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Silius Italicus

(c. 26—102 ad)


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(c. ad 26–102),

Roman politician and poet, author of Punica, an epic of seventeen books on the Second Punic War, at over 12,000 lines the longest poem in Latin. Before turning to the writing of poetry in retirement Silius had an outstanding public career. Zealous in prosecution under Nero, he was the last consul appointed by the emperor in ad 68, at an early age for a novus homo. In the turmoil of the next year he was engaged in tense high‐level negotiations between Aulus Vitellius and Vespasian's brother; his support for Vitellius did not harm him, for he reached the peak of a senator's career under Vespasian, as proconsul of Asia (c.77). One of his sons followed him to the consulship. He retired to Campania, where he owned many villas, and spent his last years as an artistic connoisseur, attracting adverse comment for conspicuous consumption. He owned one of Cicero's villas and the tomb of Virgil, whose memory he revered. Afflicted by an incurable ailment, Silius starved himself to death at the age of 76.

With Livy's third decade as the principal historical source, and Virgil's Aeneid as the principal poetic model, the Punica traverses the entire Second Punic War, presented as the fulfilment of the curse with which Dido conjures eternal enmity between her people and Aeneas'. A mythological dimension is immediately present, therefore: Hannibal is not just a formidable human antagonist but the hellish tool of Juno's unassuaged hate, and the gods participate throughout. Silius' decision not to follow Lucan's removal of the gods as characters has attracted the censure of modern critics, but it is symptomatic of his forswearing of Lucan's nihilism in favour of a more traditional view of divine sanction for imperial destiny (debts to Lucan are ubiquitous, however, esp. in the Caesarian portrayal of Hannibal). The poem celebrates Roman fortitude by displaying such heroes as Atilius Regulus, Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, Claudius Marcellus 1, and Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and by organizing the mass of fifteen years' history to centre on the catastrophic defeat at Cannae (bks. 8–10, with seven books before and after): nostalgia for a simpler and nobler past is shot through with the apprehension that Rome's victory over Carthage held the seeds of contemporary decline.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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