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Affirmatio Religiosa: Piety and Fides in Silius Italicus’ Punica

Ray Marks

It has long been recognized that fides is a central ethical concept in the Punica and that this fact is established early on in the epic, in Silius’ account of Hannibal’s siege of Saguntum in books 1-2 (von Albrecht [1964]). Readings of the siege, however, tend to focus on how the mortal actors, especially Hannibal and the Saguntines, stand in relation to fides and only turn their attention to the divine element toward the end of the siege late in book 2, where the goddess Fides, on Hercules’ request, inspires the Saguntines to hold out against the Carthaginian (e.g., Dominik [2003]; Pomeroy [2008]). And yet, the gods ought to be an interested third party in what transpires at Saguntum from the very start; after all, fides does not simply bind reciprocal relations between parties on the human plane, but is ratified, sanctioned, and protected by the gods as well. Hence, when Hannibal breaks Carthage’s treaty with Rome and initiates hostilities with Rome’s Spanish ally in book 1, we expect the gods, in addition to Saguntum and Rome, to be one of the offended parties and to be identified as such.

Paper 4 examines the sacrilegious or impious aspect of Hannibal’s perfidy in the opening phase of the Saguntum siege, from the Carthaginian’s initiation of hostilities to his wounding and removal from battle (1.296-555). Of particular interest are two passages, the first coming at the beginning of the narrative, the second at its end. In the first (lines 296-309) Silius depicts Hannibal’s declaration of war as a perversion of the rite of indictio belli, as practiced in Rome by the priestly college of the fetiales. While Hannibal, in accordance with this rite, offers Saguntum peace-terms and then declares war by casting his spear at the city, he violates his treaty with Rome in performing it and even arrogates to himself the authority of fides and the gods to sanction his declaration. Hannibal’s claim to such authority is not only hubristic but violates the very bond of fides with the gods that the rite of indictio belli is meant to ensure and uphold; for obtaining divine sanction (not supplanting it, as Hannibal does) is the central aim of this rite, as it affirms that the fetials’ demands for redress and the war they are declaring are just. Parallels with Statius’ Capaneus further underscore the impiety of Hannibal’s actions in this instance.

In the second passage, which closes out the opening phase of the siege narrative (lines 535-555), Silius describes a divine “response” to Hannibal’s declaration of war: as the fighting grows thick around Hannibal, Jupiter stirs up a storm, and a spear, thrown by an unknown hand, strikes the Carthaginian. Jupiter’s involvement lends divine sanction to this spear-cast and thereby figures it as a legitimate (counter-)declaration of war and, hence, a corrective to Hannibal’s perversion of the indictio belli rite at the outset. The event pointedly testifies to the interconnectedness of fides and pietas erga deos, as it reminds us that Hannibal has failed to secure the fides of the gods, Jupiter in particular, and is thus waging an unjust war (ultrix iniusti lancea belli, 539). Allusions to the breaking of the treaty between Aeneas and Latinus in Aeneid 12 further underscore Hannibal’s faithlessness, and parallels with Capaneus, again, suggest his impiety. This paper, therefore, shows Silius’ understanding of fides to be fundamentally religious in nature: for him it is a contract with the gods no less than a contract between mortal parties and, as such, is akin to Cicero’s understanding of the oath as an affirmatio religiosa (Off. 3.104).

Session/Panel Title:

Fides in Flavian Poetry

Session/Paper Number

36.5

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