Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.05.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.05.50

Carole E. Newlands, Statius, Poet between Rome and Naples. Classical literature and society.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2012.  Pp. ix, 214.  ISBN 9781780932132.  $12.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Giulia Brunetta, Royal Holloway (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]

This new monograph on Statius by C. Newlands follows her previous book, “Statius’ Silvae and the poetics of empire”, but represents a decisive step forward in the appreciation of different aspects of the poetry of Statius and his reception. Readers should not be misled by the title, which refers to the last chapter of the book: the whole comprises different discussions of Statius’ epic works and the Silvae.

In the introduction, Newlands places Statius in the particular historical moment of the Flavian dynasty, and emphasizes the elements of tension and distress that the epic works of the Achilleid and Thebaid raise in such a troubled period of the Roman empire. Moreover, the introduction focusses on more interesting aspects of the poetic personality of Statius, such as his cosmopolitanism (being a Roman and Neapolitan poet), and his identity as auctor and his reception as such, especially in the Middle Ages. Finally, Newlands explains how these themes will feature in the following four chapters.

Chapter 2, ‘Misconceptions about Statius’ represents a crucial part of the volume with regard to the author’s ideological approach to Statius, as Newlands reasserts part of the negative critique of the Flavian poet developed in the past decades. Her argument starts from questioning Domitian’s direct patronage of Statius, giving evidence of the paucity of references to direct commissions from the imperial court (with the exception of Silv.. 1.1, 4.2 and 4.3). She rightly observes the unnecessary dichotomy that traditionally divided scholars when approaching Statius’ encomiastic strategy, suggesting either passive flattery or subtly hidden subversion of the power of the court. However, it is interesting and also quite surprising to notice that Newlands does not make any reference to her earlier alignment with the subversive line of interpretation of the Silvae. (supported mainly by Frederick Ahl) that so much featured in her previous monograph on the collection. Despite some occasional persistence of her old view in the book, the more balanced position towards the encomiastic strategy of Statius is in fact in line with the general trend of most scholarship on the Flavian poet. According to the general view embraced here also by Newlands, the dialogue between court poets and political power is more complex than it might seem at a first reading, and the ambiguity of encomiastic language reflects the complex dynamics of literary production in the imperial age. Newlands pinpoints the main features of Statius’ language of praise and remarks (with examples) how ‘figured speech’, emphasis and ecphrasis play a particularly important role, especially in contexts of praise of the emperor. Newlands attempts in particular to prove Statius’ involvement with his addressees and to highlight the dialogue he creates with patrons and friends. She expands this argument to Statius’ relation to contemporary authors such as Martial, Silius Italicus and Valerius Flaccus. Even if the possible interrelations, quotations and borrowings among the poets are a difficult point to demonstrate, the analysis of the figure of Hypsipyle in Valerius Flaccus and in the Thebaid reveals the complex and new interpretation of epic voices in the post-Augustan era.

Chapter 3, ‘Boundaries’, approaches the theme of both physical and metaphorical boundaries and limits, and discusses how Statius’ poetry (epic and occasional) hovers between balance and transgression. The theme of limes however allows the author to interpret the famous passage in the recusatio proem of the Thebaid as a refusal to write epics about contemporary imperial subjects. In this sense, Newlands interprets Domitian’s predicted deification as a ‘cosmic disruption’ (pp. 49-50). The negative reading, which follows, of the comparison between Domitian and Phaethon as charioteer in the sky raises some questions, since positive interpretations of this particular image have recently been convincing (Dewar already on the famous passage from Lucan, and Rosati on the Thebaid, as also quoted by Newlands). Moreover, I would add that in Silv. 4.3, 135-138, a hint at the episode of Phaethon is included in the encomium of Domitian, therefore making this image quite a familiar comparison for the emperor. One last remark needs to be made about Domitian’s ‘competition’ with Jupiter for a place in the sky, which Newlands interprets unnecessarily in a negative way. The comparison of the earthly ruler with the heavenly one (and often the former’s superiority) is traditional in imperial encomia. The analysis of water as a geographical and ideological boundary in the Thebaid is followed by a discussion of the geographical spaces that in the Achilleid represent the scenario of Achilles’ growth and education. The last part of the chapter is dedicated to the analysis of ecphrasis as a constitutive narratological element of Statius’ poetry. Newlands gives due consideration to Statius’ particular attention to the use of ecphrasis with a specific example, the patera appearing in the first book of the Thebaid, interestingly analysed in its proleptic function of displaying the horrors and distress of war. However, Newlands possibly goes a little too far in applying the same negative connotations of Medusa, as displayed on the cup, to her presence on Domitian’s equestrian statue in Silv. 1.1 as “a sign of the potential for transgression and violence at the heart of any great imperial power” (p. 84).

