BMCR 2023.11.17

Silius Italicus: Punica, book 9

, Silius Italicus: Punica, book 9. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. Pp. 272. ISBN 9780198838166



Has there been a better time to be a scholar of Silius Italicus? In the anglophone world, the answer is a definitive “no.” Only in the past 15 years has Silius enjoyed the benefits of the renaissance in imperial Latin epic studies in the English-speaking world.[1] This explosion in research grows as scholars continue to add to a critical mass of commentaries on the Punica. In addition to older editions (e.g. Spaltenstein, Calderini),[2] recent commentaries continue to enrich our understanding of this dauntingly massive poem. We now have published editions on books 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, and 12;[3] what’s more, this list does not include promised commentaries on books 13 (van der Keur), 15 (Jacobs), and 17 (Fucecchi and Roumpou, independently). Add unpublished dissertations, and we are nearing complete coverage of all 17 books.

Neil Bernstein has contributed a commentary on book 9 to this growing library, following on his successful 2017 edition of Punica 2. Bernstein has a particular skill in elucidating such crucial books—book 2 covers the siege of Saguntum; book 9 serves as the centerpiece of the epic as a whole[4] and details the disastrous beginning of the Battle of Cannae. Suitable to the series of which it is a part, the commentary is aimed at scholars and advanced graduate students. Bernstein assumes a reader familiar with the Punica and the critical trends surrounding it today, but newcomers to Silius’ text will not feel unduly burdened. The book is divided into 5 sections: an introduction, text with translation, commentary, bibliography, and rich indices locorum, rerum, and of Latin words. In his assessment of the first three of these categories, Bernstein has provided us with an eminently useful and successful, if at times uneven, resource.

The serviceable introduction is the weakest section of the book. While quantity does not equal quality, a comparison of the introductions of Bernstein’s commentaries on books 2 and 9 is instructive: book 9’s is 23 pages with 61 footnotes, while book 2 has 39 pages and 188 notes. Readers will be best served by taking this introduction in consultation with Bernstein’s earlier work. The introduction, as often, begins with general issues (like Silius’ biography) and moves to the more granular details of prosody and meter. Bernstein is particularly strong when analyzing the inexhaustible draw Cannae exerted on the Roman literary imagination, pointing to such exemplars as Cicero’s de Officiis (3.47) and Livy 22 (pp. 5–9).

Speaking of Livy, any commentary on the Punica must deal with its two preeminent models: Livy and Vergil. In the most substantial portion of the introduction (“The Episodes of Punica 9”), Bernstein not only summarizes the structure of the book’s major scenes, but also traces the sources he later explores in the commentary proper. Especially noteworthy here is Bernstein going off the beaten path, tracing shared sources between Appian and Silius (p. 14, cf. his note ad 9.232) or following Fucecchi in assigning Silius definite priority (p. 19) in an allusion by Statius (Silv. 4.3) to Silius’ depiction of the Volturnus wind (9.504–523). Following this summary, Bernstein attends to Silius’ other important forebear in his description of the civil-war-like episodes of Punica 9: Lucan, and particularly Pharsalia 7. In addition to listing significant comparanda, Bernstein summarizes a hefty amount of scholarship on the theme of civil war at Cannae (pp. 23–27). The introduction concludes with sections on “Language and Style” and “Text and Translation,” although this last is mostly unchanged from Bernstein’s translation of the poem with Antony Augoustakis. The text and apparatus follow Delz’s Teubner, with Bernstein adopting earlier emendations in 4 cases.

I will focus my discussion of the text, translation, and commentary by choosing three passages that demonstrate the character of the volume: the opening period (where a commentator’s energies and ideal methods are on fullest display), a “purple passage” (where a commentator engages most with scholarly interpretations of the text), and finally a passage chosen randomly (where the commentator’s modus operandi for the majority of the text is best represented).

