From The Silvae of Statius translated with Introduction and Notes, by D. A. Slater; Oxford: The Clarendon Press; 1908; pp. 30-40.
A great part of M. Nisard’s critique of Statius is devoted to description and discussion of the meetings at which the poets of the period produced their work. Building partly on Juvenal and partly on the letters of Pliny, he describes these gatherings and attributes to their influence the decay of poetry. From the days of Horace and Ovid it had been the custom for a poet to recite extracts from his work to a few friends, on, or before, publication. Horace disliked these displays and seldom gratified his would-be hearers. Ovid, we are told, was more complaisant; and in exile, when he had lost the stimulus of a sympathetic audience, his muse flagged. Statius found the practice firmly established, and from boyhood was accustomed to declaim before select audiences of his father’s friends and clients. From the lines of Juvenal it is clear that his recitations were a feature of the Rome of his day. M. Nisard considers that they had a damaging influence on his talents from the first. ‘Ce qui a le plus 31 contribué à gâter le talent de Stace, ce sont les lectures publiques. Il faut voir ce qu’étaient ces lectures, d’abord confidentielles, puis publiques, qui commencèrent par être une mode et finerent par devenir une institution.’ It is not my intention to follow M. Nisard in his brilliant reconstruction of the mise en scène of these performances: but only to note what is beyond dispute, that, in all probability, the bulk of the Silvae were originally written — like the Thebaid — for recitation. They hit the taste of the times, and leapt at once into fame. In striking contrast to this early popularity is the oblivion that followed. Only a single quotation from the volume has been registered as occurring in known inscriptions of an early period, and that in Africa.1 A possible allusion to Statius may be traced in the words which Quintilian2 dismisses the post-Virgilian writers of Epic — ‘Ceteri omnes longe sequenter,’ ‘All others must follow at a distance in the Master’s steps.’ Four hundred years elapse before the Bishop of Tours, Sidonius Apollinaris, in his ‘learned’ verses refers to Statius, and again and again imitates his impromptus.
At about the same time the poems are known to, and are twice cited by, the grammarian Priscian. 32 After that the volume lay lost or hidden till the tenth century, when the poem on Lucan’s Birthday was copied into a Caroline Miscellany, not long since rediscovered by Aemilius Baehrens. The love and reverence which Dante felt and recorded for our poet are too well known to require more than passing mention. But so far as can be ascertained Dante was only acquainted with the two epics — not with the Silvae.3 The same must be admitted in the case of Alcuin of York, Boccacio, and Chaucer, all of whom make reference to Statius.
It was in the year 1417-18 that the great Humanist, Poggio Bracciolini, found a MS. containing the Silvae bound up with other poems, in the neighbourhood of Constance. The discovery did not provoke much interest at the time, and the MS. was afterwards lost, though not before a copy, or copies, had been made. The first printed edition was published at Rome in 1470, and a second text was issued with a running commentary by Domitius Calderinus in 1475.4 At about this time the great Italian scholar and poet Angelo Poliziano lectured at Florence on the poems. He at any rate was an appreciative critic: ‘While I am not prepared to deny that in the great body of Latin literature work may be found which will easily surpass these slight Silvae, either in the weight of their subject-matter or in the importance of their 33 argument, or in flow of language, yet I think I am entitled to describe them as being of such a character that for epic power, for variety of theme, for skill, for knowledge of places and legends, history and custom, for command of recondite learning and the arcana of letters, there is nothing superior to them in all Latin literature.’5 To this extract from his prefatory lecture may be added another: ‘Just as in the Thebaid and the Achilleid Statius made good his claim to be considered the second poet in his own line, so in these Silvae — in the composition of which he had no rival — he, to my thinking, excelled himself as much as in the epics just mentioned he had been excelled by Virgil.’6
