1902 Encyclopedia > Statius (Publius Papinius Statius)

(full name: Publius Papinius Statius)
Roman poet of the Silver Age of Latin literature
(c. 45 - 90 AD)

STATIUS (STATIUS PUBLIUS PAPINIUS), Roman poet, lived from about 45 to 96 A.D., SO far as can be judged from indications afforded by his poems. He was, to a great extent, born and trained to the profession of a poet. The Statu were of Graeco-Campanian origin, and were gentle, though impoverished, and the family records were not without political distinctions. The elder Statius, our poet's father, was the Orbilius of his time, and taught with distinguished success at Naples and Rome. From boyhood to age he proved himself a champion in the poetic tournaments which formed an important part of the amuse-ments of the early empire. The younger Statius declares that his father was in his time equal to any literary task, whether in prose or verse. Probably our poet inherited a modest competence and was not under the necessity of begging his bread from wealthy patrons. So far as appears he never pursued any occupation but that of poet, as poor an occupation in those days as in ours, if we may believe Juvenal and Martial. Statius certainly wrote poems to order (as Silvae, i. 1, 2, ii. 7, and iii. 4), but there is no indication that the material return for them was important to him. In his seventh satire Juvenal speaks of the immense public enthusiasm which attended the recita-tion of the Thebais, when the benches "were breaking" with applause; but the poet, he says, might have starved had not Paris, the favourite comedian of the day, bought from him the libretto of a comic opera. This reference of Juvenal deserves, however, as little to be accepted literally as his misleading allusions to Quintilian in the same satire. Of events in the life of Statius we know little. He married early a young widow, for whom he expresses tender affection in some of the few obviously sincere verses he ever wrote. From his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests,—many times at his native city Naples, thrice at Alba, where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor. But at the great Capitoline competition (probably on its third celebration in 94 A.D.) Statius failed to win the coveted chaplet of oak leaves. No doubt the extraordinary popularity of his Thebais had led him to regard himself as the supreme poet of the age, and when he could not sustain this reputation in the face of rivals from all parts of the empire he accepted the judges' verdict as a sign that his day was past, and retired to Naples, the home of his ancestors and of his own young days. We still possess the poem he addressed to his wife on this occasion (Silv., iii. 5). It was a hard task to overcome her objections to turning her back upon the great capital. Chief among them was that which arose from a fear lest it should prove difficult to find in Naples a husband for her daughter (by her first marriage; she had no children by Statius). There are hints in this poem which naturally lead to the surmise that Statius was suffering from a loss of the emperor's favour; he may have felt that a word from Domitian would have won for him the envied garland, and that the word ought to have been given. In the preface to book iv. of the Silvae there is mention of detractors who hated our poet's style, and these may have succeeded in inducing a new fashion in poetry at court. Such an eclipse, if it happened, must have cut Statius to the heart. He appears to have relished thoroughly the rôle of court-poet. The statement sometimes made that the elder Statius had been the emperor's teacher, and had bestowed many favours on him, so that the son inherited a debt of gratitude, seems to have no solid foundation. Statius lauds the emperor, not to discharge a debt, but rather to create an obligation. His flattery is as far removed from the gentle propitiatory tone of Quintilian as it is from the coarse and crawling humiliation of Martial. It is in the large extravagant style of a nature in itself healthy and generous, which has accepted the theme and left scruples behind. In one of his prefatory epistles Statius declares that he never allowed any work of his to go forth without invoking the godhead of the divine emperor. The poem on the equestrian statue of Domitian set up on the Capitol (Silv., i. 1) is such colossal rodomontade that if the emperor had had a grain of humour in his composition he must have died of merriment on receiving it. Statius had taken the full measure of Domitian's gross taste, and carefully puts conscience and sincerity out of view, lest some uneasy twinge should mar his master's enjoyment. But in one poem, that in which the poet pays his due for an invitation to the im-perial table, we have sincerity enough. Statius clearly feels all the raptures he expresses. He longs for the power of him who told the tale of Dido's banquet, and for the voice of him who sang the feast of Alcinous, that he may give forth utterance worthy of the lofty theme. The poet seemed, he says, to dine with great Jove himself and to receive nectar from Ganymede the cup-bearer (an odious reference to the imperial favourite Earinus). All his life hitherto has been barren and profitless. Now only has he begun to live in truth. " O ruler over all the lands, and mighty father of the world which thou hast conquered, do I, recumbent, see thee, thou hope of all mankind, and nursling of all the gods ? Is it mine to gaze from near at hand on thy features, with the wine-cup and the feast beside me, while I am forbidden to rise?" The palace struck on the poet's fancy like the very hall of heaven ; nay, Jove himself marvels at its beauty, but is glad that the emperor should possess such an earthly habitation; he will thus feel less desire to seek his destined abode among the immortals in the skies. Yet even so gorgeous a palace is all too mean for his greatness and too small for his vast presence. "But it is himself, himself, that my eager eye has alone time to scan. He is like a resting Mars or Bacchus or Alcides." Martial too swore that, were Jove and Domitian both to invite him to dinner for the same day, he would prefer to dine with the greater potentate on the earth. Pliny, however, has sketched for us the state dinners of Domitian, where the coarse contempt of the tyrant overclouded the guests, and where a man who still respected himself had torments to endure. Martial and Statius were no doubt supreme among the imperial flatterers. Each was the other's only serious rival. It is therefore not surprising that neither should breathe the other's name. Even if we could by any stretch excuse the bearing of Statius towards Domitian, he could never be forgiven the poem entitled "The Hair of Flavius Earinus," Domitian's Ganymede (Silv., iii. 4), a poem than which it would be hard to find a more repulsive example of real poetical talent defiled for personal ends. Well for Statius that he did not, like Martial, live on into the days of Nerva to write sorry palinodes! Everything points to the conclusion that he did not survive his emperor—that he died, in fact, a short time after leaving Rome to settle in Naples. Apart from the emperor and his minions, the friendships of Statius with men of high station seem to have been maintained on fairly equal terms. He was clearly the poet of society in his day as well as the poet of the court.

