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The Dupe of Destiny? The Oath of Hannibal in Silius Italicus’ Punica

Anja Bettenworth

This paper discusses the character of Silius Italicus’ Hannibal and its implications for imperial times, starting from a contradiction in the famous oath-scene that has gone unnoticed by modern scholarship. The oath of Hannibal in which he vows – usually at the age of nine – eternal hostility to the Romans is referred to by many Greek and Roman authors (e.g. Livy, Nepos, Polybios and Appian). It usually serves to explain the disturbing, unwavering aggressiveness of the Carthaginian leader. The question whether Hannibal is free to choose his way of life has especially vexed scholars of Silius Italicus. Kißel (1981) and von Albrecht (1964) point out that Silius’ Hannibal is to a certain degree free to make decisions, while Vessey [1982] 323 stresses that Hannibal is the dupe of destiny and “can be no other than he is”.

In the Punica, the traditional oath is depicted in a surprising way: Silius gives not one, but two mutually exclusive versions: In the first (Sil. 1.70–143), provided by the epic narrator, Hannibal, unlike in other descriptions of the oath, is a toddler who has just learned to speak. He takes his oath in the sinister surroundings of the Carthaginian temple of Dido, a bleak counterpart to the radiant temple of Iuno in Aeneid 1. In book 2 of the Punica, the oath is depicted on the shield of Hannibal, and although some details (e.g. the presence of a specific vates) mark the scenery as the one described in book 1, Hannibal is not a toddler, but a boy, just as in all other literary versions (Sil. 2.422–431). While commentators have marked the dublet itself, the contradiction in Hannibal’s age has gone unnoticed. Ganiban (2010) 80 even assumes that Hannibal must be roughly 9 years old when he takes his oath in book 1, overlooking the fact that he has just yet mastered intelligible speech (Sil. 1.78f.: ut fari primamque datum distinguere lingua / Hannibali vocem). Since Hannibal later wishes his own son to take a similar oath “when speech is first given to him” (Sil. 3.81–83), the contradiction cannot be a simple error of the poet.

This paper argues that Silius, by presenting two conflicting versions of the oath, presents two conflicting agents that work Hannibal’s mind. His behavior is not simply the result of some vow that binds him for the rest of his life and make him a ,dupe of destiny’, but the complex result of two forces: On the one hand, his family’s entanglement in historical conflict starting with Iuno’s wrath and Dido’s suicide as highlighted in the scene in book 1 – and on the other hand of his own conscious choice to adhere to such a tradition, as stressed in the scene in book 2. The idea to present these agents in two separate scenes is inspired by Livy, where the oath is described two times as well (in Liv. 21.1.4 by the narrator and in Liv. 35.19.3 by Hannibal himself), but without the contradiction that characterizes Silius’ account. In representing his extraordinary view of a traditional scene, Silius raises a number of questions that are relevant to his own time, the Roman principate, as well: Can an individual be seen as guilty if the society he lives in encourages or actively demands the incriminatory behavior? What defines a tradition worth following and when and why may one break free from the mos maiorum? This paper illustrates Silius’ original psychological and historical approach and shows its relevance for the Roman empire in the late first and early second century CE by comparing texts from the same period that raise similar questions, such as Tacitus’ Agricola, Pliny’s Panegyric on Trajan and Seneca’s De ira. It will turn out that the approach taken in the Punica is highly instructive for modern times as well.

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On the Boundaries of Latin Poetry

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