In chapter 4, entitled ‘Statius Auctor’, Newlands discusses the fortune of Statius during the Middle Ages, when the Thebaid and the Achilleid featured as key-texts in school education. She goes back to the mixed representation of Achilles as a liminal figure of change and gender ambiguity. Starting from Statius’ flattering elevation of his own father over Achilles’ first educator Chiron, Newlands argues that the complex and troubled heroic model developed in the epic poems represents a novelty in contemporary theory of education. More interestingly, the author uncovers how in the reception of the model of Achilles in the Middle Ages, this element of originality is dropped, in favour of a more traditional masculine model.

In chapter 5, called ‘The double grief of Jocasta’, the theme discussed is the display of lamentation in public and private contexts in the Thebaid and in the Silvae respectively. Once again Newlands unveils the elements of originality in how the poet gives space to female voices such as Ide, Hypsipyle and Jocasta, in moments of grief, and the possible instability caused by female lamentations. The following comparison with male grief in the Silvae aims at comparing public and private manifestations of sorrow: if in the Thebaid there seems to be no space for consolation or closure, in the Silvae instead the lavish display of grief is permitted and celebrated, as for example in Silv. 2.1. Perhaps Newlands underestimates the political (and therefore public) impact of Silv.5.1 in her distinction between public and private in the Thebaid and the Silvae. In this section Newlands has undoubtedly the merit of offering an intratextual analysis of grief in the Thebaid and in the Silvae, which too often are read as separate texts. The last part of the chapter deals with three examples of the reception of the Thebaid in the Latin and Vernacular tradition: the Cambridge songs, the Vita Aeduardi and Chaucer’s epic poem Troilus and Criseyde . In analyzing the influence of Statius’s text upon these later works, Newlands privileges the element of female voices as relevant in a time when female patronage and readership was valued. This last section of chapter 5 reveals a less-known aspect of the reception of the Thebaid: it certainly invites to further reading and represents a strong feature of the volume.

In the final chapter “Between Naples and Rome” which gives its title to the book, Newlands examines more in detail Silv. 3.5 and the celebration of Naples, in particular as an alternative living location to Rome. In this sense, the author marks the difference with the Augustan poets, where the praise of the native region is counterbalanced by the attractions of the capital. Newlands’ focus on the virtues of Naples fits nicely with recent discussions on the ‘double soul of Statius’ as a fusion of Roman and Neapolitan identity.1 She carefully analyses the influences of Ovid, Virgil and Horace in modeling the lively portrait of Naples made by Statius. A closer attention to intertextual elements makes this section more convincing and detailed. On the other hand, Newlands avoids going too much into the analysis of a traditional topic of discussions of the, Silvae, i.e. the philosophical power of the villa and the redemption of luxury, as opposed to the conservative view of Seneca’s Letters. The Statian creation of an idealized fusion of morality and modernity in its portrait of Naples and its citizens might still sound antipathetic to modern readers. However, in this sense it would have been beneficial to make clear that such idealization is part of the encomiastic strategy developed in the Silvae.

The book ends with the notes, bibliography, index locorum and general index.

Overall, this book covers different aspect of Statius’ poetry, and has the merit of bringing together in one volume discussions of both the epic poems as well as the Silvae. This work offers a fresh and balanced view of more traditional topics of discussion such as the role of Statius as a court-poet and the new values promoted in the ecphrastic poems. At the same time, the examination of the reception of Statius and the Thebaid in the Middle Ages represents a step forward in the appreciation of a poet who too often has been overshadowed by other Classical authors.

The number of passages quoted in the original is limited, suggesting that the book is aimed at the general reader rather than classics specialists exclusively. In conclusion, this volume does justice to Statius the author both among his contemporaries and later followers and critics, and offers a more balanced appreciation of Statius’ complex literary dynamics.

Table of Contents

Editor’s foreword
1. Introduction
2. Misconceptions about Statius
3. Boundaries
4. Statius Auctor
5. ‘The Double Grief of Jocasta’
6. Between Rome and Naples
Index Locorum
General Index


1.  G. Rosati 2011, I tria corda di Stazio, poeta Greco, Romano e Napoletano, in A. Bonadeo, A. Canobbio and F. Gasti (Eds), Filellenismo e Identità Romana in Età Flavia (Pavia: Collegio Ghisleri), 15-34. ​

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