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The Father’s Tragedy: Assessing Paternity in Silvae 2.1

Micaela Janan

Statius’ Silvae are regularly characterized as poems that celebrate the safe joys of private life, contrasted with the uncertainty of Rome’s public, political life under Domitian (Myers 2000; Nauta 2002, 308-323; Newlands 2002, 2010).  Yet Statius’ domesticity is oddly short of viable fathers—fathers not dead (Silvae 5.2, 5.3), absent (Silvae 3.5, 4.7), or exiled and politically disgraced (Silvae 3.3).  In 5 books of poems, Statius can muster only one living, competent, and on-site father (Julius Menecrates, Silvae 4.8).

Silvae 2.1 seemingly offers an alternative in fosterage, albeit on the sad occasion of the death of Atedius Melior’s foster-child, Glaucias (Newlands 2006, Bernstein).  Statius praises foster parents’ devotion and the value of choosing rather than haphazardly begetting a child, virtues that appear to privilege this category of fatherhood. Yet the poem’s details unsettle any such optimistic reading.  This paper investigates how the specifics of Silvae 2.1’s pessimism interrogate not just paternity per se, but paternity as underpinning the formation of Rome’s newest, and oldest, imperial dynasties.

Intense concentration on Glaucias’ beauty and luxurious adornment constructs the boy as cherished son, but also luxury display-object (Bernstein), and possibly his foster-father’s lover (Vessey, Asso).   When the poem ventures into mythological exempla, the picture darkens further.  Praising Atedius’ solicitousness of Glaucias, Statius names a series of noble youths deficiently parented but attentively fostered (e.g., Achilles)—yet one or another ancient source has all meet a violent, premature death.  No foster parent can save these wondrous boys—nor their implied comparandum, Glaucias.  Even in Elysium, where Statius envisions Atedius’ dead friend Blaesus in loco parentis, Blaesus can afford the boy poor comfort: he offers silent birds, withered flowers, blasted tree-branches (2.1.203-205). Such textual details undermine faith in any man’s ability to guide or guard youth, whether as biological or elective father.

Roman myth further undermines paternity when Silvae 2.1 expands the scope of intertextual references to engage the way Vergil's Aeneid contemplates patrilinearity under empire.  Statius’ catalogue of dead foster sons echoes the Aeneid’s infamous series of beautiful youths who die prematurely to make room for Rome's future.  Vergil sweeps rival genealogies aside in favour of one exceptional, divinely-originated dynasty—Ascanius and Aeneas as singular son and father (Gowers, Reed). Statius constructs Glaucias entering the Underworld as a new Aeneas—and new Marcellus (Vessey 2769-2783):  Augustus’ nephew and (proleptically) dead heir was chronologically the last of the Aeneid’s Lost Boys.  Statius’ allusive tableau aligns the first of all Roman dynasts with that dynasty’s brightest vanished hope.

Statius’ debilitated fathers reflect a familiar strand of imperial ideology stretching back to the Augustans. The emperor is the only real father, all other fathers merely pale shadows (Miller, 210-236; Videau-Delibe, 250; Brunt-Moore, 67-68; Raditsa).  One “voice” of the Aeneid powerfully constructs mythohistorical support for this dynastic, paternalistic monarchy.  Statius confronts that imperalist narrative with some of its own sharpest consequences. The advent of the Flavians had shattered the  conceptual support “superior blood” had offered the Julio-Claudian monarchy, while contemporaries saw Domitian as bringing autocracy to its apogee (Martial, de Spectaculis 37[33]).  The Silvae appear near the end of Domitian's reign. But, crucially, Rome’s pater patriae was not a  father. Domitian’s only son died an infant; his two adopted heirs—his cousin Flavius Clemens’ sons—likely did not remain his heirs after he executed their father (Suet. Dom. 15).  The dubious succession paradoxically made the emperor’s mortality a source of anxiety even to the most disaffected citizen mindful of the bloody succession wars, 68-69  ce. Statius examines the consequences of making the emperor the Absolute Father, and generational continuity within a single family essential to the continuity of a nation. Silvae 2.1 sharply poses the question: under Flavian Rome’s sunset, what now does it mean to be a father, or a son?

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Family Values: Fathers and Sons in Flavian Literature

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