Sunday, October 3, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Antony Augoustakis (ed.), Brill's Companion to Silius Italicus. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2009. Pp. xxi, 512. ISBN 9789004165700. $225.00.
Reviewed by Michiel van der Keur, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

Table of Contents

Over the last decade, 'companions' to individual classical writers have proliferated. Now that several Augustan poets have been covered, the critics turn to the first century AD. Yet who would have thought twenty years ago that the first post-Ovidian poet to receive attention in this form would be Silius--before Statius, before even Lucan! Indeed, this book definitely shows that the old negative judgements about Silius truly belong to the past.

Antony Augoustakis' team (including several leading scholars on Silius) here brings together a wealth of refreshing viewpoints and new intertextual observations. Some essays will interest advanced students (helpfully, nearly all Latin comes with a translation), but in general, the book is better suited to a scholarly public. For extended overviews of broader topics or current discussions one must read several contributions, as most assume the form of case studies; yet for this relatively new field we need such detailed studies more than sweeping statements. This volume represents much of the status quaestionis, with attention to a broad range of arguments on multiple subjects (e.g. heroism, or the pro- or anti-Domitian discussion). The book would have been more complete if some other subjects had received attention too, such as the role of the gods (touched on only by Asso and Tipping), considering their reintroduction into historical epic after Lucan,1 or Silius' engagement with, for instance, Ovid, Cicero and Seneca. But particularly readers seeking answers about Silius' relationship with the other two Flavian poets will be disappointed (for Valerius Flaccus only Augoustakis' n.16!); Lovatt's contribution on Statius helps somewhat, but ultimately deliberately avoids pinpointing the nature of the relationship. I agree that a closer study on inter-Flavian intertextuality is needed.

Part A, the Introduction, is Augoustakis' preliminary essay; after discussing our sources about Silius' life, he states the uncertainties surrounding the chronology of the Punica's composition and lists several theories on the poem's Makrostruktur (which could have been adorned with some argumentation). Augoustakis also provides a short preface to the main topics of discussion, along with useful summaries of the contributions.

Part B, entitled "The Punica: Context and Intertext", features two articles on the relation with the historiographical (especially Livian) tradition, two on Vergil and one on intertextuality with Lucan and Statius, respectively. Arthur Pomeroy opens the Livian diptych with an excellent overview of the shifting approach to mining the Punica for non-Livian accounts of history. His careful and nuanced article primarily discusses Silius' use of "Thucydidean narrative" (p.32) in Livy; the first example (comparing Saguntum to Thucydides' Plataea) is convincing, but Pomeroy's argument would have profited from adducing more passages where Silius did not deviate from Livy's version and its Thucydidean counterpart. In the next paper, Bruce Gibson discusses in part the same passages as Pomeroy with different results. His perspective is appealing, dealing not with Quellenforschung but with Silius' use of historiographical techniques; book 14's digression on Sicily figures as a case study. Gibson's discussion is both learned and subtle, but possibly sometimes too subtle, recognizing historiographical topoi where poetical considerations would provide sufficient explanation. The relation with Vergil is covered by Randall Ganiban and Elizabeth Kennedy Klaassen. The former focuses on the presence of Dido in the Punica and the tragic heroism of Hannibal, who is locked into the past and into ignorance, playing a doomed role. Ganiban presents a very clear overview of the Punica's connection to the Aeneid in its major plot lines and its consequences for Hannibal's character. Klaassen discusses Silius' use of double Vergilian and Homeric models for his heroes, illustrating how Hannibal fails as both an Aeneas and an Odysseus near Cumae in book 12, where Scipio succeeds in book 13; along the way, she surveys Silius' imitation of Aeneid 6 and Odyssey 11 (while graciously leaving enough points for the humble commentator on Punica 13). Her approach yields many highly interesting observations; still, some fit the model too nicely,2 and the nekyia discussion insufficiently considers Silius' reworking of the Vergilian material. Raymond Marks' well-written piece on Silius and Lucan, underpinned by many verbal allusions, shows that on an allusive level Lucan's civil war is replayed twice in the Punica, once with the Romans, once with Carthage.3 Marks connects this to a political message of Silius' epic, which presents the emergence of Flavian rule (Scipio) as "a necessary step towards securing peace after civil war" (p.153). Evidently, Silius engages with Lucan on a very detailed level. Still, if the theme of Pompey's decapitation emerges on the Carthaginian side only in the epic's second half (with Hasdrubal), what then of the headless Asbyte (2.201-5)? Finally, Helen Lovatt examines the interplay between Silius' and Statius' epic games. She provokingly argues we should embrace subjectivity and "look for readings which offer the most interesting story" (p.158), rather than for a true order of succession. While most of her suggestions for Silius influencing Statius leave me unconvinced, Lovatt shows all too clearly that the interplay between Punica and Thebaid cannot be ignored, or downplayed. The role of Statius' Silvae and Achilleid remains undetermined, however.4

