BMCR 2006.10.12

Nothing ordinary here: Statius as creator of distinction in the Silvae

, Nothing ordinary here : Statius as creator of distinction in the Silvae. Studies in classics. New York and London: Routledge, 2005. xv, 329 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0415970989 $70.00.

Table of Contents

Noelle Zeiner’s (Z) intention in this book is two-fold. She wants first to provide an account of the various kinds of wealth portrayed in the Silvae. Z claims that Statius’ discourse of wealth has not been taken seriously or on its own terms by scholars. Z aims to rectify this deficiency by analyzing the ways in which the poems portray material and other forms of wealth in relation to the individuals who possess them. Z’s second intention is to provide a theoretical model that adequately explains Statius’ discourse of wealth. For this Z turns to well-known sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his concepts of distinction and symbolic capital.

Let me state at the outset that the underlying impulse behind this book is an extremely admirable one, since there are obvious advantages to examining Statius’ poetry in terms of what it says about wealth and status. The Silvae have in the past been seen as crass exercises in the glorification of material accumulation. Z’s approach promises to provide a more objective point of view on the poems by taking seriously what they say about material wealth. I have a few reservations about some aspects of Z’s arguments but overall I will say that this book provides a refreshing and incisive reassessment of the Silvae in terms of the theories of Bourdieu, whose influence on academic and cultural discourse has become undeniable.

The book is written for the general reader, and so contains a detailed account of the reception of Statius’ poetry from antiquity until today, as well as an extended description of Bourdieu’s theories. All lengthy quotations of Latin texts are translated. I will proceed with a summary of Z’s book, with some observations interspersed, and then conclude with some general considerations.

The Introduction (“From ‘Slavish Flatterer’ to Poet of Distinction”) outlines the reception of and scholarship on Statius and the Silvae since antiquity. Z usefully characterizes Statius’ influence in Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, discusses the vicissitudes of Statius’ popularity among scholars, and critiques scholarship on the Silvae since the 19th century. Z emphatically rejects the “doublespeak” interpretations of the poems, whereby Statius is understood as encoding subversive, anti-Domitianic messages within his praise discourse.1 Z also emphasizes more recent work that focuses on understanding the Silvae in their own literary and cultural contexts.2 It is here that Z locates her own book, claiming that “recognition of the sociological value of the Silvae for providing topographical, cultural, and archaeological insight into the so-called Luxuswelt of Domitianic Rome deserves further attention” (p. 10).

Chapter One (“The Economics of Wealth”) is concerned with detailing the theories of Pierre Bourdieu and with presenting a general case for their applicability to Roman culture. Z foregrounds Bourdieu’s concepts of distinction, symbolic capital, and legitimizing discourse. Bourdieu’s contention is that an individual’s social status is largely determined by distinguishing himself or herself from others by using “visible” markers that express levels of status. The way a person dresses, for example indicates not only his or her economic means, but also his or her status in terms of taste, education, and other socially recognizable categories. The sum total of these status markers Bourdieu terms “symbolic capital.” It is one’s relative levels of symbolic capital that determine one’s place in society. Just how symbolic capital is organized hierarchically in culture depends on the various kinds of “official” or “legitimate” discourses that confer meaning upon the markers of status. An example of legitimizing discourse in our culture might be Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, which because of the cultural authority of its spokesperson establishes a standard of taste for a particular demographic grouping. Z contends that Statius’ poetry fulfills this very function in Roman culture. The Silvae that praise statues or villas or people are not frivolous exercises in rhetorical technique but powerful statements of status distinction and, in turn, instances of symbolic capital, both for the addressee and the poet himself.

Drawing on a range of Roman texts from Cicero and Sallust to Martial and the Younger Pliny, Z attempts to justify the use of Bourdieu’s model to analyze Statius’ poetry. Principally she is concerned to show two things: (1) the Romans were as a culture extremely conscious of external markers of status, e.g. the insignia of senators and equites and types of dwelling appropriate to individuals of various statuses; (2) literature was in the Roman perspective viewed also as a form of symbolic capital that conferred status on individuals. In both of these tasks Z’s analysis is largely successful, if a bit belabored.

