which are related to this theory of loci/topoi in various fields (rhetoric, painting, poetry). See, e.g., Quintilian, Inst. or., 3, 7 ; Cicero, De natura deorum, 2, 100.


Part 1. This part is devoted to a sort of “typology”, viz. a classification of landscapes. The first chapter is devoted to “static landscapes” (“arrêt sur image”): the poet, like a motionless witness, depicts a place from a fixed point. Sometimes the reader is offered a broad view (“panorama”), for instance when the description is presented from a high position (e.g., Punica 1, 50-54). According to Morzadec, this kind of view is a “signe de pouvoir et de connaissance” that particularly characterizes gods and generals. The view from a villa window is considered as another form of "static landscape". In this case the landscape appears through a frame. Here Morzadec develops interesting ideas, among which I noticed the comparison she makes with the literary genre of ekphrasis. In chapter 2, Morzadec considers the “dynamic” literary landscape, that is to say the landscape depicted "in motion" (e.g., Silvae 2.2). This kind of description allows Statius to express particular feelings, such as astonishment or admiration. Other passages are relevant to the same kind of landscapes, e.g., when a traveler describes what he can see as he is approaching or leaving a harbour. As noted by Morzadec, the poets were inspired by the specific literary model called propempticon (cf. Silvae 3.2). At this stage the concept of “espace odologique” (sic) is brought forth by the author, but the reader would certainly have appreciated a more substantial development of this interesting topic. In chapter 3 the poetic use of comparison and enumeration is developed. Morzadec distinguishes two kinds of comparison: 1) the “comparaison rhétorique”; 2) the “comparaison figurative”. The former is defined as a brief form, while the latter expands so widely that sometimes it turns into a "miniature landscape" which may be structured like an ekphrasis landscape (e.g., Theb. 3.669-676). Morzadec examines in the same chapter the case of enumerations (e.g., the catalogs of geographical names), pointing out that they generate mental images more than they provide literary landscapes.

Part 2. From now the inquiry reaches a more abstract level. In Chapter 4, Morzadec aims to explain how the description of a place (especially in epic poetry) can support the narrative, e.g., military action (e.g., Theb. 2.498-502). In other words, landscape's features emphasize the progress of action and echo events. Nevertheless, she explains, these literary landscapes are rather stereotyped. The poetical use of repetitions is investigated in chapter 5. For instance some spots happen to be mentioned two or three times (e.g., in the Punica, the Alps). According to Morzadec, those various occurrences are linked together by the reader in his “mémoire de lecture”. It is also likely that these sorts of recurrences are like marks in the structure of the narrative. Several other ideas are worth noticing (e.g., the distribution and the classification of natural areas according to Roman representations: while some of them are obviously “humanized”, others, such as mountains, rivers, seas etc., cannot be under human control). In Chapter 6 the author focuses on the interactions between landscapes and characters. For instance, in several poems by Statius, landscapes may sometimes be in harmony with hero's feelings (e.g., Theb. 1342-6 and 353-369). When Morzadec deals with this kind of interaction where landscapes are linked to the character's inner feelings, she carefully warns us to avoid confusion with any romantic "sentiment du paysage" ).


This second unit is devoted to the "univers imaginaire et esthétique» supported by those poetical landscapes.

Part 1. In this section Morzadec highlights what she calls “constructions binaires”, viz pairs, or dualities (in the broadest sense) that structure many descriptions. The first chapter deals with binary constructions provided by Statius. For example, while describing some villae the poet creates pairs such as sea / land, utilitas / amoenitas, rusticitas / urbanitas. Here the reader will find interesting considerations about the opposition between ars and natura. Thus, in the case of villae, Statius stresses the power of ars. It is ars that is strong enough to alter the ground where the house is built or moderate the influence of the seasons. In gardens the wildness of natura is controlled by human ars: "Stace montre toujours un grand enthousiasme dans son expression de la domination humaine sur les éléments naturels (…) Cet enthousiasme entre de façon plus générale dans l'admiration de Stace pour le progrès et la technique". Chapter 2: now Morzadec explains which particular duality is produced by the play of light and shadow in descriptions. Several examples are analyzed: e.g., the light that is reflected by the marble pavings in some magnificent villae, or the light and shadow provided by some delightful loci amoeni. Again Morzadec makes a connection with ancient painting and its technical processes (skiagraphia). She also explains how the play of shadow and light is poetically used by Statius on more dreadful occasions (see, e.g., the murderous women of Lemnos [Achill. 593 sq.]). In the Punica, the same kind of contrast is used to dramatize the battle of Trasimene (Pun. 15. 618-625). Morzadec even claims that Silius carefully associates the sounds with the play of light reflections: "échos, effets de contraste, éclats d'ombre et de lumière structurent l'espace et la matière narrative». The third chapter is devoted to the question of literary models and rewriting. They are both considered by the author as a particular kind of "reflection". Therefore the concepts of imitatio and aemulatio are discussed in this chapter. Morzadec emphasizes the fact that imitatio is by no means a servile dependence on famous models (Virgil, Ovid etc.) but a way to reach a high level of perfection and the basis of literary amplification (aemulatio). Yet the reader (particularly nowadays) may not enjoy this artificial style: "Cette volonté de surenchère parfois se traduit par un style un peu ampoulé et une sophistication outrée". Imitatio in non-epic poetry (viz in Silvae) is lighter and less serious. Anyway, according to Morzadec, rewriting famous texts must be considered as a kind of literary game (lusus, praelusio). Even if, by imitating his brilliant predecessors, Statius proves his inheritance, he does not hesitate to deconstruct this tradition.

