Publius Papinius Statius (ca. 45-96) was a Roman poet of the Silver Age of Latin literature, born in Naples, Italy. Besides his poetry, he is best known for his appearance as a major character in the Purgatory section of Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy.
Information about Statius' life is almost entirely drawn from his Silvae and a mention by the satirist Juvenal. He was born to a family of Graeco-Campanian origin; his Roman cognomen suggests that at some time an ancestor of his was freed and adopted the name of his former master, although neither Statius nor his father were slaves. The poet's father (whose name is unknown) was a native of Velia but later moved to Naples and spent time in Rome where he taught with marked success.
From boyhood to adulthood, Statius' father proved himself a champion in the poetic contests at Naples in the Augustalia and in the Nemean, Pythian, and Isthmian games, which served as important events to display poetic skill during the early empire. Statius declares in his lament for his father (Silv. 5.3) that his father was in his time equal to any literary task, whether in prose or verse. He mentioned Mevania, and may have spent time there, or been impressed by the confrontation of Vitellius and Vespasian in 69. Statius' father was a Roman eques, but may have lost his status because of money troubles.
Statius was born to a family of Graeco-Campanian origin, impoverished, but not without political distinctions. The poet's father taught with marked success at Naples and Rome, and from boyhood to adulthood he proved himself a champion in the poetic tournaments which formed an important part of the amusements 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.
He mentioned Mevania, and may have spent time there, or been impressed by the confrontation of Vitellius and Vespasian in 69. Probably, the poet inherited a modest competence and was not beneath begging his bread from wealthy patrons. He 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 spite of an allusion in Juvenal's seventh satire.
Little is known of the events in his life. From his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests many times at his native Naples, three times at Alba, where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor Domitian. At the great Capitoline competition, probably on its third celebration in 94, Statius failed to win the coveted chaplet of oak leaves.
No doubt the extraordinary popularity of his Thebaid 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 years. We still possess the poem he addressed to his wife on this occasion (Silv. iii.5).
There are hints in this poem which naturally lead to the surmise that Statius was suffering from a loss of the emperor's favor. In the preface to book iv of the Silvae there is mention of detractors who hated his 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 role of court-poet. Statius lauds the emperor, not to discharge a debt, but 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. Statius had taken the full measure of Domitian's gross taste, and, presenting him with the rodomontade which he loved, 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 Imperial 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 cupbearer (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. 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 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. 3.4), a poem than which it would be hard to find a more repulsive example of real poetical talent defiled for personal ends. Everything points to the conclusion that Statius did not survive his emperor Ñ 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 a poet, Statius unquestionably shines in many respects when compared with most 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 generally 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 feat, which Horace describes, of dictating two hundred lines in an hour while standing on one leg. The improvisatore was in high honor 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. It is to their 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.
The subjects of the Silvae vary widely. 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 often 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 the wife of Abascantus, Domitian's freedman, 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.
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.
In the Kalendae decembres we have a striking description of the gifts and amusements provided by the emperor for the Roman population on the occasion of the Saturnalia. In his attempt at an epithalamium Statius is forced and unhappy.
Based on Statius' own testimony, the Thebaid was written c. 80 - c. 92 CE, beginning when the poet was around 35, and the work is thought to have been published in 91 or 92. The poem is divided into twelve books in imitation of Virgil's Aeneid and is composed in dactylic hexameter.
In the Silvae, Statius speaks of his extensive work in polishing and revising the Thebaid and his public recitations of the poem. From the epilogue it seems clear that Statius considered the Thebaid to be his magnum opus and believed that it would secure him fame for the future. In the poem, Statius follows Virgil closely as a model (in the epilogue he acknowledges his debt to Virgil), but he also references a wide range of sources in his handling of meter and episodes.
The poem's theme is the myth of the Seven Against Thebes, the story of the battle between the sons of Oedipus for the throne of Thebes. The poem opens (Book 1) with the disgraced Oedipus' curse on his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who have decided to hold the throne of Thebes in alternate years, one ruling, the other in exile.
Jupiter plans a war between Thebes and Argos, although Juno begs him not to incite it. Polyneices in exile fights with Tydeus, another exile at Adrastus' palace; the two are entertained and marry Adrastus' daughters.
In Book 2, Tydeus goes to Eteocles to ask him to lay down the throne and yield power, but he refuses and tries to kill Tydeus with an ambush. Tydeus slaughters the Thebans and escapes to Argos, causing Adrastus and Polyneices to declare war on Thebes (Book 3).
In the fourth book the Argive forces gather, commanded by the seven champions Adrastus, Polyneices, Amphiaraus, Capaneus, Parthenopaeus, Hippomedon, and Tydeus and march to Thebes, but at Nemea, Bacchus causes a drought. The army meets Hypsipyle who shows them a spring then tells them the story of the Women of Lemnos (Book 5).
While she is speaking her ward, Opheltes is killed by a snake; in Book 6, the Argives perform games for the dead child, instituting the Nemean Games.
In 7, Jupiter urges the Argives to march on Thebes where battle breaks out during which Amphiaraus is swallowed in the earth.
In 8, Tydeus, wounded and dying kills Melanippus and eats his head; a battle over his body leads to the death of Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus (Book 9).
