BMCR 2007.02.26

Literatur gewordener Augenblick. Die Silven des Statius im Kontext literarischer und sozialer Bedingungen. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 81

, Literatur gewordener Augenblick : die Silven des Statius im Kontext literarischer und sozialer Bedingungen von Dichtung. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd. 81. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2006. x, 421 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3110191121 €118.00.

These are felicitous times for the study of Statius’ Silvae. Important new editions, translations, commentaries, edited volumes, article collections, and monographs devoted to this unique collection of 32 poems have appeared in the last few years.1 The Silvae occupy a distinctive place in the canon of Latin literature, not least because there is no single model in preceding literature for this multifarious and multigeneric collection. This revision of R.’s 2004 Giessen dissertation examines the relationship of the Silvae to their occasions and addressees. The monograph is a useful and well-written complement to Nauta’s recent study of Flavian patronage and reception and Zeiner’s examination of Statius’s construction of distinction.2

The introductory chapters review scholarship on the Silvae (up to Zeiner 2005) and set out R.’s model of literary patronage, which she views as a variant of typical Roman patronage. Patron and client enter into a long-term relationship built in part upon the reciprocal exchange of beneficia. Bourdieu’s distinction between economic, social, and cultural capital informs the discussion of the poet’s specific contribution to the reciprocal exchange. Both poet and patron may take the initiative in attempting to initiate and develop the relationship, and there are gains in social and cultural capital to be made by both poet and patron through the production and circulation of poetry. R. examines the phenomenon of literary patronage from the perspectives of both clients such as Martial and patrons such as the Younger Pliny and the participants in Tacitus’ Dialogus.

Study of the Silvae proper commences in Part A, which examines the occasions that gave rise to the individual poems. In Chapter 3, “Die Silven als Gelegenheitsdichtung,” R. provides an extensive survey of such “occasions” as birthdays and appointments to office and realia such as villas and artworks. She applies the term Leerstelle (derived from Gadamer) to information that may have been known to the original audience of a given poem, but is no longer available to a later reader. The deficit is ameliorated, but only partially, by Statius’ prose prefaces. Though Statius’ first audiences were able to apply their personal experience of these individuals to their reception of these poems, later readers receive them as literary figures as well as historical ones. The Flavian poet treats occasions in a different way from Horace, in that he presents his poems as having originated from real events and causes, whereas the Carmina typically deploy the fiction of an occasion for formal purposes.

R. offers a valuable differentiation between “evident” occasions, those that form the major subject of a poem, from two types of “latent” occasion. Poems may refer to “latent” occasions while ostensibly being devoted to other topics, such as the birthday of Atedius Melior mentioned at the end of Silv. 2.3, a poem heretofore concerned with the tree on the addressee’s property. The poet may also subordinate a “latent” occasion to another occasion, such as the recollection of Melior’s convivium that appears in the account of the parrot’s death in Silv. 2.4. The chapter also attends to the later publication of the Silvae, an event far removed from the occasions of initial composition and delivery of the individual poems. In the prose prefaces to the books of the Silvae, the poet both emphasizes the programmatic characteristics of particular poems (such as their rate of composition, their ludic character, and their affinities with works in other genres) and locates them within the system of reciprocal exchange. They are Ehrengaben for his addressees; in turn, his addressees’ approval will protect him against his critics; and his contextualizing comments serve to reassociate the original occasion with the addressee.

The subsequent chapters apply this analytical framework to various groups of Silvae. Chapter 4 offers three paired readings of six of the epicedia, on the family members of the two imperial liberti, on the two pueri delicati, and on the two animals. R.’s reading of Silv. 2.5 offers a good example of the profits of her method. The lament for the leo mansuetus has often been dismissed as an example of the bad taste of a decadent period, or viewed as a parody of consolatory literature that serves to undermine the “serious” consolations of Silvae 2. R. instead chooses to view Domitian as the poem’s true object, and highlights Statius’ indirect methods of advertising the emperor’s virtues and the consensus that he shares with his people.

Part B shifts focus from occasions to addressees. Chapter 5 examines the various strategies employed by Statius to locate himself and his addressees within various kinds of privileged groupings (as patrons, friends, readers of learned literature, loyal subjects of the emperor, etc.) and to effect thereby the increase of social capital. The publication of the Silvae in a collection with prefatory material increases the social capital of each of the addressees by conferring a group identity upon them and creating associations between them. The poet endeavors to increase his own social capital as well as that of his patrons’, to seek out new relationships of amicitia where possible, and to advertise the degree of familiaritas that he shares with a given addressee. R.’s comparison of three Silvae involving extended ecphrases ( Silv. 4.6, 1.5, and 1.3) shows that Statius presents himself as individual and poet to a greater degree in the former two poems, addressed to persons with whom he apparently already enjoys a relationship of some familiarity, but less so in the latter poem, an Initiativ-Silve.