The last purely exegitical edition of the Silvae to be published in England was the work of Thomas Stephens, whose tiny volume was printed at Cambridge in 1651, ‘in tam perturbato rerum statu, cum undique insonuit 34 bellorum tuba.’ After him came Markland, whose brilliant recension of the text, with critical and illustrative notes, appeared in 1728. Bentley appears to have done little more than read the poems; a few conjectures by him are preserved in a Bodleian copy of a seventeenth-century edition, but they help very little to the settlement of the text. Looking for appreciations of the volume we come next to Niebuhr, whose brief but emphatic judgement has already been quoted. Pope, and after him Gray, had ‘played with Statius’ (the phrase occurs in one of Gray’s letters to West), but they, too, seem to have confined themselves to the Thebaid. Since the rediscovery of the volume innumerable pamphlets and articles on different Silvae and different problems of text and interpretation have appeared; from the days when the great Dutch scholar Gronovius and his French rival Cruceus amused the learned world with Diatribe and Anti-diatribe, Elenchus Antidiatribes and Muscarium, to the very recent period when, chiefly in Germany, a battle-royal was raging over the bona fides of Politian’s collation of Poggio’s treasure-trove and the authenticity or non-authenticity of a half-line in the Matritensis.7 But it was not till 1898 that a modern commentary on the whole work by F. Vollmer saw the light. Since then three independent recensions of the text have been published. The work is now readily accessible, and perhaps more likely than ever before to be read by such scholars as wish to study both the development 35 of the Epyllion (of which the Silvae are an offshoot) and the capacity of the Latin Hexameter, as applied to other than strictly Epic uses. To the impartial critic it is curious to observe the conflict of opinion that has existed in the past and apparently still exists as to the literary value of the volume. If we turn to two of the most recent editors of the text, we find Professor Postgate (in the preface to the last volume of the new Corpus) stating in general terms, which must yet be read in connexion with Statius, that never has he been so much impressed by the truth of the maxim that Speech is Silvern, Silence Golden, as when engaged in editing the Silver Latin Poets; while Professor Phillimore half apologizes for appearing in the rôle of editor with the plea that it was not so much the fascination of the poems as the difficulty of the text that drew him to the task. Macaulay, as readers of his Life and Letters will remember, condemns page after page with the laconic comments, ‘Stuff,’ ‘trash!’ although out of his wide reading he is able, by his observations — such as ‘Racine took a hint here,’ or ‘Nobly imitated, indeed far surpassed, by Chaucer’ — to bear witness to the influence that the Thebaid has exercised upon literature.
The last English writer to do something less than justice to the Silvae is probably Professor Tyrrell, who in his lectures on Latin Poetry,8 dismisses Statius in a 36 few contemptuous sentences — ‘valuable goodwill in the poetic business’ — ‘poet-laureate to the aristocracy’ — ‘the commonplace of rhetoric are the Alpha and Omega of his art’, &c., &c. Part of his attack is directed against the Sapphic ode: but it is as unfair to judge Statius by this regrettable experiment in an unfamiliar metre as it would be to judge the editor of Cicero’s Letters by his obiter dicta on a volume of poems, with which he appears to be as ill acquainted as was Statius with the mystery of the Sapphic. It is true that in his preface he expressly states that this particular lecture was based on Nisard; but he is surely to blame for repeating and endorsing his