From The Silvae of Statius translated with Introduction and Notes, by D. A. Slater; Oxford: The Clarendon Press; 1908; pp. 9-18.
PUBLIUS PAPINIUS STATIUS, ’il dolce poeta,’ the man who used almost by common consent to be regarded as the most eminent poet of the silver age, and whom Pope considered second only to Virgil among Latin writers, the pagan through whose verse shines at times so touching a piety and so religious a devotion, that down to Dante’s day, if not later, he was thought to have been in secret and at heart a Christian,1 was born at Naples in about the year 45 A.D. So slight is the record of him which has come down to us in contemporary literature, that until the rediscovery of the Silvae in the year 1417-18 by Poggio Bracciolini, on the occasion of his attendance in the Papal retinue at the Council of Constance,2 the authorship of the Thebaid was ascribed to Statius the rhetorician of Toulouse. It was under this style that he was known and loved by Dante and Boccaccio. And it is as
That he finds a niche in Chaucer’s House of Fame.310
From the Silvae, however, we are able to reconstruct in outline the poet’s biography. The story as a whole is shadowy but sufficient. Of his father the portrait is sharp and distinct. He was a schoolmaster, with a brilliant reputation as a teacher, — the successes of his pupils bulk largely in the poem which commemorates his death, — a well-educated man of respectable family, strong and domineering in mature life, with a touch of the famous Dr. Busby about him,4 but chiefly remarkable for his passionate devotion to Greek literature. There is a ring of genuine conviction about the lines in which the son celebrates with filial pride his father’s mastery of the classics and the fame of his Praelections. It was clearly to his father that Statius (like Horace) owed his career. His mother he only mentions once.5 We know no more about her than we know about the mother of Virgil: and it is a mere conjecture that ascribes to her influence the chivalrous attitude of Statius towards women which characterizes both the Silvae and the Thebaid. Statius, the father, was not only a schoolmaster, but also between whiles a poet. M. Nisard, in his brilliant but cruel sketch, makes very merry over the few poor garlands which the father had won at the various games in Italy and Greece, at which the bards of the time were matched against one another in contests that must have nearly resembled in essentials a Welsh Eisteddfod of to-day. These faded chaplets were, apparently, the 11 only patrimony that the son inherited, — these, and an unbounded enthusiasm for poetry and literature. Such an example could not fail to colour the son’s tastes and ambitions. And there were two other influences at work — the beauty of his native place and the neighbourhood of Virgil’s tomb. If there is one feature in Statius more striking than another, it is his devotion to beauty in all its forms — in nature, in literature, in art: ��ῖ ��� ���� �������ᾶ� �ὰ ��������ὰ �ἰ� �ὰ ���ῦ ������ῦ ἐ���������.6 And it would be hard not to believe that he owed this devotion in a measure to those early years in Naples, whither he returned so eagerly in middle life — disillusioned — from Rome.
a land of mild winters he calls it,8 and temperate summers, of fair scenery and stately buildings, of innocent recreations and congenial friendships.
It was at Naples, two miles out on the Puteoli road, that Virgil lay buried. Dr. Warren refers to the legend that even a stranger like Saint Paul was brought there on landing for Rome.12
From a chance phrase in the Lament for his Father it is clear that Virgil was the hero of the poet’s boyhood as of his later life. ‘Thou bad’st me hope,’ he writes, ‘to win honour for my grave.’ Here, as elsewhere, he speaks of Virgil with bated breath. Three passages might be cited in illustration of this devout enthusiasm, which is among the most lovable traits in the poet’s character. (1) The lines in which he half anticipates the name which Tennyson in his memorial poem echoes from Dante.10 ‘By thy counsel it is, Maximus, that my lyre dares aspire to the rapture of the Mantuan’s music.’ (2) And again, in the letter to Marcellus, he has gone to this tomb for inspiration:
(3) Last, in the Epilogue to the Thebaid he disdains to be regarded as the rival of Virgil. The poem may live, and he asks long life for it and good success; only it 13 must not challenge the supremacy of the Aeneid, but ‘follow afar off’, as a devotee in the footsteps of the Master —
