Silius Italicus, in full Titus Catius Silius Italicus (AD 25 or 26 - 101), was a Roman consul, orator, and Latin epic poet of the 1st century CE, (Silver Age of Latin literature). His only surviving work is the 17-book Punica, an epic poem about the Second Punic War and the longest surviving poem in Latin at over 12,000 lines.
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 Italicensis, 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 derived 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 prostituting his oratorical powers 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 (68), 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 consulship is well depicted by the younger Pliny: He conducted himself wisely 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 himself. Silius 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 tumour, he starved himself to death, keeping a cheerful countenance to the end.
Whether Silius committed his philosophic dialogues and speeches to writing or not, we cannot say. His only preserved work is his epic poem entitled Punica, about the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) in seventeen books, comprising some twelve thousand lines, making it the longest preserved poem in Latin literature.
A painting by Joseph Wright of Derby depicting Silius Italicus at the tomb of Virgil
The Vision of a Knight by Raphael is based on an episode
in Book 15 of the Punica, the choice of Scipio.
The dating of the Punica has been a difficult issue for classical scholars, but two passages, 3.594 and 14.680ff. along with several poems of Martial cited above indicate that it was composed sometime between 83 and 103, with Book 3 being dated to 84 CE and Book 14 around 96. Other books cannot be dated with any precision. The poem is divided into 17 books and is composed in dactylic hexameter. It has been thought that the poem was initially planned in hexads and that the original intent was to round off the composition in 18 books.
The poem takes Virgil as its primary stylistic and dramatic inspiration throughout the poem; from its opening, the Punica is configured as the continuation of Juno's grudge against Rome developed in the Aeneid. Livy and Ennius[ are important sources for historical and poetic information, and Homer specifically is declared an important model by Silius who remarks of him at 12.788-9, "Homer's poetry embraced the earth, sea, stars, and shades and he rivaled the Muses in song and Phoebus in glory." Lucan is also an important model for the writing of historical epic, geographical excursus, and Stoic tone, although Silius' approach toward the gods in much more traditional.
The poem opens with a discussion of Juno's wrath against Rome on account of Aeneas' treatment of Dido and of Hannibal's character and upbringing. Hannibal attacks Saguntum and receives a Roman embassy.
In Book 2, the Roman legation is heard at Carthage, but Hannibal takes the city after the defenders heroically commit suicide.
The Carthaginians are catalogued, Hannibal crosses the Alps, and Jupiter reveals that the Punic War is a test of Roman manliness in Book 3.
In 4 and 5 the Romans suffer defeat at Ticinius, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene.
Book 6 looks back to the exploits of Atilius Regulus in the First Punic War, while Book 7 describes Quintus Fabius Maximus' delaying strategy.
Books 8-10 describe in vivid detail the battle of Cannae; Juno prevents Hannibal from marching on Rome.
In Book 11, Hannibal's army winters in Capua, where Venus enfeebles them with luxury. Hannibal is defeated at Nola in 12, emboldening the Romans. He makes an attempt on the city, but Juno stops him, revealing that the gods are against him.
Book 13 reports the Roman's invasion of Capua and the death of two Scipios, which leads to Scipio Africanus' journey to the underworld (nekyia), his meeting with famous dead heroes, and a prophecy by the Sibyl of Hannibal's defeat.
In 14 the Marcellus' successful Sicilian campaign and the siegecraft of Archimedes are described.
In 15, Scipio, choosing Virtue over Vice, has a successful campaign in Spain, while at the Battle of the Metaurus, Hannibal's brother is killed.
Book 16 describes the alliance between Rome and Masinissa and the Scipio's crossing into Africa, while 17 describes the bringing of the statue of Cybele to Rome, Hannibal's stormy crossing into Africa, Juno's appeal to Jupiter for the life of Hannibal, and the Battle of Zama. The poem ends with Scipio's triumphal return to Rome.
Silius' style is unlike Virgil in that he does not focus on a few central characters but divides his action up between many significant heroes. This encourages him to present describe important events from the Roman past as a reflection on the characters and their actions in the poem's present, echoing the Roman tradition of using exempla.
While many important set pieces of epic are included, such as elaborated similes, ekphrases of objects, such as Hannibal's shield in 2.391-456, a nekyia, and divine participation in and prophecy of events, there are also important elements of historiography such as paired contrasting speeches and detailed geographical description. Allegory is particularly important in Silius, and he includes such figures as Fides, faith, in Book 2, Italia in 15, and Virtus and Voluptas also in Book 15, continuing a trend towards allegory which was significant in Statius, Silius' contemporary. Silius' metrics and language can be closely compared to Virgilian usage, especially his use of spondees.
Stoicism and stoic ethical thought are significant themes in the Punica. The war is configured as a trial of Roman virtus which must be overcome with hard work, akin to the Stoic ideal of overcoming adversity with inner courage and trial. The "choice of Hercules", a favorite Stoic parable, is given to Scipio in Book 15, and everywhere the war brings out moral lessons and discussions of Stoic concepts like emotion, reason, and destiny.
The only ancient authors to reference Silius are Martial, Pliny, and Sidonius Apollinaris. Pliny's judgment that Silius wrote poetry maiore cura quam ingenio, "with more eagerness than genius" has encouraged the view that Silius is a talented but mediocre and uninspired poet. The poem seems to have been mostly unknown in the Middle Ages. Petrarch's Africa was composed independently of the Punica, as the manuscript was discovered by Poggio Bracciolini in 1417 at St. Gall during the Council of Constance.
Julius Caesar Scaliger's harsh opinion of Silius damaged his reputation. Many authors were familiar with Silius' work, such as Montaigne, Milton, Dryden (who considered him better than Lucan), Gibbon, and Alexander Pope. Joseph Addison particularly includes many quotations of Silius in his Dialogue on Medals as does Thomas Macaulay in his works
Interest in Silius mostly vanished in the 19th century. As for visual arts, Raphael's Vision of the Knight is a treatment of Silius' choice of Scipio. Despite Silius' poor reputation, classical scholars with their renewed interest in later Imperial epic seem to be finally turning their attentions to Silius' poetry.
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