Chapter Two (“Statius as Licensed Spokesperson”) attempts to establish Statius’ Silvae as a type of authoritative cultural discourse that confers meaning on status markers and “legitimately” organizes them into categories of social capital. To accomplish this Z demonstrates, through an analysis of Statius’ “autobiographical” statements (in e.g., Silvae 5.3), that Statius claims legitimacy in fields of literature and education. Since, in other words, Statius positions himself among other famous Roman writers of the past, his discourse obtains a certain cultural authority. The reader is, however, left wondering if this is a sufficient criterion for determining what is an “authoritative” form of cultural discourse and what is not. Simply because Statius desires to be taken seriously as a poet does not prove that he was a legitimizing voice in matters of taste. Now Z argues (on pp. 48-49 and elsewhere) that a “dominant language” is characterized by its consistent opposition to deviations from the norm. This quality Z states is evident in Statius’ poetry. Again, this sounds to me like a necessary, but not a sufficient indicator that Statius was viewed as a “licensed spokesperson.” It is certainly possible (and in my view likely) that he was, but it seems problematic to proceed to make further sociological arguments based upon this contingency.

Chapter Three (“Material Wealth in the Silvae“) is a catalog of the various types of objects described in the Silvae. Z’s argument is that for Statius many of these material objects confer status on their owners. Z usefully surveys Roman accounts of villas, marble, antiques, etc. to contextualize the social meaning of these objects. She also adduces archeological and material evidence to supplement the literary record. However, I am again troubled by the lack of a specific criterion by which we may judge which objects may be considered “classy” and which crass. One such criterion that does repeatedly crop up is that, if the emperor owns a particular object, then that object must serve as a marker of good taste. Hence Z has constant recourse to comparison between the “imperial” Silvae and those that are addressed to the poet’s friends and associates (e.g. pp. 84-89 on imported marbles). Insofar as the emperor’s taste is necessarily going to have a certain authoritative influence, this criterion is an effective one in judging the relative taste of others in the Silvae. However, I wonder if this also somehow diminishes Statius’ status as “licensed spokesperson” since his cultural authority ultimately derives from that of the emperor.

Chapter Four (“Statius’ Language of Wealth”) is a philological analysis of “wealth words” such as opes, census, and divitiae in the Silvae. Overall Z’s conclusion is that Statius’ uniqueness as a writer can be seen in his generally positive assessment of material wealth. Statius’ views may be opposed to the generally negative assessments of wealth and ostentation in the moralizing works of such writers as Horace and Seneca. Z’s analysis is especially effective in drawing out the ways in which Statius employs “wealth words” to indicate other kinds of “capital” such as taste (literary and aesthetic) and education (e.g. pp. 117-120).

Chapter Five (“Creating Distinction”) attempts a sociological analysis of Domitianic Rome through the lens of the Silvae. Z embarks on a series of readings of the poems in which the various forms of Bourdieu’s distinction may be seen. Silvae 1.2, 1.5, 2.1, 4.8, 2.2, 4.6, 5.2, and 5.1 are analyzed in terms of the forms of “capital” they evince. In each instance we see how Statius emphasizes the taste, breeding, wealth, reputation, and status of his addressees. We find, for example, that distinctions in rank can be subdivided into ever more specifically defined categories that serve to confer cultural superiority on individual Romans (e.g. pp. 171-178). We also find that wealth must be used in particular ways in order to be distinctive (e.g. pp. 157-160). Likewise with the collecting of antiques and art (pp. 190-200). In all these cases Z argues that Statius’ “authoritative voice” serves to confer distinction upon his addressee in a way that reveals the cultural matrices that underlie the aesthetics of elite Roman culture.