Part C, "The Punica: Themes and Images", has four contributions on (models of) heroism in the Punica and five on various theme-related subjects. Paolo Asso writes on Hercules as heroic model for both Hannibal and Scipio. Unfortunately, he confines his evaluation of Hannibal's success in emulating Hercules to the first two books; for in later books, Hannibal repeatedly fails as a Hercules.5 Asso's contention that Hercules' human behaviour (drunkenness, seduction, grief) contributes to his role as "paradigm of heroism for Roman men" (p.192) is problematic, since the 'stoic' Roman heroes do not show these traits. Next, Ben Tipping discerningly discusses the problems of Scipio as a Republican hero; Scipio's pursuit of personal fame associates him with autocracy, to which Tipping attaches a negative view of Domitian. Apparently, he assumes that Silius shared Lucan's republican views and undermined his own glorifications of Scipio through subtle allusions to Lucan; possibly, however, Silius rather aimed to react to or even correct Lucan. Furthermore, if for a divi filius deification and glory are obtained through service to the homeland, I see no problem for Scipio (or Domitian). Marco Fucecchi investigates the figures of Fabius and Marcellus and their "'incompleteness' as models of heroism" (p.221). While his transferring the Posidonian duo of heroes (the 'shield' and 'sword') to the Punica is disputable given the many heroes showing 'good' characteristics and culminating in Scipio, Fucecchi ably surveys the role and presentation of these two important characters. Enrico Ariemma concludes the heroism section by exploring the character of Varro and his demagogy. He only briefly touches on the presence of demagogy on the enemy side, which might have been helpful. Although Ariemma's essay would have profited from more explicit structuring and can be somewhat repetitive, it offers an interesting read with perceptive observations on both intra- and intertextuality (particularly with Lucan).

Of the other five contributions, three are grouped together (although Cowan's essay rather differs from the others) with the remaining two getting a subsection each, which rather defeats the purpose of making such subsections. Stephen Harrison's paper on proleptic ekphraseis provides interesting analyses on five descriptions of artistic objects; my only criticism is that it is rather short. To his discussion of Hasdrubal's cloak I would add that its wearer's coming defeat may also be foreshadowed by its Sicilian origin, both because of Syracuse's fall in book 14 and the defeat at the Aegates Islands. Eleni Manolaraki shows the structural importance of tides in the Punica; she convincingly sketches how Hannibal's ignorance of tidal imagery ultimately dictates his fall. Surprisingly, in discussing Hannibal's vision of himself as a surge, Manolaraki does not mention the well-known similes of Fabius and Varro as helmsmen, or the river gods helping the Carthaginians, nor Scipio's clever use of the tides at New Carthage which contrasts with Hannibal's ignorance. Her insightful observations provide another example of Silius' cura; hopefully, more such structural gems may be found. Next is Robert Cowan's ingenious piece on counterfactuals, which shows that in the Punica, they do not support teleology, but rather stress contingency; through 'sideshadowing' the poet explores different possibilities and outcomes. Cowan's suggestion that some of these divergent outcomes are "strangely and even disturbingly similar" (p.344) unduly problematizes the issue by ignoring the fact that a Roman reader would have preferred some paths leading to these outcomes above others (e.g. for their moral superiority). Some more specific sub-conclusions might have aided the reader. In the following study on gender, Alison Keith shows that Hannibal's world is dictated by women and that Silius' war is essentially one between the weak feminized East and a masculine West. There are some critical remarks in my margins regarding her argument's potential one-sidedness,6 but overall, Keith's interesting perspective yields several strong points. Neil Bernstein's essay on familial relationships illustrates how for Silius' Romans leadership is equated with paternity (which, interestingly, would reflect positively on Domitian), whereas for the enemy party political and familial considerations conflict. Bernstein also discusses the Punica's myths of kinship between cities, but I doubt his conclusion that the poem questions the unifying power of syngeneia; more probably, breaking the expectations raised by it results in moral condemnation (cf. 11.29ff., Capua defecting from Roman kin), and Pan's preventing the Romans from sacking Capua shows me that heeding syngeneia (13.320-1) is 'right'.

