BMCR 2023.03.10

Silius Italicus and the tradition of the Roman historical epos

, , Silius Italicus and the tradition of the Roman historical epos. Mnemosyne supplements, 458. Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xii, 299. ISBN 9789004518490



During my years as a student, I remember being fascinated with Silius Italicus’ Punica. Having part of my family in Sicily, I was impressed to discover how present many Sicilian cities were in the poem. Unfortunately, the Punica were not covered in the curriculum besides a mention of their existence and length, and, of course, biographical details about Silius Italicus’ exaggerated veneration of Virgil and Cicero, and his death (Pliny and Martial were instead authors in the curriculum). Silius Italicus’ epos remained as an odd and long composition without evident relevance in the history of ancient literature. Fortunately, things have changed. Not only have the dynamism and vitality of the Punica themselves been valorized, but also their role within the context of imperial literature. And even if its fundamental impact in the literature of late antiquity (and beyond) still offers material to explore (see Bernstein in this volume), recent years have shown how relevant and enriching Silius Italicus’ epos actually is.

The present book is the result of an international conference organized by the editors in September 2019 in Udine, when the world was still a more healthy and peaceful place than it is today. It focusses, as the title suggests, on Silius Italicus’ role within the tradition of historical epos, the characteristic Roman epic sub-genre. Eleven articles by both established and young scholars are grouped thematically in four parts, plus an introduction. They offer diverse insights into different aspects of or related to Silius Italicus’ Punica. A general index and an index locorum conclude the volume. In the following I will try not to offer an epic catalogue, but a hopefully useful overview of the volume. Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.

The first part examines generic aspects and asks where we can locate the historical epos and how it interacts with other genres. Gesine Manuwald’s contribution focusses on the historical epos and the forerunners of Silius Italicus in Rome. Manuwald offers an instructive, detailed and enjoyable account of the historical development of Roman epos, from Naevius and Ennius, through the fragmentary situation during the Republic, to Vergil and Lucan. She also contrasts it with historiography (i.e. the writing of history, especially in prose), and in particular, with Livy’s account of the Second Punic War. It becomes clear how Silius inventively resumes this long tradition, “even though he did not manage to encourage others to follow in his vein in the immediate chronological context” (p. 33). Paolo Esposito makes us aware of the difficulty of drawing categorical lines defining epic poetry and historiography, since both activities were “strictly connected with education and rhetorical practice”, so that both are “dependent on and inevitably conditioned by them” (p. 37). Esposito’s analysis shows how Silius Italicus’ poetics work by both taking up neglected aspects from historiography and amplifying epic models (for example, details omitted by Livy on the fall of Saguntum, or Lucan’s reuse of the Saguntines’ fate), as well as profiting from rhetorical questions about the use of historical exempla (as we find e.g. in Quintilian).

The second part of the volume deals with the epic representation of historical figures and events in Silius and his literary models; it also describes how the Punica became a model for poets in late antiquity. Thomas Baier offers a comprehensive analysis of the Silian figures of Regulus and Scipio as mainly Ciceronian characters. On the basis of different passages in Cicero dealing with Regulus, Scipio, Coriolanus, and Cicero himself, it becomes clear that the Silian heroes display characteristics of a “Stoically coloured moral philosophy” (p. 73), since virtues like pietas, fides, magnitudo animi, or even devotio link them to Ciceronian patterns. At the same time, such patterns are in harmony with the Flavian ideology, especially under Domitian. Ray Marks’ contribution focusses on “Silius’ view of history as a teleological process realized through the cooperative efforts of the Romans and their gods” (p. 77). To this aim, he contrasts the Silian representation of figures such as Scipio with Ovidian passages depicting Augustus (especially in the Fasti and Metamorphoses 15). After a detailed account of different Ovidian allusions, Marks analyzes how much the Silian hero thematically recalls the Ovidian princeps. Finally, Neil Bernstein (whose Claudian translation happily just appeared) explores the impact of the Punica on the political poems of the late antique court poet Claudian. Bernstein focusses, for example, on how the Battle of Cannae becomes an inverted model to the Battle at the Frigidus: two critical events in Rome’s history depicted in ‘mythologizing’ terms, and which ended, respectively, with the victory and the defeat of the enemy. He also shows how ‘Hannibalian’ antiheroes such as Alaric are depicted and (rightly) underlines uncomfortable issues such as the “perpetuation of racist literary traditions”, or the “imperial ideology of colonization” (p. 120) in both Claudian and his models. At the same time, Bernstein notices how revealing the Silian reception in Claudian is, since it shows the canonical status the Punica had among the late imperial audience, who would evidently have been able to recognize the allusions. This status would last (of course, after the poem’s rediscovery in 1417), until the Enlightenment, when Silius Italicus ceased to be part of the “classical” canon (and when, by the way, also late antique poetry was similarly marginalized).

