BMCR 2024.07.12

Ritual and the poetics of closure in Flavian literature

, Ritual and the poetics of closure in Flavian literature. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 147. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2023. Pp. viii, 252. ISBN 9783110770469.


[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


This edited volume ‘explores the role and significance of ancient religious practices … both in closing sections of literary texts … as well as in the overall closure of the text itself’ (p. 1). The themes of ritual and closure have gained traction in Flavian literature in recent decades. This is the second edited volume on ritual in Flavian literature in recent years, and to some extent the current volume builds on and fills in the gaps of the volume Ritual and Religion in Flavian Epic (Oxford 2013), edited by Antony Augoustakis. While the previous volume heavily leaned on Statius and exclusively focused on epic, Roumpou’s work provides a balanced approach, encompassing all Flavian epicists and incorporating non-epic Flavian authors like Martial.[1] The volume’s second main focus, closure, owes much to Fowler’s seminal work and has similarly garnered significant attention.[2] Reminiscent of Virgil’s Aeneid, the potentially unsatisfying closure of Statius’ Thebaid has been discussed in detail.[3] Again, the current volume does well filling in gaps: several contributions do not single out the closure of the epic text or collection as a whole, but instead focus on closural aspects found at other points in the text. The convergence of these two topics is the central theme of this volume, using ‘ritual as a way to reflect on closure’ (p.1). In the introduction, Roumpou argues that in Flavian literature ‘ritual opens up further questions instead of giving a sense of finality’ (p. 7). The volume consists of an introduction, followed by ten chapters, and ends with an epilogue.

One of the strengths of this collection is the inclusion of a theoretical chapter by Jörg Rüpke on ritual closure, which forms the first chapter in the volume. Rüpke conceptualises ritual as a dynamic communication between human actors and (divine) addressees, emphasising its interactive and communicative nature. After defining ritual, the chapter ends with a short application of the theory to Statius’ Thebaid, which takes the form of bullet points with minimal references to scholarship. While the chapter provides a solid theoretical framework, this section could benefit from more extensive exploration. For instance, a lot more could be (and has been) said about burial as a ritual.[4] This section of the chapter could have been stronger if, for instance, one bullet point had been singled out and treated more elaborately. We find some cross-referencing to Rüpke’s theoretical foundation of the volume in other chapters. Even stronger connections between Rüpke’s theory and its application in other chapters could have enhanced the coherence of the volume and could have prevented interpretations of ritual from becoming overly subjective.

The next chapters by Margot Neger and Alison Keith both discuss Martial. In her chapter, Neger connects the epigrammatic genre to ritual. In Martial, ritual practices are often used in satirical contexts, but can also be covered in a more serious tone (e.g. Mart. Ep. 1.114 and 116). Neger’s chapter presents itself in the conclusion as ‘a short survey’ (p. 41), and the brief treatment of some of the examples leaves the reader wanting a more in-depth discussion of the interesting topic. This is partly provided by the next chapter written by Keith, which focuses on Epigrams 10 as a closure to the collection as a whole and on how the presentation of ancient religious practices creates an ‘open’ closure to the collection.

The volume intriguingly transitions to Statius’ Siluae, perhaps an unconventional choice for a discussion centred on closure. Nonetheless, Laila Dell’Anno presents a compelling argument advocating for an interpretation of Siluae 5 as ‘complete and authentic, rather than a posthumous and fragmentary edition’ (p. 59). Since the chapter’s argument largely rests on this statement, one probably has to read Dell’Anno’s PhD thesis to be fully convinced by this argument, as there is not enough space in this chapter to set out all the evidence.[5] Nevertheless, what follows is a reappraisal of Siluae 5, drawing parallels with Ovid’s Ex Ponto 4, which has recently also been argued as intentionally designed by Ovid himself.[6] In this chapter, ritual takes the form of a ‘rite of passage’, and Dell’Anno even goes so far as to state that ‘ritual is the poetic matter of the Siluae’ (p. 70). Noteworthy insights into the analysis of ritual in Siluae 5 can be found in the discussion of Silu. 5.3 (full of poetic funerary rites), where Dell’Anno sees the poet as ‘Statius-sacerdos’ (p. 71).

