BMCR 2006.08.31

From Republic to Empire. Scipio Africanus in the Punica of Silius Italicus

, From republic to empire : Scipio Africanus in the Punica of Silius Italicus. Studien zur klassischen Philologie, Bd. 152. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2005. 308 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0820498092 $57.95.

Book-length studies of Silius Italicus are rare, and in English rarer still. In English, Ahl, Davis and Pomeroy’s lengthy article on the whole Punica appeared in 1986, preceded by von Albrecht’s important study in German of the poem in 1964.1 Since the publication of these two full-scale assessments of the epic, there has been a fairly steady flow of a few works a year on various aspects of the Punica, and more on Flavian epic generally. Flavian scholars will therefore welcome this new book by Raymond Marks, which offers a fresh assessment of the entire poem. Marks’ rigorous analysis addresses the important questions of Silian studies, and sets the stage for further work in the field.

His interpretation is “historicizing” (p. 7), that is, he puts the epic in its Flavian context. Scipio is the “critical link” (p. 9) as the hero of the Second Punic War and an example for Domitian. In contrast to some recent scholarship, Marks maintains that Silius presents Scipio very positively, even as an ideal ruler. The book has three parts, each with two chapters: Part I is “The ‘Scipionization’ of Rome;” Part II, “Scipio’s Kingship;” and Part III, “From Republic to Empire.”

In Part I, Marks takes as his starting point the prophecy of Jupiter in Punica 3, which tells of the Second Punic War and of the Flavian dynasty. Marks will return to this passage since it explicitly links the time of the narrative and the poet’s day. Two ideas in the prophecy that are are key to his interpretation are that Jupiter will test the Romans with the Second Punic War because their “virtue grows old” or “weak” (3.581) and that the conflict will lead to Roman rule (3.583). He sees Scipio as the “decisive figure” in the transformation of Rome into a city that can “exert her hegemony over others” (p. 13, 14). Scipio is the character with the swiftness and youth to bring about “Reinvigoration and Rejuvenation” (the title of chapter 1).

In this first chapter, Marks outlines the early success of Hannibal’s swift, dynamic action in contrast with the “self-destructive haste” (p. 16) of the Romans, whose recklessness culminates in the disaster at Cannae in Punica 9-10. In the early books, the cautious virtue of Fabius Maximus and his strategy of delay are successful against Hannibal. While Fabius’ superiority appears to work against Marks’ contention that, like Scipio, the Romans must become aggressive in order to prevail, his point is that Fabius can only equal Hannibal while Scipio’s daring can win the war. All the same, it seems to me that the Romans must first become more like Fabius in order to convert their hasty recklessness to bold speed.

As the title of Part I suggests, Marks sees Rome being “shaped in Scipio’s image” (p. 44), particularly in Punica 15-17. He calls in as evidence Scipio’s campaign in Spain, his upstaging of Fabius in the narrative, and his victory in the debate over whether he should be permitted to lead an invasion of Africa. He also suggests that the qualities that C. Claudius Nero and M. Livius Salinator display, such as speed and youthfulness, are not just similar or parallel to Scipio’s but are actually caused by his presence. Scipio embodies the “new Rome” (p. 55) that Jupiter announced in Punica 3.

In chapter 2, “From the Many to the One,” Marks surveys the scholarship on the question of who the hero of the Punica is. He proceeds to argue that the poem’s emphasis shifts from “the many” to “the one,” that is, from a focus on the collective effort of the Romans to a focus on the individual effort of Scipio, who unifies the Romans. The collective effort marks the defensive phase of the war in Punica 1-12, while Scipio’s ascendance coincides with the offensive phase in Punica 13-17. Marks singles out Hannibal, Fabius, and Scipio as “synecdochic heroes” (the term is Philip Hardie’s),2 that is, as “ones” who represent “the many” (p. 80). Moreover, Marks contends that “private and public interests converge in Scipio” (p. 94) and describes how the gods, the people, and eventually the senate support Scipio. He identifies the debate of the senate in Punica 16 as “a moment of significant political change” at which “the locus of power in Rome has shifted from human authority to divine authority and from a system of shared leadership to the concentration of power in an individual” (p. 109).

In Part II, Marks discusses Silius’ portrayal of Scipio as a good king. In chapter 3, “The Education of Scipio,” he argues for a development in the literary models that Silius uses for Scipio, from Achilles as a model for the early Scipio, to Alexander the Great as a model especially for Scipio’s military leadership, and, finally, to a virtuous Hercules as Scipio’s “greatest heroic model” (p. 147). Each model marks a stage in Scipio’s education. Marks notes that Silius’ intertextual technique is “additive rather than subtractive and, as such, allows Scipio to recall several models in the same episode or to recall previous models even as he grows and takes on new ones” (p. 119, n.14). But he also argues that Achilles is superseded as other models become more prominent.3 In the section on Scipio’s rescue of his father at the Ticinus, he considers different models for Scipio’s emotional reaction, showing how several models can function in the same episode. Because it is Scipio’s first appearance in the epic, I wondered why Marks did not include mention of Aeneas’ first appearance in Vergil, where Aeneas (like Scipio) is overcome with emotion and desires death. In his positive interpretation of Scipio, Marks has to proceed very carefully to avoid the pitfalls of two-edged models like Alexander, Hercules and Romulus, all of whose behaviour at times could cast a negative light.

