Publius Papinius Statius

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The beginning of the Thebais in a manuscript from the Prince Abbey of St. Gallen . Between the lines notes from St. Gallen monks. Zurich, Central Library , Ms. C 62, fol. 2r (11th century).

Publius Papinius Statius (* around 40 in Naples ; † around 96 ibid.) Was a Roman poet of the Latin language. His best-known work is Thebais , an epic about the war of the seven against Thebes . He also wrote poems on various occasions, the Silvae . Among other things, they provide valuable insights into the literary scene of the time and life at the court of Emperor Domitian . The time was rich in literary talent: among his contemporaries were the epic poets Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus , the satirists Juvenal and Martial, and the rhetoric professor Quintilian .

Statius was one of the most popular poets of Latin antiquity for many centuries and was only surpassed in esteem by Virgil . The fact that he also appears as a character in Dante Alighieri's Commedia is a testament to this appreciation.

Life and time circumstances


The Greek family of the Statii came from the area of ​​the Magna Graecia . Statius' father, born in Velia (Greek Elea ), taught as a grammaticus in Naples and ran a school there. He was also a poet and won several awards at a poetry festival held in Naples, the Augustalia .

After his father's death, Statius went to Rome, where he lived and wrote until 94. In Rome he married Claudia, a widow with a daughter. There were no children from this marriage; but Statius adopted a slave boy born in his home. Statius' last, unfinished poem is a lament for this boy who died early.

How Statius made his living can only be guessed. Several of his poems are commissioned works (e.g. silv. I 1, 2; II 7; III 4), he has won prizes in various poetry competitions, and his readings were very well attended. Juvenal claims (sat. 7) that all of this brought him hardly any money, but one does not have to believe that he was dependent on it or on donations from wealthy patrons. His father's legacy probably ensured him a comfortable life.

After 94 he returned to Naples (cf. silv. III 5, a poem addressed to his wife in which he tried to make the move attractive to her), where he died a year or two later.

Biographical evidence

Despite the diversity of literary life under Domitian, Statius is only mentioned by Juvenal among his contemporaries; almost all information about his life comes from Statius' own poems. Research has aroused some astonishment that Statius and Martial sternly ignored each other even though they knew the same patrons. Apparently they were unsympathetic to each other. In the way they write poetry, they have little in common - apart from the fact that each of them wrote flattering poems for Domitian.

In the eyes of the modern reader it is such poems that permanently damage the reputation of the poet, such as when he writes that the emperor's palace is exceedingly magnificent, but still not enough to grasp his immeasurable presence, or when he speaks to him with various gods compares, and more. If you wanted to judge this kind of thing fairly, you would have to look at it in the context of the flattery customary at the time, taking into account the literary genre and the financial circumstances of the respective author. Even Quintilian , Martial and others have written flattery that act embarrassed today. The Emperor Domitian, heavily criticized after his overthrow and condemned as a tyrant, also had many writers banished or executed; but he also wrote poetry himself and promoted poetry to the best of his ability; in any case, so many works have survived from hardly any other epoch of Roman literature.


The Silvae

The Silvae are a collection of occasional poems , some of which seem to be written fairly quickly and with enthusiasm, but others, such as the lament for the father (V 3), seem to have been worked out with great care.

There are 32 poems in five books; each book begins with a dedication in the form of a letter written in prose. Of the total of almost 4,000 verses, more than five sixths are hexameters . Four of the pieces (with about 450 verses) are written in phalacic Hendekasylab (eleven silver). There is also an Alkaean ode and a Sapphic ode .

The topics in the Silvae are very different. Five poems flatter the emperor and his favorites; six are death laments or encouragement for the survivors, e.g. B. the complaint about the father (V 3) and the adopted son (V 5); there is also a wedding poem (I 2) and the birthday poem in memory of Lucan ( Genethliacon Lucani , II 7).

With this poem, dedicated to Lucan's widow, Statius pays tribute to the poet of the civil war epic Pharsalia . He lets Lucan's soul soar into sublime regions and sing of the heroes of the republic, Pompey , Cato and the fighters of Pharsalus ; he also lets him descend into Tartarus and discover Nero among the damned , who once banned Lucan from writing and later forced him to commit suicide. This shows that Statius could praise an epic passionate about freedom and condemn the tyrant of the last generation without the present generation having to feel affected by it. Such was the break that had occurred with the transition from the Julio-Claudian to the Flavian dynasty .

