Publius Papinius Statius
(ca. 45-ca. 96 AD) was a Roman poet of the 1st
century CE, (Silver Age
of Latin literature), born in Naples, Italy.
Besides his poetry in Latin, which include an epic poem, the
, a collection of occasional
poetry, the Silvae
, and the
unfinished epic, the Achilleid
he is best known for his appearance as a major character in the
section of Dante's
epic poem The Divine Comedy
Information about Statius' life is almost entirely drawn from his
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.
that his father was in his time equal to any literary task, whether
in prose or verse. He mentioned Mevania
may have spent time there, or been impressed by the confrontation
in 69. Statius' father was a Roman
, but may have lost his status
because of money troubles. At Naples, he was a teacher of Greek and
Roman literature who attracted many pupils who were destined for
religious offices in Rome. He died in 79 CE.
Birth and Career
Less is known of the events of Statius' life. He was born c.
45 CE From
his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests many times at his
native Naples and three times at the Alba Festival,
where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor
Domitian who had instituted the
For the Alban Festival, Statius composed a poem on
the German and Dacian campaigns of Domitian which Juvenal lampoons
in his seventh satire. He is thought to have moved to Rome c. 90
after his father's death where he published his acclaimed epic poem
c. 92. In the capital, Statius seems to have
made many connections among the Roman aristocracy and court, and he
was probably supported through their patronage. Statius produced
the first three books of occasional poetry, his Silvae
which were published in 93 CE, which sketch his patrons and
acquaintances of this period and mention his attendance at one of
competed in the great Capitoline competition, although it is not known in what year,
although 94 has been suggested.
Statius failed to win the
coveted prize, a loss he took very hard. The disappointment may
have prompted his return to Naples around 94, the home of his
youth. In existence is a poem he addressed to his wife, Claudia,
the widow of a famous singer who had a musically talented daughter
by her first husband, on this occasion (Silv.
Later Years at Naples
Statius' first three books of the Silvae
seem to have
received some criticism, and in response he composed a fourth book
at Naples, which was published in 95. During
this period at Naples, Statius maintained his relations with the
court and his patrons,earning himself another invitation to a
palace banquet (Silv.
4.2). He seems to have taken an
interest in the marriage and career of his stepdaughter and he also
took a young slave boy under his wing, as he was childless, who
died c. 95. In that same year Statius embarked on a new epic, the
, giving popular recitations of his work (Juv.
7.83) only to complete a book and half before dying in 95 CE,
leaving the poem unfinished. His fifth book of Silvae
published after his death c. 96.
As a poet, Statius was versatile in his abilities. Taught by his
educated father, Statius was familiar with the breath of classical
literature and displayed his learning in his poetry which is
densely allusive and has been described as elaborate and mannerist.
He was able to compose in hexameter
produce deeply researched and highly refined epic and polished
impromptu pieces, and to treat a variety of themes with the
dazzling rhetorical and poetic skill that inspired the support of
his patrons and the emperor. Some of Statius' works, such as his
poems for his competitions, have been lost; he is recorded as
having written an Agave
mime, and a four line fragment
remains of his poem on Domitian's military campaigns composed for
the Alban Games in the scholia to Juvenal 4.94.
Based on Statius' own testimony, the Thebaid
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
composed in dactylic hexameter. In the Silvae
speaks of his extensive work in polishing and revising the
and his public recitations of the poem. From the
epilogue it seems clear that Statius considered the
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.
siege of Thebes by the seven Argive champions.
The poem's theme is the myth of the Seven Against Thebes
, the story of the
battle between the sons of Oedipus
throne of Thebes
. The poem opens (Book 1)
with the disgraced Oedipus' curse on his two sons, Eteocles
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
, and Tydeus and march to Thebes, but
, Bacchus causes a drought.
meets Hypsipyle who shows them a spring
then tells them the story of the Women of Lemnos (Book
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
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
kills herself and Creon
assumes power, forbidding burial of the Argive
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
, 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.
were probably composed by Statius between 89-96
CE. The first three books seem to have been published together
after 93 CE, Book 4 was probably released in 95 CE, and Book 5 is
thought to have been released posthumously c. 96. The title of the
meaning "forest" or "raw material")
was used to describe the draft of a poets work which was composed
impromptu in a moment of strong inspiration and which was then
revised into a polished, metrical poem. This suggests that the
are revised, impromptu pieces of occasional poetry
which were composed in the space of a few days' time. There are
thirty-two poems in the collection (almost all with a dedicatee),
divided into five books, each with a dedicatory epistle. Of nearly
four thousand lines which the books contain, more than five-sixths
. Four of the pieces are
written in the hendecasyllabic metre, and there is one Alcaic
and one Sapphic
The subjects of the Silvae
widely. Five poems are devoted to the emperor and his favorites,
including a description of Domitian's equestrian statue in the
Forum (1.1), praise for his construction of the Via Domitiana
(4.3), and a poem on the dedication of the hair Earinus, a eunuch
favorite of Domitian's, to a shrine of Aesculapius (3.4). Six are
lamentations for deaths or consolations to survivors, including the
highly personal poems on the death of Statius' father and his
foster-son (5.3,5). The poems on loss are particularly notable in
the collection and range from consolations on the death of wives
(3.3) to pieces on the death of a favorite parrot (2.4) and a lion
in the arena (2.5). Another group of the Silvae
picturesque descriptions of the villas, gardens, and artworks of
the poet's friends. In these we have a more vivid representation
than elsewhere of the surroundings Roman aristocrats of the empire
lived in the country. Important examples include a piece on
Pollius' temple to Hercules (3.1), the aetiology of the tree at
Atedius' villa (2.3), an antique statue of Lysippus' Heracles (4.6) and a description of
Pollius' villa at Surrentum (2.2).