One tradition sometimes explains another; and it is possible that in the fascinating legend of S. Paul’s visit to Virgil’s tomb lies the clue to the popular belief enshrined in the Purgatorio that Statius was a convert to Christianity, ‘outwardly a courtier of Domitian’ (the words are Dr. Verrall’s) ‘but inwardly an adherent of the Apostles.’13 Dante represents this conversion as ‘brought about through the instrumentality of Virgil’s prophetic lines in the Eclogues (iv. 5-7). That this language was in some sense ‘inspired’, and that Virgil therein ‘prophesied of Christ’ was a common mediaeval belief; but its application to Statius in particular is peculiar to Dante, and . . . is intended for the glorification of Virgil, and also, perhaps, to enhance the pathos of the ‘duro giudizio’ by which Statius is ‘taken’ and Virgil ‘left’; and by which Virgil, though able ‘appresso Dio’ (xxii. 66) to ‘save others,’ cannot ‘save himself’.14 This explanation — which Dr. Moore himself appears to offer with some diffidence — can hardly be considered altogether satisfactory.14
Now, ‘it was probably in the early spring of the year 61 that S. Paul arrived in Rome.’15 At the time of his visit to Puteoli, Statius was therefore a boy of fifteen or sixteen; and it is open to us to indulge the fancy that the Apostle and the Poet may even have met at Virgil’s tomb. The supposition squares so well with date and tradition that it would be rash to dismiss it lightly, but, at the same time, it might be dangerous to labour the point, and suggest, as one is tempted to do, that Statius was taken up to Rome by his father in the course of the next two years and that he there developed an association or even a friendship with the Apostle. No one would be likely now seriously to argue so fanciful a theory, but — with the tradition of S. Paul’s visit so firmly established, and the evidence of our poet’s fondness for haunting Virgil’s grave so readily accessible — early theorists may have come to associate the two ideas, and on these shadowy grounds based or supported their invention or tradition, some rumour of which may well have been current in Dante’s times, even though no written record of it survives to-day. It may be in this sense that he lets Statius speak of Virgil (or Virgil’s Messianic Eclogue) as having been instrumental in bringing him to Christ. Certainly the teacher who wept that he had not found Virgil himself alive to convert, might well be regarded as eager to baptize Virgil’s devotee. Here, then was a better reason for 15 regarding Statius as a Christian than the less worthy desire merely to provide a foil for Virgil.16 All this, it will be said, is fanciful and visionary; but the possibility is tantalizingly real, and the accepted theory provokingly inadequate.
To return: these, then, were the leading influences under which the poet grew up out of boyhood — a great example, a scholar father, a beautiful environment. It was his misfortune to live at a time of decadence. In the preface to the First Book of the Silvae he speaks rather pathetically of a brother poet, a wealthy man, Vopiscus, as a conspicuous champion of letters at a time when literature was almost in its grave — ‘qui praecipue vindicat a situ litteras iam paene fugientis.’ The youth of Statius knew no Maecenas: it was a period of struggle. Indeed, the one contemporary reference to him, the allusion in Juvenal, tells how, in spite of his popularity, he might have been left to starve, had he not contrived to make enough interest with an acting-manager to get his play — the Agave — accepted for the Stage —
Domitian, on his accession in 81, had been expected to inaugurate a golden age, a second Augustan period —
But the hope was short-lived, and how grievously it was finally to be disappointed we can read not only between the lines of Martial but in the stinging invective of which Juvenal delivered himself, after the tyrant’s death, when it was no longer impossible to be outspoken.19
It is necessary to remember that Statius grew up under the Flavians and came to his full strength in Domitian’s reign, if we are to form a just judgement of his performance. The limitations were severe. No one could fairly look for any manifestation of daring originality at such a period. Freedom of speech was stifled. Speech of any kind had to be prefaced with 17 extravagant flattery to the throne. The fate of Lucan had enforced the lesson of caution. Possibly the early training of Statius would in any case have led him to be academic. But as it was he had no alternative. ‘Stace compose pour son auditoire,’ says M. Nisard, — and it is no doubt a true indictment, — but even M. Nisard makes some grudging admissions. ‘Il y a de l’imagination et quelque noblesse dans cet enfant de Naples, que l’air de la cour impériale a gâté. Il n’est pas donné à tous de tirer d’une lyre dont la tyrannie a brisé les plus belles cordes des sons qui font rêver encore ` la poésie absente, ni de faire croire qu’avec la liberté ces inspirations bâtardes et ces élans comprimés auraient pu être du génie.’20
