Silius Italicus

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Silius Italicus, Punica 9,1-15, with marginal notes by Domizio Calderini in a 15th century manuscript. Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vaticanus Ottob. lat. 1258, fol. 102v

Tiberius Catius Asconius Silius Italicus (* around 25 AD; † around 100 AD) was a Roman politician and poet. He wrote the Punica , an epic about the Second Punic War , which comprises over 12,000 verses in 17 books. His work is not only one of the most important epics of post-classical Latin literature , but also the most extensive Latin epic that has come down from antiquity.

Modern classical scholars have long made the blanket reproach against the Punica that it was stylistically not one of the highlights of its time and that it partly shows epigonal features compared to the Augustan poets Virgil and Ovid , whom Silius revered. That is why Silius Italicus and his work only became the subject of extensive linguistic analyzes and appraisals in recent research in the second half of the 20th century.


Silius' place of birth is unknown. From his Cognomen Italicus it was concluded that he came from Italica in Hispania , but Roman naming conventions here would require the form Italicensis . Martial , to whom Silius dedicated several epigrams , did not name him among the literary celebrities of Hispania from the 2nd half of the 1st century. The assumption that Silius was from Italica, the capital of the Italian federation from the alliance war , is also unproven. His ancestors were probably members of an Italian community, as appear in inscriptions in Sicily and elsewhere. In this case, the epithet Italicus should be regarded as a title.

At a young age, Silius was a well-known speaker in court, later he was a politician in the Senate , albeit with little ambition for his class. In any case, he did not seem offensive to the sometimes tyrannical rulers under whom he lived. Researchers therefore assume that Silius secured his protection and his promotion to consul under Nero with speeches in show trials. His oratorical skills had often been the undoing of the accused, who had fallen out of favor with the Kaiser. In Nero's year of death in 68 AD, the so-called year of the four emperors , Silius became consul. Tacitus names him as one of two witnesses to the conversation between Flavius ​​Sabinus , Vespasian 's older brother, and Vitellius , the emperor of the Lower Germanic armies, who at that time ruled Rome as emperor. In this conversation Flavius ​​Sabinus wanted to persuade Vitellius to renounce the rule, since the troops of the newly elected Vespasian were already marching from the eastern province of Moesia on the capital.

Silius Italicus studies at the tomb of Virgil in Naples ( Joseph Wright of Derby , oil on canvas 1779)

Pliny the Younger describes Silius' life after the year of the consulate . He came to terms with the luxury-loving Emperor Vitellius and became proconsul of the province of Asia . After his governorship in Asia, he retired into private life under the Flavian dynasty and devoted himself to writing in his otium . Like many idealized representations of the time, Martial also describes the contrast between Silius' political activity and his retirement as a shift from negotium (Latin for "business") in the city to otium in the country, which meant an extension of political activity into private life. Therefore, the influence of the Ciceronian rhetoric on Silius' later epic is particularly high.

His poem contains only two passages on the flavians; in both Domitian is praised as a warrior, in one he appears as a singer whose lyre sounds sweeter than that of Orpheus . Silius was a student of the Imperial Stoa , a patron of art and literature and a passionate collector. Two great Romans from his past, Cicero and Virgil , were idealized by him and worshiped in a cultic way. He owned their estates in Tusculum and Naples . Silius spent his old age on the Campanian coast near Virgil's grave, to whom he paid the homage of a devotee.

Silius is said to have committed suicide. He starved himself to death after learning that he had an incurable tumor. This seemingly cruel kind of suicide was typical for a follower of the Stoic philosophy, since the end of a life not worth living was from a stoic point of view the wisest way of human virtue. According to Pliny, Silius was 75 years old.


The historical epic

It is not known whether Silius felt obliged to write down his philosophical dialogues or not. Coincidentally, his epic Punica has been preserved in 17 books with around 12,000 lines. The epic poem is about the historical material of the Second Punic War . The historical epic had a long history in Rome. Since the ancient Latin poet Gnaeus Naevius , great military conflicts between the Romans were often treated in this form of poetry. Silius and Lucan are two representatives of the historical epic from the Neronian period.