In chapter 4, “Scipio the King,” Marks discusses the passages that he claims figure Scipio as a king. Building on Fucecchi’s work,4 he sees the omen at the Ticinus as signalling Scipio’s investiture as king (p. 165). In Punica 16, Scipio’s meetings with Masinissa and Syphax provide “two contrasting paradigms of kingship” (p. 170), although Scipio himself later declines the title of king. Marks argues that the omen of the spear after the funeral games in Punica 16 both confirms Scipio’s status as king and emphasizes that his kingship is based on military power. Further, he shows Jupiter’s support for Scipio, who both is revealed as Jupiter’s son and acts as his “vicegerent,” especially in the war against the Carthaginians (p. 169, 187).5 In the final section of this chapter, he carefully addresses McGuire’s arguments that Silius portrays kingship and Scipio negatively.6

In chapter 5, “Scipio the Princeps,” Marks reads the Punica as historically engaged rather than escapist or solely nostalgic. He examines how the prophecy of Jupiter in Punica 3 links Scipio and Domitian. Panegyrics are difficult to assess, especially for their sincerity or insincerity, and so for what evidence can reliably be pulled from them. Marks demonstrates how this link is recalled elsewhere in the epic, and so concludes that Silius’ panegyric of Domitian is not “detachable and inconsequential” (p. 213): Scipio is “not only a sort of proto-imperialist who anticipates or brings about in some way the imperial future, but an historical prefiguration of Domitian himself” (p. 218). Marks looks at a range of evidence in other Flavian poets and in material culture for models common to Domitian and Scipio (such as Hercules, Alexander, Bacchus, and Romulus). He also shows connections of both Scipio and Domitian to Jupiter.

The scholarship that discusses whether Silius’ poetry is pro- or anti-Domitian replicates the debate between optimistic and pessimistic readings of epic familiar from interpretation of Vergil as pro- or anti-Augustus. In chapter 6, “Republic and Principate,” Marks provides a survey of the debate as it pertains to the Punica, and he situates himself in it: his own reading “takes Rome’s system of government to be one of Silius’ central concerns in the poem, as pessimists do, but it argues that he saw a way for Rome to thrive under a princeps and thus offers a more optimistic vision of the Principate” (p. 251-252). He maintains that the shift to one-man rule, seen in Scipio’s “rule” at the end of the epic, was necessary to the Roman empire that Jupiter foretold. He moves from consideration of the large issues to a focus on key passages in Silius and the ways in which they have been interpreted in the debate. He makes a strong case not for a pro-Domitianic reading, but for Scipio as a positive example for Domitian to follow, and he sees this didactic function of the epic as Silius’ reason for writing it.

Marks strengthen his arguments with a variety of interpretive tools, above all, close reading that gives careful attention to the contextual meanings of words and the structure of passages. His approach is not primarily intertextual, but he frequently details Silius’ relationship to his models where it is relevant to his point. He is refreshingly appreciative of Silius’ artistry, and offers gems of detail throughout. The lack of a topic index is regrettable, since it will be difficult for someone interested in, say, Hercules, Livy, or similes to find the various discussions without reading the whole book. The index locorum Silianorum, the detailed contents page, and the excellent summaries of the argument placed at the ends of sections do not fill the gap.7 I noticed few serious typographical errors.8 This excellent work of scholarship leaves room for different interpretations and will stir debate in the field, particularly because of its strong stand for Scipio and empire. It is well-argued and well-written, and is a solid contribution to Flavian studies.


1. F. M. Ahl, M. Davis and S. Pomeroy, “Silius Italicus,” ANRW II.32.4 (1986) 2492-2561; M. von Albrecht, Silius Italicus, Freiheit und Gebundenheit römischer Epik, Amsterdam 1964.

2. P. Hardie, The Epic Successors of Virgil, Cambridge 1993.

3. I disagree that “Achilles as a model for Scipio is dead and gone” when Scipio “sees Achilles’ shade” (p. 145). After all, Scipio also sees Alexander’s shade, and, as Marks points out, Achilles is a model for Alexander, too. Furthermore, Scipio’s funeral games, modelled in part after Achilles’ games for Patroclus, are yet to come. Marks is more accurate when he states that Scipio’s “relationship to Achilles will have to change” (p. 125).

4. M. Fucecchi, “Lo spettacolo delle virtù nel giovane eroe predestinato. Analisi della figura di Scipione in Silio Italico,” Maia 45 (1993) 17-48.

5. Marks dismisses consideration of a negative portrayal of the gods (p. 206; 268, n. 88).

6. D. McGuire, Acts of Silence: Civil War, Tyranny, and Suicide in the Flavian Epics, Hildesheim and New York1997.

7. Another unhelpful tendency is occasional reference to what was “noted earlier” or promise of “more later,” without page references (e.g., pp. 75, 187, 225, 279).

8. Errors in Latin and references: on page 105, the quotation leaves out line 647; on page 165, note 6 the reference “4.431-433” should be “4.131-133;” on page 219, the quotation has ” traxere” instead of ” duxere;” on page 239, the last line of the quotation should read ” Iliaca” instead of ” Iliacum.” Typographical errors: on page 58, line 3 should end with a period; on page 71, line 21, “monsyllabic” should read “monosyllabic;” on page 94, line 25, “unhistorcal” should read “unhistorical;” on page 107, line 2 should have a comma after “successes;” on page 120, the reference to the first quotation should read “16.145-147;” on page 132, note 50, “protrays” should read “portrays;” on page 191, note 72, “lead” should read “led;” on page 222, line 19 should not have a comma after “poets;” on page 228, note 56 has an extra period at the end; on page 245, line 12, “Punica” should be italicised; on page 258, line 5 of the quotation, “theexpansion” should read “the expansion;” on page 269, line two, “from” should read “for;” on page 270, line 3, “poltical” should read “political;” and on page 275, line 13, “poweful” should read “powerful.” Infelicities: on page 235, the first sentence; on page 263, line 13, “expects for;” on page 264, third sentence, “their decision” (it is unclear whose).