Sunday, March 27, 2011


Ben Tipping, Exemplary Epic: Silius Italicus' Punica. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. vii, 245. ISBN 9780199550111. $99.00.

Reviewed by John Jacobs, The Montclair Kimberley Academy (

Version at BMCR home site


This past year (2010) has produced a bumper crop of scholarship on Silius Italicus and his much maligned epic, the Punica.1 The current title under review, a revision of the author's 1999 Oxford University D.Phil. thesis (Exemplary Roman heroism in Silius Italicus' Punica), represents an important contribution in the areas of Flavian epic and, more generally, exemplarity. Through a close reading of Silius' treatment of Hannibal, Fabius, and Scipio, Tipping seeks to explain the roles which these three "heroes" play in the epic, to analyze the relationship between Silius and his epic predecessors (especially Vergil and Lucan), and to elucidate how the poet crafts his narrative as a meditation on Rome's transformation from Republic to Empire.

In the opening chapters, Tipping lays the foundation for his extended studies of Hannibal, Fabius, and Scipio with a careful exposition of the major issues prevalent in current scholarship. Beginning with a close intratextual and intertextual reading of the opening six verses of the Punica, Tipping well demonstrates Silius' profound debt to his forerunners in epic, although more might have been said about his equal debt to his forerunners in historiography. Next, Tipping skillfully associates this multiplicity of textual exempla with the multiplicity of heroic exempla in the poem. In particular, he notes the potentially problematic nature of such "examples" and posits a far more sophisticated and nuanced assessment of Scipio's role in the epic than Raymond Marks has to offer in his 2005 monograph on this "hero's" place in the poem.2 Thereafter, Tipping builds on his initial treatment of exemplarity with a succinct, if somewhat cursory, discussion about Hercules and Romulus / Quirinus as the polyvalent paradigms for aspiring "heroes" like Scipio, Octavian / Augustus, and Domitian in search of power, honor, glory, and, ultimately, deification. In the course of this analysis, Tipping appropriately emphasizes the recurrence of the unsettling theme of civil war, from the clash between Romulus and Remus to the chaos of A.D. 69, as well as the recurrence of the struggle between the "exemplary" individual and his community. In the end, Tipping uses this overview in order to highlight the complex relationship between Scipio and Domitian, although he might have made this link even stronger had he explicitly connected the Republican general in his role as the first imperator with his Imperial successor(s) (cf. pp. 143-144).

In the chapter on Hannibal, Tipping begins with a brief survey of the different, and often differing, portrayals of Hannibal in earlier Greek (primarily Polybius) and Latin (primarily Cicero and Livy) literature. The evidence strongly suggests that Hannibal served as not only a negative, but also a positive, exemplar and that the ancient authors were well aware of the inherent tensions in their depictions of the Carthaginian. Building on the results of this survey, Tipping identifies a similar ambiguity in several key episodes from the Punica where Hannibal figures prominently. First, Tipping traces the development of Hannibal's improba virtus (1.58) over the course of the epic and, in the process, explores the Carthaginian general's complex relationships with his heroic paradigm, Hercules, as well as with his Roman adversaries, especially Fabius and Scipio. Thereafter, Tipping balances this analysis of Hannibal's negative characteristics with a corresponding analysis of his positive qualities (e.g., in 1.21-69 ~ 1.239-270) and, once again, remarks on the status of Hercules and Bacchus as "unstable exemplars" (p. 80), not only for Hannibal, but also for Fabius and Scipio. Next, Tipping broadens the scope of his argument in order to study Hannibal's equally complex relationships with Vergil's Aeneas and Turnus, as well as with Lucan's Caesar and Pompey. Finally, in an attempt at unifying these various intratextual and intertextual strands, Tipping demonstrates how Hannibal seeks not just to engage with his human exemplars in the process of aemulatio, imitatio, and comparatio, but even to transcend the limits of his own mortality in his quest to supplant the ultimate exemplum, Jupiter himself. In the course of this analysis, Tipping also powerfully illustrates how Silius' Hannibal evinces a metaliterary sense of his own exemplarity, although this point could have been stronger had Tipping undertaken a more thorough and sustained examination of the many passages, especially in Punica 1-12, in which Hannibal casts his own (long delayed) march on Rome as a repetition of the Gallic sack (cf. pp. 65-66 and 77-78). Regardless, all in all, Tipping admirably succeeds in identifying the various, and varying, aspects of Silius' Hannibal and of his relationships to his heroic exemplars.

In the chapter on Fabius, Tipping similarly begins with a brief survey of the portrayals of Fabius in the ancient authors. Once again, the evidence lends itself to a wide variety of interpretations, and so, as a result, the picture of the Roman general which emerges defies any facile oversimplification. In particular, Tipping demonstrates how, in the course of the transformation from Republic to Empire, Fabius undergoes a parallel (d)evolution in his exemplary status, from the Republican unus homo to the Imperial unus homo, from the "one man" who represents the state to the "one man" who simply is the state. Building on the results of this survey, Tipping once again narrows his focus down from Greek and Latin literature in general to the Punica. First, Tipping traces the development of Fabius' policy of cunctatio over the course of the epic and, in the process, explores the Roman general's complex relationships with Hercules, Jupiter, and his mortal counterparts. In his analysis of Fabius' disavowal of his cunctandi ratio (10.595, cf. 8.330) after the battle of Cannae, however, Tipping fails to accord this moment in the epic its due significance, instead offering the bland, if not vacuous, observation that "Silius' Fabius appears, then, to constitute a model combination of restraint and martial activity, of singularity and civic responsibility, and so to be an exemplary republican commander" (p. 120). Thereafter, Tipping once again broadens the scope of his argument in order to study Fabius' equally complex relationship with Camillus and, especially, their common fate as Republican exempla transmogrified into Imperial exempla for aspiring autocrats. Finally, Tipping attempts to reconcile all of these tensions with the fact of Fabius' prominence in the poem by arguing for an identification of the Roman general with the voice of the poet (but cf. Hannibal's vivam in 17.612 and 615) and by arguing for a natural progression from the "Republican" Fabius to the "Imperial" Scipio.