In a well-known passage, Petronius demonstratively describes the difficulties with this historical motif. A poet, he says, who shouldered the broad subject of “civil wars” would collapse under the burden until he had all the knowledge together, since he not only reported the facts, which historians could do much better, but also for digressions, for the introduction of divine beings into the scenery, and for the mythological coloring of the subject must have a spirit free in all directions. The Latin laws of the historical epic were established by Ennius and were still in force when Claudian wrote. They were never seriously hurt, except by Lucan, who replaced the dei ex machina of his predecessors with the vast, dark and evocative stoic thought of fate.

Silius was one of many early Principate Romans who boldly professed the views of stoicism . In contrast to Lucan, however, these ideas were less incorporated into his work. Silius based his work on two models: on the one hand, he adopted images and thoughts from Epictetus , whom he regarded as one of the greatest philosophers, and on the other hand, he followed the teachings of the stoic, rhetorician and grammarist Cornutus , to whom he even devoted a commentary on Virgil .

With his extensive knowledge, Silius had excellent prerequisites for every single component of the conventional historical epic. And although he is not mentioned by name by Quintilian , he is probably included in the mention of the group of poets who wrote to demonstrate their knowledge. He also emphasized unimportant moments in the story if they were to be portrayed in a picturesque way. On the other hand, he ignored important events when they were not suitable for heroic representations. As with Homer, his heroes were subject to the passions and whims of the gods . Silius slightly modified events and parables from the mythology or history of Rome and Greece and incorporated them into his epic, even if it was not appropriate to the subject. He did this with a simplicity unfamiliar for his time, but also with cultivated grace and taste.

There were two rigid guidelines for an ancient epic: plenty of parables and many duels. But because the heroic deeds described here had long been worked out without great variations, the repetitions brought little new. However, Silius had perfect poetic awareness, coupled with scarce traces of poetic creativity. No writer was judged more correctly or more consistently by contemporaries and successors alike. Only Martial flattered him by seeing his friend on par with Virgil. The younger Pliny said politely that Silius wrote his poems with more diligence than talent, and that when he recited them to friends, according to the fashion of the time, he occasionally discovered what was really thought of them. It is therefore amazing that the poem has been preserved. After Pliny, Silius is no longer mentioned by any ancient writer apart from Sidonius Apollinaris .

The Punica

The only surviving work from Silius, the Punica ( Libri Punicorum bellorum , Eng . "The Books of the Punic War"), comprises 12,202 verses and is thus the longest coherent poem from Roman antiquity. The controversial division into 17 finished books aroused the suspicion among numerous researchers that the poet had not managed to do it here, despite his classic models, in whose tradition he moved, to divide into a number of classic epic number symbolism. The epics preferred tetradic or hexadic divisions or their multiples. Walter Kißel assumed that Silius originally wanted to design a threefold hexad, i.e. 18 books, but due to his cancer he was no longer able to complete the work in this form. A work of 18 books had its counterpart in Ennius traditional Annales had, one of the most famous historical epics of the Roman antiquity, in which also the Second Punic War is treated. Michael von Albrecht and Karl Heinz Niemann pursued other approaches to number symbolism . While the latter accepted the number as chosen and wanted by the author, von Albrecht brought examples from the classical tradition for works comprising 17 pieces. Both Callimachos Iamben and the Horazi Epodes based on it comprise 17 pieces. There is also a similarity to the appendix Vergiliana , which contains 17 poems without Sphragis .

The material and the sources for the Punica were mainly provided by Livius ' third decade in his world history from urbe condita (including books 31-45) and passages from Ennius Annales , which of course are no longer preserved in the original. Other historians on the war with Hannibal who could have served as sources cannot be ruled out. It is well known that many works of the post-classical and late classical saeculum are not in the tradition. The facts are usually presented in their original context and historical order. The spirit of the Punic times is seldom misunderstood - such as when a secret ballot is allowed for the election of Flaminius and Varro , and distinguished Romans are portrayed as armed like gladiators discussing with one another.

