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Between Myth and Geography at the Edge of the World: The Seres in Silius Italicus

David Urban

In his Punica, Silius Italicus draws on the geographical work of writers such as Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder to contest earlier poetic descriptions of the world and to assert the universal importance of his subject. Three brief passages establish a consistent identification of the Eastern edge of the world as the land of the Seres: [1] the description of dawn following the battle of Lake Trasimene (6.1-4); [2] the inclusion of the Seres among Liber’s train following the god’s conquest of the East within Virtus’s speech to Scipio (15.79-81); and [3] a simile comparing the flight of Carthaginian troops following their defeat a Zama to the ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius spreading over land and sea, and whitening the silk groves of the Seres (17.592-96). The first and third of these passages are particularly significant for my argument. In making this link, Silius engages in the familiar intertextual activity of ‘correcting’ his poetic predecessors, mostly prominently in this case Vergil’s Georgics and Valerius Flaccus’s Argonautica.

Silius’s description of the morning following the Roman disaster at Lake Trasimene in which dawn first illuminates the Seres as they pick the fleeces from their silk groves (Punica 6.3-4) recalls Vergil’s depiction of the same activity within his catalogue of exotic trees (G. 2.121), but contests the didactic poem’s inconsistent identification of the furthest parts of the world with Arabia and Scythia (G. 2.114-15) or India (G. 2.122-23). In addition, the Punica’s description of the silk harvest (Seres lanigeris repetebant vellera lucis, 6.4) closely parallels a number of descriptions of the Golden Fleece in Valerius Flaccus (e.g. 5.237, 628-30; 6.10-11, 593; 8.100-103), potentially suggesting an euhemeristic interpretation of that myth. The juxtapostion of this reference to the Argonautica with the description of the battlefield at Trasimene that follows it (Punica 6.5-13) suggests a parallel with the reference to Jason’s trial with the fire-breathing bulls and the warriors sown from the dragon’s teeth at the opening of the laudes Italiae that immediately follows the catalogue of trees in the Georgics (2.140-42). In making this link, the Punica contrasts the fantastical crop of helmets and shields that Vergil claims have no place in Italy with the gruesome picture of arms and human remains that cover the ground at Trasimene.

Silius’s simile of the cinders from Vesuvius spreading as far as the silk groves of the Seres (17.592-96) matches one from Valerius Flaccus in which the same ash ‘clothes the cities of dawn’ (Eoas cinis induit urbes, Val. Flacc. 4.509). Both similes describe the flight of a defeated enemy — that of the Carthaginians in the Punica, that of the harpies in the Argonautica — but the Silian version offers a more specific geographical reference. Just as dawn over the Seres introduced the depiction of the battlefield, the simile of volcanic ash covering the silk trees precedes Hannibal’s sight of the battlefield at Zama which is compared to those after his major victories including Trasimene. The parallel is reinforced by repeated geographical references — Tartessiaco... aequore (6.1) and Tartessiacas... in oras (17.590); Eois | litoribus, ... | Seres (6.2-4) and Eoi... Seres (17.595) — which match the frame of the Punica’s image of the world with edges of the known world.

Through the intertextual assertion of geographical knowledge, Silius’s Punica thus attempts to assert its mastery over geographical knowledge as a gauge of its own poetic accomplishment, of the universal significance of the events it recounts, and of Rome’s potential power over the world.

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On the Boundaries of Latin Poetry

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