In the chapter on Scipio, Tipping further develops this line of argument about the parallel movement over the course of the epic from Fabius to Scipio, from Republic to Empire. As in the previous two chapters, Tipping begins with a brief survey of the evidence in earlier Greek and Latin literature, concluding that, like Hannibal and Fabius, Scipio evokes ambivalent feelings among the ancient authors, and then proceeds to a close reading of the relevant passages in the Punica itself. First, Tipping traces the development of Scipio's character across the initial twelve books of the poem and, in the process, considers Scipio's evolving relationships with his various "heroic" exemplars (Hercules, Bacchus, Achilles, Aeneas, Alexander the Great et al.). Thereafter, Tipping concentrates his efforts on the two key moments in Scipio's rise to power and prominence, his nekyia in book 13, and his choice between Virtus and Voluptas in book 15, as well as on his final triumph in book 17. Writing at least partly in response to earlier interpretations of these important scenes, Tipping dutifully records and reinforces what previous generations of scholars have had to say, before offering his own fresh observations, which often serve to underscore some inherent ambiguity or internal contradiction in the passage under investigation. In particular, Tipping notes how pervasively Silius associates Scipio not only with the positive, but also with the negative aspects of Hercules, Alexander, and, by extension into contemporary history, Domitian. In his analysis of the vexed interpretation of securus sceptri (17.627), however, Tipping inexplicably omits any reference to Lucr. DRN 3.1034-1035 from his discussion about the identification of the duo fulmina belli in Verg. Aen. 6.842-843 (p. 184 n. 199). Finally, in his close reading of Scipio's purported "apotheosis" at the end of the epic (17.645-654), Tipping vigorously refutes any uniformly "triumphalist" interpretation in favor of a more balanced assessment, although this point could have been stronger had Tipping connected the passage on Scipio here at the conclusion of book 17 with the passage on Hannibal at the conclusion of book 2 (2.696-707). Regardless, all in all, Tipping succeeds in conveying the true complexity of Scipio's character in the Punica and, consequently, the true complexity of his relationships with both Hannibal and Fabius.

In his (perhaps overly) concise conclusion, Tipping characterizes "this monograph [as] an example of example in literature on literature" (p. 198), a slightly awkward, but insightful formulation which accurately represents the book's underlying purpose. For all of its evident merits, however, this work suffers from three major flaws. First, in choosing to concentrate exclusively on Hannibal, Fabius, and Scipio (cf. pp. 198-200), Tipping ignores a wealth of evidence which should have played a central role in his argument, e.g., the system of relationships between the two pairs of consular generals at the battles of Cannae (Paullus and Varro) and the Metaurus River (Livius Salinator and Claudius Nero). (In general, the battle of the Metaurus River functions as the "Republican" response for the battle of Cannae, while the battle of Zama functions as the "Imperial" response.) Second, in focusing on Silius' relationships with Vergil and Lucan, Tipping generally gives short shrift to the poet's equally important relationship with the historiographical tradition.3 Third, and I believe most importantly, Tipping all but ignores the "real" hero of the epic, the only general from this era in Roman history who had won the spolia opima, Marcellus. (To the passages listed in the general index, add pp. 41-44, 69 n. 50, 82-83, 103-104, 104-105, 163 n. 111, 164 n. 115, and 180 n. 184.) Throughout the epic (e.g., 15.334-342, esp. 340-342), Silius portrays Marcellus as the "hero" who might have been: who had been the last to win the spolia opima, who had been the first to repel Hannibal in battle, and who could have been the one to lead Rome to victory in the war. Despite these reservations, however, this book will be required reading for those who study the Punica, Flavian epic, and the subject of exemplarity in general.4


1.   To cite only the major works, Antony Augoustakis (ed.), Brill's companion to Silius Italicus (Leiden and Boston, 2010); id., Motherhood and the Other: Fashioning female power in Flavian epic (Oxford, 2010); and Florian Schaffenrath (ed.), Silius Italicus: Akten der Innsbrucker Tagung vom 19.-21. Juni 2008 (Frankfurt am Main, 2010), as well as Robert Cowan, After Virgil: The poetry, politics and perversion of Roman epic (Chicago, forthcoming) and id., Indivisible cities: Mirrors of Rome in Silius Italicus (Oxford, also forthcoming). Perhaps the new millennium will mark the beginning of an aetas Siliana?
2.   See BMCR 2006.08.31. Nevertheless, it is distressing to see Regulus cited by Tipping (p. 7) as "'a great example of faithfulness' (fidei … magna exempla …; Punica 2.436)" without reference to his wife Marcia's rebuke of him as "faithless" (perfide; 6.518, cf. Dido's rebuke of Aeneas as "faithless" [perfide] in Verg. Aen. 4.305, 366, 421).
3.   Most recently, see D. S. Levene, Livy on the Hannibalic War (Oxford and New York, 2010) for an in-depth treatment of Hannibal, Fabius, and Scipio in Livy's third decade.
4.   Apart from the usual slips in punctuation and orthography, the only notable typographical error is the freak omission of the text of footnotes 17-21 on p. 199.

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