The layout of the epic follows that of the Iliad and the Aeneid ; it is intended as a duel between two powerful states and parallel differences of opinion among the gods. Scipio and Hannibal are the two great heroes who take the place of Achilles and Hector on the one hand and Aeneas and Turnus on the other, while the smaller figures are drawn in the colors of Virgil or Homer. In the character sketches, the poet is neither powerful nor consistent. His imagination was too weak to endow the actors with clarity or individuality. His Hannibal is obviously an embodiment of cruelty and betrayal at the beginning, the epitome of everything that the Romans associate with the term Punier. But in the course of the poem, the poet realized his greatness, which he reveals in many places. Hence he calls Scipio Hannibal of Ausonia ; he lets Juno assure the Carthaginian general that if he had been lucky enough to be born a Roman, he would have been guaranteed a place among the gods; and, when the stingy monster of the first book in the 15th admits Marcellus a splendid burial, the poet exclaims: You would be comfortable if it were a head of Sidon who has fallen. Silius deserves little pity for the failed attempt to make Scipio Hannibal equal and to build up in bravery and prestige as a counterpart to Achilles. In this process he becomes almost as mythical as a figure like Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages. Among the supporting characters, Fabius Maximus Verrucosus , an apparent copy of Lucan's Cato , and Lucius Aemilius Paullus , the consul killed in the Battle of Cannae who fights, hates and dies like a real human, are best drawn.

Of course, it was a religious question for Silius to repeat and adapt all the striking episodes of Homer and Virgil. Hannibal must have a shield of wonderful workmanship - like Achilles and Aeneas; since Aeneas descended into Hades and had a vision of the future of Rome, Scipio must receive his revelation from heaven; the Trebia , choking on bodies, must rise in rage like Xanthus, and be put to flight by Vulcanus ; In place of Virgil's Camilla there must be an Asbyte , a Numidian Amazon before Sagunto . The beautiful speech that Euryalus gives when Nisos tries to leave him is too good to be thrown away - a little dressed up it can serve as the Imilke's farewell to her husband Hannibal. The many battles are generally - following the epic rules - rewritten as duels, tiring sometimes even with Homer, more often with Virgil, painful with Silius. The various components of the poem are woven together quite well, and the transitions are rarely unnecessarily abrupt; yet occasionally events and episodes are introduced with the triviality of a modern novel. The appearance of the gods, on the other hand, is generally handled with dignity and appropriateness.

When it comes to the choice of words and details, strength rather than taste is generally lacking. The metric is smooth and monotonous, has something of Virgil's loveliness, although diminished, but nothing of Virgil's variety and strength. The level is seldom abandoned for a flight into regions of real pathos and real beauty, but also not for a descent into the ridiculous or repulsive. There are few absurdities, but the restrained force is well-trained perception, and a down-to-earth sense of humor - always present with Homer, not always absent with Virgil, sometimes serious expression with Lucan - is completely absent in Silius. Anna, Dido's sister , spoke to Juno when she smiled: Although she was deified when her sister died and had been a heavenly resident for several centuries, Anna met Juno for the first time at the beginning of the Second Punic War, disapproving of the anger of the Queen of Heaven, which led to the devastation of Carthage - and places himself on the side of Rome. Hannibal's farewell speech to his child is also funny: he recognizes the seeds of his own anger in the one-year-old toddler's complaints. But Silius could be forgiven for a thousand other weaknesses if he had shown strength in just a few things. The greatest scenes fail him; the treatment of Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, for example, lags immeasurably far behind Lucan's passionate sketch of Cato's far less exciting march through the African desert.

Nevertheless, there is merit in Silius' great weakness. At least he does not try to hide substantial shortcomings through twisted rhetorical arrogance and violent exaggerations. In his ideal of Latin expression, he comes close to his contemporary Quintilian and stays decidedly apart from the basic attitude of his time. Perhaps his pursuit of success with important men of the time was not entirely the cause of his failures. His self-control hardly slips away from him; it stands the test of the atrocities of war, and the influence of Venus on Hannibal in Capua . Only a few passages reveal the true extravagance of Silver Latin. In avoiding rhetorical tricks and epigrammatic antitheses, Silius stands in remarkable contrast to Lucan. As a poet he does not deserve high praise, but he is a unique example and perhaps the best of a once great class, and so the fact that his poem survived among the remnants of Latin literature is ultimately a godsend.

Text transmission

The poem was discovered in a manuscript by Poggio Bracciolini in 1416 or 1417 , possibly in Konstanz . All the existing editions (which all date from the 15th century) come from this now-lost edition. A valuable manuscript from the 8th or 9th century, which was found in Cologne by L. Carrion in the late 16th century, disappeared a short time later.

Two editiones principes come from Rome that do not date before 1471. Later editions of the work, over seventy in number, come from, among others, Nikolaes Heinsius the Elder (1600), Arnold Drakenborch (Utrecht 1717), who added a comment that is still valuable today, Johann Christian Gottlieb Ernesti (Leipzig 1791), GA Ruperti ( Göttingen 1795/1798), whose excellent commentary Jules Lemaître (Paris 1823) continued, and L. Bauer (Leipzig: Teubner 1890/1892). Only the critical edition by Josef Delz (1987) offers a solid text that also eliminates many erroneous emendations of earlier humanists.