The subsequent sections of the volume focus on Flavian epic, starting with Sophia Papaioannou’s analysis of Valerius Flaccus. Closure of the Argonautica is complicated by the epic’s incompleteness and has very recently been discussed in detail by Zissos.[7] Papaioannou sees potential in the lack of completion, which provides ‘richly diverse interpretative potential for the whole work’ (p. 79). Papaioannou identifies a ring composition between intertextual and closural elements in Argonautica 1 and 8. The focus is here on the much-discussed conclusion of Book 1 featuring the suicides of Aeson and Alcimede and the subsequent katabasis, both connected to ritual. Papaioannou argues that the ending of Book 1 contains similarities with Book 8, which also explores themes such as civil war, death and fratricide. Papaioannou sees closure in the ‘premature ending’ (p. 93) of the epic, slightly downplaying the effect of its incompleteness. Nonetheless, even though the Argonautica may be incomplete, closural motifs earlier in Book 8 can be meaningful.

A set of complementary chapters on Silius’ Punica follows. First, Clayton Schroer discusses reditus as a ritual in Punica 17. This chapter argues that Silius uses the reditus to create a distinction between the exiles of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus. Schroer shows closure operating on multiple levels: whereas on the one hand, the reditus seems to provide satisfying closure, the fact that Scipio will be exiled puts into question the effectiveness of such a closural strategy. Theodoros Antoniadis continues the Silian diptych with a focus on (mock) funerals and triumphs as closural markers, which starts already in Punica 2 in Saguntum. Many of Silius’ rituals can be characterised by their failed or false nature, setting up ‘a closure that is partially ambiguous or unsettling’ (p. 119). Ending with Scipio’s triumph, Antoniadis draws a connection with Nero and the Flavians: emperors start to play the role of religious actors and devalue certain rituals, and this is reflected in Silius’ Punica.

Statius’ Thebaid is covered by Helen Lovatt, who looks at fire imagery. This imagery frequently intersects with ritual, especially in the context of the funeral (notably the funeral of Opheltes). Lovatt shows that fire in the Thebaid is not a purifying or cleansing force, but rather perpetuates further destruction, both within ritual practice and narrative structures (endings become beginnings). Lovatt depicts the image of ‘setting epic teleology on fire’, which conjures a dark political vision of Statius.

Michael Knierim returns to Valerius Flaccus with a discussion of Valerius Flaccus’ Cyzicus episode using modern literature on trauma. Knierim analyses the processing of the events that happened at Cyzicus using the ‘moral injury’ paradigm. Closure is here presented as closure of psychological tension. The purification ritual and the departure without looking back provide ‘emphatic closure to the psychological wounds of the Argonauts’ (p. 168). Knierim draws comparisons to Apollonius’ treatment of the Cyzicus episode. The chapter’s skilful utilisation of theory contributes to the expanding scholarship on the portrayal of trauma in classical literature.

The final chapter by Marco Fucecchi expands its scope beyond the Flavians to encompass Lucan, who bears notable similarities to the Flavian authors, and Claudian’s De raptu Proserpinae. Instead of focusing on a specific ritualistic event, it discusses the Latin phrase compage soluta, which contains Stoic connotations. The phrase ‘graphically illustrates the loosening of the very structure of the cosmos’ (p. 182) and presents a tension between openness (dissolution) and closure ((re-)construction between chaos and cosmos). While Statius uses the phrase to signal that in Thebaid 8, the epic is entering its pivotal phase, Silius’ Hannibal (like Lucan’s Caesar) is ‘undaunted by cosmic dissolution’ (p. 200).

Although in some chapters, either ritual or closure is slightly relegated to the background, the varied perspectives and methodologies used in this volume will provide food for thought. The volume ends with a reflective epilogue by Damien Nelis, which can be read as an alternative introduction to the volume, but also forms a fitting close to the volume. The epilogue returns to scholarship on ritual and closure and its importance for our field. The current volume is partly a direct result of Fowler’s work on closure but with a narrower focus. The second part of the epilogue opens future possibilities for research on ritual closure in Virgil and other Augustan literature.