I feel that the prima facie case for this conclusion is a strong one. I see, however, a certain confusion between two related but separate questions: (1) do the Silvae constitute an authoritative cultural voice? and (2) what are we to make of this voice? Clearly this chapter is nominally devoted to answering question (2), but in many instances it seems as if Z gets caught up in trying to answer question (1) at the same time. For example, in discussing Silvae 1.2 (pp. 138-150) Z concludes that Statius’ manipulation of social and poetic portrayals of Violentilla “most vividly illustrates the way in which Statius can both exploit and intertwine the poetic occasion to meet the greater need of distinguishing the addressee according to his primary form of capital (i.e., literary production).” But just what is being illustrated here? Do we learn something specific about Domitianic Rome? Or something general about Statius’ rhetoric? The discussion of Statius as an authoritative cultural commentator is contained in Chapter Two, but even in that chapter there seem to be some lingering questions regarding the criteria by which we may establish Statius’ authority in cultural matters. Here these questions seem to reappear, and I find myself wondering whether Z has answered this question to her own satisfaction. Obviously Statius praises his addressees and hence confers distinction (in a broad sense) upon them. But can we therefore attribute historical or sociological “reality” to this distinction?

Chapter Six (“Achieving Distinction”) considers the specific ways in which the Silvae communicate cultural distinctions. In particular, Z focuses upon how the poems manipulate traditional markers of status to create for Statius’ addressees forms of distinction that enable them to cross social boundaries and establish (at least rhetorically) new social niches for themselves: the creation of distinction for the freedman Etruscus in Silv. 1.6 is paradigmatic of this process (pp. 229-230, cf. 150-160). In this chapter Z also focuses on the ways in which Statius’ discourse of distinction serves reflexively to confer distinction upon the poet himself. The prevalence of literary production and connoisseurship as a marker of distinction for Statius’ addressees brings into sharp relief the role of the Statius’ own poetry in this very process of distinction. In many ways these conclusions seem uncontroversial nowadays, since the dynamics of praise in ancient poetry are better understood.3 In connection with Statius, whose Silvae are still in many ways so enigmatic, Z’s conclusions are nevertheless a breath of fresh air.

In fulfilling her initial two promises (to describe fully Statius’ discourse of wealth and to explain it) Z is largely successful. Her analysis of the ways in which the various forms of capital are portrayed in the poems brings out many subtleties not previously noted. Z’s use of Bourdieu’s concepts to understand the “economics” of these forms of capital also seems sound. Instead of viewing Statius as excessively flattering his friends, or as mechanically engaging in rhetorical exercises, we might fruitfully understand his purposes in cultural terms. On this view the Silvae represent an authoritative statement on Flavian taste. If we believe in the power of Statius’ poetry to achieve these ends, then much of what has previously appeared crass or repulsive in the Silvae may be understood as culturally productive. While I am occasionally skeptical about the ways in which Z goes about demonstrating Statius’ role as a “authoritative voice” in Bourdieu’s sense, Z’s overall interpretation is compelling, and indeed attractive as a way of understanding the poems on their own terms.4


1. E.g., F. Ahl, “The Rider and the Horse: Politics and Power in Roman Poetry from Horace to Statius,” ANRW 2.32.1, 1984: 40-124.

2. E.g., C. Newlands, Statius’ Silvae and the Poetics of Empire, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002; R. Nauta, Poetry for Patrons: Literary Communication in the Age of Domitian, Leiden: Brill, 2002.

3. E.g. L. Kurke ( The Traffic in Praise: Pindar and the Poetics of Social Economy, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1991) and G. Most ( The Measurs of Praise: Structure and Function in Pindar’s Second Pythian and Seventh Nemean Odes, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1985) on Pindar; E. Oliensis ( Horace and the rhetoric of authority, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) on Horace; and J. Geysson ( Imperial panegyric in Statius: a literary commentary on Silvae 1.1, New York: Peter Lang, 1996) on Statius.

4. Minor typographical and other errors: p. 30: viv should be vivi; p. 31: Catalinarian should be Catilinarian; pp. 59-60 and n. 41: Gleason 1999 referred to but absent from bibliography; p. 111: Catilinum should be Catilinae; p. 116: in a reference to Juvenal, the word Satire needs to be in italics; p. 117: quote of 1.4.19-20: decimal needs to be decima; p. 129: near top of page, an extra parenthesis needs to be removed; p. 140: (a)mmoral needs to be (a)moral; p. 156: balnem should be balneum; p. 175: halfway through first full paragraph: virture should be virtue.