BMCR 2004.09.33

The Silvae of Statius. Translated with Notes and Introduction

, , The Silvae of Statius. Bloomington, IL: Indiana University Press, 2004. 244 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0253343879 $14.95 (pb).

Small in size, yet elegant, this book is far
from slight. Accept these humble words of praise;
unpolished and inadequate as they are.
Fresh and clean, your lines awake these days
from the dust and hold to every reader’s nose
the scent and light of a resurrected rose.

Hyperbolic, perhaps; but as a student of Statius, I always welcome signs of his re-emergence from neglect and this translation meets an important need: a lively and accessible translation of the Silvae that is suitable for use in teaching. The Silvae has much to offer the student of classical civilisation: a window into Domitianic Rome, a case study on the problems of reading praise poetry, an exploration of the relationship between literature and material culture and the complex manoeuvres of a master of rhetorical trope and intertextuality. I would like everyone to read the Silvae, and now they can, in Nagle’s effective and scholarly translation. The new Loeb Silvae (2003), translated by Shackleton Bailey, is an equally important step forward for Statius.1 It arrived too late for Nagle to consult it during translation, but as a text for students it has a number of disadvantages, not least expense and intimidation. As to the relative merits of the translations, I shall compare them below. With the addition of Newlands’ Statius and the Poetics of Empire,2 the Silvae is now eminently teachable.

I will start with an overview of this volume, including the introduction, and then look at N. in comparison with other available translations. N. has written on Ovid and Virgil and translated the Fasti.3 This book is not just a translation. The introduction is scholarly and dense; there are three appendices (1. A list of titles for each poem, with Latin, literal translation and N.’s own title; 2. A list of deviations from Courtney’s OCT; 3. Discussions of textual problems); a glossary that explains names and further clarifies allusions mythical, historical and literary; notes commenting on ambiguities and problems of translation and giving further explanatory material; a list of works cited. It could easily have blossomed into text, translation and commentary; but that would reach a far different audience.

The introduction includes sections on ‘Life and works’; ‘The Silvae‘; ‘The addressees’; ‘Domitian’s image in the Silvae‘; ‘The text of the Silvae‘; and ‘Translator’s remarks’. This is a very helpful introduction that does a good job of putting the Silvae into an interpretive framework, surveying current scholarship and pointing the student in the direction of further reading. For those with sound-bite concentration spans, the first section (‘Life and works’) provides enough for basic orientation, which is then developed in later sections. The section entitled ‘The Silvae‘ is wide and varied, with paragraphs on meter, the significance of the title, structure, genre, material culture, Greek rhetoric balanced against poetic predecessors, and a particularly useful section on style. Secondary literature is much in evidence throughout, with frequent endnotes (to be found at the back, after the glossary and before ‘Works cited’); the section on ‘The addressees’, for instance, closely follows Ruurd Nauta’s recent book.4

In general this is a balanced and up-to-date picture. The only difference of opinion I would like to express is with N.’s conclusion on Domitian: ‘[t]he image of Domitian in the Silvae corresponds to the one the emperor wished to project, so far as we can tell from other evidence’ (p. 24). This ‘optimistic’ reading of the Silvae is more or less orthodoxy, but it is noticeable that details she mentions elsewhere seem to pull against the ‘Domitianic’ reading. For instance, in the paragraph above, N. mentions the irony of praising Domitian’s law against castration in a poem to his favourite eunuch, and on p.22 she ends a paragraph on Domitian’s ‘radiance’ with a mention of his ‘glowing face’, something which was often used by writers on the hostile side. Statius conforms to Domitianic ideology, but the complexity of his praise allows room for considerable anxiety about imperial power; when read alongside the dark representation of tyranny in the Thebaid, with awareness of the extraordinary wit and sophistication of his negotiations with poetic intertexts, we might feel encouraged to valorise the problems as much as the praise.

N. does not just translate, as I said above; she also makes her own decisions about textual problems. The section on the dramatic textual history of the Silvae is admirably lucid, and the textual notes are worth reading even for those who do not have Latin. Whenever N. mentions a different reading, she explains what effect it would have on the sense if she had chosen to translate that text instead. We should, in fact, strongly encourage students to be aware of these issues, to understand that not only is the translation an imperfect mirror of the text, but the text is an imperfect mirror of what first century Romans wrote and read.

