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Epic Manipulation: Restructuring Livy’s Hannibalic war in Silius Italicus’ Punica

Salvador Bartera and Claire Stocks

Silian scholars have long acknowledged that the opening words of the Punica (1.1 ordior arma), are a nod to Livy’s AUC and Virgil’s Aeneid (Feeney 1982), so signaling Silius’ intent to reinvent epic with a decidedly historiographic twist. Since the Romans believed that poetry and history were closely related genres (e.g. Woodman 1988), and since Virgil had already openly challenged the ‘historicity’ of Livy, in that type of aemulatio that was common among ancient writers (Woodman 2012), Silius’ double allusion to the two most canonical works of the Augustan age is hardly surprising. Under Domitian, Flavian epic was driven by a desire to recapture the ‘poetic grandeur’ of the Aeneid, and Silius’ choice to focus on the saga of Hannibal, which he recast in epic terms, allowed him openly to acknowledge also his debt to Livy. Yet Silius’ innovation forced him to negotiate a tense path between the freedom of epic composition (with its focus on mythological exempla and divine intervention) and the relatively more narrow structures of historiography, positioning–in the case of Livy at least–the Second Punic war within the wider framework of Rome’s past. Lucan had already negotiated such a path, by eliminating the gods and creating a visceral anti-epic that broke with the tradition. Silius, on the other hand, through a process of cross-genre allusion, succeeded in creating an epic that plays with the nature of what it means to be Roman without sacrificing the Augustan ideal of Romanitas (as evoked by Livy and Virgil).

In this paper, we focus on the intertextual and intratextual relationships that Silius’ poem activates: we aim to show that, by engaging with Livy’s third decade, Silius intends to write an epic that reinvents the way Rome remembered its own past. Previous scholarship has focused on moments of Livian (and Sallustian) allusion–most notably with regards to the character sketch of Hannibal in Book 1 (Pun.1.56-62, also 1.242-70; Liv. 21.4.2-10; Cat.5.3-5). We propose to take a broader approach, focusing primarily on structure, with consideration of several episodes, notably Cannae (Pun. 9.278-10.325), as illustrations of how Silius manipulates Livy’s framework to elevate the position of Hannibal and Rome’s individualistic generals, most notably Scipio Africanus. In this way, we will demonstrate how Livy’s text works both as “Exemplary Model” and “Code (or Genre) Model” (e.g. Conte-Barchiesi 1989). Key to this discussion will be Silius’ placement of events. For example, Livy places Cannae–the highpoint of Hannibal’s military career–in Book 22, thus portraying Hannibal, in the remaining books, as a ‘declining’ figure (Levene 2010). Silius subverts the Livian structure by repositioning Cannae at the mid-point of the epic, with the second half of the poem covering the remainder of the war up to Zama (Dominik 2006). This manipulation of Livy’s temporal structure lays emphasis on Cannae as the turning-point of the war, and is further enhanced by the invention of a duel between Hannibal and Scipio in this battle (Pun. 9.412-38), which ensures an Aeneid-esque conflict between individuals, with the Carthaginian and Roman portrayed as symbols of their respective states, an idea that is extended through to the battle of Zama in Book 17. Thus, through manipulation of his Livian model, Silius elevates Hannibal from a historiographic framework into the position of an epic (anti-)hero who is both a foil for Rome and representative of all that Rome must embrace (i.e. individualism) in order to win the war, and by extension secure a (Flavian) empire. It is surely no coincidence that, whilst Livy had extended his narrative for another decade, presenting both Hannibal and Scipio as victims of their own success (e.g. 39.52), Silius chooses to end his epic at Zama, with Hannibal uttering curses as he flees (Pun.17.605-15). Silius’ Punica thus shows the benefits that can be garnered in the promotion of Rome’s own self-image, when one utilizes the framework of epic to liberate the heroes of historiography.

Session/Panel Title

Historia Proxima Poetis: The Intertextual Practices of Historical Poetry

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