1902 Encyclopedia > Silius Italicus

Silius Italicus
Latin epic poet
(25-101 AD)

SILIUS ITALICUS, a Latin epic poet, was born in 25 and died in 101 A.D. His birthplace is unknown. From his cognomen Italicus the conclusion has been drawn that he came from the town of Italica in Spain; but Latin usage would in that case have demanded the form Itali-censis, and it is highly improbable that Martial would have failed to name him among the literary celebrities of Spain in the latter half of the 1st century. The conjecture that Silius was from Italica, the capital of the Italian confederation during the Social War, is open to still stronger objection. Most likely some ancestor of the poet acquired the title " Italicus " from having been a member of one of the corporations of " Italici" who are often mentioned in inscriptions from Sicily and elsewhere. In early life Silius was a renowned forensic orator, later a safe and cautious politician, without ability or ambition enough to be legitimately obnoxious to the cruel rulers under whom he lived. But mediocrity was hardly an efficient protection against the murderous whims of Nero, and Silius was generally believed to have secured at once his own safety and his promotion to the consulship by putting his oratorical powers to discreditable use in the judicial farces which often ushered in the doom of the emperor's victims. He was consul in the year of Nero's death (69), and is mentioned by Tacitus as having been one of two witnesses who were present at the conferences between Vitellius and Flavius Sabinus, the elder brother of Vespasian, when the legions from the East were marching rapidly on the capital. The life of Silius after his con-sulship is well depicted by the younger Pliny:—"He conducted himself wusely and courteously as the friend of the luxurious and cruel Vitellius; he won repute by his proconsulship of Asia, and obliterated by the praiseworthy use he made of his leisure the stain he had incurred through his active exertions in former days. In dignity and contentment, avoiding power and therefore hostility, he outlived the Flavian dynasty, keeping to a private station after his governorship of Asia." His poem contains only two passages relating to the Flavians; in both Domitian is eulogized as a warrior ; in one he figures as a singer whose lyre is sweeter than that of Orpheus himelf. Silius had evidently little taste for bowing down in the house of Rimmon, and refrained from using the many opportunities which his epic afforded for humouring the vanity of the imperial house. He was a great student and patron of literature and art, and a passionate collector. Two great Romans of the past, Cicero and Virgil, were by him idealized and veritably worshipped; and he was the happy possessor of their estates at Tusculum and Naples. The later life of Silius was passed on the Campanian shore, hard by the tomb of Virgil, at which he offered the homage of a devotee. He closely emulated the lives of his two great heroes : the one he followed in composing epic verse, the other in debating philosophic questions with his friends of like tastes. Among these was Epictetus, who judged him to be the most philosophic spirit among the Romans of his time, and Cornutus, the Stoic, rhetorician, and grammarian, who appropriately dedicated to Silius a commentary upon Virgil. Though the verse of Silius is not wrapped in Stoic gloom like that of Lucan, yet Stoicism lends in many places a not ungraceful gravity to his poem. Silius was one of the numerous Romans of the early empire who had the courage of their opinions, and carried into perfect practice the theory of suicide adopted by their school. Stricken by an incurable disease, he starved himself to death, keeping a cheerful countenance to the end.

