chapter  XI
19 Pages

FLAVIAN VARIANT: HISTORY. SILIUS’ PUNICA

Lucan in his Pharsalia successfully negotiates the contradictory demands of history and poetry, modifying both to create a work at once faithful to history’s particular facts and passionately committed to poetry’s universal tru ths.1 Silius Italicus never attempts any such reconciliation. In the Punica, each historical Situation is treated as an occasion for poetic invention, for the imitation of scenes from the Iliad, the Aeneid, Ovid’s Fasti or Metamorphoses,2 History is, as it were, mythologized, wrenched not ju st in language but in event into the epic mode. The epic imagination is everywhere victorious over historical probability. History is there only to be transmuted. Silius had been consul in 6 8 CE, witness to and participant in the civil and military turbulence o f 69 CE, had governed the province of Asia under Vespasian and was for many years a prom inent forensic orator.3 Martial lists him as one of the more influential men in the city and law courts (‘proceres urbisque forique’, 6.64.9) and Pliny associates him with the leading figures o f state (‘fuit in ter principes civitatis’, 3.7.4). On his retirem ent he might have seemed well placed to take up the writing of history. Instead he preferred to defy it. Re-appropriating from prose historiography the story of the most significant foreign war fought by the Roman nation, he restored it to poetry, its original home. The opening lines of the Punica imitate the first paragraph o f Livy’s account of the Hannibalic war.4 This is especially clear in lines 13 and 14 where Silius’ ‘propiusque fuere periclo / quis superare datum ’ ( ‘they came nearer to destruction who finally prevailed’) follows closely the thought and loosely the expression of Livy’s ‘et adeo varia fortuna belli ancepsque Mars fuit ut propius periculum fuerint qui vicerunt’ (‘so varied were the fortunes of war and uncertain the fighting that they came nearer to destruction who were finally victorious’, 21.1.2). From the outset Silius invites consideration of the relation his epic Version of the war bears to the Roman prose historiographical tradition.5 At the same time he indicates how far from it he stands. The war he will describe is not between Romans and Carthaginians but between the descendants of Aeneas

(Aeneadum, 2) and the tribe of Cadmus (gern Cadmea, 6); he writes not as a historian with one eye on his sources but as bard under the inspiradon of Calliope (Musa, 3); his gaze is not limited to earthly sights but extends to the heavens (caelo, 1); Italy is Hesperia (4); Scipio Africanus is a Trojan leader (‘Dardanus . . . ductor’, 14-15); the first echo is of the Aeneid (arma, ‘arm s\ 1). Through epithets and nomenclature Silius refashions the identity of places and persons. In looking ahead at the start of the poem to Scipio’s historical conquest of Carthage (14-15) the reader is forced simultaneously to look back to the mythical origins of the Roman race in Troy. An authority more than human is claimed for the narrative, and the years 219-201 bce are rediscovered not from the perspective of Augustan or even Flavian Rome but of eternity. In Silius’ hands epic narrative offers an alter­ native to prose historiographical narrative as a vehicle for drawing out the significance of past events, one which imports a radically different (if archaic) cultural ideology: different concepts of time, o f causality, of human psychology and human identity. The Pharsalia and the Punica cannot be classed together. The form er is a compromise, a historical epic. Silius’ epic is uncompromisingly anti-historical.6