The beginning of the Punica in the Venice manuscript, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Lat. XII, 68 (colloc. 4519), fol. 3r (15th century)

After the first printing of his work in 1471, Silius initially enjoyed reading and imitation more often, especially in England. From the middle of the sixteenth century until modern literary history, a disdain for the poet Silius Italicus entered, which stems primarily from a succinct, highly disparaging judgment of Julius Caesar Scaliger in his Poetices libri septem , published posthumously in 1561 .

Non nervous, non numeros, non spiritum have. Adeo vero from omni venere alienus est, ut nullus invenustior fit. Totus haeret, trepidat, vacillat: ubi audet, cadit. (Poet. VI, 6, ed. Lyon 1561, p. 324aD-bA).
He had no ability to generate tension, no rhythm and no genius. Therefore he is truly free from any charm. The whole work comes to a standstill, trembles and wobbles with him: where he dares something, he fails.

With this judgment, Scaliger had in particular the various borrowings of conventionalized formalisms from older works in view, which did not reveal a correct motif of the epic and a poor motivic coherence. While the main plot follows the historical events linearly in the style of an encomiastic epic, episodes are inserted again and again, such as Scipio's underworld trip, which are motivated by older epics. The hero character is not a clear decision of the poet, but a middle ground between Alexandrian panegyric in the historical style and a mythological hero who is under the influence of the gods. Some researchers even assume that Silius himself only became aware of the historical importance of Hannibal while he was writing, and from the 15th book onwards he increasingly had to align him with Scipio. In Scaliger's judgment, comparisons and epic motifs should measure themselves in their connection with the predecessors, whereby he finally comes to the judgment that Silius, within his catalog of good Roman poets (Poet. VI, 6, ed. 1561, pp. 323aB-327bC: Martial, Valerius Flaccus, Statius, Juvenal, Persius, Seneca, Silius, Sulpitia, Lukan) was the weakest and against this background not even a real poet: Quem equidem postremum bonorum poetarum existimo, quin ne poetam quidem (ed. 1561, p . 324aD).

Silius' concern for comprehensibility and rhetorical clarity, contrary to the mannerism that is often attributed to him, only discovered philology in the last few decades. The focus is now less on the traditional value of the historical facts, but rather on the model and the method of working of the poet when creating the work itself.

A winged word from the Punica (11.595) is pax optima rerum : Peace is the best of things. Or also: Peace is the best that nature has given people. ( Erasmus of Rotterdam in The Lamentation of Peace ). It is considered the motto of the Peace of Westphalia and can also be found on the seal of the Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel .

Text editions and translations


Overview display

  • Michael von Albrecht : History of Roman Literature. From Andronicus to Boethius and their continued work. Volume 2. 3rd, improved and expanded edition. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026525-5 , pp. 809-820.


  • Uwe Fröhlich: Regulus. Archetype of Roman fides. The sixth book as a key to the Punica of Silius Italicus. Interpretation, commentary and translation (= Ad fontes. Vol. 6). Stauffenburg-Verlag, Tübingen 2000, ISBN 3-86057-185-0 (At the same time: Heidelberg, Universität, Dissertation, 1997/1998: ... et numquam summissus colla dolori. ).
  • Alfred Klotz : The position of Silius Italicus among the sources for the history of the Second Punic War. In: Rheinisches Museum für Philologie . NF Vol. 82, No. 1, 1933, pp. 1–34, ( digital version (PDF; 6.85 MB) ).
  • R. Joy Littlewood: A commentary on Silius Italicus', Punica 7. Oxford University Press, Oxford et al. 2011, ISBN 978-0-19-957093-5 .
  • François Column stone : Commentaire des Punica de Silius Italicus (= Université de Lausanne Publications de la Faculté des Lettres. 28, ISSN  0248-3521 ). 2 volumes (Vol. 1: Livres 1 à 8. Vol. 2: Livres 9 à 17. ). Droz, Geneva 1986–1990, (at the same time: Lausanne, university, phil. Dissertation, 1986).