Whether Silius committed to writing his philosophic dialogues or not, we cannot say. Chance has preserved to us his epic poem entitled Punica, in seventeen books, and comprising some fourteen thousand lines. The epics of Silius, Lucan, Statius, and Valerius Flaccus are but a few waifs carried down to us by the wander-ing stream of time from the vast mass of post-Virgilian epics. Long before Silius bethought himself of his epic all possible historical and mythological themes had been worn to tatters by these poets. In choosing the Second Punic War for his subject, Silius had, we know, many predecessors, as he doubtless had many followers. From the time of Namus onwards every great military struggle in which the Romans had been engaged had found its poet over and over again. In justice to Silius and Lucan, it should be observed that the mythologic poet had a far easier task than the historic. In a well-known passage Petronius pointedly describes the difficulties of the historic theme. A poet, he said, who should take upon him the vast subject of the civil wars would break down beneath the burden unless he were " full of learning," since he would have not merely to record facts, which the historians did much better, but must possess an unshackled genius, to which full course must be given by the use of digressions, by bringing divine beings on to the stage, and by giving generally a mythologic tinge to the subject. The Latin laws of the historic epic were fixed by Ennius, and were still binding when Claudian wrote. They were never seriously infringed, except by Lucan, who substituted for the dei ex machina of his predecessors the vast, dim, and imposing Stoic conception of destiny. By protracted application, and being (to use the significant phrase of Petronius) ' full of learning," Silius had acquired excellent recipes for every ingredient that went to the making of the conventional historic epic. Though he is not named by Quintilian, he is probably hinted at in the mention of a class of poets who, as the writer says, " write to show their learning." To seize the moments in the history, however unimportant, which were capable of pic-turesque treatment; to pass over all events, however important, which could not readily be rendered into heroics ; to stuff out the somewhat modern heroes to something like Homeric proportions ; to subject all their movements to the passions and caprices of the Olympians; to ransack thepoetry of the past for incidents and similes on which a slightly new face might be put; to foist in by well-worn artifices episodes, however strange to the subject, taken from the mythologic or historic glories of Rome and Greece,—all this Silius knew how to do, as he knew his own fingers and nails. He did it all with the languid grace of the inveterate connoisseur, and with a simplicity foreign to his time, which sprang in part from cultivated taste and horror of the venturesome word, and in part from the subdued tone of a life which had come unscathed through the reigns of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian. The more threadbare the theme, and the more worn the machinery, the greater the need of genius. Two of the most rigid requirements of the ancient epic were abundant similes and abundant single combats. But all the obvious resemblances between the actions of heroic man and external nature had long been worked out, while for the renovation of the single combat little could be done till the hero of the Homeric type was replaced by the mediaeval knight. Silius, however, had perfect poetic appreciation, with scarce a trace of poetic creativeness. No writer has ever been more correctly and more uniformly judged by contemporaries and by posterity alike. Only the shameless flatterer, Martial, ventured to call his friend a poet as great as Virgil. But the younger Pliny gently says that he wrote poems with greater diligence than talent, and that, when, according to the fashion of the time, he recited them to his friends, " he sometimes found out what men really thought of them." It is indeed strange that the poem lived on. Silius is never mentioned by ancient writers after Pliny except Sidonius, who, under different conditions and at a much lower level, was such another as he. Since the discovery of Silius by Poggio, no modern enthusiast has arisen to sing his praises, and in the last sixty years he has found no editor, even for his text. Eighteenth-century editors, at a time when modern Silii were numerous in the field of literature and more fashionable than they have been since, found in the Punica passages not unworthy of comparison with the Henriade, and thought that Silius did not disgrace Virgil; but even such gentle commendation is not likely to be repeated again. Yet, by the purity of his taste and his Latin in an age when taste was fast becoming vicious and Latin corrupt, by his presentation to us of a type of a thousand vanished Latin epics, and by the historic aspects of his subject, Silius merits better treatment from scholars than he has received. The general reader he can hardly interest again. He is indeed of imitation all compact, and usually dilutes what he borrows; he may add a new beauty, but new strength he never gives. Hardly a dozen lines anywhere are without an echo of Virgil, and there are frequent admixtures of Lucretius, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Homer, Hesiod, and many other poets still extant. If we could reconstitute the library of Silius we should probably find that scarcely an idea or a phrase in his entire work was wholly his own.

The raw material of the Punica was supplied in the main by the third decade of Livy, though Silius may have consulted other historians of the Hannibalic war. Such facts as are used are generally presented with their actual circumstances unchanged, and in their historic sequence. The spirit of the Punic times is but rarely misconceived,—as when to secret voting is attributed the election of men like Flaminius and Varro, and distinguished Romans are depicted as contending in a gladiatorial exhibition. Silius clearly intended the poem to consist of twenty-four books, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, but after the twelfth he hurries in visible weariness to the end and concludes with seventeen. The general plan of the epic follows that of the Iliad and the Aeneid. Its theme is conceived as a duel between two mighty nations, with parallel dissensions among the gods. Scipio and Hannibal are the two great heroes who take the place of Achilles and Hector on the one hand and of Aeneas and Turnus on the other, while the minor figures are all painted with Virgilian or Homeric pigments. In the delineation of character our poet is neither very powerful nor very consistent. His imagination was too weak to realize the actors with distinctness and individuality. His Hannibal is evidently at the outset meant for an incarnation of cruelty and treachery, the embodiment of all that the vulgar Roman attached to the name '' Punic." But in the course of the poem the greatness of Hannibal is borne in upon the poet, and his feeling of it betrays itself in many touches. Thus he names Scipio "the great Hannibal of Ausonia" ; he makes Juno assure the Carthaginian leader that if fortune had only permitted him to be born a Roman he would have been admitted to a place among the gods ; and, when the ungenerous monster of the first book accords in the fifteenth a splendid burial to Marcellus, the poet cries, " You would fancy it was a Sidonian chief who had fallen." Silius deserves little pity for the failure of his attempt to make Scipio an equipoise to Hannibal and the coun-terpart in personal prowess and prestige of Achilles. He becomes in the process almost as mythical a figure as the mediaeval Alexander. The best drawn of the minor characters are Fabius Cunctator, an evident copy of Lucan's Cato, and Paullus, the consul killed at Cannae, who fights, hates, and dies like a genuine man.