In the third part of the volume, three scholars discuss different issues related to Silian digressions, secondary stories, and intertextual references. In his case analysis, Sergio Casali convincingly shows how skillfully Silius Italicus creates narrative dynamism by taking up (and varying) details of Virgil’s account of Dido’s death, her sister (and a future Italic nymph) Anna, and Aeneas (Punica 1 and 8; Aeneid 4 and 7). Nicola Lanzarone discusses Silius Italicus’ reinterpretation of Lucan, in particular the role the Silian Battle of Cannae plays in view of Lucan’s Battle of Pharsalus. Silius exploits the clear contrast between Pompey and Aemilius Paulus—which can be understood through the moral/philosophical background of both figures—in order to “restore conventions of the genre that Lucan … had broken” (p. 164). Stefano Poletti moves the focus to Petronius, in particular to the character Eumolpus’ poem on the Bellum civile (Satyricon 119–124.1). Eumolpus links Caesar’s crossing of the Alps to the Lucanian Caesar crossing the Rubicon (Pharsalia 1): both have a strong connection to Hannibal. Silius’ Hannibal (Book 3, the crossing of the Alps) becomes thus the third element in the equation, showing how “both Petronius’ Caesar and Silius Italicus’ Hannibal should be read as attempts to react to Lucan’s Caesar and to reconstruct the figure of the epic hero” (p. 171).

The fourth and last part explores the poetic techniques Silius Italicus develops to connect in different ways to his audience. Filippo Fabbri focusses on the Silian figure of Scaevola, who, together with Aemilius Paulus, frames—with their respective deaths—the Battle of Cannae (Books 8, 9, and 10 resp.). Fabbri analyses the tension that Lucan’s Scaeva (Pharsalia 7) and Livy’s Scaevola (2.12–13) create upon the Silian plot: within the heroic depiction of the past, inherited from Livy and to which the Roman audience conformed, Lucan’s “tragic tenebrae” and Silius Italicus’ “epic laudes” are set in opposition (p. 208). Clayton Schroer offers a stimulating article on Hannibal’s status of exul (Book 17): Schroer highlights the intertextual mise en abyme of Hannibal exiled to remote parts of the world, dialoguing with Virgil’s Aeneas and, especially, Ovid’s exiled voice. The refreshing approach based on modern theories of displacement and postcolonial studies makes the idea of such remote places as a “not-yet Rome” (p. 120) convincing and frankly fascinating: Silius’ audience knows them to be actual Roman territories during the Flavian period and, at the same time, interprets Hannibal’s exiled character against the background of Ovid’s exile poetry. In the next contribution, Alison Keith shows how Silius Italicus’ “allusive program” (p. 246) works through the representation of temples. The Silian Hannibal—together with the reader—sees at different moments in the Punica four temples (Books 1, 3, 6, and 12) that are metaphoric homages to corresponding literary descriptions in Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Naevius. Claire Stocks explores the historical link between the figure of Quirinus (i.e., the divinized Romulus) and the Flavian/Domitian cult of this divinity on the Quirinal Hill, in consideration mainly of Punica 3. Stocks focusses on the characteristic Roman phenomenon of “memory manipulation” or conceptualization of the past (cf. p. 249–252). In particular Stocks holds the view that Silius Italicus’ references to Quirinus (and Scipio) can be better understood by considering panegyrical implication towards Domitian’s figure, “who is destined to surpass both Romulus and Quirinus in his exploits on earth and his destined ascent into heaven” (p. 262). Finally, Angeliki Roumpou offers a suggestive perspective on the victory at Zama and Scipio’s triumph in Rome at the finale of the Punica (book 17): in spite of the triumphal character of Rome’s victory, the phantasmagoric danger of lurking Hannibal is very present. Roumpou convincingly sees this as an elliptic reference to Nero’s phantoms which plagued Domitianic Rome (cf. Suetonius Nero 48.3–49.4; Tacitus Historiae 2.8.1), “as a reminder of the tyrannical past which threatens to come back” (p. 281).

