Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.11

R. Joy Littlewood, A Commentary on Silius Italicus’ 'Punica' 7.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp.  xcix, 276.  ISBN 9780199570935.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by John Jacobs, Montclair Kimberley Academy (

The recent spate of publications on the Punica continues unabated. The title under review offers “the first full English commentary on a book of” the epic—soon to be followed by works on books 3 (Matthias), 13 (van der Keur), and 14 (Klaassen). (Books 12 and 15 would seem to be the next best candidates.) Even before this recent upsurge of interest, the Punica had long been the subject of a rich, sustained, and engaging commentary tradition, just not in English to any meaningful degree.1 In the present work, Littlewood offers an illuminating reading of book 7, the narrative of the conflict between Fabius and Hannibal, as well as the conflict between Fabius and his magister equitum, M. Minucius Rufus, during the summer of 217 B.C., a crucial moment in the Second Punic War—after the crushing defeats of the Ticinus, the Trebia, and Lake Trasimene, but before the ineffable horrors of Cannae. According to this reading of the book (helpfully outlined by Littlewood in the preface), Silius “underpins” his narrative with a “complex web of poetic allusion” which “effectively illustrate[s]” his “literary skill” (p. vii).2

In a substantial introduction (pp. xv-xcix), Littlewood addresses all of the major relevant issues which constitute the necessary prolegomena to a reading of the Punica, including a brief biography of the author (pp. xv-xix) and a lengthy treatment of the many literary models (pp. xix-lxii), as well as informed and informative discussions about the main protagonists (pp. lxiii-lxxv) and some of the notable linguistic features of the book (pp. lxxv-xci). The introduction concludes with an abbreviated overview of the work’s transmission and reception (pp. xci-xcix).

In the first section of the introduction, Littlewood covers the traditional topics: name; birthplace; public and private life; death; and, consequently, the debate over 17 vs. 18 books.3 In the next section, the longest of the introduction, Littlewood delves more deeply into the literary backdrop of the Punica and, in particular, into Silius’ relationship with his illustrious predecessors, especially in historiography and epic. The discussion ranges from Polybius and Livy to Homer and Ennius, from Silius’ epic forefathers Virgil, Ovid (especially the Fasti), and Lucan to his contemporaries Statius and Valerius Flaccus. All in all, the handling of these various authors and texts remains somewhat cursory and incomplete as a treatment of intertextual allusion, but certainly serves the purpose of helping the reader to negotiate the vast literary terrain. Potentially more problematic, however, are the evaluative criteria offered for assessing the Punica: “The success of historical epic depends largely on the poet’s ability to dramatize successfully both events and characters by judicious selection and adaptation of factual material” (p. xxiii). Such a statement on the nature, purpose, and scope of “historical epic” posits the existence of incontrovertibly “factual material” in narratives of varying degrees of (im)plausibility and, in addition, suggests a dubious distinction between the respective aims of “history” and “epic” as genres.4 Beyond that, Silius deserves credit for striving for far more than a “dramatiz[ation]” of history in the Punica—and by far more sophisticated means than “judicious selection and adaptation” (whether of “factual material” or not). Regardless, again, despite the references to “sources” and “models” in this section, Littlewood does an admirable job of illustrating Silius’ deep, abiding, and meaningful engagement with an astonishing variety of texts and genres.

In the third section of the introduction, Littlewood shifts the focus from the more general issue of Silius’ “sources and models” to the more specific issues of structure and theme in Punica 7. The decision to focus solely on Fabius and Hannibal to the exclusion of Minucius represents a regrettably missed opportunity to further investigate the book’s own more balanced focus on the fraught relationship between bellum externum and bellum internum. In line with this focus on Fabius and Hannibal, Littlewood claims that “the two protagonists are poles apart in culture and ethical values” (p. lxiii), with Fabius identified, if not reified, as “a Flavian and a Stoic hero” (p. lxiv) and with Hannibal similarly, if not offensively, identified (again, reified?) as “an Oriental enemy” (p. lxxi). This reading of the Punica in general, and of the conflict in book 7 between Fabius and Hannibal in particular, smacks of an historical, literary, and cultural reductionism which fails to acknowledge the extent and the degree to which Silius uses both the Romans and the Carthaginians (not to mention the Saguntines, the Capuans, and the Syracusans) as foils for each other in a complex and sensitive exploration of the clash of cultures. In the next section, Littlewood presents a clear and effective explanation of some of the major facets of Silius’ epic style, as well as a helpful line-by-line outline of the structure of Punica 7. The analysis of style includes some excellent observations on the use of hyperbaton and other word-order effects, as well as on the use of apostrophe and several other literary and rhetorical devices. In the fifth and final section of the introduction, Littlewood concludes with a brief and disappointingly inaccurate overview of the transmission and reception of the Punica.5