  • Michael von Albrecht: Silius Italicus. Liberty and bondage of Roman epic. P. Schippers, Amsterdam 1964, (at the same time: Tübingen, University, habilitation paper, 1964).
  • Antony Augoustakis (Ed.): Brill's Companion to Silius Italicus. Brill, Leiden et al. 2010, ISBN 978-90-04-16570-0 .
  • Erich Burck : Historical and epic tradition with Silius Italicus (= Zetemata . H. 80). CH Beck, Munich 1984, ISBN 3-406-09680-8 .
  • Jana Maria Hartmann: Flavian epic in the field of tension between generic tradition and contemporary society (= European university publications. Series 15: Classical languages ​​and literature. Vol. 91). P. Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2004, ISBN 3-631-52337-8 (at the same time: Gießen, University, dissertation, 2003).
  • Steven H. Rutledge: Imperial Inquisitions. Prosecutors and informants from Tiberius to Domitian. Routledge, London et al. 2001, ISBN 0-415-23700-9 , pp. 268-269.
  • Florian Schaffenrath (Ed.): Silius Italicus. Files from the Innsbruck conference from 19. – 21. June 2008 (= Studies in Classical Philology. 164). P. Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al. 2010, ISBN 978-3-631-58658-7 .

Web links


  1. ^ Michael von Albrecht: Silius Italicus. Liberty and bondage of Roman epic . Amsterdam 1964, p. 9ff.
  2. Cf. Vita Silii Italici, in: Tiberius Catius Asconius, Silius Italicus. De secundo bello Punico Leipzig 1504, p. 6.
  3. See Plin. epist. 3, 7, 1-2.
  4. See Tac. hist. 3, 65. The other witness was the proconsul and historian Cluvius Rufus .
  5. See Plin. epist. 3.7
  6. See Plin. epist. 3.7.3.
  7. See Mart. 7, 63, 6f./12. Cf. Meike Rühl: A moment in literature: The 'Silven' of Statius in the context of literary and social conditions of poetry (studies on ancient literature and history 81). de Gruyter: Berlin 2006, p. 65.
  8. Cf. Plin epist 3,7,1.
  9. Cf. Plin epist. 3,7,4: Scribebat carmina maiore cura, quam ingenio .
  10. See most recently Fernand Delarue: Sur l'architecture des Punica des Silius Italicus , in: REL, Vol. 70 (1992), p. 157ff.
  11. Cf. Werner Schubert: Silius Italicus A poet between classicism and modernity? in: Silius Italicus. Files from the Innsbruck conference from June 19-21, 2008, ed. v. Florian Schaffenrath. Frankfurt a. M. 2010, p. 23. Virgil wrote 12 books, a quarter of the 48 Homeric hymns Iliad and Odyssey, whereby in the Aeneid half of the books (i.e. a hexad [6] or an eighth) corresponded to the respective epics ( according to common classification).
  12. Cf. Walter Kißel: The historical picture of Silius Italicus (Studies on Classical Philology 2). Frankfurt a. M. 1979, pp. 217f.
  13. Cf. Karl-Heinz Niemann: The representation of the Roman defeats in the Punica of Silius Italicus. Bonn 1975.
  14. Michael von Albrecht: History of Roman literature. Bern 1992, p. 763.
  15. Cf. Alfred Klotz: The position of Silius Italicus among the sources for the history of the second Punic War, in: RhM 82 (1933) , p. 3f., Klotz names Coelius Antipater as the main source for the first eight books and from the eighth book onwards the annalist Valerius Antias , which Silius would have used without going through Livius.
  16. Cf. Heinz-Günther Nesselrath: Zu den Quellen des Silius Italicus , in: Hermes 114 (1986), p. 230. Nesselrath proves that Silius repeatedly modified small episodes past Livius from older sources, but that is precisely what has no compilatory character because his main source was Livy, whose facts he was able to present more clearly and poetically.
  17. See Ernst Robert Curtius : European literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Francke: Bern / Munich 1948, 7th edition 1969, p. 268; EL Bassett: Silius Italicus in England. In: Classical Philology 48 (1953), pp. 155-168.
  18. See e.g. B. Manfred Fuhrmann: History of Roman literature . Reclam: Stuttgart 1999, p. 430ff. Fuhrmann puts Silius in a row with Valerius Flaccus and Statius, all of whom, in their imitation of Virgil, would make " some traits of this epic appear epigonal " (p. 430). Silius himself and his motive borrowings are "dull and dependent" (p. 432).