Publius Papinius Statius Biography


Most of what is known about Publius Papinius Statius comes from what he himself chose to tell in the Silvae. Statius was born between 40 c.e. and 45 in Neapolis, into a family of modest circumstances and a cultural blend of the Roman and the Hellenic. His father was a schoolmaster who had won poetry contests in both Italy and Greece and had translated Homer into prose. Statius senior had written a poem on the ambitious topic of the civil wars of 69 c.e., and at the time of his death he was contemplating another on the eruption of Vesuvius. Statius gives his father credit for his education and even for guidance in the composition of the Thebaid. His father, then, and Vergil, whose tomb he visited, and Lucan, whose birthday he commemorates, were his great mentors.

Statius moved from Neapolis to Rome and earned a living with his writing. Juvenal, the only contemporary to mention him, says that Statius gave recitations of the Thebaid to enthusiastic audiences but would have starved had he not sold material to a famous mime named Paris. Nowhere, however, does Statius himself complain about finances. He addresses each of the first four books of the Silvae to a different wealthy and influential friend and seems to have enjoyed the patronage of Domitian. Statius and Martial knew many of the same important people, but neither poet mentions the other.

In Rome, Statius married a widow named Claudia. She and Statius were childless, although the poet speaks with affection about Claudia’s daughter from a previous marriage and with real grief about his adopted son, a freed slave who died as a child. Statius and Claudia lived together, apparently happily, for many years. It is in the poem addressed to her that Statius says he won Domitian’s poetry competition at Alba, but later lost in the Capitoline contest of 94 c.e. In the Silvae, he entreats Claudia, who knows, he says, how sick he has recently been and how hard he labored over the Thebaid, to return with him to Neapolis. This she apparently did, and the poet is presumed to have died there about 96 c.e. Statius himself saw the Thebaid published about 90 c.e. and the first four books of the Silvae between 91 c.e. and 95; book 5 of the Silvae and the fragment Achilleid were published by an anonymous editor after Statius’s death.


Publius Papinius Statius (STAY-shuhs) was a poet of the court of the Emperor Domitian (81-96) and wrote adulatory poetry for that ruler, who had no taste for verse. Statius’s father had been a poet, and the son began early and competed frequently, and usually successfully, in poetic contests in Naples. One clue to his success may be that the public never saw his verse until it had been approved by the Divine Emperor.{$S[A]Publius Papinius Statius;Statius}

Victor at Domitian’s festival at Alba, where he was awarded the coveted gold wreath from Domitian’s hands, he entered the quinquennial Capitoline competition in 94, but failed to win the oakleaf crown. Discouraged, he returned to Naples, where he died in about 96.

It took Statius twelve years to complete the twelve books of his Vergilian poem Thebais, which tells of the battle between the sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, for the throne of Thebes. Although it is at times marked by a certain turgidity, Thebais is a rich tapestry of the dark side of human ambition, murderous violence, and the mutability of fate. Only fragments remain of his epic about the early life of Achilles. Silvae is a collection of pleasant occasional verse about his friends, the emperor, and his wife, Claudia. He also wrote a birthday ode to Lucan, which is valuable because of its comments on earlier writers.