The text and apparatus criticus of Punica 7 are taken over from Delz’s 1987 Teubner (pp. 1-28, cf. p. viii); a translation would have been a welcome addition (especially in light of the fact that no full English translation of Delz has yet been published).6 After the map (pp. 30-31) comes the commentary (pp. 33-251), which occupies the remaining two-thirds of the work. The expanded discussions on certain features of the text (pp. 33, 48-52, 72, 90-94, 109-110, 157-158, 163-168, 190, and 195-196), as well as the figures (pp. 99, 122, 136, 167, and 201), interspersed throughout the commentary, serve both to complement and to enhance the analysis. Many notes cover interesting topics like contemporary resonances (ad 1, 4, 29-30, 41-2, 72, 86, 148, 458-9, and 513), the theme of the one and the many (ad 1, 6-8, 8, 9, 44-7, 62-4, 148, 515-16, 537-8, and 706), Fabius and the Ship of State (ad 5, 23-4, 91, 241[-3], 254-5, and 255-6), counterfactual history (ad 9, 11, 36-7, 148, and 562), and significant epithets (ad 11, 16-17, 226-7, 528-9, 562, 580-1, 585-6, and 634-7). Unfortunately, throughout the commentary, Littlewood includes only scattered references to anyone other than Spaltenstein and Ariemma: a more extensive use of the existing commentary tradition would have made for an even richer reading, especially of the complex cultural dynamic. A “Bibliography” (pp. 252-264) and “Further Reading” (pp. 265-267), followed by a brief Index Verborum (pp. 268-270) and an equally brief Index Nominum et Rerum (pp. 271-276), round out the volume.

Without question, Littlewood has done a great service for all those who study the Punica; equally without question, however, this work was rushed through the press. The text is cluttered with countless errors: incomplete and incorrect bibliographical information throughout the entire work; in the commentary, errors in the distribution of lines, in the order of the lemmata (p. 84), in the line numbers of the lemmata (pp. 105, 117, 228, and 244-245), in the running headers, and in the citations of the lemmata; errors in the use of capitalization, italicization, and punctuation; and many typographical errors both in the English (p. 143: “paraphanalia”; p. 154: “Plegraean”; p. 202: “Ariminium”; and p. 231: “Palantus”) and in the Latin (passim)—etc. etc. etc.


1.   For more on the history of this tradition, see my review of Muecke and Dunston’s edition of Domizio Calderini’s commentary on the entire epic in BMCR 2012.07.08.
2.   Littlewood regrettably omits any mention of Carrie Cowherd, Latin poetic sources of the Fabian book of the Punica of Silius Italicus (Ph.D. diss., The University of Chicago, 1972). As the title of the work suggests, Cowherd anticipates many of the intertextual links noted by Littlewood in the course of the introduction and commentary: see especially the two appendices in Cowherd for an exhaustive list of loci for book 7 (pp. 153-167).
3.   Littlewood might only have said more about Silius’ status as politician and poet in light of, e.g., Gibson’s article in the recent Brill’s companion to Silius Italicus: for more on this collection, see van der Keur’s review in BMCR 2010.10.07.
4.   In an example of the unfortunate consequences of this approach to the relationship between historiography and epic, Littlewood, throughout the introduction and commentary, refers to the “2000” cattle stolen by Hannibal in preparation for his daring night raid, even though Silius does not himself specify the number, only Polybius and Livy (pp. xxiv-xxv, cf. the dust jacket, etc.).
5.   Strabo appears to have become a Latin author (p. xcii). “This [i.e., Drakenborch’s 1717 edition] was followed by two illustrious German commentaries by G. A. Ruperti (Gottingen, 1792-3) and Ludwig Bauer (Leipzig, 1892)” (p. xciv): the “two … commentaries” are those by I. C. T. Ernesti (Leipzig, 1791-1792) and G. A. Ruperti (Gottingen, 1795-1798); Bauer, who never wrote a commentary on the epic, did publish a two-volume Teubner edition (volume 1, 1890; volume 2, 1892). “While Punica [sic, without the article, throughout the work] was translated into English in every century from the seventeenth to the twentieth, the only critical edition is by W. C. Summers” (p. xcv): Summers 1904 is obviously not the only critical edition (Delz?), so something must be awry here in the text; the epic was translated in full into English in the seventeenth century by Thomas Ross (1661/1672), in the nineteenth century by H. W. Tytler (1828: composed during the eighteenth century but only published, posthumously, by his son during the nineteenth), and in the twentieth century by J. D. Duff (1934) for the Loeb Classical Library—otherwise, the only other known full English translation, from the eighteenth century and with full commentary, as well, is the as-yet unpublished work by Thomas Chase which I recently discovered in manuscript in the holdings of the Maryland Historical Society.
6.   The only error I noted was mutassentque nunc for mutassentque solum in 562 (cf. similarly verse-initial nullaque nunc in 563). Paragraph indentations (marked by capitalization in Delz and so retained by Littlewood) are missing at verses 74, 131, 409, and 435.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010