Particularly attractive among Statius 'poems are the descriptions ( Ekphraseis ) of his friends' villas and gardens, e. B. the poem on the tree of Atedius Melior (silv. II 3). Other poems give vivid descriptions e.g. B. a state banquet at Domitian's, the gifts and entertainment offered by the emperor at the Saturnalia , or weddings and funeral procession. There are also poems on general subjects; by far the best known is the ode to sleep (V 4).

The Thebais

Verses of the Thebais in the manuscript Worcester, probably made around 1000, Cathedral Library, Q. 8, fol. 167r

Statius' real fame is based on his epic , the Thebais . The epic was the most recognized discipline in poetry in antiquity, and accordingly there was great ambition and, in general, the amount of work involved: Statius worked on his epic for twelve years. He himself certainly considered the Thebais, not the Silven, to be his main work, and it is to it that he owes his fame to posterity: it was because of them that Dante placed him next to Virgil.

The content of the Thebais : The epic deals with the march of the seven against Thebes in 12 books . The first half of the epic describes the preparations for war: The two brothers Eteocles and Polynices , the Oedipus sons born from incest , are said to share control over Thebes. They decide to take turns to rule - but no sooner has Eteocles taken over than he sends his brother into exile. The latter arrives in Argos, where he makes friends, marries the king's daughter, etc. He could be satisfied, but wants revenge and hires his new friends for it. The enthusiasm for war soon spread. In Thebes, on the other hand, the people fear the unjust war that their king is planning, but are too cowardly to rebel.

The second half depicts the war itself, with each plot ending with one of the seven leaders who moved to Thebes falling. The gruesome highlights are the death of Tydeus , who eats the brain of his opponent in the fury of war, as well as the death of Capaneus , who wants to attack the gods himself in his hubris and is struck by Jupiter with lightning. At the beginning of the 11th book only the two brothers are left. In a true hell scenario, two furies appear on the scene to bring about the ultimate iniquity: the battle of the brothers against each other. The 12th book describes the "clean-up work" which, among other things, requires another war.

Interpretation : The Thebais describes a fratricidal war that ultimately destroys all those involved - a gloomy topic in which even Jupiter, otherwise the guarantor of world order, plays an unusually dark role. It is he who decides to destroy the cities of Thebes and Argos for past crimes by inciting them to war against one another. He does not know pity and forgiveness, and humane convictions, as expressed above all by the Argive king Adrast, are cruelly disappointed. With this, Statius is a long way from Virgil , whom he himself describes as his role model. The subject and treatment are more reminiscent of Lucan , who wrote a historical epic about the Roman civil war. Both are concerned with the question of the causes and motives for which a war that is both reprehensible and mutually destructive is created and waged. Statius, however, chooses a mythical example and thus creates a distance that enables clearer knowledge and more freedom in representation.

The Achilles

After the Thebais , Statius began an epic about Achilles that remained unfinished. A book with 960 verses and the beginning of the second (167 verses), which deal with the childhood and youth of Achilles, have been preserved. It seems less serious, more genre-like and more playful than the Thebais .

Epic style

Statius' vocabulary is rich, his use of words and metaphors often daring. He stands out from the other Latin epics, even Virgil, by an unusual, almost novel-like clarity of the narrative. His descriptions are exciting, vivid and detailed, which certainly contributed to his great popularity and makes him worth reading to this day; However, the battle descriptions, although also told according to every trick in the book, are certainly not to everyone's taste because of their bloodthirstiness. Like the other epic poets of his time, Valerius Flaccus and Silius Italicus , he uses excessive to mannered rhetorical means and is extremely learned. He loves mythological allusions, especially to rewrite names genealogically instead of simply naming them (and that in the case of an epic with eight main characters and numerous secondary heroes, which sometimes puts the patience of the modern reader to a severe test).

Editions and translations


Overview display


  • Sylvie Franchet d'Espèrey: Conflit, violence et non-violence dans la Thébaïde de Stace . Paris 1999. ISBN 2-251-32649-9
  • Severin Koster : Love and War in the 'Achilleis' of Statius. in: Würzburger Jahrbücher für die Altertumswwissenschaft 5, 1979, pp. 189-208, online
  • Meike Rühl: Moment turned into literature. The Silven des Statius in the context of literary and social conditions of poetry , Berlin et al. 2006. ISBN 3-11-019112-1 (also: Dissertation University of Gießen , 2004)
  • Willy Schetter : Investigations into the epic art of Statius . Wiesbaden 1960.
  • David Vessey: Statius and the Thebaid. Cambridge 1973. ISBN 0-521-20052-0

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