Part 2. How are scientific knowledge and poetic fantasy mixed by Statius and Silius Italicus in their writings? Here is the last issue investigated by Morzadec. Chapter 4 shows that Statius and Silius Italicus were fairly interested in history, geography and science. This feature was shared by their contemporaries and their predecessors as well (cf., e.g., Seneca or Lucan). According to Morzadec, Romans' interest in science had turned into passion during the Flavian period. On the other hand, this scientific knowledge was nothing but a simplified, non- methodical compilation of previous researches: "(…) compilation de bibliothèque qui répertorie et réorganise des connaissances et des informations de seconde main sans aller les vérifier. Les écrivains puisent dans cette dernière des données pour leurs œuvres, poétiques, historiques, rhétoriques, sans toujours aller à la source de ces informations". Hannibal's geographical curiosity (e.g., Hannibal at Capua [Pun. 11. 112-4, 133-5, 152-4]) is a good example among many others. Silius and Statius apparently liked to provide scientific explanations, especially about hydrographic or volcanic phenomena (e.g., in Theb. 7, 809-17, the six reasons which may explain why the earth opens and swallows Amphiaraus). Morzadec explores in detail the case of Campania. Indeed, as she rightly insists, the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 was still fresh in Roman minds. Not surprisingly volcanic processes received explanations inherited from the most famous previous writers (Plato, Aristotle, Posidonius etc.). On the other hand those scientific developments depended so heavily on literary imperatives that the poets used the thought of historians, geographers and other docti viri in their own way: "Géographie et histoire naturelle ne sont souvent que des points de départ d'un univers où la fantaisie et les impératifs poétiques reprennent rapidement leurs droits". In chapter 5, Morzadec shows how the historical or geographical facts sometimes move towards the world of fantasy (e.g., Silius Italicus, Pun. 6.140 ff.). The "topography" may give way to topothesia viz. the description of a fantastic place. "Dans chaque épisode des Punica se reflète ainsi l'ensemble de l'œuvre et l'ensemble du projet poétique de Silius, qui entend réunir les exigences des deux genres, historique et épique, concilier crédibilité historique et fantaisie poétique". Statius creates in the Silvae a very different kind of fantasy. Satyrs, Pans, Nymphs inhabit his poetic landscapes. Men and gods share the same places without conflict. However this pleasant situation is not suited to epic poetry, and gods (e.g., Bacchus) are no longer gentle creatures in the Achilleid and Thebaid. There are also some places inhabited by gods that especially raise fear (e.g., the lucus). In chapter 6 Morzadec explores the aesthetics of Statius' poetry. According to the author, he seems to prefer fantasy and sophistication. Then Morzadec takes up the question of Statius' "mannerism" and "baroque" and draws the following conclusion: "Dans les Silves, le parti-pris de l'art pour l'art et de l'ornement poétique ordonne l'ensemble du texte et finit éliminer toute forme de naturalisme."

To sum up, the reader may learn much from this accurate study of locus and landscape in Latin poetry, which is presented by a scholar who knows Statius' and Silius Italicus' works very well indeed. The methodical comparisons with other literary genres (e.g., ekphrasis) and other fields of art (e.g., painting) are particularly valuable. Nevertheless, it must be stressed that Morzadec gives us nothing but a literary study and does not deal with historical or geographical issues. Scholars interested in such matters need to read monographs and articles specifically devoted to those subjects.

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