The ‘Translator’s remarks’ is also a model of good practice, setting out clear principles and giving examples of what N. was trying to do. N. highlights various strategic choices: in general, she aims to allow readers with no background the ability to read and understand the text of the translation without having to look up allusions or references, while conveying a sense of Statius’ allusive practice. This means familiarising names, glossing references within the text and sometimes (very rarely, in fact) leaving out detail that might be confusing. On the other hand, N. has given reproduction of word order and significant repetition (even on some occasions alliteration) higher priority than other translators, creating a de-familiarising effect. Similarly, she has kept some shifts of tense and addressee that other translators smooth out, and most but not all apostrophes. She has also indicated textual problems with the usual symbols, adding an asterisk to point readers to the textual appendix. This translation, therefore, is easy to use but not comforting for the reader; the Silvae was never an easy text, and it would be a mistake to pretend otherwise.

Comparisons of two passages with other translations will bring out these points. I have chosen 4.2, a key poem in praise of Domitian, thanking him for an invitation to a banquet, which has also been translated by K. Coleman in her excellent commentary on book 4.5 As well as Coleman (C.), I will compare the two Loebs (Mozley (M.) and Shackleton Bailey (S. B.)).

Coleman’s text: 4.2.18-29

Tectum augustum, ingens, non centum insigne columnis
sed quantae superos caelumque Atlante remisso
sustentare queant. stupet hoc uicina Tonantis
regia teque pari laetantur sede locatum
numina (nec magnum properes escendere caelum):
tanta patet moles effusaeque impetus aulae
liberior campi multumque amplexus operti
aetheros et tantum domino minor: ille penatis
implet et ingenti genio grauat.

The first line of this passage is an allusion to Virgil Aeneid 7.170, as S. B. makes clear in his footnotes, but how to bring out the piling up of adjectives, the precise sense of augustum, the impact of the non reversing the Virgilian line? C. has ‘Awesome and vast is the edifice, distinguished not by a hundred columns’; M. was the first to use ‘edifice’ (‘An edifice august, huge, magnificent not with an hundred columns’), and S. B. too follows this: ‘an august edifice, vast, magnificent not with a hundred columns’). N. avoids ‘edifice’ and ‘august’: ‘The house was huge, majestic; not a hundred columns | distinguish it’. ‘August’, with its hint of Augustus, is gone, but ‘majestic’, with its link to majesty, conveys well the royal implications. N. has kept the word order, putting ‘house’ first (as does Mozley) and piling up the adjectives, and is the only translator to mimic Statius by placing ‘not’ first, though the result is less clear than C.’s version. The choice of ‘house’ as her key first word matches tectum in register and creates an alliterative effect (house, huge, hundred) matching the alliteration in the Latin ( in gens, non c entum in signe c olumnis). N. (‘if Atlas took a rest’) follows C. in bringing the epic tone down a little, but conveys more accurately the idea which C. suggests in her comment ‘as though Atlas were relaxing on a day’s leave’ (C.’s version, ‘if Atlas were let off,’ might suggest that he has been permanently dismissed from his job). Throughout the translation, N. is remarkably sensitive to tone and retains a lightness of touch extraordinary when combined with such detailed faithfulness. The allusion to Virgil, however, is not signalled, and the information on Atlas in the glossary is not really enough (no mention of Hercules) to get a sense of what might be going on in this reference.

The next sentence (‘It stuns its neighbor, | Thunderer’s royal hall; because your place | is in a seat like his, the gods are glad | (so do not hasten your ascent to heaven)’) continues these tactics: ‘stuns’ puts the emphasis forward on the verb ( stupet); alliteration in ‘the gods are glad’ mimics laetantur sede locatum. However, here we have some problems: ‘Thunderer’s’ needs a definite article to make sense, presumably omitted for metrical reasons; magnum is omitted from line 22, though this has only a small effect on the sense. The compromises of writing verse show through. In general, though, N. wins out over both Loebs, old and new; M. is festooned with hideous archaisms (‘thou hast a like abode’); S. B. has a tendency still to follow M. and there are a fair few errors: here, for example, the ‘s’ in ‘Thunderer’s’ is omitted, as is the entire phrase tantum domino minor.

For a second example, let us look at the frequently anthologised 5.4, ‘To Sleep,’ or as N. entitles it, ‘An Insomniac’s Prayer,’ the first six lines:

crimine quo merui, iuuenis, placidissime diuum,
quoue errore miser donis ut solus egerem,
Somne, tuis? tacet omne pecus uolucresque feraeque
et simulant fessos curuata cacumina somnos,
nec trucibus fluuiis idem sonus; occidit horror
aequoris et terris maria adclinata quiescunt.