Even while occupying the ostensibly subordinate role of a client, Statius can nevertheless affect the perception of his greater patrons and demonstrate a degree of independence and authority. R. observes that the juxtaposed Silvae (4.4 and 4.5) celebrating Vitorius Marcellus’ forensic activities and Septimius Severus’ poetic otium recapitulate the contrasting positions taken in Tacitus’ Dialogus and Pliny’s Letters regarding the function of studia. The jesting tone of Silv. 4.9 and its focus on an apparently trivial misdemeanor (the exchange of book for book) enable Statius to comment tactfully on the system of reciprocal exchange. The patron’s contribution is not expected to bear such close resemblance to the poet’s; they are no more expected to exchange identical gifts than they would be to provide identical forms of hospitality to each other. Statius demonstrates the extent of his own poetic authority by taking the opportunity to compose the epithalamium for the poet Arruntius Stella ( Silv. 1.2). He can represent his colleague as a more significant judge of his talent than even the most munificent patron and can advert to similarities, in contrast to his usual practice of highlighting the difference in social level between himself as poet and his exalted patrons.

Chapter 6 examines the addressees to whom multiple Silvae are directed, including Atedius Melior, Pollius Felix, the emperor Domitian, and Statius himself. The later collection and publication of the individual poems grants them a different form of secondary reception. The poet can now direct attention to the same figure across multiple poems, thereby granting his subject a more detailed characterization and enabling him to transcend the individual occasion of any given poem. Thus the poet extends the catalog of Melior’s attractive personal qualities initiated in the lament for Glaucias ( Silv. 2.1) into his birthday poem (2.3), while praise of Pollius Felix in the two poems directly addressed to him continues in the poem of congratulation to his son-in-law Julius Menecrates (4.8). The attention to Pollius and his family throughout the latter three books of the collection suggests a continuation and intensification of the patronage relationship. Even when Statius’ personal affairs become the subject of his poems, the emphasis still remains on his identity as a professional poet (most evidently in the commemoration of his father, which restricts focus to the elder Papinius’ career as poet, teacher, and mentor).

More Silvae are directly addressed to Domitian than to any other addressee. In addition, the emperor is an important presence in the group of poems addressed to his functionaries and courtiers and serves as a ubiquitous point of reference in most of the other poems. While rejecting efforts to uncover subversive messages in the Silvae, R. carefully attends to Statius’ construction of an independent perspective with regard to the emperor. Thus, for example, the poet is able to comment on the benefits of the harmony between the various social orders from his vantage point as an undifferentiated member of the crowd at the emperor’s Saturnalian feast ( Silv. 1.6). Even when Statius attends an imperial convivium or wins an imperial agon by singing the emperor’s praises, he maintains his identity as a distinguished poet of epic as well as that of a court poet grateful for patronage. Through his indirect assertions of autonomy, however specious, the poet presents his praise as the reflection of his independent judgment rather than official doctrine. R. accordingly designates the poet as a “Propagator” rather than a “Propagandist” of the emperor’s self-presentation (358). (Zeiner offers a complementary discussion of Statius’ role as a “licensed spokesperson.”)

Two brief concluding chapters offer a survey of Statius’ formal techniques and a resumé of the monograph’s claims. In addition to the comprehensiveness expected in a German dissertation, other virtues of this monograph include its fruitful application of a well-chosen analytical framework and its keen attention to Statius’ innovations with respect to both contemporary and preceding literary tradition. R.’s prose style and organizational structure are admirably straightforward; misprints and other infelicities are virtually nonexistent.


1. To restrict attention to only a few English-language examples: Shackleton Bailey’s 2003 Loeb edition; Nagle’s 2004 translation; Gibson’s 2006 Oxford commentary on Silvae 5; the Mnemosyne supplement volume Flavian Poetry [2006]; a forthcoming special issue of Arethusa devoted to the Silvae; and the monographs of Newlands [2003] and Zeiner [2005].

2. Ruurd R. Nauta, Poetry for patrons: literary communication in the age of Domitian (Leiden: Brill, 2002); Noelle K. Zeiner, Nothing ordinary here: Statius as creator of distinction in the Silvae (New York: Routledge, 2005).