From the outset, Bernstein’s strengths as a commentator are evident: here is a philological commentary interested primarily in issues of inter- and intratextuality. Bernstein was an early advocate[5] of the digital tools available to Latin philologists, tools like Musisque Deoque, Tesserae, and Pede Certo. Many of the notes unfold from exploiting these tools. So, Silius’ iunctura at 9.1, cladisque futurae, not only acts structurally to tie together the beginning of this book with the end of the last (8.658: clade futura) but also intertextually to signal the importance of Lucan’s description of civil war (BC 1.470: clademque futuram). These tools bring to the fore exciting flashes of Silius’ intertextual program, such as our poet’s use of Germanicus’ Aratea (ad 9.2 cf. Arat. 163). To be sure, however, Bernstein’s abilities to hunt down parallels does not rest solely on the use of a website, and his philological expertise appears on every page. Our future digital overlords would be blind to the Livian source (22.44.5: Varro Paulo speciosum timidis ac segnibus ducibus exemplum Fabium obiceret) lurking behind Silius’ Varro chiding his consular colleague’s delaying (9.6: ac modo segnitiae Paulum increpitare). Bernstein performs this kind of Livian Quellenforschung—an integral function of a commentary on the Punica—with remarkable acuity.

Punica 9 contains one of the poem’s most studied purple passages: the disguised Roman POW Satricus’ accidental murder by his son Solymus. Bernstein admirably condenses a long scholarly tradition stretching from Richard Bruère in 1959 to Ray Marks in 2020[6] that finds Silius intertextually modelling this episode on Ovid’s poetry. Bernstein subtly points his readers in this direction, for instance, ad 9.66, tying the phrase sceleratus error to the sceleratum carmen (9.266) at the end of the scene, a warning to Varro written in blood. Bernstein also astutely guides readers through a point of tortured text beginning ad 9.80–81. Bernstein wears his textual-critic hat well, summarizing the history of emendations while also defending or criticizing variants according to his sound judgement. I particularly appreciated Bernstein’s supposition (following Delz) ad 9.103–4 that Damsté was very possibly right to take Tyri(or)um for Tyriamque sequentum / Satricus esse manum…credens.

Bernstein’s is an economical approach to his notes: typically thrifty, sometimes parsimonious. Bernstein gets a lot done with a little ad 9.96–97 (venientem conspicit hostem), saying that Solymus, when he looks at his disguised father Satricus, displays “deviant focalization:” we (and the narrator) know that Satricus is not a hostis, despite the implied omniscience of the 3rd person verb conspicit. This bit of narratological reading gets at a broader theme of Punica 9: it is difficult to differentiate friend from foe (cf. Bernstein ad 9.86–97 and ad 9.130: Poenus eram). Less frequently, readers will be left wanting more from Bernstein’s notes. The phrasing of 9.83 (sed fuga nuda viri) is so compressed as to invite detailed consideration. Bernstein is drawn to linguistic parallels for the collocation of fuga nuda. I suspect that Leo Landrey is correct to compare nuda viri to Vergil’s famous incipit in the Aeneid,[7] especially given the Trojan pedigree of Solymus’ name that Silius has just detailed in a digression. The implications of that intertext are, for this reviewer, compelling. Here, and at limited points elsewhere in the commentary, Bernstein has said less than he might have about Silius’ literary technique.

Book 9.486–555 is as “random” a passage as we’ll find in Punica 9, a scene in which the wind Volturnus harasses the Romans at the behest of Juno. Once again, Bernstein’s skills with historical Quellenforschung come to the fore. As he notes (ad 9.497–504 citing Livy 22.43.10 and Sen. NQ 5.16.4), Silius is adding divine motivation to what the historical tradition takes as fact: the hot Volturnus impaired the Roman forces at Cannae. Thanks to his other interests and work, Bernstein is also uniquely skilled at spotting Silius’ influence on Claudian. So, Bernstein observes (ad 9.504–511), when Claudian describes the divine wind that is supposed to have helped Theodosius to best Eugenius at the Frigidus (Claud. III Cos. Hon. 93–5), the later poet is making his emperor’s greatest victory a reversal of Rome’s costliest defeat at the hands of a more hostile windstorm. The intertextual acumen this commentary displays cannot be overstated.

