Publius Papinius Statius Analysis


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Statius’s reputation, for good or ill, rests upon his poetry, although he did write in other forms. A lost work, “Agave,” is mentioned by the satirist Juvenal, who says that Statius wrote it for the mime Paris. More important are the prose prefaces that Statius wrote to begin each of the books of the Silvae. Tore Janson, in Latin Prose Prefaces (1964), maintains that they are a “new type” of introduction in prose to a collection of poetry. Stephen Thomas Newmyer, in The “Silvae” of Statius (1979), says that for Statius the preface is “a useful device for conveying information concerning the circumstances of composition of the individual poems, for indicating the contents of the books, for stating some apologetic remarks about public reaction to the Silvae, and, not least, for flattering the recipients of the books.”


Statius set himself an ambitious goal when he chose to write epic. He lived to see the completed Thebaid published about 90 c.e. (a privilege granted neither Vergil nor Lucan); the poem ends with a burst of pride, expectation, and just a little humility:

Wilt thou endure in the time to come, O my Thebais, for twelve years the object of my wakeful toil, wilt thou survive thy master and be read? Of a truth already present Fame hath paved thee a friendly road, and begun to hold thee up, young as thou art, to future ages. Already great-hearted Caesar deigns to know thee, and the youth of Italy eagerly learns and recounts thy verse. O live, I pray! nor rival the divine Aeneid, but follow afar and ever venerate its footsteps. Soon, if any envy as yet o’erclouds thee, it shall pass away, and, after I am gone, thy well-won honours shall be duly paid.

Statius’s wish for lasting fame was granted—at least until recent years. Neither Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautica (ninth century c.e.; English translation, 1934) nor Silius Italicus’s Punica (tenth century c.e.; English translation, 1933), the only other Flavian epics, enjoyed the prominence of Statius through the medieval and Renaissance periods of European literature. In the late fourth century, Claudian used the Silvae as models for his own occasional poems, and a little later Sidonius Apollinaris copied more from Statius than from Vergil. In the fifth century, Lactantius Placidus wrote an allegorizing commentary on the Thebaid; in the sixth century, Fulgentius saw a Christian psychomachy in both Statius and Vergil. Later, both Petrarch and Desiderius Erasmus listed Statius among their favorite classical poets. Giovanni Boccaccio, too, was indebted to Statius. Because of possible Christian interpretations and because of the romantic, adventuresome nature of his stories, Statius was very popular throughout the medieval period and into the Renaissance, but nowhere is his influence more apparent than in the works of Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer.

In La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy), Dante and his guide, Vergil, meet Statius in Purgatory. Statius, who reveals that he had in life been a secret Christian, has just finished his penance for the sins of sloth and prodigality and becomes Dante’s model for the released soul, passing from Purgatory into Heaven. As such, Statius travels with Vergil and Dante, the pilgrim from canto 21, to canto 30, when Vergil disappears and Statius continues with Dante until they cross into Paradise in canto 33. Dante calls the two “the good escorts” and “my poets.” C. S. Lewis, noting that every one of Statius’s major characters can be found somewhere in The Divine Comedy, argues persuasively that as much as Dante loved Vergil, as a medieval Christian he was more comfortable with the worldview implicit in the Thebaid. Lewis concludes, “It was not perverse of Dante to save Statius and damn Virgil.”

Chaucer, too, found Statius to be a valuable source. Boyd A. Wise, in The Influence of Statius upon Chaucer (1911), says that the only Latin authors more familiar to Chaucer were Ovid and Boethius. Wise cites ten works of Chaucer that show evidence of direct borrowings from the Thebaid, and there are additional borrowings through Boccaccio. “The Knight’s Tale,” for example, comes to Chaucer through Boccaccio’s Teseida (c. 1340-1341; The Book of Theseus), and is itself the source for John Fletcher and William Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen (c. 1613) and John Dryden’s “Palamon and Arcite.” Chaucer mentions Statius by name in The House of Fame (1372-1380), where his statue is on an iron pillar, coated with tiger’s blood, upholding the fame of Thebes and Achilles. Chaucer mentions Statius by name again in the envoi to Troilus and Criseyde (1382), the work influenced more than any other by Statius: “Go, litel bok . . . And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace/ Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.”