In 10, Juno causes sleep to overcome the Thebans and the Argives slaughter many in the camp; Menoeceus sacrifices himself to save Thebes and Jupiter kills the wicked Capaneus with a thunderbolt.
In 11, Polyneices and Eteocles join in single combat and kill each other; Jocasta kills herself and Creon assumes power, forbidding burial of the Argive dead. In the final book, the Argive widows go to Athens to ask Theseus to force Creon to allow their husbands' burial while Argia, Polyneices' wife, burns him illicitly. Theseus musters an army and kills Creon. The Thebaid ends with an epilogue in which the poet prays that his poem will be successful, cautions it not to rival the Aeneid, and hopes that his fame will outlive him.
Modern critics of the Thebaid have been divided over interpretations of the epic's tone. Earlier critics in the 19th and 20th century considered the poem a piece of elaborate flattery that vindicated the regime of Domitian, however, more recent scholars have viewed the poem as a subversive work that criticizes the authoritarianism and violence of the Flavians by focusing on extreme violence and social chaos.
Statius' use of allegory in the Thebaid and his abstract treatment of the gods has been seen as an important innovation in the tradition of classical poetry which ushered in Medieval conventions. Finally, although earlier scholars criticized the style of the poem as episodic, current scholars have noted the subtlety and skill with which Statius organizes and controls his narrative and description.
A fragment of his epic poem on the life of Achilles - the Achilleid - is also extant, consisting of one book and a few hundred lines of a second. What was completed of this poem was composed between 94-95 CE based on Silvae 4.7.21ff. Statius records that there were recitations of the poem.
It is thought that Statius' death in 95 is the reason that the poem remains unfinished. In the first book, Thetis, having foreknowledge of her son's death in the Trojan War, attempts to hide Achilles on the island of Scyros by dressing him up as a girl.
On the island, Achilles falls in love with Deidamia and forces her to have sex with him. Ulysses arrives to recruit Achilles for the war effort and reveals his identity. In the second book, Ulysses and Achilles depart and Achilles gives an account of his early life and tutelage by the centaur Chiron.
The poem breaks off at the end of his speech. In general, scholars have remarked on the markedly different tone of the Achilleid in comparison with the Thebaid, equating it more to the style of Ovid than Virgil. Some have also noted the predominance of feminine themes and feminine power in the fragment and focus on the poem's perspectives on gender relations.
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 Thebaid, 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 - the Achilleid - consisting of one book and part of another, "a more varied and charming work than readers of the Thebaid could ever have imagined and is perhaps the most attractive approach to the imitative and professional poet." The best text is provided by the ninth-century Codex Puteaneus, from the Abbey of Corbie, a manuscript in the Bibliotheque National (BN 8051) that was once the property of the humanist Claude Dupuy.
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. 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 most 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 Gaius 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 particular the excessive use of alliteration, and the misuse of mythological allusion. The best-known persons and places are described by epithets or periphrases derived from some very remote connection with mythology, so that many passages are as dark as Heraclitus.
Statius' poetry was very popular in his lifetime, although he was not without his critics who apparently had problems with his ex tempore style. Juvenal is thought to extensively lampoon Statius' type of court poetry in his fourth satire on the turbot of Domitian, but he also mentions the immense popularity of Statius' recitations in Satire 7.82ff. In late antiquity, the Thebaid which was by then a classic received a commentary by a Lactantius Placidus.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Thebaid remained a popular text, inspiring a 12th century French romance and works by Boccaccio and Chaucer. Statius' development of allegory helped establish the importance of that technique in Medieval poetry. In the Renaissance, the Silvae thanks to Poliziano helped inspire an entire genre of collections of miscellaneous, occasional poetry called Sylvae which remained popular throughout the period, inspiring works by Hugo Grotius and John Dryden.
Dante mentions Statius in De vulgari eloquentia along with Ovid, Virgil and Lucan as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7). In Divina Commedia, Dante and Virgil are caught up with Statius as they leave the Fifth Terrace (reserved for the avaricious and the prodigal) and enter the Sixth (reserved for the gluttonous). Statius' redemption is heard in Canto XX (the mountain trembles and the penitent souls cry out "Gloria in exclesis Deo") and he joins Dante and Virgil in Canto XXI. He then ascends Mount Purgatory with them and stays with Dante in the Earthly Paradise at the mountain's summit, after Virgil has returned to Limbo. He is last mentioned in Canto XXXIII, making him one of the longest recurring characters in the comedy, fourth to Dante, Virgil and Beatrice. He is not mentioned in Paradise, though he presumably ascends like Dante. Dante appears to claim that Statius was a secret convert to Christianity as a result of his reading of Virgil, although his conversion is not attested in any historical source. A 2012 study dedicated to Dante's Statius's relation to Christianity has shown the significance of the fact that Dante does not state that Statius ever converted to Christianity, but that his Neapolitan predecessor let himself be "baptized" by Christians.
In Restoration England, John Dryden wrote a poem entitle "To Sir Robert Howard" that refers to Statius' Achilleid; Dryden criticizes Statius' unfinished epic, calling it "too bold."
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