Bernstein also does a good job in these pages of detailing what he charitably calls Silius’ “abundant” style (ad 9.489–490); other readers may call it repetitive. At its most rote, we will find the repetition of candens (497: candente and 502: candentes), but a keen eye like Bernstein’s will spot in this same run of lines globos at 9.503 recapitulating the glomerato of 9.500. There is, to be sure, meaning to be found in repetitions like this, and Bernstein is careful throughout his commentary to help the scholar interested in this phenomenon to work her way through what others have written (as ad 9.530–532: non Teucros non Teucros with Wills (1996) 67).[8] In explicating this and other idiosyncrasies of Silius’ poetic style, Bernstein’s commentary stands out.

While errors of substance are rare in this volume, they are still present. Bernstein intends his translation to serve as a first step towards interpretation (p. 32), and he succeeds in this aim. The rendering, however, of line 9.496 is incorrect; Bernstein turns Silius’ placet hic irae exitiabilis ultor into “This avenger appeased her deadly anger.” Grammatically, of course, irae must be a dative governed by placet, and exitiabilis is modifying ultor. Bernstein tends towards the literal in his translation, so I expected to see a note on this transferred epithet; his silence in the notes is all the more puzzling since, in his Routledge translation, Bernstein more accurately renders the line “This deadly avenger appeased Juno’s anger.” Another, smaller infelicity comes in the lemmatization of 9.491–492 and 9.493: 492’s caelumque ruentes, lemmatized with 491–492, should instead be lemmatized with 493, whose subjects (Eurique et Boreae…Corique Notique) Bernstein correctly takes as the antecedent of the participle in his translation.

These quibbles aside, Bernstein has offered us a commentary that is tremendously useful, erudite, and accessible—not to mention timely. It will find a spot on the shelf of every scholar of Silius’ Punica and post-Vergilian Latin epic. The book is handsomely produced, and I noticed virtually no typographical errors. Bernstein has long had a place as one of the patres of the renaissance of critical appreciation for the Punica, and we should thank him for this most recent contribution. More commentaries on the poem will surely follow. Book 5, anyone?



[1] This is not to discount the seminal and evergreen work done by continental philologists during the latter half of the 20th century, beginning with M. von Albrecht (1964) Silius Italicus: Freiheit und Gebundenheit Römischer Epik. Amsterdam.

[2] F. Spaltenstein (1986/1990) Commentaire des Punica de Silius Italicus. 2 vols. Geneva; D. Calderini (2011) Commentary on Silius Italicus. F. Muecke and J. Dunston (eds.). Geneva.

[3] E.M. Ariemma (2000) Alla vigilia di Canne. Naples; U. Fröhlich (2000) Regulus, Archetyp Römischer Fides. Tübingen; R.J. Littlewood (2011) A Commentary on Italicus, Punica 7. Oxford; N.W. Bernstein (2017) Silius Italicus, Punica 2. Oxford; R.J. Littlewood (2017) A Commentary on Silius Italicus’ Punica 10. Oxford; J.R. Telg gennant Kortmann (2018) Hannibal ad portas. Heidelberg; A. Augoustakis and R.J. Littlewood (2022) Silius Italicus: Punica, Book 3. Oxford; E. Schedel (2022) Ambiguities of War. Leiden.

[4] Readers will miss detailed discussion of the poem’s Makrostruktur, which Bernstein only mentions in passing (p. 7).

[5] See N.W. Bernstein (2020) “Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives on the Use of Poetic Tradition in Silius Italicus’ Punica,” in Coffee et al. (eds.) Intertextuality in Flavian Epic Poetry, pp. 373–88. Berlin.

[6] R. Bruère (1959) “Color Ovidianus in Silius Punica 8–17” in CP 54: 228–45; R. Marks (2020) “Searching for Ovid at Cannae: A Contribution to the Reception of Ovid in Silius Italicus’ Punica” in Coffee et al. (eds.) Intertextuality in Flavian Epic Poetry, pp. 87 – 106. Berlin.

[7] L. Landrey (2014) “Skeletons in Armor: Silius Italicus’ Punica and the Aeneid’s Proem” in AJP 135: 615 n. 35.

[8] J. Wills (1996) Repetition in Latin Poetry. Oxford.