In conclusion, Ritual and the Poetics of Closure in Flavian Literature stands out as a valuable addition to the expanding collection of edited volumes on Flavian literature. Like many of the other volumes, it features a mixture of more established Flavian scholars and junior colleagues, providing a dynamic volume with fresh perspectives and incorporating modern theory. While not every chapter may sway all readers, each offers compelling analyses of the texts that not only contribute to Flavian studies, but also, as Nelis points out in the epilogue, prompt discussions in adjacent fields of (Latin) literature, such as Augustan literature, regarding the impact of ritual on closure.


Authors and Titles

  1. Introduction: Ritual and the Poetics of Closure in Flavian Literature (Angeliki-Nektaria Roumpou)
  2. Ritual Closure and Transcendence: Mobilising Ritual Theory for Flavian Epic (Jörg Rüpke)
  3. Religious and Social Rituals as Motifs of Closure in Martial’s Epigrams (Margot Neger)
  4. Closural Poetics in Martial, Epigrams 10 (Alison Keith)
  5. Ritual and the Impossibility of Song in Statius’ Siluae 5 (Laila Dell’Anno)
  6. Sacrifice, Death, and Closure in Valerius’ Argonautica Book 1 (Sophia Papaioannou)
  7. Mansuri Compos Decoris? Scipio’s Reditus and Exile in Punica 17 (Clayton Schroer)
  8. Silius Italicus’ False Rituals, Politics and Poetics: Mock Funerals and Triumphs as Closural Markers in the Punica (Theodoros Antoniadis)
  9. Burning up, Melting down, Collapsing in: Fire Imagery, Narrative Articulation, Funerals, and the Incestuous Poetics of Statius’ Thebaid (Helen Lovatt)
  10. Narrative and Psychological Closure through Ritual at Cyzicus and Circe’s Island (Michael Knierim)
  11. Compage soluta: Collapsing Universe and the Boundaries of Epic Poetry (Lucan, Silius, Statius and Claudian’s De raptu) (Marco Fucecchi)
  12. Epilogue (Damien Nelis)



[1] The only epic text (unfortunately) not receiving its own chapter is Statius’ Achilleid.

[2] E.g. D. P. Fowler (1989), ‘First Thoughts on Closure: Problems and Prospects’, MD 22: 75–122 and Fowler (1997), ‘Second Thoughts on Closure: Problems and Prospects’, in D. H. Roberts, F. M. Dunn, and D. P. Fowler (eds.), Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature (Princeton), 3–22, both engaged with frequently in the volume itself.

[3] Notably, S. Braund (1996), ‘Ending Epic: Statius, Theseus and a Merciful Release’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 42: 1–23.

[4] E.g. A. Augoustakis, S. Froedge, A. Kozak and C. Schroer (2019), ‘Death, Ritual, and Burial from Homer to the Flavians’, in C. Reitz and S. Finkmann (eds.), Structures of Epic Poetry, Vol. II.2: Configuration (Leiden, 483–522) regarding Opheltes’ burial, cited by Roumpou in the introduction of this volume.

[5] L. Dell’Anno (2023), ‘Statius’ Silvan Poetics: A Synoptic Reading of the Silvae’, PhD Thesis (Cambridge).

[6] E.g. T. Franklinos (2018), ‘Ovid, Ex Ponto 4: an intratextually cohesive book’, in S. Harrison / S. Frangoulidis / T.D. Papanghelis (eds.), Intratextuality and Latin Literature, Berlin/ Boston, 289–306.

[7] Zissos, A. (2024), ‘The Missing Conclusion to Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica’, in J. Fabre-Serris, M. Formisano, and S. Frangoulidis (eds.), Labor Imperfectus: Unfinished, Incomplete, Partial Texts in Classical Antiquity (Berlin and Boston), 353–382.