Lastly, part D treats "Reception and Criticism", but mostly scholarly reception, although Frances Muecke does provide some instances of artistic reception, too. She covers the heyday of Silius' popularity, the Italian Renaissance (shortly after Poggio discovered the poem in 1417), illuminating the context of our manuscripts and the works and interests of the Punica's earliest students. After her instructive overview the following centuries are (rather too) briefly covered by William Dominik, who then outlines the trends in modern scholarship, especially of the twentieth century and the last decade. Some unnecessary overlap exists with Augoustakis' contribution. With its many bibliographical footnotes, Dominik's essay is an excellent starting point for those new to Silius and should be read before the more specific contributions for its contextualizing value.

Beyond its scholarly merits, one of the book's main attractions is the long and excellent Bibliography (well used together with Dominik's contribution). Other nice features are the Indices Locorum and the generous General Index. The many cross-references to other contributions are helpful too, but are not found throughout and sometimes refer the reader to an entire essay. The volume is presented in the attractive hardcover model Brill commonly delivers, which does have serious repercussions for its pricing. Considering Brill's standards, fewer typographical and editorial errors would have been expected.

My concluding remark concerns the first pages. It is understandable, yet regrettable that this book still begins with Pliny's negative judgement of Silius' work, a reminder of the defensive stance found in many earlier studies. Hopefully, this companion marks an era which sees no need to challenge such comments to win over the reader, in which the poem may truly be studied on its own merits. Counterbalancing with its detailed studies and thorough scholarship the disparaging remarks and prejudice still haunting surveys, this book may well succeed in that.


1.   Feeney's cursory discussion is unsatisfactory (D.C. Feeney (1991), The Gods in Epic, Oxford, p.301-11).
2.   p.121 The few scattered gates in Aeneid 6 hardly correspond to Silius' ten gates.
3.   Surprisingly, Marks says nothing of Hannibal's shield, which portrays him crossing the Ebro and breaking foedera (2.449-52), resembling Caesar dismissing foedera at the Rubicon (Luc. 1.226).
4.   p.175 "Hippodamus would have been eaten by his own horses": actually, Chromis' horses (cf. 6.486 Thraces equi and 6.348), previously owned by Diomedes of Thrace and far more notorious for eating human flesh (for Oenomaus' horses, cf. only, possibly, Theb. 1.274-6); moreover, Chromis bridling his own horses rather than Hippodamus' makes more sense.
5.   Abandoning Hercules' path in 3.513-4, choosing Voluptas in 11, not entering the underworld in 12.
6.   For example: negative imagery of Aeneas (e.g. 1.91 Phrygius and Anna's story) undermines a glorified West; the feminine pubes is used (positively) for Romans too (e.g. 6.673).

1 comment:

  1. This review misrepresents the authors' thought in various ways. Some chapters are glossed over far too quickly for the reader of the review to understand what the chapters actually argue. Even when positive, the reviewer's comments sound inaccurate to a person who has read the volume. As a reader of this Companion (I own the volume), I know this reviewer misrepresents the thought of all the contributors and spends most of his words hinting at a book on Silius he would like to have read - one that argued other arguments or studied issues not studied in the present volume. The reviewer quips on the issues discussed by the authors cursorily, but we should perhaps look forward to his own work on Silius and his own edited Companion.