The rest of the Silvae
consist of congratulatory addresses to friends and poems for
special occasions such as the wedding poem for Stella and
Violentilla (2.2), the poem commemorating the poet Lucan
's birthday (2.7), and a joking piece to Plotius
Grypus on a Saturnalia gift (4.9).
As with the Thebaid
, Statius' relationship to Domitian and
his court caused him to fall out of favor with critics and readers,
but in recent times, the Silvae
have been rehabilitated by
scholars. Domitian is an important presence in the Silvae
and many of the poems appear to flatter the emperor and court. The
content of the Silvae
is primarily dictated by the needs
of Statius' patrons, and many of the addressees come from the
wealthy, proveleged class of landowners and politicians. Statius'
flattery of these elites has been interpreted in two ways by
scholars; some, maintain that the collection is highly subversive
is a subtle criticism of Domitian and the Roman aristocracy. Others
urge a reading of the Silvae
as individual pieces that
respond to specific circumstances with their own unique
A fragment of the Achilleis
— the Achilleid
— is also extant, consisting of one
book and part of second, "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
text for both epics is provided by the ninth-century Codex
Puteaneus, from the Abbey of Corbie, a manuscript in the Bibliothèque
Nationale (BN 8051) that was once the property of the
humanist Claude Dupuy.
Statius' Influence and Literary Afterlife
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
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
Statius' development of allegory helped establish the importance of
that technique in Medieval poetry. In the Renaissance, the
thanks to Poliziano
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
mentions Statius in De vulgari eloquentia
as one of the four regulati
(ii, vi, 7). In Divina
, 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 the Canto XX (the mountain
trembles) and joins Dante and Virgilio in Canto XXI. He then
travels through Mount Purgatory with them and stays with Dante
after Virgil has returned to Hell. 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 claims
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.
- Feeney, Dennis The Oxford Classical Dictionary
(Oxford, 1996) pg.1439
- Shackleton-Bailey, D.R. Statius' Thebaid 1-7
(Cambridge, 2003) pg.3
- Silv. 5.2.161
- Hardie, P. The Epic Successors of Virgil: A Study in the
Dynamics of a Tradition (Cambridge, 1993).
- Lewis, C. S. The Allegory of Love (1936)
- Coleman in Bailey, pg.13-18
- Schakleton-Bailey, D. R. Statius Silvae (Cambridge,
- Quintilian 10.3.17
- Coleman in Bailey, pp.11-17
- Newlands, C. E. Statius' Silvae and the Poetics of
Empire (Cambridge, 2002)
- Nauta, R. R. Poetry for Patrons: Literary Communication in
the Age of Domitian (Leiden, 2002)
- Elaine Fantham, "Statius' Achilles and His Trojan Model"
The Classical Quarterly New Series, 29.2
(1979, pp. 457-462) p 457.
- The best recent edition is O.A.W. Dilke, (Cambridge 1954),
which has more recently been reprinted with a new introduction
(Bristol 2005). A new translation in the Loeb
Classical Library is by D. R. Shackleton Bailey.
- Prologue to Silvae 4
- Juvenal 7.82-87: "They run to his pleasant voice and the poetry
of his dear Thebaid when Statius has made the city happy
and set a day. Their hearts are captured with sheer sweetness and
the crowd is inspired by immense pleasure. But once he has broken
the benches, he'll starve unless he sells his virgin Agave
- Van Dam, H. "Wandering Woods Again: From Poliziano to Grotius"
in The Poetry of Statius ed. Smolenaars, J., Van Dam, H.,
and Nauta, R. (Leiden, 2008)
- Fantham, E. "Chironis Exemplum: on teachers and
surrogate fathers in Achilleid and Silvae", Hermathena
167 (1999, pp59–70).
- Feeney, D. "Tenui... latens discrimine: spottign the
differences in Statius' Achilleid, Materiali e
discussioni per l'analisi dei testi classici
52 (2004, pp85-106).
- Hardie, A. Statius and the Silvae (Liverpool)
- Heslin, P.J. The Transvestite Achilles: Gender and Genre in
Statius' Achilleid (Cambridge) 2005.
- Lewis, C.S. "Dante's Statius." Studies in Medieval and
Renaissance Literature (Cambridge) 1966.
- Mendelsohn, D. "Empty Nest, Abandoned Cave: maternal anxiety in
Achilleid 1", ClAnt 9.2