As poet, Statius unquestionably shines in many respects when compared with the other post-Augustans. He was born with exceptional talent, and his poetic expression is, with all its faults, richer on the whole and less forced, more buoyant and more felicitous, than is to be found elsewhere in the Silver Age of Latin poetry. Statius is at his best in his occasional verses, the "Silvae," which have a character of their own, and in their best parts a charm of their own. The title was proper to verses of rapid workmanship, on everyday themes. Statius prided himself on his powers of improvisation, and he seems to have been quite equal to the Horatian feat of dictating two hundred lines in an hour, while standing on one leg. The improvisatore was in high honour among the later Greeks, as Cicero's speech for the poet Archias indicates; and the poetic contests common in the early empire did much to stimulate ability of the kind. Statius speaks of his "Silvae" (preface to book i.) as having ''streamed from him under the influence of sudden inspiration, and with a certain pleasure due to their rapidity." No one poem occupied more than two days; some came to birth at the dinner table; many while the poet's friend Pollius sat by his side, and shuddered at the audacity of his pen (preface to book iii.). It is to this velocity that the poems owe their comparative freshness and freedom, along with their loose texture and their inequality. There are thirty-two poems, divided into five books, each with a dedicatory epistle. Of nearly four thousand lines which the books contain, more than five-sixths are hexameters. Four of the pieces (containing about 450 lines) are written in the hendecasyllabic metre, the " tiny metre of Catullus," and there is one Alcaic and one Sapphic ode. But the poems in these metres are merely the experiments of a poet who knows well that his strength lies in the hexameter, which in his hands shows greater freedom, variety, and music than it exhibits when handled by other poets of the Silver Latin Age. The subjects of the "Silvae" are very various. Five poems are devoted to flattery of the emperor and his favourites ; but of these enough has already been said. Six are lamentations for deaths, or consolations to survivors. Statius seems to have felt a special pride in this class of his productions; and certainly, notwithstanding the excessive and conventional employment of pretty mythological pictures, with other affectations, he sounds notes of pathos such as only come from the true poet. There are oftentimes traits of an almost modern domesticity in these verses, and Statius, the childless, has here and there touched on the charm of childhood in lines for a parallel to which, among the ancients, we must go, strange to say, to his rival Martial. One of the epicedia, that on Priscilla tie wife of Abascantus, Domitian's freedman (Silv., v. 1), is full of interest for the picture it presents of the official activity of a high officer of state. Another group of the "Silvae" give picturesque descriptions of the villas and gardens of the poet's friends. In these we have a more vivid representation than [elsewhere of the surroundings amid which the grandees of the early empire lived when they took up their abode in the country. It was of these pieces that Niebuhr thought when he said that the poems of Statius are charming to read in Italy. They exhibit, better even than Pliny's well-known letters, the passion of the rich Roman for so constructing his country house that light, air, sun, and leafage should subserve his luxury to the utmost, while scope was left for displaying all the resources of art which his wealth enabled him to command. As to the rest of the "Silvae," the congratulatory addresses to friends are graceful but commonplace, nor do the jocose pieces call for special mention here. In the " Kalendae Decembres " we have a striking description of the gifts and amusements provided by the emperor for the Roman popula-tion on the occasion of the Saturnalia. In his attempt at an epithalamium (Silv., i. 2) Statius is forced and unhappy. But the birthday ode in Lucan's honour (Silv., ii. 7) has, along with the accustomed exaggeration, many powerful lines, and shows high appreciation of preceding Latin poets. Some phrases, such as "the untaught muse of high-souled Ennius" and "the lofty passion of sage Lucretius," are familiar words with all scholars. The ode ends with a great picture of Lucan's spirit rising after death on wings of fame to regions whither only powerful souls can ascend, scornfully surveying earth and smiling at the tomb, or reclining in Elysium and singing a noble strain to the Pompeys and the Catos and all the " Pharsalian host," or with proud tread exploring Tartarus and listening to the wailings of the guilty, and gazing at Nero, pale with agony as his mother's avenging torch glitters before his eyes. It is singular to observe how thoroughly Nero had been struck out of the imperial succession as recognized at court, so that the ''bald Nero " took no umbrage when his flatterer-in-chief profanely dealt with his predecessor's name.