The approaches to the Punica vary in each contribution—a natural element, of course, in such kind of academic book. Some of them seem to me more appealing than others. I sometimes had difficulties with overly biographical readings or approaches that seem to evaluate different texts almost exclusively in relation to their models. However, I enjoyed reading the book because I found it a solid and useful foundation for future work on Silius Italicus’ position within the context of Latin literature, Roman historical epos, and Domitianic Rome.

The editors write that they “hope that this collection will continue the discussion of the tradition of historical epic poetry in Rome and open up further avenues of research on Silius Italicus and the Punica in the future” (p. 15). I think they have absolutely succeeded in this regard. Not only can the reading of Silius enrich our comprehension of the Punica, its poetics, and Flavian literature and its intertextual mesh, but its Nachleben also represents a vast field still to be explored: Silius Italicus plays an important (and underestimated) role in epic-panegyrical poetry in late antiquity. The oeuvre of Claudian, Corippus, or even Venantius Fortunatus, still offer fertile ground for reading, and the reception of the Punica after its rediscovery during the Renaissance surely deserves more attention.

To sum up, this book is highly recommended for everyone dealing with Latin literature. I am sure that students and scholars will benefit enormously from this volume and I am confident that Silius Italicus’ poem will continue to reaffirm his position within the academic curriculum.


Authors and Titles

Abbreviations vii
Notes on Contributors viii

Introduction: Silius Italicus and the Tradition of the Roman Historical Epos, Antony Augoustakis and Marco Fucecchi

PART 1 The Historical Epic Tradition
Silius Italicus and the Conventions of Historical Epic at Rome, Gesine Manuwald
Silius Italicus between Epos and Historiography, Paolo Esposito

PART 2 Rethinking Roman “Mythical History”
Silius Ciceronianus: Regulus as a Reflection of Cicero in Punica 6, Thomas Baier
Silius Italicus and Ovid’s Roman History, Raymond Marks
Claudian’s Silius, Neil W. Bernstein

PART 3 Historical Challenges to “National” Epic
Silius Italicus as an Interpreter of Virgil: Dido (and Anna), Sergio Casali
Pompey and Aemilius Paulus, or the Epic Genre between Lucan and Silius Italicus, Nicola Lanzarone
From the Rubicon to the Alps: Re-reading Eumolpus’ Caesar in Light of Silius Italicus’ Hannibal, Stefano Poletti

PART 4 Viewing Roman History (and Literature) from the Inside
Scaevola’s aristeia: A Complementary Reworking of a Historical Source and Epic Tradition, Filippo Fabbri
Exul in orbe toto, or, How to Map Future Power in Silius Italicus, Clayton A. Schroer
Temples of Song in Silius Italicus, Alison Keith
Romuleos superabit voce nepotes: Remembering Romulus in Silius Italicus, Claire Stocks
Hannibal Redivivus: Fear and Haunting Memory in Silius Italicus, Angeliki N. Roumpou