Publius Papinius Statius, (45 – 96 C.E.) was a Roman poet of the Silver Age of Latin literature, born in Naples, Italy. Statius wrote both lyric and epic poetry, and although his one complete, extant epic, the Thebaid, has garnered praise as one of the finer works of narrative poetry after Virgil, Statius today is principally remembered for his eloquent lyrics and brief odes on various subjects. In particular, Statius is remembered for his collection of occasional verses, entitled Silvae (Forests) which, in addition to being among the finest poetry written during the period, also provides the reader with a unique glimpse into the everyday lives of the Roman upper class during a critical period of transition in the history of Roman civilization. Although Statius's influence has never been as immense as that of some of his forebears, such as Virgil and Ovid, he has nonetheless been a greatly-admired figure throughout literary history. The poets of the Italian Renaissance, Dante in particular, were greatly influenced by his eloquent style. His epic, the Thebaid recounts the tragedies associated with Thebes, where among other tragedies, King Laius was killed by his son, Oedipus, who, in turn cursed his own sons, Polyneices and Eteocles.
Statius was born to a family of Greek origin, impoverished, but not without political distinctions. His father taught with marked success at Naples and Rome, and from boyhood to adolescence he proved himself a champion in the poetic tournaments which formed an important part of the amusements of the early empire. The younger Statius declared that his father was in his time equal to any literary task, whether in prose or verse. Statius almost certainly inherited a modest fortune from his father and he did not need to beg 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 monetary return for his poetry was of importance to him.
Little is known of the events in his life. From his boyhood he was victorious in poetic contests many times at his native Naples, and thrice at Alba, where he received the golden crown from the hand of the emperor Domitian and was promoted to the coveted post of court-poet.
He appears to have relished thoroughly the role of court-poet, which he would hold for a number of years during his prime. Statius's poetry of this period primarily consists of laudatory odes to the emperor that can be, at times, exasperating despite their mastery of technique. Fortunately, however, Statius's flattery is as far removed from the gentle propitiatory tone of Quintilian as it is from the coarse and crawling humiliation of Martial. Although poetry of imperial flattery may come across as deeply antiquated to the present-day reader, it is nonetheless flattery written in the large extravagant style of a poet who is honest and refreshing in comparison to the more forced niceties of many other Latin poets of his period.
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. All his life prior to his appointment to Domitian's court had been, according to the poet himself, barren and profitless. Only when he arrived at court, writes Statius, did he begin to "live in truth." The palace struck the poet's fancy like the very hall of heaven. 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," writes Statius of the emperor, "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 competition. It is therefore not surprising that the two were bitter rivals. The two exchanged ferocious satires, some of which have survived, including some of Martial's most bitter and hilarious parodies. Apart from the emperor and his minions, the friendships of Statius with other intellectuals and literate men—with the exception of Martial—seem to have been maintained on fairly good terms. He was clearly the poet of society in his day as well as the poet of the court.
At the great Capitoline competition in Rome, probably on its third celebration in 94 C.E., Statius failed to win the coveted prize. 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 younger years. The poem he addressed to his wife on this occasion (Silv. iii.5) still exists. 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.
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, expressive and 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.
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 and Romans, and the poetic contests common in the early empire did much to stimulate ability of the kind. It is to their velocity and looseness that Statius's poems owe their comparative freshness and freedom. There are 32 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 meter, the "tiny metre of Catullus," and there is one Alcaic and one Sapphic ode, all clearly demonstrating Statius's mastery of all the major forms of his day, as well as his preference for swift-footed meters such as the hexameter.
The subjects of the Silvae vary widely. Five poems are devoted to flattery of the emperor and his favorites. 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. What is perhaps most remarkable among the Silvae are the strikingly modern odes to completely ordinary things, as in the highly memorable (and still popular) "Ode to Sleep:"
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 gentry of the early empire lived when they took their abode in the country.
His birthday ode in Lucan's honor has, along with the accustomed exaggeration, many powerful lines, showing high appreciation of preceding Latin poets. Some phrases, such as "the untaught muse of high-souled Ennius" and "the lofty passion of sage Lucretius," are phrases still familiar to scholars. The ode ends with a great picture of Lucan's spirit rising after death on wings of fame to regions whither only powerful souls can ascend, scornfully surveying earth and smiling at the tomb, or reclining in Elysium and singing a noble strain to the Pompeys and the Catos and all the "Pharsalian host."
The epic poems of Statius are less interesting because they are cast in a commoner mould, and are largely derivative of the great epic works of Virgil; but they deserve study, nonetheless.
The Thebaid, which the poet said took 12 years to compose, is in 12 books, and has for its theme the old "tale of Thebes"—the deadly strife of the Theban brothers which had been a frequent subject among the ancient Greek tragedians. There is also preserved a fragment of an Achilleis, consisting of one book and part of another. In the weary length of these epics there are many flowers of pathos and many little finished gem-pictures, but the fashionable taste of the period continually checks the poet's ability to fully express himself. 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. As a result, Statius's epics, although intriguing as a rather late example of a Latin epic, are nonetheless too conventional and unoriginal to be interesting as tales in and of themselves.
Nonetheless, Statius treats his subjects with a boldness and freedom which contrast pleasingly with the stiff traditionalism of the other epic poets of the period. The vocabulary of Statius is conspicuously rich, and he shows creative 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.
In Later Literature
- Dante mentions Statius in De vulgari eloquentia along with Ovid, Virgil, and Lucan as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7).
- In Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil meet Statius in Purgatory, on the level reserved for the avaricious, where his spirit, having completed his atonement for the sins of his earthly life, accompanies the poets through the remainder of Purgatory proper to the Earthly Paradise at the summit of the holy mountain.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
- Bailey, D.R. Shackleton. The Thebaid. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 2003. ISBN 0674012089
- Hardie, Alex. Statius and the Silvae Poets. Liverpool: Francis Cairns. 1983. ISBN 0905205138
- Newlands, Carole Elizabeth. Statius and the Poetics of Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University. 2002. ISBN 052180891X
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