The epic poems of Statius are less interesting because cast in a commoner mould, but they deserve study in many respects. They are the product of long elaboration. The "Thebais," which the poet says took twelve years to compose, is in twelve books, and has for its theme the old "tale of Thebes "—the deadly strife of the Theban brothers. There is also preserved a fragment of an "Achilleis," consisting of one book and part of another. In the weary length of these epics there are many flowers of pathos and many little finished gem-pictures, but the trammels of tradition, the fashionable taste, and the narrow bars of education check continually the poet's flight. The public idea of what an epic poem should be was firmly fixed, and Statius would not have towered above the thousand poets of his day in the estimation of his countrymen had he not given full embodiment to the idea. Not merely were the materials for his epics prescribed to him by rigid custom, but also to a great extent the method by which they were to be treated. All he could do was to sound the old notes with a distinctive timbre of his own. The gods must needs wage their wonted epic strife, and the men, their puppets, must dance at their nod; there must needs be heavenly messengers, portents, dreams, miracles, single combats, similes, Homeric and Virgilian echoes, and all the other paraphernalia of the conventional epic. But Statius treats his subjects with a boldness and freedom which contrast pleasingly with the timid traditionalism of Silius Italicus and the stiff scholasticism of Valerius Flaccus. The vocabulary of Statius is conspicuously rich, and he shows audacity, often successful, in the use of words and metaphors. At the same time he carried certain literary tricks to an aggravating pitch, in parti-cular the excessive use of alliteration, and the misuse of mytho-logical allusion. The most well-known persons and places are described by epithets or periphrases derived from some very remote connexion with mythology, so that many passages are as dark as Heraclitus. The Thebais is badly constructed. The action of the epic is hindered and stopped by enormous episodes, one of which fills one sixth of the poem. Nor had Statius a firm grasp or clear imagina-tion of character. So trying are the late ancient epics to a modern reader that he who has read any one of the three—Statius, Silius, and Valerius (Lucan stands apart)—will with difficulty be persuaded to enter on the other two. Yet, if he honestly reads them all, he can hardly fail to rank Statius the highest of the three by a whole sphere.

The editio princeps of the epics is dated 1470, of the Silvae 1472. Kotable editions since have been those of Bernartius (Antwerp, 1595), Gronovius (1653), and Barth (1664). The best text is the Teubner (the Achilleis and Thebais by Kohlmann, the Silvae by Baehrens). Among editions of portions of Statius's urorks, that of the Silvae by Jeremiah Markland, fellow of Peterhouse in Cambridge (1728), deserves special attention. The brilliance and erudition of the work mark him out as one of the best Latin scholars who ever lived. A critical edition of the Thebais and Achilleis was begun by O. Miller (1870) but not completed. The condition of the text of the Silvae is one of the most curious facts in the history of ancient literature. Poggio discovered a MS. at St Gall and brought it into Italy. This MS. has disappeared, but from it are derived all our existing MSS., except one of the birthday ode to Lucan, now at Florence, and of the 10th century. Politian coflated Poggio's MS. with the editio princeps, and the collation has come down to us, and is the principal basis of the text. The MSS. of the epics are numerous, as was to be expected from their great popularity in the Middle Ages, to which Dante is witness (see Purg., xxi., where an interview with the shade of Statius is described at some length). (J. S. R.)

The above article was written by: J. S. Reid, M.A.

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