guide’s mistakes. M. Nisasrd9 has written: ‘Stace colporta dans les maisons des grands sa facilité et ses inspiratons disponibles’ — (this is a plausible guess, not a proved fact) — ‘à celui qui avait perdu sa femme, il fit des vers pour cette femme — (this is true in so far that one out of the thirty-two Silvae is a fine tribute to the memory of a friend of Claudia’s, a lady named Priscilla, who certainly was the wife of Abascantus); ‘à celui qui avait perdu son chien ou son perroquet, il fit des vers pour ce chien ou ce perroquet’ — (there is no poem on a dog by Statius extant); ‘à celui qui venati de faire bâtir un palais, il fit la description et l’état de lieux de ce palais; à celui qui avait à son diner un turbot pris à Ostie, il chanta l’excellence de ce turbot’ — (there is no mention of a turbot in Statius, and no poem, nor so 37 far as can be ascertained any trace of a poem, by him on such a subject!) This, in fact, appears to be the most inaccurate passage in the whole of M. Nisard’s critique; and it is therefore unfortunate that it should have been selected by Dr. Tyrell10 for reproduction, thus — ‘Statius the younger at once became poet-laureate to the aristocracy. The loss of a wife, a dog, a parrot, found in him a ready chronicler; orders were executed with punctuality and dispatch; and the building of a palace was not a theme too high for him, or the purchase of a turbot too low. Statius was, of course, a flatterer,’ he continues, ‘not only of the emperor but of his favourites, freedmen, and sons of freedmen, for whom he invented pedigrees!’ If we turn again to M. Nisard,11 we read, ‘Les grands que Stace cultive sont des fils de fortune: ce sont des noms d’hier, sortis du peuple, affranchis ou fils d’affranchis . . . Cela n’empêche pas que Stace ne leur fabrique des généalgies,’ &c. Freedmen are undoubtedly celebrated in the Silvae, but where are the forged pedigrees? Take, for instance, the description of Rutilius Gallicus, the governor of Rome —
or read the lament on Claudius Etruscus,
Non tibi clara quidem, senior placidissime, gentis
Linea nec proavis demissum stemma.13
And compare the comment on the slave-child, Philetus —
The gist of all this is that critics do not always read the works they criticize; and Professor Tyrrell’s comments are not to be taken too seriously. Teuffel, Cruttwell, and Mackail give a much fairer estimate. Fortunately we are not called upon to ‘class’ the poet. If we were, and ranked him high, Dante, Politian, Niebuhr are great names behind which to shelter.
1 III. iii. 128-30. See Klotz ad loc.
2 X. I. 86 (cf. Thebaid, xii, sub fin. ‘Tu longe sequere’).
3 Dr. Moore, op. cit. p. 243.
4 Markland, Pref. pp. xiv-xvi, used editions printed (1) at Venice in 1472, (2) at Parma in 1473, and (3) at Rome in 1475.
5 Ut non ierim infitias posse aliquid in tanta Lantinourm supellectile inveniri, quod his Silvarum libellis vel argumenti pondere, vel mole ipsa rerum, vel orationis perpetuitate facile antecellat, — ita illud meo quasi iure posse videor obtinere, eiusmodi esse hos libellos, quibus vel granditate heroica, vel argumentorum multiplicitate, vel dicendi vario artificio, vel locorum, fabularum, historiarum consuetudinumque notitia, vel doctrina adeo quadam remota litterisque abstrusioribus nihil ex omni Latinorum poetarum copia antetuleris.’ — Angelus Politianus (in oratione quam habuit Statii Silvas praelecturus).
6 Ut in Thebaide atque Achilleide secundum sibi inter sui ordinis poetas suo quasi iure locum vindicarit, ita in his Silvarum poematis, in quibus citra aemulum floruit, tam sese upsum, ut meum est iudicium, post se reliquit, quam eundem Virgilius Maro in superoribus antecesserat.’ — id. ib.
7 See Dr. Postgate in the C. R., vol. xvii, pp. 344 sqq.
8 Latin Poetry, Lectures delivered in 1893 on the Percy Turnbull Memorial Foundation, &c. By R. Y. Tyrrell (London 1895).
9 Op. cit. vol. ii. p. 265.
10 Op. cit. p. 284.
11 Op. cit. p. 269.
12 Silvae, I. iv. 68.
13 Ibid. III. iii. 43.
14 Silvae, II. vi. 11.
‘Ita se res habet. Curandum est, ut quam optime
dicamus; dicendum tamen pro facultate.’
QUINTILIAN, de Inst. Or. x. 3. 15.