Statius has been admired and imitated to a lesser extent by other famous writers (Edmund Spenser, John Milton), and some not so famous (John of Salisbury, Joseph of Exeter, John Gower, John Lydgate). The eighteenth century, however, was the last period in English literature when Statius was uncritically admired. Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray each translated parts of the Thebaid, but when J. H. Mozley prepared the Loeb translations of Statius in 1928, he recorded no modern edition of either the Thebaid or Achilleid. Modern readers have criticized Statius for being artificial, florid, sentimental, bombastic, episodic, trivial, pedantic, heavily mythological, digressive, obscure, and baroque in the worst sense. Even friendly critics have been circumspect. Moses Hadas, in A History of Latin Literature (1952), is representative when he says, “Statius’ merits are in miniature rather than in total effect; episodes are better than the fabric of which they are part, and flashing phrases better than their context.” More recently, scholars have seen structure and purpose where others have found none. In choosing the elements of his story, in expressing them in poetic language, in arranging the parts, in developing the themes, Statius reshapes the style of his great predecessors Vergil, Ovid, and Lucan, within the context of the polished and autocratic age of Domitian. Statius tries to make a virtue of excess, a choice that reflects the time in which he lived and the cultured circle for which he wrote. Statius’s style is not Vergil’s, but what Statius does, he does better than anyone else.


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.


Statius wrote in the middle of what has been called the Silver Age of Latin literature. A contemporary of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, Quintilian, and Martial, Statius was heavily influenced by his Neronian predecessors Seneca and Lucan. Statius’s poetry was written during the reign of Domitian, a patron who must have been difficult to please, fancying himself (as he did) both a poet and a god. Statius’s poetry exemplifies much of what is typical of Silver Age poetry. He was a skilled writer of Vergilian hexameters, heavily influenced by various schools of rhetoric, and fond of mythology, intellectual display, epigram, and description. On these matters, there is consensus. About the other characteristics of Statius’s work, there is not. E. M. W. Tillyard, in The English Epic and Its Background (1954), sees psychological power as one of Statius’s strengths. Mozley, in his introduction to the Loeb edition of Statius’s works, says, “Psychologically, he is not conspicuous for remarkable insight.” Gordon Williams, in Change and Decline: Roman Literature in the Early Empire (1978), sees only a “vague, watery Stoicism.” David Vessey, in Statius and the “Thebaid” (1973), sees Stoicism as basic to the philosophical foundation of the Thebaid. T. M. Greene, in Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity (1963), sees the “lurid, frenzied, blood-sodden” Thebaid as “a series of violent episodes, empty of moral or historical meaning.” Vessey sees the Thebaid as “an epic not of sin but of redemption, a chronicle not of evil but of triumphant good.” In general, however, there seems to be a trend toward a reestimation of Statius that is more favorable than it has been for several centuries.


Statius believed the Thebaid to be the work through which he would achieve immortality, but a good deal of attention has been paid to the Silvae, occasional poems he himself describes as “produced in the heat of the moment and by a kind of joyful glow of improvisation.” The Silvae comprise thirty-two poems in five books. The first four books were arranged by Statius from a presumably much larger number of light poems and published between 91 c.e. and 95; book 5 is without the same kind of prose preface that begins books 1 through 4 and probably was published posthumously. The Silvae were known and admired until the Carolingian Age, after which they were lost. They were rediscovered by the scholar Poggio in 1417.

Donnis Martin, in “Similarities Between the Silvae of Statius and the Epigrams of Martial,” maintains that there had been nothing exactly like the Silvae before in Latin literature. The poems were like earlier lyric and elegiac poems in subject, but they differed from the earlier poems in their meter, their length, and their concern for rhetorical form. The same can be said for a comparison between Statius and his contemporary, Martial. Martial wrote epigrams on the same topics as seven of Statius’s poems (for example, the marriage of Stella and Violentilla, the death of Claudius Etruscus’s father, a statue of...

(The entire section is 5045 words.)