We have only glimpses and hints of our author’s youth and early manhood. There were early efforts in verse; early exhibitions before his father’s clients; an early and apparently a very happy marriage with a lady named Claudia, who was sincerely attached to him and of whom, as of his accomplished stepdaughter, Statius writes in terms of absolute if not ardent affection; last, we hear of early successes at those contests in which his father before him had borne a distinguished part. In middle life we find him established as Poet Laureate, if we may use the term, at court, with many friends, the freehold of a small estate near Alba, and, it would seem, at least a competence. Then comes the withdrawal to Naples; and he appears to have had the good fortune to die before 18 his prime was altogether past. The life, apart from the literary output, was not an eventful life (the outstanding incidents were nothing more exciting than visits to friends at Tivoli or Sorrento or Rome), but it was to all seeming tranquil and happy. The darkest disappointment was the failure to obtain the coveted oak-wreath, the prize in the greatest of the declamatory contests, the Agon Capitolinus in Rome.21 This it was — this and a severe illness — that led him to retire from Rome and spend those last years in his native Naples. There in sheltered seclusion he perhaps retouched his great work on the legend of the Seven against Thebes, the Thebaid, a literary epic which had occupied the leisure of twelve years, and which remains a monument, possibly rather a soulless but certainly a very brilliant monument, of perfect technique. It is probable that to the period of retirement at Naples belong several of the Silvae as well as the fragment of the Achilleid, a second and in some respects more ambitious epic, which was to have gathered up into one whole all the post-Homeric legends of Achilles, and which in freshness and vigour of treatment promised to surpass the Thebaid.
At Naples the poet lost an adopted son, and the blow, — which he commemorates, as his custom was, in verse,22 in what, to the present writer, has always seemed the most plaintive and pathetic poem in the collection — may very possibly have hastened his own death, which is placed in the year 96 A.D.
1 See Dr. Verrall’s article in the Independent Review, vol. i (1903), pp. 246 sqq. Dr. Verrall returns to the subject in an article in the Albany Review for August 1908, entitled Dante on the baptism of Statius.
2 The point was first established by Mr. A. C. Clark, C. R. vol. xiii (1899), pp. 124 sqq.
3 iii. 370.
4 See Silvae, V. iii. 183-4.
5 Ib. V. iii. 241 sqq.
6 Plato, Republic, iii. 403 C.
7 Dr. Warren, Death of Vergil, II. 19 sqq.
8 Ib. III. v. 81 sqq.
9 Dr. Warren, op. cit., p. 8, renders thus the Latin lines — formerly sung in the Mass of S. Paul at Mantua — ‘the original of which will be found in Comparetti’s Virgilio nel Medio Evo, cap. vii.’
10 IV. vii. 25 sqq. Cf. Sidonius Apollinaris, xxiii. 146.
11 IV. iv. 53 sqq.
12 Thebaid, sub fin.
13 ‘The Altar of Mercy,’ Oxford and Cambridge Review, No. 1, June, 1907. In that article Dr. Verrall does not, if I remember rightly, accept the story of the conversion.
14 Dr. Edward Moore, Studies in Dante, first series,pp. 30 sqq.
15 Lightfoot’s Phillippians, p. 2.
16 It is necessary to add that Dr. Moore’s words are very emphatic on the point: —‘This supposition,’ he says [i.e. that ‘Statius being supposed a Christian poet, Christian doctrines could with less violence be put in his mouth’ (than in Virgil’s)], ‘is a pure fiction of Dante’s own.’ Op. cit. p. 33.
17 Juvenal, vii. 82-7 (Gifford’s Translation). Dr. More inclines to think that Dante adopted from Juvenal the epithet dolce which he twice applies to Statius (Studies in Dante, first series, p. 256, where the passages are cited, viz. Convito, IV. xxv. 60, and Purgatorio, xxi. 88 ‘Tanto fu dolce mio vocale spirto’). But he does not instance any other first-hand quotation from Juvenal in Dante, and as he does show at some length (pp. 343-55) that his author was thoroughly familiar with both Thebaid and Achilleid, we may perhaps be allowed to regard the epithet as representing not an echo but an independent estimate.
18 Juvenal, vii. 1. See Teuffel, vl. ii, § 314.
19 Juvenal, Satire iv.
20 Nisard, op. cit. p. 305.
21 III. v. 31-3.
22 V. v.