Clearly it was a matter of religion with Silius to repeat and adapt all the striking episodes of Homer and Virgil. Hannibal must have a shield of marvellous workmanship like Achilles and Aeneas; because Aeneas descended into Hades and had a vision of the future history of Rome, so must Scipio have his revelation from heaven; Trebia, choked with bodies, must rise in ire like Xanthus, and be put to flight by Vulcan; for Virgil's Camilla there must be an Asbyte, heroine of Saguntum; the beautiful speech of Euryalus when Nisus seeks to leave him is too good to be thrown away,—furbished up a little, it will serve as a parting address from Imilce to her husband Hannibal. The descriptions of the numerous battles are made up in the main, according to epic rule, of single combats—wearisome sometimes in Homer, wearisome oftener in Virgil, painfully wearisome in Silius. The different component parts of the poem are on the whole fairly well knit together, and the transitions are not often needlessly abrupt; yet occasionally incidents and episodes are introduced with all the irrelevancy of the modern novel. A son of Regulus escapes from Thrasymene to a hut, merely to find there an old servant of his father, and to afford him the opportunity of telling over again the tale of the first war against the Carthaginians. To give scope for a eulogy of Cicero, an ancestor of. his fights at Cannae, and strong devices sometimes usher in such stories as the judgment of Paris and the choice of Hercules. The interposition of the gods is, however, usually managed with dignity and appropriateness.

As to diction and detail, we miss, in general, power rather than taste. The metre runs on with correct smooth monotony, with something always of the Virgilian sweetness, though attenuated, but nothing of the Virgilian variety and strength. The dead level of literary execution is seldom broken by a rise into the region of genuine pathos and beauty, or by a descent into the ludicrous or the repellent. There are few absurdities, but the restraining force is trained perception and not a native sense of humour, which, ever present in Homer, not entirely absent in Virgil, and some-times finding grim expression in Lucan, fails Silius entirely. The address of Anna, Dido's sister, to Juno compels a smile. Though deified on her sister's death, and for a good many centuries already an inhabitant of heaven, Anna meets Juno for the first time on the outbreak of the Second Punic War, and deprecates the anger of the queen of heaven for having deserted the Carthaginians and attached herself to the Roman cause. Hannibal's parting address to his child is also comical: he recognizes in the heavy wailing "of the year-old babe" the seeds of rages like his own." But Silius might have been forgiven for a thousand more weaknesses than he has if in but a few things he had shown strength. The grandest scenes in the history before him fail to lift him up ; his treatment, for example, of Hannibal's Alpine passage falls immensely below Lucan's vigorous delineation of Cato's far less stirring march across the African deserts.

But in the very weaknesses of Silius we may discern merit. He at least docs not try to conceal defects of substance by contorted rhetorical conceits and feebly forcible exaggerations. In his ideal of what Latin expression should be he comes near to his contemporary Quintilian, and resolutely holds aloof from the tenor of his age. Perhaps his want of success with the men of his time was not wholly due to his faults. His self-control rarely fails him ; it stands the test of the horrors of war, and of Venus working her will on Hannibal at Capua. The reader of Statius and even Propertius will be thankful for the rarity of recondite epithets, such as "Rhoetean destiny," "Garamantian standards," "Lagean river," "Smyrnaean strings." Only a few passages here and there betray the true silver Latin extravagance, as when Hannibal is compared for speed to a tigress reft of her cubs, which darts forth and in a few hours traverses the Caucasus, and with a "winged" leap flies across the Ganges; or when the Carthaginians after Capua launch their spears but are too enervated to make them whiz; or when the plague-stricken and famine-wasted men of Syracuse hide their diminished faces far within their helmets, and carefully shade their pallor lest hope should arise for the enemy. In the avoidance of rhetorical artifice and epigrammatic antithesis Silius stands in marked contrast to Lucan. Yet he can be pointed; so of Fabius, "laudum eladumque quieta Mente capax"; and of Scajvola, ''Aspera semper amans et par cuicumque periclo"; and of Africa, "Altrix bellorum bellatorumque virorum Tellus, nec fidens nudo sine fraudibus ensi." Looking at Silius merely as a poet he may not deserve high praise; but, as he is a unique specimen and probably the best of a once numerous class, the preservation of his poem among the remains of Latin literature is a fortunate accident.

The poet's full name, Ti. Catius Silius Italicus, is preserved in an inscription (C. I. L., vi. 1984). The poem was discovered in a MS., possibly at Constance, by Poggio, in 1416 or 1417 ; from this now lost MS. all existing MSS., which belong entirely to the 15th century, are derived. A valuable MS. of the 8th or 9th century, found at Cologne by L. Carrion in the latter part of the 16th century, disappeared soon after its discovery. Two editiones principes appeared at Rome in 1471 ; the principal editions since have been those of Heinsius (1600), Drakenborch (1717), and Ernesti (Leipsic, 1791). A useful variorum edition is that of Lemaire (Paris, 1823). The recent lucubrationes on Silius are mostly small pamphlets, enumerated by Engelmann (Bibl. Script. Class., 1878). (J. S.)

The above article was written by: J. S. Reid, D.Litt.

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