What fault or flaw has made me merit this,
O youthful Sleep, most tranquil god of all,
to be the only wretch unblessed by you?
All silent now are herds, and birds, and beasts,
while tipping treetops mimic drowsy sleep.
The roar of raging rivers has grown still,
shuddering ocean waves have settled down,
as sea reclines at peace upon the land.


O youthful Sleep, gentlest of the gods, by what crime or error of mine have I deserved that I alone should lack thy bounty? Silent are all the cattle, and the wild beasts and the birds, and the curved tree tops have the semblance of weary slumber, nor do the raging torrents roar as they were wont; the ruffled waves have sunk to rest, and the sea leans against earth’s bosom and is still.

Shackleton Bailey:

For what cause, youthful Sleep, kindest of gods, or what error have I deserved, alas to lack your boon? All cattle are mute and birds and beasts, and the nodding tree-tops feign weary slumbers, and the raging rivers abate their roar; the ruffling of the waves subsides, the sea is still, leaning against the shore.

Like S. B., N. starts with crimen (‘fault’ is a more effective translation; ’cause’ sounds too neutral); her alliteration here goes well beyond the Latin (along with S. B., who also has raging river roaring), though ‘tipping treetops’ picks up well on curuata cacumina. In translating placidissime, S. B. and N. polarise the possible meanings: S. B. reminds us that this is a prayer to a god — placidus suggests that he is likely to be amenable by prayer; N. concentrates on the weather imagery — Sleep creates an atmosphere of general calm. M.’s ‘gentlest’ combines these two ideas. N.’s translation of donis ut solus egerem | tuis is freest by far, omitting the idea of lack and of a gift; yet by moving away from Statius’ syntax she conveys the sense elegantly and succinctly, without the clumsy periphrasis of M., or the archaism of S. B. In line 3, M. keeps most closely to the word order but mysteriously reverses birds and beasts, while S. B. interrupts the tricolon of cattle, birds and beasts, and uses the more specific, but less atmospheric, ‘mute’. N. adds ‘now’ to satisfy the metre — unfortunately putting the emphasis on a word not in the text. Better perhaps might have been ‘Silent all are herds, and birds, and beasts’, but that would move away from the natural word order of English. I very much prefer N.’s ‘shuddering’ to ‘ruffling,’ which is almost unbearably cute. I cannot help feeling that there is a sinister edge to horror, even if waves cannot really shudder. A foreshadowing of the following personification, perhaps? I do, however, miss the ‘leans against’ which suggests a sort of marital intimacy, a mutual support. In general, though, this passage is striking for its clarity and effective rhythm. An example of verse translating verse that really works.

I do have some quibbles. For the purposes of teaching, it would have been very useful to have some reference to the line numbers of the original text, if only in brackets at the top of the page. The proliferation of appendices makes it initially difficult to track down the glossary (put it first?). The introduction can be a little too dense and reads like a sketch for a monograph: perhaps fewer references and more developed analysis would have been better. It is also a little repetitive: e.g., Silvae 3.4.38 appears on p.8 as a paradox and again on p.13 to represent Venus interacting with the non-mythological world of Statius’ patrons.

Every translation is by necessity a compromise, and N.’s compromise is a good one. Clarity and tone win out, with the added bonuses of word order and alliteration, more appropriate in verse than in prose. The demands of verse occasionally force a freer translation than Coleman’s gold standard, but N. is writing for a different market and does not have a full commentary to back up her choices. N. conveys well the wit and liveliness of Statius’ poetry without so wrenching it from its context as to smooth off all its distinctive edges.6


1. Shackleton Bailey, D. R. (2003) Statius Silvae. Cambridge, Mass.; London.

2. Newlands, C. (2002) Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Empire. Cambridge.

3. Nagle, B. R. (1980) The Poetics of Exile: Program and Polemic in the Tristia and Epistulae ex ponto of Ovid. Brussels; (1995) Ovid’s Fasti: Roman Holidays. Bloomington.

4. Nauta, R. R. (2002) Poetry for Patrons: Literary Communication in the Age of Domitian. Leiden.

5. Coleman, K. M. (ed.) (1998) Statius Silvae IV. London.

6. The whole book is well-produced and commendably error-free. The only copy-editing mistake I noticed was the transformation of Manilius Vopiscus into Manlius Vopiscus on p.16.